In the first week of last October, Jane – one of the women I lived with – discovered that her boyfriend was a hoarder. She came home from his place, having been there for the first time in nine months of intense courtship, and told us that he had blamed her for the mess as he’d been too busy in their relationship to tidy up, that she had hired a cleaning crew to straighten things out while he was away on business, and that they had found two decomposing cats, not one but two she said, in the fold out.
“I can’t face him,” she said. “It’s over.”
Andie, our other roommate, was Jane’s closest friend. Andie did her best to comfort her, but in the end she could only stroke her hair after Jane had put her face down on the kitchen table to weep.
I’d found the house, a three-story Victorian squeezed in a long line of crumbling but cheerfully painted Victorians, through a personal ad Andie had placed. She and Jane had moved from Marin County together. They worked for the same accounting firm as executive assistants and spent most free nights at the kitchen table talking about sex, office gossip, and the TV shows they watched together – shows about office politics like Mad Men, or semi-scripted reality dating shows. Their favorites were Millionaire Matchmaker and the short-lived Ready For Love, where women ascended to a stage through the floor, posed like beauty queens, then descended a long flight of stairs in six-inch heels in front of a live studio audience. Jane and Andie drank wine and talked back to the screen, and laughed so hard they cried every time a woman said, “I just want to marry my best friend.”
Jane and Andie had both helped me move in. I drove over in a U-Haul with my bedroom set, dishes, and a few sentimental things that I’d still felt worth keeping from a life I hoped to shed: a framed print by Emma Tillman, glass milk jugs I used as vases, my books and cozy old sweaters. We carried in boxes and stacked them up in the living room. When it came time to unload my bedframe, they stood in front of the truck with their hands tucked in their pockets, leaned back, arguing over the best way to bring it in. They were willowy, stylish women. But they were tough and practical.
Jane said, “It’s going to have to come apart to fit the door.”
Andie said, “Not if you angle it right.”
Jane nodded. “Maybe. I’ll get the measuring tape. We’ll see.”
Andie went with me to return the U-Haul, and Jane stayed home to make us dinner. Andie didn’t say much on the drive, though she asked me where I was from and what I’d studied in school. You could tell she was the kind of person who preferred one close friend. She wasn’t cold, just reserved.
Jane’s passion was food. She had a talent for making things rise. She tossed her own pizza dough, sometimes baked a dessert soufflé. My first night in the house, she made potato leek soup – a specialty of her mother’s. It was thick, hearty, and creamy. She served us large portions in oversized ceramic bowls. I always preferred to serve myself, but it felt sisterly to be served by her.
Jane refilled our glasses of wine, while I cleared the table and Andie rinsed the dishes. She said, “We should do this every week.”
She sighed, dreamily, and ran a finger through her bowl, picking up the last bit of soup at the bottom.
We didn’t have another dinner like that, which both relieved and embarrassed me. I hadn’t added anything to the conversation. They mostly talked about their first few days living in the city. Jane told me the best coffee shops were in Noe Valley and that Hang Ah Tea Room had cheap but incredible BBQ pork buns. Andie said always check the Giants’ season schedule before driving anywhere near Pac Bell Park and to avoid the pier on hot days. I thanked them both for the advice. They were sincere and polite, but I felt more like a guest than a new part of their home.
Whenever I passed Jane in the kitchen, she asked me how my new job at the de Young was going or if I had met anyone through the dating sites I had been halfheartedly trying out. After Jane met Mark, I saw less of her. If they weren’t out, they were in her room. Their laughter echoed from beneath her door into the hallway, and it vibrated against the wall our room shared. Jane still said hello to me if we crossed paths, but she had stopped asking me about men and life in general. She gave whatever spare time she had to Andie. They went out together for happy hour or dim sum, started running in the mornings before work, and kept a standing Monday night TV binge date.
I liked living with both of them, but I came and went mostly unnoticed. When I walked away from the table where Andie sat with Jane, crying soundlessly over Mark and the dead cats and another failed relationship, neither woman missed me.
Every Sunday I went to the Farmer’s Market. I bought fruits, fresh bread, the occasional head of lettuce. When I felt freer with my money I bought soaps or hand-milled candles, and took a series of luxurious baths. If I felt melancholy, I bought flowers – usually mums or tea roses, never mixed bouquets, which made me feel ridiculous and affected.
I met Elijah at the market. The CSA he worked for had a booth beside a stand with plump stone fruits. I took up, politely squeezed, then set down several peaches, looking for some that were ripe but not overripe. I had read that stone fruits are best if you buy them firm and let them ripen on the counter.
He was tall and mild looking. He wore his beard long and dressed in cloth pants. His fingertips were calloused. It was hard to tell if he was smiling or frowning, because he didn’t open his mouth.
He came over and tested peaches by smelling them at the stem and gently weighing them in his open palm. He handed me one.
“This will be perfect in two days,” he said.
I said, “What about one for tonight?”
He tried a few more peaches, then handed me another. I paid for both, pocketing my change. He went back to his booth. I lingered at the stand before walking over. I asked him a few questions about the CSA – how it was managed, what they grew most often. He invited me to come see the farm.
“Any day this week,” he said. “I’ll keep an eye out.”
I grew up in San Jose, where my father didn’t teach me to ride a bicycle, and had affairs with women he met downtown. I turned eighteen, and he died in a car accident. My mother had a nervous breakdown and moved in with her sister. My siblings scattered across the coast.
As a girl, I ate twenty marshmallows in a row because Tommy Miller said it would be cool if I ate the whole bag. I got as far as I could, then threw up pink and white goop. As a young woman, I wanted to be a dancer but found that I wasn’t disciplined enough. When I got bored in the mornings I ate a soft-boiled egg over the sink and went for a walk.
I have always had a type: soulful, bearded, outdoorsy, plays a string instrument. He has a slight to moderate interest in farming. He cares about the land, about the relationship between himself and what he consumes. He’ll hold your hand on the street as readily as on the couch at home. His palm is warm and calloused. He doesn’t necessarily like to talk about his feelings, but he’ll shed an unembarrassed tear for a perfect sunset, rainfall, or unexpected flurry of snow. He smells of woodsmoke and coffee grounds. He reads Wendell Berry, Thoreau, and Rumi. He is masculine in a gentle, non-ostentatious way. He is loyal, tender, and surprising without being alarming.
I explained this once to Jane. She said, “That’s nice, Ester. I really want someone who can be my best friend and challenge me to be my best self. I didn’t know how much I wanted that until I met Mark.”
Mark looked like an investment banker, because he was one. He bought her a bike so they could ride together in Sausalito on the weekends. Whenever they went out to dinner, he made reservations for 8pm. He took her to his office’s Christmas party where every one was sent home with a new iPad and a bottle of imported champagne. He already had an iPad, so he gave it to Jane. She left it on the end table by the couch so it looked like she used it, and picked it up to check the weather before they went out.
She told Andie, “I feel so grounded with Mark. I feel like I’ve known him forever.”
It was another thing a woman on one of their TV shows might say.
I went to the farm on a Wednesday. It was warm for October. I rolled the windows down and pushed my sleeves up. I had changed from a skirt and tights into jeans and sneakers so Elijah might know how serious I was. I planned on getting my hands into the soil. I wanted to plant and water and pick.
He met me in the parking lot and took me around a barn that the farmers had converted into an office. We walked between several large rectangular fields. Some were divided up to grow many things at once. Others were entirely devoted to one crop: tomatoes, romaine lettuce, pumpkins. We knelt in the dirt between rows of thick, green vines in a field of miscellaneous gourds – squat or long, prodigiously lumpy or smooth, bright or tastefully beige. Elijah picked up an acorn squash and held it to my ear.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
I took the squash in my hands and listened intently. I heard nothing, but I put in a good effort. Finally, he laughed at me. He took the squash back and laid it into the dirt.
“I’m messing with you,” he said.
We walked the length of the property. Men and women worked in the fields – some watering or spraying the crops, others picking, others turning soil. Very few words passed between us. I asked how long he had worked there. He said long. He asked me what I did for a living. I said I worked in customer service at a museum. He asked which one and I told him. When we reached the parking lot, he opened my car door for me and once I was inside he shut it softly.
Elijah came to see me at the museum. I took my lunch break early and walked him through the exhibits I liked best. There was a collection of Inuit art on the first floor. I showed him a Judas Ullulaq stone man with horns curling off of his head and one eye closed in the act of winking, and a pair of South American turkeys that I thought were charming though they were admittedly very plain. My favorite piece in the museum was on the second floor – a carved representation of the skeletal Doña Sebastiana in her death cart. She drew her arrow across her bow and aimed it forward, her face implacable.
My great grandmother had come to the United States from Mexico at the age of twelve to marry a man from her village who worked on the railroad in Idaho. She had eight children, including my grandmother. My grandmother married a white man who drove tanks in the Second World War. She didn’t teach any of her children how to speak, read, or write Spanish. If you had asked my father about our heritage, he said, “We aren’t Mexican. We are Spanish, from Castile.”
What I knew about Mexico and being Mexican, I learned from Grace – the woman who cleaned our house, picked me up from school, and made dinner for my sisters, brother, and me. She brought us our Christmas tamales. She told me cuentos while dumping water over my head in the bathtub and drying me roughly before putting me to bed. If I was fussy after the lights went out, she came to my room and said, “Ester, if you don’t settle down, La Llorona will snatch you up and take you to the river.”
I asked Elijah, “Do you know the story of Doña Sebastiana?”
“No,” he said. “Who is she?”
“She’s death. She comes for the dying and collects their souls. She’s known for being equitable, willing to make a trade, and a fierce keeper of her promises,” I said. “She gave one man the power to heal the sick, but told him that he couldn’t cure a man if she stood at the head of his bed. It didn’t matter what the person offered to pay, if she was there it was because she had claimed the soul. Over the years the healer became famous. One day, he was summoned to the deathbed of the richest man in the town on the promise of a very large reward. When the healer entered the bedroom, he saw that Doña Sebastiana was there at the head of the bed. Without a second thought, the healer wrestled her to the ground, pulled her to the foot of the bed, and cured the sick man. Later, she met the healer in the road. She brought him to a room in an empty house. The room was dark, lit by two candles. One was short and one was tall. She said, ‘The sick man was once like the short candle, and you the tall candle. Now you are the short one, and he is the tall one.’ Then, the short candle went out and she collected the healer’s soul.”
After I finished the story, I felt like I had exposed myself in some way – spoken too eagerly, for too long. We walked downstairs in silence and went out to the food trucks. He bought us cups of clam chowder. We sat on stone steps that faced the large courtyard between the de Young and the Cal Academy of Science.
“Have you ever seen a dead person?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I took human anatomy in college. We had a lab section with human cadavers.”
“Did it bother you?”
I had been asked many times over the years how I felt about being in the class, how I felt about the people and touching their bodies and seeing their insides exposed under fluorescent lighting.
I said, “I thought it would, but you get used to it. They cover the faces and hands. The worst part was actually the smell of the preservatives.”
We sat close enough for our hips or legs to touch if one of us only leaned a little toward the other. I hadn’t been with a man in a while. I missed broad shoulders and being held by someone bigger than myself. The hair at the back of his neck curled slightly. I thought about touching him there.
He said, “I liked the story you told me, about the skeleton woman. I liked hearing you tell it.”
We finished our lunch. I saw that my hour was up. He walked me back to the museum, but didn’t come up the stairs.
Some days I went into the Cal Academy after work. I walked through the hot, loud, smiling mass of tourists who stopped in the middle of everything to take photographs of the displays. The line for the rainforests of the world was always too long, so I went through the African hall instead. I looked at the dioramas of hartebeest, zebras, roan antelopes, and lions. I stopped by the gorilla on my way out of the hall. Her face was sorrowful to me though, so I didn’t like to linger there.
Often, I stopped by the terrarium housing Clyde the albino alligator. He rested with his nostrils out of water and his eyes just under the surface. He never moved, not once in the many months I went to see him. His body stayed perfectly still, suspended in swamp water. He appeared, sometimes, in a new corner of the tank as if placed there by a curator, a person whose job it was to create the illusion of life.
They kept the energetically alive things downstairs, in the aquarium. Japanese Sea Nettle and Moon jellyfish pulsed their luminous bodies. Sea Horses, electric and impossibly small, floated in black water as if they were neon stars suspended in space. I often wanted to put my hands out to touch the glass of their dark aquariums and feel a cool point of contact between myself and something mysterious, ancient, and lovely.
I didn’t hear anything from Elijah for two weeks. When it occurred to me that it had been a while, I counted the days on my fingers and resolved to avoid the Farmer’s Market in case we ran into each other and he thought I was looking for him.
I was reading a book I couldn’t focus on and never finished on the living room couch, when Jane came downstairs to ask me for a favor. Andie was out of town so Jane didn’t have anyone to double that night with her and the diplomat’s son, Erik, whom she’d just met.
She said, “Look, he has this friend staying with him and he wants us all to go out for drinks. It’ll be really fun. And I’ll owe you big time, Es. What do you say?”
I said, “I’ll go get dressed.”
I made myself up and put on a black dress with an open back that I had worn on only one other occasion. I wanted to be admired by a stranger, to be thought beautiful or stylish and witty. When I came downstairs, Jane looked up from her phone. She said, “Damn, girl.”
The men picked us up in a town car. We squeezed into the back. Erik on the passenger side, me in the middle, Hans – the friend – on the driver’s side, and Jane balanced between Erik’s lap and mine.
Erik was short, muscular, and a little sweaty. Hans was tall, muscular, and cool. Erik spoke effusively, complimenting Jane and me. Hans spoke in clipped sentences, only when addressed directly.
Erik said, “Hans, don’t you think these are the prettiest girls in America?”
Hans said, “Sure.”
Jane smiled faintly at all of Erik’s compliments. She shifted more and more onto my lap until she was in it entirely.
“Hans,” she said. “Is this your first time in the United States?”
“No,” he said.
“How many times have you been here?”
“Do you like it?”
Hans would have survived an interrogation beautifully. It was clear that tonight was a favor to Erik who must have heard somewhere that American girls only go out with you if they can bring a friend and so you have to bring your friend too. I wouldn’t have brought Hans – handsome, surly, and giving off the distinct impression of being wounded – around any girl I was seriously interested in otherwise.
At the bar, we took a booth in the back. Jane and I slipped in first. The men sat on our respective sides. Erik ordered champagne for the table. Hans ordered a scotch, neat. Then he turned to me and said, “What do you want?”
I said, “Champagne is fine.”
The server left us. Jane pouted – something I’d never seen her do, but she did it then. She said, “No one asked me what I would like.”
Erik apologized. He said, “What can I get for you, I’ll go find our waitress.”
Jane ignored him. She leaned over me and said to Hans, “Go tell the server I also want a scotch neat.”
I waited for him to lay her to waste with a withering answer. Instead, he slid out of his seat and disappeared into the crowd around the bar. Jane gave me a light push. She said, “Can you let me out? I need to go to the ladies’ room.”
I slipped out of her way. She walked the same direction Hans had, ignoring the sign that pointed in the opposite direction to the restrooms. She walked by Hans. Her back was to us, but both Erik and I could see her tilt her head toward him. She said something, touched his arm. He followed her out of the bar.
The server brought the champagne and scotch. She opened the bottle and left it to Erik. He poured four glasses. We didn’t toast. I sipped mine politely.
After a few silent minutes, Erik said, “This happens sometimes.”
I finished my glass, then put some cash on the table. Erik didn’t try to hand it back to me. He was looking wistfully at the door, waiting for Hans or Jane to return.
I didn’t see them on my way out or in the street, and I was relieved. It felt like something I was supposed to look away from, like my mother, naked and crying on the floor of her bedroom over the folds of flesh around her belly. It was too painful to bare witness to.
I caught a cab home. I slumped in the backseat, pressing my forehead against the cold glass of the window, and closed my eyes.
On my way out of the house in the morning, I saw Jane curled up on the couch in the living room. She was half-dressed, surrendered to sleep. One of her shoes had landed under the coffee table, the other was by the staircase. I pulled a blanket out of the hall closet and draped it carefully over her before heading out of the door.
I went to the Farmer’s Market after all. I bought a jar of honey, a bar of soap, and daisies that were garishly large and bright – they were a little sad to me, but beautiful. I thought I might leave them downstairs for Jane.
Elijah found me at a booth with a fat yellow tomato in hand, trying to guess how ripe it was. Like nothing had happened, he walked up to me smiling. He said, “How many do you want?”
“Just two,” I said.
“How are you preparing them?”
“Raw. With salt and pepper.”
He took the tomato from my hand, touching my fingers lightly as he did it. Then he gave it back to me. He picked up a purple tomato, smaller and just as firm.
“Take the one you have, and this one. They’ll be sweet and they won’t fall apart when you slice them.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I bought the tomatoes. He hung around, and followed me when I left the stand. He walked beside me.
“I’m on my way out,” I said.
“I’m glad I ran into you, then. Will you come see my place? It’s an old house with a big garden. I thought maybe we could do a little farming. If you like.”
From his pocket, he produced a piece of paper that he pressed into my free hand. They were handwritten directions. He told me to come tomorrow and to be early. He’d expect me. When we reached the edge of the market, he turned. I went on. I walked the whole way home with the paper in my hand.
Back in the house, Jane sat on the couch. She hadn’t opened the blinds or turned on a light. She sat perfectly still in the dim room. I turned on a lamp, the one with the soft orange glow, for her when I got in. She hardly blinked. I put the daisies in water, then left the vase on the table beside her.
Elijah’s house was somewhere near Tomales Bay. Once I got off of the freeway, I took a few unmarked streets to an unpaved road. I parked where the road ended, next to a sedan, and followed a dirt path through the grass toward Elijah’s house.
The morning mist dampened my hair and jacket, but it lifted as I made my way down a tread-formed path. The ground was soft. Thistle, poppies, and Queen Anne’s lace bloomed in the shade of scattered oaks. I could see lizards and quails in the taller grass. Steller’s jays rested on tree branches.
The walk was mostly uphill with a gradual incline. At the crest of the hill, you could look out and see a large valley of yellow grass that went on for miles. Elijah’s house was in the center of the valley’s basin.
The house itself was wooden and shack-like with large, open windows. The second story hung over the porch with the support of unvarnished wood beams. An expansive garden skirted the left side of the house and reached back through the valley. To the right of the house, a series of clotheslines held onto several shirts and a pair of pants, all swinging in the morning breeze.
I made my way down slowly. The walk up had been gentle, the walk down was steep. I stepped carefully, so as not to roll my ankle or trip. At the foot of the hill, I smoothed my dress and ran my fingers through my hair.
Elijah came out to meet me on the porch. He had watched my awkward progress. He said, “It looked like you were learning to walk out there.”
He was barefoot and held two cups of black coffee. He handed me one and invited me to sit on a long wooden bench.
“Welcome to my home,” he said.
I drank my coffee and took in his view. From the floor of the valley you couldn’t see telephone polls or any signs of Highway 1, just rolling land, gnarled oaks, sky.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked.
“Do you like it?”
It was the kind of place that, as a child, I saw on the side of an empty country road and dreamed about inhabiting with my books and quiet ways.
“I’ve been here four years. My grandfather left it to me. I’d been living and working in Shenandoah National Park, so I was already used to roughing it.”
“Do you have electricity?”
“Nope. I live pioneer style out here. Wood burning stove. No telephone. Just a battery powered alarm clock and a flash light for emergencies.”
“You don’t miss the radio?”
“It was strange at first, but I’ve found that the less I have, the less I need. And I can listen to music in the car.”
“Dare I ask about your bathroom?”
Elijah laughed. He set aside his coffee and took my hand, turning it palm up. He ran his thumb over my fingers and rubbed the knuckles. He looked closely at it, as though he were committing the pink and white splotches in my skin, the faint blue traces of veins, the lines and folds at the joints to memory. I put down my cup. I exhaled quietly.
“Would you like a tour?” he asked.
Still holding my hand, he took me to the garden where he grew everything. At the gate, there were rose bushes and sweet pea stalks. He had a corner for herbs. I recognized rosemary, mint, basil, and dill. Yellow, purple, and green tomatoes ripened on the vine. Fat heads of cabbage squatted in the soil beside the thin stems of carrots and turnips. It was meticulously designed. Everything had room to spread its roots and bloom.
Some squares of the soil were bare. I asked what he was growing there. He said, “They are going fallow. Next year I’ll grow sweet corn or raspberries. I haven’t decided yet.”
“Will you check your farmer’s almanac?”
“You can’t throw seeds in the ground and just expect something to happen.”
I liked his industrious ways. Everything about him had economy to it: his work, his coffee, his speech, his lifestyle.
There was a strange scarecrow huddled toward the middle of the garden, clothed in sun-faded plaid and denim. Fur covered its chest, feathers crowned its head. It wasn’t shaped as a human, but as something akin to a beast. Elijah said, “My grandfather made it when I was a boy. I have to add to it every now and then.”
At the back of the garden, we sat under an apple tree. Elijah pulled an apple from a low branch. He took a bite, then held it out to me. I put my hands around it, but he didn’t let me take it. I leaned in and bit deeply into the apple’s flesh. Juice ran down my chin. Elijah dropped the apple, pulled me awkwardly onto his knee, and kissed me hard.
The rest of the morning passed that way – us kissing in his garden, under that apple tree, until my jaw ached and I was dizzy with hunger. I laid my head on his shoulder. He smoothed my hair back and kissed my bare neck. I breathed into the small space between our chests and played with the buttons on his shirt until he asked me if I wanted lunch.
We walked back through the garden, stopping to pick tomatoes and a head of purple romaine. He had me hold of the lettuce under a spigot by the back porch. He pumped and I shook the lettuce in the water to rinse it.
“I thought you would have a well,” I said.
“It’s too far from the house to be convenient.”
In the kitchen he put me to work, which I prefer – men who make you sit while they silently tend their pots have always struck me as distrustful, controlling. We made a salad, then ate it outside with cheese that he kept cool in his cellar and fresh bread.
After lunch Elijah filled a tin pail with water. We washed the dishes on the back porch.
He asked, “How do you like country living?”
I said, “I could get used to it.”
Elijah took me through the field behind the house. We circled the hills, went up the hills, then down the hills. He touched my waist, he took my hand. He asked me where I was from, what my family was like, what I wanted out of life. I gave my answers freely.
