Changeling Garden

David burst out of his parents’ station wagon before it had stopped.

“David!” Annie called after him, but she knew he was too excited to hear. He was already around the corner of the new house and on his way to the back garden, his feet crunching on the gravel, his dandelion hair flying.

“He runs fast for a five-year-old,” Mark said. He looked through the windshield at the old Victorian with its slate roof and its wide, welcoming porch, then turned to Annie. “Do you still like it?” he asked.

Annie laughed. “Of course I still like it. I’m not going to change my mind before I’ve even moved in.”

“Just thought I’d check before I had those guys unload the truck,” he said, pointing to the moving van parked in front of them. The movers stood around on the lawn and drank coffee. Thin curls of their cigarette smoke rose toward the perfect blue sky. “Just wanted to be sure you’re still happy with it.” He leaned over and kissed her. His cheek was scratchy with a one-day-old beard, and he smelled lightly of shampoo.

Annie kissed him back, then jingled the house keys in his ear.

“Right,” Mark said. “Their time is our money.”

Mark took the keys and went to talk to the movers. Annie walked toward the house. The front porch was laced over with a gnarled tangle of wisteria vines, not yet leafed out, and a thorny mass of old roses separated the house from the lawn. The ground beneath the bushes was bright with star-of-Bethlehem, their blossoms turned toward the May sunshine.

Annie followed the path David had taken between the main house and the garage, formerly a carriage house. The arborvitae beside the carriage house crowded the path and grew up to the building’s second story. They must be almost as old as the building. She glimpsed part of a dusty window above the foliage, and remembered there were servants’ quarters up there.

Annie found David in the back garden, bent over, talking to a daffodil. He paused, listening intently, oblivious to her presence.

“That’s called a daffodil,” Annie said.

David looked at her, taking the name in. “It’s glad we’re here,” he said.

A bee hummed by Annie’s ear but, ignoring her, went straight to the daffodils. The bee’s thick little body went to work in the trumpets: in and out she went, making the flowers bob with her weight and getting herself dusty with pollen. When the baskets in her legs were full, she flew off, still humming.

“The bee’s glad we’re here, too,” David said. He reached his arms out to the bare garden, where last year’s frost-browned stalks lay on the earth, radiating out from the new buds that had just cracked the surface. “They’re all glad!”

Annie could sense the pent-up energy ready to burst forth, leaves unfurling in visible growth. She was suddenly, acutely aware of all the white-tendriled roots tangling through the ground, growing pale cell by pale cell, drinking in the rains and getting ready. She felt she too had roots, she sensed it all so clearly, then abruptly pulled herself back into the sunlit world, where only the budded tips of columbine and delphinium hinted at what was going on beneath the surface.

She breathed deeply, steadying herself in reality. Must be lack of sleep from staying up so late packing, she thought; I have to get a grip on myself. She laughed at that because, yes, she certainly did have to get a grip on herself if she was going to go sliding off into plants like this. It was too weird to be real.

David smiled and tugged at her hand. “Want to play, Mommy?”

“Annie, the movers want to know where to put things,” Mark said helplessly from the back porch, as though it had never occurred to him the movers would ask for this information.

“I’ll be right in.”

“Come on, Mommy,” David said.

“David, I have to help Daddy with the moving men.” He was hanging on to her arm, weighing her down.

“David, I have to borrow Mommy for a while,” Mark said. “Can you lend her to me?”

Suddenly David was standing on his own feet, but still near her. He looked from his mother to his father, and back again. “For a little while,” he said, and ran off toward the old apple tree that grew in one corner of the irregularly shaped garden.

“You can play anywhere inside the fence,” Annie called after him. She and Mark went into the cool dimness of the house. There were boxes everywhere, and furniture—heavy furniture—in the wrong places.

“The couch goes in here,” she said, pointing to the larger of the two front rooms. “Aren’t you going to have them lay the rug first?”

“It’s still in the truck behind a bunch of other stuff. Where do you want the sideboard?”

*   *   *

Finally it was all in. Mark paid the men, they closed up their truck, and rumbled down the street. Annie sat down on a full packing carton. Everywhere she looked, there were full packing cartons, all waiting to become empty packing cartons.

“Maybe I’ll develop a headache and go lie down in a cool, darkened bedroom, with a handkerchief dipped in cologne, while you take care of these few little things down here,” she said to Mark when he came in.

“You can lie down in the bedroom, if you like, but there’s no bed set up yet. It’s awfully quiet in here. Where’s David?”

They looked at each other, suddenly realizing how long David had been left alone, unwatched. They hurried out the back door and into the garden.

“David!” she called.

There was no answer.

