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“Urban Terroir: Dark Earth Rising” by Simone Martel

Urban Terroir: Dark Earth Rising

by Simone Martel

 

Location: Small Urban Farm.

With Karli’s savings (evaporating like water on hot concrete), we’re renting an empty lot jammed between a barbecue place and a mechanic’s yard on a hardscrabble block of West Oakland.

 

First Harvest.

Karli, in blue overalls, squats with her back to me, leaning over a vegetable bed, plucking tiny lettuce leaves and tugging up small, stubby carrots and thumb-sized radishes. Beyond her, on the other side of the chain link fence, a hooded man pushes a rattling grocery cart along the broken sidewalk.

“Weird,” Karli mumbles over her wicker basket as I approach. She squints up at me. “Some of this lettuce is a strange color, purple like a bruise. Look, it’s leathery. You think pollution?”

The rusted cars next door leak fluid, so, yeah, pollution’s possible. Still, I shrug at the ruffled leaves Karli thrusts at me.

“You’re the gardener, I’m just grunt labor.”

She looks serious, rubs a dirty hand across her forehead, leaving a streak. “You should be working on your screenplay. I shouldn’t take all your time.”

“I’ll work tonight.” Hard to sustain narrative drive, though, when I’m dead on my feet.

 

My Part.

Today I’m shoveling compost out of the back of Karli’s truck and mounding the moist brown stuff on top of the gray worn-out topsoil. My arms ache but I keep working, though the shovel wobbles and compost rains onto the pavement.

Karli makes this farming business look easy. She stands, stretches, arches her back, raising her breasts to the sky. The basket of lettuce, radishes and carrots swings on her forearm. A snail the size and color of a pebble has caught a ride on a frilly green lettuce leaf. Karli flicks it off and stomps it into the ground with her black work boot.

“Sorry.”

 

Why It Matters.

“I’m done,” Karli says. “Let’s go.”

Her ginger hair wisps out of its ponytail and curls around her freckled cheeks. We kiss. She tastes spicy, like the radishes she’s been sampling.

“Happy?” I ask her.

She looks out at the nine raised beds, the small evenly spaced green plants standing firm and upright in the earth.

“Growing food feels important. I’m glad I’m through landscaping rich people’s gardens in the hills.”

“Even though that’s how we met.”

“The garden I put in for your parents was ridiculous, a backdrop for your mom’s parties.”

“I guess.” I must sound wistful, because Karli’s smile tightens a bit.

“I know you miss writing in your old room all day, but it was time to move out.”

She hugs me round my middle (once squishy from life-with-laptop, now firm within the loop of her slender arms). She’s right, of course.

 

 

First Sale.

Okay, first trade. Come summer, Karli says we’ll have our own table at the Jack London Square farmers’ market where we’ll sit under a striped umbrella behind red and orange tomatoes mounded in baskets and piles of honey-scented melons, with buckets of sunflowers and sprays of lavender in jars. Today, we take our plastic baggy of spring salad mix to a pop-up market on yet another vacant lot and barter it for an illegal backyard chicken.

People show their wares on newspapers spread on the gravely asphalt. There’s a black girl in a peasant skirt with various vinegars in recycled beer bottles. Next to her an old, bearded white guy hawks loaves of whole grain bread you could use as doorstops. The dead chickens belong to a kid with dishwater-blond dreads and acne on his chin. He grins at Karli, flattered by her interest in his plucked corpses.

“People think meat comes on Styrofoam trays. This is reality.”

“I’d love to have a couple laying hens on our farm,” she says. “I don’t know about killing them. That would be hard.”

“What, I can only grow veggies and herbs?” I smile, but I’m borderline pissed.

“Some folks say you shouldn’t eat meat if you’re not prepared to kill.”

“But then you’d be out of job,” I point out.

He ignores me, strutting behind his box of dead chickens. “First I tie their feet together and hang them upside down, then I slit their throats and drain the blood into a bucket.”

She apologizes to a snail when she steps on it,” I say.

The guy swings a chicken out of the cardboard box, wraps it in newspaper and slings it over to Karli. She hands him the bag of salad mix.

“We’ll have veggies and herbs and flowers when the weather warms up.”

“You two are a cute couple,” he says. “Good luck to you.”

 

Home.

We live nearby in an old Victorian two-story house long ago stripped of its ornamentation, slapped with beige asbestos tiles and divided into four units. Ours is downstairs, next door to Mrs Garcia and her blind poodle.

 

 

Exit Karli.

