The last thing I wanted to see, when I got home, was that I had company, but I did. Jimmy’s boy was scooting up and down the sidewalk on his scooter. As soon as I parked, the boy scooted up.
“Let’s look at the vegetables!” he demanded.
The vegetables were almost gone for the year, and I was exhausted. I’d been hiking again, mourning my failures, talking to my grief, and ended up on a long trail up and downhill around the lake. Then I’d had to pick up Adrienne from school and run the errands. I was hungry. My back ached. I wanted a nap.
But the boy looked so excited, I melted away. “Well… I think it’s about time to harvest the corn.”
I planted two magic circles of corn in the yard this year. You have to arrange your corn very close together, because corn pollenates by wind instead of by insect. If the cornstalks aren’t touching, you’ll get no grain at all. My technique is to plan the seeds snug together in a circle, or two circles, a figure eight of heirloom popcorn. Jimmy’s boy and I had watched with excitement as the corn popped up in tiny spikes, then grew up to our ankles, then to my knees and his waist, then up over his head, and finally over mine. The stalks went from green to yellow-brown, and now they were all dried out, making the noise that dried cornstalks make. The beans growing up the stalks were nearly all dead, and the squash had died off weeks ago. Corn was the last of the Three Sisters left to harvest.
“Now this is food,” I reminded the boy solemnly. “This is real popcorn. You scrape it off the ears like this, and then your mother can pop it in a big pot with oil and pour butter on it. It’s very good! Here, you can take half yourself, since you’re doing so much hard work.”
The boy started yanking at the ears, exalting.
There might come an age when harvesting food you grew yourself and sharing it with a neighbor is not exciting, but whatever that age is, I haven’t discovered it. It’s not five like Jimmy’s boy and it’s not nearly thirty-nine like me. It isn’t twelve either; Adrienne came around the side of the house to help. For awhile, we looked for ears of corn and tore them off the stalks, exalting in that sound that cornstalks make when you shake them: it’s a richer sound than paper or stiff cardstock. There’s something almost metallic about it.
I found a wolf spider living in a cone-shaped web between one ear of corn and the stalk itself, and I gently shook him into the bushes by the porch so he could build a new one.
Next, we found a grasshopper, the very largest grasshopper, a beast that was nearly as big as a mantid.
Adrienne carefully rescued him and held him on the edge of a dead leaf. I told her to release him in the kale.
Jimmy is still faithfully cutting her grass, until the family comes back to settle the estate. But the weeds have gotten out of control: they are up to the eave of her garage. The neighbor children aren’t afraid of her ghost anymore. They run through the yard when they play outdoors after school; I have even caught them climbing up to the garage roof during a game of Hide-and-Seek. This is what it was like before she moved here, the first year we rented this house eight years ago. Children would run back and forth through the different yards, and instead of shooing them away, we would all keep an eye on them. She ended that. She would scream and call the police and harass their parents with calls to social services.
“She is genuinely crazy,” one of the neighbors told me. “She used to come down to the funeral home at the beginning of every month after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and pay ahead for her funeral. Then at the end of the month she’d come back and say she wanted her money back because she wasn’t dead yet. And then she’d do it again the next month!”
I planted the kale in 2020, when the whole world shut down and I dug up the yard for a garden. The neighbor rampaged through it, tearing up everything she could, before she smeared her dog’s filth on our porch, but she didn’t get the kale. In 2021, when her cancer spread and her madness increased a hundredfold, she wouldn’t even let me in my yard. She would wait by the door so she could burst out and release the German Shepherd on a chain that was far too long, just to see me jump. After awhile I was so terrified I couldn’t go outside at all. The garden bed was never weeded. The kale lived through the winter and got so overgrown it was practically a tree. In 2022, when she was still trying to torture us, I snuck into the yard and uprooted that tree, and threw it on the disused compost heap. It did not die. It put down roots. When I came outside in 2023, after I realized she was finally gone, I found it feeding off the old compost and grown up into a bush. It had outlived her, and so had I.
One day I might not shudder with trauma when I hear a dog on a rattly chain, or the voice of a woman yelling a distance away, or find myself standing by the kale too close to her old property. I am getting there. But I am not healed yet.
Jimmy’s boy tore off a long blade from one of the cornstalks, and used it to shyly pet the grasshopper before we let him loose in the kale.
Then the three of us started yanking dead cornstalks up by the roots. The roots of corn unnerve me in a way I can’t say. There’s something uncanny about them. They look like alien feet.
We stacked the cornstalks on top of the compost, behind the kale, next to the porch were Jeanne the cat protects us from groundhogs: ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life. And then we picked the last few orange tomatoes on a vine that was almost dead.
“Later this week, I’ll plant bulbs. Tulips and daffodils and crocuses. You can join me. We’ll use the planters from the potatoes! Bulbs need to sleep in the cold all winter before they come to life.”
Jimmy’s boy went home with an armload of corn.
Adrienne went inside.
I sat on the concrete step, watching the sky go from blue to gray to black.
Am I happy here? In spite of everything? Could I ever be happy in a small town in northern Appalachia? Even though it’s nothing like the life I dreamed of?
I think that I could be.
I don’t think I am yet, but I could be.
The grasshopper sang in the kale, and it was night.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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