Episode 8 – Silver

The artificial candlelight from the hanging lanterns, reflected a hundred-fold across the glass ceiling and walls, gives the impression of twilight against the slate-grey sky outside. Claire has to remind herself that it’s hardly eight in the morning. She watches the rain pour down the glass in distorted rivulets of reflected light as she sips her peppermint tea at one of many small bistro tables. Her legs bounce with anticipation and her eyes occasionally wander toward the doors to her right and left, leading into the as yet unexplored wings of Le Chateau de Verre.

Not wanting to spoil the surprise, she keeps her eyes trained on the rain and the lanterns hanging from overflowing containers of fuschia, chenille plants, succulents, ferns, and ornamental peppers. The grating sound of metal on stone pulls her attention to the seat opposite her where a very pregnant woman now sits. Her hair is so brilliantly red and her eyes so startlingly green they seem a rebellion to the autumn storm.

“Beautiful day for a tour,” she says, following Claire’s eyes to the clouds and rain. Claire can detect no hint of sarcasm and so she smiles in return. The woman stretches out a freckled hand for a firm handshake, “I’m Melanie. I’ve been an assistant coordinator and horticulturist at the Chateau for… uh… six years now? I worked as a student here in the summers too.”

“She’s my sister-in-law!” Veena shouts from inside the shop where she is busy making last minute preparations for the garden’s public visiting hours.

“To be fair I was working here long before I ever met her brother.” Melanie grins.

Claire nods and gives her own name.

“Shall we begin?” Melanie uses the table to help her to her feet, groaning a little at the effort.

Veena pops her head around the brick wall behind them. “Claire, make sure she takes a break after a while.”

“I’m fine!” Melanie shouts, rolling her eyes.

“I mean it!” Veena shouts in return. “You can leave the mug there, Claire. I’ll get it shortly.”

Claire nods, swallowing an amused smile as she follows Melanie.

“She’s been trying to get rid of me for a while now,” Melanie explains, loud enough to ensure Veena hears as well, “Thinks a pregnant woman can’t do a little manual labour. I’d go crazy without the gardens to keep me busy. But I’m glad she found someone experienced to cover for me while I’m off with the babies.”

“I’m glad I could have the opportunity to work somewhere like this,” Claire tells her, motioning towards the lush greenery surrounding them.

Melanie glances around her, beaming with pride. “It’s hard work but it’s worth it.”

She stops Claire before they enter through the first doorway. Warm air escapes through the cracks between the glass door and plaster wall, and Claire is eager to move on. She wonders if this barrier exists not only to sustain humidity and temperature, but also a sense of mystery.

“You saw our seasonal outdoor gardens on the way in and, as you know, the conservatory entryway is home to our hanging gardens, shop, and cafe,” Melanie indicates each before turning her attention towards Claire and the door beside them, “Our North Wing houses our koi pond and meditation garden, as well as our succulent collection.”

She opens the door.

The sound of trickling of water catches Claire’s attention first; a stream splits the room in two, originating from a waterfall-like fountain on the right wall, dancing over an indented pathway of smooth riverstone, and ending in a lily-covered pond that bulges out from the rounded glass on the left. The floor is covered in pale sand except for a smooth stone path that lazily wanders throughout the room, only broken where a miniature wooden bridge passes over the stream. The sand is raked into a series of lines, curving and circling around rocks as tall as Claire. The entire scene is surrounded by red and purple-leaved maples, dwarf conifers, and various low-lying greenery. There are occasional bursts of white from the camellia tucked away amongst the understated foliage, and of course from the lilies scattered across the pond’s surface.

Most of the lighting is cast by lanterns peeking out intermittently from the hostas, ferns, and camellias. On a clear day the entire room would be flooded with sunlight, sparkling off of the crystalline grains of sand and ripples across the pond, but today the garden feels subdued, almost pensive. The darkness suits it, Claire decides.

“Do you ever open the gardens at night?” She asks in almost a whisper, afraid to shatter the tranquillity of the room.

