Porte D’Auteuil

10

porte d'auteuilThe first time Elaine saw the carved wooden door, she thought it was an ad. Glimpsed from the corner of her eye as she hurried down yet another set of stairs at République on her way to work, it looked like one of the ubiquitous posters on the walls of the Métro.

The second time Elaine saw the door, she was running up the steps at Concorde in the late afternoon. That ad again, she thought, only she was fairly sure that the door on the first poster had been closed, and now it was definitely ajar. Odd. As optical illusions went, it was a good one, she thought. She could almost believe there was something behind the door. Not a bad bit of trompe l’oeuil work at all. She made mental note to keep an eye out for it later, and see if she could find out who the illustrator was. And what the door was advertising. Her copywriter’s brain ran through ideas as she hurried through the Tuileries garden. She hadn’t seen any text on the picture, but the carvings on the door itself had been rich in botanical detail, the fruits gilded, and each leaf lovingly defined. It was suggestive of a luxury product of some kind, she thought. Maybe a château looking for visitors, or a posh hotel? One with a spectacular garden, certainly, if those carvings were any indication. But there was her friend waving at her, so she shelved the thought for later.

The third time Elaine saw the door, she went through it.

She hadn’t meant to – she hadn’t even seen it, this time – but she was hot from her walk from the Orangerie de Bagatelle to La Muette, and wet from the sudden rainstorm that had sprung up when she was still a block from the station, and still thinking distractedly about the concert she had just heard, and when she stepped aside to get out of the way of a tourist with a heavy suitcase, she found herself face to face with the open door. She stopped short in astonishment, but before she could finish a thought, she felt herself rudely shoved forward, tripping on the threshold, and falling, to land far more softly than she had expected on a bed of moss.

Elaine blinked, and blinked again, but the moss was still there, so rather gingerly, she got to her knees, and then to her feet, looking around. Her feet were bare, and her handbag was gone.

So was Paris.

Elaine turned slowly in a circle, feeling her heart thump rapidly in her chest. She did not scream, and she was quite proud of that. She breathed deeply, telling herself to be calm. Obviously, she had hit her head when she had fallen, and this was some sort of hallucination caused by the concussion. Presumably, she was lying on the station platform right now. How embarrassing. Hopefully, someone had stopped to help her, and sooner or later she would wake up in a nice, clean hospital bed and everything would be alright.

She closed her eyes, then opened them again.

Still no train platform. In fact, now that she looked around her, she appeared to be standing in the middle of an orchard. By the ripe apricots and cherries hanging from the trees nearest to her, it was early summer. She could see pomegranate blossoms, floating high and red on tall branches in the distance, and another tree, just ahead of her, held tiny green fruit the size of marbles. Unripe plums, she thought, the low, inviting branches reminding her of holidays spent in her grandfather’s garden.

The smell was heavenly, and the garden was beautiful, and she would much rather have preferred the stale urine and metal smell of the Metro. Elaine stood very still for a moment, eyes closed, willing herself back, then slowly, almost superstitiously, turned around in a half circle, to face the way she had come.

She opened her eyes again, and this time she did scream – in surprise, jumping back a step and nearly falling. Strong hands caught her shoulders, steadying her. The wooden door was gone, and in its place stood a man, dark and lean and handsome, smiling at her with a hint of amusement. None of this made her heart beat any more slowly. The man let go of her shoulders and stepped back a pace.

“My apologies. I didn’t mean to startle you. You look a little lost.”

His voice was deep. His eyes were green, and he had a Roman nose and was altogether far more attractive than a hallucination ought to be. Elaine was not having it.

“You’re a hallucination,” Elaine informed him.

The man’s look of amusement deepened. “I’m not, actually, but do feel free to keep thinking so if that makes you feel better.”

Elaine ignored this. “You have to be a hallucination, because there is absolutely no way that this could be real. She gestured around at the garden. “Let’s be logical about this. Setting aside the fact that I was just in the Metro, and there was absolutely no transition between there and here, those plums over there are ripe.”

She pointed at the tree that had held only green fruit minutes earlier.

The man shrugged. “You were thinking about plums and your grandfather’s garden, so they obliged. That’s how this orchard works.”

