Within the innermost walls of The-City-of-First-and-All-Light, walls as thick as the heart of the world (or thicker); at the center of that sole metropolis nestled inside game-rich forests where only the high-born may hunt—
Within those innermost walls, my dear little fool, you may think that the capital goes on and on, stuffed with feathers and tea ceremonies and wealthy people bowing, but none of that is so.
What lies within are gardens. And within those gardens, she walks.
Neither prophet nor priest, neither sacrifice nor student, she is nonetheless all. She is She-Who-Is-Everyone-Within-Herself, or, more colloquially to those secret-sworn to serve her, Everyone.
Everyone moves from garden to garden, in accordance with our national state of affairs—as she always has, as it has been decreed that she always must. When The-Land-of-The-Sunlit-People wishes to go to war, for example, Everyone must enter the Garden of War. That garden is a narrow, winding place full of thorns and stones and cruel sculptures made from the fused scimitars of the dead, and Everyone must meditate and find beauty and meaning in a place of such brutish sensibilities. And, on the first day of winter, she must enter the Garden of Winter, where we have planted the corpses of trees into the earth, so she can contemplate the natural grace of their denuded bones. Each garden is enclosed by thin, high walls that she cannot climb; each garden is carefully designed. We provide whatever she needs to feel the proper feelings associated with each state. No leaf or blossom’s placement is beneath our notice.
There are many gardens, you must understand. There is a Garden of Sadness for national days of mourning, where dark rocks loom on the shorelines of the pond and the willow trees weep in the wind. There is a Garden of Birth, where Everyone may joyfully meditate, amidst flowers of all colors, on days when healthy children are born to the high houses. And there are the many every-day gardens: the Garden of Serenity, the Garden of Contemplation, the Garden of Dutiful Reflection, the Garden of Harmony. Each one contains a little hut, made of rock or brick or wood, in whatever style is proper; each hut has a hearth and a chair and a bed, where Everyone may stay warm and watched as she sleeps. Acolytes are stationed in the day’s garden with her. She is bathed and clothed and fed, with the appropriate soaps, fabrics, and meals. When the last Everyone was a child, I remember, they often brought in other high-born children to play with her. They caught grasshoppers together, and they plucked berries until the wine-dark juices stained their frocks, and they played clapping games and sang.
You must understand. She is not unloved.
But what she does not know, and what you do not know either, is that old, forgotten gardens are growing all around her. The heart of The-City-of-First-and-All-Light is vast. There are a hundred gardens or more that Everyone has never set foot in. Gardens that we’ve never been told to tend. Gardens that choke under the weight of weeds, and gardens that creep over their thin high walls, bleeding into each other, making the world unsafe.
You might wonder what these gardens used to be.
You might wonder, when considering their sheer number, what feelings and states of being we have all forgotten.
You might be tempted to ask me, but if you do, I promise that you’ll be disappointed. I can decipher the creepers of madness no better than you can.
Instead, you’ll have to ask the current Everyone. The-Enclosures-of-All-That-There-Is are the only world she’s ever been permitted to see, and she is the only native speaker of their visual tongue. The rest of us are but clumsy interpreters with our shovels and shears, chipping crude runic marks in the gathering dark.
But now we come to my terrible story, and the reason I began telling you about the secret heart of the capital in the first place: I once saw Everyone enter, by accident, a garden without a name.
She was in one of the empty, mown corridors that connects many gardens, passing door after door—we unlock them and lead her through each, as the need arises—and there was one door that had blown ajar. It was very old. The lock had been rusted shut for as long as I could remember. We’d all forgotten it was there.
But the lock had finally crumbled, and the door had fallen open, and the nothing-garden beyond was revealed to her sacred eyes. Doors are only left open for her when they lead to every-day gardens that she can freely enter and exit, so she, poor innocent lamb, saw the newly open door and naively entered.
The garden was tiny. Cruel brambles obscured the walls. In its exact center grew a single orange tree, never trimmed, a woolly and overgrown monster. Rotten fruit lay below it, stinking and bejeweled with flies.
Everyone stopped in front of the tree, staring at its asymmetrical horror.
Then she cried.
I am not permitted to touch or speak with She-Who-Is-Everyone-Within-Herself—only the acolytes and select attendants are allowed that honor—so I rose from my vantage point on the top of the wall and ran along it to find someone who could.
By the time the acolytes and I returned, Everyone was gone.
We tracked her by her cries. She had fled from the nothing-garden and was fleeing still, running like a maddened hen from garden to garden, as if seeking a way out.
“It’s ending,” she sobbed. She finally collapsed at the edge of the pond in the Garden of Dutiful Reflection. “I can see it. It’s all ending.”
