Fantasy Literary Fiction Strange

The Bottom Garden

By Jessica Reisman
Jan 25, 2019 · 4,261 words · 16 minutes

Photo by Irina Iriser via Unsplash.

From the author: "The Bottom Garden" was originally published in the anthology Unfit for Eden. Unfit for Eden is how most every abandoned or lost creature feels. “The Bottom Garden” is an attempt to tell story about childhood loss. It’s actually one of my most personal stories. It responds to a line in an Adrienne Rich poem, “The child’s soul carries on/in the wake of home” (In the Wake of Home, 1983), weaving a travel blanket from the scraps of the lost warmth, safety, and nurture of family and home.


 

The Bottom Garden

     One night after dinner in the house with the Fine People, as the lost girl made her way to her bed in the bottom garden, she saw that the Wood had appeared. 

     The lost girl, whose name was Py, came down the narrow, steep steps into the cool damp of the bottom garden, a neglected garden at the bottom of the hill on which sat one of many houses in the City of Trees. At the edge of the bottom garden where, usually, there were just a scraggle of trees and a half-fallow field, she saw the Wood, whispering and shadowy.

     Once there had been order in the bottom garden, rows of leafy vegetables in shades of green, flowers in sentinel borders, the warm scent of herbs, the cool of tended soil. Now there was a ramble of weedy plots edged by broken bricks, all between half-a-man-high, crumbling cement walls. Froggy moss grew over the walls in shredded green veils.

     Py was knobby limbed with dark, patchwork hair all frizzed and knotted. She didn’t feel like a girl at all, not like the girls who had glossy hair and mothers and slept in houses. Fine People’s daughters. 

     The memory was vague, but Py thought she had used to sleep in the house, and had a mother who kept the knots out of her hair and a father who’d held her on his shoulders. But her mother had disappeared, and the father had married a Fine Person, though his status as such was questionable. Py’s status was not in question. Hence the bottom garden. In any case, the father person no longer seemed to notice her very much. 

     So that night, as many before, she came down the steep hill on the narrow stairs. And there was the Wood. 

     A fat gold melon slice of moon peered over it and planed icily off the upper canopy of leaves. Clicks and whispers and thin, wild cries drifted from its depths. 

     When the Wood appeared people and animals disappeared into it. Other people, creatures, and things came out of it. It was to the Wood, Py thought, that the trees of the city really belonged. The city trees shaded and graced and in orderly fashion laced the city in a brown and green corset. But they were all seeded from these upredictable, disorderly, dark relatives, now crowding at the edge of the bottom garden. 

     Py curled up in her nest of moss, one watchful eye on the Wood. The cement walls smelled warm. The night was cool on her cheek. The weeds made hissy soft scratchy sounds in the breeze and smelled like they’d got sunlight caught in them during the day. 

     A pale, four-legged form leapt atop the wall and blinked large, moon-refracting eyes. 

     “Bartok,” Py whispered, relieved. She realized she’d been holding her breath, worried that the dogcat would have disappeared into the Wood. 

     Bartok growlpurred and sat to wash. The dogcat often kept Py company in the bottom garden and had the distinction of being the only dogcat she had ever seen. She’d seen a family of catdogs once, but they were rather different.

     When Bartok had finished washing, Py said, “Here,” and patted the moss, hoping he’d join her. He didn’t always. However, Bartok plopped down beside her and rolled onto his back, legs in the air.

     While she scratched the dogcat’s warm drum of a belly and stroked his beard, Py glanced uneasily to the Wood again. Bartok had come from the wood, one night years ago. 

     The dogcat looked at her out of one silvery eye, the other hidden by the flop of an ear. Py wrapped her fingers around one paw, warm fur on one side, leathery pads on the other. She could just feel his claws, small bone-hard thorns. She curled as close around the dogcat as she dared--too close and he would slip away--and went to sleep. 

     She woke with a jolt as if someone had dropped her off a high branch when she was expecting a single step. Her hand twitched in the spot next to her, still warm but empty of dogcat. 

     Py peered through the dim, waving shadows cast by the risen moon slice. A figure stood just within the pillared edge of the Wood, watching her. Py sat up and watched him back for a moment. She looked around for Bartok but didn’t see him. 

     “He’s gone,” the person said. “I know where.” 