“That’s how hallucinations work,” Elaine corrected him. “And dreams.” It wasn’t so much that she was sure of her ground as that she was absolutely refusing to accept any other possibility. She liked the idea that this might be a dream. True, she didn’t recall getting onto the train, let alone falling asleep, but there was no reason she could not have done so. And any outcome where she got out of this garden without concussion was a good one, frankly. A dream was the only explanation that made sense. Better still, it was also the only explanation that didn’t make her want to scream. Yes, this was the explanation she was going with, and never mind the fact that the fruit smelled heavenly and she could never smell anything in dreams.

The man grinned at her, a seductive glint in his eye. Or maybe that was just the fact that he really was extraordinarily good looking…

“If you insist,” he said. Holding her gaze, he reached up to pluck a ripe pomegranate from the tree above them. He split it open and offered it to her. “Here. These are my favourites. You should try one, before you wake up. The fruit of this orchard is good for food, and pleasing to the eye, and some say that it even confers wisdom.”

Elaine reached out automatically to accept the fruit, then drew her hand back, vague memories of Sunday school and Greek myth colliding in her head. “I’m fine, thanks.”

The man’s grin broadened, as if he could hear what she was thinking, and he offered the fruit again. It really did smell amazing. Of course a dream would be able to read her thoughts, Elaine reminded herself. There was nothing to be afraid of in that.

“If this is a dream,” his voice echoed her thoughts, “Then no harm can possibly come to you from eating a few pomegranate seeds. Come, taste and see.”

Definitely seductive.

Elaine stepped back a pace. “If this is a dream, I won’t be able to taste the fruit in any case.”

“Then this is your chance to be sure that you are dreaming. You aren’t sure now. Eat the fruit, and either you will taste it, or you will not. Either way, you will know.”

pomegranate

“Are you seriously tempting me with fruit from the tree of knowledge? If this is what I think it is, you need to bring your temptations up to date.”

The man laughed, opening a section of the pomegranate and bending the skin backwards to make the seeds pop out more easily. He ate a handful of the seeds, the juice staining his lips red. “Not the tree of knowledge itself,” he explained. “Simply a pomegranate. But eating it will confer knowledge, certainly. And knowledge is powerful, don’t you think?”

Elaine was conscious of a mixture of panic and desire and she didn’t like it at all. “I’m going to wake up now,” she informed him.

“You do that,” he agreed.

Elaine closed her eyes, and thought of the Metro. She thought of the half hour walk through the Bois de Boulogne after the concert, and the dash down the stairs into La Muette station as the rain grew heavier, and she thought about her long ride across Paris to her apartment in the 10th arondissement. If she had fallen asleep on the train, she could be well on her way out to Montreuil by now.

But at the same time, she found herself thinking, traitorously, of those pomegranate seeds. She could almost smell them. Nevertheless, she reminded herself firmly, she had not tasted them, so if this dream was going by the rules in the stories, there was nothing yet stopping her from returning home. On that thought, she opened her eyes.

She was still in the orchard, and her nemesis was standing too close. She took a long step backward.

“I thought you might get dizzy and fall over,” he explained, not apologetically.

If this was a dream, she obviously wasn’t waking up any time soon. Elaine sighed. “Fine. Let’s play this your way. Who are you, where am I, and what do you want?”

“Ah, how delightful. I’ve always thought politeness was an outdated notion,” he remarked, and Elaine rolled her eyes. On the upside, she was discovering that it was almost impossible to be terrified and really aggravated at the same time. Which was good, because if this wasn’t a dream… Nothing good could come of this thought, so she suppressed it.

“To answer your first question, you may call me Nathair. As to your second… well, I imagine you would think of it as Eden, though it has had a number of other names. Avalon. The Elysian Fields. Ys. You were wise not to eat the fruit, though you might have found it beneficial in some respects.” He smiled at her.

Elaine did not trust that smile. “And why am I here?”

He shrugged. “Ah yes, your third question. I am not certain, but I would guess that the garden decided it needed you.”

A gruesome image came to mind. “For what, fertiliser?”

Nathair choked on a laugh. “No. Not fertiliser. Or not in the sense of dead organic matter, in any case. The garden needs you alive.”

This was far less reassuring than it might have been. Also, it occurred to Elaine that she had no particular reason to believe that Nathair was telling the truth about any of this. He did not strike her as the honest kind.

How she loved ambiguity. She drew in a deep breath, then let it out again. “OK. Look. I need to get back home. I have a deadline tomorrow, and I haven’t had dinner yet, and if I don’t get home at a reasonable hour, I’m going to be cranky in the morning. So let’s cut to the chase. What do I need to do to get home?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you.”

