Motion outside his study window made Menders look up to see Borsen running down the orchard path, a basketful of small rosebushes clutched tightly in his right hand. He was trailed by Ifor, a shovel over his shoulder, moving at a stately pace.
What in the world is Little Man doing with them all, Menders puzzled, watching as Borsen ducked into the forest on the far side of the orchard. He leaned back in his chair and let his mind begin sorting the conundrum.
Some weeks back, at the very beginning of spring, Menders had introduced Borsen to his interest in selectively breeding roses. Menders had happened upon the art during his early years at The Shadows, when he had been faced with the enormously overgrown and neglected grounds. They were rank with scrubby and uncontrolled wild roses. Over time Menders had established a rose garden. He’d brought in standard cultivars, then became interested in producing his own varieties. He’d intended to create roses that would thrive despite the harsh winter climate of The Shadows by crossing the local wild plants with the standard cultivars.
He’d found the process fascinating, creating several hybrids that prospered despite long, harsh winters. Kaymar, of all people, had been bitten by the rose-breeding bug and developed several exotic cultivars himself.
A small hothouse was devoted to their interest. Some of Menders’ most peaceful hours were spent there with Kaymar and Katrin, who was a devoted rose fancier. He’d hoped Borsen would be enthusiastic, considering his love of beauty and his enormous creativity. He gave the boy a tour of the hothouse and carefully explained the process of creating a unique rose specimen.
Borsen seemed bamboozled by the genetic charts, but was happily excited about the various color combinations possible within a single rose. He followed Menders’ explanations with interest at first. Then he noticed several first year rose bushes that had been rejected as not carrying the desired traits for Menders’ latest project.
“What about these little rose bushes, Uncle?” Borsen asked, bending to feel the soil around the roots of the plants. “Why, they’re all dry! They’ll die if you don’t water them.” His brown eyes behind his glasses were wide with concern.
He listened to Menders’ explanation that the plants were being discarded with the same horror he might show if he had found a pile of babies, only to be told they would put on the rubbish pile.
“But they’re alive,” he said in a hushed, guarded tone when Menders was finished.
“Yes, son, I know, but many of them aren’t particularly pretty or hardy – they have what we call undesirable traits. So, we discard them,” Menders said, startled at the intensity of the little boy’s reaction.
“I don’t think they’re undesirable,” Borsen replied. “They might grow into something wonderful if they had the chance, Uncle.”
“I’d never have room in the rose garden for them all,” Menders tried to explain, smiling comfortingly. “Unfortunately, you have to start quite a few plants so you have a good chance of getting a couple with the traits you want. There’s no point in cultivating the ones with undesirable traits.”
“They just need some water and to be planted in the ground,” Borsen murmured, on his knees, uprighting the little pots and setting them in rows. “Undesirable traits,” he whispered after a moment, adjusting his glasses on his nose.
Menders managed to distract him after he’d watered the little rosebushes. They finished the tour of the rose hothouse. Menders was painfully aware that Borsen was only lending him half an ear. He kept looking back at the little cluster of rejected rose bushes.
“May I take those rose bushes and find a place to plant them, Uncle?” he asked when Menders wrapped up quickly, knowing he’d lost Borsen’s attention. “I know a place where I could make a little garden. I’ll take care of them myself. I just hate to see them die.”
“You’re welcome to them, son,” Menders smiled, loving the way Borsen’s eyes flooded with happiness at his words. “You may make all the gardens you wish.” He provided a basket, which Borsen filled with the undesirables, then saw his nephew out of the hothouse.
“Well, that wasn’t the greatest success,” he said to Kaymar, who had been working with his own roses during Borsen’s tour.
“No, I don’t think he has the mindset for it,” Kaymar agreed, lounging against his workbench, his hands in his pockets.
“He’s certainly bright enough,” Menders frowned.
“Oh yes – but the culling of the undesirable traits is what finished his budding interest,” Kaymar replied.
“Yes, that really upset him – I wonder why?”
“Oh Cuz, use your nut,” Kaymar retorted waspishly. “Borsen is nearly blind. He’s stunted. Since he was born, he’s been told by his father that he’s worthless and weak. I would call those undesirable traits, wouldn’t you?”
Menders blinked in shock. Then a chill went down his spine.
“I never meant – dear gods, I never pointed my explanation about why those plants were rejected at him,” he gasped.
“I know. He didn’t really take it that way,” Kaymar answered. “But it made him think. He emulates you, Cousin. Just as you took him off the figurative rubbish heap, he’s rescued those plants. It might be good for him to be the savior of something he sees as unfortunate. At least it’ll keep him from sitting up in the tailor shop day and night, hunched over the worktable.”
