Most neighborhoods have a version of Mrs. Ara. They can be seen pruning their bushes until they’re more cube-like than dice, and measuring the length of their grass with a ruler to determine if it was time to lop off that extra half centimeter. Their flower beds are cultivated like works of art, and guarded in the same fashion. But compared to Mrs. Ara’s garden, the green of their grass faded, and their plants appeared as lifeless as the dirt their roots grasped. It wasn’t only that Mrs. Ara’s garden was pretty, but rather that it was more alive, as if she were striving for some level of perfection that the rest of the lawn obsessors were too obtuse to see.
I could see the edge of Mrs. Ara’s garden from the corner of my windowsill, just down the street from my own home, and heard the sound of her wind chimes when the breeze kicked up at night. The chimes always brought me to the window, and sometimes I would see her dark shape moving among the plants, whispering to each in turn.
My mother warned me not to enter the garden. She never liked the way that Mrs. Ara sat on her porch in the daytime, her long silver hair fanned down to her waist, watching the neighborhood children who came too close to her driveway while stroking a pointed gardening shovel.
But one summer Saturday night the breeze blew stronger than usual, luring me out of sleep and to my window, and I saw two dark figures streaking along the shadows of our street. They neared the garden and passed it, heading towards the nearby farms that stretched into the countryside, walking through a strip of light that revealed their orange outerwear. Ten steps away from the garden, the wind blew again, and the chimes rang, reaching out to them. They turned, slowly, reluctantly, and edged toward the garden.
It was not until I heard Mrs. Ara’s voice that I realized that my own leg was outside my window, and that I straddled the high second story windowsill. I stopped as the chimes ceased and receded into my room as she spoke. Or rather, sang.
The words were lost in the night, but their meaning was melancholy, not foreboding and angry as I would expect. I expect the two men stayed with Mrs. Ara, as when her singing stopped they did not depart, and I could only see one dark shape in her garden. I returned to sleep then, knowing that I would be rising early the next day.
My parents raised me religious. Sunday mornings meant church, and Sunday afternoons meant Bible School. Then there were the long drives home from church, when we’d pass the county jail, where buses full of criminals with sins so dark that they tarnished the white paint exterior headed toward the highway to clean the medians between the roads. It was strange- no matter how often those medians were swept, no matter how often the filth was scrubbed away, the grime always found a way to return.
“Look there, Alfonso. You see them on the bus?” Said my mother, pointing, “They’ve lost God. They’ve lost their way. Promise me Alfonso, that when you grow old, you won’t lose him too. You’re different than them.”
“I promise, mom.” I would say, smiling up to her.
She was right- I was different than them. For they lost God when they were adults, and I lost him when I was twelve, a week after I saw the men enter Mrs. Ara’s garden.
I still remember that week, when my parents dropped me off at the Bible School, and Mrs. Lehann flipped open the first chapter of the bible. Mrs. Lehann started reading, rubbing the bags under her eyes and sweeping a hand through her grey hair that had far outrun her years. She had been my teacher for the past two years, and I never quite understood at that age that her physical descent only began after I no longer saw her husband with her at church, and only one car parked in her driveway.
“In the beginning,” Mrs. Lehann began, reading words already committed to her memory to our fresh ears. She told of the creation of our world, and of Adam and Eve, and how they ate the fruit of knowledge. And how that fruit damned them.
“I don’t understand, Mrs. Lehann.” I said when she had finished. “Shouldn’t they be better now, now that they’ve eaten the fruit? They know more now.”
“Sometimes, child,” She said, her voice heavy with remorse, “Sometimes it is better not to know. To live without the burden, or some memories, until you are ready. Perhaps one day they would be able to eat the fruit, when they were ready, and strong enough to bear the weight.”
I didn’t really understand what she meant then, but forgot it as I left to meet my parents in the parking lot. Walking down the church hallway, I felt a pinch in the small of my back, and yelped as I turned around and my jaw met a fist much larger than my own. One of the fingers always had a silver ring on it, and that’s what made the hit hurt most.
