The Withered Garden

(Märchen for Michael)
by Edith Kimbell

The girl had been running for so long she had forgotten what she was running from or where she was running to, she only knew that if she stopped it would catch her. But now she could run no farther. Gasping for breath, as around her the trees began to undulate, she felt a swirling vortex suck her in and a wave of blackness engulfed her. Later, she did not know how much later, when she opened her eyes she saw that night had fallen. For a while it was enough just to lie there mesmerised by the silent ghostly dance of the shadows of the trees as clouds drifted back and forth across the moon. Soon she would have to move again, but for now she was too tired even to think. Gradually the pressure from a sharp branch beneath her forced her, with enormous effort, to lever herself up. Resting against a massive trunk she looked for some sign to tell her where she was. To her surprise she saw that she had been lying on a bed of dry bracken fronds and fallen twigs under a large oak festooned with great swags of lichen and bunches of mistletoe. Nowhere could she see any trace of a path. Around her was stillness that felt like a living thing with a hundred invisible eyes watching her, disturbed only by the sudden splash of water from the branch above her.

‘Where am I? What am I doing here?’

‘So you’re finally awake! It’s about time. I’ve been waiting long enough.’

Startled, she looked around to see where the voice was coming from. All she could see was a black cat with large amber eyes sitting on a moss-covered rock, meditatively licking its paw.

‘What stupid questions: obviously you are here because this is where you are supposed to be.’

‘Was it you who spoke?’ She shook her head at the preposterous idea. Cats, she knew, didn’t speak. ‘Whoever you are, there’s no need to be rude.’

Throwing her a disdainful glance, the cat jumped off the rock and began to walk away looking back at her over its shoulder. As she continued to sit there it stalked back and butted her as it rubbed its head against her twice before gliding away again.

‘Do you want me to follow you?’ she asked as she noticed that the cat, standing on a narrow path that had not been visible before, was swishing its tail impatiently. Steadying herself against the tree, Helle picked up a stick before she tried to keep pace with the cat. Several times, as she stopped to disentangle her skirt from the brambles that reached out to trap her with thorny tentacles, she lost sight of it amongst the dense shrubbery that obscured the path. Suddenly a high stone wall built long ago loomed in front of them.

As the cat scrambled lightly up the wall, the girl sat down on a rock and sternly addressed it, ‘This may be fun for you, but I don’t have four paws, I can’t leap like you, and I certainly can’t see in the dark the way you can. I think you have just led me down a blind alley and it’s time for me to turn back.’

Turning around, to her bewilderment, was pointless as the girl could detect no trace of where they had come from. Puzzled, and a little frightened, she looked at the cat still sitting on the wall, ‘What’s the game?’ Suddenly, as though it had made up its mind the cat leapt back down and began to thread its way along the foot of the wall over fallen blocks, squeezing past shrubs on a path that was suddenly visible again. ‘All right, you win, but if I fall it’s your fault.’ As she got up to follow the cat she thought she heard a soft purr. A little ways ahead they came to a wide arch opening into a courtyard surrounded by a wall topped with strange gargoyle-like crenellations. The cat strode ahead, its tail held erect in a question mark.

As the girl hesitated in the opening the cat turned back to weave around her feet, suddenly tripping her forward. As she struggled to retain her balance she heard the clang of the gate slamming shut behind her. The wind picked up, blurring the shadows until they coalesced into a formal garden. Tall hedges of yew trees framed rows of beds and a path led down the middle. Bending down to examine the strange-looking blossoms the girl saw to her horror that instead of flowers the beds were densely planted with skulls and bones. Her feet felt glued to the path as she tried to back away when the cremellations on the tower at the end of the garden came alive and a horde of grey shades advanced on her from all sides. Sibilant echoes of spectral voices hissed, ‘Forward, go forward,’ as cold talons pinched and clutched at her, pushing and pulling her along.

‘Let me go. I’m sorry if I trespassed. I mean no harm. It was the cat who brought me here.’ Looking around for it, she thought she heard a soft cackle of laughter, like bones rattling in a box.

As she crouched down trying to fend off the spectres, a dark shadow loomed over her. ‘Off with you now, this is no way to treat our guest.’ Fearfully the girl looked up at the figure of a tall woman clad in grey robes that merged with the shadows, so that all she could discern were piercing eyes that seemed to bore into her. ‘So, Helle, now that you are finally here, are you admiring my flowers?’

The girl started. ‘How do you know my name?’

‘Why should I not know it, since you were running here to me. Come with me.’ The woman seized Helle’s hand with an icy grip and pulled her towards the cottage in a far corner of the garden of skulls. The steep pointed roof and overhanging eaves masked windows through which a green light flickered faintly. Unable to pull her hand away, Helle felt herself inexorably drawn forward as she tried to avert her eyes from the sinister flower beds. Ahead of them the cat pranced about with its tail held high.

Standing in front of the cottage as the woman turned the key, Helle thought shadows were looking at her through the windows but there was no one around when then went into the kitchen, where a small table had been laid for one person. The woman beckoned Helle to take a seat as she ladled a helping of an aromatic-smelling stew from the cauldron that hung over the fireplace into a small bowl she placed in front of Helle.