Elaine rolled her eyes. “Oh, that is so helpful.”

Nathair shrugged. “Nonetheless, it is true. I literally cannot tell you what you need to do to get home. You must work it out for yourself.”

Great. A puzzle. Elaine absently plucked a pear from the nearest tree. It smelled delicious. She raised it to her lips, hesitated, then handed it to Nathair. Beneficial in some respects did not necessarily mean it wouldn’t trap her here.

“But I can get home,” she checked.

“Oh yes.”

“And I’m here for a purpose – not just random chance?”

Nathair hesitated. “In a manner of speaking. Others saw the door, but you were the one who chose to go through it.”

“I didn’t choose, I fell – never mind.”

“Incidentally, that is seven questions, asked and truly answered.”

Elaine’s stomach did an uncomfortable flip. “What do you – no. You are telling me I have a finite number of questions,” she said, firmly. As a statement. She glared at Nathair, so that he would know that it wasn’t a question.

He was grinning again. It was unbelievably annoying.

She glared harder.

He laughed and shook his head at her. “No, I won’t tell you how many questions you get. But I will tell you this: when your questions run out, you will have to stay. Here. With me.” He smiled again, and Elaine felt herself go cold even as her whole body began to blush. It was not a nice feeling.

She pressed her lips together tightly, so that none of the questions in her mind could escape, and then she turned, deliberately, away from Nathair, to look around the garden. If questions were so dangerous, perhaps a thorough exploration of the garden was in order. She was a little afraid to step away from the place where she had entered the garden, but it seemed the lesser danger at this point.

She had only walked a few paces into the garden when Nathair was beside her. “There is no penalty for speaking,” he informed her.

She glanced at him. “Perhaps not, but the less I say, the less likely I am to use up a question by accident.”

“True enough.”

She continued to walk through the garden, Nathair keeping pace by her side. It was mostly fruit trees and edible flowers, she thought, though she saw a tangle of tomato vines further off in the distance, and there was what looked like a small field of wild strawberries stretching away to her right.

All of the fruit was ripe, now, and the temptation to reach out and pluck some was almost irresistible.

If it was a dream, she could taste the fruit, and there would be no consequences.

It was probably a dream.

But if it wasn’t…

Elaine glanced at Nathair, who was watching her expectantly. Hopefully.

She had no idea what he was up to, precisely, but he was not on her side.

No, she definitely did not want to be stuck here. Which meant that she could not risk eating so much as a single pomegranate seed. Or asking another question. Or breaking any other fairy-tale rules, whatever they might be. Of course, the trouble with fairy-tale rules is that nobody tells you what they are until it is too late.

Fear washed over her in a wave, and she decided she had better sit down for a moment. A bench obligingly appeared beside her, and she dropped into it, putting her head in her hands.

When she looked up, Nathair was sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of her, still watching her.

“You could always try seducing information out of me,” he suggested. “I’d be up for it.”

Elaine rolled her eyes. That had been evident for some time. “No doubt. But something tells me that you wouldn’t tell me anything useful in any case.”

He grinned. “You never know your luck. And I can guarantee you’d feel more relaxed afterward, which might help with your problem solving. More than panicking, anyway.”

In spite of herself, Elaine laughed. “How very selfless of you to offer,” she noted, drily. “No thank you.”

“Your loss.” He shrugged, and got to his feet, reaching out a hand. She took it, and he helped her up and, astonishingly, let her go without lingering. “So, what are you going to do now?” he asked.

Elaine shrugged. She had no idea. And she was fairly sure that even if she did have an idea, telling Nathair would be a mistake.  The garden didn’t really have paths, but there was plenty of room to walk under the trees, if one didn’t mind walking on moss. It was probably a good thing she had lost her high heels in the Metro. She walked deeper into the garden, keeping a wary eye out for bees. She hadn’t seen any yet, but one couldn’t be too cautious, and her Epi-Pen was in her handbag, also lost somewhere behind her in the Metro…

What might a garden want? The trees all seemed healthy enough, and while she was no expert in botany, there seemed to be a lot of different kinds. Including pineapple, and even dragonfruit, she now noticed, which suggested that the garden wasn’t too worried about respecting climate zones. The garden was very quiet. Elaine realised that she had not seen any birds since she arrived. Didn’t some plants require birds for pollination…?

