Garden of Knight (Part One) by Dana Rodgers

It was like someone had picked her up and dropped her on another planet. This planet smelled like cookies and came with a house so big she could get lost.  She dodged Grandma Emily’s favorite chair, a big fancy one with flowers on it, and passed the curio that held Great Aunt Margaret’s spoon collection. Floor to ceiling bookshelves flanked a stone fireplace so big she could stand inside it if she’d wanted to, and she was almost the tallest six year old in her class. She decided Grandma Emily might not like that and moved on, her attention drawn by the gold framed portrait of her mother above it. In the painting Mama looked younger, her black hair longer and dark eyes shining with mischief. She looked like a movie star with her red dress and olive skin. Daddy had called her his gypsy queen. She was as beautiful as a queen, Gemma thought, wishing she looked more like her. She had Mama’s eyes, but Daddy’s blond hair and pale skin. Mama always said Gran didn’t care about them, but why did she have so many pictures of Mama if she didn’t love her?

Still lost in her thoughts, Gemma wandered outside into a huge garden full of trees, flowers and statues. The air was chilly, not as stuffy as in the house. Red, yellow and orange leaves decorated the trees as if they were preparing for a party. It would be Halloween soon. Was Gran too old to celebrate Halloween? Stretching out her hand, Gemma plucked a leaf from a nearby bush. She traced the veins softly but the leaf crumbled at her touch. Just like her parents had in the accident. She swallowed hard as the familiar ache filled her chest. She let everyone think that she didn’t remember, but she did. Every time she closed her eyes she was back in the car. She could hear Daddy’s deep resonating laugh, see Mama’s dark hair blowing in the wind, and then the deer sprang from the woods and into the road a split second before Mama screamed.

Being sad won’t bring them back.

Gemma whipped around. “Gran?” But it was a man’s voice. “Who said that?” Her head swiveled in every direction, but the only one here was a statue of a man with sad eyes wearing strange clothes. He knelt on one knee, holding a giant sword, like a knight. She felt weird, reaching out and touching his cold hand, like someone was watching her. Rather than being creepy, it was kind of nice not being sad all alone.

* * *

Hours later, Gemma snuggled deeper into the red and beige striped cushion of the window seat overlooking the garden.  The dream had come again and she couldn’t stop thinking about the crash. Drawing her knees into her chest, she pressed her forehead against the rain-streaked glass. It didn’t seem real that she’d never see her parents again. Her lower lip trembled and her throat tightened, but no more tears would fall.

Movement drew her attention below. Grandma Emily and Great Aunt Margaret entered the garden through the gate that led to the forest. What were they doing out in the woods in the rain? She watched them cross the garden and heard the back door close downstairs.

A few moments later Gemma heard the clink of china and the murmur of voices in the kitchen. Curious, she slid to her feet and tiptoed downstairs so she could hear what they were saying.

“What are we going to do with her, Emily?”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s enough to worry about right now without the added responsibility of a child,” Aunt Margaret said. “She can’t stay here.”

“I know the risks Margaret, but she’s my grandchild and a member of this family.”

Gemma clutched her stomach. Were they really going to send her away? Where would she go? Who would tuck her in at night? Read her stories? Sing her songs?

“We could send her away to school. Saint Agnes would be perfect, don’t you think?”

“For heaven’s sake Margaret, she’s only six. The poor child’s lost enough without losing what’s left of her family too,” Grandma Emily said.

“I know.” Margaret sniffed. “But I still say he’s involved. It was no accident that brought her here.”

“This is her home and that’s the end of it,” Grandma Emily snapped. “You know I can’t do anything about the other unless I have evidence to bring before the council. I know it’s dangerous and eventually she’ll have to know, but until that day comes it’s our job to keep her safe.”

Aunt Margaret sighed. “I just hope she accepts her heritage with more grace than her mother did.”

“When she turns eighteen and it’s time for her to know, we’ll just have to handle it more delicately.”

“God help us.”

What did they mean, it was dangerous here? Who was he? And why would they think the car crash wasn’t an accident? Of course it was an accident. She was there. She’d seen the whole thing.

Afraid of getting caught, Gemma hurried back to her room. Just as she climbed onto the giant poster bed, big enough for six of her, a wolf howled in the distance, its voice rising above the pitter-patter of rain. She burrowed under the covers as other wolves joined in. Their cries were so sad; maybe they missed mama and daddy too.

