A few days later, I went looking for a Christmas tree.
Under a sudden burst of bright sunlight, the snow had receded a little, drawing back into the shadows beside the house and under the trees. Denise seemed to become more herself again, color returning to her cheeks and the cough subsiding. After a day or two of having difficulty swallowing anything solid without pain, she was eating again. We took a walk along the tree line in one of the upper fields, and the fresh air seemed to revive her.
When Elijah Conkley dropped in for another visit, Denise was working again, busy in her office.
We shared some coffee, and talked about nothing in particular. When I mentioned, casually, that Denise hadn’t been feeling well, a shadow passed across his face.
“She had a bit of a sore throat, and a cough, but she’s much better now.”
Conkley said nothing, but he had a lousy poker face. “Well, there’s been a bit of a cold going around.”
I wanted to say something, but didn’t. “Yeah, well, she’s on the mend.”
“What about your plans for Christmas?”
He was changing the subject, and I let him. “Something quiet, I think. Just the two of us.”
“If you’d like, I know a good spot up the hill where we could find you a good tree.”
“Sure, lot’s of nice ones, right about the right age and size.”
I thought about it for a moment or two, and excused myself to run it by Denise.
“That sounds terrific,” she beamed, clearly excited by the prospect. “If you’d like, I can dig out the box of ornaments from the loft while you’re gone. We could decorate tonight.”
I smiled, then, leaned over to kiss her. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“We’ll be back well before dinner, I’m sure.”
When I returned to the living room, feeling enthusiastic, I found Conkley standing by the glass of the French doors, close enough for his breath to fog up the glass. He was staring towards the old oak.
“Okay, Elijah,” I said after clearing my throat. “Let’s do it.”
He seemed startled, jumping slightly at the sound of my voice. “Yeah? Sure. We can take my truck.”
He turned cautiously from the window, avoiding my gaze.
Silently, I followed. Whatever he was thinking, about Denise getting sick, or his grandmother’s fears, he clearly had decided to keep to himself.
Outside, the air was bitter, and the sky was pressing down even heavier than the weeks before. The clouds were so low they had flattened the tops of the mountains. There was a thick silence over the entire farm. No breeze stirred the branches, no blade of frozen grass moved. Even the animals seemed to have wandered away. It was like walking through a picture, a snapshot where nothing could stray from its fixed place.
I crunched through patches of snow towards the woodshed to get my chainsaw. Inside, it took awhile for my eyes to adjust to the dimness, and I tripped over a heavy, thick-hafted ax I used to split wood. I made sure there was gasoline in the chainsaw before I lugged it back out.
I went back around the house, towards Conkley’s truck, but he was nowhere to be found. His keys were in the ignition, and I dropped the chainsaw in the bed of the truck, opening my mouth to call his name. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted him.
I almost shouted for him, but reluctantly (why, reluctant, I wondered?) I trudged across the lawn towards him instead.
In the shadow of the old oak, the snow still lay heavy on the ground. It spread out it a broad white sheet, virgin and undisturbed. The worn headstones, jutting up from the ground, looked gray and dirty by comparison, like rotting teeth.
But his eyes, and mine, were not fixed on those stones, nor even on the snow. We were both staring at the bare patch.
It was roughly the size, and the shape, of a doorway, an exposed patch of naked earth, surrounded on all sides by snow. And it was not that the space had been cleared, the snow had simply refused to remain there, melting as it fell, swallowed into the soil flake by flake. It was as if the earth there, in that oblong patch, was warmer than all the ground around it
The snow had melted there, only there, in a nearly perfect rectangle.
I felt the irrational urge to touch it, so I kneeled slowly and pressed my hand against the earth. Against my palm the topsoil was cool and spongy, like ground newly thawed in spring. It seemed to move slightly, crawling under my touch. I snapped my hand back as if I had touched something hot.
“Elijah…it’s not even frozen…” I whispered. I wasn’t even sure he heard me.
This was what he had seen from the window, why he had come down here. I realized he was no longer staring at the bare patch, but at me.
My mind groped blindly for explanations, for an answer. Did the sun somehow shine directly on this spot and nowhere else around it? Did something…something…
Stephan Schroeder’s headstone stood at the top of the bare patch, leaning slightly forward. It seemed to stare at me, defying me to come up with an answer, to explain what was happening here. I had no response.
Instead, I turned and looked up at Conkley. “You expected this, didn’t you. Something like this?”
Elijah lit a cigarette, and shook his head. “Expected…no. Not exactly.”
“But you asked me about these graves, Elijah. You asked me if I had seen anything strange.” I turned my eyes back to the ground. “And I’m not going to lie to you, Elijah. This is pretty damn strange. What the hell is going on?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “It don’t take a college education to put two and two together. This grave here is warmer than all the ground around it. Something under there is keeping it warm.”
Keeping it warm. I jerked my eyes back towards the house, towards Denise and the baby. I had to get her out of here, now.
Conkley exhaled a long stream of smoke into the air, and gestured towards the truck. “Let’s you and I go get that tree, and have ourselves a little talk.”
I stared blankly at him. Was he seriously talking about Christmas trees? “But Elijah…”
He ignored me, and started walking towards his truck. I watched him go, stunned, my mouth hanging open.
it was a deer, i told the police it was a deer
Then I jogged after him, my boots crunching on the frozen ground. I felt a sense of relief at being away from that patch of earth. I tried to empty my mind, to ignore the thawed grave and more than that, my cloudy memories of the accident. But my head was like a snow globe, with everything swirling around inside it. Only when I finally caught up with him, and climbed into the passenger seat of the truck, did I feel calm. I listened to him fire the ignition, and the engine turn over. A sense of normalcy returned to my thoughts.
