Next in the Others collection is a story which has been published in Litro Magazine and recently made the front cover of Issue 28 of Open Pen.
The Gardener of Eden
The gardener of Eden is a lonely man.
If anyone were to watch him while he inspects every blade of grass and every petal of every flower, or while he murderously hunts for weeds, they might see his mouth moving with muttered curses.
If anyone were to stand near him while he hand-cuts acres of perfect verdant lawn with a pair of scissors, or while he lays fresh soil and plants exotic seeds in it; while he takes care of every square inch of paradise, they might hear those curses as they travel on the wind.
But of course, no one sees or hears him, because the gardener of Eden works alone.
Not even they notice him. The happy couple, who walk around this place like they own it. She’s given him a polite smile once or twice, like that time he accidentally on purpose trundled past them in his motorised lawnmower, but it was hollow. Like it was only for politeness, nothing more. Like she saw him as the help. Here only to make this place prettier for her to enjoy.
Though maybe that is what he does and why he does it. Maybe that’s why he gets up at dawn every day and works until sundown – for her. To make this place a paradise, all for her.
Her man, with his floppy hair and handsome face, has never even acknowledged him.
He just picked up his girlfriend and carried her into the bushes where they made love for hours while the gardener of Eden tried to drown out the erotic sounds with his motorised lawnmower. It didn’t work. He heard her moans. He heard them all night. He still hears them.
If the gardener of Eden ever tells you he hasn’t thought about poisoning her man, or suffocating him in his sleep, don’t listen to him. He’s lying. He’s thought about it many, many times.
Every night, when his back aches from the labour and his hands are raw from the dirt, he returns to his lodgings, the little wooden cabin by the lake. He shares a room with the security guard of Eden, and every night they like to sit on the bench outside their cabin, passing back and forth a bottle of whiskey, lighting cigarettes. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they sit in silence and watch the sunlight fade on the water.
One night the gardener of Eden takes a swig from the bottle, passes it to his friend, and speaks his mind.
– . . . Think it might be time for a change. You know?
– You thinking about getting out?
– I mean, sure, He gives us a free room and free meals. But the room is small, and, no offense, I have to share it with you, and the food is the same stale bread and soup every day. And this is the best whiskey we can get in paradise? This stuff? Like He can’t afford to give us any more than that?
– You know, I –
– And do we ever get any thanks for our work? Do we ever get so much as a nod? A pat on the back?
The security guard of Eden takes a drag of the cigarette and holds in the smoke while he takes a swig of the whiskey then lets it all out in one and passes the bottle back.
– You know . . . this isn’t such a bad gig. I’ve had worse.
– I’m not asking for much.
– So, what? You’re going to quit?
– Been thinking about it. Maybe I will.
– Where are you going to go?
– . . . I could go places.
– You think you’ll find somewhere better?
– I have worth, I have –
– We’re in paradise.
– . . . Only paradise for some.
The two men sit by the lake and drink in silence for a while longer. The gardener of Eden doesn’t say it, but he knows his friend – his only friend – is right. There’s nowhere else for him to go.
He keeps getting up at the dawns every day and tending to his garden until the dusks.
He breeds a special kind of flower. A blue rose. It didn’t exist before him but now it does because he made it so. He watches it grow from nothing to something. Something beautiful. It’s like his own child.
It takes him a while to build up the courage to do it.
He watches the couple from afar.
He hates how lovely she is.
How lovely she is is what will kill him.
On the day he finally does it, he takes the bottle of whiskey with him to his work. While he finds slugs in the grass and pours salt on them and watches them shrivel up and die, he takes swigs. He feels it burn in his heart and he likes it. His usual backache and heavy shoulders feel lifted. He feels stupid. He likes it.
He sees them as they emerge from the waterfall, naked as monkeys. He wishes he could catch her alone, but he knows there’s no chance. Her man is always with her, always has his arm around her.