Melanie seems less concerned, her voice carrying easily over the still air, “On special occasions. Why?”

“The lanterns,” Claire points out.

“Mm,” Melanie nods, “We have different kinds throughout the conservatory. Not just for evenings though. We’re open year-round so it helps to have something to fend off that winter darkness.”

“Ah,” Claire nods, realizing that winter is not far off and revelling in the idea of spending much of it here, wrapped in the warmth of the gardens. She recalls dark winters days long past, whiled away in boredom while Ginny’s cough echoed through the cavernous halls. The snow had called to her, whispering of snowmen and forts waiting to be built, but inside she’d remained reading books and listening for a rasping voice to call her name.

Claire pulls her attention from the swirling patterns so like windswept snow and roots herself firmly in the present. Her life is different now.

Melanie leads her further down the path, pointing out the various plants and detailing the maintenance they require. They walk length of the room and then double back to sit on one of the flat, squat rocks by the pond. Red, white, and black scales flicker in and out of view under the thick green lily pads. Claire is trying not to think of how much her sister would love this place when she notices something else reflecting the light, half buried in sand beside her seat. She reaches down and removes it, holding it up to examine it closer.

“What’s that?” Melanie asks, leaning over as best as she can to see the round object between Claire’s fingers.

“A coin, I think,” Claire answers. The object is heavy and made of some kind of metal that has been flattened into a shape reminiscent of a circle drawn by a child. Pressed into the top is a shape, worn into near-obscurity. Claire thinks it might be an insect, or maybe a fish with wings. There also appears to be some writing near the top and the bottom but it’s too eroded to interpret.

“Hmm,” Melanie shrugs her shoulders, “We get a lot of people trying to throw coins into the pond. It’s not good for the fish so we have to clean them out every so often. There’s a fountain in the North wing where we allow coins, so always try to let people know when you see them come in. Probably should talk to Veena about putting up some signs.”

Melanie pushes herself to her feet and moves on. Claire hesitates before pushing the coin deep into the pocket of her slacks, not sure what she should do with it. She follows Melanie to the door at the far end of garden.

“Through here are our succulents,” she says, holding the door open for Claire to pass through. Inside is a long, narrow room that is more like a glass hallway. Through the panes Claire can peer back into the meditation garden, its walls extending out much further than this one’s. She tugs at the collar of her sweater – the temperature here is a few degrees warmer than where they’ve just come from. Melanie laughs.

“You’re going to want to layer most days. We take turns doing hard labour and customer service, but on hard days you’re going to be going in and out a lot.”

Claire nods, remembering her days toiling in the university gardens. Had it really been only two years ago?

Melanie gives her a few minutes to explore this garden on her own before providing guidance. Unlike the previous room, most of the plants here live in pots along the edges of a straight pathway — a nonsensical, yet compelling arrangement of blue, orange and white tile. Some pots are terracotta behemoths, filled with spiky aloe, rose-like echeveria, a variety of flowering cacti, and spilling over with donkey’s tail and string-of-pearls. There are smaller, more decorative pots too, as well as glass vessels nestled in wooden shelves suspended from the ceiling with rope. The bottoms of these are visible through the shelves revealing  intricate spirals of pebble and sand. Other hanging pots are more traditional, their plainness accentuating the bright flowering medinillas and portulaca.

When Claire has had her fill of exploration Melanie again provides the details of Claire’s duties, answering Claire’s questions about their custom displays and arrangements.

Melanie swells with pride, “My sister is a glass blower, so she designs any of our custom glass vessels. My husband, Basant, does the woodwork.”

“They’re beautiful,” Claire says, examining them once more.

Melanie tilts her head, urging Claire forward. “We’re not even half way done.”

Instead of going back towards the Meditation Garden, Melanie leads Claire to a door on the opposite wall which opens out onto the grounds surrounding the conservatory.

“We’ll just be quick,” she says before running out into the downpour with her hands held futilely over her head. Claire braces herself for the impact of cold air and water before following.

