The Family Cemetery by Mark Russo

The screech of a fisher cat, like the scream of a woman alone in the night, startles Sara out of her sleep. She sits up. Tremors shake her body as she struggles to forget the sound. It had been a hard-fought sleep. She had not gotten to bed until about midnight. And, it seems like only minutes ago that she wound the down comforter around her to warm the cold dampness in her joints.

She lays down and pulls the covers tightly around her. She rolls one way, then another and back again until the cloth begins to dig into her skin like the fibers of a braided rope. She clenches her eyes struggling to keep them shut but fails. So, she gets out of bed, goes to the window and peers into the granular sky.

Sara Livingstone lives in a white two-story clapboard farmhouse with a pair of gabled dormers that look out over a salt marsh where iron-gray veins of an estuary stretch through the shag-like yellow-green cordgrass. Had the intrusive waterways not pulsated with the tidal ebb and flow of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance, you'd think that you were looking at the imprint of an enormous leafless tree that had fallen, the tips of its limbs extending to the edge of Sara's sheep farm.

Over the years, the water has encroached upon the farm's boundaries to the extent that, at high tide, a rivulet now encircles a small family cemetery. The stone fence and twisted, splintering gray gate have become a redundancy. Although there had once been a bridge, the tidal waters eroded its foundations and it collapsed. Even a sentinel of red cedars, originally intended to buffer the graves from the ocean winds, have become more ornamental than utilitarian. There are only two ways to get to the cemetery now: by canoe at high tide or through the mud at low tide.

Sara slips the strap of a pair of binoculars around her neck, pulls back the gossamer curtains of her dormer window and studies the cemetery. Then she telephones the sheriff's office.

"Bobby, the cemetery's been vandalized. . . . Yes, again. . . .Yes, I'm sure."

The cemetery was once home to ten sandstone slabs, each chiseled with such crude images as a skull and crossbones, the head of a woman flanked by two disc-like cherub faces and a child, in fetal position, cupped by the wings of a swan. Now, only one head marker remains but its backward cant suggests it won't hold out much longer. Nevertheless, still visible on its reclining surface, in defiance of the incessant flagellation of salt breezes, is a puffy-cheeked woman with almond-shaped eyes who sits, like a Hindu bodhisattva, before an opened scallop shell. Her hair is mounded in the shape of a Woolmark logo on top of her head and a loosely fitted robe falls from her shoulders to reveal two coconut shaped breasts.

Sara continues to explain but thinks Bobby sounds very policeman-like this morning. She finds such a tone between childhood friends unnatural and imagines the shadow of Bobby's chief standing behind him.

"They must've come back again last night. . . . That's right, the third time. Have you ever found the other stones? . . . Yeah, this is the one everyone calls the witch's bed."

Sara rolls her eyes. She knew her as Sister Church.

"From here, it looks like they tried to knock her over but couldn't. Shit! Bobby, there's nothing but black patches of empty holes out there now . . . No, I didn't hear anything . . . Yes, please. How long will it take you to get here?"

According to the family, Sister Church had been a servant of Sara's ancestor, Sir Richard, a respected New Englander. Sir Richard, although born in what is now Maine, had established his family in Boston. He'd become a very important political and military figure and, during the Indian wars, had been commissioned to oversee the construction of a fort in what was southern Acadia.

While away in Maine, the Puritan fingers in Boston began pointing at both his wife and Sister Church accusing them of practicing witchcraft. Those were the days of the Salem witch executions when an action in a dream was enough substantive evidence to hang the accused. Some said Sister Church was Sir Richard's lover. Others argued that she was his wife's stepsister. And there were those who insisted that she was both. But Sir Richard smelled the sewage of political sabotage. He told the trial court to shove it in its ear, took his wife and Sister Church to Maine and built a farm. The farm where, generations later, Sara was born.

Sister Church stayed with the family at the coastal farm until her death. Her grave was the first to be dug on that small mortuary plot. The others were Sara's husband, Guy; her child, Nora; both of her parents; her grandparents; a great uncle and Sir Richard with his wife.

