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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2020 - Vol. 17, Issue 1

"The Garden"

written by

J. Elliott Toren



Turn left at the Bow’ry gates, you’ll find the place I used to live. Sunlight throws your shadow long across cracked ground and dust. Dead flowers lying here, face down; can’t quite tell what colour they were. That’s all right, ‘cause I moved on, left a withered paradise behind.


Turn back, cross to the rusty gates. Figure of an angel, sword and bow, facing off with the rising sun. Wind makes him turn and look at you, and you see his wings are broken.


Turn again, to where you parked your car. Following the fading footprints, long road ahead to the crimson sky. Might as well get started. Your eyes on the potholes, broken lines. You smile a little, maybe. It’s all right, though, because some homes you’re glad to leave behind. 




Mirages flicker with fragments of sky. You’re riding for two hours, now. You’re tired, up all night. Chasing the horizon, the light’s hot, white, dancing across the dunes. You see an eagle flying. No sound, just cruising, wings still. You wonder what he’s looking for. 


It’s been a long time on the road, for you. Sometimes you forget the distance – footsteps, inches, miles all the same. You think about me. How close I came. That trip to my old garden did nothing. You think of my hands, my eyes, my lips. The things I used to say. Saying them still, for all you know. I could be dead or alive. 

Steering around the pits, roadkill, the wheel hot in your hands. Spots where plastic peeled away glimmer in the sun. The radio’s on, some college station. They’ve had Tool going for three tracks straight – “Schism,” Emma,” “Vicarious.” The last one’s your favorite. You think you get what it’s about – how all the violence screaming from games, TV, the movies, news, makes us complacent with death. How we’re all degrading ourselves and murdering our values by allowing that to happen and how we all live vicariously through these action heroes who kill without a thought. You like it.  


Your nails, long, red, tap on the steering wheel. You’re in an ’85 Plymouth, the speakers shitty, but you turn up the volume anyway, even though it sounds like Maynard’s voice is coming through a thin layer of tin. All those overtones – high, warbling, like a distant siren. Then the song’s done, you turn it back down. The station must have a Tool crush, because the next track is “Sober.” It makes you think of me. How after a night out I’d come home plastered and put that one on. Full-volume. You’d asked me why, once, but you can’t remember what I said. 

After a minute you turn it off and drive along in silence. It’s a desert road. You think maybe you’re in Arizona. You crossed some state line a while back, but you were too tired to read it. You’re driving fast – the engine whines. The speedometer says 85. 


Maybe you should slow down.


But it doesn’t feel like 85, does it? Rolling dunes, distant rocks, you have nothing to gauge your speed by. Nothing but that broken line. 


You think about leaving my place. How you just picked a road and drove, and now you don’t know where you are. 


Does it matter?


And you think of that eagle again. Looking, but he’s gone.


No, you decide. It really doesn’t.


And you turn on the radio again. “I sure don’t mind a change/Cause I fell on black days/I fell on black days. . . .”


You smile, but you don’t really notice.




Two weeks ago you were in Salt Lake City. You spent the night in a Motel 6 with a transvestite named Dave. He used to be a Mormon but gave it up. There was no money in it.


You laughed dutifully, even though a guy in Madison laid a similar line on you.

Dave was nice, handsome-looking, fishnet stockings and a floral print dress. His hair was black but he wore a blonde wig. When you woke up the morning after, you tried to think of how you met him. Hopeless – some bar, a few faces, all of it hazed by Jim Beam. He didn’t seem like a creep, and you remember the sex was great.


You looked up, a mirror on the wall. Your makeup was smeared, and there were red patches from Dave’s lipstick. Blue eyes: you remembered me telling you once that they were the most beautiful thing about you, the pale purity of a mountain pool. And you looked at Dave, his eye shadow leaving faint commas on the pillow, and you wondered how the hell you could’ve got here, this Here, not just in a Motel 6 with a thirty-three year-old transvestite and grey strata of cigarette smoke rising from the burned down stubs in the ashtray and the gold light through drawn blinds splashing warm across your breasts, but just Here – the philosopher’s question, asked a billion times by a billion people.


And, like them, you had to admit that you didn’t really have an answer.


And so you sighed, closed your eyes, and tried to fall asleep.




Here it’s three or four hours later, climbing toward noon. You’re by a gas station, pulled over, refueling. You’re wearing my black T-shirt, the one that says Shadow Play in grey letters across the front. It’s tight, the cotton thin. You’re at a picnic table in the shade of an awning, the hot breeze throwing brown bangs across your face. You reach into your purse for a ribbon. Tie them back.


Small speakers mounted on the station’s front play Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”. 


Like me, you think. 


The building’s small, made of brick, lots of decals in the plate glass windows. You go in and buy an iced coffee. Ask the clerk if you’re in Arizona.


“Yeah,” he says. He’s short, has lots of pimples, wears a John Deere baseball cap. 


Two, three more years and he’ll be a trucker.


“Why?” he asks. “You gotta be somewhere?”


“Not really.” You drop all the coins into the tip jar, turn, and walk back out. 




Outside. Later. You’re driving again. You wonder why you left me.


Maybe because it seemed over. 


You think of my old garden. The angels on the gate. I told you one night that they were protecting us. 


“From what?” you asked. 


I smiled and lay back and said, “The world.”


You know eventually I moved on, too. After college. Yeah, we were over then. 


You never asked me why I made the garden. 


If you had, I would’ve told you something. 


It was a park once. And later it became a lot. Just weeds, growing around a spring. 


And I used to go there, just lie and hear the crickets sing in the grass. Then, one day, 


I went to the spring and I saw there was a flower there. Not a weed flower, dandelion or clover. It was a rose.


And right then I decided to make a garden.


Years later, long after you, after our first night, days alone, my cultivations, making a little jewel out of the forgotten, that spring dried up, and I realized I had to move on. 


You were gone by then. I had nothing to hold on to.


That’s the story of my garden, Melissa. 


But you never asked me. 


And now, as you shift up to third, with the sun behind you just beginning to set, you start to wonder why. 


No Answer. Like so many things, no answer. 


You’re going, now. Once again. Heading for anywhere.


And a line you read once comes back to you. 


“Fading roses,” you saw. “This garden’s over.”


You don’t know the truth behind that. 


You don’t really know a lot of things.


Like everybody, you think. 


But you do know one thing. It’ll be with you always, like it was with me, the minute I saw those flowers start to fade.


It’s the urge, our urge, to be going, going, gone.

J. Elliott Toren is 20-something and off-the-grid. A ravenous reader of mostly science fiction, he is heretofore unpublished. Disabilities confine him, but not his imagination. Several drafts of novels, many short stories, and poetry wait in the wings for future publication. 

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