Published on 2011/09/04

Cincinnati Garden Review

Brooke Johnson

Mr. Johns was a man hard to impress. He had been working for Cincinnati Today, reviewing Cincinnatian gardens for over ten years, and not once had he given a good, or even satisfactory review of a homeowner's garden. However, on May 2nd, Mr. Johns was, for the first and last time, bested. He could not complain nor offer any kind of criticism whatsoever. On May 2nd, Mr. Johns entered the home of the lovely Mrs. Crème.

Mrs. Crème was well thought of by her neighbors. She lived alone—no husband, children, or pets to keep her company. Her only delight was that of caring for her garden, which was rumored to be the most beautiful garden in Cincinnati, and some people even went so far as to say that it was the most beautiful garden in Ohio.

On the warm, sunny morning of May 2nd, Mr. Johns approached Mrs. Crème's house, knocked twice, adjusted his tie, and flipped through the pages of his ominous, black clipboard. Mrs. Crème heard Mr. Johns knocking, and putting away her apron and oven mitts, she shuffled to the door and invited Mr. Johns inside.

Mr. Johns could not help but smell the blueberry muffins Mrs. Crème had just taken out of the oven. "Been baking, Mrs. Crème?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied. "I thought you might have missed breakfast considering the time of our appointment."

"And your assumption was quite right, Mrs. Crème."

"Call me Leola, Mr. Johns. It's a pleasure to bake them for you. I haven't had a visitor in some time."

Mr. Johns took the muffin in the corner of the pan and finished it in three bites. "They are quite delicious. If you bake these for all of your visitors, I can't see why they wouldn't come back," said Mr. Johns as he stuffed a second one into his mouth. His mood was quite improving. "I don't think I've ever had this flavor before. It's not blueberry, is it?"

"No, Mr. Johns. These are of my own recipe. I use the herbs from my garden."

"Excellent. Might I see this garden of yours?" After a third muffin, his disposition toward the garden in question was positively optimistic.

"That's why you're here, isn't it?" replied Mrs. Crème.

She led Mr. Johns through the living room and into the sun room where she kept her garden, an array of potted plants scattered about the walls. Some stood on shelves; others clustered around mirrored balls. What should have been a beautiful garden was hampered by the large collection of weeds in the center. Mr. Johns noted their inclusion on his clipboard, the muffins altering his judgment. They only made the other flowers more beautiful.

Mrs. Crème noticed his eyes on the weeds and gave a little smile. "I'm afraid that this garden is not as beautiful as my last. I can't seem to find the right flowers in Cincinnati. They all turn into weeds." She gestured to the cluster of potted gray stalks. "You know, everywhere I live, I create a garden and leave behind that life energy for someone else to have. It's selfish to keep my beautiful gardens all to myself. It's even been said that my gardens have healing powers, and I must admit that my gardens have kept me quite youthful."

"I can't imagine a more beautiful garden than this," replied Mr. Johns, "disregarding the weeds, of course. Why do you keep them?"

"I like to think they might turn into flowers someday. Not all bad seeds grow into bad flowers, just as not all good seeds grow into good flowers. At my cottage in Missouri, I had better fortune with my seeds."

"Why did you leave?"

"My husband and children died," she said matter-of-factly. There was no hint of sadness in her voice.

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"The police never found their bodies,” she continued, a strange gleam in her eye, unnoticed by Mr. Johns. “After their deaths, I could not stay there any longer. It was time to move on. Sixty years in one home is quite long enough."

"Sixty years, Leola? You don't look a day over thirty!"

"My husband often said that my garden was therapeutic. He was right, of course. It has kept me youthful all these years, Mr. Johns."

"Remarkable," replied Mr. Johns, scribbling on his clipboard. “I have a friend, a botanist, and if it would not be so bold of me to ask, might I return next week and bring him to your garden. He would be ecstatic to study your plants and their therapeutic value. Your herbs and flowers seem to have a—dare I say it—magical quality to them. Even standing here, I feel as if these plants are alive.”

“They are alive, Mr. Johns. All plants are.”

“Of course they are.” Mr. Johns examined two sunflowers near the wall, one very large, and the other very small.

“Those were the last flowers I grew at my cottage. Though I left my home, I could not bear to leave those two flowers.”

Mr. Johns stroked one of the larger flower’s petals, and the flower shivered. “Extraordinary. So I shall return with my botanist friend next week?”

"I am sorry. That will not be possible.”

“You must understand what his findings could mean, Mrs. Crème.”

“It isn’t that, Mr. Johns. I would be happy to host another guest, but I'm afraid I'll be leaving soon. Like I said, the seeds in Cincinnati are tainted, and I'm afraid my garden will die if I do not find a better home. Already, the sunflowers are beginning to wilt."

"Just next week, Mrs. Crème."

"No. That's too far away, even with the prospect of a second addition to my garden. Perhaps sooner?"

"I cannot come any sooner than that," said Mr. Johns.

"That's a pity. I suppose this is goodbye, Mr. Johns."

Mr. Johns sighed, but covered it with a polite smile. “Thank you for the opportunity to view your garden, at least. I hope you'll pick up the next issue of Cincinnati Today and read my review."

"Goodbye, Mr. Johns."

Mr. Johns waved goodbye and made his way for the front door.

But before he reached the end of the living room, his legs stiffened, rooting into the floor, which he now noticed was compacted dirt. He tried to step forward, but his toes lengthened, snaking into the floor. He tugged at his legs, but his arms soon became stiff. His fingers grew wildly, twisting like vines down his thighs. With as much effort as he could muster, he turned his upper body toward the entrance to the sitting room. Mrs. Crème stood in the doorway, her arms crossed and a smirk on her lips.

“Why?” he cried.

“You shouldn’t have eaten the muffins, Mr. Johns.”

Small stalks began to shoot out of his skin, stretching upward, little gray bulbs blossoming on the ends. He would have screamed, but his mouth had gone, replaced by a spongy, pollen-covered surface. His last sight was of the smile on Mrs. Crème’s lips. Mr. Johns could no longer see, smell, or hear, but he could feel. The earth around him trembled, and something much larger picked him up, carrying him elsewhere.

Mrs. Crème placed her new potted plant next to the rest of the weeds, and hung the shovel on the hook next to the door. Leaning toward one of the garden balls, she looked in the mirrored surface.

“At least those damned crow’s feet are gone.”

Brooke Johnson lives in Northwest Arkansas with her husband Aaron and dog K.K.. She writes steampunk and fantasy, but never both at the same time. She plays D&D with her friends, and spends her free time playing video games. She is also the editor of Hogglepot.

A shorter version of this story was originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of Nebo: A Literary Journal.