A short fiction story by Slanted Spines
First, there was the skull.
I was young and in a rut, so I felt most at home among the dirt. When my hands were in the soil, I felt meaningful. I was worms; as significant as the spider crawling over my cell phone in the grass. The existential dread did not bother me while my knees pressed into the ground, my skin softening around rocks’ hard ridges. My sweat was sweetened with the mint leaves, and if the squash were growing, I must be, too, right?
Sunshine made me stupid with warmth, lapping at my neck and back with the swaying wind. That’s when I felt all right at least, when my body and mind were pounded back together to meet with Mother Nature at the garden.
Digging, weeding, watering—acts of pure intention. Deliberate care; diligent plants. Every evening I trekked across the city to that patch of dirty heaven, traveling along the baking sidewalks shadowed only by high-rise buildings, to reach at last the green oasis, lush and soft and honest. Loving the garden made me hate the city more.
It bore tomatoes, watermelon, peppers, basil. I harvested lettuce, potatoes, and even a misshapen eggplant. The local food co-op was desperate for volunteers to maintain it, and I was desperate in general. For my ritualized caretaking, I was paid no money, but I ate my own love grown through vines into veggies. In fact, for all I gave that garden, it nurtured me even more.
The skull looked just like a rock at first, bulbous, bleached white, dirt caked into the crevices. Maybe it was even a knot of smoothed cement. I found it packed into the ground as my hands discerned the earth, deciding unwanted from wanted growth. Prying the stony lump from half-inside the earth, I tossed it back to the pile of weeds lumped behind me, my hands already combing for more clovers, blades of grass, invasive unnamed sprouts to pull.
But after I disposed of the pile, I reconsidered the rock, which had fallen from the clot of uprooted weeds. Given such attention in my dirt-speckled hands, it transformed into a mangled skull, a disturbing, yet endearing shape.
The skull, therefore, the size of my palm, walked home with me that night. It found a place perched upon my apartment’s windowsill beside a hemp-braided bracelet and a few summer shandy bottle caps.
Then there was the jagged spine.
I started seeing life from life the more I dug among the earth. I saw my own webbing veins in the chutes along the leaves, a widening smile within a blossoming flower. My insignificance was not tragic but brilliant, my connectedness to a whole natural orchestra. I forgot my own identity, my mistakes, that one rainy night ten months ago; instead I burrowed in my living gravesite.
Tucked behind an abandoned brick elementary school, the garden was plotted between a hill—which ascended to the neighbor’s yard—and the school building’s exterior wall. A pine tree and an old maple grew nearby, and a young tulip tree which was too short to provide any shade. For all the movement throughout the city—cars and pedestrians, buses and bikers—this pocket of land felt pleasantly private, shielded somehow, obscured. When I closed my eyes and focused on the birds’ twittering, the mosquitos’ whining, the peepers’ trilling, I could almost filter out the city’s exhausted mechanic groaning. I didn’t drive anymore, not since that one night; thus, this borrowed spot was the only place my feet could carry me to what lay beneath the concrete, a place to harvest what felt right.
So the spine was preceded by the creativity that nature cultivates, its discovery wrought from luck and curiosity. Beneath the maple beside the garden, I sat resting from my evening’s work and spotted a robust twig at the foot of the trunk, with alternating offshoots. I admit, it was a delusion, but in the moment it was an archaeological epiphany—a twig that resembled a spine, and, humored for once, I collected it.
That night after a cool shower, scrubbing hard my scabbed legs and sticky arms, I arranged the spine beside the skull, teeing from its base. It took me a long time to fall asleep, the fan in the window blowing hotly upon my still-damp flesh, and in the dark I baked fantasies of the spine and skull, wondering if I could distract my brain from my nightmares with this little makeshift critter instead.
After that, there were legs. Hands. Feet.
Hazy August. When the heat slides back from summer fun to suffocating breaths. August is lethargic, and my sloth’s instinct deadened its weight slack against my motivation’s grip. I began going to the garden less often, wearing tired of the hike. The convenience store I worked at lost another employee, so my days behind the counter lengthened; by evening, I crashed into my mattress, its firm box springs unforgiving, the garden as far away as hope.
But when I made it to the garden, I searched for body parts. This chunk of broken brick a shin. A tangle of dried up vines a wig. A femur from this splintery mulch. Fragments of sharpened glass, buried cigarette butts, strewn striped straws—these, too, were discovered artifacts adding to my Gaia’s Frankenstein’s monster. I felt like a crow, scavenging for treasured trash; I was playing hangman, assembling piece-by-piece this puzzle of rubbish. What was I doing? It was my child’s game, my whimsy turned to purpose. I was creating again, instead of tearing down, destroying. In some of these moments, I no longer felt like the monster myself. Sculpting meaning.
The summer approached the year-anniversary of my greatest mistake.
I named him Everything.
It seemed right, as he was made from everything, constructed from foundations of life. I often waxed and waned between his pronouns too, Everything’s gender dancing back and forth. She was everything, she should be all genders as well. It made no difference anyway; I did not speak of their existence to my father, nor my co-workers, nor my Snapchat story. They were my private companion, their life my miracle. Sometimes I flicked beads of water upon Everything to hydrate his spread of objects.
Everything had outgrown my windowsill, and I had moved her to my dresser’s ledge. It was still nearby the window so she bathed in sunshine, yet had more space to stretch her limbs. Laid out upon the surface, arranged in corpse pose, Everything seemed to breathe through his pine comb rib cage, and felt less imaginary and more like a friend every day.
After two weeks of furlough, I returned to the garden and was horror struck: the watermelons were wiped out.
