To Tend a Garden
by Filip Wiltgren
The garden is a wasteland, mounds of rock-strewn sand so dry it flows around my
toes as I walk through it. The few thorny stumps that prickle the yellow earth are all dried
gray. The garden is desolate, but not dead. If it was dead it wouldn't exist.
So I sink to my knees and shove my hand into the sandy earth. I remember the
roses in bloom, whites, reds, yellows, purples veined in indigo. And the spices. The whole
garden smelled of coriander, thyme, saffron, and always a hint of spearmint. There must be
life here somewhere. There must. I pick a small mound and start digging.
The sun hangs overhead, its heat pounding me, but I keep digging. My hands are
soon ruined, the tips of my fingers leaving trails of blood in the dirt.
The damage doesn't matter, nor the pain. I will be well as soon as I wake up. If
only I could find whatever it is that remains alive here. As long as there is life in the earth, I
can restore the garden. I can bring it back. I can make it a place of healing again.
I feel something buzz in my ear. I try to shake it away but it returns with
maddening persistence. Sand grits between my teeth and I choke on the dust. Bzz-bzz-bzzzzzz, louder and louder. I smash my hand against my head, and the garden is gone.
It is dark. The alarm buzz-buzz-buzzes on my nightstand. Anna is shaking me.
"Mama," she shouts, "mama, mama."
I rise, dragging a hand away from my tired eyes and take hold of her. She quiets
when she sees me moving. We've done this before. Her skin feels hot, her cheeks are red. A
remnant of sleep and thick covers, nothing else.
"Did you see the garden?" she asks, and I smile at her, nodding my head.
"When will you take me there?"
"Soon, Moonbeam, soon."
I don't want to lie to her.
That night I tell her the story of the witches of Babylon, how the city fell, and the
witches took the great gardens away stone by stone and leaf by leaf, and hid them.
"And as long as the garden lives, the world lives," she says, finishing the story for
"So it is," I say.
"So it is," she echoes.
Her hands are smooth, her voice bright, her hair midnight black. The kids at
school tease her about her eyebrows, but I tell her that in ancient times, having eyebrows
that grew together was a sign of wisdom. Rich ladies painted their foreheads with kohl to
make it look like they had bigger eyebrows. She nods, but I can see tears hiding in her eyes.
I stroke her head until she falls asleep. The last thing she does is take my arm and hug it like
a teddy bear.
I liberate it from her sleeping grip and leave her.
The garden is desolate, a desert of broken stems and dried out roots. It is no place
to take Anna. I need her to see it the way it is in my mind's eye, a green, living, wonderful
place. A place of rest and peace, and of healing.
I can't remember the last time it was that way, but I will make it so again. I keep
digging, shoving dirt and ripping roots under the burning sun until morning comes.
Anna wants to hear the story of the witches. Then she wants to hear about the
"It is big," I say, "and there are lots of roots in the earth. There is a wall of white
stones protecting it, a wall with no mortar but stones that hold together on their own."
"But what does it look like in the garden, mama?"
"You'll see when you go there," I say. When the garden is whole. When the
garden will make you strong again.
"Soon?" Anna asks.
I do not want to lie to her.
When Anna was born, she was clutching a sprig of spearmint in her hand,
clutching it so tightly that the doctors didn't see it. I saw it, when they put her on my breast.
Her eyes searching mine, so tiny and so alive, she loosened her grip and the green leaves
poured from her hand into my skin.
That's how it's always been, mother to daughter, witch to witch, for countless
time. As long as the witches live, the garden lives. As long as the garden lives, the world
lives. But now, the garden is dying.
"I cannot go there any longer."
Mama Felicia is the oldest one of us. The oldest one I know of, at least. There
may be others, but I've never seen them. Neither has mama Felicia.
She is a tiny Frenchwoman, swathed in black like a Sicilian widow. Her hair is
lustrous black, the black of midnight, the black of Anna's. Its strands disappear against her
"I don't understand," I say.
"The garden, it is closed to me," she says, lifting a tiny cup of spearmint tea to her
"How can it be closed, mama?" I say. "As long as the witches live--"
"The garden . . ."
