Once upon a time, a young woman sat in the garden of her mind and wrote herself into existence.
This garden was a vast and rambling realm; full of those wild, dusky corners that girls adore, exploited with every drop of her saturated, girlish imagination, choked-up with glorious self-indulgence, Keatsian and synesthetic.
Altogether too much.
She was sitting where she liked to sit, an iron-wrought bench in the recesses of the glasshouse, an old treasure of odd, vulgar beauty. For a long time, it had been doused into honey sunlight, but she had convinced herself that this would burn her skin, that the heat would suffocate her in a glass coffin, make her an unwilling antique.
So now it was cloaked in shadow. The tall, arching windows smothered by a thicket of climbing scarlet roses in an off-putting mockery of Sleeping Beauty. Still, the light wormed its way into the seams of the place and pooled like silk on the ground. But it was gentler like this. She felt protected.
A small stack of books lay beside her. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Alice in Wonderland... Old editions, gilded pages, titles gouged into covers with moody illustrations of waifish women. Other worlds, bizarre and wonderful, strained at their bindings- dream worlds with their writer-gods entrapped inside a larger dream world with a writer-god infinitely more romantic.
She wrote. The words and the scent and the colour of the flowers around her started to cloud together- those velvet marigolds, wide-lipped begonias, pitcher plants, calla lily and hyacinths and orchids and the grotesque, crimson rhododendron that could’ve swallowed it all everything up with its mouths like gaping wounds- ugly and ostentatious and thickening the air with their sheer hedonistic vibrancy. It clung to her. All of it. Her heart swelled and threatened to burst her ribs; it throbbed with a thick and uncomfortable hum, some visceral retort against the sensory pressure. And as she kept writing, conceiving herself, the angel in the flesh, her Galatea- that sickly, inky perfume trickled down to her fingertips too and pooled onto to the page, staining her sentences like blood.
She wrote until she felt like she could reach the brink of everything- and she was drowning in the scent, and her chest was going to crack upon burs and then closed the notebook and placed it carefully on her petal-strewn bench.
She wound her way back out of her greenhouse, back through the endless garden. Over the little bottomless pond, leaping with feigned balletic grace over stepping-stones. A water lily tendril grasped at her ankle. She paused; leaned over, and snipped herself free with the pair of silver scissors she kept handy. Past the ivy-strangled statue of the Venus de Milo, an adder basking in the sun at her marble feet. Stopped once to water a at the damascus rose bush-its spindly, ashen branches-and watered it. She went on. She slowed slightly upon reaching the wildflower meadow. Tangles of sweet violets and weepy forget-me-nots, and tiny purple buds of the heather blossoms, the bluebells and cloud of gypsophilia- a miniature fairyland. Stone walls surrounded all of it. Low-slung and crass. Built there to keep a meadow in its proper place. Quickened steps. Past the birdcage without birds. Beyond the house, spared not a single glance. At last, the gate. She stepped through…
And her eyes opened. She started grasping the air, her lungs burning. She found a cold, smooth surface somewhere in the sky and clung on to it, heaved herself up through the earth, and then hung over the edge of the bath coughing cold water and foam onto the floor.
I must have fallen asleep.
‘Once upon a time’ is a very long time ago. Prelapsarian. An age past.
She dreams of her dream-world now. Stands at the edge of those garden gates, looks in and- though she tries-cannot enter. Her mind is dense with mist, dream and thought and memory sifting over themselves to create terrible phantom shadows that surround her. She is kneeling.
She opens her eyes.
It is cold- she isn’t wearing a slip. The dress is made for someone taller. The hem trails gently on the ground as she walks; at some point - and no longer- it was the colour of champagne, a rare silk treasure from France with tiny pearl buttons and a delicate lace collar .
The walls listen. There is silence. A sharp absence punctured only by a the smart clicking glossy Oxfords against the wooden floorboards.
She closes her eyes. Rattles the gates to her garden in a fury. Click, the clock ticks. Click, Judgement Day is coming. Click, click, click, and a sleeve frays; a pearl button hangs by a thread. Click. The dress slips and exposes her collarbones, milk white like a rib of the moon. Or from Eve. Naked and incomplete and disturbed, her dark hair shines shining, her neck slick with blood that looks black in the dim church candlelight. Click, click, click. The crucifix looms. Click. She resembles a young vampire, but she is brought to her knees, here in this holy place. And she clasps her wet hands and yes, again, more, prays.
Let me in! Oh, God. She prays. And dreams. The garden remains barred.
She cries out. Perhaps she has found an entrance, she thinks, the world falling into green-grey mist around her as her hands move sluggishly through the gates.
She finds herself in a garden lined with hedges. Everything reeks of reality, but the stench hangs idle mid-air. Like someone sprayed perfume- something resembling a memory, or almost something. It is the wrong time, too. A whole other age. This is not the garden.
She starts to wander. A sense of the place catches her. That old gluttony, she is drunk on romance and pretensions. Royal swans on the river, secret-garden-stairs, wilting summer flowers, petals and leaves fallen just a moment ago now decay underfoot.
