Samuel had ruined the old vegetable garden. The split railroad ties were hidden by shepherd's purse, mallows, and cockleburs. A lone yellow flower held the promise of tomatoes, but underneath, vines wrapped tightly around the stalks. He felt guilty that he'd allowed the garden to fail, but the growing season seemed much shorter in Vermont. Just when it was time to plant, the fall frost presented. He didn't have the patience to nurture seedlings in the laundry room under grow lights. He didn't want soil and fertilizer on the washing machine, tomato stakes and marigold seeds on the dryer. In the five years since he had taken over his mother's house, he had continued to do nothing. After all, what did she care about what happened to the garden. She'd moved to Texas and was never coming back.
Denise's car appeared in the driveway. He recognized his sister even though he hadn't seen her since their father's funeral twelve years ago. She wasn't expected, but there she was, unmoving behind the open car door, her long, black hair in loose waves on her shoulders, green eyes hidden behind large black sunglasses. She looked like their mother. Samuel supposed that he looked like their father, even though that wasn't the case. He resembled his mother's brother who had died from pancreatic cancer decades ago. They shared the same narrow, crooked nose and cleft chin.
"It's me," she said.
"It's you," he said, and they hugged because they were related.
Denise followed him through the backdoor into the kitchen, where he put on water for tea. She sat at the table, her hands clasped. It was their mother's table and flowered, fabric tablecloth. A canning jar held wildflowers Samuel had picked from Woodstock Town Forest, which backed the property. Denise pulled a yellow flower free and plucked the petals into a small pile. She wanted to blurt out why she had come. She was becoming a pig, having already spouted a little pink tail, plucking wiry hairs from her ears, and she needed to move in with him because she didn't know when she wouldn't be able to take care of herself.
"I didn't know you'd be coming," he said, shoving his hands deep into his jean pockets. He crossed his ankles, self-conscious of the sweat-stained undershirt and muck rubber garden shoes.
"You look well," she said, even though the fine lines around his eyes had deepened with his fortieth birthday, and he had a few days of gray stubble.
There were seven years between them. Denise was eleven when Samuel left Burlington for college in Amherst. He had ignored his mother's suggestions that he write Denise or talk to her when he called home. He didn't understand eleven-year-old Denise. When she dropped out of Hunter College after her sophomore year, it was to realize her dreams on Broadway. At their father's funeral, she had brought Michael, a law professor from Syracuse who had seen her in a rendition of Violet far removed from Broadway. They were moving in together. Samuel didn't understand the twenty-two-year-old Denise.
"I tried to call," she said. She stopped from saying, but you never answered.
"I usually go to the Adirondacks this time of year," he said.
"You have the guest room," she said.
He set a plate of shortbread cookies in front of her and swept the plucked petals into his hand. Denise ate, dropping crumbs on the table and in her lap. Two cookies and then three, and then the plate was empty. She wanted more.
"Syracuse is so depressing, even in summer," she said. "Thousands of black birds pack the trees, hiding between branches and clumps of leaves like they're waiting for someone to die."
She talked about the rain and boarded-up houses. City lethargy. She kept talking about anything other than the fact that she wanted to move in with Samuel, needed to move in with Samuel. Even though they had never been close, they were still family.
She had sold the little Cape on Fellows Avenue, just far enough away from the university students, to a nice couple from Seattle who paid cash. Denise thought about all she had left behind. It was hard to decide what was important, and the knickknacks and photo albums had begun to seem like clutter, although she liked that clutter sometimes. It was familiar. But in the end, when she was a pig, what use was a medium format camera or a KitchenAid mixer? And even though she missed the house a little, with the sloping pine floors and small enclosed porch they had painted red and could only use in the summer, she kept talking about everything except becoming a pig, the wiry hairs that snagged in the bathtub drain, and Michael leaving after she had told him on that rainy Sunday afternoon.
"Are you sure?" Michael had asked.
They sat entangled on the couch watching a movie. She had waited until it was impossible for him to notice.
"I've grown a tail," she had said.
"How come I didn't notice?" he asked, extricating himself from her limbs.
He moved away to pace in front of the fireplace.
"I'm not sure," she said. She liked to think she would have noticed if her lover had grown a tail.
Michael stopped pacing.
