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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10. Chapter 9 - Bluebottle

Bluebottle woke again to a wriggling weight on her legs and sat up abruptly to see Sheep lying across her knees.

He turned from side to side, bending his head as far as it would go in a bid to catch his tail.

At seeing she was awake, he leapt to his paws and padded towards Bluebottle, claws digging into her skin through the blanket.

“Oof!” She gasped, as his paw slapped down into the space where her crotch was hidden. “Sheep! Get off!”

He paused, tail up, tongue dangling heavily from his mouth, then he jumped down to the floor.

With a great yawn, Bluebottle rolled from her bed as well, and began the process of getting ready for the day. She shuffled about the room drowsily, splashing water on her face at the sink, pulling her scruffiest clothes from the cupboard, not bothering to tie her hair up.

Sheep followed her out of the room.

Outside, the dawn was barely beginning, the sky stained teal above the forest. Through the trees, birds sang as loudly as they could.

Bluebottle took a deep breath of the fresh morning air, filling her lungs with the scent of earth and pine. Sheep ran around her legs.

“The dawn chorus.” A voice rasped suddenly, everywhere and nowhere at once, a whisper and a shout. Bluebottle startled and stumbled off the porch. Sheep cowered and backed away towards the trees as fast as he could.

A figure made of dark light hovered by one of the posts that held up the awning of the porch, almost human, except for the genderlessness of their body, and deep, definitive black of their skin.

Their head held no hair, and was smoothly and shine-lessly dark, but their eyes glowed the curdled yellow of a full moon, with no apparent pupil or iris in the whites.

They were draped loosely in a consuming-cloth of ambiguous shape, as black as their skin. Around their neck, a necklace hung – silver chain coming to a stop at a wooden-charm in the shape of a black dog’s head.

“Yew.” Bluebottle tried to find her breath, but it eluded her, “What are you doing here?”

They regarded Bluebottle with those eery eyes.

“This is my shack.” Their first, clearest voice held no emotion, but the voices echoing around it rang with feeling.

“I mean, what makes you appear now?” Bluebottle was irritated by the shake of her own voice.

“That is for you to find out.” The extra voices seemed to roll with amusement, and with sadness. Bluebottle watched their lips shape the words, watched the skeleton that flashed to and from sight beneath their skin move as they spoke. The teeth of their skull seemed to grin beneath their sunken cheeks. Their ribs heaved, pressing hard into the skin of their chest.

And yet they seemed at ease.

Though it was hard to tell with the reaper.

“I’m asking you, I’m finding out.” Bluebottle almost growled, but her fear of the grim held her back, made her instantly regret the words as they passed her lips.

“That’s true.” Yew stepped closer, feet clear as they pressed into the ground. “But I won’t answer.”

Bluebottle stepped back. Yew stopped approaching.

“You are braver than you were.” Yew’s eyes were distant, but they always seemed distant. “He would be happy.”

They turned back to the porch, and pushed their way into the hut.

Bluebottle didn’t realise that the world around her had gone silent until the birds began to tweet happily in her ears again, and the soft fur of Sheep’s head was pressed into her hand.

She scratched him behind his ears, hand shaking.

She hated the reaper. They reminded her of her parents, and all the bad memories that followed. They’d appear out of nowhere, seem to laugh at you for not knowing as they refused to answer your question, and then disappear again.

She stomped her way into the woods, hands warm in the pockets of her knitted, wool-stuffed coat.

When she reached her trap, the rabbit caught in it was already dead.

She freed it grudgingly, knowing the reaper had been here, too. Sheep spun regardless, excited for his meal.

Slowly, she eased herself down to sit against the rough bark of a tree, whipping the knife from her belt and beginning to strip the rabbit of it’s fur and skin.

For a while, Sheep made an attempt to sit patiently, but was soon salivating and vibrating with eagerness for his meal. He tried to approach, but Bluebottle shooed him off again until she was ready.

He whimpered, but Bluebottle knew not to give in, even as those big brown eyes willed her to, even as she wanted to.

