Aunt Phyllis’s moon garden is one of my fondest and earliest childhood memories.
During one of our annual week-long stays at her house in Kentucky, I waited until everyone was asleep and slipped out the open window of my cousin Michael’s old first floor bedroom with what I imagined at the time was the greatest of stealth.
As a curious child of nine years, I simply couldn’t help myself. The tantalizing fragrance of the night, carried in by the lazy Southern breeze, was hypnotic. It beckoned me.
The cobblestone walk that led to the garden was cool on my bare, pink feet. Bathed in the unearthly glow of the moon, I heard owls hooting in the distance. I heard Crickets. Cicadas. Bullfrogs. The backbone of this nocturnal orchestra was, of course, the wolves. There was something about the unearthly howl of wolves under a full moon that set my natural sense of wonder ablaze with flames of a thousand shades of blue.
I’d seen the garden during the day, and I remember thinking that it was pretty neat, but I wanted to see it after the sun went to sleep, to verify my Aunt Phyllis’s claims that it only truly came alive after midnight for myself.
I winced as the wrought iron gate squeaked open. I decided to leave it ajar until I left, rather than closing it behind me and risking waking my mother and aunt with another squeak.
Aunt Phyllis was right. Awestruck, that’s the only word available in my vocabulary suitable for describing my feelings the moment I entered that garden.
The scene before me was like something out of a fairy-tale; there were flowers everywhere, all in full bloom, all drinking in the night.
In later years, after happening upon a dog-eared paperback guidebook to plants and flowers in a used bookstore, I was able to give names to most of the flowers stored in my memories.
Moonflower. Night phlox. Angel’s Trumpet. Cestrum Nocuturnum. The names were as magical and ethereal as the plants themselves.
The flowered vines that crept up the cold, crumbling stone walls cried silently to the stars for sustenance, their white, blooming mouths opened wide like baby birds.
I saw a small, whitish-colored lizard, illuminated by nothing but the moon and stars overhead, skitter across a rock and disappear into a bed of lush green ground cover, out of which had burst forth hundreds of tiny, powder blue flowers.
Something was missing, though. The little statue I’d always admired, the naked troll sitting on a rock. The rock the lizard had been on, it occurred to me. I’d just seen it that afternoon; had someone moved it since then?
I heard footsteps and my pulse quickened. My mom. I’m really going to get it, now.
I whirled around, poised to make a mad dash back through the gate and into the open window I’d emerged from minutes earlier, when a gruff voice with a strange, unrecognizable accent gave me pause.
“Hello there. Where ya headin’ in such a hurry?”
After taking a moment to thaw myself, I turned to face the source of the voice. It was him. The troll. And he was real. I mean, he still looked like a statue; his skin was colorless; or rather grey like stone, but the stone was moving. I could see the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, I could see him narrowing his eyes, I could see him tilting his head at me. It was utterly surreal.
Responding to him went against every parental warning I’d ever been issued about talking to strangers, but I figured he wasn’t the kidnapping and murdering type of stranger, being a two-foot tall talking statue, and all. Besides, he wasn’t technically a stranger; he lived here.
“You can talk?”
The troll frowned. “‘Course I can talk. Whaddaya take me for, an imbecile?”
“What’s an… imcible?”
The troll shook his head. “I better not tell you. ‘Peers I might be talkin’ to one right now. Eh, well, you are just a youngin’ at that, though. I’m sorry, kid.”
“Does it mean stupid? I’m not stupid.”
“No, no. ‘Course not. So eh… so what brings ya out here, this time o’ night and all? Can’t sleep? You humans do mostly sleep at night, don’t ya? Say, what’re ya wearin’ there? I never seen no clothes like that on anybody before.”
I looked down at my glow-in-the-dark Spider-Man pajamas and shrugged.
“They’re just pajamas.”
“They light up! You wear those all the time?”
“No, just to sleep.”
The troll scratched his chin. “Magic sleepin’ clothes, eh?”
I laughed. What a funny little man, I remember thinking.
“They’re not magic. I have a bunch of them. I have some Star Wars ones, too. Luke’s light-saber glows, it’s pretty cool.”
