“Are you ready to get your hands dirty?” she asked, pointing to my little gold rings.
I pulled them off and stuck them in my pocket. I forced a smile, breathing through my mouth, and nodded yes.
Roxy was all long legs, long hair, long everything. She was a Dutch-descended marine biologist from Curaçao, a studier of corals, an avid gardener, and a barefoot hike enthusiast. In short, someone who was not at all afraid of getting her hands dirty. Despite her blonde, mainstream model looks, she did not look like a model now: her gloveless hands were covered in gray worm shit.
She was sitting next to a compost bin made of translucent green plastic. A festering mass of unnamed black bugs and happy families of ants swarmed inside.
This muck, I thought, looked not unlike the sludge between New York City’s subway rails—a horrifying mix of grease, sewage, rat feces, and slime. But the squelching slop in Roxy’s hands was just composted food, digested newspaper, and worms.
The worms were why I was here. I wanted to start my own compost bin that I could use to grow a garden. Having arrived to Hawaiʻi from New York just a few months prior, I’d learned that the Kanaka Maoli word for land—ʻāina, meaning “that which feeds”—teaches that what you care for cares for you back. I wanted to learn that reciprocity.
I’d moved to New York at eighteen, a person more interested in growing other things—namely, my adult self. Somebody who was perhaps a little more put together, a little less feral than what my dirty-ankle childhood in Pasadena, California, had produced. I’d grown up rolling around in the yard. My mom would make me strip so she could hose me off before she let me back inside.
Once, on a family road trip to Solvang when I was around seven, I found a mound of what appeared to be yellow tar on the side of the road. Maybe it was tree sap. Maybe it was an abandoned radioactive biohazard. I didn’t care. What did it feel like? I wondered. I sunk my feet up to my ankles in the stuff, feeling the warm goo congeal around my feet. I can still conjure the feeling today. It felt wonderful. My family spent the rest of the day trying to get it off.
“I just don’t understand why you’d do that!” my mom said, genuinely confused. She carried me and my tarred feet from a hot shower to a foot bath of Diet Pepsi in hopes that the soda would burn off the stuff.
After almost a decade in New York City, I was proud of myself for becoming an adult human who had graduated college, who worked a day job and paid her own rent in an apartment where she lived with other semi-grown-up people, more than 2,500 miles away from her nuclear family. Sure, I went out for drinks to shake off city stress and made some bad decisions, too, but ultimately, I took OK care of myself. On slightly hungover mornings, to atone, I walked north through my neighborhood’s Inwood Hill Park, home of the last naturally occurring salt marsh in Manhattan, just off the final stop on the A train, a metaphorical end to NYC life. I sat down gingerly on park benches, cringing as I wondered if the dampness seeping through my sundress was from the late summer rain or if someone had just pissed there. I watched the park’s brackish marsh empty its belly with the tide, but I did not wonder at the magic of a natural filtration system that absorbed fertilizers and improved water quality. I did not kick off my shoes and clamber down the rocks to investigate the exposed mud. I was not tempted by the promise of spotting shifty fiddler crabs and ribbed mussels hidden among the cordgrass. I had become a person unwilling to get dirty. I was curled in. I watched the world as one might observe beings in a cage, without realizing that I was the one trapped inside.
I wanted to live differently in Honolulu. Growing food, however small, seemed like a good goal. My garden would feed me and the folks I could share its bounty with. Maybe, I quietly told myself, the garden would also help address the mysterious and nagging pain in my belly that would be diagnosed only months later, after a weeklong hospitalization: ulcerative colitis.
I needed worms, and Roxy had more than enough to share. I was sure of it.
Watching her now, though, I felt less sure. I looked down at my fingernails. I wished I’d trimmed them.
“The first step is to separate the worms from their poo,” Roxy said. She looked happy as a schoolgirl playing in a sandbox.
“We would’ve been good friends when I was little,” I told her.
I put tentative fingers into the worm muck, trying to keep my palms clean. I tried to keep the low, rotten smell outside of my nose by breathing shallowly. I also scolded myself for this, remembering that all things come from the dark and deep, that this muck was not subway muck. It was clean. It was origins.
Roxy’s deft hands searched through the bin as if turning the pages of a book. One wrist-deep plunge revealed a tangle of worms slithering over each other.
“Orgy,” Roxy announced with a big smile.
I fought back an urge to gag and grabbed as many worm bodies as I could before they fled back into the safety of their shit. They tugged their long bodies away from me when they could. I tried not to crush them as I set them down gently in the small container Roxy had set aside.
“What happened to you? From when you were small to now?” Roxy was watching me closely. Clearly, I was failing to hide the look of disgust on my face.
I shrugged. “I moved to New York, I guess.”
“It’s a good thing you’re here now.” She smiled, and I forced my hands deeper into the goo.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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