HADRIAN’S GARDEN

I visited Hadrian’s estate years ago, for the invitation came suddenly to visit his home in Venice. The man, William Hartford Hadrian, was a specimen alone. He was impossibly tall, making his limbs look spindly in proportion. As well, he constantly bore a jovial smile beneath his gray walrus mustache and a glimmer in his pince-nez guarded eyes. He was an eccentric, of sorts, carrying around with him antique umbrellas to accent his eclectic, colorful and antiquarian manner of dress. There was, I must admit, no better person to own that estate, for it seemed as though the house was born from him, though I am still unclear as to its specific architectural origins. 

The estate itself is almost impossible to describe, for its many mansion wings came together in an awe-inducing sort of majesty which would put even certain aristocrats to shame. At its center was a primary residence whose outside was trimmed with so much gold I felt it might embarrass the treasury, and around it spouted massive marble balustrades with gold trim that provided the overhead area in case of rain or the prolonged presence of a resident outside the door. Other buildings were supported by all manner of columns which arched circular at their zenith and were trimmed with the same gold and azure as much of the rest of the building. Perhaps it was gaudy, though truly merely the outside was breathtaking. 

The primary garden, which is not the object of this account, consisted of seemingly endless rows of verdant grass and sections mulched up to support all manner of semitropical plants and Mediterranean fruit and nut trees. If Hadrian is our Adam, then I should have no reservations about describing that place as an Eden. Below the fruit trees were marble and stone benches of impossible age and around them strutted indigo peafowl whose clucks joined the cacophonous natural soundscape. Various marble fountains spouted streams of water whether from the mouths of cherubs or the noses of fantastic aquatic creatures. 

I was welcomed in by Hadrian that evening as I stood upon the velvet beneath the overhanging marble. He greeted me with such fervor that I supposed he might be going mad, though a glimmer in his eyes seemed merely to indicate some inhuman passion. Indeed, the man guided me across the interior tunnels of gold and white, jet black statues dancing upon their perches along the halls while a rug of azure and white lay outstretched beneath the overhanging arched ceiling. I was barely able to appreciate the intricately peculiar tribal effigies which made themselves present as jet statues for he brought me along with such fervor, clenching at my arm, that I feared he may tear it clean off. Alas, instead, I was merely brought to the passion project of Hadrian, notably not my residence. 

Though within the building, the ceiling had been domed and cut so that much sunlight might bounce its golden rays upon the room, evoking a more natural light than the candelabra which lit the rest. I understood why, for the place was an interior garden, though unfinished. The sides of the indoor garden were flanked by ionic columns of a dark stone, a black contrast to the marble walls and the white fountain which sat in the center of the garden, surrounded on all sides by circular garden beds of bromeliads and cycad palms. At the top of the fountain, however, appeared a perch for a statue which was not yet present, and I realized Hadrian might have been ecstatic at the idea of me overseeing the garden’s realization, though I cannot imagine why aside from my limited interest in architecture. I was a watchmaker just as my father had been before his untimely demise in a sailing accident. 

I had met Hadrian years ago in Milan, for we had spent our days under the same roof in Milan, courtesy of a mutual friend whose connection to Hadrian I cannot recall. However, we had started a mild friendship beneath those granite walls, and so I had given him the address of my estate, though I doubted he would ever write to me. In fact, up until I received the aforementioned invitation, he had not. But alas, that invitation came, and his written word was filled with an eccentric ecstasy, and so I found myself standing in that indoor garden of Hadrian’s estate. 

It was there I stood as the peculiar man ushered me away hurriedly towards the spacious alcove of his extensive estate prepared for me during my stay. Indeed, it was more fit for a monarch than for myself, and though I understood it to be merely a guest room it seemed more the quarters of exotic royalty. The great half-domed windows stretched out within the mottled stone walls to give an oversight of the sparkling garden, so bright in its verdant intensity beneath that sun which glittered madly. Satin sheets stretched out upon the tower of a mattress which could have held an orgy of guests rather than just myself, dwarfed merely by its headboard. Upon a marble side table lay a variety of vivid fruits, the association accompanied by small, firm biscuits and a bottle of sparkling wine. Various antiques and artistic effigies lined the velvet-coated floors, and I felt undeserving of the hospitality provided to me by this unreadable man who seemed to wish only for me to view his approaching project. 

I lay outstretched on the sheets for some time, for I had still needed to get my bearings and await the call of Hadrian regarding the upcoming feast to which he had alluded. Though I was somewhat suspicious regarding the entire affair, I was warmed by the generosity of my host and admittedly famished, awaiting any more morsels as I bit down on the zest-flavored biscuits and peeled a sort of pustule-ridden citrus with pleasantly sweet emerald innards. I wondered what could be so much more beautiful than those full-breasted busts of Minoan women which graced the hallways that I should be invited specifically for its oversight. 

