The Secret Gardener

by Mary H. Fox

The phone rang before it was even light out. Eric pushed his hair back from his eyes so he could see the phone, as if staring at it from across the room would tell him who it was. But he knew who it was; it would be Jean and she wouldn't give up until he talked to her.

He was up anyway, had just made himself a potful of coffee, deep and fragrant. Ever since he had turned forty, he had refused to face his work day without his little routines and comforts, but so far this morning, he had yet to taste a drop. He picked up his cup and moved to the window to look out over his garden. Ring, Rinnggg.

"Answer the phone," he ordered the image of himself mirrored in the window. "You're foolish if you think you can dodge her." He closed his eyes, hoping that by scolding himself out loud, it might give him the motivation. It didn't. He let the ring play itself out and then opened his eyes, cupped his hands around his mug, and swirled the first mouthful of coffee along his palate, sliding it slowly down his throat, creating every sensation possible to make the taste more complex and satisfying.

The phone began again. Holy crap. No one ever hides from you Jean, he thought and then picked up the phone, "What is it Jean?" He made his voice testy, wanted her to know he was annoyed.

"Have you started it yet...uh..Ji..Er..ic? How's it coming?" Jean had fumbled his first name. She still knew nothing about him even while he was learning quite a lot about her. She was one of those people who put herself right in the middle of things, breathing people's air right out from under their noses and consuming their energy and pilfering their time. He was just a shadow character in their arrangement.

However, her vanity gave him power. For instance, he could tell just from her the slight lift in her voice that she was afraid for the first time since he had known her. For a minute, he wished he had charged her more.

"It's early, Jean. I'm just now starting. I told you, Friday afternoon, remember? I'll call you when it's ready." He tried not to let his contempt leak out too much. He had learned from working in his mother's little store; always treat your customers with courtesy.

"I know, I know, but I might have somewhere to go later this afternoon," she pressed. "Any way you can deliver it before I leave?"


"Can't you even try?"

"Look, Jean, it's a real wet mess out here this morning. I can't just go plowing through water-logged ground like a wild hog. It wrecks all the plantings."

"Oh. Well will you try anyway?" She waited. "So when do I call you back?"

How like her to ignore everything but what she wanted, he thought. He definitely should have charged her more. "Two and a half hours, maybe," he answered in a flat tone. "I need at least two hours so the mixture will gel enough to stay stable. But don't call me. I'll let you know."

"And you'll do your best to short-cut it, right? My husband is coming home early from his trip, you see, and...tell you what, I'll pay you double."

As if the money was the only thing he cared about. She would never understand that he was a professional. He would build a quality product, no matter what she paid, because that's who he was.

"Nothing doing," he answered firmly. "If I infuse the solution too fast, it will separate out later. You wouldn't know which part of it contained the herb and which part..."

"All right, all right," she cut him off. He recognized the note of fear back in her voice but at least she seemed resigned to his decision. Maybe she would quit hounding him and he would be able to concentrate on the work he loved. He hung up without saying anything else, shivering slightly as a tiny wave of satisfaction rippled along his spine. He rarely won verbal scuffles with her, or any woman, really.

He stood and watched his garden but still didn't begin his work. He was waiting for the sun to thoroughly bathe the grounds with warming light so that the soil would dry out some. It had to lose enough moisture for him to walk out there without his feet grabbing muck with each step.

At 8:00 a.m. he began his harvest. He hated to risk compacting the soil around young bulbs and shoots and was relieved that he could avoid most of the soggier areas since he had already picked which plants he was going to sacrifice. Actually he had completed their selection last spring, when he had begun piling up little mounds of pebbles around each chosen flower as it bloomed, choosing those that had produced the showiest flowers for two years in a row. Their splendor was always with him, even when it was too early for any emergent plants, but just in case, he had used a system to track them...pebbles. Gray pebbles for year one, black for year two. No pebbles for flowers in their third season. By then they would have become travelers, spreading and seeding themselves with abandon up and down the hill. He ignored these cross-breeding runaways, using no markers, applying no plant food, not even cutting them back to conserve their nutrients through the winter. You've had your seasons, he would tell them.

