a short story by Ashley Morrow Hermsmeier
THE TOMBSTONE READS:
“Sis died, and you didn’t cry.”
I hit the raw earth with my shovel then pick my way around the others, back toward the house. The spadework has shot my posture right to Hell. Though, to be fair, my father used to call me Quasi and pinch the skin between my shoulder blades until I stood straight enough—so maybe it was never that great to begin. Either way, this is not how I planned to spend my golden years: digging and burying, redigging and reburying, but what choice do I have? Can’t exactly let Myself run around the neighborhood willy-nilly half-dressed half the time, now can I?
I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to keep it up, though. It’s tempting sometimes to crawl down into one of these holes I dig and wait for the darkness to come, for some kind of peace to descend, or at least for a little nap that lasts more than an hour. Take today, for instance: no sooner do I roll the kinks out of my neck and scrub the dirt from under my yellow nails than there’s a familiar knock-knock-knock on the kitchen door.
I know it’s Me even though I don’t recognize Myself—at least not right away—standing there, stinking and dripping all over my door mat, clumps of musky, wet earth crammed in the corners of My eyes, in the folds of My ears, in the crannies of My worm-munched skin. This particular Me is wearing nothing but an oversized t-shirt, and I think I remember those legs, and you know?—they still look pretty good. Putrefied flesh and all.
I recognize the shirt, despite the holes and rot stains. Even an old, forgetful thing like me can see it’s Mick Jagger’s iconic mouth. The shirt belonged to my first husband before it became my nightshirt. I haven’t thought of this Me in decades, nor of the man that shirt belonged to. A different life ago, and yet all it takes is a stupid shirt with fungal lips and fetid holes like canker sores to bring back all those nights spent with it pushed up and everything going down, and ravenous mornings when, half asleep, he’d reach for me, and I’d shiver as his hand crawled its way up under it, staking claim to a breast. I shiver now to think of it, but for a thousand different reasons, for a thousand different hurts. I know the end of that story now and wonder how I ever convinced myself that he’ll be faithful this time, this time he’ll stay clean, it’s the music not him, it’s only cocaine, he wouldn’t hit you again. But the next thing you know, you’re packing a bag in the dead of night while he’s passed out in the bathroom; when his drummer looks up at you from his line on your coffee table, you tell him and his prostitute, “Going out for cigarettes,” but really you go to the police station to show some skeptical dead-faced cop your eye and cheek and back. Eventually you get a restraining order against your own husband and wonder when exactly the one who was supposed to love and protect you became the one you feared most in the world.
There were some quiet, kind moments before and in between, of course. Moments that made you stay longer than you should have. When you talked about the future and where you’d live and how many kids you’d make. Before the restraining order, before he got behind the wheel and killed that family of four, that family on their way home from goddammed El Torrito. They just wanted dinner, and he just wanted you. He killed them and blamed you for leaving, and for his sentence, and for moving on.
“You look like shit,” I say to Me, and feel just as lost and alone as I did all those years ago. I step aside so I can enter.
I’ve tried everything, or nearly everything, to get Myself to stay in my graves. The first time one of Me showed up, I opened the door to an eleven-year-old child. The rotting, reeking little thing blinked until I understood who she was, who she had been. I hadn’t thought of her—of Me—in so long. I curled up on the couch and cried, “I’m sorry,” while she—while I—sat rigid on the other side, clumps of dirt falling from mud-matted hair and hitting the couch cushions with the consistent patter of rainfall. I fell asleep and when I woke, it was to my husband—my second husband, Stan… Good Stan… Saint Stan—brushing mud off the far end of the couch.
I told him I thought I’d buried her 500 miles away, way back when, but she found me. It was his idea to rebury the child. Said he’d take care of it, the way he always took care of me, and that I didn’t have to think about what that man did to her anymore—not if I didn’t want to. So, from the kitchen window, I watched as he dug up a chunk of lawn in his work slacks and penny loafers, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up and his tie tucked between two buttons with nothing but the flickering porch light to guide his shovel. He laid Me to rest, and for a moment, when that leggy little version of me hesitated at the edge of that grave, I felt a twinge of guilt sending her back into the dark.
Not one version of me showed up at the back door for ten years after that—for as long as Saint Stan lived. But, the day after I laid him in the ground… I had no idea so many had been lying in wait.
I was angry. So angry at first. I yelled at them. Screamed, even—so loud the neighbors called the Sheriff once. I tried to ignore the knocks, left Myself swaying, vapid and catatonic, on the back steps in fog or rain or sun. I begged Me to go away, to stay in the earth, to stop all this—what was this even? This haunting? This exhumation of sorts? I even tried to reason with Me: Aren’t you tired? Don’t you want to rest in peace? But nothing stops the knocking. At least nothing I’ve found, yet. No matter how many holes I fill, there is always a Me ready to claw her way to the surface of a grave I don’t remember digging in the first place.
