Short-listed Entry: Non-Fiction Category
By: Caroline Callahan
So much of the drama of my childhood played out in my mother’s secret garden, a place she labored over endlessly but seemed to me to burst out of the ground like a dream. The path of my mother’s garden was a mess of a timeline, pieced together over years of work. There were two entrances at either side; there was a gate with an arch and rose bushes on one end towards the road: one rose bush, the red one, was stunted, the other pink one flourished, and raced further up the wood of the arch every year. The other entrance was a similar wooden arch, though rectangular. This one was threaded with ivy.
I usually entered this way, turning right along the path that traces the top of a small hill that plunges steeply to the driveway. To me, that ivy-covered arch was a portal to a different world. Bushes that erupted in small yellow flowers in the spring obscured the driveway and the house below. Just a ways along this path is a small graveyard for our dead angelfish, marked subtly in the dark earth by crosses made by sticks. These fish were beautiful, dominating the saltwater tank my father treasured. Sadly, they were fragile and fated to early deaths. Many only seemed to live a few days after they were brought home in the small plastic bags, looking so strange as they floated elegantly in their balloons. They were always outlived by the spiny starfish and the little cleaner shrimp that was such a joy to watch at work. When they died we took their blue and yellow bodies and buried them outside in the garden; they were our first pets and therefore each loss was acutely noticed. It didn’t occur to me until now that a flush down the toilet would be a more appropriate final resting place for such lovely creature that had no knowledge of fertilized earth and tulips.
The garden was littered with signs and treasures. Beyond the small graveyard, picking out the adornments was much like playing a game of I Spy. A flat stone that said “friendships are flowers in the garden of life” lay pressed among the bleeding hearts, a metal stake twisting to hold a dark blue glass ball stood out against long grasses, and a little clay sun painted garishly by my sister hung from a tree. Wind chimes hung and sung from the archways, and a lovely statue of a girl holding a basket sat centered in a perfect grass circle edged by trees. To my siblings and I, these objects were truly magical, as if they held some fairy dust. They stood alone amongst nature, not belonging but also, in some way, entirely fitting. The graceful statue of the girl was, in our mind, the queen of faeries, frozen only when we looked her way.
When we got old enough, our mother would let us help decorate the garden with these things after the winter released its grip and allowed for them to be brought out of hibernation. We would load up the squeaking red wagon and distribute our treasures; my favorite was a black metal raven that peered over his shoulder inquisitively. I always put him at the edge of the herb garden. My sister’s favorite was a stone hedgehog. He usually perched closer to the front walk, greeting visitors. My brother cherished a pair of stone frogs caught in an endless game of leapfrog. The two of them were often placed near the tomato garden, making a joke out of the serious metal raven.
The path wound around to a small pond edged by rocks with a wooden bridge over it. I remember when the pond was built. Its large orange flecked rocks brought in and placed aesthetically by the landscaper. They looked out of place for so long until they became caked with algae, taking on the color of the world around them. This pond was one of the focal points of our dream world when we were children. In the summer, my mother filled the pond with water plants, lily pads and underwater grasses. I could sit for hours and watch for frogs. In the early spring we would catch mosquito larvae on our fingers and in buckets, watching them twist through the water, not yet knowing what they would become.
The pond, like the rest of the garden, produced miracles. My sister won a goldfish one year at our town’s Blossom Time Carnival in May. We named her Goldie, and like the other prize goldfish we had proudly won at the ring toss stand over the years, we stuck her in her little plastic bag into our pond as soon as we got home. After letting her adjust to the temperature of the water, we set her free in her new domain. Most of the goldfish died soon after we did this; life in the pond could not be as easy as life in a little plastic baggie or a goldfish bowl. Goldie was an exception; she was vivacious, gulping down any fish food we brought her. We followed her progress through the summer, but soon lost interest for other adventures. She grew, probably feeding on the mosquito larvae we used to watch. When winter came we thought she was a goner, even with our childish hope. We would walk out on the ice over the winter occasionally, but most of the winter was spent away from the tiny pond, building elaborate snow caves from the snow the plow pushed to the end of out driveway, or sledding down the hill at the back of our house.
