A woman in white robes stands by my bedside and says she must return to the earth. I open my eyes and know I am not dreaming.
I’d seen her before, this woman, in my mother’s garden, dancing between the rows of my neighbor’s harvest, painting her nails with lavender and her skin with honeycomb. Everyone in town knows her. She tends to our crops, fussing over corn knocked down in floods, digging at trees bored by foreign beetles, separating typha from wheat. When the grasses curl in the creeping heat, timothy and cogon, she is there when no one else dares to step outside.
We all know her. All day she skips in the footsteps of the farmers offering whispers of advice. She smells like thyme and everyone on the street can feel her in their throats when she dances. In the sun, it’s the foxtrot. In the rain, it’s the paso doble. In the mornings, we all watch as she bathes in the sun and watch again at night when she sheds her white robe and sinks into the loose dirt behind the alfalfa fields.
The first time we saw her step into the earth we thought she’d been lost to a sinkhole. The second time we knew she was meant to be there.
It has become a ritual for us, watching this woman from the corners of our eyes, through our windows. She makes us feel warm and whole when the sun touches her shoulders and content when she tucks herself in with us at night. From afar, we all think she is beautiful and kind and we like looking at her.
But before we sleep we say to ourselves that she can’t be real. That the ground has no woman, no mistress. No skin that can be pierced. We watch her from the corners of our eyes but say we’re looking elsewhere, somewhere. The neighborhood calls her the lady of the earth and pretend they don’t see her when they can hear her dancing.
Look but don’t touch. I waved and grinned at her once while she tried to save a tangle of trees from getting cut down, enchanted by her face, and already that was too much. My mother said the woman was like a stray dog—feed it once and it will never stop scratching at your back door.
Now, she stood at my bedside dripping loam on my floor.
“Waving boy. I’ve been trying to step into my dirt all night,” she says, brushing my forehead with mud. “It won’t open. I want to go to bed. Will you try?”
She is beautiful and kind and I like looking at her so I stand. I tell her she looks real up close.
The woman smiles with her eyes. She pulls me through my window and I feel like a bandit as she sings to the moon. Her hands are sticky with honey but I think I want to be stuck to them. We laugh and run and she teaches me how to do a box step across my mother’s garden.
Her patch of earth is just out beyond my neighbor’s alfalfa field—the hidden place where he swings his laundry to dry in hopes we won’t steal his clothes if they’re so close to her. She pauses to pick woodlice and cigarette butts from his greens before kneeling next to the small circle of loose dirt underneath his bed sheets.
We know this circle. The neighborhood boys often dare each other to touch the dirt with one foot. To them and their after-school games, it’s a rite of passage to brush the soil and walk away without falling into the earth. No boy in my neighborhood has passed on to manhood.
Our parents say it’s just a pile of mulch. The lady of the earth isn’t real, of course. They pretend they don’t see her when they can hear her dancing but watch her bathe in the sunlight and drop her robe at night.
The woman clears her throat and presses her hands to her circle. They look like my mother’s hands in her garden, warm with sand and stone but never reaching past her knuckles.
“Every time I place a hand on my soil it doesn’t move,” the woman says. “See? It should be passing through. The soil shouldn’t be this thick.”
Before I can move she grabs my arm and pulls it to her circle. I scream, fearful I’ll be the first boy to slip into manhood, only to hit the hard earth with a small thud. Both of our palms press against her soil, grasping at the dirt that looks looser than it is.
“There’s something wrong,” she whispers.
“I don’t understand,” I say, hoping our fingers will touch in the dirt.
She gathers her robes around her and looks across my neighbor’s fields. The woman snaps a molding branch from a tree and frowns. “Maybe it doesn’t recognize me,” she says, spreading her toes across her home. “We must help it.”
The woman pulls off her robes and runs through the alfalfa field. Under the purple of the sky the soles of her feet look as warm as daytime bleached in honey. Her gait is odd and untamed but she is beautiful and kind and I like looking at her so I kick off my shoes and go after her, practicing my box step with the rhythm of the cicadas.
I’d seen her do odd things in the moonlight before. In past harvests she would stand under our peach trees, waiting for them to shower her with their gifts while tapping out a jig on her legs. Spring became my favorite season. She hasn’t showered with fruit since the blight killed the trees two summers ago. I miss watching the peach juice flush her cheeks. Maybe now I can fall in love with alfalfa.
She laughs when she sees me running and says we must cover her. Change her taste. Move her body closer to the soil. She plucks apple leaves and rubs them over her eyes. I gather holly branches and twist them into her hair like my mother taught me to do in hers. The woman sings as we tear through my neighbors crops, tossing aside the rotting ones, robing her in grapevines and kale instead of cloth. We are people possessed, moved by the night and the smell of cut muhly. She teaches me the promenade as she rubs pollen on her knees.