Shreds of white clouds followed me as I paced the floors between the arched windows, gazing into the idyllic azure sky which seemed to hang persistently upon that Elysian structure. I paced the hallways, saluting the various staff which crossed the impossibly labyrinthine halls of the enormous edifice. Below a central window, briefly free from the staff and guest-inflicted congestion of the hallways was a peculiar statue, seemingly fashioned in Hadrian’s own likeness, that depicted his (embellished) muscular leg pressing a foot down upon the head of a hideous beast that nonetheless reminded me of the angels depicted in the frescoes of those divine-inspired fine artists which lined each museum and antiquarian’s private collection. An unusual sight to be sure, but then rang the silver bells which presented the enticing promise of dinner. 

It was at this banquet of succulent foodstuffs, glazed meats in a decadent lacquer and golden-yolked eggs in silver chalices, that I became familiar with the rest of the proprietor’s guests. Indeed, most of those who had been invited were as confused as I, though appeared to have tangentially greater connection to Hadrian himself. There was a wrinkled, leathery elderly man with milky eyes and misshapen teeth and a gorgeous woman with piercing green eyes who appeared to have a minor blood relation to my mysterious host. Still, I could not find a single individual in any seat who was positive regarding the reasons for his or her invite. Amidst the disjointed chatter, Hadrian rose from his seat. 

The towering man brought the tines of his silver fork to his chalice, announcing that he would be unveiling his greatest architectural marvel within the coming days. That is, indeed, why we had all been gathered there. To peer upon what I could only assume would rest atop that center area of the indoor garden. His eyes beamed as he discussed it, in such a way that it became uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I was intrigued to see what could drum up such excitement, and so I remained.

The feast of the night subsided and I perilously navigated the winding hallways like the cylindrical innards of snakes, eventually finding my room and resting once more upon the supremely soft silken sheets. The sun had almost fully set behind the spacious glass windows, and I could see the garden fade as the last droplets of golden honey fell beneath the horizon. The commotion, sustenance and day’s travel had left me a weary husk, and I felt I should turn in at that moment, not caring to wander the room once more before resting. Several moments later, I was fast asleep. 

The next morning, I awoke to clamor in the halls, for the building was alive with the news of the disappearance of a staff member, a head cook who had disappeared suddenly and without a struggle during the night. There was no indication of foul play, but the man’s every possession was left untouched in his quarters, and no sound had been issued in the night. It was assumed he had merely left to gather supplies, but when he did not return, there began to be some uproar regarding Hadrian’s steadfast refusal to bring the local police into the matter, claiming the issue would resolve itself. 

However, I did return to the smaller indoor garden, to find a burlap tarp of tattered fabric thrown over a vaguely anthropoid figure perched at the center of the fountain, evident progress in Hadrian’s undertaking to unveil the “perfect statue” at its center. What lay beneath the synthetic covering was ambiguous, unseen, though the two protrusions which pushed against the tarp as though groping the air struck me as rudiments of arms, their finer details concealed. Whether it was the aforementioned perfect statue or merely an associated structure was left to the viewer to decide, but it struck me queerly. I shambled towards my quarters, only to be interrupted by a precession inching along to an area of the hallway where Hadrian had commanded their attention. 

Our host was making some manner of announcement regarding the missing chef, claiming that an investigation had been launched despite the lack of any official presence and that he “would be recovered in a manner of hours.” There were some protests from other members of the staff, but the powerful movement of Hadrian’s hand silenced these objections. The crowd seemed solely to be interested in the whole charade, lacking the same stake in the head chef’s presence as the other staff members who would need to scramble in an attempt to fulfill his role as well as their usual tasks. The onlookers seemed nonplussed, and the usual luncheon was served, which I dined upon heartily given my failure to eat breakfast that morning. For the rest of the day, up until dinner, I merely wandered the halls and took in the beauty of the artistic and horticultural wonders in and around the building in my perambulations. 

Dinner repeated this process, posturing presented by Hadrian, making excuses regarding the disappearance and failed police investigation of the chef. The staff initially protested once again, but seeing it foolish, they relented and allowed for the rituals of dinner to commence. Once more a banquet of exotic fruit, gourmet appetizers and hearty dishes of rare meats and vegetables was served to each of the fidgeting guests, chattering about inane and insignificant topics, failing to realize the significance of the garden statue’s unveiling. A woman clad in a revealing, glittering cerulean dress, winged like a morpho butterfly, with a nose like that of a kestrel’s beak attempted to lure me towards her area of the table. However, I was merely busy discussing the potential implications of this indoor garden in my mind. Though I had no genuine theories with any real veracity, I hungered for the knowledge of what exactly lay beneath that fluttering tarp of torn burlap. 

When I retired to my quarters, I once more felt myself entering that narcotic slumber which overtook me with such sudden intensity that I barely was able to rest my head upon the pillow before the light of the room began to fade from around my bleary eyes. I was asleep in a matter of minutes, I am sure, but there was something unnatural regarding that slumber.

I awoke suddenly, wrenched from the world of blackness not by a dream but by some preternatural force which directed my line of sight to the large, arched window which overlooked a section of the garden where something discernibly stirred. Amidst the dwarven oak trees and upon the pathstones of white marble stood a seemingly human silhouette, dragging an ambiguous cargo which, too, was barely illuminated by the misty face of the moon’s sterling glow.  The garden’s normal hours of lively presence were long since over, though I assumed there must be a mundane, rational explanation for this instance. It was because of this that I wondered why it had struck me with such foreboding premonition. I closed my eyes, returned to bed, and swore I would sleep off the unpleasant vision. 

When I awoke, I had forgotten about the presence of the silhouette in the garden, as well as the cargo it lugged, and decided to make my rounds about the building to see if there had been any advancements regarding the mysterious statue centerpiece of the indoor garden. I eventually located Hadrian amidst the marble busts, and he presented me with a surprising, enticing offer, his turn of phrase like the voodoo priests of the swamp. 

“I noticed you, Mr. Elspietz. I have taken notice of your superior curiosity regarding my projects. It is the reason I invited you here, though perhaps you do not know it. Regardless, I would be pleased for you to be the first onlooker at my preliminary unveiling of the centerpiece. I can see the thirst for its appearance in your eyes. Follow me, sir.” And with that, Hadrian had begun to float ominously down the hallways like an eccentric ghost, though flushed full of his rosy color. 

We arrived at the statue, still obscured by the burlap, but as his hands gingerly removed it as my host unveiled his greatest creation. It was a statue, undoubtedly, but utterly lifelike in its appearance. Its skin folded and wrinkled just as did that of the living man, complete with purplish veins running to the edges of the fleshy segments, attached by a sort of copper piping which indicated a mechanical, or least metal, component to the statue. Its handsome face beamed, albeit somewhat lifelessly, as the most incredible aspect of the creation was unveiled. Every few minutes, exactly on time, the statue would suddenly contort itself into a new pose, pirouetting or striking a thinking posture, seemingly without the influence of any external manipulation or mechanization. Hadrian stepped in to speak.

“This is my greatest creation, my friend. It is a living automaton, a being of both animated flesh and machinery. You can see very well that no external mechanism automates my statue, and you surely know I am no mechanic. However, I have brought together the various skills and talents I have learned over the period of my masterpiece’s creation to break down the walls between man and machine. Through this divine inspiration I have crafted that which will change the world of sculpture forever, my living automaton.”

His words seemed absurd, ridiculously, but I had difficulty challenging his claims while looking at that half-animate amalgamation of what appeared to be genuine human flesh and an assortment of scrap metals for its joints. It repeated its forms, jumping between each sculptural preset without any influence from Hadrian.

“But how?” I questioned him incredulously. “Your assertions are ridiculous, there can be no union of flesh and metal. It is impossible!”

“Come to my workshop and I shall show you, my good sir. It is the cottage opposite of this building in the garden, standalone with a padlocked door. You will recognize the lace trims and gothic inspiration for the white-walled structure. It has been closed as long as I have been tinkering with this project, but I feel it must be open. I shall show you those procedures which place me above any sculptor, above any man, above any God. My work has yielded a miracle which can compete with that very divine construction of our gracious Lord.” And with that, Hadrian once more disappeared down the hallway, a specter carried along by his fiery ambition. I shuddered, and returned to my quarters. 

I was in no mood to dine that day. For what I had seen and heard was so profoundly discomforting and so absurdly ridiculous that I was unsure as to which emotion I should feel, and stirred there in the room for hours. Could Hadrian have created some living amalgamation of blood and wire? No, it was impossible. It must have been some magician’s trick or advanced machinery, the extent of which Hadrian refused to let me know in his repulsive prank. Yet his warm visage of beaming joy upon viewing his creation indicated he had, at least somewhat, believed his story about a design which would revolutionize the world. Place him above his contemporary sculptors in his obsessive artistic monomania. 

Indeed, I was intrigued, and so I planned to make good on my acceptance of his offer and visit him in that dainty little shack in the garden which I had so foolishly assumed was for the compartmentalization of horticultural tools rather than the studio of a deluded sculptor bent on proving his worth beyond his already exemplary riches. I did not even eat dinner that day, instead I merely paced, the only guest burdened with the horrible knowledge of the madman host’s intentions. I continued to psychologically prepare myself as the sun began to draw down and the usual crowds of guests trickled out of the garden. Once the scene was twilit, I drew away from the primary residence and began to perambulate towards the smaller structure. 

When I eventually crossed the garden path and arrived at the door, it was ajar, but no Hadrian stood to greet me. I tapped against the heavily-decorated door several times, but with no answer, I ignored my more prudent judgments and crept into the space. I had expected something of a studio, or perhaps a mechanic’s workshop, but the inside of the dainty exterior appeared as something more of a post-industrial laboratory, vials and jars of ambiguous fluids and floating clumps of tissues scattered across the antique tables which stood perilously upon the concrete floor. This cemented substrate was scattered with copper piping, wires and various metal appliances which lay upon a blue plastic tarp splattered with an ambiguous burgundy-brown fluid that was caked on to several areas. Numerous, foul smelling vats stood upright in the corner, their contents not a subject matter I cared to investigate. Crates of bones from some unknown creature were left at odd areas of the space. 

More interesting, perhaps, were the many volumes of texts heaped in dusty piles around the area. Numerous of these covered expected subject matters such as art, science and technology, but others delved into the peculiar worlds of Hermeticism, occultism, Christian mysticism and numerous other peculiar and esoteric ideas which seemed to bear no relation to the actual project Hadrian had been undertaking. Several were in unknown and unrecognizable languages, their covers so old I feared they might crumble into dust at my very touch. 

Indeed, the walls were also plastered with all manner of parchment tapestry, some merely medical and surgical illustrations dating back to the era of Vesalius, but others scattered with hermetic symbols, incantations and foreign tongues. Others were strange yet, depicting various hideous creatures which appeared to be entirely distinct from the fauna of earth, massive gelatinous forms and whiplike crab-things sailing between the stars of our solar system. It was when I saw these that I became absolutely positive Hadrian was a madman without comparison.

 I left the laboratory, or studio, whichever one wishes to call it, and sprinted back to the primary structure in hopes that I would rest and awake from what I wished was a dream. I knew, however, whatever had transpired in that place was real, and I prayed I would locate Hadrian to interrogate him about his peculiar activities. I navigated the various hallways like an intestinal tract, becoming lost several times, though I ultimately arrived at the quarters selected for me and threw forward the door, sealing myself off from the rest of the abhorrent estate. Thankfully, by some divine assistance, I fell asleep immediately, not taking notice of what might transpire behind me, elucidated by the open windows beneath the bloated moon’s sickly glow.  

I awoke from that narcotic, profoundly intense slumber late into the day, the early hours of the morning having escaped from beneath my fingers as though a loping insect beneath a glass. However, I had barely wrenched myself from the satin before a hideous shriek emitted outside, followed by a cacophony of horrified and dismayed verbal ejaculations. I stood up quickly and sprinted into the garden to see what had caused such a commotion.

Hadrian had been located. That was no longer an issue of concern. However, I was quite sure I would receive no information regarding his experiments from the enigmatic man given the state of his body, which lay lifeless upon the soil. Our host’s jaw had been detached, torn at the left side revealing a brilliant vermillion soup of tissue that appeared much like the innards of a reddish fruit. The once-porcelain sclera of his eyes had been replaced by a pool of cinnabar fluid, bright carmine inkwells of despair. His right arm had been severed and lay attached only by an association of ligaments and other connective tissue, and there were several fissures in his exposed flesh which revealed entrails beneath and had appeared to be torn with human fingers alone, an act which would require unimaginable strength. I nearly vomited as I gazed at the sight, a crime scene so horrific a seasoned policeman would draw back in horror. 

But it was only as I lingered by this body, mouth agape in dismay, that a sudden realization crept into the folds of my mind. I got up suddenly and sprinted, running towards the edifice, desperate to prove my hideous assumptions regarding the situation. My stomach churned but I stayed running, relenting only when I arrived at the indoor garden to vindicate my suspicions. There, to my horror, was what I wished I would not see yet somehow knew was certain. The structure atop which that living automaton had sat was now vacant, the prized creation of the late Hadrian entirely missing. Knowing the implications of this confirmation I ran from that place, shoved forward the transmission, and never looked back or returned.

— Dylan Joaquin is a horror author from Northern California. He can be found on Twitter @archaeoflorist.