The Museum of Botanical Delights

— Madeehah Reza

The Museum of Botanical Delights was closed. Its large double doors were shut and not a single soul walked on its grounds, save for a lone security guard. Samir shivered in his oversized uniform as pockets of cold air swirled around his nether regions. It was a cold spring morning, one of those days where you think it ought to be warmer than it really is. He wished he was back home under his warm duvet.

But of course, he’d drawn the short straw by taking every Sunday shift for the next three months. His feet crunched on the gravel as he walked around the front perimeter of the museum. A small whimper came from the trimmed bushes.

“Oh, it’s you guys again,” said Samir. “I don’t have any food today.”

A gang of scrawny cats bounded out of the bushes, two ginger and one black. The larger ginger tabby ignored Samir’s wagging finger and slunk her way across his legs, rubbing her flank on his trousers.

“You guys can’t stay here. Go on, shoo.” In all honesty, Samir could have done with the company as Sundays were such an awfully long day, but the trio kept pestering him for food that he didn’t have. “I shouldn’t have given you those biscuits when I first started, should I?”

The black cat purred as Samir knelt down and pet its scratchy head. This was probably the only perk of the job, although for five hundred pounds a week, Samir wasn’t going to ask too many questions. The main part of his job was to stop visitors from coming in, like the woman who approached him a few metres away. She’d parked her black car at the front of the gravel driveway.

“You open?” she asked, motioning towards her car. “My kid needs to use the loo.”

The cats fled as Samir stood upright. He shook his head. “Not open today.”

The woman took in the sight of the museum and huffed. “You know, I drive past this place on my way to work. You’re never open.”

Samir shrugged his shoulders. “Been under construction for a while.”

The woman scoffed. “I grew up around here. This place popped out of nowhere ages ago and no one’s ever been inside.” She gave a lazy wave at the tall building. “‘Botanical Delights’? Why can’t they just give it a normal name…”

Samir brushed cat fur from his uniform with cold hands and watched the woman walk away. The dusty black car drove across the gravel. A little boy sat in the back with a toy in his hand and waved at Samir.

“I was a wizard today,” said Samir. He carried a large watering can with both his pudgy hands and gave it to Dadi who knelt beside a bush of carnations. “I grew a whole forest with my magic!”

Samir liked being in his grandmother’s garden. There was something about the place that made him feel safe. He spent a lot of time with Dadi because his parents were always busy working. He liked how his mind calmed down when he was near her flowers, like when he held a daffodil or when his fingers grazed the prickly stem of a rose or the velvet skin of its petals. Samir could breathe around Dadi’s flowers. Dadi taught him how to take care of the flowers too; how to prune and water and feed them and make sure they were planted in the right parts of the garden for the perfect amount of sunlight.

“Is that so?” said Dadi. She smiled as she took the watering can from him. Her own hands were wrinkled and bony, with a gold bracelet hanging loosely from her thin wrist. “And what kind of magic could this wizard do?”

“I could make these big, huge plants that would eat you alive!” said Samir, his arms turning into the jaws of a man-eating plant. “But then the wizard’s cat got sick and we got lost in a forest and then… then…”

“And then what, baby?” Dadi said as she watered the flowers.

The little boy stared at the ground. The soft grass tickled his bare feet.

“Samir?” Dadi stared at him with her warm round eyes. She looked like Samir’s mum when she was worried.

“I made a plant… and… and made a potion that made the cat feel better,” he said quietly. Dadi nodded before returning back to her watering.

Samir couldn’t tell anyone about the noise in his head, the clamouring inside his mind. He couldn’t tell them about how his chest tightened and his arms froze and his legs became like jelly. And besides, everyone was far too busy; Mum had her projects and Dad had his clients and Dadi was sick a few years ago. He didn’t want her to get sick again.

Samir started work at the Museum of Botanical Delights after he graduated, but he didn’t tell his mates. If his uni friends knew, he’d never live it down. Being a security guard for a flower museum was weird enough, but there wasn’t even anything by the way of an induction, just “here’s the uniform of the guy who left, put it on and stand outside and make sure no one comes in”. Samir hadn’t even met his boss, just a guy with a pot belly who stood inside the empty office, waiting for him. He’d left after giving Samir a key to the staff office and never came back—didn’t even bother to introduce himself.

Samir would have to turn dozens of people away. They were usually families looking for a fun day out with reluctant, bored kids in tow. Being dragged along to a flower museum in the middle of your half term holidays wasn’t exactly the epitome of fun. But just because Samir wasn’t allowed to let anyone else in didn’t mean he couldn’t wander around himself.

