The Neighbors Want to Know Our Secret
Tiffany Quay Tyson
We push our spades into thick black soil, turning it over yet again. Our bare knees sink into the soft garden earth. What’s that smell? Sage and rosemary and decay. The moon is a clipped fingernail of silver light.
Come summer, we eat fried okra, stewed tomatoes, purple hull peas, butterbeans, cabbage rolls, cucumber salad, sautéed squash. We invite the neighbors over for vegetables and cornbread. We serve sweet tea with bourbon and lemon wedges. We serve salted tomato sandwiches slathered in mayo. Red juice drips to our elbows. We lick our arms. The neighbors want to know our secret.
Come fall, we deal with the excess. Sweat streams from our faces into boiling pots of green beans and pepper jelly. Flavor for later. We ladle everything into jars with metal lids that pop like gunfire as they cool. We blanch yellow discs of squash and seal them into freezer bags like captured sunshine. We shell so many peas that our hands cramp and turn green. The blossom scent clings to our fingers for weeks.
On Thanksgiving and Christmas and Aunt Sally’s birthday, we bake casseroles stuffed with squash and cheese and bread crumbs. We stir bacon fat into butterbeans. We tuck hambones into vegetable stew. Our mouths glisten with grease and butter. Let me get that for you. Let me get that for you.
In winter when the ground is hard, we meet in the garden shed. The sharp smell of fertilizer knocks us back. Spiders skitter across the raw wood floor. Our bare skin attracts cobwebs as we fold our bodies together in ever more complicated ways. What is that sound? Is it you? Is it me? In the corner of the shed there is a box, a cedar chest like the one where your grandmother stores her quilts and her secrets. We have no quilts or secrets between us. All we have is this mad love and too much food stored against a hunger we have never felt.
It’s been three years since our first seed took root, since we questioned whether it was anything we wanted to grow, since we felt it quicken and then fall still, since we unearthed it and examined its green-veined limbs. Is that a tooth? Is that an ear? Yes, we said. We do want this. We preserved that first seedling in pint jars with lemon and cloves.
We store the jars in the deepest corner of the cedar chest—a cool, dry place. Each year we turn one jar from the cedar chest into our steaming compost heap. We say a prayer, though we do not believe in God.
The neighbors want to know our secret. Love, we tell them. They smile. They imagine we are sentimental.
We push our spades into thick black soil and turn it over yet again.
Tiffany Quay Tyson is the author of two novels, The Past is Never (2018) and Three Rivers (2015). Three Rivers was a finalist for both the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction and the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction. The Literary South called The Past is Never an “extraordinary example of southern gothic literature.” Tiffany was born and raised in Mississippi, where most of her fiction is set. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado, where she teaches at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop.