I ran my gloved fingers along the piled stones, wondering what we might find beyond the wall. Maggie and I had gone for a walk that afternoon, and had ended up at the far end of the neighborhood, where there was some undeveloped land, long neglected, and likely forgotten. Maggie noted that, perhaps the city was confused about who was responsible for the upkeep of the area, and even though I didn’t know what she meant by that, I definitely understood that nobody was caring for the bushes, trees, and other plants growing wildly in all directions.
I’d accidentally found the stone wall while she and I worked with gardening shears to cut back some of the overgrowth. If nobody else was going to do the work, we decided we would. Our very first day there, my steel blades scraped harshly against the rocks, and I found myself walking the perimeter of something man-made.
“Anything?” Maggie shouted from around a large, flowering bush. I couldn’t see her through the chaos of branches.
“No. I can’t seem to find a way through. Maybe there isn’t one.” I’d thought of my favorite book, The Secret Garden, and had hoped against all hope that we’d found one of our very own. So far, however, it appeared we simply found a heap of boulders. I was determined, though, so I continued my hunt for a door. Or a key. Or something.
“I’ll keep looking in this direction, and—” Maggie gasped so loudly I could hear it from where I was standing. “Oh my! You must come see this.”
She didn’t have to tell me twice. My little feet ran around the large bushes to find Maggie kneeling on the ground and pushing branches away from in front of her. I squinted to see what she was indicating, and as soon as my eyes finally registered that the wood I was looking at belonged to something other than to the wild foliage, my surprise escaped even more loudly than hers had moments before. It was a door! And even better, there didn’t seem to be a lock on it.
“Ready?” Maggie’s blue eyes twinkled with excitement.
Of course I was ready. “YES!”
The door stuck on some mud at the bottom, and we had to scrape away at the earth more than once, but it did finally open. The door itself was barely tall enough for me to pass through, which meant that Maggie crawled on all fours as she crossed to the other side. I suggested just ducking, but she insisted that was too hard on her back. Shrugging, I watched the older woman make her way inside of what turned out to be an enclosed, circular… garden!
“My goodness…” Maggie said, brushing dirt from her gloves onto her pants, looking around slowly at our discovery. “Your theory turned out to be quite right, didn’t it?” She smiled widely at my shocked expression.
I had secretly hoped we’d find a garden on the other side, but only because I’d loved the book so much. Now, faced with the reality of it, I found myself frozen in place, unable to calm my racing heart. Maggie initially must have thought my state was due to happiness, but what was happening inside of me was something dark and terrifying. I struggled to breathe, and tears stung in my eyes. I tried to make myself move, to respond, to do something, but all I could manage was to sit down on the ground and tuck my face into my knees. I rocked in place as Maggie came quietly to my side.
“Molly?” I could feel her gaze on me, even though I was buried in the darkness of myself. “What’s going on, dear?” She touched my arm lightly and I flinched, even though I didn’t mean to. She withdrew her hand immediately and sat down beside me. “I’m right here, and I’m going to focus on breathing. I’m not going anywhere.”
After what seemed like hours, but what was likely only a few minutes, the fuzziness began to lift, and I found myself breathing in rhythm with Maggie. My heart slowed its pace, and allowed my muscles to relax some. Turning my head to face Maggie, I found my voice again.
“I actually don’t like gardens,” I confessed.
“Oh? I thought you’d wanted to find a garden in here.”
“I did.” I wiped at my eyes, the moisture of my tears making my cheeks unbearably cold. “I mean, I thought I did.”
Maggie nodded in that way she always did—the one that told me she knew, really knew, what I was saying. “I see. You’ve made mention several times of something happening when you were younger… something that frightened you a lot. Is that related to this?”
I nodded. I couldn’t say the words. I’d never talked about it, even with my therapist. People knew it happened, which is why I was put into therapy, but nobody knew what it was. Not really.
“You don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to, but sometimes it helps to talk. Once we get it out of our bodies, it doesn’t feel as powerful anymore.”
“That’s what my therapist says.”
Maggie chuckled. “Sounds like a good therapist. And do you talk to them?”
I shook my head.
“Well, I’ll never force anything from you. So, I have an idea. You up for hearing it?”
I bit my lip and nodded.
“I think we should clean this garden up together. It’s quite a mess, and it looks like it’s been left this way for years. If you want to talk while we work, you can. And if you don’t, that’s alright, too. But either way, we can transform this place into something new, and beautiful, and magical. What do you say?”
