The Gardeners were a peculiar family. They lived on top of the tallest hill in Shadowburn in a four-story brick house, leaning slightly to the left, called Keepers Place. The windows frames had black peeling paint and sixty percent of the house was covered in thick forest ivy. The front door was also black and twice the size of a normal door with a big ornate brass lion head in its middle. To look at it, one would think this towering cottage was abandoned many years ago by the overgrown forest landscape that framed the house and the rest of the property. Parked in the driveway, through the big stone arch were three different vehicles; a small bus painted royal blue, a moss green motorcycle with a very large sidecar and an old black vintage Mini which all appeared to be at least 20 years old.
The Gardeners had lived in Keepers for many generations and the house had a reputation in town for being strange. It was the only place in the town where wildlife was in abundance and whenever the townsfolk would walk or drive by they got a chill on the back of their necks. Many people had claimed to see small, bright, floating lights that seem to appear seeping through the forest trees from on top of that hill at night. The landscape around the house made it appear dark and ominous which only added to the opinion that the house was mysterious.
Molly Gardener seemed to be unbothered by all the stories and gossip about her ancestral family home and at times would play into it to add an air of whimsy to the nosey neighbours. Molly wasn’t your average mum or wife. She was a small woman, no more than five foot two with a petite frame and young eclectic sense of style with mid-length, darkest brown wavy hair. She was always the first person you heard when you went into the house. Her philosophy of life was to actually live and not just survive. Often sporting a crop-top, overalls, oversized glasses and a cardigan, she would always say to her partner and her children ‘There is no such thing as boredom, only laziness!’. She was always thinking of new things to do, organizing activities, making games, redesigning the house or simply pottering around until inspiration hit, all while debating this-or-that or sharing her latest opinion. This was how she liked it, to end the day with a sense of achievement and to have something to show for it whether a repurposed piece of furniture or a bruise from getting too crazy with her dance parties.
Her partner Bash was quite the opposite in mind. From the look of him, he was considered ‘normal’. He was a tall man at six foot six and was naturally big in brawn and bone. His muscles were hard to hide when he wore a t-shirt as his biceps and chest looked like they were about to burst out but Molly and the kids adored this about him as they felt safe in his arms. He was often judged for his rugged appearance and almost tribal tattoos but he oozed positive and calm vibes. He always had his sunset-coloured hair slicked back to show off his full-bodied burnt orange beard but if you got close enough you would see the grey and white hues creeping in on the sides. Although Bash was a simple man of few words, he would never say no to his partners’ ideas and always entertained her thoughts and feelings on a variety of subjects. He was a proud man and was content knowing that his children would grow up in a historical family home with the perfect backdrop for wild imaginations. He admired his wife’s determination to bring wonderful open-mindedness into their lives.
This particular Thursday Molly had something magical planned for her youngest son's birthday and against her own belief, she actually managed to keep it a secret from him, but that wasn’t the only secret she was keeping.
Just like most mornings in the late summer, Molly rose earlier than the rest of the household to take a moment for herself and sit in the garden with a cold glass of water and a small bundle of bread and cut up fruits for the animals. She would sit there at the rusty tea table on the rusty white matching chair with the sun shining on her face and through her big glasses.
Without any particular order, the animals of the forest would approach her and wait for her to share her delicious treats. It was almost as if they had no fear and their coming to her was ritualistic and instinctual. She loved this time of year. Watching the gentle sway of the colour changing leaves, the vibrant specs of red and purple of the flowers when the grass bends just so, the warm sun on her skin accompanied by the cool breeze made her appreciate the airy, thick fabric of her cardigan. Sometimes the rest of the house would hear the back door open and they would find a window to see the animals line up as if she was greeting each one by name. The family was in awe of how calm she is in the mornings versus the busy, energized version of her when everyone is awake.
As soon as Molly came back inside she headed to the kitchen. Following almost immediately a stampede of feet started to echo on the ceiling trailing down the stairs. One at a time the kids made their way into the kitchen followed by Leaf the extra-large mixed breed then lastly Mr. Gardener.
“Morning my loves” she said with vigour.
“Yes, you too leaf” she whispered quietly while petting his face.
“Morning!” The kids replied in tandem as Leaf excitedly exited through the dog flap on the back door.
“Good morning Molly.” Bash said as he laid his hand on her lower back and planted a kiss on her forehead.
