“Growing” by Nadia Staikos

Josh wants nothing to do with my idea of digging up half the back lawn. He thinks it’ll be too much work and plus, he doesn’t have the energy. A garden will save some trips to the grocery store, maybe, a bit, by midsummer, I say. We both know this is a reach. A few carrots and tomatoes won’t make a dent. I need a distraction, I tell him. A project. 

I’ve noticed that people are going back to the basics—growing things and sewing things and baking. My friend tried churning butter. I realize how truly incapable I am. People used to make their own flour, and I can’t even bake a loaf of bread. I tell Josh I need something to help me feel wholesome. I already have the kids on board, so we all know we’re about to become vegetable gardeners. They’ve started painting some wooden stakes, labelling “beets” and “zucchini” in shaky vertical letters, and they’re bouncing around and cheering. Josh gives me his blessing, once he makes it clear that he does not, personally, want to deal with a shovel. 

Digging it up is more difficult than I thought, though I’m too stubborn to admit it. The boys give up after two minutes. I tell them to keep the dirt in the garden, but they chase each other around the yard, shaking the clumps of sod. There are grubs hanging onto the grass roots. Hundreds of them, it seems. It’s revolting, but I can’t help but fixate on the word juicy. The grubs are juicy. They don’t seem to have bothered the grass by chomping on the roots, but I don’t want them in the garden. I pick them off with my gloved fingertips and throw them across the yard. Robins are gathering at the edges, the bravest of them hopping forward for a bite. The boys whoop with delight.

The sun sinks low and Josh turns on the barbecue. I’m soaked in sweat. The boys are gone now, probably sitting in front of the TV. I regret having marked out the perimeter of the garden before I started digging, before I knew how difficult it would be. Josh gives some laughing encouragement, and I appreciate that he hasn’t once said I told you so. He cheers me on for being a third of the way done, and there’s no way I’m stopping now, not until the whole job is finished. Bags of dirt, seedlings and seed packets line the fence, and I’m not going inside until they’re safe in the ground.

I notice Josh and the kids eat the burgers, but I keep digging. The repetition has me in a trance, and the rhythmic tck tck tck noises made by the shovel have become music. I don’t want to interrupt my flow, and as the sky darkens, I see Josh illuminated through the kitchen window, putting my dinner in the fridge for later. Later, later, I see the lights flicker on and off upstairs, trailing the bedtime progress. Bathroom for baths and brushing teeth. On, off. Bedroom lights for the length of a couple of stories. On, off. Pale blue glow of the nightlight. I look up, and I can see Josh’s face reflecting back the light of his laptop from the couch.

My back starts aching in that way that’s tolerable, but indicative of something worse to come. My hands are sweaty inside the gloves, and I know when I remove them, I’ll find a blister sitting atop each tender spot. I almost have all the grass out. I tear at the last few clumps of sod and bang them against my shovel to shake off the excess soil. The grubs appear to glow against the blue smudge of night. The robins have left, so there’s no one there to eat the nasty little things when I toss them. 

It feels like I’ve really accomplished something now. When I step back to survey my progress, it hurts that it looks like a mess. I begin to stalk around my new kingdom, plunging in my shovel like an errant javelin and turning big scoops of soil, over and over again. I smash at the largest clumps I find, breaking everything into smaller and smaller pieces. When I run out of clumps, I look up to the sound of the sliding door, and Josh tells me he’s going to bed.

It doesn’t really get dark in the city. Nights don’t even have stars, not really. I know you can see a few, but when you’ve actually seen a true night sky, it’s impossible to accept a city’s attempt. And if it isn’t dark enough for stars, then I don’t see any reason why I should stop working. I slice open the bags of topsoil and manure and whatever else the salesperson sent me home with, and spread it all around. And then I dig and turn the soil some more. I exchange the shovel for a rake and stab around at the few remaining clumps, and then it feels like it’s time to smooth things out. This part is nice. The rake runs through without resistance, and the little patterns from the tines bring to mind monks and sand. A raccoon pops its head over the fence and then disappears again.

It occurs to me there is probably an ideal time to put plants into the ground, and after midnight is not that time—but the moon is hanging low in the sky, full like a breast, and that has to count for something. The boys and I had drawn a map together, laying out where everything should be planted. I reference the creased sheet as I work. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs, zucchini. I pile up some furrows and pop in carrot and beet seeds.

It’s so humid, and the air presses in. Time eludes me, but it must be late because none of the interior lights are on in any of the houses around me. The garden centre boxes have been emptied, and an untouched swath of dirt across the front edge alerts me that something is missing. I consult the map again. Marigolds. We didn’t write the word in, but the boys had drawn orange flowers along the edge. We had planned on planting them along the front of the garden to help keep pests away, and I forgot to pick some up. I step back and try to admire my handiwork, but it bothers me that I can’t complete the job properly. I can’t remember the last time it felt like I was fulfilling any of my roles completely—a bit of an employee, a bit of a mother, a bit of a friend, a worn-out shell that’s a bit of a partner. I feel weary, and realize that it isn’t just the marigolds; it isn’t just the physical labour. I’m exhausted.

