's 2020 Horror Write-off:

Knee Deep

Submitted by Toni

Knee deep... yes.

It was an evening. Being precise about dates is... hard, but I had been working at the community garden for almost a year. It was autumn, and we were awash in leaf litter, dead annual plants, and spoiled harvests. We have an "anything-goes" sort of approach for our compost: If it was alive at some point, in it goes, stacked into the great, yawning maw of the first bin in the line. Bring us your branches, cardboards, your fish heads, your yogurts.

We had five large bins, all in a row. When the first bin was full and had sat for a while, it was turned out into the second bin to mix it all up and make way for more—and so on all the way down the line, ending with the fith. Full of rich, garden-ready dirt.

I’ve always found dirt fascinating for the role it plays in the vast, roiling ball of life we call home. All the results of decades of organic toil, breaking all our remnants down into food for the growing, crawling, squirming things that make up the foundation of just about every ecosystem.

Before I worked in the garden, I maintained a my own; a few climbing vines, potted succulents, some flowers. The regular cycle of composting, trimming, pruning, and pest removal marked the passing of time, rather than an endless precession of near-identical days I would have otherwise trudged through at my series of grinding jobs, each one only differing in the particular anxiety dreams they gave me.

Pests were an unwelcome frustration, an intrusion into my escape, and they featured sometimes in my anxiety dreams too: the sticky-sweet residue of aphid secretions coating shriveled plants, the hundreds of crawling feet and snipping jaws of scavengers and micro-predators. But they were just dreams, and dirt was just dirt.

Until I started working here. In the community garden. It paid a bit worse and had a few less hours than whatever casualised retail hellhole I had unceremoniously left, but it was all that was going. It was a nice garden and a nice job, so I stuck it out. All I had to do out there was make sure the plot borders were respected, maintain all the edgings, and keep an eye on weeds and pests. There was something hypnotic about crouching amongst the plants, watching them sway in the breeze, picking off inchworms and slugs with sudden darting movements. It soothed my pest-based dreams, so I often stayed back, unpaid, picking and swaying.

It did give me a new kind of dream, though: being chased through the garden by an unknown pursuer. Branches slapped at my face, my breath heaved, I scrambled over gnarled knots of roots reaching out to grab me and pull me deep into the dirt. I was covered in it, smeared all over with damp, slick mud, clumps falling away as I fled, marking my trail as something trod calmly after me, closer, ever closer, then-

As time went on the dreams scared me less and less. They became almost comforting. Routine.

I learned pretty quickly that people didn't like to think about compost. Didn't have the stomach for it. Thought it was all rot and decay. Really, the worst of it all came in dropped-off bags—old steaks dripping with miscelaneous fluids, sliding out of plastic and flopping onto the heap like something spat out by a heaving, diseased monster. By the time it had sat for a month in the first bin, the worst of it all had been scoured away. By the very end, all you had to do was sift out the bones and thick branches, and you had yourself just about the best soil you were ever going to get. A few of the regulars joked that it was so damn good we could have been disposing of human bodies in there and nobody would care.

Dirt. Up to the knees. Right.

It had been a year. I was turning out the fifth bin, heaving up the heavy, black lid. A wave of heat billowed out; I remember, so vividly, how welcome that warmth was. The bins usually produced a lot of heat as they broke things down, but that evening it seemed almost hot. Standing there, hand on the edge, I stared into the full bin, into the rich, black, soft soil. It was so warm, so inviting, and I relished the chance to slip off a glove and dig my hand into that soft, warm substrate. It felt, as usual and of all the places in the world, like home. Like I could step right in. So... I did.

There was a crash, somewhere in the garden, and my trance was broken. I turned to look, stumbled. For a moment, I couldn't see anything at all, could hardly move. Then, my eyes adjusted, and I realized the sky had gone dark, and I had been standing there for at least an hour, enraptured, as the sun went down, up to my knees in that inky-dark richness.
The crash came again, followed by a whoop—someone, some damned pests, were wrecking the garden. They careened around the side of the bins, baseball bat in hand, and stopped dead.

Imagine being so sure you were alone, cocksure and power-drunk on the newfound idea that you can do damage to things, to relish the power this knowledge gives you—and then, to round a corner and see, silhouetted against the moon, a terrible, lumpen figure rise from inside a bin you *know* should be full of nothing but dirt, soil cascading from their hands and feet as they clamber out.

They ran, and I gave chase. It felt right. Dreamlike. Branches slapped at them, their breath heaved, they scrambled, smeared all over with damp, slick mud, clumps falling away as they fled, marking their trail as something trod calmly after, closer, ever closer, then-

When it was over, I went back to the bins and sunk back in, deeper than knee deep.

I am dreaming new dreams almost all of the time, now—or at least, there is such little difference between working and dreaming that I cannot tell the difference. I dream, and the earth dreams with me—if there is still a difference between the two.

They still do try and hire new caretakers, pests, occasionally, but they never last long. This is my garden and I do the work, even if they don’t know I’m there. Maybe they lie to themselves. Maybe they tell themselves that other people chip in behind the scenes.

Sometimes they transgress, and then these pests turn to see me and blanch in horror, cowering before a roiling darkness that seethes up from the dirt, that is the dirt, with no end or separation. This is my garden, and my work is mine to do, not theirs. They contribute in their own way, though. The dark, rich soil is always hungry, and this is, in all ways, a community garden.