By Sara Watkins
The summer sky was a pleasant shade of blue when Aster left her house. She crossed her lawn with the fresh grass, her neighbor’s lawn with the ornaments, and walked down the big hill that was perfect for January-sledding and finally across the road to the forest.
The forest was always fun to run through, especially when the weather was so nice. There was no real entrance to it, only a dense series of underbrush and uneven rock. The grass was nonexistent; it stopped in a clear circle around the expanse of the wilderness. Beyond the trees there was nothing but dirt.
Aster cleared the trees at a brisk run, pushing small branches out of the way and ducking from the thickest ones as she went. She tore through the foliage, arms and legs bare for the pine needles that left goosebumps across her skin. The wind sang into her ears. She arced the outer rim of the forest and made her way into the center where she came across a clearing.
She was sure she’d never seen this particular clearing. The grass grew in luscious green tufts. Strange exotic flowers sprouted, some with supple pink petals as large as her palm, others tiny, like fragile glass beads. She leaned into a shimmery silver flower with a delicately curved stem. Its leaves wrapped tightly around the swell of its hips, and Aster could not stop herself from inhaling deeply. Its fresh scent tickled her nose.
“Do you like my garden?”
The gravelly voice came from a man standing across the clearing whom Aster hadn't noticed. He was older than she, with wind beaten skin and a round stomach. His face looked like one of the rocks from the forest, rugged and dusty.
“Oh," said Aster, straightening up. "It’s beautiful!” The man eyed her for a minute, making her conscious of her wind-knotted hair and sweaty figure.
“I spend a lot of time working on it." There was a moment of quiet between them, a shared bit of awareness as together, as the old man and young girl took in the nursery. "I take very good care of my babies.” He was leaning against a tree casually, but something about his tone was off-putting to Aster. “So, I wonder what you’re doing here.”
“Oh,” she said, laughing nervously. Obviously, the man was offended. “I didn’t mean to intrude. I come running through this forest sometimes.”
“Well, I don’t think you’ll be doing much of that anymore.”
The man’s forwardness made Aster blush.
“I mean you won’t be leaving this forest, miss.”
Silence covered the clearing. Even the wind did not croon. Aster met the man’s gray eyes and saw the seriousness within them. She backed away slowly, keeping the contact until she was within the safety of the trees before breaking into a run.
This time when she ran, the pines did not tickle her but rather sliced, leaving sharp cuts across her skin. She bit her lip, trying to be quiet in case the man was following her. Her parents had always warned her about running in the forest, but she’d never taken them seriously before. She banked a left and sped up, determined to make it home.
Aster felt herself trip before it happened. A rock caught under her foot, and she knew without looking that it was a fat rock with dirt caked into its eroded crevices—just like the man. She tripped, sprawling down a hill that almost certainly wasn’t there before.
When she crashed through the trees, Aster found herself on a soft comforter made of grass. She sat up, rubbing her stomach and looking around. She was back in the clearing.
In the center was the sturdy man with tree bark skin watering a flower.
“I told you that you wouldn’t be leaving,” he said to Aster.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“This is my garden,” said the man.
And it was. Aster could not stop her eyes from drinking in the flowers, her nose from sucking in the scents. She wanted to lay in the field forever and hug the very Earth it sat on. She wanted to consume it.
“You can,” the man told her.
And she was too amazed, too delighted at his permission to wonder how he knew what she was thinking. She was too entranced to notice. Aster stood and wandered the garden for a moment, trying to find the perfect spot to lay. The flowers were arranged in asymmetrical rows with no particular order. She tiptoed around them, mindful of disturbing such beautiful creatures but taking care to smell every flower individually. There were six rows of flowers, and she made her way through each twice, noting her favorites. A broad black flower that unfurled to reveal a purple inside seemed to reach toward her fingertips as she passed it. Between the third and fourth rows was an awkwardly large gap, one just big enough for her to rest in. Aster made her way and laid her head down by the biggest plants; an orange sunflower with a strong stem as thick as four fingers and an oversized chrysanthemum. She spread her fingers flat on the tickly grass and stared up at the sky.
As the summer sun began to fade, Aster’s eyes began to shut. The beauty of the garden took her suddenly, first from her toes and feet, before moving up to her calves, her knees, and her thighs. She felt it in her skin. When she opened her eyes, the grass had wrapped itself around her wrists and limbs. Soft tendrils pulled her toward the soil and slowly, ever so slowly, Aster found herself sinking.
“You know,” she said to the man dazedly. “I thought that I was taking in the garden, but it’s taking in me.”
He did not answer, but she heard his footsteps draw closer. When she peered through her lashes, she saw him leaning over her.
“Isn’t it nice to be a part of the things you love?”
Aster did not answer, because she found that she could not. Instead, she lay and let herself be a part of something wholly.
In the morning light, the man watered a bright blue flower bent earnestly west, as if frozen in mid-run.
Sara Watkins is a full-time developmental editor, part-time author, and freelance collector of tiny, fat dragons— no one pays her to collect them, she just enjoys it. She has been published in Pennsylvania's Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction, Pennsylvania's Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Non-Fiction, and Blink Ink.