The Gardeners of Paradise
“See how the Sun shines here upon thy head;
See the green sward, the flowers, the boscages
That from the soil’s own virtue here are bred.”
— The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto XXVII
Drowsily stumbling into my bedroom, I fumbled with the curtains and drew them aside just a tiny bit. The September sunlight flooded into the room through the crack, and as I opened the windows and stuck my hand out, a breeze blew into the room, sending up large amounts of dust that I could just about see blearily. It swirled about in the room, its edges illuminated by the sliver of light, and decided to settle mostly in my nostrils, and I suddenly decided that I would spend the next two minutes on a sneezing fit. Having accomplished that, I groaned and drew the curtains again. This was not how I wanted to start Monday morning.
I slapped on my glasses and retreated again to my inner sanctum (AKA the toilet) trying to resume my daily routine, which at this moment mainly consisted of sitting on the lavatory seat and going through the many worst-case scenarios I could imagine for the day. There were a lot to begin with, and as I sat there they just kept on multiplying over and over and over, my head already hurting five minutes after waking, until finally my thoughts stumbled over each other and merged into one big stupor. I awoke with a start to the sound of my sister’s fists punching holes in the door.
“OI! GET OUT OF THE BATHROOM! ARE YOU TALKING TO THE ANTS IN THERE?” I winced and immediately mumbled an apology while gingerly opening the door. Phoebe may have been the shortest member of our family, yet to make up for it she had this extremely grating voice that made everyone cringe. Her shouts were the auditory equivalent of whiplash, and she knew and exploited that fact from a very young age onwards. She could make anyone do her bidding just by shouting at them, and for some reason I was the person she bossed around the most.
“Oh thank God, what took you so long?” The light flooded in again, and I stood there, a bit dazed and powerless to resist as Phoebe pulled me out and closed the door. I retreated to the sofa, which was likewise dimly lit and had the added benefit of distance from the Phoebe-occupied toilet.
“It was nothing, I just… took a while to get things going in there. My prostates didn’t wake up with me.”
“A WHILE? You’ve been in there for a whole half hour! Did you fall asleep in here again?”
“Give me a break, I had a bad night last night.” How odd it was that answers could translate to lameness. Even through a locked door, I was sure it was obvious to her.
“Toby, that’s the fifth time you’ve used that excuse this month.” She opened the door and beckoned me in. “What’s going on? Because I’m not leaving until you tell me.”
I sat down on the toilet seat and sighed, “Fine. I’ve been dreaming of Teresa again. Happy?” Truth be told, I really didn’t want to talk this particular morning, but I was afraid that she would start shouting again. Anything but that.
Phoebe’s mischievous looks wilted in the blink of an eye. “Oh.” She shifted uneasily. “Was it… you know… that same dream again?”
“Yeah. Please, just leave me be for now.”
“But… hasn’t it been like months since what happened? If you’re still having dreams like that then you really should…”
“For the last time. I’m FINE, I don’t need help, and I don’t need to talk or cry about it for the umpteenth time in four months.” Was she that bad at taking hints?
“You keep saying you’re fine, but you don’t really mean it, do you?” she sighed. “You can’t keep on thinking about… about that, it’s been too long… we… we just don’t want to have you committing… I mean, doing self-harm or…”
“You used,” I cut her off in a dull monotone that was my idea of contempt, “to use the word ‘suicide’.”
That shut her up. I immediately regretted what I’d said, but it was far too early to be making apologies and I knew I wouldn’t have meant it anyway. Guilt has never really been part of my repertoire.
“Just remember to come back out,” she said at long last, and walked back to her own room, slamming the door behind her. The sound echoed through the empty house and then faded away, and as I switched the light back off and shrunk back into my natural habitat, all that remained with me was the sound of effluent gently trickling down the pipes — a strangely enchanting sound that didn’t seem to match its appearance.