Gemma rubbed her hand across the hummingbird embroidered on the quilt. It hovered over a red rose, just like the ones in the garden. She liked it there. It made her feel safe.  When the wolves stopped singing their sad song, she closed her eyes and let thoughts of the garden soothe her to sleep.

* * *

A delicious smell lured her down the stairs and into the kitchen where Grandma Emily was putting blueberry muffins on a plate. Today she wore dark pants and a long sleeved shirt with tiny purple flowers on it and her short, dark hair was pulled back in a headband.

“Did you sleep well?” Gran asked, buttering a muffin and sitting it on Gemma’s plate.

Gemma shrugged. The bed was too soft and everything was different than home, but she didn’t want Gran to know she’d had trouble sleeping. If she was a bother, they might send her away.

“I’m going to work in the garden today. Would you like to come along? We can pack a picnic lunch if you’ll help me make the sandwiches.”

Gemma nodded. “I used to help Mama in our garden at home.”

“Your mama loved working in the garden when she was a little girl. She said she liked being surrounded by the trees and flowers and wild things.”

Gemma swallowed hard. “Wild things?”

Gran’s mouth tightened for a moment, but then she chuckled and waved her hand. “You know, the bees and birds and frogs. Your mama used to dress up like a pretty princess with a crown and everything, and then she would go running around that garden catching frogs and lizards, putting them in her pink dress up purse. I never knew what she was going to come home with next.” Gran shook her head, her eyes crinkling at the corners as she smiled. “One time she came home with a dead snake. Can you believe it? A snake.”

Gemma shook her head and screwed up her face in disgust. “What’d she do with it?”

“She dug a hole at the edge of the forest and made us attend the funeral.”

Gemma giggled around a bite of muffin. “A funeral? For a snake?”

“Oh yes, and it was very proper. She said prayers and read from the Bible and everything.”

“You’re teasing me!”

“I’m not. Your mama was such a kind person, even when she was a little girl.” Gran stared off  with a sad smile, like she was seeing something Gemma couldn’t see. Then Gran blinked hard and cleared her throat. “And I think you’re a lot like her. Now finish your breakfast and help me pack this picnic, young lady. There’s work to be done.”

“Yes m’am.”

After breakfast, Gemma pulled on her favorite red jacket and followed Gran into the garden.

“Stay out of the woods and don’t go wandering off by yourself,” Gran said beeping Gemma’s nose with her index finger. “I wouldn’t want any wild things to get you.”

While Gran pruned the flowers, Gemma explored the shed and the fish pond. No matter which direction she went, she always ended up at the statue of the man with the sword. She hadn’t seen any men here since the funeral so it was odd to have heard one in the garden yesterday. Did they have ghosts here? Maybe Daddy had come back to see her. She tiptoed closer to the statue man where she’d heard the voice yesterday. “Hello?” She called, glancing around her. “Is anyone there?”

Nothing happened. After several minutes she decided that she must have imagined it and giggled, thinking how Mama would have laughed if she knew how silly Gemma was being.

 * * *

Gemma pounded down the stairs and out the back door, her blonde braids bouncing with each step.

“Where are you going with that blanket and hat?” Grandma Emily called after her. “It’s almost time to leave.”

“Just a minute Gran!” Gemma shouted over her shoulder and flew down the path. She passed Gran’s herb garden, the stone bench by the fish pond, and the prickly climbing roses by the fence to her favorite spot, a clearing by her statue. She liked reading to him, even though he couldn’t hear her. She liked to imagine that he could. That he was a prince, like the ones in her stories.

But for a gallant prince, his eyes were so sad, and his mouth looked all tight like Gran’s had when Mama died. Gran still looked like that sometimes, when she didn’t know Gemma was watching. She didn’t want Gran to get sad again so she made sure she only cried when she was alone. Gemma didn’t know what Mama and Gran had been fighting over, but she was sure Gran had never stopped loving Mama.

Sometimes Gran kept her so busy she’d forget, and then the pain would come back, taking away her breath. The statue man made her feel like she wasn’t alone, that he understood her sadness. And since he couldn’t speak, she could tell him anything. Even how much she missed her parents.