“Yes, anything that gets him active in the open air is fine with me. He can dig the entire estate under if he’s a mind to,” Menders laughed ruefully.
The next day, Borsen turned up in Menders’ office door after completing his work hours in the tailor’s shop.
“Uncle, may I take a shovel back to that clearing where the big tree came down in the forest?” he asked excitedly. “I’ll be sure to bring it back and clean it before I put it away.”
“You most certainly can, but before you go, come here and have a talk with me,” Menders invited, pushing away from his desk and holding out his hands to Borsen, who came and settled contentedly on the arm of his chair. “Now, you may certainly use that clearing for a garden, but that ground has never been broken. It may be too difficult for you right now,” Menders continued. “Would you like me to have some of the Men help you?”
Borsen shook his head.
“That’s one thing I wanted to ask, Uncle,” he said, looking seriously into Menders’ eyes. “I’d like to keep my garden private for a while, until I’m finished working on it. Then I’ll have everyone come and see it, but for now I’d like it to be just mine.”
Menders nodded patiently, but put his hands on the boy’s arms, which were small and spindly.
Franz figured that Borsen might be fourteen years old now, after a year in residence at The Shadows. The boy was the size of an average nine-year-old, and very slight in build. So far there had been no signs of him maturing physically. The doctor felt that might be delayed because of his lifetime of near starvation. As he was, Borsen could never manage the physical demands of digging that forest soil.
“That’s fine, but I want you to have help. That has to be the agreement. I can’t have you hurting yourself trying to do more than you’re able. Working a garden with strengthen you and help you grow, but I want you to accept help with the first heavy work.”
Borsen hesitated, then nodded.
“I know who to ask,” he said confidentially.
“Then use any of the tools you want except for the scythe. If there is grass to be cut, you let your helper do it,” Menders instructed.
“And you’ll keep the undesirable roses for me and give them water?” Borsen prompted.
“Absolutely. They’re all yours,” Menders smiled, as Borsen slid off the chair arm. Shortly afterward Menders saw him walking excitedly down through the orchard with Ifor, both of them shouldering shovels, with Ifor also carrying a pick and scythe.
Clever little devil, Menders thought with amusement. He chose the one man who, if sworn to secrecy, will not say a word to anyone, not even Kaymar.
It was a busy spring and summer for Menders. Several new pieces of farm machinery were delivered and put into service, with the concomitant breaking in periods. There was a nasty outbreak of putrid fever on Reisa Spartz’s estate and The Shadows was included in the ensuing quarantine, lest the infection spread through the district. This burdened The Shadows greatly, as the usual exchange of labor between the estates was not possible. The Shadows’ farmers and Menders’ Men were stretched to the limit, and Menders was needed everywhere.
He had little chance to supervise Borsen’s project, even from afar. Ifor was not forthcoming when Menders tried to winkle information out of him.
“He asked me not to tell what he’s doing,” was the big man’s only reply, given with a bit of sadistic glee. “When he’s ready, he’ll show you.”
So, Menders’ knowledge of Borsen’s project was nil, limited only to what he saw the boy carrying off into the forest. Borsen was roaming the attics and cellars of The Shadows, finding the oddest castoffs. They ranged from a broken batch of Cook’s blue jars to rusted metal chairs that must have been used outdoors in The Shadows’ past. Borsen treated it all with the reverence he had given the discarded rosebushes, and was always delighted when Menders laughingly allowed him to haul away the rubbish to be put to whatever use he could find.
Discarded roses disappeared from the hothouse as soon as they were set aside by the horticulturalists. Menders was devoting his few spare moments to a project he’d begun some time back. Over time he had bred and named roses for members of the family. The first had been “Eiren”, a lovely amber rose with a rosy centre. It had been followed by “Princess Katrin”, light gold and highly fragranced, and “Cadet Greinholz”, a big brassy red and orange. Some experimenting had finally produced the white, red-hearted, lightly fragranced “Baronet Shvalz” which had simultaneously embarrassed and delighted Kaymar when it was presented to him.
Now Menders was close to producing a rose that could be named for Borsen. He had high hopes for several of the seedlings that he’d started and was only waiting for the buds to open, to see if he’d managed to realise his vision.
Eventually, Ifor no longer went along with Borsen, but the boy spent almost all his spare time away in the garden no-one else had seen. Menders had foiled plots on the part of several of the Men, to say nothing of Katrin and Hemmett, who he caught planning a raid on the young gardener’s plantation.
