Never Ending Gardens




Xander heard the name from an aid worker in Botswana: Never Ending Gardens. It made him think of that movie; the one with the puppets. The aid worker had been beside him at the bar - she was tall and thin and pretty, a senior at Harvard. Her name was Cassie. She had come to Africa intent on padding her resume with service work, and after the fifth drink she told him that she wanted to stay almost as much as she wanted to leave. It was a concept Xander could understand.

He told her a heavily embroidered tale of his search for a Slayer, only he changed "Slayer" to "orphaned relative of a friend" and left out vampires and demons altogether. Later, back in his hotel room, he told her that he'd found the girl too late, that all he had managed to get his hands on was the cold edge of a tombstone. He wasn't sure if it was sympathy or drunkenness that got him into her pants, and he didn't dwell on it too long.

The next morning, he woke up alone, but the words "Never Ending Gardens" were scrawled on the notepad on the desk.

Swaziland wasn't on the Council's list. Too small, too poor, too unimportant, too ravaged by HIV - the highest infection rate in the world, and didn't that just make Xander want to weld his zipper shut? But Swaziland had two things: a ready water supply and need, so Xander called Giles and took a week off, packed his battered Rover and headed to Ntondozi.

The guy in the tent wasn't too happy to see him, muttering about registration and protocol. A donation check shut him up, and Xander spared a good thought for the Council.

Before long, a little boy sidled up to him. They couldn't resist the lure of Caucasian skin and the eyepatch. Xander had enough Bantu dialects under his belt to understand about every fifteenth word of the rapid Swati that poured from the boy's mouth. He managed to get his points across - no, he wouldn't take off the patch; no, he didn't have any candy; yes, he was here with the garden people.

When tent guy came out to split the workers into groups, the little boy stayed with Xander, and he trotted alongside all the way to the cleared plot behind a small grouping of rickety houses and huts.

"Themba," he said, hitching a thumb to his skinny chest.

Xander repeated the gesture, saying his own name, and that was it for introductions. Someone in an orange tee shirt came around with shovels.

As the shovel bit and pulled, Xander thought about dirt. Dark and loamy - with a rich, sharp smell. Not like the dirt in Sunnydale. Not like good old California grave dirt or the dirt from the crater. Not like the dirt in England either - the cool, damp earth that Willow grew herbs in. This was old dirt - original dirt, and Xander dug and turned and broke up clumps and smoothed it this way and that, mesmerized and soothed by the motion until Themba brought him a basket of seedlings nestled in Dixie cups.

Through single words and gestures, Xander got the picture - he was to make the holes and Themba was to place the tiny plants. Each one got some sort of short remark that Xander couldn't understand - an admonition or prayer. Then he was allowed to smooth the dirt around roots and stem by hand, ending with a firm pat.

At the end of the row, Themba left and returned with a coffee can of water. He watched closely as Xander used a discarded cup to ladle a stream of water onto each plant, making sure there was just enough to darken and compress the soil.

Another orange-shirt brought boxed lunches and bottled water, and Xander and Themba made schoolyard trades for cookies and fruit, and Xander was pretty sure Themba thought he was a pushover. He didn't mind though, and happily watched the cookies disappear while he crunched an apple.

The afternoon brought more rows, more holes, more plants, more prayers. At sunset, the volunteers got on their busses to wherever they were staying, and Xander and Themba watched them go. Themba said the Swati word for "tomorrow," and disappeared into the third hut on the left.

Xander sat on the hood of the Rover and thought about the way things felt in his hands - the smooth edge of a tombstone, the rough wood of a stake, the cling of damp earth and the weight of the world.




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