By: Teagan Wood
On a roadway, slick with mud, a woman – feet swollen from standing, hands burned from the sun, fingers painted with dirt – stands waiting. In the underbrush of a ditch, the silhouette of her form holds itself backlit by a dying meadow. The light fades and she keeps her eyes on the horizon.
In time, snow blows itself swiftly through the skeletons of the trees and the world breathes a quiet, bitter breath.
The man placed the flower back between the worn pages and shivered quietly in the cold.
When the sun rose this morning in the sky as red as a June sunburn, a bird sang for the first time. He had listened intently for a second call. Even tried singing back to it – he thought it might have been a finch, or a starling, or something else small. He thought he might have imagined it. He fell asleep beneath the tree, waiting for its answer and he waited all morning, and all through his dreams as the sun razed the sky.
He waited, and even then, sleeping or waking, he did not hear it again. When he awoke in the late hours of the day, after the scorch had calmed, and the cold settled in, he waited a good while after that. Longer than he should have (out of corroding hope maybe, or something equally absurd).
Perhaps the man thought that if the bird was real, so were other foolish hopes. Perhaps, if the bird were not imagined, the voice he heard calling to him sometimes was real as well. But he wouldn’t dwell on that — the man had to be on his way, and the miles were long and far sweltering, and in a few days, he would be with her. And it would be enough.
The man pulled the pressed flower back out again and held it delicately between his fingers for a moment. He returned it gently within the page of the book and placed the book back into its place between the food cans and his last pair of socks.
The book was his wife’s. The last copy of Wild Flowers and Perennials For all Seasons, rescued from a pile of other books and rubble. The book had only managed a few small print runs and this copy was perhaps the last one in existence. He was lucky to even rescue one, to find it in whatever here was left. He quietly traced her name on the cover in the dark.
The man began to walk. He walked the long miles through the dark, his eyes already used to the near blindness of the ash in the sky.
He held onto an image of a roadway, muddy and foxgloved, distant in his mind in the blackness. If there was anything left of it, the blooms would be sprouting this year. Maybe something remained. Maybe she was there, tending to what was left of it.
When they bought the house, he spent hours in the sun to build a trellis that climbed up the side of the back porch. It wrapped around the back window of the kitchen and over the years, the tea-roses snuck up around the porch door, and the gutter, and the window. They grew yellow. He would have trimmed them back to tame them had she not begged him to leave them, just as they were. “Let them grow until they swallow us,” she’d said.
A light began to rage on the horizon and he knew it was not the sun. When the morning did come, razing the sky, he continued, trudging through the floating banks of ash. How to avoid the city? How to make time? How long would she wait?
How long had he been away?
How long would she remember his promise? How long would she know he’d keep it?
Later, in the grey light of an unknown hour, the man traversed down a toothy and terrorized street. The glass of the houses crunched beneath ash black snow, and he wandered past the edges of rubble piles and blackened yards. When night came, he lay down in the shelter of a former garden shed, and felt his breath cloud the air in front of him.
At the glint of the sun at its zenith, a small sprout, in its private, sacred corner, lit up near-gold. He had almost not seen it, in the ruins of the shed. Who would have expected such small life in this pitiless wreck? It was there though, buried in the remnants of the shattered dirt and pottery, trembling through the dead topsoil on the shed floor. He pulled it carefully from the dirt, holding it ever so gently in his hands.
He came home one night in the twilight, the lights glowing across the grass of the garden pathways and the tulips beside the porch stairs. He walked down the driveway, her shape in the doorway drawing him the last exhausted steps home. They were both weary, and they were both tired. Her from waiting, him from struggling to make his way back to her. He remembered the way the dirt smelled freshly tilled by her, and the rain left the world tinged with the smell of musk and the budding spring.
He stood there on the porch, her shape framed in the door, the light casting her shoulders, her lips, her head turned in shadow. She said nothing, and she did not reach out, though he felt the ache of her anyway. “I won’t ask for you to love me.” he told her “I wouldn’t deserve it even if you decided to again.” The worms and the cicadas in the woods around them were the only witness’ to their whispered silhouettes. “But I am here, and I love you still. And I am yours just as I was.”
She let him stand there, and slipped a hand roughened by garden dirt and callouses — an answer enough. He felt the dirt of her fingers run across the scabs on the back of his and everything in him softened.
“Tell me about your day,” he whispered. He laid his forehead against hers, softly and exhausted. “If nothing else, tell me how you are.”
He knew the road was close. He could smell the grass and the mud and the foxgloves. He could feel the carpet of forget-me-nots between his feet in the underbrush. It was close, it had to be. As unrecognizable as the world was, it was here. If it was not, she would never know that he survived, that he was blistering across the earth to get back to her. She would never know that she did not wait for nothing.
The sprout grew inch by inch as the man poured every ounce of hopeless, loving grief into its fragile stem. He would keep it alive, he promised, if only to see it home to her.
In the last sunrise, on the last stretch of rubbled road, he walked across the flooded landscape and the ash floating across the stillwater of insects, and sliming beasts, and corpses. He felt her closer. He thought he might have recognized the shape of the decayed barn off the hill in the distance, there must have been only a few miles left to where she was.
He got lost after a few hours, the dark crept up against the toothless trees and the shapes stopped seeming so familiar. He started to wonder if he imagined it.
