What the Garden Wants

The doctors say there’s an operation, one that can make the land give up its corn and cabbages, and he thinks about it strongly because it’s been too long since he had such things. He tries to remember what it was like when the garden was full of towering stalks and crowding leaves and shadows so deep they stayed cool even though the hardest summer. The little plot behind the homestead is now flat dry. The soil is still a rich black color, but it crumbles between his fingers. Stiff pebbles of soil. Rigor Mortis.

The doctors in town tell him that they’ll cut him open—cleanly, with the sharpest of knives, so the wounds will suture back together without there ever being a hint of a scar. They can cut him open to get to the blood. And the blood makes the garden. In their store, the doctors show him their scalpels and the long, metal table, the one they’ll lay him out on, and the clean rows of glass jars full of iodine and swabs.

He thinks hard on this while combing through the hard dirt with his hands.

His hands are good. Strong fingers and stronger callouses. The sun beats his back while he works, but it’s a good rhythm, familiar to him. Calming. It goes well with his songs. When there’s plowing and threshing to be done, he sings—he had good strong lungs in his chest, lungs that swell to the tune of his heart beating. He remembers singing when his arms were laden with squash, onions, little red potatoes like jewels. The dirt then was soft and clung to the hair on his forearms and at the back of his neck. He’d find the dirt in places he never expected, in the creases of his knees and between his toes.

He thinks about what the doctors say. On his next trip to town, their words crowd his thoughts.

But, at the last minute, he turns away from their shop. He turns away from their fine glass windows, drawn by the singing he hears down the street.

There, a woman lives in a clapboard shack. He’s never gotten so close to it before. The shack is tiny and dark, looking like it’ll topple over in the next windstorm, and when he walks up to it he can see its filled with strange things. He peers in between the shutters and sees critter skulls and old ribbon, books with broken spines and yellow beads heaped inside clay bowls. Beads, or maybe teeth. A lone crow hops on the roof, its talons scratching at the tin. The place reeks of sweat and rotting marrow, but he pays that no mind. Her singing draws him in through the door.

Her song is heavy. It has a rhythm like a heart beating or a boot landing against the earth. He feels the beat deep in his guts; it makes his limbs ache for work. But she’s not a doctor. She has no potions or knives. Or maybe she’s a different kind of doctor, the kind who gets chased out of town when the milk goes sour and the foals are born blind.

When he asks what she is, she says, I don’t know nothin’ I didn’t read in a book.

When he asks about his land, she tells him that blood is the thing it needs, just like the doctors say.

Blood is what the land needs, she says, but flesh is what it wants.

He thinks hard on this.

That afternoon, he walks home, and the woman follows one step behind. When they reach the garden, she lays him down on his barren land. The soil is cool against his back; the sun bleeds into his eyes. She opens his shirt, then she plunges her fingers into him. He can feel the dirt under her nails. His hide opens up. Old callouses part. It doesn’t hurt much, but he can feel her pushing his lungs down deep into the soil; his ribs pull apart slowly, his shoulder blades thrust out like roots. She plunges her hands down deep like a washerwoman scrubbing him against river rocks, and his stomach blooms in the dirt like a swollen sweet potato. His intestines wriggle like worms. He unwinds and expands, and it doesn’t hurt much as her hands plunge down quick to mash his muscles and bones all the way down to the bedrock. Before she pushes his brain to the earth, he sees her hand hovering over his eyes; black soils are embedded in the creases in her palms. Before his breath leaves entirely to go mingle with the dirt, he sighs.

Later that season, he feels the potatoes start to grow in his lungs. Soon after that, the onions sprout in his heart. Tiny, fibrous roots wind up around his ribcage and hold him, tightly, the way a baby’s hand might wrap around his finger. He feels tall and verdant. Stalks crawl up from between his thighs to reach the light. He smells tomatoes and grubs, and crows feeding on his overripe fruit that drops to the ground. He feels the weight of watermelons as they swell, their heads on his chest, and when the day is quiet he can hear someone singing.

Her hands are dirty, he knows. She carefully plucks his cabbages from their earthy cradle. He feels them in her arms, briefly, as the soil clings to the hair on her arms.