there is no photo for this story. you make your own picture: your hands in the dirt.

where are you? what do you see? what spreads out from the frame to ground you in a particular place and time?

this story is a knot, a tangle of earth and weeds and ashes and roots. a rhizome, it has no beginning and a hundred beginnings. if you tug gently to pull it from the dirt, it slides loose: hanging naked and exposed, sometimes it will make you believe you have captured it once and for all.

don’t believe. there is more, always more, beneath the surface.
***

we bid on land last night.

not the 73 acres from a few months back, with the raccoon-infested cabin.

this is two small cottage lots, raw land, never built on. fallen birches white and rotting lay across the mossy, lumpy green of its old-growth floor. the place smells wild and salty, the sea air sharp over the green spring moss. the beach is littered with round hard rocks washed in from other shores. there are bunnies in the undergrowth of the old dune. one twitches his hindquarters at us. Posey is smitten, forever.

down a dirt track two or three minutes’ walk from the water, the lots themselves, loosely pinned. the corpses of the trees lay like porcupines, dead branches menacing at perpendicular angles. be careful! you could put an eye out! my hysteria comes mainly from lack of experience: what do i know of a place like this? i know only that small feet can trip: i grip the children as if they are greyhounds champing for release.

you could say it is him who hankers after land.

he longs for space, for a wide-open-ness i do not truly comprehend. i grew up in apartments. i am only, six years into house ownership, beginning to stop modulating my footsteps for the non-existent neighbours.

he is the gardener, the weed-warrior, the one who tackles the tangle of our side yard season after season. he grows seedlings that swell into tomatoes and pumpkins. i half-heartedly pluck, water the pansies, the cucumbers. in the dry heat of August, i am the long-haul salvation of thirsty plants. but i am no saviour: i am a stop-gap measure. his is the real work and energy out-of-doors. the prospect of clearing stumps makes him giddy.

i try to understand.

i dug one hole, one time: six years ago yesterday, my first Mother’s Day. Finn’s ashes under the tree in the backyard in the rain. just the one time. like all the strength i could ever muster for digging and growing was buried in that hole. done, before i started.

but do not be mistaken. that thread of the story is only one root. i will not clear stumps, perhaps, but this land is not for him.

i can tell you that i fear the dirt, that i do not like the worms wriggling from the shovel. true, without doubt. but there are counter-stories. Oscar and i rescued two worms the other morning, from the drying-out puddle on the way into preschool. i picked mine up and dropped him because my fingers feared the line between firmness and squish. i tried again, my fingers better readied for the soft live earnestness of the wiggling body. look, i said to my son, as if i carted worms about daily, he’s okay, it doesn’t hurt him. i didn’t add, look! my fingers haven’t withered off from touching him! i am a paragon of wise judgement. also, in that moment, amazement.

if they say yes to the land bid, maybe there will be more worms.

i say this with hope. i say this with trepidation and horror.

i hanker after the land for what it might change in me. for what it might teach my children. for the stories it might tell. the smell of earth that has never been landscaped. the patience of meandering along a rocky beach, watching the tide line. stars, maybe. bonfires.

some lost, misplaced part of me is a flaneur at heart, a wanderer of city streets, a dilettante observer of the human urban bustle. drop me mapless in the middle of Paris or Saigon and i would thrill, and walk, and find my wayless way without worry.

drop me in the middle of the woods and i’d begin writing my own obituary in my head.

but i wonder, at the stories of rocks and trees, at the possibility that somewhere under the surface there is some tendril of connection between pacing cobblestones and treading moss. i wonder if the built world and the one that precedes us are so divided. i wonder if Walter Benjamin, trudging on foot over Nazi-occupied mountains to Spain and his own suicide, found it possible to be a flaneur of rocks and flowers, an aesthete of worms.

i hanker to know, and so i hanker after the land.

he asks me, are you sure? are you sure you want this?

i imagine walking, walking, with only the smell of salt spray to guide me. i hear Oscar sing, the world’s largest rock collection! Posey peers between briars at a bunny. for a moment, i see my hands in cool dirt, and i do not cringe. in the same flash, i see the work of boarding up a place in fall, and the dead flies and the septic system and the hauling in laundry to town and all those hundred Cinderella tasks.

i nod.

all stories are part of the truth, and part lie. they are roots, pulled bare from the earth and left to dangle out of context, white and quivering.

he knows. he sees all that i do not say, the tangle of answers that cannot be unknotted. he hands me the pen and i sign and we wait to see what the answer will be.
***

what do your hands in the earth mean to you?

if they say yes to this land, people, shine up your hammers. you’re in for a barn-raising.