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A single swan glides through the pond in the marquesa's garden. Always one, exactly one. It never leaves, for it is a windup bird, able only to float, the very image of purest beauty. The façade thereof, at least. Its feathers exude an oily substance that floats on the water. We suspect it may be toxic to real swans, or else its smell is repellent to them. Though maybe it isn't the oily substance that drives away the clockwork bird's rivals. Perhaps it's the way the feathers reflect the moonlight, natural to our eyes but grotesque to those of real birds.

These are the sorts of matters we discuss when the lady has guests and we must be entirely hidden. Something keeps away the swans, anyway. Ducks and other waterfowl, as well.

Every morning one of us must slide into the still water and swim beneath the swan. Without interfering with its movement, we wind the swan's spring with a muck-encrusted key. Most of us have sustained injuries from performing the task. Either the construct's ungainly paddle-legs will strike us as we get too close and it turns without warning, or our blind swimming will make us collide with the logs that stick up from the pond bottom. No one has drowned yet.

It is not true that a lizard's tail, left behind in the marquesa's garden, will always grant three wishes. Most often they only grant one wish, and it must be modest to take effect. We found one that granted five wishes, but each wish had to involve a soft cheese from the valley below that most of us found revolting.

In the back of the garden is a tree that bears orphan farmboy fruits. If you pluck one at just the right time, it will become a hero. A moment too soon, and the unripe hero fails in his quest. A moment too late, and he lives out his life bitter over missed opportunity, brooding on the injustices of life.

Learned visitors will, at times, remark on the plain banality of chosen ones in general, that among fairy tale trees, ours is surely the least interesting, the least complex. A wise brother tree has a much richer flavor, while the tree of simpletons and fools is endearingly sweet. There is truth to this, and yet what they ignore is that every plucked fruit is chosen, that the vast majority of chosen ones are failures. Every hero tastes, then, not only of itself but contains within it the sour pucker of a hundred youths harvested too soon and the spoiled longing of a thousand heroes who lingered.

Most often we forget to pluck the fruits at all, and they rot on the branch. The drops moan at night for battles never fought and swing desiccated swords through the shadows beneath the tree.

Interestingly, convention is to call these heroes, the true and the failed both, masculine. He, him, his. But in fact they are fruits and grow from the female portion of the flower, the gynoecium. If you plant a true hero, plucked at the perfect time, in fertile soil, she will grow into a new fairytale tree.

Dangers we face when tending the garden:

  • Clipper injuries.
  • Allergic reactions.
  • Quest hunger.
  • Hoe injuries.
  • The swan's relentless paddles.
  • Bee stings.
  • The marquesa's glare.

We all carry scars, cuts on our fingers and toes, swollen arms, empty pits beneath our abdomens, minds raked clear of self-worth.

Near the butterfly pavilion is a bridge of worked stone that crosses nothing but plants and ordinary ground. Visitors enjoy crossing at dusk when the lamplight and the sky's fading glow approach one another in shade and intensity.

Two philosophers once had a sword duel there, arguing whether the lack of water below made it a true or false bridge. To one it undermined the very concept of bridge-ness and made mockery of such categories. To the other, the word could have many meanings, could signify countless things, each in its own context.

Who won the duel depends on how you define words like winner and duel and death. In the eyes of the law, the winner was the one who defined sword to mean whatever weapon he could lay his hands on. And the sign winner signified a cell with bars and a locked door.

We do not believe they truly fought about the bridge. Or at least not the thing we refer to when we speak of the bridge.

The marquesa's poem flowers are justly famous. Their colors range from stately and elegant to the most glorious whimsy on this side of the sea. Never garish, though often playful and heartbreaking at once.

The poetic mode and mood of the flower bed change with the number of blossoms. A single blossom will declaim heroic couplets. Two, if the spacing is right, will compose ghazals. Five speak in a cacophony of haiku. When enough are in bloom, the bed develops oracular powers.

A rare form of bee colonizes the camouflaged hives that form one stretch of fence. When they sting, the welts rise up into words, letters we do not recognize. The raised forms turn red and itch. They swell with unknown meaning.

There are messages in those words, warnings and promises if we would only let the bees go free, that much we have interpreted. What else the bees tell us, we don't yet know. The marquesa might. Her learning exceeds our own. She might read them directly, or she might need to consult ancient botanical treatises and lost histories of the languages of bees. But she would know, in time.

We don't tell her. We sense something subversive in the words, a promise to free us from the marquesa, words of an insect rebellion.

When we are stung, we wear scarves and long sleeves, wrap our hands in cloth until the words are gone, so she will never know. One day we might finally speak the words that were stung into us, and then we will be free.

A large swath of the center of the garden is devoted to flower pairs and mimicry. Paths cut the swath into many small patches, not all distinct. The only flowers we allow are those that have a doppelgänger, a flower that looks identical but is a separate species.

We mix these flowers in our careful, tricky ways, so that two identical-looking patches are each composed of one or the other. What appears to be a larger patch cut by a poorly planned pathway is as intentional as everything in the marquesa's garden.

Interestingly, mimicry of sight does not correspond to mimicry of scent. For blind visitors, that section of the garden follows a completely different pattern, as if there were not one but two separate gardens that only happen to occupy the same place.

As the rumor of this fact spread, some people began wandering the garden blindfolded, convinced that the second garden enfolds deeper secrets than the aesthetics celebrated by the primary, visual garden. Convinced that the visual garden is not the primary one, that its beauties mask the deeper truth.

We have begun a painstaking study of the sounds the leaves of different plants make when the wind blows through them, so that when the novelty of the scented garden wears off, we can spread the rumor of even deeper secrets, found only through the ears. We will sell masks that cover the eyes and pinch the nose shut, so the sounds will be made more immediate.

Garden frogs croak in a specific key, depending on the garden they were born in. The frogs from the marquesa's garden croak in a diminished seventh most evenings. In the day, a discordant note is added. For a long time we thought it was a frog from some other garden that migrated here. We've now come to realize that it is a call of the local frogs, after all, but their chord is built in a completely different scale, one that only approximates our diminished seventh at certain times of day or night.

We are overrun with orphan farm boys. We toss them over the back fence, and then they gather there, an army of chosen ones, angry and improbably gifted at swordwork.

To combat this problem, we have planted a patch of dragonfly fruit just beyond the fence. With the right pollination, we hope it bears a true dragon in a season or two.

We have also begun some tests with the fairytale tree to see if it will put forth an evil lord of some variety. So far the nearest we have come is a marquesa, one oddly gifted with growing plants and hosting parties.

Also, it would seem, with manipulating time. A frisson passes through the garden, of time unwound and memories disremembered.

We will grow a fairytale tree and hope that one of the fruits grows up to defeat her. The poem flowers warn us that there is a flaw in our plan, though we can't see what it is. We feel we may have said those words before. Only the bees might know.

Daniel Ausema is a writer and poet from Colorado. His poetry has previously appeared in Strange Horizons, and his fiction has appeared in many publications. He is also the creator of the steampunk-fantasy serial fiction project Spire City. He has a background in experiential education and is a stay-at-home dad.
Current Issue
23 Nov 2020

Everybody thinks at first that time has somehow been reversed.
By: Michael Bazzett
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Michael Bazzett
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Ciro Faienza presents Michael Bazzett's “The Revisionist,” with a reading by the poet.
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