by Ward Webb
Gardenia sat in the hollowed out old cypress tree and rolled her tiny white paws together in her lap. Her hind foot patted the cool soil with anxiety as her crystalline blue eyes blinked out at the dawn’s pink light.
“Oh, if only today could be the day. It’s not like I don’t deserve it,” she whispered to the rising sun. “I’ll bet my britches that today will be the day, alright. Today’s a good day. Good things are bound to happen for me today.”
Gardenia had grown more and more reclusive in the past month since taking up residence in the old tree. Too self-conscious to even go out in the daylight anymore, days flowed by like rain while she would nap and await the night so she could slip out and forage for food in the old farm house at the top of the hill. As long as no one saw her, no one could wrinkle their noses in disgust and hurt her feelings even further.
Abandoned by her own mother minutes after being weaned, she’d grown up all alone in the womb of the dense forest. As far as she knew, she was the only one of her kind on the planet – which made her feel even more alone.
Her entire life she’d spent wandering the forest searching for companionship. Every other animal she’d ever encountered had always wretched in disgust and scampered off in the opposite direction without ever saying a word. Gardenia was always left standing alone under the vicious cloud of her own pungent stench.
Months went by and the scorn of the other forest creatures ripped poor Gardenia apart because more than anything in the whole wide world – Gardenia wanted to have a friend.
She tried in vain to disguise and rid herself of the stink. She’d bathed in the river and scrubbed herself violently with juniper twigs and dandelion stalks. She’d spent countless hours rolling in wildflower beds. She’d even coated herself in fresh honey and baked herself in the sun, but nothing worked.
Eventually giving up in despair, she made a quiet home inside the abandoned old cypress tree at the edge of the pond and gave up on ever knowing what it was like to share ideas with someone, to have adventures, to explore and discuss things that mattered. The old tree that looked like a charred dancer reaching out to the water’s skin was her home now.
Gardenia wiggled on the tiny seat of mushrooms and looked out at the rose colored sky and repeated, “I think today might be the day alright. It’s such a pretty day.”
Her tiny pink nose sniffed the golden sunlight as she crept out into the warmth of the day. Her eyes flickered around wild as she looked for wandering animals to befriend. The edge of the pond was a popular attraction for many of the forest creatures, especially with temperatures soaring to nearly ninety at mid-day.
Gardenia stood quietly in a beam of sunlight and rubbed her tiny paws together nervously. Her nose sniffed the air with dainty puffs, inhaling the fragrant wildflower blossoms peppering the meadow. It didn’t take long before a loud crunching sound echoed from the direction of the big house on the hill.
Gardenia spun to face the coming stranger and stood up on her hind legs. Her tail like a fan billowed out behind her. The lush fur danced in the sun. She reached up with her right paw and preened her whiskers and batted her eyelashes in the most ladylike fashion as she awaited her guest.
A bank of grass parted and a giant cow heaved into the clearing. Moisture dripped from its nostrils like sap and it shuffled slowly across the field, heaving with breath.
“Lord have mercy, it’s gone be a hot-ern today,” the white and brown dotted heifer exclaimed, stepping firmly onto beds of grass. The air in her wake was alive with tiny butterflies and insects that had been seeking refuge in the grass as the giant beast came crashing through unaware.
“Good day, friend,” Gardenia called out in a soft, lilting tone. “I’m Gardenia and I’m pleased to meet you, indeed!”
“Good God-a-Mighty,” the cow yelled as it came to a gruff halt, planting her hind legs in the damp soil and raising the front two in repulsion; as if to ward off Gardenia’s smell and shield herself from the sheer brutality of it.
She was accustomed to this reaction and continued on undaunted, “It’s a lovely day today, isn’t it? Almost as lovely as you are, my dear.”
Hoping that flattery would buy her some time, Gardenia held her right paw out in friendship and smiled. Her tiny black lips curled back menacingly over shimmering white fangs.
“I ain’t shakin’ hands with no damn skunk,” the cow laughed and turned to leave. Flattening a path, she continued crying out over her shoulder as she drummed away toward the farm house. “The very idea of someone like me touching someone like you. Nasty old thing. You oughta be shot for stinkin’ so bad. Nasty. Nasty. Nasty!”
Gardenia watched as the back end of her lost friend vanished into the distance and sighed. She lowered herself down onto all fours and slunk back to the old cypress tree defeated. Those familiar feelings of rejection and ugliness enveloped her and she hurried back to the shadows before anyone could see her cry.
