Eventually, I realize the Virginia sun can never be my own. This is a southern sun. The Blue Ridge Mountains are moist and green and thick with flowers, deer, moonshine, and ticks. Nothing like the alpine of my youth, I think. McKinley, the Chugachs, Alyeska.
The soil is thick and rich here; red and black in some places, rocky in others. Fertile in a way I’ve never known. I work with the earth: digging, planting, raking, pounding rock— sometimes by hand, sometimes with a jack hammer. It seems we never stop running. I prune, weed, mulch, lop limbs off trees, and count how many dead lily patches must be shorn to earn my ticket home.
I try not to think of the job I left in Alaska, the friends and family I left, the boy I left them for, the high school sweetheart he left me for soon as we arrived in his hometown. I think, instead, of the satisfying weight of a shovel in my hand, because there is no other work to be found on either side of the single stop light in this small mountain town.
Often the soft watercolors of morning distract me from my blisters until lunch, when I sit in the shade and imagine how good it would feel if my clothes were dry.
I am not the bug, I think one day. I am the beam of magnified light.
I take off my boots and drain the sweat from them.
“The joy is in the doing,” Sam says, an elbow propped on his pitchfork. He wears long sleeves and long pants and produces no visible sweat in this climate. This is his home. When the thermostat reads 99° F, it feels to me like 130° F. The Virginia sun is my kryptonite.
Sam believes dinosaurs were meant to rule the Earth. That an alien lizard people seeded the planet as an experiment, and that human beings were an evolutionary accident.
I can’t say he’s wrong about human beings.
We spread mulch daily. Ten, fifteen, thirty yards of it. Delivered by dump-truck. We drive an hour down the mountain to work in nearby cities. Sam and I take our wheelbarrows and pitchforks and transform winter-faded gardens into summer glens. Sometimes it takes two days to work our magic. Dig, throw, lift the wheelbarrow, push, pull, dump, strain, spread.
Like shoveling snow, I tell myself. A meditation, I tell myself. I wish I could lie down and cover my body with mulch. You should not be angry, I tell myself. Get over it.
To spill mulch is to declare weakness, no matter how far or heavy the load.
Hunger overwhelms me at all times. I keep nuts in the bibs of my Carhart overalls like a squirrel. I pine for meat and fruit and vegetables and cheese and cold beer, even as my pants hang from my waist and my t-shirt grows loose. The bibs now sway freely and the skin at my collarbone chafes, turns red. I wonder how a person can eat until she is full and starve to death nonetheless.
Though I am allergic to dairy and crab and fragrances, I am not allergic to poison ivy, oak, or sumak. Yet one day I am left in a field of poison ivy no one else will touch and eight tiny red blisters form beneath the toe strap of my sandal. The blisters take the shape of the Big Dipper, with the North Star on my pinky toe. For a month my right foot burns, calling me home.
I learn to pray to the Virginian sun. I work the land. The land works me. Soft places erode, washed away by sweat, revealing bedrock. I am happy to find signs of health worming around down there. I am learning: sweep away dead stuff and you find green shoots, fertile soil, ants, worms, rodents, life.
Once, digging under a bush, I am surprised when a spider the size of my fist jumps at me, then scurries away. Back home I am wise to signs of bear and moose; here, I’m liable to reach in and tug on a snake, mistaking it for debris. After that, whenever I reach blindly into a briar, knee high grasses, a rock pile, I am reminded: you never know what will grab you back.
You can’t plan it all, I tell myself.
One day the farmer’s wife who takes my ten in exchange for beer and gasoline spies the dirt beneath my nails, embedded in the crease of each knuckle. She nods approval. I wonder what else she sees. Fair hair matted with dirt, fair skin in various stages of sunburn: blistered, peeling, pink and white, peachy tan at the wrists. Racoon eyes. Loneliness.
At home I drink a beer in the shower, watching dirt spiral clockwise down the drain. This is all there is of me: bones, muscle, fat, flesh, farmer’s tan, earth stained hands, and beer. It’ll be alright, I tell myself. There’ll be more work, I tell myself. I’d like to spiral down the drain with the dirt, but am too firm. You’ll get home eventually, I tell myself.
I check for ticks, let cold water soothe the heat of my skin, and I pine: for the buzz of mosquitoes, the bark of a seal in the harbor, the Midnight Sun. I close my eyes and feel the North Star revolving slowly in black space, waiting to grab me back.
Keema Waterfield is a 2011 MFA grad from the University of Montana’s nonfiction program. Recent publications and awards include: 2011 Cross genre $1,000 contest winner at Mason’s Road: essay “Inside Passage”; 2011 Redivider Journal: essay “Likeness”; 2009 Faculty Winner Intro Awards: essay “A Handy Map of Home”; 2006 Understory, UA Press: essay “Physician, heal thyself”; 2006 Anchorage Press Super Shorts competition. V.15:10: short story “Good Advice.”