By Olivia Bradley
When Saul walked into the farmhouse, his eyes were immediately drawn to the dry, tangled mass of roots that sat on the long, trestle table. One solitary, woody limb stretched out into the air, five tendrils at the end atrophied into a fist. Green still shone underneath the newly grown bark, an echo of the vibrant, searching way those fingers had danced through the air.
“Another one?” he asked, his voice softly echoing in the sparsely furnished room. Maeve nodded from her seat at the table. Tear tracks marred her cheeks.
“I thought we did everything right this time. What went wrong?”
Hurt flashed behind Maeve’s eyes. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” He knew she was thinking—as he was—about the hours spent wringing their hands over the most fertile soil, and the perfect proportion of water and sunlight. The darkest whispers that maybe they would kill everything they touched—what came so easily to others would always be a fruitless struggle for them.
Saul shuffled forward and held Maeve’s trembling, bony hands in his broad ones. “I know you didn’t, love. I’m sorry.” Saul bent down to press his lips to hers, seeking comfort, but she turned her face away from him and from the gnarled body on the table that had failed before it could thrive.
Saul cleared his throat. “We can try again.”
Maeve’s shoulders tensed. “I’m tired. You get to leave, spend all day at work. And I’m alone here, watering it, caring for it, praying over it.”
“It’s not an ‘it,’ Maeve.”
“What should I call it? It didn’t live long enough to find out if it was a ‘he’ or a ‘she.’” With those words, fresh tears spilled out of Maeve’s eyes and filtered through her eyelashes.
That night, Saul woke to the wan light of the moon streaming through the gap in the curtain, throwing itself across Maeve’s sleeping face. Her hair was damp against her skin, and her face was twisted into a half-frown. Her eyes flicked rapidly back and forth beneath her eyelids.
Saul’s words from that morning echoed in his head. We could try again. He was willing to try again. His hand moved hesitantly under the slip of the worn flannel quilt until the pads of his fingers skimmed the warmth of Maeve’s body. He reached further, encircling the soft flesh that hugged the curve of her hip bone with his palm.
Saul closed his eyes tightly and willed himself to remember the feeling of his lips on the sweat-slick curve of her neck, and his hands on the slight slope of her breast. Maeve whimpered in her sleep, and he recalled the soft groans that would catch in the back of her throat.
Saul felt himself stiffen under the sheets, his thumb rubbing small circles into Maeve’s hip. He slowly began to turn his body, until only a soft breath of air separated his expanse of skin from hers.
Maeve pulled away, hugging the edge of the sagging mattress, her back a tense, hard line, even in her sleep. She whimpered again, and this time Saul could only hear the sobs she muffled in her fist the last time they lost one.
The warmth in his stomach dissipated instantly, replaced by a cold emptiness. He pulled away and burrowed deeper under the quilt.
The next morning, Saul awoke, once again, in an empty bed. The room was dim, the day outside the window was tinged gray. He reached one hand over to touch the rumpled sheets that had spent the night under Maeve’s body. They were cold. Saul rolled over and threw the quilt off his body. The chilly air in the room sank down onto him, penetrating his bones. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and winced as his feet touched the floor, feeling the frigidity even through his wool socks. He stood and stretched, feeling a tug and pop at each vertebrae. The house was silent.
In the kitchen, there was no trace of Maeve’s morning routine. No dirty dishes in the sink, no warmth emanating from the kettle. After setting water to bubble into a boil on the stove, Saul stepped into the front hall. There was an empty spot next to his barn coat on the wall, a void next to his work boots. He returned to the kitchen and poured the hot water over a spoonful of instant coffee, and sipped at the searing bitterness.
He glanced out the window over the sink and the patch of grass and earth under the oak tree at the front of the house caught his eye. There was a line of raised, earthen mounds. The one furthest from the house was covered in thick grass, but down the line the mounds became sparser. The second-to-last one had the brittle appearance of dry soil.
The last one, though, was new. The mound was made of freshly-turned, still-damp earth. He could see the dents in the topsoil where Maeve had knelt in front. He could imagine the faint outlines of her hands on the mound, where she had carefully packed the earth. At the head of each mound was a short stake, and tacked to each stake a faded, empty packet for a seed that had never grown.
Saul was crouching in front of the wood stove, carefully feeding logs into the flame, when Maeve returned, pushing the front door softly back into its swollen frame. The sleek sound of metal caressing metal when it latched was inaudible, but Saul imagined it, in the half-beat of silence. Then the scuffle of her boots as she toed them off. Her stockinged feet made little noise until she reached the creaky floor board in the hallway. The damp logs popped in the heat and Saul rocked back on his heels. When it took, and the room began to warm, he dusted his hands off on the knees of his flannel-lined jeans and settled his weight into the sunken cushions of his armchair.
