It was the summer Nan turned eight that she and her father had planted the moon garden at their holiday home in Oxfordshire. Her father, a history professor at Oxford during the year, but an avid horticultural hobbyist, happened to read about the art of medieval Japanese nocturnal gardens in April. By May, he decided to take on the challenge of planting a moon garden off their patio in Oxfordshire. Nan remembered sitting in the dirt with him running her hands over the seed packets. Her knobby, scabbed knees poked out of her shorts awkwardly, and stung as she sat directly on them, while her father showed her how to dig a hole for the seeds with two fingers, and cover them lightly, ensuring the sprouts didn’t have too far to travel to find light if the seed did crack open. He would hunch over digging, a smoke dangling dangerously from his lips, threatening to fall into the garden, his tanned face smiling down at his project. The dark thick hair on his legs seemed like a stark and embarrassing truth about him. It was the ruler by which she later, quietly, and unconsciously measured the legs of her lovers. His bulging calves that twitched with any slight shift in weight, and his measured thighs with their lines of muscle that led into his knees were something she noticed intensely those days in the garden. The idea that certain flowers bloomed at night ignited her imagination, and made her feel that there was something special maybe even magical about these plants. Each day, as they watered the moon garden her father repeated the Latin names, followed by the common names pointing to each patch where they lay with his forefinger almost like an incantation, commanding them to grow: Oenothera-Evening Primrose, Ipomoea alba-Moonflower, Nicotiana-Flowering Tobacco, Stachys byzantine-Lambs Ear, Gladiolus tristis-Night Gladiolus, and the star of the show the Solanaceae Cestrum Nocturnum-Night Blooming Jasmine. During the day she would sometimes practice the Latin while playing hopscotch by herself in the driveway chanting over and over as she hopped:
“So-lan-Ay-see-ee Ses-trum Nok-ter-num.” He had come home with the bush from a grocery trip in town; swaddled in the back seat was the Night Blooming Jasmine, and when he carried it from the drive into the garden he was grinning.
Striking the ground with the shovel, he spoke to her about the plant.
She’s the most important in a moon garden, the most fragrant, the most beautiful. That’s why they call her “The Queen of the Night.” You’ll see, Nan. Once she blooms the others won’t matter. The whole garden will be for her.
He patted Nan on the head, and wiped sweat from his brow with the neck of his t-shirt. The family joke became that the Night Jasmine was her father’s “other woman.” Around the dinner table he would jokingly recite romantic poetry to the Blooming Night Jasmine, his arms reaching out towards the stubborn bush, which even as May crawled into June refused to grow much, or develop buds. Her mother would roll her eyes at his theatrics, Nan always giggled until she got the hiccups from the excitement of her parent’s flirtations and would have to gulp water while her father plugged her ears to make them go away.
After the dishes were cleared from the table Nan would grab her father’s hand and demand to tour the moon garden to see if anything new had developed while they weren’t looking. Towards the end of June most plants had come up and drooped with tight little buds threatening to open each night, but it was the Moonflowers that bloomed first. The small green vines that had been gently tethered with fishing line to the lattice in May, now twisted and twined confidently around the structure. The round, perfumed, velvety white blossoms resembled the very thing they were named after, and peeked up to the night sky in worship. The moon garden, her father explained, was always more fragrant than any other garden, because night bloomers didn’t have the sun to evaporate their nectar, and most of the plants relied solely on fragrance to attract pollinators like beetles, moths, and bats. Some particularly sneaky flowers in moon gardens, he winked, when they feel a pollinator on their petals, snap closed forcing the bug to spend the night picking up pollen. He quickly grabbed both her shoulders when he said the word “snap”, illustrating the violence of this act, making her jump and laugh. Nan liked the idea of spending the night in a fragrant blossom; she felt those beetles were the most lucky.
Each night Nan’s father allowed her to sit in his lap in a garden chair until she fell asleep so she could try and catch the bush in the act. She would climb onto his lap, his leg hair scratching against the back of her thighs, the back of her head lying squarely on his chest or shoulders. He warned her that the plant knew she was watching, and like a human, the Queen of the Night preferred to dress in private, but he indulged her nonetheless, carrying her up to her bed as soon as her breath became heavy with sleep.
