The Garden of Ede
By Emily Bach
Brimstone’s Anthropology museum was once the best of its kind. In 2017, Future Society named it a “a shining example of the power of human interface,” the magazine’s highest praise for a museum of its limited capacity. In a town of around 13,000 residents, the museum was the only tourist attraction for miles. Still, it rarely got attention beyond the county. Following the review, tourists from across the country flocked to the town, eager to witness what they assumed to be the exhibit of the century.
Chunks of dark wood dressed the walls, carefully whittled to form face-like structures. They hung unpainted and unfinished, a product of thinly veiled budgeting issues. Deer-hair eyebrows were the only interruption to the woodwork. Meant to illuminate the sculptures’ eyes, they kept the attention of onlookers, but contributed little else.
Ede, the collection’s lead sculptor, knew early on that the sculptures’ eyes would be the downfall of the project. Everything else could be formulized. Cheekbones chiseled into subtle parabolas. Lips carved into a diamond, refined into curves. Eyes were the only things missing from his equation for humanity.
About a month into carving, he began to look past this flaw, a trait that was uncommon in his work. Ede had been awarded the title of lead sculptor for his precision. A master craftsman, his work hung in museums from New York to Paris. But by 42, he’d grown tired of the perfectionism attached to the art world. He told himself that the faces weren’t intended to be flawless, just something for the living to mourn the dead.
When the exhibit debuted, he didn’t even notice the eyes. Face after face draped the walls, carefully spaced no more and no less than 13 inches apart. There were 587 of them, the precise number of residents that the town had lost in the previous ten years. Accompanying each of them was a plaque containing only the artist’s name. Ede’s appeared 71 times.
Even though he’d finished his work on the collection, Ede visited the museum often. Locals afforded the project compliments like parents reminiscing as they flipped through their high school yearbooks. They spoke about drunken memories and awkwardly charming grocery store encounters over humble smiles. Their laughs were the living reward for Ede’s labor.
By the time the project was open to the public, Future Society’s review came as no surprise to Ede. Quickly, tourists reserved their reactions, waiting anxiously for faces that critics commended for their relatability. When they finally entered, most found a few to focus on. Some spoke about their family, others loved ones, others people they barely knew. The namelessness of the project made it that way—that anyone could find anyone in any one if they looked hard enough.
Ede grew to stay away from the museum after the review came out. He’d go once a week, typically on Thursdays, to remind him of the craft that he had since abandoned. Occasionally, he encountered a stray tourist family, but, for the most part, Thursdays were reserved for the locals. He’d watch mothers live the five stages of grief in seconds, anger flashing through vibrant eyes, arguably too alive. At times he questioned whether the project reopened wounds or healed them.
Scanning the faces, he’d forgotten which ones he’d created and to whom they belonged. He remembered only one, shortly named Kian. It stood in the fourth room, the one visited by the fewest, on the south wall’s third row. Ede had captured the curvatures of his forehead perfectly, weaving the lines of his skin into the lines of the wood with more precision than the others. There was nothing technically special about Kian, he was just the first, the last to lose his humanity.
On his weekly trips, Ede would visit Kian last, staring at him longest. He did it out of respect. His wall rarely interested viewers, and Kian, in particular, seemed more dead than alive to most. Ede didn’t understand what made some of the sculptures stand out against the others. Perhaps people just couldn’t see themselves in him, he thought. In some ways, he blamed himself for his second death. He was, after all, the one that was supposed to keep him alive.
Ede’s weekly visits grew into a pattern over the following months, and as the hype from the review died down, he came to know the other regulars intimately. One lost her brother to lung cancer; another lost his son to a fire in their home. They carried tear-stained notes, like visitors at a graveyard, clearly created by hands that didn’t understand the weight of what they had lost. Ede understood the notes, but not their grief.
Another couple visited the museum regularly, but they were more interested in each other than the sculptures. The only other regular was the security guard, whose post became progressively less exciting as the months after the review dragged on. Where he used to be on high alert, he now sat on a quaint metal stool in the fourth room, keeping Kian company and stalking his ex-wife on Facebook.
On a Thursday four months after the review and six months after the opening, a brown-haired woman cautiously entered the museum. She carried herself like she was lost, but held onto enough familiarity to avoid looking like a tourist.
“I’m sorry, I was wondering if you could help me with something,” she whispered quietly, avoiding eye contact with the couple draped all over each other. They glared at her crassly, annoyed by her intrusion. She didn’t notice, though. Her eyes didn’t leave the walls.
“You’re just gonna have to find ’em yourself, they don’t have names here,” the man replied shortly. Without thinking, he returned to his partner, slurring through a series of lovey phrases he’d discovered on Google moments before.
The woman moved on quickly, this time sensing she wasn’t welcome around them. Instead, she traipsed through the rooms, scanning each wall with abnormal intent.