“Are you giving me the silent treatment now?” Nathair’s voice broke her train of thought. She rather suspected it was intended to.

Fairy tale rules suggested that politeness was the proper response when it came to beggars and little old ladies, but Nathair was neither of these. And in riddle songs, the young boy was always rude to the elven knight, or to the devil, whichever he was. Elaine was in the mood to be rude.

“Yes,” she replied shortly.

Nathair’s brows rose. “I see,” he remarked, and vanished.

Elaine was alone in the garden. It was less of a relief than she had thought.

“Alright,” she spoke aloud, breaking the silence of the garden. “What do gardens need?”

She had a brief moment of panic at the sound of her own question, but Nathair did not reappear. Apparently, questions addressed only to oneself did not count. Which was a relief.

Of course, since she wasn’t much of a gardener, this didn’t help much.

“Water, of course,” she remarked. She looked around her. The strawberry field was now covered by a mist of little water droplets. Moving closer to investigate, she realised that the mist was actually rising from the ground. Uneasy, she stepped back under the pear tree, drying her feet on the moss.

Still, unorthodox as it might be, the garden clearly had adequate water resources.

“Sunlight doesn’t seem to be an issue here.” The sun had been shining since she arrived, which was good, because Elaine couldn’t imagine what she might be expected to do about that.

“Fertiliser?” Elaine recalled her earlier thought with a shudder. But apparently she was not destined to be compost. And it was hard to think of anything as earthy as compost playing a role in this idyllic garden.

“Still, a garden does need good soil. Not that I know anything about what makes soil good. Earthworms, maybe?” Elaine found a bit of ground that wasn’t covered in moss, and dug around a bit with her toe. The soil seemed a bit clay-like, actually, but maybe that’s what pears preferred? She couldn’t see any earthworms, but would she expect to?

Elaine sighed. “What do you want from me, garden?”

Silence and stillness were her only reply. No birdsong. No rustling leaves. Not so much as the buzz of an insect.

Elaine frowned – surely there should be insects? Much as she didn’t like bees, she was fairly confident that fruit required them for pollination. Hadn’t there been all those articles recently about bees dying out, and what that would mean for the food supply? Come to think of it, wasn’t the Garden of Eden supposed to be where all the animals were created, too? Surely that would include insects…?

She spoke aloud again. “Is it the insects you need? The bees and the earthworms and the rest? But how am I supposed to bring them back?”

The garden’s stillness felt somehow expectant. Focused on her.

fig

Insects it was, then. Delightful.

Was she supposed to create them? Kneeling down, Elaine scooped up a little of the soil with one hand, and eyed it dubiously. Forming insects out of clay seemed presumptuous at best, blasphemous at worst. Also, she had never been good at modelling. Or entymology.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Elaine just barely managed not to shriek. She looked up. Nathair was back, an unexpectedly serious expression on his face.

“And I suppose that you have my best interests at heart.”

“In this, I do. There are things in this garden that you should not cross.”

Elaine got to her feet, letting the soil slowly trickle through her fingers. “Things that are worse than you.”

“Things that I should not care to awaken myself. Or if I stood in your shoes.” He looked at her intently. “You are mine, and I won’t have you poached away, or destroyed by your own ignorance. If anyone is going to destroy you, it will be me.”

Elaine stared at him in disbelief. “That is absolutely psychotic. I am not a commodity to be stolen. Nor am I yours, in any sense or fashion.” She bit her tongue against a question of who the hell he thought he was. Rhetorical it might be, but she suspected it would still count in her tally, especially if he answered it.

Nathair shrugged. “You will be, sooner or later.”

His confidence was not attractive. Elaine was tempted to tell him so. But allowing herself to be tempted in any way by this man seemed like a dangerous idea. Best to stick to the point.

“I need to bring back the insects to the garden,” Elaine stated.

“You do,” Nathair agreed. “The garden is healthy enough now, but it needs earthworms to enrich the soil. Butterflies and bees to pollinate it. Ladybugs and lacewings to control pests. Even wasps, to keep the caterpillars from taking over and eating everything before it gets to the stage of needing pollination. Bugs of all sorts.”

“I had heard that God was inordinately fond of beetles.”

Nathair winced. “Let’s not draw attention to ourselves, shall we?”

Elaine raised an eyebrow. “I don’t see why not. If this is Eden, I imagine God takes an interest in what goes on here, whether we mention him or not.”

