(Written August 2007)
I can't really remember where this one came from. I was probably reading through one of Neil Gaiman's short story anthologies around the time, so that may have had some influence. Possibly that and bad day-time television, fragments of TV murder mysteries seeping into my subconscious. I'm not particularly into crime or horror, but I do seem to find myself writing oddly dark tales on occasion.
I'm pretty sure I had this idea one afternoon and just sat and wrote it there and then on impulse, rather than making a note of it and filing that note away for another day - as I do all too often with many of the ideas that flit around in what I imagine to be the cavernous space just behind my eyes. I should probably dig more of those notes out. And I should probably flesh this one out more. But then I should probably just write more on impulse...
The gardener stood before the patch of freshly dug earth, one hand resting on the handle of his spade. His other hand reached into the pocket of his tweed jacket and became a fist. He took out that hand and opened it palm-side up to reveal three seeds, each as large as a fat clove of garlic.
The seeds had been found in a small, dark-wooden box with a black metal latch. The box was unmarked. There was no label, no sign of a packet that might show what the seeds would grow. The gardener himself didn’t know what they were. He’d never seen seeds quite like them. They were darkish red in colour like kidney beans, with small nodules evenly spaced around them, like tiny, blunt rose thorns.
He hoped they were fast growing, as he wanted to establish this bed as soon as possible. He didn’t have any other suitable seedlings or bulbs available, he’d already planted everything he had and he hadn’t expected to be doing any more, and it may be a while before he had the chance to go to market again.
Kneeling at the edge of the lawn, the gardener pushed each of the three seeds a few inches into the damp soil, evenly spaced, two feet between them, a clear foot at each end. He patted down the soil gently, before watering the bed a little, and retiring to his shed for an afternoon brew.
A week later, to the hour, the gardener was again in his shed. While the kettle built from a slight whistle to a scream on the gas burner, tucked into a dark corner of the cramped and cluttered potting shed, the gardener stooped in the doorway and looked out across the manor’s grounds towards the house.
He watched the uniforms conversing by the outer door to the kitchen. As the chief inspector broke off to head in his direction, he turned to fill his tin mug, sending the teabag swimming in circles before fishing it out with a rusty spoon and heaping in powdered milk and slightly lumpy sugar.
The inspector was close enough to address him by the time he’d blown a lungful of air across the surface of his beverage and taken his first long sip, inhaling the steam along with it and exhaling it again through his nose.
“Good afternoon, sir,”
“Inspector. Have there been any developments?”
“Not yet, sir. I’m afraid we’ve not found anything yet.”
“Terrible business, this,” the gardener ventured.
“Of course, sir. Most unsettling for all concerned, I’m sure.”
The gardener looked at the inspector with an emotionless expression.
“So, inspector, what can I do you for? Can’t be another tour of the grounds, your boys must know them almost as well as I do by now.”
“Yes, quite,” the inspector laughed, “I should think they almost do. Actually, I’m a bit green fingered myself, in my spare time. My own garden isn’t quite as grand as this, you understand, but still. As it happens, I was wondering what you were growing over there?” The inspector pointed towards the flowerbed the gardener had planted the three unusual seeds in the previous week. “Only, I don’t recognise the plants there. At first I thought they were just weeds, but I realised they were the only thing on that patch.”
The gardener, with a more grave countenance, looked in the direction the inspector was pointing. “Oh, those err,” he pulled his hand away from scratching his ear and tucked it under the arm of the hand he held his tea in, “some foreign species of rose, I believe. I’m not sure now. I planted them a while ago, just after the last frost, I think.” The thorny green vines looked like some kind of rose bush, and the inspector seemed to accept this.
“Oh well, I’ll keep my eye out for that,” the inspector said, adjusting his cap, “although hopefully this case will be closed before long. Your master will have to turn up sooner or later, and his mistress.”
“Let’s hope so, inspector, let’s hope so.”
The following day the inspector wasn’t at the manor, and there were fewer uniforms at the house. Called off to look into more pressing business, the gardener presumed.
As he did his rounds of the gardens, watering and weeding where needed, he noticed the vines in the newly planted flowerbed had increased dramatically in size. They intertwined at ground level before separating again as they reached upwards, and were a full two feet in height already.
There was no way they should have been able to grow that much overnight. He hadn’t even treated the topsoil with any fertilisers, and he vowed to keep a closer eye on them as he made his way back to the shed. He would have no choice but to uproot them if they were going to be troublesome and draw attention away from the adjacent beds, which by now were beginning to flower in the most brilliant reds and yellows.
The gardener made a mental note to go to the market as soon as possible to find something more suitable to replace them with.
After another day there was just the one officer stationed at the house, and it seemed that their fruitless search for the missing lord of the manor might be drawing to a close.
On passing the vines, the gardener saw that a bulbous green growth had appeared at the top of the plant in the middle, which had now reached around four feet in height. The other two vines, in contrast, seemed to have shrunk in size and withered away. Perhaps they’d exhausted the nutrients in the soil, the gardener thought.
As he looked at the tumourous lump on the increasingly thick and thorny vine, curiosity got the better of his instinct to prune it away. It was already about the size of his fist. Maybe it was just a normal characteristic of whatever this plant was. It didn’t look like any kind of infection, or the creation of wasps or other insects.
He stared at it long and hard. Was it beginning to look slightly skull-like? Were those eye sockets or just a trick of the light? He was tired and probably imagining it; he needed more sleep, he decided, and promised himself an early night.
Early the next morning, after returning from the market with new bedding plants, the gardener walked over to the flowerbed to remove the vines. After rolling up his shirt sleeves, he put on his leather gloves. The sooner he was rid of them, the better, he thought. To his horror, the vines were now as tall as a man, even a little taller than he was, and the growth was now as large as a human head.
The vines swayed in the morning breeze. The gardener thought he could make out a voice in the creaking.
You, he thought he heard it say. You’ll never get away with it. They know I’m buried here. It’s only a matter of time before they find me.
The gardener looked up at the skull with tears in his eyes.
“Why?!” he shouted back at the plant before him. “Why did you do it to her? She didn’t deserve it. What did she ever do to you?”
The skull twisted around on its malformed neck and looked up at him.
“She betrayed me,” it hissed back at him.
“She was pregnant with your child,” the gardener sobbed, “there was no one else, it was your child, and you killed her, you killed them both.”
“She lied to me,” the skull said, “she told me it wasn’t mine. She was going to leave me.”
“Because she knew what a monster you were,” the gardener choked back the tears. He could feel the uncontrollable rage building inside him again. “My only regret is that I didn’t kill you sooner, I should have made you suffer the way she suffered.” The gardener unhooked the sickle from his belt and raised it across his body to his shoulder. He seized the vine by the throat, and beheaded it in one swift backstroke.
He dropped the sickle by his side and tried to step back, but he couldn’t. He was stuck fast. He looked down to see vines wrapped around his feet and slowly wrapping themselves around his ankles. He began to feel them tugging him towards the dark, damp earth as he gasped in the morning mist and tried to scream.
Later that day a shallow grave was found in local woodland, about half a mile away from the estate. The local rector identified the body of a young woman as that of the gardener’s daughter. She appeared to be several months pregnant. Nearby, an ornamental sword was found discarded under some hawthorn. The sword matched the description of the one apparently missing from the study of the manor house.
The police immediately returned to the estate to talk to the gardener but all they found were his boots, half filled with earth, sitting next to a weed-choked flowerbed. The inspector had the sergeant’s men dig up the ground. Two skeletons were excavated. They appeared to have their hands at each other’s throats, and the skeleton that had been on top was wearing leather gardening gloves.
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