What melons had begun to ripen were half-bitten and rotting open, the vines dragged from where they were planted. I cursed at first, looking around wildly as if the culprit’s trail would be so fresh; but, invisible, whoever had sabotaged this fruit had come and gone, and I began to sink beside the pinkish entrails, crying like tears could revive this mess.
I had been away too long! I could have been here to stop this! To protect this plant! To ward off deer or birds or destructive children! The ground was dry, cracked and hard. The garden wilted, parched and pleading. Tomatoes, overripe and softened; weeds crowded close around the potato plants I could hardly find.
Once again, I had killed.
Defeated, I uncoiled the hose near the school’s outdoor faucet, watered the garden and turned back home. I was not up for this today.
But even at home, the guilt tormented me.
It huddled near my neck, gathered densely in my guts. While I waited for my leftovers to heat up in the microwave, my mind went around and around, spiraling into ache. This guilt was right at home, encircling my lungs, constricting. I thought I had moved on from this seething internal burn of guilt, but it flared inside my chest and I succumbed, well-trained to obey it. My dirtied bowls and plates clustered in the sink. I didn’t turn the lamps on when the sun went down. I didn’t respond to my mother’s texts.
That night was cooler but I still couldn’t sleep, and when I forced myself to face my memories of the accident and Everything reached out her hand for me to hold, I ignored Everything and fell further into the rut, burrowing deeper and deeper—would I find that girl’s body here? Could I bring her back to life, the way I did with Everything?
I didn’t mean to, I didn’t see her! I couldn’t see her until it was too late—the world was bleeding and her yellow raincoat was just another stroke of street lamps and headlights. I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to! I didn’t see her!
Sobbing and thrashing in the darkness, just my body a sweaty tangle upon my empty bed, I saw her family’s faces form inside my thoughts, lit by fluorescent hospital lights: heartbroken eyes, robbed of spark, yet not an ounce of malice in their forlorn frowns. I heard echoed in my mind the way they choked to say her name out loud, Cl-ara…
They forgave me without thought. She and I were nearly the same age, just recent college graduates, yet they never even blamed me. I hadn’t been texting, I hadn’t been drunk, only blinded by the weather, her form obscured on the side of the road. I complied and confessed, distraught by my mistake, but not even the officers would arrest me—it was an accident, and I was free.
They all forgave me for her death, but that just made it worse, because in my heart I knew I must be punished. If they wouldn’t hold a grudge, if they wouldn’t make me pay, then I would do it for them, holding it against myself forever.
A life for a life.
I made it to morning.
Somehow, exhausted, dried out from weeping, I arose the next morning after I faced the loss of the watermelons. My nose was stuffy and my pink eyes puffy. Pulling on my wrinkled work shirt, Everything caught my eye. But instead of greeting him “Good morning,” I scowled at the heap of garbage on my dresser. What sorcery did I think I could master? I was no witch, no healer, no goddess whatsoever.
When I grabbed my backpack from the floor to head to work, I paused. In a flash of rearing anger, I swept my arm forcefully across my dresser, sending Everything into flying parts, scattering in dismembered bits upon the floor. Her form now fragmented, spread aggressively—twigs, wrappers, dried flowers, pebbles, littered in spite.
Everything to Nothing. I left.
Except, rather than kill Everything, I resurrected her.
How brash humanity is to undulate between extremes. Despite her physicality sprinkled into ashes, Everything’s presence breathed upon me all day. Everything was still alive, even if I had thought I’d done away with her.
At work, when I heard “Everything,” their essence came to mind. During the lunch rush of customers, I mumbled to a young man in greeting, “What’s good?” and he cheerfully responded, “Everything.” Shocked to hear their name, I nearly demanded, “How do you know of Everything?” But his smile was sheer empty bliss, and as I handed him his 93-cents change, I confessed him a smile in return. I was finding Everything everywhere.
My shift was long, and my exhausted mind conversed with Everything at length. The morning’s rage settled into mourning, transformed from ash to life as I realized Everything was in my mind this whole time. We think to live forever grants immortality, but I’m far more haunted by what’s been killed than what still lives.
I asked Everything, “Why do I ruin everything?”
But she wouldn’t answer that; instead, she said to meet her in the garden.
Life and death beget life and death.
How had I not been able to see it before? The watermelons were destroyed, but the vine persisted. I thought it was a dying blow, but a week later, the plant was still persevering. Nature’s message was loud and clear: onward and onward, undulating in cycles.
That evening, although physically drained, I watered, weeded, muttered to Everything. I picked tomatoes and tucked chamomile behind my ears, smirking at the way it kissed my cheek. The sun had missed me, my feet had missed soil. Ants tickled my calves, my hands pet the stalks. I remembered how all that green around me had once begun as dirt, seeds, and sun.
I found a dried out locust shell. It could be a pet for Everything.
Everything from Nothing.
Later, gathering Everything’s pieces from my bedroom floor, I saw them through a different light: what was once fibula now humerus, what was once hand now heart. Methodically, lovingly, I arranged Everything back together, delicately balanced in a seated position. This night I did not sleep much either, but I was driven by the craft. Digging out my hot glue gun and the half glue stick I had remaining, I affixed her pieces back together, steadfast in my healing work.
As my thoughts fainted away into exhaustion, Everything finally sat upright upon my dresser, cross-legged like a Buddha, and I bid her goodnight and gratitude—her resurrection glorious. Then I fell asleep at last, the locust curled in Everything’s lap.
About the Author
Brittany (B.C. Spines) is a writer, reader, and artist. She created Slanted Spines four and a half years ago as a place to post her writing, and has been consistently creating content every Friday ever since! You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @slantedspines, and subscribe to her YouTube channel. To read more of her fiction, check out the Stories page on Slanted Spines.