An old minivan slowly grumbled its way up the ugly, concrete driveway, passing an old clump of purple-brown wisteria vines, rumbling by a dingy hedge shielding the moldy garbage can, full of old holes where squirrels and raccoons had once tried to nibble their way in to eat the trash.
“Well, here we are!” said a woman in a falsely cheerful voice, dragging an old, moth-eaten suitcase.
A girl of about eleven adjusted her hat and coat. She brushed back her dirty-blond hair and said, “Are we really? My, I think I expected it to be a bit grander, didn’t you? But I suppose it’ll have a simply lovely garden to play in, won’t it, Mother?” She said all this very fast, in a bossy-ish sort of English accent.
“Yes, I’m sure it will,” her mother replied. She gave a tired smile and seemed to be trying to convince herself as much as her daughter.
This girl’s name was Iris Stellar-Lupos. Her mother, Jill Stellar, was a widow. Iris’s dad, Robin Lupos, had died of cancer a few months ago. Before Mr. Lupos had died, he and Iris’s mum had planned to come to Germany for a year, so that Iris could learn a second language. But then Robin had died, and Iris’s mum decided that they should come to Germany anyway. A change of scenery, she thought, might help Iris forget about… well, she didn’t want to think about that.
Iris took her small suitcase and followed her mum up the stairs. As they entered the grimy glass doors a robotic female voice said, “Willkommen im Wunderhaus!” Iris looked enquiringly up at her mother.
“It’s German for, ‘Welcome to the Wonder-house,’” her mother replied, trying to smile. They walked up five flights of stairs (there was no elevator) until they came to a door saying “Stelar Lupus.”
Great! Iris thought. They can’t even spell my last name!
Mrs. Stellar opened the door, saying, “Home, sweet home!” She was always too positive.
“Now, honey,” Iris’s mother said as they trudged down the hall, staring gloomily at the peeling orange wallpaper, “you go into this room and unpack. Finally you can have your very own bedroom!”
Muttering indistinctly, Iris opened the bedroom door and slipped quietly inside. She didn’t want to be disturbed.
Iris didn’t bother unpacking. She took out her diary and a stub of pencil, threw herself onto the little cot in the corner, tried to make herself comfortable by pulling the thin, moth-eaten covers up to her chin (but abandoned that quickly as the faded orange wool was itchy), and began to write:
I hate it here… I miss my dad… Why did he have to die?… I want to be at home with him, not here…
* * *
Iris awoke to the sound of shouting. She opened the window and leaned groggily out. “Please! I’m trying to sleep!” Two boys stared at her from the outdoor corridor that ran around the inside of the building. One was roughly Iris’s age. The other looked about six.
“Oooooh!” the older one yelled. “She’s trying to sleep! Has the little baby got enough rest? Little ones are very delicate!” he mocked. Iris closed the curtains, hoping they weren’t so faded that they were see-through, pulled on her dress, hat, and coat, and stormed outside. “LEAVE… ME… ALONE… IN… FUTURE!”
“Hey, don’t shout!” said the elder of the two. “I’m James Rickmann. But please, dear lady, do call me Jamie.” He made a fake bow. “And this charming young gentleman is Molasses.”
“Huh?” Iris stared at him, unable to make sense of what he’d said. She was still very jet-lagged and felt slow and clumsy.
“His real name is Milo, but everyone calls him Molasses,” Jamie explained. “We’re from New York. Our family is staying in Germany for a year.”
“I,” Iris said, trying to shake off her tiredness, “am Iris. And please don’t shout. It disturbs the magic.” She smiled annoyingly, in the I-know-something-you-don’t kind of way, which is very different from the I-have-forty-three-dollars-in-my- pocket way, or the it’s-my-birthday-and- I’m-getting-a-video-camera way.
“Aw, you don’t really believe in magic!” Jamie said, “People only believed in that before there was science and stuff.”
“Yes, I do!” Iris retorted. How could they know that she had believed in magic ever since she was nine, when she had first read the Harry Potter series. They had been her favorite books ever since. How could they know about everything that had happened to her in her short, eleven-year- long life? About how her dad got cancer and died?
Her head throbbed, but she tried to ignore it. “I’ll prove to you that magic exists! Wait here!” Iris dashed back into her apartment, filled an empty jam jar with water, and grabbed her Hermione Granger wand and some irises from a vase in her room. She ran back outside, dropped the flowers into the jar, and pressed and twisted and squeezed them until she had dyed the water the purple of the flowers. “This,” she said, trying to imitate Hermione’s bossy voice, “is Draught of the Living Death, from Harry Potter. It…”
“We know!” Jamie interrupted. “We’ve read Harry Potter.”
Iris sighed, then said, “Abracadabra!” and pointed the wand at the “potion.” Nothing happened.
