I remember Emily Brontë’s garden well, for no other in the neighbourhood resembled it. In front of the overgrown cedar hedge that marked her property line, tangles of fireweed, goldenrod, and scotch thistle choked the drainage ditch and spilled out onto the road. Above the ragged, swaying tops of foliage inside the hedge —where in the warm months streams of pollen rose like otherworldly exhalations—countless butterflies fluttered to rest.
Most gardens on the Old Cottage Road resembled little more than bands of tricoloured icing judiciously piped out over cake-like pastel green lawns; it is scarcely worth adding that their fastidious cultivators considered Ms. Brontë’s garden rank and overgrown. But her neighbours on the left-hand side, my parents, did not begrudge the 19th century novelist and poet her aggressively native garden, perhaps because not only were they not overbearingly correct gardeners—they were no gardeners at all.
In June my mother had an extra strawberry cake left over from a library bake sale and as a neighbourly gesture walked over to present it to Ms. Brontë, who had moved to the cottage beside us—which was in fact not really a cottage but an old fieldstone schoolhouse latterly used by the Board of Education to store obsolete school supplies—in February of the previous winter.
“She’s younger than she looks at a distance,” my mother said when she later described the visit to my father; “Her face lit up when she saw the cake, but all she said was ‘thank you,’ bowed her head, and took it into the kitchen. Through the gloom I could just make out the kitchen counter covered with books. There was a big dog who followed her everywhere.”
Emily Brontë must have had her groceries delivered, for we rarely saw her in town and she owned neither a car nor a bicycle. The townsfolk considered her some sort of puzzling semi-invalid or moderately crazed widow. Unreliable reports circulated of Ms. Brontë walking, accompanied by her dog, through farmers’ fields and woodlots at all hours of the day and night. There was another rumour that she had rescued a baby hawk from an abandoned nest up on the crags above the town, and tamed the creature; some even claimed to have seen her walking with the hawk perched on her shoulder. I saw Emily Brontë once in her backyard looking out to the stippled lake. A high wind whistled around her. She wore her hair pulled up under a dark kerchief, and her eyes were cold and dark.
Things began to go badly for Emily Brontë on our street when one Saturday afternoon in August her dog, Keeper, attacked and killed a neighbour’s dog, Piper.
Keeper, the muscular golden Labrador retriever, and Piper, the cunningly sheared toy poodle (who in colder months wore a red quilted jerkin), were less-than-ideal playmates. The day before, I had seen the two dogs playing in a vacant lot: while the poodle nipped and snarled at the always meditative retriever, the latter appeared unruffled, and attempted several times to walk away.
Their play, however, must have turned violent. In any case, I was the first to see the lifeless body of the poodle where it lay on the edge of the lot across from the general store at the top of the Old Cottage Road.
As the Animal Control van drove away with the body of Piper, Mrs. Shelby, the dog’s owner—who, dressed in teal sweats, had arrived breathlessly on the scene —told me in a quavering voice that the man from Animal Control took one look at Piper’s body and swore that he was killed by a bigger dog. The only bigger dog roaming free whose motives might be questioned, Mrs. Shelby reasoned, was “the big retriever belonging to that Brontë widow.”
Mrs. Shelby was Emily Brontë’s right-hand neighbour. She had a snub nose and pewter-coloured hair; with her husband and two polite, Atari-playing children she occupied a new brick citadel with an enormous satellite dish, like a futuristic gun mount, fitted on the roof of the four-car garage. The brown-painted faux-log cottage that in former days stood on the site of the Shelby manse was erased from the earth by a wrecking ball over the course of a single morning. I trailed behind Mrs. Shelby as she marched down the oiled gravel of the Cottage Road and along the periwinkle-grown walkway that led, through an uneven opening in the cedar hedge, into the interior of Emily Brontë’s yard. The recluse did not respond to Mrs. Shelby’s knocks, but the dog Keeper was heard barking lustily from inside.
“Murderer!” shouted Mrs. Shelby to the closed door. “I don’t mean you, Miss Brontë. You’re just the irresponsible owner of a murderous dog!”
The barking ceased for a moment, as if the dog had fallen to considering the accusations levelled against him.
Mrs. Shelby turned away from the door and walked back through the garden. A tall goldenrod brushed her face and she whipped it away convulsively. A crackle of gravel under new tires then announced the arrival of Mr. Shelby in his white sedan. He air-braked to a halt, emerged from the car, and the two collapsed into a long silent hug. Mr. Shelby was a large, masterful man often seen drinking coffee from a real china mug as he drove his powerful but noiseless sedan on errands around town. He rarely removed his mysterious quadrangular eyeglasses that tinted and untinted themselves in accordance with the sunlight.
After he escorted his wife into the sedan’s passenger seat, he stood for a moment and shook his head at the Brontë cottage, impenetrable behind its phalanx of overgrowth. He noticed me in front of the hedge. “You saw what happened to Piper, right?” he said. I shook my head. He didn’t seem to accept this. Opening the car door, he said, “Good. We might need your testimony.”
I realize now that Mr. Shelby must have gazed at Emily Brontë’s weedy yard with professional disapproval. Though his demeanour, his sedan, his calf gloves, and above all his tinted quadrangular glasses suggested a figure who, a chrome attaché case at his side, might be found drinking a café royale in the first-class lounge of an international airport, in truth Mr. Shelby was a regional sales representative for a lawn chemical company.
A month or so later I awoke to the terrifying sound of a chain saw. When I went outside, I saw a municipal works truck parked in front of Emily Brontë’s hedge. Two workers wearing orange vests and armed with chainsaws patrolled the edge of the garden, cutting stray vegetation—all of it was stray —with brief, savage machine bursts. Parked beside the town truck was Mr. Shelby’s lawn chemical truck. There stood its owner, his quadrangular eyeglasses shaded indigo in the bright sunlight, giving direction to one of his own workers, who had a tank strapped to his back and held a hose in front. I approached the scene, but Mr. Shelby held up his hands to stop me:
“Whoa there, young adventurer!” he said.
I asked him what was happening.
“Well, the town delivered a summons to your neighbour Miss Brontë asking that she cut back her garden’s overgrowth, as it presented a hazard to motorists,” said Mr. Shelby. “And in fact her garden has invaded Town land”—here he indicated the ditch—"so we have every right to cut it back on behalf of the municipality. She was also served a noxious weed notice. Since Miss Brontë did not respond in the allotted time, we got the paperwork to leverage remedial action."
Here he indicated his waiting employee, who with the tank strapped to his back resembled something like an intergalactic bounty hunter. Mr. Shelby continued: “You can tell your Mom and Dad that they won’t have to worry about invasive weed encroachment any more.”
There was a pause as Mr. Shelby’s man seemed to await further instruction. With a hint of impatience Mr. Shelby said “Okay, Rex: give her the juice!”
I heard Emily Brontë’s dog barking savagely from inside the cottage. The windows were dark. Under Mr. Shelby’s proprietary gaze, the intergalactic bounty hunter adjusted his nozzle and made for a patch of goldenrod.