Mary was tending the sweet peas in her front garden when the new neighbours arrived. Or rather, she was supposed to be tending the sweet peas. She was supposed to be pinching out the tips to encourage branching because bushier plants gave more flowers, especially if she picked them regularly. She had a particular fondness for her sweet peas because they produced a delicious scent (she always went for the annual sweet peas rather than the everlasting because the shorter-lived flowers had the stronger smell) and usually she was very focussed on her garden tasks, but this morning she was distracted by the dirt at her knees.
There had been a brief but heavy shower in the early hours of the morning and the soil was still alive with writhing worms, called to the surface by the rain to wriggle in the freshly turned earth or squirm their way across the lawn. She wondered if the rain sounded like drums to the worms in their subterranean homes, a constant tom-tom rhythm that called them up despite the risks of birds or the unmerciful tread of human feet. A couple of worms were attempting to cross the pavement, as if the grass verge on the other side was somehow more desirable. Greener, perhaps, Mary thought with a smile. She wondered if they knew the dangers but came up from the safety of the soil anyway, compelled by forces beyond their control.
It was the rattling up of the removal van’s back door that pulled Mary back from those thoughts to distract her with new ones. She had been so engrossed in the activity of the worms that she hadn’t heard the vehicle arrive, but that rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat of the door rolling up was impossible to miss. U-Drive. She was glad to see the new neighbours had driven the van themselves rather than hire someone. She thought it admirable, such independence, especially these days when everybody seemed happy to pay somebody else to do something for them. She was also glad to see the new people were black. She might be of an older generation, but shame on anyone who thought that was an excuse to be racist. No, she was glad some people of ethnic origin or whatever the polite term was for them these days had decided to move in to her street. Added a little . . . Ha! Colour.
The man at the back of the van handed a box to his teenage daughter, a beautiful girl with long braided hair who said something to him and laughed as she took the box. A girl, that was good. Before Mary could complete her smile, though, a young boy leapt down from the van and, oh, he was beautiful too. He gave his father a bright smile and, oh my, he had such an energetic body, impatient to be somewhere else, running around enthusiastically and pretending to pull at his hair as his father laughed and kept a box high out of reach. The boy bounced on the spot and made grabbing motions for the package. “Pleease!”
Mary struggled up from her knees for a better look. It was more of a struggle than she liked to admit and she needed to use the nearby lawnmower for support. If she was honest with herself, and she always tried to be, she had brought the lawn mower out with that very purpose in mind, for the grass would probably be too wet to cut until the late afternoon.
The boy had his box and set about unpacking it straight away, there on the street. His enthusiasm for the task was delightful, and Mary enjoyed watching the way his face lit up as he retrieved a car from inside and set it on the pavement. Next came a handheld control and then the street was a little less quiet, the vehicle whining its way up and down and around as the boy followed. The child liked to play. That was good.
“Peter, go and help your mother.”
Mary hadn’t seen the mother yet, but here was a car parking behind the van and, yes, there was a black woman inside. She had short cropped hair but the same figure, amazingly, as her daughter. When she saw Mary looking she waved. Brief, but polite, delivered with a quick smile. Mary returned it. Her hands were still gloved and caked in soil, palms darker than those of the woman she waved at.
Peter was standing at the roadside, the gadget in his hands pointing at the car that weaved around his mother’s feet. She stepped over the toy several times with a practised ease that was almost supernatural, barely glancing at it as she headed towards her family.
The voice startled her but she resisted putting a hand to her chest.
“James, hello, good morning. How are you?”
James smiled and showed her some letters he’d brought out to post. He was an elderly gentleman around Mary’s own age. “Just being nosy, really,” he said, nodding towards the new neighbours. “Good to have some new people in that house.”
Mary smiled and said, “Yes,” though it hadn’t been empty long.
She didn’t know if it was because he used to be a priest or because they couldn’t physically have them but James and his wife Claire didn’t have any children. They had several cats, though. Surrogate children, she supposed. Mary had needed to speak to both James and Claire on different occasions about their animals digging up her flowerbeds.
James pointed to where Mary’s trowel lay in the dirt. “Weeding?”
“No, no, I was just turning the soil. Helping it drain. It’s important, though really sweet peas are the easiest things in the world to grow. I’ll probably do some weeding later, it’s getting out of hand. Nature can be difficult to tame.”
Why did she always prattle on so with men? But James was barely listening, so she supposed it didn’t matter. Across the street the girl had come out of the house with cups of something for her parents. That first box must have been the kettle and tea things.
“Pretty,” James said.
Mary nodded. The boy chased his car up and down the drive.
“Well, these aren’t going to post themselves,” James said, shaking the envelopes in his hand. “Good luck with the weeding.”
