The moonlight is bright enough to illuminate the twisting path ahead, but dim enough that the lush green foliage surrounding it is now nothing more than a vague mass of shadow. Here and there — under the leaves of euonymus, Rose of Sharon, and hydrangeas — pools of light burst from small, round fixtures installed in the earth. Claire smiles as she passes these little pockets of vibrant colour; she is thankful for the reminder that under all these shadows, there is nothing more than leaves and stems and blooms.
She walks slowly, enjoying the quiet exhilaration of being alone so late at night — or early in the morning, really — in a place typically reserved only for daytime forays. Occasionally she squints into the darkness and reaches for a carelessly discarded plastic cup or stray napkin left on one of the benches. Veena will do a more thorough check when she returns later in the morning — Claire’s real priority is the greenhouse.
When she reaches the bottom of the stairs it waits for her, shining like a beacon in the night. Chateau De Verre glows with electric light, its innards exposed for all to see — not that there is anyone else to see it, aside from Claire who is swelling with pride at having been gifted this opportunity. At having earned Veena’s trust to do this on her own.
The poor woman had looked exhausted when Claire had walked her to her car — it was already well after midnight and she would be back first thing in the morning to lead a tour for a group of horticulture students. Not to mention Claire knew she’d been helping her brother and sister-in-law with their twins most nights that week.
“You sure you feel comfortable on your own?” She’d asked, and when Claire had said yes she’d continued: “Just turn out the lights, reset the timers, and lock everything up. I can pick up the mess tomorrow morning…”
Claire was familiar enough with Veena and her stubbornness to roll her eyes. “I’ve got this. Go home and sleep!”
Even more than the bruise-like crescents under her eyes, Claire could read Veena’s exhaustion in the way she simply nodded her head without a fight or even a stern glance.
“Just get home safely,” she had sighed, slipping into the driver’s seat.
“I’ll call a taxi,” Claire had promised.
“And text me when you get there!”
She had inhaled deeply, her chest rising as she stretched her arms out to the steering wheel, and then deflated with a resigned sigh.
Claire releases her own sigh now, entering through the main doors and surveying the disorder. Extra tables are spread throughout the entrance hall, chairs arranged in haphazard groupings alongside them. Disposable plates, cups, and napkins are strewn here and there, some with the odd morsel untouched or half-eaten still resting on them.
“I thought academics would be tidier,” she mumbles, reaching for the closest table and beginning to collect the waste there.
She thinks back to the gaggle of men and women, well-dressed and ranging from her own age to well past her grandmother’s. She had given many of them tours as they drank and reminisced, answering their occasional questions. Many had asked about the building — its history, renovations, the watering systems — which hardly surprised her given that they were hosting a reunion of the university Engineering faculty.
One man, at least, had seemed much more interested in the flowers and their care, and Claire had been thankful for a respite from the technical inquiries of his peers.
He was a tall man, almost regal in his bearing, looking always forward with his hands clasped behind his back. His hair was jet black, although Claire might have otherwise aged him near his fifties, and a shiny pink mass of scar tissue replaced the outermost part of his right eyebrow, trickling down his face to disappear behind his ear. Claire had very politely avoided looking too closely at this, though her eyes often flickered there of their own accord.
The only drink she saw him with was tea, and he had a storyteller’s voice that made you want to lean in closer to hear what he was going to say next.
He had asked about where the gardens sourced their exotic plants, and about the watering schedule for the succulents (“Mine always turn to mush, you know.”), and the scientific names of the various orchids. Peppering the questions had been compliments and charming anecdotes:
“Your hydrangeas are lovely. My mother adored hydrangeas, but she never had any luck growing them in her garden. Their leaves would go limp and the buds would fall off or be eaten by pests long before they bloomed.
When my wife and I were married there was a beautiful blue and pink hydrangea in the front garden of the home we bought. She hated hydrangeas, so she pulled it out. A few weeks later it returned. And so she pulled it out. Again and again it came back undaunted and she would spend all afternoon yanking it out again, trying to dig up the last of the root system. But she must have always missed some.
Even though she hated it, she always gave it a chance to bloom once more before she attacked, so that every few weeks my mother’s grave would be blessed with beautiful hydrangeas.”
It wasn’t until they reached the Tropical Garden that he had finally fallen silent. Like many people who visited the Chateau, he had drifted toward what Claire now called the Silver Fish fountain. He had looked down into the basin and seemed to drift away into the gentle flow of its glittering waters.
It was then that Claire saw them: pinpricks of brown dancing amongst the threads of damaged pink skin. Moles, like a crescent moon beside his right eye.
Nolbu, she had recalled then, The Sea King.
The plop of a silver nickel falling into the water had alerted her just in time to divert her attention from his face. For some reason when he continued to speak, she had found herself craving distance rather than wanting to lean in any closer.