She knew she couldn’t – if she fed him too much, he would grow fat, and if she were to feed scraps as she processed the rabbit, she would have to feed him the left-over half of the rabbit for his breakfast. Doing that would require another rabbit for his dinner.

One a day was enough.

He could make do with one rabbit and carrot slices.

Finally, the rabbit was skinned. Bluebottle cut it in half, grunting against the bones as they cracked.

And then it was ready. With a bound and a snap, Sheep snatched the half-a-rabbit from her hands, and set to work eating it.

For a while longer she rested, staring into the trees at the lightening sky peeking through the canopy.

Her body still felt weak.

She may have gotten used to the reaper’s intense aura, but she would never get used to the reaper themself.

 

~

True morning rolled across the Garden in a surprise wave of heat, as the dying summer tried to hold back the oncoming winter.

Bluebottle quickly shed her black cardigan. She disliked the heat and the inevitability of yellow stains on the armpits of her white shirts, but, even so, she didn’t look forward to winter.

There was nothing to look forward to.

The deciduous trees would fade to grey, the sky would fade to grey, the ground would fade to grey – everything would mush into a mulchy brown grey. The cold would move in, and the crops would start to fail. People would be freezing in their homes whilst the Roses did nothing.

Bluebottle kicked at stones as she crossed from the forest into the very lowest parts of the town.

Somewhere out there, in the far-stretches of the world, maybe Tea was freezing, too. She derided herself for thinking of him, worrying about him, but even as she forced her mind away, she still couldn’t help but hope in her heart that he was safe, alive, warm somewhere.

Despite everything that came after, he had been her best friend for many years. She’d loved him.

A decade could pass, but the feeling of first love, even discontinued, would not.

Bluebottle patted the tight bun of her hair and continued on with a shake of her head.

Another hundred metres ahead of her lay her childhood – the old Orphanage.

Not an orphanage now. Not anymore. It couldn’t be with no children to occupy it.

She stopped before it, looking up at the crumbling pebbledash of the walls. They had always been grey, but now the grey was miserable and broken. The windows were smashed. The entire building was ringed by shards of glass, coarse pebbles and rusted iron bars from the old roof-top railing.

When her dad and pa died, this had been her home. A white-haired girl in a green cloak had found her cuddled up against a dead dog in her father’s kennels. She’d taken her hand and led her here. This was where she’d met Rue, mother of the Orphanage, always working to make ends meet. She suffered for it. She was pale, weak, always lacking some kind of nutrition, but she worked hard. She put others’ needs above her own.

Then she met Tea. He’d turned up on the doorstep alone, but Bluebottle knew he’d been brought by the same white-haired girl. She remembered the sparkling steel of his eyes, the street-shine tan of his skin, his always-sleek, neat hair the colour of his namesake… his mother’s old guitar in the corner of the room they shared. She hated that guitar. She hated it. A memory of everything he hated of his past, yet he held it so close, always afraid to get rid of it.

The last she’d seen him, she was returning from work late in the evening and he was creeping out of the Orphanage door with that bloody guitar in hand, disappearing into the night without telling her where he was going.

Who was she kidding? He was probably dead.

He wasn’t her only friend. She met others here – Hellebore and Poppy, Wormwood and Khat, and all the other children of the Orphanage, not that she spoke to any of them very much now.

Before she realised it, glass was crunching under her boots. She glanced at the sky – she had time.

She pushed her way through the splintering door and onto the moulding carpet of the hallway.

Inside, it was older than she remembered, more worn, but for the most part, it was the same.

Old yellow wallpaper still fought to cling onto the walls; in the living room, a battered once-red armchair sat stuff-less and butt-less. The kitchen windows were boarded with rotting wood, the only light to illuminate the scattered, shattered floor tiles shining in sun beams through the miniscule slats.

The bannister rail felt bumpy as she reached the stairs. Step by step, she climbed, running her hand along the grain. She counted her footsteps. In her mind she could still see the children who had lived here running up and down the stairs, playing and sleeping.

