Part One: Saihajleen
When her daughter Amarjeet was two months old, Saihajleen went to work for Memsahib Lennox. On the day she first met the Memsahib, she left the baby with her brother and walked across Amritsar, through dusty, narrow, zig-zag streets of the city. In this cool hour of the morning, the bazaars were already full, men and women crowding around the high-heaped stalls to talk and haggle. The air was full of steam and the scent of spices: shahi jira, dhaniya, dal chini, tejpatta, laung. In the little rooms that opened onto the street behind the stall, gleaming copper pots were heating over low fires and clay tandoors glowed in the shadows.
Saihajleen traced her way through the market, ignoring the gnaw of hunger in her stomach at the smell of food. Pattering male voices were calling over the crowd, some singing promises of generous loans, easily repaid, easy as breathing; others promised luck or beauty, just stop and buy, pause for a moment. She ignored them, picking her way carefully. Dust rose from every step and already the hems of her salvaar were already turning brown.
There was the sound of hooves behind her and a blaring voice shouted over the crowd. Two British officers were riding through, their red coats shining brightly above the dark or veiled heads of the shoppers around them. Slowly, the crowd parted to let them through, shuffling back between the stalls, leaving just enough space for the horses to pass. Saihajleen was pressed back against the wall and she held herself stiff, trying to keep her back from brushing the dirty brick.
She swayed a little, off-balance, and a girl in a bright pink sari caught her sleeve, steadying her. "Take care."
Saihajleen thanked her. The girl grinned at her, smile flashing easily, and said, "These British soldiers ride horses that are as fat as their generals."
Her clear voice carried over the buzz of the crowd, and one of the British soldiers turned to look at her. She winked one heavily kohled eye at him as Saihajleen turned her face into the shadows. He blushed, pale face going mottled, and rode on in a hurry.
The girl laughed and said mockingly, "You're not scared, are you?"
"My daughter is hungry," Saihajleen said. "I am going to ask a Memsahib for work."
The girl's face softened in sympathy. "Ah. May you have good luck. I will pray for you and your daughter."
"You are very kind," Saihajleen said, although she did not entirely believe in luck. Success came from hard work.
By the time she pushed free of the market, the day was beginning to grow warm. Pariah hawks were circling overhead, and the vultures were gathering along the rooftops, wings swaying and resettling lazily, watching for any carrion that might be left on the streets when the market moved away. She set a quick pace, hurrying through the city until she reached the Hall Gate. She paused in the shade there, below the ancient walls of the city, and wiped the sweat from her brow before continuing onwards.
There were no houses to give shade outside the walls of Amritsar, but there were trees, grey-barked sirinhs, broad babul trees and low thorn bushes. There were more British riders and carriages on the road here. Saihajleen walked along the edge of the road, where the roots of the trees pushed up beneath the pressed dirt and kept her head bowed. She crossed the railway, glancing at the long lines of iron which stretched like an endless chain to each horizon. There was hemp grass growing out of the cracks in the road, tough and sharp-edged.
The Civil Lines, when she reached them, looked like another country. Smart white bungalows stood back from the road, each surrounded by a green lawn. Flowers grew in neatly regimented lines against the edge of the houses. There were a few ladies in voluminous dresses proceeding from house to house, their faces shaded by parasols. Hurrying, her head down, Saihajleen sought out the bungalow that had been described to her, the one at the furthest end of the road, where the countryside brushed against the edge of the town, with the tamarisk by the garden gate.
Inside the bungalow, she was shown into the memsahib's presence by the head servant, an elderly and scowling man who reminded her of her grandfather, long dead. The memsahib was lying on a chaise in the centre of the room. She was pregnant, her heavy belly pressing forward against the white layers of her dress. She looked weak and ill, red patches of colour high in her cheeks and her pale hair limp against her brow. Above her, the punkah fan was clanking back and forth, stirring the air forcefully.
"Is this the wet nurse?" she asked tiredly. "Do you speak English, girl?"
"Yes, memsahib," Saihajleen said.
"And you have enough milk to feed another child?"
Memsahib Lennox sat up, pushing wearily at the cushions beneath her. Without thinking about it, Saihajleen went to help her, supporting her. The Memsahib blinked at her, her tired eyes suddenly focussing. This close, Saihajleen could see that she was very pretty and very young.
"Doesn't your husband mind?" the memsahib said abruptly.
"I am a widow," Saihajleen said, feeling her heart clench. He had gone too soon, when her belly was barely swollen, and she and Amarjeet were alone now. Her daughter had no father to love and trust.
"I'm sorry," Memsahib Lennox said, but her tone was more polite than sympathetic. "You have references?"
Saihajleen bowed again and brought the folded papers out of her kameez. The other woman took them with a little grimace and began to read through them. At last, she laid them aside, and said, "You will have to be clean and honest in your ways if you come here."
