(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores August 2018.)
THE GARDEN LADY
The king's gardener spoke the secret language of all growing things. She knew the songs of the morning flowers and spoke the poems of the weeds. She spent long afternoons in conversation with the trees. From "The Triumph of the Peasant King," a Scim legend
The bench stood twenty feet away. Such a short distance. Such an impossible one. Madeline clung to the trellis of ivy that bordered her mother's garden path as she tried to force air into her ruined lungs. Every gasp felt like pushing sludge through broken glass.
It was late morning on a Sunday, and she'd taken her inhaler an hour before—a quick, sharp breath of cold that disappeared much too quickly. She should have been in bed, flat on her back—not sitting, not standing, much less walking. But if the doctors were to be believed, it was one of the last spring Sundays she would ever see. Her chest and back hurt from the coughing.
The sunlight caressed her face. She couldn't stand at the trellis forever, and the return path to the house was longer. A few steps set off the coughing again. She pushed her fist hard into her ribs. She had dislocated them coughing three days ago, and they still didn't feel right. Three steps brought her to the maple tree which crowded the path. Her vision dimmed, and her knees softened. She slid down the trunk, and when the coughing fit passed she dropped her head against the rough bark.
A hummingbird spun into the air beside her, its shining green body hanging to the right of her face. It chirped three times, then zipped to her left, its small, dark eyes studying her before disappearing toward the pineapple sage. The citrusy fragrance of the roses hung heavy across this part of the path. She took little half breaths, and it felt close to natural. The bees hummed as they visited the flowers. A squirrel hung off a sunflower by its hind legs, plucking seeds out of the wide circle of the flower's face with its forepaws. This garden never quite seemed to follow the seasons...sunflowers blooming in spring instead of summer, roses year-round, frogs singing in the evenings no matter the weather. It was an oasis of near-magic in their suburban lot. Madeline used to build fairy houses along the "shore" of the fountain when she was a kid, using bark, leaves, and flowers to make tiny homes for make-believe friends.
Her mother had never cared for those little homes. She had planned the garden, a full acre of wandering paths, stone bridges, and small fountains. It was eclectic and a bit overgrown in places. Mr. Garcia had done the planting and did the upkeep, too. Mom liked it a bit unkempt, and he worked to give it the impression of slight wildness. It didn't look manicured, but there weren't weeds, either. The fairy houses, Mom had said, looked like someone had forgotten to clean up after doing yard work.
Everything in its place, Mom always said.
Then again, Mom also wanted her house to "look lived in." That meant strange habits like telling their housekeeper, Sofia, that she couldn't immediately put an abandoned glass in the dishwasher. Once Madeline had come home and smelled fresh cookies, only to discover it was an air freshener her mother had bought from a Realtor. "To make it smell like home," Mom had said, seemingly oblivious to the reality that she was, indeed, home, and that actually baking cookies would have been simpler.
A few more steps, Madeline decided, but halfway to the bench a racking army of coughs marched across her chest. She touched her lips, then wiped the blood in the grass. With her eyes closed and the little half breaths coming again, she counted to twelve. When the jagged feeling in her chest passed, she lay flat and watched the clouds drifting in some high, distant wind. Air moved so easily for everyone but her.
It may have been a mistake, sneaking into the garden without telling anyone, with no way to call for help. She had chosen the perfect moment. Mom and Sofia had gone upstairs, something about washing the curtains. Dad was at the golf course, or work, or both. Her phone sat inside, turned off. The constant texts from Darius were making her feel guilty, but she had made a decision, and it was final. He couldn't waste his life waiting for her. There wasn't a cure. He needed to live his life. She needed to live what remained of hers.
Birds chirped in the maple. The warmer air made it easier to breathe. Going outside in the winter had been nearly impossible. And the sun felt nice. She closed her eyes. The tree shaded her face, but her hands and feet baked in the sunshine. Last week the doctor had said, "If there are things you want to do, you should do them." He was trying to be encouraging, she knew that, but it sounded too much like "enjoy your last spring." Her mom didn't think she should sit out in the backyard because "she might catch cold," as if that would change anything now.
And here Madeline was on her back, stranded and straining to breathe. So much for doing whatever she wanted.
The hummingbird wheeled overhead. It zipped back and forth over her, then shot off again, chirping incessantly.
"I see her, I see her."
Madeline struggled to prop herself onto her elbow, looking for the source of the unfamiliar voice. It sounded like the voice of an old woman, but there was no wavering in it, no sense of weakness. It sounded, in fact, almost musical...as if the woman had been a professional singer once upon a time and the music had never left her. Still, she was trespassing in their backyard. A small thrill of adrenaline coursed through Madeline.
A woman made her way toward Madeline, hunched low, as if carrying a heavy load on her back. She wore a broad hat with pale violet flowers along the brim, and her grey hair stuck out like the straws of an overworked broom. Her patched and dirty skirt trailed the ground, and she carried a canvas sack. Madeline couldn't imagine how she'd gotten in through the hedge that ran around the garden.
Another coughing fit overcame Madeline. Her vision blurred at the edges, and she pressed hard against her chest.
"Don't get up, dear, rest yourself. It's the hummingbird who's in such a hurry, but I saw you, don't worry, I already saw."
"Does my mom know you're..." Madeline couldn't finish the question.
"Of course not," the old woman said. She settled next to Madeline with a great deal of groaning. She looked at the house, her eyes sparkling, a smile tugging at the edges of her lips. Her face was weathered and wrinkled, but her eyes shone like black stones in a clear river.
"You shouldn't be here," Madeline said. "My mom won't..." She stopped to catch her breath. "She won't like it."
The old woman nodded thoughtfully, then smoothed her skirt. "Mothers rarely do, dear. Now, to business." She reached into her sack and pulled out a small white button, crusted in dirt, then a recently unearthed bottle cap and a small roll of twine. "I would like to borrow these."
"Borrow them?" Madeline pushed her hand against her chest again, trying to get a deeper breath. "I don't understand."
"They are yours," the woman said. She raised her hand. "Don't deny it. I found them in your garden. The birds brought me the twine, and the squirrel mentioned the button, but I dug it out with my own hands. The bottle cap—well, I've had my eye on that for several seasons."
Madeline tried to call her mother, but she couldn't shout loud enough. She coughed and coughed, and the old woman put a fleshy arm around her shoulders. "My mom," Madeline managed between coughs.
"I won't cheat you," the woman said. "I only want to borrow them. In exchange, I'll give you three favors and one piece of advice." The hummingbird zipped in front of them again and chirped twice. The old woman made a shooing motion. "I know what time it is, go on with you."
Maybe the old woman would go if Madeline gave her what she wanted, and it was only a few pieces of trash from the backyard. "Take them," Madeline said.