A Garden in Winter
Everyone in this city calls it by a different name. I call it Winter and I have been here longer than I can say. Snow piles higher than my head on each side of the street and with each snowfall, moraines gradually ascending by successive glaciations. At the end of Winter are endless deserts of drifted snow and ice, carved by wind into towers that compete with the city. One day they will reach above the city and crash down on us, burying it suddenly, quietly, and I do not know if I will bother to leave.
We are all émigrés here, with broken recollections of other places. The snow wipes it away over time and Winter becomes our ill-fitting home. In its center, tall spires of black metal pipes and half-corroded chimneys weave together and more than once I have imagined, half-waking, of a web made to catch dreams made by a people from another place. Beyond the heart, one can find comfort and even beauty in the city. Over steaming coffee or next to a fiery hearth, one finds company and we all share our stories.
No one refers to the city by the same name. To each, the name one uses is obvious. The expanses of snow outside, the chill air, the blinding sun on the clear days, the crisp sharp darkness of nights gave me the name of the city. Others, though, have found other names by which to refer to this hostel for refugees. A tall, thin, bent man with his unkempt beard and scraggy hair has been here longer than anyone I know. A woman with whom I was close believed he was an architect of the city, one of its first inhabitants; but the old man, Giorgio, denies he can recall. He calls the city by a first name, Francesca, when he is in good, amiable spirits, and di Roma, when he is sour. Upon inquiry, he said that the city has many moods to which he attends, as one attends to a woman; cordiality in certain times, politeness at others secures a man to a woman, or a man to his city. Once, I saw him shouting profanities to the high, industrial towers at the center of the city, but they were in a language of which I was unfamiliar.
Loraina always curses the city. She has one name for Winter that she tells no one. It is a name she curses under her breath and defames with her fists. When she can find it, she wields aerosol cans of paint and bottles with rags that she lights and heaves over the fences at the edge of the dark heart of the city. We were once close, but now I feel that she regards me like she regards the city, speaking not of my name but only of despicable appellations. Sooner or later, I will find her bricks come through my window. Loraina is a woman not to cross but who, upon meeting, one recognizes one will eventually cross. Like most citizens of Winter, I move from place to place frequently; I have more reason to than most.
Most consider Mukherji mad. He wakes early—if he sleeps at all—and wanders the street practicing “Laughing Yoga.” No one else has heard of it, but he preaches that it heals him and will eventually heal the city. Of what the city is sick, he will not say. He calls the city Mylapore, but will readily share that it is not Mylapore. When asked for more explanation, he says only that Mylapore is a name and that it may as well apply to the city as to anywhere else. Wherever else it may apply to is a mystery to me. Sometimes, Mukherji is referred to as simply the yogi, to which he laughs and slaps whoever has called him thus heartily on the back. He is short, but solidly built and when he pounds on your shoulder or shakes you by the side of your stomach, you feel some slow, earthen force behind it. Around Mukherji, one tends to laugh more easily.
Iosef collects what he finds on the streets of Winter. He sets up residence in old homes with broken ceilings and sagging floors—of which, there are plenty in Winter. He plasters his walls with newspapers and grocery lists, creates furniture from empty milk crates and discarded appliances, the structure haphazardly reinforced by recovered wooden beams and sides of automobiles. Few people speak with Iosef because his name for Winter is Not-City and argues that somewhere one might find a the true City which is Not-City's opposite, but that the faraway City and Not-City cannot both exist. Iosef's explanations are broken, as he speaks another language than no one else understands. Over his headline wallpaper he scrawls its characters: Letters punctuated by arrows going between them, brackets and parentheses demarcating groups within groups. When the walls and floors and ceiling of his home become overfull with the traces of the city, he leaves. Once, his departure was marked by a neighbor burning the house to the ground. When I told Iosef, he only tapped his head, saying he had all of it in his head already and that house was not so flammable.