‘You may eat.’ As Helle hesitantly lifted her spoon, the cat lay down at her feet looking up at her expectantly. The woman had sat down beside the spinning wheel and started to spin. With a quick look to make sure she was not being watched, she slipped small pieces of meat to the cat before succumbing to the mesmerising rhythmic motion of the wheel and she felt everything in the room shimmer and sway. She tried to look at her hostess but she could not even fix her outline, nor could she tell if she was young or old. Her dishevelled grey hair had turned to locks of purest gold in the glow of the fire and her coarse tattered gown to a robe of iridescent silk, now green, now gold. Gone was the wrinked face with hooked nose. Instead Helle stared into an ageless young face that surveyed her with a remote disdainful smile. The room too seemed to have transformed into a vast cavern the boundaries of which were lost in dark shadows. Above her, translucent stalactites hung in great swathes from a ceiling that receded into blackness. Suddenly Helle knew who the woman was. She started to rise up, as again everything began to swirl around her, but the woman pushed her down. ‘You are the Lady Perchta.’

Dimly, as though from a great distance, she heard, ‘You have run long enough. Now the time has come to carry out your tasks. Spin the the wool in these three baskets into a thread finer than your hair. With each colour your thread may break once, and once only. You have till this time tomorrow. Let my garden be your incentive and inspiration.’ She snapped her fingers and the cat came running. ‘The fire will last you the while and Tutvillius shall watch your work.’

She vanished, leaving Helle numbed and frightened next to three baskets filled with black, grey and white wool. Helle turned to the cat sitting beside the spinning wheel, ‘Why didn’t you just leave me in the forest? How can I do this? I have never even spun before.’ Purring softly Tutvillius butted her lightly as he stared up at a spider hanging from a thread above her head. As she followed his intent gaze she saw the spider climb back and forth as it ran a thread from one stalactite to another. She reached down to pat the small black head, ‘You are right, I’ll just give it a try. Maybe you too could not resist her.’

Slowly at first, then faster she span until first the black basket was empty, and then the grey, as she forced herself to stay awake. But as she reached for the white basket she could not keep her eyes open any longer and she slumped over the wheel. Her last thought was that she would rest just for a few moments. She jerked awake as she felt sharp claws kneading her head and back. To her dismay she saw that the fire had almost burnt itself out. She looked again where the spider had been, but there was no sign of it. With the grim determination of despair she worked the treadle and as she was twisting the last inch of wool she felt a shadow fall over her as her thread broke. Already she could feel the spectres gathering to rip the flesh from her bones.

The woman tested the thread as Helle watched anxiously, before nodding, ‘You may rest and eat.’ Once again they were back in the kitchen and the woman ladled out some stew before seating herself this time at a loom. As before, Tutvillius lay at her feet and she slipped him small pieces of meat. About to ask whether she was now free, she heard the woman say, ‘Now comes your second task. Weave this thread into cloth fit for a robe. You have till tomorrow this time. You are allowed one error in your pattern.’

She merged into the shadows and Helle was again alone in the cavern. As she looked from the loom to the yarn and back, at a loss how to carry out her task, she thought she was hearing water rippling over pebbles. Tutvillius darted back and forth, before butting her hand and giving it a gentle lick. For a moment more she sat trying to coral her ideas, then she turned to the cat, ‘Waves! Let me try to alternate the bands of colour like waves.’ Slowly at first she sent the shuttle back and forth until the pattern began to emerge, then she worked surer and faster. As before, when she had used up two thirds of the yarn she could no longer stay awake, and her head dropped onto the loom as the rippling of the water lulled her to sleep. Woken by Tutvillius gnawing at her hands, she saw that very little fire remained. Desperately she sent her shuttle back and forth using the last of the thread as the woman stood over her and examined her work. Suddenly she noticed that when she had resumed she had reversed the black and white threads. Now it was too late, and already she could see herelf being planted in one of the beds outside. Almost too exhausted to care, Helle could hardly take it in when she heard the woman say, ‘Here is a mistake, but I can find no others. You may rest and eat.’

Back again in the kitchen she made sure to pick the best pieces out of the stew to slip to Tutvillius, who was rubbing himself against her leg. ‘Here is your third task: you must make a robe out of the cloth you have woven that shows the pattern you created to best advantage. Again you have till tomorrow this time. Do not let any of the fabric go to waste. Here are shears and needles and thread.’

Before Helle could ask who would wear the robe so she would know what length to make it, the woman had vanished and she was back alone in the cavern. As she held up the fabric with the waves running horizontally, Tutvillius jumped up making her lose her hold. About to remonstrate with Tutvillius she felt herself pushed in front of a crystalline sheet of rock. Draping the fabric vertically, she turned to Tutvillius saying, ‘Of course, you are right. I’ll make it this way. Then the pattern can move with the fabric.’

Her shears seemed to glide almost of their own accord through the fabric as the cat stepped lightly ahead marking the outlines of the pieces. She sewed without pause until she had constructed the garment, but again she was felled by sleep as she was about to start the hems and overcasting the inside seams. Once more Tutvillius woke her by purring into her ear and kneading her head. She still had a few stitches left when she heard the lady’s footsteps. The beds filled with skulls rose before her and on the last stitch she pricked her finger, drawing three drops of blood.

‘Put on the robe.’

Looking down helplessly at her mud and grass-stained tunic, Helle suddenly knew that more than anything she wanted to wear the robe, but still she hesitated, ‘My tunic will stain the robe.’

‘Then take off your tunic.’

As she started to strip it off, she could feel how tight and constricting it had become. Slipping into the robe she felt a strange new lightness as it moulded itself to her. Touching the garment as if to confirm that she was still herself she looked up at the lady, ‘I think I owe you thanks for my new skin.’ Tutvillius brushed his erect tail against her, but before she could reach down to pat and thank him he had vanished.

A faint smile passed across the lady’s face, as a man clad in black, who seemed strangely familiar, walked up to her out of the shadows, holding out his hand in welcome.

Her eyes widened in wonder, ‘It was you,’ as he took her hand to lead her out of the cavern into the garden that was now filled with roses glowing in jewel tones.

Copyright 2018 Edith Kimbell