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Land Art

by Tyler Barton

So I spent three weeks trying to be in the moment while Linda spent three weeks building grief statues and, I thought, trying to be in the past. Each evening I’d take down her towers—weren’t we here to leave all this behind? Anyway, I was wrong. Turns out grief is a way of being in the present. Or maybe the present, the past, and—because grief is a work of work, a thing we sow—the future, all at once. I see that now.

           Now I see that.

           It started with her stacking rocks in the sideyard, “cairns” they’re called, but I can never pronounce that word without thinking of her sister, Karen, who hated her name and demanded we call her Kiki, which I can say fine, Aunt Kiki, any baby can say just fine, like our babies did, Aunt Kiki, like our kids do even as adults, Aunt Kiki? What happened to Aunt Kiki? But yeah, they were basically rock piles. Grief sculptures. The smallest stones built the bottom, and they funneled up and out, wide and wider—a top, but stopped.

           Our kids kept calling from college, asking for things we couldn’t give: reasons, timelines, directions to that one place, you know the diner with the party table we’d commandeer with uncles and aunts even Mom’s mean stepmom, what was it called? Over those long weeks, I was the one who answered our cell phones. We’d decided there was no room in the future for more mistakes, so we were making them all now, getting them out of the way, here in this beach community. The kids didn’t get it. And Linda? Her creations kept falling over on their own, with no one’s help. I couldn’t sleep until I’d cleaned up, each warm rock reburied in the mud.

           And so, the work morphed. Soon she was ripping petals from the lilies and piercing them on the top of fence posts. Next she began digging down, past the thin sod and through to the sand, asking silently a simple question: Why must a sculpture be made out of something rather than made into it? I thought there was a word for this too—a relief?—but maybe I was wrong. I tried to tell her this on a stagnant day, the sun filmed over gray, as I tripped across the yard toward her newest piece—a relief, Linda, a relief—but I couldn’t get it off my tongue.

           “I guess I’d have to call it,” she said from inside the triangular hole she’d made in the ground, “not a work of art, but a work of work.”

           A seagull tried to land on the fence, fought with the lily petals, and lost. “What?” I said.

           “Promise me you won’t tell anyone I ever said that.”

           “I didn’t hear you.”

           She drove her shovel into the loam and struck upon a kind of bone, a piece of bone, a work of bone—“Motherfucker.”

It was the end of July, and I still couldn’t meditate without biting my nails and Linda still hadn’t come up with a name for what she was making or unmaking. She’d thrown our ringing phones into the hole. The bones of an unidentifiable animal were laid out across the patio like ornaments, the way Kiki used to map her whole Christmas tree before hanging a single sleigh.

           The yard was totaled, so we kissed our security deposit goodbye, and I called our kids from a pay phone—something you could still find there, outside of those dirty, humming quick marts—and pleaded for them to pick us up. Listen, we’re finished and we need a ride. I mean it, please. I can’t do the drive back home alone. I need you now.

           Now, I need you.

           “Wait, wait, wait, wait,” I said into the receiver. “Your mother’s here, I swear. No, I’m handing her the phone. Would you listen?” Silence, finally. “I’m looking at her right now.”

Author's Note

My partner and I have recently become enamored with Land Art. Maybe obsessed is the right word. For many of the avant-garde artists of the late '60s and '70s, the gallery space was no longer sufficient—the boundaries too constricting—leading many to use the earth and the air and the landscape in their creations. It’s transformed how we look at our own backyard, which is hardly 40 square feet, and so lumpy you can hardly stand in it. My partner, a visual artist, has taken to using the yard as a canvas. I’ve been trying to remember—even when there isn’t an active project happening back there, even when I’m only out there to drag in the trash cans—to look at this tiny plot of earth with wonder.

Tyler Barton is a cofounder of Fear No Lit, home of the Submerging Writer Fellowship, Page Match, and Try This: Free Workshops. His collection of flash fiction, The Quiet Part Loud, won the Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest from Split Lip Press and was published in 2019. He lives in Lancaster, PA, where he works in a nature museum and teaches free creative writing workshops to the elderly. Find his fiction in The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, NANO Fiction, and elsewhere. Find him at @goftyler or

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