After the funeral, Dakota drove straight to the airport; there was nowhere else to go. Her brother was the only remaining soul in the Rocky Mountains she’d known. She pushed the speed limit, took the hairpin curves at twice their recommended speed. The fates did not reward her haste. Her flight stalled on the tarmac for almost an hour. While she waited she called the widower.
“Can I see you tonight?” Dakota said.
“Not tonight,” the widower said.
His granddaughter’s school play was tonight, didn’t she remember?
“Okay,” Dakota said. “Tomorrow.”
What she didn’t say: I touched the hard, dead bones of my brother’s face and they felt like marble; they made me think of you. What she didn’t say: Call me foolish, but I’d never realized we were old.
The story she’d told about her brother during the eulogy was also the story she’d told the widower during their first date: growing up in the mountains with her twin brother, the two of them raised by the watchful eyes of aspens. How, one afternoon, they found a slumbering bear in the branches above their heads, his deep snores rattling the leaves. Her brother had raised his eyes level with the bear and touched him once on the nose.
“Bears,” the widower had said. “That’s how I lost my fingers: sculpting life-sized bears with a chainsaw.”
Then he’d shown her the string-thin dip of scar where he’d severed his thumb, detached the right index. He’d named the doctor who threaded the needle and sutured the digits back onto his hand. Underneath this story, Dakota heard a running seam of wisdom. See, he seemed to be saying, how each of us is made of the same, detachable parts.
Dakota lifted up the plastic blind of her window and looked outside. The white wing of the airplane cut through the distant ridge of the mountains’ knotted spines. She knew exactly how the summits would appear up close, the cut rock crumbling into chalky lint; the pines, their roots half hung over the broken cliffs, veiny limbs clotted with dirt; below, large swaths of bare ground where the trees had been popped from the dirt to groom it into ski trails. The lights inside the cabin adjusted, reflecting her face over the glass. The socket of her eye stretched over miles and miles of rock peak, perspective allowing her to feel larger than the land. The seat belt sign clicked on and the wheels began to turn.
She was back in Texas by midnight. Driving home, the flat horizon startled her with its width, dissecting the sky like a dipping scar. The scent of the air had changed. August, the burning season, had come again; the old grass scythed down and smoked so it wouldn’t fritter away all the nutrients of next season’s fresh crop. Once the burning started, it carried its scent miles and miles away, the smell an early warning for the far off flames butting against the sides of the highway. It wasn’t the soothing, family scent of a fire in the winter, kindling beneath a chimney. It had claws, fixing its fingers into people’s hair and clothes before they fully knew what it was. Dakota drove through the fox-dark grass and watched the fallow fields lick themselves with flames, each acre sparking over to the other until the horizon shook with a wavering gold.
Her apartment was silent when she opened the door. She dropped her keys on the counter, dropped her luggage on the floor. Silence still. She stepped on her own heels, attempting to pry off her boots with the laces knotted. She tripped, and nothing responded to the sound. She hoped the cat was still alive. She’d left plenty of food, but who knew how capable of rationing could a cat be.
“Cat,” she said.
The cat did not have a name; she refused to name things that might not come when she called.
Something thumped in the back of her apartment. Dakota pressed her tongue to the back of her teeth and whistled. Her dog had died in June, and since then the cat’s entire demeanor had changed. Now it carried small sticks around in its mouth and dropped them at her feet. It scampered to her side upon hearing the high whine of a whistle. It postured at threatening behavior, growling when people passed the front door. Dakota wondered for a moment if she should buy a new dog before deciding that her latest revelation would not allow it. Old ladies, as far as she knew, did not own dogs. Old ladies slept with cats on their floral printed pillows.
She wondered if the widower was thinking of her now, but suspected he was not. She’d never been a strange or memorable sort of lover, although she’d hoped with the widower this might change. At night, her dreams filled with insane performances designed just for him. Once she finger-painted every inch of her body gold and rubbed her burnished skin off into his silk sheets. Another time she brought him a small wood thrush hidden between her two hands. The bird flew instantly into his ceiling fan, the dotted white and black feathers popping apart and dusting their hair.
In reality, the oddest thing she’d done was to insist he always wear his ring. She liked the cold shock of the metal when he slid his fingers inside her. She liked to imagine him walking home with unwashed hands, brushing back his granddaughter’s hair, his unsuspecting daughter running her thumb absently across the still-damp band, a small part of Dakota traveling out of her home and settling into his.
She got back in her truck and drove to Walmart. She asked the man working in the nursery what gardening supplies he recommended. The man asked about the size of her yard. Dakota told him she didn’t have a yard; she lived in an apartment. The man sold her a potted birch.