Mary gave him a tight smile but allowed it to broaden into something more genuine when the boy across the road saw her and waved. He directed the car towards her front garden but turned it in a tight circle before it could reach the kerb. Then he did the same circle in reverse before driving the car back to his feet. A boy’s hello.
“Little Lewis Hamilton,” James said. Mary had no idea what he meant but he was already heading towards the post box at the end of the street so she was able to avoid any embarrassment by asking.
She eased herself back down to the ground, kneeling on a padded mat. She bowed her head towards the soil and tried to focus on the task at hand but found another worm, twisting upon itself in some strange rapture. With a quick thrust of her trowel she cut it in half. It would be all right, she thought. Half of it, anyway. As a child she used to think that both bits grew into new worms but really only one part survived. And it didn’t grow back anything. It just survived, that was all.
Mary didn’t believe in god with a capital G. She used to. She used to believe in the very same God James preached about once upon a time, though she never went to his church. For Mary, the only god, or goddess, was Mother Nature. A goddess so old that She resided at the Earth’s core, having gathered the world around Her when the planet was mere pieces in space and time, pushing and pulling the tectonic plates into new shapes the same way Mary fidgeted sheets around herself in bed. Mary’s goddess was protected by the world’s crust and warmed by the world’s magma. Mary’s goddess was the soil’s heart, beating in a series of seismic shifts, and worms carried Her pulse through a network of arteries they made themselves. No turn of Mary’s shovel could hurt Her. Nature’s heart was a hot molten rock that beat in earthquakes and rushes of ocean. The bones of Mary’s goddess were the bones of people who thought they were returning to the clay from which they were made but really only fed it. The bones of Mary’s goddess were those pressed into chalk over millennia. Her skeleton was stone. Mountains were Her vertebrae. Volcanoes spewed such exhalations that She could, if She desired, block the sun, and the world would know a darkness it had only seen when young.
Mary had known darkness but she buried it. Sometimes what she buried turned into something that gave her strength because even the foulest of things could flower. Mother Nature produced plenty of poisons but She also provided the remedies. Sometimes they even grew side by side. Sometimes the only difference between one and the other depended on dosage. Plants were like people that way, Mary thought, standing straight and wiping sweat from her brow.
She was up to her waist in a hole she’d been digging for three days. Since the Turners had moved in: Elijah and his improbably named wife, Pixie, plus their daughter Jasmine. And Peter. She’d had a wonderful chat with Peter. About digging.
Occasionally a well intentioned neighbour would tell Mary she was getting too old for some of her gardening work but she could never stop doing something she enjoyed so much. She felt particularly at peace when digging. The rasp of the spade in gravelly ground or the heavy scoop of sod levered by her foot or turn of wrist. It was hot work though, especially cooped up like she was in the garden shed. She had removed the floorboards some time ago, gaining access to the soil beneath, and now, shovelling load after load of the dirt into an ever-growing heap, she really felt the dusty heat, close and stifling. Almost the entirety of the shed’s floor space had been dug away with just a small area left for the mounting dirt. She would dig until she felt better, however long that took, and then she would refill the hole and tread the soil down flat once more. She’d long since given up replacing the floorboards—had burned them, in fact, on one November fifth or another—because eventually she would dig again. Sometimes the soil would still be freshly turned when she needed to and the going was easy (too easy, actually) but usually she managed months before the need returned.
She took a sip of iced tea. It wasn’t some awful shop-bought concoction. No, this was lemon iced tea she made herself (the secret lay in letting it steep with lemon peel rather than using the juice, and adding a great deal of sugar). The glass had lost a lot of its coolness but the drink was still refreshing and the sugar perked her up for the work she still had to do.
She took a final sip of her tea, set the glass back down on a shelf of empty plant pots, and wiped her forehead with a sleeve grimed with dirt and sweat. It was already going to need a good wash but, safe in the privacy of her modified garden shed, she began unfastening the buttons.
When she’d seen Peter digging, he’d been grubby with mud all up his front. In his lap, clods of dirt had gathered like tiny earth-babies nuzzling for comfort.
Mary arched her shoulders back to remove her clothing and mopped her brow a final time with the bunched up blouse before hanging it on the handle of the shed door. She contemplated taking off her bra as well, not liking the way the straps rubbed or how the sweat built under the cups, but the way she’d sag and swing without it depressed her more and more these days. She was no Charlie Dimmock, not anymore. There was something to be said, though, for the freedom of being without it. If she was honest with herself, and she always tried to be, there was a wonderful frisson to be had in being so exposed amongst the earth. It gave her pleasure, being so intimately close to Nature. Even thinking about it gave her a shivered thrill that was more than the coolness of the soil seeping into her skin.
