My husband and I were at my mother’s, weeding. She lives in a six-bedroom house on a sizable lot—front and back yard, gardens, and ample Connecticut woods. Her four daughters have always been the landscaping crew. As kids we lugged sloshing-full watering cans to each whiskey-barrel-turned-flower-bed while our mother, widowed ten years after building the house, spread mulch over dry spots. I remember when she hoisted the heavy sundial onto its granite pedestal. I remember when she laid hundreds of bricks in the footprint left behind by the old pool, tamping each into the sand with a dead-blow sledge.
Over the years the lawn has shrunk and the gardens have grown over their stone borders. Resin and bronze statuary, little girls frozen with bonnets and parasols, hide under yucca plants. My sisters and I, all within a three-hour drive, still rotate crew duty. It was my turn. At my mother’s request, while my infant son slept in my childhood bedroom, I kneeled on the path and through dirt-stiffened gloves grabbed at the tall grasses that had overtaken a section of garden between the patio and shed. The weeds, to me as a city-dwelling visitor to my small-town former home, were not pests but rather graceful green threads unspooling from the ground, which in this particular section also held three porcelain mushrooms, a birdhouse, and the remains of five cats.
As I was pulling, Justin hopped over a four-foot-wide-and-growing puddle toward me. “This is unbelievable,” he said, as the back lawn and asphalt path flooded. Mom’s sump pump was operating, but her body wasn’t. Hobbled by Lyme-eaten bone-on-bone knees, she couldn’t drag the twelve-foot-long drainage pipes out from the garage, so water poured from an opening in the foundation directly into the back yard. It had been doing that all spring. Water seeped back into the earth, or flowed toward the woods, or sat in puddles when the ground was too saturated to accept it, burning off in the sun. The garden where I weeded—on a little rise in the heart of the yard—was sheltered from the worst of the flood, but still damp. Justin was tasked with changing the batteries in the clock hanging above the shed door. He glanced from the two cylinders in his open palm to the expanding lake he’d just crossed. “Can your mother even see the clock?”
On the phone with my mother days before, I’d consented to weed, though our short visit seemed too precious for cosmetic improvements. To me, more crucial tasks included cleaning out closets to find things to sell, or ripping up cat-pee-soaked carpeting, or emptying basement shelves of forty-year-old aerosol cans, or replacing one of several dilapidated appliances, or dragging those drainage pipes from the garage to the back yard. But my mother is the one who has to live there. She decides which of the house’s many injuries needs a band-aid. I saw her request for weeding as a symptom of her illuminated mind, denied the comforts of blindness. Above decay, her aesthetic desires soar.
She’d asked me to hunt the oriental bittersweet, a vine that uses trees to climb toward the brightest light, slowly choking its hosts to death. Grasses gone, the bittersweet was exposed. It grew in tight spirals up the trunks and branches of holly, azalea, and mountain laurel. After I clipped sections from the trunks, the bittersweet stems retained their curly-cue shape as if set by hot rollers. Working my way from the middle of each trunk, I clipped upward to get to the leafy green ends that selfishly sucked up the sun. Then I moved down, searching the ground for roots.
“Can you help me?” I showed Justin a thick weed base I’d been trying to remove. He grabbed the stubborn root and pulled hard and more than a foot slid from the earth, its red wood flesh staining his palms.
“Hold on, there’s some garbage in there,” he said, pointing to a sliver of white plastic now exposed. He pinched the plastic and yanked, but it didn’t budge. It was part of something bigger, something buried just under the surface, no more than an inch down. I brushed dirt away and more plastic emerged: an opaque bag wrapped around something lumpy. I dug at the edge until I made out the oval outline of a basket.
“Oh my God,” I said. “It’s Charcoal.”
Charcoal had been my cat. She loved my pink comforter, especially when I rolled it into a mound at the foot of my bed. Before we adopted her, the tip of her tail had been broken and healed in the shape of a hook. She hissed at boys. Charcoal minded baths a good deal more than our other cats had, and I found her fierce and funny and vulnerable when skinnied by drenched fur. Later in her life, she groomed herself in the middle of the night, waking me up with her rhythmic slurps, and I kicked at the pink mound until she retreated under my bed. I lived with her for ten years; she died while I was away in college.
