A Stranger in the Garden

Easter Sunday, 1890


n the early light of dawn, Joseph Merrick was already awake
and excited. All through the dark days of Lent and Holy Week, he’d been looking forward to this day. While he loved Christmas most of all, nothing held more promise of eternal joy than Easter.

In his short years on earth, Joseph had already suffered more than most had in an entire lifetime. Jeering derision and cruel mockery had dogged his steps all through childhood. Then there were the years of horror in the workhouse, and traveling in the sideshows, baring his twisted body to gawking audiences as the Elephant Man. That had been tolerable, as he had been able to save a good bit in hopes of buying his own little house someday. Then a cruel manager had taken Joseph to Belgium and stolen every penny he had after their exhibit was closed by the police. Penniless and starving, Joseph had made his way back to London. His only hope was to find Dr. Frederick Treves, whose card he had after being exhibited to a group of anatomists two years before. Treves had rescued Joseph from a raging mob at Liverpool Street Station and had taken him in at the London Hospital.

Sheltered in his comfortable rooms here at the London, visited by royalty and lesser known friends, Joseph had learned to fit into his new life. There were times when he yearned for the old life on the road, especially with Tom Norman, the “Silver King.” Tom had watched over him like a father and treated him as a friend. Joseph missed that independence and wished he didn’t have to live on charity, but times had changed. He needed constant physical care now and he was growing weaker with each passing day.

These days, Joseph was always weary and perpetually in need of rest. Some days he was tempted to go to his eternal rest. It would be so easy. All he would need to do was lie flat on his back. The weight of his head would most likely snap his neck, and God would take him home.

Meanwhile, today was a day of celebration. Joseph turned back the covers and carefully maneuvered his bulky feet onto the floor. He reached for his walking stick and slowly stood up. His huge head lolled to the right and nearly threw him off balance. Lately it had felt so heavy he could barely walk straight. Everything was a struggle nowadays.
Eating, dressing, even walking in the little hospital garden took a supreme effort.

The floorboards felt chilly as he hobbled to the washstand. Splashing cold water on his face made him gasp but thoroughly woke him up. He made little wheezing noises that passed for chuckles. For the thousandth time, he wished he could laugh and smile like other people. It was so hard to show his pleasure because of his constricted jaw and mouth. He had to convey his feelings through his eyes and voice.

Someone knocked at the door, and he called as clearly as he could, “Come in.”

Nurse Ireland came in with a breakfast tray, neat in her cap and apron. She was his favorite nurse, for she took the time to talk to him and didn’t scurry off as soon as possible.

“Good morning, Mr. Merrick. How are you?” Her kindly blue eyes smiled at him as she set down the tray on his table.

“I’m still here, Miss Ireland.”

She laughed. It was his usual response. “Yes, I can see that. I’m glad, to  be sure.”

As Joseph ate his bland hospital porridge, the nurse prepared his  morning bath. When he had first arrived, baths were a terrifying and embarrassing ordeal. He had struggled against being handled so  intimately by women. It was even more humiliating because his flesh gave off a revolting stench. But the nurses’ calm, efficient ministrations had settled him down and the frequent baths themselves had  miraculously rid him of the terrible odor.

Now he looked forward to the warm, soothing water. The nurse helped him climb into the wooden tub and sluiced the water down his back. As she ministered to him with deft hands, he closed his eyes. He never told her that sometimes he would imagine she was his wife, tenderly massaging his tortured skin and whispering words of comfort in his ear…

The bubble always burst when she handed him the brush and said  politely, “I’ll see to your linens now, Mr. Merrick.”

As he finished washing, he could hear the nurse moving about, changing the sheets and piling up the pillows he needed to prop himself up at night. She called, “I expect you’ll want your Sunday best suit.”

“Oh yes!” With a sloshing of water he stood up and laboriously dried off. Piece by piece, Nurse Ireland helped him don the specially tailored suit he was so proud of. Trousers, white starched shirt, vest, coat, tie, and to top it off, a spotless handkerchief in the left breast pocket. She stood back to admire her handiwork.