"It isn't any different than the aches and pains of growing old together," she said. Wasn't that part of being with someone? Taking care of someone if they needed it. They hadn't married, but Denise was sure Michael was that one someone she could count on.
His mouth formed beginnings of words.
"I would still love you," she said. Through life's ups and downs she was sure of it.
He went upstairs, and when he came back his toothbrush was tucked into his shirt pocket. He placed the house key in her hand. "I still love you," he said.
"But not enough," she said.
"We're not even married."
"What about your things?" she asked.
He curled her soft fingers around the key and left. That had been three months ago.
Samuel cleared the empty cookie plate and waited for Denise to get to the point of her visit.
"I've never not gone to the Adirondacks," he said.
"The guest room?" Denise asked.
They weren't close, the occasional Christmas card or birthday call, and then silence, but to Denise the silence hadn't meant anger, or frustration, or hurt. It had just been silence.
He suggested the Woodstocker Inn, the 1830s converted farmhouse with claw-foot cast iron tubs and potted red begonias, on the north side of Route 4. David, Dora, and their terrier, Stanley, ran the place.
"Why would I stay at a motel when you have a guest room?" she asked.
The guest room had always been an empty childhood room with old wooden bunk beds and a cheap desk, the fiberboard corners bent the way someone might mark a place in a book. He should have a guest room. People who owned houses, even their mother's old house, had guest rooms. It would have been easy enough to dismantle the bunk beds and buy a new bedroom set at one of the superstores in Burlington: bed, matching dresser, and nightstand all for one low price. But Samuel didn't want guests. He didn't want an empty queen-sized bed with a plump, down comforter, hiding Egyptian cotton sheets in a room with a door he usually kept closed. He wasn't lonely or sad. He enjoyed his quiet life on the edge of the woods. He just wasn't good with people, not even family, especially not Denise who had always been, well, a little selfish.
"It's not a motel," he said.
At dinner, Denise chattered about theatre culture, something Samuel had never been interested in, while she drank from a bottle of wine he had been saving for a special occasion. She explained she had needed two cups for the beef medallions' sauce. She could tell he was sour about it even though he had two helpings and wanted a third.
Denise was a good cook. At the limited number of family events on their mother's side, it turned into a competition. She had learned early that if she wanted recognition at a baptism, birthday party, or family reunion, she better have an unsinkable chocolate chiffon cake or fried chicken with a crispy coating. Their mother, on the other hand, couldn't cook. Trying new recipes scared her. One year for Christmas, Denise gave their mother the Joy of Cooking. It was one of the many items Samuel had packed away but not before he had looked at her margin notes. Snickerdoodles: 1988, too much cinnamon, cooked too long. Tostones: 1991, couldn't find plantains. Ceviche: 1994, the fish is not technically cooked.
"Bernadette Peters was just wonderful." Denise had been chattering about a play she'd seen in the city. "You probably don't get much in the way of good theatre here."
"You've lived here," Samuel said.
"Which is why I left," Denise said. "Nothing happens here."
Samuel stared at Denise for a minute. He didn't think that was true, but he didn't want to argue. So he ate the goat cheese salad, field greens from the farmer's market, which in turn made him feel guilty about the overgrown garden, which then made him think about their mother and if she knew why Denise might be here. And then he wanted a glass of wine, but he didn't feel like he could have one since he'd been sulky about Denise opening the bottle in the first place.
Denise was an early riser.
Drawers and cupboards hung open. Eggshells in the sink, flour on the table, blueberries bled on the counter.
"There's no coffee?" Denise asked.
Samuel was leaving for his job at the local arts newspaper. He liked to walk and pick up his coffee from Uncommon Grounds where his friend Erik graded college essays and brought his golden retriever, Bella. Maggie, an ex-girlfriend, worked behind the counter, and the girl with the scar above her lip ate scones with cracked orange glaze and drew small trees on napkins that smelled like heliotrope. Samuel liked the way the warmth fogged the frames of the windows into oval portraits.
"You have time for breakfast?" Denise asked.
Samuel wanted to say no, but The New York Times was unrolled and waiting next to the white plate and napkin. He slipped into the chair and waited for pancakes and sausage.
"Do you have new sheets for the bed?" Denise asked.
"What's wrong with the sheets?" he said between bites.
"I have sensitive skin."
"Check the hall closet. Or, there are boxes with old stuff in the garage. They're all labeled."
