Home > Girl of the Night Garden(2)

Girl of the Night Garden(2)
Author: Lili Valente

I could be drifting above a ghost town…but I’m not.

I can hear it, the shush shush of human blood pumping through sleep-warmed bodies, the sighs and grumbles and the creaking of bed frames as the old try to find a comfortable place and the young try to sleep though they’d rather be out and about.

The very young could wander freely—I won’t mist through a boy’s mind until he comes of age, and never touch the dreams of women or girls—but this city is the superstitious sort. Its boundaries are marked with magic sigils; its laws forbid the growing of night flowers or witch medicines. Its people rush inside at sunset and paint their doors with more sigils drawn in blessed water and sealed with salt and prayer.

No one—male or female—will come out again until the sun has risen and gobbled up the night, banishing fear for another day.

But I don’t need them to come out. I only need the men to sleep.

And I can wait.

Nightmares may not always be kind, but we are certainly patient.

I rise until I’m level with one shuttered window and seep into the shadow of the eaves, thickening in the darkness. A moment later, two starlings alight on the rim of the cracked gutter below. One is black-dappled brown with an amber beak; the other has slick, blue-black feathers and a coppery head ruffled on top like a hedgehog’s back.

“Nice night for it, nice night for it,” Wig warbles, his mottled throat vibrating. “Nice night, nice night!”

“Shut it, worm.” Poke aims a clawed toe at Wig’s belly, but Wig hops away with time to spare.

He’s learned to anticipate Poke’s jibs and jabs. They aren’t friends, not exactly, but in the years since we became travelling companions, they’ve grown accustomed to one another.

Earworms and Skritches aren’t a natural match. Worms are aggressively cheery; Skritches are simply…aggressive. But these two were planted close together, near the gate in the garden of our birth. I stole them while Mother’s back was turned, snatched them with shaking hands and shoved them into the pockets of my borrowed cloak—one snug little Earworm in my left pocket, one prickly Skritch in my right because I was too new and terrified to go alone.

They’re both lovely tonight, but I miss their true forms: Wig’s sweet, chubby pink face with the layers of tightly packed green leaves circled around it; Poke’s broom-handle body with the puckered lips, the scrunched right eye so much smaller than the left, and his dozens of prickly fingers.

In this world, they appear as birds or mice or other smallish creatures, forms that allow them to get close enough to humans to perform their true work: Wig setting the thoughts of the sleepless running in circles, and Poke prickling tired bodies into restlessness.

Relatively harmless tasks, both. Vexing, but only when compared to a peaceful sleep.

If it were only Earworms and Skritches the people of this city had to fear, there would be no sigils, no empty streets, no curtains pulled tight.

“It’s freezing,” Poke grumbles, the copper feathers atop his head bristling. “I don’t care for the north.”

“Care for the north, care for the north, care for the—” Wig flaps his wings, rising into the air seconds before Poke’s beak jabs at his throat. “North,” he finishes as he lands.

An Earworm can’t leave a circle unfinished. Every song must be sung through from beginning to end—or at least from the start of the chorus to the finish. The chorus is the most addictive bit, the part that gets a human mind humming and pointlessly wakeful.

“Care for a change, care for a change,” Wig chirps, settling onto a perch under the eaves, sheltering in my shadow. His tiny heart beats a needy rhythm, and I seep from my hiding spot. I grow claws to clutch the battered sill and tuck him gently under my new raven’s wing.

“Tales from the south, tales from the sea,” he says. “Tales from the south, tales from the sea.”

“Shut your beak. Let me tell it.” Poke hops up beside me, nudging his way under my other wing with a gruff butt of his head.

It took time for me to realize that Poke enjoys a cuddle as much as Wig, but now I don’t hesitate to pull him in, even when his muscles go stiff and he shudders before he allows himself to relax. Prickly or not, I treasure these moments of closeness. Without Wig and Poke, I’m not sure I would have survived the loneliness of learning to be one instead of five.

“There’s talk of an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Off limits. Ringed with enchantments,” Poke says, pecking the empty air in front of him for emphasis. “A place where the mountains curve like a giant’s rib, and the sea grows teeth below the waves and never a nightmare set tooth nor claw.”

I lift my beak and sniff the air. The time is nearly right. The night is sticky with sleep. “We’ve heard that tale before.”

There’s always a story floating in the ether, a tale of a town even the Banshee, the Dream Thief, the Night Witch—the humans have many pet names for me—won’t be able to touch. But the stories are never true. I have touched each and every one and left a string of transformed men and boys in my wake.

Mother grew me straight and true, and I am no thief of dreams. I am a correction. A cure. I am the beauty that brands the minds of human men, the girl that gentles their hardened hearts. Once I’ve spun through their sleep, they awake transformed, never again to treat a woman cruelly, to raise a hand to their daughters, sisters, or wives, or to shatter a single sweet lady’s heart.

I perform an invaluable service to the women and girls of Earth.

Though you wouldn’t know it from the way they greet me—with blood and tears and doors locked tight and protections whispered over the sleeping heads of their men.

“New tune, new tune,” Wig warbles.

“It is new,” Poke agrees, making my feathers prickle. It’s unusual for Poke to agree with Wig, let alone to admit it aloud. “Word comes from the garden itself. From Skritches and Worms and Freezers and Fallers. They’ve all sought sleepers there and been turned away, forced to fly through the night to reach open minds and portals home before morning.”

The casual mention of other plantings jostles the splinters of my heart. We often catch sight of other nightmares plying their trade, but no creature of the garden—aside from Wig or Poke—will speak to me.

They’re too afraid. Even the night things are wary of Foxglove.

Well, not of me exactly…

They’re wary of Mother, and the way she feels about me now. Word is, she won’t tolerate mention of me in the garden. I am her blackest sheep, the only planting ever to close her heart to the Night Witch. I had no choice but to take up the mantle she passed to me that night—I was grown to serve at her pleasure, and my life will never be my own—but I don’t have to love her for it.

I can, in fact, hate her for it.

And I do. My hate is a coal that warms me through the cold nights here on earth.

I don’t care if my work is worthy—I should have been asked. I should, at the very least, have been warned. I shouldn’t have been allowed to grow, innocent and un-fearing, then ripped away from everything I loved and cursed to roam the world alone for all eternity.

Or however long it takes for humans to destroy themselves.

Mother would take Wig and Poke from me, too, I think—now that she knows the splinters of my heart are knives I would hurl at her if I could get my fingers on them—but my friends never return to the garden. They steer clear of the portals at the backs of sleeping minds, resisting the urge to rest their weary bones in the beds of their birth.

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