03 Oct The Garden Gnome
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"The Garden Gnome"Written by Kenneth Kohl
Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
Juliet stood on the sidewalk, hands on her hips, and stared at the house. How depressing. Her Aunt Camilla had passed away just three short months ago. An aneurysm or stroke is what the doctors had said. Camilla had been in her nineties and a spinster. With no husband or children, the probate court had informed Juliet that she was the nearest living relative, and had therefore been awarded her aunt’s estate.
At first, Juliet looked upon it as a windfall. She had hardly even known her aunt – actually her great-aunt – and could count the number of times she had visited with her on one hand. She then sadly realized how lonely the old woman’s life must have been. Even her closest relative was almost a complete stranger.
Juliet tried to put that feeling behind her as she drove to the small, New England town where her new home was located. She tried to avoid thinking about the point that she was, in fact, not much different from Camilla. Juliet had been an only child. Her parents were long since passed on, and she had no “real” friends to speak of. At the age of fifty-two, she was pretty much resolved to the fact that she would be a spinster herself. She had been living on social security income ever since an auto accident in her thirties, and had a small apartment that she could barely afford. It was for this reason that she had decided to pack up her few belongings and move into the old house.
Looking at the house from the outside, she could see that she had a lot of work ahead of her. In addition to a thorough cleaning inside, sorting through all of her aunt’s possessions, the yard needed some serious tender loving care.
The lawn had grown so tall that it had gone to seed, and it was riddled with weeds. A row of five things that might have once been considered shrubs were so overgrown that they just about covered the house’s front porch. The wrought iron railings of the porch that did manage to peek through the bare spots were wrapped in dead remnants of ivy.
“Ah well,” she rubbed the back of her neck in anticipation of the coming pain, “It’s not like I don’t have time. Hey, free house, right?”
The first thing that had to go, though, was the ugly old garden gnome that was poking its disturbing head up from the tall grass. It was male, bearded, wearing a red hat, and smoking a pipe. She had never been a fan of lawn ornaments, especially gnomes. They were so tacky. This one, though, was especially disturbing. It’s glazing was faded and crackled, leaving the face looking jaundiced and wrinkled; as if it had once been an actual living creature that had died and was rotting away.
“Yep, that thing has to go. First things first, though. I don’t even own a lawn mower.”
Nearly a week had gone by and she had all but forgotten about the gnome. She had visited the local hardware store and bought the first pair of hedge trimmers she’d ever owned. A man would be stopping by later in the day with a lawnmower he had for sale on Craigslist. She had spoken to him on the phone earlier in the day and he promised that it was in great working order. She had already decided that she would use her “feminine wiles” when he arrived and try to whittle the price down a little.
“Not that I have much left in the wiles department,” she smirked. She stopped in the front hall and looked at herself in the full-length mirror mounted to the closet door. She had to admit that the work boots, shorts, flannel shirt, and her aunt’s old sunhat did look somewhat cute on her.
Juliet was still hacking away at the first shrub, which was starting to resemble a real hedge, when a red pickup pulled into the drive. The man who got out of the cab seemed to be about her age, and not too bad looking, either. Juliet pulled off her gardening gloves and jogged down the drive toward the truck.
“Hey there, stranger. So… I believe you have a mower for me.”
The man surveyed the yard, and let out a long whistle. “Yeah, and it sure looks like you could use it. Name’s Jim, by the way. You must be Juliet.”
“Yes, um… So how much did we decide on?”
“Twenty-five, but… um,” said Jim as he cocked his head, “I didn’t realize that I was headed to old Camilla’s place. I’d about give it to you free just to see the place cleaned up.”
Juliet smirked. “Yeah, it’s pretty much a hot mess.”
“How’s the old bird doing anyway?”
Juliet bit her lower lip and winced. “Oh, she passed away about three months ago. That’s why the yard was in such bad shape. I’m afraid that I haven’t really had the chance to come out before now.”
“Oh, geez. Way to go, Jim. Open mouth, insert foot.” He removed his baseball cap and ran a hand over the top of his head, ruffling his unkempt hair. “I’m sorry. So, are you her grand-daughter?”
“Ha!” barked Juliet, giddy with the compliment. “No. I’m sort of her great-niece, I guess. I never really did see too much of her, but apparently she didn’t have any other family.”