Denise looked through the kitchen window at the overgrown garden Samuel had ruined. She thought about the tomatoes and cucumbers her mother had grown there since their father had built the little house. The rows of basil, so much they gave away bags and bags to the neighbors. Fat zucchinis baked into bread and muffins, arugula and later pumpkins her father carved and lit from the inside to guide trick-or-treaters up the sidewalk.
Her skin itched. She picked up Samuel's empty plate and wondered if he would remember to spray her with glycerin and water when she had completely become a pig.
"If there are no sheets, I can always buy some," she said. "I was planning on going out."
Samuel shrugged. "It seems silly to buy new sheets for a weekend visit."
He slipped on his sandals and left through the kitchen door.
"Have a good day," she said to the empty room.
For the next few weeks Denise fit herself into the small house like she hadn't left. She didn't mention to Samuel that she wanted to stay indefinitely or that she was becoming a pig. She went through boxes of their mother's things Samuel had stacked in an empty hall closet. She lugged boxes of books from the garage and arranged them in alphabetical order on the two empty bookcases in the living room. She made meatloaf with garlic mashed potatoes and buttery acorn squash with fresh sage. She broke apart the bunk beds and hauled the wood to the shed. She bought a new wrought iron bed and white sheers for the windows. She drove to Amish country and bought a quilt and rag rug for the bathroom floor, and she was careful to clean the pig hairs from the drains and conceal her hoofed toes in loose slippers. She had shrunk two inches but hoped Samuel hadn't noticed. It was different than the way Michael had never noticed, not just becoming a pig, but the other things like ravioli made from scratch or the new wool socks that replaced the ones with holes.
In the boxes she came across old pictures of Samuel who never smiled. She was always goofy and laughing, pointing at Samuel or trying to jump on his back. Even when they were kids, he didn't look happy. She wondered why. Samuel spent a lot of time alone, reading or listening to records, and he liked to walk. He didn't walk anywhere in particular; he just liked to walk and have quiet.
By the end of September, Denise had shrunk two more inches and had organized everything that needed to be organized. She cooked Samuel's favorite meals and made new ones that he ate with the same reserve as all of his meals. Denise talked, and Samuel appeared to listen. And during that month, even though he couldn't figure out why Denise was there, he was too afraid to ask her, because he liked having her around, and she might tell him she was dying or that she'd done something terrible in Syracuse and was running away. He tried to think of scenarios but couldn't come up with anything other than cheating on Michael or Michael cheating on her. He was sure there were other reasons people left each other and other reasons why she hadn't mentioned Michael. Samuel understood relationships gone bad.
The summer of his sophomore year in college he took a cross-country drive sleeping on friends' of friends' carpets, camping in Yellowstone with gap-toothed Kat. Up Highway 101 through the Redwoods to an uncle's trailer in Eureka. Samuel hadn't wanted to go back to school. Kat wasn't going back, but by summer's end, they had argued as much as they had fucked, and by August, Kat had found Jane, and Samuel was thankful for the one-way Greyhound ticket from his mother. After a few years at the newspaper, there was a blond intern from Milwaukee. Samuel had known better, but he got involved anyway. Johanna loved Italian movies and skiing. They had gone to Stowe, Smugglers' Notch, and Sugarbush. When winter was over, so were they. Then a three-year dry spell followed by a string of casual coffee with university girls until Maggie.
Late one night in October, Denise huddled under her quilt and two other blankets she found in the closet. She hadn't felt well most of the day partly because she knew it was time to tell Samuel. She had shrunk three more inches, her ears were elongating, and her eyebrows had fallen out. She drew them on each morning. At this stage, she hoped he was less likely to say no.
Samuel hovered in the doorway home from a date.
Three months had gone by quickly as she prepared herself and their mother's home. What would she do if Samuel made her go?
"You can come in," Denise said.
She looked like six-year-old Denise, her hair braided in two braids as she huddled under the covers, her hands in mittens. Samuel had liked six-year-old Denise. He had pulled her up the tree house rope ladder, bought her five-cent candy from the plastic jugs on the drugstore counter, and taught her how to skip rocks on the man-made pond. Six-year-old Denise had been affectionate and quiet.
"Have you been sick all day?" he asked.
Inside the mittens, she wiggled what was left of her fingers.
