The Poison Garden

In the dead of night a girl flees all she's ever known, fearing for her life and seeking to save that of her brother.
Far into the forest, beyond yew trees grown on human flesh, she seeks the Serpent, a small community of individuals secretly thriving away from the pious eyes of the Garden.
If she's lucky, their interests might just align.

Follow Henbane, Bluebottle, Mistletoe and others as they seek to tear down their old lives in order to build them anew.

(Cover by WinterSoldier)

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34. Chapter 33 - Artemis

AN: MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING - self-hate, self-harm, suicide.

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The waiting is the worst thing.

I’ve been watching the sun rise and fall, waking early, falling asleep late.

I am tired, and I feel cold like it has seeped into my bones and frozen me from the inside out.

I am caught in a web of death that is impossible to untangle, and I have been for a long time.

 

He comes to see me every night.

But not tonight.

There is too much to arrange tonight, people to put into formation, words to put into action.

I will not sleep tonight.

Idle time leads to idle minds, I know this.

I know this well.

My idle hands have already found it – the blade.

This waiting is torturous. The thought folds on itself and swells until I feel that it will crush me.

It probably will.

My chest screams with an empty type of pain that can never be relieved, unless…

But the knife is not in my heart yet.

I put it down.

 

And then pick it up again.

A few more days make no difference, It says, Less painful to end it now.

My knuckles turn white on the hilt.

The world doesn’t need you anymore now than it will then, It taunts, How can it? Stop this waiting.

I drop it again, but this time I don’t mean to.

I will my fingers to flex, but they defy me.

My breath shakes, my lips tremble and my mind turns to a landslide, every emotion clattering in at once.

Even your own body is against you, sneers the Knife, and it glares in the blue light, What use are you now?

With my other hand, I take it up, teeth so tightly clenched they groan.

Anger floods me, emerging in my skin in twitches and shakes.

I flex my useless hand again and, for just a minute, it obeys.

I swap the knife so it holds it, and in my freed hand take my hair in a clump.

Because I will not bleed.

Never again. I promised, but I need to put some physicality to this hurt.

I need some relief for this agonising rage.

The blunt force of the knife as it plunges at my hair makes me gasp. Strands at the base of my neck snap loose, but I continue – sawing and then plunging again, biting at my lip to stop myself from crying out.

Slip, The Knife wills, Just an inch closer, it just takes a twitch.

I resist.

“I will not bleed.” I hiss, air through the gaps in my aching mouth.

The knife strikes the strands again.
It does not slip.

Hair begins to fold, parting from itself where it is met by metal.

One, two, three… I begin to count, measuring my breaths by the numbers.

The hair thins.

I pull the knife back once more…

And yell as my hand twitches, begging to be useless once more, and cuts into the back of my neck.

But it already has too much momentum to resist another swing at it’s true target, and the hair comes loose in my fist as it strikes.

 

I spread the hair out in front of me. I don’t know what else to do with it.

I’ve never been parted from it before in my life.

My whole body vibrates uncomfortably, my breath comes in stutters.

The coils of the hair sway beneath the breeze I produce.

My left hand moves to push it around once more, my right lying dead again in my lap.

When it does, I realise how sticky all my fingers are.

There’s blood on the hair, too.

And the knife.

The wound wasn’t deep – I don’t even feel woozy.

But then, I don’t think I would know whilst my blood pumps full of adrenaline.

I push the hair around, weaving my fingers through the loops and raising it to watch it fall again.

 

Somehow I must sleep.

Or fall unconscious, because when I rise again from blackness into dazzling blue I’m still shaking.

A searching hand finds itself rubbed against curls cut-short. I notice them falling about my face, tips right there by my chin.

It’s bizarre.

Still fumbling on my head, I remember that I am rubbing the curls with a fist because I cannot move my fingers.

I go to change hands, but realise my left is already clutching something.

I don’t need to look to know, I can feel it biting my skin.

“Shit.” The words are weary, rasping. I try to cough my throat clear, but whatever is there stays stuck.

I wish I had some water.

But not enough to rise.

My heart is beating me into submission.

For a moment, I fear the child was wrong, that death is coming for me prematurely.

I believe it only for a second.

That child is never wrong, not about death.

 

I had seen them once before, that child.

The memory lives deep in the depths of my mind, rooted at the very heart of me.

Arguably, it marks my very beginning.

They were there the night I died.

The night I came back.

 

I was someone different, before; I was a child myself, and loyal to the whim of my superiors.

In my memory, authority is summarised by a large gentleman who loved the way that priestly robes shaped him as innocent. Perhaps he believed he was innocent, and for some time I believed that, too.

He was doing God’s work – who is more innocent, more pure in heart, than a Cultivator?