While Karli showers, I sink into our creaky sofa, leaning back on the cushions with my laptop. I open the document with my screenplay, but it makes no fucking sense, so I switch over to Urban Terror to help me relax and focus. First I choose my weapon and start running down a concrete-floored hall until I spot the enemy, then I crouch low behind a corner. I wait, pop out, blast him. His legs fly up and he falls onto his back.

I’m in the zone now, running again, always at an even pace, through a door, down a street, ducking into a doorway as some bozo darts past, not seeing me, and I’m aiming at his head when I hear Karli come into the living room. I switch back to my writing, interrupted just before the kill. Trying to hide how this frustrates me, I look up at Karli. She’s in a bathrobe, her wet hair curling on her shoulders.

“You had the weirdest expression when I came in just now.” She bugs out her eyes, presses her lips together and stiffens her right arm the way I do when I’m clicking the mouse as fast as I can. She’s creepy standing there with her arm outstretched and her eyes unfocused.

“Is that how I look?”

“I thought you were writing a romantic comedy.” She crosses the room and plops down onto the sofa next to me, peering at the open document on my screen. “You looked like you wanted to kill someone.”

 

 

How We Met-Cute.

Last summer my mom announced a need to “do something” about the bare slope below our house and lawn, though she’d ignored that hillside for years. I was back home with my MFA, trying to write. My old room has a view of the San Francisco bay and I was at my desk staring out at the silvery blue water when this ginger-haired girl in ratty jeans appeared pushing a wheelbarrow across the lawn below my window.

I cranked open the window, put out my head and yelled down, “Hey, that’s my job!” because my mom used to pay to me cut the grass and clip the hedges.

For the next two weeks I sat at my desk watching Karli terrace the area below our lawn and plant it with wispy native shrubs. She re-sodded the grass, too, getting ready for my mom’s Fourth of July fireworks-viewing party.

On the morning of the holiday, I looked out at my dad messing with the grill on our new lawn and recognized Karli’s pickup backing into the driveway. I wandered down through the kitchen area and out through the French doors to watch her unloading pots of red geraniums, white daisies and blue agapanthus from the back of her truck.

“How patriotic,” I said, guessing that the flowers were not her idea.

Behind us, my mom’s Jag pulled into the driveway and her harried voice called for me to help carry in the boxes from BevMo. While I unloaded the trunk, I wondered what kind of a cold drink a guy offers a girl like Karli. No corn syrupy soda or unsustainable bottled water, no vulgar beer. I chose champagne, a festive beverage, for what turned out to be our private Independence Day celebration.

The fog came in later and blocked the view of the fireworks, but the sky was still blue then in the afternoon before the guests arrived. Karli and I lay side by side in two chaise longues, our plastic glasses of cold bubbly balanced on our stomaches.

“Your mom says you’re a writer.”

“I’ve been playing around with a script. Actually, I should be trying to get a job. But nine to five does not appeal.”

Karli sat up, careful not to slosh, and looked down past our newly terraced garden. “Have you heard about the woman who turned a vacant lot into an urban farm with fruit trees and chickens and beehives right here in Oakland?”

I set down my glass and sat up, too. With a telescope and a time-machine we could have seen me shoveling dirt from the back of her truck. I think of that often.

 

 

New Word.

Sustainability isn’t a word I grew up hearing. Karli’s passionate about it, though. She likes to give old things new life. She wears used clothes, buys dishes and pans at the Salvation Army and shops yard sales for the sheets and towels she calls “vintage linens.” We sit down to meals at a table made from an upcycled wooden pallet and sleep in a bed made from repurposed barn wood. The only new things Karli likes are the plants she grows from seed, and in a way they aren’t new, since they come from old plants. As Karli says, everything in nature is already here and nothing ever goes away.

 

 

Seeds.

Tiny, weightless tomato and pepper seeds the color of cotton, and shiny black basil seeds stick to Karli’s damp index finger as she transports them from the paper packet to the soil-filled eggshells. The bigger seeds, the peas and beans, the sunflowers, she plants directly in the raised beds, poking them into the soft soil with her finger.

“The peas and bean seeds are actually peas and beans,” I say.

“Out of one comes many.”

A single dried pea or bean breaks through the earth, seeking warmth, light, air, and grows quickly in this dry, warm weather into plants that produce many pods filled with more peas or beans. Such generative capacity appalls me.

 

 

Shoots.

A noun or, in this case, a verb. To germinate, grow, spring up, sprout, shoot. To shoot, let fly, launch propel, fling, hurl, open fire, plug, zap, slay. Birth and death in a single word.

