Sunlight reflects on the surface of the loch in the distance as I walk through the dark trees of the forest. Sticks snap under my heavy boots and I breathe in the scent of decomposing leaves and pine needles. When I arrive at the water’s edge, I stop. A range of purple trees are visible on the far side. Beautiful.
I whistle, and listen for a response. A few seconds later a creature darts through the trees behind me.
My dog, a cross between a Hungarian Vizsla and a Collie, leaps into the air next to me, then races back into the woods over some bushes.
I walk on along the path circumnavigating the loch. There’s no wind this morning and it’s not as cold as it has been in recent days.
I pass the fallen elm. Its long trunk and branches protrude into the water, reflecting on the still surface in perfect symmetry. I step around a mire and head towards the woodland further on. Billie runs ahead.
A tree with the shape of an eye patterned in the bark, looks down at me as I step onto the bank at the edge of the forest and head into the trees. I like to get off the main path. There’s less marsh ground and the chances of running into anyone are unlikely.
Here, thousands of fallen leaves have turned the ground into a soft carpet of orange. Through some thorn bushes I find myself in an open area where tree trunks stretch upwards like columns of a cathedral. A little further on and I’m at the secret garden. Dozens of sticks form a fence around the base of a tree and within them is a collection of stones painted in bright colours. One has the image of smiling lips. Another a heart. One says: “RIP”. In the middle is a brown pebble, the size of a hand, with neat, white painted writing: “The Secret Garden.”
The first time I came across it was the day of my interview at St. Matthew’s Church. It lifted my spirits when I saw it. One stone in particular. “Shine,” painted in yellow next to an image of the sun. It encouraged me to do just that. The vicar’s job was offered to me later that day. I’ve been living here three months now and I always start the day walking around the loch. It clears my head, and wears Billie out.
The day after my interview, I took the stone and placed it on another part of my route by the side of the path. I wanted to pass the message on, and for the person who painted it to know it had been seen.
Another time I saw a stone with the words: “Be Kind”. Further along my route I came to a marshland and dragged a fallen branch over to make a bridge. I wanted to add to the positive spirit of this rare place that hardly anyone else knew about.
I found more. As I made my way through a particularly unapproachable part of the woods, many fallen trees lined the ground and had to be climbed over. The bushes were closer together and more difficult to pass. I saw something red and white beyond, resting on the branch of a tree further in but couldn’t work out what it was at first. It looked like it might be a cap or a piece of clothing. I climbed closer and saw an envelope.
The damp paper was delicate in my hands. I opened it and read: “This special garden is here for all to embrace. Just be careful who you tell about this secret place.”
The words reminded me of Lulu. A girl I shared an intense relationship with at university. She wrote poetry all the time. Some of it like this. Enigmatic, with an ability to touch you. My gut stirred. It couldn’t be her surely. She left to live in Ireland. I placed the letter back in the envelope.
“Billie! Come on!”
I didn’t see anything new there for a week or so until one morning I discovered a glove on the ground under a shrub. It was an adult’s glove. Pink. I picked it up and placed it on a branch in the centre of the open area.
The next day it was replaced by a note saying: “Thank you.”
I haven’t seen any sign of life in the secret garden for weeks and wonder if the person has stopped coming.
I wonder if there’s anything today?
A stone on the ground with a painted red arrow points up the hill. I press on up the steep bank where the trees are closer together. I push my way through a holly bush, protecting my skin by pushing my shoulder into the branches. There in front of me are more stones. They line both sides of the trees with candles painted on them. And at the end is another envelope sitting on the bough of an oak tree. I open it and read the words:
“I don’t know who you are, but I wish you well. You’re clearly a kind person and it’s good to know there are kind people out there. I am moving from the area tomorrow, but before I go, I want you to know that I appreciated your kindness. I pray that you will find happiness wherever you end up.
Andy Houstoun has had short stories published in a range of magazines and won ''Best UK fiction on the Net 2021' in the literary journal Ariel Chart Review. He is the author of the novella-in-flash 'Waiting For Lulu at Wuthering Heights'.