The Digging Lady


by Sara Dobbie


 

Amid the tall grasses near the front of the house, Gretchen opens her eyes. Stretches her limbs slowly, savoring the elasticity of every muscle. Mid-morning sunbeams filter through the leaves of the maple tree, speckling her skin with bits of shadow and light. Waking from dreams invariably leaves her with a sense of certainty. She smiles, sighs, and for a brief moment remembers everything, knows everything. A flash of images floods her mind, all the faces, all the names. Wilfred, her love. Agnes, their daughter. Agnes to be married, a spring wedding at home. Gretchen never thinks to hold on to them, and so they disintegrate.

Her hands hurt, and she curls her fingers into fists, releases them. Raises them up to examine the blisters on her palms. Sits up quickly, scurries into a crouch to search through the clumps of zebra grass near the daffodils. There, hiding beside a scattered array of freshly dug holes, is her bulb planter. Down on her knees, she places firm pressure on the tool and it slices down into the earth. Something about all the excess dirt sliding away unsettles her. She twists it and turns it, then draws it back up to reveal yet another hole. But where are the bulbs? Or was it seeds she wanted?

Voices whisper through the tiger lilies screening the sidewalk, the jarring clatter of approaching footsteps. Gretchen crawls toward them lithely, separates the bending blades of green to peer out from behind the picket fence that edges her yard. A girl and a boy, one big, one little. The little one knows she’s there, and stops dead in his tracks. “What’s that lady doing?” he asks the girl, and Gretchen freezes like a rabbit because if she keeps absolutely still, they’ll go away. She wants to hiss at the little one. Wants to throw a stone at the big one. Is it possible that she could have been a child once? Would she ever have one of her own?

“Never mind,” says the big one, “keep walking.” The pair hurry away and Gretchen exhales. Smooths her silken hair away from her forehead in relief. Begins gathering it to one side, loosely braids the strands. Down and down she braids before she lifts up the ends, shocked to see that the chestnut brown curls have thinned and whitened, as though a hundred years have passed since this morning. Her hands and wrists, caked with dirt and feathered with cuts and scrapes, appear to be disguised in someone else’s old, wrinkled skin.

She allows herself to sink into a sitting position, crisscross applesauce, and looks up at the house. Two stories of red brick, her stately fortress. But how did the glass in so many windows get smashed? And why was the screen door lying broken on the porch? Gretchen notices there are too many weeds in the garden, too many holes in the lawn. Drops to all fours and starts digging out dandelions with her fingers. She must find those bulbs as well, if she wants to have everything ready. But ready for what?

A garden shovel glints in the grass. Gretchen grabs it and starts digging. Digs up some irises, transplants them. Digs up some crocuses, transplants them. Exhausted, she lets the shovel fall and lies down for just a minute, rests her head on an open bag of peat moss. Warm and comfortable, she watches the fluttering wings of a monarch that’s landed in the grass. Drowsiness overtakes her, and she does not resist the heavy pull of slumber.

They’re with her again. Agnes, insisting on tulips in every color, for the wedding. They come so close that she can smell Wilfred’s sweat mingling with his cologne, can feel the fabric of Agnes’s cotton dress rustling against her. A startling bang jolts Gretchen, an inordinate crashing. Falling dirt, shovels and tears. She sits up too fast, suppresses the scream in her throat. Struggles to slow her heavy breathing until her body relaxes, giggling as whatever thoughts had frightened her dissolve into the spring air.

The tin watering can sits bent and rusted near the crumbling driveway. Gretchen retrieves it, wonders where the hose has gotten to. She begins to fret because water is a necessity. And then there are the missing seeds, or were they bulbs? Down on her knees again, scratching in the dirt.

There is so much work to do if she wants to be ready in time.

 


Sara Dobbie is a Canadian fiction writer from Southern Ontario. Her work has appeared in Mooky Chick, Trampset, Spelk, The Cabinet of Heed, Bandit Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, and elsewhere. Look for stories forthcoming from Knights Library Magazine and Change Seven Magazine, and follow her on Twitter @sbdobbie.