From Issue I (2016)
by TALLEY V. KAYSER
IF THERE WAS EVER a pinecone, my granddaddy would find it. He was up at dawn every morning, a nubby navy blue bathrobe rough against his skin, the two fingers and thumb that remained on his right hand wrapped around the handle of a coffee mug. He would slide the glass door to one side, step out on the small brick patio with a newspaper under one arm, close the door firmly, settle into the black iron chair.
Later, the iron would be hot to the touch—hot enough to burn red criss-cross marks on the backs of a careless granddaughter’s thighs. But now, a ritual meant for the cool morning: sip fresh coffee, page through the paper. Survey the land.
After the coffee and before breakfast was the rough groan of the tractor, its passing growl a warning that I had slept in. For a few minutes I might be able to watch the ceiling fan, running my hands over the fringed bedspread. Then the sharp crack of my grandmother’s voice—immediate reason to scramble down the four cold brick steps to the open den, up the two steps to the kitchen, and arrange silver on the grass tablemats before the bells on the door clanked and granddaddy came in stomping, smells of oil and dog food following him from the garage. And after that I could run barefoot through the lawn, nary a pinecone to bruise my toes. Careful only of scattered fire ant nests and the dogs.
Not these dogs, though. Not yippy, fuzzy mutts. I cough, wrench my arms from the dirt, roll over, shimmy out from under a mass of vines. Sweat has drained directly onto the insides of my glasses, and everything I might wipe them with is smeared with clay. I shake them instead, the fence and the dogs and the weeds temporarily blurred. I squint, and for a moment the lawn looks as even as I remember. But brown.
The dogs keep barking.
“YOU,” I SIGH TIREDLY, “are not scary. Do you have any idea who used to live here?” They probably don’t; smells only linger so long. “Rush could eat you in one bite. Hell, he could eat me in less than five.”
Someone always called me in before the dogs came out. Because of Rush, they said. It confused me—why would Rush hurt me? I remember my dad’s laughter. “Because he’s been trained to. You start running, and that dog will be on you like this.” His fingers enormous in my face, the snap resonant.
A fierce dog for my gentle grandfather, but the Rottweiler was here because people kept stealing the Labs. Southern logic.
I squint through my smeared lenses toward the driveway. No sign of a car yet, thank God. I’m trespassing, and I know just enough about the bad blood surrounding the sale to know that citing my lineage is not going to earn me any privileges. Especially given that I’m clotted with dirt from head to ankle, digging up a past that, by rights, does not belong to me.
The dogs keep barking. I sigh again, rock back on my heels. Dry, wiry grass stabs my exposed calves.
I survey the land.
MOTHER HAD BEEN WISTFUL, her gloved hands resting on the top of her garden shovel. I’d looked up when the scrape of metal on clay had suddenly stopped, found her staring out over the plot we’d halfway cleared. Her face was turned away, but I knew her eyes were filling out the graph paper on her desk: its imagined flowers and fruits, its layered seasons and their colors.
“I wonder,” she mused softly, her eyes somewhere between the blueberry bushes and the buckeyes, “if muscadine wouldn’t grow here?”
It was a silly question; we’d been uprooting the wild grapevines all week, saving their space for the squash and tomatoes. In the pause, I became conscious of the humidity, the heat building despite the calendar month. We would have to go in soon.
“Muscadine? Mom, it’s all over the place.”
“It can be finicky. Unless it’s already established.”
She half turned toward me, frowning at the far side of the plot. I remembered that I would be driving past Matthewsville the next day. Past granddaddy’s old homestead. I looked at my mother, at the wrinkles around her eyes, at her heavy, drooping gloves.
This is her last garden. The one she won’t leave behind.
I straightened, yawned, thought for a moment. Then I shrugged.
“She moved the fence in, right?”
THEY SAY a Southern lady can marry only four types: a doctor, a lawyer, a preacher, or a military officer. My mother got two out of four. The military, the ministry, my dad’s itchy feet—every couple of years, one or another uprooted our family.
My mother is not a quiet woman, but she is an agreeable one; she is not a pliable woman, but she is a supportive one. A typical middle child. Still, maybe there was something of a rebellion in our pilgrimages to the Carolinas each year, taken despite expense and my dad’s churlishness. And maybe there was some rebellion in the cuttings and seedlings that blocked our rear windows on each drive back, making my father grind his teeth and swear whenever we hit traffic.
