The Rose Maze

Story no. 47. Both the story and the illustration are pretty involved this week, which is why they took a while to get up. Pretty happy with the results, though. 

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the rose maze signature copy small

“Hel-lo! We are here to make! You! Over!

John’s head jerked up from the rose bush.

There was no one in front of him.

He wiped a hand across his forehead, creating a little rivulet of sweat that coursed down his temple. The headache that had been growing since the sun swung overhead pulsed at the back of his skull. He slowly twisted his head to one side, and then the other. The smell of slowly-burning flesh caught his nose; he’d sweated off his sunblock.

The rose maze was still empty of people.

Maybe in another ten years, John thought glumly, someone could hide in one of the arbors that circled the maze. For now, the only climbing plant really pulling its weight was the grapevine, and that was barely five feet tall.

“Aren’t you excited? We’re going to have so much fun this week!”

This voice was different from the first one, deeper, but it still didn’t seem attached to a physical presence. John touched his ears, wondering if his earbuds were picking up radio signals, but he’d taken them out when the headache started coming on.

“I guess we stunned him into silence,” came another voice, this one older, amused, with a faint accent he couldn’t place.

“We’ve heard all about you,” said another.

“That’suh—” John started. Was he being rude to some potential donors? That would never fly with his boss. He wiped his secateurs off on his t-shirt and got to his feet, hooking the handle into his front pocket. He’d worry about heatstroke, but other than the headache he didn’t feel too bad. He’d been chugging water all day. Where were these guys standing, that he could hear them so clearly but not see them at all? “Can I give you guys a tour?”

“We’re looking forward to it! Oh, this place is just lovely! All these wonderful plants!” That was the first voice, excited, maybe even a little manic.

“Yeah, well, I’m sorry about the maze,” John said, panicked. Half the bushes had wilted down during the heat wave of the last week, diminishing an already modest display to a spiral of shriveled tumbleweeds. He’d politely and firmly rescheduled three weddings for September and had been dragging out the soaker hoses every night for a month. “I mean, we only started it two years ago, and the bushes haven’t really had a chance to get established. And the weather this yearwellnot the best for roses—”

“Oh you,” said that excited voice, and something invisible shoved him, hard, like a huge man had slapped him across the back.

“We were warned that you wouldn’t take credit for anything,” the accented voice said, still amused, but kind.

“But that’s why you were nominated! There’s so much potential for growth here!”

This let to a round of chortling, or what he assumed was chortling. It sounded more like water rushing over stones or branches snapping back and forth.

“But we’re looking forward to spending a whole week here!”

“With such beautiful flowers!”

“Forgive me,” John said, cautious. “I’m having a hard time following the conversationuhI can’t really see you—”

“Our bad, our bad,” said the deep voice, while the other voices laughed laughter that sounded like bells ringing and iron horseshoes on granite.

Suddenly John could see them: five tall, silvery streaks standing in a half-circle around him, like heat-mirages smeared against the air. When they moved he could see glimmers of color and detail at their edges, hinting at clothing and faces and hands, but when they went still they remained translucent.

“Oh, thanks,” he said weakly.

“Anyway, let’s talk about your goals for this week,” said that first voice, suddenly businesslike. “What do you want to change about yourself? What do you want to accomplish?

“I—” John started, then stopped, stunned.

His immediate instinct had been to say that he liked himself perfectly well, that he wouldn’t change anything. When he tried to say it, though, it was as though his jaw had frozen shut, or was being held shut by a pair of powerful hands: he couldn’t force a single syllable past his lips.

“Tell the truth,” said the voice that knew all about him. “It’ll come out easier.”

“I’m not sure what the truth is,” John said. “I know that something’s wrong but not what.”

Horrifyingly, that was true.

“No worries,” said the excited, businesslike voice. “We’ll help you figure it out. Why don’t you tell us about your life here?”