     At his words, Py found herself on her feet. She came close to him and stopped. He was a tall man in a thin-as-paper suit the blue veiny color of blood just beneath pale skin. He had long thin fingers and his eyes were wetly large and brown. He smelled of mushrooms. 

     Py cocked her head, studying him. He cocked his back. He looked a bit like a neighbor boy who had disappeared into the Wood a year before, only much taller than he’d been, and changed. 

     “Are you Twill?” Twill had been older than Py, and back when she lived in the house sometimes he’d had charge of her. 

     “Twill? Twill…twill twill twill--no. Not. Twilliger. The. The Twilliger…” He drew a finger through the air and looked at Py hopefully. He said, “I know where you can find what you’re looking for.” 

     “Bartok?” 

     The Twilliger nodded. He stepped backwards behind a tree. Py waited, but he didn’t reappear. She stepped into the Wood and peered around the tree. No Twilliger. Then his voice floated to her from ahead. 

     “This way, follow me.”

*

    The Twilliger led her by his echoing voice, scattered twigs, acorns, and tiny, glowing charms in the shapes of insects. Py squatted down once to examine the charms. When she touched one, an iridescent fly, it came to life, buzzed at her angrily and then flew away. 

    The trees rose around her and closed over her head. Only drabs of moonlight found their way in. The trees moved, swaying, though no wind reached Py down among the trunks. 

    The trees got thicker and closer together and it got very dark, until it was too dark for Py to see where she was going. A glittering moth charm, then a darkly glowing beetle, fell to the ground a few feet before her, burning bits of light in the velvety dark. Py walked toward them. A shimmering lime grasshopper; another step, and Py’s foot caught on a hard root, twisting under her. She spilled to the ground, scraping her cheek and banging her nose hard. Tears filled her eyes. She sucked in a sob with a gasp and sat up. Her palms were raw, arms jarred. 

   “I can’t see!” she yelled at the dark. 

    The Twilliger appeared from behind a tree. His thin blue suit glowed palely. He scooped up a bit of dirt and packed it between his hands like a snowball. It started to glow, turning his fingers red. He threw it at Py. She put up a hand reflexively, but the glowing dirtball stopped, and hovered just in front of her face. She touched it with one finger. It felt just like a dirt clod; it bounced a little. 

    Experimentally, Py pushed it off to the side. It went, then stayed where she put it. She looked up to find the Twilliger standing very close to her. He offered her a hand and helped her up. 

    Once on her feet, Py pulled her hand out of the Twilliger’s clammy grasp. It made her feel…mushroomy, like his smell. Dark and strange and not fit for the sunlight. 

    “I’m nice, aren’t I?” The Twilliger sounded wistful, sing-songy. “I’m helping you. You like me, right? I’m going to help you find your dogcat…” 

    “Yes,” Py said, suspicious and hopeful, as needy herself as the Twilliger sounded. 

    “You trust me? You have to trust me if you want to find the dogcat.” 

    “I followed you.” That meant she trusted him. But she wanted to run away. But if she couldn’t trust the Twilliger, Py didn’t know what to do. 

    “I just need you to give me something before we can find the dogcat. Just a little thing. A little thing. It will make me so happy, it will be so good of you.” 

    In the light from the glowing dirtball, darkness all around, Py just wanted him to stop talking and find the dogcat. The Twilliger’s voice pushed and pulled at her, tugging under her skin, making it hard to breathe. 

    “Please? Be nice?” 

    “What do you want?” 

    “Just a tiny piece of your Py-ness. That’s all. It will be so good of you. For my trouble? Yes?” 

    “Okay,” Py said, to make him stop asking. To find Bartok. “Okay,” she said again. “What do I do?” 

    “Just put your fingers in your mouth, and say ‘okay’ once more.” 

    Py put her fingers in her mouth; she tasted dirt and blood. “Okay,” she said; it came out, “Uhgh-kgauh.” 

    Pain caught hard in her gut, then a shiver went up through her, up through her knees and her thighs, into her stomach, her lungs, into her throat and then she brought her fingers out of her mouth with a cough and there was a large round seed in her hand. The seed was smooth, dark brown with a luster. Pale roots and a slender tassel of new green curled from it even as she held it. 

