By Julia Hegele (she/her)
CW: Distressing themes, blood
All my mother ever wanted was a garden.
She wanted fresh vegetables, hours in the late summer sun, roses and hyacinth cut and set in crystal cases.
She wanted dirt under her nails and heavy sleep and well earned meals and freckles that never faded.
I once broke through a slab of pavement. Under was something acrid and black, like ashes and lead. I touched it and it stung back like it was alive, rashing my fingers until they seared. When I dragged my mother by the hand to come and see I was met with newly-smoothed concrete. She grabbed my smarting wrist and went straight home, blind to my tears.
My mother goes to work, comes home, we eat when productive, then lights out. Older now, I wander on my exercise allotments, turning wrong corners on my track from school to house. At the boundary of our precinct there are more cracks in the pavement, more smokey matter. I touch it through a glove and it sticks lightly to the latex, like the sugar granules I see on my birthday. It looks burnt and worn… so what was it before?
Before is what they teach us in school, how people used to eat from the ground, drink something that fell from the sky, and didn’t know their nutrient count from the label of their ration. Before is what I laugh at when I hear about streets that weren’t paved, homes that weren’t the same, people who went out as a treat.
Out is poison and haze and only exists after the end of the mandated sidewalk covers. That’s where the pavement starts to crack. And that’s where I’ve been digging.
It stung at first but I wear two layers of gloves. I wear my father’s old shield and goggles but the Sun still scorches my skin and makes me sick after too long. When I lower my mask to catch my breath my head aches and my mouth fills with blood. I’ve gone past ribbons of oil and layers of ash. I’ve felt miniscule shards of metal embed into my fingers. I’ve watched my skin go raw with abrasion and radiation but it feels oddly right. I think it just feels. I never knew what that meant before.
My mother sees my hands and weeps. When she first saw my burns she took me in her arms and sobbed to a man called God who I’ve never met. I cannot tell her that I’ll stop because I don’t want to. The work is hearty and constant and makes me feel strong, even as it weakens me, even as it breaks her. She’s started to sit at the edge of the sidewalk, still covered, wringing her hands as I dig. I need her to steady me as we pace our way to the house.
On the day I couldn’t get up from my cot she didn’t cry, she didn’t scold. She removed my digging clothes from the biobag and shook them onto the plastic sheets. A smattering of black granules fell out and she packed them into a small dish. Her hands smarted but she smiled instead of wincing, even as welts appeared on her weathered skin. She nestled the dish in a cloth and propped it up so I could see it from my prone position. She bustled through her drawer and drew out small trinkets, some from my memory, some from a life I’ve never known. She pressed them into my palm and let me feel them and she told me about her garden.
Roses with thorns like her red push-pins, latticing vines like spare bits of copper wiring, snowdrops and cauliflower like a trimming of something she called lace. She told me that the Sun used to kiss us gently instead of ravaging our cells, that the streets weren’t always seamless, and that the blackness I was digging in was dirt. That these images she built in my mind brought sweetness and sustenance and ate Sun and gave off air like bejeweled purifiers. She took them from my palm and planted them in the acidic soil where they twisted and singed as their reactions took place. She said they looked beautiful but I didn’t know what that meant. She told me all she ever wanted was a perfect garden. Digging until late evening and then resting with a full heart. Like mother, like daughter.