by L B Gschwandtner

Katelyn steps into her boots, the ones that come up past her shins, the ones she stripped of laces last summer. Heavy boots with deep treads in the thick rubber soles. No socks. It’s early, not yet seven. She drinks tea from a mug. Small sips. She looks around for the elastic band she uses to tie back her hair and finds it on the wooden loveseat she made ten years ago when she and Greg bought here to create a summer retreat in Vermont. She feels the pressure of the season. When spring arrives, plants respond to the sun’s rays with an exuberant growth spurt while gardeners take to the earth in a frenzy of planting.

Today the sky is already hinting at a bright blue. Clear, cool air, no breeze yet. Spiders have been hard at work overnight. New webs glisten with dewdrops that will soon disappear in the sun. The scent of earth and lilac reaches into the barn where Katelyn and Greg do most of their living. It’s an old dairy barn built by a farmer who once battled the ubiquitous stones that make Vermont unfit for most crops. When pulled out of the earth, carrots look like corkscrews, their downward drive diverted by unyielding stones. Still gardeners need to garden. No matter what the inhibitions.

Katelyn places her tea mug on the board next to the dry sink. She’ll rinse it later by turning on the tap at the end of a copper pipe leading from the rainwater collection tub on the roof. The tap hovers above the sink that drains out under the barn. This barn is still a barn. No improvements save the very minimum.

She steps into the morning light and gazes down past the barn at the dark brown earth of the vegetable garden. Across from the barn door that Greg has permanently propped open for the summer with a large beige rock, one of several of last year’s flower gardens awaits the hoe and rake. Off the path and on a slight upward incline, a bottle tree pokes upward, the pointed ends of its dead limbs sprouting blue, green, clear and brown bottles turned upside down. It’s surrounded by lilac bushes, which are only just in bloom. The bottle tree has withstood another winter and to its right, at the top of the path, an archway that Greg constructed for Katelyn nine years ago has been overgrown with vines grasping in every direction. Katelyn will get to those later.

The early chill causes her to shiver. Her breasts shake as she moves; her nipples pucker. She hugs herself for warmth but the boots are all she will wear. She braids and then ties back her long black hair with the hairband and sets off down the slope to where she left her gardening tools, her peach skin stark against the green of the new leaves. She is not camouflaged. She is the exotic in her garden.

“The house is kind of a wreck,” Greg said when they first saw the property.

“You know,” she said, “we could ignore the house.”

“You mean fix up the barn instead of the house? It might cost less.” Greg was figuring expenses in his head.

“We can sleep in the chicken coop.” She pointed to the freestanding low building beyond the barn. “We could fix that up ourselves. And we could use the barn for a kitchen and eating space,” Katelyn suggested.

“Kind of like camping out, with a few more conveniences,” Greg said. “I could see that. It could be fun for the summers.”

“I just want it to be very simple. I don’t want us to stress over anything,” Katelyn told him.

“Agreed,” he said. “As long as we can use the toilet inside the house, I’m game.”

It was hard work, getting to this simplified life. During that first summer, they gradually came to understand just how many things they did not need.

They tilled and planted vegetable and flower gardens. They raked out the chicken coop and scrubbed it with disinfectant, built a bed frame and platform out of old wood, carried a new mattress from their old Toyota wagon, hung a screen door and stapled screening in front of the wavy old windows that pulled up from outside. They nailed leather belts from Goodwill to the coop’s eaves and attached these by the buckles to hooks at the bottom of each window frame to hold the windows open.

Katelyn painted the inside of the coop with bright, bold colors, scenes of birds and ferns and flowers and insects. They lined the low walls with book cases and built small bedside tables out of weathered walls from a half crumbled shed.

One night they lay on the grass between two odd shaped flower beds. When it turned dark and dots of light began to emerge in the night sky, Greg turned to her and sighed.

She took his hand and they lay watching what was unseen in the sky during the day reveal itself slowly, in excruciating detail.

She arrives at the only garden plot and begins at one end, chopping at the soil with a hoe, working up and down the rows loosening the earth, uprooting whatever stones have appeared over the winter, decimating the weeds that have sprouted. She will work in the garden until almost noon. Until her boots are caked with earth. Until sweat runs down her neck, between her breasts, down her back, between her butt cheeks. She swipes her forehead with her upper arm. It is time to stop. She watches a swallowtail darting through the trees. The way it lilts along makes her smile and she listens to the nearby calls of redwing, titmouse, wren, waxwing, warbler and the raucous jay.