She needed the job, so Saihajleen fought back the little twitch of indignation that caused and said, "Of course, memsahib."
"Are you a Hindu or a Mussalman?"
"I am a Sikh."
"Oh," the memsahib said flatly. "And are you a good Sikh? Go to temple often? Keep your rules?"
"Well, you sound suitable enough," she said, voice discontented. "One more thing. Go to the window."
Puzzled, Saihajleen walked across the room. Away from the punkah, it was stifling, and she was glad to reach the window and take a breath of the breeze that sighed in. Beyond the window was the strangest garden she had ever seen.
The only flowers she recognised were the roses, huge and glowing under the bright sun. The rest of the garden was a landscape of pale pinks and lilacs, yellowed leaves and woody stalks. It all seemed somehow out of balance, as if some plants had grown too tall and others too short, and things that should still be in bud were in flower too soon. It was still pretty in places, but something in the forced nature of it reminded her of the woman lying behind her.
"What do you think of my garden?" the memsahib asked.
"It is very lovely," Saihaileen said cautiously.
"I brought all the seeds with me from England. Many are from the garden I had at home. I wanted to bring it with me." She sounded petulant. "I wanted to make it beautiful here."
Before she could bite the words back, Saihajleen said, "I don't think your flowers are happy in this country."
There was a silence, with only the clack-clack of the punkah and the rustle of the breeze in the roses. Then Memsahib Lennox said, with a hint of satisfaction in her voice, "Start now. You will attend me until the birth and then see to the child. If your work is satisfactory, you may then be asked to remain as her ayah. Unless that breaks some of your funny rules, of course. I can never keep track."
"I am allowed to do that, yes," Saihajleen said, feeling relief sweep through her. "I am very grateful, memsahib."
"Oh, don't start," the memsahib said. "I hate how you people fawn."
You would hate it more if we were rude, Saihajleen thought, but went to the memsahib's side to wipe cool cloths across her brow. The woman was ill and miserable. Perhaps her temper would improve with time.
Three days later, she helped the memsahib, out into the garden, supporting her as she tottered down from the verandah. The mali, who tended the flowers, was summoned with an imperious flutter of a pale hand and they toured the garden. The memsahib asked sharp questions, cupping wilting blooms with tender hands, and sighed impatiently when she couldn't bend to study one struggling bed.
As they made their way back inside, Saihajleen said, "Will you teach your child to love the garden too?"
"Oh, I don't know," the memsahib said impatiently. "There's no point planning such things. It will probably die before it's old enough. Babies do, out here."
"I hope yours will not," Saihajleen said, shaken. That night, she went back to the servants' huts and cradled Amarjeet close, whispering prayers and promises into her baby's soft hair.
The memsahib had a hard labour, and her doting young husband was frantic with worry for her. For a few days, only Saihajleen remembered the baby, the tiny girl born with a scrunched up, yellow face, sickly and small. Saihajleen nursed her alongside Amarjeet, wondering at the similarities and differences between them as they nuzzled at her breasts: two baby girls, one pale-skinned and sickly, the other dark and healthy, both hungry and desperate for warmth and sleep and love. She sang to them both, rocked them in the same cradle while the doctors paced and murmured in the halls.
After three days, the memsahib was well enough that the household remembered the baby. Saihajleen brought her to the memsahib's bedside, holding her gently as the baby, hungry and tired, whimpered.
"Give her to me," Memsahib Lennox ordered, holding out her arms. Saihajleen passed the child across carefully. At once, the baby started to cry, high and shrill and discontented.
"Stop it!" the memsahib cried, tightening her grip and making the baby howl louder. "Stop it! Stop it!"
She looked so young and frantic, so unready, that Saihajleen's heart ached for her. Gently, she said, "The child is tired, memsahib."
"Then make her sleep! Make her stop crying!" She thrust the child back towards Saihajleen, who took her, rocking her until the crying stopped. Then the memsahib dropped her face into her hands and began to cry herself, big, choking sobs like a little girl with a grazed knee. "I can't bear it! I can't bear it! I don't want her!"
The doctor came forward again, jerking his head at Saihajleen, who withdrew into the hall, holding the child close.
Eventually, they called the child Mary. The memsahib's nerves remained damaged for a long time, strained to the point where even the sight of the child reduced her to tears. Then the captain was sent away on business for his government. The day before he left, he begged Saihajleen to keep the child out of sight.
"She'll make herself ill, ayah," he said earnestly, twisting his cap in his hands. "That's not good for either of them. You'll look after the little mite, and Amy will get well and things will get better, I'm sure."
But they didn't.
Oh, the memsahib recovered her health and her prettiness, and soon she was busy again, dancing from party to party, receiving guests and paying calls all day. She rarely remembered the child, though, and little Mary grew from sickly baby to sickly child without her mother's love. To make up for it, Saihajleen loved her fiercely, almost as fiercely as she loved Amarjeet. She never hesitated to comfort the child, with hugs and sweets and praise. It was easy to give the unhappy little thing whatever she wanted.