“I don’t know what a Stars War is, but you sure do seem to have a fascinating life, kid.” He looked around. “All I have is this garden.”
“Your garden is cool,” I said. “My life is boring. I wish I lived here.”
The troll seemed sad all of a sudden. “Yeah, right. Cool. So what’s so boring about your life, then? Huh? What makes you think you have it worse than me?”
I looked down, embarrassed. “Kids tease me and stuff, I guess. At school. They’re just mean to me.”
The troll’s brief scowl at this information quickly gave way to a mischievous grin. “Ya want me ta cut their heads off and put ’em in a sack and throw ’em in the river?”
I sighed. “No, you can’t do that. They’re just mean, is all. And I don’t have any friends.”
“Oh. Well, good, ‘cuz I can’t leave this dadgum place, anyway. I’m stuck here. And I don’t have any friends either.”
I looked up at him, and our eyes met, identical thoughts forming in our minds. “Can… can we be friends?” I asked him.
“I don’t see why not,” said the troll. “Friends,” he said, as if trying the word on for size like a jacket. “Yeah, I have a friend now. Moonshine, m’boy, you finally got yourself a friend.”
“Your name is Moonshine?”
The troll shrugged. “Has been ever since I got turnt into a statue.”
“You had another name before?”
Moonshine smiled, but it was a melancholy smile. “Sure enough did. Doggoned if I remember it, though. S’been so long… I don’t wanna talk about it right now, s’long story for another evening. My friend…eh… what, should I call ya? Exactly?”
“Oh! Sorry, my name is Seth.”
“Good name, Seth. Very old. Very old, indeed. Pleasure to make your acquaintance there, Seth.”
“You too,” I said. “I hope sometime you tell me about where you came from.”
Moonshine squinted at him. “Why? Why’re ya so keen on knowin’ all about my business? Whaddaya want?”
I didn’t understand what he meant. “Nothing, that’s just what friends do, I guess. Tell each other stuff.”
Moonshine pondered this for a moment. “I s’pose they do, at that. Ha! Well, Seth, I want to hear all about your spider-men and Stars War and pajamas and school. I haven’t talked to anybody in a long, long time. A little conversation would be nice fer a change, at that.”
“I should probably get back to bed now before my mom sees I’m gone, but I’ll come back tomorrow night, and the night after, and the night after… we’re gonna be here for a whole week.”
Moonshine grinned, baring sharp, jagged stone teeth. “I can’t wait,” he said. “It gets so lonely out here, sometimes.”
“Good night, Moonshine,” I said.
“Good night to you, Seth.”
I didn’t get much sleep that night, if any. And when we passed through the garden on the way to the car after breakfast, there was Moonshine, perched on his rock, just as he’d always been before, until last night. I wondered if he could see me. I wondered if I’d imagined or dreamed the entire thing.
“Seth, come on!” My mother, waiting by Aunt Phyllis’s car.
On our way into town, where my mother and her sister spent an exhausting (for me) afternoon perusing all the quaint little shops that every touristy little mountain town seems to have, I asked aunt Phyllis about Moonshine.
“How do you know his name?”
I could see her in the mirror, peering at me in the backseat over the tops of her sunglasses.
“I guess I must’ve told him,” she said to my mom, who wasn’t paying any attention.
“Never mind. Anyway, Seth, your Uncle Nathan found him for me at an antique store when we were first married, and I just had to have him for my garden. I’m not sure where he came from, or how old he is.”
“Does he ever talk to you?”
The two women in the front seat exchanged chuckles.
“Sweetie,” my mom said, “it’s just a statue. It’s nothing to be scared of.”
“I’m not scared of him. He’s my friend.”
More laughter of the “Aww, how cute” variety.
I didn’t say anything more about it.
Later that night, I escaped out of my window again and visited with Moonshine. I asked him about his past.
He told me he’d been transformed into a decorative garden statue by some hillbilly witch that lived in a cave somewhere in the Appalachians, and that he’d been passed from owner to owner ever since, and he’d lost track of how long it’d been.
It wasn’t too much of a stretch, his story; after all, he was a talking statue. He wouldn’t tell me why the witch had done this to him, and I desperately wanted to know, but even at that age I was perceptive enough to realize he’d already given me far more information than he’d been comfortable divulging, and I respected that.