He could hear only the occasional indication of Maeve’s presence in the house. A cupboard clapped shut in the kitchen. Silence reigned for several minutes, then the kettle whistled. Saul was surprised when her footsteps resumed and became louder as they approached the den. He gazed at the flames as she entered the room. She leaned close enough for him to take in the heady scent of winter sweat and damp wool, and she placed a mug of steaming tea on the small table to his right.
Saul glanced at her, then, his eyes wide. She didn’t smile, but she let her eyes drift across his, before she turned to settle herself into the armchair next to him. He peered at her through the corner of his eyes as she tucked her feet up under her body and pulled a knit blanket over her knees. When she opened her book and began to read, he allowed himself to reach for the mug.
Several weeks passed, and as winter approached, the morning frost that glazed the mounds of earth became a permanent shell. That Sunday morning, the sky was clear and bright, the sunlight cutting the chill of the season. When Saul entered the kitchen, his eyes were drawn to a book sitting on the table. It was covered in neatly pressed brown butcher’s paper, and the frayed edges of lined paper torn from a spiral-bound notebook stuck out from between the pages. Maeve was out again, delivering food to a sick neighbor. Saul’s eyes flicked to the clock on the wall, and then back to the book. He sat on the creaky kitchen chair as one hand stroked the paper-clad spine. He flipped through the pages, letting them flit by so quickly that he couldn’t truly read them. But a few phrases jumped out at him.
The gestation period is arduous for many soon-to-be parents, but patience is key. It is important to rest. Over-churning the soil will agitate both mother and child.
A healthy fetus will begin to emerge from the soil in the second trimester. If positioned face-up, the dark green head will start to appear first. A breech baby grows feet first.. If this doesn’t resolve on its own by the middle of the third trimester, please seek medical attention.
You can’t underestimate the importance of cultivating the best conditions. Where possible, invest in the richest soil, and the purest water. The nutrients a child receives in its first few months are key to its organ development.
The sheets of notebook paper were filled with Maeve’s small, neat handwriting. He saw summaries of chapters from the book, to do lists, and finally a list of supplies detailing a plan to save up for them.
Saul carefully tucked the papers back into the book, and pushed it toward the center of the table. His chest felt tight at the same time that the muscles in his shoulders relaxed slightly, his spine settling onto itself, holding him upright for the first time in weeks.
Maeve came back in the late morning, her hair windswept and her cheeks raw and pink. Saul sidled into the kitchen.
“Maeve?” She turned toward the gravel of his voice. “It’s a beautiful day for this time of year. How about going into town? There should still be some fresh vegetables left at the market—maybe you could make stew tonight?”
Maeve cocked her head but the corners of her mouth quirked into a thin smile. “Yes,” she said slowly. “That’s a good idea.”
Sauled flashed a small smile in return, and crossed the room to gently rub cream into both of their chapped hands, massaging it into her swollen knuckles, and cautiously tickling her between her fingers. She swatted his hand away, but she still had that tiny smile playing across her mouth.
“I’ll get my jacket?” Saul asked. Maeve nodded.
Maeve and Saul’s hands were linked through the thick knit of their mittens.
The center of town was crowded for such a cold day. The sun had pulled people out of the shelter of their homes, to take advantage of one of the last warm days before the grayness and snow enveloped their town. The market stalls were set up, tarps lashed tightly to create walls that could protect against the wind. The vendors stood behind their stores, only their smiling eyes visible above the scarves twisted around their necks, and below the hats pulled tight around their heads.
Maeve drifted towards a vendor she knew and exchanged a few words as she chose the ingredients for their dinner. Saul hovered nearby, watching her and everyone else in the square. A woman walked by carrying a swaddled bundle in her arms. A single sock-clad root kicked out from the bottom, and flailed vigorously. Saul stopped in his tracks and watched more closely. When the woman turned to enter one stall, he could see the vibrant, opaque leaves that were reaching up toward the sun. He felt a tug in his stomach, pulling him closer to the mother, but his head swiveled back toward Maeve instead. She had seen the pair as well, but the pain in her eyes was softer somehow, and as she carried on her conversation, her eyes were repeatedly drawn to the bundle as it strained against its mother’s warmth, desperate for the sunlight that would make it strong.