Of course, with time, Mary came to believe that she could have whatever she desired, which did little to endear her to her parents or the other local children. Saihajleen wished that she could play with Amarjeet, but the captain did not care to have his daughter play with native children and the memsahib did not care enough to argue with him.
Amarjeet grew into a lively and laughing child. She was fascinated by the little missie sahib, who had shared her mother's milk, and heard the same songs and stories, yet was so sad when Amarjeet herself enjoyed life so very much. She liked to sing and dance and tossed her head in scorn when her mother scolded her.
Saihajleen still attended the memsahib in her garden. Over the years, she began to bring flowers to her mistress, bold blooms plucked from the fields and roadsides, flowers which would grow tall in a Punjabi garden.
"What do you call this?" the memsahib asked, twirling a scarlet flower between her fingers.
"Gurhal," Saihajleen told her. "The flower can be crushed to sweeten food and drinks."
"The proper name is hibiscus," the memsahib told her primly, but her eyes were soft. "It would look pretty in the garden, wouldn't it? There, where the tulips died."
Another time, imperiously, "What are those trees called, that grow by the road? With the dark bark and the round yellow flowers?"
"Kikar," said Saihajleen, watching Mary grub in the soil around the tamarisk tree. "The wood is used for many things."
Over time, some of the English flowers disappeared from the garden, and others appeared in their place, growing with an abundance that Saihajleen thought should make the fragile English blooms blush. The memsahib even stopped mourning the way that her roses had no scent, and began to boast of their size instead.
Then, when Amarjeet and Mary were nine years old, the cholera came. It spread through the city. Saihajleen's brother and his family fell ill, but she dared not visit them, not with two children to protect. But the disease came creeping in, while the memsahib laughed scornfully, as if she believed she was too far above the ground to be at risk.
When Saihajleen felt the first hints of sickness run through her, she sat down and began to pray, not for herself, not even for the memsahib, but for Amarjeet and Mary. Let everyone else die, she thought, but let her girls survive.
Part Two: Amarjeet
Amarjeet screamed and fought as the surviving servants carried her away from the Lennox bungalow. She wanted her mother; didn't understand why they were leaving without her. All the way into the city, she kicked and shouted, calling for her mother until Gurvir, the mali's son, slapped her across the mouth.
"Your mother is dead!" he shouted. "Your mother and my father and the sahib and everyone we left behind!"
Amarjeet felt her limbs stiffen with shock, and found she could not scream any more. Her mother could not die, not her mother. Death was something which happened in other families, not hers, never hers.
But the crack in Gurvir's voice and the tears streaming down old Channan's creased cheeks told her it was true.
They left her in her uncle's care, still silent and shivering. By nightfall she was ill, her sheets streaked. Her aunt, who had already nursed three children through this, and lost one more, changed the sheets and boiled water and sugar together to pour down Amarjeet's throat.
She recovered, although it was a long time before she got back her former strength. She missed her mother's funeral and a part of her refused to believe it had happened; thought that her mother might come back one day, with warm arms and stories of the strange, cold lives of the sahib and his family.
But her mother never came, and Amarjeet slowly forgot her fancies. She forgot about her life in the Lennox household and the little Missie Sahib who had shared her mother's milk. She forgot the few words of English she had learned and the other servants' children who had been her friends. In time, she even began to forget her mother, though she cried herself sick when she realised that precious face was fading from her memory.
Her uncle, who was a poor but devout man, welcomed her into his family, along with his wife's nephew, Sampuran, also orphaned by the illness. He arranged for her to attend the missionaries' school with her cousins, but made her promise not to believe in the Christian god.
"Remember the teachings of the gurus," he told her as he walked with her to the school. "Learn what you can from this school, but do not let it turn you from the truth."
Amarjeet nodded gravely and did as she was told. During the day, she worked hard at her studies. In the mornings and the evenings, she prayed with her family. They visited the temple often, walking through the streets and into the temple grounds, leaving their shoes behind and bathing their feet before they covered their heads and crossed the bridge across the Nectar Pool to the Golden Temple itself.
She loved the temple best on monsoon days, when its gleaming sides shimmered with the rain and its reflection glimmered in the pool, dim but unquenchable. Some days, there were festivals, and she danced and sang. At other times, more and more as she grew older, she was happy to sit inside and listen to the endless recitation of prayers, watching the crowds pass in and out and gaze through the doorways at the water. Other days, she would go with her family to the kitchens, helping prepare food for the poor and needy, hoping that she would never become one of them.
Often, after they left the temple, her uncle would go to the Jallianwala Bagh to sit with his friends and discuss the state of the world. Amardeep would run off to chase her cousins around the few trees and the well where the old men sat. It was there that she laughed for the first time since her mother died, leaning her hands on her knees as she tried to catch her breath.