Nathair wrinkled his nose. “I really wish you wouldn’t do that.”

Elaine felt a sudden surge of hope. “I really wish you were not trying to make it your business to trap me here,” she replied. And then, very deliberately “But God knows we can’t always get what we want.”

Nathair sighed. “I don’t think you realise how much trouble you are inviting.”

Elaine pressed her advantage. “I tell you what. I’ll stop mentioning God, if you answer three questions. For free.”

Nathair flinched a little, but shook his head. “I don’t think so.

“Oh, I think you will. Otherwise, I swear to God I’ll sit here and recite ever prayer or hymn I’ve ever heard until he shows up.” It was an empty threat, since Elaine’s parents had never been the churchgoing kind, and she hadn’t entered a church since her grandmother took her along to Sunday school, but Nathair didn’t know that. She hoped.

Her bluff worked.

Nathair shook his head. “I’ll answer one question for you for free, and one only, but only if you leave all other parties out of this from here on.”

“If you are only going to give me one question, you must promise to answer it honestly and without being misleading.”

Nathair rolled his eyes. “Fine. One question, and I will not attempt to deceive you with the answer.”

Excellent.

“Then tell me: how do I bring back the insects to the garden?”

Nathair’s lips twitched. “That’s simple. You call them.”

“I call them?”

Nathair’s smile was sly, and Elaine froze. “That was your eighth question,” he noted, silkily.

Elaine swallowed, but met his gaze. “You have not answered it.”

Nathair shrugged. “True enough. Yes, you can call them. Adam and Eve were given dominion over all the beasts of the field, and all the birds of the air, and every living thing that moveth upon the earth. I’m sure you know the drill. That includes insects. As their descendant, in their garden, you have that power too.”

So simple. Elaine turned and began to walk back to where the gate had first deposited her.   No point speculating on whether she was trapped here. And if she was, that only gave her a more pressing need to save the plants in this garden.

Looking outward, she saw that there was a wall around the edge of the garden. It would probably be easiest to call the insects from here, if they were outside.

At the edge of the garden, there was a gate, guarded by a tall, thickset man with a fiery sword. He nodded at Elaine, and frowned at Nathair, but did not speak.

Elaine cleared her throat, awkward at this extra audience. She refused to feel awkward for Nathair. There should probably be some special, ritual words for this, but nothing came to mind. Also, ‘insects’ and ‘grandeur’ were not really concepts that fitted together well in her mind.

“Alright. Insects – butterflies, moths, bees, bugs, beetles – I call you back to this garden. Earthworms, spiders, and all other creatures, great or small, that might contribute to the garden – I call you back as well. And birds, I call you back too. But please don’t eat all the fruit. Or be a plague of locusts or anything. Just – come back and be a thriving eco-system. Thank you. I feel like a total idiot, so I really hope you will turn up and make this worthwhile.”

“Nice invocation,” smirked Nathair.

Elaine ignored him. She was watching beyond the wall, where the ground seemed to be rippling, and the air was beginning to hum. The birds arrived first, flying straight for the centre of the garden, where she had a bad feeling they were planning to eat all the apricots. Something ran over Elaine’s foot, and she looked down to see a spider headed purposefully for the pear tree. A family of ladybirds flew by, and Elaine shied away as a bee buzzed close to her nose, the leader of a swarm. She would have to mind her feet now.

Turning away from the wall, she gazed back at the garden. It was no longer silent – even the air seemed more alive – and she thought the garden itself looked happier. Mission accomplished. She smiled for the first time since entering the garden. It really was a beautiful place.

“Well done,” said Nathair beside her. “And you haven’t even trapped yourself yet. Of course, you still have to find your way home…”

Elaine refused to be deflated. “Easy,” she said, and marched toward the garden gate.

The fiery sword blocked her path, and she looked up into the eyes of its wielder. “I’ve done what I was brought here for,” she told him. “Will you let me go home?”

The man shook his head at her. His eyes were as blue as the flames that flickered from his sword. “You cannot pass this way. And even if you could, it would not be your path home.”

Elaine’s heart sank. “Can you tell me how I do get home?” she asked.

The man shook his head again. “I’m afraid not. All I know is that you must construct a gate, with something that is uniquely yours, and walk through it.”

“Construct a gate?” Elaine looked back at the orchard. She couldn’t really see herself taking an axe to any of those trees and building a gateway, even if she had an axe. Which she didn’t. And something told her that the angel would not let her borrow his sword.

