Once there was a kindly woman who was known all about the town as Lovely Lucy, not so much for her appearance, for she was endowed with plain features—which wasn’t a bad thing at all—but she was called this because she was arguably one of the sweetest people who ever walked the face of the planet. The only parts of her life that suffered were her love life and her inability to bear children.
One morning, Lucy went to market and spoke with the town sculptor, who made statues large and small, some for himself and some which he sold. Lucy hadn’t much money so she explained what she wanted to do and begged the sculptor to spare some clay and promised to pay him another day. The sculptor remembered how Lucy had brought soup and sat by his bedside when he had taken ill, and gladly gave her as much of his special clay as she could carry, free of charge.
Thanking the sculptor for his kindness, Lucy rushed home and began working on a life-sized statue of a boy, aged five. She made the little boy perfect. His reddish-brown features depicted an unblemished beauty and innocence such as no real boy had ever possessed. Although she had no skill at sculpting, she crafted the statue with such love that upon first glance it seemed to be a live boy standing still. She took great care in painting her little angel, making his eyes blue like the sky, his lips and cheeks pink like the sunset and his hair black as twilight.
Lucy marveled at her creation. She held his little clay hand, kissed his rosy cheek, and told him many times a day how much she loved him. When she went out to market, he was always in her mind, and she searched for presents for him – flat, smooth rocks for skipping across the lake, seashells for tooting like horns, and twigs and vines woven into a ball. She bartered her baked goods for hand-me-down children’s clothing and dressed him in different outfits each day. She even brought him a puppy from the neighbor’s litter for company while she was away.
Lucy was not able to manage the other part of her suffering as easily. For reasons unknown to anyone, she attracted the wrong sort of suitors and was far too kind of heart to dismiss them, despite their many transgressions against her. It pained the townsfolk to see a woman so intelligent in all other respects remain so foolish in love.
Her most recent failed relationship was with a traveler who suspected her of being unfaithful one day when she had gone out to market, so he barred her from her own house and drew obscene pictures of her and posted them about town. Lucy begged and pleaded with the traveler and after a week or so, he changed his opinion and let her back into her home to be reunited with her clay boy.
That evening the traveler fixed her dinner and his mouth was sweet with words of love and a possible reconciliation. Cautious at first, Lucy finally let her guard fall, assured that his feelings and his intentions were genuine. That was the last thing she remembered before she awoke the following afternoon, face down in her bedding. She felt groggy and her body ached in unspeakable places as though she had been violated. She knew she had been drugged.
Lucy reported the incident to the authorities. The traveler confronted her in public, on the road from the market, after the authorities questioned him. Wishing to avoid an argument, she simply turned to walk away. Her next waking recollection was being bound to a chair in her home. The traveler had struck her a cowardly blow to the back of the head. She was helpless as he raged against her with rock and branch. But fortune smiled upon her when a neighbor heard her cries of anguish and contacted the authorities. This time, he was imprisoned.
From his prison cell, the traveler requested an audience with Lucy, and she, having a forgiving nature, went to visit. And his tongue was dipped in honey and he spoke sweetness and there was yet again talk of a possible reconciliation, which she honestly considered.
All was calm and happy between Lucy and the traveler when he was once again a free man. They sat together and talked, went out to the seashore and walked, and the traveler also lavished attention on the clay boy. All seemed right with the world and Lucy’s life was as close to being perfect as it had ever been.
Until one night she bolted upright out of a sound sleep and found the traveler standing over her, eyes doused in rage.
“I know you play me for a fool!” He spat through gritted teeth. “I know you have taken a lover! Who is it? The neighbor? The sculptor? Tell me who it is or you will never know a moment’s peace ever again!”
When she did not answer, he stormed out of the room and Lucy hoped he would leave the house but instead the sound of his thunderous footsteps headed in the direction of her private room—the room where the clay boy lived.
“No!” she cried as she dashed from her bed.
In the private room, she found the traveler with the wood axe resting over one shoulder. He stood next to her perfect little boy.
“Shhh,” he said. “If you wake him up, I will have to kill him.”
Lucy hadn’t a clue what to do so she started begging for the statue’s life, whispering as not to anger the traveler.
“What can I do?” she kept asking him. “What can I do to make this right?”
The traveler commanded her to her knees and she did this without a second thought. “Down on all fours.” And she complied. Then he made her crawl from the room backward, back into her bedroom.
“Now, on your knees,” he said, closing the door behind him. “Close your eyes and smile.” She was nervous, of course, but she obeyed. The next thing she felt was the ax handle as it smashed into her mouth, shattering her front teeth.
“Your life is mine! Your sad statue is mine! You both will cease to exist if I so wish it!” the traveler ranted.
She felt his foot on her shoulder, pushing her over, toppling her flat on her back. She wanted to look at him but was afraid, so she squeezed her eyes shut as he straddled her and beat her. Her head swam with pain, but Lucy knew she couldn’t scream for fear of this madman destroying her little boy, so she took the beating until she passed out.
Lucy dreamed that she was an eagle soaring through clouds misted with morning dew above a river where children frolicked and although she was too high to hear the sounds of their tiny voices, she knew they were happy and having fun. But something tugged at her tail feathers like a dragging weight, pulling her back down to a place she did not want to go, a place of pain and sorrow—
When she woke up, regaining consciousness piece by piece, she was surrounded by the sharp claws of searing pain that pawed at her like a hungry animal. As her mind struggled for clarity she wondered where she was. In her bed? But how did she get there?
All around, the walls were covered in blood, so much blood. Too much to be her own. Then she saw the bits and pieces. Parts that belonged at one time to a whole, red soaked clumps of the remnants of the traveler. Divided from one another and from life itself by the wood ax buried in the man’s severed head.
She looked at her hands. Had she done this terrible thing? Then she heard a voice, tiny tingly, that chirped in song, “Not to worry, not to fear, everything is fine, Mama, I am here.”