    Then the Twilliger plucked Py’s Py-ness seed away and closed his hand around it. He looked furtively about, then popped the seed into his own mouth and swallowed it. A blush stained his cheeks. With another furtive, wary look into the darkness around them, he burped. 

    Py swallowed against a roil of emptiness and fear. It was wrong, what she’d done, the Twilliger’s furtiveness made that clear. And the feeling inside her. Wrong. Was she changing, like the Twilliger had changed? She felt so wrong, so mushroomy, so—

    Py clenched her fists. “Take me to Bartok,” she said to the Twilliger.

    “Who?” he said vaguely and he turned and disappeared.  The light clod fell apart and silted back to the ground, leaving Py in the dark again.

     No lightball, no Twilliger, no insect charms. Py began to feel her way forward, hands out, questing first with one foot, then the other. 

     Still, she wasn’t prepared when one questing foot slipped from rough ground to nothing. She lost her balance, fell forward into empty air. She tried to grab onto something and got only snatches of leaves and soil. She tumbled end over end several times, and then landed. 

     Py lay still for a time, staring at the sky, which had become visible once again. There was the moon slice; after the gloom, its light brimmed over her white as milk froth. Sitting up, she saw she’d fallen down a little hill into a clearing about as big across as two of Py set end to end.

     A woman sat on a tree stump at the other side of the clearing. She held a fishing rod whose line disappeared into a pool beside the stump. The woman had black hair bent like hair pins, glinting here and there with threads of metal-bright silver, bronze, and copper. Her twiggy, yellowish brown body looked all knees and elbows to Py, like a frog’s, or a little boy’s. There was something about her familiar to Py. 

     Py moved closer. The woman’s gaze lifted.

     “It’s you,” she said. 

     “Are you—“ Py started to say, but stopped, not sure who she thought the woman was. 

     “--the Zumwoman, that’s right. Come on, then.” 

     When Py reached her, the Zumwoman wedged her pole into a crack in the stump and then touched Py’s face, peering into it curiously. Her fingers were warm and soft and her eyes very dark brown. The fingers moved gently, and then went to Py’s hair, tugged on knots. 

     “What have you been doing here?” She frowned over Py’s snarly hair, picking at it. 

     The fishing pole bobbed, the water glubbed. The pole bent in a trembling arc toward the water. Then, with a glurp and a twang, the pole sprang back and the line flung up in a spray of water droplets. The strangest creature Py had ever seen came up, clinging to the end. 

     The line had no hook, but a soggy, folded paper animal to which the creature clung with tiny nine-fingered hands. The skin of its hands was leathery and black. Besides the many fingered hands, the creature hanging from the Zumwoman’s line had two wide blue baby’s eyes in a round head on a body the length of Py’s forearm. It had four legs--or two legs and two arms, or four arms, it was hard to tell as they all boasted the nine-fingered hands--all covered with a fuzzy nap of grey fur. Water beaded on the nap like tiny jewels. It had no ears that Py could see, and no tail. It stared about, clutching the Zumwoman’s line with many fingers, turning this way and that.

     The thing opened its little black mouth. There was no sound and then, from the distance, a faint, mournful mewling.

     “What is it?” Py asked.

     “A fortune beast.” Carefully, the Zumwoman drew the fortune beast closer. Her eyes gleamed. “I’ve been waiting for days. Every time I catch one, someone comes along and steals it.” The fortune beast climbed the Zumwoman’s arm with three nine-fingered hands, holding the soggy paper animal in the other. Then it settled on her shoulder and sighed happily. It blinked blue eyes and began to unfold the paper. 

     The Zumwoman smiled at Py, her face so pleased and loving that Py forgot all her hurts, forgot that Bartok had disappeared, forgot she was lost. When the Zumwoman patted the stump beside her, Py sat down. The Zumwoman took a wooden comb from her pocket. With gentle, knobby fingers, she began to comb Py’s hair. 

     Her fingers were gentle, but the comb was not. It felt like teeth biting at her, pulling on her hair the way Bartok pulled on a stick when you held it for him. 

     “Ow,” Py said. And again a bit later, “Ow.” 

     She continued saying ow and the Zumwoman continued picking and combing for some time. When the bone comb ran smoothly through Py’s hair, her head felt as though a thousand pins were stuck in it.

     The Zumwoman took a quantity of Py’s hair from the comb’s wicked teeth and tucked the hair in a pocket. 

