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Harsh Garden

by Daniel Strohl

He stood up from his work, his feet covered by 6 inches of compost and mulch. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his bicep and shoulder, the only part of his body, naked from the waist up, without a thin patina of compost and mulch stuck on it by the sweat. Patches of blue denim jeans showed underneath the brown, gray and green of the manure.

"You know, you could have told me about her."

He twisted his torso, stretching his back muscles, picked up his hoe, then bent back over and continued spreading the mulch. She knelt at the other end of the garden, measuring out where the rows were to be. She had some mulch and compost on her old clothes, especially on the bottom of her ratty sneakers. Some had even managed to perch on her wide-brimmed straw hat.

Footprints traced her way back to the other side of the garden and back again in nearly equal-spaced parallel lines.

"I kinda figured you wouldn't approve."

The sun, slightly above the horizon, promised its usual southern ferocity shortly. Shadows of fence posts and stripling trees stretched to the west across their sparsely grassed yard. Steam rose from the freshly turned compost and mulch.

"We could have worked it out much earlier."

Litter from meals gone by and forgotten leftovers popped up through the top layer of mulch. Eggshells, corncobs, melonrinds. The crust of a stale loaf of french bread. A rotten tomato. The vine that hung in the kitchen and wasn't watered during the last vacation. And on top of that all laid the deep brown wood chippings made fertile by the filmy gray fungus on it.

"And would you have accepted the whole situation?"

He finished spreading the layer of musty mulch and began evening it out with his hoe. The separation of the newly spread mulch, a rich, textured brown, and the mulch spread yesterday became deliniated as he ran his rake through the slightly greyed, dewy mulch.

"We could have worked it out."

She finished measuring the rows and stood up, stretched, put her hands on her hips.

"That's not the same as accepting the situation."

"No it's not…"

He stopped raking and finally looked at her, saw her penetrating gaze. The anger there, but also something betraying that anger, behind it, hidden. He stared for a while at her stone face, illuminated in golden yellow by the bright sun. He stood still for a moment, hands resting on the end of the rake, a garden between them.

The rake settled into the mulch slowly where he set it down. The steamy, newly turned mulch between them compressed softly under his feet. As he stepped closer to her and narrowed the amount of harsh garden between them, her face changed. That something betraying her stony façade leaked out, trickled out, spilled out, poured out, until he held her in his arms.

"…but I love you too much to let go."

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