THE EARTH HAS NO WITNESS
“Nothing new, Harry.”
“Weeds, rake, plus we have to deadhead the flowers. Nobody’s done that for a while and there’s not enough time for more. It doesn’t have to be spotless, just good enough for showings. Of course if it looks like something needs your help go right ahead. You know your stuff. As long as the beds look prettier by Friday, they’re happy, we’re happy.”
“We already ran the mower around the house—or we did until they told us not to. If we kill the moss back here there’s no way to get the lawn in shape, not fast anyway. Such a shame. You can tell it was nice. Somebody used to put in time. There are features you can’t see at first. Look at that statue spying on us. Creepy. We can’t use a blower.”
“The owner’s at home. The caregivers said he doesn’t like noises in the garden. He’s ninety and bad in the head. If the place is still on the market after he’s put wherever they put him, the trust might have us back to landscape.”
“Everything is in the shed. There’s water and snacks, too. You have the code. Make sure the gate’s shut at night. Call me if you need anything else. Oh, and there’s a feature tipped over back there. You can’t see it from the driveway. If you can’t get that standing up, I’ll ask Theresa to come out early to lend a hand. Please, don’t hurt your back.”
Off went Sue in her big Chevy truck, oak tree logo on the door. She was nice. Harry went straight to the shed. Inside were spades, shovels, a grape, rakes, a spud bar, a mattock, loppers, a trowel—new tools, mostly, brought in for the job, but some old and rusty and spun up in web. There were also flat packs of water, chips, nuts. He ate a candy. The lot was deep, with cedar fence astride the road and stake wire left and right. The house had a river view, snow caps bright as sun and green valley floor beyond. He could only see the roof above the plants. Birds sang to birds or to what birds could see.
To work, pawing with a rake. He would pretend at times but never go off task. Each bed had stones laid around it, and leaves made a heap alongside. Ants frenzied on the rock. To them a range had risen where none had been before—a second mountain view and much closer up. He began to pluck the wilted blooms and pull the weeds. Where dead weight came off the flowery plants stood taller, all the garden come alert.
Rhododendron, azalea, wild fern in clutches. Moss had spread, crowding out the grass, climbing trees, a good thick sort that let him kneel without the pads. Harry liked mosses best—the deeper green of them, the softness—but other people wanted grass because they could walk through without a trace. Blackberry had overrun some of the beds, the earth between shot with bramble. For those stems he put on thicker gloves. Close to the juniper he wondered why Sue did not like the statue nestled there, a girl of some angelic sort. Half the face had broken off, lichen scaling thick. Spy, Sue had said, but the remaining eye could not see at all and creepers chained it down.
A caregiver’s car came up the long driveway from the house. Harry smiled and raised a hand. The caregiver did not wave or even look. Music inside the car was loud enough to smack on the glass. Once gone the caregiver was no less gone from Harry’s mind.
Begonia, camellia, rays of thistle. Halfway through the work day he came in sight of what Sue had told him about. That part of the garden was hidden among the beds, more a secret. A pedestal birdbath—it had lain aside for long enough to sink partway into the ground. He put down the rake and hunkered down to try the heft. Closer to earth, he saw a bloom in the patch left bare—not a flower but stringy and dead.
Harry looked closer. Undone braid—old rope threaded with a black fiber. At a pinch the hemp came apart like dandelion fluff. Something about the look of it held his eye. When it rained earthworms came up. The rope end reminded him of that—that unhappy push for air. It showed to one side of the barren patch, the side opposite the tilt.
Back with a trowel.
The rope led straight down.
Back with a spade.
Underneath topsoil the mix was mostly sand, easy to shift and shovel, but Harry had to cut roots, layer on layer. The rope came up from below them. After two feet he widened out the hole, rolling sod so he could lay it back on neat. Fill went to the other side. The rope kept going, fraying as it led and blackening. He dragged the birdbath to the side and broadened the hole again. Past the width of the bowl where the bath had once stood the dirt was full of bone—hollow, fragile, a shallow layer all around. Some skulls were intact but paper thin. Songbirds—and so many—breaking like a dry foam.