“I hope he didn’t wander off,” Mark said. “Did you tell him to stay inside the fence?”

“There he is!” Annie said. She pointed. David was high in the apple tree. His bright head could be seen among the blossoms, up where the branches become thin. She didn’t know what could be keeping him from falling, and she was afraid.

“My God,” Mark said quietly. He put his hand on Annie’s shoulder. “Keep him calm. I’ll look for a ladder.” He disappeared into the garage.

“David,” Annie said, refusing to let fear edge into her voice: She didn’t want to frighten him any more than he must already be frightened. She walked slowly toward the tree.

David saw her and waved. “Hi, Mommy!”

He didn’t sound afraid. At least he wasn’t frozen up there, then; he was just too little to understand what a dangerous spot he was in. Did they even have a ladder that would reach that high?

“David, honey, can you come down?”

“It’s nice up here, Mommy. I can see our roof!”

“David, I think you should come down now. It’s time for lunch.”

“It’s okay, Mommy, the tree won’t let me fall. It promised.”

“That’s nice, David, but I still would like you to come down now. Can you do it, or do you want Daddy to get a ladder?”

“It’s nice up here.”

“Aren’t you hungry? Wouldn’t you like some lunch?”

“What are we having?”

“Whatever you like. Daddy has to go to the store.”

“Can I go, too?”

“Yes, David. But you have to come down first.”

He began the descent, and she couldn’t understand how those twigs could hold even his slight weight—they didn’t look strong enough to keep a cat up. He went from branch to branch unhurriedly, just as if he were climbing down from a chair. The most ordinary thing in the world.

“I can’t find the extension ladder,” Mark said quietly from close behind her.

“He’s climbing down. Don’t say anything to distract him,” Annie warned.

David dropped softly to the ground, unhurt. Annie and Mark simultaneously took deep breaths, then looked at each other and laughed ruefully, realizing they’d both been holding their breath while they watched David make his descent.

“We’ve got to make him understand he could kill himself doing that,” Mark said.

David hugged his mother, then, turning to his father, he held out his arms. Mark swung David up to ride on his shoulders.

“That’s as high up as I want you to go,” Mark said.

David giggled, enjoying the ride and holding on to Mark’s hair with both fists.

“Really, David,” Annie said. “It’s dangerous, climbing so high in a tree.”

“I told you the tree promised not to drop me.”

“David, it’s nice to imagine things, but trees can’t promise anything.”

“They can too. They can do anything they want, except walk around. I bet they could do that too, only they forgotted how.”

“David, promise me you won’t climb that tree again.”

“What’s for lunch? Can I have tuna of the sea?”

“David.”

“What?”

“Promise.”

“It would hurt the tree’s feelings.”

Annie looked to Mark for help with this.

“David,” said Mark, bringing the boy down from his shoulders and holding him before him. “If you climb that tree again I will personally give you a spanking you’ll always remember. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” David said.

“Good. Now let’s go buy lunch.”

The boy ran ahead. Mark winked at Annie, then followed David into the house.

Annie felt uneasy: David hadn’t promised. She looked back at the apple tree. It was an old tree, its bark lined with the fissures of many years’ growth, but you had to look carefully to notice its age, because today it was in full bloom, its flowers a glory against the cloudless sky. Maybe David would lose interest in it when the flowers had faded.

A vision of a swing presented itself inside her head, but it wasn’t her thought. Who had put it there?

The scent of apple blossom flowed over her, sweet and thick. She could almost see it, like dust motes in a sunbeam, enveloping her in a haze of fragrance. She began to lose a sense of where her body was, her fingertips fading in the distance, her feet long ago become part of the earth. Slowness overtook her, and a patience that had forever at its disposal. The sunlight was in her hair; her hair became the sunlight. She was welcomed to a world of constant, slow growth, imperceptible but unlimited change, where loss did not exist because all things were used, were in transition, were part of the constant recycling of nature.

Annie felt herself slipping away and was terrified. The fear brought her out of it and she was standing in the meadow, shaking, but in her own body and only her own body. What kind of place was this?

She looked at the apple tree. It welcomed her. She swallowed, found the swallowing hard, took a step backward.

A swing. The tree wanted a swing for David. David would love a swing, and the tree brought her attention to the perfect branch for one. They’d just have to make sure they put a cut tire over the branch, to protect it from the rope, and David could play on the swing and forget about climbing. Was it a bargain? the tree asked.

Annie swallowed again. “All right,” she said.

The tree was pleased. It offered … She wasn’t sure what it offered. Confused visions, feelings, possibilities overwhelmed her mind, things frighteningly alien to her.

Terrified, she turned and ran toward the house.

