Nightfall in the Scent Garden

By Claire Humphrey

If you read this, you'll tell me what grew over the arbor was ivy, not wisteria. If you are in a forgiving mood, you'll open the envelope, and you'll remind me how your father's van broke down and we were late back. How we sat drinking iced tea while the radiator steamed.

You might dig out that picture, the one with the two of us sitting on the willow stump, and point out how small we were, how pudgy, how like any other pair of schoolgirls. How our ill-cut hair straggled over the shoulders of our flannel shirts.

You'll remind me of the stories we used to tell each other. We spent hours embroidering them, improving on each other's inventions. We built palaces and peopled them with dynasties, you'll say, and we made ourselves emperors in every one, and every one was false.

If you read this, you'll call your mother, or mine. They'll confirm what you recall.

By then, though, you will begin to disbelieve it yourself.

If you think on it long enough, you'll recall the kiss. I left it there untouched, the single thread you could pull to unravel this whole tapestry.

You'll start to understand none of these things happened the way you remember. If you read this, you'll learn how I betrayed you.


We gave ourselves names of power. We signed them in the guest book at the gallery. I called myself Faustine Fiamma, after a dream. And you: Rosa Mundi. Rose of the world, rose of alchemy. Flame and flower, two girls in flannel and training bras. We made up addresses in Paris, Ontario, because we could not speak enough French to have come from the other Paris.

Your father carried his sculpture, wrapped in brown burlap. One of the ones he'd done of you, as a smaller child, dancing. You whispered to me that now every art-lover in Ontario would know you had an outie.

We slipped away, outdoors: this much, I left you. In the garden was the sundial. A great barbed face streaked with verdigris. It told no time just then; the sun too low behind the curtain of purple blossom, the light pearly. Herbs grew in beds around the plinth. Thyme and rosemary both, probably, and a dozen other things; I don't remember them all. Only the warmed scents of them on the air. We walked counterclockwise about the beds, touching all of the brass plaques, which bore the names of the herbs in Roman capitals and in Braille.

You shut your eyes, and I wrapped my scarf about your head and tied it behind, and led you by both hands.

Here's where I stopped. To be safe. Here's where your father came outside and told us it was time to go. I think I made him realistic, don't you? Fox-bright eyes and hair, and a dozen pockets on his jacket; I think he really had a jacket like that.

You're thinking right now that you don't want to hear what comes next. Stop reading, then. I can make my choice without you, if I must.

Your father didn't enter the garden. He didn't take us out to the van or back to Toronto, not then. He didn't finish up with his friends in the gallery until after midnight.

No. You and I circuited the garden. After a while the sun went down, but the light in the sky lingered, grainy and soft like an old photograph. Bats darted overhead.

"It's nearly time," you said.

"Time?" I plucked a sprig of rosemary; I bit down on one of the leaves, and I placed another at the entrance to your mouth. You opened, tasted it; your breath warm on my fingertips.

"I've had enough of being blind," you said.

I untied my scarf from your eyes.

I saw your pupils blown open. Like those wells the glaciers grind in rock, deep and wide, breathing cold air.

You looked past me.

"Can you hear that?" you said. "A horse. Someone's coming."

And you fell down at my feet.

Grass crushed beneath you. I felt the tender shoots of it smear my hands when I reached under you. I lifted you, by your shoulders; I dragged you against my body but I could not raise you up.

You were awake, though. Your eyes huge and swimming dark, your lips parted, smiling.

"She comes for me," you said.

She came, indeed. I heard her horse stamp and breathe. I heard her stirrup chime. I felt her step on the earth. I kept my face turned down.

"Rosa Mundi," she said.


You always told me such vivid stories. I countered with stories of my own. We pirouetted through hours of fascinating lies. If we'd been a bit younger, or a bit more innocent, it would have been a game of let's-pretend.

Instead it was let's-become. We spun ourselves costumes to wear into the world. Our stories were about ourselves, the people we might be someday, the people we might love. Play was turning into practice.

I gave myself a dozen different fathers better than my own, who was no more than a cigar box full of yellowed Polaroids. You gave yourself a wise-woman to replace your mother, who was often drunk in those days. You related how she taught you to weave a chain of clover for luck in your dance recital, to burn an owl-feather to keep away nightmares. It was too bad she was a fiction.

Or so I thought, until she came for you.


"Queen of Air," you said, which was a phrase you had said before, amidst your tales. Your voice strained, winter-husky.

She laughed, and answered to it. "Rosa," she said. "My Rosa. You are mine, are you not?"

