Strawberry Girl: A Prose Sestina

María Isabel Alvarez

With each passing winter, revisit the garden you abandoned while in hibernation—the strawberries that once bloomed have withered into whispers. Unlatch the shed where you’ve stored the trowel and spade, blades still scalloped with dirt. Butter your chapped hands with lavender lotion, then fit them snug into gloves. Knead the soil and fertilizer as if it were flour between your fingers, pull the weeds from their clutch the way your husband pulls his lungs in with smoke.

This isn’t supposed to be therapeutic; this isn’t supposed to be recreational. This is what they call remembering. 

All you want to do is practice remembering. At sixty-eight, your mind begins to fade until it only whispers. As you knit baby-pink booties, needles tangled like chopsticks, your husband lectures that your activities should be “less stagnant, more recreational.”

Your senses have warped, so when he speaks your ears eat his words and your eyes taste their resentment; you want nothing from this life except to sleep in the quiet of the dirt.

One Sunday, you forget to remove the teapot from the burner and your husband wakes to a house choked in smoke. He screams things your ears can’t swallow, until you gently excuse yourself from the kitchen—don’t apologize, just keep walking—out the backdoor toward the garden shed where you pull on a pair of old workman gloves.

At first fit, your fingers are like stalagmites in a cave, always reaching but never touching the ends of these old workman gloves. The trowel bleeds with rust, the spade threatens to unhinge, but you tell yourself as you furrow each head into the earth, I want to be always remembering.

Your husband watches like a phantom through the window, his face silvered in smoke. His eyes, once brimming with affection, have slanted into whispers. You want his puckered face to catch a clod of dirt.

“Tell me,” you shout, bent on arthritic knees, “tell me this isn’t fucking recreational.”

If you consider the frailty of your body, everything in your life is recreational. Gardening helps magnify the memories: your daughter, age five, laughing through gaps of missing teeth, shaves fallen snow from her tiny gloves. Her eyes, more white than green, hide behind bedraggled hair the color of dirt.

Remember this as you plow, remember this as you plant; remember, always practice remembering.

The music of her voice sounds of distant whispers. You become a mother again, tucking a row of strawberry seeds into bed, blanketing them in soil, kissing them with water, your daughter’s soft baby murmurs opaque in your mind like swirls of smoke.

 Inside your house, you’ve come to detest the invasion of cigarette smoke. The way it moves through the corridors like a spirit, drifting in and out of rooms, weaving through curtains and couch cushions, bath mats and bed sheets—not stagnant, but recreational.

The more you garden, the more difficult it’s become to ignore the smoke-spirit’s whispers. You think of your daughter and how she always hated it here; the memory of her leaving sharpens, clears all other noise from your mind, until you are left with only one image: her shaking hands sheltered in gloves.

“I’m not happy here,” she’d said, marching through the door, into her pale-yellow Volkswagen, nose pinked from crying, your husband empty of words, your mind sprouting with questions; you are remembering.

You stand in the vacancy of your only child’s bedroom, locked safely away from your husband’s berating, recalling images from the accident: her blood-crusted hair and fragmented eyes, more black than green; you don’t cry, you don’t scream, instead, you paint the walls with handprints of dirt.

 In your new house, you tell the nurse you miss your strawberry garden and ask if she’ll sprinkle the carpet with dirt. She laughs and her hair coils round her face like clouds of steel-colored smoke. Her hair looks familiar but you can’t fathom why; it’s been awhile since you’ve practiced remembering.

On your nightstand, perched like a watchful bird, a framed photo of a little girl they call your daughter; in here, they make you craft things (like hot-gluing popsicle-sticks to make photo frames) that are not stagnant, but recreational.

The little girl grins at the camera, trapping snow like fireflies inside her cupped gloves. For a moment, you hear her toothless laugh thin to a whisper.

During the day, your recreational activities consist of watering the sunflower garden and deveining the dirt from the soles of your shoes. Before night forces you to speak only in whispers, you try once again to practice remembering. But it is during sleep where you are happiest; the old memories of your daughter’s snow-speckled gloves and husband’s cigarette smoke long faded into white.