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In the Garden

by C. J. Rowan



o.gif (1585 bytes)f what strange accidents is life composed! How many and varied are the chances that lead a man to his friends, his loves, his livelihood! The very fabric of life seems madly confused, with a design so arcane, so infinitely complex, that only one standing far from the tapestry could hope to find the pattern in it. Once in a great while, we seem to perceive some semblance of a design in our local circumstances; some coincidence too great to be truly chance, – and then the threads part, all comes unraveled again, and we are left wondering.

It was the afternoon of the eve of the new millenium, an unseasonably warm day which many spent in preparation for the debauched celebrations that would come that night. I sat alone on a bench in the justly famous rose garden of the old mission, at the foot of a most curious fountain. It was the stone image of a young woman wearing a long cloak. The hood was drawn back, revealing a cascade of long, slightly wavy hair. She gazed down on me with a kindly, slightly dazed expression, so that I took her for a saint, or perhaps the Virgin. Her left hand was held a little away from her side, palm inward. Her right hand was extended forward in a gesture of offering, and from the palm of her hand, the water gushed forth toward me; falling short, however, into the pool around her feet, where it splashed and gurgled in a continuous but ever varying melophany.

As I sat musing on what this wordless figure was intended to convey, I saw another tourist enter the garden through the corner gate. She paused and seemed to glance around rather hesitantly before proceeding down the path. I had a momentary impression that her eyes had lit upon me in the moment that ended her hesitation. But she proceeded not toward the fountain, following instead the perimeter path that leads through the vine-clad rose arbors, the sculpted bushes, and the bridge over the miniature valley with the forest of bonsai. These movements I observed while attempting to appear not to, though as she was the only other human being present, it would have been difficult not to notice.

At length her path passed behind me, so that I could no longer watch without appearing too obvious, and so returned my attention to the carven figure ahead. I had supposed her to be pouring forth some type of benediction. Now it struck me that what she was giving was inspiration, and that she must have been the presiding genius of the artist who created her. Although moss-grown, the stone was not worn enough to be very old, and yet the style seemed too classical for it to be a modern sculpture.

The tourist reappeared then to my right and sauntered forward to regard the fountain. She was a dark-haired youngish woman of slight build. At length she turned to me and said, "I don’t remember this statue being here before, do you?"

She had regular features, rather a sharp nose, and unusually bright, dancing eyes. But there was also a cast to her expression that led me to believe that she had known more than her share of suffering. I had a troubling sense of familiarity. "No," I said at length, "I remember this place without the statue."

She seemed to gain confidence from this assertion, and sat down beside me on the bench, a little distance away, but turned so as to face me. I felt a vague sense of conspiracy. "You remember all those field trips they used to send us kids on? To the natural history museum, and the ecology pond . . ."

I cast my mind back, to when someone half my size used to board the school bus for parts unknown. "Yes, and the La Brea tar pits, with those cool statues of the giant sloths, and the skeletons of the dire wolf. And the circular pit that goes down and down. And outside in the park, that black muck seeping out of the grass here and there, as if the earth had sprung a leak."

She laughed. "Yes! I had nightmares from that one for weeks! I used to dream that I was some poor stupid animal, like a pterodactyl or something, that had come down to the pond for a drink and gotten stuck. There I was, flopping these great wings around and trying to escape, and just sinking in further." She shuddered.

"Quicksand was more my thing. I saw a Tarzan movie when I was little where some guy sank into quicksand, and after that I distrusted all sand, like in the playground at school."

"You never told me that!" she exclaimed.

"It wasn’t very manly," I explained, and then stopped. Was I supposed to know this person? I racked my brains for some memory. People do change a lot over time. I inspected her face again.

She was babbling on. "And you remember how Mrs. Somerfeld used to read us all those Narnia stories after lunchtime? And the time we made butter in class? We must have shaken that jar for an hour, and it never did make proper butter. More like mayonaisse or something, all white and soft."

I laughed. "Yes, I’d forgotten that. And the chorus teacher used to visit class and teach us all these silly songs, like ‘I’ve been working on the railroad’."

"Yes! And you were such a bad singer!" she said. I winced. Obviously, she did know me. But what was her name?

"Those were fun times," she sighed, "just being a kid. Being an adult hasn’t always been so fun. It gets pretty lonely sometimes." She gave me a sidelong glance.

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

She continued, "Kids have such funny ideas. I still remember when we promised to meet here again, in 20 years, on the eve of the year 2000. But why weren’t you at the bridge over there? Remember we were to meet there, and we called it ‘The bridge to the new century.’"