“Faw, then let’s creep back there while he’s working. Today’s one of his days in the workshop,” Menders overheard Hemmett proclaiming. He’d come home from the Military Academy three weeks before to find, to his consternation, that Borsen was not readily available to share exploits and excursions.
“I’ve been dying to know what he’s up to,” Katrin agreed. “He doesn’t know a thing about gardening, or he didn’t. He won’t say a word about it, just spends all his time back there and carts tons of junk from the attics there too.”
“This I have to see. I’ll tell Menders we’re going for a ride and we’ll head back there,” Hemmett gloated.
“No you won’t either,” Menders said briskly, making them both jump a couple of feet into the air and wheel around, dumb with shock. He stared them down easily and then continued.
“This is extremely important to Borsen, and he doesn't want anyone intruding right now,” he said sternly. “When he’s ready to show it to us, he will. Until then I don’t want you going near there, do you understand?”
They looked mutinous and hurt. Menders sighed.
“Put yourselves in his shoes,” he said, moderating his tone. “Borsen has never played in his life. He’s never had anything to cherish. Whatever he's doing back there in that clearing is very important to him. He wants it all to himself for a little while. I know you’re curious – we all are – but I ask you, on your honor, not to interfere or intrude on him.”
Hemmett nodded first.
“You can count on me,” he said staunchly. “I won’t so much as ask him about it again. I just hope he’s not going to be disappointed if all his little plants don’t make it.”
“I'd like to help him, that’s all,” Katrin protested.
“I know – but he needs this, princess,” Menders smiled, putting an arm around her shoulders. “Think of it as an exercise in self-control.” Katrin rolled her eyes, but nodded assent.
Menders’ directives to the Men to stay away from the secret garden were terse and to the point, consisting of a threat not only to thrash any man who invaded Borsen’s domain, but to send Kaymar after him as well. That and the massive summer workload kept the Men in line.
Everyone resigned themselves to living in suspense, particularly when Borsen came to Menders and asked if he could be forwarded a certain amount of his wages. The total was substantial. Menders raised an eyebrow in query.
“I want to have some white rosebushes sent out,” Borsen explained. “We have every other color here, but not white.”
“I’ve never dealt with white rosebushes. They're not very hardy and, for some reason, insects adore them,” Menders explained. “But this sum of money, Borsen – it would buy a hundred white rosebushes.”
“The rest of it is for something else I’m ordering,” the boy replied.
“Are you sure it isn’t anything we have here? You can use any of the gardening tools or supplies you need,” Menders smiled.
“No, it isn’t here. It’s the finishing touch. Ifor will get it for me, but I don’t have enough money set aside yet. I’d like to have it for the end of summer,” Borsen explained.
“All right then,” Menders acquiesced, handing over the sum. He knew Ifor would not let the boy do anything foolish.
Two weeks later the weekly train blew a “goods left” signal from the halt. Menders frowned in confusion, as he was not expecting anything. The light flashed when he saw Borsen race by outside, followed by Ifor. Moments later they were bowling along the drive with a wagon, headed toward the halt. The mysterious ordered item must have arrived.
“The suspense is killing us,” Franz said from the doorway of his own office.
“It’ll soon be over,” Cook’s voice interjected. Menders looked out of his own domain to see her coming down the hall toward them, a big grin on her face.
“Little Man has just made orders for a party to be held in his garden. We have most of the things he wants served in stock, but I wanted to let you know that he’s insisting on paying for it.”
“He needn’t do that,” Menders began, horrified, but Franz cut him off.
“Let him, Menders. It’s important to him, as this entire project is. It gives him confidence,” the doctor interjected gently. “He’s grown up a great deal this summer, physically and emotionally.”
“He wanted to know if you would look out some bottles of wine that would go with his menu,” Cook chortled. “Light ones would be best, no heavy reds.”
“May I see the menu?” Menders asked, intrigued and amused.
“No, he said you can’t snoop,” Cook said, pocketing a list she’d been holding. “I know wines as well as you, sir, and I know what will work.”
“Your servant,” Menders said facetiously, bowing low. Cook laughed, took a token swipe at him with her Particular Spoon and flounced off toward the kitchen.
Two days later, handwritten invitations appeared on every bed at The Shadows. Ifor was seen riding toward the village with a bundle of envelopes. Menders knew instantly that the invitations had cost Borsen hours of painstaking work. Having come late to reading and writing because of his years of uncorrected myopia and his first language being Thrun, Borsen had not developed any facility with written Mordanian. His spelling was haphazard and though he could draw easily, he found writing a chore. His cursive was cramped and awkward. It requested the pleasure of everyone’s presence in his forest garden three days hence.
