By Evan Shumka
“Your father has buried himself in the garden,” Christine’s mother said as she walked back into the room, letting her arms drop to her sides. She wore shapeless, fashionless gardening clothes.
Christine and Sam were sitting on the sofa, hand in hand. Christine was bundled up in Sam’s oversized black hoodie. “He what?” she said.
“Does he not approve?” said Sam. He had a buzz cut and a chipped tooth. He was handsome, in a relaxed sort of way. Christine had met him at a corn maze and spent the whole time trying to get lost with him.
She tried to give him a reassuring look but she herself wasn’t feeling reassured enough to pull it off.
“Oh you know how he is,” said her mother. “Let him pull his little stunt while we celebrate your wonderful news.”
It was dark by the time Christine and Sam drove home. The stop lights bled into the wet road. Sam sat on the passenger side, watching his fiancée’s grip on the steering wheel, the set of her jaw. She had an authority about her and he thought she’d make a great mother. She didn’t want that though. She’d made that clear on their first date. He pushed the thought to the back of his mind.
“Did I hear that right earlier?” he asked. “Your dad buried himself in the garden?”
“That’s just Dad,” said Christine. “Don’t worry about it.”
Her father was Dom Mesmer, a semi-famous magician. One of those David Blaine types. Extreme. Sam had felt nervous when he first met him a little over a year ago. It had been stressful enough meeting Christine’s mother, Sandy. Dom was shorter than Sam had expected, but built like a kickboxer. He asked Sam about his family and Sam told him about growing up in foster care before his mother got her act together and won back custody when he was fifteen. All the while Dom had listened, frowning.
When Christine and Sandy had left the room to make tea, Sam thought Dom was about to give him some kind of warning. Instead he said, “Hey, check this out,” before sticking a sewing needle through his bicep. Sam had almost puked, seeing the skin of Dom’s arm stretch out the other side and the needle finally poke through. He’d done his best to hide his revulsion. It felt pretty intimidating watching a grown man drive a spike through his arm. He wasn’t sure if Dom was trying to entertain or threaten him. If it was some kind of sick test, then Sam had passed with flying colours; he didn’t look away, didn’t make a face, didn’t even flinch when Dom said, “Go ahead and feel it—it’s in there.”
Sam was well aware, therefore, of his soon-to-be father-in-law’s eccentricities. He told himself that this whole burying himself in the garden thing was normal.
The next day, Christine called her mother.
“He’s still out there,” her mom said before Christine could even say hello.
Her mom scoffed. “Who knows. I’ve had it up to here with his antics.”
Christine went over to visit in the afternoon. It felt strange, her father not being there. It was like her childhood all over again. Before he retired, her dad was often away for weeks at a time, touring around doing magic shows and publicity stunts. Christine spent a lot of her childhood missing him. He’d always made it home for the holidays though. At Christmas, he’d leave boot prints in the fireplace. For Easter, he hid eggs with tufts of rabbit hair around the yard. Christine had grown up with magic.
“Can I talk to him?” Christine asked. They were standing in the dining room. The garden was visible below through the bay windows.
“Go ahead,” said her mother. “He’s just lying out there under the dirt. I water him and feed him like he’s one of the plants and he doesn’t say a word of thanks. Go—talk to him. Lotta good it’ll do.”
Christine went out to the back garden, to the raised bed where the pumpkins were growing. Their big leaves were green and prickly. They hadn’t yet flowered. Christine sat on the edge of the wooden frame containing the garden bed. She peeked under the leaves but saw no sign of her father. If he was in there, he was completely buried.
“Hey, Dad,” she said. “We’re thinking October for the wedding. If you have any problems with me marrying Sam, now would be the time to say something.”
Ants crawled up and down the pumpkin stalks but there was no other movement in the garden bed.
“Sam really wants to be a dad. He tries to hide it, ’cause he knows I don’t want kids.”
