Editor’s Note from Sudha Balagopal: Gillian Walker’s stories are layered and dense, the pace of her words allowing for a rich read. Alien in the Garden starts with a mystery―a skeleton that is found in the garden. Yes, this story is about the skeleton, and it’s also not about the skeleton. It’s about the frailty of human relationships, about dealing with a break-up, about raising a child, about a greenhouse and of course, about the unexpected skeleton that’s dug up. This is a lovely short story that makes for a satisfying summer read, a story that will linger long after it has been read.
Crack. I shifted my weight from the spade, withdrew the blade. Sweat flowed down my forehead and through my eyebrows. My eyes stung. A sharp white fracture protruded from the mud. Bone?
I should have hired a builder to dig the foundation for the greenhouse; they’d have ploughed on without looking. Only two courses of brickwork – I could manage that, surely? I threw the spade onto the lawn and knelt to inspect the damage.
A gnarled shard of bone coated in sticky clay.
I’d been divorced eight months, separated over a year. The documentation said our split was amicable. I’d searched for a misdemeanour; hints of other women. Finally, I’d given him the statistics highlighting the detrimental impact of broken homes on children. Jenn was six at the time. “Her home won’t be broken,” he’d said. “We’ll be good co-parents.”
I clawed the mud, exposed a twisted rib with burls in the bone, sites of healed fractures. When I fell pregnant, he’d said we’d make excellent parents, and I’d believed him. I lengthened the trench. Excavated. The rib pointed to a spine, tracked to a squat skull. Before I hit the bone, my blade rang on flint, the collision jarring my arms and chest.
He didn’t want to live with me anymore.
“What have you found, Mum?” Jenn asked.
The purple polka-dot rucksack her father had given her sat square on her back. Samuel Parker, the neighbour’s cat, lay on her arm, his legs dangling. I twisted, blocked the trench with my body.
“I’m not sure.”
Jenn ran her chin across Samuel Parker’s black-and-white fur, peered over my head. I raised my arm, pushed my hair from my face.
We’d lived in the cottage for six months. A snug two bed, converted by the neighbours when they retired. A lean-to on the side of their main house. Jenn took the big front bedroom, I slept in the one at the back, and she stayed with her dad on weekends.
“Some sort of skeleton,” I said.
The garden was a strip sectioned off from the neighbours’ manicured lawn, a car’s width wider than the house.
“Really?” Jenn’s voice rose in a sharp inflection, echoing her father’s. “Let me see.”
She placed Samuel Parker on the grass and knelt beside me to inspect the trench. I took a deep breath. Seven-year-olds shouldn’t have to discover skeletons buried in their garden. I wanted a greenhouse so Jenn would know tomatoes picked from the plant tasted better than shop bought, to show her nature provides and teach her the Earth was home.
I traced the dull edge of an eye socket. Jenn reached out her hand, and I flinched, grabbed her clean fingers with my clay coated ones. Samuel Parker lowered his nose into the trench, and his glossy nostrils flared.
“Ask Mrs Parker if she’s buried any pets in the garden.”
Jenn scrambled to her feet, straightened her backpack.
The skull was round, like a human’s, but squashed. The ribcage bowed, maybe the size of a large dog. I shooed Samuel Parker.
Jenn’s footsteps crunched on the gravel, growing softer.
I traced the humerus to the radius, exposed five thin digits gripping the earth. Smaller than an adult hand.
Jenn yelled over the fence. “Mrs Parker says she buries their pets under the cherry tree by her pond.”
I’d watched forensic programmes on the TV. You can distinguish sex from the shape of the pelvic bone. I widened the trench.
The crunch of gravel was softer, Jenn’s step lighter.
“Mrs Parker has baked butterfly buns,” she said. “She’s sent you one too.” There was a smear of butter cream across her cheek, half-eaten cake in her hand.
“Take mine inside, Jenn.”
She struggled to hold the cakes and manoeuvre the conservatory door. The pelvic bone was thick. Did that differentiate male from female? Samuel Parker slinked around the trench, closer to the bones.
“Is it human?” Jenn pushed the last of her cake into her mouth with her fingers. “Mrs Parker thinks it’ll be an animal, from when this was a working farmhouse.”
I shook my head, determined.
“Mum doesn’t think it’s human, Mrs Parker,” Jenn shouted across the fence.
There were no trinkets around the bones, buttons or scraps of cloth. Could I leave the body in the ground?
I wiped my hands on my dungarees. Samuel Parker hissed when I picked him up, but my grip was firm around his middle. I dropped him between the hyacinths to confuse his sense of smell. The patch was so Jenn could see bulbs transform to shoots, then flowers.
In the conservatory she sat at the table, her backpack open at her side, curled over her sketchpad. Her therapist encouraged her to express emotion through art.
“What will we do with the skeleton?” Her fingers were tight, white, gripping a black crayon.