 

 

Vines.

The bean vines grow on stakes I’ve stabbed into the ground, twisting around the bamboo clockwise. Pea vines, in contrast, don’t twist, but reach out to the stakes with tendrils, blindly, until they make contact and cling to the bamboo, holding the vines upright in that way. The tendrils are like tiny hands, but strong, with a will to live. Karli says this is pathetic fallacy, that I’m projecting. She’s all about the science, explaining to me how the vines grab nitrogen from the air and store it in nodules in their roots, growing stronger, thicker, taller, putting out flowers that bloom briefly before shriveling around the emerging pods that thrust out of the dry petals and swell.

“They’re so vigorous,” Karli exclaims. “Amazing what compost will do.”

I don’t see what she sees, though. Not beauty. I see plants growing from death toward death with the singlemindedness or mindlessness of Karli’s snail-blimp inching across the sky.

 

 

Fear.

I worry that this darkness, this bleakness, this death-obsession that I try to hide from Karli is growing in me, fed by the games I play at night. I’ll try to cut back.

 

 

Fail.

 

 

Mulch.

I throw bales of hay out of the back of the truck onto the ground and slash them open with a blade. Karli spreads a thick layer of mulch around the pepper plants, careful not to snap the brittle stems.

We work into the balmy evening. The barbecue place next door does good business. Beat-up cars pull up, music thumping. Through the concrete block building’s barred windows, I see people moving around inside. Meaty smoke vents through a metal chimney on the roof.

“Why does cooking flesh smell so good?”

“We’ll go home and have dinner soon,” Karli says. She’s caught a sunburn across her cheeks and nose.

When a pale blanket of hay covers the soil around the plants in the last bed, we stand back together like admiring parents.

“This feels meaningful, bringing dead earth back to life,” Karli says. “Aren’t you happy to be doing real work?”

“Writing isn’t real work?”

“Sorry, your writing. We can leave after I water the seedlings. The compost looks dry, too.”

Karli fills a watering can and lugs it off, while I drag the sputtering hose across the yard to the compost pile. Some of that weird lettuce isn’t breaking down. I’ll chop it up tomorrow. A large snail crawls over the leathery lettuce leaves. I could stomp on it, as Karli does, but this is one big snail. I squat to peer at its dark, scabby shell. I do not want this thing on my shoe, so I stand, holding the shell between thumb and forefinger, and fling it over the fence into the street.

On the other side of the fence, a stiff-legged man leans into a grocery cart, pushing it along the sidewalk ahead of him, his head bent, one shoulder higher than the other.

 

 

Distracting Myself With More Manual Labor.

After dinner, Karli walks to the library. I follow her out to the sidewalk, then decide to wash the truck while I’m there, though I should be inside tackling the end of Act Two. An old man in slippers sits next to Mrs Garcia on the front steps under the porch light. They watch me sponge soapy water over the truck’s filthy fenders. They’re a wrinkled, round-eyed pair, fanning themselves with folded newspaper, while I labor in the street, a grunt on display. A crack of a gunshot into the air would startle them off their perch.

 

 

Fail, Again.

I’m on the sofa playing my game when Karli comes into the apartment with a stack of books under her arm. The sofa cushion slopes as she settles next to me. My hand jiggles.

“Shit.”

“What?”

“You almost made me die.”

I run over the sand dune, safe for now.

“He’s coming after you.”

“Shit! That’s it. I died.” My body lies briefly facedown in the dust, then rises up, ready to fight again. “It’s okay, I have three lives.”

“Watch out on the left.” She’s taking an interest, patronizing, but sweet. “Get him!”

I jump out, blasting my weapon.

“Oh. You got him.”

I grin, but I’m too busy to speak. I start to run again.

“Can you stop now?”

It’s dangerous out in the open, nowhere to hide.

“Your eyes look dead when you play.”

“Not now. Soon.”

I run up a hill toward a low building. Two guys with machine guns charge at me out of nowhere.

“Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck…” I sag back onto the sofa, the mouse in my hand slick with sweat.

Karli’s been quiet a long time. At least, I think she has.

I sit up again. “One more, then I’ll quit.”

 

 

Under the Bathroom Light, 4AM.

My screenplay has gone and died on me. Just lies there and I can’t bring it back to life. I don’t even pretend to myself that I’m going to work on it when I sit down with the computer.

I’m close to telling Karli, admitting to her that I’m in a bad place. The violence she saw over my shoulder upset her and I couldn’t even say relax, it’s only a game, as I have in the past, because I respect her too much to lie. While I’m playing it feels real.

