Wading through the whimsy-grass that bristles past my shoulders, I break into a clearing near the back of the house. Squinting, I raise the floppy rim of my hat in case the shadows deceive me, but what stands beneath the deck remains the same: twins, a boy and a girl, both blonde as a split aspen. The little boy jabs right with a stubby wooden sword, and the pair exchange a nod before parting ways. Yet neither is safe here, neither is ready— the garden shows its teeth before establishing trust.
I spring for the boy first as he ambles towards the quarry on the right of the house. His bald sneakers won’t stand a chance in a rockslide— so how does he scramble over the chert so effortlessly? As I flail through the foliage, I realize I won’t catch up to him in time, and turn to warn the girl instead.
All this yard-work, creaky knees and calloused hands, yet my age has never caught up to me like it does when my chapped lips break. I bloat thirty years, speckle salt-and-pepper, before a sound can escape. No girl should trust a man of my age peeking through the grass — that pill sure doesn’t go down easy. I crack my wrinkled knuckles, shifting foot to foot as the child wanders further into the thicket.
The glade shudders from a huff— a rumble from the leftward shadows. A buck with a misshapen crown glares out from beneath the trees. Contoured in the dappled darkness of negative leaves, his neck muscles ripple, and his wet lips hang open with a barbarity to match. Though it is scarcely afternoon, I can trace the path of his volatile eyes. Blazing candlelight-white, they burn into the little girl’s back. In the attic of my mind, politeness suddenly shrinks away. Time to use those gardener reflexes, old man.
I crash as gently as one can crash through the grass and stutter-stumble to a stop just behind the girl. Hovering a hand over her back, I ease her up the steep, stone steps as my bur-pocked cloak curls around us.
“You’re not safe here, bud,” I grimace. “We need to find you and your brother a tamer part of the garden.”
She looks up to me with watery eyes, unfazed, and wipes her full palm across her runny nose.
“Well, I don’t like thistles.”
I urge her further upstairs.
“That’s fine. Just keep walking. Father nature is not always friendly.”
Over lamb’s ears and brambles and a sprinkle of toadstools, we slink away from the scrutinizing buck, rounding the corner to the front of the house. What is it like within? This, I cannot recall. I haven’t been indoors since I was around the girl’s age— I’ve slept beneath stars for years now. My memories of the house are always thin— the word I’d use to describe it does not exist, but it is to derelict as cremation is to decay. Against paint-peeled walls soothed by pine needle scratches, the garden looks as green as a jungle. A little pride swells in my chest as I see the girl’s wild eyes roving past every ornate bat-house and gnome, flitting with the splinter-fairies that spring like fresh, green grasshoppers. She wiggles one of her incisors, preoccupied, though her pupils stretch wider and wider.
Across the way, on the other side of the house, my sister looks over the edge of the quarry with the boy at her side. When she was a baby, her hair was as blonde as his, and after sun-bleached decades picking pumpkins and weeds, the hue has begun to return. The two of them look like dried hay against the pale sky, dark clothes breathing in the white wind.
As we approach, the boy hears us and turns, pulling the girl into a chubby-armed hug.
“You found him,” I thank my sister, and the boy turns up towards me.
“Okay. We’re on a quest to the End gate, where the Ember’s End makes his putrid nest. With this here saber, I shall make it bleed.” he announces. “Also, I’m five.”
A smile spreads across my face, but I quickly draw it back. I know the graveness in his voice— I feel it prickling on the back of my neck, even now. Beyond the concentric shelves of the quarry, behind the towering pillars of basalt, not far beneath the scattered obsidian shards lies the pulsing, dappled portal they seek.
“Well, it’s just down there,” I say, nodding into the valley. “You mean, of course, the And Gate.”
“Actually, it’s the End Gate.”
“No-no, son, the And Gate, to the Ampersand’s lair. ‘And’ because the universe is sausage links, one continuous tube with everything repeated over and over, tied off between the end and beginning of each verse. Once your negotiations with the Ampersand are over, the gate will take you to a new universe, yes, but everything will be exactly the same, except—”
“No spoilers!” my sister scolds.
I sigh, shake my head. The children still wait for me to continue, but I know she’s right.
“Bring the sword, but bring your big words, too. You have everything you need.” I tell them, ruffling the boy’s hair with my thick, leather gloves. There we stood, the quaternity: four before the Ænd Gate, where we’re headed, where we’ve been.
“We change?” the little girl asks in barely a whisper. “On the other side?”
“Sure,” my sister smiles. “You’ll learn to like the thistles.”