How Does Your Garden Grow?
by Shell St. James
Appearing in The Vanishing Point
The signs were all there. I had just chosen not to see them.
I lay immobilized on the frozen earth, unable to scream, and gazed up at the October night sky. It was cold and clear and brilliant with stars, and I knew I would be dead by morning.
If only I’d taken it all more seriously.
The animal bones were the first warning; the first niggle in my brain that something was off.
I stood in coveralls, surveying the overgrown garden. The property had been foreclosed upon, and I’d snapped it up for a song, feeling self-satisfied and ready to play city girl turned farmer.
There was a weathered scarecrow standing sentry that I found charming, if a bit creepy. The head was just a plain burlap sack stuffed with straw, so I had taken a Sharpie marker, doodling a silly face with girlishly long eyelashes and a mouth wide open in surprise.
Afterwards, I stepped back, my smile slipping away. The foolish new countenance didn’t work with the old flannel shirt and tattered straw hat. It left me strangely disturbed… imagining a reproachful look behind the cartoon eyes.
Shrugging off my uneasiness, I straightened the shirt collar, saying, “There you go!” and stepped back, avoiding looking at the face.
My gaze landed instead on a black length of cord buried beneath the straw near the collar. I pulled at it, dislodging bits of musty hay that fluttered to the ground, and discovered a crude pendant. A small, pointed bone – the tip of an antler? - dangled on the cord. Flipping it over, I saw an engraved symbol, darkened with age.
It was unsettling, and for a moment I thought to remove it, but instead tucked it back into the straw, out of sight. I wiped my hands on my thighs, deliberately turning away from the scarecrow and picked up my pitchfork, intent on starting my garden.
Broccoli, sugar snap peas, kale, and a few pumpkins, I thought, skimming away the layer of weeds that had grown up inside the fencing. Cold weather crops since I was starting so late in the season. It took a while to remove the old sod, but by midday I had laid my pitchfork aside, swapping it for a shovel, and started turning the soil. The shovel blade hit something hard, and I bent to remove the rock.
Except it wasn’t a rock. It was a skull. I brushed soil away with my glove and stared down at the small skull, the size of a baseball. Too big for a squirrel, too small for a dog…maybe a cat? Kind of odd to find it inside the garden fence. I picked it up, tossing it into the woods.
Two turns of the spade later and I found more bones. I stared down at the curved ivory pieces, stained with the red clay of the soil, feeling uneasy. They looked to be rib bones, but not from a cat. Bigger. A dog, I guessed.
I looked around, puzzled. This must have been a garden, why else would there be a scarecrow? A scarecrow seemed an unlikely fixture in a family’s pet cemetery.
I stopped for a moment, leaning on the shovel, looking around the field. Maybe I should choose another location… but it would be so much more work. This area was already fenced in, with the sod removed. I’d seen deer crossing the road several times; a garden fence would be a must. I decided to move ahead with my plan. A few animal bones were not going to derail my grand garden vision.
It turned out there were more than a few. I doggedly kept turning the soil, finding small skulls of rodents, larger blocky bones that looked to be vertebrae of some kind of farm animal, and delicate spindles of ivory that broke under my blade and crumbled in my gloved hand.
Frustrated, and more than a little irritated, I stopped digging, deciding I would just dump a bunch of store-bought soil over the ground. In hindsight, this laziness would prove to be my downfall, but I was resistant to the idea of starting over in a new spot, building a new fence, removing a new plot of sod.
My new plan worked…for a while.
I planted my garden in a thick top layer of pristine, bagged soil, buying little flats of vegetables to give me a head start and a sense of accomplishment. Within a short time, I realized I had planted about twice as many pumpkins as I needed. They were taking over the entire garden. I hated the thought of hacking off living vines, but they were killing all of the other vegetables.
Pumpkin vines crawled over the broccoli, tangling, and twisting over the kale, winding around the sugar snap peas, squeezing the life from them as the broad leaves and sticky vines covered everything in their path.
“Sorry, guys,” I apologized, the sharp new clippers poised to trim an out-of-control pumpkin plant. I grabbed a spiny vine with my gloved hand, surprised when the fine nettles went straight through the fabric and into my thumb.
“Damn!” I dropped the vine and pulled off my glove, examining the wound.
A bright red drop of blood spilled onto the ground. I popped my injured thumb into my mouth to take away the sting but withdrew it immediately, spitting on the ground. It tasted earthy and rank, calling up images of dead things decaying in the forest. I dismissed my fanciful association; surely there was just dirt inside my gardening glove.