Acolytes and attendants caught up with her. She wailed doom and death while they tried in vain to soothe her with a soft shawl, a bowl of honeyed dates, a calming song on a bone flute. She batted them away. The situation was shameful. She was not reflecting at all, let alone in a dutiful manner.
Increasingly uneasy, I lay belly-down along the top of my wall and clung to it with my hands and knees, the way a tamarin clings in fear to its mother when the jaguar sings.
We fashioned a new door and frame. We replaced the broken lock. Once again, the tiny nothing-garden was forever barricaded and forgotten.
Except by me.
What if (my vainglorious thinking went) we cleaned it up? What if I (and who better than I, for I had witnessed the original calamity) ripped down the wall-concealing thickets, and scooped up the rotten fruit, and trimmed the orange tree (not that any pair of shears wielded by a single soul could snip those old, low branches—I’d just work around them and do my best) into a pleasing shape, and thereby made the tiny space gentle? What if I could free Everyone from her nightmares (which now made her cry aloud so in the nights)? What if she could return to this once terrible space and smile?
What if I could thereby help her elevate us all to someplace new?
And anyway, we already had a Garden of Nightmares. It was foul and wet and full of carnivorous plants, and made everyone shudder as it was.
As you must have guessed by now, I did all those things—I tore out the thicket, cleaned up the ground, and trimmed the tree. I planted new grass. The little nothing-garden was my peculiar obsession, to the point where the others, so dogged in their determination to pretend that Everyone’s disastrous entry into it had never happened, grew uncomfortable. Whenever they saw me approach along a corridor, filthy and dragging a canvas full of uprooted brambles, their eyebrows went up and their voices went down.
But gradually, the nothing-garden bent to my will. The enclosure became beautiful. The short grass sparkled with dew, the orange tree thrived, and the flies disappeared.
I unlocked the new lock. I opened the new door.
She-Who-Is-Everyone-Within-Herself refused to go anywhere near it.
Of course. Why would she approach such a frightful place again? How to persuade her, without words, that it was different now?
At night, I crouched on the roof of whatever hut she slept in, listening to Everyone’s weeping. “It’s all locked up now,” her nightly attendant soothed. “Locked up nice and tight.”
“I dreamed it wasn’t,” Everyone sobbed. “I dreamed the door was open, and I went in again, and inside—”
“I’m going to go back.” But she made it sound like a confessed fear, like an edict that her feet would have to obey. “Aren’t I?”
“Nonsense. You can’t be told to go to a garden if it doesn’t have a name, now, can you?”
“Maybe not,” Everyone mumbled. “Maybe not.”
I heard the ropes below her mattress creak as she turned over. Then silence.
I dropped to the ground outside the window. I tapped softly on the shutters.
The attendant opened them, but her face soured when she saw me. “What do you want, gargoyle?”
“That garden is safe now,” I whispered. “We cleaned it up. If Everyone goes back to see it, perhaps—”
The attendant made a different face. To those of her station, the gardeners are nothing but pigeons, fouling the world below us with our waste. “Perhaps what? Did She-Who-Lights-the-Way-Across-the-World approve the new garden?” At my hesitation, the attendant’s face tightened into a sneer. “Does the new garden have a name?”
Her churlishness roused mine. “Yes. It’s the Garden of Don’t-Be-a-Peacock. We put a lot of effort into restoring it. The least you could do—”
“We,” the attendant hissed. “What’s this ‘we’? I know all about your pet project. The other gargoyles gossip. I won’t have Everyone risk the entire kingdom by entering a nameless garden.” She spat. “Certainly not for the sake of a gargoyle’s pride.”
A retort rose to my tongue, but behind the attendant’s back, Everyone’s eyes glittered in the low light of the hearth.
She was awake. Listening.
“If Everyone chooses to attempt entry into that garden,” I said, carefully, “she will find the door unlocked.”
“Well, she won’t ever choose such a thing,” said the attendant, “because of all the—”
But I didn’t hear what she said. I turned and ran across the Garden of Quiet, scaled a wall, and left She-Who-Is-Everyone-Within-Herself to contemplate her choice.
The following dawn, the All-Knowing-Messenger entered The-Enclosures-of-All-That-There-Is, trod its high-walled paths, and reached the Garden of Quiet with the day’s instructions: Everyone was to think today’s proscribed thoughts in the Garden of Plenty, a space with many fountains and fruit trees.
When she awoke and received this news, Everyone bowed as always. “It is my pleasure to do so. I have spent many a happy hour there with fruit arranged upon my lap, inhaling the sweet scent of it.” To the day’s acolytes who had arrived with the All-Knowing-Messenger, Everyone said, “Go on ahead of me and pluck from the garden’s trees one of each fruit: the most perfect specimen of each. I want every offering in my gardens represented.”
