The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey
By Aimee Ogden
In her fourth-floor apartment on Wrightwood Avenue, Calliope Grey kept forty gardens of varying size and composition. She had gardens in drawers, in old hat-boxes and mixing bowls. In the drawer that pulled out from beneath her stove, she had a desert garden of cactuses and sagebrush; in the plastic freezer box that was meant to store ice cubes, she grew bearberries and arctic moss.
Real gardens, in miniature, not models or mere toys. Calliope didn’t go out looking for them, but they’d found their way to her one by one. It had been some years since she’d discovered a new one, but she still harbored hopes every time she opened a cupboard or peered beneath the furniture. Once, she’d opened a box of cereal only to have a jumble of dirt and tangled roots go spilling into her bowl. Another time, she’d left a coffee cup out on the end table overnight and found it overflowing with a tiny raspberry bramble the next morning. It didn’t matter where they come from, only that they found their way to her. She had room in her heart for all of them, and plenty more to spare.
From six in the morning until two-thirty Monday through Friday, Calliope Grey worked as a data entry assistant. Her coworkers were only distractions. She didn’t know her neighbors either, and didn’t care to, not beyond the vague familiarity of faces often seen and never spoken to. She had family still, or so she thought, but a wall of reasons not to know or care for them either. She’d never wanted to collect people, so she collected gardens instead. Or gardens collected her; it came out the same in the end. She was thirty-seven years old, with streaks of white in her hair and streaks of stubbornness in her soul. She knew what she wanted, and she had it. There was, she knew, nothing more beautiful than a garden well-maintained and in its full glory. Every garden needed something different, and the puzzle of learning what that was put her feet on the floor every morning, and the joy of her collection swaddled her warmly to sleep each night.
Until a Thursday afternoon when she got off the three o’clock bus, walked upstairs, and found that her favorite loaf pan, and the succulent garden it contained, had both gone missing.
She searched the whole apartment from top to bottom to be absolutely sure, but she knew in her bones, had known from the moment she walked in the door. The gravity in the apartment had shifted, the missing half-pound of loaf pan had set everything atilt. A garden had never gone missing before. Calliope took deep breaths and counted to ten over and over while she made herself set her keys on the table by the door, put her shoes away in the closet, hang her sweater on its hook. She pressed her hands together and sat down on the sofa. Perhaps the garden had gone back to wherever it had been before it came to Calliope? Or perhaps it needed something more than it had gotten from her and it had journeyed onward.
Calliope cringed at the image of herself as a mere waystation to these companions of hers. But if not that, then what? She possessed the apartment’s only keys, as she’d never bothered to have anyone dear enough to lend a set to. The only other copy–
The only other copy belonged to the building super.
Calliope shot to her feet. She stopped halfway to the door, and paced back to the middle of the rug. The last thing she wanted was a confrontation with Mr. Figueroa. Especially one that she came at half-cocked. He had always respected her wishes to have him enter the apartment only when she was present, and those times had been rare enough. She still hadn’t told him about the leaky faucet in the bathroom sink, not with the cat-tails that had taken up residence in the soap dish.
Calliope opened the window and leaned out. Maybe she could climb down the fire escape to the second floor and break in through his living room window? No, that was ridiculous. She could knock on his door and speak to him face to face. That would be the adult thing to do.
The absence of the succulent garden prickled the skin on the backs of her hands. What if he wasn’t even home right now? Calliope yanked the phone off its cradle and dialed the number scrawled onto the card taped on the wall. It rang four times in her ear, and then a scratchy voice answered. “This is David Figueroa. I’m not in at the moment. Leave your name and unit number and I’ll get back to you when I can. Soy David Figueroa, no estoy en casa pero deje su nombre y … “
Calliope hung up. She stood for a moment, scratching one wrist. Then she shuffled to the door, crammed her feet into her shoes, and tucked her keys deep into one pocket where they wouldn’t jingle.
