FICTION | things from the dirt sometimes come out
On the day she came back from the dead, she tied her hair back. She pulled a red ribbon from the front pocket of her wrinkled jeans, watched it twist n the wind for a moment, and twined it into her hair. The hair between her fingers was soft, though she had not washed it for days. She brushed a few hesitant clumps of dirt from her shoulders.
She stood for a moment, there amid the grasses, her feet atop the soil, the sunlight unchanging where it touched her. The air on her skin was air on her skin, the same as it had been the day before. The breath in her lungs pushed her belly inwards and outwards.
On the day she came back from the dead, she walked toward home. It was early summer, mid-afternoon, the sky unfurling in gray sheets above her. The path she followed wound downhill, first through places of dappled forest, where green plants and branches overhung, then spitting her out, onto the street. Before she placed a bare foot on the sidewalk, she plucked a single leaf from a small plant, already half-decayed, slipped it between her fingers, and held it up to her nose. Letting it go, she watched as it spun in the light breeze, unmoored. She walked.
The town was covered in strangers. They swarmed the roads and sidewalks, smiling and saying hello to her as they passed, one hand held high in salutation. The strangers nodded, tipped their hats. She bent her neck in kind, accidentally shaking loose twigs from her head, in her hair, behind her ears.
She paused in front of the window of the coffee shop. Between the young people bent over books and laptops, and the pastors leading their Bible studies, was her own distorted reflection. In the gray unsun she saw in her reflection a person that looked like any other person, a person who had never died. On the other side of the glass, a young girl, fingers flicking the gold-leafed pages of her holy book, looked up. Their eyes met. The young girl grimaced, quickly moving her gaze back onto the glossed paper.
She waved goodbye to no one and kept walking, her legs stepping one by one, stiff. She felt an affinity between herself and every red thing. Every small, crimson bud on every delicate plant, every leaf prematurely crusting, every cherry-bright sportscar that swept past her.
When she arrived at the freshly painted door, she knocked, once, twice. From inside she heard the bells of their voices. She looked down at her feet, shoeless, smudged with dirt. She looked at her feet for a long while.
“Oh,” her sister said, flinging the door wide. “We weren’t expecting you.”
Her sister stood to one side to let her in. Their mother sat on the carpet, legs splayed, with her niece prancing between her thighs.
“Look at her,” her mother said from the floor. Her mother was laughing, looking at the giggling child. The little girl was shuffling back and forth between her grandmother’s legs, the fingers of her hand spread as far as they would go. The toddler landed on her grandmother’s right leg, slapped her open palm against the knee, looked up at the face above her, and made a noise caught between a laugh and scream.
She bent her spine to sit across from her mother, on the explosively colorful carpet, grasping her right leg in her hands, pushing at her frozen joints, to copy her mother’s pose. Her nephew came running out of the kitchen, shouting in a language all his own. The children were impossibly sized, energetic and boring.
Time passed, and she waited.
Her sister’s husband came through the back door, letting the screen of it slap lightly against the frame of the house. He carried a bag of animal feed, his head covered by a bucket hat. When he came into the house, the children ran toward him, howling long, pitchless screams. “Oh, hello,” he said when he saw her, bending his head to her in greeting.
She nodded to him, sprinkling a few broken twigs onto the carpet.
At dinner, the six of them sat clustered around the kitchen table. The boy was sitting next to her and was singing. Her sister had made a kind of casserole that she did not know the name of, with black beans, tomatoes, onions, and chicken forming the core of it, topped with a thick layer of cornbread. The boy was eating with his fingers, picking up one bean at a time, examining each black globule, before jamming it into his mouth. Between beans, he made music outside of melodies. The little girl was crying.
When the boy’s belly was full and his plate was clean, he patted his stomach with his small hand. “Aunt,” he said. “Come dig with me.” He did not wait but ran barefoot out the back door.
In the backyard, the boy bent his knees in the soil. She folded herself to copy him. “We’re looking for treasure,” he told her. He plunged his fingers into the dirt, pawing. She grasped the handle of a plastic shovel that had been discarded nearby.
“Here,” she said. The blade sliced the earth open.
“Good job,” he said. His small fingers grasped at the clots of soil. “We’re looking for treasure.”
She lost count of how many times he reminded her why they were there, how many times he, not paying attention, put his small fingers in the shovel’s path, how many times she asked him if they’d found what they were looking for.
She held up a small rock for his inspection. “Is it treasure?”
“No, that’s just a rock,” he told her. When she asked such empty questions, he shook his head at her, as if she should know better.
Above them, the colors of the sky were fading, the stars and sliver moon beginning to appear. The last thing she wanted was for night to find her there, in the dirt, as if she had never left.
“Let’s go inside,” she said. “Let’s go see what your mom is doing.”
“But we’re looking for treasure,” he said.
“But I’m tired and we can look for treasure tomorrow.”
“But someone will come and steal it.” The boy began to dig faster. “The pirates left something here just for us and someone will come and steal it.”
She did not ask how pirates could have come to this landlocked place, or who, in the boy’s mind, was coming to steal whatever gift they had left.
There was a speck of something green, wiggling in the dirt. She gasped, letting her lungs fill. She pointed.
“It’s the treasure!” the boy said. He held the small green worm up to her eyes. On his finger, it looked like the bud of a leaf.
