Gardens – Toti O’Brien

In the country estate where I was raised, a remote corner was named ‘the three gardens’. ‘Upper’, ‘under’, and ‘under-under’, they led into each other like Russian dolls—no independent access was there for second and third. Like matryoshkas they also got smaller.

Part of the labyrinthine structure of the property (sparse with dens and groves, a creek, and ghost buildings of unclear nature), they were once designed with care. They comprised flowerbeds—as few elaborate bricks testified, peering through the lace of wild vegetation.

They smelled good. In the under-under a mimosa tree stood as a punctuation mark, trying to keep its identity while attacked by all sorts of climbers. Tiny yellow balls flew everywhere, sweet like honey but with a taint of suffocation (I distrusted yellow, a slightly dangerous hue).

In the upper garden, violets hid by the roots of mighty palm trees, their perfume veiled and velvety. I was thrilled by the way leaves submerged them, making them invisible until I caught them. I was taught how to squeeze them into letters, send them to missing mom. The intensity of the scent calmed my longing.


The three gardens were connected by steps—large stones, barely juxtaposed, they shook a bit more with each passing season. I climbed carefully, all my senses alert to avoid tripping, dragging rocks and concrete into my fall.

I must have spent eternity upon those stairs, judging by how brightly I recall them. They ran through the entire property, and the more I grew the more I explored, trusting both my sense of orientation and my taste for disorientation.

The land was a living soul of multiple personalities. It contained a chorus of voices (my fantasies, tales I had already read, others I invented), endlessly entertaining me in conversation — like my feet and legs knowing no boredom, no exhaustion. I spent all day wandering with a sandwich, a hat, and a stick…

Not yet. Back to the gardens, please. Such a perfect haven, Grandma thought, for my toddler promenades. Searching memory (so lazy in details) a parasol appears out of nowhere, and I feel the pressure of heat, the weight of sunbeams (yellow, again). A vertigo—as if number three, deepening, sinking into the earth, figured infinity. I recall the excitement of secret (weren’t those plots terra incognita? Difficult to reach, impossible to be seen if not one by one, hidden behind each other like violets under their leaves).


Mystery was enhanced—if possible—by the state of abandonment of the place, its incongruous inutility. Why was nobody there? The question, without need for formulation, pulled out of their magic box a bunch of mechanic figurines, rushing down scrambling paths, peering behind the greenery, waving coquettish hands before vanishing. Why was such pretty paradise eaten by wilderness?

No melancholy accompanied those remarks. I’m not sure I knew yet what sadness was. I was puzzled by the layering of tenses—past and present so weirdly intertwined. By the consciousness of something revolved, the persistency of its trace.

Later, the graveyard—just a wall apart—would provide the one word I missed. Later, the graveyard—next door—would hand me the key.


Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish
 Last name. When she’s not at the squeezebox she spins
 stories across a language or two, and a few get published.
 She lives in the City of Angels, in a miniature house by an
 oversized citrus tree. You’ll find some of her recipes at

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