John scratched his balding head, considering. “Well, I’m the head gardener,” he said. “Right now, the only gardener. Sometimes we get interns, but the local college stopped offering their horticulture program last year.” He gestured past the rose garden, to where the land rose in a little hill, topped by a brick house with two wings. “The old garden and conservatory is up there. Elijah Kirkland willed his property to the city for a public park in nineteen twenty, but his nephewwellthere was a bit of legal rigmarole. There was some of the garden left when it finally came around in nineteen thirty-six, but then the Depression—”

He walked up the hill, pointing out the lilac hedge (now sadly down to three bushes), the spindly Chinese viburnum, and the cluster of different sorts of birches. The heat shimmers hung behind him, watching and laughing but making no footsteps. Periodically a mostly-invisible arm would snake past him, a glimmer hanging over his shoulder to point something out or break off a tiny bit of a branch. They stopped under the magnificent umbrella magnolia, and he plucked a three-foot-long leaf to show his guests.

“I love this tree,” said the deep voice, very close to his ear. “We had one of these at home.”

John half-opened his mouth to ask where home was for a shimmering not-there person, but as he did a bud opened on the branch closest to him. He tipped his head back and saw that the entire tree was blooming with huge, creamy flowers.

“Ohuhit’s not generally that time of year,” he started.

“No worries! We’re going to spruce things up!” This voice hadn’t spoken yet; it buzzed like a handsaw. “We want your environment to foster your growth! What’s your vision for the garden?”

“Iwelldon’t these sorts of shows usually look at your house?” he asked. “I don’t live in the garden—”

It was like he hadn’t spoken.

“I’d love to get a wisteria draping this fence here! It looks so barren. And what about some old-fashioned boxwood surrounding the place? You just can’t beat a good hedge.

The other voices crowed appreciatively, but the accented voice murmured, “I’ve always preferred hawthorn, myself . . .

The excitable voice said archly, “And I like a good yew! What of it?”

I’m not sure what’s happening here, John thought, before clearing his throat politely. “We have a yew growing in our bower garden, over here, if you’d like me to show you. . .

“Oh, do!” the excitable voice squealed.

Elijah Kirkland had been born of a tacky American rubber boot heiress and an English gentleman, the moribundity of whose family line had left him nearly comatose. In his impressionable youth, Elijah had been invited to take tea and do a bit of shooting on the Muckross estate in Kerry. He’d gone only a twenty minute walk from the house before he twisted his ankle and it started to rain, forcing him to take shelter in the shamble of abbey ruins. The sight of the ancient yew twisting upward through the courtyard had left him speechless and somewhat brain-shattered.

John explained this as they came down the other side of the hill and into a scrap of woodland, white pine and red oak spotted with witch hazel and sassafras.

“He, uh, built his own ruin,” he said apologetically, and then they were upon that structure, politely termed the bower garden in their educational pamphlet to keep visitors’ expectations low. It wasn’t a very good ruinElijah had used cement block, which had remained sturdy and crisp-looking in spite of ninety years of terrible winters. The yew at the center was still rather scrawny.

“Oh, I can work with this,” the buzzing voice said.

“You can?” John said, hopeful in spite of himself. “I try not to bring people over herevisitors tend to think it’s an abandoned power station—”

The tour continued. He showed them the new conservatory, with its mess of palm trees and koi pond. It was easier if he didn’t look right at the heat shimmers; he caught more details in his peripheral vision than he did when staring at them straight-on. The excitable voice belonged to a person with ankle-length hair in many shades of gold and a face a few shades lighter. The accented voice came from someone very slender and silvery, wearing a purple suit. The voice who knew all about him was brown, wearing a jaunty striped sweater and a tricorn. The other two remained shadowy, though John thought he saw a flash of red gloves.

“The time has flown!” said the voice who knew all about him, adjusting his hat. John blinked, turned around, and realized that the sun was setting over the parking lot.

“Do you have any end-of-day tasks you’d like to show us?” the deep voice asked in sing-song tones.