The gardener of Eden walks up to them, the happy couple, with the flower, his precious blue rose, in his hand. He nearly stumbles as he approaches them. Neither of them notices him until she speaks, until he blurts out the line he’s been half-practising in his foggy head.
– I saw this and . . .
They stop and turn to look at him. She looks startled. She looks lovely. Why does she always have to look so lovely? Can’t she just have one day where she looks bad? Can’t she smell bad, or something? Why does she have to be so incredible, so desirable, all the damn time? He’s sick of it.
The happy couple look at the drunk gardener of Eden with the dead flower in his hand as they might look upon a dying animal. With some kind of abstract removed pity.
– . . . And thought of you.
The gardener of Eden dribbles down his chin. He wants to cry.
She takes the flower from him and smiles politely. Her man looks at him with a smirk, like he is no threat, like he is nothing.
The happy couple walk on, hand in hand.
The gardener of Eden drinks the rest of his whiskey until he passes out on the grass.
Some nights later, he and his friend, the security guard of Eden, sit by the lake again, passing back and forth the bottle.
– You’re getting into dangerous territory, man.
– . . . I love her.
– . . . I know.
– I wish I didn’t. I wish I simply liked her. I wish she meant nothing to me. I wish I hated her.
– You think I don’t love her too? We all do. She’s the only woman in the universe.
– Even if there were billions more, none of them would be as lovely as she.
– Jesus, relax. Here, drink some more.
The security guard of Eden passes the bottle. The bottle is all that there is.
– You should’ve seen her face. Like she was disgusted by me.
– You’d been drinking?
– . . . Just a little.
– Maybe if that man of hers wasn’t in the picture, maybe she’d maybe feel differently. You know?
The gardener of Eden lights his next cigarette.
– What are you saying?
– I’m not saying nothing, no, not me.
– I’m not saying, I’m just saying. Maybe if he wasn’t around . . . Maybe she’d look at you a little differently.
– Are you saying what I think –
– I’m not saying anything. What are you saying?
They sit in silence by the lake passing the bottle back and forth.
– . . . How would you do it?
– I wouldn’t do it.
– What if you were me?
– Look man, I’m not having this conversation. You should talk to the snake.
– The snake?
– He’s good with this kind of thing. Helped me with a problem before.
– What problem?
– Don’t worry about that. Just talk to the snake.
He doesn’t actually think he is going to do anything, at first. He thinks it’s just idle imagination. He thinks if he can play out the fantasy in his head, that will be enough. But some days later, while he’s on his knees in the mud ripping some weeds apart with his bare hands, all just so this place can be as beautiful as it can be, the happy couple pass him by again. They seem to always be hand in hand, walking, smiling, stopping only to make fiery passionate love in the flowers, then walking some more.
She pulls her hand away from her man’s and skips over to the gardener of Eden, on his knees in the mud. Her man looks confused, and stops.
She looks at him, the gardener of Eden, she looks at him, and this time she really looks at him. She doesn’t look through him. She sees him. She smiles. The gardener of Eden looks up and sees her smiling and nearly falls over, right there in the mud.
He thinks to himself, if this place is paradise, it’s all because of her.
She smiles and says – Thank you. For the flower. It’s really pretty.
The gardener of Eden is too stunned and overjoyed to respond.
– . . . I didn’t mean to be rude, before . . . I just . . . Well, thank you.
She skips back over to her man who still looks perplexed. She retakes his hand and they keep walking. As if to reaffirm his ownership, her man grabs her ass and squeezes, then deliberately looks back to the gardener of Eden with a somewhat threatening glare.
It takes an hour for the gardener of Eden to stand up, and when he does, he knows exactly what he is going to do.
He finds the snake in his tree, being all snaky and shit.
He just comes out with it.
– I hear you can get things done.
The snake slithers around on the branch, acting purposefully coy.
– Where did you hear that? Hiss.
– It needs to be quick.
– You want me to take out Adam, right?
The gardener of Eden is incredulous.
– How did . . .
The snake smiles his slippery smile and humps his branch.