More so than the Messiah – this I sometimes thought.

I have a distinct memory of this large gentleman’s large calloused hand, wrapped so gently around mine.

We walk into semi-darkness, glits only lighting when he flicks them as we pass.

A wonder, I thought, every time I beheld them, That is where God is, bringing light into this darkest place.

He speaks, as we go,

“Today, you prove yourself.” He says, “I know you can do it.”

He continues, but I remember no more of his words, just that – his belief in me.

I am used to scorn and absence, but this man is my light. Unlike my father, I see him every day. Unlike my mother, he treats me with kindness and believes in me.

The idea sticks now like a jagged road in my throat.

 

The first time I start to wonder at my own righteousness, I am maybe half my current age – still so young, not even breaching puberty.

I remember so little of the action – just the feelings.

There is a bluntness in my head, like fists squashing down on a pile of clothes to make more room in the drawer.

The clothes, I realise, are made of terror so thick it can never be reduced. The fists are my whole life, reeling against this new information.

Move and it will be gone. Something inside me says.

Or maybe that man says it.

I don’t remember.

I move – pull my quarry from the table to fester on the floor or be taken away (I do not watch) and reach for a new one.

Like they were merely dolls with which I was tinkering.

And not human beings.

(But they are human beings.)

Twist the arm up, point the foot in an unnatural angle, pull ears of wheat loose from the binding strings.

(But they aren’t really ears of wheat.)

Then-

(-pull the scalpel along the soft flesh of the belly, use the clips to hold the two sides apart, and the arms want to flail but they are held down tight.)

And the doll-

(-keens like a sick dog, praying for salvation, praying for death.)

So I-

(-push the knife down on his finger until it comes away from the hand, and the big man asks again. When the man on the table shakes his head through his blood-starved haze, I grab a cloth and staunch to blood, set to closing the cavity in his torso again. The big man motions for me to step away, and takes over my job, assigning me to the one he’s left.

And so I do what I was taught.

“We know you want this to stop, we do.” I coo, small hand against his head, “Sir, it will stop, but the Lord needs answers first.”

He tries to spit but can’t find the energy to move the muscles of his throat.

“If all the Lord wanted was answers,” He just manages to rasp syllables blurred by his weary tongue, “Then my friend need not have died.”

“Do you not love the Lord?” And I am genuinely confused, but I play on that, twist it into persuasion, “Do you question his will?”

“Any Lord who wills torture and death,” He is hardly breathing, “Is no Lord that should be followed.”)

We put the doll away once we’ve repaired it.

I thought we’d repaired it.

But when I next see the doll, it’s eyes are dull and it shudders whenever someone talks.

And when the big man tries to pick it up, it screams like it is dying.

Dolls can’t die.

(But humans can.)

Yes. Humans can.

 

Any Lord who wills torture and death is no Lord that should be followed.

And perhaps he is right, I start to think.

From then on, the dolls become more human.

First their eyes, but I can just look away.

Then their hands – moving, poking, individual digits dancing independently. I tie the hands down tighter.

Then the skin.

And I can’t ignore the skin – it is my quarry, my target, the only thing I cannot look away from.

It is not wheat, it is flesh.

And flesh is undeniably alive.

We dare not touch the flesh of animals, so why the flesh of humans?

This flesh is certainly human.

Those I love are human, too.

Do these humans have other humans who love them?

 

Am I human, too?

 

Any Lord who wills torture and death is no Lord that should be followed.

Am I doubting the Nameless God?

Three years later, the big man who I thought of so highly scorns me. He finds me in my bed after dark – I don’t know how, I don’t know how he got inside, into my room – and shakes me back against the wall.

“Sinner.” He wheezes, “You were gifted!”

My head crashes repeatedly into the wall.

I try to call for help, but he quashes my words with a meaty fist.

I cannot breathe.

I cannot breathe.

“You were made to be the best – could have been the next Messiah!” The air whistles in his nose, “My prodigy! My next step, rising with me beneath you!”

For a moment, as I struggle, I manage to dislodge his hand.

“My father-” I am cut off as his hand regains it’s place over my airways.

My father would rise with me, not you. Is what I wanted to say.

I blanch at the thought of my sudden defiance.

Instant regret floods me – he knows exactly what I wanted to say.

“He did not love you! I took his place, you should have revered me! Stayed in the Hand for me!

Because he could not have children – as a young man he had defied God’s law by trying to conceive with his fiancé. Tried and tried and tried, to no avail. Then his fiancé grew tired and took to a brothel, grew pregnant by a man there, and he knew that their childlessness had been his fault. In his shame, he threw himself at the Hand for repentance, and was saved only by his father’s priestly status and the pleading of his fiancé. No. Rather, he was saved to be a joke.