“Chamomile?” I ask Myself.
I shake My gory locks and remember I used to drink black coffee back then, with maybe a little whiskey to sweeten. I watch Me move, stiff and creaking, to the kitchen table. I sigh at the muddy footprints. The dirt is neverending.
“What can I do for you?” I say and wait for a response that isn’t coming. I have a theory, though, that if I can just tell Me what I want, or need, to hear then I’ll go to the grave with a little less fuss and little more ease.
I place a cup of cold black coffee left over from the morning’s brew in front of Me.
“You know, I have other shit to do.” I don’t, really, but I can’t help it. I’ve been saying more of these mean things with a meanness I don’t mean and can’t control.
The rot isn’t as bad as others I’ve seen, the stench not so much gag-inducing as stomach-clenching, and judging by what’s left of the meat of Me, I’ll probably be back a time or two before I stay properly buried. I want it and fear it. Other Me’s are buried and gone. Like old pictures pulled from a wall, their remains are impressions left on faded wallpaper; I can see the shape but not the image anymore.
But when I show up like this, ragged and weary, fresh from the grave? The memories are palpable. The years spent in that Stones t-shirt sear like a branding iron—or one of Daddy’s old Marlboros.
“Do you need to hear that it wasn’t your fault?” God, that’s all they ever want to hear, isn’t it? Half my life is spent trying to convince Me it wasn’t My fault.
And all the while I wonder, what if it was my fault and that’s why I keep showing up? We weren’t allowed to talk back then the way we do now, the way kids do today. Adults listen to kids now, maybe more than they should, but it’s better than not at all. It’s better to be alone and have a voice than a life that depends upon a man willing to give you one. Stan was the first man who ever listened to me, and then I secretly resented him for being the man who taught me how to be something I couldn’t be on my own.
I struggle My purple bloated fingers around the cold mug. Coffee splashes onto the Formica tabletop.
“Fine. It’s not your fault he killed those people.”
I stop struggling with the mug and turn a pair of milky-white coated eyes on me, and I know I’m asking for forgiveness I can’t give. All I can hope is that once I get Myself under a mound of dirt again, I’ll sink into that primordial muck and rejoin the tangle of corpses slowly becoming food, liquid, history, whatever, beneath the rest of us. Maybe this’ll be the last time with one of Me. (I think this every time.) But, maybe it will be, and I can start moving forward without looking back.
I stand up.
I stand up, too.
I follow Me to the backyard and take up the spade left leaning against the side of the house, beside tomato boxes I don’t have time to fill. We pass the old graves, so many now that I tell my stepchildren, when they visit anymore, not to let their children play back here. I never leave an open grave, but even so. What if they saw Me?
Though many of the epitaphs have lost meaning to me, I can’t help but look at the headstones as we pass.
“You let them tease her, even at her funeral.”
September 1954-June 1956
“He touched others, too, and you never said a word.”
May 1955-January 1958
“You felt nothing when they scraped her out of you.”
Sometimes I’m grateful I can’t recall these details of my life anymore—the tombstones are blessings. I lift the shovel and give Me a poke in My squishy back, nudge Me on toward My grave. I find a new plot space, then fight shovelful after shovelful of black earth up out of the ground until I am wheezing, sweating. A fat earthworm rolls over in the mess, and then he’s gone again.
“Well go on, and for Chrissake stay down there.”
I resist the urge to give Me a kick as I’m struggling Myself down into the hole. Just once I’d like to watch Me tumble and break apart. I want to hate Me, but I don’t—not today, anyway. And then I do it: this time, I climb down into the hole, too. It isn’t deep, but it is quieter than above. I shiver. I help Me lie down. It’s awkward and cramped, but I can tell I’m grateful. I arrange what’s left of My hair and place My hands over My heart. I say to Me, “I don’t want to be forgotten either,” and struggle myself out of the grave.
Once I have Me covered over, safe in the earth again, I give the mass a routine smack and stomp, even say a little prayer over My body.
“You left, and they died instead of you.”
In the kitchen, I put the water on for another cup of honeyed tea. I consider other ways to spend my time. Knitting or needlepoint—things women my age seem to enjoy. I used to paint a decent picture, I’m pretty sure, but these bright ideas are interrupted by three knocks on the kitchen door.
Ashley Morrow Hermsmeier’s flash fiction and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, Cease, Cows, Pure Slush, and other literary magazines. She was the winner of Gemini’s 2015 flash fiction contest and nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she recently won Phoebe’s 2017 fiction contest. Ashley holds an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University in Oregon and currently teaches English and writing in San Diego.