“She was very nice, showed me the Backman cemetery, but I knew she was upset that I’d cremated Martin and brought him in an urn, not in a casket as she obviously expected. There were a lot of graves in the cemetery, maybe upwards of forty, maybe more. Must be an old family, I thought, looking out over it. I remember all the graves were set in overlapping triangles, so there were no rows or paths. I asked her about all these triangles, and she said her husband’s grandparents designed it that way when they’d moved to this spot from the other end of the bowl, and had all the caskets moved here. Then she said the weirdest thing: ‘They knew to keep the old ones with them, because the old ones know how to draw the power from the earth.’ I was so surprised—so creeped out, really—that I didn’t pursue what that meant.
“There were all these oak trees, nearly growing together, some branches pushing down on others, vying for space, and they seemed to huddle over the graves as if trying to protect them, or hide them.
“But then, the next morning, I thought I’d overreacted because it was peaceful and warm, a sun bright overhead—serene, even. It felt right that Martin would end up being buried with his family. His grave was already dug. It hadn’t been there when we’d arrived the day before, so I guessed Blessed and Grace dug it out after Autumn and I went to bed. She told me the space was meant for her, but she could always move, now, couldn’t she? I remember watching her wrap the urn in a lace tablecloth she said her mother had made herself. I watched Blessed climb down a small ladder and lay the urn on a wooden platform at the bottom of the grave. It looked so small in that deep hole. Then she handed Blessed a wood-framed mesh sort of thing that looked like a chicken coop and he set it over the wrapped urn. Grace climbed down and smoothed another white tablecloth over that. Both Blessed and Grace were wearing shiny black suits, and they took turns filling in the grave. It was just the five of us, no one else, not even a minister. Blessed read from an ancient Bible—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—read on and on for quite a while, in a low drone. When I realized no one was going to say a prayer, I did. Then we all stood staring down at Martin’s grave, the raw dirt piled high, all loamy and black. Autumn was clutching my hand, but she wasn’t crying. Her hand was terribly cold. She was so still, never made a sound.
“I wanted to leave immediately after we’d buried his urn, but his mother begged me to stay, just one day, she said, only one single day so she could spend some time with her granddaughter. She reached out to touch Autumn. Autumn didn’t move, didn’t seem to even breathe when her grandmother stroked her hair.”
“And did you stay for one more day?”
She shook her head. “We couldn’t stay, not after what Autumn saw—”
She looked terrified. He waited a beat, then asked, “What did Autumn see, Joanna?”
“She said she saw them burying dead people in her daddy’s grave.”
She’d said it, insane words, unbelievable and terrifying.
Ethan’s expression didn’t change, but she saw clearly he wasn’t going to accept that.
She saw them burying bodies? In her daddy’s grave?
Ethan knew there were all kinds of monsters out there, but this was a story from a little girl. He said, “Who did she see burying dead people? Blessed? Grace? Shepherd? All of them? Come on, spit it out.”
“It was that night—”
Autumn appeared in the living room door. “What’s wrong, Mama?”
Joanna looked pale and exhausted, but she looked up and smiled. It was well done, Ethan thought, but Autumn wasn’t buying it. She came running to her mother, grabbed her arm. “Mama, you were telling Ethan about Daddy’s funeral, weren’t you? You look all white and stiff, like you did that day.”
There’d been too many lies, to her daughter, to herself, to others. And so she told her daughter the truth. She nodded. “I was telling Ethan about your daddy’s family, sweetheart, about how they behaved, what they were like.” Autumn tightened all over. Joanna said, “Did you get some rest, sweetie?”
Autumn nodded. “I woke up from my nap, Mama. Big Louie was licking my toes and Mackie hissed at him.”
Ethan asked, “Big Louie only licks big toes. Did you keep them from fighting?”
“I guess because my feet are a little smaller than yours, Ethan, he got them all. Mackie only swatted his nose once.”
“And what did you do?”
“I hugged him, kissed his nose, and then he nearly licked my face off.” She pressed closer to her mother and whispered in a small voice, “You told Ethan what I saw them doing?”