Waiting for the Hoarfrost
Two days before the winter solstice, an epiphany pierced Bettina’s parietal lobe and angled straight down into her thumping heart. When it happened, she had been clomping around in her backyard wearing a moss-colored dress and canary yellow boots, inhaling the view of her hardscrabble lot. Her eyes shifted from the narrow slices of downtown Providence, visible in the distance between her neighbors’ rundown three-deckers, down to her cramped garden. It was an unlikely time and place to divine how the world would end. The elegant blade of enlightenment was slender and toothed like that of a coping saw, inflicting the deepest puncture wound. No balm could heal this fresh scar of knowledge.
Brilliant morning sun reached through low bare branches. Its warm, humid hand stroked the back of Bettina’s neck, prompting her attention. Making her way across the yard, she unfastened the top two buttons of her light cotton dress and spread the collar open wide. The air was too comfortable for December. It mocked the expressionless mannequins wearing wool sweaters in navy and maroon at the strip mall four blocks over. It rendered the crooked paper snowflakes dancing on the windows of the elementary school premature and idealistic.
As she walked toward the last of the savoy spinach in her unruly garden, Bettina’s rubber boots sank slightly into the soft ground. With each step, the metal heft of pruning shears inside her pocket knocked rhythmically against her upper thigh. She remembered her Nonna’s horn-handled billhook pocket knife and how Nonna’s thick, calloused hand would pull it out of the patch pocket on her faded blue apron to cut the spinach before making lunch. The knife now sat rusted shut on a windowsill in Bettina’s kitchen. She couldn’t bring herself to throw it away.
Switchgrass jittered in the weak breeze, sending out soft susurrus, forcing a double-take to confirm she was still alone. The ancient black oak in the corner stood solemn. Spots of pale blue-grey lichen dotted the trunk and gracefully folded over the tops of large branches like a butler’s towel at tea service. It was the kind of December where the witch hazel was tempted to bloom far too early and one zinnia actually did, its bright orange petals splayed above a muddy break at the edge of the lawn. The fiery bloom was a botanical distress flare launched directly at Bettina McGee. And still no hoarfrost. Gone missing were the blades of grass still dressed in their delicate crystal chemises when she brought in the morning paper, no fine crust of winter’s breath clinging to each dark leaf until warmed by the cresting sun. It hadn’t happened yet. Fifty-six years she lived in that ramshackle house, and it had never been this late. Something was irrevocably wrong.
Short grunts of uneasy dread and frustration blew from her dry mouth as she bent down to cut a handful of dark curly leaves. She tasted the acid of her morning coffee at the back of her tongue. The tops of her boots dug into the bottom of her kneecaps. The vogue now, of course, was to call what she did urban farming, but to her it had long been nothing more than survival and the kind of defiance a young girl inevitably holds onto after spending mornings and afternoons with a stubborn grandmother who put feeding family first. While her mother was working long shifts making costume jewelry, Bettina had learned to feed herself by watching how her Nonna grew broad beans on the fire escape and tended crooked rows of spinach near the chain link fence, how she saved water in buckets when the laundry was done and seeds in paper packets until the next season, scribbling down notes about what worked and what didn’t. Like her Nonna, Bettina became a subsistence dweller in the heart of a city where the din of traffic and construction droned louder than the resident throng of crickets and birds. She’d inherited not only Nonna’s pocket knife and garden journal, but also her fierce reluctance to rely on others.