She will sow the seeds in the evening. Now she walks quietly down the hill toward the pond. She sits against the sloped side of the erratic stone at the starting point of the long pond. The stone is warm from the morning sun, glittering a little here and there with bits of embedded mica.

Katelyn pulls off her boots and wiggles her toes in the fresh air. She climbs up on the flat white quartz top and stands looking into the pond. The water is clear. She takes a step forward, sees her reflection and then jumps, splashing cold water onto the rock. The shock makes her skin tingle. She swims quickly. Down the length of the pond and back, stroke after stroke, thirty, forty, fifty times. After swimming she suns on the rock.

They eat dinner in the barn, at a wooden table sitting on mismatched chairs they’ve found here and there. The ceiling is low. Small square windows at seated eye level show the rolling green hills beyond the barn. Each spring Greg and Katelyn shovel bat shit from the barn, but the chicken coop is impregnable except for the occasional black snake curled up at the foot of the bed. Tonight they eat salad, not yet from their own garden, and pickled beets Katelyn put up last summer. Greg has grilled a trout on a steel rack over a wood fire in a stone pit they made the first summer. Every year he restacks the stones in a small circle after winter snows, thaws, and freezes have pushed them out of round.

“Oh look,” Katelyn points out the barn door opening. “Rain’s coming.”

“Did you get the seeds in?” Greg asks.

“I planted everything. I hope it’s not a downpour. I wouldn’t want the seeds to wash out,” she watches the darkening sky.

Clouds roil one atop the other, dark and light grays mixing together as they roll from east to west. The trees take on a livid green against the glowering light. The first grumble of thunder reaches the barn. Greg and Katelyn stand at the doorway. Katelyn’s hair blows back from her face. Greg slides his arm around her waist and they lean against each other as rain begins pelting the ground and the barn roof.

It doesn’t take long for the seeds to sprout and grow. They’re in a hurry now. Katelyn rises early one morning. Greg has already left for town. She pads across the coop to the screen door. Just outside the door she steps into her boots.

Today she will tame the vines that have run rampant over the years so that the archway is no longer passable. She walks to the barn in nothing but the boots, makes tea, braids her hair, wanders over to the outdoor shower and, shedding the boots momentarily, steps up onto the wooden platform against the side of the barn. Mornings are not so chilly now. There’s a small hot water heater inside the barn, fed by the rainwater collector tub. But Katelyn likes the cold water fresh from the sky. She turns the handle and stands under the shower long enough to wet her body. Then she turns it off and soaps herself all over before rinsing. She steps back into her boots and walks to the open barn to collect her pruning tools. She will dry in the air like a bird.

She begins with the thinnest vines, snipping and clipping as she goes, untangling one from another, looking at the leaves to discern which is wisteria that she wants to keep and which is an invader. The vines fall around her. Pretty soon she has carved out a space under the archway where she can stand to reach the inner vines. These are larger and she must change tools, work with a longer handled cutter to apply more pressure to the woody branches. The work is intense. She is consumed with it, unaware of everything else, birds, insects, butterflies, the sun coming up. The heavy boots on her feet. There is only the feeling of the pruner in her hands and the twisted vines she is sorting through. She is half hidden by cut branches still held up by the vines she is leaving. They hang around her like a robe, green and twitching as she shakes other branches with a snip snip of the pruner.

A branch falls to her shoulders and rests over her head, curling down her back. As she turns to loosen herself from the tangle, she comes to a stop facing the path and the barn where she left her tea mug. Standing there, about five feet from her on the path, as if he followed the sound of the pruner, a man in khakis, sport shirt and loafers faces her. He opens his mouth as if to speak, then shuts it abruptly.

Katelyn holds the pruner in both hands. She pulls the vine branch down from her head and stands there naked in her boots.

“Oh,’ he finally blurts out. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was just. I mean I, I mean we bought, I mean next door. Oh. Excuse me.”

But he doesn’t go. He stands staring at Katelyn, up and down as if he has never seen a woman before, like she is some exotic specimen he has come upon in the wild. He avoids her eyes but takes in everything else. Her shoulders, with bits of leaves and twigs stuck to them, her breasts, which are large and full and now slightly, but only slightly, heavy with her age, hips plump and round, belly not flat anymore but rounded in proportion to the hips. It is her legs that seem to unnerve him the most, leading as they do to her incongruously heavy climbing boots.