The arsonist behind Iosef's burned down home, I believe to be Andre who refuses to wear clothes. His nudity is unassuming, though he eats prodigiously and walks with an unapologetic quiver about him. Andre's eating is remorseful, quick, and distant; it is a chore to him. Andre despises the city and calls it Gehenna, the trash heap. He cannot articulate his hatred into an argument or statement, only that he wishes to purge Gehenna from himself, that in it, he sees his own reflection and that by destroying it piecemeal he hopes to establish something purer. I am fearful of Andre, I have seen him kill men who have earned his disgust.
Teresa came to Winter not long ago. Her recollections from her other place were still strong and she began to recreate them here. She opened a restaurant, a diner, and began to serve people food from it. She hired a cook named Julio and cleaned a modest, red and white striped dress which she wears to wait the counter and tables. She calls the city San Fernando, saying that that is where she always lived and figured that that is where she must still live. Teresa serves coffee endlessly and her candor is unlike anyone else in the city. Sometimes her presence is painful for its contrast to most others I know, but Teresa has changed Winter, has changed San Fernando into something else.
Julio, who has lived here longer, paints when he is not working, painting the scenes from out his window down the street from the diner. He looks at the paintings from before Teresa came and after, showing that the sun is brighter, the snow thinner, the windows cleaner. Julio sometimes calls the city San Fernando when talking with Teresa, but his name for it is long and beautiful and comes from a name for a goddess he no longer understands, Coyolxauhqui. He has made an altar in his apartment, around which he places certain paintings of the night sky and a powerful, female mystic. I have seen him through the window enacting potent ceremonies.
Andre told me of a woman who surprised him. He spoke of her with the most profound confusion. She was planting seeds, Andrew told me. She had cleared away the area where Iosef's house had burned down and had spent the last few weeks setting up rows and picking stones out of it. A garden, he said, as if it were something sacred and unknown. She wants to grow a garden in Gehenna.
Andre absently walked toward the old lot. It was some blocks away, but I had no reason not to while away the time following a certain fancy of someone new to Winter.
The sun stood high in the sky, casting a certain clarity on the four and five story, buildings. The buildings, most of the buildings in Winter, were gray, but a gray that seemed to veil some other hue; in this case, the buildings looked to have once been red, maybe even bright. I had been eating at Teresa's; more precisely, I had been sipping coffee and reading a roughshod newspaper cobbled together by another patron. Andre had stood staring into the clear blue sky outside, lost in thought or meditation, and when I finished my third mug, I went out to peer at him more precisely. That's when he told me about the planting woman.
She did not speak. I do not know if she can.
I took the time to watch Andre walk. He moved in that peculiar way that proud, portly men walk: head and shoulders up, with a remarkable posture, while his weight dangles unsure of what to do with itself. It was easy to imagine him in a business suit or a monk's robe. I had come to view Andre's nudity as curious happenstance, like a facial mole or a shock of white hair.
It is nearby. The lot's starkness always pleased me. It is a shame to see it empty.
Not for long, if her seeds take root.
Andre, have you ever seen plants here?
Oh, some scrub in cracked cement, dried grass in an empty lot here or there.
A flowerbox or herb garden?
No, I can't say so.
Andre stopped then and smelled the air. He would swear that this or that person was near or that someone was cooking food, but the cold killed most smells to me. I cannot recall many smells, I don't have much of a sense of taste anyway. Teresa's coffee is dark, firm, rich; I can say that at least. Sometimes Julio brings down a light, Latin cerveza which we share. I have smelled peculiar incense on him, then. Out of doors, though, I couldn't smell a garbage fire from one of Teresa's pancakes.
Then it was in front of us, the frightfully geometric shape of a missing building, and in between the parallels of each of its neighbors, a small hunched figure dug about. She wore a long apron, already worn threadbare but with fresh, earthen stains over her knees. She wore yellow, rubber cleaning gloves and I could see a neatly arranged set of tools leaning against the rightward wall. I then noticed that the sun hung almost directly above the lot, slipping just slightly behind the fence at the back of the nascent garden.