She took the utility staircase down to the second floor, where the Figueroas’ apartment occupied the back corner. The smells of tempura and sugar mingled sickeningly from the sushi restaurant and the bakery on the ground floor below; Calliope took one deep breath through her sleeve, then tested the Figueroas’ doorknob.
It was locked, of course. David Figueroa was out of his apartment, not out of his mind. Calliope fidgeted a credit card out of her wallet and jiggled it between the door and its frame. There was some kind of trick with credit cards and locked doors, wasn’t there? She’d seen it in a movie, in any number of movies, she was sure of it. She jimmied it again and wondered how exactly this was supposed to work.
The deadbolt clacked and the door swung open two inches. “Miss Grey?” asked Sofie Figueroa, David’s fourteen-year-old daughter. “What’re you doing?”
Calliope hadn’t expected to encounter anyone in the Figueroas’ apartment, only to do a bit of pointed snooping or to be turned away by a stubbornly locked door. Polite greetings fled her, and so did justifications of her presence. “You’re supposed to be at school,” she said, and shoved the credit card into her back pocket. The door’s opening narrowed by half an inch. Calliope edged the toes of one shoe toward the remaining gap.
“I don’t feel good today. Mama let me stay home sick.” Sofie’s one visible eye darted side to side. “Do you want to leave a message for my dad, or…?”
“I…” Calliope squared her shoulders. “Yes, I do. May I come in for a moment? I’d prefer to write it down to make sure he gets it verbatim.”
“Oh–um. Sure. Okay.” Sofie moved away from the door and Calliope stepped inside.
No loaf-pan gardens on the bookshelf by the front entry, no plump jade leaves or burro’s tails peeping out from the magazine rack. Calliope folded her arms across her chest and squinted at the sofa as if the force of her stare might press the missing garden out from between a pair of the under-stuffed cushions.
When Sofie reappeared with a pen and notepad, Calliope hesitated to take it. She didn’t actually have anything to say to Mr. Figueroa. “Thank you,” she said, when she finally took the pen from Sofie’s hand. Funny; the girl didn’t look flushed or feverish at all. Her hair had been combed and she was fully dressed, not clad in comfortable pajamas.
And on her shirt, the very faintest dusting of dry dirt. As if she’d had a go at brushing it off before she answered the door.
Calliope dropped the pen and paper and pushed past Sofie. “What the–what the hell?” Sofie cried, but Calliope stormed down the back hallway and yanked open a door. No, that was the master bedroom. Another door–a bathroom.
Sofie grabbed for her arm, but the weight of a ninth-grade girl was not enough to stop Calliope opening the last door in the hall. Behind it lay a teenager’s bedroom, a whirlwind of discarded shirts and dog-eared books. And in the middle of it all, atop the unmade bed, waited Calliope’s missing garden.
“Miss Grey, I didn’t–I mean, I never–” Sofie hung back in the hall, arms wrapped around herself like a shield. She sputtered again, unable to find a way to end the sentence. Or at least, to end it truthfully. “I was just going to–“
Calliope ignored her. She scooped the loaf pan up off the bed, and when Sofie tried to block the doorway with her body, she knocked the girl’s arm out of the way with one hand. She had nothing to say to a sneak, a thief, a deceitful little brat.
“Please don’t tell my dad,” Sofie said, still huddled at the end of the hallway. Calliope slammed the apartment door behind her.
The next morning, with the loaf pan properly ensconced in its kitchen cabinet, Calliope dragged her heavy armchair in front of the apartment door. She left for work via the fire escape, and returned home the same way. Mr. Figueroa never called, and she didn’t see Sofie skulking around. That should have been the end of it all. It should have been, except that the succulent garden began to wilt.
