Madeline's Garden

March 17, 2010
A young woman by the name of Madeline Fisher lived in a small Connecticut town far out of the way of what most would deem interesting. Her father was a mechanic and her mother worked at the Wal-Mart that had gone up about five years back. Madeline was a happy child and praised for her pretty face and high test scores. From the time she started first grade her teachers and her parents knew she was bright, so they pushed her to try harder. They pushed her strait to the top of her class and, once she was there, they pushed her even more.

Madeline was a happy child, but she was not a happy teenager. Every test she took was as precious as if she wrote the answers in her dying blood. Every single point available in class could have been a year of her life from how hard she work for them. She had no friends because her classmates resented her for outshining them so much and so often. She feared nothing more than disappointing her parents, so she did all she could to please them. They told her to study, so she did. That was all she did.

The only joy she had in her life was in the small flower garden she kept in the woods near her house. It was in the woods because her parents would not allow her to waste her time in the dirt. She snuck out at night to tend it.

The garden was stunning. Her skill with plants was fully natural and surpassed by none. There were lavender plants in a corner and white roses not far from them. Sweet peas carpeted one spot and their colors were lovely in the light of the patio torches that she worked by. Her favorite flowers were the moonflowers that grew on a trellis. They were always open, drinking in the moonlight, when she came to care for them.

Madeline’s toils in her garden were the only thing she looked forward to. Nothing save holding back the encroaching woods made her happy. She resented the daylight and the troubles it brought her. She resented her studies. In the daytime she felt chained by her duties. In the night, she was free. All she wanted was a hoe and a spade and an endless, star-filled night to work in.

She knew that her dream was impossible though. Always, on the numerous nights when she lost track of time, the night would end in the grey dawn light. She would have to run home in a sprint and wash away the dirt in the shower, as if she had just gotten up for school. Her parents never knew that she was ever gone. Then she would have yet another day trapped in her studying until the night would welcome her again.

While some in Madeline’s position would never have put up with the constant pressure and work her parents placed on her, Madeline felt that she had to. Her parents worked night and day to make enough money for her well reputed private school and her gifted student summer camps and her test prep books. Every cent of extra money went into her college fund. They told her often how she would have a better life then theirs. They told her it was their only wish and dream. They would give anything for their daughter’s future, every luxury, every happiness, even their health. Never once did they dwell on the present, save to look at Madeline’s latest test scores. Their eyes were fixed strait ahead while they turned their child’s eyes in the same direction, filling her mind with stories of the wealth and fame should would one day receive. Madeline saw how much they gave up for her and she vowed that she would never disappoint her parents, no matter the unhappiness it caused her. They had given enough. If they were to sacrifice, she would as well.

So Madeline grew and went through her teenage years. She graduated high school as valedictorian with hardly a flaw on her transcripts. All that was left was to receive her acceptance to Harvard Law and her future would be sealed. Her parents were working when the mail came and so she was alone when she opened the letter.

She read it five times before the words sunk in. When they did she sat down on the grass in a cold void of shock. All that she had done, all that her parents had done, meant nothing. She had not been accepted.

Slowly she realized that she could not face her parents. Madeline first walked, then broke into a stumbling run towards her garden. She collapsed among the neatly tended flowers and breathed in their scent. Only then did the hopeless tears fall.

Night had not quite fallen when a noise roused Madeline from her tears. A crack of a twig, a rustle of a leaf. She looked around and saw nothing. She was about to dismiss the sounds when someone spoke from behind her.

“Why the tears, child?”

It was a man, middle aged with grey hair and a short grey beard. He wore a casual suit and looked for all the world like a college professor or some other respectable professional. His ice blue eyes were intense and the expression made him seem very removed from all that was around him.

Madeline was startled, but she did not have the will to be afraid. She didn’t even bother to get up.

“Everything I’ve worked for is over.” She said lifelessly.

The man tisked and shook his head. “Everything? My then, you do have reason to cry. Can I be of any help?”

“Not unless you can get me accepted into Harvard Law.”

“Hmm…” He cocked his head to the side, apparently deep in thought. After a moment he nodded to himself.

Madeline waited disinterestedly for the man to finish his thoughts. Finally he spoke.

“My dear Madeline, I can get you into Harvard Law. I can make sure that you graduate with honors and that you are the richest and most successful lawyer in the world.”

Madeline’s tears started again. “Don’t mock me.”

“My dear, I’m not. There’s only one thing you must do and one thing you mustn’t and all that I saw will happen.”

Madeline thought of the crushed expressions of her parents when she told them the news. A wild desperation grew in her, frenzied and on the verge of madness. If there was any chance, any at all, to keep from disappoint them then she would take it.

“What must I do? I’ll do anything.”

A faint, joyless smile touched to man’s lips and he stepped aside. Behind him there was a gas can that she had not seen before. He took a book of matches out of his pocket.

“Madeline, if you want all that I have promised you, you must do this. Pour this gasoline on your garden. Set fire to it. Burn away every blossom and poison the roots with the liquid. Leave none of it alive. As for the thing that you mustn’t do, it’s simple. Never tend another plant, not so much as the grass of a lawn. Do this, and you will have your wish.

Madeline stared at him in horror. “Burn my garden? But… how will that help me?”

“It is the price child. Either pay it or give up your dreams of law school. You must trust me on this.”

Madeline looked at her beloved plants, the simple flowers that grew into living masterpieces under her care. They were her only joy in her life. Then she looked beyond the blooms into the distant future just as she’d been taught to do. She saw her parents’ smiling faces, at last at peace as she concluded the trial of the century, winning with a brilliant case.

She stood with her back to the man and trailed her hands over the leaves and petals. She breathed deeply the fragrance of the lavender, the sweet peas and her favorite moonflowers that were just opening in the twilight. Her parents sacrificed everything for her future. All she had to give was this little bit of earth. A moment later, with fresh tears overflowing her eyes, she turned to the man.

“I’ll do it.”

He picked up the gas can and held it out to her wordlessly. Fingers trembling, Madeline took it.

The petals instantly started to droop as the poison gasoline was soaked up in their roots. She splashed it over every last plant, the tears blurring her vision as she did so. When it was done she dropped the empty can at the man’s feet.

He held out the matches.

Madeline’s hands were shaking too much to strike up a flame. “Please,” she begged, “do it for me.”

He shook his head. “It must be you.”

A minute more of labor and the match head caught. She held the small flame and gave a deep sob.

“It is the only way Madeline.”

The fire singed her fingers and she dropped the match. It fell on the gas-drenched moonflower vines and they were consumed in flame. The fire spread to ever corner of the garden, blackening blossoms and reducing emerald leaves to ash. She didn’t want to watch, but she couldn’t turn away. Smoke burned her eyes and embers seared her flesh until all that was left of her happiness was charcoal and cinders and the faint scent of flowers smothered by acrid smoke. Nothing else burned around it. The flames stopped at the garden’s edge.

The man nodded, satisfied. “Your parents are waiting with a letter for you. Remember the second part of our bargain. If you don’t hold to it, everything you receive will leave you.”

“I understand.”

“Perhaps. Best of luck Madeline.”

The man walked off. In later years, Madeline doubted if he even existed, or if she had dreamed him in a nightmare.

When Madeline returned home her parents were there. They had opened a letter from Harvard saying Madeline had been accepted and, not only that, she was to attend on full scholarship. Never had her parents been happier and never had Madeline felt more empty.

She went to Harvard. She graduated with honors. In record time she was a renowned attorney. Not long after that she was sought out across the country for her skill in the courtroom. She took any client so long as they could pay and under her watch murderers walked free. She never touched a plant except for the grass she walked on.


Madeline’s parents died many years later. Just before they passed they told her how proud they were of her. Her mother however expressed worry. Madeline never smiled. She never laughed. She never seemed to feel any joy at all.

“Be happy my love.”
Were her mother’s dying words. Madeline thought about them long after they were said.

Happiness was a garden in the woods tended by starlight. Happiness was a burned scar in the earth. Madeline thought of her vow made so many years past in what she thought was a nightmare. She had never returned to the garden and she told herself that it was still there. The woods had slowly reclaimed it, but if she were to look, she might still see a moonflower vine climbing a tree trunk. She tried hard to convince herself of that. Still though, she had stuck to the bargain. She had kept away from every kind of plant.

Fearfully for days she would open the little box she’d kept with her since she was a girl. In it were the seeds she’d used to plant her garden every year. All that she kept anymore were her moonflower seeds. She looked at them, not even daring to touch.

One day her misery could be left no longer. If it continued she felt as if she would die. She gathered soil in a makeshift pot made of an old milk carton and in it she planted a single seed. She watered it and placed it in the window of her apartment. That night she slept in peace for the first time since she was a teenager.

For three weeks she cared for the plant. It sprouted a tiny green stem and the sight of it nearly crippled her with emotion. For several minutes she thought she was having a heart attack, but then she realized that her heart felt too large with joy. She had forgotten the sensation. When the stem was tall enough she gave it a stake to climb. Every evening she would look at the tiny thing, drinking in its appearance.

Daily at work things grew worse. She began to loose cases. Clients dropped her. Money disappeared into unpaid back taxes that had come out of no where. The decline was extraordinary. Never had a person lost a lifetime’s worth of work such as she did. The larger the seedling grew, the worse things were. Finally, three weeks after she had planted the flower, her practice closed. Everything she owned was seized to pay her debts. Madeline was left homeless and destitute with hardly a thing to her name.

Madeline carried a small bag of her belongings and her seedling in its milk carton, to what destination she didn’t know. She fancied that she glimpsed the man who had approached her in her garden, unchanged, on a distant street corner. He nodded and ever so faintly over the hum of traffic she heard him say something.

“Now you understand.”

She smiled for the first time in thirty years.

“I do.”

And she left to find a place to replant her garden.





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