Sow seeds outdoors, as soon as soil can be worked in spring, at depth of ½ inch.
When Maisie was born, Daniel wasn’t there. There were no stories about her birth that included him. He didn’t know where he was when the doctor placed Maisie in Sarah’s arms for the first time but his best guess was Idaho, taking lava samples at Craters of the Moon National Monument. He imagined his fingers brushing the rough surface of a cinder cone when she entered the world. It was days before he found out he was an uncle.
When Sarah died, he was in a plane stuck on the runway. No one would tell them why. This was precisely why he spent most of his life in spaces where the only planes were the ones passing overhead, so far up in the sky they became nothing more than a spot shining against the endless blue. He sat in the airplane and breathed recycled air and cursed his sister for her illness. He cursed her for pulling him away from the safety of hard surfaces, immobile objects. And he imagined this was the very moment that she died. That he killed his sister with those curses.
When Sarah died, Maisie was eight. Daniel, freed from the airplane at last, walked down the length of a silent hospital hall towards where Maisie sat huddled in a blue chair. Sarah’s room was already empty. The body was gone. Everything in the hospital was again new and unbroken.
As Daniel stood in front of Maisie he studied the rough terrain of her short and messy hair, unable to understand the forces that caused those peaks and valleys. She looked up into his face and didn’t know who he was. She hadn’t seen him since she was five. Now he was all she had in the world.
Uncle. An echo word. A deep-sea noise. A mollusk, covered in spines. Smooth and shiny on the inside surface where nothing could stick.
Sow thinly in rows 1 ½ to 2 inches apart.
Maisie grew to know silence. Sometimes Daniel didn’t say anything for hours at a time. Inside his head, a slideshow of landscapes played on a loop. Geological formations he still hadn’t seen in person. Places he dreamed of sinking a pick into. He was haunted by how a tent might sound blowing in a stiff, desert wind, or straining from the side of a mountain. He found it hard to sleep without imagining this sound.
Sarah died in autumn, when Daniel would have headed back to the university and his students. He took a leave and didn’t miss them. He only missed the feel of samples in his hand. The chalky residue of quartz. The rattle the rocks made inside their plastic containers as the students picked them up and dumped them onto the hard surface of the lab tables.
“Stay there,” Lauren said. “You should keep her in familiar surroundings for a while, at least.”
He texted Lauren with questions every day, even though in his head he still called her Dr. Sprague. He could recall seeing her pass by his office door with a child in her arms and this was enough to make her an expert in his mind.
“Call me Lauren,” she insisted over and over. But he had so little room in his head for human names.
“What do I feed her?” he texted Lauren. “When should she go to bed?” “Should she be saying something?” “What questions do I need to ask?” “What if she doesn’t answer?”
“Time,” Lauren said when he called her in the middle of the night. He was filled with a cold, empty panic like the floor of a cave he’d been stuck in once, unable to recall the path he’d taken to get there. His thoughts echoed and came back in unexpected shapes. “Time is all you have.”
He understood time in long increments. Geological time. He watched Maisie sleeping at last in her bed with all the lights still on and he knew she meant nothing to the tectonic plates that shifted far beneath his feet. She meant nothing to the temperature of the earth’s core. In a mere blink of time, she would be dust.
Seedlings emerge in 7-14 days.
In February, seed catalogs arrived in Sarah’s mail. He looked out the window of her old house. On cold days, the glass pane froze and he woke to the sun shining through a webbed pattern of ice. He piled blanket after blanket onto Maisie’s bed but, sometimes, he thought he could still see her shivering.
“Did your Mom have a garden?” he asked Maisie. He had been in the backyard, but he couldn’t remember anything about it. He beat a path through the snow and ice from the garage to the house and back again.
“No,” Maisie said. She opened her mouth only the tiniest bit, to let small words escape or morsels of food slip past.
“No?” he asked. He stared at the bright purple eggplants on the cover of the latest seed catalog. He stacked the catalogs on a table in the hall next to the door and already they were fifteen deep. He wondered if Maisie was lying. He wondered about the plans his sister had made.
Thin seedlings to 6 inches apart.
It snowed for weeks and there was no school for Maisie. No job for Daniel. No life beyond the bright rectangle windows of winter light.
