The Neglected Garden

"Flowers were starting to sprout behind her head, strange white flowers like some distorted stylized nimbus."

Kathe Koja is an American writer who first emerged as a novelist during the U.S. horror boom of the early 1990s. Kafkaesque, transgressive novels such as The Cipher (1991), Bad Brains (1992), Skin (1993), and Strange Angels (1994) established her as one of weird fiction’s most innovative practitioners. Story collaborations with science fiction writer Barry Malzberg broadened her oeuvre, and as Koja moved into the realm of young adult novels her work continued to evade easy categorization. In 2010 her first historical novel, Under the Poppy, was published, with the sequel to follow in 2012. Koja’s version of the weird is both claustrophobic and luminous, continually questioning the nature of reality, as demonstrated by “Angels In Love,” her story reprinted in The Weird. The following story, “The Neglected Garden,” is much in the same vein. Originally published in the April 1991 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, this story was later reprinted in The New Weird. We’re delighted to feature this story, reprinted with permission of the author. — The Editors

(Art by Myrtle von Damitz III)

I don’t want to go,” she said. “I’m not going.”

Patient and calm, the way he wanted to be, he explained again; they had discussed it, she was moving out. He had already packed her things for her, five big cardboard boxes, labeled, he had done the best he could. Clothes on hangers and her big Klee print wrapped and tied carefully across with string, everything neatly stacked in the car, here, he said, here’s the keys.

I don’t want the car,” she said. Tears ran down her face but she made no crying sounds, her breathing did not change, in fact her expression did not change. She stood there staring at him with rolling tears and her hands empty, palms upwards, at her sides. He kissed her, a little impatiently, on her mouth.

You have to go,” he said. “Please, Anne, we’ve gone all through this. Let’s not make it any harder than it already is,” although in fact it wasn’t all that hard, not for him anyway. “Please,” and he leaned forward but did not kiss her again; her lips were unpleasantly wet.

She stared at him, saying nothing. He began to feel more than impatient, angry in fact, but no, he would say nothing too, he would give as good as he got. He put her car keys in her hand, literally closing her fingers around them, and picking up his own keys left the house. An hour or so, he would come back and she would be gone.

When he got back her car was still in the driveway, but she was nowhere in the house, not upstairs, not in the utility room; nowhere. Feeling a little silly, he looked in the closets, even considered looking under the bed; nothing. “Anne,” calling her, louder and louder, “Anne, stop it, where are you,” walking through the house and a movement, something in the backyard, caught his eye through the big kitchen windows. Letting the screen door slam, hard, walking fast and then seeing her, stopping as if on the perilous lip of a fire.

She was on the fence. The back fence, old now and leaning, half its braces gone. She sat at the spot where the rotted wood ended and the bare fencing began, legs straight out, head tipped just slightly to the right. Her arms were spread in a loose posture of crucifixion, and through the flesh of her wrists she had somehow pierced the rusty wire of the fence, threading it around the tendons, the blood rich and thick and bright like some strange new food and while he stood there staring and staring a fly settled down on the blood and walked around in it, back and forth.

He kept staring at the fly, it was suddenly so hot in the yard, it was as if he couldn’t see, or could see only half of the scene before him, a kind of dazzle around the perimeters of his vision like the beginning of a fainting fit and back and forth went the fly, busy little black feet and he screamed, “Son of a bitch!” and moved to slap the fly away, and as his hand touched the wound she gave a very small sound, and he pulled his hand back and saw the blood on it.

He said something to her, something about my God Anne what the hell and she opened her eyes and looked at him in a slow considering kind of way, but with a certain blankness as if she viewed him now from a new perspective, and another fly landed and more hesitantly he brushed that one away, and still she did not speak at all.

You have to go to the hospital,” he told her. “You’re bleeding, it’s dangerous to bleed that way.”

She ignored him by closing her eyes. Ants were walking over her bare feet. She didn’t seem to feel them. “Anne,” loudly, “I’m calling an ambulance, I’m calling the police, Anne.”

The police were not helpful. He would have to press charges, they said, trespass charges against her to have her removed. They became more interested when he started to explain, in vague halting phrases, exactly how she was attached to his fence, and in sudden nervous fear he hung up, perhaps they would think he had done it to her himself, who knew what Anne might tell them, she was obviously crazy, to do that to herself she would have to be crazy. He looked out the kitchen window and saw her looking at the house, her eyes tracking as he moved slowly past the windows. He didn’t know what to do. He sat in the living room and tried to think.

