A girl walks through the garden. The sky is deep navy with splashes of pink across the ever-brightening horizon. Dew drips from the leaves and petals, darkening the hem of her violet dress where it drags through the grass. The world is not-quite-silent; there are leaf-rustlings and bird chirpings and the occasional tinkling of the chimes as they collide in the warm, gentle breeze over the lake. It is a cacophony so ingrained in its environment that it can hardly be remarked enough to be considered proper noise.
The girl’s steps are leisurely, as if she belongs there amongst the hostas, bachelor’s buttons, and bleeding hearts. But something is amiss. Perhaps it is her age – what business could a girl of maybe twelve years have so early on a summer morning? Or perhaps it is her dress – old fashioned with a lace collar and long, pleated skirt. It could also be the small package, neatly wrapped in brown paper and twine, that she holds carefully between her hands. Yes, Claire decides as she stares down from her bedroom window, it is this last detail that stands out most.
She continues to watch the young girl as she walks further into the yard, toward the left side of the garden. She tries to recall whether Sara has ever mentioned a resident who matches her description. Isn’t there a young girl living across the hall?
She watches closely as the girl finally stops in front of a patch of lavender and crouches down. Claire has to squint against the sunlight and the distance, but she is certain that the girl has laid down her package in the dirt. The girl stands, bows, and walks back to the garden gate, quicker this time. Claire cannot hear the gate open or shut with the windows closed, but neither does she hear the front door open to indicate that the girl has come inside.
Claire continues to stare out the window until the clouds change from blue, to pink, to mostly white. Her curiosity beckons her out into the morning air. She dresses hurriedly and brushes her poufy bed-head into a quick ponytail. Her steps are slow and deliberate, making as little noise as possible on the old creaky stairs. There are no signs of life yet in the old house and she does not wish to wake anyone.
It is warm outside, but there is enough wind to keep the humidity at bay. Claire glances around the garden. She has been so busy stocking her apartment and adjusting to life on her own that she hasn’t had a chance to fully explore the grounds. Though stunning from her apartment window, the gardens are even grander rolling out ahead of her.
The shape and placement of the beds are without rhyme or reason: strawberries spilling out onto the narrow lane of grass here while hostas and ornamental grasses neatly line another path there. Small vegetable beds are interspersed with flowers, trees, and bushes – mulberries, Japanese maples, Rose of Sharons… the variety is spectacular. Though the placement seems almost wild, or at least accidental to the untrained eye, Claire notes the sense in many decisions. Naturtium and marigolds grow alongside tomatoes and onions. Sunflowers tower over broad beans and lavender. Each placed to offer protection from pests or to cycle nutrients through the soil.
She wants to ask Sara who tends this garden, but for now she trains her focus on the tall stalks of purple flowers to her left. She breathes in their floral scent, feeling her muscles in her neck and back relax. She remembers bringing home sprigs of lavender from the greenhouse, dropping them into her sister’s bath. The way her hair would smell like lavender when she would sneak into Claire’s bed in the middle of the night. She shakes her head, an attempt to dislodge the bittersweet memory. It retreats, but not completely, the familiar scent preventing it from straying too far from her thoughts.
Claire leans down, turning her head sideways to look between the stalks to the dark earth beneath. There is nothing there except some pebbles and the web of a spider, jewelled with dew. She moves some of the plants aside, gently, searching deeper into the patch. Had she been mistaken about the location? Or had the girl taken the package away without Claire’s notice?
After a few more minutes of searching she admits defeat, standing and wiping the dirt off of her bare knees. The sound of the porch door attracts her attention. A man is stepping out backwards, balancing a tea cup in each hand and a plate filled with something on his elbow. Claire rushes over to grab the door and help him.
“Thank you,” he says, setting the cups and plate down on a small table not far from the door. His voice is laced with a German accent. He gestures toward one of the two bistro chairs pulled up to the table.
“Aren’t you expecting company?” Claire asks, looking at the two tea cups.
The man laughs. His face is broad and inviting with deep dimples bordering his wide mouth. “Sara asked me to bring for you. Breakfast is better with company.”
“Thank you,” Claire answers, sitting in front of one of the elegant cups. The scent from the tea is spicy and unfamiliar. “My name is Claire Brown. I’m renting one of the third floor units.”
The man reaches forward, taking her hand. His touch is gentle though his skin is calloused and rough. “Frank Gartner. I also live on third floor. With my granddaughter, Lucy.”
“Lucy? How old is she?”