“Yeah, yeah. Very sad.” Jim brightened back up. “Hey, let me get this old mower down. Come to think of it, I will let you have it. Just bought a new one and I would have just put it at the curb anyway. I thought I’d try Craigslist first. But, you seem like a nice gal. I just wouldn’t feel right taking your money.”
“Really?” Even without rent to pay, Juliet was still strapped for cash, so she wasn’t about to turn down the kindness of a stranger. Especially when it came to cash. “That’s so nice of you.”
Jim pulled the mower to the edge of the pickup’s bed and heaved it down with very little effort. “She still has a little gas in her… Hey, how’s about I help you tackle this lawn?”
“Oh, no. I couldn’t…”
But Jim put up a good fight, and truth be told, she was looking for an excuse to get him to stick around. She hadn’t noticed any sign of a wedding ring on his finger. She decided to test her theory, just to be sure.
“Well, would you like to use my phone? You know, let your family know that you’ll be late?”
Jim peeked out from under the brim of his cap. “If by family, you mean a wife and kids, then that won’t be necessary. Never did get around to settling down.” Then he hid his mouth with the back of his hand and joked, “And there’s not much of a selection of pretty ladies in this town.” Nodding again, he said, “Until now, that is.”
Juliet let out a girlish giggle before she had time to restrain herself. Her face turned as red as a beet, but she didn’t care. She was beginning to think that moving here might have its perks after all.
Juliet returned her attention to the hedges while Jim started up the mower and began pushing it through the tall grass. It cut out on him several times as he got into the thicker stuff. She was glad that she hadn’t resisted his offer too heartily. With her neck pain, taming this jungle would have been nearly impossible. When Jim was about halfway through the front lawn, she stood and yelled out to him, “Hey Jim, I’m going in to get us some lemonade. Be right back.”
Jim stopped, but didn’t turn off the mower. He just smiled and waved back, mouthing the word “Okay!”
Juliet stood in the kitchen. She stared out the window over the sink and regarded the back yard. It would need as much work as the front, possibly more. She was certain that she could get Jim to volunteer to help. The thought excited her. She had just finished pouring out the second glass of fresh lemonade when she heard the mower stop. Juliet didn’t think that Jim had finished the lawn, so she assumed that he must have run out of gas or hit another rough patch of grass too heavy for the old mower to make it through.
Holding one frosty glass in each hand, she made her way through the living room and pushed open the screen door with her hip. She stood on the porch and looked out to see Jim standing motionless and staring at the ground with a blank look in his eyes. As she approached him, she noticed that he was standing directly in front of the ugly, old gnome and gazing as if he were entranced by the malice in its eyes.
“It’s pretty ugly, isn’t it?”
“Gah!” Jim literally jumped a little into the air. “I didn’t see you coming.”
“It is ugly, though. Don’t you think?”
“Um, it might actually be considered handsome, in a way,” he said, as if he did not wish to offend the statue. His attention began to drift back to the gnome again, but he caught himself and turned away to face Juliet. “You know, it seems like everyone in town has one of these little guys, but I never noticed one in Camilla’s yard before.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not surprised, given how tall the grass was.”
Jim shook his head. “No, even when Camilla was living here and having the lawn mowed by the neighborhood kids, I never saw it. I would definitely have noticed. I know a little something about gnomes, you know. You might say that I’m even a collector, of sorts.”
Juliet groaned internally. She began to question her thoughts of inviting Jim to stay for dinner that evening. “Well, you can have it if you want. I plan to get rid of it as soon as possible.”
“You can’t,” he almost screamed. “I mean, I couldn’t take him. It wouldn’t be right. It’s very unlucky.”
“Really. Enlighten me, gnome-man.”
“Well,” Jim removed his hat, almost reverently, and stared at the gnome as he spoke, “Gnomes are a class of legendary creatures, originating in Europe, that could take on several meanings. Most generally, though, they refer to very small people – usually men – that live in dark places: especially underground, deep in the forest, or more recently in gardens. Most European ethnic groups have their own gnome legends with local variations.
