The noise echoed and rolled within the tight confines of the severely overcrowded Inn of Loca. Every resident shouted louder and louder to be sure Ol’ Stumpy heard their call on the desired number. Arms waved and hands clapped, heads thumped and spittle flew in exclamation as the tall, narrow-necked jar lit up a single square for each bet.
Ol’ Stumpy sat as calm as a well-fed Inn-cat as he scribbled on the black slate when a voice chipped in with the number or word or a shake of jowl. How he knew which name-sigil to put against the number was impossible for Livia to see. She didn’t need to – Stumpy did it as he always did, and the magic wouldn’t work for him if he did it wrong or cheated.
Each scrape on the slate was accompanied by a nod and a lit name-sigil appeared above the person, followed by a gold coin which flew through the air to clink into the large jar that sat on the very edge of the raw timber bench. A few more coins and it’d be all over for the year.
Roars erupted on the far side, amid the smoke and crackle of the large fire-pit. Two more sigils, two more coins appeared and dropped into the neck. One more. The last. Voices calmed; spittle dribbled down chins with mouths closed. Like a roll of thunder in reverse, the sounds decreased, then ceased as every head in the overflowing, crowded, hot and steamy room turned towards Livia.
She crossed her arms, scowled, sneered – nodded as the outer ridges on the jar lit up with her sigil and the last empty mark in the grid pattern of squares. The room erupted in another roar, hid the chink of her last piece of gold as it stoppered the neck. Hot glass melted from the top and sealed it.
It was done.
Livia turned to leave. The heavy iron-studded door tried to resist her efforts to open it, but relented when the tears began to burn down her cheeks. Cold air hit her as she stepped out into the last night of Winter. Her last night.
Cold. Bitter frost. She pulled her sheepskin coat closed, curled the wool scarf over her head and neck, and wrapped the tail end over her mouth and nose.
The yellow moon shone her glorious light of fullness on the signboard, newly erected for the season. The words weren’t visible; they were painted on the other side, towards the direction where the strangers would come from. Livia didn’t need to see the words; she knew them as well as she knew the path to her home on the edge of the gorge. She wrote the same words every year, the same warning to the pilgrims who would begin arriving on the first day of Spring. Tomorrow they would read the words she’d used to try to stop them.
‘Venture Not Forth to the Garden of Souls
‘For it Feasts on your Hope
‘Leaves nought but Holes
‘And your welcome to the World Beyond
A smaller line at the bottom laid out the only written law of Loca: ‘We hold your belongings for one Moon only.’
Of course, the pilgrims were always offended; they seemed to think the villagers of Loca wanted to keep the Garden to themselves. The pilgrims didn’t appreciate the sign, the warning, or the lack of accommodation – it was their right to expect the courtesy of the towns where they paid in gold. Many times Livia heard the same words: “A hand with a gold coin is the hand that should be shook with welcome.” But those words belonged to the low-landers, not here.
Here, the only inn, the Inn of Loca, offered no food or drink or rest to those weary from the path to the Garden. Stumpy always offered to show them to the path that led back down the hill – to anywhere Away.
How many took his advice? How many took seriously the words on the sign? In Livia’s lifetime, not one. The betting on how many hours would pass before the sign was ripped from the ground and tossed down the ravine was an annual event. Pilgrims with rage, offended at the polite warning. They should come and live with the Garden; maybe that would change their mind.
They kept coming. Someone or something kept sending them. And because they kept coming, this would be her year to tend the Garden of Souls.
Another sign. She needed a new sign – a Truth Sign they couldn’t ignore – and put right at the edge of the path of No Return.
She ran home.
The cupboards were bare of food, but she had paint from the work on the main sign; she had timbers to hold it up at head height; she had a pre-finished black background flatten to put the words on. White words? Or red? Both?
Yes, both. Red centre, white edges. Red for the blood of souls, and white for pure of intent.
She set up her work space in the middle of the small main room. Sat on her stool. Listened for the right words to come to her mind – words of Power were what she needed. Her black slate slid onto her lap with the last piece of white chalk. Wrote a few letters, rubbed them away; wrote some more, rubbed them off.
‘No words pass this way’ – No, she rubbed it clean, wiped a damp cloth across the surface before putting the chalk back to the surface. Moved.
‘No words are to be spoken
‘Hum or sing or chant
‘No words – do not whisper or giggle or run or play
‘This Garden of Souls offers falseness
‘It is not the Well of Wellness to swell the senses and soothe the soul
‘There is no peace
‘No tranquillity within
‘Do not pick the Sage or Marjoram
‘Do not lean forward to sniff the lavender or rosemary
‘Do not crush the verbena or rose
‘Beware the hedge that borders the Garden
‘Beware the thorns and aroma and touch
‘Walk not upon the path of white shell
‘Walk only upon the grass verge
‘Or on the muddy sludge of the run-off ditch.
‘Do Not Let Them Hear You Breathe
‘Unless in Song or Chant or Hum
‘Pray for your life and your soul and your sanity
‘For if you come to worship in the Garden of Souls
‘You had best make your peace with All.’
These were the words she painted onto the black flatten sign. The tears came again as Livia placed her belongings in caskets and boxes. Clothes neatly folded, tools packed in wax-coated, purpose-shaped tombs of timber, words of magic-doing and herb lore sealed closed until her death.
On her last look around the Cottage of the Gardener, she saw her end. The end of her journey or the end of her life? Only time would show if a pilgrim came to force the Gardener through the Gate of Offering to accompany them to the Rites of Passage.
If she survived her season as Gardener of the Soul, she would return to this cottage.
Sometimes, the Gardener returned, but usually not. Of those who did return in the husk of dried out skin and crackly bones that barely held them together, no words escaped, no smiled lifted lips or eyes, and the people of Loca swallowed their pain and pity and turned away.
The hut of the Gardener was banished to the outer edges, to the point of the cliff path that had no end, far enough away from the palisade of the village that the howls could not be heard, that the overwhelming sadness did not penetrate. The hut was both refuge and doom of the one chosen to tend the Garden, to stop the Resident of the Garden of Souls from walking beyond the hedges that held it.
A new jar would fill with gold for the demise of the Gardener. Or the return. Would Livia return? If she did, and a new betting jar was opened, would she last one day, one quarter moon, one half moon, one full moon? Would she last until the dark moon hid the yellow moon?
Would she be able to open her mouth to eat or drink. Would she have the will to add new words of knowledge to the tome of the Gardener?
Faded words in the tome of the Gardener Task said that to survive until the Dark Moon passed over the face of the Light Moon would break the curse of the Gardener of Soul Magic – would Livia be the first to bear the burden and live through the Sadness of All Souls?
Or would she join her predecessors in the end that came with the madness of the task? Would she take the final walk along the path that led to Nowhere but the bottom of the Gorge?
Copyright Karel Jaeger 2017