by Sandra Arnold
Celandine hesitated outside the small white gate of her old house wondering if the new owners were home. There were no signs of life. Her fingers fumbled for the rusty bolt. It slid open smoothly to let her in and she saw it had been replaced with a shiny new one. She walked past the lilac trees, up the mossy path which wound through pink rhododendrons that grew high over her bedroom window. Or used to. The Butterburs had cut them back to ground level; had hacked down the jasmine that hung heavy with honey-scent over the rickety trellis arching the front door, uprooted the ivy that turned red and gold in autumn and in winter covered the raw brick with black filigree. The sweet peas and hollyhocks and lupins were gone and pansies and violets lay in parched borders. Weeds poked through cracks in the paths and clover was spreading over the unkempt lawns. How odd, she thought, that they should have bought the house because of the garden and then let it go like this. She shrugged. It wasn’t her problem now.
The house appeared to be empty so she decided to look in all the windows to see what had changed inside. Peering through the lead-lights in the top half of the front door she saw her own reflection staring back at her. Holding a baby. To her embarrassment she realised it was not her reflection, but the new owner standing in the shadows of the hall. She straightened up and acknowledged his presence with a wave. He unlocked the front door and beamed at her from a plump, red face.
‘Sorry to bother you, Mr Butterbur,’ she said. ‘But I was passing this way and I thought I’d look in to see how the old place was doing.’
He nodded. ‘Come in. Come in. Lilibet will be glad to see you.’
‘I didn’t know you had a baby,’ she said, pointing to the white cocoon on his chest.
He winked. ‘Took us by surprise too!’ and called over his shoulder, ‘We have a visitor.’
A woman appeared in the hall. As she moved out of the shadows, Celandine was startled to see she was stooped and wrinkled.
‘As you can see we have completely redecorated,’ and swept her arm around the hall.
Celandine noted the expensive cream wallpaper with no seams. Lilibet smoothed her hand over an invisible join. ‘Bob worked very hard to get the edges to line up exactly. It took him a long time, but as you can see, it was worth the effort.’
Celandine glanced at the matching cream carpet flowing into every room, no absent-minded gum boots or feline fluff to mar its plush buttery surface.
‘Must have cost a bomb,’ she said, admiring the kitchen with the new rimu cupboards and gleaming surfaces. She had to admit that the inside was an improvement on what she had managed to accomplish.
Lilibet was watching her reaction. ‘The garden’s a bit neglected,’ she said. ‘But there’s a reason.’
‘The new baby?’ Celandine ventured.
Lilibet shook her head. ‘Though I’ll admit I’m tired. But you’ll see what I mean.’ She led Celandine out the front door and down the steps into the garden, stepping carefully over the felled willow. ‘It blocked the view,’ she explained.
Celandine glanced at the rusty garage rooftops and tarpaulin-covered sheds now visible and said, ‘I wouldn’t have the stamina to start all over again.’
Lilibet wagged a finger. ‘That’s because you don’t know about the fruit trees!’ She gripped Celandine’s elbow and steered her round the side of the house, past an enormous bush full of shining lemons, past a peach tree from which a small boy was picking fruit and carefully stacking it in a basket. His father – without the baby now – was peeling and slicing the peaches with a sharp knife and laying the slices in glass dishes which were arranged on upended packing cases. He held out a dish to Celandine and offered her a slice.
She shook her head. ‘Later maybe.’
Round the corner, past a grapevine, past nectarine, apricot and plum trees, and into the herb garden at the back, bordered with sweetly-scented rosemary and divided into sections by brick paths all leading to the birdbath in the centre that attracted blackbirds and thrushes whose songs Celandine used to like to listen to as she watched from her kitchen window while she ironed the tiny cotton shirts and nighties embroidered in pale blue silk.
A tall thick trunk like a telegraph pole covered in coconut hair reared up from the middle of the garden and spread its umbrella blocking out the sun and casting a dark shadow where the herbs and paths were replaced by moist brown earth, criss-crossed in a pattern of mosaics around which a small crowd had gathered to gaze up at the tree in admiration. Celandine shivered.
Lilibet said, ‘It’s our pride and joy.’ And everyone nodded and murmured agreement.
More people were streaming through the gate and Celandine thought she saw Septimus at the back of the crowd, but she couldn’t be sure. ‘How did it grow so quickly?’ she asked, turning to Lilibet. ‘I mean, it’s not so long since we left.’
‘I planted a stone,’ said Lilibet, ‘from the centre of a passion fruit. I bought a book of instructions and followed them to the letter. But even I was surprised at the rapid growth. All the fruit trees in the garden have done well due to the exceptional fertility of the soil, but this one surpassed all our expectations. Feel.’