"Phew," he shed his jacket before he even began digging. While the air was still cool, he was already sweating. "Why am I so damn hot?" he asked as he used the back of his wrist to wipe a damp strand of gray-brown hair from his forehead. He could see better now, until a line of sweat slid down his forehead and began dripping into his right eye. He kept his gaze steady, blinking only once against the burn of the sweat. He had to concentrate. It wouldn't do to cut into a still-frozen bulb while chipping through the hard spring ground.

"It's time for you to go, darlings. It's for the good of the species," he whispered to the dormant plants. "Your daughters will take over now." He dug carefully around the site of the one foxglove that had been almost snow white in color, a rarity in his garden. In any garden. Foxgloves love to mingle and it was rare to find a pure albino.

Nearly four inches down and the earth was no longer porous. As he got closer to his prize, warmth spread along his chest and his breath came in little pants. This time when his hair fell into his eyes he used a bare, dirty hand to paste it back, mud now mixed with sweat and turning his hair to mottled grunge. The spongy earth he had been digging gave way to hard chunks of Maryland clay and then to stones that pinged against his trowel. He was right up to the root bulb now and he now used his fingers to pull the dirt away.

"There you are, beauty," he said to the fat bulb, which was already bursting with quiet energy. There were tinges of red mixed in with the white fibers but he wasn't worried about these hints of color. Bulbs always took on some red as they transformed their nutrients for the coming growing season. He would miss seeing the white spires in mid-summer, the snowy leaves glistening as they spread skyward, but he had to take the plant now while he knew the bulb was pure.

"You're perfect," he crooned. He carried his prize into the kitchen where the distilled water for diffusing the product was nearly ready. He looked over to the index card that was scotch-taped to the refrigerator. He was the kind of cook who always read through the recipe, no matter how many dozens of times he had made a concoction. The card said:

Prepare 1 oz. of flowers or pulp by crushing or pounding. Add 1 cup water per each ounce of herbs and stir.

He had started with a gallon of bottled water, boiling it down by half. It was already cooling and he checked it. Good, nearly down to room temperature.

He was ready to cut the bulb, then. He found his box of medical gloves under the sink and pulled on a pair to protect his skin against contact through the cutting and crushing. He breathed in and slowly let the air filter out, buying time. Not too late to turn back, he thought. But no, the pure bulbs are always the most potent.

He picked her up, cradling her in his hands, caressing her sloping curves, admiring her shape and color one last time, pretending, just for a moment, that he could change his mind. He put her down in the center of the cutting board and chose the sharpest knife he owned, a freshly groomed and polished Wusthov boning knife. He placed the very tip of it at the nape of her neck and then drew a perfect, straight line along the entire length of her papery outer skin. The delicate meat of the root was now exposed and he carved it out lovingly, then chopped, diced, minced and pounded it to a thick, juicy paste.

He shifted his attention back to the card and began reading aloud again:

Pour the water over the pulp and filter the mixture into a ceramic pot, straining out any bits of the plant. Then let it steep for an hour.

He lugged the full crock of water over to the deep ceramic sink. The porcelain of the sink was peppered with chips from his parade of too-heavy pots. He was careless with the pots, he knew, but not with his knives. He never imperiled a blade; a good knife that fit right in your hand took years to hone.

He opened the utensil drawer and fumbled around until he found a wooden spoon and then he poured the warm water over the pulp, stirring it gently. He had to back off to avoid breathing the vapors as the first of the bitter aromas rose to the air. He covered the bowl tightly to begin the infusion and wondered, as he always did, if he was supposed to wear a mask to avoid breathing the fumes. He had researched this many times in books and on the internet, but found no one more expert than himself about this.

"Best to be safe, he thought. "Note to self -next time don't forget to bring vapor mask," he mumbled. Forgetfulness, yet another annoyance he could blame on Jean.

He wouldn't be able to strain the mixture for an hour. He would use the time to get his mind into a better place. He began reviewing the morning's work, visualizing the bulb as it used to be, ripe and pungent. The feel of his hands slicing and crushing the flesh, the vision of water swirling through the juice and settling. He loved it, all of it.