Every Sunday, when there was sure to be the least amount of foot traffic, Samir left his post at the front of the museum and walked around to the locked side entrance. The main doors were large and ornate, at least twice his height, carved with intricate designs in the grey metallic frame that shimmered whenever light hit it just right. But they would never open.

The side entrance led to the lockers where Samir kept his uniform. Instead of walking through the musty staff corridors, he slipped through the first door in the hall, up a flight of steps, and into the museum gift shop. The lights were off, as they always were, but just beyond the gift shop’s glass walls was the museum atrium. Sunlight poured into the large hall through the big windows in the domed ceiling. Trinkets and figurines glistened in the gift shop.

Samir wondered why a museum that had never opened even had a gift shop. It was true what the woman had said—the museum appeared out of nowhere when even Dadi was a little girl and no one had ever been inside. The building was situated on the outskirts of town, just after the motorway. As it wasn’t in the way of any residential or commercial buildings, no one made much of a fuss. Three successive town mayors regarded the museum as part of the town’s heritage.

Samir passed through the gift shop and into the empty atrium. He sat on a bench in the middle of the hall, right beneath the domed skylight. The warmth of the sun caressed his face as he closed his eyes and listened.

It was by far his favourite thing to do every Sunday. When he listened inside the atrium of the Museum of Botanical Delights, Samir heard only silence.

He could never find this anywhere else. All the noise in his mind washed away. His muscles relaxed as he listened intently to the silence, almost melting into it. It was not the flat quiet of an empty house but a buried calm that he knew was deep inside him. He’d sought it out for so long and here it was, inside a peculiar museum.

And then a pin dropped.

Like a pebble thrown into the ocean, the noise reverberated back into Samir’s ears. He shot straight up. His hand went to the large torch that hung on his belt. The noise didn’t come again, but the silence had been disturbed. Samir’s heart thudded against his chest. His mouth went dry. No one was meant to be here, and he had certainly not let anyone in.

“Hello?” he called out. His voice echoed in the atrium. There was no answer.

And yet that hushed calm remained disturbed, no longer keeping Samir’s nerves at bay. In the few months he’d worked at the museum, this had never happened.

There was something else inside.

The lone wizard had been traipsing through the forest he created while surveying his handiwork, but then his silly cat got sick by eating one of the sickle flowers. The ginger feline lay on the forest floor, meowing softly. The wizard had to figure out how to cure him before it was too late. He stepped through the thicket and paused at the edge of the forest.

The landscape sprawled in front of him. Lush green grass and faded blue mountains in the distance, with the setting sun that cast shadows across the land. The wizard smiled to himself, knowing this world was his and his alone. Well, not completely alone. He did have his cat after all. And now he needed to make that potion.

The wizard picked up his cat from the ground and came to the curve of the river. He needed to create the right type of cure. Just any old plant wouldn’t do at all. What would cure sickle flower poisoning?

But then, a terrible noise shrieked through the air. It filled the gaps between the trees like screams, scratching at the wizard’s mind. The ground trembled. Trees quivered and the sky blackened. The wizard lost his footing and he fell to the ground. His cat threw himself free from his master’s grip and ran off into the woods.

The wizard could hold on to nothing as his mind tried to wrestle with this noise, this ceaseless clamour. So he did what he had always done when this noise filled the air: he dug his fingers into the soil. The cool, dry earth tickled his skin. He kept his eyes shut and felt the sensation, the grit of stones beneath the soil, the squelch of moisture when he wriggled his fingers.

“Samir?” called out a voice, cut high above the screams. “Samir baby, what are you doing?”

He knelt in the grass with his hands in the mud, twisting his fingers into the soil like he was digging for something. He sat up and brushed his hands over his clothes before wiping his snotty nose.

“Nothing,” he said quietly.

“Well, you’re not helping your grandma do her gardening, are you?” said Dadi as she placed her thin-framed glasses high on her head. “Do you want to plant some new flowers with me?”

In the museum, Samir stood at the bottom of the large staircase at the far end of the atrium.

“Who… who’s there?” He ignored the wobble in his voice. “We’re closed!”

No sooner had the words left his mouth that a deep rumble, like the growl of storm clouds, came from the depths of the eastern hallway. It shook the ground beneath Samir’s feet, so he ran. He sprinted across the atrium and past the gift shop, back to the basement. Before he could escape the museum entirely, a low purring came from behind.

“I told you guys, I don’t have any food!” Samir shouted as he turned around.