Calliope did everything she could think of to try to revive it. She pruned the withered strands of burro’s tail, but the healthy ones continued to turn brown and brittle. She dug up the jade and put its roots under her magnifying glass to check for rot, but they gleamed a healthy white. She transplanted the whole thing to a larger cake pan to give the plants more space, but they answered her care with further deterioration. When she wept, she wiped the tears away with her sleeve to keep the garden clean of saltwater rain. Nothing helped. Nothing mattered. And nothing would make Calliope take the garden back to Sofie Figueroa. The gardens were hers. Her companions, her private joy. Her secret. If she gave this one away, what would stop others from claiming more? She couldn’t reward theft. Or worse than theft–maybe Sofie had somehow harmed the garden while it was in her care. Poisoned it. Made it into the sad shadow of itself. Ridiculous idea. Why had she even thought about giving the garden to Sofie in the first place? What would that solve?
The more she thought about it, the more worried she grew. Even if she didn’t use her father’s key, Sofie might still access the apartment by breaking in through a window. Calliope couldn’t bear to lose more gardens. She found herself counting and re-counting them in the mornings, taking care to account for each and checking each delicate vine and frond and leaf for signs of death or decay. One day she missed her work bus and arrived forty-three minutes late, under the cool stares of the other two data entry assistants. “Callie’s a mess lately,” one whispered to the other, and she didn’t even bother to remind them that her name was Calliope, not Callie or Cal or anything else.
When she got home that afternoon, only one stalk remained on the burro’s tail, and a few brown scaled leaves clung to the jade stem.
For a while she paced, knowing what to do but not able to bridge the gap between knowing and doing. She moved the soap dish garden to the temporary shelter of a shoebox in her bathroom, and then went back for the one hidden in the bathroom mirror, too, just to be safe. Her hands shook as she dialed Mr. Figueroa’s number from the creased card on the wall. The phone rang twice before he answered. “This is David Figueroa. What can I do for you?”
She told him about the leaky faucet, and added some invented elaborations about the size of her last water bill. “All right,” he said, and sighed. “I’ll be up soon. Hopefully it’s a quick fix for you.”
She shut the water off in the utility closet and stood waiting at the door when he arrived. She showed him straight to the bathroom–none of the gardens in sight in the sitting room would have appeared out of place, but she didn’t need him lingering in there either. While he laid out his tools on the bathroom counter, she hovered in the doorway, and he looked up with a crease between his eyebrows. “If you have anything else you need to do, Miss Grey…”
“Oh no, I don’t mind. I’m–” Calliope felt she might choke on the words. “I’m happy to keep you company.”
“Thanks.” He selected a wrench for the purposes of attacking her plumbing.
Calliope pushed the last button on her sweater in and out of its buttonhole and tried not to cringe at the scrape of metal against metal under the sink. Keep your kid out of my home, she thought. She said, “And how is Sofie doing these days?”
“Oh. You know.” A parade of parts had begun to march across the countertop: the hot water tap, a nut, a cylinder Calliope couldn’t put a name to. Mr. Figueroa stopped to squint at the O-ring. “High school stuff. She’s bright, quiet. You know how high school girls can be.”
“Oh,” said Calliope. “Yes, I suppose that I do.”
“Yeah, well. Nothing’s forever. She’ll get through it, remember how much she likes school, you know.” Mr. Figueroa gave her a shrug and a wan smile. “Looks like the O-rings and washers are both beat here. I’ll put some new ones on, check the cold water tap too. Should clear things up, but let me know if you keep having problems?”
“Of course. Thank you. Of course.” Calliope walked away and Mr. Figueroa’s last question, something about her utilities costs, fell to the floor unanswered in her wake.
She waited until Mr. Figueroa had finished up and bid her a good night, then waited twenty minutes more. Then she called the super’s number one more time, with one more invented story: a forgotten wrench on the bathroom tiles. “I’m in the middle of cooking dinner or I’d bring it down myself,” she told him. “Why don’t you send Sofie up for it?”
She left the door open a crack, and on the rug just behind it, the ragged-looking loaf pan garden. When she had everything arranged to her satisfaction, and she heard Sofie’s light footsteps coming up the stairs, she fled to her bedroom and huddled behind her bed with her arms wrapped around her knees. This was a mistake, she told herself, a hideous misstep. And worse yet, she was too embarrassed to go try to take it back now.
