This story is by Paige Aoki and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There is a shape to the world. A pace, a rhythm. A cadence like the swelling of violin strings among harsh brass, or the melody of rushing water, winding its way through a riverbed.
She knows this. Knows it deep within her body, down inside her bones, tasting like tart, early-season berries at the back of her tongue. Familiar as the black-toned soil darkening her palms as she digs in the earth, scattering seeds and creating a home for future plants.
Behind her, the cottage she once shared with another stands empty.
Grief is like dirt, she thinks, pushing her hands through the black earth. It makes a nuisance of itself, clinging and stubborn, showing up under your fingernails even when you thought you’d washed it all away. She wonders if anyone ever actually manages to wash away their grief. Maybe, it keeps showing up when least expected, as unwelcome as stains on clean, white linen.
She doesn’t know. Her eyes sting, her blurred gaze fixed on the pink-tinged horizon.
All she knows is grief has a taste. A brittle, barren flavour that sticks to the tongue and the roof of her mouth and better belongs among the stark scenes of winter. Amidst the snow and the naked, skeletal branches, her grief is a sharp sip of over-brewed coffee. Now, set against the tentative, hopeful, pink-hued light of almost-maybe spring, that taste is out of place. It is a stranger, cast out and wandering between rows of yellow daffodils and the sheeting layer of cherry blossom petals covering the sidewalks, a contradiction.
The dirt makes dark crescent moons beneath her fingernails as she works the earth, and she wonders what flavour her grief will possess in the summer and fall.
Maybe it will taste like lemonade in the heat, sour-sweet on the tastebuds, making her lips pucker while sugar dances subtly upon her tongue. And, as the leaves turn orange-yellow-red and tumble loose from their branches, maybe her grief will taste like woodsmoke. Perhaps it will swirl in the air, a thick, overhanging wisp, blurring the edges of all that too-sharp emotion until it thins and slips through her fingers.
Or, if she is fortunate, maybe it will have dissipated by then. As grief does, changing just as the seasons do. Slipping and merging from one moment to the next, marching onward in that undisturbed cadence of the world moving on.
She turns the damp, mineral-flecked soil with her fingers and tries to imagine feeling anything other than barren, bitter loss. She clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth and daydreams of chocolate and cinnamon. The breathless and subtle quality of a rosy, spicy Merlot. The rich, umami tang of good, aged cheese. Luxurious delicacies and laughter shared with another beside the crackle of a fire, hearts and hands linked. After months of tasting nothing but ash, the fantasy is like a shock to the senses. She imagines the flavours of life washing away the bitter aftertaste of loss from her palate. Can almost feel the sensations on her tongue, in her throat, warming her belly and body from inside out. Seems impossible, unattainable, yet here she is, savouring a sensory illusion.
Her nose twitches with the half-forgotten scents that once clung to the one who no longer kneels at her side. Who no longer dips their hands into the dirt beside her, laughing low in their throat, leaving a smudge of black on her cheek when they reach out to brush a lock of hair away from her face. Wrapped in memory, she can almost see them. Their mouth curled at the corners in silent amusement. Their eyes, warm and shaded amber by the golden hour’s gilded light, meeting hers in an intimate gaze. If she turns her head just right, she might still find them there, kneeling beside her as if they’d never left her behind in the winter.
Her fingers brush something foreign. A new sensation, different from the familiar sifting of dark and packed soil between her fingers. She feels a stirring. A flutter, a buzz that ekes into her fingertip and vibrates up and through her hand. She goes still, the illusion fading from the edges of her vision as she focuses on the present. Tilting forward, eyes narrowed, she stills her hands and studies the dirt. For one breathless moment, there is nothing.
Then… there. A shift in the soil. Almost insignificant, nearly missed, but there. And again, more valiant this time, the movement punctuated by the emphatic struggle of life starting anew.
Careful to keep still, she bears witness to the natural miracle unfolding before her. Sits sentry and marks the moment that the bee — for it is a bee — pokes out through the soil. Its thick shape tells her it is a bumble, the spiky orange of its furred body made dark by the dirt that clings to it just as it clings to her hands and under her nails.
She watches, enchanted, as the bee digs free of the cover that kept it alive through the winter. With her heart thundering in her chest, she tracks the bee’s valiant journey back to the surface. Persistent despite the weight of the world pressing down upon it, the bee forges onward. She roots for it in baited-breath silence. It erupts fully from the earth, and she remembers that birth and renewal exist alongside death and loss. That after the winter comes the spring, with all its bursting, bountiful beauty washing over the dark, empty landscape, made vibrant once more. Such things are easily forgotten when every breath hangs thick in the air and the cold burrows into your bones.
But now, watching the bee, she remembers.
With her eyes fixed on the bumble, she thinks of the necessity of change, death, and dying. The bee would not have survived without the fallen leaves and rotting plants that fed the soil. It lived because the world around it died, providing safety and shelter. Without the bee, no flowers would bloom to later shrivel and fade, providing refuge for future bees in an endless cycle of rebirth.
The bee shakes free of the soil, wings blurring until they move too fast to track. Buzzing, it rises from the garden plot, darting past on its way back into the world. She feels like the bee takes something of her with it as she watches it fly off. Not all, but some of the heaviness weighing her down, bowing her shoulders with an unseen load, lightens. Her back is a little straighter when she stands, her mind a little clearer.
Again, the winter has passed by, and it is time for things to move again. The cycle continues.
The morning is in full swing as she turns her face skyward. She feels the sun upon her skin as the pink hues at the horizon lighten and shift to blue. Soil stains her hands, and the scents of growth and decay fill her lungs as she breathes deep, brushing dirty palms against her thighs. Later, she knows she will find black under her nails even after washing them thrice and will marvel at how the world lingers on her skin even when she wishes it gone. But, for now, a new harmony buzzes within her, attuned to the same cadence of the bumble’s wings.
Like the bee, it is time for her to return to the world.