Saul walked to her side and touched her elbow. She startled slightly, but didn’t pull away. Instead she paid and thanked the vendor, glanced once more toward the mother, and then let Saul guide her back to their home.
Saul prodded the popping logs into a larger and larger fire. Once the sun had set, the cold had descended on the house and weighed heavily on the roof until it seeped through and flooded the rooms. When he was satisfied with the warmth radiating from the stove, he rubbed his hands together and turned back toward the kitchen. Maeve was wearing a cable-knit sweater over her heavy flannel shirt. Her wool socks slipped every few steps as she moved around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and seasoning the pot that was simmering on the stove.
Saul walked up behind her, letting his heel find the creaky floor board to announce his presence, and placed his hands on Maeve’s waist. She continued stirring the pot, but leaned her weight back toward his chest. He hesitated, and then ducked his head to kiss the top of her head, before pulling away and reaching for a knife to help her.
To his surprise, as he was chopping the carrots into small, uneven pieces, he felt a hand feather-light flutter across the middle of his back as Maeve crossed the room. He went still at her touch, but began humming an old folk song under his breath.
The mouth-watering scent of the stew began to waft in tantalizing spirals through the small kitchen, condensing on the inside of the windows. Maeve grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the pot so he could lean down and inhale the sharp aroma of onion and the heavier undertones of braised beef.
Saul couldn’t help the satisfied groan that found its way out of his throat when he tasted the first blisteringly-hot bite. Maeve smiled at him from across the table, the candlelight illuminating the crinkled corners of her eyes. After dinner, Saul insisted that Maeve put her feet up while he tidied the kitchen. He found her several minutes later in the bed, wrapped in her worn flannel nightgown, her legs stretched out in front of her. Saul sat down on the end of the bed, lifting her feet to make space and placing them in his lap. His hands began to knead the soles of her feet through her woolen socks while he forced his eyes to meet hers.
Maeve met his gaze, her eyes keen but cautious. His hands moved from her feet to her ankles, and then wrapped around the soft flesh of her calf, rubbing the tight muscles. Her eyes shut and her lips parted to let out a whoosh of air when his fingers found a knot and unraveled it. When his fingertips grazed the thin skin behind her knees, her eyes flicked back open. He began to draw his hand back, but her fingers caught his.
They both sat on the bed, still, for a few moments, their bodies warm at the isolated points where they touched. Maeve exhaled a shaky breath and, with almost imperceptible pressure, pulled his hand higher. He leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers as his fingers followed the warmth. The rest of their movements were hesitating and eager. Fingers fumbled on buttons and lips quaked as they pressed to skin.
Saul held himself above Maeve for a moment before tipping to one side and settling into the sheets. Maeve eased herself up the bed until she was sitting upright, her back pressed into the gnarled headboard. She pushed her hair back off her damp forehead. They looked at each other for a moment before looking down, together, at the stretch of sheet between Maeve’s legs. There, glistening in the moonlight that spilled in through the window, were five tiny, black seeds. Neither of them moved for a moment. When Maeve began to shiver as sweat dried on her skin, Saul pulled his glance away to hand her the discarded nightgown. They stood up to dress on opposite sides of the bed.
When they were both clothed once more, Maeve looked at him with a question in her eyes. Saul swallowed, then scooped the seeds into the palm of his hand. They weighed nothing. He padded softly toward the kitchen, with Maeve a few steps behind.
She stood silhouetted in the door frame while he reached under their sink for a pot and a bag of soil. She moved closer when he began to pour soil into the pot, but she remained silent. When the pot was full of damp, loamy earth, he caught her eye and followed her gaze out the kitchen window toward the mounds of earth that marred their yard. They both stared at the shadowy hills, imagining what lay under that dry, inhospitable earth.
Maeve startled when Saul cupped her face and caressed her cheek with his thumb. Her eyes were wet. He tugged her chin back toward the flower pot, and creased the soil with his knuckle. Then he tipped the seeds out of his palm and into the well of earth. Maeve lifted her hand, and together they smoothed the soil that filled the chipped terracotta pot. When they were finished, Saul covered Maeve’s dirt-caked hand with his own. She spread her fingers, dipping them into the earth to make space for his to twine in between. The dark room was heavy with their prayers – the unspoken words they poured, like water, into the soil, until it almost felt warm and alive under their hands.
Olivia is a Maine native and a graduate of Tufts University. She has wanted to be a writer since she was ten years old. You can find her scribbling in her notebook, or reading more than is healthy.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.