Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
SPENT EARTH
b y   c a t h e r i n e   s c h e r e r   ~   c h i c a g o ,   i l l i n o i s

A GROWN man went out into his mother's backyard and put a gold picture frame around a patch of earth he had cleared of weeds. "It is all spent earth," his mother had said. "My garden is a rankle of weeds and spent earth."

She always allowed her words to mean more than she said, yet she would not tell her own son what more they might mean.

"Is that any way to treat an adult," he said bitterly, "to talk in secrets around the house as if trying not to wake the ears of children?" His mother had often said to his father, "Hush, speak softly, little pitchers have big ears." Every day, seven days a week, "hush, speak softly," as if their only child were still asleep upstairs.

A grown man went out into the backyard and made bare a patch of earth just big enough to fit within a picture frame. He raked salt into the ground to make it sterile.

His mother accused him of being salt and rubbing himself into her wounds. He rubbed himself against her raw places, she said. He protested his innocence and she said, "Just because you don't see me bleed," and he had wanted to say, "Stone and bone don't bleed. You can't bleed, old witch." But he had not said it aloud.

His mother's cat came and sat down inside the picture frame.

"All right," he said. "I will call it 'Picture Perfect Garden with Cat'."

He sprinkled salt in the cat's fur. The cat, liking the taste of salt, folded itself double to lick itself. The man felt his mother watching him from the window. He turned quickly and caught the curtain trembling with her breathing. He turned back to his work and felt the tickle of her breath on the back of his neck. "You see, old lady," the man said inside his head, "I am making you your Picture Perfect Garden. Now you will have nothing to complain of."

He knelt, bending the grass. His whole weight ached in his knees and his thighs trembled. He took plastic flowers, one by one, from the satchel at his side, an old purse once his mother's, big and black as a horse doctor's bag.

His mother's cat came and poked its nose sharp as a needle into his hand. It sniffed the unscent of plastic lily of the valley, little scalloped bells stiff and sticky with ages of dust.

"All right," the man said. "I will call it 'Picture Perfect Garden Without Cat'."

"That's what getting old means," his mother often said. "My body is as spent as the earth in my garden."

Then she often said, "You cannot know what I mean, you are not yet old enough, you are not my contemporary."

Then he often said, "If you wanted me to be older, you should have let me grow up sooner."

Sometimes she said the same thing in different words. She said, "You are not getting any younger."

Then he heard the threat in her voice and wanted to wail, "Because you won't let me."

Sunday night she had said, "I am going into my room and locking the door. You won't have to bother about me ever again."

He hadn't said anything, just went on eating the salted herring she had prepared for him. But he had thought, "When you begin to stink, I'll know you're dead. Then, I'll put you in a trash bag and leave you out by the curb for the garbage pick-up." Then he thought, "It is just like my mother, always shutting me into and out of boxes, it is so like her."

Behind the closed door of her room she existed in her own time. He was tempted to barricade his side of the door so she couldn't get out, then he was afraid she had barricaded her side of the door so he couldn't get in. She hung something gauzy like lace over the doorknob and when, attracted by the music, he squatted to spy through the keyhole, he thought he saw a young girl dancing naked in his mother's room.

The girl had a younger version of his mother's face and might have been his sister if he had had a sister. It was his mother's face as it sometimes came to him in dreams from which he awoke filled with disquieting desire.

He rattled the doorknob and shouted, "Who's in there? Who do you have in there with you?" He did not say, "I want to be in there with you." He did not say, "Please, Mama," because he was now a grown man. He only rattled the handle and cursed to himself, "She is more trouble to me now than when she was underfoot all over the house."

In the evenings after his solitary supper, he brought his chair and sat outside her closed door and listened to her footsteps in the room. In the evenings she put on high-heeled shoes and he tried to put the click of her steps into the pattern of the narrow room as he remembered it. But her heels seemed to click on and on, an unaltering and precise tapping. It grew fainter and fainter, fading away from him, as if the wall of her room were pushed back and the floor were opening into a long corridor down which the sound of his mother's steps disappeared. Like a hospital corridor, he thought once, and he wondered if, as a little boy, he had ever been in the hospital and had listened just this way to the sound of his mother going away from him when the visiting hours were over. He could not remember it ever happening, but his mind said with conviction, "I have heard it sound this way somewhere before."

