No more than a few steps from the bottom of the stair,
on my way down the hill to get the newspaper,
in the green shoots of ribbon grass where
climbing roses had begun to bud, I saw
a white plastic label with a pointed end —
the kind they put on potted plants to name,
give preferences for full or partial sun.
This advertised a pink geranium, long gone,
covered by growth, invisible in summer
in what drought-resistant brush grew
in the high plains of the Rockies.
I knew at once the woman who lived here
just before us placed it there.
I’d found other labels
clearing the border at the front of the house:
for pansies and yellow tea roses.
They’d all perished, of course,
and only plastic labels stayed,
stubborn for her hope,
enduring the two-foot snows,
the rabbits and the deer, the desiccating cold
that sapped the moisture
from my lemon thyme and sage — but these stayed,
stubborn for her hopeful hands.
When we closed, they drove up
and showed us round.
He took a clipping from the cactus
in the living room, while she sat in the car
(she smiled weakly in the realtor’s office,
made a joke as we signed the papers;
her oxygen tank discreetly sighed).
I looked out on her calm white head
gazing through the window of the Oldsmobile
where the sage and ribbon grass grew wild,
those two months before we heard she’d died.
In the photograph,
my father’s seersucker suit
is too big for him.
He will die four months after
this, my graduation day.
North of the city,
near the edge of a small lake
scarred with August fires,
we drink ten-year-old champagne,
the green shoots soft at our feet.
If you look for them
in the pioneer cemetery
you see only the headstones
standing up in the dry grass,
worn on one side by the wind.
You don’t see them
until you are right on top:
in a tuft of grass,
a star of wax petals,
closer to the ground
than voles and unread diaries.
(Bingham Hill, like Hillsboro,
like Antioch and the rest,
is the earth’s own step-daughter.
The child in the ground
they carried on the Overland Trail,
although she was too sick to move.
When they got stuck in the mud,
near Laramie, Anna said
she could hear her sister coughing,
and then she was gone.
On Bingham Hill you still
have to walk on the dry
edge of the ditch.)
They bloom in spring
and early summer and then they sleep.
Their roots grow down in strings
among the dead.
Our memories have always been in sand:
on microchips and Bingham Hill.
When he took his son to the hospital
they said it was a cold.
The symptoms were so much like it.
He stayed up by the bed anyway,
and then the boy’s heart gave out
as the sky got white on the eastern plains.
It was still winter.
The sand lilies were sleeping.
The old man who used to own the house
is driven up by his niece
in a car with Wyoming plates.
It stops at the end of the drive.
They had probably come up just to see,
and then, me out on the deck
getting water to the spruce and daylilies
along the lines he had laid
even then, in his nineties.
We heard his wife had died,
but he didn’t mention her:
it was for the niece, to show her the view
and the tile and the wisteria,
to talk about the wild plum, the tame plum,
the peaches big as his fist,
the wrinkles in the road as deep as his.
He said when the house was new
the driveway was a solid piece of rock.
I pointed out how the lilacs
hadn’t bloomed this year and he nodded,
how the cicadas were bad,
how the wasps had left their paper nest.
I had taken it down,
afraid they would reclaim it,
though they hadn’t bothered us —
just flew back and forth along the deck
(he said I put those railings in).
We sat on the porch swing smiling,
time gone and the satisfaction of it,
the rings of the wasp nest
still white as death on the wall.
I walk our kitchen scraps to the compost pile:
ragged red-leaf lettuce, long English cucumbers
forgotten at the back of the fridge
moist, soft as sponge.
The flu is going around.
I had congratulated myself that I escaped it,
that others were more mortal,
but it has hit me hard.
I glower: neanderthal, punished
and miss a step on the deer trail,
slipping on the rock.
It strikes me that this vegetable box full of earth
tucked away behind the woodshop
(overflowing now — too cold and too dry to decompose)
is the most important thing I own:
a memento mori masquerading as gardening.
There will be a time
when my body, too, will stop working,
when it will break down,
become a part of the cottonwood,
animate the catnip and the chokecherry
feed the mule deer in spring
take its place on the Hogback —
On the compost pile /
like my own hands
the cucumbers are familiar and strange.
I grab the haying fork,
mix them in,
and forget again.