After creeping out later that night and sneaking tidbits of food, Gardenia was exhausted and fell asleep in a demure ball with her head on a mushroom. Shortly before dawn, an unfamiliar sound caused her ears to perk up and pay attention.
Just as Gardenia lifted her head from the fungal pillow, a face bolted through the doorway and caused her to spring to her feet in surprise.
“Mornin’, ma’am! Nice house you got here,” Clarence trumpeted.
“Hush all that noise,” Gardenia said, startled at the sudden noise. “Wait…who are you? I’ve never seen you before.”
“Name’s Clarence. I came up from the back way and took near-bouts two weeks to get here but I can smell a barn nearby and I’m aimin’ to find it come heller high water,” he answered proudly. “Mind if I ask your name? Must be something elegant to match such a spectacular vision.”
Clarence bowed his head and said sincerely, “Pleased to meet you, Gardenia. Please forgive me for intrudin’ on you so early. I just saw this mighty fine tree and poked my nose in when I shoulda known such a fine house would already been taken.”
He stepped back from the doorway and allowed Gardenia room to exit in a proper ladylike fashion. Half his bushy tail was missing with only a spindly, leathery finger jutting out from his hind quarters where Gardenia’s was twice the width of her body; awash with lushness.
One tooth was missing in the very front of his mouth, giving him an almost comical expression regardless of his mood and an errant cowlick in the center of his forehead did nothing to help matters.
As she stepped into the quiet minutes before the sunrise, Gardenia blinked and stammered as she struggled to understand why he wasn’t running away.
“So you’re not from around here then?”
“Nome,” Clarence reiterated. “I’m new here. Lookin’ to setup nearby somewhar’s got plenty of food. I’m downright tired of being a scavenger and lookin’ to fix me a nice…how you call it, permy nant home.”
“There are plenty of nice places you can stay around here, you’ll see. It’ll be nice to have a new face around.”
“Hope so, hope so.”
Gardenia swept her tail under her and settled down on top of it like a cushion as she continued, “Can I ask you something – Clarence? It might sound a bit odd coming from a stranger like this, but I figure what with you waking me up and barging in on me like that it should be alright, right?”
“Sure,” he smiled back. “Fire away.”
Gardenia looked down at her balled hands in her lap as she struggled to ask what was really bothering her. It was hard to put into words. She’d never actually come out and said it, but then again – she’d never really had the opportunity.
“Do I not terrify you?”
Clarence laughed and slapped his knees as if that were the most ludicrous idea he’d ever heard, “Terrify me? Lord no, why would a dainty little thang like you scare anyone?”
Gardenia shook her head and tried again, “I mean – you’re not running away from me. Everyone I’ve ever met just runs away. You’re the first person that doesn’t seem to be…repulsed by me and I guess I just wondered why. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
Clarence continued snickering into his open paw. The missing tooth made the sound of a distant whistle as he struggled to choke back the laughter.
“Ma’am, if you don’t mind my sayin’ it, I think yer about the single-most fetchin’ thing I’ve ever laid my eyes on. I can’t imagine anyone ever wantin’ to run away from someone as perty as yerself. But I ain’t got no right talkin’ such foolishness. A motley old cur like myself ain’t got no business talkin’ to such a … such a princess.”
Gardenia blushed, in a way only other skunks could see and fled back inside the hollow cypress tree with her face buried in her palms. She was elated and at a loss for words, but she just couldn’t face Clarence after hearing such a beautiful declaration from the stranger. She wasn’t ready. She had to take a moment to think. She had to try to absorb the shock.
It terrified her.
By the time she had regained her composure the sun was high in the sky and Gardenia tiptoed out through the doorway, her eyes looking for her mysterious new friend.
Clarence sat by the edge of the pond with his back legs dangling into the muddy water and whistled to himself gently, oblivious that he was being watched.
“I’m sorry I ran off like that,” Gardenia stated simply, causing him to leap to his feet and walk toward her with his shoulders bowed.
“I apol’gize if it was somethin’ I said, ma’am, Lord knows I ain’t meant no offense,” the worried Clarence smacked his lips and shuffled his feet but couldn’t keep his wandering eyes from basking in Gardenia’s spectacular beauty.
She crinkled an eyebrow and spat, “You don’t think I stink?”
“You smell like heaven to me,” he cooed and stepped closer to her. His minuscule fingers reached out to take her hand in his but pulled away at the last moment and disappeared behind his back.