She could almost still hear the thumping of their feet, and the bickering…

No… She could hear thumping… And angry muttering…

She paused on the stairs the instant it hit her.

Could it be? Could there still be children here?

“Hello?”

The thumping and cussing stopped.

She began to take the stairs in twos, leaping up to each landing and bursting through every door looking for who had been making the sound.

Empty, empty, empty.

If there was a child here –

Maybe they needed her help-

Or maybe the Orphanage was starting up again-

Maybe Rue had…

The sounds had gone completely, but every now and again she heard the tiny tapping of someone creeping – or of tiny feet.

Above her, on the third floor, the floor boards creaked.

“Is anyone there?” She called again.

As she bounded towards the third landing, a figure tumbled from one of the doors – the door to the bedroom she’d shared with Tea, she realised – in a mass of flying sandy curls.

They both froze.

This was no child.

“Wormwood?”

The young woman blinked at her, breathing heavily. Her grass-green tunic and spruce-green trousers were so thickly coated in dust they almost looked as grey as the building’s exterior.

“Bluebottle?” Wormwood gasped, “What are you doing here?”

She glanced briefly at her finger-tips, and then hid them in the pockets of her pants.

Bluebottle reached out and snatched one of them from it’s hiding spot.

“What have you been doing?” She cried, like a parent scolding their child, “Your fingers are all grazed! Is that blood?”

Wormwood snatched it away hurriedly, but then stopped half-way to returning it to her pocket.

“I…” She considered, glancing back at the room. “I left something here. Under the floor boards. I came to get it. That’s all.”

“What? Why?” Bluebottle narrowed her eyes, “What did you leave?”

“It doesn’t matter, it’s not there.” Wormwood started to move past her.

“Even so, Wormwood!” Bluebottle caught her wrist again. “What are you doing in the town in the day time? You know it’s dangerous for you here!”

Wormwood grinned, and Bluebottle remembered the cheeky grin that would plaster her face when she was naughty as a child.

“Don’t worry.” She assured Bluebottle, putting her other hand on top of Bluebottle’s, “I’m good at getting out of dangerous situations.”

Then she rushed off down the stairs, and was gone, door closing behind her so softly that Bluebottle didn’t even hear it, she just saw the slant of light thrown through the doorway grow smaller and smaller until it was gone.

Bluebottle gave in and leant against the banister rail, staring down the hole that led all the way to the ground floor.

She wondered when she’d let go of Wormwood’s wrist, but she knew she’d have no luck remembering it properly. Perhaps when Wormwood told her not to worry, and all her worry had momentarily flushed from her body. Maybe then she’d loosened her grip.

 

~

The young boy looked up at her with questioning eyes. They were round and the brightest blue Bluebottle had ever seen.

“Miss Blue.” He called up to her, as though she were at a great height above him. “Where’s Holly?”

He pushed up onto his toes, clinging to the bottom of her shirt. He was so small.
“She’s supposed to be studying with us.”

“I’m afraid your father said she would be busy with practical studies today.”

“But I like it when she studies with us.” He frowned, his lower lip trembling, “Will you tell father?”

Bluebottle felt his sadness pierce her heart and reached out a hand to ruffle his white-blonde hair.

“I’m sorry, Yerba.” She sighed, “There’s nothing I can do. I’m just a nanny, and your father is a very important government official.”

She sat down at the kitchen table on a hard wooden chair and invited Yerba to sit next to her.

“What shall we read today?”

Rather than climbing onto the chair beside her, the small boy began to pull himself onto her lap, legs flailing underneath him as his feet left the ground.

Bluebottle grabbed the back of his shirt to pull him to sitting.

“But father likes you.” The boy continued, in puffs, “I heard him say it.”

“That’s nice, Yerba.” Bluebottle smiled, and motioned to the books that were on the table – required reading designated by his father. “Which one shall we read today?”

“I heard my father call you a blessing from the Lord.” Yerba chirped, tapping his heels together beneath the table. He started to reach for the great pile of fat, wood-bound books, “He said, since mother died, he doesn’t know what he would do without you.”