No matter how many times Emmett Veneno played his trick, I always fell for it.
“When will you ever learn, Alfonso?” He sneered, staring down at me from where I had fallen to the floor. Most bullies had trademark moves, and this was Emmett’s. Where others would simply push their targets down from behind, Emmett liked for me to see the strike coming. For me to feel the sharp pinching pain in my back, to turn to see the cause, and to be met with the flash of a fist coming too fast to avoid.
“Stop it, Emmett.” I said, catching my breath. He was two years older than me, and there was no chance of me winning a fight against him.
He laughed, his curly red hair bobbing and brown freckles dancing with each snort, and spat on my shirt- another one of his trademark tendencies. He left then, waddling away, and I cleaned myself off to meet my parents. I’d prefer that they not know I was being bullied, and that I could not stand up for myself.
In the car, sirens flashed by us, and my father turned the knob on the radio, increasing the volume to hear the traffic report. That day I realized there were no workers from the jail tending the median, and the broadcast explained why.
*Good morning Lawson city. I broadcast to you today from the steps of the county jail, where it appears some inmates have escaped the confines. One, no wait, our sources are telling me two, men are unaccounted for. Be on the lookout for their descriptions- *
The reporter described the two men, and in the back seat I stiffened. It had been too dark to clearly see the men the night before.
Mrs Ara offered a wry smile as we passed by her garden that afternoon, patting natural fertilizer around two new shrubs speckled with orange flowers. Her eyes met mine in the back seat, and her smile faded as she watched us all the way to our driveway. Maybe she knew what was going to happen.
But it didn’t matter. She didn’t stop it.
My father died that week. There had been a car crash, and he had swerved such that his side of the car took the brunt of the blow. I remember hearing the news from my mother that night, that my father would not be coming home. I remember that I had already been crying about something, but I can’t quite remember what. And I think that was the moment I stopped believing in God, because I couldn’t understand how he could take my father away.
The news of my father’s death should not have tormented me. I don’t remember being close to him, or him ever playing catch with me, or him really caring much about me in particular. But I do remember crying beyond all consolation for weeks after. Maybe I was crying for my mother’s loss.
Word made it around school about my father’s death, and for four weeks even Emmett left me alone. But by the fifth week, on the walk home from school, I felt the familiar pinch at my back, and I ducked as his fist nearly connected with my jaw.
“Stop it!” I shouted, the words meeting no ears on the empty street.
“You’ve learned to dodge, Alfonso, but that still won’t help you.” He said, his face contorted. Emmett hated when his targets evaded an attack, and I knew he would not stop until I had paid for it.
So I ran. And though he was pudgy, his age advantage kept him close behind me.
When driven by terror, it’s rarely logic that directs action. Rather, instinct drives motion, and tiny influences can change the outcome of events.
Influences as small as the luring tinkling of chimes.
And before I knew what I was doing, I crashed through the hedge wall of Mrs. Ara’s garden, and heard Emmett crash in after me.
I didn’t see Mrs. Ara until I was at the center, surrounded by plants that seemed to lean in towards me. She sat on her porch, holding her shovel, her eyes stopped my feet as I forgot about Emmett.
She cleared her throat from her chair as the wrinkles deepened across her brow.
“I don’t like strangers in my garden, boy. Nothing ever comes good of them.”
“I’m sorry, maam, I-” She cut me off, and I shivered despite the heat of the day.
“I like plants better than people and animals,” She said, standing, and trailing her hand along a low plant with spiked brown and black leaves that rose like hackled fur at her touch. “You see, a plant can’t really disappoint you, can it? It can’t disobey, it can’t leave. It’s not violent, and it’s bound to the earth, never to run away. I think this world would be a lot better if many of it’s people were plants, unable to hurt each other.”