He studied the catalogs and the exotic names of heirloom tomatoes. Black Krim. Cherokee Purple. Nebraska Wedding.
“Do you think they really taste better?” he asked Maisie. He never thought much about food. Fruits were so fragile compared to sediment and stone. Plants rarely survived to become part of the fossil record. A seed here and there. The delicate frond of an ancient fern.
In the worst week of the winter, he walked outside the front door one morning to find a woman sitting on the sidewalk. Her back was to him and he watched her lean slowly forward towards where her purse sat on the ground. She couldn’t reach it and he saw her shoulders rise and fall.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She didn’t get up. She didn’t re-adjust her position. She turned her head, stiff in her coat and scarf. What he could see of her face under her hat was streaked with tears.
“What are you doing here?” he asked again. He could hear the panic in his voice like someone else speaking. There was no one else on the street. Piles of snow left over from the plowing formed their own geography. Sometimes Daniel imagined the buildings themselves as canyon walls, but it was a thin illusion. “What do you want?” he asked.
He remembered what it felt like to climb the sheer rock face of a cliff in Arizona. The sun on his back was like a hand pushing him down. Each foothold was a gamble he wasn’t sure would hold his weight until he tried. You went on faith and at any minute, it could all collapse.
He didn’t know who he thought the woman was—a social worker, a friend of Sarah’s, one of Maisie’s teachers. He was afraid of the words that would come out of her mouth. He realized he’d been whispering them inside his head for months. “You’ll never be enough for her.” He was empty inside. There was nothing solid about him.
“I can’t get up,” the woman said. She put a hand on the pavement beside her and began to lean her weight against it. Her glove slipped and she caught herself just before her chin bounced against the sidewalk. A sharp sob escaped as she struggled against the ice. “I can’t get up,” she said again.
“Hold on,” Daniel said. The ice was black and thin. He studied the surface of the pavement. Concrete was its own kind of geography. He plotted a course towards the woman and took a first careful step.
“I can’t get up,” she said again. “Help me,” she whispered. “Please help me.”
Harvest at 40-45 days.
He saw the flier for the community garden in the local coffee shop where they went sometimes after school for Maisie to do her homework. He didn’t know if it was what Sarah would have done or not.
You could pay for a plot. He called the number and gave them Sarah’s name, but they didn’t know it, so he gave them Maisie’s name instead.
He studied the catalogs. He made careful charts which when turned at the wrong angle, looked like maps of sediment layers. He ordered seeds from the catalogs that were the most organized, with pages that followed a color gradient and grouped all the root vegetables on pages thirty through thirty-one.
The woman from the ice was named Kate and she lived across the street. She grew tomatoes in her backyard. Sometimes they sat on her front steps and flipped through the catalogs together. “Do you like peas?” he asked her. “Is it too early to plant the cucumbers?”
Maisie drew chalk circles on the sidewalk as they watched, great overlapping formations that reminded him of limestone or the smooth rocks in mountain creeks. She drew them over and over, communicating in some language he would never understand.
There was a place on the drive to Maisie’s school where the side of the hill had been cut away to build the road and the limestone fell in chunks onto the shoulder. Each afternoon on the way to pick her up, he pulled over and found a brachiopod or a crinoid. Sometimes, the complicated twistings of brain coral.
He set these gifts on the backseat next to where Maisie rode. She arranged them in ever-shifting patterns around her bedroom beside stuffed dogs and dolls.
“What will you do with all your veggies?” Kate asked him. Her hands were calloused and scaly from garden tools. “How will you use your harvest?” He didn’t have an answer.
“I like watermelon,” Maisie said. She drew another circle on the ground.
He picked a watermelon with yellow spots scattered across the skin. Moon and stars, it was called.
They mounded the dirt like the catalog said and Maisie pushed the seeds inside. He kneaded his hands in the soft soil and imagined the harder bedrock buried farther down. Solid, but moving. Always moving.
About the Writer
Robyn Ryle is fascinated by community gardens, which is where the inspiration for this story came from. She started life in one small town in Kentucky and ended up in another just down the river in southern Indiana. She has a short story chapbook, The Face of Baseball, as well as stories and essays in CALYX Journal, Little Fiction/Big Truths, Midwestern Gothic, Paper Darts, and WhiskeyPaper, among others. You can find her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.