She wondered if his wife had hated the hydrangeas for a reason that he hadn’t disclosed.
Perhaps he sensed her sudden apprehension because he had left soon afterward.
Claire shakes her head, trying to dismiss the memories of the strange man and the discomforting question of whether she should mention the chance meeting to Hyun Sook.
No. For now she will focus on her task and enjoy the tranquility of the greenhouse at night.
Once the tables and chairs are returned to their proper places, the extras folded away and hidden in the back for future use, Claire stalks the remaining rooms for anything left behind or out of place. As she walks, scouting for lost napkins and groaning at piles of crumbs on the floor, she notices that the inside of the greenhouse has undergone a strange transformation opposite to that of its exterior. Here, the lights lining the ceiling and tucked away amongst the leaves and petals have changed the usually transparent glass walls into a sort of Hall of Mirrors.
It has the eerie effect of making the gardens seem twice as big, and of startling Claire every time she catches her reflection out of the corner of her eye. The isolation of the private gardens after hours is quickly turning from exhilarating to haunting, and Claire feels her fatigue weighing her limbs and making her antsy. She may not have to work in the morning like Veena, but she has been awake for far too long and would rather not waste the whole day catching up on sleep.
She begins to move a little faster, certain Veena will be forgiving if she misses a crumb or two. Despite her rush she can’t help but pause for a moment at the Silver Fish fountain — maybe it is the serenity of the sound of running water, or the curious beauty of the twisted roots of the money tree and the tiny lights dancing across it from the glittering coins below. She reaches into her dress pants pocket, feeling for the comforting weight of the old coin she has taken to carrying around with her everywhere. Just in case she finds the person it belongs to.
She pulls it out and inspects the strange imprint that might be a fish with wings or maybe some kind of short, narrow bird. The scent of rosemary suddenly fills the room, as if the coin has become infused with it. Claire breathes in the earthy aroma, mixed with sweet citrus, and then looks into the fountain hoping to catch another impossible glimpse of silver scales.
There is a flicker of motion, but it is not silver and it does not disturb the quiet ripples that spread across the basin’s surface — it is only a reflection. Vibrant auburn hair, and a smattering of freckles just over Claire’s left shoulder.
Claire swivels around, her heart racing so hard she swears she can hear it over the gentle trickling of the fountain. There is no one behind her, yet she was certain…
There. Against the outer wall. No — through the figure Claire can discern the vague silhouettes of trees — it is only a reflection in the glass.
Claire glances behind her to the bunch of miniature orange trees where the source of the reflection should stand, but there is nothing there. When she looks at the glass wall the figure remains.
It appears to be a woman, tall and with strong curves under her torn jeans and plain t-shirt. Her hair is like golden fire, but her face is too vague for Claire to make out any detail. While Claire stares at her with mouth agape and lip trembling, the woman begins to walk. Three steps before she stops and crosses her arms. There had been no sound of footsteps against the tile.
I should run, Claire thinks, trying to remember if Veena has ever mentioned anything about the Chateau being haunted. Surely she would have remembered something like that — Ginny loved ghost stories.
Ginny. The rumbling thunder of fear within Claire quiets long enough for her to notice the longing and curiosity beneath it.
Claire pockets the coin and takes two steps toward the reflection, trying to limit her thoughts to the clicking of her flats against the ceramic floor and not the echo of fear that still weakens her stomach.
Seeing that Claire is following her — or at least nodding as if she can see — the reflection continues on her way. Her pace is hurried and she disappears past the barrier to the Orchid Room long before Claire reaches the door.
With her hand against the cool metal of the door, Claire hesitates. This is a decision, she realizes. A moment where she is free to walk away.
She pushes the door open anyway, the humidity enveloping her the moment she steps through. The bright colors of the orchids are dizzying and it takes her a moment to locate the woman amongst their reflections. By the time Claire finds her she is disappearing towards the door to outside.
Claire runs, her fear left behind with the cloying scent of citrus, her desperate desire for answers urging her onward.
She doesn’t even hesitate at this door, pushing it open to the chilly night air. The immediate area is illuminated by the almost-full moon and the light pouring from the Chateau’s windows. Claire slows, glancing about for a sign; out here the windows are transparent and the world around her still, and empty.
Unsure of what else to do, Claire stops her frantic search and waits. She listens. Breathes. Watches.
There is flicker of movement several feet away, by the cottage greenhouse where Veena grows herbs for the cafe teas. The grass tickles Claire’s feet as she approaches the building, leaving cold trails of evening dew over the tops of her feet.
This greenhouse is private and unlit for the evening’s festivities. The nearby light reflects off of a wide glass window and in its reflection Claire can discern something vaguely human-shaped. It points, away behind the building. Claire obeys, passing the little brick and glass structure into the vegetable gardens beyond.