“I usually put up our temporary fences and put the goats out in the evening,” John said, taken aback. “They’re very eco-friendlyyou knowweed control—”

“Let’s go visit them now!

John followed the heat shimmers through the deepening twilight, to the small shelter built up against the back of the empty old greenhouse. Last summer they’d hosted a summer camp in that building, showing kids how to start shrubs from cuttings and graft fruit trees together, but no grant money had come through this year. Curiously, it didn’t look emptybehind the yellowed plexiglass green shadows swirledbut before he could squint and look closer, the gate to the goat paddock was flung open.

Wait—” he yelped. “The temporary fencethey’ll get the roses—”

Kielbasa and Bratwurst the goats emerged from their shed, poking their noses around the open gate and bleating softly.

Surprise!” yelled at the voices at once.

John opened his mouth and then shut it. “Whatwhat did—”

Both of the goats had been disbudded as kids, but now a single brown, curved horn emerged from each of their foreheads. They were the same goatsKielbasa had a brown spot on his side that looked that the continent of Australia, and Bratwurst had a black smudge along her upper lip that looked like a handlebar mustache.

They nibbled on his hands, before skipping away from him around a hydrangea that almost certainly hadn’t been that large a minute ago. The number of heat smears hanging in the air seemed to have multiplied in the oncoming darkness.

“The rose maze,” John said. “The goats—”

“Hardly goats anymore, honey,” said the excitable voice, tossing golden hair in a caprine gesture.

“I’ll look after the roses,” said the buzzing voice. John thought he saw a flicker of heavily-plaited hair and red-brown skin. “Don’t you worry.”

“Would you like,” asked the accented voice, “to have dinner with us?”

Suddenly there was a single apple hanging in the air in front of him, offered on a transparent palm.

“That’s hardly dinner,” John said lightly. He was not the sort of person who knew why a shining presence might twine themself into a yew and stay there, waiting, for decades or even centuries; but he knew that he shouldn’t eat the apple. “I’ll see—uhI’ll talk to you guys tomorrow.”

***

The next morning the old greenhouse was full. When John stepped inside, the air temperature dropped, though they’d taken the broken old fans out earlier in the spring. He couldn’t see the other end of the building, and he cautiously kept one hand on the doorknob.

“Hello?” John yelled through the dense thicket of branches and vines. A current of air whipped past his face, bringing with it the jangling of bells.

Hello,” said the deep voice, followed by “Good morning!” “Good morn-ing!” “Hey!” and “How are yoooou?

“I’m all right,” he said cautiously. “Do you mind if we head out to check the roses first?”

They didn’t mind, though the deep voice asked him, “Have you thought any more about your goals?

“I want the goats to not eat the rose maze,” John said fervently and with perfect truthfulness.

The goats had not eaten the rose maze, though there were suspicious piles of shiny brown pellets dotted over the path. John looked sorrowfully down at the groundcover roses that were supposed to be swirling drifts of cream, yellow, pink, and red. In this heat, all the blooms were brown. The plants he’d ordered especially for zone five-b had not appreciated last January’s vicious cold, and many of them had shrunk to little more than green toupees hovering over the rootstocks he’d planted.

John kicked one of the edging stones and sighed.

“Who designed this?” the excitable voice asked. When John started, the face he couldn’t see was very close to his own. It was a bit like walking into a spiderweb.

“I did,” John said ruefully. “I thought it would grow up a lot faster. I was imaginingwell—” He gestured at the ring of arbors that encircled the roses, feeling oddly self-conscious.

“Tell us,” said all of the voices together, making a noise like wind blowing and deer crashing through the undergrowth. “Tell us what you imagined.”

“I thought thatwellyou can see this grape vine here, and how it’s starting to go upI thought all the vines would do that as quickly,” said John. “I wanted all the arbors to be completely covered in growing things and have vines stretch out on either sides, so you wouldn’t be able to even see the inside of the maze until you walk through the entrancehereand then there should be walls of color pushing you along, back and forthyou’re not supposed to be able to step through the rose beds, like this.” He stepped demonstratively on the mulch between two hunched plants.

