The Gardener and the King's Menagerie


“Come up, come up, the festival’s here,” the gardener sang, spading the rows, as she did every spring.

Crocodils bloomed snout by green snout out of the wet earth, opening pupils of purple and gold. The massive, pungent elefoils that flowered only once a decade wobbled on their slender stems, then split open. All year the gardener had hurried along with wheelbarrows of potting soil and buckets of water, until the tendrils of her head oozed sap and stuck together, all for this day, for this hour, for her King.

In that country of brief memories and few remembrances, the only constants were the King and the festival. On this morning, a glorious, clamorous procession wound its way through the city, from palace to plaza. Mummers in gold and silver paint tottered down the street, children skipping between their stilts. Lovers tossed tame bumblebees back and forth, gilding their fur with pollen, until the bees were too dizzy to fly. Behind the mummers danced flutes, calliopes, and harps, who bent their hollow bodies and tuned their taut hair for the wind to make a careless music upon.

The gardener followed them, leading her menagerie on a vine: crocodils, elefoils, dandelionesses, and giraffanthus, flightless cassavaries and peaflorets. After her marched soldiers in trellis formation, clad in thorns and glittering with medals like a hedge with morning dew. The General of Poisons rode behind them on a war bamboo, silver rosettes upon her sleeves. Last of all came the King astride a tumbleweed, his perianth held high.

On that sweetly scented day, all who saw the King, from the smallest shoots to the mossiest snag, fell at least a little bit in love. This was not the light and easy romance of green things, dicing with breeze and bee, quickly fruiting and forgotten. This love turned the gardener's head toward her King, wherever she was, and by degrees kinked and corkscrewed her back, as it did to all subjects who were near him. For that reason the King spent most of his days in the palace’s innermost gardens, out of sight, only emerging for the festival or occasions of state.

If only the King acknowledged her, the gardener thought, she would bristle with suckers, thicken to a respectable girth, and bloom twice in one season. If he bent his crowned head in approbation, she might even be granted a plot of her own.

At present she rotated between the mulched beds of the outer gardens, as all the royal servants did, so that each received their allotment of sunlight and rain, and none could spread their roots and grow dull and slow.  The gardener had saved four seeds in paper, mementos of past joy, but she had no place to plant them. Although she knew her country was no place for keepsakes and bygones, she longed to see them put forth leaf and root and flower.

The wind hummed in the harps and whistled through the flutes. The city’s fountains plumed bright and crystal. Dreaming of pasts and futures, the gardener swung her whisk and cane.

Now and then she glanced behind her, hoping for a sight of the King, but the soldiers’ thistle pikes bristled high as a forest, and she saw no further. Now and then the General or her soldiers kicked aside one of the dandelionesses, or pricked the ankles of an elefoil in their way, and the gardener thought unkind thoughts. 

When the procession turned into a narrow passage between high houses, it slowed and thickened. One crocodil was trodden upon, first by cassavaries, then by the jostling soldiers. A trumpet blatted in its ear, and it lashed its taproot back and forth.

In close confinement, crowded by the musicians, the dandelionesses began to snarl and snap. As the gardener bent to soothe them, swishing her whisk, the crocodil tore loose from its traces and bowled over a battalion.

In their confusion, the soldiers parted ranks. The crocodil, seeing its chance, stormed the gap and flew straight at the astonished King.

He was beautiful, the gardener saw, his flowers many-colored and complex, his leaves like lace, sitting high atop his tumbleweed, but in a moment his fine steed was overthrown, and then her crocodil was trying its best to swallow the King.

The General barked orders, and her soldiers leapt forward, swinging their pikesThey wrestled the crocodil to the earth and pried open its jaws.

The King, bleeding bitter milk, wincingly peeled leaf from crushed leaf. He had lost five fine florets and was badly bruised along his stalk. His splendid perianth was pulped. Though the General plucked her own petals for handkerchiefs and offered to impale the crocodil on thorns, the King remained in shock.