Celandine knelt down and pressed her hand on the rich chocolaty earth and water squelched over her fingers. When she lifted her hand she saw its imprint in the soil, now rapidly filling with squirmy knots of tiny red worms. She recoiled in disgust, wiping her hand on the hem of her dress.
Lilibet laughed. ‘No, that’s good! It means the ground is fertile. The conditions are right for the growth of this magnificent tree. Look at the size of the fruit.’
Celandine stood up and saw that the branches were bent over with the weight of clusters of round pink fruit the size of small melons. Lilbet reached up and picked one off the lowest branch. She cut it open with a pocket knife and the centre was rose-coloured and oozing with juice. She offered it to Celandine who took it and sucked. It tasted incredibly sweet, like melted honey. The juice dripped down her chin.
Then the earth beneath her feet began to ripple. Looking down she saw a bluish white head slowly emerge from a hole in the ground and a long slippery body slide over the wet mosaics. Celandine stood paralysed. Her fruit dropped from her hand. Her guts heaved and her mouth filled with vomit. To avoid making a spectacle of herself and embarrassing Lilibet, she swallowed it.
Lily stared in surprise at her grey face and whispered, ‘They’re there, of course, but…’
Bob Butterbur came up behind them and clapped his hands on Lilibet’s shoulders in a proprietary manner. ‘What Lil is saying is that we don’t usually see them, even when they do come out.’ He tilted his head towards the crowd, still staring enraptured at the tree and earnestly discussing its shape, colour, texture and the inestimable value of its fruit to the nation. ‘And they do the soil the world of good. A few of those indigenous worms are essential for the production of high quality fruit.’
Celandine felt the pee run down her legs while the creature slithered and coiled beneath the tree. It left a trail of white slime and a stench of rotten eggs as it returned to its hole and the soil closed over the opening.
‘You see. You’d hardly know it was there,’ soothed Lilibet, taking hold of Celandine’s trembling hands, ‘so just forget about it if it bothers you a bit.’
‘Hadn’t you better check the baby?’ Celandine asked anxiously. ‘They don’t always cry, you know.’
Bob spoke slowly and gently, as if to a retarded child. ‘Have you thought of growing something in your garden?’
‘I’ll make you a cup of tea,’ offered Lilibet.
Celandine shook her head and thanked them for their hospitality, adding that she’d better get home to see if the new drainpipes had arrived because nothing could be started until the soil was properly drained. They nodded approvingly. She edged her way around the back of the crowd until she found Septimus, leaning on the gate.
‘Let’s go home,’ she said.
He patted her arm. ‘You have your own keys. I promised to give Bob a hand here.’
‘Why must you always get involved in other people’s projects?’ she asked, keeping her voice down so she would not be overheard.
Septimus looked wretched. ‘But I promised.’
Celandine got into her car and drove home. She parked it in the drive beside the piles of new weatherboards and roofing iron and pots of paint. Walking up her own drive made her feel safe again, even though there was nothing in the garden and so much to be done in the house and Seppy always away helping other people. She decided to take a bath and change her sour clothes, but in the back garden she stopped short in amazement.
Standing at the foot of a deep trench which stretched the whole length of the garden, splitting it in two, she gazed down at the new drains on the hard yellow clay. It must have taken him hours. She looked at the piles of earth and stones and tried to picture the garden a year or two from now, bright with flowers and flourishing fruit trees.
A movement caught her eye. Looking down she saw several large white worms emerge from holes in the sides of the trench and slide across the clay. As she watched in horror, out came a monster of such proportions she thought it was a snake, except its flesh was blue-veined and transparent and she remembered that New Zealand had no snakes, just indigenous worms. She crumbled to her knees and retched, until the entire contents of her stomach were on the ground. When nothing was left but a trickle of bile, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and looked around for a shovel.
When the trench was a quarter filled she heard Sep’s car in the drive. He came into the garden, calling her name. As soon as he saw what she was doing he said, ‘I’ll help you,’ and picked up a spade.
The sun dropped down behind the rooftops and the sky looked like a peach meringue pie before the light faded and it grew dark and cold and the stars came out, then the moon, and the whole garden was drenched in silver, but they worked till the trench was filled and the soil patted down hard.
Celandine could taste the passion fruit juice on her tongue, metallic and bitter as it mixed with bile. She stared at the mound in the garden. Like a newly filled grave.
Septimus leaned his spade up against the fence and stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders. ‘Tomorrow we’ll level the soil and fertilize it with bone and blood. And plant a flower bed.’
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. Her flash fiction appears or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Blue Fifth Review and the UK 2017 National Flash Fiction Day international anthology, Sleep is a beautiful colour. Learn more at www.sandraarnold.wordpress.com.