The Shadows buzzed with curiosity and anticipation. Borsen was brimming with excitement. He fidgeted and grinned a lot, disappearing off into the direction of his garden every time he had a free moment. Katrin and Hemmett were eaten alive with impatience, and Menders overheard several conversations where they worried that the garden wouldn't live up to expectations, with all the excitement and secrecy having piqued everyone’s interest.
“No matter what he presents to us, be encouraging,” Menders counseled them. “He’s new to gardening and it might not be impressive, but remember, it’s been an enormous effort and he’s proud of it.”
Borsen was in a frenzy of worry over a rainy night, but the day of his party dawned bright, with a slight breeze. He was out of the house at dawn and made trips back and forth all morning until Menders prevailed upon him to hitch up the governess cart and use it, fearful the boy would exhaust himself before his great event. Loads of dishes, glasses and covered trays were trotted down the orchard and into the forest. Ifor rode along on one of the final journeys and wasn't seen again.
The hallways of The Shadows were deserted an hour before the appointed time. Menders realized the entire household was in the process of dressing. He caught a glimpse of Franz in his best suit, tying his most extravagant cravat, and fled up to his own suite to change. He encountered Katrin and Eiren there, putting the final touches on their best outfits, with glossy upswept hair and glittering jewelry. Menders got into his best clothing, finishing off with a new top hat and the silk cravat Borsen had given him at Winterfest.
“I need to make a stop at the hothouse and I would like to get there a bit early, just in case – well, in case Borsen needs some help,” he said, feeling some anxiety. It had been difficult not to sneak back and have a look at Borsen’s project, but he’d refrained – and now he was riddled with fear that the boy’s efforts would fall flat, after all the anticipation his secrecy had engendered.
At the hothouse, he wrapped a small rosebush in clean linen and tucked it in the crook of his arm. Katrin raised her eyebrows when she saw it.
“Is that really a good idea?” she asked nervously. “What if – what if those little roses didn’t do so well? It would look like you were bringing something better in, wouldn’t it?”
“I shall stow it out of sight until we see how things are,” Menders said, glad she’d mentioned it.
They were joined by Hemmett, resplendent in his dress uniform. They walked back through the orchard, making sure that they made enough noise that Borsen and Ifor would be given fair warning.
“Bells?” Eiren said in surprise as a soft tinkling reached them. “Where would he have gotten them? I didn’t think we had bells around, even in the attics.”
“We didn’t, so far as I know,” Menders began – then he was struck dumb as they emerged from the trees into the clearing.
Borsen turned away from the table which he and Cook were setting up, beamed and beckoned to them, but they were too occupied with staring.
How could he have done this, Menders thought wildly, his senses reeling under the impact of what Borsen had created in a happenstance clearing made by a fallen tree.
Paths of glittering white and blue curved through multiple garden beds of blooming flowers, with small ornamental trees studding the open space at intervals. Tinkling windchimes hung from the trees, ringing softly in the breeze, what Eiren had mistaken for bells.
“Faw! Willow, these chimes are made from glass – all that old trash glass he hauled out of everywhere,” Hemmett said in astonishment. “Look! He’s ground down all the sharp edges and strung them up. I’ll be damned! Clever little bastard! The paths are stones, those white ones from the riverbed that are worn smooth and the blue in the paths are more glass. It’s Cook’s busted jars!”
“Damn me,” Kaymar’s voice said quietly behind them, his voice quivering with amazement and reverence. For once Menders didn’t snap out a rejoinder about language. Kaymar walked around them, mouth agape. Then he seized Menders’ arm and pointed.
“Cousin, look at that,” he whispered, drawing Menders’ attention to the centre of the garden, where all the paths led. “Now I finally know what Ifor sent away for.” Kamar’s voice trailed off into silence as they walked forward into the glittering, glowing space, different rose scents drifting on the air.
A white statue graced the centre of the garden, a marble copy of Dysonius’ Mother and Child. It was surrounded by the white roses Borsen had sent for. The bushes were in full bloom, so the figure of a slender woman holding a small boy seemed to be rising from billows of white cloud.
“You’re early,” Borsen laughed, running toward them now that he was finished with the last table. “I’m glad! I really wanted family to see it all first. Do you like my statue of the lady? I was so afraid it would be broken! Ifor and I could barely get it back here. I thought his back would be hurt, but he says working here this summer made it stronger. Do you see how well all the undesirable roses did? Do you like the way I organized the colors?”
Menders looked down at him.
“Show me,” he said, holding out his hand for Borsen to take.
He was treated to a private tour of the place, while Eiren went to help Cook put the finishing touches on the feast provided, and Katrin, Hemmett and Kamar clustered around Ifor, who kept shaking his head emphatically and laughing.
