In the Black Garden, the night flowers bloomed. The ghost roses filled empty eye sockets with pale petals, while the tiny blue-eyed snowdrops pushed through the spaces between the ribs.
The dead man’s bones were laid across the flower bed, loosely assembled in the right order. The Gardener knelt by him and inspected the pretty little plants that grew from his memories.
Antolin. The man’s family had called him Antolin. He’d been dead a long time, well over a century according to some great-great-grand niece, and was buried in an insanely large tomb on his insanely large grounds near the Purple Hills, in the shadow of his insanely large mansion. The century after his death was filled with nothing but bitter fighting between his heirs. They fought over lands, houses, jewels, and other tawdry things the Gardener had no interest in.
She told Antolin’s family as much, when they dug up his bones and brought them to her. They prattled on endlessly about needing to know his dying intentions, or the identity of his true heir, but she cut them short. “All I care about is divining the secrets from the flowers,” she’d said with solemn intonation. “All else is a mere distraction. But I will tell you what I learn.”
Some weeks had passed since then, though the Gardener could only tell by the size of the roses. Her plot was a small, cold, dark little place, hidden from the sun in the heart of the City of Light. The Black Garden could not thrive in sunlight; sunlight was anathema to the night flowers, which fed and grew on secrets.
“You’ve rather taken to poor Antolin, haven’t you?” She told one of the roses. Its stem had wrapped tightly around the bones of his neck, digging its thorns into the vertebrae and leaving long circular scratches. “What new tidbits have you found for me?”
Different night flowers thrived on different parts of the body. The black petunias massed around the knees and wrists, feeding on the traumas of old injuries. The sickly dusk daisies, meanwhile, bloomed within the chest, around the heart, and showed the Gardener such vivid non-pictures of brilliant dark colours and heart-breaking shadows. But it was the ghost roses that spoke the clearest secrets, growing around the spine and the skull and the memory of the brainstem. The opaque petals glimmered like the oily sheen over the City’s canals, and – to the Gardener, at least – appeared to see more than Antolin’s eyes likely ever did.
Gently, she cupped the rose’s head in her hand, careful not to scratch herself on the thorns again. It tingled in her palm, as though it emitted a gentle but searing heat, stripping away the layers of her skin one-by-one. The pink-grey veins of the petals seemed to merge with the veins of the Gardener’s hand, and Antolin’s memories flowed out of the flower and into her body.
“Show me…” She whispered. The ecstasy of the dead man’s secrets tightened her chest and left breathing a struggle. “Show me…”
The Black Garden fell away, fading, dying like the flame on a spent match. In its place, orange light flooded in, whilst golden-leafed trees seemed to sprout from nowhere.
She was a child, now. Or, rather, he was a child; the line between the Gardener and Antolin had been blurred away as she stepped out of her mind and into his memory.
He was perhaps seven, or eight, small enough for his eyes to level on his mother’s waist. Ah, yes, mother, who stood tall and slender, with long blonde hair that danced in the breeze, falling left then right then left again like the weeping of a willow. Light dappled and refracted from her tumbling curls, casting rainbows and fractals like a sparkling waterfall. Blonde was not the right word for her colouring, Antolin would realise in later life. No, his mother was a warm silver, a soft metal that could be bent by his bare hands.
Mother was standing by one of these Autumn trees, her ocean-blue eyes looking into the bark with intense concentration. With an iron knife, she was carving a love heart into the wood. Was this in the misty woods, the forest of scarlet sentinels that flanked the Purple Hills? Or was it somewhere else, one of the tiny rural villages on the outskirts of the City of Light? Antolin couldn’t recall, the details of his childhood dying like embers.
But he could always remember mother. She was rooted, planted into the earth, the strongest and most enduring tree of all. If he concentrated hard enough, he could almost—
“Ow.” The Black Garden reasserted itself with a flash of pain. The Gardener had scratched herself; one of the rose’s thorns had cut across her knuckle. A tiny, lazy drop of blood seeped down her hand as she pulled away.
It wasn’t the first scratch. Over the years, the Gardener had collected many cuts, scuffs and blisters as she tended to the night flowers. Together, they formed long, winding tracks along her arms and legs, twisting into abstract little patterns. Every day new flowers bloomed from the scratches in her skin, and she looked – in her opinion – ever more beautiful.
A scratch from a night flower was always deadly, though it was a death that could take decades. One tiny break in the skin, the merest chance for the flower to find a memory, and it would begin to feed and grow. They would slowly colonise the body, cannibalise the flesh, until nothing remained except a pile of plant life and reveries. The Gardener had fed an impressive crop on herself now, with ghostly-pale petals sprouting from her shoulders like an angel’s wings. The stems, meanwhile, twisted around her neck, growing a little tighter each day, thorns digging into the flesh.
Whenever she ventured from the Black Garden and walked the streets of the City, people would stare. Their faces were filled with pity, and they’d say things like, “There goes another poor soul, another Gardener lost to her flowers. Soon she’ll be nothing but memories.” But the Gardener didn’t care. Her night flowers were beautiful, her blooming magnificent, and her memories were the memories of hundreds. Her garden, the dark little place hidden from the sun, could be a world.
She stood, and left Antolin’s bones alone. She had other flowers to tend to.