The Key Garden

by Donna Cooper Ho

Caroline gazed out of the window of her empty new London flat.  It would be several weeks before her belongings from the U.S. would catch up to her. Currently they were chugging along on a cargo ship somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.  It was cheaper to ship all her furniture and personal belongings rather than buy everything new.  To get by, she bought an air mattress and a cheap set of sheets.  If anything, they'd come in handy when--and if--she ever had a guest.  With nothing to unpack yet, and no cable or internet--she'd only arrived in the U.K. the day before--she simply watched people walk by, searching for any peculiarity that would remind her she was no longer staring down at the bustling streets of Brooklyn Heights.  It wasn't hard.  The trees were different.  The birds were different.  The shouts and hollers from delivery guys on the sidewalk below were different.

Across the street from her apartment was an eight-foot wall of greenery that enclosed a garden.  When she looked at the pictures her real estate agent had sent her back in the states, she liked the idea of a garden close by.  Kensington Garden and Hyde Park were not too far away, but having one just outside her building seemed quainter somehow.  It was a key garden, her realtor informed, meaning the little park was just for the residents of the square and a key was necessary to get in.  

"Privacy," the realtor remarked in her refined British accent.

Privacy wasn't high on Caroline's priority list, but with privacy usually comes peace and quiet.  That definitely was on her list.  Sure, she probably could have moved to another neighborhood, county or even a different state to escape the hubbub of the big city, but something else drew her across a vast cerulean ocean.  A mugger--a filthy opportunist who had no purpose other than to steal from others--drove her out of New York.  He killed Tom, her boyfriend, just off Fifth Avenue.  The mugger had turned Caroline against the city.  She met Tom in college while they both studied European history at the Ohio State University.  Tom was a PhD candidate, Caroline an undergrad.  They moved to New York so Tom could do his post-doctorate at the Met. She was wide-eyed and in love--with the city and with Tom.  Bitterness now colored her vision of her once beloved New York. 

Caroline walked downstairs to the main lobby.  A young stringy-haired man sat behind the desk with a morose expression. He didn't look at Caroline as she approached. Instead he gazed out the front window.  She tapped her knuckles on the counter and he slowly turned his head. She could see his nametag, now. Nigel.

"May I help you?" he said with a soggy British accent.

"Um, yes.   Can you tell me--I just moved in--is there a key here for me?"

"A key for what?" he said.

"The garden," Caroline said.  She pointed out the window to the wall of green vines across the street.

"Ain't no key."

"Then how do I get into the garden?"

"Dunno, do I?"  Nigel gave her an impertinent look then turned his attention to the computer screen. His fixed expression told Caroline that was the end of the discussion. 

She walked out of the building and down to the next intersection.  Painted on the curb were instructions, LOOK RIGHT, with arrows pointing in that direction.  Caroline looked up and realized what the warning was for.  A car was coming from the wrong direction, at least to her.  It would take a while to get used to things, she reminded herself. 

Across the street, Caroline walked along the garden wall.  The vines of whatever plant it was brushed against her shoulder. She took a step further away from the vines, but they still seemed to be reaching for her.  The wrought iron gate appeared in a gap in the vines.  Caroline looked for a handle, but found only a large keyhole that looked like only a big iron key would fit in.  She shook the gate.  It didn't open.  She peered between the balusters to see if anyone could let her in.  A giant bushy juniper tree obscured the whole of the garden. Nothing could be seen. 

Each day Caroline walked past the garden, reached out and gave the gate a shake.  Whether she was walking to the Bayswater station or to the Westbourne House, the first British pub she'd found, she made sure to pass by the garden gate to check. It always remained locked to her. No matter whom she asked, the response was always the same.  A shrug and a shake of the head. 

The only view of the garden she could see was from the window of her apartment. She leaned on the windowsill, sipping her hot tea. Looking down, she saw an array of flowers of every shade. Blues, yellows, purples and pinks. The trees towered over the garden, vibrantly green and billowing.  In the center of the park was another tree.  Caroline stared hard at it.  It was strange.  The leaves were black--at least that's the way they looked from her apartment window. Caroline looked at the small black box on her windowsill.  She looked again at the tree.  Not black, she thought.  Deep purple. The leaves must be a really dark purple.

She paced her empty apartment.  As she walked, she mapped out the placement of her belongings in her head.  Her belongings.  His belongings.  Their belongings.  They had spent the first three months in New York scouring every antique store that crossed their paths to decorate their first apartment together.  Tom was particularly proud of an antique map of London he found.  It was a steal, Tom said.  It was her stuff now.  All of it. Three years they found treasures and brought them home to each other.  One always one-upping the other with their find. Caroline sighed as she thought of their life together sailing across the ocean to meet her.  She almost wished she'd left it all behind. 