Iris tried not to burst into tears as Molasses giggled and Jamie whooped. “I’ll prove to you that magic exists. I’ll prove it to you!” she said. “Meet me here in a few days and I’ll show you!” She stormed off towards the rusty metal apartment door that must once have been painted orange, snatching up her mother’s half-finished tea and some paper from the printer. (She hoped her mother wouldn’t notice; paper was expensive.) Then Iris sat down and began.
* * *
Of course magic exists!” Iris hissed. It was the next day, and Iris’s first at her new school, Gruene Grundschule. It was made of concrete with peeling white paint, and the slide in the playground was always too hot.
Their classroom was old and had never gotten around to getting one of the new whiteboards, the ones that were electronic and could show pictures.
Jamie sat next to Iris in class, but he wasn’t listening. He was busy staring at their math teacher, Frau Blumen. This meant Mrs. Flowers. She always smiled, displaying beautiful, white teeth. Her shiny golden hair was always loose. Her blue eyes were always lined with pink eyeshadow, her lips were always bright red, and her eyelashes were always super long and curly.
Iris thought Frau Blumen looked like a silly fashion model, but Jamie adored her. “Jamie, what are you staring at?” Iris asked.
“Nothing,” Jamie answered quickly.
“I expect ‘nothing’ is still doing sums up on the board,” said Iris haughtily. “As I was saying, magic has to exist. The Loch Ness monster, Jamie!”
“Aw, magic’s for girls! I don’t wanna do your stupid girly stuff,” Jamie said.
“You,” said Iris, in her deadly quiet don’t-you-dare voice, “are the most awful, sexist BRAT I have ever had the misfortune to meet.” She exploded. “I NEVER WANT TO TALK TO YOU AGAIN!”
Frau Blumen smiled her annoying smile. “Wir schreien nicht in dieser Klasse, Kind. Bitte, mach es nicht noch einmal.” Iris understood her. She knew it meant, “We don’t yell in this class, child. Please, don’t do it again.” Even though she’d never been told off in class before, Iris did feel some pride, because she’d understood.
* * *
As it happened, Iris did talk to Jamie again. But only because she had to. If she didn’t, he’d think she was lying about the magic, and she didn’t think she could bear that.
It was three days after the “Abracadabra” incident. Iris brought out the thing she had been working on into the overgrown garden outside the Wunderhaus. It was a map.
There was a courtyard that was right under all the apartments. In the middle was an old, brown pine tree. It looked slightly out of place. Iris thought that there should have been a fountain there, perhaps with beautiful lily pads, and irises growing around the outside. Iris thought no garden was complete without irises.
The grass Iris, Jamie, and Molasses were standing on was slightly gray, as though it was tired of living and just wanted to go away.
Iris took out her map. It was just a piece of paper ripped around the edges, wiped with tea bags to make it look old. She had written with an old Sharpie. She thought it looked like a quill had written the words. “This,” Iris said, “is a map of the garden. Do you want me to show you around?”
Jamie read off some of the names. “Werewolf Woods, Black Cat Alley, Place of All Dangers, and… the Slips? That’s ridiculous!”
“Slips are holes in the fence. You can crawl through them onto the other side of the garden,” Iris replied through gritted teeth. She didn’t want her precious map to be called ridiculous, especially not by Jamie. She’d show him. Suddenly the warm day seemed more humid than before, and she thought she felt sweat dripping down her arm.
“I don’t wanna do magic! Let’s do Barbies!” Molasses said out of the blue. Iris and Jamie stared at him, but he only shrugged. Molasses was just surprising that way.
“Fine!” Iris raged. “I’ll go and enjoy the magic myself. Goodbye.”
“OK, OK,” Jamie said, making a face. “We’ll do the stupid magic with you. Happy?”
“Follow me!” Iris replied haughtily. She led them through Conker Heaven Walk, named so because of all the conkers scattered around. Those conkers were the only things in sight that weren’t gray and dusty. They were shiny and a rich, caramel brown on the bottom. There were chestnut trees in Iris’s garden at home. Iris and her dad used to collect conkers together. That was why she called it Conker Heaven.
Next she showed them all three Slips and warned them to watch for the poison- spitting Grimmins that swam on the lake. She said the Slips were the only place where werewolves and ghosts couldn’t go.
The lake was beautiful, she could almost see her reflection in the water. The pebbles on the floor of the lake were shiny and some were her favorite shade of purple. Like irises.
Then she took them into a small clearing and showed them the Wicked Tree. “Never touch that tree,” she warned. Jamie stared at her. She knew he thought she was crazy, but she didn’t care. “Four-thousand years ago, a basilisk entwined himself around it. He made sure that anyone who touches it is overcome by evil. When you get near it, it makes you sleepy. That makes it easier to take over your soul. The only possible cure is to feed the victim daffodil stuffed with cinnamon before three hours are over.”