By the time Mark and David got back with lunch, Annie had convinced herself that what had happened in the garden was her imagination—trees don’t talk to people. Her heart rate had slowed to normal, and she decided she just didn’t want to think about it.

They lunched on take-out sandwiches and soft drinks from the nearby convenience store. Then Mark and David went upstairs to set up the beds while Annie tried to make some sense of the kitchen. She found it cluttered with packing cartons, but clean. On the counter by the sink there was a parcel wrapped in brown paper and addressed to her from Ada Avent in a spidery hand.

“Do you know where there’s a hammer?” Mark asked, coming into the kitchen.

“Mark, look. The lady who owned the house before left us a package.”

Mark looked over her shoulder and put his arms around her. “Not us: you. It’s addressed to you. Open it.”

“It feels like a book.”

“Maybe it’s a cookbook. I hope it’s got the recipe for that cake she served us.”

Annie undid the wrapping and found a brown velvet book that closed with a metal clasp. She opened it. “It’s an old photo album,” she said. “Look, this first picture must have been taken just after the house was built.” There was no wisteria in the picture, and the porch had fluted columns. The oriel window on the second story was stained glass, and the slate roof looked shiny and new, its edges unchipped. She turned to random pages. “It’s full of pictures of the house and garden. What a nice thing to leave behind. Wasn’t that sweet of her?”

“Yes. But do you think you could put it away for now, and help me find a hammer? And could you please help me with my assistant? I can’t get a bed together while he keeps jumping on the mattress.”

They put the beds together and found the immediate necessities of bedding, clothing, and crockery. They laid the living room rug and shifted the large pieces of furniture into place. By then, the boxes were turning to dim shapes around them, and the light from the windows had dwindled.

“I’m sorry I have to leave so soon,” Mark said, “but at least I want to get the big stuff squared away for you before I go.”

David came in, carrying his teddy bear. His face was flushed, and his hair clung damply to his forehead. “I’m hungry,” he said, and flopped onto a footstool. He’d been rushing in and out all afternoon, helping, then running out to play, which was actually more helpful, and Annie thought he looked exhausted.

“Daddy’s going to get a pizza,” Annie said.

“Pepperoni?” David said, smiling. But then the smile faded and he looked at his mother suspiciously. “Aren’t you going to cook in this house?”

“Yes, dear, but I’m too tired tonight.” She looked at the fieldstone fireplace that dominated the sitting room. “Why don’t we eat in here tonight? I’ll make a fire while you get the pizza.”

“There’s no wood,” Mark said.

“There has to be some in the garden: twigs, fallen branches. There always is,” Annie said. A feeling of anxiety rose in her at the thought of going into the garden again, but she put this aside as nonsense, something to be faced down. “David, do you want to help me make a fire, or do you want to help your dad get the pizza?”

David thought this over, and Annie realized she’d unwittingly given him a problem in diplomacy. “I better go with Dad,” he said, “and make sure he doesn’t get mushrooms on the pizza.”

Annie approached the apple tree warily. It stood outlined against the dusk, its white flowers tinged with the same lavender as the sky. Just a tree. A quiet, somnolent tree, drowsy with contentment after a sunny afternoon. Nothing to be afraid of.

She soon found an armful of fallen apple branches and some dead mock orange canes for kindling. The last light of the day pointed long shadows toward the house, and sent her own burdened shadow there before her. She dropped her armload of wood onto the porch and went back for another before the dark came.

The apple tree murmured sleepily and its fragrance grew sweeter, more soothing.

Annie stiffened. Trees don’t get sleepy, or reassure you that they’re not dangerous.

The tree chuckled indulgently at her mistake. All around her, shrubs and trees reached out, asking politely to be pruned. The iris complained of crowding and asked to be divided.

“I know,” Annie told them. “You need a lot of work. I’ll get to it.”

They thanked her, putting forth their best manners, except for the iris, which was a little whiny. I’d be whiny, too, if my feet hurt, Annie thought. The scent of apple blossoms curled through the garden like a lullaby, with a current of narcissus making a plaintive note within it. Anne could tell they were all taking care not to frighten her again.

“All right,” Annie said. “I’ll come out the first nice day and do some yardwork.” She looked around then, hoping none of the neighbors had heard her talking to the plants. Did David and Mark hear them too?

The plants greeted her promise warmly. They seemed friendly enough, but Annie didn’t trust them: She could tell they were holding something back, even though they denied it. She retreated warily toward the house, keeping watch in case they tried anything. None moved. She hoped they couldn’t. She turned suddenly and ran for the kitchen. The wood she’d gotten already would have to do. Having achieved the safety of the back porch, she looked back, breathing heavily. The garden looked ordinary enough on the surface.

