The Elephant Garden

We were kids, so everything was in technicolor. The sky was the sapphire ring Cam’s abuela wore. The grass was the fresh emerald paint on the corner grocery storefront. Dewdrops were the liquid diamonds that spilled from Aunt Pia’s neck on Sunday mornings. The clouds were that sweet scratchy cotton candy that melted gloriously in our mouths, the kind that reminded us of summer.

Back then, Liam used to pretend the cracks in the sidewalk were rivers of lava. He’d shout, “Mya! Watch your step!” and that would start our game. The concrete was broken up because thick tree roots snaked underneath so Liam said we had to be extra careful. He said it was tough terrain. He said a lot of things back then, actually. I wish he could have stayed eleven forever. I wish he kept talking. But I guess big brothers grow up.

When he was younger it was nice. Me and Cam were nine then, and we’d all go out wandering together. We scrounged up some money from under our couch cushions, bought a few Coca-Colas, and biked out. Once Cam took us to a little stream she found in the woods and we looked for tadpoles. Liam found a piece of shiny mica on the bank and he gave it to me. I tied a string onto it and put it around my neck.

The weekend after that, it was my turn to lead. I sped down the road on my bike in the cool afternoon, shimmery new pendant thunking lightly against my chest, and watched the buildings rush past. A blur of brick red. A swash of beige. Brushstrokes of forest green.

The street came to a dead end and I stopped, propping my bike against a knotted tree. There was a house here. Cracked yellow paint and blue-gray shutters. It looked lonely. Cam and Liam paused behind me. They put their bikes down carefully, silently, as if this place demanded quiet.

I watched them watch the trees. The bright leaves, parakeet green. The patterns of white sunlight that landed on our faces. It felt right to stop here, at the edge of the woods. Sometimes our wild youth could be stilled if we chose to wait and watch like this.

I listened to the chatter of the birds for a suspended moment, and then the three of us collectively approached the gate of the house. It was old, wrought iron with spotty patches of orange rust. A roaring lion was carved into the top. Swirling lichen traced the edges of its mane. It snarled, metal teeth jutting out. Cam snarled back. I laughed.

Liam kicked the gate lightly and it swung open, creaking. We crept in, our sneakers flattening the grass. It tickled my ankles. I scratched them and followed my brother.

“The man who lives here, he’s away, isn’t he?” Cam asked, her voice a soft whisper. She surveyed the house, cautious.

“He leaves a lot, I think.” I said, pulling a leaf from her thick hair. “For his job.”

Liam disappeared around the corner of the house so we ran to catch up. The setting sun blinded me for a second, yellow-white obscuring my vision. I squeezed my eyes shut. Then I felt Cam tapping on my shoulder.

“Mya, Mya, look at this.”

I shifted so the sun was covered by a line of trees. Its dying rays illuminated the back of the house in gentle orange, casting patterns on the garden in front of me.

And the garden was breathtaking. Liam stood motionless, watching the light dance over it. Cam had the biggest smile on her face. I just stared, and stared, because there was so much to look at.

The grass was tall and lush, whispering across our bare calves. I breathed in the rich smell of good soil. Moss blanketed a stone path, the bright green of my Aunt Pia’s eyes. Purple petunias and clusters of violets bordered the pathway. All soft as dancing slippers.

Thick, pale green stems strained towards the sky to my right. I turned to face the flowers, golden yellow and taller than I was. They stretched glowing fingers toward the rosy sun as it slipped quietly below the horizon.

I kept walking down the path, tripping over my own feet in excitement. At the center of the vast, vivid garden, there was a fountain, shaped like an elephant — intricately carved from its prancing feet to its wide, still ears. Its trunk was lifted upwards, spraying water in a graceful arc. The gray stone was inset with all sorts of things. Smooth green sea glass, ridged bits of apricot-tinged shells, tiny rhinestones. Spiky black bottle caps. They were all arranged in vibrant patterns, tracing sides, ears, toes. Liam stuck his head under the stream of water. His hair flattened against his forehead and he laughed as fat droplets slid down his face.

“Our elephant garden,” Cam breathed.

And for the moment, it did feel like it was ours. It felt like the entire world was contained within this wrought iron gate. With its carpet of petals and leaves. All smelling like jasmine.

There was a small cluster of cherry trees on the far side of the garden. The fruit hung dark and heavy from the branches, like rubies, glinting with moonlight. I saw Cam lick her lips.

“Cam, My, come here,” Liam called softly. He pointed to something sitting between the elephant’s front legs. “There’s a box.”

It was unassuming, dull gray metal with a faded, unrecognizable logo on the top. Liam pulled it out and popped it open. The hinges slid easily.

There was a collection of things inside — eccentric things, colorful, strange things. A pink leather coin purse. A small porcelain goat. An empty cigarette pack. A 1962 penny. A floral fountain pen. The question mark key from a typewriter. A champagne cork. A strawberry gum wrapper. A poem penciled onto a piece of notebook paper. An embroidered bookmark. The cap from a tube of indigo paint.

I’ve always loved the color indigo. I told Liam this once, and he said it shouldn’t have its own name because it’s just bluish purple. I said I liked the word. It has a nice shape in my mouth. It tastes like ripe peaches and sea salt. Liam said that’s stupid.

“Where’s all this from?” I asked no one in particular.

“People, I guess,” Cam replied. “People who came here.”

“We should leave something too,” my brother said. His eyes sparkled. “So it’ll remember us.”

He placed the cap from his glass coke bottle in the box. Cam pulled the length of red ribbon from her hair. I slid the blue woven bracelet off of my arm and set it down, alongside everything else.

Liam closed the box, put it back between the elephant’s feet, and suggested we head home.

After that, we didn’t go back. Instead we explored the woods. Learned every street in that neighborhood by heart. Played tag on the cul-de-sac behind Cam’s house.

Liam went into eighth grade and he stopped talking to Cam. In ninth grade he stopped talking to me. The next year, Cam’s family moved back to Cuba.

A family with two daughters moved into their old house. Their dad’s yellow ‘50’s Cadillac sat conspicuous in the driveway, the brightest thing on the street. Neon purple fuzzy dice dangled from the rear view mirror.

I started high school. On the weekends, the two girls next door would jump on their bikes and speed away, into the woods or down the street, just like we used to do.

It was a Sunday in June. The sun floated like a carnival balloon over blue suede sky. I could hear my dad tuning his guitar from inside, the sound swimming lazily through the thick air. I slipped off my church shoes and stepped barefoot onto the grass, thinking.

Maybe I’ll talk to them — the girls next door. Maybe I’ll tell them all about fountains and elephants and boxes of strange things. Typewriter keys and pens and paint caps and poems. Maybe they’ll laugh unabashedly at my bad jokes like Cam did. Maybe they’ll ride their bikes standing up and whistling their favorite songs off-key like Liam did.

I grinned a little to myself. Maybe it’ll be like it used to be — but then again, maybe it’ll be something entirely new. 


Rebecca Uhlman is a 10th grader at Pennsbury High School who likes writing, painting, and photography. She also adores music and old movies. Becca can’t wait to travel the world and adopt a bunch of cats someday!