Once there was a woman, standing alone in a garden. Potting soil streaked her tanned face and grime clung to the crevasses of her large calloused hands. One year, her eyes had swallowed the August sky and refused to return it to the universe. Instead, summer shone from her face with fierce intensity. Her hair was as wild as the willow tree that dodged and dipped before the wind.
The woman was a magician.
Every year she would charm life from the ground, conjuring green leaves and summoning luscious herbs. Lettuces would miraculously appear in ordered rows, strawberries would splurge from pots grouped haphazardly to greet the sunrays. The very soil itself had taught her the secrets of great magic; patience, a gentle hand and copious watering cans. She had crafted her skill over decades until the garden in which she stood was overflowing with the bounty of the earth, peas spilling out from their stakes, apples almost luminous in the soft dawn light. Every year she worked until her hands split and bled over her spade. She tilled and mulched and turned over compost heaps. She weeded and worked and planned and hoped and dreamt that the next year would be even better and more bountiful than the last.
The woman was a scholar. She knew how to coax a courgette to grow large. She knew when to prune back a tree or hedge, and when to leave it to its own devices. She could recite the names of everything that grew in or visited her garden in strange and ancient tongues. However, there was one thing that the woman just had to guess.
The final frost of winter is fickle. The sky may shake off the dark clouds of winter, redecorating the great dome in sweeping blue. The air may grow lighter with the sudden sunlight, and the hedgehogs may emerge bleary eyed from their bed of autumnal fire, but the threat of frost is always still sharp in the breeze. Shards of sky silver can attack at dusk, carpeting the ground in a harsh layer of life devouring ice, leaving green buds stiff and dead at dawn.
Guessing when the frost has finally receded for another year is like playing dice with the wind. Plant too early and the beginnings of growth can shatter in the night, buds shrivelling silver and retreating to rot in the dark earth. Plant to late and your harvest arrives once the frost has yet again reclaimed the earth, or doesn’t arrive at all.
The conscientious gardener would sow potatoes at the cusp of April. They nestle incubated, eyes up and expectant in Gaea’s earthy embrace. The woman would watch the ground impatient until the first shoots of green began to shift beneath the earth, soft leaves gently nuzzling upwards towards the air. Once the potato leaves stand lush in the field she may begin to sow, safe in the knowledge that frost is far behind them. She places her trust in the instinctive biology of a handful of genes, tossed indiscriminately towards a humble potato through a random series of genetic and evolutionary coincidences.
Dice played blindfolded with the rushing wind.
The other way to tell if the frost is truly over is like playing cards with a hurricane. It requires patience, trust and a keen eye. The gardener trusted this method, which was why every day from early April she would pause in her work to stare intently at the sky. Around her the garden that she had built lay dormant. Perennials lay in wait beneath the soft topsoil, potatoes slowly worked their tubers upwards. Buds, tightly furled, hugged the twigs of the trees. They were waiting for the signal.
April melted towards May. Dawn chased dusk around and around the sundial, spinning shadows relentlessly across the smooth stone, staining the horizon with the colours of a coronet. Amber and gold spilled out across the fields and hedgerows, lacing the trees with rubies before plunging the world once again into a satin night lit by a single pearl and countless tiny diamonds. The cycle continued, sun and moon breathless and dizzy with the elation of the chase. The garden waited, holding its breath. The plants seemed to quiver with a hazy feeling that something was coming, and when it did, things would begin to move again.
Dawn broke across the land of the gardener. The woman appeared to greet it, ceremonial in her earth stained majesty. The morning mists had cleared, evaporating upwards into nothing. She began to weed, masterfully sifting the produce from the parasite with nimble fingers. Her nails were short and chipped and brown around the edges. The plants beneath the surface felt the vibrations of her fingers and shifted, uneasy in their dank beds, waiting for her signal to begin to push inexorably towards the surface.
She gazed once more at the sky. Clouds lazily sculled their aimless way westwards. A jackdaw called somewhere in the distance. The world was holding its breath, teetering on the edge of an eruption.
Suddenly the sky was filled with sapphires. A flight, a swoop, a herd, a richness, soaring through the clouds towards her. An exultation of swallows had arrived, swooping and leaping over each other, flitting onto air currents that whirled them upwards and on and on. The tiny messengers burst signing over her garden, diving down to skim the lawns, sweeping upwards into the rich expanse of sky.
Evolution, a smattering of random genetic codes, or divine design. The gardener didn’t know or care. Somehow a flash of brilliant feathers, the lightest of bones and the swiftest of wings could traverse continents to herald the start of spring.
Kneeling down in the soft earth, she began to sew seeds to the sound of birdsong. She worked in a haze of wings; a charm of wrens, a cloud of blackbirds, a trimming of finches, an ascension of larks. Around her buds unfurled into leaves, perennials made their first tentative steps towards the soft spring sunlight. Apple trees blossomed pink and the seeds beneath the surface jostled each other in the race for the top. The faint tang of frost that had melted imperceptibly into jewelled dew drops.
Once there was a woman in paradise. She stood with sky-eyes in a whirl of wingbeats, life blossoming into existence at her touch. Summer was only just beginning.