By Terri Clifton
Patches was born with his smile stitched on, if that is what you call being stuffed and stood upright. And even if his smile hadn’t been so carefully sewn, he couldn’t have helped having it upon seeing the sparkling eyes of the child, her curly head hanging over him as he was buttoned up. She’d giggled when the man stood him straight, and clapped her hands
“Hello, Patches,” she said. “Welcome to the garden!” Then she spun in circles and laughed some more, so that the first thing he ever felt was joy.
He got a glimpse of the world as he was swiveled and straightened, and his pole sunk deep. The house was behind him and before him lay a meadow that ran down to a low stone wall. Beyond that the hillside fell away and the long narrow valley spread before him. Old trees that had stood for a hundred years were off to his left, and a garden shed to his right. All around him was the freshly turned earth that would become his garden to protect. Little Girl laughed and helped the Man, kneeling in the dirt, tiny fingers placing tinier seeds into the warming earth.
Snow peas and lettuce, and carrots and cucumber, each patted gently and tucked in. She sang to them as she scooted along in the dirt between the rows. Her happiness reached Patches so his idea of how to be in this place was happy from the start. He was more than glad to watch over her plantings when she’d explained his purpose. He let the feeling travel out into the dirt, rooted himself there and took up the mission. He could feel the waiting in the seed, and he adored the Little Girl.
Patches found himself connected, both to the land he’d been planted in and the child’s laughter, her presence. She talked to the Man as they worked and watered in the seeds with can after can of water.
The day was warm, and the afternoon moved, sun swinging around to hit Patches face. His straw soaked up the warmth, but the breeze was crisp when it passed. Fresh growing leaves, translucent still. drew in the light as they fluttered. When the sun began to dip below the far hills the air cooled rapidly. The people who’d stood him there went away, and the whole world changed.
He might have been afraid in the darkness, left alone, if it hadn’t been for the wide sky above, where one by one stars kept appearing. In all his days he would always remember that first night, those first lights. They filled him with wonder.
His wonder grew when at the coldest and darkest hour of the night, the deep black velvet of the sky gave way. He watched the color and shapes return to the valley, and while neither cold nor heat troubled him, he was glad to see this world again. To see a brand-new day.
It was a fine morning and busy in the valley below as people woke and began their work. He watched a tractor plow a rectangle into a sea of green, the soil damp and dark where it was turned. In the long stripes the seeds were sown, waiting like those below him. The Little Girl came out and played in the meadow, turning a somersault, and running free. He thought this day was as perfect as the one before. Again he watched the sun sink away. Mellow light spilled golden over the variegated greens and browns in the patchwork fields.
He learned that the day and the night followed each other, over and over and it astonished him to see their beauty exchange places again and again.
Small quivering of the planted seeds drew his attention the next day, and he felt the moment they chose to reach for the sky. Splitting and pushing to the light, and to life. He warned the crows as nicely as he could.
“Move on. Move on,” he said when they landed in the garden, and so the seedlings grew stronger and taller.
Rain was a miracle he thought when it came, quenching the soil’s need, all the plants sipping and sipping.
Patches didn’t know what to think or feel the day a farmer below placed a scarecrow in the plowed and planted field. He hadn’t known there could be others like him. Faced away, it too stared down the valley. Patches couldn’t see his face but his bright yellow shirt was another kind of sunshine and so he found himself watching every morning when the light returned to see its brightness. He would nod to himself as the breeze blew at the goodness of having another out there.
Spring turned to summer with so much growing energy he was nearly overwhelmed. He separated out the threads of life he felt. The bees at the blooming flowers, and the flowers themselves. The old trees and the new eggs nested in their branches. The garden and the laughing, growing Little Girl.
The vines of cucumber and melon and pumpkin brushed the earth as they spread, and their produce grew fat in the sun. Caterpillars turned to butterflies. Days followed nights, followed days.
Though he reached and reached he couldn’t feel anything from the scarecrow in the corn field. Soon the corn stalks reached waist high. Summer’s intensity built with heat until everything moved sluggishly. Even the bouncing rabbits nibbled lazily at the clover as clouds formed gray overhead.
Rainstorms excited Patches with the way the lightening flashed, and the rumble of thunder rolled over the hills. The rain left everything fresh and clean. But one day felt different right from the start. The sky was thick with haze even as the sun rose and never lost its humid white glare throughout the day. By afternoon he could feel a big storm building even as the air grew unusually still. With the last of the light falling, anvil shaped clouds could be seen over the ridge and the wind began to rise.
In the darkness he could hear the trees creaking as they swayed violently and for the first time, he felt fear flow out of their roots and into him. They groaned as leaves were ripped away and branches broke and fell. One barely missed Patches and landed with a thud on the peppermint. He swayed and shook back and forth while a shutter on the house banged and banged before ripping away.
