In the Late Light of August

After dinner, Gloria went out behind her barn and moistened the compost pile, breathing the earthy scent of water hitting brown leaves and over-ripe vegetables. The spray from the hose startled a small gray rabbit nibbling on carrot scraps.

“Shoo!” Gloria watched the rabbit bound away, then pitchforked the pile into a loose heap. Because only aerated and moist—but not soggy—compost would rot. And decomposition, in this case, was good, though Gloria’s mother would say: How grim! No wonder the two of them hadn’t spoken since June.

By the fence, a crow pecked at shriveled tomato skin. When Gloria got too near, it croaked, flapped up off the ground and landed on the barn’s roof. The black bird stood on the curling roof tiles. Adding to the haunted house look of the place.

Gloria could hear her mother’s scorn.

So what? She countered. Who cared if her barn and little house were shabby? Only the plants mattered.

Gloria’s dad sent the occasional email from Sidney, had never seen Gloria’s farm and had an excuse for that, in Gloria’s mind. But Gloria’s mother lived five miles away as the crow might fly (but why would it?) and she never dropped by uninvited. Invited, she hardly ever visited, so Gloria had stopped asking.

Gloria went into the barn and stood on a crate to grab a bag of greensand, her chin at shelf-level. Outside, she raised the bag to scan the label in the fading light. Greensand contains marine potash, silica, iron oxide, magnesia, lime, phosphoric acid and twenty-two trace minerals. It read like a recipe for a potion.

Of course, science, not magic grew healthy plants, though the simple act of growing plants from seed felt miraculous. Back in January, the seeds of the tomato plants she now side-dressed with sprinkles of greensand had fit in the palm of her hand. And now look at them. From papery white specks to vigorous green shrubs.

But what’s it all for? Gloria’s mother would shake her head helplessly. Vegetables! Unable to see the enchantment here. Tomatoes, red, orange, yellow, pink, stripy green, big as Gloria’s fist, tiny as her thumbnail, all with a scent as familiar to her as the smell of her own body.

After she’d emptied the greensand bag, Gloria got herself a bottle of cold beer and returned to the field as the wispy clouds high in the western sky blushed pink.

Swigging, swallowing, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, Gloria strolled along the fence where clumps of orange California poppies bloomed. Tough, stubborn natives. Then she turned and walked between her raised beds. The nasturtiums she’d planted among the tomatoes released their perfume at dusk. She plucked a flower, nibbled a petal, and stooped to peer into the tomato foliage.

A ripe Sungold! Gloria picked it and popped the small orange fruit into her mouth, tasting the perfect balance of sweet and tangy. Her mother had only seen green tomatoes growing on small, neat plants, not this abundance. If Gloria could share her excitement with her mother, stir her up (if she was stir-up-able), maybe she’d accept the life Gloria had chosen, maybe even be happy for her. Was that possible? She’d try, at least. This time she really would try.

In a dusky aisle, Gloria sat on the dirt, under a canopy of tomato foliage. She set down the beer bottle and yanked off her black work boots to free her bare feet, wiggled her toes, moist and pale as grubs. The tomato plants framed the colorful sky. Rose swirled into lavender; orange melted into salmon. From south a ways Mexican dance music on a radio carried over in her direction.

Closing her eyes, Gloria leaned back against the boards. Her ankle tickled, a pill bug, maybe, scurrying over the mountain of skin and bone. When she opened her eyes, stars had come out in the purple sky.

Simone Martel
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