“So,” you asked, leaning on my fence, watching me bend between neat rows to pull weeds, to deadhead roses, to straighten a stake, “why are your plants healthy when everything around it is parched from the drought?”
When I didn’t answer right away, you thought I was hard of hearing, and you spoke louder and let loose the poet in you. “Your garden is relief for eyes damaged by dullness, ma’am. A green miracle in a brown land. How do you do it?"
My eyes were shaded by a straw hat whose brim got caught in the lawn mower years back. I cut my eyes to see if you were patronizing me. You’re not, and I replied, “It’s the fertilizer I use,” and continued working.
“What makes your fertilizer so special?”
I didn’t skip a beat. “You have to kill for it.”
You laughed a little twitter, like I was making a joke you don’t get while your mind raced to find other meanings for the word kill. You saw my face was serene, my eyes steady, almost humorous. Definitely not a killer’s eyes, and you thought you misunderstood me.
Maybe I didn’t say kill. Maybe I said till. Like till the soil. Or mill, like what they do down the road at Mabry’s Mill where they grind wheat into flour and corn into cornmeal. So you asked again. “Did you say your fertilizer is milled at Mabry’s where they make flour?”
“No,” I rose and straightened my wiry frame as best I could, pressed one hand into the small of my back while the other hung by my side holding a pointy trowel with dirt clinging to it. “I said kill,” and I watched your body stiffen. You chewed on the inside of your cheek, and the corner of your mouth turned up in skepticism. You squirmed while I enjoyed my odd sense of humor.
“You must kill to make my fertilizer.” I paused between sentences for emphasis. “As in to stab repeatedly between shoulder blades with a long, sharp kitchen knife.” The edge of my hoe wrestled with an annoying weed. “And chop flesh and muscle into small pieces.”
Your forearms left my fence rail and you stepped back. I continued my litany wondering just how much you could take.
“Saw through hard bone and soft marrow, and drag plastic bags to the garden in winter while the earth sleeps. And spread the pieces between the soil, like hard butter on bread.”
I was getting carried away enjoying myself.
“And let Mother Nature break those pieces down into bone meal she can digest. It really is efficient,” I said as I tied tender bean vines to a trellis, “the way worms and maggots can turn a selfish, lazy body into rich soil. And leave no traces of a crime for the casual eye. Leave only the gift.”
You leaned back against the fender of your black truck and folded your arms across your chest in disbelief or defense. I didn’t know which. But you didn’t jump in the driver’s seat, slam the door, turn the key and pray for the ignition to crank before catching in relief to speed away. You stayed put, likely thinking that I was but a small, scrappy woman thirty years older and a hundred pounds lighter than you. You could easily overtake me if you had to.
No, more than anything, you were curious. You thought, what started as a casual stop beside a beautiful garden to compliment the elderly widow toiling in the afternoon sun had become something entirely different.
I worked and you followed my movements behind mirrored sunglasses, under the shade of your cap’s bill while shadows lengthened like spindly scarecrows. I could hear the wheels in your mind ground my confession into something you could stomach while I broke off veined heads of cabbage and clipped tender fingers of asparagus. I rooted beneath the serrated leaves for strawberries that stained my fingers like fresh blood.
I was surprised to see you were still there when I stacked my worn tools against the side of the weathered shed. I took off work gloves so well-used that the color blue of the cloth only showed through in patches, like the sky on a partly cloudy day. I rinsed my gnarled hands and brown arms at the pump with clear water rumbling up the cool throat of the ground and rushing out the iron faucet. I splashed cupped water on my lined face and let water droplets drip from my skin to the dry ground, pitting the dirt with small craters.
You asked, “Did he abuse you? Beat you?” Your head was cocked to the right.
I paused at the garden gate with its twined grapevine wreath in the shape of a country heart nailed to unpainted planks, the latch old but oiled, my basket full of bounty resting on the flat topped fence post six feet away from you. Looking tenderly at my neat garden, I spoke pensively, appearing to ignore your questions.
“A garden needs tending every day, young man. You have to pay attention to everything. Close off the rabbit hole under the fence so he can’t come and go in the night and steal what’s good and give nothing in return. You have to sacrifice some of the seedlings so the others have room to breathe and put down deep roots. You never let the vines wander just anywhere they want to. They have to learn to behave.
“Personally,” I confided, “I sing to my plants. And I never say an unkind word to them. I thank them for their life they give me. Even when they’re not their prettiest, and the flowering’s over and they’re on their last breath, I am kind. Without a doubt, they know they’re loved.”
I turned to look at the beauty I’d created in this small plot. You looked like you could tolerate another lesson, so I confided in a gentler tone, “Do you know that you can kill the spirit of a garden in a hundred little ways until the day comes when nothing grows that’s good? Everything becomes stingy and pitiful. Just an empty shell of what could be, really. It takes tenacious love to bring it back to what you see here. To create such lush beauty when the rest of the land suffers from a cruel drought – it’s not by accident.”
I turned and took a few steps toward my house with its swept porch, and washed windows with white curtains that waltz in a breeze, and the open red door spilling sunlight on the waxed floor.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” you caught me before I went inside. I turned back to you, eyes still hidden behind dark glasses. You looked rather pitiful standing there, awkward, searching for words.
“I don’t believe you. Your confession that you killed your husband - I think you’re bluffing. Surely something like that would have hit the papers. Why you’re pulling my leg, I don’t know.”
I started laughing - not in a funny way - and shook my head. “Is that what you think I’ve been saying? That I killed my husband?”
You were confused. “Yea, I do.” You sounded unsure. “Well, if I’m wrong, what have you been saying?” You slid your sunglasses down so I could see your eyes. I matched your stare.
“It’s pretty simple.” I faced you head on, with all joking gone, and pointed to your ring finger, newly freed of its gold band still imprinted on your skin. “If you still love your wife, you hear what I mean. If you don’t,” I swept my arm over my lovely garden, “then none of this matters. Not the fertilizer or seedlings, or the watering or weeding, or singing or tender words. ”
Before I went inside, I threw you a lifeline. “For the record, my husband of thirty-eight years died of cancer. There were times in those middle years when I wanted to kill him because he could be selfish and thoughtless and mean to a fault. He probably deserved to die then.” Your eyes widen. “But cancer broke his body and smoothed out the rough edges and saved him from himself. It was then that I loved him again, the right way. Flaws and all. His ashes are scattered here in a place lovelier than he believed he deserved.
You replaced confusion on your face with relief, and two heart beats later said, “Sorry I misunderstood. So, I guess, you and your husband ended up lucky.”
I was annoyed with you, and in frustration, raised my voice. ”No! There’s no luck involved at all. For love to survive in this jungle of a world, it takes attention and work and determination. It feeds on unearned forgiveness.” I shook my head and muttered as I turned and crossed my threshold. “It’s no luck at all.”