And uniquely hers? What did that even mean? Another riddle.

She sighed. “Well. Thank you, anyway.”

And she turned and walked back into the garden.

Nathair was smirking again. His face, Elaine thought, was quite punchable, really, if one thought about it.

“No joy?”

Elaine glared at him, and he smirked even more irritatingly.

“Bit of a rock and a hard place, isn’t it,” he commiserated, mockingly. “You could ask me how to build the gate, but then you might be trapped here. But if you don’t ask me how to build the gate, you’ll be trapped here anyway. What a shame.”

Definitely punchable.

“Ready to risk it?”

“I’m thinking.”

“Alternatively, you could always try making a bargain with me.”

“I believe we already did that.”

“That was more of a blackmail situation, don’t you think? But I will not quibble. Especially not when I’m winning.” He winked at her.

Elaine raised her brows. “You would never make an unfair bargain, of course.”

“Of course I would. It’s my job. Speaking of which, I thought perhaps we could start with… your soul?”

Elaine wasn’t entirely sure she believed in souls. Then again, she was also not sure she believed in magic gardens, and yet, here she was…

“I think not.”

“Ah well. Another time.”

Elaine’s mind raced. Construct a gate, the angel had said, not find one. And out of something that was uniquely hers. So she couldn’t just find a couple of suitably bent trees forming an arch and walk through. She was fairly sure she wasn’t allowed to break any branches. Could she train two trees to form an arch? Or vines? But none of that would be uniquely hers, and anyway, Elaine was pretty sure that this sort of gardening took months, if not years.

Elaine contemplated spending years growing a gate, while dealing with Nathair’s needling. She shuddered. No thank you.

Elaine considered the tools she had at her disposal. Her handbag was gone, which was a pity, because it was usually full of all sorts of things she might have used to draw or scratch a gate on the wall. While Elaine was not, in general, in favour of graffiti, she felt that she might make an exception in this case. And surely artwork would be uniquely hers…

But the point was moot anyway. Her tunic and leggings held nothing with gateway potential, and her shoes were gone.

She frowned. In terms of physical tools, she was drawing a blank. She might have to deal with Nathair after all. She closed her eyes, trying to frame a single question that would give her the entire answer that she needed. Every question was a risk, and she wasn’t going to take any more risks than she had to.  A lifetime of Nathair was not something she was willing to sign up for.

She felt a tickle on her nose and opened her eyes with a gasp. The blue butterfly that had briefly perched there startled and flew away.

She had dominion over the birds and the insects. Within this garden, at least, this power was uniquely hers. Was there a way to construct a gateway out of them?

Elaine walked back to where the cherry trees were in blossom. The air was humming loudly here, as the bees and butterflies did their work.

“Excuse me, please.”

Behind her, Nathair snickered. There was no response from the bees.

Elaine carried on, regardless. “I need you to make a doorway for me, that I can walk through to get back home. You don’t have to stay as a door after I go, but if you could form a gate that I may open and go through, I would be grateful.”

The humming in the air intensified, and Elaine stepped back a pace as dragonflies, hoverflies, butterflies, and all manner of insects that she could not identify formed a cloud in the air.

Slowly, the cloud dispersed, leaving an arch in front of her. She stepped forward.

Nathair made a brief gesture, and Elaine stopped, appalled.

In front of her, the arch filled with a golden, pulsing wall of bees. Lined up in precise rows, a humming haze of gold and black stripes, they hovered before her expectantly.

She looked back at Nathair, angrily. “I didn’t realise that sabotage was part of the rules. Or that you could command the bees.”

He shook his head. “No sabotage. The bees know, as I do, that a doorway requires a door. You will need to push it open to walk through.”

Elaine felt herself pale. “I’m allergic to bees.” And her EpiPen was no doubt lost somewhere in La Muette station by now. Or on the number 9 line. She wondered, briefly, how long she had been away.

She had dominion over the bees, Elaine reminded herself. Presumably they would not sting her deliberately. She took a step forward, but paused, apprehensive. It would only take one little, accidental sting… Her skin crawled at the idea of deliberately approaching the swarm.

apple“Here. Eat this.”

Nathair was beside her again. In his hand, he held an apple.

Elaine opened her mouth to ask if he was seriously trying this now, then pressed her lips together tightly. It would not do to trap herself with questions at this point. She glared at him instead. “I feel a sense of déjà vu.”

