The creature walked through a heavy wood, a mindless object of nature, another splash of oil and acrylic amongst many other strokes of a painting. Below the hood of the forest, he was a blob of color hidden by the leaves.
It was a contentment he couldn’t achieve anywhere else. He had no thoughts, coming or going. He followed footsteps with footsteps, placing caution only in avoiding roots and stones sewn into the dirt path. Images, words, and sensations passed by and fell behind. A single focus held his mind: to walk.
At some point the trees stopped; the creature emerged from his walk. If someone were in the vicinity, they would notice a well-dressed man in his thirties. They might recognize him as Dennon Michaels, the respected surgeon who took these walks weekly. They would see him, tall and trim, standing at the entrance of a beautiful garden, who appeared happy and smiling in spite of a stressful workload.
Long grasses stood to either side of an ornate stone path, well kept from overgrowth, but indifferent to perfection. These grasses served as the royal promenade, the subjects of a flowered kingdom welcoming guests into great halls. The bright-green round bushes were accented by multicolored flowers in countless patterns and shapes. Some had bright orange or red stems reaching out here and there, some scaped perfectly, others completely wild. The path stretched inward from four directions of the forest winding into a labyrinth before finally coming to the center. The center nestled a small pond, surrounded on one side by a bed of flowers that harbored a bubbling fountain. On the other side, the fountain was cradled by a stone path inlaid in a short lawn.
The long walk into the garden would erase Dennon’s thoughts but time spent among the beautiful bushes, flowers, and grasses always allowed him to sort out his feelings. Dennon felt this ebb and flow between mindfulness and thoughtlessness healed his soul better than any spa he’d ever attended. Here he would ponder the simplicity of life as a bee or a root hair while he deliberated the social intricacies that came with his hard earned wealth and prestige. He spent as much time here as possible. Though it was not his garden, nor his woods, he felt more at home here than in his own garden of relative size. Something drew him to the vibrancy of the beds contained within his friends’ immense acerage.
Dennon’s body lightened and relaxed the farther he strode into the familiar courtyard. His troubles outside this elaborate palace did not make the walk in with him. The sun couldn’t have shone brighter. The breeze couldn’t have felt more comfortable on a warm, late summer day. Branches surrounding the garden danced back and forth with the grasses and long stemmed flowers as their earthy flavors churned and became a filling ambrosia. He felt at home.
A daunting to do list crept into Dennon’s mind while he began taking in the grasshoppers active among the first grasses. He attempted to push it out as he passed a hedgerow and took a seat on a ceramic bench in the shade. He always stayed as long as possible on days off, knowing what awaited him outside was an assault of requests, paperwork, and emails. Dennon became a surgeon to help people – to perform life saving procedures. He considered much of the other unfortunate aspects of the job superfluous at best.
His time in the garden that day drew short. He took a bittersweet glance around and prepared to leave. Sometimes Dennon carried a flower away with him to press in a book. He scanned, looking for nothing in particular, and waited until something caught his eye. A smaller yellow flower attracted him to deeper parts of its bed. Dennon reached his hand below the foreground and past the large pink presentation above it.
He screamed, alarmed, when a strong dry hand gripped and jerked his wrist from the flowers.
“Safe in the small hours, but deadly at dawn!” a hoarse voice appeared in his face.
“What the hell?” was all Dennon managed as his face flushed and he jerked uselessly against the iron hold. He recognized the ancient groundskeeper as he looked up from the flower bed. A short, but obviously strong man from long years of pulling and ripping up gnarly weeds sourced the voice and the hand that still gripped him. His deep wrinkles and sun spots made him appear older than the ancient owners. Who knows how old he could have been. His cloudy blue eyes and intent expression gave him a possessed look as he stood below the young surgeon with an arm still clutched tight into his worn hand.
“Do not. Touch. The flowers! Bad things grow here.” He accented each word heavily as if life itself depended on his proposition.
During his time spent in the garden, Dennon came to appreciate this old keeper’s efforts. He felt he had formed a silent bond with the groundskeeper through adoration of the work to which the keeper invested much of his life – perhaps all of it. Such care and attention to detail were certainly worthy of the surgeon’s praise.
Dennon quickly realized that the old man may well perceive harassment of his precious creation linked to life itself. Simultaneously, dread of political backlash entered Dennon’s thoughts, as he further considered the rapport required to continue with the owners if he was to come back when he needed time away from the world. In light of these brief but important notes, he sought forgiveness.
Dennon untensed and lowered his hand, nodding his understanding of the warning.
“Of course, I’m sorry for the intrusion. I just really like your work, and wanted a closer look.” Dennon displayed this with the most genuine and gentle smile he could conjure. Neither of which seemed to register in the old man’s appearance as he slowly freed Dennon’s wrist and backed away with a look that read both angry and concerned. His back, though perfectly straight, continued to flex in resemblance to a ruffled cat on high alert while he shuffled away to collect his tools.
The sun sank as the old groundskeeper slinked out of the garden and into the woods. Likely back to his three room cottage which stood aside the main house as staff quarters. Dennon sat back against some bushes and watched him leave with a sideways stare, hoping to not catch any more attention from him as he ended his day.
The air began to chill as he returned to the flower he had his eye on. Unsure if he was now completely alone, he hesitated for a moment. Perhaps the gardener was waiting to catch the young man. Dennon scanned branches connecting forest to garden but found nothing. Anxious yet determined, Dennon looked to the sky and saw that the sun had begun to sink into the canopy. Its bright blue fading into burnt orange and shades of purple.
Dennon hoped to return in time for a handmade dinner, which the Cullman estate kitchen staff always made into a delicacy. He steeled himself with these thoughts, reaching out once again for the little yellow flower. He found it standing as it had before, right next to a green bud streaking white. He hadn’t noticed the white flower just beginning to bloom before. Perhaps it had finally crossed the threshold of its season today. Dennon felt a special connection to the intimate knowledge of this. He felt more deserving of owning this memento. After all, no one understood and appreciated these flowers as much as he did.
Dennon looked up suddenly, hand gripped around the flower, as his ears became aware of a subtle rustling. He couldn’t discern the noise from the wind or an animal. Something about it sounded vaguely human, and it arose as a whisper, gradually making him more aware of scraping leaves and waving stems. Dennon hastened as fear of the groundskeeper’s return filled him. He plucked the yellow flower and pulled.
A sharp pain penetrated and scraped along his thumb as he drew the yellow cutting out of its shadowy home. Blood dripped and stained the previously white bud nearby while he searched for the perpetrator. Down the stem of the now red flower, Dennon found its natural defense against enemies such as himself. One of its thorns even had a drop left from the attack.
It hurt, he felt, an abnormal amount for just a small unassuming rose. As he pulled himself from the ground, night falling in, he thought nothing else of it. Returning to the edge of his arcadian paradise, he gave the great palace one last glance and drew in a breath of air still fresh with the day’s scent.