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Gardens of Babylon

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Once upon a time – that's the way all proper stories start, and I suppose this is a story, of a sort. A parable, perhaps, or a dreadful warning, but those are stories too … so:

Once upon a time there was a young girl, who went to get water from the well, and swept out the fire, and fed the chickens, and did all the things a young girl should do. She was a clever girl, but she was prepared to work hard, which was more important, and probably some of that cleverness could be put to use learning to bargain shrewdly in the market, and seeing how to run a house and farm, if she was lucky enough to be given that job. (And she was at least reasonably pretty, as well as hard working, so there was some chance she would make the jump from being one of too many children to being the only wife of some established farmer, with a house and land of his own.)

She had a talent for quieting younger children, for making them sit still a while, or go to sleep quietly when the working day was done, and this was because she told the most marvellous stories, stories not about chores and tasks and daily life, and not about princesses and knights either, but about miracles and wonders.

In her stories, a square foot of dirt, undistinguished, uninteresting, became a battle ground, a maze, the home of fantastic creatures: travellers from some vast city underground passed to and fro, clad in black armour, following pathways invisible to man; monsters, eyeless and limbless, made vast tunnels, eating their way through the soil, avoiding the surface where the black-clad warriors would fall upon them and carry them home, still twitching, as the spoils of war. Or the tree above: a normal tree, a tree interesting only for the fruit it bore – that tree bred wasps out of its own substance, and if you looked at it carefully, long before the fruit was worth picking, you could see them emerge and fly away.

She was the one who knew where the first violets would appear, and could describe their elusive scent. She was the one who saw how the hawk hovered, and the dragonfly, and difference between them. She was the one who could describe the marshy river's edge, where the bright kingfishers dived, and say how another world in miniature reflected everything in reverse, as the water reflects the sky: safe in the fields and meadows, sheep and cattle graze, and plants are fodder only; in that other world, the pretty yellow bladderworts graze peacefully on the little fish. Everything she looked upon she studied and learnt, and everything she studied had a type of beauty to her eyes, and her gaze went everywhere.

Everywhere, from the shapes of the clouds, to the ash in the fireplace, to the ground beneath her feet, and out along the street to the village gate too, and the woods beyond, and the tower on the hill, and the road leading away past the horizon to some great and distant city no one had ever visited.

The woods were not fairytale woods, dark and dangerous – they were normal woods, with nuts to be collected in autumn, and game for hunters, and berries in season. People lived in the woods, not many, but one or two: you could walk for hours, paths twisting in and out like a maze, and then all of a sudden the woods would open out into a clearing, sunlit and charming, with a little house and matching garden, vegetables growing in neat lines, hens scratching in the dirt. They were women, mostly, who lived like that, and worth talking to. Few of them had stories (no time for such things – it's a harder life in the woods than in town, with no neighbours to help you), but they kept their eyes open, and they knew things: not only what they'd learnt themselves, but knowledge handed down like an iron skillet or a china plate, passing for hand to hand, from mind to mind.

They knew not only things anyone could know, if they had the eyes to see (where the sweet blackberries grew, how to tend the fire, how best to catch a plump hare), but unpredictable things, things learnt only at a price not worth paying (not worth it for the original student, but so useful for those who followed): that the bright red seeds of the yew, sweet and tempting and so obviously dangerous (the red a warning to birds, to men), were quite safe for even a child to eat – it was the little, unassuming seeds, bone-white and plain, that killed without warning or chance to be saved; that a snug small cottage, closed tight against drafts, with a warm fire blazing up, was not the haven it seemed, and a little of the outside cold must always be allowed in, though why a sliver of the bitter winter wind should keep death at bay better than the perfect warmth of the fire no one could say.

There was a tower, almost a day's walk away. It was not somewhere a young girl should go. Not because it was some Bluebeard's lair, or some ogre's den: no carnivorous ghosts haunted it, no depraved princes, demons in disguise. No, it was only that it was almost a day away, and there was work to be done.

In fact it was a well-built tower, squat and solid and not ruined in the least (not dark and foreboding either), with a squat square building attached, and gardens around it – not fairytale gardens with roses and thorns, but practical gardens with herbs, and fruit, and also chickens, very like the cottages in the wood, and in the village itself.

At some point it had been a watchtower, though no one now remembers what it watched for, but it had come to be used by monks, who lived there quietly, growing things in their garden and tending their chickens, but also reading their books, fine leather-bound things, letters picked out in dazzling colours (the colour of the kingfishers, of the yew-berry, of the yellow flowers at the water's edge). The tower had many books, and they had been there a long time, so that it almost seemed as though they had grown there of their own accord, like mushrooms on a rotting log, or wasps in a fig, but the monks themselves said they came from the city, and before that, some of them, from other cities, an ocean voyage away.

The books were full of marvels, too, just like the world outside the monastery: white, winged snakes; birds that could foretell death; trees whose very scent was poison. The sea, which the girl had never seen, was said to grow calm at certain times so that birds could safely nest; the pattern of the stars was a form of writing, in which the future could be read. These things did not seem as sure as those she had seen for herself, but she had already learnt there were some things it was better not to put to the test. Wiser not to eat yew-seeds than to insist on knowing the truth first hand.

One of the books described a garden. There was a spring of clear water, which never failed, and a tree with orange fruit, sweetly scented, and other fruit-trees all round: the soft, sweet flesh of the fig, the red and juicy plum, the crisp, tart apple and its cousin quince. There were flowers in every colour, springing up from the meadow and cascading from the trees, flowers that knew no season and bloomed beside their fruit. The book did not say where the garden was to be found, or if it did, the girl could not understand it. She thought perhaps it was a garden from long ago, back before the tower was a watch-tower, or perhaps it was far away, further even than the city, out over the ocean. It hardly mattered: neither was within reach.

But the city, now. The city was somewhere you could go. No one ever did, not from the village, but someone must have come from the city to bring the books, and a road that went one way must go the other also. And there were travellers, sometimes, who had met someone who had met someone else who had been to the city.

Well, did you really want a story about a village and a village girl, even one who could persuade the monks to let her learn from them? A story that starts 'once upon a time' should have a court and castle, a fine city full of flying carpets and magic beans (if you plant a bean, it will grow into a vine, which is magic enough for some).

There should be a city, full of people, and a court, dangerous as any fairytale forest: power is always dangerous, and bitter to the taste, however much you sought it out. There should be apothecaries and doctors, charlatans and con men, philosophers and mystics, and more to learn than can be written in even a tower of books: lessons in back alleys, and universities, and in the shifting tides of court intrigue. There should be a path, invisible but sure as any ant-trail, that leads from some little village to the king's advisor, his wise-woman, his most learned apothecary. There is even a garden, formal, full of flowers, with a fountain at the centre, although it is a working garden, even without hens. It is, after all, an apothecary's job to provide the most appropriate medicine the king commands, whether that be to cure or kill.

Do the ants mistake their way at times? I could never tell. They seem so certain, but then I was certain too, certain every step of the way that led me here, with the garden I wanted, and no daily chores to stop me studying, and no safe way to ever leave. (Would I? Would I truly go live again in a tiny hut, one bad summer from starvation?) When did I learn to fear the world, to fear myself? (Even if I left, there is nowhere I could go to escape, when half of what I want to escape is me – even in a hovel in the woods, or fleeing across the ocean in a wooden ship, I know myself, and I would be choosing who to help and who to harm, because to know the means to both is to make a choice inevitable.) Oh village girl! A road that goes one way must go the other too, and I wish I knew what you might have found if you had turned the other way.