Jenn’s drawings were sophisticated. No stick figures. The arch of Samuel Parker’s tail was deliberate, and I marvelled at the accuracy of his fur pattern.
The skeleton was smaller than Jenn, a mythical creature, a goblin or a gnome. Or someone deprived of a burial on consecrated ground. I glanced at the clock on the wall: quarter-past-five.
“I’ll call the police tomorrow,” I said. “Let’s have dinner.”
We didn’t speak of the skeleton during our meal, or during Jenn’s bath and story time, or before I kissed her goodnight and left her room so she could sleep. But before I went to bed, she made three trips to the bathroom, and while I lay half-asleep, her bed creaked as she tossed and turned.
The clock read 1:34 am when she ran into my room, opened the curtain, stared into the pit-black garden.
“It’s cold outside,” she said. “And he’s not covered.”
My half-dream conjured a boy suffering unbearable hardship because of his disabilities. Unwanted, unloved, buried in the garden. Had Jenn shared my dream? Where was his mother?
“Go get dressed,” I said.
I found the torch and box of emergency blackout candles. I remembered a pack of tea lights I’d bought the summer Jenn was three. Her dad put her to sleep, and I lit candles, scattered them through the lawn and borders. We’d sat in the flickering light cradling tangy white wine and talked of more children. The lighter was with my last resort cigarettes, hidden in the top cupboard, behind the shot glasses.
“What are we going to do?” Jenn tumbled down the stairs, her backpack strapped across her shoulders.
A quarter-moon cast the shadow of the house along the lawn.
“Hold the torch, Jenn,” I said. “So I can see the ground.”
I secured the tall candles in the mud around the trench, sat the tea lights between them. I circled the grave, crouching by each candle. The lighter fluid burned sweetly, rising fire in still air.
“We should say a prayer,” Jenn said.
I put my arm across her shoulder. Pulled her to my side. Her body was so small in proportion to my own. The flames carved white into the darkness, and the drifting scent of hyacinths reminded me of daylight. We couldn’t see the bottom of the pit, but I visualised the bones, the breadth of the pelvis, the curled fingers.
Behind the trench, Samuel Parker’s eyes glowed orange, and he issued a gentle purr.
I rang the police at 9 am the next morning.
“It’s not like any creature I’ve ever seen.” I’d researched farm animal skeletons on the internet until dawn. “The bones could be human.”
They dispatched a car.
While we waited, Jenn and I picked lilacs and yellow hyacinths and arranged them in a vase on the table in the conservatory. Two officers arrived three-quarters of an hour later. I lead them through to the back garden, showed them the trench. Embarrassed, I collected the stubs of the burnt out candles and metal tea light shells.
“Leave that.” the police officer’s dark hair was cut into a sharp bob, sprayed in place.
I stood. “Do you want coffee?”
“The body looks carefully exposed.” The officer’s tone was level, but the way she scrutinised my face told me I was a suspect. Her colleague scribbled notes on a tablet, and one of the waxy candle remnants slipped from my hand.
“We’ve only lived here six months. I was digging a foundation for a new greenhouse, and accidentally shattered a bone.” The fracture was easy to see. “I didn’t want to cause more damage.”
The officer crouched by the trench, scowled at the finger bones gripping the soil. “I’ll call Forensics.”
I stepped back from the trench. “Go inside and draw the flowers in the vase,” I said to Jenn.
An hour later, a large van with blacked-out windows arrived. Two men changed into paper-white suits on the driveway and erected a tent over my trench.
The conservatory smelled sickly sweet, like candy Jenn left in the sun. She’d covered the table with drawings of purple and yellow blooms. Her dad said he wouldn’t file for full custody, but he was paying for the therapist, and I guessed he saw the drawings Jenn shared. I surreptitiously picked dogtooth violets from the edge of the garden and added them to the vase. I hoped these, and not skeletons and men in white suits, would capture her imagination. I didn’t want to hand her father ammunition.
The police officer tapped on the conservatory door. “Our Forensics team thinks the skeleton is old.”
She brushed her fringe from her eyes and grinned. I made everyone coffee. After an hour, the officer returned with empty mugs.
“We’re removing the body for analysis,” she said. “Can you keep your cat indoors?”
I turned to Jenn, raised my eyebrow. She encouraged Samuel Parker. It was her fault he was in the garden. Jenn gulped, slid off her chair, pulled on her backpack.
A man in a white suit emerged from the tent, talking on his phone.
“But…” Jenn said.
She stepped out of the conservatory, walked across the patio, her hand hitting her thigh. Her strides faltered by the lawn.
“Mrs Parker,” Jenn shouted over the fence. “Samuel Parker is interfering…”
She rubbed her lips with her hand.
