Earth Eating as Suppression
Up the hill behind Pawpaw’s shed, Reese dug in a good bank, pulling handfuls of slippery clay out onto the upturned lid of a garbage can. She squeezed it in her hands, leaving them crimped into mucky dinosaurs. It had rained for a solid week that February and, even at her age, she’d learned the best harvests came in winter. Winters in the Carolina piedmont were like what folks up north call mud season, though we’re almost never thawing out frozen. We stay misted and sinking in the ground from November through March. Nobody ever dreamed of a dirty little Christmas, which was almost always what we had. Our trees were trimmed a little more around the bottom after having sat on lots for any time, dirt huddled in the needles, sometimes knee high. As soon as the carpets and upholstery got cleaned up, the dogs would take one sloppy lap around the property—tongues flying—then come barreling in the doggie door and paint the den crusty red again, the whole time smiling jowly smiles the way only hound dogs could. Pawpaw and Gammie couldn’t stay mad for long. Those dogs were the only thing that made them laugh after a lifetime of scraping by and burying all fifteen of their combined siblings. Both were the last of their families save for their daughter Verbena and her girl, Reese. They didn’t count Reese’s daddy no more. Not since he ran off with a blonde who wasn’t half as pretty or tall or smart as Verbena. They couldn’t make heads or tails of it, so they chewed their lips and rubbed their chins and said yes every time they were asked to look after their little tomboy.
Reese had slipped and landed on her knees some time ago, but was so engaged with digging, she’d barely noticed how filthy her new jeans were until the cold soaked in and spread up to her hips. Her fingertips had numbed and her nose prickled in the February air. Daylight waned and the flood lights clicked on, leaving a warm halo to aid her work. Gammie and Pawpaw would holler for her to come in any minute. She wanted to get as much mud as she could before that happened. As her hands stiffened, she rolled a glob in her palms, gently massaging the tender flesh at the base of her thumbs. With one final squeeze, she dropped the last handful on top, wiped the rest on her pant legs because it didn’t make no difference anymore, and scooped up the aluminum platter with both hands, just as Gammie did any time she served fried chicken to a crowd. Reese’s plate was just as special.
Getting up the steps took a ballerina’s grace and posture, but when Reese reached the door, she realized she wouldn’t be able to jar the thing loose without a grown up’s help. The house had settled and the ground had shrunk and swollen a million times over between the extreme droughts of summer and the deluge of cooler months. Reese thought a lot about what would happen to her body if she could shrink and swell on the same level of that good red dirt. Would she lizard? Would she water moccasin? Would she worm? She would hole up in a ground nest in summer and lie in wait for a fuzzed creature just as she had preened herself free of hair and demands. Pawpaw must’ve heard her jingling around the door because just about the time she’d gotten frustrated enough to throw her mud plate, his haunting silhouette appeared behind the café curtains. He tapped on the glass, asking her if she wanted in.
“Maybe I want to get in of my own accord,” Reese said.
“Suit yourself,” he said, trying to hide the smile in his voice. But as he stepped away, she changed her mind.
“Pawpaw,” she said, no longer fighting balance and full hands and swollen doors. “I got something for you and Gammie.”
“Well, then,” he said, pulling the door open with a jolt. “I’ll take payment upon entry.”
Reese walked through the kitchen where a pot of collards spit and hissed in the pressure cooker and okra cooled on paper towels. Her stomach growled thinking about the cornmeal crunch and the hint of char from the last ones spooned out of the hot grease. On the other side of the kitchen, Gammie was down in the den working a puzzle on a TV tray while the dogs snored next to her. The castle at Magic Kingdom. She had the spires and turrets, but the bottom had yet to be filled in.
“Remember when we met Goofy?” Gammie asked.
“He had the best ears and smelled like ketchup,” Reese said, placing her mud plate on top of the puzzle.
“What have we got here? Looks like someone’s been up the hill harvesting mud.”
“The good stuff,” Reese said. “That bit of sour you can’t get nowhere but here.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had a good bit of mud. Folks don’t eat it like they used to.”
“Only ignorant people partake in such things,” Pawpaw said. “Women in particular.”
“Don’t pay him no mind, baby.”
“I didn’t have time to make it into pies before supper. It gets dark so early now.”
“Come here and sit on my lap and we’ll make the patties together.”
They sat rolling the mud until it dried in their hands. Gammie told her how her mother salted and baked the clay in the oven and drizzled apple cider vinegar on top, breaking it with her fork while it was still warm. “Some folks won’t never understand the desire to let the earth melt under the tongue, to let the thousands of microbes disseminate into the body, to suppress the unnamable pain growing in the belly,” she said. “Your mama sure doesn’t,” she said, raising a piece to Reese’s lips and catching the crumbs.
Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. She serves as Fiction Editor over at Little Fiction | Big Truths. Her work has been selected as Longform.org’s Fiction Pick of the Week, nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award, Best of the Net, and The Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in Re:AL, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Minnesota Review, Hot Metal Bridge, and Little Patuxent Review, among others. She lives in Charlotte with her husband and enough rescue pets to make life interesting.
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