She had a fire crackling by the time Mark carried in the pizza. He set it on the hearth, and poured wine for the two of them, root beer for David.

“I’m glad you changed your mind,” Mark said. “This is a great house.”

“Me?” said Annie, giving David a slice of pizza on a paper plate. “Changed my mind about what?” The fire made dancing shadows of everything in the room. David perched on one end of the hearth and ate quietly.

“About not wanting to buy a house until I was settled in a job that didn’t require so much traveling.”

“You’ll always travel. The company’s always going to send its engineers out to set up new equipment,” Annie said. “When did I say I didn’t want to buy a house because of that?”

“Just every time I brought up the subject.”

“I don’t remember that.” Annie lifted her glass. The fire made the red wine glow from within. She sipped it and set it down. What could Mark be talking about? “I always wanted this house.”

“From the time you saw it, yes,” Mark said. “Before that you never wanted to settle down.”

“Because we hadn’t found this house yet,” Annie said. It was perfectly plain to her, but Mark was wearing the indulgent look he put on whenever she said something he considered nonsensical but cute.

“I like the fire, Mommy,” David said. “It grows.”

“The senior engineers don’t travel so much,” Mark said.

Annie watched the fire sprout in hot red tendrils from the fissured wood. A branch collapsed, breaking apart into embers that reseeded the flames.

“It’s a funny blossoming, that consumes itself and produces only ashes for fruit,” she heard someone say.

“What?” said Mark.

Annie looked at him. “I didn’t say anything. What did you hear?”

Mark looked puzzled, but shook his head. “Something about this being an ideal time to sell. Maybe the house is haunted. Anyway, haunted or not, it’s true that this place is a great investment.”

“Investment?”

“It’s a good-sized piece of land, for where it’s located. I thought we’d have to haggle over the price more, but I think Mrs. Avent liked you.”

“How, investment?”

Mark tilted his head to one side and looked down, a dead giveaway to Annie that he was sidling up to an idea he knew she wouldn’t like. “We could sell and make a profit tomorrow. Charlie Legere from the bank has already approached me: They want to build a branch office.”

“I want to stay here, Daddy,” David said.

“We will, kiddo,” Mark said. “We’re not moving. But that back lot is huge, and they’re offering more for half the land back there than we paid for the whole property.”

“Sell the garden?” Annie said.

“And pay off the mortgage. Why not? Not all of it, but there’s a couple of acres back there. It’s going to be hard to keep up. Do we really need it all?”

Do we? Annie wondered. The apple tree, the meadow, the back garden—everything that had frightened her. Why not sell? It would all be gone, bulldozed away.

A scream filled the inside of her head; long and despairing, it vibrated through all her feelings of compassion. She stood, the wineglass slipped from her fingers. She dimly knew it shattered on the hearth, that Mark was picking up the shards and cleaning up the mess, that he was saying something. All she could hear was that wail, like an unborn child who suddenly knows his time will never come.The wail faded to a whimper. She saw Mark staring at her, David huddled and silent at the far end of the hearth. She was shaking. “We can’t sell the garden,” she said to Mark.

“Why not?”

“Didn’t you hear that scream?” Annie said. “We can’t do it. I won’t let you kill it.”

“Easy, easy,” Mark said. He tried to put his arms around her, but she fought him off.

“How can you want to sell it when it screams like that?”

“Nothing is screaming,” Mark said. “But we don’t have to talk about selling, not now.” He captured her finally and held her close. “You’re just overwrought. Calm down. Everything will be fine.”

She leaned against him. He was warm and solid and reassuring. When she felt more in control, she pulled back and looked up into his face. “We can’t sell.”

“I’m only thinking of our financial security.”

“Didn’t you hear it?”

“I heard nothing.”

She pulled away from him and looked at David. “Did you hear it?”

David nodded solemnly. “Yes,” he said. “It was sad.”

“Don’t get David believing this,” Mark said. “He’ll have nightmares.” Mark frowned, reached for another slice of pizza. She knew he was trying to get the situation back to normal. “We don’t have to think about it now,” he said.

“No!” said David.

“I can’t have more pizza?” said Mark, but the attempt at a joke fell flat. Annie noticed he put the slice down on his plate without eating any of it.

“You can’t sell my garden. My mommy won’t let you.”

Mark laughed. “I guess I’m outvoted. It’s nothing for you to worry about, David. It’s nothing for anybody to worry about.”

*   *   *

David faded quickly after dinner, and Annie tucked him into bed while Mark locked up downstairs. They made a halfhearted attempt to unpack clothes, until Mark came across the small television and plugged it in in their bedroom.