Christine used to have nightmares about being pregnant. She’d watch her belly swell like a tumour, feel the baby wriggling within, feeding off her. Sometimes she even heard it crying in there and the cries would wake her up.
“It’s the one thing that doesn’t line up with us. We just ignore it,” she said. “Are we wasting each other’s time?”
The earth did not stir. She felt like she was talking to his grave and that made her tear up. “Just come out soon, okay? I want you around for this.”
The summer passed by in a flurry of wedding plans, heat waves, and wildfire smoke. They didn’t see the blue sky for weeks and saw nothing of Christine’s father. Sam soon became convinced that Dom was not, in fact, buried in the garden. It was a trick. He was a magician—of course it was a trick. Sam suggested this to Christine on one occasion but didn’t push his point when she shrugged it off. He wondered if, perhaps, Dom was trying to scare him away, to test his resolve. Sam wouldn’t be shaken. He kept a cool exterior and mainly tried not to think about it. During this time, however, he had recurrent dreams of being buried alive and would wake up clawing dirt from his mouth.
One evening in mid-September, Christine and Sam were cuddling on the couch, watching TV. Planning their wedding was exhausting. Though it went unspoken, they both thought if they could get everything right—the ceremony, seating arrangements, décor—that it would ensure their future together. But that morning the cidery they’d booked for the venue had cancelled on them. They’d spent all afternoon contacting their guests, letting them know that the wedding would be postponed.
“Well, maybe Dad will be able to make it now,” said Christine.
Listening to her tentative, hopeful tone made Sam want to march over to her parents’ house and rip up the whole garden.
That’s when Sandy called. She said she’d taken an afternoon nap and dreamed of digging up Dom. It was time.
At ten o’clock the next morning, Christine and Sam stood in the garden outside the house. Sam’s mother and sisters were there as well, along with Christine’s grandparents, aunt, and uncle. The sky was a haze of smoke, casting the garden in a sepia light. No one had been told to dress up but they all had. Christine wore a floral dress and Sam had on his late father’s old, light blue suit, which was too big for him. They were supposed to get it altered for the wedding. All together they looked like they were going to church, though none considered themselves religious.
Finally, Christine’s mother came out of the house, wearing her newest gardening clothes and garden gloves. She was brandishing a pry bar. Everyone quieted down and let her through. She strode up to the garden bed and got to work prying apart the wooden frame, cursing as she wrestled with it. Christine and Sam moved to help her but she shooed them away. Finally, the frame split and came free, leaving behind a firm cross-section of earth. A few clumps of dirt tumbled down. Among the roots and worms sticking out of the dirt, they could see some skin exposed like a Yukon gold potato ready for harvest. They all got in there with their bare hands, digging him out. Unearthed, Dom looked gaunt and leathery, like a bog mummy or a withered fruit. He was still as death, eyes shut.
“Who’s got the apple?” asked Christine’s mother.
Sam’s mother, a short woman with a bright pink hat, stepped forward and produced a brown, rotten apple from her purse. She handed it over. It smelled sweet, like the bottle depot. Christine’s mother held the apple up to her husband’s papery lips, which quivered toward the fermented fruit. His eyes cracked open slightly and everyone applauded.
Christine’s father had come out of his “estivation”—as he called it—brimming with new ideas for the wedding. Christine and Sam were relieved to find out that he did, in fact, approve, but this was not the end of their anxiety. No sooner had Dom been dug out of the ground, than they were completely shut out of their own wedding plans. As her mother lifted him, light as a pile of leaves, out of the garden, he spoke to Christine in a raspy voice that she hardly recognized as his.
“We’ll take care of everything.”
A new date was chosen in April. Spring was a better time for beginnings by her dad’s reckoning. New invitations were sent out. Preparations were made under the direction of her father, who kept to his bedroom all the while. Christine spent hours on the phone with her mother, listening to how stubborn her father was. He was planning something special, but Sandy wouldn’t give Christine even a hint about what it was.