“It sounds like you really love this part of the garden,” the accented voice said. While the voice was still silvery out the corner of his eye, today that silveriness wore a teal suit.

“I do,” John said. He stopped, bewildered, and wiped a trickle of sweat from his forehead. “I really do.”

A unicorn goat chose this moment to sprint across the lawn, and John yelped and dodged out of the maze after him. The voices’ laughter sounded like stags bellowing and waterfalls crashing.

Later than day they presented him with a suit made of beetles’ wings.

“You’ll look so good in it,” said the voice who knew all about him earnestly.

The suit fluttered in the breeze, shining and flickering with light. John couldn’t tell if the beetles were still attached to their wings or not inside the jacket and trousers. It moved about the old carpet garden as though there were an invisible body wearing it, stopping periodically to pose with an arm or a leg flexed over a cushion of alyssum. It paused next to the lion-headed fountain that Elijah Kirkland had imported specially from Italy that had never worked, leaning against the base and then sitting in the dry bowl.

“What about something, uh, more, uh, plant-based?” he stammered.

“I’ve got just the thing,” murmured the voice with an accent, today from inside a sheath of ocher yellow.

Something twisted away from the trees at the bottom of the hill. It took him a moment to identify what it was, but as it swept closer it resolved itself into a drape of ivy, a sort of vegetal toga.

“Oh, uh,” John said, before the vines were wrapping his upper body.

The curious thing was how well they fit him, he thought, better than his uniform of jeans and a polo shirt.

“And we can’t forget the details,” said the deep voice.

A vine unrolled itself from one of the arbors around the rose maze, a tendril from a stunted purple clematis. John barely kept in a yelpthat plant was hardly surviving, it couldn’t afford to have any pruned offbut as he watched another new shoot laced itself up the trellis and unfolded extravagant blossoms.

The separated vine knit itself into a sort of wreath, and a pair of glittering hands took it out of the hair and set it gently on John’s head.

He stood in the light in his ivy toga and clematis crown, waiting to feel awkward and shy and instead feeling something exuberant and strange fluttering under his breastbone.

The voices clapped for him, and it sounded like a murmuration of starlings and maybe raindrops hitting a lake. John bowed to them, before hesitating.

“I can’t take this home with me,” he said. “It won’t stay nice. My apartment is—” He stopped, puzzled. What was his apartment, other than a place where magical things did not occur?

“It’s all right,” said the voice like a buzzsaw. Red gloves flickered in the air, and the robe and crown drew away from him gently. “We’ll keep them for you.”

“Would you like to eat with us this evening?” asked the voice who knew all about John. This time there was no apple, only the idea of one floating between them.

He hesitated for a long time. He hardly knew more about the voices than he had the day before. The clothes made from ivy and flowers had made him feel strange and tender toward the presences gathered around him, but he was sure the question was not one to be lightly answered.

“No, thank you,” John said.

***

The roses were green the next morning.

John stopped at the entrance to the maze, slightly dizzy. A unicorn goatBratwurstpeered around the grape arbor, a clump of green leaves sticking out of her mouth.

The new growth on the bushes had observed the dead, browning flowers. Dozens of acid-green shoots poked up from glossy foliage the color of old wine bottles.

“It must have rained during the night,” said the voice like a buzz saw.

“I don’t think rain would have done this,” John said.

The voices laughed at him, but it was a kind laugh.

“Let us show you what we’ve been doing with the ruin,” the deep voice said.

He felt someone grip his elbow, and he allowed himself to be led. A small movement caught the corner of his eye, and he turned his head far enough to see Bratwurst and Kielbasa emerging from the grape arbor to follow them into the wood.