Though I know I should talk to Karli, the face in the mirror tells me that I don’t trust her enough to confess my problem and make myself vulnerable to her. How’s that for touchy-feely talk? Is it even what I mean? I mean I don’t want her judgment, don’t want to see the disapproval or disappointment in her eyes. Who’s she to condemn me, anyway? It’s not like she’s perfect, Ms rebirth and butterflies. Except that she is.

Whoa. The anger that bloomed in my face just then was creepy. Unfair to Karli, too. She wouldn’t judge me. But she wouldn’t understand, either, even if she said she did.

 

 

Pests.

Bigger ones. When we arrive in the morning, we find two squirrels climbing the sunflowers instead of squashed in the street. All morning, they chatter at us from the corrugated metal roof of the mechanic’s shop next door.

Urban life seems to have made these animals bold, Karli says.

I ask her if they could have ingested a toxic chemical that makes them abnormally aggressive. “Like, from runoff?”

“Could be. Or maybe their behavior is seasonal,” Karli says. “Maybe this happens every year. We don’t know.”

When we leave at noon, the squirrels dive back into the yard as soon as we pull away from the curb. Karli buys and inflates a plastic owl and lashes it to a stake near the bed of cutting flowers. Next day, a third of the sunflowers are decapitated anyhow, the flower heads dragged halfway across the yard and cleaned of seeds. Karli tears the stalks out of the soil and throws all six into the compost, one at a time, like javelins.

Tackatackatacka. From the mechanic’s yard comes the sound of high-pitched chattering, as one squirrel chases the other between the rusty cars. Little monsters.

“Something’s been eating the strawberries,” Karli says.

The hay mulch we tucked around the plants is smeared with red juice and disheveled as though an angry creature has kicked at it, bunching it up in places and leaving patches of bare dirt in others. We both squint up at three crows on the telephone wire overhead.

“Who knew there were so many animals in the city?”

Karli’s prepared to smother aphids and scale with a spray of insecticidal soap or horticultural oil, but how does an organic gardener deal with mammals and large birds?

“We could buy a gun.”

“This is supposed to be about rebirth, not death.”

“Right.” Besides, I’ve never shot anything in real life, though I’m experienced with virtual bloodshed. I wonder how different it would be, how difficult, or easy.

 

A Thought.

What if instead of assuming that the games leave a bad residue in me, a darkness that I project outward onto the farm, I consider instead that the bad thing is here on our farm already and I play games in order to deaden myself to, or at least distract myself from, that reality?

Or maybe darkness seeks darkness.

And, yes, that could go either way.

 

Sun Grocery.

Karli starts selling our produce to a small health food store once a week, since we’re still not harvesting enough for the farmers’ market.

While Karli’s away at the market, I turn the compost with a pitchfork and the squirrels continue to chase each other, zipping up fences and along rooftops, chattering and flicking their tails, zany background to my sweaty work. Their game turns violent when the bigger of the two pounces on the little one and the two fuse into a snarling ball of fur. The small one plummets from the fence to the ground. Blood seeps from the furry body. I walk closer to the fence where it lies, its little walnut head half gone. The large one sits on fence looking down at me with big bruised eyes, blood on its rodent mouth, then it runs away. And I can’t tell Karli, because she’d be upset. Nature is nice, she wants to believe, what we’re doing is life-affirming.

Suddenly my mouth is dry, my legs shaky. I sit in the shade, sucking water from the hose. At last, Karli’s truck reappears. I watch Karli jump down and come toward me, waving the check in her hand and smiling, as though in an old home movie, too bright and slightly jerky. I feel strange, as though maybe I can’t move, but I make the effort and stand. Karli smiles up at me, a smudge of dirt on her peeling nose. I rub it away with my thumb, then caress her cheek, lean down and kiss her lips. Behind her in the street, a large shiny crow picks at a dead cat. I don’t tell Karli about the crow behind her or about the fighting squirrels. For as long as possible I’ll play along, pretending to believe in her dream of urban renewal.   I’ll brush the dirt from her nose and kiss her and marvel that she can’t, or won’t, see that something’s wrong here on our patch of city land.

 

Worms.

Worms reach out of the earth like fingers when I push aside the hay.

“Has the lettuce sprouted?” Karli asks.

I quickly brush the mulch back into place. “No.”

 

Potatoes.

