Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Secret House

Published 'Unreal Dreams' 1997

The garden was higher than its flowers.

That was what Sybil described it, if in different words, because small girls tended to see things as larger than they actually were. She never questioned the garden's walls. They simply existed as a boundary. As simply as she.

As simply as her friends the roses.

There was a possible drawback, however—the other girls who lived in the garden. Little urchins, all of them, with nowhere better to live than ... yes, in Sybil's rose garden. But there was something comforting about the tall walls--so tall they seemed to have jagged ice along their top edges. Enough inhabitants here without having to invite more. Sybil shrugged. How did those other girls get in, anyway? They didn't have anything to say for themselves more than chatter. Never really answered Sybil's silent questions.

Sybil looked at her own skirt, like wings down-folded, too short to reach the knees. Far better to spend her gazes elsewhere, she guessed. The roses were always beautiful, since she had not lived long enough to see them die. They hung their heads; they knew that pride came before a fall. The involutions of petal in pink, yellow and white were startling because each flower had a little of each colour—tinged at the heart with crimson.

The ivy creepers that cushioned the inner garden walls towards the icy peaks of their towering horizon--these were choked with blossoms too, hybrid blooms that ivy, in normal circumstances, could not possibly bear. Bu, here, anything could grow alongside anything else that grew. Even the girls were, surely, hybrids.

Except Sybil knew no such words. Her world. Their world. Too simple for words.

Shelter was, however, a matter of concern—since the garden suffered weather, perhaps more than most. There were dens amid bowers of branches, where trees stood without fruit or flower. Beneath such interwoven hides, the girls, Sybil included, clustered—chattering, if not gossiping—for what was there to gossip about? Indeed, why chatter? Sybil supposed that young girls, such as herself, needed to chatter, even when there was nothing to chatter about. Little did she realise that, one day, there would indeed be something--an item of intensest gossip to last a thousand years of chattering.

But, first, Sybil wondered why none of them needed to eat. Perhaps, God had put such girls here on purpose—ones who were radiantly beautiful in their prettiness, with breasts on the brink of showing off their buds--ones who demonstrated a perfection which did not warrant alimentary canals to thread them from top to bottom. Sybil did not question how she knew that none of the girls needed to eat, without having ever eaten nor seen the word nor understood even the nearest concept.

Until one day of rain. Such rain as never had been seen, prefiguring a season that none had guessed or, even now, could visualise. So they didn't worry about the slats of sleet that the rain eventually became.

Other than the fact that Sybil grew sick.

Her limbs no longer worked, except in short sluggish bursts of stretching her skirt of wings wider than they had been intended to stretch. The wings, indeed, shrivelled. Her face took on the crimson from the heart of the rose. And the roses, in empathy, drooped. In rosy respect.

The girlish chatter grew louder than the splatters that fell from the sodden uplands of the tree-dens. The girls, thankfully, did not see this as the start of a rot.

One girl ill did not make a million.

Sybil would recover and the sun would return. The blooms would lift and take back the crimson as truly the régime of roses.

Yet Sybil knew better. Or worse. Inside. Deeper inside than it was possible to go in a girl so small. How deep could one delve in shallow shapes of flesh, blood and bone? Till the discovery of a heart more feathery than, if as beautiful as, an enfolded head of red-stained petals.

The sleet split asunder into a myriad flakes of silence: disguised as white noise. And the chatter became undercurrents of gossip and concern, instead of its pretty-eyed version, when rumour was nothing but excited renewal of interest. Now, rumour was scandal, as insidious as the avalanches of crumbly ice-frost that dollopped from walltop as well as from knotted branch.

Until one girl found a locked door in the tall wall: one that had earlier been concealed by the everlasting ivy, now stripped to its waist of bare whitened bones.

But no key.

Sybil pointed at herself and spoke for the very first time: "Chickens have wishbones."

Chickens, like other accepted facts of life, were mysterious archetypes that the girls knew as instinctively as being alive. Deep-seated collectivities of unconsciousness were far more powerful than real memories. Yet they didn't know that chickens could be eaten, except perhaps at Christmas. But what was meant by Christmas? And did Easter eggs come first?

"Painting is like taking somebody's face and putting it on a white canvas," Sybil continued.

The other girls looked at the now blinding landscape of snow that the garden had flattened itself out into--and realised exactly what Sybil meant by a white canvas.

Nobody suspected the delirium of illness or of Sybilness as the perpetrator of words about wishbones and canvases. The same Nobody did not take such words literally.

Sybil opened her legs a little wider to one of the smallest girls with the slenderest, yet longest, fingers: a girl, albeit so small, bearing breasts full enough to bedeck a near woman beneath her skimpy sheen of modesty--a covering that could not protect her from the cutting snow-wind of winter. This girl prodded a finger inside Sybil's body—whilst Sybil stopped herself thinking by thinking of the warm sunshine and the bosomy blossoms and the thymy paths of her erstwhile life in the garden. The girl's finger eventually withdrew from Sybil a key-shaped bone.

And everyone wished.

But before they tried it in the lock of the door, they waited for Sybil's face to grow as pale as death's liliness. Her breath was fainter than a fairy's. The girls took the spittle from a mulchy mound of plucked roses they had piled up for provender in the shelter—without knowing what provender was or even how to suck its juices for their veins. With this, they stick-lipped Sybil's mouth and rouged her soft cheeks.

They eventually abandoned Sybil there--a painting, if not a picture, of health and everlasting beauty. And, chatting about the expectation of wondrous story-books soon to be found inside the Secret House, they hastened through the newly opened door ... out of the Secret Garden.

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