They walked for much longer than should have been possible. There was an iron fence on the other side of the patch of forest, and on the other side of that, a busy four-lane street with a traffic light and two fast food restaurants on opposing corners. Usually it took about ten minutes to get from one edge to the other, but today he walked and kept walking. The oaks and white pines grew steadily larger and large, until he was passing specimens that he and two other men couldn’t have gotten their joined arms around. When John flipped his gaze from side to side he saw other trees that he didn’t recognize.

I’ve been a gardener for twenty-six years, he thought in some dismay. Even if this is magic, I should know the trees.

He tried to stop, but translucent hands on his shoulders and his wrists gently propelled him forward.

They crossed a stream – there was no stream in the patch of forest, only a drainage culvert – and circumnavigated a pile of tumbled rockthat didn’t exist either.

The pile of stones flowed upward into half of a tower, the top shattered. To one side was a hollow wreck of a two-story keep, furry with electrically green moss and grayish lichens. The two structures were connected by an arcaded courtyard, and in the middle the yew he recognized twisted up toward the sky. It was still a bit spindly, though it looked decidedly healthier than when they’d come down to visit it two days ago.

“This,” John said. The next few words didn’t quite want to come out, and he had to clear his throat noisily to ease the constriction in his airways. “This is something I dreamed about,” he said, and that was perfectly, exactly true. He’d daydreamed about welcoming visitors with big cameras and excited faces to a garden that they couldn’t imagine growing themselves, something that had taken decades and dozens of combined lifetimes of wisdom to establish. But he’d also dreamed while sleeping: of walking through the woods and finding the abbey that had so stunned Elijah Kirkland.

“I’m so glad you like it!” said the excitable voice, gesticulating wildly. Its arm hit a branch, and a cascade of leaves briefly outlined the tall, thin shape.

“I do,” John said. He half-bowed, not sure what else to do. “Thank you very much.”

“I still have to give you a hair cut,” the excitable voice went, in sing-song tones. “A makeover isn’t anything without a hair cut.

“But,” John said, startled. “I’ve hardly got any hair.”

They didn’t seem to hear him. Two of the voices ushered him toward a tree stump; the smear of light already floating there pushed down on his shoulders until he sat. The golden flicker of light that accompanied the excitable voice flitted toward him.

“I want to really highlight your best features,” the voice went on.

The hair cut didn’t really feel like a haircut, but more like a hundred moths flapping their wings against the skin of his face.

The sun swung overhead, and the shadows in the wood around the ruin shifted and changed. Had they made it anew, or had they led him into a place that already existed . . . somewhere else? John stared at the branches overhead and wondered.

“I’m done! Don’t you love it?”

John hesitantly put his hands up to feel his scalp. A very small hope had started to grow in the back of his mind, a hope he hadn’t felt since his hair had started to fall out in his thirties.

But no, he could still feel the bare patches on the crown of his head. He sighed.

“You’ll get used to it,” the excitable voice said, suddenly businesslike. “It’s very you.”

The other voices agreed in chorus.

It took even longer to walk out of the wood. The sun was very low indeed by the time the silhouette of the Kirkland house became dimly visible through the trees. John hoped that no visitors had decided to brave the excruciating heat today. Maybe one of the other presences that he had noticed gathering in the garden would show them around.

The deep voice stopped him before he could gather his bag and keys from the office behind the old greenhouse.

“Are you sure you won’t eat with us this evening?”

“I would like to,” John said. He chewed his lower lip for a minute, before saying regretfully, “but I need to get home.”

***

John woke before sunrise the next morning. His studio apartment seemed even grayer and beiger than normal. He wished he had the vine-robe to dress himself in. Instead he put on a regular pair of jeans and a Hawaiian shirt that his brother had bought him as a joke. It was printed with green parrots and red hibiscus.

He stared at himself in the mirror over his bathroom sink. His face looked different in a way he couldn’t quite define. What little hair he had left was noticeably shorter, and his beard had grown in more heavily overnight than it usually did, but that didn’t explain the strangeness he saw in his own eyes.