“I wish you’d never left, I swear to god.” she tore the weeds up as she spoke, bare handed, though her voice held none of the force her hands did. “You go off for so long sometimes. To discover yourself, or to find whatever it is you think you’re going to find, and I –”
He sat quietly on the steps of their back patio, as her voice faded into the buzzing of the summer insects. His feet rested bare and sinking softly into the moss, his hands finally washed clean.
She stopped her violent tearing of the garden bed and knelt still for a while, framed by the sun and the wild field grass and the delphiniums. “I know I’ve made my own mistakes. And I know you’ll come back despite whatever happens but . . . ”
She pulled her hands out of the dirt and finally looked at him, her palms resting bleeding and blackened in her hands. “Sometimes I’m terrified that I’m not enough.”
He pulled himself up off the porch and stumbled down into the dirt on his knees before her. “You,” he told her, “have always been enough.”
Gently, he uncurled her cracked hands and brushed the dirt from her fingers as they sat in the sun. “If I could,” he admitted (to the wild, and the quiet, and the woman before him), “I would lay here, in this garden with you forever, until the flowers swallow us.” He looked up at her and brushed the gold hair from her eyes. “You are more than enough.”
He continued through the dark. The foxgloves would be blooming. If she was there, if he was right about the season, about the year, then the foxgloves would be blooming. The foxgloves would be blooming. And he would find her.
He stumbled upon it then, in those last few hours of brightening blackness before the sun caught fire. He thought maybe that the mud felt familiar, that the trail was known to his weary feet, that he knew this pathway blind, however changed. He had traversed it in a similar state once before, exhausted enough that he could not see anything but the end of the driveway, and her frame against the meadow.
He looked for it now but it was too dark, and a part of him still was not sure. The foxgloves were nowhere to be seen. As the sky lightened he began to see the frozen colors. The rot of pink in the ditches, the corrosion of trumpet petals in the greyed mud. The ripped stalks of blooms floating in the water.
He kept walking. Up the slick mud trails, up the drive, up the stone walkway to a silent, solitary house. He began merging the hallucination haze of memory with moment, the vision passing between the missing her and the climbing of the last two steps and pushing through a swollen, warped front doorway. The house was empty. Dust covered. Cobwebbed.
He walked through the rooms, past the darkened floor lamps, and the dusty couches, and the cold fireplace. He walked all the way to the kitchen and the back door, where beyond was the falling trellis, and the rose bush, diseased and tearing itself off the house siding. The garden swallowing everything in sight, dying and overgrowing and reclaiming it all.
There in the kitchen with the corpses of perennials and wildflowers was his wife, curled quietly and still over the blue painted farmhouse table.
She had been waiting for him, curled asleep at their little kitchen table, her hair spread out about her across the wood. He made his way in, late, and ashamed, to the fresh flower clippings covering the counters and surfaces of the room, filling up the kitchen sink and spreading out over the table in her hair. He’d stood for a long while, staring at her in the waft of flora and dirt, soaking up the face he had missed for a long time now.
He made his way across the tile and gathered her up gently, flower petals and loose leaves trailing them across the house as he cradled her in his arms. His boots were still muddy from his travels, and his footsteps treaded heavier. She leaned into his arms and there was nothing, he thought, nothing that compared to it. For whatever reason, she had waited for him and he would come back, he promised. He would always come back.
The man dug through the dirt at the edge of the meadow by the drive carefully. He took his time – mostly because he had all of it now, and because his body was no longer in any state to go further than the wheelbarrow by the back shed and the few feet into the growing hole he was building in the earth. He was close to his own end now and he waited fondly for it.
He laid her down in the cold ground during the morning sunrise, wrapped in the afghan and her treasured book of perennials. She would have wanted to return like this. She would have wanted to be swallowed by the earth – become food for the flowers. He made himself cover her again with the loose ground, slowly and methodically, resisting the urge to crawl into the cavity of earth with her. Instead he returned the dirt, and rolled the wheelbarrow back to its place by the shed. He collected the flowers he found pressed between the closed doors and the books (and on the tables, and windowsills and countertops and jars). He collected them until he had his pockets overflowing.
In the last light, he walked out to the quiet dirt mound, and laid the pressed flowers across the churned earth in the dimming light. He pulled out the last copy of Wild Flowers and Perennials, and opened it to read the water-stained inscription within. His own handwriting was familiar, the promise he made to her scrawled out in careful inscription. The thinned and delicate foxglove flower slid out from between the pages into his hands. He kept both clutched between his fingers and laid himself down beside the dirt to return to her.
And then he stayed there. With her. Just like he had promised that night on the porch those many years ago – that he would return, just as he was, until they were reclaimed together by the earth. So he laid there, and stayed until the hunger became sedated by the freezing and thawing, and the passing insects of the damp wood wind. He stayed until his flesh grew calmly cold, and the insects made their claim, and the dirt covered his face. He stayed until the world covered him whole and he became nothing more than nutrients for the soil.
In a muddied washed away landscape of a once-meadow garden, there is a field of grass, dead and colorless as far as the felled trees stretch.
By a roadway, muddied and ashen, a patch of life grows in the imprints of two bodies, no one but the worms and cicadas in the dead wood around them as witness. The grass, in their shape, grows the most vibrant green, graced with various blooms of wildflowers (long since out of season) – red, and yellow, and blue. From the indentation of a hand, the seed of a foxglove sprouts a single bloom, however fleeting, and returning, and forgotten.