A fluffy white cat sat on its haunches on the steps that led up to the gift shop. It stared at Samir with bright green eyes.

“Where did you come from…” whispered Samir, momentarily forgetting his fear. “I’m in a bit of a rush. Come on, let’s go.”

But the white cat didn’t listen, as most cats don’t, and wandered up into the gift shop with her bushy tail held high.

“No, don’t go there—come back!” Samir stumbled after her and raced up the steps once more.

At the top of the stairs, he tripped and fell face first. A large tree root grew where he had fallen. He sat up and rubbed his head. The root remained where it was. Now there were several roots that blocked the path he had just come from.

The gift shop had changed. Soft, dewy grass replaced the hardwood floor like a thick carpet. The glass shelves and display cases were broken; out of them grew all manner of plants and roots, large flowers of various colours and shades. Red-capped toadstools shot up from the tops of the cashier’s desk. Samir looked across the gift shop to the atrium. The white cat sat in the sun, its tail spread across the grassy floor as motes of dust floated in the air. The atrium was overgrown with wild flora.

“How come I’ve never seen you around here?” he asked. “You don’t look like the gang outside.”

The cat made no sound but sauntered off towards the staircase.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea… hey, come back!”

Running water echoed from within the museum. Samir was pretty sure they were nowhere near a river. Maybe a pipe had burst in a bathroom?

Oh my God, they’re really going to fire me for this, he thought as he rushed towards the cat. What if I can’t fix it? Am I even supposed to fix it myself? Who do I call?

The white cat padded softly up the stairs lined with moss and vines and pinkish-orange flowers. She sat at the top of the staircase, her tail curled around her feet. She stared intently at Samir before trotting towards the eastern hallway.

Am I allowed to let a plumber in here? A tightness spread across Samir’s chest.

What if I lose my job… I can’t do that, not again, not this time, not when Dadi needs the money…

What’s Mum gonna say if I lose another job?

The thought of his mother broke another dam of thoughts, a deluge of worries that cluttered his fraying mind.

For God’s sake Samir, is it that difficult to keep a job?

The voices piled high in his mind, the noise growing louder and louder as he walked through the darkened hallway. His legs felt weak, his breathing difficult. It was harder to focus on the white cat in front of him. Soon, Samir couldn’t follow her any longer. He sat cross-legged by the roots of an old tree, swimming in his choking thoughts, the soft grass tickling the palms of his hands.

Samir was very young when Dadi first got sick. His mum had to take time off work and his dad tried to juggle deadlines and looking after Samir, but it was hard. That’s all Samir remembered anyone saying, “It’s just so hard. So difficult.” Samir was never sure if that meant he was difficult. He certainly didn’t want to be difficult.

When Dadi came home from the hospital, she stayed with them. Samir wasn’t allowed to disturb her in her room (well, it was Samir’s room, but he slept in between his parents while Dadi got better), so he played in their small, cramped garden. Their garden was nothing like Dadi’s—it was all concrete and wooden fences with a barbecue that sat in the corner. They never used it.

Dadi would cough a lot. Sometimes she coughed so much in the night that Samir couldn’t sleep. His mum said it was because her lungs were on the mend, but Samir once saw a strange colour in the tissue Dadi would cough into. It made him feel funny and he tried not to look at her when she coughed any more.

One day, when Samir was playing with his toy horse in the garden, a flash of light zoomed past the corner of his eye. Samir turned to see a large white cat sitting at the bottom of the garden. It looked magnificent. Like a huge ball of snow, its fluffy coat was completely and utterly white. It stared at Samir with green eyes, the bright green of fresh grass. Samir didn’t move; he didn’t want to scare the cat away. He couldn’t call for his parents because Dad was at work and Mum had popped to the shops and Dadi was taking a nap.

The cat came closer to him, its soft feet padding on the concrete. A low purr came from somewhere inside the cat. It rubbed its flank against his legs, soft fur brushing against his skin. Before Samir could move away, the white cat sat directly opposite him on its hind legs.

“Hello,” he said quietly. “Do you want to play?”

He offered his toy horse to the cat. The cat’s purring filled the quiet summer air. It blinked at Samir slowly and sauntered off towards the fence that faced the street, its tail held high. Once it jumped on top of the fence and dropped down to the other side, Samir had to follow it. He gripped his toy horse in one hand and opened the garden door to let himself out onto the street.

