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Long Beach, CA

Spirit Stories: Terrence and the Gardener (With)

Terrence was working in the garden.  He was always working in the garden.  He’d been working in the garden since he could remember, since he was born, he guessed.  Or at least, since he was old enough to carry a hoe or make a straight furrow.

He knew he had to get the garden to grow, too.  If you watched him work, you’d see him look up every few minutes to the corner window of the great house just across the street.  There the gardener sat, always looking down on him, making sure he was doing things right.  Terrence couldn’t see the gardener’s face through the glass very well, but he knew the gardener was a mean man.  He seemed to have a permanent scowl on to his face.  Sometimes Terrence would glance up at the window without looking like he was looking.  He’d keep his head down but steal a glance out of the corner of his eye.  And always, the gardener was there, staring down at him.

There was a man, too, who kept coming by the garden and saying, “Terrence, can I help?”  Terrence didn’t know who the man was, didn’t even know his name, and since the garden fence along the street was high, he’d never seen the man’s face, either.  And his answer was all the same, “No…no thanks.”  That is, if Terrence answered at all, his answer was always “no.”  Sometimes he was so fixated on the gardener and on that angry scowl that Terrence didn’t even hear the man, or he didn’t realize the man had come until later, after he’d gone.

One morning, Terrence had counted out some seeds and was tending to some furrows, trying to make sure he had the soil just right.  The problem was, even though he did his best, he just couldn’t get the garden to look right!  The plants would grow, but when they should look like this they looked like that.  And where they should make a swoosh, they made a jag.  And where they should make a kreeky-kri, they made a flim-flum.  The seeds were hard to get planted and they never seemed to grow right. 

This morning, however, there were signs of hope.  Some buds were pushing through the soil, and they looked strong.  I mean, it isn’t perfect, Terrence thought, but there’s some promise here, I do believe.  At that very moment, Terrence heard a low rumbling, like a bear’s hungry stomach. 

“Oh no,” Terrence said out loud.  He could hear it.  A shhhh sound, then a pitter-patter, then a sound like clapping.  Soon the skies were gray and the storm was over him and the garden.  The thunder were so intense that Terrence found himself huddling in a corner of the garden, underneath a large bush, shaking both from fright and from cold.

By the time the skies cleared and the afternoon sun broke through, the garden was a wreck.  Terrence surveyed the damage and stood, unable to form thoughts or words.  Then he fell to the ground in a clump, like mud, and in a rush of sad and angry tears, yelled, “It’s ruined!”

At that very moment, there was a knock on the garden gate.  “Terrence?  Terrence, can I come in?  Can I help?”

The man.  That man!  He always showed up at these times.  And Terrence, with no energy left to protest, found himself doing something he’d never done.  He walked over to the garden fence and, his face still cast to the ground, flipped the latch and opened the gate, then walked away.  He sat back down on the ground, in the wet mess, his clothes dirty, his skin covered in mud amidst the ruined garden.

Terrence, his forehead buried on his arms, saw the man’s shoes, and he saw the man sitting down across from him.  But he didn’t lift his head.

“Why are you so upset?” the man asked.

“Upset?  Why am I upset?  Look around.  It’s ruined.  All my best efforts, ruined.  Failure.  Again!  And the gardener.  Just wait ‘til I hear from him.  He’ll be so angry, he’ll…”

“The gardener?” the man said, perplexed, and for the first time Terrence looked up and saw the man’s face.  He seemed genuinely concerned.  “What gardener?” the man said.

“The gardener.  He’s up there, in the house.  Look.” 

The man looked to where Terrence’s dirtied finger pointed, up to the house, at the window.

“The gardener?” the man said.  “Terrence, that’s not the gardener.”

For the first time, Terrence realized that the man knew his name.  He had never noticed it before, but of course, the man had called him by name for as long as he had knocked on the fence.  “What do you mean that’s not the gardener?” Terrence insisted.  “Of course, that’s the gardener.”

“No, that’s not the gardener, that’s an old scarecrow.  Someone just left it there, propped up by the window.  That’s not the gardener.  The gardener is not who you thought he was.”

“But…?  Wait, but…why?”  Terrence was confused, and he was more confused that the man was smiling.  His lips were pursed like he was trying not to smile too wide in the face of Terrence’s confusion, but he couldn’t really hide it.  Still, the man’s eyes were too kind to make Terrence feel foolish, and he could see the man wasn’t having fun at his expense. 

“But then….wait…who are you?” Terrence asked.

The man tilted his head to the side as if the answer were obvious.  “I’m the gardener, Terrence.  I’m the gardener.”

Terrence had no words.  His mouth fell open a little bit, but no sound fell out of it.  All around them, the garden was getting dark, the shadows of the day catching on the broken plants, the blade of the hoe, the clumps of mud, like time was speeding the day down.

“But…and you’re not mad?” Terrence said at last.

“Mad?”  Now the man laughed.  “No, I’m not mad.  I’m just glad you let me in, that’s all.  Here, hold my hand.”

Terrence reached out and placed his hands in the man’s hands.  He saw scars on the man’s hands and wrists, like he had worked long hours in the hot sun, underneath a lash, or worse.  But before the thought could form, Terrence’s eyes opened wide.  Through his hands, a warmth was flowing, like fire, but it didn’t burn.  It was all power, like pure energy.  Then Terrence felt the warmth coming up into him through the ground, too.  And though he kept his eyes planted on the kind eyes of the man—the gardener, out of his periphery vision, he saw the garden bloom. Ruined plants sprang back to shape.  Flowers budded and bloomed.  Vegetables and fruit burst forth in vibrant colors, ripe and full.  The garden turned green.  

Terrence sat for a long moment and then found a thought inside him.  “We’re going to tend this garden together?” 

“Yes,” said the gardener, “and right now, we’re going to give away all this fruit and all these flowers.”

“…You don’t?  You don’t want to keep them for yourself?”

The gardener laughed.  “I’m always working to bring up good fruit, and the joy’s not in keeping it.  It’s in seeing the looks on people’s faces when they taste it.  Trust me, Terrence, you’re going to love it.”

The Gardener smiled at Terrence and then turned his eyes to the ground, reaching his hand into the dirt, carving out a hole.  Terrence did the same.  He felt something he had never felt before, touching soil: beneath the warmth of the earth and the fluid energy of ground yielding to his fingers, he felt promise and hope.  The worth of a day’s good labor, and the peace of knowing what he was working for.  And beneath it all, the indescribable joy of working not alone, but with.