Apr/May 2021  •   Fiction

False Garden

by Mark Benedict

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

I was lazing on the grass, snacking on almonds, when Mummer told me about the glowing vines. It was Sunday, the only day of the week the conservatory was closed to the public. Mummer had sprinted my way across the sunny yard, smiling so huge it must have hurt. Her purple curlicue sunglasses, asymmetrical by design, with one lens sporting more side curlicues than the other, were awesomely weird. So was Mummer. Standing over me, grubby as a garbage man in her soil-caked sweat suit, but with stylish, crown-braided dark hair, she talked excitedly about her discovery while swerving her hands in vining motions. In her civilian life, Margaret Mummer was a recently divorced grad student in journalism, with aspirations of writing and publishing a blockbuster article before graduating. Here, though, she was just the greenhouse manager. That still put her several status levels above me and the other summer interns, but despite this, and despite her being a full decade older, she treated us as affectionate equals. Staring up at her, basking in her goofy enthusiasm, I grinned and popped some more almonds.

"I mean, not just shining, but actually glowing," she said, laughing. "Like green glow sticks. They're hanging on a stone wall, just as sly as you please. All like, 'Don't mind us, we're nothing special.' But mark my words, Shane: there's magic afoot."

"Whoa! Did you take pics?" I asked, sucking on the almonds, then starting to chomp. The salty chewiness was spectacular—one of life's huge small pleasures.

"Yeah, but the glow comes out all streaky," she said, streaking the air to illustrate. "I have to get back to the greenhouse, but maybe you and Ruth can go take a look and let me know what you think? This could be my article, you know? My breakthrough!"

I felt a giddy excitement. But then, I usually did. It was the thing I liked most about myself: I was bursting with love. For almonds, for mysteries, for Mummer. How could I not love a woman who, even more so than me, overflowed with appreciation? It was an entirely platonic crush, powered by kinship rather than desire. As Mummer zoomed off, I texted Ruth about the vines and asked her to meet me by the woods. She was the only other intern working that day; Sundays were always a light crew. When I reached the woods a few minutes later, Ruth was waiting there, sullenly. We were both college students, home for the summer, but whereas I was a history major at a school in Indiana, she studied religion at a school here in Michigan, though her true passion was more specific than that. Ruth was a Satanist. I overheard her telling this to another intern the first week I worked there, though I had already guessed as much from her appearance. She was gruesomely beautiful. Her face, framed by greasy blonde hair, was always covered in pasty white makeup and bloody red lipstick. Her clothes were best described as vintage burial wear. I loved Ruth, lustfully. Depending on the day, she treated me like a lukewarm friend or a moron stranger, but my love for her cheerfully persisted anyway. Presently she grunted at me in greeting, then followed me through the woods and into the north garden. We saw the glowing vines right away. If anything, Mummer had undersold them. The glow wasn't static as I expected, but instead pulsed up and down each vine.

"They're like freaky florescent snakes," Ruth said, squinting at the wall of vines. "Skinny snakes who've swallowed, like, nuclear rats."

I grinned. "Hey, I like that! Nuclear rats. You can really flip a phrase, Ruth."

She made an annoyed face. "Jeez, you really are a dork, aren't you?" she said, as if I'd been convicted of it but she hadn't quite agreed with the verdict until now. Then she shrugged. "I guess let's go talk to Mummer. The kook really might have her article."

We started the long walk to the main greenhouse. Ruth complained the whole way about her family, her friends, her drug dealer. We passed through the sculpture yard, then the stream-laden Japanese gardens. Entering the greenhouse, swarmed by the hot, thick air, we spotted Mummer watering the crocuses at the far end. Then we saw, unhappily, that Kurt was there too, standing by while Mummer swung the watering wand over the crocus rows. Kurt, a landscaping manager around Mummer's age, was never a welcome addition. A self-righteous Christian, he wore a smelly green church camp sweatshirt even in hot weather and had a default attitude charitably describable as annoyed. Uncharitably, as constipated. Ruth hissed at Kurt, her religious opposite. Kurt's crush on Mummer was a prime gossip topic around the conservatory. Once he had even asked her out, to a bingo night at a community center, a supremely lame invitation Mummer had nevertheless treated respectfully. She replied that her divorce, bitter as roach poison, had put her off romance forever, but she would be thrilled to have coffee with him as friends sometime. This story enraged me. Who did Kurt think he was, asking out a zany goddess like Mummer? And why was Mummer even friends with him? I admired her generous spirit, of course, but a line had to be drawn somewhere. Currently Ruth told Mummer the vines were definitely glowing.

Mummer raised her free hand in victory. "Yes! I told Kurt about it, but he's all like, 'Vines grow, they don't glow.'" Then, chin tucked like a teacher, she gazed at him over the tops of her purple curlicue sunglasses. "So, Mr. Doubter Man. Believe me now?"