“Let’s show your mother,” she said, standing to usher him inside, a furtive glance tossed over her shoulder.
They walked back to the house, both barefoot, both leading the other, the boy watching the worm move across his finger. She held the door open for him and waited. When the wood of the door closed behind her, her body shook, just once, a single shiver passing from the back of her neck, exposed, down her spine, spreading to her fingers.
Her niece was already asleep.
When death came for her, it came like a friend, soft-mouthed and kind-footed. She had never been good at making boundaries with friends. When it came for her, she had not been able to say no. She had not tried to come back, had not even asked, but there she was, in her sister’s kitchen, her chest moving, her hair tied back with the red ribbon the nurses had given her before she died, watching her nephew hold a small, green, wiggling creature up on the tip of his pointer finger, for her sister to inspect.
Her own mother had already left, without saying goodbye, to sleep early and prepare for the next day’s work.
After the boy was put to bed, when the husband was in the kitchen washing dishes, her sister turned the television on. “I’m so exhausted,” she said, “but if I don’t make time for myself after the kids are asleep, I don’t have any time for myself. It helps me to feel like a full person, you know?” She nodded. “And you?” her sister said. “How are you, really?”
She raised her arms, untied the ribbon. Ran her fingers through her hair before tying it back up, looking the same as it did before. She did not have words and so did not say them.
“It must be weird, huh?”
She nodded. It was weird.
“I should go to sleep soon,” her sister said. “You’re welcome to stay the night if you want, but I’ll warn you, the kids get us up early.” She shook her head. “Yes,” her sister said. “I understand wanting to sleep in after a day like this.”
They stood and wrapped their arms around one another. She leaned into the smell of sweet peas and baby powder that clung to her sister’s hair. She held on a moment too long, there in the safety of her sister’s arms, her muscles still taught when her sister began to let go. When they pulled apart, she saw a small leaf, brown and cracked, resting on her sister’s shoulder.
“Will I see you soon?”
The door opened and night fell everywhere. Barefoot, she stepped out, waved goodbye to her sister.
On the day she came back from the dead, she walked out, alone, into the night.
She moved haltingly, her muscles forgetting their purpose, going in the direction of a park that the city had abandoned long ago. It was not late, but it was dark, and the houses rested back behind their lawns, shrouded, unreachable. The park was empty, save for a large metal pole that used to be a basketball hoop, and a decorative rock that she sat upon. When she undid her hair, to stare at the red ribbon, there was no breeze. In the darkness, the ribbon was drained of all color, and she held on to the memory of red. It had been a gift, in the hospital, only a few days before. It came with her to the ground, and came with her back up, vibrant, crimson, as if it had never been buried.
With her dirty fingernails, she began to pick at ribbon, to frill its edge. She had gone to a nowhere place, had come back, and fell silent in the face of things that did not fit into words. She pulled threads of the ribbon, gently, mechanically. A few threads came loose. Long and frail, she wound the useless strings around her wrist. A reminder to herself, to the night sky.
There, alone in the park, the world around her falling deeper into a threatless darkness, she put her palms against her back. She pushed at the muscles, forcing herself to sit straight, tall. She then slipped the index finger of her right hand between her parted lips, licked dirt off her skin. She reached back in her mouth, felt the hollows where her wisdom teeth used to be, before they were removed years ago. The tip of her finger rested in the wet cavern.
It was not death that had muted her, nor had covered her in a gauzy film, but the coming back. The still-breathing. The double rising and falling of her chest, a set of lungs and a heart throbbing, out of sync. The fact of her legs grew sores beneath her, pressed as they were against the unmoving rock. The pull of her stomach, the droop of her eyes. Her skin, still dirty, contained the things of her. How can something so singular, so ungainly, be spoken, she wondered. She had never heard of anyone coming back, but then again, she had never asked anyone either.
She spent the night there, awake on the rock, breathing every breath, tasting the staleness of her mouth mixing with the humid night air, longing for rain, just to see if it would feel different now, after.
She waited, marking the undecipherable language of her pulse, watching as the sky began to brighten, the sun sneaking above her. A mosquito had bitten her arm. A large bump was rising on her skin.
In jerking movements, she picked herself up from the rock. She was tired. Nearby, the town diner was opening. She went toward it.
In the diner, she sat next to other bleary-eyed people, preparing for the day. She looked askance at the coffee mug they placed in front of her, full of hot brown liquid. She cupped her hands around the ceramic, the heat painful on her palms. She crouched within the noise of others, the conversations, the silverware tapping against plates, the click of the waitress’ shoes against the linoleum. She hid between the slouched backs of strangers.
On the day after the day she came back from the dead, she took a long drink of coffee. The scalding liquid burned every pocket of her mouth. She ran her fingers through her hair and tied it tight with the fraying red ribbon. She waved to the waitress, her right hand in the air, scattering dirt onto the counter.
“Can I get an omelet please?”
She sat listening, waiting, indistinguishable from the people around her, hungry and wanting.
Madeline Kinkel has work in or forthcoming from Heavy Feather Review, Yemassee, and Nightingale Magazine. She is a co-translator of a book of Lida Yusupova's poetry, forthcoming from Cicada Press, and was an Aspen Words Emerging Writers Fellow in 2020. To stay up-to-date with the author, be sure to follow her on Twitter @mads___.
Photograph by Jakub Kriz