It isn’t yet spring, but if she puts an ear to the ground where the snow has thawed, she’ll sometimes catch the sound of mills grinding below.
She whispers into the grass.
“Here lies Timothy James.”
Not here, but there. Planted in another part of town, in a different patch of ground. Seven stops by bus. It’s too sad and frightful to go there alone.
Instead, she comes to the grassy field by the empty school where they used to bring Bilbo and throw tennis balls. Seven minutes by foot. Bilbo was a tugger, so she always held the leash while Timmy popped the gate.
One time she’d called him Jimmy by mistake and felt dumb until Dad said it was another way to say his middle name, so it sort of made sense. Then she called him “Jimothy” just for fun, and this made the boy laugh so hard he fell on the ground wheezing and even peed his pants a little. But he wasn’t ashamed. “I peeled myself!” he squawked and rolled over and over in the grass. She thought it was great fun to scream “Gross!” at him and feel the way every clean thing had a secret squirming unraveling side.
Even the fresh, gleaming grass.
Flipping over a clump of earth will reveal a tangle of roots like skinny white worms awash in soft soil and pale clay. She knows what lives down there, from videos. One time Dad bought them an ant farm, and Timmy told her if hail manages to seep underground before it melts, then that’s where ant eggs come from. When Dad found Timmy trying to dig to the center of the earth, he’d said, “Good luck, boy! Only ten million miles to go!”
He’s down there now, she thinks, transforming.
The pastor said Timmy’s in heaven with Jesus. But then why did they put him in a box and put the box in the ground? Do they think she’s an idiot?
They stopped bringing Bilbo to the field after Timmy got sick. Then it got so bad he couldn’t go outside at all. Instead, they’d stand together at the window. She would point at something and he would tell her where it came from.
“That old tipped over pot.”
“Mom baked it in a watermelon.”
“The tire swing.”
“Dad stoled it from bank robbers.”
“The tree it’s on.”
“Oh, that grew up from a bird poop.”
She never named one thing he wouldn’t have an origin story for straight away. But one day she said “winter” and he didn’t speak but just stared out at the fresh layer of snow. Even waving her hand in front of his face, she couldn’t make him snap out of it. When she turned to run and get help, he said, “Daffle-dill.”
“There’s no daffodil, Jimothy!”
“It grows out of me.”
She looked him over.
“In the snow.”
“I don’t see it.”
“In Bilbo’s field,” he said. “In spring.”
That night his fever got so bad they took him to the hospital. He would not come home again.
It isn’t yet spring, but the days have finally warmed up enough to melt away patches of the endless white sea into solitary islands of green. She creeps upon them, one by one. She kneels down in the damp, sleepy grass, and the warmth of her body splinters the frost.
When she listens for the sound of grinding mills, she thinks the grass is like a head of hair and the earthy world below must be its brain.
She remembers him pushing his little plastic shovel into the summer soil. First through dirt, then water, then rock, then metal, then fire. But when they bury a boy, he only goes into the dirt. Down where the many-legged critters live. Wormy things with no need for eyes. She imagines their bodies animated by spirits from the cemetery who seep out of their skin and into the earth. This isn’t her idea. Another one of Timmy’s origins.
“All flowers come the same way,” he told her. “Like mom makes bread from flowers, the undergrounders grind seeds into flowers. When you plant a seed, they’ll grind it up in bills until it’s powder.”
“It’s mills, Jimothy.”
“I know it is. Then they pack it and bake it and up pops a flower through the chimney.”
She ears around the crisp edges of each little snow patch, just listening. It isn’t yet spring, but the air dapples in crosscurrents of sound. Larks and lowing and barking dogs. Somehow, above it all, she can hear those mills grinding seeds into flowers. Banging away in the halls and chambers of those we’re next to be.
Now, up ahead, on one of the lumpy white knolls, she spots a slip of green and a yellow smudge like where a splash of sunlight spilled over some cloud’s prow.
It isn’t yet spring, but it sure seems like something alive is pushing through. Her heart gallops. Her hairs prickle and levitate. She can’t stand to take another step. From this distance it might be a daffodil, but all that could easily change if she goes any closer. A buttercup or a dandelion; or worse, just a piece of trash or some trick of the light. So she hovers, eyes fixed on the event horizon of the rest of her life. She hears Timmy’s voice against the bottom of her shoes. Urging her to go on.
That’s a Daffle-dill right now no matter what it turns to later, he says. Go on, pick it. Take it home to Mom. Tell her it’s spring.
By Josh Wagner
Josh Wagner is a novelist and playwright from Missoula, Montana, with a Creative Writing MSc from the University of Edinburgh. His work has been described as lyrical, whimsical, and incisive. He is the author of four novels and three graphic novels, and has won awards for his work in comics and theatre. His short stories and poetry have been published by Cafe Irreal, Not One of Us (Clarity), Medulla Review, Lovecraft eZine, Cleaver Magazine, Asymmetrical Press, and Image Comics. He enjoys rhizomes, paradoxes, and thinks left unsaid.