The Wicked Lawn: A Gnoir Tale
By Justin Robinson
You look at the lawn, what do you see?
A bright square of green, bordered by riots of yellow, orange, and blue, like a stove’s flame. After that, the high, tangled hedges. And then the fence, the final barrier defining this lawn as its own entity, calling it inviolate.
I see a wicked home of nasty deeds.
The name is Periwinkle Bumblebee, and I look after Mrs. O’Clanrahan’s lawn when she’s sleeping.
That’s what gnomes do. You think lawns stay so cheerful and welcoming on their own? Without us they’d be nothing but patches of thirsty dirt, covered in squirrels and birds, and the only flowers you’d ever see would be painted on the side of your teapot.
When the sun goes down, we wake up. That’s when the work starts. We keep the grass green and healthy. We keep the flowers blooming. We make sure the place is welcoming to blue jays and finches, and keep pigeons and rats away. And we do it all because that’s just what we do. It’s who we are.
Sometimes, though…it’s not enough. Looking at my lawn, anyone could see what was happening. Mrs. O’Clanrahan’s grass wasn’t as green as it used to be. The flowers weren’t as bright. The hedges weren’t as full. I did my job, sure, but it was just that. A job. Ever since the battle. I took another swig of nectar to forget, but the memories were always there, ready to crowd in if I ever let my guard down even a little bit.
I was sitting on a decorative ceramic turtle, drinking nectar right out of the flower like the lush I had become, staring out over the wicked lawn and waiting patiently for another night to be over so I could turn back into plastic and fade gently in the sun. I heard the rustling through the hedge—not near the hole in the fence where I always heard rustling, even in my dreams, but across the lawn, in the direction of the Mendozas’ lawn. They emerged from under the fence single file, their conical hats bobbing and swaying, like windblown blades of grass.
There were eight by my count, though it took longer to see the ladies, whose hats were a little less suggestive than those of the men. They were gnomes of course, like me, and I could rattle off their names and lawns like that still mattered. Their eyes were on me, glittering in the lights from the Christmas decorations next door; Mr. Whigham still hadn’t taken them down. When they got close to the border where the grass stopped, marked by the line of soil near the fence with the sprouting orange poppies, they stopped and removed their hats one by one.
Their brows furrowed, and several of them seemed much more interested in what was going on with their feet than me over on my fake turtle.
“Screw off,” I suggested pleasantly.
“Mr. Bumblebee, please!” It was Heddleton Schnitzelface talking; he looked after the Mendoza place. Schnitzelface was as close as we got to a leader, and he got that distinction by having the whitest beard and the jolliest laugh. It wasn’t the best method to pick your leaders, granted, but it was how things were done when you were a gnome. “We need your help. All of us!”
“Why me, huh? This place look like it’s in tip-top shape?” I gestured out at the lawn, where the tips of the grass were ragged and gray-brown.
“You saved it once. Back when—”
I don’t know if I heard the happy meows and ecstatic purring in my head or if it was coming from the section of fence I never looked at now. “That was in the past!” I took another swig of nectar. “That’s not me anymore. I’m retired. Just me and my friend here,” I said, patting the ceramic turtle on the head.
“You don’t understand, Mr. Bumblebee. The hedgehogs have... organized.” The assembled gnomes murmured at one another, concerned about what was happening.
I wasn’t about to take the bait. I was going to drink my nectar and stare over Schnitzelface’s shoulder at the hummingbird feeder that had been empty for weeks. Was a time I would have cleaned the crusted sugar from the spouts that looked like plastic flowers and refilled it immediately. Back when I was a different gnome.
Not that this stopped Schnitzelface. He waited, mopping a powdery brow, and when he saw I wasn’t gonna speak up, continued. “They started over at the Nguyen place, then moved into the Keough lawn, then the Van Owens... and they won’t stop.” As he named each family, the gnome in charge of that lawn bowed his or her head in shame. “The hedgehogs say the hedges are theirs now. We have to give them tribute!”
“Hogging the hedge, huh?” I snorted.
They nodded solemnly. I was busy drinking, so I couldn’t cut the old man off when he declared, “You’re the hero of the Battle of Mrs. O’Clanrahan’s Flowerbed, No Not the One Out Front, the One Under the Kitchen Window—”
It was a long drink.
One that I mostly spat out onto the dirt while sputtering, “That’s not me anymore!”
“You have to be, Mr. Bumblebee. You’re our only hope.”
