« bully for you | Main | psa »

topiary nightmares: another story from my wasted youth

I have a fear of topiary. I don't know if there's a name for it and no, it didn't come from reading The Shining, though that did make the fear worse.

Topiary, for those who don't know, is the art of shaping your hedges into creatures or other recognizable shapes.

One hedge on someone's lawn that is cut to look like Mickey Mouse may not bother me as much as a whole garden of bushes acting out a scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Let's put the wavy lines flashback special effect thing in here.

ssgorilla18037m.jpgIt was some time in the late 70's. Our weekend adventures as high school kids with nothing better to do often included trespassing on people's property. We would head out to the North Shore of Long Island and hop fences or duck under wires until we were in the massive yard of some great estate. There, we would drink beer and tell ghost stories until we passed out, one by one, on this rich person's lawn or tennis court and eventually we would be woken up by a security guard or the barking of a rottweiler.

One night a newcomer to our crowd, familiar with the lush landscape of the Gold Coast (as he was a Gold Coast resident himself), led us on an adventure. Through deep woods and over barely visible trails we hiked, passing the pipe and the beers and probably some Boonsfarm wine along the way, until we came to a small clearing. At the end of the clearing was a chain link fence. Climb it, he implored us. Eager to please this rich kid who had a pool large enough to accomodate all of us, and whose father bought us beer, we climbed the fence. As soon as the last of us had landed on the other side, we heard the barking. Not just one dog. Not just two. No, that was the ferocious, low growling of a pack of wild wolves who just smelled dinner.

We ran, with rich boy leading the way, around a winding path that surrounded the house. The dogs came ever closer and, trailing the dogs' yelping, was the sound of Mad Security Guy, who had been awaken from his drunken slumber to chase a bunch of punk teenage kids from the other side of the tracks.

The path ended at yet another fence. This fence protected us from a drop in the landscape. About tweny feet down or so were some bushes. Faced with the prospect of either being torn up by hungry dogs or being scratched up by some benign bushes, we scaled the fence and jumped. There was a hollow carved out underneath the bushes and we huddled there, shaking with fear and excitment.

We stayed there for what seemed like eternity, hushing each other and stifling nervous giggles. Eventually the dogs stopped barking and retreated, Mad Security Guy in tow. We waited ten more minutes and emerged from the hollow through a small, leaf covered tunnel that emerged in another world.

It was dark out, but the moon was full and we could see through its glow the outlines of what appeared to be hundreds of animals and people staring down at us.

A topiary, one of us whispered.

The rich kid smiled. He had led us here on purpose, knowing that drunk and stoned as we were, this would be the ultimate trip for our drug-addled heads.

Rich boy wanted to make an impression with his knowledge of local lore.

This garden belongs to Agatha Christie, he told us, in a hushed, secretive tone.

Agatha Christie is dead, someone said.

It still belongs to her. It's said that her ghost roams around these gardens at night, talking to the topiary.

We all shivered a little.

Rich kid made us get up and follow him. He had something spectacular to show us.

We walked in silence for several minutes, holding onto each other and imagining that the giraffes and elephants were moving toward us. Or were we imagining it?

We came to a small path surrounded by overgrown wildflowers. Someone mentioned that scene from Alice in Wonderland where the flowers talked and sang. I looked into the faces of the flowers, waiting for one of them to admonish me for trampling through their space.

At the end of the path, we entered a vast circle. In the middle of the circle stood an enourmous bush. Rich Kid led us towards the bush. When he arrived at it's base, he got down on all fours and crawled underneath. We followed.

The entire inside of the bush had been hollowed out. It was a secret fort made of greenery. On the ground were bottle caps and chip wrappers, evidence that other thrill-seekers had been here before us.

We all sat around the inside of the bush while Rich Kid told us stories of Agatha Christie's ghost, how it had chased so many kids out of her yard before, how one kid died of a heart attack when the ghost toppled a bear topiary on top of him. We shuddered. We shivered. We decided it was time to leave.

Not yet, said Rich Kid. There's still one more thing.

He led us out the other side of the hollow bush, through a small tunnel that we had to crawl through. When we came out, we each sucked in our breath and stared wide-eyed.

Before us was a small cottage. No, it was not small, it was tiny. A miniature version of the mansion that rose to our east. The door was about three feet high. The roof was covered in ivy. I suddenly did feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland. I was drunk and high enough to think that perhaps Rich Kid had slipped us a potion and we all shrunk. Then he explained.

This, he said, is where the help stays. You see, Agatha Christie had a thing for dwarves. So she would only hire midgets to work for her. She made them dress like the dwarves from Snow White. They did all this topiary work in the yard. And now they live here, waiting for Agatha's ghost to tell them what to do. The people who live in this mansion now don't want dwarves hanging around, so they keep them locked up in this cottage.

That's how the story went, mostly. It's what I can remember. And then Rich Kid dared one of us to knock on the door to see if the dwarves would answer. No one moved. We stood in frightened silence.

Finally, Kevin came forward. I'm not scared, he said. I'll knock. But as he moved forward, the sound of barking dogs was upon us again. We heard voices; Mad Security Guy followed by two other angry yells. The dogs moved closer.

We finally broke our collective trance and moved. We ran back, through the tunnel, through the hollow bush and out the other side to the trail. We ran like our lives depended on it, and we thought that was really the case.

Finally, winded and scared out of our minds, we had put some distance between us and the guard dogs. We looked to Rich Kid to help us find our way out, but he was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared on us.

And there we were, stuck in the topiary.

I was laying on the ground, staring up at a parade of green-leafed animals ready to attack me. I swear Agatha Christie's ghost was behind them, yelling at them to get me and tear me to shreds. Lions and tiger and bears, oh my! I think I screamed for my mother. I closed my eyes and wished for a swift, painless death.

And then Mad Security Guy was pulling me up by my hair. He had three dogs on his leash, all snarling and growling at me. He pointed to my friends, who were being shown the way out of the estate. I stood up on shaky legs and ran to them, following them out. Our nightmare was over.

Of course, Agatha Christie never lived in that mansion. Some other rich guy who made his money off of the Russians during the cold war did, so I hear. And the mini-house that was home to the dwarves was just a playhouse for his kids.

I still believe that the topiary came alive, though. You will never convince me otherwise.

And I never spoke to Rich Kid again.


What a GREAT story. All we had to tresspass on was a golf course. What kind of lame-o teenage punks were we? We couldn't even get into a decent cemetery. The only ghosts we encountered there were of loud plaid pants and the phantom swear words of old white men.

Very cool story. You might be on to something with this writing deal...

Wow! You are one seriously good writer. Reminds me very much of the reminiscences of Mary Karr in "Cherry".