In the Silent Garden by Rebecca Buchanan
The statue lounged at the entrance to the garden, just beyond the threshold. She would have been the first to greet those who came seeking knowledge. But she lay silent now. Snow had settled into the folds and cracks—cracks!—of the stone. She stared, sightless and still, into the distance, her body covered in cold moss. Even her silken robes had petrified, grown dark with age and neglect.
Onyx shuddered, imagining himself trapped in that silent darkness.
There was a shuffle of sound to his left.
“The state of the garden is quite distressing, is it not, Lapidarian Onyx? Now you see why I wrote to you.”
He pursed his lips and tapped his cane, turning to glare at young Mistress Alabaster. She hunched her shoulders but held his gaze, her hands tucked deep into a fur muff. She was dressed in heavy skirts and a thick, embroidered jacket and a tall furred hat—well-worn and plain, but still serviceable. Her breath caught in little clouds, and her cheeks and the tip of her nose had gone pink with the cold.
Onyx sighed and felt some of his anger lift away.
It was not Mistress Alabaster’s fault that the garden had fallen to ruin, that its statues had gone silent and still. No, the fault lay with her mother, who had gathered up her daughter and her gems and her tools and fled the war, running south to where it was warm and her skill with stone could buy her a good life, rather than stay here and perform her sworn duty.
So far as he knew, the young Mistress might well be the last of the Alabasters. She was certainly the only one to return home now that the traitors had been burned and the war was ended.
“We should walk the rest of the garden,” she said. She tugged a hand free of the muff to wave past the moss-covered statue, toward the stone path and low hedges. Brown weeds grew up between the slabs, obscuring the intricate, arcane pattern woven into the stone, and the once fanciful hedgerows were now prickly and misshapen with uncontrolled growth.
From here, at the top of the garden, he could see three more statues: a marble wolf of swirling grays and blacks, the stone a mess of lichen; a bearded man in formal military dress, his arms riddled with cracks and crevices; a large serpent carved, appropriately, from serpentine, its undulating form stretched across a trellis that passed over the walkway.
Onyx frowned. There should be five statues…
Mistress Alabaster was still speaking. “I should show you—well, you need to see before you decide for certain if the garden can be resurrected.”
He nodded. As he fell into step behind her, he let his gaze slide across that first silent statue. Bard Elegy had been one of the greatest poets of the land, singing of jagged mountains and shivering forests; she had chosen to be enshrined here, with a panoramic view of woods and mountains. He made sure to hold the Bard’s gaze, just in case she could see him. It was not likely. Other statues who had been awakened from a long sleep spoke only of a hollow, frozen darkness, when they spoke of it at all.
No, it was not likely, but he could offer her at least this small kindness: an acknowledgment, a recognition that she was still there, and remembered.
The dried weeds fractured beneath his feet. The stone pathway felt wrong. The arcane patterns flowed smoothly in a few places, only to be disrupted when frost and growth pushed the rocks out of alignment. To remove all of the weeds and smooth out the soil and re-lay the stones… well, that alone would take a year or more, less if he could convince some of his fellow lapidarians to join in the effort.
“How much lapidarian training have you undergone, Mistress Alabaster?” The path sloped beneath his feet and curved to the right. He felt his heel slip on a patch of ice but caught himself with his cane.
She stopped, waiting until he was beside her, and then continued on at a slower pace. The wind kicked up again, making her eyes water, and she shoved her hands deeper into her muff. “To me, it seems like a great deal. But I am sure that my training has been minuscule in comparison to how true apprentices are taught. Mother was… reluctant to pass on her knowledge. I gleaned what I could from watching her, and studied in secret with an old friend and a handful of lapidarians we met as we moved among the southern cities and islands. But their techniques are not the same as ours—yours…”
“No, you spoke correctly in the first instance. Ours. This is your heritage and right, as much as mine.”
Her cheeks pinked again, though this time not from the cold. She cast him an appreciative smile.
The smile bled away as they reached the stone wolf.
Its condition was even more pitiful up close. He had interacted with the statue several times before the war, when work had called him to this part of the country. The ripple of the wolf’s grey-black fur, the slide of colors in the wind and sun, had been exquisite. The Alabaster who had carved the wolf so many centuries ago had truly earned the title of Grand Lapidarian.