"Yes," you whispered. I pinched your arm, where it was palest and softest, but you twitched away. "Yes," you said again, nearly soundless.

"Not your father's muse. Not your mother's helper."

"No," your mouth shaped. Your lips began to darken.

"Not the one to warm your brother's milk."

"No."

"Not the one to pour your stepfather's wine."

"No." You arched your back. Your arm fell free of my embrace.

"Not your teacher's pet. Not the one to . . . What is it that you are to this one, Rosa Mundi?"

You tried to answer. Froth burst on your lower lip.

"She's my friend," I said to the ground.

Her laughter withered the grass around her feet. I saw it shrivel, spreading out from the toe of her slim brown boot.

I still had not looked at her face.

"What are the rights of a friend, Rosa Mundi?"

You were past answering by then. I could feel you shivering in long wracking waves.

All the stories you'd told me were true. Wonders and horrors.

I knew the shape stories took. I was a studious child.

"She's my love," I said.

By claiming it, did I make it true?

The Queen of Air heard me and stood still. No noise of boot on grass, no ring of horse-gear.

Only a moth in the thyme, a bat in the dusk, a gnat caught in the long strands of my hair.

"Faustine," she said.

I still wonder what would have happened if we had named ourselves different names that day.

"Faustine, maker of bargains. Bargain with me. Of what worth is your love?"


My first kiss: Dane Ellison, behind the portable, during the sixth grade Hallowe'en dance.

My second: Dane again, under the willow by the creek behind his subdivision.

My third kiss: you know my third. I left it in your memory just as it was. I know you have not forgotten, although you will never speak of it.

Those earlier kisses were to this one as ice cubes in a glass of tap water are to an iceberg, looming above and beneath the sea.


The Queen of Air, for I still have no other name for her, bargained with me. Even before she finished speaking, I felt the breath shock back into your body, the rigidity leave your spine. You turned against me, coughing and heaving. I found later a spot of blood upon the leg of my jeans.

Maybe we all get such offers, once or twice or thrice in our little lives. Maybe someone takes every one of us up on the mountain, shows us the breadth of the world, and tells us it could be ours.

Maybe, in our wisdom, most of us turn it down.

I took it. The breadth of the world was held in the span of my hands, spitting blood onto my pants.

I took the bargain. I took the choice from you.


The kiss: my grass-stained hands cradling your face, knotting in the wealth of your hair. You tasted of blood and rosemary.

Your lips shut for a moment against mine but your breath still came hard. You pulled away to pant through your mouth.

I watched your pupils narrow down, and the sinews in your wrist draw tight as your hand closed.

It closed on nothing. The Queen had turned away. The fur at the edge of her mantle brushed my elbow; I still have the scar, a pale frostburn.

You gulped air, wiped your mouth on your sleeve. You shook your head dizzily.

When I saw your eyes meet mine again—proper blue now, tear-wet—I touched your hair and smoothed it down and freed a broken stem from the strands.

You slapped my hand away.

"What will I do now?" you said, your voice still scraped raw. "Where else can I go?"


By the time your father had done selling his sculpture, the one of you as a little girl dancing, I had cleaned up everything. You, your mind, your face, my hands. All except for the spot of blood on my jeans, which no one noticed.

Some of the richness went: the royal purple wisteria dulled down to plain greenery, the sunset smeared and pale. Some of it stayed: the taste of herbs, and the brightness of your hair.


I left you the kiss, but you never let me repeat it. You met Jason Krantz not long after that, and you dated him most of the way through high school. I never saw you with another girl.

Jason Krantz used to corner you in the stairwell and rope your hair around his fist and pull your head close to his, seizing the tip of your ear between his teeth. He used to make you sit on his lap in the coffee shop, and he'd pinch your thigh if you moved too much.

I asked the Queen if I could do something about Jason Krantz. She reminded me of the terms of my bargain. I asked her about the clover-chains, the owl-feathers, the little protections she had given you once upon a time. She told me they had not been protections.

You went through a plump phase, and then through a phase where you were thin as a grass-stem, bent under the weight of your sweaters. You and I took to hanging out in one of the restaurants on Spadina where no one asked for ID. You would order Tsingtao while I ate chicken fried rice. If you stumbled on the way out, I would walk you home.

All of this happened just as you recall, and I am to blame.


I said you were my love. I made you stay.

I get to know, each morning, that I'm waking into the same world in which you live. I get to see you, every few months when you're back in the province. Sometimes I even get a stiff little hug, and my hand touches the paintbrush edge of your hair before you pull away.

(Not lately. Not since those things I said after your wedding. I wrote to apologize. You didn't write back.)