     “There. See you don’t let that get so confused again.” 

     “But it’s hard to comb it by myself,” Py said.

     “You’ll just have to learn,” the Zumwoman said. 

     That was when Py saw Bartok at the edge of the clearing, ears pricked and eyes set on the fortune beast. 

     The dogcat launched himself through the air straight at the Zumwoman’s shoulder. The fortune beast opened its mouth and a screech echoed back at them from the distance. It leapt from the Zumwoman’s shoulder and went scrambling into the woods. 

     “Bartok!” Py yelled. The dogcat looked back over a pale furry shoulder, freezing briefly, then flashed after the fortune beast, disappearing between the trees and into the deep shadow of the Wood. 

     Py looked at the Zumwoman. Her face had fallen in on itself in sadness, wrinkles, and disappointment. She pulled a square of paper from a pocket, folded it into the shape of another animal. She fixed it to the end of her line and lowered it into the pool again. It looked as though the little paper animal disappeared into a black nothingness. She bent over her pole and seemed to forget Py utterly. 

     Py felt her heart squeeze painfully and then beat hard. The Zumwoman made her want to cry. 

     She turned and ran after the dogcat and the fortune beast. 

     She saw a tail and shaggy hind quarters go round a tree. She caught glimpses of pale dogcat ahead of her, through the trees, left, then right, then far ahead, and, finally, not at all. Py stopped, panting. 

     “Bartok?” She turned around once. Tunnels and tunnels of trees into darkness, in every direction. But no Bartok. 

     “Looking for something?” 

     The Twilliger stepped out from behind a tree.

     “You know I am. You said you’d help me find him.” 

     The Twilliger slanted one brow up in his face and sniffed. “So I said. Dogcat, right? Pale, like a bisquit?” 

     “Yes.” 

     “No. Ridiculous eyes, reflect any bit of light, like fish scales?”

     “Yes.” 

     “No. Haven’t seen anything.”

     “Where is he?” Py yelled, her hands balling tightly into fists. 

     “Well now,” the Twilliger drew a fingertip through the air. “All right.”

     The Twilliger walked behind the tree and came out around the other side, dangling the fortune beast by one arm. Four bloody lines had been torn along its side. Its mewling wails echoed from all around them. 

     Bartok trotted behind them. Drooling into his beard, the dogcat rose onto his hind legs, reaching for the beast with batting paws, a low growl vibrating in his body. One of his pale paws was bloody. He snarled when the Twilliger raised the beast higher. 

     “Bartok,” Py said sharply. “That’s the Zumwoman’s fortune beast.”

      Bartok looked back at her, then at the beast. With a last snarl and a swipe at the Twilliger, he padded to Py, sat and began to clean fortune beast blood from his paw. 

     “It’s not, you know. It’s mine now.” The Twilliger set the fortune beast on his shoulder where it clung, still crying. “She’ll never catch another,” the Twilliger said confidingly. 

     Py thought about the Zumwoman’s sadness. She pulled a length of her combed hair between two fingers.

     “Give it back to her,” Py said. “Please?” 

     The Twilliger grinned, all teeth, not a friendly grin. 

     Py clenched her fisted hands tighter. “What do you want for it?” 

     “A little piece of your Py-shadow, that would be nice, would you? Just a tiny piece? Please? It would be so good of you, so fine. Please--” 

     “Okay, all right, just shut up.” But she drew a breath, frightened.

     “Put your fingers in your mouth and hum.” 

     Py put her fingers in her mouth. She hummed. She felt dizzy, then a needle of blue fire went up through her. Thousands of snakes tinier than dustmotes squirmed under her skin and through her bones. The air wavered around her and she shivered, so cold and sick and miserable for a moment that she thought she would die.  

     Py opened her mouth to say some word, a word she didn’t know but could feel, trapped in her chest. An impossible word, a word that would change everything. 

     Instead of an impossible word, a tiny bird fell out of her mouth. 

     Briefly, the bird’s wings hummed, feathers soft black with a thousand shades shimmering in them. Then the Twilliger caught Py’s shadow bird out of the air and closed it in his hands. 

     Py watched him glance about, furtive, almost frightened, then put the litle bird in his mouth and swallow it down. He smiled, sated. 

     She hurt, all over, and inside, so empty it seemed the world must disappear into her emptiness. 