“I did not give him any advice on how to arrange it. I was just the grunt, doing the heavy work he couldn’t do,” Menders heard the big man protesting.
Borsen squired Menders around the garden beds, showing him roses being trained along trellises made from tree limbs, roses encouraged to spread out as ground cover, roses positioned next to each other so that unexciting colours turned into breathtaking contrasts. Stumps and logs had been left in place, converted with some judicious axe-work and paint into rustic seats, with roses and flowering vines rambling about. Menders was amazed at the growth the discarded roses had enjoyed. Borsen gleefully showed him an impressive compost pile hidden behind a shed built on the edge of the clearing.
“Granddad said I could have all the manure I wanted from the heifer barn,” Borsen explained. “He showed me just how to mix it up so it composts fast. My roses get some every week.”
Borsen’s guests were arriving, so Menders relinquished him, a bit regretfully. He could have listened to the child explaining how he’d created this magical space for much longer. Eiren came to him and took his arm as Borsen darted away.
“To think we worried that we’d come back to dying rosebushes,” she smiled.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that Borsen will do whatever he plans to,” Menders said, looking around at Borsen’s gathering guests.
Ifor finally made his way through the revelers, reaching Menders’ side with a sigh of relief.
“Incredible,” Menders grinned, shaking the big man by the hand.
“If you could find a way to put that child on a treadmill, you could power The Shadows,” Ifor grinned back. “He’s quite the taskmaster, but I didn’t care because he worked ten times harder that I did. You didn’t know it, but he was creeping out on moonlit nights and working on things back here. Those ornamental trees are wild cherry saplings – Mister Spaltz found them on his farm and gave them to Borsen. With pruning they’ll stay small.”
“I see many of the other plantings are forest flowers and other wild plants,” Menders replied.
“He sees potential in everything,” Ifor nodded. “Broken jars and old stumps and discarded rose bushes. Can you imagine what this will look like in ten years?”
Menders closed his eyes and shook his head. “It will be – beyond words,” he answered. “Those climbing roses will be everywhere. I’m sure he’ll add to it – this is just the beginning.”
They looked across the garden to the mown grassy area set up as a croquet court for the party. Katrin and Hemmett were helping several smaller children, including several of Eiren’s younger siblings and Lorein Spartz, with their mallets. Hemmett adjusted tow-headed Lorein’s grasp on her mallet handle and then laughed appreciatively as she accurately knocked her ball through the winning wicket. Borsen stood nearby, speaking enthusiastically to Lady Spartz and her husband, gesturing as he pointed out different plantings.
“Are you forgetting something?” Ifor prodded gently, indicating the linen wrapped rosebush Menders had left behind a tree.
Menders blinked. “Yes. All this knocked it right out of my head,” he laughed sheepishly. “No worry that it will be misunderstood now.”
He retrieved the parcel and walked over to Borsen.
The boy turned, his face illuminated with delight.
“Uncle, look at all the people!” he cried. “The priest of Galanth from the Temple and even the mayor of Artrim came! I invited them because their gardens are so beautiful. They’re gobsmacked, so they say! The priest says it will become a wonderful garden for weddings to be held in!”
“I’m sure it shall,” Ifor smiled, ruffling Borsen’s hair.
“What is that, Uncle?” Borsen asked, noticing the wrapped rosebush.
“It’s a gift for you and your garden,” Menders replied.
Kaymar noticed the presentation beginning and gave vent to a loud, high pitched whistle between his teeth, gesturing as people turned toward the noise. Menders waited as the party guests gathered around. Hemmett called for quiet and then Menders sank down on one knee, eye to eye with Borsen.
“When you told me you were making a garden, I had to rush along a project I started when you first came to The Shadows,” he said. “Today you’ve shown me that you are capable of anything you ever set out to do, my little nephew. This is for your beautiful garden, to remind you that you are a joy to our home and our family.” He held out the wrapped rose bush so that Borsen could remove the cloth covering.
A chorus of admiration went up as a sturdy, but very small rose was revealed, graced with several perfect, black-red, miniature blossoms. The fragrance, spicy and exotic, wafted to the guests. Menders could hear Eiren and Lady Spartz exclaiming softly over the exquisite scent.
Borsen’s eyes were brimming as he smiled, cupping his fingers under one of the blooms.
“It has a name,” Menders said softly. “This is Borsen, High Chieftain of the Thrun.”
Borsen’s eyes spilled over. With a swift motion, Ifor took the rose bush from Menders’ hands, preventing it from being crushed as Borsen threw his arms around Menders’ neck.