“I wish I had a picture of you,” I tell her, looking at the green on her back. “A picture of this moment.”
She ruffles my hair and I smell like holly and grapes and she smells like thyme. I wonder if the neighborhood will see me dancing and think I am just a boy of the earth, a phantom with no shoes. What would it be like to not be real? The woman places seeds on her tongue and I make sure to tuck strawberries in my pockets.
“I am done,” she says, picking another cigarette butt and folding one last mint sprig behind her ear. “The soil will swallow me and know to plant me like one of its trees.”
If she were a tree, I think, she would be a willow, moving to the wind and too graceful to understand.
We run back through the alfalfa, wild with fruit. “Tomorrow I will teach you the tango,” the woman promises, pulling the neighbor’s clothes from the line and wrapping them around my shoulders. She kisses me on the cheek as quick as a bee sting before twirling on her toes and jumping into her circle.
Her feet sink down a half an inch before they stop. She digs in her heels, pressing until they are white, but her feet still don’t move.
We stay silent until she is so quiet I’m not sure if I can see her.
Finally she steps out of her circle and lies on the ground.
“You must look inside me,” she says, holding out a stick and stone. “There must be something wrong with me. It’s the only answer.”
She is beautiful and kind and I like looking at her so I crack her open. Her skin splits and her ribcage implodes. Inside, she is a field. Buckwheat protects her lungs and ivy twists around her bones. Where her stomach should be she grows barley in plenty. Her liver functions on the roots of rye. I want to reach inside of her and pull out a bouquet for my mother, but when my nose gets close to her body, I flinch.
On the inside she doesn’t smell like thyme. She smells like ash.
“Is there something wrong?” she asks, anchoring her heels at the edge of her circle.
I don’t answer. I run to my home and grab a flashlight and shine it inside of her. The grasses that seemed lush and green in the dark are burnt in the light. In the corner of her chest under her heart burns the last remnants of the wildfire that sparked in her stomach.
“You’re on fire,” I tell her. “You’re… dying.”
She lifts her head to peer inside of her. “I can’t be on fire. That’s not true.”
“You’re dying. There’s almost nothing left.”
She shakes her head. “That can’t happen, not to me. I am forever.” She pushes a fist under her heart, pulling from it a small head of clover.
We both watch as a bud of ember spreads across its three leaves, bending and wilting the clover before us until its head is bowed like it is ready to start a bolero. Its leaves fall one by one, burning in her hand.
We suddenly see it. Beneath the holly hiding her neck, beneath the pulp on her collar bones. The singed tips of her hair. The scabs on her lips. The cracks on her nails running all the way up to the decayed bed. The ash, so much ash, grey and layered, coating each fingertip. The things that had maybe been there the whole time.
She drops the stem and looks up at me with her apple eyes. “I am ruined.”
I try and take her hand. “But you are still beautiful! Forget this. We can still dance in the moonlight one last time and it will be fun and beautiful and good. I am ready to learn the tango.”
She slaps my wrist so hard the dirt on my palm shakes off. “I am ruined,” she repeats. She looks out across my neighborhood, at the houses and parkways, at the clothing lines and stoops. “I am ruined,” she says again to the windows.
She closes her eyes. “Will you give me water?”
I step back. “Me? I’m just one person. I… I don’t think I have enough water for you, not in my house. Not alone.”
She touches my wrist, softly this time. “Please?”
All I can do is look at her face and wish I had a camera to remember her with. I settle for reaching inside of her ribs, taking an unburnt clover to keep at my bedside.
She tugs her robe around her, hiding the hole in her body. She begins to run, run away from me, abandoning the dance that usually takes hold of her feet. The pollen rubs off of her knees and the holly flies out of her singed hair as she starts to scream. “Water, I need water! Water! I’m on fire! Help! Please!”
But the neighborhood sleeps. They call her the lady of the earth and pretend she isn’t real. They pretend they can’t see her when they can hear her screaming. They turn their heads in their pillows and cover their ears with their hands and they sleep without a twitch or a stumble.
The woman runs all night, screaming, the honeycomb on her skin melting until she no longer glows.
In the morning, when they all rise to watch the lady bathe in the sun, all they see is smoke.
Grace Safford is a writer from a town in Northern Vermont so small cartographers sometimes confuse it for a lake. She’s passionate about gardening, feminism, whales, and wearing very ugly socks. You can find her work published or forthcoming in Ghost City Press, Twist in Time, Lucent Dreaming, Dear Damsels, and Corvid Queen. Currently, she is working on her first novel and an activity book.
photo by Kimmy Williams (via unsplash)