by Mag Tan
They say that she can make you live forever. But they say that you should never go to her, oh no, you should never even dream about it unless you are absolutely certain that you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Because everyone who has gone to her has never come back, save one. Poor lost soul, gibbering down the pebble-strewn path with eyes as white as snow and foam in his mouth. Mad with belief, he lived long enough to tell us the price of immortality in her hands.
Yes, immortality. One only has to leave this town and follow the path, you can't possibly miss it. Like something out of a nightmarish fairytale, it winds through the dark forest and though narrow, appears well-kept. Strange trees grow here, we teach the children not to venture near them. Stick to the evergreen trees where there are nuts, berries, fruits and leaves. And forest folk, of course. But even they will not go into the dark woods, they keep their distance from her.
We do not know how old she is. We can only guess from old wives tales by the fireplace. Over the centuries, various people have indeed taken it into their heads that she bestows the greatest gift of all. In their minds, she becomes more than a goddess and so they walk into the forest and eventually stand before the open gates of her garden. That's all there really is, a garden with stonewalls all around. But not all is as it appears.
In the middle of the garden, there stands a silver pagoda. According to poor Chang, it is a strange construction for there are no stones that could possibly glisten so and no lines whatsoever. The surface is smooth and vaguely reflective and yet the shrubbery around the pagoda does not appear in it. To Chang, it was the strangest and coldest looking-glass he'd ever seen. And then he heard her singing.
Chang took off his hat and slowly walked up the stairs, counting softly beneath his breath. The pagoda's interior was strange to his eyes, there were no sharp edges anywhere and reflections upon reflections only served to confuse him. He felt as though the pagoda was alive and there was nobody inside. Chang kept his eyes on his feet.
One hundred and twenty-three steps. At the top of her pagoda was her private chamber. His eyes on the ground, Chang immediately prostrated himself before her. But he couldn't stop himself from looking up, curious about the owner of the voice.
A figure of the palest pallor, skin tinged with the lightest green. Slight of frame and draped in robes of leaves and petals. Chang couldn't help shuddering beneath her stare. The Gardener clasped her hands together and spoke:
"What brings you to my garden?" He shook before her emerald gaze, the narrow slits in her delicate face blazed such a poisonous green. She sighed and bade him come to her side by the window.
"You are the first in a long, long time to disappoint me. What value could you possibly be of in my garden? What makes you so special that you deserve eternity in my paradise?" Like firm and insistent tendrils, her fingers tightened around his arm and she jumped out of the window with Chang. Immediately, the shrubbery below rose to catch them, its softness an antidote to Chang's shock but not his speechlessness.
"Keep off the grass," she warned him and they walked on a gravel path that meandered whimsically. From time to time, she would tickle a flower or croon to a vine, like any mother would show tenderness to her child. It dawned on Chang that the garden was much bigger than it had appeared to be from the outside.
The Gardener stopped and swept her right hand in the air.
Chang stared in wonder at the hundreds of statues in her beautiful garden. Carved from the purest, whitest marble, they were too real. And then he felt the gleam of those verdant eyes upon his face. He couldn't look at her.
"They're alive, you know. Not during the day, of course, the sun affects them in the same way that it affects trolls. But by moonlight, they are free to wander. See those two over there? They're the Lovers, probably my favourite pair, always polite to me. That one is a Scholar and next to him, the Acrobat. So many characters, all of them one of a kind. Sailor. Musician. Archer. Captain. Medicine Man. Seamstress. Explorer. Shaman. I even have an Emperor and his entire retinue, concubines and eunuchs and all. But you, what are you worth? Nothing to me."
And here, Chang made his mistake. Unable to believe his eyes and ears, he strode up to the Lovers. The young couple were frozen, having consented to the Gardener's enchantment years ago. But what she didn't tell Chang was that they could still see and hear during daylight, even if they couldn't move. Questioning marble eyes swiveled towards Chang and blinked. He gasped in horror but it was too late, her voice behind him.
"I told you to keep off the grass. Today, I feel kind and in any case, even the compost heap is too good for you. Now get out of my garden."
Chang didn't need telling twice and he ran past the marble people. It was the wrong direction but he needn't have worried. Under her command, hedges were parting and even trees stepped aside to make a pathway for him. But at the gates, he stopped and looked back at the silver pagoda. Dark clouds were gathering and at the highest window, he was certain he caught a glimpse of green.
And so the story goes. Chang made his way back through the forest and to the town only to die in the innkeeper's bed that night. The wind howled and the rain poured but the thundering din couldn't stop us from hearing Chang's tale and his last words. He wouldn't stop repeating them: "eternity" and "worthless". As the rain ceased the next morning, the gravediggers say they heard a sweet voice singing but there was nobody around.
Everything was fresh and green and the people of the town came to pay their respects to poor Chang. As the coffin was lowered and the soil shoveled upon it, we heard a sigh in the wind and the air was fragrant.
People still look for her, you know. Somehow, fragments of stories curl their tendrils around the world. And like bees drawn to a flower, they fly here, to our small town in search of eternal life. We try to warn them but they dismiss us with mutterings of "country superstitions" and "rural peasants". We watch them go up the path to her; they never come back.
Yesterday, a foreigner arrived and left within an hour. I suppose the Gardener now has a Professor in Botanical Studies and I can't help wondering what her garden looks like. Our town is famous for its flower farms, no prizes for guessing why.
When I tire of this world, perhaps I shall present my dragon bonsai to her and become her servant.