She trails off. I grab her arm, making her spill her tea.
"But you are here," I say. "You're a witch. Why can't you help me? Why can't you
see the garden?"
She stares at the cup, watching the tea puddle in the saucer. Then she shakes her
head, making her hair rustle.
"What have you lost?" I say.
But mama Felicia just keeps shaking her head.
Anna sleeps. I lie beside her, in her little girl's bed with the blue covers and the
bright stars painted on them. She is a warmth against my skin, against my soul.
I wake like that, legs cramped, alarm buzzing from the other room. I do not
remember dreaming of the garden.
I am planting petunias in the shop when the school calls. Rows of white-glazed
clay pots stand on one side of the table, plastic trays with baby petunias on the other. I do
not grow them, I merely move them and sell them.
Still, I love the work. The shop is a different sort of garden, this one smelling of
wet earth, potting clay and gasoline worming its way in from the street.
I leave the table to get the phone, and leave it all to get Anna.
It is her fourth fever this fall, sixth this year.
"It's gotten pretty bad," says Mrs. Wing. She's Anna's first-grade teacher, and
cares for her almost as much as I do. You can see it in her face when she talks to Anna.
Mrs. Wing loves people, and Anna is good people. Anna makes people happy.
But now she lies on the worn, brown couch in the teachers' lounge, an empty
plastic pail smelling vaguely of yoghurt beside her.
"For the vomit," Mrs. Wing says. "She was complaining about stomach cramps."
"Is it something that's going around at school?" I say.
"I better take her to the doctor."
Mrs. Wing nods.
There's nothing wrong with Anna.
"Probably a virus," the doctor says. He's a young man, short and rail thin with a
mop of yellow hair making him look like a human dandelion. His badge reads F. Nilsson,
and he's got an accent I can't place. "Ibuprofen three times a day, plenty of water, and come
back if she doesn't get better in a few days."
The visit cost me two day's salary. We are back in four days.
"Tell me about the garden," Anna says. Her voice is like a frog's croak, and she
has trouble breathing.
"It is a wonderful place," I say. "Cared for by the witches of Babylon and their
daughters for ten thousand years. As long as the garden lives, the world lives."
"But what does it look like," she says.
Her eyes flutter, and I stroke her cheek and smile down at her. She looks very
pale in the hospital bed.
The garden should heal her. I remember being sick as a child, my grandmother
taking me to mama Felicia, who made me sleep in a ring of spearmint twigs. I woke in the
garden, felt its smells, roses and spices and life. The garden shared that life with me. But
now the garden is dry and dead. There is no life left to share there.
"It's over for this time," F. Nilsson says.
"We still don't know what's wrong with her."
"It might have been." He looks tired, like he doesn't want to have this
conversation, like I'm some sort of barrier between him and a good dinner, a cold beer, and
His dinner can wait. He'd better give me some answers. But he doesn't have any.
I make a pillow fort from Anna's midnight-blue duvet cover. I fill it with the
Styrofoam pellets the ornaments for the petunias come packed in and she loves it. It smells
vaguely of plastic, but beneath that is the smell of the store: loam, water, life.
I let her watch all the television she wants, but all she wants is to hear me tell her
about the garden.
"Later I say."
"Now," she says.
"Anna, I'm tired," I say, but she's already clouding up, a miniature storm among
"Tell me about the garden!" she screams, but screaming makes her cough and
coughing makes her cry.
I comfort her, hold her until she falls asleep. Then I take out the pills.
Zaleplon, it says on the bottle, and a longer name, full of fenyl and ethyl and amid,
in small script beneath. A chemical to make people fall asleep. I take two, swallow them
down with water, then I fill my mouth again, but don't swallow. The garden is dry. If I can't
find water there, I'll take it with me.
I cough, great bouts that wrack my body and make me think of morning sickness.
Clouds of yellow, stale-smelling dust fly from my mouth. The water has turned to dust, the
garden is as dry as ever. If I can't bring clean water, I'll water it with my offal. I squat, but
nothing comes. I am as dry as the garden. I want to kick the sand, curse it, curse myself.