Mary retrieved the spade and stabbed it at the ground, treading the blade into the soil to lever up a fresh heap of dirt and stone. Her grip was firm. She felt no pain in her back or knees. She took strength from the ground she stood in, letting the labour keep her mind from other things.
“Good morning, Peter,” Mary had said. “That’s your name, isn’t it?”
She’d smiled. She had crossed the road to pass the Turner place, taking inspiration from her neighbour James in that she carried a handful of letters to post (she liked to enter competitions, and there were letters she sent to gardening magazines—one of those had once been ‘letter of the week’, winning her a £50 voucher to spend at the garden centre). She had planned to post them at the weekend on her way to the shops but when she’d seen Peter in the front garden, turning soil with the sort of spade best used at the beach, she’d changed her mind.
“My name’s Peter Lewis Turner,” he’d said. “We just moved here.” He’d been bringing the plastic spade towards himself in a series of pulls, dirt flicking up his t-shirt as he scraped a shallow trench. A matching bucket sat nearby as if he was going to make mud castles.
“I see you enjoy getting dirty,” Mary had said with a soft chuckle. She’d pointed at his t-shirt and the small mound of earth building in his lap.
“I’m looking for treasure.”
“Well, there’s lots of that in the ground.”
Peter had looked up, clearly delighted. “Is there?” And Mary had smiled.
“Of course. All the nutrients plants need to grow, for starters. And all sorts of precious metals and pretty gem stones. People dig them up all the time, though personally I think they’re supposed to stay there. I think they’re in the ground for a special reason.”
“I don’t know, dear. I just don’t think Mother Nature would put anything in the ground that wasn’t meant to be there.”
“I like stones. I’ve got seven with holes in them but I found those at the beach. Dad says they’re lucky.”
“If you like stones, you should see my fossil collection. I have them in my garden, bordering the lawn and standing in some of the flower beds. Sort of like garden gnomes, but much prettier.”
“Fossils are like stone dinosaurs, aren’t they?”
“Sort of. They’re special rocks that show you something that died, years and years and years ago.”
“Coal’s a special rock that burns,” Peter had said. He’d said it like it was something he’d learned recently, new knowledge, shiny and fresh, that he wanted to show off.
“You’re absolutely right,” Mary had said. “Did you know, there’s a place where anthracite, which is a type of coal, is burning right now? Lots and lots of it, all underground, burning and burning. It’s been burning for over fifty years, nobody can put it out. Imagine that.”
Peter had looked around as if it might be right underneath him. His expression had been part excitement, part fear.
“It’s in America somewhere,” Mary had assured him.
“What about the people who live there?”
“Nobody lives there, it’s too dangerous. The land is really hot and the fumes are really poisonous. It seeps up out of the ground.”
“There’s poison in the ground?”
“What else is in the ground?”
The boy had stopped digging. Cross-legged, spade held across his lap, he’d sat looking up at Mary.
“Well,” she’d said, “buried treasure, as you know.”
Peter had grinned.
“But also things that lay forgotten, waiting to be rediscovered.”
“Like a bone? Our dog used to bury bones but then forget where she’d put them.”
“Yes, like bones, I suppose. I didn’t know you had a dog.”
“She was killed. She ate something bad.” He’d frowned, bringing his hand up to his eyes. Mary had thought he was about to cry and she’d panicked but it was only that the clouds had moved and Peter was saluting to shield his eyes, squinting a little into the sun.
Mary had wondered what on earth to say next but then there’d been a creak and screech from the side gate and Peter’s mother had appeared. She’d been surprised by Mary but only for a moment. She’d smiled. “Hello.”
“Hello.” Mary had introduced herself, pointing across the road. “Number 42, if ever you need anything.”
The woman greeted her again. “Hi, Mary, I’m Pixie.” She’d brought her hands up as if to ward off a blow. “I know, I know. Awful, isn’t it? I sound like someone from Harry Potter or something.”
Mary had smiled. “I think it’s a wonderful name. Magical.”
Pixie had smiled in return. “My husband, Elijah, says the same thing.”
“You have a daughter, too, don’t you?”
The woman had nodded. “Jasmine. And this little one—” Here she’d crossed her arms and scowled at her son. “Peter Lewis Turner, look at the mess you’ve made!” It had been pretend anger, though, the woman suddenly sweeping in low, arms outstretched, to scoop the boy up for tickles. He must have been rather heavy at his age but maybe mothers didn’t notice that kind of thing.
“We were talking about buried treasure and fires and bones,” Peter had said between laughing and trying to breathe. A beautiful sound.
