Ella loved when you could hear the sound of corn husks at night. Some people wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from the rustling of leaves on shivering trees. But not her — she knew the delicacy, the swift tumble that the loose husks made when they danced over dust. The night breeze lifting them like tumbleweeds into the inky air.
One side of her face was pressed into the pillow, but her eyes faced west out the window, toward the corn. From the other side of the bed, one would think she was sleeping as she always did, on her side, her hand tucked under her chin, her knees bent and legs curled into her torso.
Evidently, Maya did — think she was sleeping, that is. Ella heard the creak of her careful steps on the floor, before she felt Maya’s warm breath whisper her name on the back of her neck. “Wake up,” she whispered, shaking Ella’s shoulders, “Wake up.”
The sisters had no need to speak now. They both knew what they were going to do. Their plan had been crafted in hushed tones earlier that evening, as they set the table for dinner. When Ella turned, she saw the glint in Maya’s dark eyes. She leapt to attention.
Their nightgowns, white linen, provided the only flashlights they needed besides the moon. The door was rough and heavy but it opened without so much as a groan. Their feet moved from worn wood to cool dust outside. Scattered below was the symphony of corn husks that Ella had been listening to through the window. The husks liked to do that — float off from their piles or paper bags after they’d been shucked, splay themselves on the ground and whistle in the air. Ella bent down to grasp one of the stubborn ones fighting the wind, clinging to the ground. She ran her fingers along the soft fibers within the fabric of the leaf, the threads of silk still attacked. Clutching the husk in hand, she followed her sister’s footsteps.
Maya knew the way magnetically. Through the field that molded under their feet, weaving around the mounds that showed where they had just planted garlic. Around a tree with a rope swing attached, the bench of the swing moving with the rest of the night symphony: crickets, and — from further away — the full-throated frogs.
The pile loomed ahead of them. A dark mass, shaggy, stagnant. As they crept closer, the silhouette became textured, a mosaic of objects in the sea of soil. Ella’s teeth joined her nightgown, the moon, in the glowing things. Her smile widened when she actually leaned forward and felt it — rich compost, matting under her nails. Her bare feet sank down as she reached her arm behind her for her sister to take it.
They slowly climbed, worms between their toes. With each step, steam seemed to rise. And below them, the plenty in all its stages: a pile of eggshells, still speckled as they lay in crumbs, from a bout of egg-salad-making the week before; a lone chicken bone poking from beneath deep brown apple skins; a crumpled piece of paper, Maya’s math test; teabags still leaching caffeine; ribbons of carrot peels spiraling around each other; a half-cup of avocado that was now all one color—deep brown; shreds of cabbage melting into the dark soil; a whole squash with one white spot, rotting with blight, soggy with poisoned juice.
Each color and texture seeking to join the shingled heap, fudgy and long stewing, squelching underfoot as they aimed higher, higher still. Ella picked up one of the worms between her fingers and delicately raised it toward the sky, traversing the stars, before laying it down gently in the hollowed goblet of a mango peel. Their dirty hands intertwined, they sat down at the top, their nightgowns flush to the decomposers, turning toward each other and then out toward the night.
Echoing darkness, wisps of clouds moving into morning mist, the call of a lone night bird and the silence of the fields below, waiting, aching below the surface with millions of movements, yearning for the richness of this very pile.
Tomorrow, they would come back to siphon some off from the bottom: the thickest, richest, humus for the next plantings. But tonight they were at the top among the rawest peels, the hardiest fibers, the most whole waste. They had traversed everything in between. They could see so many worlds from up here.
Ella set down her corn husk on top of the pile with glee.