Kurt made a sniffy face, as if he were getting a whiff of his sweatshirt. "Of course I don't believe it," he said. "Shane and Ruth are little fiends. They're pranking you."

"Firstly," I said, popping an almond. "Mummer's the coolest. I would never prank her. Secondly, no offense, dude, but you're like a stack of wet blankets."

Ruth scowled. "The wettest ever," she said. She thrust her hand into my almond pouch and started angrily flinging almonds at Kurt. I grinned and flung some at him, too.

Years later, during the many periods when I couldn't afford quality almonds, I would think back on this moment with keen regret. Such a waste! Not to mention, it wasn't my kindest moment. At the time, though, I dug the nasty camaraderie with Ruth.

Kurt had his hands up, trying to deflect all the almonds we were flinging. "See? They're fiends," he said. "Ow! All right, enough, stop it."

"Pshaw! I love these kids. Just let's go see, okay? You'll believe, too, when you get a gander. And let's try taking some more pictures." She tossed the wand aside, then took a nervous breath. "This article, I swear," she said. "It's gonna be totes amazing."

You're totes amazing, I wanted to say. Don't listen to Kurt, he's just pissed that you have taste enough not to go out with him. We set off, with Mummer and Kurt in the lead and Ruth and me following. My mind was reeling with vine possibilities. What if they spread? What if they took over? Mummer could write a phenomenal article, but that was no safeguard against vine domination. It was mostly a fun speculation, but still, when I felt something grip my left arm, I thought it was a vine and nearly jumped. Then I looked down and saw it was Ruth. Without thinking, I reached my right hand over and pressed, sealing her fingers against my arm. She looked at me, her brown eyes staring, her red lips smiling, then removed her hand. I looked away and reeled anew. It was of course possible, I realized, that she had only been steadying herself against the hilly terrain. That look, though. That staring, smiling look. But the spell was broken when we reached the north garden. The vines weren't glowing. After a moment of confused silence, Kurt and Ruth both started talking at once, Kurt saying the glow had never been there in the first place, Ruth saying it was just gone for the day and would return tomorrow. I knew they were both wrong but kept quiet. Then Mummer dropped to her knees, smiled weakly, and screamed.

Kurt rushed to her. "Margaret, listen," he said, crouching down. "You don't need a stupid gimmick. I mean, glowing vines? It's heathen trash. You can do better."

"I do need a stupid gimmick!" she cried. "My teachers say I need to find crazy stories. That my writing isn't good enough to make something out of nothing."

Standing there, shocked and useless, I remembered a magical late-night carnival outing with my parents. I was seven and in love with coasters. But the night was ruined when my dad became unaccountably moody and started drinking from his vodka flask.

Ruth stared at the vines. "Maybe the glow really will come back," she said, but I highly doubted it; shining in the afternoon sun, the vines had a charred, exhausted look to them. "If you really need something," she went on, "the dark spirits always provide."

"Ruth, you live in a dumb devil bubble," Mummer said, quieter now, but in a tone verging on nasty. "You're an unpaid intern. You can work without getting paid." Then, plunging into nasty, "Kurt, do me a favor and get your churchy stench away from me."

"What? Oh. Sorry." He stepped away, wincing. At the time, even I felt bad for him. He leaned against a tree, absently tugging on his ratty green sweatshirt.

"I'm so mediocre," Mummer whispered. She was staring at nothing, her face slack, her crown braid loose and messy and looking like random tangles. A breeze swept through and seemed to rouse her. She sighed, then got up and wandered off alone.

I didn't understand. She was smart and pretty and gloriously strange. Of all the full-blown adults I knew, Mummer was the most amazing. The weeks that followed were uneventful. The vines failed to glow. Ruth scowled when I tried to flirt with her. When summer ended and I went back to school, I sent her a few friendly emails, but she never responded. After I graduated and the years started to fill with bitter breakups and soul-crushing jobs, and the love stopped flowing so easily for me, I finally understood Mummer's explosion. The race for the great spouses, the best careers, is the cruelest contest, and almost all of us will lead deeply unspectacular lives. Maybe the most we can hope for is to bask in the spectacular.

When I first heard reports of glowing plants around the country, I felt a spark of the old giddiness. A woman in California, a botanist, said when she cut a glowing orchid to inspect it, the gunk that came out scalded her skin. A man in Florida, a gardener, said a strand of glowing jasmine encircled his neck and tried to strangle him like a flowery noose. I hoped Mummer, who had long ago gone off the grid, living alone in a small cabin, heard the reports and felt vindicated. But when the glowing phenomenon stopped, before anyone could figure out why it had started, I lost interest. It became just another frustrating unknowable, like Ruth's hand on my arm or my purpose on this planet. Screw the vines. They never did anything for Mummer, or me, or anybody. I'm no longer young. I'm no longer fascinated by useless miracles.