(Brigid Ehrmantraut ’18 wrote this short story as a sci-fi/fantasy, feminist re-imagining of the Bluebeard fairy tale, with inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych, c. 1500, below.)
Of course there were others before her; there always were. But the afternoon was warm, and breeze was sweet, and the juice of a particularly exquisite Perrault plum trickled down in gory streaks and stained her chin a sticky violet. Was that what the others thought too, on their late summer picnics? Tasting his cured meats, which were pleasantly smoky, sipping his silky drinking chocolates, biting into their own plums, split down the sides with a profusion of over-ripeness, did they think those thoughts as well?
Of course they did. But the low-lying light of dying day caught the laurels golden-green, and the world they circled rose, a be-striped and bulbous marigold protruding above the horizon, and the scent of jasmine filled the air in that gilded hour just before twilight. Of course they did. But it did not matter.
He reclined: a demigod of indistinct proportions. Where did his emerald robes end and his scrumptious garden start? Where did his ultramarine gaze stop and the arc of the diamond-studded sky begin? Where did his flaxen hair become gilt pagoda? She had received his invitation ten thousand years before, but it was not an easy place to find. On and off of transports, in and out of wormholes, and solar-sailed ships, and dusty rooms on dusty worlds where the most ancient star maps fell to dust.
“But you are here,” he rumbled in his quiet way, as though reading her thoughts with little effort. “You are here. Now. I am glad you’ve come.” But there were others, were there not?
She had a name and a crown and a kingdom across the stars but these were petty things indeed compared to his garden, and the sound of his resonant laugh, and the lacework of palaces encircling his private moon. She had almost forgotten them entirely, obscured as they were by centuries of dim tunnels stretching away into the mists between realities, by months of cryostasis, packed like little, oily fish below decks, by days and hours and minutes and seconds of searching the void. But you are here at last.
When she finally arrived, it had been a relatively simple thing to land her ship and find his home. A flock of iridescent partridges flew up to meet her as she skipped across the atmosphere. Something rather like a peacock led her to his front door, her golden invitation still clutched on creamy paper in her left hand, as if to make sure everything was real, after all this time. He hadn’t needed to see it; her eyes had told him all he cared to know and her smile and the cadence of her gentle breathing. This was the one.
She could have loved him, then and there, for ages upon eons. They could have walked his garden paths, and played amongst his garden pools, and danced on polished floors of bronze and gleaming copper while glowworms waltzed away the night in crystal chandeliers above them. Indeed, they did, more than once or twice in the course of that glorious summer. She was the one. The one to make him happy after all this time. The one to share his life and his love, his lantern walks and his languid glance. The one who would not drop her quest no matter how many icy deserts she had to cross, no matter how many favors she had to barter for her passage, no matter how many trials and tribulations she was forced to stare down or run from, fearfully. The one for him. One of them, at least.
He swelled with pride, watching her opposite him, nibbling on his orchard’s bounteous labor. She was beautiful after her own fashion—more beautiful than he had dared to hope—and earnest in her meek determination. Meek, yes, that was the word. She was small (though everything was small to one such as him) and slight of build. Slim around the waist and throat, though well curved in between. He had had others, but none so selfless in their pursuit of him. There had been nebulous clouds of glittering gas and three-headed gazelles with lilies for legs, humble men dressed in nothing but their tears and wide-eyed women wearing flowing gowns of flickering plasma. There were talking tamarisks and conversational carp, crystalline entities whose bodies now formed his interior light fixtures and whiskered beasts whose internal organs strung the divinely crafted harps his captive orchestra plucked every evening after dinner. But none like her. None willing to come so far, so long. So resolutely. He supposed it was a necessity that, with time, he must widen his search, seeking out increasingly distant systems and far-flung worlds. But they could be happy first, for a little while. The others had been.
His was a garden of earthly delights, though he was not so prejudiced as to limit its access to the terrestrial. In fact, he thought “unearthly” had a better ring to it and that was what his invitations read. You are invited to the Garden of Unearthly Delights. You are welcomed to my home. Come! Rejoice! Enjoy! It has been too long since I heard laughter; I have spent too many forevers alone. I entreat you, rescue me from solitude. Save my aching spirit…. My sanity is shaking. My heart trembles with abandonment. The world is cruel, its taste is bitter. But here, in my house of wonders, on my moon of mysteries, there could still be some good. Some warmth. Something lasting. Something true. That was the gist of it. Every letter was slightly different, as befitted its intended recipient. Most of them were, to some degree, effective. He played the long game and it required patience, but he could wait. Why else design a garden of delight, if not for waiting?