At the edge of the cleared lot stood Giorgio and behind him Mukherji, chuckling at the small woman digging and patting and exploring the soil. Andre had halted some thirty feet from the pair and I had not noticed until I was standing with Giorgio.
Have you talked to her?
Hmm? Giorgio responded.
Have you asked her what she's doing?
No, no. Well, Andre did when he was here last and she didn't say anything. Mukherji went up to say something, but he nearly trampled her rows and she shewed him off. He just laughed and stood aside.
Have you been here a while?
Oh, you know how it is. She has made progress, Giorgio gestured to small, empty bags, each with a different brightly colored picture on it. I went over and picked up one. On it was a long, hearty green zucchini. On another, I noted bright orange blossoms, exploding in different directions. The color was wonderfully vivid and I stood for a moment, distracted. It was the sharpest color I had seen in some time. It triggered some memory, something misplaced and forgotten; but it fell out again, leaving only a nagging space where it had been.
Are you planting these? I shouted to her, it came out sounding as much like an indictment as a query. She made no acknowledgement and so I went over and joined Giorgio and Mukherji. I noticed that Andre strolled off, head up and feet aimless, but sharp in his own way. She worked diligently, picking up this or that spade and determined to make it work in the soil, willing away the compressed soil. She uncovered deep, dark depths of soil, quietly shocking me. It all felt peculiar, but logical.
Eventually, having loosed the dirt for a dozen rows and gathered some stakes for some of them, she settled to the side, resting on a sagging wooden crate. I went over, and waited for her to regain some composure. I moved slowly, avoiding anywhere that might be damaged by my steps. I felt imbecilic in my squarish, heavy boots that sunk so deeply in the dark earth. When her breathing calmed, she looked at me, so unflinchingly that I flushed.
Can I help?
She cocked her head ever so slightly and smiled. Her teeth were worn, but clean, and her smile was without contempt. Her skin was a rich mahogany and she wore a long, draping cloth, wrapped everywhere around her and apparently of one cut. Her clothes shimmered dimly with various green hues and the lightest, worn accents of orange, reds, and yellows. As she sat there, the light flickered between clouds and it looked like fire in a forest.
Holding herself, she stood up again and strode to the stakes, swooping down for her hammer set against the wall; she took one of the long stakes, apparently made by splinting planks into thirds and cutting at one end, forced it into the earth in one of the rows, and pounded it in with her hammer. Then, she gestured toward another stake, which I picked up, and handed me the mallet. I looked at her—the mallet in one hand and stake in the other, thinking faintly of stories of vampires and other nightly monsters—at which point she measured out with the next hole by holding her right hand perpendicularly to her left shoulder; and so I placed the next stake in the ground. Then, with both hands, she urged me on, handing me stakes one by one.
After the first row, Giorgio and Mukherji shook from their stupor and joined us. The woman had us hammering in stakes to half of the rows, Giorgio taking a second, smaller hammer, and Mukherji using a flat stone she had dug from the soil. Others soon came to watch us and Andre occasionally returned to absently meditate on our endeavor. We proceeded to dig holes for seeds, erected a makeshift trellis composed of an old shipping palette, and assembled a small box lined with wire where we threw weeds and some bits of food—though she picked out furiously anything that came in a package. Sometimes, the woman struck one of us bumbling men on the head or arms or legs and showed us how to use this or that tool or to properly construct this or that piece of the garden; to which we eased our disciplined appendage and meekly resumed the work in the appropriate manner.
Dark came on us suddenly, Winter's sky uninterested in long, warm-hearted sunsets, and so we set our tools against the wall and the woman covered them with a tarp. She smiled widely at us as we stood in a row behind her. Some others had come to lend a hand, others to watch for a while, but the small space did not allow many more and she eventually shooed away her surplus helpers. With the close of the day, even the audience dissipated. She walked up to me and put her arm around my waist and guided me—and therefore, Giorgio and Mukherji—nearby to a tidy, ground-floor apartment where she made us tea. It had rich, dark scent, to which she added honey and milk before serving it in pale, chipped tea cups. We sat, happily sipping in silence. When our eyes began drooping, she gestured for something to write with and Giorgio handed her a thick marker; with it, she drew a large, elegant form that resembled a three with a swooping tail, and a mark above and between them, then circled the whole.
