I found her standing in purple shadows, as the sun fell red behind the hills.
It was the end of our first week living at Mountain Hollow. The house had accepted our presence and seemed grateful to have permanent residents for the first time in its existence. Denise seemed happy too. She had set up her office in about a third of our bedroom, and after spending most of the day there, went out into the fresh air to work in the remains of Maria's flowerbeds. I had seen her out the window several times, trimming the last flowers of autumn. Then, suddenly, she disappeared.
Stepping outside, shielding my eyes against the red-orange glare of the sun, I finally glimpsed her beneath the old oak tree, a shadow moving in a shadow.
The oak leaves crunched under my feet. She had raked a mountain of them off to the side, exposing the dry grass that lay over the graves.
The five of them had slept here, under the oak tree, for years before even Maria came.
Stephan Schroeder returned from the Great War with all his limbs intact, but had lost something altogether different on the battlefields of France. Call it his mind, or perhaps, his spirit. When he came back to his family, he did so two years after the war had ended, shell-shocked and pale. People had told Maria that his eyes had looked hollow and vacant, and that most of his memories were gone. He never spoke, and spent most of his time just staring off into space. There was no explanation given for his long absence. People just assumed he had been convalescing somewhere. In more ways than one, he really had died over there in Europe, and what came back was no longer the boy his family had sent off to war.
He did not come back alone. He brought death with him.
By the time he shuffled up the long dirt road in his threadbare uniform to rejoin his family, he had already lost most of his weight. He was a pale and glassy-eyed skeleton that barely ate and spent most of the day sleeping. At night, sometimes, he screamed, or wandered the starlit fields like a zombie. He coughed a great deal and had trouble breathing. Sometimes he coughed up blood. At first they thought his lungs were damaged by mustard or chlorine gas in the trenches.
But then, his younger sister fell ill with the same symptoms. Agnes, they say, had been a real beauty, but the consumption fell on her like blight. She wasted away much more rapidly, bleeding from the mouth and frequently gasping for breath. Stephan lingered, but death quickly silenced her.
Paul, the youngest, was the next to fall ill. After he died, the parents toppled like dominoes. In the space of a year after Stephan came home, tuberculosis had killed them all.
After the final death, the neighbors had set fire to the house, to prevent the epidemic from spreading. It seemed to work. No one else fell victim after the Schroeders died.
I'm not sure where Maria heard the story, probably from Ellen Conkley, who lived at the base of the hill and had her entire life. But she told me it one summer as we stood there under the long shadow of the oak tree, looking down on the five white stones, neatly lined up in a row. Even then they looked worn, chewed up by time and cruel winters. Now you could barely make out any of the inscriptions, unless you made a rubbing of them. But you could see the dates, and that their lives all ended the same year.
Denise's eyes looked red in the reflected sunlight, and I put my arms around her heavy wool sweater. Together, for a time, we watched our breath form puffs in the rapidly cooling air. My nose started to run.
Then, I noticed the flowers. Denise had laid them neatly upon each of the graves.
She sensed the question in my silence, the way that couples often do. "They seemed so lonely out here, buried under the leaves. I almost felt like they were staring at me all afternoon. So I decided to say hello, and spend a little time with them."
"Maria did that, sometimes," I said. "She'd put flowers on the graves. She said there was no one else to look after them."
Denise nodded. "I guess they are ours now. We've inherited them."
For some reason I thought of my parents, and Maria, lying elsewhere. "I suppose so."
She said nothing, and we watched the sun go down together.
"Let's get inside before we freeze to death," I said.