The kids settled into their usual positions on the benches at the kitchen table while Bash routinely retrieved the jugs of apple juice and cold water from the fridge and filled up the tumblers in front of them; he then placed them gently in the middle. The kitchen table was one of Molly and Bash’s projects from earlier that year. It was gifted from a fallen Royal Yew tree in which Bash skillfully cut a piece to display the beauty of the grain, revealing its labyrinthine life story. The edges were asymmetrical from the thick bark and natural contours of the tree. Molly took care to preserve the majestic wood when she lacquered all the intricate details the Royal Yew presented in a rich resin. It was one of their favourite pieces in the whole house.
“I feel like I’ve forgotten something,” she questioned with a side-eye.
Without hesitation or pause, Max jumped up from the breakfast table, stood on his chair with open arms and shouted.. “IT'S MY BIRTHDAY!”.
With an amused smile Bash started walking toward the calendar on the other side of the room.
“That can’t be right... Let me check... Hmm. So it is!”
Almost in unison, the whole family said ‘Happy Birthday!’ to Max who crawled down from his chair and sat there with a look of achievement on his face. Molly turned back around quietly chuckling to herself and started to mix the ingredients for pancakes. Bash was frying thick rashers of bacon and fat juicy sausages for the side while the kids were discussing syrup and the perfect gift. True to their nature Killian who was the oldest of the three children, at twelve years old, and a master woodsman like his father believes this gift is a machine that builds anything whereas Poppy the middle child at ten years old requested every colour paint in the universe. Max on the other hand had spoken about the metal detector he wanted more than twice a day and shared many opinions on it in various situations but he knew birthday gifts were always given after dinner so he would just have to wait.
After breakfast, the family dispersed as usual. Max prepared for his expedition into the intense terrain and was feeling extra lucky today as it was his birthday, Poppy went to the art room to collect supplies to finish her painting outside, Killian was planning his next woodwork project with his dad in the shed and Leaf would surely follow him. Molly and the Cat, Holmes, usually were found around the inside of the house watching out on the family to be settled before starting the day’s projects. She observed Max with his eager eyes before noticing a very elegant Owl perched on one of the biggest tree branches above him. It seemed to have nodded at Molly before flying off into the thick forest.
Max was the youngest and a curious six-year-old. Out of all three kids (and the dog), he was the one who took after his mum the most. He was slightly shorter than his peers but had the attitude not to get left in the crowd and was often found investigating or exploring the property on top of the hill. This is what led to his recurring dirty feet and the need to bathe them at least once a day. He would leave the house after breakfast with a cloth bag, notepad and 4 crayons, a bottle of water and an old spoon. With his items filling up the pockets of his shorts he headed out through the wild shrubbery until he felt he was in the right spot and started to pick through the rocks and dirt with his fingers and spoon in the hopes of finding treasure. Usually, he would return with unique stones and pieces of old broken metal from unknown objects which he would scrub with an old toothbrush before adding them to his growing collection.
That morning was fresh with the morning dew and damp from the light showers the night before so Max’s feet and legs were extra muddy. His mum had told him several times to wear his welly boots when exploring but Max liked to live free with his flip flops or no shoes at all and as today was his birthday he wanted to do things his way.
A few hours had passed and Molly was finally taking a seat in the living room after cleaning up the breakfast dishes and last night's glitter crafts. By this time Max had filled up his first pouch for the day and had retired into the house for a foot bath.
“MUMMMM!” the loud shrill bellowed down from the fourth floor.
Molly ignored Max beckoning her all the time. His reasoning why he just had to yell was that if he had to come down all four flights of stairs his legs would be too tired to grow yet every time without fail she would count to seven then Maxs little footsteps would start to thud as he trudged down the stairwell.
“Can I help you Sir Maximus?” she said with a slight grin.
“Did you not hear me?” Max huffed looking at his mother with a furrowed brow.
“I always hear you my love but I am not the dog. Now what is it that’s so important?” she replied.
“Well, I was washing my feet in the bath and when I picked up the soap this piece of paper fell out from behind it.”
Max handed his mother the small folded piece of paper with a very curious look on his face and waited for her to open it.
What he did not know at this time was that his mother had planned this happening the night before knowing that Max would discover this as soon as he ritually came in and washed his feet before examining his findings that late morning.
“This is a clue Max. The first clue to be correct...maybe you should open it and see what it says”. She handed the unopened note back to Max with a glint in her eye and a small smile. Max took the note and became excited but also very confused.
“I can't read it; I haven't learnt that yet”
“Well, open it and just see..” she persisted.
Max carefully opened the paper to savour the excitement and to prevent it from ripping. His eyes squinted as an image appeared. Drawn on it was a big Fortingall Yew Tree full of leaves with a small red door at the bottom of the wide trunk. Max looked up at Molly with wide eyes and said “I know where that is”.