Mukherji smiled when she finished and said, She would like us to pray.
To whom? For what? I asked, sounding more surprised than I intended.
Pray to whom you wish, Mukherji said. Be thankful. Giorgio nodded in agreement.
So the night came in around us, ushered in by the threadbare, fluttering curtains in the cracked window, and we prayed, or meditated, or otherwise expressed our gratitude; to what I cannot exactly say, but I attempted to feel grateful all the same.
As they are oft to do in Winter, the days passed uninhibited and unaware. A week must have passed before I returned to the garden. It was because Mukherji remarking on the progress of the mute woman's endeavor that it occurred to me to make another visit. When I arrived, she seemed to understand with her eyes and the engraved lines around her mouth that I had not intended to disregard any obligation.
She immediately put me to work.
In the days since, ramshackle wooden and wire structures had been erected in various places in the garden. They were arranged by a logic I could recognize but not myself conceive. Small signs with symbols and the seed packets had been righted in all the various crannies of the garden and I could see small green sprouts and nodules creeping out of the soil. These first growths took me some time to identify in part because they were so foreign to Winter, nestled so far back in my memory that I could not immediately understand what they were.
The other reason for the difficulty was because of my occupation—as gesticulated by the gardener woman—was to tug out the equally small bursts of weeds all over the tended soil of the garden. Calmly and gently, laughing more than once at me and thwacking me more than that with the back of her hand, she went about distinguishing the leaves, sprouts, shoots, and early buds of the plants and the weeds. It became clearly to appreciate the patterns of cultivation and tug out the rest. She had me dump all the unwanted leaves in a large, tightly woven basket. Only too quickly did my back ache from all the leaning; then I tried to crouch and pluck the way the woman did, only to feel new pangs in my knees and thighs. Eventually, I collapsed on the hard, flat cement adjacent to the young garden.
She came over and made tsk-tsk noises with her tongue and teeth and I smiled, hoping to play off my weariness with outgrown childishness. Fortunately, she laughed at me rather than attack me again for the purpose of coercive instruction. Her laugh was high-pitched, but came from deep within her small frame. I felt surprising assurance in her tone, in the richness with which she dealt with me. And so she settled on an upturned pail near me and began sifting through the basket of discarded leaves and stems, setting them into three distinct piles.
I must have dozed briefly, but I stirred, a small clay flowerpot had been set on my chest, lightly heaped with pale, soft greens. She was not around, it seemed, so I set the pot to one side and stood up. Usually unacknowledged muscles and joints shouted at me, every twist or shift complaining in its particular way. In the far corner of the garden, sputtered a small fire and over it say a shallow pan; over it, she wielded a broad, short-handled wooden spoon with which she shoved the pan's contents around. Steam twirled above the pan in curlicues, sharply defined in the cool evening and the late-day light. The smell of it fluttered over: earthy, solid; like broccoli and potatoes and the slightest hint of gravy or steak.
She noticed me propped up on the sidewalk and gestured eating with her hand; pinching her thumb against her fingers and lifting it to her mouth. She pointed again and again to the clay pot I had set on the ground and gestured once more before fiddling more complicatedly with her immediate task. I peered into what continued to be a flowerpot and discovered many of the small leaves I had plucked from the earth earlier; now, though, they had taken on elegant and aromatic qualities. I looked into the pot for a while longer and considered my options. Then I reached in and ate some weeds.
The baby greens were sharp and distinct. Sometime between lifting up the pot and putting the leaves in my mouth, I had decided to see the collection as a salad and not as a pot of leafy detritus. After tasting the calm medley of flavors, I realized that the combination was both a salad and discarded leaves. I was suddenly hungry, deeply, thoroughly famished and all that interested me was eating the greens. They did not satiate me.