When the destruction stopped, he was sodden but standing and felt relief, even as the robins mourned their fallen nest. The tomatoes plants were bent and tangled, but the garden was well. Eventually his gaze traveled down into the valley, to the cornfield and the scarecrow guarding it. The stalks were disheveled from the downburst of wind and the driving rain, but they were already straightening and reaching upward. The scarecrow hadn’t fared as well. His hat was gone from his burlap head. His bright yellow shirt was shredded, one arm hung limp and all of him leaned forward. Patches was straightened and the tomatoes re-staked. No one came to straighten the scarecrow in the corn. In the days that followed the corn grew with renewed energy, tall enough to not need a guardian, then taller still until the scarecrow could no longer be seen at all.
Patches didn’t understand that what he felt was sadness and grief. He’d never before felt loneliness. He had good days, when the Little Girl laughed or when the vine of the pumpkin wrapped itself around his pole. He felt the vegetables ripen around him and when the Little Girl picked them and put them in a basket, he knew the pride of a job well done. But he no longer enjoyed the storms when they came.
Summer had its way with the world. Fledglings left the nests in the trees, the grasses and wildflowers in the meadow grew tall and went to seed while the crickets began to sing of dark and cold ahead. Patches watched the field below, at the drying and shrinking cornstalks, their color changing. He tried to will his other to reappear. The day the farmer returned for the harvest Patches had hope watching great swaths fall, but when the field was picked there were only broken boards and bits of yellow cloth tossed in the back of the pickup. Hope drained out of Patches as the truck bounced across the field, disappearing into the distance.
While the trees talked among themselves, they had always kept their own counsel. Tied to the earth and the sky, they missed nothing that happened. They had sensed how hard Patches had tried to reach the scarecrow and sensed his sadness now. In the deepest part of dusk, with Venus following the sun into the dark, the oldest of the oaks spoke. The swish of dying leaves was a whisper filled with compassion, answering the unspoken pain and unasked questions radiating over the garden, and down into the valley.
“There was no fear and no sadness in the other,” the oak assured Patches. “You could not reach him, because he could not feel at all. He did not know himself and no one named him to make it so. He was not put together with joy or laughter, or love.”
Patches remembered then the first laughter of the Little Girl, the day she had stuffed his head, and the rush he felt inside himself was love and gratitude, but it bothered Patches in a different way that the other had been so alone. And as the final pumpkins were picked and carved and lit along the garden wall, he dared to ask the trees what would happen, but they were already sleeping.
The frost took the last of the vines and squirrels foraged where the birds once searched for worms, then one day he was pulled from the ground and taken to the garden shed. He was terrified. But then he heard the Little Girl.
“Make sure he can see out the window Daddy, so he can still watch the garden.” And she patted his straw chest when he was settled, and his fear went soft and fell away.
Soon he watched the world go white. He was glad for his window and the shed that kept him from the winter gales. He could see the little girl dancing in the whirling flakes and once she even waved her mittened hand at him as she played in the snow. It was different, but it was still enough. And just as the days seemed darkest and coldest, he felt a stir. The ice melted and dripped, and soon the sun stayed longer in the sky.
Then one day the most amazing thing happened.
The shed door opened, and the man said, “Time to go to work, Patches.”
The Little Girl buttoned on a fresh shirt and fluffed his head. She tied a red bandana around his neck and told him he looked dashing. She laughed her beautiful laugh and he felt joy again, this time deeper, this time brighter. And when he was sunk into the earth he reveled in the connection.
The old tree’s new leaves said. “Well done.”
And so the seasons and years passed. Patches oversaw the garden and looked on from the garden shed. Each year the little girl spruced him up with care. Each year she was less little.
Eventually came a year that the planted garden ceased to be tended, although the plants were still doing their work and Patches was doing his. The Man and the Girl didn’t harvest or hoe. Weeds came and reached Patches knees and there was no laughter even though all of nature continued on.
When the frost came and the pumpkins were still in the garden, Patches knew it was his last season. No one came to put him in the garden shed. Leaves piled about him in the autumn breezes.
The world grew colder and there was no sound from the house, only the scurrying of a field mouse and the wild geese overhead.
The winter storm started softly. The bits of white collected on his outstretched arms and began to weight them down. Patches leaned a bit and felt the end coming. But he wasn’t afraid. He had known far more than he ever could have if he hadn’t been loved, and he hadn’t wasted a single day. His button eyes had seen the wonder of it all.
The night howled. He felt no pain as he came apart, his bits shredding and scattering. He was carried away in small pieces, lifting and soaring, and all that he had felt and known and loved went with him, out over the meadow wall, high over the hills and valley. And though he couldn’t see them any longer, he knew he was floating toward the stars above, and the very last thing he ever felt was joy.