“That sounds lovely, but you’ve got to come in now and get ready for lunch.” Then, to Mary, “It was nice meeting you.”
Mary had watched as the woman ushered her child inside. When she swatted playfully at his behind to hurry him along Mary had looked away.
In the ground at her feet, a small hole, a narrow trench, had gaped vacant, a plastic spade protruding from one end like the headstone of a grave, or an invitation to keep digging.
In the shed, in the hole, Mary scooped heaps of ground from around her feet and tossed them aside at a near frantic pace without caring that most of the dirt fell back into the opening she had made. She was sweating profusely now (or rather she was perspiring—she was a lady) and she could feel it running down her sides from her armpits. She could feel it at the nape of her neck where curls of grey hair were sticking to her skin. She was wearing comfortable trousers but even so they were damp around the elasticated waist and crotch. She couldn’t tell if it was the physical activity or the exertions of her mind that made her feeling this way. Still, she levered up more earth, raised it, and tossed it away.
Abruptly, her spade bit into something softer than soil. She stopped and angled the blade carefully to see . . .
When she dug this deep, Mary always found Adam. The first time it happened had panicked her and she’d wondered if somehow she’d forgotten where she’d put him. She soon discovered, though, that it didn’t matter where she put the blade of her spade or shovel, Adam would always be unearthed. Sometimes the other children followed—not always, only sometimes—but Adam was always there for her. His eyes were clogged with soil but he saw everything.
“What are you going to do?” he asked, his throat choked with dirt. His teeth were black with soil and clumps fell from his mouth as he spoke. His was a voice that bubbled beetles and things that burrowed moved his tongue, itself a writhing twist and turn of worms that dropped in tangles with each of his words.
“Go away,” Mary said. She plunged the spade into the boy’s face and he crumbled into sodden clods, all muddy blood and stones for bones. He fell apart into a fleshy compost that Mary tossed aside with an enthusiastic swing of her arms.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
She spoke it to the ground beneath her feet, and to all the dark that had gathered there as the light outside faded.
“Yes you do,” it said.
A chill had descended as day faded into early evening. Mary didn’t feel it until she left the shed and it made her wish she’d brought a cardigan out with her. Often, especially when digging, she lost track of time. In the shed, that was. In the hole. Sitting at the flower beds, trowel in hand, transferring potted plants to the great outdoors or picking at weeds, she was fine.
The light had diminished a great deal with the onset of evening, more so than was usual for the hour, because low-lying cloud, dense with rain, had settled over the neighbourhood. Mary took the opportunity while it was still dry to transfer her rubbish from the bin to the kerb. She only had to do it once a fortnight because with all the recycling, and the amount of household waste she used for compost, she had very little to dispose of these days.
Each of her neighbours had already put their rubbish out, slumped sacks lining the street like squat little sentinels, and she realised it must be even later than she’d initially thought. The streetlamps were on, heavy rain clouds reflecting the light so that the road seemed to simmer in a sulphurous sodium glow. It made Mary think of how the Earth’s volcanic sky must have looked, back when the planet was young and still forming, cloud-filled and lava-lit, all aglow with fire.
She deposited her rubbish and was about to return to the house when a mobile phone beeped twice, loud in the quiet of the evening. It made her pause.
The new girl across the street, Jasmine, was lingering at her gate with a young man. There was another double bleat, the technological heartbeat that seemed to keep teenagers alive these days, but Mary saw that neither of the two made any effort to check their phones. They were too engrossed in each other, their hands on each other’s waist. They looked as if they were about to kiss, or had recently been kissing.
“Careful,” Mary said quietly. “Boys are bad for your heart.”
She glanced away and down at the plants in her front garden, uncomfortable watching the couple in their private moment but too curious to go inside just yet. She focussed her attention on the gladioli she had growing at either side of the front gate where they’d catch the sun. Gladioli were great for bringing colour to a garden, a bright array of simple flowers hardy enough to use year after year, if the winter was a mild one. That said, and it was difficult to tell in the poor light, it looked like the leaves of these were mottled. She bent to look closer rather than kneel, wincing at the crack in her back, and took a few of the leaves into her hand. They were certainly wilting a little. She’d check in tomorrow’s daylight but she thought (hoping she was wrong) it was perhaps greenfly.
Across the road, the two shadowy forms at the gate melted into each other as they kissed. Mary thought of the young brother, and what he might think of it. She thought about the hole she had made in the back garden, in the shed, and that maybe she should fill it in again already.
When the outside light came on at number 45 the teenagers pulled away from their embrace. The front door opened and there was the father. “Jasmine, time to let the boy go. School tomorrow.”