“You’re quite the gentleman, Mr. Merrick. I wish I could escort you to the services today.”

“Not today?” he asked in dismay.

She shook her head. “No, today I’m going home to spend the holiday with my family.”

“Oh. Well, I daresay I can’t blame you. I would too.”

The nurse looked at him closely. She had learnt his speech almost as well as Mr. Treves, but lately it had grown harder to push the sounds out of his distorted mouth. Joseph tried again.

“I can’t blame you, Nurse.” He tried to keep the disappointment from his voice but she heard it anyway.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Merrick. I promise I’ll take you next Sunday.”

The words rose to the tip of his tongue. I may not be here by then. But  she was his good friend, and he didn’t want to upset her.

Nurse Ireland gave his tie one last tweak. “You’ll hardly miss me, not  with all those other lovely ladies.”

“You’re right.” Joseph went along with the joke for her sake.

The nurse held out her left hand. “Good-day, Mr. Merrick. Have a very Happy Easter!”

They shook hands warmly, and he said, “Thank you, Miss Ireland. Happy Easter to you too.” Then she was gone.

Joseph sat down in his special armchair and opened his Bible. In the pink light from the window, the words glowed like a medieval manuscript.

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning,
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
And suddenly an angel of the Lord…came and rolled away the stone.
Do not be afraid; I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said.

Suffering and death. The glory of the risen Christ. Memories of Eastertide in his mother’s humble church came back to Joseph. Despite the stares as he limped in with the family, he was always blissfully happy there. The peaceful hour seated next to his mother, her familiar scent filling his nostrils. The hymns of celebration rising to the rafters. His favorite one was “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

Lives again our glorious King
Where, O death is now thy sting?
Made like Him, like Him we rise
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies. Alleluia!

A gentle knock at the door brought Joseph back to the present, and he called, “Come in.”

A young man in a crisp tan porter’s uniform stepped into the small room. Joseph didn’t recognize this one, but that wasn’t unusual. They came and went more quickly than the nurses. Some were rogues and drunks, but most were decent.

“Good morning, ah…Mr. Merrick?” He spoke with a faint accent that Joseph couldn’t quite identify. “I’m to take you to Easter services this morning. Will that be all right?”

Joseph nodded. His visitor had gentle brown eyes, not unlike his own, and dark curly hair. With steady hands he helped Joseph don the  voluminous black cloak and mask he must always wear to protect the world from his deformed features.

“Shall we?” The porter’s speech was surprisingly refined for someone of his station. He held out his arm.

They went outside and made their way up the steep steps to the  courtyard known as Bedstead Square. Here the hospital stored its broken beds that needed cleaning and refurbishing. It was not the most direct route to the chapel but it kept Joseph from view of the other patients.

“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” remarked the porter. “The rains let up just in time.”

Joseph felt too shy to speak, so he nodded agreement. They made their way towards the back wing of the hospital, but instead of going indoors, the porter paused.

“It’s early yet,” he said. “Would you like to walk in the garden?”

“In the daytime?” Joseph had never been allowed to go outside by day. Mr. Treves was afraid he would cause a riot similar to the one at Liverpool Street Station all those years ago.

“Why not?” The stranger smiled. “I’m with you today.”

He steered Joseph onto the path towards the back garden. As they passed under the windows of the patients’ wards, Joseph shook with  apprehension, feeling as exposed as a crab on an empty shore. He could almost feel the horrified stares cutting into him like daggers.

They made it to the garden successfully and Joseph allowed himself to savor the dewy air. A faint hint of green along the box hedges made his heart beat faster with joy. Every winter he wondered if he would ever see spring again, and here it was.

Along the path, the first crocuses were poking up, but Joseph’s favorites were the fragrant yellow daffodils. They could be beaten down by a fierce storm but they always clung to life and bravely bloomed.

The porter followed his gaze. “Nice little flowers, daffodils. You can tell spring is really here when they come up.”