For her part, she found him not entirely unattractive, though she wondered if her assessment would still be accurate in a different context. He resided well in his element and his element was a horticultural achievement for all time. She thought that he had grown slightly lax with age, however. The plums were riper than they should have been. He ran his hand over the trellised railing, sliding it along the balcony towards her arm in a careful caress. His lips parted softly as he spoke.
“You have free range of my estates, my love—all except the northern wing of the Silent Pavilion. Do not go there, dearest, and we can live in my garden and love one another for all eternity.” His voice was gentle and she did not doubt its sincerity. Did the others?
Had she acquiesced then to his entreaty, or held to her murmured acquiescence, the Silent Pavilion would not merit a second mention, and certainly not bear describing. Discern what you will, therefore, from the following description. The building in question was more tower than pavilion; it stretched up to meet the clouds, or would have had he allowed such meteorological inconveniences to condense upon his perfectly manicured moon. It was thin and tall and needlelike, unadorned but not quite ugly. It did not ask to be there, and the surrounding vegetation certainly did not request its presence. It was not a dark blot upon the otherwise sunny satellite because it was not wide enough to be a blot. It was also rather more silvery than dark. From the outside, the casual observer would not have been able tell how it had earned its name; amphibians chirped in the neighboring marshes and larks ascended, leaving bright clarion calls drifting in their wake. Nothing about the structure seemed silent.
There were varying reasons for entering it. Some thought they could save his soul by scaling its heights. Some did it from fear for their lives. Many believed it held a kind of cosmic clue or answer to the order of the universe, and others were simply curious. Several disobeyed his ruling out of spite and several out of sheer, unrepentant boredom. She had her own reasons, and they were none of the above. The tower required a passcode, which was too easy by far to guess. The letters B-O-S-C-H produced the desired result. The doorway opened. On the other side of the moon, he woke from simulated slumber, serpent eyes gleaming with regretful hunger. She went inside. He shook himself off and stood up.
What does one expect from a forbidden keep on the impeccably bizarre, painstakingly cultivated moon of a methodical maniac? Twisted staircases shrouded in cobwebs? There were some of those. The withered hearts of fickle lovers, preserved in rows of formaldehyde jars? There were some of those too. Voiceless screams from the tortured throats of half-alive apologists? They were all there. What does one expect from a foreboding title such as the Silent Pavilion? Whatever it was, she found it. It did not surprise her. Horrify her, yes; impress her, slightly. But surprise? No, not that.
“Alas, my love!,” he cried in mock offense. “My love, my lilac, my own dear lavender! We could have been together, we could have put our pasts behind us and lived in blissful ignorance for all the ages of the universe to come! If only, if only…. But you hath found my secret out and bared it to the world,” he sounded justly wronged, if threatening. Anger suffused his lamentation. Betrayal turned to righteous rage. “And now you pay for your breech of faith. And now you see the others’ fate. And now you go to join them!”
But she was waiting. A garden is a good place to wait. A tower with a view overlooking all its splendor is even better. And so she waited. And she watched. And she knew his footstep on the stair before she heard his accusation, before malignance filled his hollow protestations.
When she initially arrived, it had been a relatively simple thing to land her ship in secrecy and find his home. A flock of iridescent partridges flew up to meet her as she skipped across the atmosphere. She shot them dead before they saw where she made contact with the ground. Something rather like a peacock led her to his front door from the lake where it thought she had landed, and which was, in fact, two miles from where her craft rested hidden under layers of brush and vines. She followed it, a golden invitation still clutched on creamy paper in her left hand, mimicking the skillfully worded traps he still sent out through space, after all this time. He hadn’t bothered to see it; her eyes had told him all he cared to know and her smile and the cadence of her gentle breathing. That was his mistake. One of them, at least.
She took another plum before she left and tossed her head back, reveling in the scarlet glare of the sinking sun. The juices gushed uninhibited, over the line of her jaw and down her narrow neck, the runaway pulp giving her a beard of bluish flesh and purple peel. He stacked quite nicely in the cargo hold, on top of all the rest. Of course there were others before him; there always were.