“Despite all of the varying forms, gnomes all possess the common attribute of being able to move through the earth as easily as we move atop it. Paraclesus, a sixteenth century Swiss alchemist, identified gnomes as a class of nature spirits comprising earth elementals, as opposed to the air, water, and fire elementals. Other subclasses of gnomes include dryads, elves, brownies, goblins. Some help plants and animals, some help humans, some reclusive ones stay underground, perhaps hoarding treasure.”
By now, Juliet’s eyes were glazing over, but she was trying to keep up her end of the conversation. “Mmm hmm. And which type is this little guy?”
“Well, out in the open like this, I’d guess that he’s one of those mischievous ones. The sort that plays pranks, or even causes harm, to humans.”
Now she stared into his eyes defiantly, but still with a sort of playfulness. “Well, great. That’s it then. It goes in the trash tomorrow.”
“No,” Jim pleaded. “Please just leave it where it is. It’s probably quite valuable, you know. Most of the people around here have those cheap hardware store gnomes. Made of resin or plastic, you know? But not this guy.” Jim stooped lower to look at the gnome, almost affectionately. “This guy is definitely terra cotta, and old at that. The artist sculpts a model, and then casts a mold around it. Once the mold sets it is removed, reassembled, and thin runny clay is poured in. He allows the clay to set against the mold’s inner walls for a bit, and then pours out the excess.”
“So he’s hollow?”
“Well, maybe,” Jim said teasingly, “Unless there’s a real gnome inside.”
Juliet friskily punched him in the arm. “Enough. Or he definitely goes in the trash.”
They drank their lemonade and resumed work on the yard. A few more passes with the mower, a couple more stops for lemonade, and they stood in the driveway admiring their work. They agreed that it wasn’t too bad, for the first day, and Jim offered to return the next day to tackle the back yard.
“Oh, you really don’t need to,” Juliet said unconvincingly.
“Nope, I started the project. Now I want to see it through. That’s the way my Daddy raised me.”
Juliet offered to cook dinner, but Jim begged off, saying that all he needed after that day’s work was a hot shower and a soft bed. Juliet paused to wonder if that had a double meaning, but shook off the thought. So, they exchanged phone numbers, agreed on getting back to work in the morning, and parted ways. Juliet chased him back to his truck, though, and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. She couldn’t believe how bold she was acting.
“You’re staying for dinner tomorrow, though. I won’t take no for an answer!”
By the time Juliet finished up with her own hot shower, it was dark outside. She toweled her hair dry and put on a robe. Stepping into the kitchen, intending to make dinner, she stopped at the rear window to check out the backyard and come up with a preliminary plan of attack. That was when she noticed a pointy, faded red hat sticking up from the tall grass. She immediately ran to the back door, flipped on the jelly jar light, and stepped out onto the rear porch. Sure enough, there was another gnome, identical to the one in the front yard. She was surprised that she hadn’t noticed it earlier.
Confused, she walked back through the house and out onto the front porch. The gnome that had been there was gone. She realized that the one in the back yard must have been the one previously out front.
“What the hell?”
Muddle-headed, she again ran back through the house to the rear porch to examine the gnome in the back yard – just to be certain. When she got back out, it was gone. She ducked inside the door and slipped on her tennis shoes, then went back out for a closer look. Five minutes of walking back and forth through the high grass turned up no sign of the gnome. After standing still for a minute with a blank look on her face, she went back inside, locked the door, and turned off the light. As she did the same at the front door, she could swear that she saw the pointy hat sticking up from behind the hedge. She briefly considered stepping outside again, but decided against it when a chill ran up her spine.
“Too tired to deal with this shit,” she reasoned. She locked up, returned to the kitchen, and made a light meal. After a little television, she turned in early. She drifted off to sleep actually looking forward to another day of hard work – with Jim’s help.
Juliet told Jim all about the gnome the next morning. He told her about the pastime of gnoming. Kids would cruise around town, stealing lawn ornaments from peoples’ yards and moving them around, sometimes taking them from one yard and placing them in another. It was a nationwide fad. In some extreme cases, kids would steal a gnome and travel around, texting pictures of the gnome in different locations – sometimes across the country – to the original owner, or posting them on websites. It was annoying, possibly illegal in some cases, but mostly harmless.
“Well,” said Juliet, “Another reason that I don’t want it in my yard. Maybe next time the kids take it, they won’t return it.”
Jim pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows. “I’m telling you, Juliet. It’s bad luck. You’re better off just leaving him be.”
“Now you’re creeping me out. Stop calling it a ‘he.’”
As if the terra cotta gnome itself wasn’t creepy enough, Jim went on to tell her about so-called “real” gnomes. He said that gnomes consist of a number of different types. The most common is the forest gnome who rarely encounters man. The garden gnome lives in old gardens and enjoys telling melancholy tales. Dune gnomes are slightly larger than their woodland brethren are and choose curiously drab clothing. House gnomes have the most knowledge of man, often speaking his language. It is from this family that Gnome Kings are chosen. Farm gnomes resemble their house brethren, but are more conservative in manner and dress. Siberian gnomes have been more interbred than other gnomes have and associate freely with trolls. They are much larger than the other types and have an infinitely more nasty nature. Jim said that it is best never to evoke the ire of such gnomes, for they delight in revenge.
“So, if all of that is true, then why is it lucky to have one in my yard?”
“Well,” explained Jim, “Garden and house gnomes are very protective, both of their home and the people living in it.”
“Hopefully he’s interested in protecting me, and not the house.” She slapped her forehead. “Oh God, now you’ve got me calling it a him.”
Thankfully, Jim stayed for dinner that evening. Although she desperately wished that he would stay the night, for more reasons than one, she didn’t feel comfortable enough to hint at it yet. She walked him to the door, but waited there while he walked to his truck. She felt a little creeped out by the thought of walking outside after dark now. He made it half way down the drive, then turned around to give a little wave goodbye. She waved back and then, after staring at the house for a few seconds, he walked back toward her. Her heart leapt a little.
“Um, Juliet,” he said haltingly.”
“I think that your gnome moved again. It’s not here.”
She was really beginning to like Jim, but was getting a little pissed off about this whole gnome business. She considered telling him to go home and slamming the door, but now, more than ever, she didn’t want to be alone.
She stepped out and confirmed that the gnome was gone. “Do you mind checking the back yard, Jim?”
Juliet waited at the front door, and after what seemed to be the longest minute in her life, he popped back around the corner of the house.
“He’s not back there,” he said, actually looking somewhat sad. “Maybe you got your wish and the kids took him for good.”
“Oh, well, that’s too bad.” Juliet said it for Jim’s sake, but she was secretly jumping for joy inside. She was glad it was gone, and hoped that the kids who took it never brought it back.
After a second goodbye and a promise to get together again the next night – for a real date, this time. Dinner, at a restaurant. She watched him walk to his truck and pull out of the drive. She shut the door slowly and flicked off the porch light. Putting her back against the door, she sighed. Aside from the gnome business, the move to this new town, the house, the opportunity for a fresh start, and Jim were all working out quite well.
Juliet went to the kitchen and cleared the plates from the table. As she set them on the counter beside the sink, she attempted to resist the urge to look out the window. She realized how silly that seemed, but still… Finally, as if in defiance of her fear, she looked up quickly. There, even closer to the house than the night before, stood the gnome.
She and Jim went out the next night. He walked her to the door, but didn’t come in. The date did end with a kiss, though, which pleased her. She was almost as pleased by the fact that the gnome was back in its original position in the front yard when they returned from dinner. She couldn’t take much more of this joking around by whomever was trying to prank her. They probably thought that it was funny, but to her it was not.
She had no reason to enter the kitchen that evening, and so did not. She even avoided looking out of the rear window of her upstairs bedroom, for fear of glimpsing that stupid gnome. She did not want to spoil an otherwise perfect evening getting upset over it.
Juliet had just slipped her clothes off and was about to get into the shower when the doorbell rang. She assumed that it must have been Jim, and so a thousand thoughts raced through her head. Why did he come back? What did he want? What would she do? She pulled on a terry cloth bathrobe and quickly padded down the steps. She flipped the light switch for the front porch and threw open the door.
With a smile on her face, Juliet said “Well, hello stranger. Long time, no s…” She screamed and jumped back from the door. There, on the doorstep, stood that dreadful little gnome. She quickly slammed the door and locked it, leaving the light on, and ran back up the stairs. Grabbing her cell phone and throwing herself on the bed, she punched in Jim number and waited. It rang six excruciating times before going to voicemail. She hung up and dialed again. This time, he picked up on the first ring.