By the time the sun went down he still had no idea what course to take. He did not even want to go back outside but he did, stood looking down at her. “Do you want some water? Or some aspirin or something?” and in the same breath enraged by what he had just said, the extreme and dangerous stupidity of the whole situation, he shouted at her, called her a stupid fucking idiot and walked back inside, shaking, shaking in his legs and knees and inside his body, felt his heart pounding, it was hard to breathe. She had to be in pain. Was she so crazy she didn’t even feel pain anymore? Maybe it was a temporary thing, temporary insanity, maybe a night spent outside would shock her out of it, a night sitting on the cold ground.

In the morning she was still there, although she had stopped bleeding. Ants walked up and down her legs. The blood at her wrists had clotted to jelly. The skin of her face was very white.

Anne,” he said, and shook his head. Her hair was damp, parts of it tangled in the fence, and the pulse in her throat beat so he could see it, a sluggish throb. He felt sorry for her, he hated her. He wanted her to just get up and go away. “Anne, please, you’re not doing yourself any good, this is hurting you,” and the look she gave him then was so pointed that he felt his skin flush, he refused to say anything, he turned and went back into the house.

Someone was knocking at his front door: the woman from next door, Barbara something, joined by the paperboy’s mother whose name he could not remember. They were shrill, demanding to know what he was going to do about that poor woman out there and my God this and that and he shouted at them from the depths of his confusion and anger, told them to get the hell off his porch and he had already been in contact with the police if that would satisfy them, thank you very much, it’s none of your business to start with. When they had gone he sat down, he felt very dizzy all of a sudden, he felt as if he had to sit down for a while, a good long while.

How, he didn’t know, but he fell asleep, there in the chair, woke with his shirt collar sticking to his neck, sweat on his forehead and above his upper lip. He felt chilled. As he went into the kitchen to get  something warm to drink his gaze went to the windows, it was irresistible, he had to look.

She was still there, slumped back against the fence, a curve in her arms and back that curiously suggested tension. She saw him; he knew it by the way her body moved, just a little, as his cautious figure came into view. He ducked away, then felt embarrassed somehow, as if he had been caught peeping in a window, then angry at himself and almost instantly at her.

Let her sit, he said to himself. We’ll see who gets tired of this first.
It was almost ten days later that he called a doctor, a friend of his. Anne had not moved, he had barely gone near her, but even his cursory window inspections showed him things were changing, it was nothing he wanted to have to inspect. After much debate he called Richard, told him there was a medical situation at his house; his evasiveness puzzled Richard who said, “Look, if you have somebody sick there, you’d be better off getting her to a hospital. It is a her, isn’t it?” Yes, he said. I just need you to come over here, he said, it’s kind of a situation, you’ll know what I mean when you see her.

Finally Richard arrived, and he directed him straight out to the backyard, stood watching from the window, drinking a glass of ice water. Richard was back in less than five minutes, his face red. He slammed the screen door hard behind him.

I don’t know what the hell’s going on here,” Richard said, “but I’ll tell you one thing, that woman out there is in bad shape, I mean bad shape. She’s got an infection that — ”

Well, he said, you’re a doctor, right?

I’m a gynecologist,” and Richard was shouting now. “She belongs in a hospital. This is criminal, this is a criminal situation. That woman could die from this.”

He drank a little of his ice water, a slow swallow, and Richard leaned forward and knocked the glass right out of his hand. “I said she could die from this, you asshole, and I’m also saying that if she does it’s your fault.”

My fault? My fault, how can it be my fault when she’s the one who — ” but Richard was already leaving, slamming back out the door, gone. The ice water lay in a glossy puddle on the chocolate-colored tile. He looked out the window. Her posture was unchanged.

It was a kind of dream, less nightmare than sensation of almost painful confusion, and he woke from it sweaty, scared a little, sat up to turn on the bedside lamp. It was almost three. He put on a pair of khaki jeans and walked barefoot into the backyard, the flashlight set on dim, a wavering oval of pale yellow light across the grass.

Perhaps she was asleep.

He leaned closer, not wanting to come too close but wanting to see, and flicked the light at her face.

Moths were walking across her forehead, pale as her skin, a luminous promenade. A small sound came from him as she opened her eyes. There was a moth beneath her right eyelid. It looked dead.

Her hair was braided into the fence, and the puffy circles of infection at her wrists had spread, a gentle bloat extending almost to her elbows. There was a slightly viscous shine to the original wounds. The old blood there had a rusty tinge. The grass seemed greener now, lapping at her bare feet and ankles. When he touched her with the light she seemed almost to feel it, for she turned her head, not away from the light as he expected but into it, as if it was warm and she was cold.

No doubt she was cold. If he touched her now —

He flicked the light to full power, a small brassy beam, played it up and down her body, nervously at first then with more confidence as she moved so little, so gently in its light. Her hair looked dark as a vine. There was dew on her clothing. He stood looking at her for it seemed to him a very long time, but when he returned to the house he saw it was barely quarter after three.