Karli works a pitchfork into the dirt, wiggling the tines carefully to avoid cutting the potatoes and ruining them. When the pitchfork’s all the way in, she rocks back, biceps straining, until a clump of potatoes flies up, spraying dirt. She throws the pitchfork to the ground and separates the potatoes, fingering them apart.

Several boxes of tomatoes, peppers and herbs wait in the truck’s shade.

“I can finish the potatoes, if you want to run those boxes to the market.” She hands me the pitchfork. “Gently.”

As she drives away, I unbury a new clump of potatoes. When I accidently stab one, it bleeds.

 

Success.

Sort of. Karli gets a small stand at an evening farmers’ market in downtown Oakland serving office workers getting off work and heading to the BART station.

“It’s a start, right?”

“Sure.” I stay home, planted on the sofa, losing myself in my game, while she goes alone.

Later, when I hear her key in the lock, I log off at once. My heart’s racing, either from a guilty conscience or the thrill of the game, I can’t tell the difference. Either way, I get off the game so fast that I stare at the door a few seconds before it swings open. As soon as I see Karli, I forget the game. She’s flushed, moving slowly.

“Don’t kiss me, I feel awful.”

I press my hand to her freckled cheek. “Come sit.”

Karli shuffles to the sofa, automatically glancing at my laptop with distrust, then plopping down and closing her eyes.

“I got decent money anyhow,” she says, with her eyes closed. “People liked the brandywine tomatoes.”

 

Ill.

Karli’s in the bathroom, throwing up. Then in bed, dead tired, she says. I’ve never seen her like this before and I’m not sure what to do. Her family’s in Los Angeles, so they’re no help. She just lies there, too exhausted to hold a book, indifferent to television.

“Tell me what to do.”

She sends me off to water the raised beds.

As soon as I climb down from the truck I feel eyes on me and the feeling remains while I move down the aisles with the hose, watering the ferny carrots, the rosettes of lettuces, the hulking tomato plants. I want to rush through the job, to skip the flowerbeds at the back of the yard, but I force myself to water deeply, properly, for Karli. When at last I turn off the water faucet, a deep growling sound sends me running to the truck. I scramble in and slam the door, ducking low. Then I stretch up and peer through the window to see who or what is out there. In the shadows at the back of our lot, three large, shaggy raccoons stand on their hind legs. They look back at me, unafraid. Their eyes are red, their mouths bloody.

 

Valley Fever.

“I think I know what you’ve got.” I’m at the kitchen table with my laptop.

“I think I know, too.” Karli speaks to me from the sofa. While I was away, she dragged herself out of bed, pulled on my red t-shirt over her naked body and came out here into the living room. Her pale legs stretch out in front of her. Her head’s back on the cushion, her eyes closed again.

“I Googled your symptoms and I think you have a kind of Valley Fever. Coccidioidomycosis. From spores in the soil. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get it. You have your face in the dirt more than me. Listen to this: ‘Dormant during long dry spells, it develops as a mold when watered. Spores are released into air by disruption of soil by construction, earthquake or farming…’”

“But that’s in the San Joaquin Valley.”

“It’s probably a new urban version.”

“I don’t think that’s what this is.” She’s in denial, smiling weakly at me from the sofa, pathetic, with limp strands of unwashed hair sticking to her forehead.

“Maybe we should take you to the hospital just in case.”

“Maybe you should whirl me a cold strawberry smoothie instead. That would settle my stomach, I think.” She’s grinning, now, and hungry for the first time in two days, comforted, I suppose, because I’ve named her illness, sticking a scientific label on it.

 

Out of Bed.

“We need to harvest the snow peas and sugar snaps before they grow too big and tough to sell.”

Karli’s lost a week to illness, but now she stands in the middle of the bedroom in a blue shirt, underpants and socks. Her jeans are bunched up under a chair where she can’t see them.

“You get back under the covers,” I tell her. “I’ll go.”

“I want to go. I feel lots better.”

“You just puked again.”

“That’s normal. I’m fine.”

She spies her jeans, darts a reproachful look my way, and bends down to swoop them up.

 

Too Quiet Before the Storm?

Our farm seems empty of life, hot and still. We pick in silence. Karli tires quickly, going slower and slower.

“You take them to the market,” she says when we’ve picked the last vine clean of pods. “I’ll try to weed.”

As I unlock the gate I notice the owner of the barbecue place next door trying to roust a ragged man from the doorway. The owner wants to open up, but the bum can barely stand. I’m near enough to see poor guy shaking and sweating. Could be he’s ill, not drunk. Floating spores may have carried the fever beyond our land. Or has the disease spread some other way? I ponder this while I drive to Sun Grocery and back.