I glanced outside. Sunshine was softly radiating through the tiny window, with the washing of other floors casting intricate patterns of shadows onto the tiles of the bathroom floor. The occasional birdsong from the forest beyond echoed down the walls, and the clear and refreshing smell of the trees wafted in. The promise of a beautiful day ahead couldn’t be any clearer.
The only problem was that I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it. All I could see in front of me were the many things I had to face, far more than I wanted or cared to handle. I still had a whole week of school to get through, yet already I felt exhausted. I wanted out. I wanted to up sticks and leave home, to cast off all the responsibilities of being Toby Cheung, sophomore Anthropology major and all-round selfish bastard (certified accurate by friends, relatives and other brief acquaintances). I wanted to go someplace where the responsibilities of all life and humanity could not find me.
Even as I fretted over my multitude of problems, my mind drifted out of the unfamiliar reality stretching out before me, and went in search of some well-trodden ground. I wandered through a desert island in the Indian Ocean, with palm tree branches rustling in the warm tropical breezes, the sound of the clear turquoise sea a soothing rhythm that never got hostile and tore you to pieces. Then I flitted to a lone cabin on the side of the Alps, with snow and blue skies right above, and bare outcrops of rock stretching down to a Swiss village in the distance. Then it was a dark cave with stalactite crystals reflecting breathtaking rays of light off their surfaces, then a clearing in the Black Forest lush and flourishing with grass and all types of flowers… these places never failed to welcome me with open arms and allow me to take refuge in them. It always feels wonderful, even if for a fleeting instant, to revisit places where happiness is guaranteed. For I was immune from all the problems of the world in these imaginary realms, and every problem of the world had to halt before the doors. I was Willy Wonka in his chocolate factory — the sole architect, the sole occupant, the sole ruler.
Like Willy Wonka, I had all the “discoveries” to myself: a hitherto undiscovered corner of the cave, a path through the mountains that afforded views even more spectacular than the ones I’d seen on documentaries, even just an extra tree in the clearing. Every time I entered there would be something new, and I could craft it down to the smallest detail, bringing it a step closer to perfection. (And unlike Willy Wonka, my world never caused tooth decay. Definitely healthier.)
And once I’d gotten it right, they remained that way. They STAYED perfect. There was never any danger that I would one day find to my horror a load of tourists from some god-forsaken place all camped on the island, spouting foul language at the top of their lungs and making it hard to walk by dumping excrement everywhere, unlike some “paradises” in the real world I could mention.
There were nooks and crannies to discover, and days and months to while away in there. Children often dream of visiting fantasy kingdoms. I had a whole collection of them. These were worlds that were mine and mine alone, and I intended to let absolutely NOBODY into my inner sanctums.
Almost nobody. One got in once.
“So how’d that job interview go?”
I looked up from my computer and jumped. “Jeez, stop doing that, will you?” Teresa was staring at me. This is an experience that is much more frightening than it sounds. She did not simply fix her eyes on your face. Her eyes were two literal battering rams that charged straight at you. They had such momentum that upon contact you would promptly collapse and confess, weeping, to whatever it was you’d just done. And that was when she wasn’t trying.
“Er…” I said, desperately trying to look elsewhere, “the employer… she… er… JUST STOP LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT…”
Teresa smiled (devious smiles ran in the family). This merely added to the emotional breakdown she was giving me and I had to close my eyes. “She seemed appreciative of the things I did, but I’m not sure she liked my grammar. My English is a mess and I can’t translate documents for the life of me.”
“Well, there’s no accounting for bad taste.” I opened my eyes cautiously. She was still smiling and staring at me, but her gaze had sufficiently mellowed to somewhat tolerable levels, thank God. “Any chance that you’ll get the job? Cause if not, you…”
“For the last time, Treese, I’m not going to join you in your garden. The fact that I enjoy planting the occasional bean plant or sunflower doesn’t mean that I’m going to spend three and a half months in the sun suffering from dehydration and heat stroke.”
