by Annie Lampman
He ignored me and gave the hoe another swing—another black earth bite in a long row of teeth. The chicken feet strung around his neck settled below his collarbone. They were yellow and horned, the feet, nails curved enough to look threatening, but blunted on the end, I supposed from a previous better life scratching at dirt for bugs and whatever else chickens ate. Grass, maybe, I thought, although that didn’t seem quite right. Too bovine. Too soft-lipped and square toothed. Ruminates, regurgitation. That much I still remembered from my few weeks of freshman class, before Jimmy—another now. Stomachs, multiple. The university’s plexiglass-sided cows like Halloween tricks. Look inside and see…
I was just relieved he didn’t have chicken skulls stung onto his necklace too. Those beaks, those staring ocular hollows. I wondered what they’d see if they put a window in me too. Another embryo growing like a sprouted bean pod nestled beneath a maze of slick intestines. Enough to call it quits for good.
“What’s it take to get dirt like yours?” Only July and his corn so high its tasseled heads beckoned over the fence like a hello.
He didn’t stop, didn’t look at me at all. I’d expected as much—he never so much as glanced our way when he rode his creaking bike down the alley to class, but I couldn’t take it anymore. Ten feet and a fence apart, all that green growth like a taunt. Professor Greenfield. Like he was laboring to represent his own name.
“First off, it isn’t dirt,” he said, his back humped with his efforts.
“Pardon me?” I brushed a clingy web off my elbow with extra care and tried not to stare at his neck. I’d known what kind of crazy I might be reckoning with.
I thought of little Jimmy hiding behind the shed, squatting in the weeds, private in shitting his pullups, walking around smugly afterward, load swinging between his legs.
“Worms, insects, fungal partners, bacteria, archaea, protozoa, nematodes, algae, springtails, mites—there’s more life in a spoonful of soil than in a ton of dirt. Dirt is barren.”
I felt like I was back in class, memorizing PowerPoints. It made my heart beat faster. That first week, he’d made us to listen to our own guts with stethoscopes, telling us that we were composed of more bacterial DNA than our own. Millions of little aliens growing inside.
“For protection, from evil?” I pointed at his neck. Maybe that’s what it took to get good dirt. Some Hoodoo magic. Better luck than what I had.
He wiped his face with a soiled glove. “In remembrance.” He pointed his hoe at the cornrow. “Lily, Lou, and Dilly, fertilizer now.”
I heard Jimmy fussing and turned to go, but he put a hand on my arm—a curled claw.
“Compost, road kill, worm casings, clover till. That’s what it takes. Burial and growth…”
Jimmy wailing somewhere close now.
Microorganisms, he’d said that first day, were more than we could ever be.
ANNIE LAMPMAN is the author of the novel SINS OF THE BEES (Pegasus/Simon & Schuster, September 2020) and the letter-press printed limited edition poetry chapbook BURNING TIME (Limberlost Press, August 2020). Her narrative essays, poetry, and short fiction have been published or are forthcoming in sixty-some literary journals and anthologies such as The Normal School, Orion Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and Women Writing the West. She has been awarded the Dogwood Literary Award in Fiction, the Everybody Writes Award in Poetry, a Best American Essays “Notable,” a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, a Literature Fellowship Special Mention by the Idaho Commission on the Arts, and a national Bureau of Land Management wilderness artist’s residency in the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness. She lives with her family in Moscow, Idaho and is an Associate Professor of Honors Creative Writing at the Washington State University Honors College.