I at first peered furtively toward the steaming pan on the modest flame, but then the wind changed and it drew me over. In the pan with just the barest puddle of water were more greens and many of their roots—washed and trimmed—with some scant scraps of beef or pork. She gestured for the pot, which I had left on the cement, and pulled out a battered bowl for herself. The edge of her clothing served as a potholder so she could pour out the thin stew into our makeshift receptacles. Having split the brew between us, she looked at me, then into me, and finally past me; all the while gripping my right hand with pious firmness. Then we supped in the dying light of the day, feeling the certainty of food in me as if I had never known it before.
The meal passed slowly, quietly. Afterward, she just looked at me and smiled, highlighting all the long, deep marks of her face in the twilight.
Outside of Teresa's diner, in the late morning with the sun suspended high and brilliantly white, something caught my attention. I heard music. At first, it was not obviously music, but as I stood with the wind whipping at the fringe of my coat, I could discern the rich, thrumming bass of some sort of drum. It did not sound exactly like any drum I could recollect, but the methodical reverberations became clearer and clearer. It was coming from Julio's apartment above.
His windows were thickly curtained, which kept others' eyes out, as well as the crisp sun of Winter, and softened the music. I softly exclaimed under my breath because without all the muffling, the sound in the apartment above must be deafening. From street level, I could feel it as much as hear it, and it felt like a tremor shaking me from my feet to my scalp. It was not unpleasant, nor was it sudden, but distinctly peculiar to hear.
Teresa and some of her employees had told me of Julio's practices. His practices had to do with a faith, long-lived in his ancestors and his homeland, but he spoke of it only glancingly to others. Julio would not dodge eye contact or muffle his voice the way one might when abashed; rather, he would cut his sentences abruptly, clearly, decisively so as to pinpoint the limit of one's welcome into his world. It came to be seen as a sharp frontier of his life into others which some people—friends of friends, or perhaps an acquaintance who might appear in Teresa's diner from time to time—had explored, but never spoke of their knowledge to others. Everyone regarded Julio with kind deference, humbly recognizing the strength of his beliefs in contrast to the thinness of our own.
For nearly all of its residents, Winter inevitably wore on what one believed. I have witnessed ministers preaching and causing convulsions in new followers, politicians and academics arguing their way into fisticuffs, and even prophets prophesying about the days and months and years ahead. The prophets all claim to know the true name of Winter, to explain its verifiable nature; though most come to laugh at their claims when they themselves run out of steam.
Julio managed something different. Perhaps it was in the discretion with which he practiced his believe, or the depth to which it held him. In Winter, it was difficult to discern divine hands at work at all. I do not recall having beliefs, though Giorgio once told me he recognized in me some familiar patterns, the fulfilling of certain beliefs. It is hard to doubt Giorgio because he speaks with such earnestness; as for accepting his claims, I haven't gone out of my way to do so either.
Those who shared some spiritual ground with Julio—those friends of friends and reserved patrons of Teresa—shared little with one another. The smells of incense or the burning of particular herbs, the stains of harsh ichor or blood, the signs of weariness or strain on hands and faces pockmark—to greater or lesser degrees—all of Julio's guests save a handful who come to share a vague family resemblance.
It was not hard to imagine some of those people, echoing Julio's own history and ties to land and bloodlines, performing with certain instruments or fulfilling the ceremonial rites to accompany such potent harmony. At first, the music enchanted me. In it, I heard the rootedness of deep history, of stones and soil and trees like grandparents; it tugged at me and pushed, rolled with unfamiliar tidal forces. Within those subsurface forces, I could feel the ripple of something alien and terrible, powerful not only the way the unknown is powerful, but in itself. Then, before I could turn away and find something to dull that unreadable subtext, I came to hear and then to listen for that comfort of greater things: The warmth of the sun on the skin, or a building touched by a loving family, or a child held by her parent.
I must have stood a long while there in the street outside of Teresa's.