Instead I start digging. If I can't water the garden, at least I'll find the life in it. At
least I'll have one thing to show Anna when I bring her here. Maybe I'll find water in the
My fingers bleed, I rip the skin on my arms, but I find nothing but dry earth and
Anna coughs. She's getting worse by the day.
"I'm sorry," F. Nilsson says. "There's nothing wrong with her that we can see."
"What can you do?"
"We'll give her antibiotics."
"Will that help?"
He bites his lip.
"Yes," he says.
He doesn't know.
"Tell me about the garden," Anna says. The medication has made her weak, she
no longer goes to school. I spend my days making her food, and wishing for her to eat, but
she has no appetite.
"Tell me about the garden," she says, over and over again. Nothing will quiet her.
All she wants is the garden, and she grows moody when I tire of talking. So I tell her. I can
see her staring at the ceiling, but I don't know what she sees.
Mama Felicia brings her broth, a thin, yellow soup that smells of onions and
"It's good for you," she says and Anna drinks without complaining.
"Tell me about the garden," she asks mama Felicia, and mama Felicia does, how
the witches keep the garden alive. When she goes away Anna asks again.
"Didn't mama Felicia just tell you?" I ask. For a moment, I think she will rage
again. Instead she pats my hand.
"It is better when you tell it," she says.
I hold her in my arms and tell her again and again and again.
The garden is dry, there is no life here. I have dug everywhere, there is nothing
left to dig up. The sand shifts in the wind, covering craters I've created. The sun beats down
without mercy, the only shadows are those cast by rocks. There is no life here.
I struggle up a slope and the broken stem of a dead rose bush claws at my foot.
The pain is a pinprick in my mind and a bead of blood rolls down my ankle. It lands by the
bush but the sand drinks it, leaving a small, brown indentation in the dust.
I remember Anna's pale face. I remember her body, so slight against mine. I want
to show her the garden, at least a single piece of it, alive and green the way I remember it
from my childhood.
There is a rock by my foot, flat and round like a fat saucer. I dig around until I
find a stone that fits in my hand. Then I start to chip away at the saucer.
It takes me a long time but finally the saucer breaks. The edges are sharp. I lift
one part of it and place the edge against the back of my shin.
My blood splatters the dead rose.
My leg is stiff. There is a bruise on the back of my shin, a big, purplish, discolored
"What is that?" asks Anna.
"Must have hit myself in my sleep," I say.
I hate lying to her.
Anna's fever is gone. Mrs Wing hugs her and lifts her into the air.
"We've all missed you so much," she says, and Anna smiles a weak smile. My
heart dances in my chest, ready to break apart. When I get to the shop, all the petunias are
"Tell me about the garden," Anna says.
She's shoveling spaghetti into her mouth, cheese-and-broccoli sauce dripping
down her chin. The sight makes me smile, makes me forget the bruises on my shins, the pills
in my cabinet.
"In the beginning was the garden," I say, but she shakes her head.
"Tell me how the garden is now."
Her fork is stuck halfway to her mouth, a piece of broccoli balancing precariously
"It is a wondrous place," I say, pushing her fork towards her face. "It is full of
spice and sunshine, with spearmint growing beneath the rose bushes."
I hate lying to her.
The garden is dead, roots buried beneath sand splotched black with blood. The
garden is dead, but Anna is alive and that is all that matters. I find the stone where I know
it's waiting for me, an ugly, broken piece black with old wounds. I raise the stone, and I cut.
Getting up is harder and harder. Going to bed is more and more painful.
"Mama," Anna shouts, "mama, mama."
She's shaking my shoulder, her tears soaking my nightgown.
"I'm coming," I mouth, rolling out of bed. "I'm here for you."
She shakes her head.
"No, you're not."
Her words cut like a stone.
There is a crash from the kitchen.
"What are you doing?" I whisper.
It is late, too late. We should have eaten an hour ago. She must be hungry, poor
thing. I will go there as soon as I can. I know I must. I should give her food, make her eat
it. Spaghetti and broccoli sauce, I'm going to make her favorite. Yet I stay in the Styrofoam
pillow fort. It is so quiet here, and getting up is so hard.
