The Compost Heap

One man’s trash is another man’s nightmare

By Brian Doyle | September 26, 2014


When I was a kid, our deep dense compost heap along the shadowy east side of the garage was several feet thick, and muttered darkly when you came near it, and sometimes it groaned and heaved suddenly, roiling with mysterious interior tides, and it would grumble audibly when a terrified child tried to shovel in fish bones and eggshells and apple cores, as per stern instructions from our mom, who had started the heap long before most of us were born. She appeared to be the only member of the family who could approach it without fear; mostly she would snag the nearest child (sometimes with a fork) to be that night’s compost-slave, but occasionally when the heap was in a foul mood and we had all skittered away instantly after dinner, she would go out and dig in scraps herself, saying tart things in Gaelic that she claimed were prayers but when we said them, our grandmother washed out our mouths with soap.

The compost heap seemed to have a particular interest in our brother Tommy, because he was the youngest and smallest. The first time he was assigned to dig in the compost, he was pretty proud of himself because now he was big enough for a Chore, but he came back into the house pale and rattled and saying incomprehensible things about sudden tendrils and slugs the size of his leg and how he was absolutely sure he saw a fawn get sucked into the heap suddenly without a trace. Any other kid saying this sort of thing would get beat up on general principle, but Tommy was the most honest gentle genuine kid ever, so the rest of us trooped out to the heap to see what was up.

You must understand how deep and ancient the compost heap was. It stretched all along the east side of the garage, and was probably 15 feet long by three feet wide by God knows how deep; maybe a thousand feet, said our oldest brother knowledgeably, and he was a math genius. Bordered by a line of thin trees on one side and the stucco wall of the garage on the other, it flowed free at either end, and though it seemed to be pretending to be polite at our end, it had gone savagely wild at the other, behind the garage; we sent our brother Peter to see what was going on back there, and he came back pale and stuttering and had to go lie down.

You think perhaps I am exaggerating, but when I tell you that at one time there were lots of cats around our house and then suddenly there weren’t, ever again, or that one time our dad went to dig in the compost and we heard a lot of banging and yelling and he came back in the house grimly and called our neighbor who had also been in the Army and they went out to the garage to do something for which they needed axes, or that one time we heard what sounded like the loudest belch in history, and when we ran out to see what that was all about we found a neighbor lady holding up a crucifix and chanting something in Polish, well, then, you will see that I am not exaggerating.

Our family lived in that house from 1955 until 2002, and there are many reasons large and small why our parents finally sold it, but some of us are quietly convinced that they did so finally because the compost heap had grown to such proportions that not even our mom could quell or command it, and probably she came back into the house one day, walking a little too fast, and said something like, Jim, pack up whatever it is you need and love the best, and do so now, because we need to be out of the house by dusk, for reasons I cannot explain right now, or something like that—probably pithier, as she is a succinct woman, and no mistake.


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