– Oh yeahhhh.
– I don’t want him to suffer. I just . . .
– And then what?
– . . . What?
– What happens next? Let’s say I do what you’re asking me, and you are asking me, aren’t you? Let’s say I remove him from the picture. Then what? You don’t think the big guy, the boss, the man upstairs, you don’t think He might notice? You don’t think He might have something to say about it?
– . . . It has to be subtle.
– Right. It has to be like nothing ever happened. It has to be of his own doing.
– I hear you’re an ideas man.
– You hear a lot of things, don’t you?
– Listen, are you going to help me or not?
The snake writhes and groans and salivates and then nods his snake head.
– I can help you. Leave it to me. You just keep on top of those weeds.
The snake humps his tree until he orgasms.
Days pass and the gardener of Eden has a lump in his chest. Even the whiskey won’t keep it down. He sees the happy couple, frolicking, making love, laughing, but now the hot green pain he normally feels is dampened, quietened, by a heavy blanket. This blanket is his guilt.
He hopes it doesn’t last long.
During the nights on the bench by the lakeside, the security guard of Eden says nothing to him. He passes the bottle back and forth. The gardener of Eden can tell his friend is ashamed of him, and ashamed of himself too. They stay quiet and find comfort in the bottle. The bottle is all that there is.
More days pass and he thinks nothing is going to happen. He thinks the snake lied to him just for fun, while having no intention of doing anything. He finds he’s actually relieved. It isn’t worth it. He doesn’t know what would happen if the boss ever got angry about something, but he can imagine it would be bad. He’s heard rumours.
He can swallow his feelings, he can learn to find happiness in his flowers again, like he did when he first took this job, before her loveliness ruined everything.
This is paradise.
He can get used to it.
Then one morning a memo arrives at the door of the cabin. The security guard of Eden is the one who opens it. The kettle has just boiled, the gardener of Eden is making their ritual cups of tea.
– It’s from the big guy.
The gardener of Eden’s heart drops.
– . . . What’s it say? . . . Are we finally getting that pay upgrade?
– “Following an unpleasant apple related incident, of which I will spare you the details, Eve has been permanently banished from the grounds, effective immediately. Your custodial duties remain unaffected. Should you have any questions, direct them to my secretary. sincerely – The boss.”
The gardener of Eden spills the tea all over the cabin floor.
His friend – his only friend – looks over at him, his eyes cold and piercing. Right then is his judgement.
The security guard of Eden folds up the memo and puts it in the drawer. He leaves the cabin, where the gardener of Eden sits, all alone, with only himself to talk to.
He opens the bottle of whiskey and drinks until the butterflies in his stomach are dead and drowned.
Later that day, he finds the snake, wriggling and rubbing himself against his tree.
– You! What did you do?!
The snake playfully acts dumb. He gives the gardener of Eden an innocent look, then closes his eyes and groans as he humps his tree.
– . . . Don’t know what you’re talking about. Oh yeahhhhh.
– I asked you to take care of the man.
– Oh, you did? My bad. I must have misunderstood.
– Don’t play dumb with me, you snake.
– A simple misunderstanding. It can happen.
– You played me.
– Don’t beat yourself up about it.
The gardener of Eden screams and lunges himself toward the snake, who casually slithers further up his tree to the highest branches. The gardener of Eden bangs his head into the trunk and the snake laughs, then continues to hump his tree until his eyes bulge and he froths at the mouth.
The gardener of Eden returns to his work, but it has lost all meaning. His flowers, his grass, even his enemy weeds – he doesn’t feel anything for it anymore. Paradise is grey. Paradise is over.
When he returns to the cabin by the lakeside, he sees the security guard of Eden, sat on their bench, passing the bottle back and forth with him.
The two men are silent.
The gardener of Eden meekly approaches them at the bench. Adam moves up, makes a space and pats it with his hand. The gardener of Eden sits down next to him. Adam passes him the bottle.
They drink in silence until the light fades away from the water.