By Thomas Kent West

In the summer, I started a compost pile. It stood at the back of the lot, out past the trees and the grass on the edge of the wood. It was a good spot because it was half sun, half shade, and the smell didn’t reach the house.

In the compost, I put the dead grass that dried up in the sun. I put sticks and twigs and dried leaves. I put dandelions and logs and whole fallen branches, and soon, I had a great heap of dead things.

Very soon after, I added scraps from the kitchen: eggshells are best, but veggie scraps and moldy lettuce and the end of carrots will do as well. Next came paper: receipts and wrappers and rotting books from the attic, old drafts of unpublished manuscripts, finger paintings from children that no longer came to visit. All of these entered the pile, reduced, became dirt.

The trick, they say, is heat. Inside the pile, after the pressure and the time build up, press down, the stuff at the very bottom heats up. Like the molten core of the earth. I imagined it like this, a slow, flameless burn.

Summer passed into fall, and the pile grew, now with orange and red leaves, oceans of dried grass.

I began adding more food: chicken bones and pork fat. Half-eaten birthday cake. The ends of bottles of beer. The aroma from the pit was foul and startling, and the hot waves of it reached the house at night, cutting through the chilled autumn air.

I didn’t care. Compost was all about starting fresh. Making new soil out of old rot, working through the dead things to make something grow. I smelled that rot and dreamed of roses, arugula, sweet peppers, and beets and high stalks of corn reaching for the sun.

I added the dog’s refuse, then mine. I started loading more and more onto the pile: whole TV dinners and Thanksgiving leftovers and bottles of stale champagne. 

I threw in novels and plays and files and folders. Then old farm scrap and kids’ bicycles and baby cribs with star/moon sheets. I checked out what I had from the bank and scattered it in the pile. 

Soon the heap was so large that it took ten minutes to walk around the base of it, and smelled so foul that the neighbor —who lived a good five miles up the road—moved away.

And the pile still grew—it grew towards the woods and swallowed trees, rotting out their trunks until they fell into the muck. It grew over wildflowers and prairie, the old tool shed and the kid’s rotting play-set.

Years passed. No matter how much I fed it, no new soil formed in the engine of decay. So I walked the highways for fresh roadkill and fed the pile slowly. Years later, when the old dog died, I placed him gently on the heap and walked away.

The house went next, year by year. The pile crept in through the windows, through the back door, reaching from room to room with tentacles of branches and rotting flowers and cracked bones. Soon the foundation crumbled in, and still I fed the heap, hoping it would become something new.

And the day came where I had nothing left to give. I waded into the heap, fingers parting the grass and bones, and fell away into the splendor of rot.


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