“Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the rose is blown.”
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Imagine, if you will, a cottage. The thatch is weathered but still sturdy; the walls are made of stone, and there is an exterior wall, built tall and strong, surrounding the property. Moss creeps over the stones of the wall and grows in the shadows of the cottage and the wall itself. In the center of the exterior wall is a gate. Hanging on the gate is a hand-carved sign that reads “NO SOLICITORS. No trespassing. Tours by appointment only.”
As you stand outside the gate, a woman comes out the front door of the cottage. She’s approaching middle years, but somehow looks both young and old. A simple brown dress sweeps the ground, with a white pocketed apron over it; if you look closely you can see kittens’ ears peeking out of the top pockets. She’s wiping her hands on a rag tucked into her apron band, and swipes one arm across her forehead, dislodging some flour smeared there. Her eyes are older than the rest of her face, upon which laugh and worry lines have begun to carve themselves, but when she sees you and smiles her eyes brighten, a happy welcome spreading across her countenance.
“Hello!” she calls, setting down one of the kittens and coming to the other side of the gate. “Do you have your key?”
You stare, confused, and she smiles again. “Try your right-hand pocket; the owner gives them out quietly sometimes.”
To your vast surprise, your hand encounters metal; you pull out an old-fashioned key that fits one of the many locks festooning the front gate. When the key turns, the gate vanishes. You step in hesitantly, looking around: the front is an old-fashioned cottage garden, herbs in one bed, vegetables in another, with a central rose garden surrounding a sundial. You begin to approach the roses, drawn by their heavy scents, but the woman stops you gently. “Not that way,” she smiles, taking your hand. “Come through the cottage; the part you’re looking for is out back.”
She leads you through a comfortable clutter of books, afghans, and overstuffed furniture and out a mudroom into the back of the property. As you proceed deeper into the gardens, you see vast differences in the different garden beds laid out back here; one is blossoming wildly, overgrown with flowers, fruits, and lovely in its design. Several others are neatly laid out, well-tended gardens with names laid into rocks in the center; yet others are obviously neglected, overgrown with weeds and with the intended plants laid out haphazardly. Some still grow in pots, others are dying, still others have dead trees or bushes in the centers. The woman looks at your face and smiles again. “The owner allows certain gardeners in; the well-tended ones are memorials to those who came and went, but left their plots neatly tended and beautiful. She treasures all of those. That one – “ leading you past the beautiful, overflowing bed – “that one, the gardener has been visiting for many years. He comes every day to tend the flowers, prune where it’s needed, and weed out all the things that could strangle the beautiful plants the owner grows. The beds out front are her parents’ especial care.”
“And the dead beds?” you ask, oddly fascinated by the unkempt, dreary beds in among all the life.
Her smile fades a bit; eyes down, she says, “Those were planted by gardeners who chose to stop visiting; the owner is very selective with those she gives keys to, but she doesn’t always choose wisely. Some see the scope of the work and are put off by the idea of having to work for a result; others become afraid. There are often odd creatures to be found in this garden, and not everyone is comfortable being around them. Some even leave simply because she loves cats,” as she speaks, she lifts the kitten out of her apron and offers it to you. Your hands curve around the soft, silky body and you cradle it to your chest, confused but willing to comfort it. The woman’s smile grows again, and her eyes meet yours. “Come this way,” and she takes your hand again. Leading you through the profusion of blossoms, fruit trees, and dead bushes, she brings you to a corner with a bed that looks brand new; it has neatly laid out rows marked in the bare dirt and a few seedlings have begun poking their heads above the ground. You stop, setting the kitten down, and put your hand on the bed; it feels familiar, though you’ve never been here before. As your hand rests on the bed, a few more seedlings reach through the soil, and one of the ones already coming up puts out a few leaves.
“This one is yours,” the woman says, the smile on her face growing brighter. “The owner trusted you enough to give you a key, and a bed; she only chooses a few people, though. And of course, it is always your choice as to what you plant and how you tend it. So far, you’ve begun a few azaleas; there are gardenias and irises starting to come up, and I believe that’s an orange tree in the middle. You can add or remove plants as you like; keep in mind, though, that the owner’s wishes will influence what thrives and what dies. Your own will too; if you choose, you can stop coming now, or you can walk away later. She hopes you’ll continue choosing to come and care for the bed, however, since she’s already welcomed you. She knows you have other responsibilities, especially to yourself, but she’s chosen to include you in this place, and she - I hope you’ll be kind enough to choose to keep the bed here as beautiful as it is in its infancy.”
With that, the woman scoops the kitten up, places it back in her pocket, and draws you off the ground, embracing you. She turns and goes back into the cottage, leaving you alone in the wilderness of life.