A knock on the front door. A creak as it swung open a few inches. She listened for Sofie’s feet on the sitting room floor, but didn’t hear anything. Finally the girl’s voice drifted down the hall: “Is this some kind of freaky trap or something?”
Calliope’s fists balled into her sweater’s hem. “Just take it and go!” she shouted. “Before I change my mind!”
Why? What kind of person asked why when offered a gift like this? Calliope shot to her feet. Maybe Sofie didn’t deserve a second chance after all.
But when Calliope pulled up short at the edge of the living room rug, Sofie already held the loaf pan against her chest. “You killed it,” she said. A salty tear trickled down her cheek and painted a wet spot on the sand.
“Or you did. When you took it out of its natural habitat.” Calliope winced: at the further adulteration of the succulent’s environment, not at Sofie’s words. Her own eyes prickled too, but at least she was responsible enough not to make a weepy mess of herself.
In the wet indentation where the tear had fallen, a green shoot of jade poked out from the soil.
Calliope stared at it, at the impossible life unfurling from dead dirt. She wanted, suddenly and terribly, to snatch the loaf pan back. But Sofie’s hands tightened on around it as her shoulders hunched. “I don’t–I know it’s special. I mean, I shouldn’t have taken away something that’s so important to you.”
“There’s another succulent in the cookie jar and–” The words three dozen crashed against the back of Calliope’s teeth as her jaw clamped shut. “And a few others besides. I’ll make do.” Her jaw worked and forced one more reluctant sentiment out through her spasming throat. “I … want you … to have it.” And she did want that, didn’t she? Just ever so slightly more than she wanted to shove the girl out the door empty-handed and stash the loaf pan back under the stove where it had once belonged. Sofie needed the garden, and it reflected that need back at her.
Sofie shifted from foot to foot. For a moment Calliope took offense over her lack of gratitude. But she remembered how she’d felt when the garden went missing and she’d thought it still belonged to her. Not easy to be gracious at having a piece of your heart put back in your chest where it belonged, no. Sofie dragged her sleeve across her face and said, “What am I supposed to tell my dad?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Calliope stepped forward, shaking her hands at Sofie to shoo her toward the door. “Tell him I mistook a spider for a pair of pliers. Tell him someone mugged you for it in the utility staircase. Tell him that Crazy Miss Grey gave you a toilet brush and told you it was a wrench. What do I care?”
Sofie backed away. “I–” she said. “I’ll just–” And she turned and fled, and Calliope knew she’d never see the loaf pan again.
She moved the teakettle off the stove, the one with the geraniums in it, and put some water on to boil in a saucepot. She made herself a cup of tea, and let it go cold while she cried–into a pillow, to swallow the sound. Then she blew her nose thoroughly, patted her face with a cool washcloth, and set another pot of water on the burner.
While she waited for it to boil, she realized she hadn’t yet returned the gardens that she’d taken out of the bathroom. Both were waiting where she’d left them, in the shoebox at the back of her closet. But when she bent to retrieve them, she noticed something in both the discarded shoes she’d tossed aside. She lifted the canvas sneakers to the light, and admired the ivy that peeped out between the eyelets and spilled out the ankle openings.
The cat-tails settled back into their soap-dish home, and the carpet of moss roses went back in the cabinet. The canvas sneakers found a happy resting place at the front door, beside the rug, just when Calliope’s saucepot began bubbling urgently.
She settled into her armchair with her tea, and looked around the room. Forty-one gardens, gardens everywhere you could imagine. She wondered where one would turn up next, and which would be the next to leave her, and where it might go from here.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is one of the assistant editors of Cast of Wonders, and narrating is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a retired roller derby player and current small batch soap maker, for instance. Soaps and balms from Story Time Soap make great gifts (for others or yourself). She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards.