In the time before the gods forgot their Maker, there was a garden. Fruit trees heavy with produce hung over the thick, hedge wall, flowers with the most fantastic smells perfumed the air, and a single gate opened or shut access to the garden’s interior.
The wall hadn’t always been around the garden, however. The keeper of the garden had grown it there for two reasons: to protect the garden, and to dissuade suitors.
Of all the nymphs of the meadow and forest, Pomona was not the most lovely. She was certainly beautiful, with eyes like the sun reflecting off water, hair softer than the blossoms of a cherry tree, and cheeks full of the blush of ripe apples. All of her sister nymphs looked like that, however, so she wasn’t physically any more appealing than the rest of them.
While her sisters protected the trees of the forest and the flowers of the meadow, Pomona watched over her garden. Her sisters reveled and played with the fauns, and Pomona pruned her fruit trees and made sure that they received enough water. In the evenings, her sisters danced endlessly to the music of Faunus, Lord of the wild, and Pomona taught her grapevines to climb the trunk of her great elm tree.
Before Pomona’s garden was surrounded by a wall, travelers would come and go, and each of them had the same question for her. It was a question which her sisters pestered her with as well, whenever they desired some of her flowers to adorn their hair.
The question was, when was Pomona ever going to marry? Whenever she was asked, Pomona would blush her apple blush and smile at the ground. To her, men were simply not as fascinating as fruit trees. She had her garden to take care of, and could not think of marrying a capricious god and leaving her orchard and flowers behind. To each of her would-be suitors, she would give a basket of fruit, and then kindly-but-firmly send them on their way.
Eventually, attention for Pomona turned away from marriage proposals and turned to less noble focuses. Human women learned of the beauty of Pomona’s flowers, and began to steal them from her garden by night. Gardeners learned of the vitality and lush fruit of Pomona’s orchard, and they began to steal clippings from her trees. Winemakers heard of her grapes, and came in swarms to uproot her vines.
Pomona was saddened by the disrespect to both her and her garden, so she coaxed a hedge up from out of the ground. Around the garden it grew, until it stood as high as two men in all places save the entrance. There, it formed a narrow pathway, and Pomona built a single gate to allow the weary entrance to her garden. Even though she was cautious, she was no less hospitable than before. The wall served its two purposes well. Not only did it keep her garden safe from thieves, but it also turned away any lingering suitors who still had hopes of marrying the nymph. However, unknown to Pomona, there was one suitor who was not deterred by either her refusals or her wall.
Vertumnus, god of the changing seasons, had fallen in love with Pomona many springs before she had grown the wall around her garden. His love was passionate like the summer sun, yet gentle as the melting colors of the leaves. It was insistent like the rains of spring, yet shy as the first snow of winter. And it was never-ending, like the cycle of the four seasons.
He had first fallen in love with Pomona when he saw her in her garden. It wasn’t her physical beauty that attracted him; rather, it was her kind heart. Vertumnus had watched her help an elderly woman into the garden, and seen the way in which the young nymph took care of her guest. There was no vapid disrespect for the elderly in Pomona’s behavior, nor did she have anything to gain by her kindness. She was simply good, and the goodness of her heart overflowed and touched those whom she cared for. Vertumnus couldn’t turn away after that, and day after day, in spite of the wall, he continued to watch Pomona in her garden.
Not only was he the most persistent of Pomona’s lovers, but he was also the wisest. Knowing that he would never be allowed to enter her garden, day after day, in his true form, Vertumnus took to disguising himself. As god of the changing seasons, he possessed the power to shadow his appearance and look as though he were another person. Some days, he was a friendly farmer who offered to help Pomona prune her tallest fruit trees. On others, he was a wizened fisherman who always had a fresh catch of spotted fish that he knew she was fond of. Sometimes he was a traveling swordsman who could defend her gate from rowdy fauns. And sometimes he was a faun himself, who could play her the sweetest music from his panpipes and cause all of her fruit trees to lean towards his melody.
As the seasons wore on, Vertumnus knew that his love for Pomona was too great to bear alone. He had to tell her of his feelings, but couldn’t bear the thought of being turned away by her. So he devised a very clever trick, and after a long winter of planning, he was finally ready.
One spring morning, as Pomona was tending her grapes, she saw a very old woman coming up the path towards her garden. While she was still a ways off, the woman called, “Child! Have you a drink of water to spare?”
Hastening away from her grapes, Pomona opened the gate and let the woman into the garden. Then she fetched a wooden cup, and filled it from the stream which ran past the roots of her elm tree. “Please, drink,” she said, offering the cup to the woman.
The old woman took the cup and drank from it, letting her gaze fall and nodding her head slowly. “…Such kindness,” she said at last, opening her eyes and looking around, “and such a garden! Tell me, child, what are those fruit trees over there?”
“They are better seen up close, will you come with me?” Pomona offered her arm to the old woman, and together, they walked among the trees and flowers of the garden. The old woman watched and listened as Pomona talked about the trees of her garden. Apples, pears, oranges…but the woman was not really interested in the fruit. She had long ago memorized the different trees and their placement throughout the garden. What she had wanted to witness was how Pomona spoke of the trees, how she cared for them, and how she loved them. As the nymph spoke, her cheeks flushed faintly, and her eyes were lit with a quiet light of joy.
Beneath his disguise, Vertumnus thought, “Would that she might look upon me with that same love!”
Pomona finished leading the old woman around the garden, and helped her sit down at the base of the ancient elm. There, while the nymph picked some of her finest apples from a nearby tree, the woman questioned her. “Is it true that you live here all on your own?”
When the nymph nodded, the woman clicked her tongue. “What! And you manage this garden by yourself?”
“I have help,” Pomona replied, her cheeks still flushed as she finished filling a basket with apples.
“Help from wanderers, perhaps, or help from lovers. But they are just passing on, and never stay with you!”
“I do well on my own.”
“Child, child…have you heard the story of Anaxarete?”
“She was a noble woman, who had many lovers. And she, like yourself, preferred to be alone. When her lovers came to her, seeking her affection, she would scorn them. Not a single one could win her hand in marriage. Finally, one of them, the one who loved her with the most passion, killed himself out of love for her, and the gods turned Anaxarete to stone for her coldness of heart!”
“It was not the woman’s fault for the act of the man. If he truly loved her, he could not have believed that taking his own life was acceptable!”
“Men of passion make mistakes, and can be blinded to the truth. Iphis, for that was the man’s name, did not truly love Anaxarete. But think of this: what if one of the woman’s other lovers truly loved her? How do you think they felt as they watched their beloved turn to stone out of the hardness of her own heart!”
The nymph was silent, her eyes downcast into the basket of apples.
“It is written that it is not good for man to be alone,” the old woman continued, “and the same is true for woman. You may not realize it, child, but you are truly alone in this life.”
“…What must I do?” Pomona asked, looking up with sudden tears in her eyes, “What must I do…to not end up as that cold woman did? Have I been heartless?”
“Calm yourself, child,” the woman commanded, although beneath his disguise, Vertumnus’ heart twisted at the sight of the nymph’s tears, “-now look at this tree.”
The elm tree stretched up over their heads, growing out in a majestic crown of leaves and providing shade from the heat of the day.
“It is a tree,” Pomona said simply, obeying the woman.
“Now look at the vine around it,” the old woman prompted, “can you see how it grows around the trunk? As you have shaped the vine, teaching it to grow around its helper, so a greater Hand has shaped you. You have been made to grow alongside another, not as a solitary vine that will wither and turn to stone.”
“-But I don’t understand!” Pomona cried, “I have been cold, and all have left me! What can I trust, what should I love, in a man?!”
“Kindness…” the old woman looked uncomfortable, “…fidelity. Compassion. A willingness to do hard labor. And he must…love you.”
Under his disguise, Vertumnus’ heart ached within him. He could not bear another second of his magic, or the way that Pomona’s watery eyes looked upon his face. Casting off his disguise, he straightened his back and stood tall.
Pomona gasped and stepped back, the basket of apples falling from her arms. Standing before her was a man like a god, with sun-bronzed skin, gentle green eyes, and a look of such…warmth that her heart was shaken. “Pomona,” he said, “-it was I. I was the farmer who pruned your trees. I was the fisherman who brought you my catch. I was the swordsman who stood at your gate, and I was the faun who played for your trees. I have loved you for years, Pomona, and I have loved you well.”
“You-” Pomona gazed at the man, and then she saw it. Somewhere, lurking behind his eyes, was the smile of the farmer. In his hands, she saw the kindness of the fisherman. In his stance, she saw the bravery of the swordsman. And in his face, she saw the gentleness of the faun.
“It was you,” she breathed.
“I can be any of them for you, Pomona. Any one you wish.” Vertumnus watched her eyes.
“Which…who are you now, in this form?”
“…I am Vertumnus.” He waited for the light of recognition in her eyes. Surely, she would recognize his name. But how would she react? Would she spurn him, favoring the love of a mortal over that of a god?
“This is your true form?” Pomona asked, still breathless.
She stared at the ground, and then began to pick up the scattered apples. Vertumnus watched her, hardly daring to move. Then, he bent down and helped her collect the apples.
When every apple was back in the basket, Pomona straightened up and pressed the basket on him. “Take these.”
“…Do you reject me, then?”
She smiled, and gave a little laugh that sounded to Vertumnus like a brook tripping over stones in its path. “My fruit is my gift, not a message. If…”
Vertumnus took the basket from her, and gently set it on the grass, waiting for her to continue.
“…If…” Pomona bit her lip, “…if you wish, you may stay here…until the evening?”
“I do wish it,” Vertumnus said.
“…The boughs on the trees have grown long again,” Pomona went on in a very small voice, “…would you help me prune them? As Vertumnus, not as the farmer?”
“My appearance may change, dear one,” Vertumnus said, smiling, “-but every time I visited you, my heart was the same. It was always me beneath the disguise.”
He stayed for the rest of the day, and they talked of many things as the trees were pruned, the flowers were watered, and the fruit was picked. Finally, as the sun splashed amber across the dying sky, Pomona and Vertumnus stood at the garden gate.
“If…” Pomona started again, handing Vertumnus his basket of apples, “…if you wish…you may come back again.”
“Tomorrow?” Vertumnus asked, watching as the sunset lit Pomona’s eyes on fire.
“Yes. And…will you come again as Vertumnus?”
The time had come. Vertumnus reached out, and gently drew her head in towards his. He placed his lips on her forehead, and held them there for a moment.
“Always,” he finally whispered, breaking off, “if you will have me.”
“I will,” she affirmed, her eyes closed.
Vertumnus returned the next day, and Pomona was waiting for him at the gate. He came back the day after as well, and the following day.
Spring melted into summer, summer faded into fall, and fall withered into winter. By the time the apple trees were blossoming in the spring, two hoed and pruned where there had once been one. In another cycle of the seasons, a third pair of feet were tripping among the flowers, following Pomona and Vertumus through the garden.
And the garden knew peace and prosperity for years without end.