She stared at a living boy whose eyes were blue as the sky, cheeks the color of the sunset and hair as black as twilight.
He hugged her neck and kissed her cheek and whispered, “I love you, too.”
About Strong Roots Amongst the Clay: As a kid I never had much interest in fairy tales. In fact, I hated them. My mother told me that someone had given her a book about Squanto, also known as Tisquantum—the Native American of the Patuxet tribe who assisted the Pilgrims after their first winter in the New World—thinking it was a book of fairy tales. And where Mother Goose and The Brothers Grimm failed to put me at rest at night, the adventures of Squanto did the job nicely.
And I wouldn’t fully appreciate the cultural richness and power of fairy tales until revisiting them in the 1980’s. For the longest time I searched for something to spark an idea for a fairy tale story that I probably would never bother writing—there’s a difference between the wanting of a thing and the doing of a thing.
Then one day a story was relayed to me about a coworker at a retail job that I absolutely hated and the first thought that popped into my mind—after showing proper concern for my coworker, of course—was to give my fairy tale story a spin.
At the time I wrote the story, I wasn’t a fan of the fairy tale narration. I didn’t like reading it and I didn’t like writing it. I’m still not a big fan of a lot of the story’s voice, but finally sitting down and writing a fairy tale piece taught me appreciation of it.
I’m still not sure if I like the ending or not. There’s a fine line between chilling and cheesy and I’m not sure which side I’m on.
Modestine was aware of the gap in her memory, the section of consciousness that was removed and two separate events seamlessly spliced together in a non-jarring, dream jump-cut fashion.
The first partial memory was of Modestine stepping out of the shower. Her petite foot missed the rubberized shower mat by inches and instead slid along the wet tiled floor. Her vision shifted up toward the ceiling and her eyes locked on the one hundred watt energy saving fluorescent light bulb. The next instant, at the point of the splice, she found herself standing inside a pair of pearlescent gates, as patient as the lamb she was in life.
She was dead, of this there was no doubt. There was also no cause for alarm. She had no memory of either fear, pain or the precise moment of her death. That was the portion that was mercifully removed from her awareness, no doubt to aid in her acceptance of events.
Modestine watched the hubbub of nervous yet joyous chatter and a flurry of feathers as angels tested their wings in the air above her. They flew from structure to structure — she hesitated thinking of the impossibly tall spires as buildings because their various shapes defied her limited perceptions of architecture — getting the lay of the land. Though no one told her, she somehow knew this commotion was normal for the first day of new arrivals in heaven.
While she waited, Modestine’s eyes drifted over to an ornate pulpit offset to the right of the gates. This, she assumed, was where the welcoming saint was supposed to have been stationed, but Peter was nowhere in sight. She noticed a few pages had fallen from the ledger on the pulpit, so she spent a little of the time laying the leafs out, deciding the order they should go in, and locating the exact spots in the book they had fallen from.
Finally, an angel arrived, tall and thin with black horn-rimmed eyeglasses he no longer needed. A remnant of his physical life that he clung to, a misconception that it was a permanent part of his appearance. A trapping that would fade in time. This was yet another thing Modestine had known without being told.
The glasses made the angel look bookwormish and out of place in their surroundings. Then she felt guilty for judging his appearance. Who was she to do this? She, who had always been short and mousy in the physical world, what her mother affectionately called the uns — undertall and unassuming. She wondered what she looked like to him and if the same rules of beauty still applied here.
“Hi, I’m Modestine.” she offered a hand and a smile simultaneously.
Bookworm eyed her head to toe and back to head again, before taking her hand for two firm pumps. He opened his mouth and let out a high-pitched screeching noise, intense enough to rock her celestial molars.
Modestine, who graduated magna cum laude in never let ’em see you sweat university, replied, “Pleased to meet you…” and she tried her best to match the noise he made… but came up a little short. A lot short, actually.
Bookworm let out a burst of short laughs like a semi-automatic weapon. “Just messing with you. My name’s Phil. Welcome to Heaven!”
Modestine didn’t really get the joke but smiled anyway. “Are you here to give me the guided tour?” she asked.
“Heavens no,” Phil replied. “That’ll come later, once all this dies down. Saint Peter sends his apologies, by the way…”
“Oh, that’s no problem at all.”
“I’m here to take you to class.”
“Oh, okay.” Modestine followed behind Phil, a little unsteady on her wings, but through sheer determination managed to keep up.
Phil led her past fields of flora and fauna, the likes of which she could never have dreamed existed and finally into a structure that housed a vast amphitheater that was unmistakably set up like a classroom. Packed to capacity, its seats were filled with the most grotesque and vile creatures imaginable.
“Here you are.” Phil gestured in the direction of the amphitheater and was about to fly off.
“Wait! Wait!” Modestine caught his forearm and pulled him down to eye level. “Where do I sit?”
“At the podium, where else?” Even in Heaven, the duh look had a sting.
“Don’t tell me no one let you know?” Phil looked at the class with his best can you believe some people look. “You’re a teacher, right? Or were, before, you know…”
“Well…” Phil swept his arm in the direction of the class as if to answer.
“Oh, no… no way. I’m not qualified for this. I barely know what I’m doing here.”
“It’ll come to you as you need. Heaven’s cool that way.”
“But, this class…” Modestine whispered. “Not to be rude but what are they?”
“Our version of underprivileged students. They’re bussed in every day.”
“We tend not to use that term in front of the students. We call it The Basement.” Phil checked the invisible watch on his bare wrist. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve gotta run. Too many new recruits and not enough ushers. You’ll be great. I’ve got a feeling about you.” he smiled and shot into the sky, leaving Modestine’s jaw swinging on its hinges.
The once and now future teacher straightened out her ethereal robe, cleared her throat, turned and faced the class. “Pleased to meet you, class. My name is Modestine. Welcome to Introduction to Heaven.” The name she took off the lesson booklet on the podium. The completely blank lesson booklet. Beside it was the roster. “Hopefully you’re all in your assigned seats because it’s the only way I’m going to learn your names with a class this size.”