“It’s the bones, honey.” Mrs Parker shouted back. “He’s a cat. Pour him some cream, it’ll distract him.” Jenn took last week’s dessert cream from the fridge, sniffed, broke a thick white crust as she lifted the lid. She spooned the contents onto a saucer and left it on the patio.
“Samuel Parker,” she yelled. “There’s cream.”
The police officers turned and smiled. Samuel Parker peered under the edge of the tent. Jenn pointed to the saucer. The cat inched forward, around the evergreen, onto the patio.
Jenn pulled on the straps of her backpack. “We should put the greenhouse over there.” She motioned to the far corner of the garden, beside a silver birch tree.
“The tomatoes won’t get any light over there,” I said. “They won’t grow.”
She shrugged as if that were the least of our problems.
Forensics left before dinner, the lawn trampled.
Cartoons flickered on the TV, but Jenn stood by the window, watching the blacked-out van pull out of the drive. “They’re taking him away?”
Samuel Parker lounged on the sill, basking in the weakening sun.
I nodded. “They’ve taken the bones for identification.”
“And then they’ll bring him back?”
She turned off the TV, strapped her bag across her shoulders, and picked up Samuel Parker.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
Once they’d removed the skeleton, I thought Jenn would forget, but every morning she asked when he was returning. Once a week I rang the police officer.
After a month, she said. “The scientists have performed tests, but the bones remain unidentified.”
The body wasn’t human. Relief and gratitude danced through me. My nightmare of a disabled child who’d died in pain, shunned by society and buried in our garden subsided.
“How can it be unidentified?” I asked. DNA seemed an exact science. “What do they think, it’s an alien?”
The officer cleared her throat. “The bones have been transferred to the university’s Forensic Anthropology Department for further testing. I can give you the number of the researcher.”
I told Jenn they’d moved the bones to the university. She pulled Samuel Parker into a tight hug.
“Why’ve they moved him there?”
“They don’t know what he is.”
“That’s stupid.” She rolled her eyes. Not a full roll, a half rotation I’d never seen her use. Had she copied the expression from someone she’d met with her father?
“Can we see him?”
In the boxy university corridor, her rubber-soled shoes squeaked on the lino, and I marvelled at how thin her legs were. How big the purple polka-dot bag looked on her back.
In ten years’ time, I imagined we’d repeat the trip, research universities, find her place in the future. I wanted to stop in the corridor, take her in my arms and hold time still so her childhood lasted forever.
I shuddered: we were visiting a skeleton I found in the garden, a creature for whom time had stopped.
“Through here,” the research assistant said, and we followed her into a harshly lit laboratory. Microscopes lined the benches. “These are our student pathology labs.”
Jenn could see the bench tops if she stood on her toes. The researcher unlocked the door to a small office, and we squeezed between large chests of drawers.
“The skeleton’s in here.”
She pulled out a display platform, opened a drawer, removed a glass box, and stepped aside so we could see the bones.
Jenn peered through the glass.
“You keep him in box, in a drawer?” The inflection in her voice rose, an echo of her father. “He’s better off in our garden.”
The researcher laughed and switched on a lamp.
“We’ve cleaned off the mud,” she said. “We were looking for trace elements, trying to identify the origin of the specimen.”
“His bones are whiter than when Mum found him.” Jenn’s tone implied this wasn’t the right skeleton.
I nodded. The bones looked sun bleached. Only the rib fracture was familiar.
“We don’t think your garden was the first burial site,” the researcher said. “There are more tests scheduled for a detailed analysis of chemical composition.”
“And we can see those results?” I asked, wondering if I’d understand them.
The researcher nodded. “It’s part of my job to keep the public informed.”
Jenn placed her hand on the glass. I twitched, tempted to pull her away, tell her not to touch, but she didn’t have sticky fingers.
“It’s a mystery,” the researcher said. “We don’t even know the gender.”
Jenn wriggled out of her backpack.
“I brought him a picture,” she said, unzipping her bag.
I peered at the drawing, unsure of what it might be. I’d monitored her sketchbooks for signs of skeletons, death or decay, but I could have missed something.
“It needs to go under the glass, with him.”
“The box is hermetically sealed.” The researcher’s voice was firm. “To prevent cross contamination until we work out the species.”
“In the drawer then.”
In her picture we were holding hands, both in our red sun dresses, the greenhouse in its new position by the silver birch. The burial site was transformed into a patch of yellow and purple flowers, and Samuel Parker sat at Jenn’s feet.
She spread her drawing on the glass box, face down. “So he recognises home,” she said.
Gillian Walker is a fiction writer based in the UK. Her flash novella The World at the End of the Garden is published by Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press. Her work can be found in Popshot Quarterly, Ambit, Into the Void and Jellyfish Review. Her writing was shortlisted for the Cambridge Short Story Prize 2020 and she was a finalist in the Black River Chapbook Competition Spring 2018.