Her father’s Queen of the Night bloomed for the first time on July 28th 1988. Nan had faked sleep, and as soon as her father closed the door to her room she got up and ran to her window to continue faithful watch over the moon garden. It was then that she saw her father walking around the garden smoking, putting out his cigarette and pitching it just beyond the small wall of stones that surrounded their garden. Her mother entered the garden and walked towards her father. As she came closer he opened his arms to embrace her and she walked into them. They stood there like that; rocking back and forth for a few minutes hugging one another tightly, and then began kissing very slowly. Her father hungrily running his hands up and down the length of her mother’s back. She had seen her parents kiss before, but this was different. Nan watched wide-eyed as her father lifted her mother’s sundress over her head and flung it on the ground. Her mother’s bare thin body seemed to wilt slightly in the cool air, searching urgently for cover in her father’s arms. The whiteness of her naked body seemed to belong in the moon garden among the cloud colored flowers. Her mother pressed against her father as his hands found their way to her small breasts touching gently. It was when they both lay on the ground that Nan pulled away from the window instinctively, and crawled back into bed.
The next morning, her father crept into her room just before the sun came up, and led her sleepily into the garden to show her the Jasmine in full bloom. She stood there; in her nightgown gawking at the bush as the sun rounded it’s way over the hillside illuminating the white tissued flowers that momentarily blotted out the green. The vines, heavy with trumpet shaped blossoms drooped in the wind, as Nan slowly inhaled the sugared fragrance that blew her way, nightgown whipping around her.
It wasn’t until after her father shot himself in his study of their London flat, that her mother sold the house in Oxfordshire. Of course because Nan was so young her mother told her another story about her father’s death, something about a heart attack. It was someone else’s moon garden now if they had even kept it up. It was only when Nan turned 18 that her mother told her the truth about her father’s death. Small tears squeezed out of the corners of her mother’s eyes and into the crinkled skin of her face. Nan sobbed aloud, but not out of sadness, more out of solidarity. The reality of her father’s death had answered more questions for her than she could have imagined. Her own depression and suicidal thoughts were just beginning to haunt her as a teenager, and the idea that it wasn’t just her fault, as her mother often suggested, was like a prayer that had been answered. She could have inherited these ideas, like the shape of her eyes, or the slight upturn in her nose. She wished he had lived long enough to talk to him about the thoughts that plagued her.
Nan sat staring at her steak tartare delaying the moment before she took her first bite. The Night Blooming Jasmine had always been a happy memory. Even the shadowy recollection of her parent’s frantic lovemaking made her happy, but it was sometimes the happiest memories that convinced her she’d lived the best parts of her life already. Eating by herself only underscored the memories from childhood of summertime; those family dinners in Oxfordshire, staying around the dinner table long after the sun went down, still feeling the heat from the patio stones rising up around them. Her father would light his thick unfiltered cigarettes, tap his foot lightly against the table stem, and laugh at his own jokes until they all groaned. Sipping from her wine glass she stared out the window at the busy street corner. She let the acidic liquid lie on her tongue for a moment before she rolled it gently to the back of her throat to swallow it. It had been years since she’d allowed herself to think of the moon garden.
She felt people around her steal glances. She felt people stared because there was something terribly wrong with the way she looked, but in truth it was probably the fact that she was so lonely, and the loneliness shot out of her like beams of light from all orifices. Her heart was like a ticking bomb, and she sometimes wished it to explode. She often wondered if her father had the same visions: Explosion. She fantasized about blowing apart. She often woke up from deep sleep and lay in bed visualizing packing her mouth full of large red sticks of dynamite and cartoonishly lighting a match. It seemed to her, that being in one piece was unnatural, that all the parts of her body didn’t actually speak to one another but were some how cruelly forced to on a regular basis.
Nan wanted her whole body to combust, and even desired to see (from some spectral place above) a group of strangers wearing her guts like Mardi Gras beads; blood laced entrails dangling to and fro. She wanted to reveal everything that lived inside her, and everything that died, the Night Blooming Jasmine, the joy, and the memories of her father. She wanted to let the light in, finally let someone see all of her. Let someone gawk at her flesh hanging off the bone, because she was worth looking at dead or not. It pleased her to imagine this happening in different places all over the city: like the middle of the Underground maybe between Westminster and Piccadilly Circus (the mundane ride home suddenly speckled with the flying limbs,) or at the Royal Opera House merely spattering those that had been nearest to her. She would quietly combust while the mezzo-soprano in Madama Butterfly hit each and every note with strength she felt she’d never possess. She often combated these ideas by tethering her thoughts to something more reasonable, like dinner. Picking up her fork she decided to stay in one piece long enough to pay the bill.