Herb Garden

A short story by Rosalind Brown

He has been delivered here and smashed
into the grass. His ears are full of
underground drumming and the weight of
the stars above the water. How much of
grass is really mud. His tongue launches
itself from his body and returns chastened
and apologetic.
He is curled up in his own arms on the thick
silent pillows.
The darkness folds and rolls, over him along
him beneath him between him. He is a
small fish in an unnamed ocean.
Are you in pain? he is asked again and
again. He says no, he says yes. Another
time he works up the courage to ask what
pain is meant to feel like.

On his windowsill there is a pot with a
single white flower in it.
A healer is called in, one he has never seen
before. She has sharp trustworthy fingers.
She sees when he is lucid and says, I’m
having trouble identifying this curse. He
manages to murmur that all the curses
are new and ingenious inventions, and she
makes a noise of understanding and goes
Later he is told, Most of your bones were
broken or at least fractured. Your hands
were utterly crushed. Your face was cut to
shreds. All this has been repaired, but there
will still be fragments of the curse inside
you, which we will continue to investigate,
and also stress to the tissues which cannot
be healed except through rest.
     Who brought me the flower, he says,
closing his eyes.
Before he left, one of his colleagues was
nearly a friend. Now the colleague comes
and stands with his hands on his hips as
if radically reassessing the situation. He
wants to tell the colleague, don’t bother
saying any of the thoughts that seem so
new to you, but the colleague doesn’t
speak for a long time.
One of his fingers is angry with him, it lies
there resentfully not making a sound but
he can feel it getting ready to strike. He
pushes his whole body as far away from
it as he can. It stinks of orange blossom,
he whimpers, this hot furious thing on his
hand. The healer listens impassively to his
requests for amputation.
He dreams about being tattooed and wakes
up scrabbling all over his body. But no one
has made any distinguishing marks on him.

Every time he opens his eyes the light has
changed. He notices that he thinks of dusk
as a substance that soaks or seeps into the
room, like a slow infusion of liquorice. He
would be content to spend the rest of his
life studying the relationship between light
and liquids. No research question, just his
eyes and his mind, paying close attention.

He finds one of his own black hairs on the
pillow and realises again that he is really
Time turns like a snail.
The colleague comes back. Are you in any
state to help me with this formula, it’s not
coming out the way I want it. He wishes
the answer was no so he could say no.
Instead the colleague stays for nearly an
hour, thinking aloud about the formula and
solving his own problem.
A small spider takes half a day to cross the
ceiling, checking each movement with him.
Around mid-afternoon, it finally reaches the
open window and slips out.

The colleague comes back and apologises
for his thoughtlessness and asks about the
curse and whether the healer and her team
have identified its basic structure. Then he
says, You know, before this I think I’d have
found it hard to imagine you in bed. Now
I’m finding it hard to imagine you up and
about with your pipettes. Your students
miss you. I told them you were working
on pain theory in your pyjamas and they
all looked so admiring. As the colleague
speaks he tosses silver sparks from hand
to hand and only intermittently looks him in
the eye.
Sometimes he thinks of his Master and the
chair where he sat and the face which paid
such close attention to his pain. This helps
him through the nights.

The colleague brings a book. It’s the most
difficult thing I have on my shelves. I could
read it to you if you want. For a moment,
the warm rush of being understood. He
nods and the colleague opens the book
and reads very slowly for half the afternoon
about the proof for a theorem of ratios in
antidotes. He follows it without trouble,
and forgets it as soon as the colleague
leaves the room.
The healer examines him and says he is
strong enough to walk short distances
around the grounds, but it would be
sensible to be accompanied in case of
collapse. Also, the smell of orange blossom,
we think it might be significant. He clearly
managed to weaken your resistance levels.
At the time it was happening did you find
yourself believing it was somehow what
you wanted? Silently he replaces the
word wanted with the word needed. We
both know she’ll never work it out. There
is genius of which she cannot imagine the
That afternoon he goes outside, alone,
under a concealment charm. His limbs are
empty as the sky. Everything hums and
bristles at him. He stretches himself on a
corner of the great lawn and listens to ants
negotiating blades of grass.

Do you want to walk down to the lake? the
colleague says smiling. There are ducklings.
He wishes the answer was no so he could
say yes.
He opens a blank notebook and tries for
several hours to recall what he found
so interesting about light and liquids.
Sometimes he seems to half-catch it in his
mind before it is snatched away.

The healer says, Of course I don’t know
your situation, but I can’t speak for how
many more of these episodes your body
will withstand. If you are at all able to
prevent it happening again then I would
As soon as he leaves his room without his
concealment charm one of his students
spots him, and it has to be definite that he
will return to teaching soon.

The colleague steps closer to him over the
rocks. Are you frightened? No silver sparks,
just an approach. He says, What of. The
colleague says, I mean, the next time you
have to go. A small shiver goes through
him and the colleague says, I’m so sorry,
I didn’t mean to distress you. No, he says,
that isn’t.
Later, in the herb garden, the colleague says,
This can’t be sustainable. You staggering
back here and no one knows where you’ve,
and then you can’t do anything for weeks.
He’s taunting us by making us look after
you. And surely, your soul, your wellbeing.
You could have a normal life.
     He draws a length of lavender under
his nose, then says, This was never meant
to be sustainable.

He finds it difficult not to look around in
the Hall at dinner and think, you are all so.
What could you possibly. You have no idea
about. None of you would be of interest to

That night he lies in the dark and tries to
remember the eyes of everyone in the
Academy. He expects the colleague’s
brown eyes to be woefully insufficient,
which they are, but not completely.

The colleague says, What would happen if
next time you just didn’t go? He replies,
Unfortunately that isn’t an option. He sees
something in the colleague contract back
from its idea of itself.

The healer comes back to check on him.
This time he sits behind his desk in his
study and gives her mint tea in a glass cup
with a silver handle. You are doing very
well, she says, and he has to agree. She
tells him more about what they have and
haven’t discovered, and what may or may
not help if there is a next time.
     When she is about to get up to leave,
he finds himself closing his eyes and
saying, He doesn’t do it because he wants
something from me, information or. He
wants me to see how much he enjoys it.
How could I hate that.
     He opens his eyes and she is
looking at him both with and without
At breakfast, on the day of his return to
teaching, the colleague says, Will things
go back to normal now? After a second he
says, Presumably.

He takes chunks of books down from his
shelves and blows the dust off the top. By
this point it feels like a secret again. The
vines grow back over the window.

It is the small class first, only six. One
of them has grown a moustache, which
bewilders him. They look back at him in a
mass, so he forces himself to study each
face in turn, to remember who they are.
Then he begins to talk about the theory of
pain and they all begin to write.

Rosalind Brown has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, and is now a PhDcandidate in Creative-Critical Writing. Her work has appeared in Lighthouse and Best British Short Stories 2017 (Salt).

‘Herb Garden’ has been illustrated by Laylah Amarchih. Please see print version to see the illustation.

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