The Bitter Herbs

[Nature] will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.

—Oscar Wilde, “De Profundis”

In excess, he knew the things of the few. Crafting wide paths for the narrow harem whose few would frolic along them, he mimicked their abundant toil and charted a route from his symbol’s balcony to the fountain. He laid out the garden in trefoil form. As a gardener, he received less the respect of his patrons than that they afforded the designers of their homes, yet knew, secretly, they adored his work far dearer than any kin. Only superficially can the bond of family limit by that which it seemingly builds.

The face of the garden, however, was one much more resilient than the home’s; true, one could reside in either, but only the garden gave life while it hosted it. In its flaws, the garden yielded the clay which could be teased into beauty; the stone walls and symmetry of a shell can only be such, a shell, however perfect in substance. Nathanael knew this well, and with blackened hands, wiped the artifice from his heart—the mulch from the bed in which he would never again oblige the hospitality of a liar.

Measuring, always measuring, he consistently segregated his day according to the shape of Nature. There wafted through the living limbs of his work a breath of unspoken praise which he inhaled devoutly whenever he began to doubt his worth; it was blown forth by Andrew whenever he faced the garden, turning from the stability of his fortified home.

The gardener toiled nightly to rake the gravel of his muse’s path, which connected the granite wing of Andrew’s apartments to the southerly of the shrub formation’s three divine points. From the air, the yard seemed as though it were actually the copper-framed window of a cathedral, the panes of which were coloured by the sheets of floral beds draped between each oxidized frame. Corrupted by life’s breath those bushes were—for the cool air of the evening in this strange clime had tarnished the veneer of each leaf, and topiary was the only treatment which his subordinates could administer to distinguish Nathanael’s calculation from serendipity.

The chatter of the small stones gave him counsel as he neared the chateau, recoiling in clockwork rhythm each time he neared its wall, smoothing the confusion of each day prior as he levelled the path, waiting for Andrew’s airy glide to calm the grey, Galilean storm of the pebbles. “Perhaps some day,” Nathanael genuflected before the fountain, atop which reclined the figure of a pock-mocked, weather-worn marble Diana, whose hunt long ago bade her to the present repose, claiming her quiver and bow. Nathanael knew that if she had to give up her pursuit merely to adorn, after descending the pit of centuries, this stone spring, he should consider giving up his and sup at her well. He sought to pour forth his selflessness, and to concoct an elixir called Love. He could not however, until he released his remaining arrow.

# # #

“Complete the circle only when you trust its proportions,” Andrew twice called from the balcony, neglecting his comrades who, beyond the French doors, were ensconced in libations of a farewell cider. Nathanael dropped his column of rolled charts—his concentrated plans—and sought to glimpse his master. The scene was sepia as evening, accompanied by starlets, sauntered in, and the gardener’s glare was hope draped in greyscale garb, awaiting silken spectacles. His rusted hair parted in the cool air, knotting around his Celtic ears as he deigned to Andrew’s whim, the words rolling like silver off of trembling fingers. Offering dim benediction, the master’s rigid hand traced the sundown in the air.

“Should I keep the path lined with primrose or with poppies?”

“What matter is it? Both, like blood, are coloured in shame which has been shed.” He winked, sheltering his throat with his hand, and Nathanael gawked, feasting on what he could now discern—his avarice now overcome by gluttony.

“Yes, Andrew, but one is a wound of travel and the other of battle.” He tossed forth his hoarded experience, hoping charity would temper his consumption.

Andrew grabbed the balustrade of his balcony as his eyes narrowed, conforming to the lines of perspective guiding his vision below. “Nathanael, please, stitch yourself with thorns, and entomb yourself in the soil.” At this, the point vanished.

The gardener swallowed the words like a capsule, eager to quit himself of Andrew’s bittersweet spectacle with this nightly diet. His chin met his chest, and he caught sight of a storm at his feet; the pebbles, which he had been raking, were somehow out of order. In a gasp, he glanced upward, surveying the balcony, yet finding the curtains of its slender portal drawn, its glass panels closed, mocking the moon’s reflection, and his muse gone.

# # #

Emerging from the soft-flowing sanctity of its waters, Nathanael sat on the low ledge which bordered the fountain’s pool, realizing his wound had been cleansed. He stooped to the path encircling the waterworks, and, looking into the wind-hewn face of the goddess slumbering above, received her taciturn command of humility. He set off crawling the length of the route he had himself planned and constructed, tearing at the stems and trunks of the adjoining manicured shrubbery to guide him—pull him—along. His course was southerly, following the curves and angles of the trefoil’s atrophied arm.

It had taken the evening for the gardener, wading much like Job through self-sought mire, to reach the foot of the chateau, normally mere paces away. The earlier words of his master at sundown had assured him of the mutuality of the expedition; both were game. Then, when, with the strength afforded by realization, Nathanael caused the stem of one of the shrubs to break, he knew who their hunter was. Rising to his feet, his front reddened like the floral rope which served as the path’s unheeded railing, he ignored the blood and stumbled to his work-bench beneath the balcony. He set about cutting the trefoil into a circle.