Dakota would not be deterred. Old ladies in stories always owned cats; old ladies in stories always owned gardens. She had a new role to play and she intended to play it right.
She drove home with the birch tree, packets of seeds, three bags of mulch, and 200 yards of AstroTurf in the back of her truck. The sun lifted over the horizon as she walked through her front door and large ovals, like barred and black eyelids, peered back at her from the fields outside, half burnt. The color sparked out like a crater, lightening as it moved further and further away from the ignition site until the field returned to it’s late August beige. The exact beige of her carpet, in fact. She relished ripping it from her floors.
She rolled the AstroTurf from one end of the apartment to the next, following the soft green plastic on her knees with a pair of scissors in her hand. The blades left crisscrossed indents below the joints. When she reached one wall she slid the slick shears through the rubber and then kicked the green roll back towards the other end of her apartment. Twice, she lifted the cat up from where it was digging shallow holes. It took her barely an hour to cover her floor. She stomped over the tough surface in her bare feet. She jumped up and down in the spots where her meadow bubbled away from the ground. Her skin prickled and itched and pinked in each spot that it touched the verdant plastic.
She stapled her pasture down around the edges. She walked down to her car and carried the mulch and the seed packets up the stairs. She paced out the walls with the scissors in her hands again. She paused and bent and sliced: a tight circle here, a long rectangle there. She upended the bag of mulch over each of these cutouts until her nose filled with damp wood, the tangy scent of cut core. She kneeled again and weeviled deep in the mulch with her fingers. She packed the packets of seeds into the holes and labeled each section with the photo from the bag: tomato row, peony circle. The corner of the kitchen, by the oven, housed the half-grown Birch Tree. The cat followed behind her, burrowing its small paws into the dirt. This time she didn’t stop it.
She sucked the scent of mulch into her mouth and grinned. She ran out to the store once more and returned with a box of tomatoes, which she planted over the seeds. She mounted pots of peonies. She brought more and more fully living plants inside. Long boxes of lupines, shallow pans filled with Columbines and Indian Paintbrush. She filled a cookie tray with Snow-Lilies and her bookshelf with Sky Pilots.
Finally, she spread a blanket across the grass. She packed a picnic basket and carried it from the kitchen into her living room. She set out the warm Brie and the whole-wheat crackers and was methodically de-vining grapes when the widower opened her door. He scuffed his toes against the elastic grass, admired the creeping ivy taped to her walls. Finally, he turned towards the red-checkered blanket where Dakota was perched, naked, holding an open bottle of champagne.
“What’s all this?” he said.
“I wanted a garden,” she said.
“Well,” he said. “You’ve certainly made one.”
“And what did you make today?” she said: a challenge.
“A woman’s face.”
He crossed the room, kneeled, and took her face into his palms.
“She looked a bit like you,” he said. “But different here.”
He dug his fingers into the crow corners of her eyes. It was late now, the wide curtain of darkness cut by the gilded flames. He pressed her back into the grass and Dakota inhaled the soot scent caught in his neck, his hair. The champagne bottle tipped over and leaked through the rubber dirt. The cat walked up next to them, sat down on its haunches and began to bark.
Later, the widower closed his eyes and rested his head on Dakota’s stomach. She touched his fine hair and he told her the woman he’d sculpted today had not liked the bust he’d made. He said it was often like that; people could never recognize their own face in the clay.
“That makes sense,” she said. “After all, we never actually see ourselves. We just see our reflection, the mirror image of our features.”
“Exactly,” he said.
The apartment hummed as the AC kicked on and Dakota tracked the green leaves of the birch wavering in its breeze. She touched the widower’s long nose, the white silver of his wedding ring.
“Was it hard?” he said, and she knew he was talking about the funeral now.
“No,” she said. “I’ve always had a bit of green thumb.”
He fell asleep under her petting hand and she watched him. The reflection was not such a wild thing. It could be tamed. She thought again of her fingertips on her brother’s not-marble face, how she hadn’t flinched even though touching his face had always felt like touching her own. The widower began to snore. An expression that made no sense: to sleep like the dead. She had seen the now-yellow of her brother’s face, the features sinking into the sallow skin. How, even in the dim of the funeral parlor, the make-up had been obvious, his face appearing as foreign as a plastic pear.
Sleep, that pink thing, crept its way up her chest. Her eyes closed and then opened again. She rolled onto her side and touched the grass. In her hand it felt cooled, melting into dew. The back of her hand cast slim shadows across the green until the fires started again, their color staining her window and lighting her skin. She looked down at the widower and his face held the reflection of their flames, his features rising and shifting in their trembling glow.