“Hey babe, sorry I couldn’t make it to the phone the first time. I was just walking into the house. Miss me already?”
“Jim! Thank God! He’s back. He’s doing it again.”
“Slow down, Juliet. Who’s back? What’s going on?”
“The gnome! The doorbell rang, and I answered, and… Oh my God, he was standing there on the porch!” Juliet began hyperventilating.
Jim tried to speak slowly and in a soothing voice. “Calm down, hon. It’s the kids again. They’re messing with you. A clay statue can’t move on its own and it sure can’t ring a doorbell.”
Juliet took deep breaths. “Whoo, okay. You’re right. I’m being silly, aren’t I? Why am I letting this upset me?”
“I’m sorry, Juliet. I shouldn’t have filled your head with all of those dumb stories. Gnomes aren’t real.”
Juliet let out a little laugh as she calmed down. She stood up and began to stroll around the bedroom while she spoke with Jim. She reached the rear window and gazed down toward the ground.
“Holy shit!” she screamed. “It’s in the back yard again! It’s on the back porch!”
“Juliet. Stop. Do you want me to come back over there?”
She didn’t even need to think about his offer. “Yes! Please! And please hurry.”
“Okay, just try to hang on. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
Juliet couldn’t bear to be near the windows. In fact, she wanted to be in as small a space as possible. She considered her walk-in closet, but decided that would be overreacting. She went into her bathroom, locked the door, and sat on the closed toilet seat. She waited, and waited, checking her cell phone every few seconds to watch the time go by. “Just ten minutes,” she told herself, “Just ten minutes.” She jumped as the doorbell rang again. It couldn’t be Jim; she had only hung up a minute ago. She knew that it was the gnome again – or the kids who were pranking her. Either way, she wasn’t about to answer it. Then came knocking. She couldn’t tell if it was the front or the back door, but she had a good idea that it was the back. She left the bathroom and poked her head out of the bedroom door. Her skin tingled and goosebumps raised up as the knocking started again. It was at the back door. Soon after it stopped, the front door bell rang again.
She let out a little yelp and dove back into the bedroom, first slamming its door shut and then locking herself back in the bathroom. The ringing doorbell and the knocking alternated back and forth, back and forth. Then the knocking turned into hammering, as if whomever was there was trying to smash its way through the door. Now the hammering was coming from both the front and the back, again alternating. The doorbell began ringing incessantly.
With horror, she realized that when Jim did arrive she wouldn’t be able to tell. Just as the thought came to her, her cell phone began to ring.
“I’m here, Juliet. I’m at the front door. No kids, no gnome. You can let me in.”
“Thank God.” She bolted down the steps and, after turning on the light and carefully pulling back the windows shade on the front door, saw Jim standing there on the porch. In a state of near panic, she struggled with the lock, but finally threw open the door and hugged Jim tightly, burying her face in his shoulder. She began to cry.
Jim had a duffle bag with him. He planned to stay the night, on the couch if necessary, but he had a feeling that Juliet would want him closer. He had barely stepped through the doorway when the hammering at the back door resumed.
“Oh, that’s enough!” he roared. “I’m going to beat the living shit out of whoever that is.” He charged toward the back door and yanked it open. “Who the hell..?” There was no one there. He and Juliet simultaneously realized that they had failed to shut the front door. He was first to enter the living room, but Juliet was just behind him. Her hands flew to her mouth as soon as she came into the room and she screamed. The gnome was standing there in the middle of the living room floor, a trail of dirt leading from the doorstep to its current position on the carpet.
Jim lunged for the statue and picked it up with both hands. He thought that it seemed surprisingly heavy, but he shrugged the thought away. He made for the door and ran out into the driveway, Juliet following a few steps behind.
“Screw bad luck! We’re through with this thing,” he screamed as he threw the gnome onto the concrete drive with all of the force that he could muster. On impact, it shattered into pieces, sending bits skittering across the driveway. Staring down at the aftermath in the cold light of the moon, both Juliet and Jim were aghast. Their breath caught in their throats and they were not even capable of making a sound.
Mixed in among the broken shards of terra cotta, there were the remains of a tiny, humanoid skeleton.
Credit: Kenneth Kohl