Modestine went through the attendance sheet and called her students one by one, each responding with a grunt or bodily noise that she assumed translated as “Present!” When she completed her check, surprisingly every student sat quietly or whispered inaudibly to their neighbor.
“Well, class, as some of you might have figured out, I’m new here, but don’t let that stop you from asking questions. My goal is to teach you everything about heaven, which means I’ll be learning it as you do, and if I don’t know an answer to your question, I’ll do my best to find out as quickly as possible. Today, though, I’m going to outline my expectations of you, and how you’ll be graded.”
The time passed swifter than Modestine had anticipated. Quite frankly she was surprised to be aware of the passing of time at all. For the most part, her students were orderly. A few class clowns, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d straighten them out before the course was over.
The entire class watched her closely, she never felt so scrutinized before, and a good deal of the period was spent answering questions about Earth. It wasn’t long before she realized these students were born in Hell and Earth was like some mythical place to them. When the earth questions began dying down, she introduced several icebreaking games before the class broke for recess.
As the class filed out of the amphitheater, some by flight, a few in a puff of eye-watering brimstone, and the rest on cloven feet, one student hung back.
“Miss Modestine,” the young demon said when all the others had left.
“Just Modestine, and, yes… ?” she searched the attendance sheet for the section he came from, hoping one of the names would jog her memory.
The demon shook his head. “You won’t find me on your list. I’m not one of your students.”
“You’re not? Then who… ?”
“Many names have I, from those who live and those who die, but for you, I wish to be known as Mister Thatch.”
Modestine frowned, looking down at this creature who straighten itself in an odd regality. “All right, Mr. Thatch… what is it you want?”
Thatch pulled a file folder from seemingly nowhere and opened it. “Interesting session today. I’m assuming you taught the class off the cuff, as I am unable to identify any of what was discussed in the pre-approved syllabus, correct?”
“As I stated at the beginning of class, this assignment was thrust upon me at the last moment, so if you have any objections…”
“No, please, you mistake my meaning. I’m not here to condemn you, I was simply assessing your performance. It’s what I was hired to do.”
“Your superiors would call them Basement Management.”
“And do my superiors know you’re here?”
“They should. It would make for a shoddy operation if they didn’t. Now, as to my assessment,” he pulled a document from his folder, stapled in the top left-hand corner. “Here is an offer from my employers for you to teach your course to a larger audience of underprivileged students. Please study it carefully and feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please be aware that agreement to the terms as stipulated in the contract will require you to abandon your post here. Out of curiosity, are you willing to relocate?”
Modestine stared dumbstruck at the professionally worded document in her hands. An immediate and instant “No” rested on the tip of her tongue but never quite made it past her lips, because, in her quick scan, she found a list of perks that tickled each and every one of her many interests, as any temptation worth its salt should have done.
“I’ll need to read this more closely, Mr. Thatch, before I can respond, of course.”
“Of course. I think you’ll find the compensation quite reasonable. If you have questions, you may ask me at any time. We have high expectations and we’re positive you can fulfill them, Miss Modestine.”
“Just Modestine, and why me?”
“You’re new and, as yet, unjaded by the caste system. We look forward to working with you.” Thatch held out a hand, which Modestine took. It was remarkably soft, despite its texture. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Modestine watched as the demon simply evaporated from the room. She looked at the contract. Am I willing to relocate? she asked herself as she walked over to her desk, sat and read the agreement more thoroughly. Again, she found it difficult to verbalize the word “No”. Chiefly because she loved working with underprivileged students and they didn’t come more disadvantaged than the denizens of The Basement. The second reason was she’d always preferred warmer climates and there was an odd constant chill to the air in Heaven.
Dean wondered how long it had been since death set in? Had it actually mattered anymore? Of what relevance was time to the deceased? Especially when there were other niggling concerns such as not being able to move a single inch in any given direction, trapped within a decaying coffin of flesh. That was the toughest adjustment to contend with. And what was the explanation? What answers could he have offered himself this night, the last of his life, the first of his death, in the wee slight moments after the coil of mortality had been sufficiently shuffled off and he lingered in the strangled silence of limbo while the haunts of regrets past swooped down like raptors from on high?
There wasn’t only the matter of kidnapping and molestation, as if he could have simply left it at that. There were also the mutilations, amputations, beheadings, and cannibalism that needed to be addressed. All sorts of mental distractions that, in the short run, served as curative methods to hush the whispers that shouted malevolence into the folds of his brain. Dean explored them all as he was never quite sure how much of which activity would have been necessary to ground him back down to normalcy.
There was also the presence of the obfuscation demons who frolicked in public places, daring the rest of society to gaze upon their putrescence, that forever clung to Dean’s flesh and flashed serrated toothed smiles from their insatiable maws, fingers tapping, awaiting the next feast. One million beasts ever at the ready, awaiting a sign or signal from him that the carnage that fueled their existence was about to begin.
Go on, they prompted, we understand what you need to do. We won’t judge you because we understand how difficult it was to treat meat with dignity. We can see it all so clearly from where we are.
They made it seem so obvious to Dean. Just one nudge at the right moment in the right direction. One glimmer of hope that the nightmares would end and he would find peace at last. One suggestion from the proper imp who offered him the precise piece of the puzzle that was needed in order to view the larger picture.
Pick your targets, that’s the ticket. The demons advised. Start small.Tiny murders can be done, they’re done all the time. Success stories abound. We can read you a list. Start today with a little ‘un and keep your focus there. Lay down a simple execution that you’re happy with. A death can be executed a thousand ways and despite how clairvoyant you think you are, you can’t predict the pleasure you’ll derive from adding this exciting little twist in the structure of your average day.