Conkley, at least on the outside, seemed strangely calm. We started up the hill as if nothing at all had happened, bouncing along a narrow dirt road, along a low stone wall. When this had been a working farm, nearly a century ago, stone walls like these divided up the fields, cobbled together from loose pieces of slate turned up by the plow. Now, most of those walls had tumbled down or been swallowed up by the trees. More than once, as a boy rambling all through these woods, I had come across one of those walls, lost and ruined. They were a constant reminder that the land had a past, a history. And now, maybe, secrets.
We stopped at the edge of one of the upper fields, and Conkley killed the engine. He stubbed out the rest of his cigarette, and nodded at me. I followed him back out into the cold.
The sky seemed even lower up here, as if I could stretch up my arm and brush the tips of my fingers against it. For miles around, there was no sound except that of our boots, crunching over the field. Conkley pointed towards a distant copse of pines, and we started in that direction. He seemed withdrawn, gathering his thoughts.
“So I used to come up here all the time when I was younger, and your grandma was away. I looked over the property for her and did some hunting. Lots of deer used to come through here. You can find their trails all through the woods round here.”
He paused for a moment to catch his breath. “I’m getting too old. Damn cigarettes. Should probably quit.”
I said nothing, but resumed walking alongside him once he caught his breath.
“I came trudging up this way one December, say, ten or fifteen years ago. Was around now, around Christmas time. It was real cold that year; I remember the pipes in the house kept freezing up. And I spent the better part of a day up here, freezing my butt off without seeing a single sign of deer. I made up my mind to get back down the hill.
“The sun was heading down, though you couldn’t see it on account of all the clouds. I stopped back there aways, on top of the ridge overlooking the house, ‘cause I thought I saw something moving. Guess I thought maybe my luck had changed and I’d found a deer after all.
“But it wasn’t no deer. It was a person. He caught sight of me too and just stopped to stare. He was right on down there, under the oak tree, by them graves.
“He wasn’t a local fella. The town was no bigger then than it is today, and I pretty much knew all the faces in it. And he was dressed funny, but exactly how I can’t say. He was wearing something green and muddy looking. His face and hands were real pale, and his hair looked all wet.”
Conkley stopped walking again, this time on the edge of a group of young pines. He was right—there were some fine trees here, all the perfect size and shape, like a tree farm. They were blue spruce, and the air was heavy with the scent of evergreens. Had I not been thinking of something else, something fifteen years away, I might have enjoyed being there.
“I raised my hand to him, just a simple wave. But the fella didn’t move. He just kept on staring at me until I started to get uncomfortable with it.
“And I suppose that if I had been somewhere else, or here anytime other than the winter, I would have gone on down to speak with him. But…” He paused again, shaking his head. “…but my grandma’s stories were all in my head, and I took to thinking maybe it wasn’t a fella after all. So I high-tailed it back down to the house, never looking back.”
We wandered silently among the trees, and I found myself thinking of the accident again. Had I seen a deer? Or had it been him, Conkley’s stranger, standing there in the middle of the road? I couldn’t remember. I honestly could not, and the more I tried the more unruly my thoughts became, rioting like a mob.
Instead of trying, I stopped and looked at Conkley. He seemed lost in his own thoughts. “Do you think you saw…”
“…Stephan Schroeder? A ghost?” Elijah finished the question for me, still looking over the trees. He gave a nonchalant shrug, or at least one that attempted nonchalance. But I could see his mind working furiously, flashing behind his eyes. “Well, what do I know…what does anyone know, about death? I mean, to some folks dead is just dead. And to others, they expect there to be something that comes after. A lot of people think that, don’t they?”
I nodded. I wasn’t one of those people, the type who believed in life after death, but Denise was. To me, the soul was a spark that went out when the breathing stopped. Maria, my parents, for me they no longer existed. Their ghosts lingered only in my memories.
“If there is something after…Heaven, Hell, whatever…maybe some folks get lost along the way, or maybe they choose not to go. For me, I guess I think death is like sleeping, and maybe…just maybe mind you…some folk don’t sleep as sound as others.”
I closed my eyes, my mind sailing back to Emily Bronte in a college literature course. “…and I wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
Conkley looked over at me. “What’s that?”
I shook my head. “Just a line in a book. For some reason it always stuck in my head.” I shut my eyes, thinking of the warm grave, and did not like what I was beginning to imagine was lying within it. “But do you think it—he—is dangerous?”
Slowly, Elijah shook his head. “I do believe that Stephan Schroeder is not sleeping quiet, but dangerous? No, not dangerous. I can’t see how.”
I tried to accept that, but my thoughts kept returning to Denise and the baby. “But your grandmother, and mine, they both said the mountain was dangerous in winter. Why would they say that?”
“I told you, I don’t know. Maybe my ma knows something, has heard some story, from my grandma. But I have never heard of anything bad ever happening to anyone up here since the Schroeders. Except, of course, your folks. But that had nothing to do with any ghost.”
a deer…i saw a deer
“If you could ask her, Elijah, if you could ask your mom, I’d appreciate it.” I felt, honestly, like an idiot, a child afraid of the dark. Of course it was ridiculous and impossible, but if there was even the most remote chance that Denise could be in danger here, I couldn’t take that risk. And even if the thing itself was not dangerous…the sudden appearance of it could be startling, shocking. Dangerous.
I just couldn’t take that chance.