Mary thought that as far as reprimands went, Jasmine had been lucky. Mary’s own father had been a far sterner sort. He had made boys afraid of him, and her afraid of men, and she thought it no exaggeration to say that as a result of such a strict upbringing she had become the seventy-year-old spinster she was today.
She watched as her new neighbour retreated inside to allow his daughter a final moment of privacy, though he left the front door open to emphasise his point about curfew. Mary waited in case she caught a glimpse of Peter but the boy was probably watching television or maybe even in bed. Then the door was closed and Mary was alone again except for a teenage boy walking away, face lit eerie green by the light of his phone.
A movement to her right caught Mary’s eye and she turned in time to see the curtains of 44 twitching closed. James or Claire had been watching as well, it seemed, but the show was now over.
Mary retreated to the warmth of her own home for a much-needed drink.
Mary had not been much of a drinker until recent years. Oh, she used to enjoy the occasional tipple on special occasions, and once or twice she maybe had a glass of wine in the bath, but otherwise she was very much a tea-drinker. Tonight, though, she needed something a little stronger. And for Mary, that meant whisky. Just a wee dram.
Her hands were sore from clutching the handle of the spade so fiercely and for so long. The skin of her palms had been rubbed raw and it hurt to straighten her fingers. She looked, in fact, like she had been stricken with the arthritis she had so far been lucky enough to avoid, her hands curled into fleshy claws. Still, she managed to twist the bottle open easily enough. Only a supermarket own-brand (on her pension, it had to be) but it would do. She half-filled a cup and took it through to the living room where she could put the electric heater on for a few minutes, just to take the evening chill from her bones.
The island of Islay produced a wonderful whisky, she’d heard. It had a delicious smoky flavour, apparently, thanks to how the malt was dried over a peat-heated fire, the barley infused with the flavours of the smoke.
Peat-heated fire, she thought. Pete-heated.
Peter: the stone, the rock. From the Greek, petro. Mary had looked it up.
Peat was similar to coal in that it came from plants but it burned down more quickly, delivering a lot of heat but only for a short period of time. Coal took a lot longer to form, but it burned for longer.
She put the whisky down on the drop-leaf table beside her but her hand remained bent into the shape that had held it. Or rather, the shape that had pushed and raised and turned a spade for the last few hours. Like petrified wood, her hand looked like it always had but was locked in place the same way trees would transition into stone as minerals replaced organic matter. Fossils were mere impressions in rock, a trace of what was, but petrified wood had its own three-dimensional shape, not simply a trace of what once was but a stronger version of what it used to be. Solid, not hollow. It had substance, albeit one that lacked any kind of life. Like the Tollund Man, wonderfully preserved in a peat bog for centuries. Curled up like a child in the belly of Mother Nature.
Mary took another drink, a petrified fossil trying to forget what had made her.
Mary was in her front garden picking at mottled leaves when Mr. Turner came over to say hello. She hadn’t noticed him at first, examining the plants which were just as damaged as she’d feared. She turned each leaf to check the underside because often a problem lay underneath, unseen, and yes. Greenfly. She wasn’t sure how that had happened—she’d been spraying the garden regularly—but here was the proof. The leaves had curled and browned and she knew the combination of toxic greenfly-saliva and the plant’s lack of sap would prove to be its downfall if she didn’t act quickly.
Mr. Turner had a very deep voice, loud even from across the road. He was approaching her garden, smiling politely. “Problem with your flowers?”
“Good morning, yes, gladioli, Mr. Turner. I mean, it is a good morning, yes, Mr. Turner, and the flowers are gladioli. It’s a—”
He was holding up his hand and Mary worried about her babbling—he’d clearly heard enough—but he simply said, “Elijah, please. Mr.Turner makes me feel like I’m in trouble for something.” He smiled.
“Elijah.” Mary said it quietly.
“Actually, I suppose I am sort of in trouble. Thought I’d come to ask you for some help.”
“Is it the forsythia? It can get out of hand if left for a while like yours has been. I mean, that’s not your fault, of course, the property’s been empty, but you should prune it just after it’s bloomed. If you—”
“No, no, it’s not the . . . forsythia? I’m not too sure what that even is, actually. It’s just that—”
“It’s that beautiful yellow shrub. Sunrise forsythia. The one you have tangling with the hydrangea, in that corner bed by your front door.”
“Is it? Thank you. I’ll take a look at that, see if I can sort it out. Mrs., Miss . . . ?”
“Oh, just Mary.”
“Mary. Hi, Mary. My wife said you two had met, and that’s the closest I’ve come to meeting anyone yet, and I was wondering if you knew someone around here who babysits? Maybe there’s a teenage girl, like my Jasmine, only one who doesn’t disappear with her boyfriend at the last minute and conveniently forgets her own little brother?”