“Good morning. I hope you had a good night’s sleep,” she said when she reached the statue. “I did, mostly… I had a bad dream. I was in the forest and something was chasing me. It was big. I ran as fast as I could. Then you were there, but you were a real man, with a real sword and I wasn’t scared anymore.”

She pulled the knit hat down over his ears and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, tying it at his throat. “I can’t read to you today because I’m going back to school, but I didn’t want you to be cold. Gran says it’s supposed to snow. Maybe we could read Sleeping Beauty when I get home? It’s one of my favorites. I love how the knight charges in and kills the evil lady and saves the princess.”

She kissed his cheek and sprinted back down the path to where her grandmother and aunt stood open mouthed in the kitchen window.

* * *

“It’s odd I tell you,” Margaret grumbled, looking out the kitchen window into the garden. “She sits in the garden for hours reading to that statue. A statue, Emily. Doesn’t the child have any real friends?”

“You know there aren’t many kids around here,” Emily said defensively. “That’s why our family built out here to begin with, no people who might get curious.” Gemma had been an odd child since her arrival, talking and singing to that statue in the garden, but Emily had told herself it was just a child’s silly fantasies, creating a make believe friend because she was lonely. “She says it makes her feel closer to her mama being out there taking care of the plants.”

“I know it’s been hard since the accident, but it’s been weeks now. It just isn’t healthy for a child to talk to statues.”

“Now that she’s enrolled in primary school, I’m certain she’ll make friends.” Maybe Margaret was right and they should have sent Gemma away to school as soon as she arrived, but Emily missed her daughter and didn’t want to miss out on her granddaughter too. And no matter where she was, there was always the question of Gemma’s safety.

“I still say we should have sent her to Saint Agnes. It would be perfect for a girl her age, and then she wouldn’t be poking around, libel to stumble onto–”

“I’ve told you before Margaret, I will not send her away. Sister or not, I’ll give you up, you old wolf, before I give up my grandchild. Now if you know what’s good for you, you’ll drop it.”

“I just don’t want to see the same thing happen to Gemma that happened with her mother,” Margaret said. “Turning her back on her own people nearly broke all of our hearts. And we both know her death was no accident.”

* * *

Like any other summer afternoon, ten-year-old Gemma knelt on the old quilt and tended the roses she’d carefully planted along the base of her statue man. Their fragrance wafted around her, intensified by the heat of the afternoon. It was the scent of comfort and home.

Run!

Without question, Gemma jumped to her feet and sprinted toward the house. From the corner of her eye she saw a huge shape, and caught a brief glimpse of dark fur running through the trees along the wrought iron fence.

She rushed inside and slammed the door, locking it behind her. Panting, she raised the edge of the curtain and peered outside. Where was it? What was it?

“What the devil is going on?” Aunt Margaret asked from the table, making Gemma jump and whirl.

“There’s a wild thing out there… I saw it running along the fence… I ran as fast as I could,” she said, panting.

Both women jumped to their feet. “Where?” they asked in unison.

“Over there, by the woods.” Gemma pointed.

Grandma Emily unlocked the door. “Stay here.”

“No! You can’t go out there,” Gemma cried. “The wild thing will get you.”

“Don’t worry, child. There’s nothing in these woods that will want to mess with a grandma protecting her cub. Just stay here and let me have a look around. I’ll be careful.”

Gemma watched from the window while Grandma Emily and Aunt Margaret walked along the outside of the fence, stopping ever so often to examine the ground or putting their faces to the air like they smelled something. Unable to control her curiosity any longer, Gemma went out.

Both women wore identical frowns. “Now that he knows she’s here, it’s only a matter of time. What are we going to do?” Aunt Margaret said as Gemma rounded the fence.

She couldn’t believe her ears when Grandma Emily said, “We’ll have to send her away. It’s the only way–”

“No! Please don’t make me leave,” Gemma pleaded, her eyes filling with tears. “I promise I’ll be good.”

Grandma Emily hugged Gemma.“Sweetheart, we don’t want to send you away. We love you. But we want you to be safe. This was a bad wild thing. A scary one.”

Gemma continued clinging to Gran. She smelled woodsy and familiar, like her mother had. Like home. She didn’t want to go away and lose everyone she loved again.

 

* * *
Come back tomorrow for part two of Garden of Knight by Dana Rodgers.