Bluebottle paused in reaching for the books.

“Is that so?” She tried to keep her voice light, but it wavered.

She placed her hand on the other side of the pile and helped the boy pull it closer.

Yerba bounced in her lap.

“Maybe he’ll ask to marry you!”

Bluebottle’s hand twitched and suddenly the books were tumbling on top of them. In a rush, she shielded the boy’s head with her other hand and tried to deflect the books with the one that had knocked them in the first place.

“O-oh.” She stuttered, removing Yerba from her lap, and setting about picking up the books one by one, fear that they had been damaged overcome by her alarm as Yerba continued to talk, rocking on his heels.

“You could be our mother, and then Holly could study with us all the time!” He sang, “You could tell father that Holly had to!”

Bluebottle didn’t respond, couldn’t respond.

Yerba’s father, Gardener Alder Aquifolia, was no doubt a handsome man, and by all means kind once freed of his wife’s tyranny, but he was still a Gardener – a politician of the Chapel of Law – and part of the system that Bluebottle sought to overthrow.

Even more importantly, for Bluebottle to step in to fill the position that Officer Yaupon Aquifolia had left vacant was quite wrong.

After all, Bluebottle had been the one who caused it to be emptied in the first place.

Before she was married, Yaupon Aquifolia had been known as Hedera Aralia, of lower status than Alder and the Aquifolia family, but a Rose all the same. She had been registered as a member of the Herbicide, patrolling the streets in search of mishaps and law-breakers.

When she was alive, she was eulogised for having been responsible for the removal of a great deal of crime from the streets of the Garden – a master hunter of thieves, murderers and blasphemers.

Hedera had been the reason that Bluebottle’s parents were taken. Her Dad and Pa had been sharing a simple kiss in the privacy of their own home, and Herbicide officer Hedera Aralia had just so happened to be looking in.

It was that night that her parents were taken from her, at the behest of young Officer Hedera.

When Bluebottle joined the Aquifolia family as a nanny many years later, her influence on the children had been buffered by the constant presence of Yaupon. Whilst working, she’d found that Hedera had courted Alder by force, taking advantage of his soft, forgiving nature to rise in the ranks, and, by marriage, take on the name Yaupon Aquifolia.

She was a harsh woman, abusive, always jealous of her husband’s position in the Chapel of Law, demanding he tell her everything and do as she says, and refusing to let him near his children if he didn’t.

Bluebottle had done the job the night after Yaupon had first threatened Holly’s life to blackmail Alder, afraid to let it go any further. Pretending to have left, she hid in a cupboard until Yaupon was asleep – knowing that Alder would be at the Chapel of Law for another few hours for something Bluebottle didn’t know the details of, and knowing very well that Yaupon was in the habit of leaving any used clothing lying around for the nanny-cum-cleaner to tidy away.

In silence, she had slipped from the cupboard, opening the door as little as she could to minimise sound. She had taken off her shoes so as to quieten her footsteps, sliding along soundlessly in cotton socks.

The needle was Poppy’s, a used one picked from her disposal bin. Poppy had given her ricin, too, extracted from the seeds of a castor oil plant Poppy had had Pennyroyal grow.

Bluebottle had planned to flee after that, to stop being a nanny, but the death was kept relatively silent, the signs of poisoning minimal, and Alder had pleaded too upset to allow suspicion of an unnatural death.

She knew she could have left after that. She could have run and dedicated her entire life to the up-keep of the Serpent, but she didn’t.

And in these moments, with the warmth of a child on her lap, the very glow of him, she remembered why she hadn’t.

She loved it far too much – the feeling of watching children grow up, of helping them along the way.

Yes, the books were a bonus, she loved the books.

But she had grown up in an orphanage, dreaming of a future, a family, with or without her first love… and here she almost had one.

She stroked the boy’s hair as he read in stops and starts from the book before him.

When he struggled on a word, she would help him shape it.

Yes. This was why she’d really stayed in a house she’d brought death to.

The love of a child.

And the fleeting glance of a blue-eyed Gardener across the table when he came home for lunch.

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