"Mama," says Anna, carrying a tray from the kitchen. There is a glass of orange
juice on it, four sandwiches with cheese, a sliced tomato. She has trouble carrying the tray,
it is too big for her.
"I made you dinner," she says. She smiles but her eyes are scared.
I smile back at her.
That, too, is a lie.
There is a storm coming, dark clouds on the horizon. The wind whips great
mounds of sand into the air. I no longer try to moisten the dirt. The yellow dust is already
black with flakes of dried blood. Now I take the pills to avoid dreaming. Sometimes it
Anna's touch wakes me, a sparrow pecking my arm. She's made instant oatmeal,
with milk in it.
"Thank you, Moonbeam," I whisper, my voice hoarse.
She stands by my bed, watching me shovel gruel into my mouth. The spoon is too
heavy, but I eat, for Anna's sake.
When I finish, she smiles at me.
"Tell me about the garden," she says.
I stare at her, and I try.
F. Nilsson is standing by my bed, Anna hovering behind him. I don't know how
she got him to come, or how she knew to find him. I don't know what to say to him.
"I'm a bit tired," I say.
"You should get down to the hospital," he says.
"Her legs are all black," Anna says, and I have to show the doctor. He thinks
"No," Anna says. "She had them before."
She sounds so adult, so big, my little girl. Our roles have changed. I promise to
go to the hospital, but it is Anna who goes.
I wake up in the middle of the night. There is something wrong in the darkness, I
can feel it. It's not a friendly darkness, but the kind that pours in beneath your door and
strangles you as you sleep. I stumble out of bed, calling Anna's name.
She's burning hot. I force pain killers and fever medication down her throat, and
force her to drink until she coughs and spills the water all over her princess pajamas. I
bundle her up against the winter cold and take her to the hospital where they put her in a
room and stick needles in her arms.
I fall asleep leaning against her hospital bed.
Mama Felicia brings me supper, a paper box with boiled potatoes and meatballs in
brown gravy. There's a sprig of parsley on top of the meatballs. It reminds me of the sprig
of spearmint in Anna's hand, the smell of the garden.
The meatballs go cold in their gravy. I sit by Anna's bed, clutching the parsley like
Her fever doesn't break.
The doctors don't know what's wrong with her. There is a steady stream of them,
new doctors every day. Only F. Nilsson remains the same. He can't do anything, but he
"What's the F stand for?" I ask him.
"Fredrik." He crouches beside Anna's bed, takes her hand, counts her pulse. The
machine by the bed shows it clearly, but he doesn't look at the machine. Finally he lets her
"My father was Swedish," he says, as if that explains anything.
Mama Felicia brings me food, cheese sandwiches cut in half. She brings a vase of
freshly picked spearmint, filling the whole room with its smell.
"They say she doesn't have long left," I say. My voice is already dead.
Mama Felicia puts a wrinkly hand on my shoulder. It looks like she's about to say
something, but she doesn't. We just stand there, two witches with no garden, no water, and
That night I dream of the garden. The sky has gone dark over it, lightning
lacerating dark boils of massed cloud. The wind whips the dust into my eyes, and I fall to
my knees. My hand lands on the jagged rock, the one I chipped into a blade.
I recoil, hating the rock, hating the garden for dying, for not being there to save
Anna, hating the whole world. I bite my arm, feeling pain radiating and I hate myself for not
protecting her. The garden is dead, and Anna is dying. I shouldn't have told her about it, I
shouldn't have visited it, shouldn't have cared. I've throwing away my time with my child.
"I hate you!" I scream into nothingness. "I hate this dead place, I hate you!"
I kick the ground, throwing more earth into the sky. I want to rip this place apart,
spit on it and bury it forever.
"Give me back my child!" I howl.
I wake with a scream, and mama Felicia is there, standing by Anna's bed.
"What did you lose?" I ask her.
"Hope," she says, and pushes the limp, black hair away from Anna's closed eyes.
Anna wakes. Her eyes are shiny with fever, her voice is weak.
"Show me the garden," she says.
"As long as the garden lives, the world lives," I say, but her head falls to the side.
"Mama," she whispers. "I don't want to hear."
"What do you want?" I say.
"You promised to take me there."
