Let’s make sugar, my father said. We began
with the garden’s blank grid, measured out
rows with tape and rod, the taut demand
of thread, of wire. We tuned the flat earth
behind the old machine shed, turned
the key toward sweetness, each fourth
row planted marigolds whose bitter punch
of scent and sun set the mule deer’s velvet
noses toward other gardens, toward the plunge
of burning irrigation ditches and coyotes
rubbing the night all wrong, while the beets
tightened their fists around the earth’s dark throat.
Drought stepped ponderous over our sky, dragged
its shimmering feet. Heat made black snakes
on the road where there were none. Wet rags
around our throats, we knelt to pull two plants of three
from every row, to pinch their green candles out.
Evenings the eastern sky would bruise and preen
with heat lightning, nothing more. Thirsty,
beets lose sweetness fast, grow bitter
around their lack. We went to bed still dirty,
saved our slim allotment of water for the plants.
My father snapped like my finger in the slamming door.
He ground clots of dirt to dust between his furious hands.
Fresh fire in the foothills
and something wrong in the soil. Gravel
marked our knees when we knelt to weed. I willed
the leaves to grow past the width of my now-crooked finger.
We pulled purslane, red threaded
as an eyelid, thistles that dried to thick tinder
for the prairie to flint. When finally we began to rip
the beets up by their leaves, the roots were smaller
than we had hoped. We dumped their foliage, its broken ribs,
in the pasture to steam and rot,
gathered their dirty knuckles in buckets,
left our spades to rust in the gutted plot.
All day we sliced them thin
into the heavy-bottomed pot. We added sugar, hoped
the liquid would gather at its geometry. Hoped its rim
of sweetness was enough for the beets to cling
against. Sugar begets sugar, we prayed. Then watched
my father fail to wring
some goodness from the dirt.
The crystals that formed were too few to fill
his callused palm. We ate them for dessert;
their penny taste stayed on our tongues
for all the years we lived with my father
by the garden. All the years that we were young.
Late that night I walked the pulp
out to the edge of the prairie, past the quiver
of miller moths who lingered by the motion-sensor light’s dim bulb.
I left the mush in the prairie’s gloom
for the mountain lions who waited in the cottonwoods,
or the small creatures those lions would come to consume.