Irene Lee spent her childhood in the Hudson Valley and is instilled with the echo of woods and bound to the blueness of mountains even in the city. Her work aims to build strong and loving community through books, parties and education, from the most intimate form of connection as reading stories to the most communal as music and dance. She has published the zine SETS, an art book, Lost Cities, and Spells. She is part of a feminist publishing group, Fine Dress Press. Her writing has been published in all of her publications as well as a Flux Factory publication for which she taught a creative writing class called ‘The Wonder Cabinet.’ She creates programming and assists in directing the East Harlem site of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation serving children ages 9-13. Certified in CPR and available as a freelance swim teacher.
The Old Garden
There was a young man whose smile may have reminded of you of the curve of a cradle, upturned and swinging. At a ripe age of youth, he left his wealthy family and luxurious home to go to war. Each family member proudly kissed his handsome cheek when he left. The one who kissed him most, and flung her arms around his neck, was a young girl with brown hair and eyes that cooed. When he was lying in the dirt with trees exploding on the plain, enduring a throbbing pain in his foot, he wrote to this girl dutifully. When he returned from the war he was no longer a boy. He was what they call a man, with a limp and a badge and a smile faltering before raw grief. The girl whom he loved was now a woman, and they were fit to marry. So he spruced up, grew a mustache and wore a tie. They kissed, had five children and when the fifth was born they moved to his family’s estate where he had lived in his youth.
The man now owned so many acres that a small town could fit within its borders. The woman, being the experienced gardener that she was, worked every day the sun was out, which was often in that part of the country. One garden became two, soon orchards were established. The estate blossomed. Her husband, however, was still shaken by his wartime adventures. Though the man’s life had bloomed into inevitable symmetry and his childish smile was now known as stately, even honorable, he spent many hours alone in his study because whenever he looked at the happy faces of his children he was stricken with fear and wanted nothing more than to reverse his years.
One day, on a stroll through the estate’s acres, the woman heard a robin sing. Looking up, she came in contact with a pair of black bead eyes looking down at her from a branch. The robin’s song sounded so much like speech that she couldn’t help but wonder if the bird was actually attempting to relay a message to her. As she was conceiving that very thought, the bird began hopping from one branch to another, looking down at her every three or so branches. She followed the bird up a hill, over a river and through the trees until it flew to a high wall covered with ivy where it perched and cocked its head as if to say, “Aha! See what I have shown you?” She realized then that she had followed the little robin all the way to the outskirts of the property. The woods surrounding this ancient wall were dark and wet. She could almost hear a grumbling from the forest’s depths like an empty stomach.
After searching underneath the thickly tangled ivy, she came upon a little door. “Why, this must lead to an old garden,” she thought. It was a beautiful door shaped like an onion with wrought iron designs wrapped around the latch. She ran her fingers along the rough wood. She pushed on the door but it would not budge. “This will be a perfect garden for my children,” she thought to herself, “the door is just their size. But there must be a key that will fit the lock. Robin, will you help me find the key?” She asked, looking up at the robin, half hoping it might answer. The robin didn’t, of course. If the bird really did mean to lead her to the garden, she thought, it wouldn’t be of much use if the garden was locked. But the bird was such a certain little creature that she felt sure it might have some idea where the key was. The bird shook its feathers and looked stubbornly away.
The woman shoved her arms beneath the vines for a while and, though she felt many crags, there was no key. The woman inspected the grass along the side of the wall but saw nothing. The key was nowhere in sight so she turned to the path home. Just as she did, the sun’s light caught something very shiny indeed. Glistening beneath a fern in front of her was the key, as if it had been there all along. “How could I have not seen it here before?” She exclaimed aloud as she picked it up. It was a little golden key with three rings along the top. With the key in her hand, the woman ran to the door where she was delighted to find the key fit perfectly into the lock. The door swung open as if on a spring. Beyond the door, the garden was the most wild she had ever seen. There were fountains coated with algae and statues of cupids caked in dirt and lichens. Lilacs and roses strangled one another. All of the strawberries had been eaten or were rotting on the ground. None of the plants had been tended to in years. In the center there was a large fountain with a statue of a woman at the top holding a vase on her shoulder that may have once streamed, but now only dripped slowly to the large pool. Strangely enough, the figure was as clean as if she had been sculpted the day before.
When the woman returned home she brought the key with her and gave it as a gift to all her children. She neglected to tell her husband of her adventures that day because he had not come down to eat. He had stayed in his room all that day and she thought he was too busy to trouble himself with the hobbies of children.
But perhaps if she had shown him the key, telling him that she was giving the garden to their children, he would have been quite angry because he had been looking for this key tirelessly since they first arrived in the house. For this garden was his when he was a child. The house felt like a dungeon to him if the garden was closed.
“If you can make this garden beautiful, it will be all yours,” the mother instructed her five children. The children were overjoyed to have a garden all to themselves, and set about cleaning it the next day. The fifth and oldest began by clearing the old branches from the cherry tree, the fourth lay a heavy layer of mulch around the rhododendrons, the third child raked, the second child weeded, and the first child planted a patch of tulips. They untangled the flowers, raked all the leaves, and washed the statues until the end of the week when it was pristine again.
As the days went by and the months went by, the man still had not found his key. He became very distracted and thin from stress. He caught such a fierce illness that he was advised by the doctors not to leave his bed. Soon he became so sick that he could not eat anymore and his face grew pale. His wife gave him herbs and syrups and salts, but none could cure him.
One night while the family slept in their separate rooms, the man was awake. Though insomnia was not uncommon for him, he found he could not be in his bed a moment longer. He had not left his room in two weeks when his bare feet slid along the stone corridor. He walked out of the house, through the lawns. He passed the orchard and climbed over the hill where the rose garden bloomed, over the stream and through the forest, until he reached the old garden. Though he had no strength left in his body, his longing had led him alive to the garden wall where he leaned to catch his breath. As he leaned he noticed in great shock that his fingers were resting on the very key he had been looking for for so many years. The mother had left it by the door so that the children could come in to the garden at their pleasing.
“This must be a dream,” he thought. “This key has been lost since I was a child. Who could have found it and never told me?” Then an even greater emotion filled him, an emotion that lifted him for a moment from his body, a feeling that many people experience when looking in the mirror too long. “Perhaps I have died while walking and I am a ghost who has traveled back in time.” He touched the door and his hand felt the wood and he was comforted. “I am material, so I must not be a ghost,” he thought.
The sick man opened the door and there was the garden. The ground was damp and the mud came up past his toes. He shivered in the cold and the darkness. The shadows of the vines hanging from the walls were like ancient fingers in the dim light. He paused. “This garden has not been touched in years. What an ugly place it has become, more like a swamp, I think. These statues are falling apart, these flowers are all dead,” he thought. Perhaps the darkness had fooled him, or perhaps his years had made him see the world as if it were a rusted machine because he did see the beauty that his children had worked so diligently to achieve. Circling the fountain and holding the rim for support, his fingers slipped. The water was not warm, nor was it filled with slime the way old water gets. The water was fresh as a storm. At that moment his eyes began to adjust to the dark, and then he noticed how the flowers looked velvet. The wet grass shone emerald, glowing as if without the light of the waning moon. As he rediscovered the small garden, he admired how new it looked, how well tended. He admired fresh, just watered flowers that he would cut for his mother. The boxwoods under which he hid were cut into squares. The garden was unmistakably the same garden he had played in as a child. How could his eyes have so deceived him? He got down on his knees and began to weep because, if only for a moment, he believed that time had skipped this place, and the garden had kept its beauty.