By Heather Haigh
There used to be a big stinking pile of shit at the end of the allotment behind Grandpa’s retreat. He said it needed to stay there until it rotted, that rotten shit grows grand plants.
I imagined myself a princess when I walked beneath the floral arches to his retreat. I would pluck my treasures from his garden: baby’s breath, strawflowers, billy balls, chrysanthemums and everlasting. He would indulge my fantasies by weaving them into a crown for me. Then he would cajole me into indulging his.
The place has been redecorated now. Grandpa’s neighbor took it on and made it into an art studio. My pictures, long gone from the walls, still hang crookedly in my mind’s eye.
“Ah,” Grandpa said, looking down at one of my drawings, “you drew an egg.”
I laced my fingers in front of me, in the pose of a good girl, and kept my lips sealed. Not an egg. Soap. Soap with the scent of lily of the valley—like Grandma’s blouse. Or soap with the scent of parma violets—like the sweets Grandma shared with me.
Grandma’s kitchen always held the lingering smell of nutmeg, cinnamon, and melted butter. Till she started to get tired, and her breathing got loud, and she had to sit to bake and take rests between weighing and sieving. Grandpa took me to his retreat to give her some peace. Maybe the smell of his sweat and tobacco filled her throat too, banishing the good smells—the smells she tried to wrap the house with as she turned away and measured, stirred, and sugared.
“New clothes.” Grandpa traced the outline of the skirt with his index finger.
A scrubbing brush.
“A box. I wonder what’s in the box.”
Me. It was a small box, lined with the velvet of Grandma’s bed jacket, and covered by the heavy rug that she would wrestle over the washing line, then beat with a fury. If she found a penny beneath the rug she would slip it to me. Hidden things got forgotten beneath that rug.
“Now this is my favorite. You know Grandpa loves flowers.”
I did know. He would run his thumb over a ripe bud, delight in the delicate form of a newly opened cherry blossom, then bite into the flesh of the under-ripe cherry. He had to get them before the chattering, screeching starlings did. “Noisy, boisterous, like badly behaved teenagers,” he would grumble. Grandpa didn’t like youths. Only flowers. But he always discarded the blooms whose petals had begun to fade.
A hammer. I recall the reassuring weight of the hammer in my clenched fist. If you hit a watermelon with a hammer there’s momentary resistance, before the satisfying explosion of pulp. I taught myself to savor the thud. The smell of copper, salt, and urine is preferable to the smell of shit.
The Italian cypress tree that I planted at the bottom of the old allotment is twenty-two feet high now. It’s true that rotten shit grows grand plants.