He smiled again, but it looked a little strained to Mary. She thought his attempt to joke actually had its roots in a more serious concern about his daughter. That was what happened, though, and it was a shame: children grew up. And whatever they grew into was often the parents’ fault.
“I only ask because we’re desperate, you see. My wife and I, Pixie, we’re supposed to go to this—”
“I could look after him for a few hours.”
The first expression on Mr. Turner’s face was a mixture of relief and happiness but he recovered enough to shake his head, saying, “No, I couldn’t ask you to do that. I didn’t come over to ask that.”
Mary thought he had come over with the hope at least, if not the expectation, that she would look after Peter, but she simply said, “Nonsense. It would be a pleasure. I haven’t seen my grandchildren in a while. It’ll be good to have some lively young blood in the house again.”
Grandchildren? Oh, why had she said that? Now he’ll want to know their names, and their ages, and all sorts of other things.
“Grandkids, eh? How old? How many?”
“Just the two, and not so young now. The eldest is about the same age as your daughter and the youngest is eight. Both boys.”
Mr. Turner was nodding. It was the nod of a man not really listening but rather agreeing with his own thoughts. Mary thought they probably went something along the lines of she’s got grandchildren, they’re boys, she’ll be fine. “Thing is,” he said, “it’s rather short notice, too. As in, tonight.”
Mary waved that away as the trivial detail it was. What would she be doing that couldn’t be put off for another day? How did any of her days or evenings differ anyway? “That’s okay, he’ll save me from the horrors of Coronation Street.”
“Petey said you two spoke the other day,” Mr. Turner said, more at ease.
“Yes, that’s right. About digging, and fossils. I said I’d show him some of mine. I have a few fossils in the back garden, you see, ammonites mostly, all in a row bordering—”
“Sounds wonderful. Just his cup of tea. If you really don’t mind?”
“Not at all. It would be my pleasure.”
They arranged a suitable time and said their goodbyes, Mr. Turner offering a final compliment before he went. “I love your garden. So full of colour.”
When he’d gone, Mary looked again at her gladioli. Aphids were the most destructive of pests in any garden and last year her sweet peas had succumbed, becoming sickly and dangerous themselves so that she’d had to destroy them. Greenfly reproduced asexually, the offspring an exact replica of the parent, and they would spread quickly throughout the entire garden if she didn’t act quickly. Nip it in the bud, so to speak.
She went to the shed.
Mary thrust the shovel into the thick wet earth, grunting with the effort.
The babysitting had not gone well.
Peter’s parents had given him dinner before bringing him over but Mary had fed him fuller still with biscuits and cakes she had made especially for his visit. They had played a board game in the conservatory, surrounded by cacti and draping ferns, snug beneath hanging red stars and purple petunias. They’d played Snakes and Ladders. Mary only had old games, and certainly nothing like a computer, but that hadn’t seemed to bother Peter, unless he was just very polite.
“I like snakes,” he’d said, moving his piece down one of the colourful serpents. “Do you like snakes?”
“If I’m honest, and I always try to be, I find them a bit frightening,” Mary had admitted. “I’m all right with slow worms, though.”
Peter had looked at her with a frown and so she’d explained. “They look a lot like snakes but actually they’re lizards. You wouldn’t know it, though. I find them in my garden occasionally, near the compost heap where the grass is longer. They’re quite harmless.” She’d smiled, adding, “Unless you’re a slug or a worm.”
“Can we look for some?”
“Slow worms? Of course we can.”
Peter had leapt up, knocking the board but only scattering the pieces a few squares backwards. “Can I keep it if I find one?”
“We can’t look now. It’s too dark, and quite chilly.”
“I’ve got my hoodie.”
“It’s still dark.”
“I’ve got a torch at home, I can get it.”
“They’re probably sleeping now anyway, underground. We can look in the day time. Let’s finish our game. It’s your go.”
He had sat on the settee again without sulking or complaining, correcting the knocked pieces on the board, and Mary had thought, such a nice boy. Such a nice young man. So well behaved. Then he’d started shaking the dice for his next turn, his fist pumping up and down, back and forth in his lap, like something obscene.
“All right, come on, let’s look for snakes,” Mary had said, just to make it stop.
“Slow worms, I mean. I’ve got a torch. And I’ll show you those fossils.”
In the hole, in the shed, Mary attacked the mound of soil with renewed vigour, shovelling all she’d unearthed back into the dark hole she’d made. One hard horizontal thrust buried the shovel blade right up to the shaft, and when she tried to lever it there was a loud crack and the handle broke so suddenly that she fell.