"What's so funny?" her cousin Narinder demanded.
She waved her hand at the dry grounds around them, at the houses piled up on every side of the square, the narrow gates and sparse trees. "This is called a garden. Pfah."
"It is a garden," Narinder said.
She tossed her head, unimpressed. "Gardens should be green."
"They don't have to be-" Narinder retorted and turned to his older cousin, who was approaching. "Sampuran, tell her gardens don't have to be green."
"The good ones are!" she shot back.
Sampuran laughed and dropped a hand onto each of their shoulders to settle them. "This garden is based on a very ancient style. The ancient Persians invented formal gardens. They set out the rules for where the streams should run and how the trees should be arranged to imitate what they thought was the design of the first garden in the world."
"There are no streams here," Amarjeet pointed out.
"Nor do the Persians rule the world any longer."
She darted a glance up at him, and said, as meekly as she could, "It does not look like a British garden, either."
He laughed and tugged her hair affectionately. "Making mischief? Go and play, monkey."
Over time, curiosity began to nibble at her. At last, she persuaded Narinder to tell their teachers she was ill and slipped back to the British quarter.
There were several new bungalows, and the place seemed quieter than it had been. There were new faces here, though none of the stiff-backed memsahibs did more than sniff at the sight of a barefoot Punjabi girl darting along the road.
The Lennox bungalow was empty, to her surprise. She had always heard that the British were quick to move into empty homes. They moved so often, after all, that they could never really grow to love a place. Glancing nervously down the road, she slipped back into the garden, ducking quickly into the shadow of the house.
The white paint on the walls was beginning to peel, curling back to show green and mossy wood. The creepers which had always been so neatly trimmed had clambered up the side of the house, heavy with flowers. The hibiscus had grown wildly, and the stubby dub grass was pushing upwards. The petunias and larkspurs had wilted into nothing, but a small dhak was pushing out of the lawn. Flowering sanatha and sweet scented kaner smelled sweet on all sides. On every side, flowers and lush leaves warred for space. When she breathed in, she could taste the scents on the air, rich soil and sweet pollen and green leaves. Amarjeet pushed aside a curtain of flowers, and stepped into the heart of the garden. In here, she could barely see the walls of the house. It was a secret garden, a Punjabi garden in the midst of the British Raj. It was wonderful, like a world all of her own. With trembling hands, she reached out to touch the leaves and flowers around her. If she concentrated, she could remember all her mother had told her, the uses of the plants, their names and their legends.
When she looked closely, though, she could see that many of them were thin and spindly, leaves crackling under her fingertips.
A faint sound by her foot made her look down in time to see a little snake with jewel-bright eyes go squirming across the grass. It was harmless, but pretty, and she watched idly as it writhed down into a low dip and then up the other side and into the grass. Then she looked again and realised that the dip was where the irrigation ditch had once run through the garden.
When she examined it, the end of the ditch was blocked with dried leaves and ashy scraps of cloth and wood. Breaking a branch off one of the trees, she began to rake it out, watching for snakes and scorpions. At last, it was clear enough for water to start trickling through.
Satisfied, Amarjeet went home.
A few discreet inquiries told her that the bungalow still belonged to Miss Mary Lennox, although it would become hers until the law declared she was an adult. Amarjeet, who had assumed that the Missee Sahib had died with her parents, wondered if she would even want to come back to India. She had left nothing she loved here.
"Strange that we are all living with our uncles, you and I and the British girl," she said to Sampuran one day as they walked back from the temple. "I wonder if she has cousins, in England." She couldn't imagine England. All she had ever heard of it were the stories her mother repeated – a place of cold rain and grey cities where everyone dressed in dull colours.
"Why worry about her?" he asked, curling his lip in distaste. "She means nothing."
"She was my mother's daughter, too," Amardeep said, thinking it through. "Her daylight daughter."
"Then she was a thief, who stole what was rightfully yours."
"No," Amardeep replied, shaking her head. "She was just a girl."
She went back to the secret garden once or twice a month to tend to it. It grew more extravagant with the passing of the years, overwhelming the crumbling house. Amardeep heard that the neighbouring memsahibs had petitioned the governor to have it demolished, but nothing happened. The garden simply kept growing, its edges merging into the wilderness beyond the end of the district.
After four years, Amarjeet, finished her lessons at the Christian school, although the missionaries kept her on to work as a maid. It was a pleasant enough job, among familiar faces, and she enjoyed it as much as she could.
Across the world, the British went to war, but little changed in Amritsar at first. Slowly, the trade in hides and skins began to drop as the Germans finally cut off all trade with British India. More and more people came to the temple for food, and there were more hungry children in the streets. Everyday, at the school, the missionaries made the children pray for the brave soldier boys in France and they chanted the words obediently.
When she was fifteen, her aunt and uncle began to speak of finding a husband for her. She had not really considered marriage yet, but was pleased when it was quickly decided that she should marry Sampuran. She liked his quick mind and his steadiness, and she had always enjoyed teasing a smile out of him. That was more than most girls had.
