Prompt 7 came from Kate: an Arabic garden in Spain. When she described such gardens as being a series of embedded hedges around a centre, and then how they linked to the structure of The Arabian Nights, I couldn't resist trying four flashes in one story. Makes it a bit longer but...
A picnic in the Arabic garden
The argument began over sandwiches, who was supposed to bring them, who always forgot, but it soon descended into every resentment incurred on this holiday.
It ended with Sam tripping over a black cat as he stormed back to the house to get the food, and Kate sitting in the garden with Danny trying to stop his sobbing. ‘Ssh, ssh, ssh,’ she soothed, ‘Shall I tell you a story?’ He nodded. She gazed around the garden for inspiration. They were seated in the middle of a long walkway, laid with white and blue pavestones. Ahead of them, was an arch through a second hedge, beyond it a third lead to the fountain at the centre, a pattern replicated on the other side. Enough inspiration to begin, ‘Once upon a time...’
There once was a very rich merchant, who created the most beautiful garden in Spain, for the wife he adored. A garden much like this one with embedded hedges and a fountain at the centre. But when his wife died, he could never bear to enter it again, and so it was left to his eldest daughter who made sure it was cared for.
She had a favourite spot between the second and third hedges, where she liked to sit with her black cat on her lap. It was out of shouting distance from snooping servants and annoying aunts, and through the side hedge she could glimpse the outside world.
One day, as she came into the garden, she met a boy who had forced his way through the bush and was now gazing in wonder. He was a poor boy, a raggedy boy, and really she should have called the guards. But he had nice eyes, and there was something about his voice that she couldn’t resist. She asked him to sit with down, and soon he was entertaining her with his tales...
A long long time ago, a group of thieves were travelling through the land when they spotted the house of a wealthy man. Under cover of darkness, they climbed over the side hedge that led to the third walkway. They hid there waiting for the house to fall asleep. They sat in the furthest corner, whispering to each other about their plans for robbing the house; what they would do with their spoils. A black cat watched them from the top of the hedge.
The youngest thief was on his first job. He wasn’t too sure if he wanted to be there to be honest, but his friend had persuaded him it was better than becoming an apprentice to his uncle. And now he was here, he didn’t know how to leave. Noticing his nervousness, an older thief sat down. ‘It’s always like this the first time,’ he said, ‘Let me tell you about the man who searched for the meaning of life to pass the time.’...
A man was obsessed with discovering the meaning of life. He spent all his time reading books, seeking out scholars, travelling the world to find the answer. But no-one could provide him with the solution. Until at last, after many years, he came across a wise woman, living in a cave in the furthest corner of the kingdom.
‘You must seek out the Arabic garden in the city,’ she said. ‘Travel through four arched hedges to the central courtyard. There you will find a phoenix sitting by a fountain. Ask him.’
The man journeyed to the city, where he found the hedged garden, the courtyard and the phoenix, just as the old woman had said. The phoenix was a beautiful creature, with a firm beak, bright black eyes and an array of orange gold feathers. She preened herself by the fountain, next to a black cat which was fast asleep. The man asked his question. The phoenix studied him carefully. ‘The meaning of life?’ she said, ‘Is this...’ She burst into a flame so violent it forced the man backwards.
The fire burned brightly for a few minutes, leaving a pile of ash, and a glowing gold egg on its surface. ‘But what does it mean?’ cried the man.
The cat opened its eyes. ‘Life is glorious then it ends? When you die you are reborn? Beauty arises from dust and ashes? Change is inevitable? Make up your own mind – it’s all you have in the end.’
The man shook his head, none the wiser. He returned to his home, abandoned his quest and retrained as a carpenter. He was less curious, but curiously happier. And when he came to the end of his life, it occurred to him that maybe the cat was right. His life’s meaning was what he had made of it.
The older thief finished his story just as the gang’s leader whispered it was time to move. The younger thief shivered, as they began to make their way towards the house. And then it occurred to him, that the owner might have guards and weapons and they had none. When he thought about it, this thieving job was a risky business. If he went back home now, he could apprentice himself to his uncle and learn glass blowing. It was hard work, but at least he would create objects both useful and beautiful. At least his life would have meaning.
He watched the gang of thieves streaming ahead of him through the arch in the fence, and made up his mind. He slipped away, climbing back over the hedge, past the purring cat, and dropping into the street below. He ran home as fast as he could. In the morning, he went to his uncle’s house and pledged his service as an apprentice.
The thieves were captured by the guards before they reached the house. They spent the rest of their lives in prison. The young thief became a glassblower of great renown. In his retirement he bought the very house he had once tried to rob. He left it to his son, who became a rich merchant.
‘You mean the young thief...’
‘Was your grandfather, yes.’
‘How do you know?
‘Because my grandfather was the thief who told him that story.’ He smiled as she marvelled at the connection between them. Presently, he suggested that perhaps she might like to come into the town with him.
She gazed down the hedge-lined walkway. The garden was beautiful, but there were only so many times one could meander up and down before dying of boredom. The embedded hedges were a clever design, but a bit repetitive. In the distance she could hear the voice of her most annoying aunt, calling her in to help with the household chores. There was more to life than this she felt. She stood up. The black cat leapt off her lap and gazed at her, she hoped in approval. She took the boy’s hand, and followed him through the hedge.
‘Did she ever come back?’ asked Danny.
‘Perhaps,’ said Kate, ‘Though I expect the outside world was more exciting than the home she’d grown up in. So maybe she never did. Here’s Dad with lunch.’ They kissed a fulsome apology, the heat, the walking, the lack of sleep.
Kate was about to open the lunchbox when Danny dragged her by the hand. ‘I want to eat by the fountain.’ Sam was about to protest, but Danny took his hand too. ‘Come on, we might find a phoenix.’ The three of them ran laughing through the arch in the hedge.
The black cat followed close behind.
I really liked this prompt and the fact that it led to embedded stories. It was also a nice connection to the structure of 'Echo Hall.' If you'd like to support the novel, please do pledge!
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