When I step onto our land again, I find a small pile of grassy weeds tossed onto the packed earth between two raised beds, but no Karli. Then I see her sitting against the fence with her eyes closed. Beside her lies a dead bird, its eyes closed as well. She mustn’t wake to find the corpse beside her. On stealthy feet, I approach the pair of them, reaching out toward the bird. I squat and grab the body, still warm and soft, and back away silently with it in my hand. Karli remains asleep.

I turn to the closest vegetable bed and lay the bird, a robin, on the soil.   When I return with a trowel, the robin is standing up. It lunges at me and tries to bite me. Then it flies away.

Karli is calling to me, so I sit on the ground beside her, sliding my arm around her shoulder. She leans into me, her soft hair grazing my cheek as her head comes to rest on my shoulder.

“I think I saw a bird rise from the dead,” I tell her, though I don’t mean to speak of it. “I started to dig a grave for it. But it stood up again.”

“Maybe it was just stunned.”

“Maybe, but normal robins don’t attack people.”

“True…”

This excites me. I’m free to stop pretending. I sit up a little taller, shifting her body under my arm.

“…If it really attacked you. I think you imagined that.”

“What I think, Karli, is that you can’t bring dead earth back to life.”

“That’s not scientifically true,” she says softly, in her new, tired voice. “With compost it’s possible to revive soil and make it healthy, to reintroduce micronutrients and microbes.”

“Or if you do succeed, what you get is this horror. Lettuce that won’t decompose, that bird.”

“You’re wrong, you’re cynical. It’s simple, it’s natural. Brown leaves for carbon…” she chants in a low voice. “Wet vegetable matter for nitrogen…”

“I’ve heard all that before. This is not natural. These plants and animals, it’s like an army of the dead rising up around us.”

“You’re sick.”

“Ha!” I shift her potato-sack body again as I rock forward excitedly. “Why did I always know that sooner or later you were going to call me sick? That makes me mad, Karli. That sounds judgmental. I’m sick? You’re sick! Look at you, exhausted, sweating. I feel fine!”

Karli whimpers and rubs her face blindly against my shirt. “I don’t understand how you can talk the way you do,” she says in a muffled voice.            

She asks for a bottle of water from the cooler in the truck. On my way to get it, I stop and stare out through the fence. Three huge German shepherd dogs walk down the center of the street, not hurrying, their muscles moving under their thick coats. I’ve heard that feral dogs run around these parts, but I’ve never seen them before.

A man comes out of the barbecue place carrying a brown paper bag with a bit of foil-covered ribs peaking out. When he sees the dogs, he starts to hustle toward his car, taking the keys out of his pants pocket as he goes. Just as he reaches the car, the dogs catch up with him. Right in front of me, they rear up on their hind legs. Their jaws open wide, heads thrust forward on big necks. They bring him down.

 

Out of Control.

If our farm is ground zero for this disease, how far has it spread by now. Blocks? Miles?

I turn away from the street and look back into our farm, my eyes skimming over the vegetables beds and resting on Karli who sits looking ill, one hand on her belly, the other at her throat. I hate the disease working in her, but I can fight it. I can beat this. I can win.

Karli drinks noisily from the water bottle. She doesn’t realize yet that we will never return to this vacant lot. There will be no more planting, no more tender green sprouts.

“We need to go now,” I tell her.

Karli nods, wipes her mouth.

“Will you let me help you to the truck?”

“Yes, okay,” she says, as though giving up, as though handing the future over to me.

I raise Karli up from the ground and we start across the yard. I’m preparing myself for the drive back to the apartment, past feral dogs, or worse. I can do this. I just need to get into the zone.

“Okay, come this way. That’s right. Don’t look into the street.”

Again and again I hear the thud of the man’s head on the pavement when those three dogs brought him down. I see red blood mixing with barbecue sauce, cooked meat and raw.

Warm liquid stains the pavement, seeks and finds cracks in the asphalt, seeps into the earth below. The blood feels like my own, hissing in my veins as it spreads through the earth, humming with billions of spores. Out of death emerges new life. The blood’s pollution germinates, unfurls and spreads. Darkness seeks darkness.

SimoneMartelSimone Martel is the author of a memoir, The Expectant Gardener, and a story collection, Exile’s Garden. She’s published essays and stories in many journals including Hip Mama, Horticulture, and The Main Street Rag. After studying English at U.C. Berkeley, Simone operated an organic tomato farm near Stockton. She’s working on a novel based on that experience.