The Poison Garden
One look could kill
My pain, your thrill
I want to love you but I better not touch (Don't touch)
I want to hold you but my senses tell me to stop
I want to kiss you but I want it too much (too much)
I want to taste you but your lips are venomous poison
You're poison running through my veins
You're poison, I don't wanna break these chains
The Alice Cooper tune came in over Jefferson’s CD player. Emma was riding from town out to The House with Jefferson, Clarissa, Millie, and Rory. Leroy was following along very slowly in large cumbersome van carrying the heavy equipment, along with Archie and Hooker. Emma was directing where to turn so that they didn’t miss the little side road. They lumbered along the narrow treacherous roadway moving at a snail’s pace. Emma was surprised she didn’t receive a caustic call from Leroy but, then again, she had prepared him for what they would be traveling on.
As they burst out from under the tree canopy, the girls collectively gasped.
“That is so beautiful!” “Wow!” “That’s where we’re going, that’s so amazing!” They were all impressed.
“Ms. Nolen is the concierge of the place. A really nice lady. I’ve told her that I will want you all to wander around the place and then we’ll meet back before we get her to give us the ghost tour,” Emma told them.
They knew Emma’s procedures from her class so she got all-around nods. They were to walk through and see what, if anything, stood out to them. Emma parked the car and watched as the groups pulled together and branched out, Rory with Millie and Jefferson, Clarissa and Hooker and Archie. Emma, as was her wont, went out on her own. Leroy collected the recorders Emma had left in the three rooms and got busy listening through them in his techno-van.
Emma began her walk clockwise around the house. She had to smile at herself; she was kowtowing to an old childhood admonition: Never walk widdershins around a church. This was hardly a church but the old habit didn’t leave her. She would not walk counter-clockwise around a building if she could help it.
Boy, the place was big. There were a myriad of paths winding through the dense, dark woods. She could see the house through the branches of the trees, mostly barren in the late fall. She could see what she suspected was Mr. and Ms. Nolen’s place a very short ways off from the big house. There was a big white truck parked out in front of the place. Emma found another path that she guessed led through the trees and went over to the ocean. Through more trees, she suddenly was finding her way up to a high brick wall covered over in moss and ivy and following the path, she circled around the wall to a black iron gate. She tested and opened the gate and found that she had made her way to yet another garden, this one completely enclosed by the brick wall and separated from the large flower and herb gardens standing in mourning near the front of the house.
Nothing remarkable here. These plants sitting dormant didn’t seem to have anything special to recommend them. Most were not at all pretty and Emma couldn’t imagine what they might look like in full bloom. They weren’t any herbs that she recognized, not that her herbal repertoire extended much beyond basil and rosemary. She stopped by one particularly unattractive tree. There were some dried fruit smaller than apples lying on the ground. She knelt down to pick one up.
“It’s a good idea to wear gloves when you are handling the plants in this garden,” Emma heard a woman’s voice behind her. She startled, not having heard anyone come up behind her and turned, looking up, from her kneeling position. It was the same woman she had caught a glimpse of yesterday working in the garden. A pretty, delicate brunette in a long blue skirt, a white blouse and an apron. She had sparkling blue eyes and a gentle smile.
“Really?” Emma asked her.
“This is a Poison Garden,” the woman answered her still smiling. “Every plant that grows here is toxic one way or another. The little tree you’re looking at is nux vomica. You probably know it as strychnine.”
Emma snatched her hand back and stood up.
The other woman gave her a short laugh. “You’re all right. The poison is in the seeds. Not like this plant,” she motioned Emma’s attention to another bush that was set in a pot. “Oleander. Every part is poisonous but the sap is most deadly.” The woman gently patted the plant. “This little one will need to be put into the greenhouse soon as it won’t survive the winter out here.”
Emma nodded. She was familiar with oleander and its suspected role in the deaths at Myrtles Plantation in New Orleans. “What about this one?” she asked about a vining plant with large leaves.
“Ah. The poison of this one is also in the seed pods. The castor bean plant. The poison is ricin. Even a small amount is deadly.” She walked down the path. “Some of these have contact poison, like these two.”
Emma recognized the plant with three leaves, “Poison ivy?”
The woman nodded. “A beautiful plant, but it can’t be touched. The other little plant here is rue. Not everyone reacts to either plant. There are many others but you won’t see them right now. In the spring these beds are filled with green hellebore, black cohosh, larkspur, lobelia, and of course monkshood, also called wolfsbane. There’s jimsom weed, also called thorn apple, mandrake and tobacco.” She stopped and pointed to one skeletal remains of a plant, “This little plant is belladonna.”
She started walking again, “If we go down near the water we might be able to see calamus, hemlock, male fern, and cuckoopint. And over here is a large bed of foxgloves. They are pretty sad looking this time of year.”
She stopped and looked over the spires of the stately plants, “Now they are an interesting way to poison someone. You give small doses over a period of time. The poison slowly accumulates to kill its victim.”