The hole grew deep, and the rope took a bend. There were no more roots to cut. At most of a fathom the soil changed all at once—a rich black like the best compost, but it stank. There were no worms in it. Bad for growing, and Harry knew a change of color meant something was close. The dig slowed, spade put aside, fingers in a plow.
To skin, white and bare.
Harry puzzled at the sight. He touched the surface with a glove. The give was just like the flesh of his own arm. He scraped, found the outline, brushed back the dirt.
Shin. Ankle. A bare and slender foot. Past sight the caregiver’s car returned, popping gravel on the driveway beneath the thump of music. Quiet again. Harry took off a glove.
Cold as the ground around it, but the foot moved.
Someone was in trouble. He chucked soil to clear the hole. A lady, he saw in short time. Her lap took his sun hat so she would not feel stupid. The rope was wound about a leg from underneath, and at that depth the hemp was black all the way through. Harry saw that there were other fibers, too—clothes long in the sour ground, fallen to bits. There were loose buttons, a clasp, glimpsed and thrown. The movements of the foot had been slow, lazy, and now that they were dug free the legs did the same. Not struggle, but like coming out of sleep. Reaching the neck he saw that the rope had been anchored there. On a brush the knot fell away, rotten near to dust, but the skin kept a print of the braid. No bruise, no stain of black nor angry red, only white. He began to clear the face. The lady did not part her lips to speak or breathe. But when the cake fell off, the eyes came open just a crack. Her skin was so pale, white like a mushroom cap, and her eyes were full of grit. She would not be able to see. But Harry saw. The irises were a dull and pale yellow.
“Hi,” he said.
She did not speak but her eyes sought the voice. Her hair was dark with soil and long, unmade from an up-style. Beneath the dirt it was as pale as the rest, white on the outside and at the scalp the same dull yellow as the eyes. Color had bled underground. Harry had seen that before, how things long buried turned white. He freed her arms, pulling one from its pocket of dirt and then the other. She made no try to rise. She did not blink, nor even take a breath. All tired out, Harry saw. He felt bad for her. There was plenty of water in the shed. She would not take a drink, so he used his fingers to clean her mouth and face. A trickle at her eyes flushed out the dirt. She gave a wince.
“Sorry,” he said.
After that she could see and watched him with a drowsy interest. He put a hand to her shoulder to help her sit up. She was cold and tired so he kept the arm on her, even as her chest began to spasm. Out shot black dirt, a plug as long as her throat. Two gouts came from her nose, and the airway was clear. There was no cough or retch but Harry knew how nasty sour earth like that would taste. Bottle to mouth, she let a little water in. From either corner a thin mud ran. But soon the trickle cleared and there was a swallow, a deep breath. She did not take another for a long time. She did not seem to need the air but to try it—to choose it. After that breaths came steady, in and out with a slow work, each of them the same choice, and she could stay upright by herself. The dirt on her was drying, flaking off. Leaning back against the hole she never said a word. Nor did the stare on him ever quit.
Theresa came in the van. She always gave him rides when he was too far from a bus stop. She was nice, just like Sue. The van had the same tree but bigger than on the Chevy door. Theresa and Sue were best friends and shared a house.
“Harry, did you forget your coat? Want me to go back?”
“No,” Harry said. “I’m okay.”
The next morning she drove him out again. “What’s in the bag?” she asked early on. He showed her: sweat pants, a T-shirt, a hoodie, all clean and folded, plus a blanket. “Change of clothes? That’s good thinking. Sweaty work.” In his lunchbox he had an extra peanut butter sandwich and banana but Theresa had not asked him about that.
“Hi,” he said into the hole. Six bottled waters had been left in reach but none had been taken, nor any of the candy. His chore coat and his hat had been thrown a good distance out of the hole. She did not seem to need them, but neither did Harry. He had brought his ball cap and the morning was warm enough to go without more than his woolen shirt. It was funny that she was naked but Harry did not laugh. She had not looked at him yet and was down on her hands and knees. Her palms were pushing at the dirt, moving it around, fingers sifting. She could move quicker than the day before but was still cold and tired. Harry noticed the smell from the deep black earth. He had grown used to it the day before, crouched so near, but now it was sour in a way that almost hurt his nose. Soon he would have to cover it up again.