"Our uncle is torn in two," he said to her one evening, catching her arm as she passed him in the passage. "With both of us parentless, he doesn't know if he is supposed to play your father or mine."
She laughed. "That is not the only thing tearing at him." She flashed him a quick smile. "He wants it to be a very proper wedding, but our aunt cannot forget that her friend Aahna's daughter had a dholki and a mehndi party and a rut jugga and-"
"Poor aunt," Sampuran said, mouth twitching.
"Poor uncle," she corrected. "Aunt is quite insistent."
"Poor us," he said lightly. Then his face turned serious. "I needed to speak to you. Privately."
"Of course," she said. He looked troubled, so she laid her hand on his arm. "What's wrong?"
He drew her into the alcove by the door, well away from any eavesdroppers and said, "There's something you should know about me. It could be dangerous and, if that's too much, I will tell uncle to find you a better man."
"Are you dangerous now?" she asked, delighted. He looked so serious about it, a little crease between his brows and his eyes wide with concern.
"There is a group I have been working with here," he said, voice barely above a whisper. "A nationalist group. We want the British out of India."
She stared at him, taken aback. Then, before she could stop herself, she laughed. "I thought you were about to tell me you had mistresses."
"Amarjeet!" he protested.
"I'm not afraid," she said fiercely over him. "I trust you."
That got a real smile and he leaned down to brush his lips against hers. "Thank you.."
She stared at him, shocked speechless by the sudden shiver that had run through her. Her lips were tingling and she wet them, trying to catch that lingering thrill on her tongue. Then, trembling a little at her own forwardness, she rose onto her toes and kissed him again, pressing her lips against his. After a moment, his arms locked around her, pulling her tight against his body, and his tongue was teasing her lips. She gasped, mouth opening against his, clutching at his shoulders to keep her balance as his hand swept down her back.
Then her aunt smacked her round the back of the head with a folded cloth. Amarjeet squeaked, jumping back in shock.
"Save it for the wedding night," the older woman advised, with a lewd chuckle that Amarjeet thought was entirely inappropriate for someone of her years.
"Sorry," Sampuran said, tucking his hands behind his back. He looked so flustered that she had to smile at him. No, she wasn't going to mind marrying him at all.
In the end, a truce was achieved. Amarjeet went to her wedding with mehndi on her hands and feet, red flowers and vines that made her think of her secret garden, its shadows and warmth and sweet, damp air. There had been no string of parties, however, and they followed the ceremony soberly, although she wanted to smile as Sampuran led her through the four rounds. Instead she kept her eyes modestly lowered, watching the fine cloth of her red salvaar shiver around her ankles as she walked. Through the rest of the ceremony, she could feel his hand shaking next to hers.
At last, they were alone, and she went to him eagerly. He caught her, swinging her around until her feet left the ground and she laughed with the joy of it and lifted her face into his glad kisses.
Later, when they lay quietly, his hand on her bare belly and their hair spreading across their pillows, flowing into one long, shining stream, like a river by night, she said, "Tell me about your nationalists. What do they intend?"
"This British war," he said, voice soft and lazy. "When it is won, things will start to change. Promises have been made. And if they are not kept, then change will come faster than the British will like."
It was an exciting thought, and she let half-formed images swirl in her mind, cavalry and fire and swords and the two of them in the middle of it, heroes to their people. Then she blinked it away, amused. Men always spoke such words, and still the British stayed. Those she knew of were arrogant, yes, and ignorant, but they were not demons to be cast down. Change, she was sure, would come slowly, no matter how fine the words.
Rolling over, she dropped her head onto his shoulder, curling close. "My brave husband."
"This is serious, Amarjeet," he protested, but she lifted herself up enough to kiss the words out of his mouth.
But the British, calling it a matter of defence, were clamping down on the nationalist movement. Every time Sampuran slipped out to a meeting, she found herself worrying more and more. "I should come with you," she said.
He laughed. "To protect me from the British?"
"No," she said, though that was part of her reason. She had heard too many whispered stories of late: people she knew of and respected silenced or deported. "I want to come because you're right."
He brushed his thumb over her lips. "I would be afraid for you."
"That's only fair," she said.
After a year, they moved out of their aunt and uncle's house into a room above the print shop where Sampuran worked. It was a small room, with mud-baked walls and no curtains over the windows, but it was their home and she loved it almost as fiercely as she had come to love him.
The war in Europe ended, with drunken soldiers stumbling through the streets of Amritsar, but no relaxing of the Defence Act. No hint of self-governance came from any level of the government of the Raj.
Instead, the influenza came.