She was stepping towards me as the spoke, walking along the path that I stood on and dared not stray from until she stood over me.
“I’d rather the harmful people were plants. Plants can hold much that is harmful to us. They can hold poison, locked away from us in their fruit, unless you are foolish enough to eat it. I know what that’s like, carrying poison around in your body. Especially when you’re not ready for it, when you’re too young.”
Then she began to sing, her voice carried by the wind, and matched by the chimes.
Some things are best unheard,
Some things are best unsaid,
Some things never should have been
She paused, looking directly over my shoulder.
Some things are better dead.
As she finished, I felt the pinch at my back, and ducked before Emmett would have a chance to strike at me. But the blow never came.
Instead, behind me, there was a small tree I had not remembered seeing. It’s branches were gnarled, and red blossoms bloomed over its brown leaves. It had poked me in the back, and one of it’s branches with a single silver flower was held motionless a foot away from my face. With a gust of wind, a sap droplet fell from the tree, and splattered across my shirt.
“Do not come back to this place.” Mrs. Ara said, whispering in my ear, her fingers tight on my arm, “Not until you are ready. But look, before you go. There’s a new tree growing.”
She pointed at the ground, to where a tiny green stalk grew just in front of my flip flops. My foot was bloody, and I must have ripped off a toenail on the ground in my panicked escape from Emmett.
“Go.” She whispered, and I felt my legs moving. I did not look back.
When police questioned the school about Emmett’s disappearance a few days later, I never spoke up. After another month, my mother could no longer stand living in the same house as my father had been, and we moved to the next county over. I think I was used to my father’s death by then- it no longer bothered me as it once had. And I forgot about the garden.
But last week, decades later, breast cancer claimed my mother before her due time. Her death was a burden, but being an adult with my wife’s hand closed tightly in mind, I knew I was strong enough to bear it.
I visited my old home alone after the funeral. And from my car on the street, I saw Mrs. Ara’s garden, long overgrown, and her house, long uninhabited.
Remembering her words, I entered it through the gate.
Where there had once been a sea of life and colors, there was now only death and brown. In the center of the garden loomed a tree, one that had outlived the others and paid no heed to the death around it. Though it had been tiny the last time I saw it, I recognized it.
Just before the live tree, there was another, smaller one, and I recognized that one too. It leaned over, barely holding onto the soil. It reminded me of Emmett, and as I walked past I wrapped my hand around the thin trunk, and yanked.
It yielded with no resistance, spraying dirt onto my pants. I stared down where the roots should be, but there were none. Instead, there were the remains of two young feet, connected directly to the trunk, the bones clicking together as they swayed beneath.
I fell backwards, knocking over the brown and black leafed plant that Mrs. Ara had run her hand along when she found me in the garden. This one too fell, it’s roots exposed to be four skeletal paws that raked across me to open an old scar.
I cursed, part in pain, and part in fear, holding my hip and climbing to my feet. I was now at the base of the live tree, and just at eye level, there was a fruit.
Like I said, when driven by terror, it’s rarely logic that directs action. Without thinking, I took a bite of the apple.
And I remembered things I had not know I had forgotten.
I remembered my father’s car crash, and how he had swerved to protect me in the front seat so that his side took most of the damage. I felt his blood on my fingers again as I tried to wake him, but his eyes never opened.
I remembered all the times he did play with me, and how much he cared for me. I knew how much those memories would have torn the young me apart. I remembered how much they did tear me apart the first few weeks after his death, until one fateful day in a garden I had forgotten them.
Tears crossed my face as I looked at the tree. The leaves no longer looked so full of life, and I knew now it would die soon. In the trunk, embedded in the bark, was a toenail.
I left the garden shivering as I thought of what Mrs. Ara had done to so many others, only four of which I knew. And I smiled her wry smile as I realized what she had done for me, and thought of my Sunday school teacher’s words that one Sunday so long ago.
Sometimes it is better not to know. To live without the burden, or some memories, until you are ready.