I was startled. "Twenty years ago? Why, it must be twenty-five years since I was in Mrs. Somerfeld’s class. And, um, . . . I don’t seem to be remembering this conversation. What did you say your name was?"

She stared at me blankly. "Stephanie. And you’re Stephen. That’s why we said we must be twins inside, because our names were practically the same."

I groaned. "Listen, this is really embarassing, but my name isn’t Stephen. You must be thinking of someone . . ."

On her face there appeared startlement, followed closely by a look of betrayal. She jumped to her feet, and I saw that her little fist was clenched. "I get it. So now I’m not good enough. Why’d you show up, then? I knew that tramp Cindy would only break your heart. She did, didn’t she? And now you’re just a sad, broken man with nothing better to do than torment the people that really care about you!"

"No, really. I’m actually someone else." I cast about for some means of convincing her. "Here, let me show you my driver’s license."

She leaned forward a little to regard it. I said, apologetically, "I guess everyone in Mrs. Somerfeld’s class used to get sent on field trips here."

Her hand went up to her mouth. "Oh my God. You must think I’m a lunatic."

"Actually, I was kind of enjoying talking to you . . ."

But she turned abruptly and fled toward the exit.

Well, it was New Year’s Eve, and I still had nothing particular to do. I sighed and stayed for awhile, regarding the pigeons that wandered around the base of the fountain. The woman in the statue continued to gaze down on me with the same vacant expression. I felt vaguely irritated with her, as if her divine intercession should have gone a bit further. Perhaps I was hoping that the young woman might come back, so we could resume our conversation.

Instead, after some time, I noticed a man standing on the little bridge, looking uneasily around him. I hadn’t noticed him enter the garden. He began to meander along the pathway, absently regarding the exhibits. His mouth seemed to be moving, as if he were talking to himself. At length he stood before the statue, and I heard a faintly audible muttering. Abruptly he sat down on the other end of the bench, and rested his head in his hands.

"Women!" he exclaimed. "She said she loved me. She said I was the only one. And now I find out that she was screwing my best friend the whole time."

His hair was disheveled and his eyes had a manic gleam. I shifted uneasily and began to think about leaving.

"That bitch Cindy. She was just after my money. I was just her ticket to the easy life. Sure, she had a body to die for. But she never loved me. I know that now. Women are the worst, aren’t they? They were just put here to torment us."

"Some of them are nice," I said mildly.

"Those are the ones we don’t appreciate. The ones we call ‘friends.’" He scowled and then sniffled. "And it’s not like she didn’t warn me, either."

He looked up at the statue. It was then that I noticed the vague, somewhat idealized resemblance.

"You created her?" I said. "You became a sculptor, then."

He shrugged, and looked at his hands. I saw now that they were strong and calloused, as if from years of wielding a chisel.

"You’re Stephen, aren’t you?" I said.

He was taken aback. "What if I am?"

"You don’t even look like me!"

He gave me a sidelong glance, one eyebrow lifted, and started to edge away.

"She was here earlier. Your friend Stephanie. She seemed pretty lonely."

"Really?" he gazed wildly about. "Where’d she go?"

"Out through that gate."

He made an inarticulate cry and leaped to his feet. "Perhaps there is still a chance, then."

He dashed down the garden pathway, his feet crunching in the pebbles, and left the gate creaking behind him. I heard his voice yelling in the distance, getting fainter and fainter. "Stephanie! . . . Stephanie! . . ."

Then there was only the low rumble of traffic from outside.

I wondered if he would ever find her. I turned to glare at the saint again. Not a saint, actually, but the image of a man’s yearning. The water still gushed forth from her hand. For the first time, I noticed an inscription at the foot of the fountain, that looked like it had been added quite recently. I went forward to examine it. It had the style of a scriptural quotation, but I could not recollect ever having seen it before:

Come into my garden, you wanderers and you who are weary from toil, and you shall know peace. For here I am the Present. Pursue not the Past or Future; for such are the realms of shadows, and are given over to the Adversary.

About the author: C. J.  Rowan is a rationalist with mystical tendencies who has roamed the world in search of The Truth. He lives with two cats and a goddess.

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Copyright 1998 by C. J. Rowan

Artwork: Collage of photos that were individually by Marina Schinz, from The Gardens of Russell Page. New York: Stewart, Chabori, & Chang, 1991.