Nothing broke, nothing in Mary. Nothing dislocated. That was a small miracle at her age. It was going to be tricky getting up again but for now she sat staring at the length of wood she held in her hands. “Bloody thing,” she said, and dropped it into her lap where she saw that the handle was indeed bloody. She checked her hands and found them wet with it. Sticky where it had mixed with her sweat. It hurt to straighten her fingers but she would not cry. She would not. The skin was pink, seeping in places and bleeding in others where blisters had burst. Dirt lined each of her wrinkles, emphasising them with a brown colour not her own. She was herself a fossil, hollowed and cracked.
“He has such beautiful smooth skin,” she said. “Dark like soil. Like wet earth.”
She brought her hands close to inhale the pungent damp smell of the dirt but smelt only her own sweat and the tinge of blood.
Peter had smelled of sunshine, as if all the heat of the day had been trapped in his skin. They’d gone to the compost heap, sweeping at the long grass with sticks, small lengths of cane that she used to support young plants. Sweeping at the long grass with torchlight, looking for slow worms.
“Ugh, gross,” Peter had said, “what is that smell?”
“That’s the compost. Look, there.” She’d pointed to a dark heap in the gap between the shed and back fence, hidden behind the water barrel that collected rain from the shed’s guttering. Peter had shone the torch over it, covering his nose and mouth with his free hand. Mary had become used to the odour but Peter’s reaction had her smelling it as if for the first time. A sour smell, like spoiled milk, yet sickly sweet, too, with grass cuttings and the stems of decaying flowers as well as potato skins and egg shells, the rotting refuse of her past meals. Draped across the top, loose bouquets of pulled weeds and pruned branches, and beneath it all the rank smell of damp manure. The pile had greyed up one side with a fur of mould, and some nettles had sprouted. A warmth emanated from the waste, the compost snug in the heat of its own decay.
“It’s so gross,” Peter had said again, pretending to vomit.
“Well, maybe it’s you,” Mary’d said, daring a joke. “When did you last have a bath?” She had scooped him close and breathed deep, her nose pressed to the nape of his neck, and that was when she’d discovered his sunshine. Mary was too old to lift him for tickles as his mother had, but she pressed her fingers to his armpits. Peter had tried to pull away.
Mary had released him immediately. “Sorry,” she’d said. “I thought you liked tickles.”
“That hurt. You pinched me.”
Peter had swept at the long grass, making a show of one final check. “No snakes,” he’d said.
“No snakes,” Mary said again, sitting in the vast hole she’d excavated. She pressed her palms to the cool damp soil and it soothed her raw skin. She clutched the soil in tiny fragile fists and turned her hands to see what she’d been given, opening her fists to find muddy shapes, ridged by the squeeze of her fingers. “He has such beautiful skin,” she said again. She dropped the two clods of earth and plunged her hands deep into the pile of dirt beside the hole, scooping it towards herself and tossing cupped handfuls over her shoulder, trying not to sob as somewhere behind her Adam told her what it was she wanted to do.
He had emerged early in the digging this time, his head appearing on a shovelful of dirt. She’d cast it aside, heard it land and roll, only to see him rise again from the earth with the next shovel of soil. She’d cast this one aside too and it rolled to where the other had been only moments before. She’d bury it with the next load. She’d bury all of them, again, as many times as she had to.
She was hot, even at this late hour. Using the broken handle to help, Mary eventually, carefully, stood. She stripped away her clothes, undressing down to her underwear, throwing her garments to the door where they wouldn’t be buried. She felt as heavy as the soil beneath her feet, slow and sagging, a repulsive filthy old woman, but still she swept handfuls, armfuls, from the dug up heap back into the hole, sweating in the fury of her activity. She thought of the world’s earliest years, when continents crashed together and spewed volcanic clouds to fill the skies, raising the temperature so that life had a chance to form and flourish. The world heating and cooling, breathing, so that new life might bloom or, sometimes, end abruptly.
“I bet he tastes like soil, too,” Adam said. “I bet he tastes of life. You’d taste all the nutrients of the world in the sap of that darksoil.”
Mary shuddered but still she shovelled, using both hands to fill the hole. She thought of things not Peter. She thought of the titanic heaves and descents of plate tectonics, rocks (Peter, petro, the stone, the rock) taken down into the Earth’s depths before being shoved up again filled with new nutrients, convulsions of earth shaping the surface of the world anew with mountains and valleys, an up-down wave of stone and soil forced into shape by the churning of the world’s hot rocks. It was the same movement that created the world’s magnetic field, the irresistible push and pull that made Mary think of her own impulses. If she didn’t let such shifts affect her, who would she be? What was her Nature if not this?
No. Nature could be contained, controlled—her own garden was the beautiful proof. But the weeding, the pruning, the constant landscaping, it was so exhausting. If she was honest with herself . . .