In the nights that followed, my lost hours of sleep proved well worth the sacrifice as I got to know my new friend.
I’d been heartbroken at having to leave him behind when my mom’s 1985 Le Baron put six hundred miles of highway between us, but he was still there, every year, unchanged, and always happy to see me and eager to hear about the inconsequential events of my life.
The last time I saw him was after my aunt’s funeral in 1989. My mother had to clean up the house and get it ready to sell, and we stayed there for a good week or so doing just that.
We both knew it would probably be the last time we saw each other, and since my mother wouldn’t let me take him with us, despite my earnest pleas, due to lack of space in the car, I promised that I’d find him someday, when I was a grownup, and bring him to live with my family and I.
He didn’t seem too comforted by this, and neither was I. Moonshine was the first friend I ever lost.
As the years went by, Moonshine faded into an abstract concept in the dusty recesses of my mind. I wasn’t even sure he was real. He became something akin to a fondly remembered Saturday morning cartoon.
Still, after we reach a certain age, most of us get bitten by the nostalgia bug, and I’m no exception.
While stopping over in Kentucky on a business trip, I found myself unable to sleep, and I realized that my motel was a mere hour’s drive from the house where Aunt Phyllis had once lived.
Throwing caution to the wind and refusing to acknowledge the childishness of my impulsive act, I threw on some clothes and hit the road.
It was a long and anxious drive, with some talk radio host’s angry, rapid-fire staccato shouting finally getting to me after a half an hour.
I drove the rest of the way in silence; my own thoughts were loud enough.
I cut the headlights when I reached the long, narrow dirt road that led to the house.
There was a light on, out on the porch, and a car parked out front. Someone lived here, and I was trespassing.
Heart racing, I parked off to the side of the road, my car obscured by the shadows of a centuries-old canopy of oak trees, and proceeded on foot to my destination, hoping that I wouldn’t get shot.
There were just as many lightning bugs as I’d remembered…. and mosquitoes. I slapped my neck and felt a wet splat of blood beneath my palm, which I wiped off on my jeans.
When I got to where the garden should have been, I simply stood and stared, dumbfounded, for a long time.
A swimming pool. They’d torn down the garden, the walls, the gate, everything. And they’d put in a pool.
I wanted to get angry at this obscene, gaping hole in the fabric of my childhood memories, but this was their house, after all. They had every right to do as they pleased with it.
My eyes were drawn to a pile of junk and rubble at the edge of the yard, where the lawn met the woods. There were large pieces of stone jutting out from between a discarded bicycle frame, a rusty old charcoal grill with one leg missing, a tractor tire, and other similarly useless pieces of random debris. The whole thing had been overtaken by some kind of ugly, dead brush.
I walked over to the pile, and upon closer inspection my suspicions were confirmed. Chunks of wall, pieces of broken trellis, even the squeaky gate I’d so gingerly opened on many a warm summer night such as this, it had all been torn out and discarded, the magic long since bled out of all of it. My most cherished childhood memories were just a mound of garbage in someone’s backyard.
I moved some stuff around, ripped some dry, dead vines out of the way and found what I’d come for.
There he was, lying face down on the ground, beneath the debris… and cracked completely in half.
My heart sank into my stomach.
“Moonshine,” I whispered, tracing a finger along the smooth surface of his back.
That was it, then. If he’d ever been alive, he wasn’t anymore. He was dead, and my childhood with him. A closed chapter; a part of the past.
The bullies of the playground are now the bullies of the boardroom, and everybody is still mean. Adulthood is just like childhood, but without the magic.
And the realization that there is no magic in the world, and that there never was…well, that’s the unkindest cut of all.
I turned to leave, realizing that there was nothing here for me and I’d done nothing but waste time, lose sleep and make myself depressed.
There was a rustle.
“Moonshine?” I whispered stupidly.
I held my breath. There was another rustle, and I stared intently at the brush-entwined junk pile, looking for signs of movement.
A single white flower, a moonflower, to be exact, pushed its way to the surface and bloomed before my eyes.