“Do you know who he is?” Onyx asked, his voice low.
She nodded and swallowed. “Woodswalker Yew. He gained the honor of immortal stone when he negotiated a treaty with the northern wolves, and then rallied them to help defend the border against an invasion of frost hags. I remember talking with him as a child. He would tell me stories about the years he spent hunting with the wolves and how they sang different songs for different moons…” Her voice trailed off.
He found himself touching her arm. How she could have felt it through all those layers of clothing, he was not sure, but she looked up and smiled at him.
“We shall do what we can to bring him back,” he promised her.
Her smile vanished again. “Do not say that until you have seen the rest of the garden.”
They walked on.
The hedges curved out and back again, then out and back again. The first Alabaster had been careful and thoughtful in his planning and construction of the garden; there were prepared places for a dozen more statues.
General Fletcher appeared around another curve in the path, the hedgerows curling over and around him in a spiky half-dome. His uniform had gone to stone, as well, and his left arm was cracked clean through; only the fact that his clothing was cemented together had kept his arm in place.
“General Fletcher,” she said, and Onyx tried to focus on her, not the travesty that stood before him. “Younger than Woodsman Yew. He earned the honor of immortal stone when he and five hundred soldiers held the eastern pass against the Ukrinith army—a force of five thousand. They held out for three long months, through storm and ice and thunder. When relief finally arrived, only Fletcher and fifty-three soldiers remained.” She shifted her shoulders and licked her lips. “I do not remember him, I’m afraid. I had to look him up in the Library.”
“The Garden’s Library remains intact, then?”
“I believe so. The house was ransacked by the traitors to the land; they took wine, silverware, some paintings, but appear to have left the Library alone. At least, there are no obvious empty places on the shelves. The personal diaries and official correspondence of all of the previous Stone Gardeners seem to still be there. My mother only took what she considered immediately practical and useful.”
“I am surprised that she took you—I apologize, Mistress Alabaster. That was unkind.”
“No, you are correct. I know that my mother considered me a burden. She would have left me behind in Venizia if I had not smuggled myself onto the boat and bribed the captain with my cabochon.”
“Yes.” She pulled a hand from the muff and lifted a necklace from within her jacket: a little rose quartz ring on a plain leather thong. “This is all that I have left. I have traded away all the rest of my childhood stones over the years, for survival and training and finally passage home.”
An expression like pity must have crossed his face, because she tucked the necklace back inside her jacket.
“Do not concern yourself over it. I am home now, where I belong.”
She looped an arm through his elbow and slid her hand back into the muff. Her skirts brushed his leg. If he had been a younger man without need of a cane, he would have leaned closer so that her fur hat rubbed his cheek.
Instead, he turned his face away and looked at General Fletcher. He looked the old stone directly in the eyes, recognizing him, silently vowing to do what he could to awaken that trapped soul.
They walked on.
Another bend, the pathway still odd and out of alignment beneath his feet, and they came to the coiling serpent. Her head rested at the top of the arch, angled down just slightly so that she could see anyone coming along the path.
“Ministress Ward,” Onyx said and dipped his head at the serpent, the sheen of her scales lost beneath moss and neglect.
“A foremother of House Alabaster, who set aside her lapidarian’s tools to serve as a voice for the people. When she won the honor of immortal stone, she chose to return here, to her ancestral homestead, rather than be enshrined in the House of the Speakers.” Young Mistress Alabaster’s arm tightened around his elbow. “I am ashamed to stand before her.”
“Do not be.”
She turned to him, her face pale beneath the pink. A bead of sweat trickled down her cheek. “You have not yet seen what my mother did.”
At that, she pulled away, speeding a few steps ahead of him. He set his cane against the walkway and followed, passing beneath the serpent coiled on her trellis.
Two more bends, the hedges growing up thick on either side, and so tall that he had difficulty seeing over and around them. The pathway tilted up in a gentle rise. Mistress Alabaster stopped there, stiff and still, looking down into the hollow that lay at the heart of the garden.
He came up next to her, cane tapping, and froze. His breath caught in his chest.