“Yes.”

“You know, I’ve heard good things about you, Mr. Merrick.”

“Oh?”

His companion smiled. “Folks say it cheers them up just to be around you.”

Joseph shook his head in disbelief. “How?”

“You’re so well-read and have such interesting things to say. Must be all the books you read.”

With a hint of irony, Joseph answered, “I have all the time in the world.” The porter nodded, though Joseph couldn’t tell whether he had understood or was merely being polite.

Instead, he remarked, “There’s more to it than that. You’re a special person.”

Joseph thought, That’s one way of putting it. He’d had enough of being ‘special’ when it came to people screaming and running away at the sight of him.

As if reading his thoughts, the porter went on. “Oh, I don’t mean because of your— well, your condition. It’s more like a light of goodness in you that touches people—“ he tapped his chest. “Right here.”

Astonished and a bit embarrassed, Joseph stammered, “I try my best.”

“Listen to me rambling on,” the stranger said. “Sometimes I don’t know when to stop.” He chuckled.

They walked slowly in silence. Joseph had never seen the garden by daylight before. The tapestry of colors dazzled his wondering eyes. He felt like a newborn babe seeing the world for the first time.

As they reached the outer border of the garden, Joseph grew nervous. He’d never gone this far before. Weariness crept through his twisted limbs and he wasn’t sure he could walk much further. He turned to the porter.

“Please take me back,” he enunciated carefully.

“Feeling tired, sir? Whatever you wish.”

They turned their steps homeward. The porter offered his arm again and Joseph gratefully accepted it. Usually he treasured his independence, but something about this young man made him want to lean upon his strong arm for support and even comfort. How could it be? Most of the porters treated him with friendly boredom or bored friendliness, not tender concern.

The chapel bells rang out through the crystal-clear air as they drew close to the hospital walls again. By now, the sun was high enough to bath the flowers and grass in golden light. They could have been in Eden.

“Who are you?” Joseph asked his companion. “I’ve never seen you  before.”

“Oh no? I’ve been here all along.” The young man smiled.

As they approached the entrance to the hospital, Joseph’s cane slipped in a patch of mud and he lost his balance. He teetered precariously,  terrified. One fall could snap his neck and be the end of him.

In a flash, the young porter caught him in a strong grip and steadied him. “Easy, Mr. Merrick. I’m here for you.”

Joseph stammered, “Th-thank you.” As he drew deep sobbing breaths, it came to him that he wasn’t ready to die just yet. There was God’s blue sky above him, the promise of the new flowers around him. There were all those loved him, and especially Mr. Treves.

They managed to get to the chapel without further incident, though Joseph’s knees were weak and shaky and his steps were halting. The porter said patiently, “You take as long as you need, sir.”

At the door, Pastor Valentine met them, resplendent in his white robes. “Good morning, Mr. Merrick,” he said heartily. “A very Happy Easter to you!”

“And to you, Reverend.”
The minister said, “I’m delighted you’re here for our early service. But  how did you come here alone?”

Puzzled, Joseph said, “I didn’t.”

His spiritual mentor was usually adept at understanding him, but today his brow furrowed with equal puzzlement. “I see no one with you, Joseph.”

Joseph turned to the young man who had guided him safely to God’s house.

He was gone.

All through the Easter service, as Joseph sat unseen by the others in the vestry, he tried to make sense of what had happened. Someone had brought him to the garden and caught him when he fell. As the beloved hymns of praise filled the chapel and Reverend Valentine’s sonorous voice proclaimed the glory of Christ’s resurrection, Joseph kept hearing
the mysterious young man’s words.

“I’ve been here all along. I’m here for you.”

During the Benediction, Joseph bowed his great head in prayer. A sudden chill ran down his spine. Could it be? Impossible! And yet…he could still feel the stranger’s strong arms steadying him and that calm Presence around him. Tears began to stream down his cheeks.

No matter what befell in the days ahead, he would never be alone.

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