It’s been eight months, and he can’t remember her tattoo.
The shovel sinks into the topsoil and carves out another load for the wheelbarrow. Sweat runs down his neck and shoulders in rivulets, pooling in the fingers of his gloves. He’s about to make his 23rd trip from the neat, chest-high stack of dirt to the sallow oval patch of land behind the house, but he’s forgotten that too.
He can feel the morning’s work settle in his lower back as he lifts the handles of the full barrow. The path to the dead ground runs a wide half-circle around the house, about a quarter-mile across good grass, so he’s careful not to travel it the same way twice with his work boots.
It was cursive, he thinks, some sort of platitude about trust or conviction that belied her fierce independence and sense of free thought. If there was a drop of cynicism in her, it would’ve been ironic.
“Believe”? No, it was a phrase, he’s certain.
He tilts the barrow up, and loose mahogany shakes into the trenches he dug out the weekend before. This used to be a garden, years before he owned the land. An impressive one, given its dimensions.
He imagines a beautiful redhead in a broad sun hat carefully toeing through rows of marigolds and orchids. She’s cooing to the plants, whispering in French, chastising the runts of the crop as she waters them.
Pourquoi ne pas vous cultivez, petite fleur?
He peels off the gloves and drops them in a wet pile. As he steers the empty barrow back to the dirt pile, he can feel exactly where the blisters will begin to form, and he welcomes them.
Under the midday sun, curiosity melts into mild frustration. He used to trace the words across the curve of her stomach when they laid in bed together. But when he tries to picture it now, the words are in a language he can’t read.
“I Shall Not Be In Want”? Six words is too long, he thinks, but it makes a thoughtful Psalm.
He believed in God like he believed in her, and when it all ground to a halt and she moved back East, he didn’t know which one deserved more blame.
The empty return trip goes a little faster, and soon he’s stabbing, leveraging, heaving again. The muscles in his forearms tense and release like bowstrings. An icy daydream of a beer and a good book cuts through, but he pushes it aside. Civilize the mind, but make savage the body. Dig, scoop, dump.
Before the end of the night, he’ll line the patch with chicken wire to keep the dogs away from the baby seeds until they sprout. When the leaves turn, the green will conquer the yellow, and the lawn will look uniform and pristine, like nothing had ever happened.
Who’s reading the tattoo now? he wonders, surprising himself with bitterness.
But then the blade catches the sun on its way back into the dirt, all the way to the shoulder, and he wipes his brow with a dirty forearm and puts another shovelful behind him, and he feels nothing at all.