“No, but after all that backbreaking work you get to see amazing things!” Her face was the very definition of dreaminess; she was lost in a passionate plea for nature itself. “You get to see the ground itself at work even when the rain and the cold tries to kill its efforts! There is just this indescribable joy at seeing nature work and straighten itself out! It’s nothing short of…”
“… nothing short of a cycle of life, yes, I know. But I’m still not going to spend time working on a real garden when I can work on an imaginary one without even having to lift a finger.”
She looked at me again and smiled. “How’s your garden going then?”
I never said anything about it to anybody. Not my closest friends at school, not my secondary schoolmates, not even my parents or Phoebe. But Teresa was in a class of her own. Although her visual organs bespoke ferocity, her wistful smiles belied her true nature: introverted and hesitant on everything, yet at the same time compassionate and wise beyond her years. I never felt childish or delusional when I spoke to her about my fantasies. I only opened up about them to her, and she would respond (play along, if you like), tenderly coaxing out my secrets with that gentle smile.
“The usual dark trees circling the clearing. The leaves still cover up most of the skies, but there’s more sunlight coming into it than last time… as per your suggestions,” I said, returning her smile. “The dense vegetation still obscuring the entrance… lavender has been added to the southwest corner and its fragrance fills the air as you enter…”
“LAVENDER IN A FOREST?” she practically screamed. Thank God her voice was nowhere as shrill as Phoebe’s. “You know that lavender becomes invasive when not properly tended to?”
“Yeah, well, you know there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s just going to grow quietly in that corner, and fill the air with its wonderful scent.” Lavender was Teresa’s favourite plant, so I was pretty sure that her protests were just for the sake of keeping it real. It was fragrant and brought people happy memories. A lot like her, in fact.
“The sunflowers have been positioned to the west, so they give the place a bit of radiance in the mornings, and the rosemary… see, I’m not exactly sure where to put it.” I squinted with the effort. “Maybe in the north? It’s close to the stream and the blue flowers might give a sense of symmet…”
“OF COURSE NOT,” barked Teresa, her face so contorted with agony I immediately regretted saying anything. “Soil close to streams gets waterlogged easily and you can’t grow rosemary in waterlogged soil. Move it somewhere near the southeast, if you’re to be symmetrical you can walk to the farthest end and turn around.”
Within seconds I had moved the rosemary, and had to admit it looked pretty darn nice. “You do have a knack for this sort of thing.”
“Connor taught me that,” she beamed. “He has all those herbs at home, and I learnt quite a lot from him. Speaking of which, have you seen my maps? I have to plan tomorrow’s hiking…”
“OI! TERESA! STOP LEAVING YOUR STUFF ON THE DINNER TABLE, I HAVE TO WORK!” A loud holler streaked through the silent evening. Outside my window, a bunch of birds flew away screaming for their lives, thinking that the end of the world had come.
“I think they’re on the dinner table,” I said, as if Phoebe hadn’t interrupted us. “I’ll get it,” sighed Teresa, walking out to the dining room. A few moments later I heard a horrified shriek.
“Got the maps,” said Teresa, waddling back in. It was already open and she had buried her head in it.
“Who’s going tomorrow? You and Connor again?” I asked, returning to my video games.
She reddened a little. “How did you know?”
“How many friends do you have?” Despite being the kindest and gentlest person I knew, Teresa was cold and aloof to people she wasn’t familiar with, and her eyes only served to scare most people away. Yet somehow she’d been able to attach herself to a boy called Connor. Come the weekend she’d pop off to do stuff with him, and it wasn’t hard for me to guess. “In the five years you’ve known him, you’ve gone on 54 hikes. 39 of them have involved Connor, and 12 of his 15 absences were due to your unfamiliarity with him in the first year. Any objections?”