“I’m on my own for the most part,” I said. Then I told him that I wanted to travel. I wanted to see the northern lights in Alaska and the southern lights in Patagonia. I wanted to climb mountains, put my hands into waterfalls.
“I love the countryside,” I said. “I’ve always imagined settling down on a farm.”
He walked me up against an oak tree, so that my back touched the bark. Ants crawled over my ankles. He kissed my shoulders, the exposed skin of my chest. He pressed his mouth into the cotton of my dress along my stomach.
We came back to the house after sunset. Elijah lit a lantern he’d left on the porch. I held it as he searched through his closet. He brought out folded clothes and a pair of handmade boots like the kind you see in Civil War films with worn leather heels and thin laces.
“Take the lantern,” he said, showing me to a downstairs bedroom. “Dress in these and meet me outside.”
I laughed. “Are we going to a hoedown?”
He said, “You’ll see.”
I put on a dress with long sleeves and buttons up the back. It was loose enough to slip it overhead, so I did. He had also given me pantalets, but I left them folded on the bed in favor of my own undergarments.
I found Elijah dressed in long britches, a buttoned shirt with an old fashioned cut, a jacket, and boots like mine.
He picked up two shovels and a crowbar, then took the lantern back from me.
We went out through the field, turning left this time. The sky was clear and full of starlight. I waited for him to point out the various constellations and to tell me their stories like so many men do but he was quiet as we walked along.
The night was cool enough to raise gooseflesh on my arms under the light cotton of the dress. I wondered what we might be doing, but I didn’t feel welcome to ask.
We came to a large tract of land held by a broken iron gate. Elijah brought us through the front where the gate arched. I didn’t know for sure that we were in a graveyard until Elijah stopped and said, “Be careful. Some of the headstones are low and you might trip.”
I said, “Do you come here often?”
He said, “My grandfather brought me here when I was a boy.”
“Maybe once a month.”
He led us forward, to the heart of the graveyard. We went slowly for my benefit. I had to bend over slightly to watch every step. Elijah moved easily around the rocks, broken stones, and flat grave markers.
I asked, “What are we going to do?”
He said, “If it were daytime, we’d play ghost in the graveyard.”
“Isn’t that the game where one person hides and everyone comes to find him?”
“No. It’s where you dress up like this and walk around the graveyard like you’re haunting the place. The rules are: you can’t speak and you can’t look directly at anyone.”
“Don’t people recognize you?”
“I don’t really go into town. And the people who come out here are usually tourists anyway.”
He took us down a row of graves with tall headstones. They were all simple slabs. I couldn’t read the names or dates. Grass and weeds had spread over the dirt. Elijah stopped in front of a pair of graves. He set down the lantern, tossed aside the crowbar, and handed me one of the shovels.
“It’s not daytime,” I said. “So what are we going to do?”
“Watch me,” he said.
He put the shovel into the ground, stepped down hard with his boot, then turned the dirt out and scattered it off to the side.
“This is how you dig,” he said. “You have to break the ground, but use your foot to do most of the work so you don’t hurt your wrists.”
I said, “What?”
“Like this,” he said. Then he showed me, again, how to dig. He waved me over to the grave beside him. “You take that one. I’ll take this one.”
I stood over my grave with the shovel in my hands. The land was dark and empty, except for the light of our lantern and the two of us.
He said, “Is everything okay?”
Do you remember the heavy, sinking feeling in your feet and chest when it was dark and cold and you realized you were alone with a stranger, that strangers were capable of anything, that you had reached a point from which you could not turn back?
“Yes,” I answered.
I put the shovel into the ground, stepped down, and turned the earth loose like he had shown me. He went back to his own grave and started digging. As I went, I made the hole I dug wider and longer. I wondered if it would be better to take my time or to finish quickly. I knew I should do whatever was most accommodating. It also occurred to me that I might be digging my own grave. But then that seemed too elaborate and inefficient. If that were his intention, it would make more sense for us to dig together.
“Elijah,” I said. “What are we going to do after the digging?”
“We’ll see what’s in the caskets.”
We dug a little while longer. The mound of dirt beside me grew into a distinct, however slight, pile. I stood up to my ankles in the grave.
“Elijah,” I said, again. “What do we do after we open the caskets and see what’s inside?”
He kept digging, but he answered me with exasperation like he was about to say that he couldn’t take me anywhere. “We take whatever we think is worth taking. What else would we do?”
“That makes sense.”
He moved expertly, turning the dirt over fast. He was strong for such a thin man. His body wasn’t so boyish then, as it had appeared to me in the daylight.
“And afterward, we’ll go back?” I asked.
“We have to fill the graves back up, but yes, afterward we’ll go back.”
When I was young, I loved ghost stories. I had volumes of them. I scared myself silly by reading them in the middle of the night with a flashlight. I had gruesome nightmares about bloody ghosts, spiders breaking out of my face, and witches who rode men ragged up and down the countryside with an enchanted saddle. For a year, I woke up screaming. I would call for my mother who would come into my room, turn on the light, check under the bed, and soothe me out of my hysterics, both irritated and sympathetic to a child who had not yet learned what she really needed to fear in life, waking or dreaming – a lesson she told me I had been overdue the day after we buried my father. When my mother stopped answering me, I screamed for my father. He came once. After that, no one would come and I had to get used to the idea that I was on my own. I learned to talk myself down, to tell myself that nothing bad was going to happen, to close my eyes almost believing this was true.
I told myself Elijah had not brought me to the empty graveyard to murder me and hide my body underground. And when it was over, it would be a funny story. Something I could share with Jane. We could stand in the kitchen, warmed by the oven and sweetened by the sugary smell of a lemon soufflé rising. I could hold a glass of wine that she had poured me, and laugh so hard, almost out of breath, almost in tears. You won’t believe it, but on our third date… Maybe, then Mark the hoarder could be a joke too. Something more like a punch line than a punch.
I dug up that grave, not exactly matching Elijah but keeping close for a while. At some point the moon was overhead and I stood up to my shins. Then the moon was somewhere else and when I stood perfectly straight, I was up to my waist. It was getting harder to toss the dirt out. I mostly flung it up hard so that it wouldn’t scatter back into the hole and to the left so that it wouldn’t rain over Elijah.
Elijah hummed a medley of work songs. Some of them sounded faintly Irish, ballads that would be about motherland and mothers and the mother Mary. I kept rhythm by counting each step. Dig, step, toss, turn. One, two, three, four. It was like standing at the barre and moving to the count as I had in my girlhood. Plies, slow tendu, fast tendu, slow degage, and so on. My shoulders burned, my back tightened with every move.
I heard Elijah strike wood. He stopped humming. He climbed up out of the grave. I heard him drag out his shovel. He stood at the foot of my grave, looking over me. I turned up to him.
“You’re a natural,” he said. “Can you take a break and hold the lantern for me?”
I leaned my shovel against the dirt wall. He put his hands down to me and I let him lift me out of the grave.
He put the lantern in my hand and showed me where I needed to stand. He took off his jacket and shirt. He folded them carefully and set them aside. With the crowbar in hand, he climbed back down into the grave.
I held the lantern high, looked around. The graveyard was poorly maintained. It had a feral, abandoned look even in the dark. Most of the headstones were broken. Fallen leaves rotted in the grass. Perhaps it was one of those forgotten historical sites, or perhaps there were no funds for upkeep. Either way, it seemed to be another world, another place in time.
Elijah said, “Bring the light a little closer.”
I sat down at the edge of the grave. I held the lantern out over the hole. The light shone over Elijah’s bare back. It was scarred with white, raised cuts, long healed. Between his shoulder blades, he had a tattoo of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It was anatomically correct, but traditional otherwise: draped with roses, fire blooming from the valves, lilies bloomed out of the fire, and the seven swords of her seven sorrows pierced the heart’s flesh. It was the kind of back that you want to touch with love, that you want to heal with two soft, open palms.
I don’t know how he opened the casket, but he did.
The woman buried within it was a decaying skeleton, clean of flesh. You could see it was a woman from the shape of her dress, the last thing on earth that she ever wore.
Elijah handed up the crowbar. I took it and dropped it into the grass.
I watched him undress her bones, like her mother or father might have. He left the hands and wrists alone, but he slipped the long bones of her arms, one by one, from the sleeves of her dress and laid them back down in place, together. The dress buttoned down the front. Once her arms were free, he opened the dress. Her bare chest of ribs had collapsed without any connective tissue to hold her together. Elijah slipped the dress out from under the bones of the shoulders, then ribs, spine, pelvis, then legs, inch by inch, resetting the bones he disturbed as he went.
When the dress was free, he turned and handed it up to me. Pale pink flowers had been sewn into the wrists and neckline, a thin ribbon wrapped around the bodice at the waist. It was difficult to place in time. In the dim light, it could have passed as a pioneer’s wedding gown or a sundress from the 1970s. I don’t know the half-life of cotton and lace, but it seemed like something young women have always worn, will always wear.
Elijah climbed out of the grave. He dusted his hands off before touching the fabric of the dress.
It was morning. We had missed the end of the night, too absorbed in unearthing and undressing the skeleton. The sky was gray and the air damp, not yet sunrise but close. Elijah pulled on his shirt and jacket, buttoning himself back up. Then he put out the lantern.
He said, “I’m sorry it’s too late to finish yours. We have to fill them up, now.”
I was too tired to feel anything but relieved. Together we pushed the dirt back into each of our graves. When we stood, caked in sweat and filth, we looked more like creatures than people.
Elijah carried the shovels, crowbar, and lantern. I carried the dress, afraid to breathe too deeply and catch its scent. It had once held spoiled flesh, cold blood, and all the tender things our skins keep hidden.
I followed Elijah out of the graveyard, down the path we had taken on our way in.
Sunlight spilled over the hills and into the valley before we reached the house. Once we got there, Elijah laid down the shovels and crowbar and set down the lantern by the front door. I sat on the porch, unlaced my boots, set my feet in the grass.
“Wait here,” he said.
He went around the back with the dress in hand. I listened to the Steller’s jays call. I watched the white clouds drift together and apart. I knew I was wearing the dress of a dead woman. I could feel the places where the fabric had torn and degraded, see where someone unfamiliar with a needle had sewn patches of new fabric into the skirt. I knew Elijah had dug it up out of her grave. I knew he had touched her with gentleness, with care. I knew I couldn’t begin to fathom, just then, what had happened, why I had had any part of it. I knew I could leave if I wanted to.
Instead, I lay back on the porch, resting my hands under my head. My body ached. I wanted sleep. I wanted a bed, deep and warm. I wanted to be folded back into the night, the stars, the cool air. I wanted to shake the dirt from my skin and sleep for a thousand years in that sweet, old house. I closed my eyes. I listened to the bugs in the grass. I waited for the sound of Elijah’s footfall.
I woke up, still on the porch. Elijah, clean and dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, sat beside me with a cup of coffee. He offered it out to me. I took a sip. The sunlight showed the red in his damp hair. He shuffled his feet a little, the right and then the left – a boyish tic.
He said, “The water’s ready, if you want a bath before you go.”
“Yes,” I said.
Elijah led me to the back porch. A large tin tub was set up at the edge. He handed me towels, brought out a pitcher. I undressed, shedding the layers of clothes like old skin. I sat down in the tub. He set down the pitcher, offered me a bar of soap.
“Won’t you?” I said.
He hesitated, then lifted the pitcher and poured warm water over my shoulders. I gave him my arm. He picked up the soap and ran it over my skin. He worked the soap into lather with both of his hands. The dirt faded away. He poured warm water over me again. He cleaned my shoulders, my back, breasts, and stomach. I stood for him to wash my legs, my feet. When he rinsed my hair, he laid his hand over my forehead to keep the soap out of my eyes.
“You’re all done,” he said.
I stepped out of the tub. I wrung out my hair and patted myself dry. He drained the tub, dumping the water filled with soap and grime into the dirt on the side of the porch.
As Elijah turned back to me, I reached out. I touched his cheek with my hand, drew him in to be embraced. He stepped away. He said, “Your clothes are still in the bedroom. You can dress there.”
Long may I live, I will never understand a man completely.
Elijah went into the kitchen. I followed. He cut himself a slice of bread and ate it. I waited for him to offer me the same, but he didn’t. He finished his country breakfast and went outside. I watched him through the window. He filled a watering can at the spigot. He walked to the garden. He paused, but he didn’t turn back to the house. He lifted the can and watered the sweet peas first.
In the bedroom, I put on my clothes. I had left my underwear on the porch with the dirty dress. I decided to abandon them there. The pantalets were still on the bed. I wondered what kind of woman had been laid to rest in such a garment – ivory cotton, threaded with a lavender ribbon, lace trimmed. They weren’t the practical underthings of a farmer’s daughter or wife, a woman of the land. The woman who wore these fine linens to her grave hadn’t worked a day in her life. She had been beautiful, educated, interesting. Perhaps she had been cold – her wit too hard, too braying. She wouldn’t have cared to be undressed by a stranger, to be on display. She was Victorian, wry, and glittering. Something any of us might aspire to be, yet fear to become. I folded the pantalets and put them in my purse, unsure if I would show them to Jane when I got home or keep them to myself. Then I left.
Tayler Heuston, California-native, holds an MFA from North Carolina State University. She is the winner of the 2015 Kore Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Two Serious Ladies, Spectrum, and NANO Fiction. She lives in Raleigh, NC and is working on a novel.