“What’s he doing in there?” Christine asked over the phone.
“Oh, he’s just a lazybones.”
“Can I see him?”
“You know how he is. But I won’t stop you.”
Christine went right over. This had gone on long enough. She wanted to see him, to be let in on what he was planning.
Her father hid under the covers as Christine entered. She considered ripping them off but was too tired.
“Dad, enough of this. Come on out.”
“It’s not time yet, Pumpkin,” he said. His voice was muffled and low. He still didn’t sound quite like himself.
“Why do you keep hiding from me?”
“I’m not hiding,” he said.
“Then what is all this?”
He was quiet. The colourful quilt rose and sank with his breaths. Light poured in through the windows. Christine sat on the edge of the bed.
“When you were little,” he finally said, “I lived for the look of wonder in your eyes. When I could make you believe that Santa had come, that the Easter Bunny had left eggs for you. No audience reaction ever came close to that. Not in all the world.”
Christine felt a lump in her throat, but she wasn’t going to cry. “What were you doing out there this whole time?”
“Thinking,” said her dad. “About you and Sam. You love each other.”
“It’s not enough. You want different things.”
Christine clenched the quilt in her fist. “What are you saying?”
“You’ll need something else,” said her dad. “You’ll need magic.”
The week before the wedding was like a pre-honeymoon. Sam and Christine stayed cozied up in their apartment, expressly forbidden from going to her parents’ house, where the wedding would be held. It was peaceful, that week. They spent every evening bundled up together on the couch, watching TV, reading, or just talking—not about the wedding, or the future—though it was on their minds. The issue of children hung between them. It made things complicated. But being in each other’s company, that was simple. Sam massaged Christine’s feet. Christine ran her fingers through Sam’s hair.
The morning of the wedding there was no word about what to do. The bride and groom got dressed together and sat waiting. Christine’s mother came to pick them up in her car around lunchtime. They had to move bags of soil out of the back seat in order to get in.
The garden was in full bloom, alive with an explosion of vernal colour. It was hardly recognizable. Their families and friends were all there, dressed colourfully as the flowers around them. Christine and Sam were swallowed up by the jubilant guests and brought inside, where they were separated. Everyone gave them succulent treats and best wishes for the future. There was no sign of Dom. Christine asked around but no one knew where he was. Time crept forward and Christine was beginning to wonder when the actual wedding part would happen. Across the room, separated from her by the crowd, Sam was wondering the same thing.
When they found each other again, they couldn’t believe how quickly the time had gone.
It was already dark outside.
“Are we going to get married soon?” asked Sam.
“I don’t know,” said Christine.
Sam looked over her shoulder. “Was that always there?”
Christine turned to look down the hall. At the end was a door that she had never noticed before—not in all the years she’d grown up in this house.
Sam’s mom came up to them, her pink hat blossoming with flowers, and said, “That’s where you’ll get married.” A cluster of relatives swarmed and inundated them with instructions.
“You’ll go in together and wait for the officiant.”
“Who is it?” asked Christine.
“He’ll be small.”
“No—tall. His hair brushes the ceiling.”
“You’ll know him by his eyes.”
“He’ll come down through the chimney.”
“Is it Santa?” asked Sam.
“Go in and see.”
Sam’s mother softly touched their cheeks. “You’ll know what to do.”
Christine looked at Sam, who smiled and shrugged. They joined hands and walked down the hall, which seemed to close in on either side. They opened the door. Inside was black. The darkness wrapped around them like a blanket as they entered.
They knelt, side by side, in the exquisite dark and quiet of the room. Their eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness. It was a small room. It felt crowded, though they were the only ones inside. Vague shapes of old furniture loomed: a couch, a lamp, a wardrobe—real estate for resident spiders. There was a little window high up on the wall, through which no light came. Across from them was a fireplace, holding deeper darkness.
