A Garden In My Mind

We went there every summer. In the beginning of June, when the cliffs turn hot along the coast, our car veered off the main road onto a dirt track, shuffling over stones and into ditches carved out by the winter rains. The pine trees grow taller, thicker, darker, their packed stems forming walls around the trail.

My younger brother and I played in the forest; at ease with the surrounding wilderness, yet aware of the shadows lodged between the trees. In Swedish mythology, there are stories of a nymph who leads people astray in the wood. She lingers barefoot in the clearings with a gaping hole in her back, pitch black beneath her hair, beckoning to passers-by to follow her just a little bit deeper inside. But the thought of her, however terrible it was, never stopped us from climbing further in. “If we get lost,” I said to my brother, “we can survive on roots and berries and only drink the water in streams.”

I never got lost in the forest. That happened much later, in cities where loneliness often strikes you in the midst of the rush-hour crowd. I was 24 and had graduated from university. My marks were good. I had interned at magazines and worked freelance for a PR agency. But like so many other graduates, I was jobless and broke. I rarely received replies from employers and was never called to interviews. I borrowed money to get by and tried not to lose confidence as each cover letter seemed to drag me further away from what I had set out to do. I landed a job selling jeans. Retail had been my livelihood before university. It angered me to think that a three-year degree had brought me only to the other side of Oxford Circus.

I drifted between tables, folding jeans and greeting customers with a dubious grin. The shop was dead. Sometimes I separated hangers by five mm. It’s called finger spacing. In the men’s section I sketched out plans for my future and added one task after another to crumpled-up papers from the receipt machine. It made me feel organised for about ten minutes. Then the stress got too much, and I had to close my eyes to shut out the noise. I erased the basement. The walls fell away piece by piece into a muddy and familiar void. In my mind I drifted comfortably on the creases of the garden lake, where the water is black instead of blue. In the fading light, I plucked my thoughts away like sticky pearls and dropped them one by one into the depths.

At night I dreamt my garden was a desert and cracks wound snake-like through the soil. The lake was gone. Somewhere in the distance, a shadow ripped and carved the skin off a giant fish. The lake was hollow and so was I, as I climbed the stairs to work with a black hole in my back. I imagined my career was crawling along a dirty road. My garden turned to dust within me. The lake dried up and its secret creatures perished in the sun. Or so I thought.

One morning when I opened the store, I felt calm. The air was chilly and clear and the city deserted. For an hour I watched the street come alive from behind the till. The manager was off on Sundays and I could go about the early tasks with a cup of coffee tucked away between the piles of jeans. The job was insecure and underpaid, but right then and there and I had nowhere else I wanted to be. It’s springtime and the garden is growing. Down the meadow, through yellow flowers, bushes and mud, the lake hangs dark and full between the pines. There’s a barefoot girl by the forest edge and a shadow in the reed. I blow my doubts across the lake and watch them disperse in mid-air.

This essay was originally published in issue 22 of Oh Comely.