There is a paved path out here that leads from the North wing in two directions: behind the conservatory where Claire realizes there are more gardens, and one that swings around back onto the brick portion of the building where there is a protective awning covering a slightly raised platform and a tall set of double doors. Beside the doors are pots of chrysanthemums the same colour as the few autumn leaves dangling from the trees – gold, orange, and burgundy. There are a few windows along this back wall as well, but they are too high to really see into.

“This area isn’t usually open to the public, unless we’re doing behind-the-scenes tours for students,” Melanie explains, producing a key from her pocket.

Clair looks about in wonder to the immaculate organization of tools and supplies. Here, Melanie shows Claire the duty schedules and shift rotations as well as the calendar of events – fairly sparse during the off-season. She shows her the binders documenting the health and care of each area as well as some dedicated to research or supplier information. There is an office where the temperature and lights are remotely controlled and where the security cameras can be accessed, as well as a spacious workshop for transplants, container arrangements, propagation and teaching. Each room is well lit by windows and contains a number of potted plants and terrariums.

Melanie points out the window toward a much smaller brick-and-glass greenhouse, almost like a tiny cottage, and explains that they use it for the herbs for the teas they serve as well as some of the nursery plants they sell in the shop. Vines snake across the ground surrounding it, and here and there Claire can make out great orange pumpkins, nearly ready to be picked.

Thankfully, Melanie brings them back into the conservatory proper using a door in the back of the shop instead of running through the rain again. Veena raises an eyebrow when she sees their damp hair and clothes, but simply shakes her head.

Melanie winks at Claire as they walk toward the final portion of their tour.

“The South Wing is home to our Tropical Garden and our Orchid Room.”

Inside the door is a room shaped exactly like the Meditation Room in reverse, except it’s almost impossible to notice this similarity – this garden feels like it’s from an entirely different world than the first. While the Meditation Garden had been mostly open space, this room is crowded with lush foliage and impossibly bright flowers. Palms tower over the heads of the women as they follow one of the many twisting paths that disappear in and amongst the plants. Even the ceiling seems to drip with green leaves and vines suspended from the ceiling supports while others spill out from hefty pots.

The floor here is a stone tile in neutrals that let the vivid red of poinsettias, playful pinks of hibiscus, and the intense orange and yellows of citrus trees steal the show. The trees and plants sprout from beds set down into the floor and lined with knee-height cement barriers topped with small pots filled with flowers. Claire finds herself spinning in circles, breathing in the heady scent of orange blossom and lemon while Melanie chuckles in shared enthusiasm.

There is plenty of room amongst the trailing greenery for sunlight to reach the path, but again the dark day emphasizes the atmospheric lighting – this time in the form of trailing fairy lights tucked away on the branches of trees.

It’s humid enough in here that Claire’s wet clothes are beginning to stick uncomfortably against her skin, and so she pulls her thick sweater over her head and continues in a thin cotton t-shirt. She still sweats, but at least it feels refreshing instead of cloying.

In time the path Claire has chosen at random leads her to the centre of the room which is open and lined with white, wooden benches. The tile here is different too, shinier and consisting of teals and purples. In the very heart of the open area is a great fountain. The base is wide – almost like a pool – and square in shape. Water gushes into it from metallic spouts – three to a side. There are lights along the bottom, making the water glow in silver and blue. In the middle of the fountain is a raised square platform where an unlikely garden stands. The garden is mostly comprised of ornamental grasses with an occasional Peace Lily, but at the centre is large money tree, its trunk braided and its long, flat leaves reaching out over the water.

“This is the Wishing Fountain I was telling you about,” Melanie says, “As you can see.”

Claire realizes now that the water appears silver because of the way the lights play off the nickels and dimes scattered across its bottom.

Melanie and Claire stare for a moment, appreciating the elegant beauty of the tree and the fountain before Melanie motions for Claire to follow after her. As Claire takes a step, she suddenly notices the weight of the coin, left forgotten in her pocket. When she retrieves it she is surprised by the way it catches the light. It seems so shiny for something so worn.