The next handful of earth she brought to her face, relishing its coolness on her cheeks and brow, the moist aroma of it. She plunged her tongue into the dirt she held and tasted an acidic sourness, a metallic sharpness, sweet alkaline. Kneeling in the earth, half-buried in it, tasting it on her skin, she prayed to her Nature, a monster goddess she could worship but never hide from. She confessed her deeds and desires until the entire pit she had made was gone, full again, sated with its own soil.
Mary didn’t leave the house for a few days except to dig or refill the hole in the garden shed. Digging deep, but all for nothing: she sat in the conservatory, waiting, warmed by the sunlight and drowsy in the scent of contained flowers. Sometimes one of the Adams sat with her.
“You could blame the priest,” he said to her. “Next door. You know they always like to—”
She said it quietly, staring at the floor. Sometimes it worked. Other times it would only make the Adam more cruel and he’d sit with her through the entire night, forbidding sleep or chasing her into it with dreams that were mostly memories. Desires she thought had died, only to find they’d fossilised deep inside, heavy weights in a heart which was itself only a trace of what it used to be.
“Play with me.”
“No,” she said. But she looked up.
The child’s naked body was entirely caked in clay, face besmeared and hair pasted flat with mud. He was every bit the dirty little boy she’d said he was, all those years ago. Show Mary an acorn and she could see the tree, or so she liked to say.
“Come on, play with me,” the mudboy said again, eyeing the Snakes and Ladders board still set up on the table. He mimed shaking the dice but he did it low in his naked lap and what he threw was a scattering of soil that buried both of the playing pieces.
Mary looked away, back at the floor again, though in her peripheral vision she could see that others had come. Her foundations made topsoil through some psychological seismic shift. Dead boys given new life in being dredged up from the earth they were buried in, just as they had given new life to that earth as they slumped into soft pieces, oozing juices that fed the soil and everything that lived within it.
There was a knock at the front door.
Mary struggled to stand, her limbs and joints stiff and painful with all the work she’d busied herself with, but stand she did.
“I’ll wait here,” the Adam said.
“Don’t bother. There’s no need.”
It took her a while to get to the door and in all that time there was no second knock or impatient ringing of the doorbell. He was a good boy. Considerate, the way only children could be. Or maybe he’d gone home again. Yes, and maybe that was for the best.
He hadn’t gone home.
“Wow,” Peter said. “What happened to you?”
Mary glanced down at herself. She was filthy, grimed with everything she’d taken out and put back again.
“There’s a snake,” she said. “A slow worm. In my garden.”
“Really? Can I see it?”
Mary stepped back from the door and as Peter passed her she said, “I made some more of those cakes you like.”
She felt a brief draft as the back door opened behind her in the conservatory and the children waiting there retreated into the garden. Into the soil. She looked left and she looked right and she saw the street empty both times, the neighbourhood quiet. She closed the door firmly on the world outside.
Mary had set a ladder in the pit. Peter went first and she followed. She had dug one of the edges away into a narrow opening and the ground beyond sloped further down. The wind whispered from it, short phrases in gusts that cooled the skin, a low hush of voices that came and went like the repeated chorus of some strange soil-spoken song.
“A tunnel,” Peter said. “Is this where the snake went?”
The shadows seemed to writhe away from Mary’s torchlight as they descended deeper into the dank, dark earth, outcrops of rock and fossilised curves, stone spirals, casting shapes that were snake-like themselves across the walls of the tunnel and the sloping ground beneath their feet.
“How far do we have to go?” Peter asked.
“All the way,” Mary told him, pressing close.
The earth angled down at a steep gradient. The heavy humming of fattened bluebottles thickened the air, a droning buzz rising around them as they moved lower, lower, into the earth, and underneath that sound came the steady tom-tom beat of a powerful heart.
“I feel strange,” Peter said. “I’m sick.”
“I think I had too many cakes. I don’t feel good.”
“You’ll feel fine in a minute,” Mary said. “You’ll feel wonderful. We’re going to play a game.” She took Peter’s hand and he let her. The only sign of any fear or trepidation was in his backwards glance up to the surface where the outline of Mary’s garden shed, a rectangle of light, diminished with every step, shrinking away above them. “Let’s see the snake,” she said.
Peter’s expression was part excitement, part fear. He tried to say something but when he opened his mouth to speak he only dribbled clods of mud, his throat choked with dirt and stones that burned and burned and burned as they dropped from him, hot as coals.
“Come with me,” Mary said, and she pulled him into the ground with her, an earthen mermaid swimming down into the sunless soils of the world.
Originally published in The 2nd Spectral Book of Horror Stories, edited by Mark Morris.