And of course, you can kill anytime. Why don’t you kill? You never kill when you get like this. Why don’t you just kill? It’s not a burden, not at all. Not killing is the burden, don’t you see? Look what happens when you don’t kill. We get to this point of crisis where nothing works. It all gets broken like a skull shattered with the claw end of a hammer and you can’t reach down to gather up all the skull fragments because you’re holding your grey matter inside your head and we’re saying let’s stop the skull from shattering in the first place. We can turn the hammer away from you and swing the claw end at someone else. But you have to help out on your end and let us know you’re reaching for the hammer.
And eventually, we’ll get to a place where you don’t take every godforsaken murder you commit personally. It’s not always about you and where your soul will visit when you die and you’re making these assumptions and it creates all this drama. All the outbursts, then the realization that what you’re doing serves the greater good, then the embarrassment from the remorse and the humiliation from the shame.An endless tug of war needlessly played against yourself until you just feel tortured about feeling tortured. And you see this as somehow easier than slitting a random throat for our bounty?
Perhaps what troubles you is you don’t believe that our words, our cause has merit. Fair play. Why should you trust the imps? We’ve never trusted anyone’s word. We’ve never followed a single command that anyone has given. And who has really? Is that ever how it’s done once you’ve been blessed with the gift of free will? The heart wants what it wants and who can deny it? What does yours want?
That was the question that ran through Dean’s mind. What did his heart want? Love? What good was that? Even if it wasn’t too late, what would it matter if the whole world lined up to love him if there was no penetration? Knowing what the heart wanted would be an unsolved mystery that would plague him in the grave.
And he would have eternity to hunt for clues. As the imps who turned on him abandoned him and found another, who in turn slaughtered Dean in much the same manner that he himself had killed so many others.
His soul should have wept as the demons tore into his flesh, but the truth of the matter was he finally had something to occupy his mind.
And that was the grace he found in death. The peace to deconstruct an unsolvable mystery.
I opened the apartment door performing my famous grocery juggling act, organic cotton bags of the heavier items in each hand with two more sacks containing lighter stuff dangling off my wrists. I could have pulled out the shopping cart and saved myself the hassle of lugging the load from the supermarket, true, but the building’s elevator was on the fritz yet again and I didn’t relish the thought of pulling my arms out of their sockets by dragging the cart up seven flights of stairs one agonizingly slow step at a time. Slamming the front door shut with my heel, I went to the kitchen and flicked the light switch with my nose—and nearly dropped the bags.
There was someone standing in the kitchen.
My husband was at work and Katy was watching my daughter so the apartment was supposed to be empty but there this stranger stood. Terror trapped the scream in my throat and locked my legs rigid. I walked in on a robbery and now there was a very distinct possibility that I was going to die. And even if the burglar didn’t kill me, I wouldn’t be able to identify him. I was born with a visual processing disorder where I wasn’t able to differentiate between certain shapes, letters, small details and facial features. Therapy helped me learn a unique way of processing visual information so it was manageable except during anxiety attacks or when I encountered a sudden visual shock.
The man in my kitchen–I assumed it was a man because the blob was taller and broader than me–appeared to me as nothing more than a silhouette, a thing that didn’t compute, that didn’t make sense because he wasn’t supposed to be here. Still rooted to the spot, unable to move, I tried to calm myself, to focus, so that if I managed to survive I could give the police some sort of description.
And slowly I began assembling and rearranging bits of visual fragments. It was a man. His back was to me. He was standing in front of the under-cabinet mounted microwave, his hands picking at something that sounded like plastic. Then the puzzle pieces fit into place and I knew this man by his brown comb-over with its deep part, the slump of his shoulders in the navy pea coat.
“Caleb! Oh, my friggin’ God! What the hell are you doing lurking in the kitchen in the dark like that? You almost scared the living daylights out of me!” The tension flooded from my body and I was suddenly aware of the weight of the groceries that nearly slipped from my hands as I stumbled to set them on the kitchen table.
“I thought you were a burglar about to kill me or something! What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at work?” I demanded.
“Sorry about that, babe, I should have called,” Caleb said. He was about to put a small bag of pork pot stickers in the microwave but set the plastic pouch back on the counter. He didn’t turn around.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
“I have to tell you something,” he said and I didn’t like the sound of his voice.
“What something and why won’t you turn around and look at me?” I asked but my heart was hammering in my chest because all I could imagine was that he was going to admit he was cheating on me. All those long hours when he was supposed to be at work–
“It’s about the job.”
It almost didn’t register because I was preparing myself for the worst. When it finally sank in I let out a sigh of relief but caught myself. “Did you get fired?” That was something that absolutely positively could not happen now, not with Elizangela going back to school next month.
“Worse than that, I’m afraid.”
“What’s worse than getting fired?” I asked. After being frightened half to death, the needle on my patience gauge was swiftly approaching the big red E.
“I got–” Caleb swung around and smiled that fantastic smile of his, the one that made the butterflies flutter in my stomach. “Promoted!”
I could feel my eyes going wide. “No friggin’ way!”
“Yes friggin’ way,” said Caleb and he was on me before I knew it, sweeping me off my feet in that wonderfully secure bear hug of his. “And it comes with a hefty, hefty, hefty salary bump!”
I went rigid in his arms. “Wait a minute. Three hefties? Either you’re exaggerating or that’s a lot of money. Don’t get me wrong, honey, I’m not saying you don’t work hard and deserve every penny of it but what’s the catch?”
Caleb set me down gently. “It isn’t like that, babe, there’s no catch. Not really.”
“I knew it. Spill.”
“Built into the pay raise is an insane relocation fee–“
Caleb nodded and continued, “If I can manage to move house and start work by the fifteenth.”
“The fifteenth? That’s only a week away!”
“I know but we’ve always been the #ChallengeAccepted type,” he smiled again but I wasn’t having any of it this go-round.
“Relocate to where?”
“Fort Wayne, Indiana,” he said under his breath.
“Who-what-where? What the hell is in Fort Wayne, Indiana?”
“I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff but the biggest attraction is the relocation fee could cover the cost of our first house. Our. First. House. Our dollar would go a long way and we could spend more of it on Liza to make sure she gets the best of everything, things we can’t afford to give her in New York. Where is she, by the way?”