With a frown, I regarded the offending vine. I really needed heavy canvas gloves instead of the thin fabric ones I’d picked up, but for now… I set the pair of clippers aside, leaning them up against the scarecrow and returning to the shed for a shovel.
Stepping through the garden gate again, I made no apologies, setting the shovel blade against the tiny bristles and stomping through the vine. I moved through the garden, shortening all the pumpkin vines to reasonable lengths, kicking the remains out through the garden gate, then stood back. I surveyed my work with satisfaction, hands on my hips, as the afternoon sun cast my shadow across the ground before me.
Quite a tall shadow I made, I noted with amusement, raising my arms up in a “Victory” stance, fists clenched over one shoulder. I started to strike another pose when a second shadow eclipsed my own, much taller and looming menacingly behind me.
I whirled around, thinking maybe a neighbor had crept up unannounced, but there was no one there. Just the scarecrow, standing a dozen paces away, my regrettable cartoon-like scrawls decorating his face. His shadow lay sedately near his feet, as shadows should.
I looked around the empty field and decided it must have been a trick of the light.
The wind had started to pick up and I shivered, deciding I had better get on with my task. Retrieving the wheelbarrow from the shed, I gingerly picked up the vine remnants, careful not to stick myself. As I dumped them in a gully on the other side of the property, they seemed to emit a strange rotten smell, causing me to turn my head aside to draw a fresh breath. They tumbled on top of each other, a jumble of thick eviscerated vines oozing a milky white secretion and stinking vaguely like a dead animal.
I wiped my sweaty face with a bandana, feeling creeped out and unclean. A shower was in order.
It was nearing sunset before I remembered I’d left the tools out. Comfortably ensconced in my pajamas, I was sipping at my second glass of wine, leafing through a bulb catalog, and watching the orange glow start to drop below the tree line, when I remembered.
"Damn,” I muttered, staring out the window at the dwindling light. A light frost had been forecast for the early morning hours. Though I was reluctant to go back out, it would be highly irresponsible to leave my brand-new shovel and hedge clippers out in the weather.
I clomped across the yard to the field, breathing in the crisp autumn air, a jacket thrown over my pajamas. I could see my breath already, white puffs against the twilight as I reached the garden area. The scarecrow stood in full shadow, seeming taller than during daylight hours, and decidedly eerie.
I avoided looking directly at it, instead focusing on the grass where I’d left my clippers. Though the light was getting dim, it was by no means dark yet. I should be able to spot the bright red handles easily. I walked around the scarecrow twice, not finding them. Puzzled, I stopped and looked at the garden. Perhaps I’d left them inside the gates with the shovel.
I opened the garden gate and stepped inside, my eyes scanning the ground.
What I saw caused me to stop in my tracks, rigid with shock, as the hair prickled on the back of my neck. My breath caught, one hand rising to my throat as I surveyed the scene.
More than a dozen dead birds…jays, robins, chickadees, and others, littered the ground among the freshly cut pumpkin vines. What had happened? My heart hammered in my chest. Could it be some sort of natural phenomenon? A sickness, an avian flu?
I suddenly felt very conscious of my own breathing and wondered if the air might be contaminated.
When I saw a bluebird twitch, apparently not dead yet, pity for the creature warred with my need to flee. Flight won out, and I raced from the garden, rushing back into my home, tools forgotten.
I washed my hands vigorously under the hottest water I could stand, shedding a few silent tears. I was overwhelmed by the tragic tableau replaying in my mind. I poured another glass of wine to steady my nerves, wondering who I should call in the morning. Pest control? SPCA?
Sipping my wine, I stared sightlessly through the kitchen window at the full dark that had stealthily fallen, blanketing my property without a streetlight to pierce the gloom.
In that moment, I decided it would be best to scrap my garden project. I would start fresh, in a different spot, in the spring.
A mournful howl suddenly split the air, sounding very close by. I jumped, splashing wine from my glass.
The splatters of red on my white linoleum did nothing to calm my frazzled nerves, instead seeming ominous portents of doom.
I wiped them up hastily as the howling continued. It wasn’t the ordinary sound of a coyote or hound dog, but a long, hollow sound of pain. It reminded me of a childhood experience at a cousin’s house.
