The Picnic and the Garden
She leads him across the gazebo’s bridge, onto a wide brick path set along the manor’s west wing. The music starts again, and as the dancing begins anew Matthew can feel the pull of the pattern he’d sensed earlier. He can almost see the dancers moving, feel the energy build up as they trace and retrace their steps across the floor. Part of him wants to go back. He wants to dance with Alice, to recapture that feeling, to add what power he can to the pattern the dancers are creating. He stumbles for a moment, lost in the music’s pull. Alice places a steadying hand on his arm.
“Sorry,” Matthew says. “Lost myself for a moment.”
She smiles knowingly.
They walk along the path, she relishing the crisp night air, he marveling at the sheer size of the manor. It doesn’t look the way it did when he stood on the hill, looking down. Standing beneath its shadow, it feels much larger. The east and west wings were supposed to be only three stories—he remembers that clearly—but that’s too small. Much too small. Five stories… six… ten, now fifteen, the manor transforms into a tower, stretching high into the sky.
He tears his gaze away from the building to find Alice staring at him, curiosity fighting with concern. How did she get ahead of him? They were walking side by side.
“Is something wrong? You just… stopped.”
“Uh…” He frowns, then pinches the bridge of his nose. “Sorry. For a moment it just…” his words trail away as he gestures to the wall. “It seemed so big.”
“Ah,” Alice says, nodding. “Yes. Most don’t notice.”
“This can’t be real, right?” He takes a step back, blinks, and suddenly the manor is the right size again. “It’s a trick of perspective.”
“Come on,” Alice says. “This is not a night to unravel the mysteries of the Manor. This is a night to meet my friends.”
“Right…” He forces himself to turn to her. “Right. Sorry. Lead on.”
They reach the end of the path, which turns sharply left as the west wing ends, opening out onto the front lawn. “Lawn” is, in Matthew’s opinion, a meager word for it—he stands before a vast expanse of perfectly groomed grass, impossibly green even under the night sky. At the northernmost edge, a two-story antebellum porch surrounds the Manor’s entrance. Oil lamps, flickering merrily in the darkness, hang from its Roman columns, and men and women dressed in their evening finery stand on the terrace, laughing, talking, drinking, eating.
Coming off the porch is a wide cobblestone lane, dividing the lawn neatly in two, stretching into the distance, disappearing into darkness. On each side of the lane there are more people, some sitting in small groups on large blankets stretched out over grass, some standing under colorful pavilion tents.
The blankets are illuminated only by starlight. Men and women sprawl across them in various states of repose, laughing together as they gaze into the sky. The pavilion tents all have oil lamps hanging from the center peak, and it’s from there, Matthew thinks, that food and drink are served. He can smell cold meats and potato salad in the night air, and his stomach rumbles once in response.
Alice tugs once on his hand. “They’re probably in the garden.”
They keep close to the manor as they cross the lawn, and as they near the porch Matthew notices the crowd is not evenly distributed across it. There is a hole in the middle, empty of people, empty of everything except a tall-backed wicker chair. It sits exactly in the middle of the porch, and is given a measure of deference that far exceeds common porch furniture.
It’s like a throne, Matthew thinks. But it is currently empty, and there is no other sign of the lord of the manor.
Alice is greeted warmly wherever she goes. Matthew is greeted warily, with smiles that end quickly and fade into polite nonchalance. He no longer feels like he’s just another part of the setting, but he still feels small—only this time, the feeling makes him angry. His jaw sets, his spine stiffens, and his hands ball into fists.
Alice slows a bit, falling into step beside him. She wraps her arm around his, her free hand closing over his fist.
“They don’t intend to slight you.”
Matthew says nothing. He shrugs.
“They just don’t know if you’re going to stay.” Alice continues. “It’s not uncommon for people to stumble into our parties for a night, then disappear forever, returning to whatever lives they choose to live. Most of us don’t really warm up to strangers unless it’s obvious they want to stay.”
“Some of you do, I assume,” Matthew says. “Otherwise I doubt anyone would want to stay at all.”
“Oh, plenty want to stay,” Alice says. “There are people who arrive who hunger for this place. They recognize home the moment they see it, and those are welcomed immediately. But you’re not like that. I think you do hunger for this place, but you’re not one to show it, are you? You keep your feelings very close, I think.”
“I’ve heard that a lot. Mostly from ex-girlfriends.”
Alice stops, turning to him with a teasing smile on her face. “And what do you consider a ‘lot,’ I wonder?”
“Uhhh…” Matthew flushes slightly. “About half an ounce?”
Alice laughs, releasing his arm. “We’re nearly there.” She points east. Squinting, Matthew sees a wall of green illuminated in flickering lamplight.
“Is that the hedge maze? I saw it from the hill.”
Alice nods. “It is. But we won’t be going in.”
The crowd thins quickly as they approach the hedge. The hedge itself is very tall—eight or nine feet high, by Matthew’s estimate—and the leaves are so thick it’s impossible to see through them. The only break in the hedge that he can see comes from two large wooden doors that appear to be set within the hedge itself.
“Doors?” Matthew didn’t remember that detail from up on the hill. They were large enough that he was sure he’d have seen them, far away as he was.
Perhaps the house blocked this part.
“The Hedge is a special part of the Manor grounds,” Alice says. “Few go in, unless Simon invites them.”
“Have you ever been in?” Matthew asks.
“Yes, but I won’t tell you anything, if that’s what you’re going to ask next.”