“With my sister, it’s easier to do the shopping with her preoccupied.” Elizangela was at the Ooo, Mommy, can we please get this? stage in her development which was okay for the leisurely stroll through shops but not so great on the money-is-tight necessity runs.
I looked at him for a long moment. He’d have had to know about this for a while now but he kept it from me even though we made a no-secrets pact and if I brought this up he’d hand me some line about not wanting to jinx the promotion and I’d be upset but I’d know he was telling the truth because he was a big believer in the almighty jinx.
My first instinct was to say no, to fight him tooth and nail, all because he hadn’t consulted me on this enormously life-changing decision. But that would have been petty. Yeah, my feelings were hurt but it would be our first house, something we’d been talking about for years. And a better life for our daughter? I’d be a heinous-monster-worst-mother-on-the-planet if I didn’t set my wounded pride aside and at least consider it. So, I did.
“Okay?” he asked.
“Okay, let’s do it,” I shrugged.
“Are you serious? I can tell my boss yes?”
“You didn’t accept it already?”
“Of course not, not without checking with you first.”
I gave him a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek before leaning in to whisper in his ear, “You big, stupid idiot! I love you, sometimes, you know that?”
Thanks to the internet, finding a house, even one that was seven hundred and forty-seven miles driving distance away was a piece of cake. The hardest part? Ignoring the common sense warnings from our parents and friends who thought our decision was rash, something we’d done because we were bored. But in the end, it was our choice to make and if they still hadn’t liked it after we explained the situation to them, they could just go ahead and lump it.
Online, we managed to locate a real estate agent who understood our situation and was willing to work with us in finding a fixer-upper in our price range, getting the house appraised and coordinating the paperwork so we could close the sale in five days, skipping the entire mortgage credit process by paying in cash.
Elizangela was the biggest shock in the relocating process. I’d have bet my eyeteeth that she would have kicked up a storm having to leave Queens and all her friends behind but Caleb cleverly presented the idea using Duck Tales, her favorite tv show, as an analogy.
“We might solve a mystery?” Elizangela asked, face full of childish hope.
“Or rewrite history,” Caleb answered and joined her in singing the show’s catchy theme song.
And like that, our daughter was sold on the idea and helped pack all her things with nary a complaint. My only complaint? We decided it was cheaper to drive, though it added five hours or so to the trip which Caleb and I took turns behind the wheel of the rental so there was no problem there, it was Elizangela singing the once adorable but now monotonous Duck Tales theme song on a loop for most of the time she was awake that began grating on my nerves.
Our new home pretty much matched the virtual tour we took on the realtor’s website. It was indeed a fixer-upper and would probably take the better part of a year before all the repairs could be completed. The outside was another story entirely. The front lawn was a respectable size, enough for me to create a nice vegetable garden, but the backyard was massive and overgrown to the point I thought we’d have to buy a couple of machetes, like in those old safari films, to hack the tall grass down to a mowable size. The plan was to tame the savage land and maybe build a grilling deck for our eventual summer barbeques and a playset for Elizangela to go on her Duck Tales adventures in and maybe entice some of the neighborhood kids to come over so she could make some new friends. Those plans all changed the moment we came across the graveyard.
I was on Caleb the moment he stepped into the house after work. “Do you want to know why this house was so cheap?”
“It’s a fixer-upper,” he answered, confused and a little more than slightly uncomfortable at the proximity of my face to his own. “We both knew that going into this. Why is it a big deal all of a sudden?”
“It’s not the repairs, Caleb Allen Mitchell,” I whisper-screamed. Even though I was on the verge of hysteria I was mindful not to upset Elizangela who was upstairs playing in her room. “It’s the friggin graveyard sitting smack dab in the middle of our backyard!”
“Graveyard? Did the previous owner bury a pet or something?”
“Pet? There are twelve graves with headstones out back! That’s not a memorial for poor, dead Fluffy, it’s a creepy-as-hell-honest-to-goodness graveyard!”
“Okay, calm down. Let me check it out,” he said trying not to sound skeptical and doing a lousy job at it.
I marched–it was more of an angry stomp-walk that seemed to me at the time to be childish but I couldn’t help myself–him down the foyer, past the living room, through the kitchen and flung the back door wide.
“Tell me I’m overreacting,” I said gesturing at the tombstones.
Caleb trudged over the carpet of tall grass that I spent the better part of the day attacking with the weed wacker and knelt beside the closest headstone.
“These are pretty old,” he said, running his fingers over the cracked surface of the crumbling stone. “The inscriptions aren’t even legible anymore, most likely due to acid rain which means they’re probably made of calcite.”
“How do you know so much about headstones?”
“My dad,” Caleb answered. “My gran died when I was little and I was terrified of the cemetery when we buried her so my dad took me on walking tours of graveyards and told me the truth about what happens when we die and why funerals were important. Sometimes we’d just marvel at the tombstone designs and he could tell what they were made from just by looking at them. Some fathers and sons had sports, me and my dad had graveyards. That may seem pretty morbid to you, but those were some of the best memories of my dad. It was just us guys and he would talk to me like a man.”
“I think it’s kind of sweet in a weird way,” I said and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah, Dad’s always been pretty unconventional,” Caleb patted my hand, stood and dug the cellphone from his pocket. He made several calls, the first being to the realtor who sold us the house. I had to admit, he was a good deal calmer and damn sure more polite than I would have been had the roles been reversed.
“No, this is not a crank call,” Caleb said into the phone. “Yes, there are twelve headstones. No, they’re really old, the information on them has been worn. No, I have not dug them up to confirm the existence of dead bodies. How do I know it is a graveyard? The headstones I just mentioned are giving me a strong indication that someone interred their dead beneath them. I can snap a couple of pics and send them to you if you’d like.”
Believe it or not, he had to repeat those answers several times to several different departments and organizations and what we learned was there was not going to be a swift resolution to our problem.
