At the Bottom of the Garden

Written for the Thousand Cats LiveJournal community, November 30, 2009.

I can’t abide deceitful little girls! Constantly making up ridiculous stories to draw attention to themselves — it’s absolutely maddening. I know many people just smile indulgently and write it off as childhood imagination, but honestly, if they don’t learn to tell the truth when they’re young, what on earth is going to compel them to do it once they’re grown? If people want to know the reason so many seemingly mature adults find it acceptable to cheat on their taxes, carry on extramarital affairs, and in so many other ways deceive each other, they need look no further than the tolerance shown to little children telling fanciful tales.

Having worked as a governess for as long as I have, I assure you I have encountered quite a lot of this sort of thing, and always done my very best to correct it. But the Lewington girls have to be among the very worst I’ve ever encountered, with their determined insistence that there are fairies living in the garden of their family’s estate. They’ve been saying it ever since I first came to work here three months ago, and it seems nothing I can do will deter them. I’ve tried every punishment — spanking, sending them to bed without their supper, washing out their mouths with soap, making them write out over and over “I will not tell lies” and “There are no such things as fairies” in their exercise books — but nothing seems to work.

Of course, it doesn’t help that their parents are ridiculously indulgent, and find it amusing to humour the girls in their fancies, smiling at their tales and actually encouraging them to tell all about their supposed fairy encounters. How am I supposed to instill any sense of responsibility or honesty in these children when their own parents insist on undermining my efforts? I know; they’re my employers — most people would say I should simply follow their lead, and that if they don’t find their daughters’ runaway imaginations to be a problem, I shouldn’t either. But I can’t help feeling a sense of responsibility for the children in my care. Just because their parents are negligent doesn’t mean I should be. Someone has to be the voice of reality and prepare these girls to eventually be mature adults, and it clearly isn’t going to be their parents.

For all I know, it may be the parents who originally encouraged them to come up with these tales — threatening them with various nursery bogies if they misbehaved, and that sort of thing. If you insist on telling children that they’ll be eaten up by Rawhead and Bloody Bones, or Jenny Greenteeth or some such creature if they wander outside the garden, what do you expect is going to happen? Children learn from their parents’ behaviour, good and bad alike, and if parents insist on telling them ridiculous stories, then they’re going to learn that that sort of thing is perfectly acceptable.

And once they’ve got that notion into their heads, it really is dreadfully hard to correct. I swear I’ve tried everything with the Louisa and Madeline, and nothing seems to work. They just keep insisting that it’s true — that there really are fairies living in the garden and in the woods beyond. All my corrections seem to do is make them angry with me; they simply can’t seem to understand that it’s all for their own good and if only they’d be truthful, everything would be fine.

I’ve even asked them to show me the fairies, reasoning that if they couldn’t do that, obviously they would have to accept that there were no fairies there to be seen. But they insist that the fairies wouldn’t want to meet me. “Not the nice ones, anyway”, Louisa added with a sly look, when I first asked the other day. I was tempted to punish her for insolence, but since both girls had already just been punished yet again for telling stories, I didn’t want to be too harsh, so I chose to ignore the implied threat, since really it was too juvenile to be taken seriously.

Today after yet another confrontation over the issue, I asked again, explaining to them quite reasonably that real things can be shown to other people, and that if something mysteriously disappears when you attempt to show it to an adult, then clearly it was not something real, but a figment of your imagination.

“But they are real!” cried Madeline. “Just because something hides when you go to look for it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The birds and mice all disappear when we let Ginger out into the garden, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there — they’re just scared of her!”

Heavens preserve us from a 10-year-old’s attempts at reason! “So are you suggesting that the fairies are afraid of me? That they think of me like a bird would of a cat — as something that’s going to eat them up or otherwise do them harm? Because if that’s the case, surely you can simply assure them that I mean them no harm, and only want to see if they are real.”

“I don’t know if it’s so much that they’re afraid as that they just don’t like you, Miss,” Louisa replied. “They don’t like people who don’t believe in them.”

“Well, that’s rather self-defeating, isn’t it? I mean logically, people who don’t believe in them are exactly who they should show themselves to! That way, if they actually are real, everyone could see that for themselves, and there’d be no more debate about it, would there? They’d have nothing to worry about. So why do you think it is that that’s never happened?”

The girls looked at each other and shrugged. “I don’t know,” said Madeline. “Maybe they don’t really want everyone seeing them?”

“Well, that’s not very logical, is it? If they don’t like people who don’t believe in them, then surely it makes sense to make everyone believe in them, so that there’s no one left that they’d have to dislike.”

There was a pause as they searched for an answer. I smiled, confident that I’d argued them into a corner this time.

