Penelope of the Garden

PENELOPE was just part of the game. Because of her, I went to my room feeling as weird as if a robin from nowhere had landed on my fingers, become frightened as I shook it off, hovered looking kindly at my eyes, and then landed on my shoulder, to be tame there forever.

Penelope had knocked me down, tripping me, in a game of team tag; then she had sat on me to keep me from getting her teammates. That, of course, was against the rules. But it was wonderful and anything could happen in the garden at 13 Southborough Close.

We had strict rules as children not to jump in or across the flower beds, which bordered a half acre of lawn, behind which were paths along a high fence. At the bottom of the lawn were eucalyptus trees; I used to watch them swaying dreamily in the English heaven from my room window, wondering if they missed Australia, where Mrs. Clark, our gardener, said they came from.

Behind the eucalyptus was an even greater place, the serious garden, the ash heap, the gooseberry bushes, a cracked window frame with chives and radishes. This was where I first became an entrepreneur, growing thick runner beans, vines, and flowers on strings (How did they know their way up?).

The garden even came with its own jackdaw - ``Jackie'' - who liked to sit on the branches of the crabapple tree and caw while we played our ferocious games of kick-the-can, tag, and general mucking about, depending on which neighborhood children we could get. We learned cricket with a baseball bat (it wasn't so heavy, and it reached wonderfully all the way to the tops of the eucalyptus).

You couldn't help but want games in the place because it was a little too perfect. Coming home from school with my satchel, I'd prop my bike on its kickstand and walk around to look at the garden.

So many, it seemed, cared for it. I had joined in with my beans; the mowers came and rolled the lawn both ways to a delightful checkerboard green. If Mrs. Clark wasn't in back, she'd be out front by the low brick wall, where a mound of grass had been dug once, years ago into an air-raid shelter. The big-handled doors down at the foot of the steps, the portholes, and the musty smell inside where the owner of the house had stored books after renting to us, were as mysterious to me as Mrs. Clark. She could often be found by the low front wall with a wheelbarrow among long weeds, attending foxgloves. They became my favorites after she told me they were homes to the bees ... and the fairies.

I never saw anything but bees in them, sometimes big bumbles, but I continued just for fun to look for a fairy or for fairy rings. I found one once; I left a note for the mowers - making problems for their checkerboard pride - but they left it. Mrs. Clark got heavily down on her knees and snipped around it with shears, by hand. ``There. Now they'll come back,'' she said. But I never saw one: at least not until my sister brought home her classmates for a birthday party. They all were pretty in light green uniforms and badges and you could imagine wings on them, with their cherub faces, and how they always ran laughing together in a gang.

I had been naughty, exploring the owner's belongings in the air-raid locker and had come across a book that contained photos of women statues in polished white. It was called ``Women in Antiquity.'' I'd always be putting it back in a special place hidden between boring volumes of history. I thought ``antiquity'' was a forbidden word for a long time. I had sisters, so I was no stranger to girls; I just wondered why God made them that way.

I began getting clues when Penelope knocked me down at that party. I found myself on the grass at the level of the bees when a feeling came over me, smooth and strange, as if voices were talking to me from the flowers. ``Now silly boy. You be good....'' I was looking up into the merry eyes of a chestnut-haired fairy-girl with a badge. I didn't want to fight, but felt I had to, a little, to keep the game going.

``What do all those letters on your badge mean?'' I heard myself, subdued, asking as if I were talking to the breeze in the eucalyptus. ``It means ... you're my prisoner!'' she said.

She was right. I was captured in my own garden. That night when dusk was long in spring I was thinking before sleep. I found Penelope lived within roller-skating distance, about 10 hops off sidewalk curves onto bumping stoned asphalt streets, and up a hill.

Saturday, I skated around. It was then I discovered not everything was as well taken care of as our garden. Her father answered in his undershirt, gruffly. His breath smelled of something foreign - stronger than decomposing ashes and fermented weeds in the compost heap. I sensed tension in the small place that smelled of unmade beds. Penelope stood back from the door. She was teary. I heard her mother yell from a back room.

``Have you got skates?'' I asked, meekly.

``I can't.'' she said.

``Oh, get out,'' said her dad, making to swat her.

She wiped her eyelashes. I took off my skates, like a gentleman.

``I've been in those woods behind your house. Do you know there's a nest there. With three thrush eggs. I've learned thrushes now - Mrs. Clark showed me.''

``All right.''

When we got back, I don't know why, but I waited til she was safely in. She had liked the tiny speckled eggs; she would go back - when she got the chance - and sit and wait under the tree for the little birds. ``They sing so merrily, don't they?''

In the greenhouse, where I had just watched transfixed, terrified at my desire not to help a fly get eaten by a big brown spider so I could watch, and Mrs. Clark was puttering about with pots, I asked her, ``How do you make girls happy? Especially one who can't believe in fairies or anything.''

``So you've got Penny as a friend, have you?''

``Sort of. Maybe.''

Then standing on one leg to rest the other, she said, ``I know her father. He works hard in the coal mine. Well, you've just to believe for her.''

``I don't know if I do, really.''

``Some things you'll see only when you need to. The world's full of beautiful things and invisible things. Perhaps they've shown you Penny.''

``They have.''

``See, you believe. You can believe in her. That'll make her happy.''

I remember looking at the old woman in her canvas dress and apron.

``You watch over everything. You're like a fairy godmother.''

Then Mrs. Clark, standing stiffly on both feet, said, ``Oh, get on, lad. I don't have time for such notions.''

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