Then he would sit up in the chair most of the night, waiting for the sound of his mother's footsteps to return. Early in the mornings, he heard them tapping in the distance, getting louder, coming closer, back into the room. Sometimes her steps were unsteady and once he thought he heard her say, "Oh, Raoul," and her voice sounded strangely young. Once he was sure she shushed someone in a rather impish tone: "Don't! Everyone's asleep! You'll wake my father." Then she had giggled -- a girlish, carefree, slightly drunken giggle. As if she could take nothing with quite-adult seriousness anymore.

Sitting in the chair, listening, he felt as if he were wearing clothes slightly too large for him, still waiting to grow into them, as his mother said did happen. His mother had said so many things within the confines of these rooms that perhaps the words had gotten into the walls and now the empty rooms spoke the familiar phrases back to him, but whether it was to ease his loneliness or to deepen it, he did not know. He distrusted the rooms as much as he distrusted his mother.

As a little boy he could barely understand her, what she called her "sense of humor." He would be playing and he would smell the spicy odors of her baking in the kitchen. He would smell her coming in a cloud of spicy odors with a still-warm muffin in her hands. She would tiptoe and he would know enough not to turn around until she reached the muffin under his nose with an ice cube stuck in the top, melting and dripping in her hand. She called it "icing the cake." She could barely suppress her giggles at his solemn and bewildered face. And he had hated her for it.

He didn't know then that it was hatred he felt, but he felt it now and knew it for hatred. "I hate you, old lady," he said, but too softly, given the thickness of the closed door. He wanted to pound his fists against the door, but when he moved close to it he only whispered to the grain of the wood "Sleep well, Mama" because he was a grown man and in control of himself.

A grown man went out into his mother's garden and lay down in the grass to stare into the sky. His mother's cat came and sat on his stomach, kneading. She had called this cat Leapy Lizard and Bugs Bunny and now he thought he heard it repeating, under the motorized rumble of its purring, "What's up, Doc? What's up, Doc?" Everything she ever did got into his mind and fueled his imagination.

When he was a boy she was always painting the ceiling of his room. Once she painted it blue for a sky with lazy white clouds and faint daytime stars. And in one corner, as if just disappearing into his closet, the tip of an angel's wing. "It could be only a bird's wing," she said, as if she didn't know. Then just when he began to feel safe under that sky, he came home from school one day and found she had painted the ceiling of his room green for a garden, with tulip borders and the eyes of shy creatures peeking out from among the grass blades. And she had said a dreadful thing. "You can lie in your bed and pretend you are the sky above the earth." It alarmed him. He didn't dare close his eyes. All night he tossed and turned to make the bed creak for company and keep him awake. He was afraid that he would either fall out of bed and down to the earth or float out of bed and up to the sky. He didn't know which. He had cried day after day with weariness and finally his mother gave in and painted his ceiling white. And his floor white. And she said, "Now you are safely sandwiched between two slices of bread." She said then, "Your literal mind will be the death of me." She said, "My sense of humor is that of an adult while yours is still that of a child."

A grown man lay in the grass in his mother's garden and saw blackness spreading across the sky. The air became thick and heavy around him and he breathed with difficulty. In the house, locked in her room, his mother was getting younger. Every morning, although he didn't see her, he knew she came home with a different, younger face. Because of her, every morning as he looked at himself in the mirror he saw a younger version of his own face staring back at him.

In his mother's garden, he turned on his side and curled himself up into a tight ball like a cat. The dark sky dropped down to the earth and enfolded him in its warm flesh.

He heard the heartbeat of the sky, faint yet distinct, and he murmured to it, "I had to run away from you once, I had to, I'm sorry."

And his mother's sky murmured to him, "I will not make the same mistake twice."

This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize

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