“Maybe fairies just aren’t very logical,” Madeline finally replied tentatively. “I don’t think they think the same way we do.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” I snapped, exasperated. “It’s you two who aren’t being logical! Can’t you see that if something can’t be seen by anyone but you, then there’s no reason for anyone else to believe it’s real?”

Louisa started to cry, and Madeline put her arm around her protectively. “Well,” she said, looking up at me as she comforted her little sister, “There is one fairy that might let you see him, Miss... Maybe.”

“Is there? Well, that’s excellent news! Why don’t we go take a look? Right now! And then we can settle this whole ridiculous matter once and for all.”

“Maybe we should ask first...” Madeline began tentatively, but I was having none of that. Letting them out into the garden on their own to “ask” the fairy if I could see it would only give them a chance to set up some sort of trick designed to convince me I’d seen something.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” I replied. “If it’s there, I should be able to see it regardless of whether it gives permission. I certainly don’t intend to trouble it — one look is all I need. So let’s go — now.”

They looked at each other again, and nodded, Louisa still sniffing back tears. I handed her a fresh handkerchief and told them to get ready to go out.

Once we all had our coats and boots on, out we went into the crisp autumn air. The girls led me down the hill to the bottom of the garden, then to the old gate through the crumbling stone wall. “He lives out here,” said Madeline. “If you’re really sure you want to see him...”

“Of course I do!” I replied. Clearly, the girls’ hesitance was because there was nothing to show, but it seemed to the only option was to play it out to the end.

“We’re not supposed to go out of the garden,” Louisa added nervously, but I knew better than to allow her to manipulate me like that.

“Not by yourselves, you’re not, but since you’re with me, it’s perfectly fine. Now let’s go.”

The gate creaked open, and Madeline led the way, Louisa hanging back a bit. Perhaps she was having second thoughts about this whole silly idea, in which case, she had more sense than her older sister. But I didn’t want her straying, so I took her by the hand so that she had to keep up.

The path wound away into woods, and further downhill into a damp valley. I’d never ventured out behind the garden, so I didn’t really know the layout of the land, and was disturbed to find that it quickly became boggy and unpleasant — no wonder the girls were strictly forbidden to play out here, though from the fact that they knew the path, it was clear they’d disobeyed the rule at least on occasion. I’d have to do something about that later. In the meantime, I was preoccupied with keeping my footing, and keeping an eye on the children to make sure they didn’t fall or wander off. The path at least seemed a bit firmer than the surrounding ground, and was studded with rocks here and there that helped to keep one from slipping, but it was still a bit treacherous.

The further we descended into the valley, the less I liked it. There was a distinct odour of decay in the air, and the sunlight barely seemed to reach down here, leaving the valley clad in misty shadow. I made sure the girls stayed close by me, and began to think that perhaps coming down here had been a serious mistake... But there had seemed no other way to call their bluff and make them confront the fact that they’d simply been telling stories.

“There, Miss,” said Madeline. “Just up ahead. In the cave.” Even she seemed a bit apprehensive now, and Louisa’s hand was trembling in mine. Clearly the girls knew the truth of the matter was about to be revealed, and that it wouldn’t go well for them.

I stepped up to the mouth of the cave — and a filthy place it looked, overgrown with mosses and other, unidentifiable fungus and plant life. I could hear water dripping within, and the stench of decay seemed much stronger here. I peered inside, but it was too dark to see anything. Reaching for the torch in my pocket — for I always tried to travel prepared for all eventualities — I ventured a little closer.

Louisa whimpered, pulling back. “M-maybe you shouldn’t actually go in, Miss,” she said in a half-whisper.

Before I could reply, her sister answered “Nonsense, Louisa. She’s a grown-up and can do as she pleases, because grown-ups always know what’s sensible. Don’t they, Miss?”

I didn’t entirely like the tone of her voice, but before I could say anything in response, my attention was caught by something else — was that a flicker of movement I’d just seen, back in the cave? Was there some kind of animal living in here? If so, it might be dangerous... “Girls, I think you should step back a bit,” I said, and they needed no further encouragement — I could hear their footsteps retreating a short distance up the path. “But don’t go far — this isn’t a good place to be wandering off by yourse—“

The sentence died unfinished as I flicked on the torch, and saw the bloody bones that covered the floor of the cave. I felt my knees go weak as I shone the beam further back, and up, and suddenly the valley outside, and the house and garden above seemed very far away. I distantly heard the girls’ running footsteps as they fled back up the hill, almost drowned out by shrill screams. As the thing in the cave moved forward, the floor seemed to rush up to meet me, and I realized that it was me who was screaming.

Based on two pieces of random text drawn from spam e-mails: “I can’t abide deceitful little girls” and “and realized that it was me who was screaming,” both of which I later discovered from from Jane Eyre.

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