Something from granddaddy’s garden always found its way into our backyard, no matter how improbable the climate zone. The azaleas took just fine in Louisiana, of course, and the pine trees sprung up fast as weeds in Spartanburg; but there were also the hydrangeas under the waterspout in Illinois, the hostas ringing the Kansas porch. Moving meant choosing colors—first the colors of our walls, and then the colors in the garden. Early on I came to understand the importance of balance: tall plants in back and short ones in front, bright plants in shadows, the graph paper swarming with what blooms when and where. All year long we should have color, should have depth.
By the time I hit age seventeen, the process had become less exciting and more routine. The gardens were planted, but less regularly tended; the walls were painted a little less brightly, with a little less care. But there was always the sense of possibility in talking over a plot of earth, always my mother’s hands spreading, swooping, framing pieces of the yard, her forehead slightly bunched, her eyes alight.
From my father, I got itchy feet and a habit of cursing in traffic.
My mother gave me her vision.
I TRY TO USE that vision now, but it’s no good. There are four-foot-high weeds around the buried septic system—whether thanks to water or shit, I have no idea. Elsewhere, the weeds are shorter but no less thick. Everything brown, and all but two of the trees gone. I remember mother’s quiet crying as we walked the lawn, pink ribbons in our hands, trying to find some worth saving. “Something has to be left.” Her eyes straight ahead, not scanning, barely blinking. “Something has to be left.”
That was after the ice storm snapped the full-grown pines—forty of them, the ones my grandfather had planted when he and grandmother got married—like toothpicks. It was before grandmother called to let us know, with her customary steel, that she was giving up on the farm. Moving into the mountains, away from the heat and the family feuds. Away from the enormous, graying lawn, that—even after she’d moved the fence in—no one could properly care for.
The dogs are still barking.
I remember running, running, running, running through the grass that was always even and so endless. I remember spinning until the dark pines and the blue sky blurred. I remember collapsing into a tilting world, fingers laced through the grass, the trees creaking over the sound of my own breath and laughter.
I speak loudly. “I have learned that lawns are artificial. Homogenous. Unhealthy.” A gold ring glints through the dirt on my right hand, the black stone in it so like my mother’s. “They’re monocultures.”
The dogs keep barking.
I turn back to my digging.
HERE’S ANOTHER THING I remember: sitting in my Sunday dress, getting dirt over my black patent-leather shoes and white lacy socks, and it wasn’t clay dirt but black dirt. Heart-shaped saw-edged leaves dense over my head. A blurred buzzing of wasps. I rocked from side to side checking for sky, but the leaves only gave me shades of green.
Like as not, I was singing.
Outside, calls: to lunch, to play. Any time I could crawl out from under the vines and run to meet them. Any time I wanted.
Instead, I reached my hand slowly through the wasps, looking for the fruit. Not for eating, yet; not until later, when they turned dark. It was granddaddy who taught me how to bite through the thick, leathery skin—just a piece of it—and suck the tangy sweetness from inside. Muscadine: a name suited to a Southern drawl.
“It doesn’t taste like anything else,” I’d said, and he’d smiled his easy smile.
“Right you are, shugga. Right you are.”
Not for eating. Not yet. But my hand reached out, slowly, again and again, looking for the fruit.
I WAS ONLY NERVOUS for the first half hour or so. Then it became easier to focus on my fingers groping blindly for the rough curve of the root, the earth swelling tight and moist against my forearms. I occasionally wiped my forehead against my hunched shoulders, grinding dirt into the sticky sweat around my temples; I occasionally wiggled my torso deeper into the dirt, trying to scatter the critters crawling over my legs and back.
This does not, by rights, belong to me—a girl with itchy feet, who knows most about plants when they are colors on paper, who struggles to get beyond vision. A girl who, faced with two twining spires of vine each the size of her calves, thoughtlessly assumed a taproot. I’d cut around and then through the first, coming away with a rootless stick, growth that took four of my lifetimes completely severed. I’d cried, briefly and furiously, the beautiful canopy of my childhood browning and crumbling in my memory. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry.”
Those damn dogs barking at my back.
Now I am focused, trying to draw out this thing that is so much older than I am. Coaxing it into a waiting burlap bag that I will carry through the pine woods and down the old lumber trail. I’ll sweat and curse and heave it into my car, try unsuccessfully to brush the dirt from my clothes. Close the door. Drive with the windows down, squinting through my glasses and singing.
All the way to my mother’s garden, where she works between coffee and breakfast.
Talley V. Kayser
Talley V. Kayser is an outdoor educator, literature teacher, renegade scholar, and rock climber. She holds an MA in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada, Reno.
Natalie Vestin is a science writer and artist from Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, The Iowa Review, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction chapbook, Shine a light, the light won’t pass, was published in 2015 by MIL, and her fiction and photography chapbook, Gomorrah, Baby, was published in 2016 by Anchor & Plume.