“Oh good,” Annie said. “I’m too tired to think.” She lay on her familiar bed with its unfamiliar orientation and sank her head onto her pillow.

Sometime in the black night Annie was awakened by crying. The television was off and she had been covered with a blanket. Mark slept beside her. David was crying. She woke from heavy sleep, layer on layer above her, standing too soon so that everything blotted out and she was dizzy. She walked unsteadily toward David, banged her leg on a chair that wouldn’t have been there in her old room, remembered where she was, and woke sufficiently to find her son. He was sitting in his bed, screaming and staring at something straight before him.

“What is it, honey?” she asked, sitting beside him. He clung to her, still crying and screaming. “It’s just a bad dream. Is it about the garden?”

He sobbed out something unintelligible, and pointed. She turned and felt the same fear he did. A spectral shape was in the room, menacing, of sinister and unknown purpose. Then she saw with relief that it was the window, uncurtained, which reflected their own shapes to them by the dim light of his nightlight.

“It’s just the window, honey. Reflections, like a mirror. See?” She went over to it. He grew more calm as understanding came. “It scared me, too,” she said. “It does look like a ghost, but it’s nothing. Tomorrow we’ll put up curtains on this window.” She hung his robe over it. “This will do for now, all right? You go back to sleep.”

It was worth a try. She was tired and wanted to go back to bed, but she could see he was still too frightened for it to work.

“I can’t sleep, Mama. I’m hungry.”

“All right. Let’s go have some warm milk with honey in it.”

They went down to the kitchen. She kept pace with him on the stairs, his small, plump hand enclosed within hers.

“I’m cold, Mama,” he said as he sat on the kitchen stool watching her heat the milk. She remembered she’d left his robe draped across the window. Mark’s sweater hung on the back of a kitchen chair.

“Here, put Daddy’s sweater around you.” He wore it proudly, the sleeves dangling below his ankles. She added honey to the milk, and poured two cups.

“Do you want anything with that? There are donuts left from lunch.”

He bit into a donut, dropping flecks of powdered sugar onto the sweater.

Mark came in. “What’s going on here? A party, and I wasn’t asked?” He gave Annie an I-told-you-so look.

“I didn’t think it was a party you’d want to be invited to,” Annie said, “but there’s more milk and honey if you want some.”

“I think I will.” He poured himself a cup and sat down with them. “Any of those donuts left?”

She pushed the box toward him, then leaned her head on one hand, elbow on the table, and yawned. “I don’t know why you two are so lively,” she said. “I’m exhausted.”

“What was all the screaming about?” Mark asked. “There was all that noise, and then you didn’t come back to bed. I thought something had happened.”

“There was a ghost in my room,” said David.

“It wasn’t a ghost,” said Annie. “And you know it. Don’t go trying to scare your father. It was the reflection in the window. It was scary, though. I have to put up a curtain for him tomorrow. Can we go back to bed now?”

“Wait,” David said. He slipped off the stool and went purposefully to the door, but it was locked and only rattled when he tried to open it. “I have to go out.”

“Honey, tomorrow. It’s dark out.”

“I don’t care about the dark in the garden. That dark’s all right. I have to go out.”

Mark opened the door.

“No,” Annie protested.

“We don’t want him to be afraid of the dark,” Mark said.

They stood in the doorway, watching David. He walked through moonlight to the bottom of the steps, then stopped. He bent down, a small figure in the shadows, talking to something or someone by the porch. Unfamiliar shapes bulked around him, some solid, some made of the dark itself. But David seemed unconcerned. He came up the porch steps and back into the kitchen.“Who were you talking to?” Annie asked.

“The rosebush.”

“Did you go out to tell it good night?” asked Mark.

“Don’t be silly, Dad. I asked it to grow big thorns all the way up to my window, so nothing can get in.”

“Is it going to?”

“Yes.”

“It would be a practical solution,” Mark said to Annie. “Ready to go to bed, Tiger?”

David nodded and Mark swung him to his shoulders.

“I’ll lock up,” Annie said.

She watched them go upstairs, then slipped out the back door and stood, listening. The night was still. She went down the porch stairs to the spot where David had crouched talking, and waited quietly. At first she was in the garden, in the dark, and that was all. But after a while she could hear the small, cellular movements of photosynthesis, much as she could hear her own heart beating. Then came the rustle of growth: The rose was trying to please David. She wondered how soon the difference would be visible, how great David’s influence over the plant would be. Annie walked slowly up the stairs, considering whether all this was due to David’s influence over the plants, or his influence over her imagination. She glanced back at the garden, then went into the lighted kitchen and closed the door behind her.