It started off small, just a few people coughing on the streets, more than usual number complainiing, of aching heads and temperatures. Then people began to die, collapsing on the street, faces turning blue as they tried and failed to breathe. It stuck British, Hindus, Sikhs and Mussalmen alike, but it touched the young most cruelly. At the school, the older pupils collapsed one by one. Amarjeet spent her days cradling sick and dying girls as they choked for breath, fever hot on their brows, blood on their lips and their cheeks turning blue.
She and Sampuran were with their cousin Narinder when he died, young eyes glittering with fright. They walked home through the cool evening, through a city that echoed with the sound of wailing. The vultures were floating over the streets, or clustered on the ground around the unburied dead. She grabbed a stone from the ground and hurled it at the stooping birds, shouting, "Get away! Get away!"
"Don't," Sampuran said. "Let's go home, please. I'm tired."
She swung to look at him, worried, and he smiled at her. "Just tired. Nothing more." But his hand, when she took it, was hot.
He went to bed early that night, complaining of a headache. She knelt by the window, staring up into the moonless night and prayed.
The next morning, his temperature had risen. By the afternoon, he had started to cough. He coughed all through the night, his breathing growing steadily harsher as she lay tense and terrified beside him. On the second day, she went out to look for a doctor, but they were all sick or overwhelmed and she knew already that none of them had a cure.
When she got home, there was blood on the pillows, and he was lost in fever. She wiped his brow and coaxed him into eating, but he coughed it up moments later, mixed with flecks of blood.
On the third day, he died.
That night, for the first time in years, she went back to the secret garden, stumbling through familiar streets as if through nightmare. In the dark space at the heart of the garden, she fell to her knees, feeling the rough grass graze her palms.
And there she cried out her grief to the listening sky.
Part Three: Mary
It was Christmas 1918 before Mary Lennox realised that she would never many. Ironically enough, this realisation came she found out that everyone expected her to marry her cousin Colin.
"Why would I want to do that?" she demanded, dropping her armload of greenery onto the floor of the hall in shock.
Mrs Medlock sniffed. "Well, you won't find anyone else who will have you, not in this day and age."
Mary thought about that, running through all the young men she knew, boys from local families and the brothers of schoolfriends. It was then, for the first time, that she realised nearly all of them were dead.
"I don't want to marry you," she said to Colin later, perched on the edge of his bed. Outside, the snow was whirling down from a dark sky, shrouding the moor in a clean blanket of white.
"Horrible thought," he said, not looking up from his book. "Let's not talk about it ever again."
"You shouldn't be reading in this light," she told him meanly. "The doctor said you needed to rest your eyes."
"I wouldn't need to read in this light if someone hadn't been pestering me all afternoon. Why in the world would anyone think I'd want to marry you?"
"Everyone thinks so," she told him. At least there was someone else sane in the house. "Mrs Medlock, your father, all of the housemaids, the footmen. Even Ben grunted about it. I asked them all."
"Well, you can rest assured that I would rather have the influenza again than marry you."
Mary gave a quick, jerky shudder. He had come so very close to dying, so close that he was still closeted here, with all the servants tiptoeing past his door and the groom on alert to ride for the doctor at a moment's notice. To hide her jolt of fear, she added, "And certainly not just because you're still alive."
"You wouldn't be the first to try," he said, squinting down at the page. Mary let out an indignant huff and took the book out of his hands.
"Who?" she demanded.
"Doesn't matter," he said irritably. "I wasn't interested. Told her that if all the upper classes were dead, then she should do herself a favour and marry an honest working man."
"Did she appreciate it?" Mary asked, imagining the reaction of some beribboned and becurled young miss to that.
"I'm off her list of eligible suitors, at least." He gave her a considered took. "That's your best option, too, I daresay."
She shrugged one shoulder. "What if I don't want to marry at all?"
"Then don't. Give me my book back."
"No. I'm talking to you."
He gave a long-suffering sigh and slumped back against his pillows. "Very well. Be a spinster, if you like."
"I'd make a terrible wife," she pointed out.
She tightened her lips a little at that, because it was almost too rude even for him. "If I was a spinster, I could do anything I liked."
"What do you want to do?"
She moved her shoulders, not quite ready to voice the half-formed idea that had been troubling her for months. "I'm not sure."
He laughed and said lightly, "Don't do anything I wouldn't."
"That really doesn't constrict me much."
"Shrew. I want my book."
"No," she said, getting up. "You're supposed to be sleeping." She blew out the candle beside his bed and tiptoed out of the room to the sound of his grumbling.
The next day, the snow stopped, so she bundled herself up warmly and walked across the moor to visit Martha. The sky above her stone like steel, and the moors below were bright with snow. Dark lines of trees brushed across the fields and the highest crags gleamed grey where the wind had scoured them clean. The snow crunched and creaked beneath her feet as she walked, and the air tasted clean and stinging.
Her breath swirled around her as she crossed the familiar hollows where the heather and gorse bloomed in another season. The arching branches were white with snow this morning, shining so sharp against the sky that Mary sighed to see them.