He knew that was the final entreaty, and knew I wasn’t going to say anything. The gnomes filed out across the lawn. I watched them go, trying to shut out the purring now rumbling through my head. I threw the flower down and stalked along the border of the hedge. They didn’t know what I lived with every day. They just knew I was the guy. That guy. When the cats were pooping in Mrs. O’Clanrahan’s flowerbed, no not the one out front, the one under the kitchen window, I was the guy who solved the problem.
And I had to live with what I had done every day. The glassy eyes. The splayed bodies. The happy purring.
“And where do you think you’re going?”
Two fat hedgehogs lounged against the fence, right by a newly dug burrow into the yard. My yard. One of the hedgehogs pushed off from the fence to waddle over while his friend resolutely chewed on a dandelion stem. The lead hedgehog got right up into my face, giving me a whiff of grass-breath. “Don’t you know where you are?”
“On my lawn, last I checked,” I said to him.
“Your lawn. Hear that, Professor Cuddles?”
His friend chuckled. “Sure did, Bitsy Pookums.”
“No,” said Pookums, “this is our lawn. We’re generous, though. You can keep living on it. We mostly want the hedges.”
“And if I say no?”
Professor Cuddles moved up next to his friend, and both of them loomed over me like a tubby eclipse. “Don’t say no. We’re coming tomorrow and setting up shop here. And as long as you stay smart, nothing on you has to break.” Professor Cuddles punctuated his friend’s threat by packing a furry fist into his paw. They stared through me for a couple seconds, making sure I understood the gravity of my situation. Then Pookums turned and waddled back for the burrow. Professor Cuddles did a fake lunge, and even though I stayed as still as I do in the daytime, he still chased me with a mocking laugh.
Alone on the lawn. Alone for good. And letting Mrs. O’Clanrahan down. That hedge was hers, not the property of some pudgy mafia. I couldn’t help it. My eyes went to the flowerbed. No, not the one out front, the one under the kitchen window. The snapdragons were coming in nicely, a splash of yellow against the crisp blue of the house. Wasn’t too long ago that flowerbed was nothing but a swatch of dead dirt.
And then I was there. Seeing it again and again. The few plants that could manage poking resolutely up from the dirt, others trampled or worse. Every cat in the neighborhood coming under the fence to do his business in that spot. Killing everything that tried to take root. Nothing Mrs. O’Clanrahan could do about it.
That was where I came in.
I tried everything to keep the cats out. I seeded the flowerbed with sharp rocks. I covered the sides with any number of plant extracts. I tried physically blocking the cats. Nothing worked. They pawed the rocks away. The ignored the extracts. They jumped over me or knocked me down.
And Mrs. O’Clanrahan’s flowerbed suffered for it.
And I suffered for it, too.
At wit’s end, I wandered the neighborhood until I came to the Taylor house. Mrs. Taylor was an older lady who collected cats, though none of them were among the ones who had turned Mrs. O’Clanrahan’s flowerbed into a litterbox. I saw why, and as soon as I did, the solution was right there.
The horrible, monstrous solution.
The next evening, I had waited at the entry to the fence where the cats got in. The first one, a big orange tabby, was already coming in to do his unholy business on Mrs. O’Clanrahan’s snapdragons. He paused at the gap, sniffing it. Then he scraped his cheek over it, again and again. Soon another joined, a Siamese with eyes as blue as the bug zapper hanging from the Mendoza porch. She repeated the same ritual. Soon six cats were happily rolling around on their backs, rubbing against the hole. Their eyes were glassy, their purrs rattled through the yard. I had smeared the hole with catnip. I was their pusher. Their dealer.
I turned away from the hole, trying to forget my crime. But they were still there, coming to get their fix. Every night. That was the price of Mrs. O’Clanrahan’s snapdragons.
But I still had a little bit left. A little bit of my soul to spend. And I’d do it, for Mrs. O’Clanrahan. Because that’s what it means to be a gnome. That’s what it means to love the lawn so much it tears you up inside until there’s nothing left.
The next night, I waited by the burrow. And they came. Bitsy Pookums and Professor Cuddles and a bunch of their hedgehog friends. But then they saw what was waiting for them: a half-dozen cats, all playful and happy, ready to have some squeaky-toy fun with the new residents. Baked out of their minds on Mrs. Taylor’s catnip.
“Whose lawn is it now?” I asked them.
“This ain’t over, gnome!” Bitsy Pookums shouted, shaking his furry little fist as he and his friends retreated into the burrow.
“I know,” I murmured. “It’s never over.”
I told the other gnomes what to do and they did it. Maybe some of the cost came out of them. I don’t know. All I knew was that the lawn took its due, no matter what. And I knew that the lawn was a wicked home of nasty deeds.
But it was also mine.