One acolyte said, “But Thee-Who-Is-Everyone-Within-Thyself... there are some trees that do not grow in the Garden of Plenty that yet grow in Enclosure gardens elsewhere.”
“Ah yes,” said Everyone. “You are right. Well, I will gather those fruits myself.”
A shiver of excitement hummed within my breast.
More bows were exchanged. More formal words were uttered. While the acolytes left to gather fruit and prepare for Everyone’s arrival in the day’s sanctioned garden, Everyone herself, left unattended, bowed to the empty Garden of Quiet. And exited.
I shadowed her confident steps from above. I watched them grow cautious, when she neared that door-lined corridor that she feared so much.
On its threshold, she paused.
With pounding heart, I walked the walls ahead of her, aware of her intrigued eyes on my back. Perhaps I couldn’t speak to her, but there was no law against her looking at me, should she choose.
I reached the tiny, cleaned-up garden. I leaped over its doorway, then turned and straddled the wall. I gripped with my knees, leaned forward, placed both hands on the top of the unlocked door, and pulled.
The door lay open in invitation. I urged her with my eyes.
Everyone inhaled. Squared her shoulders. Moved forward.
I scrutinized her face as she entered the nameless garden, my hands clamping on the hard edges of the door. She stopped at the threshold, cringing, and I felt as though a pair of shears had plunged between my ribs. I had tried so hard. What? I yearned to shout. What frightful thing do you see in this place, you with your eyes attuned to the mysteries?
She began to cry again: large, silent tears. She approached the bristling trunk, laying her hands on the lowest branch. “You poor gardener,” she said, not looking my way.
I still didn’t understand. Not even then.
“I’ve always wanted to,” she said. “You must’ve known that. And that’s why you did this for me—isn’t it?”
And then she climbed.
My horror rose with her. She was climbing. The orange tree, long untrimmed, far too tall, was taking She-Who-Is-Everyone-Within-Herself to the ultimate place she could not go.
Above a wall.
All the ruined gardens. All the madness. All the horrible, nameless things we’d tried to lock away from her, and all the ordered gardens, all at once, and the distant walls of The-City-of-First-and-All-Light, with its chaos and greed and noisy minutiae, and all the things that would forever ruin the purity of her purpose—if she saw them—then she’d—why, then she’d—
I had no idea.
I crammed my hands against my mouth to prevent me from crying out to her. Even now, I must not speak. Especially now.
Everyone reached the crown. She could climb no higher on the orange tree’s slender branches. Sputtering to keep leaves from her mouth, she braced her feet and pushed aside a curtain of green.
She grew still. Inhaled. Her head swung in a long, careful survey, taking everything in.
Then Everyone wiped her eyes with a wrist.
“You must’ve seen me,” she said softly. “In those moments, when I could no longer mask my unhappiness. And I—this is—” The yearning pinched her voice. “Are those they? All the places in the stories they’ve told me? I...” More tears fell. “I want to see them more than ever.”
My throat ached.
Had I seen her? Of course I had. How could I have failed to? I had seen the one who had come before, too, and I had heard stories of my own, stories the gardeners tell. The ones that say it always ends like this. Every unlucky, high-born babe who is ever chosen to be birthed into this place by decree—every one of them grows up weeping and hungry for something they cannot name. Until they can. And we hear them. And we know that their purity of purpose has been lost.
And once that happens, we must act. We must take her to one final garden. The garden without a hut. The garden with a wooden platform instead, with its posts and crossbeam and grooves for a hangman’s rope.
But things were different, now. I had seen her. I had readied the orange tree. I had prepared this garden, with its ladder of branches, and everyone knew it.
It wouldn’t be only Everyone who would become undone.
What can I say? I had a choice to make, too. And you know what I chose.
“Everyone,” I said, in violation of my silence and the law.
She turned those teary eyes to me.
“Will you jump and run atop the walls behind me?” I asked. “I know a way out. And we don’t have much time.”
It is also worth adding: that tiny garden in The-Enclosures-of-All-That-There-Is is the only garden that has more than one name.
The last I heard, She-Who-Lights-the-Way-Across-the-World was calling it, “The Garden of The Lost.” The current She-Who-Is-Everyone-Within-Herself, who is about your age by now, sits under its trunk—which has had all of its lower branches sawed off by pairs of big strong men—and meditates about people who have gone missing. They say she associates the taste of oranges with sorrow. They say oranges are only eaten in the capital now during periods of remembrance.
I prefer to call the place “The Garden of The-Ladder-to-What-Lies-Beyond.” It is accurate, if not poetic. But, gargoyles aren’t given to poetry.
And your mother calls the garden something else again.