"Put the gardener in prison," the General said. "Once the King recovers, he shall determine her punishment."

And the gardener, protesting, was pulled away from her menagerie.

The soldiers shut her into a dark and disused cell beneath the palace. The flagstones allowed her no sustenance, and the cupful of stale earth flung into the cell each day was never enough. The only mercies were a seep of water, dark and tasting of moss, and a small slit in one wall, no bigger than a keyhole, that let in a needle of sunlight. 

There she waited, growing wan and thin, expecting any day a summons to trial, and then, she imagined, exoneration, a release, and a relieved return to her duties. Who else could tend her menagerie?

But the seasons changed, and no one came.

One day, peering through the hole in the wall, the gardener saw a small young thing pruning the hedge outside the prison. In a voice so frail she hardly recognized it, she called out, "Have you news of the trial?"

"There are no trials, and we have no need for any," the young thing said. "All is peaceful, and all obey. Who are you, that you do not know this?"

"The gardener."

"You cannot be the gardener, since I am and have always been."

"If you are the new gardener, and I am not to be tried or freed, please tell me, how are my dandelionesses, my elefoils, my crocodils? Do they flourish and flower? Do you lead them in the procession with ribbons and bells?"

"What procession? Do you mean our triumphs? Only soldiers parade in those. Elefoils and crocodils and all those monstrous growths are forbidden there. Only a fool would not know that," the new gardener said. "If you’ll excuse me, I must go tend to the Queen's lap pansies. They yap and nip and must be mulched."

"What Queen? Where is the King?"

"We have not had a King since the one killed by a crocodil. Our General nobly nursed him, using her vast knowledge of poisons and cures, but though his injuries were minor, the shock, indeed the disrespect, she said, was too much. Then she who saved us from invasions and caterpillars became Queen. Or so I heard. All this was before my time."

The old gardener, who was no longer a gardener, subsided upon the flagstones and wept a long tear of sap. And then she raised a stalk to the hole in the mortar, and with what small strength she had left, pressed against the crumbling stone.

Day after day, all of her soul was bent to this task; all of her thoughts were of freedom and the fate of her menagerie.

A long time later, too long to tell, a stone cracked and loosened in its setting. The gardener, struggling, her fibers soft and limp, pushed it from its seat and slipped through the hole.

It was dark. No one saw the gardener, blanched and bent, gliding to the perennial beds where her menagerie grew.

"Come up, come up, the festival’s here," she sang, as she had so many times before. Although it was night, tendrils stirred, and leaves opened and uncurled.

"Follow me," she said. One by one they did, the elefoils and giraffanthus, the peaflorets and dandelionesses, sagging and shambling, limp and yellow, up an espaliered vine and over the palace wall, then out of the bright, terrible, poisonous city and into the moonlit wild.

They went a great distance over rocky ground, the sun burning them, the night chilling them. The menagerie grew hardy while the gardener weakened.

When she felt the green leaving her, she gave her four seeds to her elefoils and dandelionesses and giraffanthus and peaflorets.

"Plant these north and east and west and south," she said, "that I might be remembered, when nothing else is." When the wind turned, she stiffened to black stalk and broken husks and spoke no more.

Her menagerie dug and burrowed and buried the seeds. Some time later, they put out their own pods and fruit, and then they too withered.

When spring came again, the crocodils and giraffanthus and dandelionesses that sprouted grew rank and untended. Knowing no tameness, they bit and scratched one another, hunted and fled.

From the gardener’s seeds grew four white flowers, mute and lame and lovely, and on the petals of each was written a quarter of the gardener’s sorrows. But no one came into the wilderness to read them. Soon they faded and were forgotten.

E. Lily Yu received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2012. Her short stories have appeared in Boston Review, McSweeney's, Kenyon Review Online, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Uncanny, and multiple best-of-the-year anthologies, and have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. She is currently revising a novel.