But there was no street. A clear river flowed where the grey tarmac of the road should have been. Instead of houses stood vast trees that towered above Samir, their leaves giving a cool shade in the heat of the summer sun. Just beyond the curve of the river sat the white cat, its fur gleaming in the dappled sunlight. It blinked at Samir once again, green eyes glittering like the shimmer of the river.

Samir followed the cat all afternoon. The forest was quiet aside from the flow of the river that never seemed to end. Samir dipped his bare feet in the river twice, the coolness of the water lapping against his skin. The cat led him to the base of the largest tree, its thick roots spreading across the forest floor. The grass here was soft and plush, like velvet. Samir stroked the grass with his hands before pressing his fingers against the soil at the roots. He closed his eyes. He could feel the trickle of water as he rubbed his fingers against the cool soil. The earth was calm, speaking a language of silence that soothed him.

He felt a nudge on his left arm. Samir opened his eyes and saw the cat stare at his hands. He’d brought them out of the soil, a pile of dark earth in his palms. In the middle of the earth was a small but bright red flower with delicate petals. Samir looked around, trying to find another flower just like it. But only grass and moss grew at the base of this tree. Both he and the cat stared at the little red flower.

“Samir? What are you doing?”

He blinked and the forest was gone. Instead, his mother stood above him, worry on her face. She’d left the car running and the driver’s door was open behind her. He looked around warily, feeling for the roots of the tree beneath his hands but there was only dry soil. The cat was nowhere to be seen.

“Samir, why on earth are you in someone else’s front garden!”

He tried to look behind him to see if there were any red flowers in the garden as his mother dragged him back to the car. There were only green bushes and a solitary apple tree.

“Look at that, you’ve ruined their garden,” she hissed as she buckled him into the car. “Just as well they’re not home. What were you thinking? And look at your hands, they’re covered in dirt!

“How on earth did you get here, and where are your shoes? Have you just been walking around barefoot? You know it’s not safe!

“And you left Dadi all by herself! She’ll be worried sick about you.

“Samir, I’ve told you time and time again, we need you to be good, okay? Mummy can’t be running after you all the time. What were you thinking?”

His mother kept talking out loud as they drove back home. Samir stared at the six red petals on his shorts. He picked each delicate petal up, gathering them in the palm of his hand. Once they got home, he placed the crumpled petals under Dadi’s pillow when she wasn’t looking.

When he woke, Samir heard the river. His mind was numb but he could feel the grass between his fingers, could smell the sweet scent of old earth.

The Museum of Botanical Delights was no more. In its wake sprouted a forest, ancient and wonderful and silent. Samir sat up against the tree and yawned. The tree was on a cliff at the edge of the forest. There were mountains in the distance, dark jagged shadows against a rising sun.

He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun’s rays before he jumped up. Entwined around his fingers were small, red flowers with petals like fallen hearts. He tried to shake them off, pull them off, scratch them off his hands but the flowers were rooted. It was as if they grew from him.

At first, Samir laughed. It echoed across the land in front of him. He stroked the flowers with his opposite hand. It all felt real—the softness of the petals, the cool breeze against his skin, the crisp, fresh air washing through him. It was real.

If I could just stay here… no one would know I was gone.

But Samir was no fool. He couldn’t leave Dadi, who spent her days at the old folks’ centre by the big Tesco and moaned that everyone there was boring. He wouldn’t leave her.

A familiar warmth rubbed itself against his trouser leg. He looked down to see the white cat flopping over on the grass, showing her rotund belly to Samir.

“This is all your fault, you know? If you hadn’t led me through that stupid museum.”

The cat meowed at Samir. She tapped at the grass before rubbing it vigorously with her paw. Samir raised an eyebrow but obliged. He placed his palm on the ground and rubbed the soil, copying the cat’s movement. The flowers disappeared from his hand and spread across the grass. It was as if they had already been growing there.

The Museum of Botanical Delights was open. Inside its large double doors was a world sprawling with the strangest plants and most wonderful flora. It had become quite a popular attraction since it opened, especially for families and couples and the elderly. No one was sure when its doors had first welcomed guests inside, but they didn’t care.

Strangely enough, no one could ever spot a member of staff. And unlike most museums, there wasn’t a gift shop to buy an overpriced souvenir. Litter was promptly cleaned up by the large, venus fly trap-like plants that grew on every corner. The adults thought it was a novel way to encourage the kids to keep the environment clean, but they could never ask to find out about it.

There were no signs or placards to designate zones or describe the features of the displays. One simply had to find a spot to relax and listen to the deep silence that came from within.

Read more from Issue No. 31 or share on Twitter.