The dig had put Harry behind on his chore list. At lunchtime he would check on her, give her the sandwich and banana if she felt hungry. Lavender, dahlia, rafts of nettle. A still morning—no birds sang, and none had come down to browse the leaves he pulled out into the open. No ants, no worms. Harry had never seen that before. The quiet had a weight that made him feel sad. He did not know why. At his back he heard a caregiver’s car go down the drive, speakers pulsing with a tune, and even before it got halfway to the house the plants had drowned the music out.
At noon he took his lunchbox over. Coming close he set it down to stare. Ranks of bone were arrayed beside the hole. Little, so at first Harry thought more birds, but these were from deeper down and not so finely built. As he wondered her white hand came up to set down another shape. Harry saw baby teeth and the grownup row underneath that would never get a chance to sprout. After the jaw came the skull, round and eyeless. She set it down with a love and did not search again. Face to face, a motionless stance.
Harry took off his cap and felt tears well up. He heard a whisper—none of the words, none of the voice, just breath scraping out of her. “Sorry,” he said. When she raised her head she did not look to him. But enough features showed to frighten him. She was not sad. He was glad that face had not met his eye. Maybe she would feel better if he helped. Harry went to fetch a box. In the shed he had seen a wooden apple crate full of rusty paint cans. Not be the best resting place but the best he could give. He folded the blanket brought from home so that it would fit neatly inside, drape the edges—a cradle.
He brought it to the hole. She was not below or nearby. The closest bed had a straight line of broken plants in it, mown down with force and speed. He could see through to the next bed, where the same had happened, in the direction of the house.
Harry arranged the skeleton in the box—skull up top, jaw below it, then the ribs, the arm bones, the legs. He did not know all the right places but he did his best.
At the first shriek he stopped. Muted, but a woman’s voice. He stood up to look toward the house and listen. Another scream, much longer. A squeaking gag cut it short. Scared to move, Harry heard the caregiver’s car and turned to the driveway. There was no music behind the glass now but blood in a smear and on the handle outside the door. The car went fast and struck a gatepost hard enough to leap. The hood crumpled in and the caregiver’s head and shoulder came through the windshield. The gate leaf fell off its hinges. The engine died with a rattle. No more sound, no more movement.
Until the lady came back through the planter beds, knocking down branch and leaf, dragging a weight behind her. At first sight of blood Harry had sat down hard, so he had nowhere left to fall when he saw the old man in her cruel grip. She had him by an ankle and his foot hung wrong. His bedgown had come up around his shoulders to show all his withered body—the catheter, purple spots, bed sores. The dragging had torn up his fragile old skin, old and raw. His bawl twisted up his mouth but made no noise. Harry could not see the lady’s face in the hanging pale hair but knew what look it wore. He could feel it now, an anger unlike anger, an anger without limit. She threw the old man in the hole that Harry had dug out, just where she had lain. The old man had dug there first, long ago, and filled it up again. Harry heard sorrows at the bottom, no word said—a fright too awful for any word, a fright like his own. The lady moved too fast for Harry to see—so strong now. She had already gone to the far side of the fill. With a gust the mound fell back where it belonged—all the dirt thrown at once, to a deep thud—and a dust was settling.
Harry wept. She was already kneeling before him and he saw the anger up close. But it was not for him and had begun to soften. Right beside him was the cradle for the bones. Cold eyes bled of color looked to it, back to him. Her breath carried the reek of deeper ground, sour hell. But a hand touched his cheek.
When he opened his eyes she was gone, and the cradle. He heard brush crack, and again. Looking toward the house he saw that smoke was already coming off the roof. Gone home again, to a fire. Before the sirens came Harry crept back to the bare patch and began to lay on sod, rolling it neat with an expert hand, and even under smoke grown tall and black, birds sang once more, to each other or to what birds could see.