The clock on the stove read five-oh-eight AM. He was supposed to get to work at eight; the botanical gardens opened at ten.

He went out onto the shared balcony and down the stairs at the end of the building that were always terrifyingly icy from December through February. This early in the morning, the commuter traffic had barely started, and he found himself pulling into the parking lot of the gardens a fifteen minutes after leaving his own.

The sun hadn’t quite come up over the Kirkland house when he walked into the rose maze. He had knownwellhe had guessedhe had had some sort of premonition

The rose bushes were not just green. They had grown up in a tall, tangled hedge inside the ring-tunnel the clematis and trumpet vine and grape and all the other climbing plants had formed. More than that, the roses were blooming, in a riot of red and peach and cream and pink and blush and some colors that he was quite sure he had not planted, if anyone at all had ever planted such roses

John kept turning corners and walking down corridors of roses, some of them waist-high, so could see another space just to one side or up ahead, some of them so momentous that he could see nothing at all except the blooms all around him, each one as massive as his palm. In the dim blue light before the sunrise, the red roses became nearly black, half-invisible shadows that hovered in the air like moths. The smell mounted slowly, at first touching his face lightly as his passed each flower, then wrapping around him until nothing had ever smelled of anything except roses.

The concrete bench at the center of the maze had grown a fine layer of moss up each side, and an artistic rosette of lichen patterned the seat.

John could see the five voice hovering just in front of the hedge from the corners of his eyesthere was an orange suit in evidence today, and one of the previously shadowy voices had gone a translucent bluebut they hung back.

He sat on the bench and waited for the light to come to him.

When the sun has risen high up to warm his face, John stood up.

“Thank you,” he said. Then, a little sadly. “Will other people get to see what you’ve done here?”

The voices flitted closer to him, and he felt several hands clasp his shoulders.

“Maybe not exactly what you see,” the deep voice said.

“They’ll have an experience,” the voice like a buzz saw said confidently. “It depends on what they bring into the garden with them.”

“I want the garden to give people something to take home, too,” John said.

“They will,” the voices said together, softly, the words making his bones shudder and the roses nod.

***

When John went home that night, the splendor of the roses and the depths of the wood left him hollow. He hadn’t refused the offer the voices made to eat with them, only bowed his head to them and walked away. The picture of dogs playing poker over his couch and the photo of the Rockies in his bedroom had never looked so desolate.

He’d always arranged his life around his job, even when he’d been a grunt on a landscaping team. His modest salary had dissuaded him from trying to build his own garden paradise at homethe size of plot he could afford would barely be enough for a single rose bush, let alone an arbor. Maybe that was why he’d never married. The thought of having a family he couldn’t provide a garden for made his chest hurt.

He couldn’t sleep for a long time and found himself sitting on the coach, staring at his TV with burning eyes as he tapped listlessly through the channels. There weren’t any games on that he wanted to watch. The history channel was doing a special about aliens, but none of them were silvery presences wearing suits or knowing voices with tricorn hats.

When he woke, it took him a moment of bewilderment to realize that he must have been asleep. The window over the kitchen sink glowed with the sodium lamp outside. The clock over the stove said it was shortly after midnight.

John was sitting in the parking lot again before the decision to drive to the garden had fully registered in his brain. He rested his head on the steering wheel and tried put together a clear understanding of what he meant to do. Surely he ought to have regrets or worries or lingering fears, but all he could find was the smell of roses and the texture of moss on his hands.

The yellow lights from the parking lot cut out as soon as he stepped past the ticket stile, as though someone had switched them off. The garden was full of voices, shapes that flitted back and forth in the moonlight. They brushed against him as he wended his way over the lawn to the Kirkland. He didn’t know how to summon the voices who were in charge of his makeover, but he thought he knew another way.

He walked to the lion-headed fountain at the back of the carpet garden. Elijah Kirkland had not only had intermittently terrible taste, he’d hired terrible plumbers. When they’d ripped out the old lead pipes, they’d taken most of the slate paths in this garden with it.

The lion had grown a dense green mane of sphagnum, and from its mouth rushed a tumult of water.

John bent his head and drank.

When he looked up, it was as though the whole garden had come into sharp focus. There were layers of vegetation that he’d never seen before, some reflecting the moonlight, some emitting their own phosphorescent glow. But in front of the vegetation, floating everywhere – no, not just floating, but flying, walking, gliding sitting dancing running spinning flickering into and out of existence like a fluorescent light bulb or a firefly buzzing briefly into existence before disappearing – were people, people like he’d never seen: people with beetles’ heads and flowers growing out of their arms and bodies of braided vines and wings. So many wings everywhere, made of every possible substance.

As John walked slowly down the slope, most of the people turned and greeted him warmly. He smiled and nodded, unsure of himself, tugging on his beard, which was suddenly several inches longer than it had been the day before. When he looked down at himself he was wearing the vine-toga, and when he looked up he was smiling.

A gesture of white, punctuated by a spot shaped like Australia, caught his eye, and he turned his head to see Kielbasa and Bratwurst peacefully eating the leaves off the blackberry vines sprouting from a small hunched person. The person noticed him looking and winked, and with a start John recognized them: this was the invasive Asiatic blackberry that was doing itstheir?damnedest to take over the hydrangea bed. As if to belabor the point, a few yards away hovered a cluster of tiny blue and pink and purple persons, giving the blackberry their best collective evil eye.

“The gardener’s here,” the blackberry said, with a certain amount of malicious enjoyment twinkling in their black eyes.

Immediately the cloud of tiny persons swarmed him, their voices smaller than the footsteps of a moth. (Bad vine!) (Annoying!) (Get rid!) (Don’t like!) (Aluminum sulfate?)

“I’ll get you some later,” he murmured, walking on toward the rose maze.

The five voices were gathered at the entrance. Though he could now see them clearly, John found that his ability to describe them, even to himself, was only barely more than it had been. The excitable voice was a profusion of gold. The voice who knew all about him still had the tricorn hat, though it was hard to tell if the profusion of stripes below the hat were printed on clothing or skin. The deep voice had unfolded into a creature of flowing hair and dramatic horns. The buzz saw voice had changed red gloves for green ones and seemed to take on the shape of every plant nearby in turn.

The accented voice was even smaller and silvier than he could have imagined, peered at him from a narrow face that folded in on itself. Tonight the suit was lemon yellow. The voice’s hairif it was hairswooped upward like a gray flame.

“You came,” the voices said. They sounded like dishes jangling together and the crust of a crème brulée breaking in a perfectly silent cafe. “You came, you came, you came.”

John bowed to them very deeply, and they followed him into the rose maze.

***

The odd thing was that no one really noticed that the head gardener had gone missing. After all, he was still regularly seen pruning the masses of climbing roses, transplanting seedlings into planters, and spreading compost under the shrubs. The visitors to the garden had no way of knowing he’d vanished from the payroll and that both his truck and lease had disappeared, and the people responsible for the payroll and the lease were suddenly very foggy on what had changed in the past month.

The improvements to the garden were widely celebrated. Clips of John talking about the rose maze had started to appear at random on local news channels, often cutting off a startled newscaster. Several people reported seeing the entirety of the episode showing John’s transformation broadcast sometime after midnight, but no one was able to figure out which channel it was on or get a recording. The thousand guests the botanical gardens usually received in a summer increased to two thousand, then ten thousand, then twenty, though it was rare to see more than one or two other people during a whole afternoon walking the grounds. No one’s camera worked inside the ticket stiles, and several people vanished into the trees near the ruin and the cold forest inside the old greenhouse. All but one was returned within a week.

The roses grew taller, and the maze grew deeper.

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