In early spring we still stayed away from the pond. The rotting leaves from the winter gave it a strange appearance and smell. The bottom of the pond was coated in black sludge from the leaves and other detritus, and no new life was yet visible. Besides,
there were other exciting things to do and see, like watch the crocuses push their first green buds out of the soil, or help my mother clear leaves and sticks from the path, or bring out the bike and tear down the street filling our lungs with the freshness of uncovered, new grass. It was the time of year when I was eager to plant things myself. I wanted to touch the earth. It sent up such a smell of life, that I felt that I got my energy from the earth just like the plants. I was a seedling, a fledgling. My mother could conjure tomato plants from the earth; calling up huge red tomatoes and small yellow ones shaped like gourds that I would pick off and eat without washing them. I wanted that power, so I would gather acorns in a bucket and pick a spot that I considered to be suitable. I would dig into the earth with my mother’s tools using all of them because I couldn’t decide which one would work best. I found a spot by the pond that seemed suitable, and I set to work, forcing the spade past little knots of root systems. I would press the acorns into the ground, thinking eagerly that in the days to come, a little baby tree would make an appearance.
I would check the planted acorns every day, dipping the bucket into the pond to sprinkle them with water. Nothing ever grew, but one day, I leaned through the railing of the bridge and caught sight of a flash of metallic orange in the water. It was, at that time, the only bright color besides the red and yellow of my plastic bucket. I did not question if I had or hadn’t seen Goldie in that moment. Hope worked differently for me then, and instead of incredulity, I felt a sense of knowing that she had been there all along, laughing at us through the ice. Laughing at us for thinking she was dead.
I didn’t wait to confirm what I had seen. I dropped my bucket and ran, my heart full. I was bursting to tell of this wonder, of which I was sure. This was the rhythm of my
life on the land I grew up on. Beyond the garden, there were two small patches of forest, a playground, a steep hill thick with bushes, and a good sledding hill, plus three huge pines that were excellent for climbing except for the fact that the sap would stick to my hands and clothing like nature’s cement. In these trees I would sit and imagine what it could possibly be like to be a bird. When I got older, my brother and I would pack small bags filled with books and apples and we would perch up there and read, laughing when cars honked at us as we swayed with the breeze. Life flowed into us like we were vessels, our senses active at every moment.
Despite the detail in which I can conjure this world at times, other details appear only when I am not looking for them, falling into my brain like a drifting leaf. I cannot tell you how old I was when I found Goldie reflecting a small sun off of her scales. I may be remembering it all wrong. Was I planting acorns there? Or was I trailing my toes through the water? We moved away from that house and life became faster paced. I entered high school, and the frightening notion of the future began to loom, swamping out the past, and, at times, the present. I found ways to slow things down, ways that still involved slipping out of the tracks worn by humans and following the tracks laid by fairies and animals.
I got a horse. I loved to ride fast, treasuring hawks hunting over the large pastures, the wind on my face, the deep connection I had with him as we learned to trust, to fight, to dance a different dance. Summer days were spent trailing his lead line through the grass as he dried off from a hose bath. These simple moments were often in contrast with the chaos of actually owning a horse, which meant competing. The knot in my stomach that would form the moment before I stepped into the ring, the beat of my heart in time with his steady canter as I could feel all eyes on us, approaching the first jump. I wasn’t the best rider. For a long time, I didn’t have the best clothes for it, didn’t have the right saddle, or the right attitude. I would rather ride bareback through the woods then sit sweating in a black jacket while a judge peered, unseen, out of a shaded awning as I cantered past. But we were suited for each other. I was still shy, and therefore, slightly awkward. He was massive, with large, out of proportion ears that ticked around his head depending on in what direction his interest was. We were both full of the potential for beauty, and together we found grace in our own way.
When my horse nearly died, my world was upended sharply. I could hardly believe that such a tragedy could strike me down at fifteen. It was a normal school night until my father called to tell me that my horse would need emergency surgery. He had colic, the most likely culprit: too much fresh grass. For horses, colic is not like what happens to babies. It is not momentary discomfort; it is excruciating, and can be deadly if their intestines twist and cut off blood flow. We drove out to the equestrian hospital that very night. I walked in to see my horses legs splayed into the air, a thick tube down his throat, his great big tongue lolling. I had just stopped crying; the hardest I had ever cried in my life. More than when my parents got divorced. I was hiccupping for air like a child does. I couldn’t see it but the surgeon was untwisting yards of my horse’s entrails, trying to find the pinched part that had caused him to go wild with pain.
Hours later when the surgery was done, I peered through a small window to a padded room where he stood, shivering with cold from having his hot insides brought into the cold air, after having freezing saline pumped through his arteries. At that moment I remembered Goldie. It was an almost ludicrous thought: that fat goldfish swimming to
the surface of my memory, drifting in unexpectedly, at random. I felt my blood pick up speed as I remembered the smell of spring, the flash of orange, the feel of the ground as I raced to our house, the hope.