"Can I get you something?" he asked.
"I've drunk all of your wine." She had used the wine to gain a little bravado.
Samuel sat down on the corner of her bed. She shivered. Snow was predicted before Halloween.
His tie hung loose at the collar, the top button free.
"It's good someone drank the wine," he said.
"You must have had a good time."
A girl from the college. Admissions. Young, thirty-two. Nice enough. A little jazz club downtown, a few drinks.
"And?" Denise asked.
Samuel laughed. "It's just after ten."
They were quiet for a minute, and Denise lost her nerve. There was no guarantee Samuel would want the responsibility of taking care of her, and she couldn't really blame him. She reached over to turn off the lamp.
Samuel stood. For a moment, he hesitated to leave.
In the dark she whispered that she was becoming a pig.
He heard her voice, but he didn't hear what she said. He took a step closer. She moved deeper beneath the covers, deeper so only her eyes were showing. She said it again. But Samuel only shook his head. So she took a deep breath. She dropped the blanket from her face and sat up as straight as she could even though her back had been bothering her. "I'm becoming a pig." She waited for Samuel's repulsion, for his rejection.
He laughed, and then it ended when she didn't return the humor. "What does that mean?"
She said it again.
"The kind that lives on a farm?" he asked.
Now, she laughed a little.
"That's why you're here?" he asked.
"What about Michael?"
Denise snorted a little. She only said that Michael had left her.
"What will you look like tomorrow?" he asked her.
"I don't know."
"Will it happen all at once?"
It seemed to be happening slowly, but she was sure that could change.
"I think you just don't notice because you see me every day," she said.
It didn't snow before Halloween, and it didn't snow during the month of November or all of December. The ski resorts were desperate. Samuel took a week of vacation at the first of the year. The newspaper was slow. The town could only talk about the lack of snow.
On his way home from buying feed, he stopped at Uncommon Grounds where there was a spirited debate on the local dairy farms. Erik, the college professor, prepared syllabi. Maggie stacked clean coffee mugs. Local girls clad in black leggings and warm snow boots huddled in corners over espresso drinks lamenting the pitiful ski season. Dino, another local, took bets and tracked weather predictions for the first snowfall. Samuel had missed the heat from the small coffee shop having spent his days with Denise now. A small, napkin, tree drawing lay abandoned on a table from the girl with the scar above her lip. He slipped it into his coat pocket before putting five dollars on February 8.
When he got home, Samuel stacked the feed in the garage where it would stay relatively warm and dry. Inside, Denise wheeled a small wooden car with red wheels across the counter, a childhood toy of Samuel's she had found. Samuel set down a coffee in front of her.
"Perfect," she said, taking a sip. She pushed her thinning hair behind her ear with her right hand. The fingers on her left had fused into a tough hoof. There was no reason to wear her mittens anymore.
"I know," Samuel said.
"Michael could never get it right. Too much cream or too much sugar."
Samuel shrugged. "I'm sure he got other things right."
"He always remembered my birthday," Denise said.
"See," Samuel said. "When is your birthday?"
"Do you ever feel like you know someone but you don't?" Denise asked. She wasn't thinking about Michael anymore.
Samuel opened the small notebook he'd bought where he had taped notes Denise left him. Don't overfeed me, even if I whine for more. Let me outside every day to graze and root. Make sure you moisturize me. Late at night, when he was sure Denise slept, he researched how to care for her. He wrote down questions like, Did she want to sleep inside or outside? Yesterday, when he had asked her that question, she said she wasn't sure. As a human, she wanted to sleep inside, but maybe as a pig she'd want to sleep outside. She said she'd let him know the same way a dog might whine or scratch the door.
"It really bothers me that Mom left the Joy of Cooking here," Denise said.
Denise's changes had sped up. Samuel wondered if she felt it or if she avoided looking in the mirror so the pig in her couldn't confront who she felt like on the inside. He looked at his to-do list.
"And there's all this stuff she left: photo albums, knickknacks, plaster handprints we made in elementary school, Dad's clothes," she said. She pulled at a loose tablecloth thread.
"I was supposed to take care of it," Samuel said, looking out the back door. The gray sky was heavy, faking and teasing potential snow.
"She should have taken them," Denise said.