Frank takes a drink from his cup. It is dwarfed in his large hands and thick fingers. “She turn 17 in the spring. She is working now. Apprentice at bakery means many early mornings.”
Claire nods. “Are there any other children here? I met Wesley and Rory Gallagher, but this morning I noticed a young girl in the garden. A girl I haven’t met before.”
Frank looks out over the garden, toward the growing sunlight over the lake. He slowly reaches forward to take a current-studded scone from the plate on the table. He takes a bite, chewing thoughtfully before answering. “There are no other children in the house. But others pass through from time to time.”
He continues staring forward as he eats, offering Claire no further explanation. She looks into the creamy liquid in her cup, as though it might hold some answer. She takes a sip. It tastes as it smells, spicy but also sweet. There are traces of cinnamon and vanilla, but also a touch of peppercorn. After a couple of sips she decides she quite likes it. She chooses a slice of banana bread from the plate.
“It will rain today,” Frank says suddenly.
Claire looks up into the blue sky. There are fat clouds there, but they are white and fluffy. “What makes you say that?”
“Leg,” he says, shifting his right leg uncomfortably under the table, “It always aches when it will rain.”
“Is it arthritis? My grandmother has arthritis in her hip and it always acts up when the pressure drops.” Claire thinks about her grandmother. It has been a long time since she visited and she reminds herself to call her soon.
“Mm. From shrapnel. When I was a little boy.”
Claire worries for a moment that she has touched on a painful memory, but the old man turns to her and smiles. “Aches for many years, but now I am better than weather man. I never get caught in rain. Not so bad, eh?”
He laughs at his own joke and Claire can’t help but chuckle too. She thinks he would get along very well with her grandmother. She asks: “Have you lived here long?”
“Four years now. Come when Lucy just starting high school. Her father leave when she was little. My daughter very sick in hospital. She pass away when Lucy turn fifteen. I am all she has now.”
“I’m sorry,” Claire says. She is not unfamiliar with death, with the way its presence fills the absence of the lost. Like a silent companion.
He waves his hand back and forth, “We do well. She is strong, brilliant girl. You like her.”
Claire takes another bite of her bread, “If she bakes I’m sure I’ll love her.”
His laughter is deep, shaking his broad belly. “Yes! She brings me home treats. Is wonderful. I am very good cook too. You come for dinner some time.”
“Only if I can bring something too,” Claire agrees. She slouches a little, stretching her legs to dry her damp sneakers in the sunlight.
“Of course! My two favourite things. Feeding people and being fed!”
Grandma would definitely like this man, Claire decides.”You can’t forget about beautiful gardens. And good books.”
“Yes, yes. You have good taste. You like our garden?”
Claire takes in the large yard in front of her all the way to the iron fence and the lone bench at the end. “It’s beautiful. And well planned.”
“Well planned?” Frank looks at the garden and then at Claire dubiously, one eyebrow arching while the opposite eye squints at her.
“Everything has a purpose. The marigolds keep pests away from the vegetables. The trees provide shade for the violets and the herbs. Everything is exactly where it’s needed.”
“Hmm…” Frank looks over the garden again as though seeing it anew, “It is a perfect garden for this house then. And you… you sound like you know much about these things.”
“I studied horticulture. Worked in a retail greenhouse for a while.” Claire is surprised that these things already feel so distant though she only recently left them behind.
“Ah! There are beautiful greenhouses here in this city. You must see them!”
“I’d love to.” A shadow falls over her face and she looks up to see a dark cloud scudding by overhead. “I guess you were right.”
“You see. I am going inside before the rain begins.” He stands, limping a little on his right leg. When he opens the door Ginger runs past him out into the grass.
“Is it okay for her to be out?” Claire asks, wondering if she should run after the little tabby.
“She does what she wants,” he replies, shrugging as he disappears into the house.
Ginger sniffs the ground, her tail waving back and forth mischievously. Claire watches her dash in and under trees and bushes. Suddenly she sniffs the air, dashing to the left side of the garden. She stops at the patch of lavender, crouching low and sniffing the earth there. Claire sets down her tea and stands, slowly making her way to the cat while trying not to startle her. She leans down and looks at the spot where Ginger is staring.
Claire sighs and looks up at the sky when a drop of rain strikes her head. More clouds are gathering now and tiny drops occasionally plummet down around her. She looks one last time towards the mysterious spot and shrugs.
“Come on Ginger,” she calls, and the cat trots behind her through the grass. Claire collects the plate and her tea cup before retreating back into the safety of the house.