Regularly, I went to visit the garden and the woman who maintained it. We had established a quiet but certain rapport and doing the little chores she assigned me felt important, regardless of how infrequent my visits were. Some days in Winter shuffle away like dust under rugs or behind sofas and at least once, a single event marks a day and assumes all the time and energy one has. One of these days in between was when Loraina appeared in the street outside of my place.
To the best of my knowledge, Loraina was unfamiliar with the neighborhood surrounding Teresa's diner. I live nearby and the garden was not far, either. All the same, I saw her wrapped up tightly in her patchwork clothing, old cotton blouses and pants sewn up with blankets and curtains, then layered again and again looking not unlike a single, long quilt wrapped cleverly around her. She wore a sort of ragged scarf around her face, but her long, slightly dirty blonde hair rippled down her back and fluttered with each long-legged stride giving her away. A workman's belt ran unevenly around her hips with her aerosol cans and other, less obvious and more disheartening odds and ends poking out.
My ground floor window is heavily veiled by old, thin paper that marked the store as closed long before I came to take advantage of the space. At the bottom corners of the window, age and light and clime have caused it to peel, through which light filters and rebounds off of the polished wooden floor and ricochets through the old grocery shelves, refitted with a bed and demarcations of a living space. It was by these peepholes I stood affixed, holding my breath as Loraina meandered down the street in her mishmash clothing and certain, peculiar, potent gait.
Across the street, she glanced through a few windows, not exactly searching but nor was she browsing. Loraina, I then recognized, has more on her mind than the petty repercussions of bad decisions and old romances, but she came with a history of making time for them all the same. I hunched down, tying up my muscles and feeling the strain of my left kneecap, feeling like a coil preparing to spring out. She took out a few canisters of paint and began elegantly marking the window across the way in long whispers in rich, crimson and oranges, then accenting it with fine lines of black and white. She peered around at the vacant street, the black paint aerosol resting weightlessly in her right hand while her back twisted mysteriously behind her clothing.
She glanced down at a loose, fractured brick and hefted in her hand. It was rosy red, not rusty like most of the buildings' bricks, and nearly shone in Loraina's fair skinned hand. Again, she scanned the apartment and storefront windows, which forced me to slide, furtive and vague, behind the plain, peeling paper of my dwelling. Then, I looked back through as I saw her fling the brick nonchalantly over her shoulder in a high, thin arch before smashing to dust against the curb. As she strode confidently away, her garb caught a gust and fell away from her knotting, forming a banner or flag behind her. She looked the conqueror, surveying her new domain.
I lay on the floor a while, breathing deeply and watching the glistening of dust motes. Perhaps I dozed momentarily there. It was not until the light coming through the window changed distinctly that I stirred. I felt the minor ache of unmaintained muscles in my calves as I rose and scrambled for my coat. With it, I stepped outside, stopping for an instant to check the far ends of the street. On the opposite side, I examined Loraina's tag. It was tall and tightly woven, like crochet, and I could not make sense of it at first, seeing only the delicacy with which the lines mingled and gnarled.
It was new; not just fresh, but novel and stylized differently than I had seen before. At first, it read like a map depicting the streets of Winter in a particular area. The outer rims of Winter run like her design, with few perfectly perpendicular cross-streets, but twiddling together in lengthy, uneven orbits around the city center. Then, as the letters became clearer, I felt the distinct impression of fire and warmth and even sunlight that the fluidity and hues elicited. Though I resisted it at first, I could sense a friendliness or comfort in this new marking—though I never believed it was so intended for me. Finally, the letters became clear: Between two stylized quotations were three simple letters, s-o-l, which I spoke aloud. It brought a smile to my lips and I unthinkingly touched the slender “s” as my mind went to the garden and the sunlight that nurtured it.
Inside of Teresa's, I sat over a cup of coffee and a plate of bare toast. As Julio passed outside for a cigarette, I tried to establish eye contact, but he refused to acknowledge me. Then, as he returned and returned to his kitchen, he glanced out at me from his rectilinear window. He held my eyes for a long time, unmoving and determined of something, and all I could do was stare back. The corners of Julio's lips sneaked up after long seconds, but I could not discern the meaning.