She then pointed at some gold and silver-grey plants, “Still looking nice even this late in the year are scotch broom, mugwort, which will give you strange dreams and its cousin, wormwood from which they make absinthe.”
She continued, “In the tree over there is mistletoe which can also be used to protect you from witchcraft. You should put it with more kindly herbs such as angelica and hazelnut that you can find in the herb garden in the front of the house. Salt and iron are good to use against the dark arts, also.”
Emma shook her head. “Why on earth would people have these plants growing around their house?!” she asked in amazement.
“Years ago, these were used in medicinal preparations. Some, like black cohosh, are still used. It’s all in how the plant is used. A small amount is medicine, but. . . ,” the woman shrugged and smiled, “what is a poison but ‘too much’ of something?” She led Emma towards the gate. “Usually there is a lock on this gate.”
“Maybe Ms. Nolen just forgot and left it opened?” speculated Emma.
“No, no,” the woman replied, gazing off for a moment, “Mary Margaret did not forget. She is very vigilant and careful. Someone else,” she said softly, “yes, someone else opened it. They opened it to create mischief . . . and perhaps harm.”
“Well, I’ll let Ms. Nolen know. I don’t think she’ll be happy to find it was left open,” Emma looked around. There must be over thirty plants in the place, allowing for space and what she could see still above the ground. The garden for all of its sinister composition was well-tended and the plants had been cared for.
“Mary Margaret has special tours in the spring and summer,” the woman told her.
Emma had stopped to look at some of the other plants the woman had not named for her. She was now alert enough not to touch anything growing in the walled garden. Finding an odd green vine, she asked “What’s this one?” When there was no answer, she looked around. The woman had gone.
Well now, that was just odd. Emma left the garden, pulling the gate shut behind herself and continuing to circle the house. Before getting all the way back to the front she found a high iron fence enclosing a small area, a graveyard, not unusual to find around these older estates. The tombstones were soapstone and for most part it was impossible to read any of the inscriptions. One was larger than the others and the headstone appeared to be marble. She made her way over to it.
No date, no inscription.
“So this is where you ended up, huh, big guy?” She looked around but couldn’t make out any other names that she had heard so far. No Cora. No Belle.
She left the graveyard and made her way back to the front door. She went on into the building. Mary Margaret greeted her.
“Your people are already walking through,” the pretty concierge told her. “I think there’s one group in the basement right now and another one upstairs.”
“Great, I’m going to wander around a little more myself,” Emma told her. “Oh, I did find the lock to the poison garden unfastened.”
Mary Margaret vaulted up. “Oh my god! How did that happen? I was just out there a couple of days ago and I know I locked the place up! This is so irritating . . . and frightening!”
“Has this happened before?” Emma asked.
“Not that I know of. We’re very careful to keep that place locked up. It’s very dangerous! I’m so glad you recognized what it was. Most people wouldn’t,” Mary Margaret had grabbed some keys and was heading out the door.
“Well, I didn’t exactly know what it was. I had almost picked up some seed pods with strychnine,” Emma told her. “But your pretty gardener lady stopped me.”
Mary Margaret stopped. “My gardener?” she asked.
“Uh huh, a little brunette with bright blue eyes.”
Mary Margaret stood very still. She took a deep breath. “Emma, I’m not sure how to tell you this. . .” she began.
“She was very helpful,” Emma went on. “Told me about a lot of the plants. I saw her yesterday too when I drove up,” Emma was chatting on.
“Emma. We don’t have a brunette with bright blue eyes who works here.” She looked Emma directly in the eyes. “There used to be a brunette with bright blue eyes who worked here.”
The group had reconvened in the library except for Leroy who was still going over the tapes.
“Well, who wants to go first?” Emma asked the group. She'd taken the information about the ghost-lady gardener in stride, sure that there was another explanation somewhere.
Everyone looked at everyone else. The group sat quietly for a while, with most of them casting their eyes down, except for Jefferson who was more experienced with the process.
It was Jefferson who spoke first, “That red room made me ill.”
“Me too,” several other members of the group immediately spoke up.
“Why do you think that was?” Emma asked, taking notes.
“The color and the room was stifling,” Jefferson explained. “I felt like I was inside of a body, like a big beating heart was surrounding me. I could see people getting sick in that room.”
“Anybody else?” Emma asked.
Young Clarissa spoke up. “I felt unwelcome. I know that’s just a feeling, but I felt unwelcome.”
Emma nodded. “Why do you think you felt that way?” she asked gently.
Clarissa shook her head, “I don’t know. It was just unpleasant, as if someone didn’t want me there.”
Emma wrote down her investigator’s impression. “Anyone else?” She could see Rory hesitating.
“I felt threatened,” Rory whispered.
“I felt that something might happen to me if I stayed in that room. I couldn’t get out soon enough.”
Millie agreed, “Rory seemed pretty spooked. Jefferson and I opted to get her out of that room.”
“Anyone else have any comments about the Red Room?”