“Heaven? Now I wonder what’s wrong with you.” Gardenia giggled and trotted off toward the edge of the meadow. “Come along over here, there’s nice spots to laze the day away without being seen.”
“Why wouldn’t I want to be seen?”
“So you don’t make people run away from you and hurt your feelings,” Gardenia replied as if this should have been obvious to someone who looked so much like herself.
Clarence swaggered along behind her and came to rest by her side in a blanket of sunlight before exploring her last comment.
“Yer a mighty lovely creature, why wouldn’t you want to be seen? You should be proud to look like you do. I wish I had yer beautiful tail and that smile. My teeth is bad and well…I’m just not the most prime of specimens, I reckon.”
Gardenia blushed again and pulled her tail around her belly. “Thank you very much, Mr. Clarence. Do you mind if I ask what happened to your tail?”
He rolled his eyes as if he’d grown quite tired of the story and stated gruff and quick, “Dogs caught me and tried to bite it off. Had me holed up in a burrow for two days ‘til they ‘ventually give up. Now I look like a possum, but whatever. I don’t care.”
Gardenia couldn’t understand how he couldn’t care. Her whole life people had avoided her and here was someone suddenly completely oblivious to the stench that repelled everyone else. Oblivious to appearances and simply there – accepting and chattering away as if they’d been friends for a lifetime. Someone who was actually flattering her and making her feel for the first time in her life – pretty.
That was all destroyed by the loud outcry from the old heifer that shook the air with alarm, “Good God-a-Mighty! Now there’s two of ‘em! We’s infested! Vermin everywhere so can’t none of us get to the pond and quench our thirsts! This is outrageous! Out. Ray. Just! The very idea of my beautiful pond being infested – infested!”
Gardenia sprung toward the safety of the cypress tree to hide her shame as the massive cow did a wide turn across the meadow, drumming her hooves into the spongy earth.
Clarence stood there like a statue, smiling with his chest puffed out. The tips of his black fur glimmered in the sunlight so that he appeared silver, mercurial and strong. A halo of wildflowers wafted around his head in the lavender scented breeze.
“Aren’t you ashamed?” Gardenia whispered over the protesting cow’s cries. “Get out of sight! Hide yourself, Clarence!”
“Hide? Gardenia don’t be ridic’lous – if anything, I’m proud,” Clarence turned his head and winked at her. “A lil ole critter like me able to stand up to somethin’ so big, so powerful. She coulda jess mashed me into the ground but lookit her run back to the barn yonder. Ain’t it somethin’ to be proud of? Why would I be ‘shamed of anythin’ of the sort? Is that what’s got you so vexed, Gardenia? You got control of the whole pond, don’t you see? Be proud girl.”
Clarence puffed his chest out and pointed off toward the house in the distance and continued, “Now lookit – here comes that old farmer yonder. I’m gone scare him twice as bad. That fat cow weren’t nothin’ to what I’m gone do to that hue man. You watch’n see don’t I do it, too, Gardenia.”
Gardenia stood at the edge of her yard and stared at her curious new friend and knew in order to keep him from running away, she had to try to understand his way of thinking so as not to offend him going forward. She rolled her paws nervously and twitched her whiskers in thought.
These things he was suggesting made absolutely no sense, but he was so emphatic when he spoke, she had to give Clarence’s ideas more consideration.
Gardenia rushed back inside the cypress tree and curled into a protective ball to wait for the heat of the day to wash away. Her side pressed against the cool dirt floor, Clarence’s words echoed through her mind.
They went out that night together and for the first time Clarence got a clear view of the farm and buildings lying like broken teeth around the yard. Gardenia eagerly showed him where the best foods could be found. She soaked in his shamelessness and they feasted like pigs. After hours of pilfering, the pair struggled to drag their full bellies back to the safety of the dancing tree before the sun appeared along the eastern horizon.
Gasping with exhaustion, Clarence fell asleep with his hands folded on his belly against the outside of the cypress tree while Gardenia snored with contentment from inside.
The following morning they both woke and stretched into the sun. Taking her time to groom properly, Gardenia let Clarence wait in the meadow for her arrival.
While he plucked at a dandelion’s petals, Gardenia stepped gracefully into the sunlight. For the first time since moving to the old tree, she stood proudly on her hind legs and closed her eyes against the morning sun, relishing the savory heat flooding her cheeks with warmth. Clarence watched, with admiration, in silence.
A burst of motion seized the distance into silence and all the merry bird songs ceased filling the air. A tall, spindly man with legs like a spider stepped into the meadow with a large shotgun held in the crook of his arm. Behind him came a small boy whose head seemed too big for his body and a mangy old dog with a big pink tongue lolling from the side of his mouth. None of them spoke, they approached like hunters with eyes and ears held open wide.
Gardenia and Clarence sat fixed at the far edge of the meadow. Frozen in spot, they both knew making a run for the safety of the hollow tree would only alert the man with the gun to chase after them. If not him, at the very least the dog would follow suit. The best they could hope for was the fact that the wind was pushing their scent away from the dog’s nose.
Gardenia knelt down slowly and tried to disappear, but Clarence held his stern pose and waited. The little boy was the first to notice the odd, dark spots at the edge of the meadow and cried out in triumph, “There they go yonder!”
The man with the gun immediately squinted his eyes and spotted Clarence standing tall and stepped spry over the clumps of wild grass. The blue bonnets wavered in the morning breeze. The birds started calling out to each other to watch the unfolding drama below, but Clarence didn’t budge.
The man loaded shells into the gun as he stepped across the field. The dog disappeared off on a different hunt. The little boy strutted along behind his grandfather and watched with a menacing grin on his peach colored face.
As the farmer raised the shotgun and took aim, Clarence bolted into the wild grasses and vanished altogether.
Gardenia, huddled and trembling and afraid to look finally pried herself from the ground and with great inner turmoil, rose to her hind legs. She pushed out her chest and inch by inch rose to face the gaping, yawning, double-barrels of the gun.
“Look at that Dandy,” the little boy said with mirth. “It’s like she’s daring you to shoot her dead. Have you ever seen anything like that?”
The old man with his cheek still glued to the cool blue steel growled back at the boy, “I’ll show that dirty rodent who’s boss.” He drew back the hammer with a click that caused all the birds to stop chattering again.
Gardenia jutted her chin at the gun and squinted at the man defiantly. A tickle flooded over her from beneath her tail and both humans tumbled over backwards to escape the rush of repulsive stench wafting over them.
“It’s spraying, Dandy! It’s spraying us! Kill it before it gets us, Dandy!”
A crash like thunder made the earth quiver and Gardenia felt her body go weightless, lift from the ground and spin head-over-heels through the air only to land on her back right outside the maw of the old cypress tree she called home.
“That’ll show it whose land this is here,” the old man exclaimed, clapping the boy on the back. “Can’t let skunks take over and stink everything up. They breed like rabbits, you know.”
A maroon hole blossomed across Gardenia’s chest as she lay there listening to the voices of the humans fading into the distance. The sky seemed ten times brighter. The air, ten times cooler. Butterflies and ladybugs landed on twigs and looked down on her with pity as tiny trickles of blood dribbled down from the wound in her bosom.
Just as she could hold her eyes open no more, a crunch came from her left and Clarence stepped into the clearing. Rushing to her side, he cradled her head in his lap and brushed her beautiful tail.
“Oh Gardenia, I’m so sorry. It shudda been me. I ran away when you needed me most and now lookit! Oh I’ll never forgive myself. Never-ever! Oh Gardenia, it should have been me. Please don’t leave me! You’re my only friend! You’re the only one to ever see my tail and not laugh at me. Oh please don’t die, Gardenia! I love you. I love you so much.”
He folded his chin into his chest and sobbed. His limp finger-tail wilted against the cool, sandy soil.
One heavy tear fell from his eye and landed on Gardenia’s lips, salty and warm. A tiny pink tongue slid out and her eyelids fluttered. She batted her eyes and struggled to see Clarence through the mist growing in her eyes. Frustrated she couldn’t clear her vision, she closed them for the last time, took a deep breath and whispered with all her strength, “Did you see? I didn’t run away, Clarence. I didn’t run away. Not this time. I was proud Clarence. I did like you said and I didn’t run away in shame. I didn’t…Not this…Oh Clarence, Clarence, I love…”
Gardenia’s voice faded away under the sound of the excited chatter in the tree tops and the heart-wrenching whimpering coming from the young skunk that knelt there in the doorway of the old dancing tree with her frail head nestled gently in his lap.
Ward Webb grew up in eastern North Carolina and currently lives in New York City, where he spends most of his time walking his ancient Basset Hound, eating cupcakes, writing fiction and wishing he was back on the red-clay roads of home.