“The fruit of this garden will protect you against the bee stings, or indeed, against any other harm from bird or beast, as long as you are in this world.”

Elaine cast him a look of deep suspicion. “Eve ate the apple, and was cursed. Persephone ate nine pomegranate seeds, and was trapped in the underworld for three quarters of the year. Humans who eat fairy food can never again be satisfied by food from the mortal realm. Forgive me for feeling suspicious, but I find it very hard to believe that eating the fruit of this garden comes without a cost.”

Nathair grinned in triumph. “Oh, there is a cost. But you will pay it, and willingly. You have no choice.”

Elaine met his gaze. “Explain.”

“The fruit of this garden confers protection, but it also binds you to my lands. Not as strongly as if you had failed to restore the garden, or had asked more questions than you were allotted – you can still leave this garden by the door – but once you eat of this fruit, you will be bound to return. You may avoid my doors for a time, but sooner or later, you will have to step through and face me again.”

He tossed the apple in the air and caught it. Elaine’s eyes followed it, unwillingly. It was deep red with a blush of gold on one side, and it smelled heavenly. Firmly, Nathair placed it in her hand, and closed her fingers around it.

“Think of this as a tie. You have escaped me – for now. But equally, I have secured another chance to trap you. And believe me, I will have you in the end. Just not today.”

Elaine looked down at the fruit in her hand, and then back at the door of bees. There was no decision to make. She could not pass the gate unprotected. Bringing the apple to her mouth, she bit into it.

The skin was crisp, and the apple was perfectly tart, perfectly sweet. Elaine ate until there was nothing left of it but the core, and licked the juice off her fingers. The core, dropped to the ground at her feet, began immediately to sprout.

Further delay was not going to help her. Summoning her courage, Elaine strode toward the gate of bees, and reached out her hand to push the door open.

The bees gave way before her. Behind them was the electric light of the Metro platform.

Looking over one’s shoulder was never a good idea in these stories, so Elaine stepped forward into the doorway without a backward glance. The buzzing around her drowned out all other sounds. “Goodbye,” she said, anyway. “And thank you,” she added, to the bees.

The buzzing ceased abruptly as her foot landed on concrete. Elaine was in the Metro again, and her train was coming. Inside, she was a whirlwind of emotions – the terror of being trapped in a world not her own and the relief of being home mixed with anger at being tricked out of her clean escape, and reached out to overwhelm her… but there was a strange exhilaration, too. In her memory, she saw again the way the air had filled with insects at her command, and felt the tiny breeze from the wings of a passing ladybird. The scent of ripe fruit filled her nostrils and the taste of an apple lingered on her tongue.

She was glad she had saved the garden, at least.

The train door opened in front of her, and she boarded quickly, her heels clicking against the floor. She reached into her bag for her water bottle, and drank deeply. On the platform, a loudspeaker was exhorting the public “Attention à la marche.

Behind her, so far away that it should have been inaudible, she heard a mocking laugh. “Au revoir, Elaine. I will see you soon.”

 

 

station

Porte d’Auteuil is a Metro station in the 16th arondissement, right at the Westernmost edge of Paris.  Like the other stations with Porte in the title, it is named for a door or gate in the old Thiers wall that surrounded Paris from the mid-19th century until the 1920s.  It is named for the Auteuil district, which encompasses the Bois de Boulogne, an enormous public park which itself contains several landscaped gardens, a lake, a cascade, a tiny Chateau (the Château de Bagatelle) and several botanical gardens, of which the most prominent is the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil.  ‘Serres’ means ‘greenhouses’, and the garden itself is a complex of greenhouses containing hundreds of thousands of plants.

I liked the idea of making the ‘porte’ stations into portal stories, featuring literal doorways into other worlds, and given its location, Porte d’Auteuil clearly demanded a garden.  This is the first Elaine story; as I have so un-subtly indicated with my final line above, there will be more to come.  You can find the next chapter of her story at Porte de Bagnolet – it is called The Hair Loom.

The three illustrations I have used in this story are still lives by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670). She painted the most beautiful, light-filled portraits of quinces, broadbeans, artichokes, figs, citrons and other mediterranean fruit and vegetables, and clearly loved her fruit and vegetables as much as I do.

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Boulogne – Jean Jaurès
fleur10left Porte d’Auteuil
fleur10right Michel-Ange–Auteuil