Their dog was ancient, half-blind and hobbling about, and one day crept under the porch to die in peace. No amount of cajoling or treats would tempt it out, and around sundown it began to howl, a mournful baying that had made me shiver. The words of my uncle haunted me to this day: “He’s singing his way home. It won’t be long now.”
The sound had been so full of pain, so tormented, that as a child of eight, I’d started to cry.
I tossed the soiled paper towels, trying to ignore the sound. Singing his way home.
Somewhere, out there in the night, a dog was dying; I tried to dismiss the fact that the sound seemed to be coming from my garden plot, full of dead birds and old bones.
The wine and stress were making my ears ring. I decided to take a sleeping pill and go to bed early. By the time I had brushed my teeth, the howling had stopped, so I fluffed my pillow and climbed into bed, pulling the quilt up to my chin. I was determined to have a cheery outlook in the morning.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
A rustling noise woke me from a sound sleep.
As I lay still in my bed, my heartbeat thudding loud in my ears, I held my breath, trying to identify the noise. It came again, evoking an image of copper leaves whirling in the October breeze, the scratchy sound as they rush across pavement and crunch underfoot.
I strained to see in the darkness…something…anything… silently arguing with myself that I had most certainly closed the windows.
The floorboards creaked near my bed.
I sat up with a gasp, fumbling for the bedside lamp, only to have it crash to the floor as my arm was struck numb by a vicious blow.
I flailed desperately in the dark, trying to escape my unseen assailant. My right arm hung uselessly as the pain consumed me, and I struggled to untangle myself from the bedclothes.
A fetid odor washed over the room, of rotting flesh and things long dead.
I desperately launched myself from the bed, my feet still twisted in the sheets. Falling heavily to the floor, face first, my chin smacked the hard surface and my teeth clacked together painfully. Stunned and gasping, I lay with the wind knocked out of me, and tried to catch my breath. My head swam from the pain. I blinked rapidly to restore my vision, and slowly an object came into focus, just inches away.
The shiny new blade of my garden shovel. It flashed as a shaft of moonlight shone through the window.
My horrified gaze traveled fearfully upward, registering straw poking through flannel shirtsleeves, red handled clippers tucked in a pocket, a gleam of ivory as the bone pendant swung on the black cord.
Trembling, I raised my eyes further, scrunching them half-closed in fear, not wanting to look but unable to stop myself.
A head made of stuffed burlap, my cartoon drawing turned grotesque as the scribbled long-lashed eyes mocked me, the black mouth gaping now not in surprise, but in malice. I opened my mouth to scream just as the shovel came crashing down again.
Cold…so cold, was my first thought as I regained consciousness. The pain came roaring in, and I wavered on the edge of blackness, finding myself staring at the starry sky as my senses returned. I was outside and it was night.
The pain was intense, concentrated on my left leg, my right arm, and my neck. I tried to move my uninjured parts and found myself held fast. Tied? Drawing in a shuddering breath, I tried to scream and gagged, as cloth tasting of rubber and dirt filled my mouth…my garden gloves, I realized, terror clenching my gut. I willed myself not to vomit, knowing I would choke to death.
Though my neck throbbed with pain, I tried to lift my head, and fought back a wave of dizziness and nausea. I was bound around my neck and forehead, as well, unable to turn my head.
I panicked, fighting, straining against the bonds, and they seemed to tighten, prickling uncomfortably into my cold skin, holding me even more closely to the frigid ground. By rolling my eyes sideways I could see a bit of my shadowy surroundings. My blood ran cold as I recognized my location.
I was lying in the pumpkin patch. It was the cursed vines that now imprisoned me.
The smell of death was all around me, and I heard the soft whimpers of an animal in pain. The dog, I realized with a sick feeling. It was caught by the vines as well.
The vines tightened further, seeming to sense my galloping heartbeat in the way a boa constrictor instinctively stifles the life force of its prey. My eyes widened with terror, unable to scream or move, I tried to calm myself and think beyond the pain… the panic…there must be something I could do!
A vine slithered across my pajama top then, insidiously creeping over my rib cage. I trembled with fear, willing myself to hold my breath.
It paused for a moment, then continued its path, thorny tendrils catching on flannel, tiny shoots wrapping around buttons. The monstrous vine tickled under my chin with delicate scratches, before curling around my neck snugly, looping around and around and tightening without mercy.
Squeezing my eyes tightly shut against the horror, I struggled with my last breath, as the scarecrow stood sentry over his wicked garden.
The signs had all been there. I had just chosen not to see them.