That night, Caroline tossed and turned on the air mattress.  Unable to get comfortable, she kicked the blankets aside and clambered up out of the half deflated bed.  She paced around her small apartment, waiting for the kettle to whistle. The moon was bright in her window, drawing Caroline over.  She pushed aside the sheer curtain and opened it.  Cool night air rush into her apartment.  The moon was full.  It was larger than the moons she was used to back in the states. 

Her gaze drifted down from the moon and landed on the garden.  The moonlight blanketed the garden in a soft glow. Everything was a different shade of blue.  And there was someone in the garden. 

Caroline ran to the bathroom and grabbed her robe.  It was almost midnight, but if she was ever going to get into that garden, it was her best shot.  She ran out of her apartment building and up to the gate and stopped short.  She reached out a hand and wrapped it around the cold iron.  A loud groan filled the air as Caroline pushed the gate open.    

She stepped inside and let the gate close with a clatter behind her.  She walked around the juniper tree out into the garden. It was much darker under the canopy of the taller trees.  At the far end there was a wrought iron bench.  On it sat an old man.  Caroline walked across the garden to the man. 

"Excuse me," she said quietly.  He was holding a newspaper and appeared to be reading.  The man looked up.   "I live in that building over there." Caroline pointed.  "The super doesn't seem to know where the key to the garden is, and I saw you out and figured I'd see if I could make a copy of your key. I'd really like to visit--."

"Shhhh," the old man said, holding a finger to his lips.  He continued in a whisper.  "The clock strikes twelve and behold."

He waved his hand out in front of him.  Caroline followed his gesture.  Before her eyes, white orbs of light were appearing along the vined walls of the garden. Caroline watched in amazement as the garden lit up with hundreds of balls of light. 

"What are they?" she asked, sitting on the bench next to the old man.

"Moon flowers."

"I've never heard of such a thing," she said in wonder.  "It's magical."

"Indeed, it is."

Caroline looked at the old man.  He was pale in the moonlight with thin oniony skin that was almost transparent, but his eyes were keen and blue.  He turned those eyes on Caroline and examined her so deeply she thought he might have been decoding her DNA. 

"You asked for the key to the garden?"

Caroline nodded. 

"I'm afraid there is no key to this garden.  It only opens when and to whom it wants to."

"To whom?" she said.

"You are a very lucky young lady," he said.  "You see that tree in the middle of the garden?"  Caroline nodded again.  "That's a wishing tree.  If you are granted entry, you are entitled to a wish."

Caroline smiled at the old man.  Clearly, he'd lost his marbles, she thought.  But, nevertheless, the tree, the old man and the moonlit garden intrigued her.

"And what would I wish for?" she said, wanting to humor the old man.

"Ah, that is not for us to decide," he said.

"So, how do you know this tree grants wishes?"

The old man smiled and said no more.  He stood up and walked toward the tree, then beyond it.  He disappeared behind the juniper tree.  The newspaper he was reading was still lying on the bench. Caroline picked it up and ran after the man, but he was gone.  She looked around the garden.  She hadn't heard the gate open or close and wondered where he could have gone. 

Outside the garden, she looked up and down the street.  There was no sign of him.  Maybe he lived nearby, she thought.  She turned her back to enter the garden once more and found it locked. She gave it a frustrated shake then walked back across the street to her apartment.  Feeling tired enough to attempt sleep again, she tossed the paper on the counter, glancing at the clock.  It was just after one in the morning. 

A buzzing woke Caroline the next morning.  She slapped around the edge of the bed for something, but then she realized her alarm clock hadn't arrived yet and she sat up.  The buzzing was her doorbell.  She stumbled out of her room, robe still on, and to the door.

"Who is it?" she said, holding the button that was a two-way intercom.

"Nigel," he said drearily.  "Movers are here, ma'am."

"Oh, excellent.  Send them up."

"That's what I'm aimin to do, innit?"

Caroline rolled her eyes and unlocked the door.  She sighed with mixture of relief and doubt at finally having her personal belongings.  Now, she thought, this place could feel more like home.  She turned on the stove to heat up the kettle.  The newspaper on the counter reminded her of the night before and the old man in the garden.  For a moment, she thought it had been a dream.  She took the paper over to the window, opened up the window and unfolded the paper on the sill. 