By the time she reached the Sowerbys' cottage, her cheeks were stung pink and her lips were chapped. She stamped the snow off her boots and ducked into the warmth of the cottage.
Everyone inside turned to look at her, faces bright with anticipation. Then Jane let out a huff of disappointment and flopped back into her chair.
"He's not home, then?" Mary asked, disappointed. "I think it's downright wicked of them not to let them come home for Christmas. The war's over."
"There's no call for talk, of wickedness," Mrs Sowerby said firmly. "Those boys will be home as soon as they can."
"Not soon enough," Martha said quietly from the back of the cottage, where she was bent over a pile of mending.
In July 1914, Martha had married John Allerton, one of the younger grooms at Misselthwaite Manor. Mary had been one of her bridesmaids and they had celebrated the wedding in the little village church, where the birds gathered in the churchyard trees and laughter had rung towards the bright sky. Then the war had come and the village boys had rushed to join the regiment. Johnny Allerton now lay somewhere in a Belgian field, and Martha had come home to her mother's hearth, her laughter dimmed.
Mary dropped down on the stool opposite her, ignoring the chatter rising around her again to say, "Martha, I have the most wonderful idea. And tha mun help me with it, Martha, please."
Martha lifted her head, a little hint of interest in her eyes. "What art tha thinking of, lass? And don't talk Yorkshire. Your uncle would be cross."
"You do it," Mary said pertly, leaning forward with her hands cupped around her knees. "Martha, I'm going back to India. Come with me."
And Martha almost did, wavering over the decision right until Christmas Eve. But then Dickon came home and it was obvious at once that Martha would stay in Yorkshire.
The war had changed him, as if it had pressed him down hard and squeezed some of the magic out of him. He was still Dickon, competent and wise and solemn, but sometimes now there was something haunted in his moments of quiet, as if he was seeing something more dreadful than the snow-clad moors.
Mary tried to ask him about it, as they walked through the village one cold morning, Dickon's army coat flaring out from his too-thin shoulders.
He shrugged, but at last said, "Animals, they have better hearts than men, often."
"Of course they do," Mary said impatiently, but he said nothing more. "Oh, I wish you hadn't gone away."
"It seemed the right thing t' do. We canna stay t' same all our lives. Tha's to India, now, and Colin's for Cambridge."
"Eventually," Mary said, worried. Colin wasn't getting any better. Nor was he getting worse, of course, but it seemed that nothing was improving him. Too much exertion tired him, and even a slight touch of cold air set him coughing and wheezing. "Maybe I shouldn't go."
"Tha has good reason, aye?"
"I still can't decide which country to dream about," she said, rubbing her cold fingers together. "I don't know quite where I belong – with the hibiscus or the pansies. I don't remember enough, or not enough of the right things. I don't know."
"A garden's a garden," he said. "Indian or English."
"But an Indian rose isn't the same as an English one," she said, frustrated. "Not quite."
She finally sailed in mid-January, with a dull hired maid as her companion. She asked Dickon to watch over Colin, made Colin swear to leave his books alone long enough to spend time with Dickon and sighed in relief when Martha promised to look after them both.
As they sailed south, the heat began to sink into her bones and she remembered more and more about India, the slow, long days of summer, when every movement was an extraordinary effort and the wet sigh of the monsoon. Some nights she dreamed of colour and heat, but on others the moors crept into her dreams, in all their moods, brown, grey, golden, green.
She arrived in the Punjab at the end of March, to the horror of her father's solicitors, who urged her to return to the southern provinces as fast as possible. The little bald man in the office in Lahore circled around the problem, hinting at conspiracies and native unrest.
"I'm not wanting to have anything to do with the natives," Mary said, feeling contrary. "I just want to see my parents' property, and decide whether to make arrangements for its sale."
"Miss Lennox, I urge you-"
"I shall leave for Amritsar tomorrow," she informed him, scrunching her lips up tight.
He mopped at his forehead with a limp handkerchief. "Miss Lennox, the house may not be in quite the condition you would hope for."
"I understood arrangements had been made for its upkeep."
"Of course, but naturally an uninhabited house-" She glowered at him, and he stopped and shrugged, "This is India."
"That's no excuse," she said. "I assume accommodation can be arranged. There is a hotel in the city, isn't there?"
"Certainly, Miss Lennox, but-"
"Then I will stay there," she informed him, gathering her bags.
On the train to Amritsar, the land around the railway tracks began to look familiar, the brown ground and the sinuous trees emerging from behind her memories of the moor like ghosts. She wondered what Martha would think of the plains, whether she would see the beauty of the flowering trees and shimmering heat, and the distant blue shadows of the mountains.
"Isn't it lovely?" she said to the hired maid, whom she was disliking more with every hour in India.
"Hot and dusty, if you ask me, miss," the maid said with a little sniff. "At least we don't have to put up with any natives in this carriage."