Ede watched her out of curiosity. It’d been weeks since he’d seen a newcomer, and their process fascinated him. They afforded each sculpture an extra glance of recognition, like an offering to the lost. The returners didn’t even look at the other faces anymore: They were only concerned with the one they recognized. He appreciated the people who gave each one a moment, even if it disappointed them.
When she entered the fourth room, the security guard flattened his uniform and met her eyes for a moment. Nobody had truly been there for days, so he didn’t have much of a reason to be on high alert. Ede trailed behind her, far enough that she wouldn’t notice him, but close enough that he could judge her reactions. Which ones impressed her, confused her, struck her? He wanted to experience the sculptures with her.
She scanned the north wall first, clearly searching for a single face, before moving to the east one. Once she reached the second row, her shoulders collapsed and eyes pressed shut. “No. Please, God. No,” she cried, with wandering and wrinkled hands reaching to a short, angular face in the middle of the wall. Her index finger shook as she braved her eyes open.
“Ma’am, please don’t touch the artwork,” the security guard said, unimpressed. Ede watched coldly as the woman inched away from the sculpture, desperate to trace the lines of that which she had lost in the dark wood. She stared into its eyes, searching for some sign of life or forgiveness. But as Ede anticipated months ago, they gave her nothing. This sculpture wasn’t his, so at least it wasn’t his fault, he thought.
“I never should’ve left,” she continued. Her voice wove around the words to avoid the consonants that were too difficult to pronounce, too unfinished to be spoken into existence. “I should’ve stayed, I should’ve fought.” This time, tears hid in the wrinkles of her face.
“God, you’re so grown up, how’d you get so grown up?” she said in a cadence between laughing and weeping. “I’m so sorry, Kian,” she finished, before returning to watch the sculpture silently.
Ede glanced at the face on the south wall, at Kian, then back at the sculpture sharing the woman’s gaze. Something about the foreignness of its face cut deeper than her loss, a fact that was reaffirmed each time she’d hold her eyes shut for seconds at a time, attempting to create an image of Kian in the structure of a stranger.
She remained shaking as she traced invisible lines in the air, imagining the creases in his nose and the softness of his eyebrow hairs. She moved slowly, with intention. Ede watched silently in the other corner of the room, both amazed and appalled by the pain that congregated in her fingertips.
Perhaps she’d realize the sculpture wasn’t Kian, Ede hoped. But he knew she wouldn’t as he watched the sculpture grow into her image of Kian, her jaw relaxing as she found a temporary but new sense of comfort in her ability to remember him.
He took a step closer, planning to tell her the truth. Misunderstanding, she stepped to the side. “Sorry to block your view,” she said, before ducking her face to wipe tears from her face. Ede didn’t say anything in return, but when she looked back at him again, he understood that it was his responsibility not to. Kian was already lost. The character of his memory was no longer Ede’s to determine.
Attempting to make her exit, the woman glanced over each sculpture, clearly hoping to leave without disturbing her onlookers. Ede took the woman’s place in front of the sculpture that she had deemed her own something: a son, brother, friend. Maybe a lover. Like an engineer, he held a mental blueprint of Kian’s face to the sculpture, noting its similarities. Structurally, the jaw and face structure were vastly different. The nose was lopsided to the right, cheekbones plumper than Kian’s. The only similarity they shared were their almond eye shapes.
While Ede stood before the east wall, the woman’s eyes traced the south wall’s first and second row, leaving nothing to be remembered. She paused momentarily at the third one, an almost invisible quiver escaping her lips as she stared at Kian’s face. In no more than a second, she moved on almost hauntingly to finish the row. Turning to leave, she paused shortly and stared instead into Ede’s eyes.
“I hope you find peace,” she said. For no more than a moment, Ede and the woman’s eyes connected before both returned to the wood. In a flash, he saw it—the grief of losing something that almost but never was. It was real but not alive, raw but not recognized. He nodded in her direction, and she left. Ede moved to stand before Kian’s face.
He stayed longer that day, questioning if Kian was watching from afar, more heartbroken or healed. He wondered the same for the woman. The security guard studied Kian with him, somehow aware of the event that occurred before them. They grieved his loss together, or, at least, Ede wanted to believe they did.
That afternoon, Ede returned to the whittling room for the first time in months. Spiderwebs overwhelmed his metal tools and grief crowded a pile of abandoned wood. The table was rearranged by other sculptors, but his energy sunk deep into the floorboards, impossible to move. He stared at the blocks for a moment, wondering how many memories were destroyed by the pitfalls of his craft.
Taking a seat on his creaky metal stool, he began to carve. Sculptures for the lost, he remembered. Sculptures for the lost. He’d long forgotten the equations he swore by months ago. This time he crafted only from what he felt, disregarding the shape of parabolas and power of exponents. He drew the lines in his forehead, the ones only he could notice and only he could recreate. He wanted to deface the wall.
Today, Ede’s face is the only one in the museum to be accompanied by a blank plaque. The sculptures were to remain nameless, and his was no exception. When polished, his plaque’s reflection is one of many places where museum visitors can see themselves, but the only place they find their own eyes.