Less light reaches this place and Claire has to step carefully to avoid crushing any of the newly sprouted plants. She walks straight ahead, as best she can, with no guide to indicate otherwise. Finally, she sees her destination:
A solid brick wall runs along the rear edge of the garden, built eight feet high to dissuade trespassers and vandals. Claire knows this, but what she sees now is not a solid wall — a broad wrought iron gate punctuates its middle. This must be her mysterious guide’s purpose.
It is too dark on the other side of the wall for Claire to make out much through the iron bars except a path and some bushes, so she grips two of the bars firmly in her hands and pulls. Half of the gate swings open noiselessly, and Claire realizes she had expected it to creak or offer more resistance. Squinting in the moonlight, she sees it is well cared for with no obvious patches of rust. Do gates that appear out of nowhere need to be oiled?
Dismissing the question as both ridiculous and impossible to answer, she walks into what appears to be another massive garden. Paths lead in various directions through waist-high shrubbery and past beds of flowers Claire struggles to recognize in the darkness.
Picking a path at random she begins to explore, wondering at her purpose here. If there is a purpose at all. She is startled when she almost stumbles into a human being, their dark form nearly invisible until she is directly in front of it.
Claire freezes. The figure is too tall and slender to be the ghost woman, and they stand with their head cocked to the right as if listening intently.
“Hello?” Claire says, her whispered voice a roar in the garden’s silence.
The figure does not react. Claire waits several echoing heartbeats before trying again.
When the person still does not budge Claire reaches a cautious hand forward, her fingertips grazing the figure’s shoulder. It is cold, and much too hard.
“A statue,” Claire says, cringing at the loudness of her voice.
Continuing past the tall statue she finds several more scattered throughout what she is coming to think of as a labyrinth, all twisting turns and dead ends. The statues are of varying heights and poses, the subjects ranging from small children to hunched elderly women and a man in wheelchair. From what she can discern in the darkness and with the tips of her fingers, they are all intricately detailed — so lifelike she can almost believe they are humans turned to stone.
Their odd positioning only makes this more likely; they all stand or sit as if in the midst of some mundane activity and seem to be placed at random — some with their feet hidden within the shrubbery walls and others directly blocking the path.
And yet there is such an air of peace to the garden that Claire cannot linger on thoughts of harm. Instead she is overcome with a potent optimism, a sense of expectation that burns away her apprehension. She follows the path further and further into the heart of the labyrinth, waiting for that expectation to be fulfilled.
There is a tall shape ahead of her, something too square and massive to be another statue. As Claire approaches, as she makes out the house-like shape of it, she forgets everything else: the statues, the woman’s reflection, even the mysterious man she calls Nolbu.
At the centre of the labyrinth is a towering stone lantern, and though no blue flame burns within it Claire is confident that it is connected to the trail of smaller ones scattered throughout the city. It may even be the answer to them.
She wishes she had brought her phone, hadn’t left it with her bag in the break room of the Chateau. Running her hand along the round base and walking the perimeter of it, she wonders what kind of place this is. Wonders what happens when the lantern is lit.
A strong scent begins to permeate the air, so strong that it distracts Claire from her thoughts.
It is not easy to follow a scent through open air, but Claire manages as best she can. It leads her still further on, past the lantern and away from the wall, past still more statues walking and waving and kneeling.
Claire stops in front of the statue of a woman. She is tall and full-bodied, and Claire is certain that if she were alive her hair would burn red and golden even in the moonlight. Her stone arms are outstretched, her hands cupped in offering. Within them rests an egg, not much bigger than a robin’s. In the moon’s glow Claire can make out the hairline cracks that line it, as if it has been shattered and pieced back together. This is the source of the scent which is quickly dissipating into the damp, spring air.
Claire holds the egg tenderly in her hand, and she knows that this is why she was brought here, and that it means it is time to go home. She also knows this egg is not for her, but for the recipient of the coin which she has yet to find.
She inspects the statue one last time, but it is as cold and lifeless as the rest. Feeling like she should say something, Claire whispers, “thank you,” before heading back the way she came.
For some reason when she passes through the brick wall, pulling the gate closed behind her, she refuses to look back. She isn’t sure why, but it feels like bad luck, and so she only looks to the golden brightness of the Chateau as she walks through the vegetables and past the cottage greenhouse.
Inside the Chateau she finally fetches her belongings and turns off the lights, banishing the Hall of Mirrors for another night. She is careful not to crush the egg in her hand, wondering idly about its recipient while watching the dark streets pass outside the taxi window.
A coin and an egg. Rosemary. Who they are intended for is still a mystery, but Claire also has something more: a story. And she knows just who she needs to give it to.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash