Issue 1:2 | Fiction | Sarah L. Morris
When her cousin, Kathy, called to say that Opal had passed on, Lucia felt a strange combination of relief and terror. Opal was the last of her mother’s sisters left to be buried; she still hadn’t gotten over the shock of her own mother’s death, and going through her aunts’ was like reliving it anew. The loss was magnified each time, regardless of the fact that her aunts did not parallel her mother in manner or emotion—the physical resemblance was enough. At least, she thought, after this one, there won’t be any more.
It did not surprise her when Kathy expressed the desire to have Opal buried in the old cemetery in Framingham. Clinging to the telephone handset like a lifeline, Lucia did what was expected of her by suggesting that Kathy bury her mother in the empty grave that Lucia and her brother, Harris, who was three years her elder, had owned since their own mother’s death. Mama had scraped her finances and bought the eight-grave burial plot, together with her parents-in-law, just prior to Lucia’s father’s burial. She would have to call Harris to check with him, and with the cemetery groundskeeper to see if the baby, her tiny unknown elder sister, stillborn, could be moved.
“I don’t know why Mom had her buried that way,” Lucia explained, twisting her salt and pepper hair behind her ear with her forefinger, “but I wouldn’t feel right putting Opal between Mom and the baby.” She said she would let Kathy know just as soon as she spoke with Harris, and hung up the phone.
Lucia had been nine years old when her father died, and only vaguely remembered the purchase of the burial plot. What she did remember with clarity were the long dark weeks, waiting for the company to reopen the mine, nightmares of her father wandering, stumbling in the sealed black shafts, searching for an escape. She hadn’t realized for a long time that he had been immediately and mercifully killed by the blast, days before the mine was sealed, in the first few minutes after the explosion, and that he could never have been able to walk out.
When they finally removed his body from the mine she had not been allowed to see him, forbidden by her mother, who handed her his lunch pail as an act of appeasement. It was a familiar object, dull metal and rounded like a cask, heavy in her small hands. Lucia’s father had passed it to her every evening when he returned from work, smudged and smeared with coal dust, only the whites of his eyes and his smile visible through the grime. He would leave her treats, the remains of his dessert or some fruit in the lunch pail’s metal innards.
When Mama took it from his body and gave it to Lucia at the morgue, it had been latched, just as it was while he carried it, still in the crook of his arm when they found his corpse. When Lucia opened it, the grapes he had taken with him on the day he was killed were still in it—he had saved them for her; only now they were raisins, a shriveled memory of what he had meant for her to have. It was the heat that killed him, they said, he hadn’t been directly in the explosion, just consumed by the resulting blast of scorching air. That’s why he wasn’t burned like the rest of the men; he was dried, instead, like a raisin. He had been found, crumpled and broken, only a few feet from the elevator portal.
After he had died their mother was gone, always, and when she was home she studied, always—she had been a teacher before she was married, and had to renew her certificate with additional college credits. It had been at least fifteen years since she’d been in the classroom; marriage had rendered her legally unable to teach, but the law had since been changed.
Lucia took care of the groceries, stopping on her way home from school, charging the necessities on the ever-growing bill at the local market. She cooked for her grandparents, and then waited for her mother to come home, the dutiful daughter, grownup too fast. Lucia scrubbed, swept, and studied, struggling through the fourth, then the fifth grade, and onward through high school, then professional school. Harris had found other things to do: he played ball, was a Boy Scout, hitchhiked to the neighboring towns for work, found his way into college. Lucia took care of everything at home, while their mother formed into a person she no longer knew, plodding along, gagging back emotion, immersed in books, always stoic, always remote and isolated.
She had told Kathy that she would have to check with Harris, and she called him that same evening. They traded data on the status of their spouses, their children, and Harris’s grandchildren before Lucia presented the reason for the call. Harris did not seem particularly mournful about Opal’s death, and Lucia knew that he would not come to this funeral, either. Their parents’ respective funerals had been enough; he did not plan to attend another. When she asked about moving the baby next to their mother to make room for Opal, she heard him suck in his breath, like he had been slapped, and she knew that his answer would not be what Kathy wanted.
“No, Lucia,” he said. “Leave that baby be.” He made a choking sound. “She’s been moved enough…she should be allowed to rest in peace.”
Lucia felt confused, and angry with her brother for his insensitivity to their cousin’s wishes; her mother was dead, and it was the least they could do. “What do you mean?” she asked him, “How can you say..?”
“No.” he interrupted, “Think. Do the math. Lucia, I buried that baby.”
Something rustled in her head—a twinge of an image. Her mother, Harris, and herself, a triptych in the cemetery, framed by the mountains, under the bitter spring sky.
“No.” Harris said. “She doesn’t need to be moved again.”
Then she remembered everything. Standing on the cemetery hillside in the green-gray spring, ten years old, Mama and Harris facing each other, Lucia gazing across the expanse of rowed headstones, the colorless sky spitting drizzle, the wind sporadically whipping through her black curls. She remembered pushing the wheelbarrow, feet tripping in loose pebbles, along the road from the house, the whole three miles to the cemetery, and stopping in the old part, mysterious and deteriorating. They visited the new part every Sunday, and had since their father had been buried, but the old part seemed foreign to Lucia. Cold and distant, with its crumbling headstones and less-kept lawn, the old part seemed indifferent and still, in contrast to the new part, which waxed cruel and mocking, holding her father in its breast.
Mama’s hand enclosed her own, palm sweating, grip tightening. Her face was still, expressionless, as it has been for the past year, but her eyes were teary. Lucia searched her mother’s face as they stood still beside a splintering headstone, but could decipher no message. Harris fidgeted a few feet away, his gangly limbs stiff in the spattering drizzle. The downtrodden wheelbarrow, visibly rusting in the spring rain, held the old shovels and a few sparse plants, weeds really, that Lucia had gathered. It seemed like ages before the shiny black car came purring out of the valley and around the side of the hill, stopping where they stood. Under other circumstances, Harris might have admired the vehicle, but now he remained silent, clutching the wooden and splintery wheelbarrow handle.
The car drifted to a stop and a tall man stretched out, dressed in a woolen suit. Lucia remembered having seen him in the city building, talking to Mama, asking her to sign paper after paper. She had dangled her feet, watching, until Mama had given him a check and collected her from the hard wooden bench where she waited. Now he said nothing, only nodded, seemingly setting things in motion, reviving them from their shared trance.
Mama shuddered, grimaced, blinked at Harris. Harris lifted the spade. It made a slurping sound as he drove it into the patch of grass in front of the time worn and tiny metal temporary marker, but the soil came loose with ease, and a pile began to form beside the growing hole. The suited man was staring into the pallid sky, arms crossed tight against his cotton-shirted chest, avoiding Lucia’s gaze. They idled for what seemed like hours, watching Harris fumble with the spade and the mounting pile of cemetery dirt. Lucia inspected the worms emerging from the growing mound, watched her brother, and tried to inch forward to peer into the gash the spade was creating. Mama, still clammy clamped onto Lucia’s hand, held her back.
The shovel hit something then, a dull thudding, a hollow sound. Harris bent, squinting into the opening in the ground, and scraped the edge of the shovel around inside. Her mother broke the silence, instructing Lucia to stay still, and walked to the edge of the pit. Mama and Harris worked together then, each wielding a shovel, grunting, they lifted a small, disheveled box out of the ground. It was plain pine, unadorned, its surface fibrous and gapped.
“Gently,” whispered Mama, her voice quavering, and Harris, nodded, lowering his eyes. As they deposited the casket into the wheelbarrow, Lucia saw bits of fabric poking through the ragged tears in the wood, and an earthy, pungent odor filled her nostrils, stifling her sense of calm. The city man continued to look away. Mud was smeared down the front of Mama’s work dress.
The rubber tire on the barrow was slightly flat, and it made a whumpy-humming noise as Harris steered it through the dampened grass and muck, to the new part of the graveyard. Mama, carrying a shovel, towed Lucia along, several yards behind. The other shovel, in Lucia’s grip, bounced along the ground as she dragged it behind her over the road, the path, and the cemetery lawn. The man followed. When they reached the family plot, in the new section of the grounds, Harris stopped, the wheelbarrow sliding, almost tipping in the grass. Mama sighed, and stood between Harris, Lucia, and their earth-entombed father, touching her mouth, then her hair, looking a decade older than she had a year ago. She pointed to another spot, where Harris immediately began to dig.
Lucia sat on her father’s grave and stroked the headstone absentmindedly, while her mother and Harris struggled with the clay soil
at the other end of the plot. The man was there, behind her, not even facing them anymore, just there—Lucia could feel his hesitance, his desire to be back in his office, in his house, or anywhere else but here. She coughed, and looked down at the new grass, hoping that her father could feel her sitting there, watchful.
After seeming ages had passed, Mama and Harris lowered the fragmenting casket into the new grave; the city man had looked into it and nodded in approval when the opening had reached the appropriate depth. Lucia was closer now; Mama had forgotten to hold her back and away, so as not to see. The baby’s tiny coffin was as long as Lucia’s leg, and clearly rotted in spots—now Lucia stared at the box, and saw more than the soft, decaying fabric of the baby’s shroud—she caught a glimpse of a tiny limb, bone exposed, ashen flesh. They lowered the coffin into the hole.
It took less time to cover her up, and the baby, safely placed nearer her father by the hands of her mourning mother and the brother she never knew, was beneath the ground again, her lonely spot decorated with wilted weeds picked by an equally unknown sister. Mama glanced at the city man, shakily signed another paper retrieved from the depths of the big black car, and then they headed home, wheelbarrow bumping back the same path it came. At home that evening, after baths, Mama drew both children near.
“I’m sorry,” she had breathed, almost inaudibly, and they understood that there had been no other way.
“Lucia! Are you there? Say something…please!” Harris was bellowing into the phone, his voice pitched in alarm. Lucia shook the haze of recollection out of her brain, and realized she had somehow slipped from her chair and was now sitting, childlike, folded on the floor.
“I’m here,” she panted, her voice small and mewling. “Stop yelling. I was just thinking for a moment. You’re right, Harris, the baby should stay where she is.”
Opal was buried on a frigidly cold, sleet riddled Monday. After the graveside service, Lucia slipped from the crowd at the cemetery, and with her children and husband she huddled over the family burial plot. A deer had walked over the three occupied graves, scavenging for the tender shoots of plants just starting to peek through the dwindling snow. It had left droppings, small and frozen, on Lucia’s mother’s grave. Lucia stood, flanked by her children, swaddled in her husband’s sport coat, breaking the cold that cut through her mourning dress.
She reflected on the events of the last few days, thinking aloud: “It’s all about getting a little further than where you started from….”
Lucia, now nearly at retirement, was ages away from the place where her mother had lived, physically, emotionally; she was also miles away from the childhood she was just now allowing herself to recall. She hadn’t—and purposefully so—married a miner. Her children had knowledge of poverty and desperation, yet had blessedly little understanding of the hardships she’d faced. These fierce, flawed two, her daughter and son, had gaped at her, eyes filled with tears and a hinting of shame, when she had described her newly-formed memory to explain why Opal could not be buried here, and why the baby would not be moved.
They both had only nodded, haltingly, in agreement and astonishment when she’d asked, as an afterthought: “I guess it would all be considered child abuse today, wouldn’t it?”
Sara L. Morris