     The Twilliger turned to go. 

     “Give me the forturne beast,” Py whispered. “You have to.” 

     He turned back. “Oh, that’s right.“ He held it out by one nine-fingered hand— 

     --and Bartok leapt with a wild yowl, took the beast in his jaws, and ran away into the trees. 

     “Bartok!” 

     “Oh dear,” the Twilliger said. Py refused to look at him; she couldn’t look at him. Still, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Twilliger turn sideways and fold into a shadow that faded into the Wood, but didn’t quite go away. 

     He never would, Py thought. 

*

     Slowly Py found her way back to the Zumwoman’s clearing. The Zumwoman sat fishing. She didn’t look up when Py came to the stump. 

     “What do you do with a fortune beast?” Py asked after a while. 

     The Zumwoman didn’t answer for a long time. Then she said, without looking up, in a soft, longing voice, “The beast gives comfort. Balmy nights, warm arms, a full belly, strong legs. No pain. Adventure. Laughter. Glossy hair, bright eyes, gentle hands, kind words. To be loved where you love. Whatever you need, whatever you want.” 

     Py opened her mouth and closed it. 

     Bartok strolled back into the clearing, tail high, silky beard and muzzle bloody. He sat to wash, licking his chops. The Zumwoman shrieked, one short, sharp sound; then she began to cry. Py stood by awkwardly. After a bit, the Zumwoman stopped crying. With a few final sniffs, she went back to fishing. Her eyes and nose were red. She seemed fragile and lonely to Py. It made Py hurt, a hopeless echo of hurt, to see her. 

     “He may throw it up,” Py said, “the fortune beast. He does that sometimes.” 

     They stared at the dogcat. He finished cleaning his beard and moved on to his stomach, full of fortune beast. 

     Py sat beside the dogcat. He sniffed, nuzzled her hand, and then stretched out. Py wrapped her fingers about one solid dogcat paw. 

     The Zumwoman rummaged in one of her pockets. She took out a square of paper and folded it into a small tubular shape. Then she took the comb out of another pocket. Without looking at Py, she held them both out. “Here.” 

     Py took the comb and the paper shape. The comb was toothy and warm from being close to the Zumwoman. Py wished the Zumwoman would comb her hair again, even though her head still hurt. The paper shape was a telescope the length of Py’s palm. Py put one end to her eye and squinted. 

     Instead of tunnels of trees, she saw a seaport, close and vivid, bustling all around her. People crowded a market, the air filled with talk and laughter. She smelled fish and hot pretzels and sea salt wind. As if the telescope took her into this other place, she felt jostled by a man carrying flowers, was bumped by a woman in a grand blue hat, tasted the woodsmoke from a cooking fire, felt the bright tang of the sea wind on her cheek. 

     She lowered the telescope. The seaport faded away, and the Wood came back around her, the half-open eye of the moon far above the clearing. 

     Curious, Py turned the little telescope in her fingers and put the other end to her eye. There she saw the bottom garden: still and lonely, cool and pale, the Wood a steep shadow beyond it. They were little and far away, but clear as winter sunlight. 

     Py turned the telescope again. This time she found herself on a rainy street walled by courtly, rain-glazed buildings. Cherry trees lifted heavy white blossomed boughs. The rain specked cool across Py’s face and hands. 

     Again Py turned the telescope and there was the bottom garden, unchanged. 

     Py lowered the telescope. 

     “Thank you,” she said, but the Zumwoman had returned to fishing. Py could tell she wouldn’t look up again. Bartok leaned against Py’s leg. She squinted into the telescope again, bottom garden side. She stepped toward it. Then she and Bartok were stepping out of the Wood into the bottom garden. 

     She turned to see the Wood fade, until there was only the scraggle of trees and the half-fallow field. 

     Py turned back to the bottom garden, crumbling and abandoned, dark and still, all perfectly as it had been when she followed Bartok into the Wood.

     The dogcat sat on the steps waiting for her as she pocketed the comb and telescope, taking a last look around. Then Py joined him on the stairs. 

     There were places to go.

     She knew, however, even as she climbed the stairs, Bartok bounding up and down around her, that the bottom garden, the Wood--and the shadow of The Twilliger--would come with her wherever she went. 

End

This story originally appeared in Postscripts, PS Publishing.