What Comes From the Back End of a Bull

by Heather Bartos

Beautiful things can emerge from what comes from the back end of a bull. 

This is just one of the many ways human beings and plants are different. If you try to grow human beings in what comes from the back end of a bull, you get anger, protests, and hours of live televised Congressional hearings. You get snarky emails and office unrest. You get broken hearts and subtraction and long division in family trees, disconnected limbs, and fallen nests. 

But if you take a sack of that smelly steer manure—and it’s pretty cheap at less than three bucks a bag—and you break up the clay soil with a shovel or a Pulaski and spread it around nice and thick in the garden, you will get more beauty than you can hold.

You will get hummingbirds, opalescent, arcing and arching and buzzing, living fairies, Tinkerbell without the schmaltz. You can grow salmon rose zinnias bigger than your fist, round as ripe peaches under a full moon. You get something sacred, something shared, something shouted on some days and whispered on others. 

Our neighbor across the way is a minister. She often walks by as I weed and water, on her way to the yoga studio up the street. 

“Your garden is your prayer,” she tells me one overcast, humid afternoon as the sky squeezes sweaty tears from its swollen, bruise-colored clouds. 

I’m not feeling particularly reverent or religious at the moment. My wrists are aching, and my back is stiff. The best I can hope for is that the caterpillars don’t decide to embroider the leaves of my chubby little zinnias, shredding them into lacy designs like a first grader’s paper snowflake or a grandmother’s cream-colored doily. 

It is time, on this mercurial May afternoon, to pack it in, to put it away. 

I come back, though, every evening after I clean up the kitchen and take out the trash, looking for what’s new, what has peeked from buds or poked from soil. 

Look at me, life says. Here, and here, and over here

On a warm, still June afternoon, I go outside. My purple wallflower, which is starting to fade after blooming for nearly three months straight, is swaying. Before I started gardening, I thought a wallflower was supposed to be ugly, the girl nobody would dance with, but a real wallflower is a gorgeous, bursting, blossoming prom queen in April and May. A yellow and black swallowtail butterfly wanders from stem to stem, flexing its feet. I read later that it is using special organs to absorb the dissolved sugars left from the blossoms. 

A few seconds later, it teeters, then launches, dipping and soaring over the penstemon and the lobelia, careening through and past the apple trees, until it comes back for a second taste of the wallflower, delighted, dancing on delicate feet.

If that swallowtail could smile, it would. 

 I’m glad I was lazy and have not pruned this tired wallflower yet. Since the bees have already abandoned it, I figured there wasn’t much left worth keeping, but I was wrong. 

Here’s another weird thing I read. Butterflies don’t poop or pee, ever. Caterpillars do, but once they break out of their cocoons, butterflies don’t ever need to use the facilities again. I wonder if this is evolution at its finest, risen and lifted above the muck and manure, no longer needing to generate its own waste. 

Human beings put a man on the moon, but we still aren’t free of our own sludge, our own toxins. We make that stuff on a pretty regular basis, what’s left from what we consume. 

Sometimes there’s a whole lot of it. 

Will we somehow find a way to float and flutter above it? Or is building beauty from what is base and what is at the bottom the best that we can do? 

I decide not to chop back my wallflower. I leave its sugar clinging to the stems for wilder, wiser friends to find.

About the author

Heather Bartos writes both fiction and nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Fatal Flaw, Stoneboat Literary Journal, HerStry, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction has appeared in The Dillydoun Review, The Closed Eye Open, Tangled Locks Journal, and in other publications, and also won first place in the Baltimore Review 2022 Micro Lit Contest. Her short stories have appeared in Ponder Review, Bridge Eight, and elsewhere. She lives near Portland, Oregon.

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