Now, Charcoal had come back. Later I felt proud of my composure at the edge of the garden, how much like an everyday occurrence I treated Charcoal’s disinterring. In the car on the way home, Justin told me he found it curious that our long-dead cat was accessible in the first place, never mind that she’d been accessed. In the moment, however, it seemed natural to me that Charcoal would be at my feet. I searched nearby and found, about a foot away, askew in the wet earth, a rectangular stone: Charcoal 1985–1998. Only then did I wonder how I’d known when I first saw the bag that it was Charcoal and not Spookee, not Twinkle or Casper, not Patches. Charcoal had been dull black like her namesake briquettes before they burned. But through the bag I couldn’t make out anything but the wicker casket that held her bones. “What do we do?” Justin asked.
I didn’t know what to do, so I studied the plastic-covered basket. It lay still and dirty.
I found myself thinking about the peculiar logic that had brought Charcoal back. I had been to my mother’s house dozens of times in the years since Charcoal was buried. I had barbecued near, planted on, and stepped past this spot chosen to memorialize her cat body and cat soul (we are a family that believes in such things). Time passed and she was longer and longer gone, but due to storms and erosion and cyclical New England temperatures, she was closer and closer to coming back. The final barrier had been the bittersweet root now ripped from the ground. Freed, Charcoal surfaced. In life, her fur had baked in the gold light that spilled on the porch floor. Why should it be any different in death? Like everything else in the garden, she sought the sun.
But no rays could warm Charcoal’s skin now, whatever shape it was in after all these years, for the plastic my mother had used to protect her remains also diffused the light, like a cloud.
My mother’s own grave is already waiting, thankfully not here in the back yard but down the hill in the town cemetery. We will wear black that day, but she will wear a colorful floral dress she’s already sewn under a bright brocade jacket she’s already constructed. She will lie in a casket she’s already chosen, lined with pearl satin. Her name is already etched next to my father’s on the gravestone that marks the plot in the shade under the cemetery’s two tallest trees. What a strange thing to preserve, this decay, this deadness.
I looked—really looked—at the basket, like a cat looking at a bump under the covers, a bump that might move. A bed mouse, a toe. I didn’t want it to move. But I wanted it to move. Both carried implications about life and death I wasn’t prepared to weigh while bent over an old basket in the garden that smelled of pine and cedar and wet earth. I couldn’t decide which I wanted more, couldn’t decipher the message I believed Charcoal had delivered. I stopped breathing. Should the basket move, I would surely jump, but wouldn’t I just rationalize the movement, guess that a living critter had taken up residence in the basket, enjoying the shelter it provided? What other explanation could there be? Yet there Charcoal was, and there I was, waiting for a sign to soothe my angst about what happens when death finally comes.
I felt visited.
I thought about telling my mother. We could add it to the list of chores she writes for us. Carry litter down to basement. Weed oriental bittersweet. Rebury Charcoal. I looked for her through the porch windows but saw only plants and trinkets and, stretched out in one corner, Smudge, her latest cat. Smudge watched me as I contemplated what to do with his predecessor.
“We bury her again,” I said. Gloves off, I scooped dirt from a spot near Casper, and heaped it over the plastic bag. “That’ll just wash away,” said Justin. “I mean, look.” He gestured to the hole in the porch’s foundation; the torrent had begun again, splashing onto the slate patio and sweeping weed cuttings into the grass.
I found two flat rocks and laid them on top of the shallow bump, collected more dirt from around the garden and covered the rocks, then pulled pachysandra from behind the shed and stuck the roots deep into the earth hoping the robust ground cover would take to this spot, especially given the sunlight now drenching the garden.
I felt bad about the rocks weighing Charcoal down. I bent to remove them, but my mother was back on the porch, leaning against the cat scratching post for support, asking Justin to pull down some dead branches caught by the birdhouse pole. She told him the garden looked lovely. “It’s so much brighter now,” she said. I left Charcoal under the stones.
The trees, free of the vines that had been choking them, stood thin but healthy. The garden was wholly different. My mother eyed the new landscape from under the slanted windows that allowed more sun to reach her plants, while Justin and I stuffed black contractor bags with grasses and spiraled stems and dragged them through puddles to the driveway in front. Before we left, I scratched weed oriental bittersweet off my mother’s list. I noticed new writing at the bottom; in the time it took to trim one item, the list had grown by a dozen more.