Scott Spencer is the bestselling author of novels including Endless Love, Waking the Dead, and A Ship Made of Paper, as well as two horror novels written as Chase Novak. His nonfiction has been published in magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Rolling Stone, and he’s taught fiction at Columbia University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He spoke to me by phone.
Scott Spencer: It must have been 10 years ago when I discovered Rudyard Kipling’s “The Gardener.” It was pure chance, and a bit of ingenuity on the publisher’s part: Penguin had made an edition that sat right next to the cash registers, part of an array of impulse buys. The little pocketbook was selling for only 95 cents, which doesn’t even get you a candy bar nowadays. So I brought it home with me and read it—and the emotional impact of the book’s second story, “The Gardener,” was nearly overwhelming.
Before that, I hadn’t much cared for Kipling, associated as he was in my mind with childhood reading and appalling politics. But I was struck by the blunt and delicate precision (I know, an oxymoron) with which he approached the subject matter: A woman named Helen loses either her nephew or her son in World War I, and is forced finally to confront the depth of her loss in a vast military cemetery in France—just she and a stranger, the gardener, amid acres and acres of humble crosses.
Kipling remains cagey about the exact nature of their relationship. The story can be taken at face value or it can (more popularly) be read as the story of Helen, an upstanding woman, raising her own child out of wedlock, pretending to her English village that he, Michael, is her dead brother’s son. Throughout his life, the boy calls Helen “Auntie,” though he pleads with her, out of love and a sense of emotional, if not actual, truth, to let him call her “Mother.” Being an honest and pragmatic woman, she allows this only occasionally, and in private.
On his 18th birthday, Michael enlists in the British Army, and is slaughtered shortly after, his body covered over by debris and unable to be located. Much, much later Michael’s body is discovered and finally Helen is able to travel to his grave in a military cemetery in France to pay her last respects. The story, which is not very long, moves with the efficiency of a fable—years go by in a half sentence. The tone is almost matter-of-fact, but we are being set up by a master craftsman for the story’s devastating climactic scene. Helen wanders through a vast expanse of graves, all of them marked with a number, not a name, each individual soldier located only through a painstaking process of record-keeping. (It was Kipling who lifted the phrase “known unto God,” out of the Bible and into the cemeteries and the monuments for unknown soldiers.) Then, while searching the endless sea of crosses, helpless, Helen comes upon a gardener. Kipling describes the exchange this way:
[The gardener] rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: "Who are you looking for?"
"Lieutenant Michael Turrell—my nephew,” said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
"Come with me,” he said, "and I will show you where your son lies."
That’s a shocking—I would say incandescent—moment in a story that is steeped in irony and filled with lies, a world of conventions ruthlessly enforced and feelings buried or swallowed. But when the gardener lifts his eyes the story is swiftly brought to a sudden spiritual climax that is beautiful and satisfying.