Mary started to agree, but then hesitated. She didn't think Martha or her mother would like that. She would never treat Martha like she had treated her native servants here and, for the first time, she wondered if they had secretly despised her for it. In her loftiest, most contrary voice, she said, "I think they should ride wherever they like. It's their country."
"Miss Lennox!" the maid said, scandalized. "You mustn't say such things. What if one of them should overhear?"
"They'd hardly have a chance," Mary retorted, and went back to looking out of the window. The beauty outside was moving her less, though, and it made her cross. She had never troubled herself with natives before. Why should she start now?"
But when she alighted from the train at Amritsar, she found herself watching the native porters intently, watching how they laughing with each other, eyes gleaming, and how their whole demeanour changed when she approached, laughter fading and heads bowing.
The platform was crowded, families gathering noisily, small children running between legs and ankles. There were bold colours here: red, pink, orange; blacks and whites there. There were women in graceful saris and black veils, men bare-headed or wearing turbans as wide as their shoulders. If she had stayed here, would she know the reasons behind every choice of costume that she saw?
Suddenly, she felt very conscious of her English pallor and long, dun-coloured traveling dress. She was the exotic one here, as she had been when she first arrived in England: Indian there, British here.
Then the lawyer's factor appeared at her side, huffing out apologies. He seemed to think she should go to the hotel first, but Mary, sick of traveling, said, "No. I want to see my house."
When they arrived at the house, it was even worse than she had expected. The garden had almost overwhelmed it, as if the walls had bowed down under the weight of the leaves and flowers. Only the corners of the walls showed through, like some old, ruined hill temple.
Mary climbed the mossy steps and reached out towards the front door. The screen had long since rotted away and the door felt soft beneath her gloved fingertips but it swung open at her touch and she walked back into the home of her childhood.
It was green and shady and smelt a little little the moor on a summer's day, but there was a rich and musky tang here which was at odds with the clarity of Yorkshire air. The light slanted through the holes in the ceiling in ribbons of green and gold.
She walked through the house, remembering as she went. This had been her mother's parlour, used for entertaining. Here was the dining room, a stain from spilled wine still on the floor. Here was the nursery where Mary's ayah had sung to her and told her wise, strange stories she had never quite forgotten.
It should have been a tragic place, but instead it was full of magic, the kind of magic she had believed in so fervently as a child.
For a long time, she lingered there, in the warm green light, trying to remember what it had been like to live and play here. Her mind kept drifting back to England, however, to Colin and his dry cough, Dickon's sad-eyed and Martha's dimmed laughter. She wasn't sure any more what she had hoped to find here. There were no ghosts here, no answers to half-formed questions. Suddenly, so intensely it hurt in the best of ways, she wanted to see the moors again, to slot India back into place and go home to the people who needed her. Before she went, however, there was more more place she had to see.
Almost tiptoeing, she made her way to the garden. The verandah was so overgrown that it was like a garden itself, so she parted the vines gently and stepped into the green warmth of another secret garden.
But, unlike her Yorkshire garden, this one was already occupied. A native woman knelt by the foot of one of the trees, her hands busy tending the rags that bounded and trained its branches. Beside her sat a small tray of basic tools, not unlike the ones Mary carried in her own garden.
"Who are you?" Mary said, dragging what she remembered of her Hindustani out of her memory.
The woman startled, and swung her head round to stare at Mary. She was lovely, in the Indian way, with eyes as dark as her hair and a fine, sad face. She was also, Mary realized, as the other woman tried to stand, pregnant.
Mary went at once to help her, but the woman stepped away, her face flashing anger.
"Who are you?" Mary asked again, voice gentler. This woman had been tending the garden. From the state of the rest of the house, she was no paid curator either. This was someone's secret. She too had once loved another woman's abandoned garden, and she found her curiosity rising. How many secret gardens were there in the world, how many women tending them? Why had this woman come here, to this garden?
Holding out her hand, she said, "I am Mary Lennox. Will you tell me your name?"
"I know who you are," the other woman said, in English. She shook her hair back, studying Mary. "I am Amarjeet."
"What are you doing in my garden?" Mary asked.
Again, that swiftly hidden flash of anger. "It is not your garden. Memsahib."
Mary was about to snap back at her. But curiosity overcame her her temper. Still holding out her hand, she said, "Come inside. Take tea with me and tell me whose garden it is. Tell me who you are and how you know me. Tell me everything." Then she thought again, tried to predict her own type of contrariness in another person, and added, "Or, at least, tell me what you're willing to say."
"And if I don't wish to tell you anything. My life is mine to govern."
"Then I hope you will tell me about the garden. I have a garden too."
"An Indian garden?" Amarjeet asked, lip curling a little.
"An English garden. I've never seen an Indian garden."
It was a moment before Amarjeet responded. Then she said, voice soft, "My mother helped yours plant this garden."
Mary stepped forward, and their hands met, two women standing in a secret garden, as the story unfolded.