This is a short story I wrote recently. I had the idea while on I was on holiday last month, and when I got back I let it write itself in a couple of evenings. Hope you like it!
At the bottom of the garden
Amber was the sort of person who truly believed there was a perfectly sensible answer to anything that appeared in the least bit supernatural. She didn’t believe in monsters, or elves, or ghosts, or any of the fairytales she had been told when she was growing up. She instructed her parents to stop telling her bedtime stories, informing them in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice that she was “too old for silliness”.
In truth, she rejected the tales because she was afraid one day one of them might be true.
And now it was her birthday, her coming-of-age. And she hadn’t slept a wink all night.
The day before had been fraught with tension, mainly her mother’s fault, fussing around making preparations for the party. She was trying to be organised, but to everyone else it just looked like panic.
“You’re not sweeping the floor properly, Amber,” she called from the other side of the room, “I can see streaks in the woodwork where you’ve missed bits.”
“Well then,” Amber replied, almost to herself, “maybe you should get someone to sweep the floor who actually cares if it’s clean or not.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, my girl,” her mother retorted, waving her duster menacingly in a nondescript direction, “this floor needs to be spotless for the party, and you’re old enough to know how to sweep properly.”
“I never even said I wanted a party,” Amber complained.
“That’s not the point, dear,” her mother replied, pulling a dining room chair into the sitting room to be able to reach the corners of the ceiling, “you’ve reached an important age and everyone wants to celebrate with you. They’re expecting a party. And that means we have to give one. And that means you have to be here, so people can wish you well.”
“But what if I don’t want to be here? What if I just want some time to myself?”
“Don’t start that again, child,” mother said sternly, “you’re old enough now that you should respect other people’s wishes before your own.”
“Then maybe I’m old enough to go out and have my own fun, to be where I want to be, to see what’s at the other end of the garden…”
“You are NOT permitted to go to the end of the garden,” snapped her mother from on top of the chair, “you know full well your father and I have declared that to be off-limits.
“Fine,” Amber harrumphed, “I’ll just go to my room then.”
And off she stomped. Her mother called after her, shouting about Amber’s responsibilities and her own old age and frailty and how if she fell off the chair doing the dusting it would be all her fault. Mother wasn’t frail at all, as Amber knew all too well, but she had used that excuse for as long as Amber could remember.
From the semi-solitude of her own room, with the muffled thumping of her mother reverberating through the floorboards, Amber silently screamed at everyone who had ever told her what to do. All her life she had lived behind the bars of someone else’s concerns, living by rules that someone else had thought up, constrained by invisible chains that someone else had crafted. She was so close, now, to her first taste of freedom, just one day away from being able to make some decisions for herself, and that just made it seem even further away.
Amber looked longingly out of the window. The end of the garden had always been a mystery. She knew there must be something beyond the hedge, and had often asked about it, but her father had always forbidden any talk of it, let alone entertained the idea of letting her go there. She was certain there was a secret he refused to tell. Yet, somehow, it was more than that. There were times when Amber thought for a moment that his face contained a fleeting trace of fear at the thought of her venturing beyond the ‘safe’ part of the garden. “When you’re older”, they had said. Well, tomorrow she would be older. And she knew exactly what she’d be doing.
It was then that the thought crossed her mind. If it’s only tomorrow, what’s to stop me going today and not telling anyone until tomorrow? No one would know. And, after all, what difference does a day make anyway? Why should she be forbidden today but allowed tomorrow?
Her mind made up, she climbed out of the window (which wasn’t easy, and she’d only managed it once before, and ended up with all sorts of bruises as a consequence), brushed herself down, and set off across the garden. She could still hear her mother, just about, complaining to herself as she tidied the kitchen, occasionally shouting some snide remark in the direction of Amber’s now empty bedroom.
She passed the rose bush where last spring she had ripped a brand new dress while she’d been playing. She rounded the pond where she used to talk to the frogs. She paused briefly under the sycamore tree where she and her best friend Willow had agreed to reveal to each other who they fancied and realised that they were both in love with the same person (they were only mere infants at the time, and their mutual hatred eventually lapsed after a few days).