It was a story she had heard her father tell another Rose, spitting fake pity over it. They laughed at the effort he had put into repenting ever since.

They laughed at his childlessness.

You wanted to be my father? I think, and stop struggling.

He presses his elbow into my throat. I begin to choke in the hot vacuum of his hand, barely hanging on to consciousness.

“But you gave up!” He spits, but I am too far gone to feel the liquid drain down my face. His eyes narrow with malice, “No… You defied the Lord’s will. You are a heretic. You know what happens to heretics.”

They die.

And my fear must show on my face, because he grins.

He grins and grins and grins and I wonder how I have ever thought about him as a father.

He is no father.

He is a monster.

I am a monster, too.

That is when my real father bursts into my room. He pulls the big man from me but does not turn to check that I am well.

Father leads the big man from the room, hand on his shoulder as he shakes and pants.

 

I did not die that night.

Sometimes I wish I had.

 

Any Lord who wills torture and death is no Lord that should be followed.

It is one year later, and I shudder in fear at those words over a steaming bath.

I have not gone back to training with the big man, not played with any more humans.

Still, their faces swirl in my head.

I cling to my naked skin with hands clawed with chill, despite the steam.

I am waiting for the water to cool.

Step in. Something tells me. It’s nice and hot.

And my toe taps the surface of the water.

Like hot oil.

And I fall. The back of my head cracks against the door and I crumple. Images flood me, spark the fuel of my blood to fire – no, to hot oil that sears my skin, melts it down to bone.

Burning, burning, burning.

Like those humans I played with.

I am a sinner. I realise, Oh, forgive me.

Then my father’s razor blade presses itself into my hand, and I make my begging physical.

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned, I write, there in the flesh of my leg so I can never forget. And I may scream.

I may scream.

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.

Those words the heretics cried in the darkness of the cells before they realised that someone was there to see their weakness.

To use their weakness.

The water of the bath is still, lifeless. The glit begins to dim.

The faces of the heretics rise again.

I look to my leg, to those words.

My legs loosen. I slump. My breath is newly soft… Forgiving…

“What have you done now?” A sharp voice outside, breaking the silence of the dead. “Fallen?”

That voice I know.

I know the words lingering on those lips as they shout.

Oaf.

Embarrassment.

Bastard.

“Yes.” I gasp, reaching desperately for the towel – brown, scratchy, made of the Lord’s natural materials - to staunch the uncontrolled bleeding of my inner thigh. “I’m fine, mother.”

Step mother. I spit internally.

The blood isn’t stopping. Isn’t stopping . The towel turns darker… darker…

“Go back to bed.” I try to keep the pleading from my tone, “I’m sorry, I’ll clean up.”

She knows, I think then, She cannot see, but she knows what I have done.

“Bastard.” Growls the retreating footsteps.

She’ll kill me. She’s wanted me dead, but now she’ll kill me herself.

I fumble for the cupboard beneath the wash basin, searching desperately for more cloths, but my fingers slip in the clumsiness of my haze and the blood on them.

Little, soft pink bells flutter across the floor, my hand has knocked the bowl that held them.

I forget the cloths and crush a dozen of the bells in my bloody hands, press them against my teeth, into my throat.

Then slump again.

The liquid from the petals mingles with the red on my fingers, biting at my wounds.

Clarity.

The air is steamy, warm. A final bell rolls across the floor.

A foxglove, I marvel, I had a friend called Foxglove once… she told me about her namesake…

I smile softly, and lift the final flower on my little finger, hovering in front of my eyes as my vision begins to blur.

Digitalis Purpurea… the purple finger… the heart stopper.

I hear the blood pumping in my ears. I squint at the flower, then slump further.

Oh.

Gently, I run my hand across the words written on my thigh and wonder at the irony of being killed by the namesake of an old friend; perhaps this was inevitable when every child is named after a dangerous plant, a powerful plant. God’s natural materials.

That man will find this hilarious. I may murmur it aloud. I am drowsy. Around me the floor is damp, but I don’t register it anymore. And she will no doubt tell me off.

That spurs me up, into my towel in a sway of flying red droplets.

I don’t know how I get myself to move.

I am dead.

I am already dead.

My hand is on the door handle, I hear it click open even now, step into the cold of death and…

Die.

 

And the child hovers on the edge of my vision, not quite the child, almost someone else.

They tell me I have a second chance, but that it would be difficult.

And my second chance comes, I wake up.

I am new.

Another door clicks open.

 

I’m awake.

The door clicks open and wakes me again.

But the door was locked.

No, it should be locked.

And yet, it swings open.

And she sees me there.

And I am still holding the knife.

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