A loud jet passed overhead, one of dozens that would make its way to the airport that hour and distract her just as many times. The bunch of spinach hung loose in her fist. Bettina tipped her head back and watched the landing gear unfold out of the smooth grey belly. She wondered where the passengers on board came from and how they lived. A hundred moral compasses pointed in every direction from dingy upholstered seats, magnets silently opposing each other when someone wouldn’t sit still or crunched their pretzels too loudly. She imagined them cramped in both body and spirit. She doubted any of them cared as much as she did about anything, least of all about this massive orb of sea and stone. She didn’t need to know them to reach this conclusion; her neighbors, new and old, were already proof of that with their tricked-out cars, big-screen TVs glowing through cheap window sheers, and mounds of white plastic sacks bulging with empty water bottles and boxes of sugary cereal on trash day. Unlike them, Bettina’s sentience was calibrated like the skin of a frog. It had always been this way, and for the past two decades, subtle changes sensed through water and wind triggered her slow demise. They delivered an unbearable, cumulative load of loneliness. It was the central theme of her life—at first latent and hinted at, but now underscored in the bold strokes of a blindingly raw neon of solitude.
Straightening upright at her thick waist, she spotted a yellow jacket on a horizontal rail of the weathered cedar fence that bordered the garden. The vibrant yellow and black exoskeleton had escaped the late autumn winds. She leaned over to flick it away but quickly changed her mind. It was still alive. Its tiny waist moved in slow, drunken circles as it tried to take flight. This queen wasn’t going anywhere. She spent whatever energy she had left from summer to flee the woodpile only to arrive fatally early for the spring dance. The hairs on Bettina’s freckled skin stood on end while she watched the tiny royal torpedo spin in circles of futility. Death was inevitable, but she couldn’t bring herself to hasten it.
Chicka dee dee dee. Chicka dee dee dee. Bettina looked up, eyes squinting in the sun. The loose sleeves of her dress rippled against her arms. Balmy bursts of air revealed the grey-black down hidden beneath the creamy white breast of the chickadee. The small bird was tapping furiously at the suet cake swinging from a low branch. The hunk of lard was soft like a brick of day-old fudge. Bettina decided she hung it too soon. Next year she would wait until January, just to be safe. Two more chickadees landed on higher branches, boldly announcing their arrival. A white-breasted nuthatch bleated its nasally call as it navigated down the trunk. Juncos skittered below, pecking at the uneven patch of exposed roots and compacted dirt. Without the usual white contrast of snow, both bird and seed were imperceptible within Bettina’s peripheral view. These were winter birds without the attendant ice and cold. Disorder had already set in.
It was then Bettina knew the obliteration wouldn’t happen in an instant. The finale wouldn’t be elegantly fulcrumed by mere seconds. There would be no apocalypse tropes. No fiery explosions. No sudden plagues decimating swaths of humanity. Nothing to end it quickly. It was precisely what troubled her. Instead, it would be gradual. Cunning. Little local spirals of disarray. Silent tentacles of entropy from soil to seed to bird, mutely carving slippery slopes of drawn-out decline. Patterns and averages skewing erratic, becoming weekly fodder for storm teams on cable TV. Sleds stowed away in sheds and garages until January, maybe February. Proper attire during the equinoxes soon demanding short sleeves and medium-weight twill. Strawberries ripening earlier than June, forcing a correction by the dormant bear sleeping on the lines of hardiness zones. Vectors and rot and erosion creeping unabated and unchecked. The slow, apathetic acceptance of aberrations, outliers, and extremes. Fruity umbrella drinks perpetually appropriate, and celebrated.
For Bettina, the hardest part was not that nothing could be done; it was accepting that no one else would heed the collective ruin or her personal unraveling. No one else would mind the obsolescence of Nonna’s garden journals, yellowed with time and brittled with sun. No one else would think of Nonna’s life and lessons as something more than quaint and necessary, something from bygone days of self-reliance and pluck. No one else would miss Nonna’s advice, now rendered false and unreliable with plants at the mercy of elusive schedules of rain and wind and bee, prisoners each spring within their own seed coats, waiting for the master key to quietly unlock their cells. No one else would notice the subtle shift of seasons for Nonna’s fritelle di spinaci, the only dish linking Bettina to her mother and Nonna and great-grandmother and the rest of the crooked and broken branches on her family tree—a tree clutching onto survival in the dimming light of distant and dilute generations.