“Trust Toby Cheung to remember the details,” she sighed. “Well, yes, it’s the two of us and another of his classmates tomorrow. We’re just going to see the sunrise from High Island Reservoir, maybe walk across the hills back to Ma On Shan.” She looked at me. I had raised my eyebrows. “HE IS NOT MY BOYFRIEND.”
“I never said he was,” I said, just to make it clear that I wasn’t fooled. “Well, have fun, then, the two of you. And tell me all about the caves there when you get back, I need to work on my own.”
She smiled at me — that mesmerizing, reassuring smile again — and ruffled my hair. “Will do.”
Two days later, the house phone rang at an ungodly hour. I had, as usual, forgotten to place it back on the charger and left it in my room. This meant that I was woken at 7 o’clock, way before my normal waking hours. My hand reached out and reflexively flung it across the bedroom, but the wretchedly indestructible thing continued to ring and I ultimately surrendered. “Hello?” I rasped in a perfectly passable imitation of Darth Vader.
“Is this the family of Teresa Cheung?” a strict voice lashed out from the receiver.
“Yes, what on Earth is it? What about her?” One thing I absolutely did not like: being interrupted in the middle of my dreams. There was no respect for this sort of thing.
“This is Inspector Chui of the police. Miss Cheung seems to have had an accident at High Island Reservoir. We have reason to believe she fell off a cliff about an hour and a half ago and is currently at Prince of Wales Hospital…”
More than that I did not care to hear nor remember. The case is stuff that you all will have heard of in the past few months: a heated argument broke out between her two companions, she got upset, stormed off and then fell off a cliff, dying mere minutes after reaching hospital. During the inquest the court psychiatrists became interested in her character, and quickly concluded her cold and detached nature was the basis of what was clearly a preventable suicide. The argument had merely been the tipping point. The public was in uproar about how teenagers needed more empathy. Lawmakers from all corners of the political spectrum screamed their outrage and vaguely promised to do something about it. And then life went on, as it was bound to do.
What everyone failed to understand was that it wasn’t like that. She wasn’t like that. She had NOT committed suicide. How could she when she cherished life so much? But nobody cared. No matter how many times Phoebe and I tried to clear the air — in court, to the press, even publishing a transcript of a recording Teresa had used her dying breaths to make that should have clarified everything — nothing worked. All of them, even Connor the “boyfriend”, believed that she’d wanted to end it all. After all, that was what usually happened in real life.
“You used to use the word suicide.” My own line still reverberated in my ears. It sounded vile and tacky in the aftermath, a barb flung in Phoebe’s face for the sake of being mean. Now, after four months of trying to convince people, I hated that word with a vengeance. It tarnished everyone’s memory of her, and I felt that I couldn’t move on without setting the record straight again, even as Phoebe herself gave up.
I stood up and stared out the window. Feeling dizzy, I opened the window wide and stuck my head out for a few gulps of fresh air, trying desperately to get back into the spirit of things. Sunshine glowed on my face, and the air from the forest nearby leapt straight into my nostrils. A few deep breaths and I straightened up. Like it or not, I had another week to get through, and much as I loved the toilet, it wasn’t the ideal environment in which to spend the next seven days.
I looked out at the sea of trees that clothed the hills nearby. They looked like waves, cresting the hills and rushing towards the small village house I was in. One green speck in that sea seemed to stand out from the rest. I looked at it again, blinked once, twice. With each blink it sharpened and solidified into a human being. The forest was close enough for me to fill in the details: a girl with long hair in a green T-shirt, about my age, walking amongst the trees. Something tugged at my mind. She reminded me of somebody… “Teresa?” I wondered, perhaps a little too loud.
Even as I said that, the girl looked over her shoulder. It was too far to judge, but… was she looking straight at me? No way that the girl, whoever she was, could have heard me. I turned away, a little embarrassed to have spied on her. When I gathered the courage to look back, she had disappeared.
It was just an illusion. She couldn’t have noticed me. I shook my head and stepped out, out of the dark solitude of the toilet and into the unknowns of the real world.