Anna Mae had dirt under her fingernails. It was the kind of dirt that sticks for days, like silty-gray clay, seeping deeper into the pads of her fingertips until finally, when the nails grew long enough, Anna would cut them and watch the dirt fall away. Until then, Mama would rail about how unladylike it was for a girl to parade about with such indignity. Anna hardly enjoyed having dirt under her fingernails — she rather disliked the feeling — but she couldn’t help it. She loved the earth. All nine years of it.
The earth was not, of course, only nine years old, but as Anna had no concept of time before that, she lived her life as if the last nine years were all there was. And after all, what was the point otherwise? Increasing the age of the earth only gave Anna reason to believe that she would never be as old or as wise, that she and the earth would never be equals. Each time she pushed her fingers into a new piece of the garden, dirt filled the spaces of a different fingerprint: wider, lengthier, older.
It was the morning of her ninth birthday, and the air was growing cold with the onset of late autumn. The dirt was particularly stiff and crumbly, and this made it harder for it to stick under Anna’s nails, but not impossible. As she sat kneeling between the rows of carrots and potatoes in her once-white dress, Anna Mae examined the thin brown crescents beneath the white keratin, barely long enough to conceal the grit; the crooked shape of the little muddy slivers stood out so much more in the relief of manicured uniformity.
The breeze ruffled Anna’s hair, and she looked up to see the white sky growing grayer, thin waves of clouds cresting every so often in the oceanic expanse above the prairie. She set her hands in her lap and let her eyes droop slowly toward the charcoal horizon, until sight was forced to become subordinate to smell. She could almost taste the earth and its breath in the growing humidity. Her porcelain toes submerged themselves in the soil beneath her and she gave a small sigh, as if she were pushing her entire being out into the garden through the smallest hole possible, without effort.
As Anna imagined herself shooting up through the ground before her with the leafy head of a kale plant, Mama called.
The pitch of her voice rose at the end, nervous with uncertainty. The sky rumbled.
Anna slowly opened her eyes and tilted her head back to feel the first of what she assumed would be raindrops on her face. Instead, she saw little gray pebbles looming larger and larger as they fell from above with a whistling sound.
“ANNA MAE!” Mama screamed.
Anna Mae turned to see the house explode into roaring flames behind her. She leapt up and began to leak, her tear ducts responding with saline before her mind had time to process emotion. She stared at the wreckage, a charred brown crescent of rubble concaved beneath a growing orb of red and orange. She raised her hands to eye-level to look at her fingers, watching the tips interlace with the fiery prongs licking up at the sky beyond.
Anna dashed the tears from her face. Another bomb fell behind her with a shriek, and one of the fence posts surrounding the garden caught fire. Anna Mae rushed to smother it, grabbing fistfuls of dirt and throwing it at the post. The leftovers from a carrot plant came uprooted in her haste, and she found herself crying again. Anna slapped her cheeks as if to punish the wetness there, smearing herself with dirt in the process. The fence was gone.
Rain began to fall. Anna stepped away from the dying flames in the garden; the house fire was still raging, but no longer growing. Only nine years of the world, and all of Anna’s was dead or dying. Only nine years, but almost a decade essentially erased, to be begun again, from scratch. From now on, Anna Mae would always be older than this piece of the world. This small piece — but it had been enough.
She turned away and walked into the trees, head bowed, without a second glance. It was time for a new beginning.