She makes no attempt to cover herself. This is her turf. He has invaded. Like the vines. She stands her ground, stares straight at his eyes that refuse to make contact and then he suddenly turns and scoots back down the path and up toward the road where he must have left his car. Katelyn listens but hears no motor turn and then realizes he must have walked along the road to get here. Katelyn wonders what he wanted. A worry creeps into her mind. He looks suburban, she thinks. These newcomers must be city people. They will bring nothing she wants to this place. She returns to pruning the vines. Slits of sun now peek through where she has cut away invaders. She walks clear through the archway dragging the cut vines away to the compost pile at the edge of the wild woods.

Later, when she and Greg lie side by side on their bed in the chicken coop and he is reading and she is drawing the vines she cut today, she will not tell him about the intruder. She will store it as a talisman. Someday she may pass the man on the road or see him at the store. He will avoid her. They will not connect as neighbors. She will not free him from his trespass.

*

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
– Genesis 3.7

*

Six hundred miles south of Vermont, the growing season in Virginia begins before winter officially ends. Bulbs poke their spiked leaves up through the earth in late February almost as if they have been sent ahead as scouts to mark the way. Even if a late snowstorm blankets the ground, they pay it no mind and continue to search like beacons for the sun’s light. By late March forests look as if they are dusted with cayenne pepper. The perfume of lilac and wisteria float through the air. When oak trees come into bloom their pollen powders everything yellow.

Shereen sorts through a pile of hats by the back door and chooses a wide-brimmed straw with a pink gingham ribbon around the crown. It’s just past ten. Outside the day is already baking potato hot. The trees are deep green after spring rains that this year have continued into June. When she opens the door the sun blinds her until she pushes big round sunglasses onto her pert nose and pats the hat onto her stylishly trimmed blond hair. She slips her feet into red rubber clogs and, undressed except for these, makes her way along a neat stone path to the flower garden Wade created behind the garage. The house is set far back from Cleland Street, which is a right turn off Beauregard, which itself runs off Lee, the main road into what was once Poplar Hill Farm, which was plowed under to create Confederate Generals Subdivision. Shereen and Wade bought here eight years ago when his promotion came in, along with a bounce in salary and commissions.

“I never saw a man get so turned on by a raise,” Shereen told one of her customers at Curl Up & Dye while she was combing out a cut and perm. “He couldn’t even wait until after dinner.”

“Well consider yourself lucky. My husband practically needs a jolt from a stun gun to get him away from the TV long enough to … ”

“Oh, no, Wade’s never been one to need prompting. Good God that man spent twelve years with a frigid wife and I swear he’s been making up for those years ever since our first date. That first night we did it in the front seat of the car. He couldn’t even wait to get into my apartment.”

Her customer giggled. “He couldn’t wait to get into your pants, either.” Then she squinted at the mirror. “Do you think they’re too kinky? I mean the curls.”

“Ten years later we were doing it doggy style,” Shereen bent down to whisper into her customer’s ear, “and I realized I had jowls and they were flapping like a basset hound. That’s when I decided to get my first procedure.”

She drew out the word into one string of southern syllables – PRO-CEEEE-DYURRHH.

“I thought to myself, ‘Shereen, you are not going to become one of those middle-aged women with a sagging jaw and no neck. No sireee. No way, no how.’”

“Really? But you’re so young,” her customer’s eyebrows shot up and her mouth curled down. She studied Shereen, looking her up and down.

“After that first one I did my forehead and had lipo on my thighs and tummy.”

“Is that it then? Are you done?”

“I don’t know. But the one thing I’ll never have done is my boobs. I’ve always had great breasts.” Shereen grinned and spun the chair around, holding a hand mirror so the woman could see the back of her hair.

Their house is semi-modern, with a two story living room and huge glass panels. Wade fenced the garden eight feet high to prevent deer from leaping over it and strung it with a chicken wire mesh to keep rabbits from wriggling through. Shereen’s yappy Yorkie keeps the squirrels at bay. Today he’s asleep in his bed and barely raises his head when Shereen opens the back door.

She walks slowly to the shed, her bare skin heating in the sun, and collects tools and green cotton gardening gloves. She will spend the morning weeding, clipping, and finally cutting the first of the perennial blooms to bring inside. She has bags of mulch and sanitized, dried manure. She cuts the bags open and begins the process of spreading and working the manure into the soil for annuals. This year she and Wade took a spring vacation to Cabo. Her tan line still shows across her bottom and hips. She’ll plant store-bought seedlings instead of the neat rows of seeds she normally sows in early spring. Small beads of perspiration dot her chest. She uses the long-handled cultivator so she only has to bend slightly forward as she works the soil and manure together with the mulch. A combination of scents rise from the warm earth, mingling with L’air Du Temps rising off her own body.