On a whim Claire looks out over the fountain and closes her eyes. A wish? She’s spent many nights thinking of wishes – moments in time forever lost, people who will never return – but she’s too afraid to ask for something she knows can’t come true. Instead she thinks of broken egg shells and mysteries left unsolved. An explanation is much simpler than trying to reclaim the past.

She flicks the coin into the water. When she opens her eyes she notices the ripples from the coin’s tiny splash, and something else. A flickering of silver that is too organic to be metal. A fish darts forward – only slightly smaller and more slender than the monstrous koi of the pond – and devours the coin.

Claire stares in disbelief.

“What’s wrong?” Melanie asks, stepping back toward her.

“There was a fish…” Claire says, but when she points it’s already gone.

Melanie shakes her head. “There aren’t any fish in the fountain. Like I said the money isn’t good for them.”

Claire opens her mouth to protest, but shakes her head instead. Melanie’s mouth twists in thought, but her gaze doesn’t seem the carry the heaviness of judgement. In the end, she also shakes her head and they continue on.

The final room is narrow and long, like the succulent room, but again any comparison between the two seems foolish. The tile here is black and white – classic and boring, though it is the only part of the room that could be considered such. Claire can’t help but think of it as the grand finale of a fireworks show – orchids of every colour and shape exploding in every direction. Even though there is no more sound here than any of the other gardens, it still feels loud and explosive.

This time, once they finish exploring, Melanie does lead them back the way they came. When they pass the fountain Claire lags behind, glancing for any hint of the silver fish or her scavenged coin but she sees no evidence of either.

As they return to the Hanging Gardens, a pair of older gentlemen enters with a young boy clutching tightly to their legs. Claire grins at the way their necks stretch this way and that as an umbrella drips half-forgotten in one of the men’s hands. She waves to the boy – hardly more than a toddler – as she passes but he is too in awe to notice.

Claire can’t stop thanking Veena and Melanie for the tour and arranges another date to begin more in-depth training. She replays the morning over and over in her mind on her bus ride home, trying to recapture the unique feeling of each garden, but there is one moment she dwells on more than the others. Had she truly seen a fish, or had it been part of her imagination? If it was real… could it have meant something?

She is so entangled in this line of thought that she almost misses the girl passing her on her short walk toward 53 Ganymede. She almost doesn’t notice the stiff lace collar a hundred years out of date, or the cracked leather of lace-up boots. Claire remains completely oblivious to the girl’s presence until she notices the panicked splash of footsteps behind her, and she turns to see her slender figure retreating down the street.

The recognition is as striking as the freezing drizzle. Claire has seen this girl before, kneeling by the lavender in the backyard. It can’t be a coincidence.

Claire also begins to run, but in the opposite direction. She throws open the back gate, hardly caring to keep her umbrella over her head. She examines the table and chairs and then the muddy patch of lavender where she’d seen the girl leave the first package – the one she had never found.

She finally discovers the box, wrapped in soggy brown paper, on the bench facing the lake. It is heavier than she expects when she lifts it – heavier, at least, than a hollow egg shell.  Her fingers tingle with restrained curiosity. The only feature that gives her pause is the lack of a tag or name written anywhere on the package and the sprig of rosemary tucked beneath the rough twine. She takes it with her anyway — even if it belongs to someone else, at least she can save it from the rain.

She opens the package in her apartment even before she peels off her damp clothes or muddy shoes. The paper almost disintegrates at her touch, and the delicate cardboard box within is puckered at the sides from the moisture. Luckily, the item within is unharmed.

Claire holds the coin in her hand – an exact duplicate of the one she threw into the pond less than an hour ago. It is more of a question than an answer, but she feels grateful for it nonetheless. She traces her fingers over the vague indentations and outlines on its cold metal surface and wonders where it will lead her next.

<— Back to Episode 7

Continue to Episode 9 —>

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