"Forty-four minutes," he said. Normally he would work in the garden rather than marking time in this tortured way but dealing with Jean had made him edgy. She had been a referral, like most of his customers. He had been amazed at the demand for his products, feeling the same way he had when he was a child working with his mother in their gun-and-ammo store. He remembered his mother's wisdom too;

"You do the work you love in this world and leave God to judge what's good and what's bad."

He kneeled by the back step and started counting up the vines of the early peas instead of the minutes passing. Immediately he felt refreshed, content.

"Well look at you! You are sure going to be a good strong crop," he said to the peas, moving the delicate tendrils aside gently and pulling out grass and weeds from the little mounds of earth that held each plant. He checked to make sure the stakes were secure and would hold the crazy, reckless growth habits of young vines. He looked at his watch again. Twenty-eight minutes. The fumes would have dissipated and he thought it would be safe to clean the kitchen. As always, he went first for the knife.

A knife blade is a precious thing, he told himself as he aimed the blade edge carefully downward along the whetstone. He oiled and wiped it and placed it in its cardboard sleeve.

The phone began ringing, Jean obviously. But he was calm now. He ignored the phone and strained the bella donna, then poured it into a jar and sealed it. She would want the whole batch of atropine. He figured she was spacing out the doses. He allowed himself the luxury of wondering how she got her husband to drink such a bitter brew, even in small amounts. Daily probably; it might work in gin or cheap whiskey. Certainly not in tea or coffee.

He scolded himself for this irrelevant daydream and said, "none of my business." It wasn't like him to think beyond the scope of his work. All he was supposed to worry about was preparation of a quality product and the reliable dosage he had promised.

Now, to finish the work. He needed to get rid of every trace that he had been in the kitchen. His sovereign was the outside grounds; he had just barely convinced the owner to leave the water hooked up and he'd had to explain in detail about Maryland droughts. There was no electricity and the house itself was supposed to be deserted. He wanted it to stay looking that way...empty, instead of like it had been when he had grown up here, in this house his father had lost through his drinking and gambling, until his mother rented it back. She had stayed so she could finish raising the boy...which was all they ever called him. The only friends he had were those that grew up and died out each season. Flowers come and go, whether anyone looks at them or not, he thought, no matter how many miles this current owner had put between himself and his property. Only the gardener remained to care for the overgrown garden. Only the gardener would notice any missing tubers and exactly where to find the roots of each year's flowers. He had known every summer since childhood where the towering Foxgloves would be.

So pretty and his small hands would reach out to them. His mother would smack him and she had to tell him again and again not to touch them or he would get poisoned and die. Why would anyone grow such lethal flowers in a garden where children played? Yet they had sprung up, year after year, self-seeding, and they liked to spread themselves all over.

He filled his iron pot with water and hauled it back to the stove, turning the gas flame as high as it would go. It was necessary to clean out every trace of the atropine. This wasn't just to cover his tracks but because a large pot is a useful thing and he liked to start his projects with clean tools. When the water was boiling, he pulled on another pair of gloves to grab the handle but he still burned the fleshy part of his thumbs. He didn't slow down. He saw himself as a talented and intrepid herbalist who could concoct anything; talented herbalists never left loose ends. He emptied the pot brew into the garden, shoveling dirt over the wet spot. He looked skyward and saw the clouds thickening...hard rain.

"Good, good...rain will wash it all away." He smiled at this unexpected good fortune. His legs felt light, his shoulders too, like he might fly with a good running start. He finished up, unhooking the propane tank from the stove and stashing it in his truck. He would drive to Jean's without telling her he was coming. He smiled, thinking how panicked she would be waiting for the phone to ring...a small payback. He pulled on his knitted watch cap, nestled his treasure inside a brown paper market bag and left whistling, pleased that he had made himself a damn fine brew.

In the end, this is all anyone ever wants from me, he thought.

BIO: Mary H. Fox is a retired organizational psychologist and University professor. She has published a textbook and many articles in psychology journals and has been a part-time textbook editor for Cengage Learning. As an undergraduate at University of Maryland Baltimore County, she minored in Poetry, studying extensively with poet-in-residence Michael Egan and helping him to create Bartleby. She lives in Ellicott City, Maryland with her husband, many animals, and an anthology of short stories exploring how evil can become the only choice of good, ordinary people.