The hollow was overgrown with dead grass and shrubs. A few desiccated flowers clung to the hedgerows, and low benches circled the space. In its center lay the shattered stone remains of Master Lapidarian Alabaster, the founder of the House, who had so carefully laid out these very pathways and hedges centuries ago. His head was in two pieces, his arms unrecognizable. One leg was still attached to a portion of his torso, while the other leg had rolled beneath a bench.
The anchor stone of the garden.
The soul of Master Alabaster, unmoored, left to wander the world unseen, unheard.
He would go mad. May have already gone mad.
“Who… who did this? Who did this?!“
But he already knew the answer, even as Mistress Alabaster spoke.
Onyx stumbled down the slope a few steps. His heel caught another patch of ice, and this time he could not stop himself. He fell, tumbling down into the hollow. She called out his name, kicking her skirts out of the way as she ran after him. When she caught his shoulders to help him sit up, he pushed her hands away.
“But why? Why? It was her duty, her heritage. She was a sworn Stone Gardener, the caretaker of our ancestors, our history, our stories. Even the traitors committed no such desecration!”
She sat down beside him, close enough for her skirts to spill across his ankles. Otherwise, she did not touch him again. Instead, she pulled the necklace out, slipping the ring over the tip of her pinkie finger; it was too small to fit any other.
“I have asked myself that many times. I asked her once, too. On the boat in Venizia. I was very angry. So was she. My mother did not just try to leave me behind. She sold me. She needed the money, you see. Her skills as a lapidarian were mediocre, at best. As an Alabaster, she had some inherent abilities, but they were augmented through her connection to the anchor stone, and what our forefather could teach her. She never wanted to be trapped here, never wanted to be a Stone Gardener—to spend her days trimming hedges and grass, repairing the pathways, scrubbing stone and listening to their stories. It made her knees hurt, she said. She saw the war as her chance to escape, but she was oath- and blood-bound to Master Alabaster. He tried to stop her, to hold her here, knowing what would happen to the garden. So, she broke him.”
She fell silent, staring at the ring.
“I was so young. I did not really understand. I heard the stone screaming. I heard all of the statues screaming. I came out to see what was happening and I…” She held up the pink quartz. “It was a child’s instinct. Nothing born of formal training. I knew he would be lost, and he was my oldest friend, my blood. So, I called to him.”
Onyx’s mouth fell open in shock.
“I never told her. I knew what she would do.” Her fingers curled protectively around the ring, hiding it from his astonished gaze. “Speaking with him is not like speaking with a statue. It is more of a whisper that I can hear when I close my eyes.” She looked up at Onyx again, her lips turning up into a timid, hopeful smile. “You understand now, yes? He says it can be done.”
He lifted his hand, uncurling her fingers but taking care not to touch the quartz ring. “Perhaps. Perhaps it can be done.” He bit his lip. His voice was shaking and his breath came out in agitated puffs. “The statue. It, uh, it would have to be rose quartz, as well. And not just any rose quartz, but from the same vein as the ring.”
She pulled onto her knees, facing him. Her smile was not quite as timid, anymore. “Go on.”
He spoke slowly, trying to organize the thoughts tumbling through his mind, ideas bouncing and breaking and reforming. “We could use the remains of the original statue—we would have to pulverize them—as the pedestal for the new statue. And the same quartz would have to be worked into the pathways as we re-laid them. And then, well, one of his fingers would have to be a bit odd so that the ring would fit—”
“The statue doesn’t have to be the same, does it?”
“He says he would be perfectly happy as a little boy, or even a cat. He was very fond of cats.”
Onyx felt a laugh burst up from his chest. It came out as a gust of breath that cooled in the air between them, suspended for a moment before the wind carried it away. He followed it, eyes seeing the hedgerows above even as his mind traveled up and down the pathways.
Four statues now, souls which would need to be awakened as soon as the anchor stone was set. And room for so many more: honored poets and artists and politicians and woodswalkers and soldiers and engineers. The great minds and great hearts who could live on, here, teaching and encouraging and sharing their knowledge with the generations who followed.
He leaned on his cane, pushing himself to his feet. Then he held out his hand to her. “Come, Mistress Alabaster. We have a garden to resurrect.”
Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer, and a regular contributor to evOke: Witchcraft*Paganism*Lifestyle. She has been published in a wide variety of venues, including All Worlds Wayfarer, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Galactic Goddesses, Luna Station Quarterly, and Magic for Beginners, among others.