I shake my head. I can't show her that dead place. I can't destroy her world. When
the garden is healed, when the garden can heal her in turn, then I will take her. The witches
have used the gardens healing powers for thousands of years, but there is nothing left of it
"Anna," I say, but she interrupts me.
"Mama," she says. "Have I been bad?"
"No, Moonbeam, never."
"Then why can't I go?"
Her voice is weak. She is the last of us, the last of the witches, and she will die
without once seeing the garden. It is not right.
I have promised her the garden. I have promised her sage and thyme, spearmint
All I can give her is a dead husk.
It is not right.
"I will take you," I say.
Mama Felicia locks the door and hands me a fat piece of chalk, the kind kids use
to draw in the street. I push Anna's bed into the middle of the room and draw a circle
around it as best I can, laying roses and thyme, saffron and spearmint around its edges. The
room smells like my shop used to. I need to stop this. I need to tell her. I don't.
I spread a thin layer of loam across Anna's bed, and then I lay down beside her.
The hospital bed is large enough to fit us both, but I yearn for the crampedness of Anna's
bed at home. What will she think when she sees the dead garden? Her skin feels hot and dry,
her lips are cracked, but she's breathing calmly, already slipping into sleep. I take her hand
"Anna," I say, "the garden . . ."
I don't have the heart to finish the sentence.
The garden is boiling around us, dark clouds shooting down toward us, wind
tearing at us, pelting us with gravel and coarse sand.
"Mama," Anna moans in fear. I pick her up and clutch her to my breast, like when
she was a baby, and she digs her head into me. Her hair is whipping in the wind, a river of
darkness streaming away from me, and I feel her slipping. The garden is ripping my child
away from me.
I shelter her with my body, sand flailing my back.
"Mama, what's happening?"
"It's a storm, Moonbeam, only a storm."
But she shakes her head, I can feel her motion against my cheek.
"Mama," she says, "I broke the garden."
"No, Moonbeam, no--"
But she nods, banging her head on my shoulder.
"I broke it, I broke it," she keeps saying, "I shouldn't have asked you to take me
here. It was green and now it's gone. I've been bad, mama, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
I take her head in my hands, and look into her eyes, our noses touching.
"Anna," I say, "you didn't break the garden. I did."
She stares at me, fear in her eyes, and I stare back, drawing her close, as close as
I can. The wind's howl, the sand, the clouds. None of that matters. There is only Anna and
"In the beginning, there was the garden," I say, filling the words with all my love
for her, all my hopes, all my dreams. I tell her of the garden, how the witches saved it once.
I tell her how the garden could heal any ill, comfort any sorrow. I tell her of its death, how
it turned to sand and stone, and how I looked and looked and couldn't find any life in it,
how I lost the garden in my heart, how I lied to her about it. I talk until my voice cracks like
broken stone and my mouth fills with sand and blood. I talk, and I fill the words with all the
love I have ever felt, all the tenderness, all the affection, for the garden, and for her. Around
us, the wind stills.
Anna starts to laugh.
"Mama," she says, her voice full of wonder. "You are growing."
I look down and with her small hands she's pulling a tiny sprig of spearmint from
Around us the rain starts to fall.
Anna's sitting in her bed, eating cherry pudding from a plastic cup. On her bedside
table is bouquet of spearmint mama Felicia brought, and a big card from Mrs. Wing and all
"I've never seen anything like it," says Dr. Nilsson. "We'll have to keep her here a
while longer, but everything seems perfectly fine."
"Like it was before?" I say.
"No, it's . . . No," he says. "This time everything is fine."
He shakes his head and smiles.
"I'll be back," he says.
"I, too," says mama Felicia. She hugs Anna then picks up her handbag, but I grab
"What is it?" mama Felicia says.
"This," I say, and hand her a sprig of spearmint.
She takes it like an ivory heirloom, and pins it above her heart.
There is a garden, filled with roses, and saffron, and thyme. There are three
women in the garden, digging in the damp, sandy soil, content to work in silence beside one
another. One is old, one is aging, and one is young. In the world, it is summer, but in the
garden, it is spring, and there is a smell of spearmint on the wind.