“I want the garden to be completely private,” she told Wade that first year.

“No problem,” he answered.

He did just what she wanted. Invisible from Cleland Street and hidden from the front of the house, even if a delivery truck pulled up. She and Wade tested the layout from every possible angle before he placed the first fence post. Now rambling rose, trumpet vine, wisteria and clematis had fastened themselves to the wire mesh and interwoven onto all sides, creating a large flowered box. Wade even ran a cold water line, installed a hose bib, put in a T connection, and installed a shower head on a four-by-four cemented into the ground.

She runs the shower over herself after the morning’s work, standing with her head thrown back, letting the cool water race down her skin under the blazing midday sun. The birds are napping now. There is no hint of breeze. Bees buzz here and there among the flowers.

Later, when the sun falls behind the house, Shereen returns to the garden to plant the small seedlings. She steps into her clogs again but doesn’t need the sunglasses nor the hat at this time of day. She pulls on her gloves and carries the first flat of spring plants through the garden gate without closing it behind her.

Planting is a methodical operation. Shereen bends down to knock the seedlings out of their plastic flat. She separates the ones whose roots have connected. After poking her trowel into the soil and scooping out a hole larger and slightly deeper than the seedling root ball, she gently places it in the middle of the hole and then pushes the excess soil around to cover the roots. She tamps down the soil using the flat back of the trowel. She moves down the row repeating this procedure. Today she is planting tomatoes in a middle row of the garden. She will move on to green peppers, hot peppers (Wade likes Mexican food, the spicier the better), musk melons and finally she will plant one row of white shoe peg corn from seed, planning for a late summer harvest instead of July. This is an experiment. She has never planted corn so late.

As she empties the flat of tomatoes, her mind is quiet. There is only the earth, the plants, the evening air, the sounds of late spring on a hot day, birds calling to each other, a mower moving up and down in someone else’s yard a few acres away, and something else, below her awareness, something soft, rhythmic, not vegetable but animal. She stands and surveys the row she’s planted. It looks fine. She imagines the ripe vegetables that will come later. The firm beefy tomatoes and hot red peppers.

She pirouettes slowly to go back for the next flat, and, as she turns, she sees him standing by the fence, half hidden behind the vines, his blue eyes peering at her intently, completely focused on what he sees. He is breathing heavily as if he has run a distance to get here. His left hand clutches the fence post. His right hand is not visible. He is shaking slightly. But he is merely a boy. A blue-eyed neighborhood boy Shereen has seen no-hands bike riding past her house.

Shereen does not move. It is like she has startled a fawn. They both stand there as if nothing is out of place. And slowly, as the seconds tick by, Shereen realizes she is enjoying this moment, that she is happy to have the attention of this boy who will soon want more from such an encounter but who is now simply taking in what a woman’s body is. He stares at her intently, almost refusing to acknowledge that she sees him. Then she shifts her weight as if to take a step forward and, with one last intense stare at her pink nipples, he bolts and she hears him running across the grass, his sneakers thumping with each footfall, and then the sound dies away and she knows he must have left his bike in her driveway before creeping around the side of the house. She does not tell Wade when he comes home from work. When they make love that night, she remembers the boy, thinks about him while Wade is on top of her, while he turns her over to enter her from the side, while he mumbles her name and when he erupts inside her so that she feels his expansion and contraction until he is done and rolls away from her and lies back on their bed.

A week later, Shereen is driving home from the salon. She turns into Confederate Generals Subdivision on Lee Street and instead of turning off onto Beauregard, she continues straight and turns off at Stuart. She cruises down Stuart until the turn for Mosby, which she takes, although she has only been on this street once since they bought their house here. Mosby leads to Pickett and she turns off there and before she gets to the next street she sees him, the blue-eyed boy, coming towards her on his bike. He is long legged and wearing a raggedy T-shirt with a football logo splattered across the front. She slows; he speeds up, pumping the pedals harder. He whizzes by her car window riding on the wrong side of the street, his eyes averted, and she can see now he is blushing. She stares straight at him and as he slips by he turns his head for a moment and they make eye contact and then he looks away and she drives on until she can make the next turn and figure out how to circle back to Beauregard.

She will never tell Wade about the boy. He will not notice a slightly desperate change in her love making. She will forever after long for something, but she will not know for what.