Sara, wearing jeans and one of Guy's old flannel shirts, hangs up the phone and continues to scan the farm, meadow and cemetery. There's nothing beyond that but ocean.

As the sun's acrylic rays smear the sky above the sheared edge of the horizon, she can make out a twig-like object entering the estuary with the tidal current. She opens a small jewelry box that sits on the sill next to her wedding photograph, takes out a plain gold ring and places it on her finger. She runs her hands across her face, peers into the mirror on the wall and rubs the rucked skin below her eyes. Still watching her reflection, she combs her grey and white streaked hair with her bony fingers like a rake through straw. She then grabs her denim jacket from the valet stand and goes downstairs to the kitchen.

After pouring a cup of chamomile tea, she goes out to the porch just as Bobby pulls his cruiser off of Route Three onto the gravel shoulder in front of her house. The red and blue rooftop lights of the cruiser eddy furiously about Sara and for a moment she forgets where she is. She places her cup on the railing, steadies herself and crosses her arms over her chest.

"Bobby, do you have to put on a show? You'll have everyone saying the crazy woman's at it again."

Bobby reaches into the cruiser, pumps the center of the steering wheel and activates a short explosive hoot of the siren. He turns around, levels his peaked cap and, like a sardonic gnome, smiles at Sara.

"Sara, it's official business, so it might as well sound official."

Bobby buries his thumbs behind his black belt, grabs the bottom of it with his other fingers and gives it a yank drawing his pants up and over his paunch.

"What do you want me to do, Sara?"

"Bobby, I just need you to make out a report, file it at the registrar's office. Got to let 'em know there's not a soul left."

"I really don't have time to traipse down there and look at what's not there."

"Here, take my binoculars. Can't be official unless you see it."

Walking as if he just got off of a horse rather than out of a cruiser, Bobby climbs the stairs to the porch, looks through the binoculars, and chuckles.

"Hmm . . . yeah, guess you could say they've been forcibly evicted. Well, I suspect I can write up another report."

"This one's the last of them, Bobby. I may finally have some peace. You've been a help. I thank you for it too."

The officer, whistling now, goes to his cruiser, makes some notes in a pad then pulls out away from the berm onto the road, whipping up gravel behind him, and makes a u-turn onto Route Three.

Then, with the weather-worn white barn in the left corner of her eye and the gated entrance to the meadow directly before her, she watches the Merino sheep roll like cumulus clouds from the opened back door of the barn into the folds of the short-cropped meadow below.

She shakes her head and wonders why she still cares for them so much. They're not hers anymore. They belong to Edward now. She sold them to him years ago.

Edward, a gentleman sheep farmer up the road, also leases the land from her, paying her with a portion of the money earned from the sale of the wool. Sara has used it to pay for the farm's upkeep and taxes. She thinks, if Guy were still around, things might be different; if they'd not lost Nora, things would be different. Together, as a family, they might have been able to survive. But there on the porch step before the eroding farm and the vast ocean, she feels like a noseeum that goes unnoticed until it bites. And now, she thinks, it's time for her to bite. She just needs to constrict the boundaries, focus her life more clearly.

The twig she'd seen before now progressively shrinks against the ocean backdrop and enlarges in the foreground becoming a canoe as it approaches. Sara knows it's Emmet.

As she stands on the porch she can feel the rumble of the eighteen-wheelers on the interstate west of her. She figures they're going to Boston. She grabs the boots that are next to the railing column, knocks the mud clods out of the lug soles and goes inside the house. She sits at the round oak kitchen table, laces up the boots and thinks about Edward's offer. She wonders if it's still open. He made it over a year ago and, at that time, her first reaction was to reject it. The farm has been in her family for years. She was born there, she conceived in the cab of Guy's truck there, married Guy and gave birth to Nora there.

When Nora died, the day after she was born, Sara bound her tiny body with a white cotton sheet, placed her in the coffin alongside the rag doll she'd made for her and watched her disappear. After Nora's death, Sara and Guy left the farm, put what things they had in his truck and moved to Boston.