As she spoke, bit by bit, Jamie and Molasses finally saw the garden as Iris saw it, felt magic pressing in on them, a sugary feeling that warmed them up like hot cocoa.
Molasses looked up and gasped. Where clouds once sat now hung beautiful girls, with hair the color of night and eyes like emeralds.
“Those are the Witches,” Iris said.
Jamie saw a lion, lying contentedly in the sun. He opened one eye lazily, murmured, “Hey, Iris,” then fell asleep again.
“That’s Shaman, King of the Garden,” said Iris.
As Iris showed them around, Jamie and Molasses noticed that they felt sleepy, so very sleepy. They supposed they were still jet-lagged. Maybe tired from trying to understand all that German.
“Come on, Molasses! Jamie, hurry up,” Iris looked back and saw that Molasses had fallen down and leaned on a nearby tree, saying only, “I still prefer Barbies.”
Iris ignored him. “Here,” she said, holding out a dock leaf to Jamie. “Take it. It’ll help with your tiredness.” Jamie took it. Then he looked around the small clearing in which they were standing.
“Wow! This is pretty awesome. But will we be able to get home again?”
“Yes, of course. I can show you the Witches’ Woods, and Wisteria Walk, and Black Cat Alley! In England, black cats bring good luck. So it’s lucky to walk down there. But wake Molasses up first so we can… Jamie!” Iris gasped. “Do you know what tree he’s sleeping on?”
“Oh, God!” Jamie said. “The Wicked Tree!”
* * *
Leaves began to swirl, the previously clear day now turned dark and stormy. The Witches turned into black birds of prey, red eyes looking down as they circled, now and then crying loudly, “Dee-vil! Deeeth!”
“The Devil’s messengers!” Iris called. “Don’t look up, if you do they’ll turn you into one of them!”
“Just save Molasses!” Jamie answered.
“Quick! Get the cinnamon!” Iris yelled.
“How? Mom doesn’t have any!” Jamie yelled back.
“You’re magic here, James! Think! Just say cinnamon!”
Jamie yelled his request up to the sky. He didn’t look up. Suddenly, a jar of cinnamon appeared in his hands.
“Got it!” Jamie yelled.
“Now say thanks!” Iris screamed, as if it was obvious. “But don’t look up, whatever you do!”
“Who am I thanking?”
“Oh, thanks, great Sky!” Jamie yelled, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. He turned to Iris. “The daffodil!”
“Hurry, give me the cinnamon! We have only half an hour left. Time moves faster when the Devil’s messengers arrive.”
Jamie shoved a handful of cinnamon into Iris’s hands. She crammed cinnamon into the daffodil, then ran to where Molasses lay. But she couldn’t get closer than five inches from his mouth, as if some invisible force was pushing her away. “I… CAN’T… DO… IT!” Iris said desperately. “THE… POWER… IS… TOO… STRONG!”
“Molasses!” Jamie screamed. “Wake up!”
“I am no longer Molasses,” said he, opening his eyes to reveal empty sockets. “I am a servant of the Devil!” He lunged at Iris, opening his mouth to show vampire teeth. “Please… Molasses! Remember, you’re Jamie’s brother… and you like Barbies… and your parents will miss you if you suddenly vanish!” Iris thought she saw a flicker of brown in the empty sockets. But then it was gone.
Molasses opened his mouth, bared his fangs, and prepared to bite. Iris took her chance. She shoved the daffodil into his mouth.
The wind stopped, and the birds vanished. Molasses fell to the floor. His red hair fell in front of his eyes. Iris and Jamie stood waiting. Iris started to cry. Jamie did, too. Then, suddenly, Molasses opened one brown eye.
“That was fun!” he said, sitting up. “But I’m a bit sleepy, so can we play Barbies now? It’s quieter.” He grinned.
Jamie ran to hug his brother, and Iris ran to hug Jamie. For one moment, their eyes connected. Jamie’s green, Iris’s blue, and Molasses’s brown.
In that one shining second when their eyes connected, all three knew at the same time. Each knew life in Germany wasn’t going to be easy. Molasses still liked Barbies—Jamie teased him constantly, “Aw, Barbies are for girls.” Iris told him off constantly—“Stop being sexist.” Jamie still liked Frau Blumen, the slide in the playground was still too hot, and Iris would always miss her dad. But Iris also knew something else, something they all knew: They were a trio.
* * *
In the years 2013–2014, my family took a year-long sabbatical to Germany. I speak German at home with my father as a second language. We stayed at the Wissenschaftskolleg for the year, and the building and garden we lived in were the inspiration for “Iris in the German Garden.” My younger siblings and I made a map of the gardens, like Iris did. All the names on Iris’s map were on the map my siblings and I created, with my mother’s help. This story is one I acted out countless times in the garden with my family and friends, and as I remember it so well, I decided to write it down. So, really, this is my story. I hope you enjoyed it.