Everyone shook their heads.
“Anywhere else?” Emma asked.
Colin Hooker looked around the library, “This room,” he began.
“While I was here I felt. . . I felt a female presence. It was like my ‘hot chick at twelve o’clock meter’ went off, but it was when I was in here by myself. There wasn’t anyone else here.”
“Your ‘hot chick meter’?” Emma knew she would regret asking this.
Colin gave her a smirk, “Yeah, like when I’m at a club with a lot of people and suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I know, I just know, there’s a really nice looking woman in the vicinity.”
“Kinda like your super-power?” Emma asked wearily.
“Kinda. I mean, I do manage to leave clubs and bars with the best looking women on my arm.”
“Okay,” Emma was ready to move on, “Anything else you can tell us about the female presence?”
“I thought I smelled her perfume. It was like,” he shrugged. . . “flowers?”
“Like roses and lavender and clean soap,” Archie said. “I smelt it too.”
“I feel really comfortable and safe in this room,” Millie shared.
Rory was again sitting quietly as if she was going to say something but was unsure of herself.
“Rory?” Emma asked, trying not to spook the sensitive girl.
“I felt . . . aroused," she laughed, nervously. "Like I was with somebody that really, really turned me on. I kept expecting to be kissed or felt up or . . . ” Rory had taken on her dreamy look and was absently twisting her hair. “Like I’m waiting for someone to come in, someone I care about, who cares about me, but we can’t let anyone know. This is our secret place that we meet.”
Everyone turned to look at her. Rory re-focused, looked around, and blushed. “I can’t explain it. It’s like this room was used for some illicit passionate affair or something. I just feel the love.”
“I just saw books, books, books and thought I could stay in this room forever!” shared Clarissa.
Emma and group laughed kindly. “All right, now anywhere else?”
“Oh lord yes, the basement.” It was Millie’s turn. “I went there and got so cold and so depressed.”
“Me too,” agreed Archie and Clarissa. The group turned to Rory.
“So sad. So sad. That one room. I felt like everything was hopeless and I was trapped.”
“Interesting,” said Emma, writing down the impressions. Rory was indeed an interesting addition to the group for sure. She seemed to pick up on strong impressions that the rooms provided that everyone else was tapping into just on a marginal level. Emma didn’t believe in mediums, but it was evident that Rory could probably make her living as one.
“All right, folk. We have the Red Room, the basement room and here, the library. Anywhere else?” she wasn’t expecting to hear about anything more and was about to close her notebook, when. . . it was Clarissa who spoke up.
“The attic,” she said.
“Yeah?” Emma hadn’t heard about any phenomena in the attic well, there was that thing with the curtain moving that she had thought she had seen.
“There’s a large room up there with a rocking chair. I walked in and I felt like . . . I don’t know. . . I felt like someone was watching me. I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t feel threatened or like there was anything that wanted to hurt me.” Clarissa was talking slowly. “I sat in the chair and I would swear that someone touched my hair.” She shrugged. “I know, there must have been a draft.”
“We’ll have to check it out,” Emma told her. “Anything else? Anything at all?” she asked and when no one else spoke up, she stretched and summarized, “So, I’m hearing from the preliminaries that there are four rooms that caught our attention.” At least three of these rooms had peculiarities of lighting, air flow, coloring; she knew she’d have to check out the attic.
Emma knew from her research that if you went into an old house looking for spooks you’d find them. The human mind was amazingly amenable to believing that dim lighting, shadows, cool temperatures, stray smells and such like were explainable by the supernatural. She wanted evidence before succumbing, because feelings meant nothing. As far as she was concerned, her group picking up on the hot spots wasn’t evidence of the paranormal; it was more evidence that the ambience of the setting was conducive to producing the heebies in the typical person.
“Great group. You did fantastic.”
“How about you Emma?” Jefferson was asking. “Did you stumble into anything?”
“Yeah, in the back is a walled garden. It is usually locked, but somebody had unlocked it. It’s dangerous, a Poison Garden,” she told everyone. “I walked into it clueless, but I met a young woman there who warned me about some of the plants.” Emma considered her next statement. “Ms. Nolen told me that the woman I saw doesn’t work here,” she paused for effect, “anymore.”
“You saw a ghost?!” Jefferson asked her.
Emma pulled a face. “I promise you, the woman I saw looked as real as anybody here. I couldn’t see through her. She looked at me, spoke to me, we conversed.”
“Who was she?” asked Leroy.
“I don’t know. Ms. Nolen is telling me that I saw the ghost of Belle French who was a servant . . . .” she hesitated knowing from the woman’s diary that she wasn’t, strictly speaking, a servant, but opted to go on, “ a servant in the house, but I’m telling you there was nothing ghostly about the woman I saw. I want everyone to keep a look out for her. She is a pretty brunette, petite, with amazing blue eyes. She was wearing a long blue skirt, a white blouse and an apron. Ms. Nolen tells me she’s often seen at dusk, walking around with a lit candle.