A year later, Guy died. She thinks that, maybe, had he lived, they'd still be in Boston. Guy drove the night hauls. There's more money in the night circuit, he'd said. That truck was to pay life's toll, help buy a home and pave the way for a new family. That's what they talked about anyway. But he didn't live. One morning he just didn't make it home. A policeman showed up instead. He stood in the doorway; said Guy's truck jackknifed on the highway; that it looked like he'd fallen asleep and that, when they cut his body out of the cab, they'd found a bottle of amphetamines in his breast pocket. As if to make her feel better, every one said Guy probably didn't know what hit him. But that didn't make her feel better. She felt abandoned, defeated. So, she'd brought him back, placed their wedding photograph on his chest and buried him alongside Nora.

After she returned home, her parents tried to prepare her for their deaths. They left the shearing, barn maintenance and accounting to her. But, after they passed away, the farm turned on her like a pet that's reverted to the wild. And the years overtook her spirit like the estuary, the meadow.

Sitting at the table, thinking about Edward's offer, she reviews these things. She'd already begun to question the purpose of being the guardian of a plot of land dedicated to dead people. They, at least, are at peace. She thinks that peace would be nice but doesn't want to die to get it. Yes, she's the last one. But she's still standing. She has no desire to lie down anytime soon. She's come to think that someone else could tend to the dead. Anyone could do that. Edward could do that. They'd be his responsibility when he took over the farm. She'd leave. Go south. Buy a cottage by a lake or something.

But Edward had said the cemetery had to go. It was in the way. He wanted to fill in that part of the farm, level it so he could build on it. The cemetery, he'd said, was a problem.

"The law won't allow it. The graves will have to be moved. The town will want to record a change in the status of the cemetery," he'd told her. "You'll have to arrange to relocate the remains, register the new location with probate. You'll have to take care of it. I can't. Don't want to be liable for any damage. It'd be better for everyone if they just weren't there."

That's why she couldn't go, she had thought. She's what Edward called "liable." As her parents' only daughter, a wife and mother, she had a legal obligation to care for the family remains.

"Edward, I'll need more time to get my affairs in order."

That's not what she wanted to say. The decision was simple: stay or leave. Like a lobster entering the netted cone, once in, there'd be no turning back. Besides the family owed her the freedom to die where she wanted.

Then, not long after Edward made his offer, the vandalism started. People were quick to say that the only reason someone would go through the trouble of digging up graves and dumping headstones would be either out of meanness or to get something. More than likely it was to get something. They'd all heard about the anonymously written book. The one bound in calf leather lying on the round mahogany corner table near a window in Sara's sitting room. It's the only document, unauthorized though it is, of Sir Richard's life. It says it right there, in black and white, that Sir Richard had a lot of money.

Sara knew the book by heart. Sir Richard had been quite a character. In his forty-four years, he'd created a shipyard on the Sheepscot River; served a term as governor of Massachusetts, launched successful attacks against the French and, most notably, salvaged what today would be hundreds of thousands of dollars of silver from a Spanish almiranta in the Caribbean. A black and white etching of a man decked out in a broad brimmed sugarloaf hat, ruffs, cuffs and doublet hangs on the living room wall of Sara's house. He appears to be overseeing the loading of chests onto the deck of a ship. Her parents and their parents before them had said this man was Sir Richard. The popular question is, however, what did he do with the money? Most everyone suspects that he'd hid it somewhere. But even if he had, wouldn't his family have gotten to it long ago?

Emmet's closing in on the cemetery now. Sara figures she'll give him enough time to get close then call to let him know she wants to talk. Emmet, once a dark-haired, handsome Mainer, is an irascible, ruddy faced, fiery-eyed old man with a long unkempt beard and yellow irregular teeth. He's the grounds keeper, a family friend and a guide to the changing topography of the coast. Guy and Bobby always told people that if someone wanted to fish, farm or hunt, Emmet was the man to see.

He also knew the Livingstones. He'd played on the family room carpet at the feet of Sara's grandparents when they sat for him. He tended to the farm chores for her parents when they were alive and, when Sara's father was away, he'd stay at the house to look after everyone. Yes, he'd known them better than they'd known themselves but he kept his knowledge to himself. When they died, first Sara's father then her mother, he dug their graves. He placed them, one after the other, in the ground. At Sara's request, he'd stuffed a small jewelry box into the corner of her father's casket. Then, when he buried her mother, he cried as he nestled the family broach into the dead woman's palm, closed her fingers over it and sealed the casket. And it was Emmet, also one of the town's selectmen, who introduced Edward to Sara.