First, we had to contact the Historic Preservation Office to see if the land our house was built on was a former cemetery. Luckily for us, it wasn’t. Nor was there a family plot permit on record with the town Zoning Commission or approval from the state Department of Health.
We were informed there was a possibility the gravestones had been discarded. As creepy as it sounded, some people saw the value of the stones as building materials, but our stones–I didn’t like the fact that Caleb acknowledged ownership when speaking on the phone or that I had come to refer to them in the same manner–were out in the open and not used as part of our house’s foundation. The other suggestion offered was the previous owners might have thought they made for cool conversation pieces during backyard barbeques. Since the only way we could have verified this was to dig up one of the graves ourselves–and there was no way in hell we were going to do that–we contacted the police.
To make a long story short, let’s just say the grave markers weren’t for show. Each stone did indeed contain a coffin in which were human remains. When the medical examiners arrived with the local tv station reporters and camera crew, our internet-folly-first-house became a tabloid story and possible crime scene.
A forensic anthropologist was brought in to examine the human remains to establish the identity, or if that was not possible, at least the age, sex, number of individuals present, and other facts. Once it was established that the remains were not part of a crime scene they were turned over to a local cemetery for reburial.
Then we were contacted by the Registrar of Cemeteries and told about the Funeral Burial and Cremations Services Act, which made it our responsibility to fix the problem. Because some grieving or possibly idiotic person chose to bury their dead in the backyard and the realtors hadn’t bothered to check the tall grass behind the house, we had to foot the bill for either reinterring at another site or cremating the remains–hell, let’s just call them what they were, bones–at a price tag that ranged between $500 and $1,000 per body.
That was when I went lawyer shopping, even though the realtor assured us, “The situation can be worked out amicably.” Amicably meant they might accept partial financial responsibility for a clerical oversight. My aim was to make them pay entirely for their screw up with a little extra for the obvious emotional distress. I played that distress up on camera the day I discovered a newspaper reporter lurking outside my daughter’s school waiting to ambush the both of us for an interview.
During the entire ordeal, Elizangela was grace under fire. She got that from her dad. She was full of questions, though, and we answered them as truthfully as we could. The graveyard forced us to introduce the concept of death sooner than we wanted to and she struggled with the same concepts I struggled with when my parents had the talk with me.
“Death is permanent,” Caleb said. “Do you know what permanent means?”
Elizangela shook her head and her bangs danced in front of her eyes.
“It means forever, honey,” I said, taking her tiny hand in mine. “It means once you die, you go away and never come back.”
“You mean move? Like we did from our old home to our new home?”
Calen shook his head slowly. “No, Liza, when a person dies, that means their body stops working. Their heart doesn’t beat anymore, they don’t need to eat or sleep, and they don’t feel any pain ever again. They leave their body because they don’t need it anymore.”
“But that’s other people, not us, right?” Elizangela asked.
What followed was a very long, extremely exhausting everything that is alive eventually dies conversation that ended with our baby saying, “Oh.” No tears, no hysterics, no subsequent nightmares or follow up questions. Just, “Oh.”
After a month or so of avoiding the backyard after the police concluded their business and things in the neighborhood began returning to normal, Caleb and I revisited plans to spruce up the area behind the house. The first order of business was filling in the former graves.
The problem was they wouldn’t stay filled.
The dirt shoveled into the holes the day before appeared by the graves the very next day. Not all the dirt, mind you, but enough to make noticeable piles. I didn’t want to worry Caleb about it, he had too much on his plate as it was with the new position and following up on our lawsuit with the realtor and tracking down the previous owners of the house, so I shoveled the dirt back in and never mentioned a word to my husband. But the following morning, sure as bread fell butter-side down, there the dirt would be in neat little piles.
We had gotten to know all our neighbors pretty well, especially after the tv news coverage put our area in the spotlight longer than most of the residents were comfortable with, but the neighbors to our immediate left, Hannelore and Sean Bogatz were two of the kindest people that ever set foot on God’s green earth. I spotted Hannelore–Hannie, to her friends–one morning when we were both retrieving the morning paper from our front lawns. During casual conversation, I mentioned the grave issue.
“It just boggles the mind why anyone would sneak onto our property and dig up the graves after we fill them? I’d write it off as an animal or something but the dirt is always piled up so neatly.”
“Well,” Hannie shrugged. “It could be kids up to a little mischief they consider to be fun or funny and if you’re leaning toward that way of thinking, I’d take a good look at those Woods boys, always up to no good. Sean and I had a run in with them a little while back that ended the moment we spoke to their parents. Strict as Irish priests in the seminary, Michael and Ella are.”
I had half a mind to pay Michael and Ella Woods a visit but what would that accomplish, accusing their sons with no real evidence? Which meant I needed to gather some. So, later on, after I put the day’s affairs in order, I took a midday nap before I needed to pick Elizangela up from school and while she was up in her room, I quickly refilled the holes in the backyard–more scraping dirt into the open former graves than actual shoveling.
It was hard concentrating on conversations during dinner and the board game during family time because I wanted nothing more than to go out back and patrol the yard. But that had to wait until Elizangela had been put to bed and Caleb’s deep breathing turned into a light snore.
Sliding out of bed slowly and lifting my smartphone off the nightstand, I stepped as silent as I could manage, trying to remember where the creaking boards were located on the hardwood floor, and crept out of the bedroom and downstairs to the kitchen.
The casement window gave me the perfect vantage point to see out over the entire garden and one of the backless saddle stools we used for the kitchen island was the perfect sitting height for me to rest my elbows on the counter beside the sink. Earlier today I downloaded a night vision app–that was actually capable of capturing images at night, not the fake ones that simply inverted daylight images with a green overlay–on my phone in preparation for the stakeout. Not only was I determined to catch the culprit, I was also willing to sit up all night if need be.
I activated the night vision and turned the phone’s camera lens slowly, sweeping the yard. There was movement! Not a body, but dirt flying out of the hole nearest the house! I hopped off the stool, made a beeline to the kitchen door that led to the backyard–and it was unlocked? Had Caleb missed it when he made his nightly rounds securing the windows and doors? It hadn’t seemed likely. We were both native New Yorkers, Caleb represented Queens and I was raised out in Brooklyn, just like the lyrics of that LL Cool J song, and we never went to bed without making sure the house was secured.
Never mind, I would deal with that later. Now, I was racing across the cool grass and ignoring the pain in the soles of my feet as I pushed pebbles and pointy stones into the earth, on my way to gather evidence I could show Michael and Ella about their boys.
I stopped at the edge of the hole and snapped a picture. “I’ve got you now, you little shi–” It wasn’t the Woods boys.
Elizangela knelt in the center of the hole, nightgown pulled up above her knees, dirt cupped in her small hands.
“Liza, why are you playing in the–” I nearly said grave but caught myself and changed it to, “hole? It’s the middle of the night, honey!” Elizangela became upset and started to cry. Was it because I startled her, or made her feel she had been caught doing a bad thing?
I climbed into the (grave) hole and wrapped my arms around my daughter. I held her in silence until sobs waned to tears that quieted down to the occasional shudder.
“It’s okay, sweetheart. I just want to know what you’re doing and why you felt you had to sneak around at nighttime instead of just telling me?”
I thought Elizangela was so distraught that she couldn’t answer my question but after a long silence, she said, “Because you and Daddy said we shouldn’t tell secrets.”
“Secrets? Whose secrets are you keeping? Did your daddy tell you a secret?” I became suddenly afraid of what her answer might be, but she shook her head.
“I can’t tell you. I’m so sorry, Mommy,” Elizangela paused and asked, “Do you still love me?”
I was floored by the question. I cupped her small face in my hands and wanted desperately to say something definitive, something that would stick within her always so she never felt the need to ask that question ever again.
“Of course I do,” I answered. “I’ll always love you, Liza, no matter what.” And I meant it but it came out too quickly, sounded too rehearsed, too much like a pat answer.
“Maybe,” Elizangela started, careful not to look at me. “Maybe it’d be okay to tell if I asked them.”
I was about to ask her who they were but she began talking out loud in a funny voice, one I would never have recognized as coming from my daughter. At first, I thought she was talking to herself then I realized she was asking questions to the dirt walls surrounding us, reasoning with them, before she made her request.
My daughter smiled, finally making eye contact. “They said okay.”
“Who said–” I started and then a door opened in my vision, a door that has been hidden in plain sight, most likely for the entirety of my life. A door that could have been responsible for my visual processing disorder. From the doorway emerged ghosts of all ages shapes and sizes. Some of the older spirits carried the essences of babies that perhaps weren’t alive long enough to develop physical bodies.
They spoke to me but not in words. Images flooded my mind, of light and darkness, of peace and violence, each of them a history being forced into my mind, faster and faster until they became a subliminal blur.
Out the corner of my eye, I saw black ink bleed from the grave walls and swirl around me and I was suddenly caught up in a tornado of black. I lost sight of Elizangela and tried to call out to her but my jaw was clamped tight as if it had been wired shut. Electrical pulses shot through my body and deadened my nerve endings. I couldn’t catch my breath as my vision started to slowly fade out.
I found myself in that ethereal realm that occupied the space between dreaming and consciousness and in that space I wasn’t me. Though I couldn’t see myself, I knew that I was in another body, or better yet, bodies, twelve to be exact. The same as the number of graves. I was in twelve different places as twelve different people living twelve different lives at the same time. The histories that had been forced upon me in moments? days? years? ago now made sense. I understood these people. I knew who they were, knew their struggles, their loves, their pain, their inevitable fates and more to the point, I knew their names.
The information burned itself into my memory as I lost my footing in the intangible nirvana and slipped toward the harsh reality of the waking world. When I came to my senses, my head was resting on my daughter’s lap and she was stroking my hair the very same way I’d done to her so many times before.
“It’s only like that the first time, Mommy,” she said, smiling in that way that always reminded me of Caleb.
I sat up in the grave. There was no escaping the cold that seeped into my bones and settled in the marrow. Everything felt wrong, not just the cold. There were foreign sounds in my head, voices that weren’t my own, too loud, too busy when all I wanted was a bit of silence, some time to sort things out. And there would be time but it would come later.
I focused on Elizangela with a desperation I hadn’t felt since the day she was born, when I was afraid I knew nothing about being a mother. But my daughter’s eyes were calm and wise. Without saying a word, she told me she knew.
And now I knew, too. The bodies belonged here, it was their land first. They needed to be returned, needed to have their grave markers restored with their names and information to mark their forgotten existence on the planet. Once that was done, they could finally move on.
Now all I had to do was convince Caleb which meant I’d have to give my father-in-law a call for some pointers.
Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. —- Theodore Roosevelt
The act of bollocksing it up, getting it all wrong and falling flat on your literary face is the worst, most evil thing that can be thrust upon the fragile ego of a creative person. No writer ever wants to be standing hip-deep in a congealing bucket of epically proportioned failure. Not only does it cling to you, branding you with the scarlet letter of incompetence, but the fumes from it seep into your pores and attack your confidence, enthusiasm and self esteem.
And even worse than failing? Atychiphobia:
From the Greek phóbos, meaning “fear” or “morbid fear” and atyches meaning “unfortunate” atychiphobia is the abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failure, often leading to a constricted lifestyle, and is particularly devastating for its effects on a person’s willingness to attempt certain activities.
But “fear of” is getting kicked to the curb in this post because—if you haven’t sussed it from the title—I’m actually advocating for failure, which in my insolent opinion, gets a bad rap.
When you first begin to write for an audience, or writing in a genre that’s new to you, or in a different format, etc., your first attempts will most likely not be optimal. No two ways about it. No getting around it. Why? Because your life isn’t a movie, wunderkind wasn’t conveniently inserted into your backstory, and greatness isn’t DNA-encodable at this point in time, it still has to be strived for.