I sit in the grass and take off my gloves. I run my hand along the empty space, pinching tiny clumps of soil with the tips of my fingers. If I were a plant, I would like to be here, I think. There’s a comfort in knowing that the world is asleep around me. Now that I’ve stopped working, my arms heave a sigh of relief and make it known that there will be no more exertion from them tonight. I take off my shoes and socks, and step into the garden. I’m sweaty, and filthy, and because it doesn’t matter, and because it is so tempting, I gently lay down and stretch my body along the plot of the missing marigolds. It’s soft. Alive, like a body. I snuggle in until the earth is comfortably hugging every part of me. I close my eyes, and at some point, I fall asleep.

I wake up to a fat, cold rain, falling through thick air—not drops, but balls of water exploding all around me. When a person swallows a mouthful of water, they must first form it into a ball, and if one loses the ability to do that properly, they will choke. It’s still dark out, but softened in a way that belies morning. I’m surprised that I don’t feel cold, and I’m surprised that I have no urge to stand up and go inside. The soil is still holding all of the warmth from yesterday’s sun, and is breathing it on me and around me. And because the dirt is taking care of me, and everything is alive and grateful for the rain, I go back to sleep.

I see red light through my eyelids and feel the sun on my skin. When Josh comes out with the boys, he looks worried. The boys kiss my cheeks and then run around the garden, careful to stick to the paths between furrows, exclaiming about the new plants. I had saved some of the label stakes for them, and they match the plants to the stakes and verify with me before pushing them into the ground. I decline breakfast, and I smile at Josh, letting him know that everything is fine.

It’s the boys who understand best, sooner. Instinctively. It’s afternoon, and as if it were sand at the beach, they scoop soil with their hands and sprinkle it over my body. I used to take pictures of their hands. Sometimes, scrolling through my phone at night, the photos made me cry; their delicious puppy-paw-chubbiness, their potential, disbelief at the man’s hands they would become, and the things I pray they’ll never be used for. The handfuls become bigger, and they make sure to cover every inch of me. Not my face though, not yet. And because I’m smiling, and Josh notices my encouraging nod, he helps the boys with this last task. They kiss my forehead, my eyes—the last things left—and when they are finished, I feel the water. I’m so grateful they remembered the water. 

I feel held, everywhere—what I imagine a womb must feel like. Warm and enclosed, pulling everything that I need into myself from my surroundings. I am comfortable. I exist. I’m not sure what else there is.

It’s hard to judge how much time passes, drifting in and out of sleep without a view of the sun. When I can feel them walking around above me, I know it must be daytime. To hear their voices fills the space between us with the energy of a smile. I feed off of it, and send it back with all I can muster, which is everything now. That’s what I can finally give to them: everything. What is it, to love?

The changes have been so strange. I have tendrils. They are being pulled from the back of my body, and instead of getting pulled out, they tug and reach deeper into the ground. I keep burrowing deeper, glad the grubs are gone. I’m the unraveling ends of a knit sweater. It doesn’t hurt, and I don’t feel as if I’m becoming less, but more. It makes me feel powerful—more and more as time goes on. And even though I can’t feel the drops on my skin, I know when there’s water falling on the soil above. It soaks in all around me, and I pull it up from below. It’s an insatiable thirst, but I haven’t yet felt anything lacking, and I recognize that I have everything I need. I used to imagine what this must feel like. 

I know something is about to happen, so I’m not frightened when I start to split open. It is just meant to be, and I feel accomplished because I realize everything has been working towards this. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, one step after another. When I break through the soil, back in the sun again, the children are delighted to see my split shell. They each take hold of a half and help to pull my old self away. And the sunshine, it fills a cup I’ve never had before, and I drink deeply, with purpose.

Now that I’m back on the surface, the people spend more time with me. The small ones make a plant marker that is different than the others, and they stick it into the ground beside me. I am pleased, and I recognize that the markings on it used to mean something important. On dry days, they give me water. They spend more time in the garden on those days, when the light is most nurturing. They uproot some plants, but tend to others. And often, when it’s dark, the large one sits beside me and makes sounds I can’t interpret; they roll in and out in comforting waves, and flutter and vibrate in the air around me. We are alone, together. I am entranced. I reach, I stretch my leaves. I grow.

There are patterns and cycles. Things that help, and things that don’t. There are things that could help—I have cravings and desires they may never comprehend, but would be within their grasp to fulfill if they ever learn to use their other senses. This is enough though, enough for now. I flower, and the small ones exude energy of pure joy and surprise. They stick their noses right inside my blossoms and as they breathe in, I curl my petals around their soft skin. Loves, I will create something for you. I sing, and the bees come.

All of my energy is directed into my offerings now, and they get larger as the days get shorter. I hope for acceptance. And there’s a feeling I know I used to have a word for, and I feel like I would do anything for these beings, and I want the best for them. I want them to feel good. When they reach to pick from me the fruit I have created, I feel realized. It’s all I ever wanted, to be able to give them a piece of myself. I give them all I can. And they take from me—they take and then they give some back, saving my seeds to return to the soil next year, and in this way we will always be together. They understand.

NADIA STAIKOS lives in Toronto with her two children. Her work has appeared in perhappened mag, Blue Lake Review, and The Daily Drunk. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @NadiaStaikos.

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