Finally, she reached it. The point beyond which she was not allowed. Her heart thumped in anticipation and, she realised, fear. That the end of the garden was forbidden was something that had always been part of her life, like a defining landmark. It had been drilled into her for as long as she could remember. And now she was about to break that rule, to deliberately rebel against a kingpin in her upbringing. She loved her parents, she was sure of that, and the thought of disobeying them so blatantly made her stomach churn slightly. But, her mind had been made up. She wouldn’t forgive herself if she backed out now. Not when she’d come this far.
The hedge was thick and grey, and cast a cold dark shadow across the garden. She waited by it for a moment, collecting herself. Something was behind it, she could sense it, she knew it. There was nothing to be afraid of, no monsters, no terrible beasts from folklore. Amber closed her eyes and breathed deeply, taking in the woody smell of the hedge. And then she calmly peered around the hedge.
There was a wall. A tall wall reaching far into the sky. She wondered how she had never seen it before. Set in it were several enormous windows, each reflecting vast tracts of mottled sky. And in front of her, staring back at her with an almost identical look of surprise, was a human.
“A fairy!” cried the gargantuan creature, in a voice as loud as thunder. It stood up to its full height and pointed an enormous finger at Amber, a look on its face an amalgamation of surprise and excitement bordering on psychotic.
Amber’s heart might as well have stopped dead. The world around her turned icy cold, black and indistinct, save for the impossible fairytale creature that loomed before her, burning its effigy into her tiny fairy eyes.
The monster lunged forward, oversized and plumpish hand opened wide, ready to grab, to catch, to kill. Only at the last possible moment did Amber’s reflexes finally come to her aid, and with a deft and well-practiced flutter of wings she managed to slip just out of reach before the fat fingers closed around where she had been. The girl-giant noticed her error, fixed her lustful eyes on the fairy once more and, with blood-red tongue clamped determinedly between her lips, she made another attempt.
This time Amber saw it coming and despite a head full of impossible thoughts and almost overwhelmed with fear she mumbled a hasty disappearing spell and vanished from sight. It would only last a matter of moments, but long enough for her to flit back behind the hedge and head back into her garden. The monster raged behind her, shouting words that Amber didn’t even stop to listen to, feet pounding heavily on the grass as it followed.
“Before everyone arrives, we’ve got… well, it’s not a present, exactly,” her father said, “although it is a gift, of sorts.”
It was the morning of her birthday. Her mother had been up all night making the final preparations, baking, cleaning, hanging decorations. And she’d done it alone, because Amber had refused to help; for reasons her mother resigned herself never to understand, Amber didn’t even join them for dinner that evening, and stayed in her room. Only this morning had she appeared, pale and quiet and clearly having not had much sleep. Her mother put it down to the excitement and anticipation of the party.
Amber still felt cold, but didn’t shiver. Her head felt fluffy inside.
“Now that you’re old enough,” her father continued, “well, your mother and I have talked it over, and we think it’s time we shared a truth with you. We know you’ve always been interested in what’s at the other end of the garden, and we’ve deliberately kept it from you.”
Amber’s right hand felt numb.
“The thing is,” her mother chimed in, “some of the stories we told you when you were younger… well, they were actually based in truth, some of them.”
“We never told you everything before,” her father picked up, “because we didn’t want to scare you. We just knew we had to keep you away from the end of the garden, for your own safety. And we want you to know that we did that because we love you, and always have, and always will.”
Amber felt a strange sensation in her big toes, somewhere between frostbite and pins and needles. And her wings tingled too.
“You see,” her father fumbled with his jacket as he tried to find the right words in the right order, “what we’re trying to say is that… well, humans do actually exist.”
There was a pause. Amber’s expression didn’t change.
“You remember the stories about the humans, don’t you dear?” asked her mother.
“There is actually substantial evidence,” her father said, “that there are humans living at the end of the garden. We’ve never seen them, I might add, but all the signs are there. Which is why we always told you never to go there.”
Amber’s blinked a few times. Her vision was blurring.
“And,” said her mother, quietly, “we all know what happens to fairies if a human looks at you.”
“Only takes a few hours, they say,” mused her father, “a day at most. Not a nice way to die. But you mustn’t be afraid, my dear, just as long as you stay away from the end of the garden.”
Amber would have cried, or said something, or done anything at all. But she couldn’t. A moment later her legs gave way.
And the little girl never saw her fairy again.
By Matthew Dawkins
Copyright (C) Matthew Dawkins 2011