When she tells herself the story for the first time, she is five years old.
In the story she is wearing a white dress and lying on her stomach in the brown dirt. She can smell the minerals in the soil, feel the warm grit of it under her palms and between her bare toes. She wants to dig her way into the dirt; she wants to swallow it, to take all that nourishment from the ground and into herself like a seed that can grow into something new.
In the story she lies there against the ground, and she waits, and the giants come. They track their way through the dirt in their bare feet and boots and sandals, making so much noise with their heavy bones, and they stamp the giant soles of their giant shoes and feet all over the back of her white dress. Down her spine, to her rear end, her thighs. The pressure passes right through the thin cotton fabric, a weight that will sink her into the earth, down, down, where dead things are buried and new life is born. In her mind’s eye she sees the dirt staining the white dress, spilling over onto her pale skin. She nuzzles her cheek against the soil, grinds her shins and feet into it so she’ll be dirty all over, head to toe.
The giants don’t talk but she hears their breath, thick and slow. They press harder, harder against her bones; the dirtier she is the more weight she can absorb. Heat blooms from her core and wraps around her like fresh earth, keeping her safe in her cocoon.
Outside of the story, the girl wears a black dress, a night-sky fabric, a black hole that sucks up any sign of dirt. Her skin has been scrubbed and her feet are encased in leather shoes. She balances on tiptoes as she stares at the hole in the earth, the shiny black box at the bottom and the dry dirt landing atop it, one clump, then two. She is on tiptoe because she is trying to see over all the giants, the adults who stand in front of her, thinking they can shield her from this, that she is too young to understand. She is on tiptoe because she’s about to fly away, to lose all connection to the earth.
The black box in the hole is too small. It’s the right size to fit a body smaller than this five-year-old girl, and not a giant like the ones that hem her in on all sides. It’s not right for a body so small and helpless to make its way back into the earth, before it even had a chance to grow. The girl knows this wrongness in her bones, which are breakable as branches. The kind that snap under your feet when you walk. She knows that if some other sapling lies curled up in that box, flesh and bones decaying beneath a layer of dirt, it could just as easily be her. She knows this world is a cruel and ugly place that the giants can’t explain, can’t save her from, so they pretend she can’t understand. The giants are thicker and stronger than her, like tree trunks grown solid over the years. The pain and guilt and fear don’t feel so sharp to them, covered as their flesh is with layer after layer of bark. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be so small and breakable, to exist so close to the ground.
The giants scatter and the child in the box is never mentioned again and the black dress and shoes are put away. But the girl keeps telling herself the story, the tale of the white dress and the giant feet covering her with dirt, stamping her into the earth. She doesn’t understand how everyone else forgets so easily, how they grow new layers above their wounds, how they refuse to see the sad streaks of dirt on her flesh and clothes. The memories she can never, ever wash off. She is dirty and she needs someone to see, to coat her in dirt, to press her down. She reads fairy tales of donkeyskins and bearskins; she wears white all winter long.
It’s not until many, many years later, when the girl is a giant herself, that she finally feels the press of a dirty boot between her shoulder blades, trailing along her spine, butterflying out to her ribs, curving down over her tailbone. She is not wearing white. She is not wearing anything at all. She is lying on her stomach on a stained but vacuumed carpet, in an ordinary apartment with a leather sofa and a coffee table which looms over her head. She is not outside in the dirt. She is afraid the real thing will never live up to her fantasy—how could it, after all those years she’s told herself the story, all those different sizes of feet over those many layers of white?
But it turns out the opposite is true: the weight of that boot on her back is a revelation, a wish made real, the world turned suddenly right. An exhale that chases out all the old, stale, wistful air. She wishes she could stay here forever, take a picture, show the entire world.
But the world keeps turning, days and months and years pass and the owner of the boot walks away. The girl who is now a giant, but still feels like a small, confused child inside her bones, retreats into her cocoon of earth. She feels it again, sharp as it was when she was five years old, standing on tiptoe, trying to glimpse a grave:
The ache of loss, like a handful of dirt scattered over a black box, deep within the earth.
STEPHANIE PARENT — Stephanie is a writer with work in X-RAY, Pithead Chapel, and The Nasiona among other publications. Her poetry has been nominated for a Rhysling Award and Best of the Net.
Art by AMY FELDMAN — Amy is a self-taught pen and pencil illustrator from Massachusetts. She is the operations manager at a local nonprofit. Find her on Instagram @stretch.e.kins.