“I wasn’t,” Matthew lies. He doesn’t bother to try to make it sound convincing. Alice grins.
“We like the garden,” Alice says, pointing further down the hedge. Following her gaze, he sees an elaborate flower garden, with paths that twist and turn as if they were a maze in their own right. At the center of the garden is a bench, a tiny pond, and an oil lamp set atop a sturdy iron pole. Four figures, two men and two women, are sitting on the bench.
“And there are my friends,” she says happily. “Good.”
The garden paths, Matthew quickly discovers, are indeed a maze, though they are simple enough to navigate since flowers make poor walls. Her four friends stand, all smiling—both at her and at Matthew, he notes—and greet them cheerfully. Alice smiles in return, but says nothing until they reach the center. Matthew follows her lead, though he can’t help thinking how easy it would be to simply step over the beds of flowers to reach the center, rather than staying on the path as it meanders ever inward.
At last they reach the center. The four strangers applaud, and Alice curtsies low. Matthew sticks his hands in his jean pockets and shifts uncomfortably.
Like everyone else at this party, the men and women standing before him are beautiful. He recognizes two of them: a tall, thin man with very dark black skin, wearing a light gray suit and silver cufflinks, and a tall, slender Asian woman with long, straight black hair that falls to her waist. They were at the dance. He remembers dancing with the woman, briefly, and shaking the man’s hand afterward.
The other two he does not recognize: the woman is short, fair-skinned, with tightly curled hair that came halfway down her neck, and the man is sandy-haired, similarly pale, with dark blue eyes.
Matthew nods to them awkwardly.
“Matthew,” Alice says, turning to him, “may I present my dearest friends: Alexander, Gyuri, Noelle, and Gregory.” She turns to her friends. “This is Matthew. I danced with him this evening.”
“I saw.” Alexander adjusts the sleeve of his gray suit and sticks out his hand, grinning broadly. “You took to it faster than anyone I’ve seen before.” His voice is very deep, and seems to stir the air around them.
“He was just telling us about it.” Noelle, the woman with the curly blonde hair, speaks with an accent he can’t place, though it sounds European. “Not everyone takes to the dance that quickly.”
“I sure didn’t.” Gregory, the sandy-haired man, has the slightest hint of a drawl. He grins ruefully. “I think we were here a month before I got the hang of it.”
Alexander laughs and sticks up two fingers.
“Two?” Gregory shakes his head. “Well, that was a while ago.”
The Asian woman says something in a language Matthew doesn’t understand. He’s the only one, apparently, since Alice and the other three listen intently, and when she finishes, Alice says something in return.
“Gyuri wants to apologize,” Alexander explains. “She’s still new, and she hasn’t learned to speak everyone else’s language yet.”
“Everyone else’s?” Matthew asks, frowning. “Everyone?”
“I only spoke French when I arrived,” Noelle says. “But if you stay here long enough, you begin to learn other languages very fast. Gyuri is almost there.” She smiles at her friend encouragingly.
“But tell us about yourself,” Alexander says. “You’re newly arrived. How new, I wonder? I haven’t seen you before tonight.”
“Tonight,” Matthew says. “I just kind of… stumbled into you.”
“That happens more than you’d think. Like it so far?”
Matthew looks around. “It’s pretty incredible. A little overwhelming.”
“Sticking around?” Alexander asks the question casually, but everyone—including Alice—is watching him intently, waiting for his answer.
Matthew thinks back to the unfinished painting in his studio, and feels a slight twinge of guilt. Then he thinks back to Richmond, and tastes anger and bile in the back of his throat. Then finally, he looks up at the sky, takes a deep breath of crisp, cool air, and lets it all go.
“I got no place I need to be.”
“Excellent!” Alexander claps him on the shoulder. “In that case, you’ll need a place to stay. Gregory?”
Gregory nods. “Agreed.”
“Then it’s settled!” Alice says, beaming. “When were you planning to turn in?”
Alexander looks toward the horizon. “Right about now. It’s getting close to dawn.”
The eastern sky does seem a little paler, Matthew thinks.
Alice shivers. “Best we all turn in then.” She turns to Matthew. “Go with Alexander and Gregory. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow night,” Matthew repeats. “All right. What will you be doing during the day?”
Alice laughs. “Sleeping, of course!” She looks over her shoulder to the east. A very faint glow reflects against the sky, dimming the stars ever so slightly, washing out the colors that had been so vivid earlier. She frowns.
“What’s wrong?” Matthew asks.
Alice shakes her head. “Nothing. It’s just…”
She leans in to him for a moment, kissing him softly on the cheek.
“Sleep through the day,” she whispers. “Don’t leave the cottage until it’s dark.”
She pulls away and stares at him earnestly, eyes wide.
Matthew stares at her in blank confusion. “Why not?”
“It’s… dangerous, in the day,” Alice says. “There are terrible things in the day. Sleep till nightfall.”
At that she turns, joining Noelle and Gyuri, already hurrying down one of the twisting garden paths.
Alexander smiles at Matthew knowingly. “Charming, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” Matthew says. “Yes, she certainly is.”
He looks east. The pre-dawn glow is stronger now. It will definitely be light soon.
“Well,” Alexander says, “come on. We have three rooms, and we keep the third ready for guests, for just this occasion. You look tired.”
Matthew stumbles for a moment, his eyes unexpectedly heavy. He stifles a yawn. “Thank you. I am.”
He follows them to their cottage, looking forward to sleep.