You. Will. Fail. Fail to connect with your audience. Fail to notice logic issues in your plot easily spotted by a reader. Fail to end a story properly (if you even complete it at all). Fail in your use of words to convey the intended images. Fail to make a sale. Fail to impress your literary heroes. Fail to please everyone (always), the majority (on occasion), and anyone (trust me, it happens).
The only surefire way to avoid writing failure is to either never commit your ideas to paper–let them swirl around in the magical kingdom of your imagination, living their Peter Pan existence, as you vegetate in front of the TV–or never put your writing out into the world. If either of these sound like a viable solution, good on you and go for it. I’m not here to judge.
If, however, you’re not satisfied with letting ideas fester in your gray matter as you wait for the opportunity to unleash your genius in that perfect moment that never ever seems to swing around your way, you’ll need to look disappointment square in the eye and accept the fact that the outcome of your writing endeavors will not always line up with your expectations.
And though I’m not here to judge, should you actually consider never committing your ideas to paper, one possible adverse effect is that idea can metamorphosize into a bloated squatter that takes up an unnecessary amount of mind space, thereby blocking the arrival of new ideas. If it were me, I’d serve it an eviction notice and make way for a new tenant. But that’s just me. Still no judgements.
Once you’ve wrapped your noggin around the simple truth that you will fail and have given up feeling hopeless, weak, and belittling both yourself and your talents, you’re finally ready to accept the fact that failure plays a very important, incredibly positive role in your writing life. In fact it offers you a chance to grow and learn.
The first step in learning how failure breeds success is to let yourself fail a few times. Experience it in it’s totality. When you discover that it does not, in fact, destroy you, feel free to brush yourself off and climb back on the horse. All successful writers have experienced failure (and a great deal of the time the success/fail ratio favors the negative) but what made them successful is they weren’t afraid to fail and if they did, they just learned from their mistakes and moved on. They didn’t allow themselves to be defeated by rejection, hurt or disappointment.
There will be those of you who poo-poo (yeah, I said poo-poo, deal with it) the notion of getting accustomed to failure because you personally know someone whose first ever novel made the bestsellers list, whose first draft screenplay became a Hollywood blockbuster, whose tweets became a TV series, blah-blah-blech. There’s a professional name for that phenomenon. It’s called a miracle. Right place, right time, all the planets fall into alignment. This is great when/if it happens, but you shouldn’t factor it into your overall game plan. It’s akin to being dirt poor and signing the deed on a mansion just because you’re sure you’re gonna win the lottery.
Well, writing calls, so I must be off–I’m sure I’ll speak more on this topic in the future–but before I go, let me leave you with a list to help you on your way to palling up with failure:
Aida was awakened by the gamey scent of wet dog fur amalgamated with mildew, blood and rancid breath. Instinctively, she reached for her husband’s side of the bed to find it empty and soaked with sweat. She rose to sitting and once her eyes adjusted to the darkness, her hands flew to her mouth in order to stifle a scream. There was a figure crouched in the corner of the bedroom, half hidden in the black slashes of shadow. It was moulting from translucent skin and changing in the process into a thing that resembled no man or beast, like the stuff and nonsense creatures of fish wife tales, only it hadn’t occurred at the fall of dusk or when the full moon was at its apex. No, this transformation began at the hour of the wolf, when the stars faded into pitch and the sounds of nature were lulled into unnatural silence.
At first, Aida feared this changeling had devoured her husband but as it turned to look at her she noticed that its eyes belonged to Benjamin, the man she had loved before she knew what the word meant. It was those very same eyes that studied her now, and she thought she detected the creature’s internal struggle, being torn between a deep-rooted love and overpowering hunger as if it was trying to puzzle out how to satiate its appetite without breaking its own heart.
During a riot in Hell, a breakout occurs in which 666 souls escape to wreak havoc on Earth. Satan has his hands full restoring balance to his domain, so he makes a deal with the Plague Doctor, the Butcher Ghoul, and Grisanos the Griffin to track down the malevolent souls and return them all to Hell.
This design recreates the feel of classic comic book covers from the 1970s and is also available as art prints and other accessories, so why not browse my artist shop: https://maddfictional.threadless.com/ , pick yourself up a little something and help an old man out.
“Nothing will ever harm you when I am near,” Alethea said, her voice mild and her breath moist with the promise of spring laced with the potential of a budding romance.
“That is not true,” Calvin said. “This is all a trick to lure me into dropping my defenses.”
“You do not trust me?” the she-demon who wore the face of a human seemed genuinely injured by the remark. “Do you see me as the weak-minded do, as some sort of heathen monster?”
“I meant no offense, miss, believe me,” Calvin answered, backing away as slow as humanly possible for he was taught as a young lad that immortal beings take no notice of unhurried movements. “It is simply against my religious beliefs to engage in amorous congress with The Beast.”
“And there we have it,” Alethea said as her gaze slid off his innocent, blanched face. “The sad truth and the final nail in your coffin. Before I send you from this wretched thing you call existence, know one thing: I would have protected you with my life til my undying day had you only accepted me as I am. Now, however, I will feast on your flesh and bake my bread with your bones.”
I almost missed her visit. It was unannounced, unplanned, and unexpected, primarily because I did not believe in ghosts. Not that my belief system mattered for there it was, blending perfectly into the hiss of raindrops pelting the cobblestones outside. Her voice.
She called to me again and again until finally attracting my attention and I turned to see her, pressed against the window glass, lurking like a mist, water beading across her translucent face. I struggled to open the window but could not, wanted to run outside to touch her, to hold her but I was held in place by some unknown force.
It was then that Rosalyn patiently explained, around my unending barrage of questions, the rules of our engagement. We were now a couple united in sorrow and therefore she was only permitted to visit me when the rain fell on the anniversaries of our birthdays, our wedding, and today, the date of her untimely death.