A young man, a student, lights his cigarette over the edge of the bridge. She follows his gaze out and into the cloudy water. He taps it out carelessly. The ash fades into the air, into nothing, before it can touch the surface of the water. Like a painting, she thinks. There is a passing breeze. It spins the still, murky blue water like fabric; into whorls and rippling eddies, disturbing itself over and over and over. The September sunlight is all new, charged with something divine. Her face turns towards the warmth. Standing under it, strangely, she sees every line, every fine hair, every crease on her pale hands. Changeling blood, violet-green, swims beneath her skin.
Then a smell. That perfume she wears—rosemary topnote and late summer lavender —is emanating from the surface of the waters. She’s sure of it. The gentle lapping of the river against the banks fades into the foreground with crystal precision, like wind chimes. The sunlight is washing the earth and it is if she is seeing it all This could be the first time she’s seeing it all. Earth. She is enthralled with her Creation.
It is then, as she extends her hand to the sun, that she sees the woman in silk. She reclines under a weeping willow Slanted eyes, and catlike. Old, and a little hateful—even at a distance. The black silk contrasts against her pale skin and fair hair. Her slender fingers brush the primrose strands from her cheek. A robin lands at her bare feet.
Three other women are sprawled out on the grass around her, their legs tucked beneath them, coats laid over their laps. Daisy-strewn. One is tall, languid-limbed with maenad-wild hair. The other two, perhaps twins, with blonde waves to their ribcages and far away expressions. Botticelli’s Graces, or naiads freshly-born from water. Thin shirts and dark cigarette trousers and braided forget-me-not hair. They are slightly damp. Wilting petals torn by careless fingernails. They seemed to have sauntered in from a world just a little to the right of reality. Something within her told her that their mouths would be like oysters; if they parted their lips, one would see, nestled amidst the folds of peach satin flesh, gleaming freshwater pearls for teeth. When night fell and once the moon rose, they would eat the river’s swans, bite clean through the thick, jaundiced roots of the lotus flowers. And the woman in the silk dress, their Venus, would lie in the gentle curve of her shell, and they would adore her.
She knows how this ends.
She opens her mouth to cry out--
It is a clear night, the moon a delicate sickle in the sky. An owl calls once, a lonely cry. Some young ghost, she thinks.
It isn’t a garden—more a mossy clearing. Crocuses like gems and dense ferns lurk at the perimeter. There are no roads or houses or tourists in sight; it is its own self-sustaining fairy world, tucked away from reality. Cold seeps through her thin cotton dress.
They were waiting for her in long coats thrown over flimsy nightgowns. Their faces are grey. Remnants of a feast lie behind their circle- dessert wine- and fruit, blackberries and blueberries and raspberries, forbidden goblin wares melted into pink gore, and tiny chocolates dusted in bitter cocoa, a single marzipan plum in sunset hues, bitten in two, and flower petals and mint leaves doused in sugar crystals, half consumed by insects.
There is something in the moss at their feet. Her heart throbs in her mouth, strangling her tongue. She tries not to look. She draws herself slowly, as if sleepwalking, into the circle. They watch, juice trailing from their mouths. The woman in silk licks it away, flashing a lupine fang.
In her hands is the most beautiful thing. A slim, round handle of ivory, white and perfect in the light, with a band of mother-of-pearl. Graceful script winds its way around and spills onto the silver. An heirloom, obsessively polished to elven beauty.
She isn’t sick. Only absent. She might be dimly smiling as she takes the knife.
The woman in silk is radiant in the moonlight.
She moves in a dream— these limbs belong to some far away girl. But she can move. She crawls to the centre of the circle.
She is calm. She lies the knife against the rabbit’s throat with a steady hand. It stares up at her, trembling.
And as she breathes out, she watches the little white creature bleed into the soft, mossy earth and turn it black.
The world is disturbed. It can’t quite decide where to settle.
Blame it on the moon. Lunacy, from lunar: a sickness from the moon, a madness. A sacrifice gone wrong.
And so the final descent.
A churchyard. The leaves here, quiet and fine, deserve peace. Not this death.
No silk-woman in sight. She is not allowed this time, no beauty, no graceful sinking into sleep. It is angry, and
bloody, and black. Not the soothing black of night but wet ink black, this weird, ethereal substance that keeps sinking into the seams of the world like highland fog. It is all wrong.
Clinging to her skin, time is stretching away in the aether. Now she does not look like anything. Only a shape, mist-blurred at the edge of her. Unhuman. Something sits in her breast and is eating her lungs; she can barely breathe. God, give me grace. Pearls are turning black. The silk is spoiled. The knife is black. The Eden has fallen, myth and story dissolving, and the world will be once again terrible oil.
There is still the knife.
And God is here, somewhere.
The world brims with being.
Anna Chandler de Waal is an English Literature student at Cambridge University. She is originally from London.