She stared at the masthead with a confused expression.  It was a New York paper from six months ago.  An uncomfortable feeling traveled from her throat down into her stomach.  She flipped to the local news section.  The movers came in and spoke to her.  She barely listened as she read the article.  It was about Tom's murder.  The reporter thought it made a great news story, revealing to the world that what got Tom killed was the little blue bag he carried as he turned off of Fifth Avenue heading toward the 53rd Street station.

The cops had returned the package to Caroline after they caught Tom's attacker. She never even opened it.  But she couldn't get rid of it either, just like everything else that was Tom's.  It now sat beside her on the windowsill--minus the blue bag.  She folded up the newspaper and set the box on top, shoving it away from her. 

As the mover set down the last box, Caroline looked up from the window.  He handed her a clipboard to sign for the delivery.  She hesitated.  The pen lingered above the paper as if she were debating.  With a deliberate movement, she handed the pen and clipboard back to the man.

"Take it back out," she said.

"Pardon, miss?"

"Take it back," she said firmly.  "I don't want it." 

The man looked annoyed and bewildered, but did as she commanded.  Caroline resumed her seat in front of the window and remained fixed, staring down at the purple-leaved wishing tree in the center of the garden.  When the door slammed a few hours later, she turned to see the apartment empty again. She stared and stared until the sun began to set.  Long after that, she remained as still as a statue.  She finally turned her head to gaze, with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained cheeks, at the clock on the stove.  It was nearly midnight.  She snatched up the newspaper and the black box. 

Outside the gate, she paused.  Her heart pounded inside her chest.  She pushed on the gate and it opened as loudly as the night before.  Right where she'd seen him the night before, the old man sat on the bench.  No newspaper in hand.  Caroline walked over and handed him the paper and sat down, holding the black box in her lap, her fingers wrapped tightly around it.

"You left that behind last night."  Her voice was hoarse and rusty from not using it all day.  "I figured you might want it back."

The old man didn't say anything.  They both sat in silence.  Caroline tried to string together sentences but couldn't get them out.  She looked at the old man.  His eyes sparkled.  For the second night in a row the moonflowers spread their petals to catch the moonlight. The sight emptied Caroline's head of any meaningful thought.  She watched the event in amazement.  Once the blooms had all opened, Caroline felt more relaxed and serene.  She looked down at the box in her hands and held it up, showing it to the old man.

"He didn't even get a chance to ask," she said, staring only at the box.  "I had no idea he was going to.   It would have been the happiest day of my life."

"It still could be," the old man said.  "If that is your heart's desire."

Caroline looked at him.

"You mean I could wish to bring him back?"

The old man nodded.  "If that is your heart's desire."

Caroline fell silent again.  She stared at the Wishing Tree.  It wouldn't be the first time she'd entertained the thought, though she had never thought it was actually possible.  She still wasn't entirely sure this old man was telling the truth.  But the chance to see Tom again, to let him know she would have said yes, even though she hadn't even seen the ring yet. 

Caroline lifted the lid of the box and pulled out the black velvet box inside. She cupped it in her trembling hands. A glistening tear trickled down her cheek.  She opened the box.  The moonlight flooded in and filled up the diamond ring.  It glowed as if the light were coming from within.  Flecks of color danced on the surface as she held it up in front of her.  She stifled a sob.

"It's beautiful," she said.  The old man remained silent. 

The tears rolled down her cheeks as Caroline cried silently over the ring. Finally, she took a deep settling breath and wiped the tears away.  She stood up and let both boxes fall to the ground, and walked over to the wishing tree. 

There was a crevice in the middle of the tree where two main branches went their separate ways.  Barely any light from the moon shown down through the tree's canopy.  It was black and oppressive.  Caroline inhaled deeply.

"The dead should stay dead," she breathed.  She placed the ring in the crevice of the tree.  "I wish to forget."

The moon seemed to disappear from the sky the moment she made her wish.  Everything went black around her and the crevice closed around the ring.  Then, as quickly as it had disappeared, the moon was back.  Caroline turned away from the tree and walked back toward the old man. He smiled warmly as she approached.

BIO: Donna Cooper Ho is a self-proclaimed professional student with the goal of either becoming as famous as J.K. Rowling or teaching high school English. She has been writing since she was a young child but has only recently started sharing her work with the outside world. When she isn't writing, she can usually be found with a book in hand, or in the garden trying to make things grow. Donna lives in Central Florida with her husband and their morkie*, Olive.