A magical garden sounded nice. It could be something amazing, and nothing like that garden. It could be ours, and it could be totally new. Safe.
“Do you feel that?” Maggie asked, brow quirked.
I paused, trying to sense what she was talking about. To my great surprise, I did feel something. It was a light, pulsing tingle against my skin. Eyes wide, I met Maggie’s gaze. “What is that?”
She beamed. “Magic.”
I looked around at the tangled branches, most of them bare and gnarled. There were some withered roses still clinging to a line of thorny bushes along the left side, and a couple different kinds of yellow flowers growing throughout several patches in the space. There were even a few shocks of pinkish-purple flowers scattered around in small bunches. I never would have imagined so much life capable of existing in an abandoned garden, with nobody tending to it. Especially with it being so cold!
Maggie took my hand, helping me pull myself up from the ground, before leading me to one of the patches of flowers. “See these?” She cradled a spidery yellow bloom in her fingers. “This is witch hazel, one of my favorites! It’s good for all kinds of things.” She walked me to the magenta ones, saying, “And these are mums! How delightful!”
“And what are those?” I asked, directing her attention toward other yellow flowers adorning several large shrubs which appeared to be crawling up the walls.
“Oh! Those are winter jasmine… they’re lovely, too, aren’t they?”
I supposed they were, and as she showed me what everything was, and as I felt the tingle of magical energy growing around us, I found myself breathing deeply. We really could make something beautiful of this. A garden didn’t need to be something to fear.
“You think you might want to help me?” Maggie asked gently.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I think I do.”
“Very good.” She clapped her hands together. “We’ll have our work cut out for us, but with you, me, and a little bit of magic, it should be absolutely marvelous by the time we’re finished! Of course, a garden is never truly finished,” she mused, voice dreamy. “Much like us, I suppose.”
Sometimes Maggie had a way of making everything out to be some deep, profound thing, even if it was just a garden. But the truth is, I loved that about her. My own mind tends to work that way, and as a child I didn’t know anyone else who saw the world as I did. Moments like those spent with Maggie in the garden, helped me to see that I wasn’t so alone after all.
We spent weeks traipsing back and forth between our street in the neighborhood and the garden on the outskirts. Sometimes we carried shovels and shears, and sometimes we just took gloves and a picnic lunch. Every time I entered through that little wooden door, I found myself less anxious and more excited. With repetition, it eventually became nothing worthy of a second thought. It wasn’t until the first real snow came that I realized how much I’d actually come to enjoy the garden. We weren’t able to work on it for four days in a row, because Maggie insisted it was too cold, and there was too much snow on the ground. I knew she was right, but the thought of leaving the place abandoned again felt wrong somehow.
When we were able to head back over, I’d practically run the entire way, beating Maggie there by several minutes. I should’ve stayed back and walked with her, but I was just too excited to see our magic garden again. I was greeted by the most stunning view when I opened the door… Not only had everything survived, but it had thrived! The winter jasmine looked like bright spots of sunlight against the bits of snow still laying around, and the mums popped bright pink and purple framed with white. It really was magical!
“I see they did just fine without us,” Maggie observed, crawling in.
“They did.” I looked around at everything. “Even with the snow.”
“That’s the thing about magical gardens—especially ones created with lots of love. They have a way of sustaining, even through really tough things.”
I had a feeling Maggie wasn’t just talking about the garden. But she was right. Every branch trimmed back felt like I was whittling away a little bit more at my own fear. Every pile of dead and rotting foliage we scooped into bags for recycling felt like clearing away the dark and festering things in myself. Now, looking at the beauty we’d managed to create, I understood that I could do the same in myself.
Sensing my thoughts, Maggie rested a hand on my shoulder. “You’ve got this, Molly. I’m so very proud of you.”
I was proud of me, too, and as my eyes surveyed our work so far, I allowed the unfamiliar feeling to bloom inside of me. I leaned my head into her side, and she wrapped an arm around me. We spent all winter planning what we wanted to grow there, and come spring, we had seeds ready for planting. The first step had been clearing away the old, but the next was to grow something new alongside the beauty already there. And I loved nearly every moment of it, even when my muscles ached and my hands formed callouses. I mourned the loss of seedlings that never made it, and celebrated the growth of each new leaf and bud. I soaked myself in the magic of it, and as the garden healed, so did I.