She kept on changing. The infection worsened and then apparently stabilized; at least it spread no farther. Her arms, a landscape of green and pale brown, leaves and the supple wood of the creeping growth about her breasts and waist, her clothing paler and more tattered, softly stained by the days of exposure. Flowers were starting to sprout behind her head, strange white flowers like some distorted stylized nimbus, Our Lady of the Back Forty. Her feet were a permanent green. It seemed her toenails were gone.

None of the neighbors would talk to him now. His attempts at explanations, bizarre even to his own ears, turned them colder still. Each day after work he would look through the kitchen windows, each day he would find some new change, minute perhaps but recognizable. It occurred to him that he was paying her more attention than ever now, and in a moment of higher anger he threw a tarp over her, big and blue and plastic, remnant of boating days. It smelled. He didn’t care. She smelled too, didn’t she? He covered her entirely, to the tips of her green toes, left her there. He was no more than twenty steps away when the rustling started, louder and louder, the whole tarp shaking as if by a growing wind; it was horrible to watch, horrible to listen to and angrier still he snatched it away, looked down at her closed eyes and the spiderweb in her ear. As he stood there her mouth opened very slowly, it seemed she would speak. He looked closer and saw a large white flower growing in her mouth, its stem wound around her tongue which moved, feebly, as she tried to talk.

He slapped her, once, very hard. It was disgusting to look at her, he wanted to smother her with the tarp, but he was afraid to try it again. He couldn’t bear that sound again, that terrible rustling sound like the rattling of cockroaches, God if there was only some way to kill her fast he would do it, he would do it right now.

The white flower wiggled. Another slowly unfurled like a time-lapse photo, bigger than the first. Its petals were a richer white, heavy like satin. It brushed against her lower lip, and her mouth hung slightly open to accommodate its weight; it looked like she was pouting, a parody of a pout.

He threw the tarp away. He pulled down the blinds in the kitchen and refused to check on her after work. He tried to think, again, what to do, lay in bed at night hoping something would somehow do it for him. After a particularly heavy rain, during which he sat up all night, almost chuckling in the stern sound of the downpour, he rushed out first thing in the morning to see how she’d liked her little bath. He found her feet had completely disappeared into the grass, her hair gone into vines with leaves the size of fists, her open mouth a garden. She was lush with growth. He felt a sick and bitter disappointment, with childish spite wrenched one of the flowers from her mouth and ground it into the grass where her feet had been. Even as he stood there the grass crept a discernible distance forward.

Grass, all of it growing too high around her. Well when the grass gets too high you cut it, right, that’s what you do, you cut it and he was laughing a little, it was simple. A simple idea and he started up the mower, it took a few tries but he started it. A left turn from the garage, walking past the driveway with a happy stride, pushing the mower before him, growling sound of the mower a comfort in his ears and all at once the ground trembled, was it the mower’s vibration? It trembled again, harder this time, no earthquakes here, what the hell and it happened again, more strongly, over and over until the grass moved like water, choppy undulating waves that gained and climbed until he stumbled beneath their force and lost his footing entirely, fell down and saw with a shout of fear that the mower was still on, was growling at him now, the waves of grass aiming it towards him. He rolled away, a clumsy scramble to stand again, half-crawled to the safety of the still driveway. As soon as his feet left the grass the waves stopped. The mower’s automatic cut-off shut it down. He was crying and couldn’t help it.

What do you want,” screaming at her, tears on his lips, “what do you want,” oh this is the last straw, this is enough. No more.

Back to the garage, looking for the weed killer, the Ortho stuff he’d used before, herbicide, and the term struck him and he laughed, a hard barking laugh. He had trouble attaching the sprayer, the screw  wouldn’t catch and he struggled with it, the hastily mixed solution, too strong, splashing on his skin, stinging where it splashed. Finally in his heat he threw the sprayer down, the hell with it, he would just pour it on her, pour it all over her.

Walking fast across the grass, before she could catch on, before she could start up, hurrying and the solution jiggling and bubbling in the bottle. “Are you thirsty?” too loudly, “are you thirsty, Anne, are you — ” and he threw it at her, bottle and all, as hard as he could. And stepped back, breathing dryly through his mouth, to watch.

At first nothing seemed to be happening; only her eyes, opening very wide, the eyes of someone surprised by great pain. Then on each spot where the solution had struck the foliage began not to wither but to blacken, not the color of death but an eerily sumptuous shade, and in one instant every flower in her mouth turned black, a fierce and luminous black and her eyes were black too, her lips, her hands black as slowly she separated herself from the fence, dragging half of it with her, rising to a shambling crouch and her tongue free and whipping like a snake as he turned, much too slowly, it was as if his disbelief impeded him, turning back to see in an instant’s glance that black black tongue come crawling across the grass, and she behind it with a smile.

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