The sky is graying now. The sheep are beginning to return to the barn. Sara enters the barn by way of the door facing Route Three. When she opens the door a warmth carrying the pervasive musk-like scent of wet wool embraces her. She goes to a stall that's just left of the door and opens the gate.

The stall is her workshop. Sara is a potter. Inside, there's a brick kiln, potter's wheel and lathe. Three shelves hang on the wall below a north-eastern window. Unglazed vases in the shape of amphorae and urns line each shelf.

She'd fired up the kiln the night before and timed it to be cool by mid morning.

Sara gets the shovel that leans against the shelves and squats before the kiln. She scrapes out a mound of ashes from below the grate of the kiln. She breaks up any solid pieces. Then places them into a mortar and begins to pulverize the charred pieces with a pestle. After a while, she remembers Emmet and dials his cell.

"Hi, Emmet. Are you at the cemetery? . . .Good. I have to finish something then I'll be right down. I need your help, OK?"

She opens a cash box on the shelf, takes out two envelopes and goes to meet Emmet at the edge of the farm. He's moored his canoe on the meadow side across from the cemetery. He helps her into the boat and together they go over to the graveyard.

"Looks like someone worked real hard last night, Sara. Certainly made a mess," he says.

After bending down to review the earth around the tombstone, he looks over his shoulder, up at Sara and gives her a wink.

"Couldn't down the old gal's marker though, huh?"

"Emmet, I need your help to get rid of her stone."

"What's on your mind?"

"I've decided to accept Edward's offer. Once this tombstone's gone, there'll be nothing in the way."

Together, they work the stone loose and out of the ground. They drag it to the edge of the land. With a synchronized heave they push it into the estuary. Emmet then turns and looks at the ocean.

"A few more tides ought to do it," he says.

When Sara gets out of the canoe on the meadow side she takes Emmet's hand and presses her mother's broach into his palm closing his fingers over it. For a moment, they stare at each other, their palms throbbing.

"She would have insisted on it," she tells him.

She then shoves one envelope into his breast pocket and hands him the other.

"Make sure Bobby gets this the next time you guys are together, OK?

Now she winks at Emmet, thanks him and helps push the canoe away from shore. He'd be the one she'd miss.

She realizes that the tide has begun to go out and hurries back to the barn. She makes sure that there are no lumps in the mortar and using a funnel empties it into a vase that she'd finished the other day. Then she seals it with the cork she'd machined for it and goes back to the rivulet. Kneeling on the bank, she removes the cork and tosses the ashes into the receding water.

For a while she stands and deeply breathes in the late afternoon air. She imagines the ashes to be bird feathers floating out to sea. Her muscles loosen, relax.

When she returns to her studio, she finds a voice message on her cell. It's Molly from the Doll Hospital in the mall to say the rag doll's ready.

"Whatever vermin they were chewed her up pretty bad. But she's good as new now," she says, "You can pick her up anytime."

Sara goes back to the house, knocks the mud from her boots and goes inside. She picks up the calfskin book, takes it into the kitchen, sits down at the round oak table and turns to the last page. She takes out a pen and prints "The End." Below that, she signs her name and dates it with today's date. She then calls Edward and tells him that she accepts his offer.

Mark Russo, born January 1, 1950 in Queens, New York City, New York. As a student of the University of Cincinnati he focused on the Greek, Latin, German, and French languages and World Literature. After running the family business for 20 years, he graduated from the University of Maine School of Law and was accepted to the Bar in 2002. He practiced Immigration Law in the State of Maine for over 18 years. He has published stories with Flash Fiction Magazine, New Reader Magazine, 34th Parallel Magazine, Literally Stories, Potato Soup Journal, Spillwords Press, Knot Magazine, MacQueen's Quinterly, South Florida Poetry Journal (SoFloPoJo) and Grey Sparrow Journal.