Way back in the spring of 1999, when were only just beginning to worry about Y2K and the imminent collapse of computer systems worldwide, I found a website called The Write Markets Report that hosted quarterly 24-hour flash fiction contests. So I paid my entry fee and wrote a story based on the criteria—which I have completely forgotten. This story was the result. It was also the winner.
Also, I want to give a shoutout to Benjamin Temko who read my first draft and suggested the last part of the last line before I submitted it to the contest.
Originally published online at The Write Markets Report, April, 1999.
Winner, Spring 1999, 24-Hour Short Story Contest.
By Lee Wright
Day after day, the vivid memory of the previous night’s dream gave Hank the strength to continue his toil under the hot Georgia sun. With each fall of the mattock and each bite of the shovel, he thought of the dreams. As the thick muscles in his shoulders and back stiffened and knotted, he closed his eyes and lost himself in the garden he saw only at night—the garden that was, for now at least, only a dream.
Hank was not a well-educated man. He made no secret of the fact that he had never learned to read. Yet he was as untroubled by his illiteracy as he was by his inability to add and subtract even the smallest of numbers. Hank knew he didn’t need reams of paper filled with complex numbers and fancy words to be the architect of the world’s most stunning garden. For years, he had had the whole thing—every flower, tree, rock and shrub—laid out in his head.
Along the western edge of the quiet country road, a tall, lush hedge accented with bright, clinging wisps of honeysuckle marked the boundary of the garden. At the midpoint of the verdant wall, a whitewashed wooden gate mounted between two columns of hand-carved granite opened onto a flat, riverstone path bordered by violets trimmed low.
The path meandered through a fragrant field of jonquils and tulips, past a rock-walled koi pond and into a dogwood-bordered clearing. There, on a carpet of wildflowers beneath a canopy of pink, sat a polished teak picnic table and a single, high-backed chair. Always, there was iced tea—very sweet of course—waiting in a tall glass. Hank could rest there before proceeding deeper into the garden. He would need his strength, for the way ahead was steep.
Beyond the clearing, the path angled upward toward the first level of a terraced ridge, where orchids and lilacs bloomed year round alongside lemon trees and chrysanthemums in Asian style hothouses. Behind the glass walls, water cascaded down the ridge, over smooth boulders where it collected in shallow pools edged with tall reed mace and ornamented with marble figurines of birds and frogs.
The riverstone trail ended at a staircase carved into the very rock of the ridge. In his dreams, Hank climbed the steps without tiring in spite of his advanced age. He made his way up the stairs eagerly. As the immense garden’s sole architect and builder, he knew better than anyone what wonders awaited him on the terraced levels above. One level featured a Japanese rock garden with quiet ponds and a single red-leafed tree. Another featured a maze of sculpted hedges and bronze birdbaths. Still another held stone sculptures of his wife Selma, each capturing a different age and mood. There were seven terraces in all, each more beautiful than the last, but it was at the summit that the greatest beauty of all was to be found.
It was there, high atop the world he had wrought with his own hands, that Hank could sit on a marble bench and look down upon the garden in its all its grandeur. From that height, the vast array of plant life—seemingly random in its placement from ground level—could be seen for what it was: a vast, detailed portrait of Selma, the only woman he had ever loved, the only thing he had ever lost. The yellow of the tulips and jonquils were her hair and the bright blue of the koi ponds, her eyes. Her skin was a field of daisies freckled with rosebushes, while the dogwoods made up her favorite pink dress.
In his dreams, the magnificent garden was as real as the night he had met the beautiful young Selma down by the lake. He could actually smell the flowers, feel the stones beneath his bare feet and hear the sweet songs of sparrows in the trees. The sensations were so strong that not even waking could entirely drive the vision from his eyes. Through those long hot summer days working in the field, it was these visions of his garden that sustained him. It was the memories of dreams that gave him strength to continue with the arduous labor that he would never live to complete. The dream sustained him. The dream kept him alive.
Now, as the shovel slipped reluctantly into the red clay beneath him, Hank was thinking of the koi pond. That was what he was working on today. It would need to be big so that the colorful fish would have room to grow and play. Yes, the pump would be over there and the waterfall here. He could see it very clearly. Thinking of it chased away the thirst and the bone-deep ache in his aged back.
“All right!” a harsh voice called. “That’s it for today! Everybody back on the bus!”
Hank sighed and tossed the shovel aside. He hated to quit in the middle of a project, but there would be plenty of other days in which to work. The days seemed to stretch out endlessly before him.
Hank wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his denim shirt as two of the guards began to collect the discarded tools.
“Let’s go!” the guy with the shotgun barked.
With a last glance at the barren field behind him, Hank lowered his head and fell in line with the other men, their iron shackles clattering like dry bones.
© 1999 Lee Wright