I get to hear, from my own mother, that you and your husband are in town over the holidays. I get to imagine you in your old house, sitting on the window seat. For a few days you and I get to share the same weather. I get to leave messages at your mother's house, and wait for your call, which does not come.

For this, I'm promised to a hundred years beneath the hill.


The winter before our graduation, you held the hand of your stepfather as he lingered in a morphine dream. You told me you'd forgiven him, and I watched your fingers go tight and bloodless on his. When he was gone you stopped wearing the gold cross he'd given you for your First Communion.

You said you'd go to prom with me. I bought a suit in the boys' department at Eaton's. A week before the night, you said you were going to get back together with Jason Krantz instead, and wasn't it great that you had found a real date. I went home silently and cancelled the order for your corsage.

You dropped out of Art, and passed History, and aced Chem. On the edges of your notes, you wrote your first name, and a blank line for your last, with hearts and question marks about it. Never Rosa Mundi, nor any other such name. You had stopped telling stories by then.

Sometimes I'd catch that wide dark look in your eyes. In the cafeteria, while you picked the chocolate chips out of your muffin. Outside the locker room, while you waited for Jason Krantz to pack up his football gear. Or in the Annex, as we walked past the dance studio, where you were no longer enrolled.

You still wanted to leave. You couldn't remember how.


I caught the bouquet at your wedding. It crumbled to dust in my hands, not right then, but later, in the hospitality suite, at the end of the night. The Queen and I agree on this: you are my love, and I will have no other.

You, however, have always been free to love as you will. I did not have the foresight to arrange it any other way, and for this I am grateful; I was not a cruel child, but I was a child. I could have made things so much worse.

There is a Faustine in a poem, you see, who I did not know when I chose the name. To love her is to court death.

You seem happy with your love, truly. Eric Farrar: a real person, a person you chose for yourself. He has given you a son. He likes trading stocks and baking cakes, he dislikes motorcycles and fitness enthusiasts, and he does not remind me of either your stepfather or your father. On your wedding day, Eric Farrar wore a lake-blue pocket square to match your eyes. You took his name.

I haven't seen the dark look on you in some years, now that I think of it.

The Queen comes, now and again, to watch you when you are near me. She breathes over my neck, leaving blisters. She reminds me that if I break my bargain, you must go with her. She tells me all I need to do is ask.

If I break my bargain, I will not spend a hundred years under the hill, and I will not have an icy Queen stirring the curtains of my bedroom, driving away any lover who might spend the night. I will not have to pant over the tiny scraps I have of you: a hair ribbon, a sport top you left at my house.

You will not have Eric Farrar. Your son will not have his mother. But you'll have what you wanted, all those years ago, in the garden.

If you read this, you can tell me: do you want it still? Does the Queen's voice ever call to you, out of my hearing, subtle and cold? Do you ever wake troubled, forgetting your dream, with a frost on your lips?

Are you opening my letters? Or will this one, like the last, be thrown away still sealed?

The Queen brought me that one to taunt me, I think; she left it on my bedside table, the envelope cold-parched and wrinkled by her fingertips. Your address was smudged a bit, as if by rain. Through the paper I saw the ghost of my own script, heavy and black.

This choice should not be all mine to make, but how can I compel you to answer me? Shall I stand beneath your sensible vinyl-framed bedroom window and cry out until you rise from your marriage bed?

Rosa Mundi, in which world will you bloom? In which world will I finally catch fire?


Claire Humphrey

Claire Humphrey lives in Toronto, where she works in the book business, and writes short fiction and novels. Her work has previously appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and Podcastle. She is also the reviews editor at Ideomancer. To contact her, send her email at claire@bmused.ca. For more about her and her work, see her website.

Comments

Takes me right back to the intensity of unrequited high school love, the yearning so close under the skin, fed by all that girly closeness. Your story packs a punch that's really more like a slow withdrawal of a blade, air rushing in in cold gusts over nerves blown open. My favourite line: "I knew the shape stories took. I was a studious child." Wow.

An immersive and evocative story.

Gorgeous--I really enjoyed this.

Beautifully written. I love stories where I start out mildly confused yet intrigued, and as I read on, the meaning of the events and details unravels. The emotional weight here is exquisite, especially when I ask myself what choice I would have made in her place.

Remembering my youth with a very open heart. And the words you are just kids, it does not mean anything. Well .... it meant everything to me. Claire, i really enjoyed the continuity of temperature themes in your story. This seemed to be based on real people and events in your youth which brings stability to the reader i the dreams of innocence.

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