Sometimes Denise expected too much, but he didn't think this was the time to tell her that, which was good because she really was thankful that she had Samuel. She had thought she'd have Michael, but maybe love didn't mean taking care of someone who was turning into a pig.
That night after Denise went to bed, Samuel moved the plates and glasses to the lower cupboards because while they ate dinner, Denise had shrunk under the table. He could just glimpse the top of her white ears.
He found it hadn't bothered him as much as he might have thought.
At the beginning of March it snowed, and it didn't stop snowing until it was April. At times it was a driving snow, pelting the house and trees with bottled-up anger. Other days it was heavy and wet, like sheets of quilt batting. It drifted and blew, covering the streets and sidewalks as fast as they were plowed and shoveled. At times, it was light like slivers of iridescent cellophane. It built up on the windowpanes and barricaded the doors so that Samuel had to crawl out a second story window to shovel it away. It snowed wet, fat flakes and dry crunchy sleet. It just kept snowing.
And during the snowstorms and their subsequent exile, the power went out and Samuel built beautiful fires to keep them warm. Denise seemed to have slowed down during that month. She was small and pink, but she retained sections of her dark hair, and her snout hadn't yet appeared. She still walked upright and made Samuel promise that when it stopped snowing he would take their mother's boxes to Goodwill. All except the Joy of Cooking, which had taken its place on the counter with Samuel's other cookbook.
On the snow's last day, Denise wanted to make ceviche, so Samuel strapped on snowshoes and walked four blocks to the grocery store in beanbag pellet snow, tiny balls that collected on a hard, packed surface. He bought fish and lemon juice, red onion, and the last bunch of wilting cilantro. As a last purchase, he grabbed a bottle of Chardonnay.
Samuel placed Denise on the kitchen chair so she directed and he chopped. They had ceviche with Peruvian corn, large kernels they tore from the cob and ate with white cheese, sweet potatoes, and full glasses of wine. Samuel had to help Denise, her hoofs unable to grasp the glass. Even though they had electricity, they ate in front of the snapping fireplace, his fingers and her hooves wet from corn and fish juice.
"I'm glad she didn't want her cookbook," Denise said.
"Don't be petulant."
Samuel finished his wine and poured another glass.
"What if she never used a gift you got her for Christmas?"
"I wouldn't have gotten her a cookbook," he said.
"No," Denise said. "I mean something else. Like a hammer or carjack."
Samuel laughed, his face flush from wine and the fire. Denise's pink face grew pinker.
"I wouldn't buy her a hammer or carjack," Samuel said.
"It was just an example."
She pushed her plate in Samuel's direction, and he placed it on the table. She reclined on the couch, and he covered her with a blanket.
He had thought she'd fallen asleep.
"Yes," he said.
"I don't think it's ever snowed like this."
In May, the snow had long melted away, and the sun shone. Samuel went out to the garden plot and began pulling weeds and replacing railroad ties. He had started tomatoes and basil in the laundry room, where he had bought a shelf that he attached to the wall over the washer and dryer. There was no loose soil or overturned seedlings. Clearing the garden took over a week to do, and when he was finished, he felt renewal in the fixed garden.
After the late frost warnings, he planted the tomato seedlings and the other vegetables Denise had instructed him to buy: cucumbers, zucchini, green beans, peppers, and onions. He planted rows of basil, arugula, and mixed salad greens. He installed a small wire fence to keep out the rabbits and keep the vegetables rooted. He took a picture of the garden and sent it to their mother. But Samuel knew the garden was for Denise.
Weeks later on her last human day, Denise sat in the little vegetable garden that their mother had made, and then Samuel had destroyed and then made again.
"How come you never married?" she asked. Her voice croaked a little. She rolled her snout in the dirt and rooted in a section he had left bare for that sole purpose of rooting. It hadn't been as hard as he thought—thinking about what Denise needed. In fact, he liked it.
Samuel thought about shrugging. "I could say that it was because Maggie had been my soul mate, but that isn't true. At the time, I think I just wasn't up for it."
"Maggie? Uncommon Grounds Maggie?" Denise's eyes were milky, and she reached up with her hoof to push the last strand of dark hair from her eyes.
Samuel nodded, but he said that was a story for another time.
Denise looked up into the sky. "I'm glad today is a nice day," Denise said.
Samuel took off his sandals and placed his feet in the dirt alongside Denise.
Title graphic: "Transition" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2014.