There was no sound but each other’s breathing. Their heartbeats pulsed through their interlaced fingers. Seconds went by. Then minutes. Time stretched. They looked at each other and giggled. Nervous.
“Are they coming?”
They snorted with laughter and shushed each other, which just made them laugh more. Then it subsided. Both went quiet. They felt jittery and a little awkward. They couldn’t see each other’s faces. Sam let go of Christine’s hand. His voice sounded distant.
“I always thought I’d be a dad.” The words drifted through the room, got stuck in the cobwebs.
“Are we stealing from each other?”
Neither one had an answer. They felt far away from each other, lost in the dark.
“What if the officiant doesn’t show up?”
The floorboards creaked under their weight. Their knees were getting sore. It felt like hours since they had come through the door.
“Should we just say the officiant came?”
“You mean lie?”
“I don’t know if it would be a lie. Your mom said we’d know what to do, right? Maybe this is what’s expected.”
The words hung in the darkness. Christine and Sam turned to face each other. They joined hands. Another giggle rippled through them. They whispered the words together.
“I marry you.”
Their voices came out shaky. They were trembling. They sat up on their knees and searched for each other’s lips in the dark, but before they could kiss, they felt an interruption in the drafty air—a smell like smoke, and pumpkins, and fresh turned soil.
They turned to the fireplace and saw the orange glint of eyes within. Neither one breathed. They squeezed each other’s hands.
The creature crept out of the fireplace on all fours, its claws clacking against the floor. It was covered in black hair that blended into the darkness in the room, making it difficult to tell exactly where the creature’s body ended. It looked small as it approached them, then stretched like a shadow as it rose to its feet—until it loomed high above them.
Christine looked up into its eyes, glowing like a hearth fire in winter, and searched for her father’s familiar twinkle. This must have been what he’d been planning all this time. She wondered if it was him, but the creature—the officiant—looked real.
It gestured for Christine and Sam to stand, then clasped its clawed hands tightly together in something akin to a prayer. It shut its eyes for a long time, then looked down at Christine and Sam expectantly.
“I think we can kiss now.”
The two turned to each other and there was all the nervous uncertainty of their first time.
They found each other in the dark and kissed.
Then the officiant was gone. They glimpsed its feet disappearing up the chimney.
Christine and Sam stepped out of the room to the cheers and applause of the guests, who all crowded around them, dispelling the intimate quiet they’d just shared. Christine and Sam made their way through, arm in arm, taking a moment with everyone. Still, Christine saw no sign of her father.
Soon there was music and dancing. Kids in suits and dresses scurried around underfoot, chasing each other all through the house. Christine and Sam danced together for a few songs before Christine left him to go sit down. She watched him from the sofa. He looked cute, dancing with his mother and sisters. Christine felt peaceful.
Across the room, her mother was leading her father towards her. He looked thin, and tired, but had a serene look on his face. He wore a black muscle shirt with a blazer over it, one of Sandy’s orange dahlias tucked through the buttonhole of his lapel. There was grey in his hair, which had been black all through Christine’s childhood.
Her mother bent over to kiss Christine’s cheek before walking away. Her father sat down beside her.
“Congratulations, Pumpkin,” he said, finally sounding like himself.
“Was that you in the room?” asked Christine. “Or something else?”
Her father smiled and shrugged, a twinkle in his eye. Christine sighed, resigning herself to the uncertainty. She turned to see Sam on the dance floor. He’d lifted one of her little cousins onto his shoulders. He looked like a dad. He looked happy.
“I don’t know if we’re gonna make it.”
Sam caught her eye and smiled. She smiled back.
“We don’t get to know,” her father said. He put his arm around her and she leaned into him. He smelled like smoke, and pumpkins, and fresh turned soil.
Evan Shumka is a Cowichan Valley writer whose short stories have appeared in Portal and Gooey Magazine. He studies Creative Writing at Vancouver Island University and is currently working on his first novel. His other passions include acting and visual art.