The garden was set atop a humble stone wall that terraced the backyard. Above it was the big apple tree, the one Nikki and I buried our time capsule beneath. Below was a stretch of grass that was first home to a fort with fireman’s pole and then a balance beam. Finally a baseball batting cage dominated the space, built for my sister and brother. To Nikki and I this structure was a stage set and most often acted as our imaginary horses’ stable.
The garden had a wire fence around it, low enough for the deer to reach over and not buried very deeply so the rabbits could easily burrow beneath. My mother and I would aerate the soil and build long mounds. Warm toned, almost neon hued cosmos and azaleas were planted on the uphill side of the garden, tomatoes and peppers on the downhill side. There was a separate area where the climbers where planted, green beans and sugar snap peas. As neither my mother nor I could simply step over the fence, our legs short and cumbersome compared to any deer, the climbers could only be reached if we left the main garden all together, and walked toward the cool shade of a gnarly evergreen.
My mother had modestly created this plot of land within a plot of land. Her and I shared this space that she had built, but for me had simply always been there. I watched as her hands precisely moved soil and as her skin darkened each day. Freckles formed and she became a part of the shifting palette of the garden, transforming amidst her verdure. I observed her and myself as well, as we became four arms and four legs, a singular creature willing petals to fold open and tomatoes to ripen, both mother and daughter and neither of those two at all.
Wild things extended the boundary of our plot beyond the silly fence. Creamy Queen Ann’s Lace spilled toward the big apple tree and uncultivated asparagus sprung up from the stone wall. We never cooked the asparagus, it was too tough. I did curiously gnaw on a raw stalk once, the texture crisp, warm, and stringy is a distinct memory merging taste and sound and smell.
My first summers were spent within the garden or just beyond it. I perfected my bird watching skills while sitting motionless between the hosta bushes. There I delighted in reducing myself to a blond head of corn silk hair perched above a collar of green and white striped leaves. Hostas are a flora more reminiscent of the jungle rather than New England, a flora both my mind and body could lose itself in. When not in this solitude I could be found with Nikki; eating warm cherry tomatoes off the vine; swimming until pruny, exiting the pool only to take a pee behind the grape vines; throwing fallen crab apples for Robin Hood, playing with our horses or climbing the big apple tree.
There was one low branch which could be used as a gymnastic bar, its bark of rough scabs sure to tare skin if you were to swing from it. Nonetheless, Nikki and I hung there, upside down. A dense patch of moss transformed itself into a moist green sky and hovered imposingly close above our gnome-hat-hair. One autumn we sliced into the patch and planted a Folgers coffee can time capsule. We were inseparable those years. “Nikki- Ali Ali-Nikki” my mother would call us, one entity, a balanced being of shy and crass, composure and adventure, thin and thick.
I dug into the patch of moss after Nikki died of bone cancer. We had not spoken in over a year. I pulled a rusted can from the soil and popped off a flimsy plastic lid. Nikki’s mother wrote to me years later that she herself had resigned to allowing the memories of Nikki to blend with the present character of her granddaughter. Their resemblance was striking and youth, innocence, and longing dissolved the two girls into one.
I reached into the coffee can. The air was stale and cool. A solitary clump of wet paper waited inside. Ink stains bled from one layer to the next, implications of words written by hands which could not fathom the notion of an end.