The next time I came to the garden, the plants were peeking out of the soil, fair and green and succulent. The excitement took me and I knelt down to see many of them. Lightly, one hand would rest on the soft, rich soil while my ankles quietly complained, my kneecaps straining just so. It had been some time since I last came and I realized that, nearer the far end, some of the plants had shot up straight into the air. One plant in particular caught my attention: A stake had been set and long, spindly leaves hugged it, pulling the timber against the green like a lover, but also pulling itself into the air the way I child might with the help of a parent or instructor.
For some time I crouched, gently grazing its firm but pale stalk and marveling at the certainty with which it had grown. I must have been smiling. The gardening woman made a sound—not a word, of course, but a expressive exhalation—and she was against the wall, nearby, smiling widely at me. I blushed at my childish captivation and she came over, took my shoulder with her warm, rough hand, and shoved just enough so that we made eye contact. She hugged me and I hugged back. I might have been shaken somewhat, but I was more comforted than I would have thought.
How are you?
She gestured around, presenting the garden to me, and smiled what would have been coy had she been younger. Or maybe it was and I was too sheepish to see it clearly. Her body language, her communication spoke of much greater age than her laugh lines and crows'-feet and well-worked fingers suggested. In a way, that was when I saw her as older than age, that she after so many years she had become young again.
She held her hands out, palms up, raised an eyebrow.
This is beautiful. I... I did not expect it to be like this.
She frowned and wagged her finger at me, toying with me. She let her hands fall and waited for me to continue.
I have been anxious. Someone I know, an old—here I stumbled, lacking the words to describe Loraina tactfully—well, we aren't on good terms. She walked down the street where Teresa's diner is. I live near the diner. Loraina, she would rough me up a little if she saw me.
Her hands had come up to rest on her hips, not sharply or peeved, but distinct and I held my tongue. She shook her head slowly and subtly raised her shoulders. Something sympathetic and the slightest bit condescending danced over her face, I look that rang in the back of my mind, unplaced and foggy, but weighty with meaning.
Then, she took my arm and walked me over to the other far corner of the garden where the compost bin had been built. It had grown taller and through the chicken wire mesh I could see the small, ruddy red pulsations of worms. She lifted the lid, which was at her shoulder, and pointed inside. At the very top were bits of discarded food, mostly fruits and vegetables, but some moldering bread and peculiarly undisturbed chips and packaged cookies. Underneath that first crust were less obvious masses; something that, had the light been better, I might have concluded was shit and some dulled hues of apple peels, carrot skins, and still bright yellow bananas.
She then tugged on my arm and pointed at the base of the bin which was equipped with a sort of trapdoor. She tugged it stubbornly open and out spilled black, damp, fertile earth. With one hand, she scooped it up and smelled it, then held it near my face. It smelled, like labor or thick sweat or unearthed roots; somewhere in it was the odor of eagerness, youth, good-humor. I took it in my hands and felt it, holding it closer to my face than she had done. This must have been from the first clean up we did when she first began her garden. It could not have been all that long ago, scant weeks maybe, but it can be difficult to track the days in Winter. All the same, what had been refuse had become soil, earth.
She tapped my head with her index finger, her right arm extended nearly to its limit to reach my height. With one hand she gestured as if to envelope the bits of vegetable waste and with the other, presented the potent compost that had spilled from the base. Then, with both arms, almost with her whole body, she seemed to envelope the garden itself. Her motions were subtle, but in with her and in this place that she had made, they were immense. I felt her insight dawn on me.
It takes work, doesn't it?
Her head tilted minutely
To do this, and I presented my full hands, to make something that grows.
She placed both hands on my shoulders, my own gradually emptying their contents, and we looked into one another's eyes. I thought of the grasping green plant, arms all wrapped around its support. I said nothing.
When she let go of me and turned her eyes away, I breathed, unaware that I had been holding it.