Subcutaneous Magazine Fall 2016 - Page 81

“Of course.” It was not yet eight in the morning, and the air was already humid, unusually warm for mid-May. From another room a young girl called out, “who’s here?” “Just,” she hesitated, “someone to fix the stone wall in the back.” The footsteps moved away. She led me through her backyard, a hummocky exercise in need of mowing, and into the woods on a well-trod path. The air was filled with the smell of damp soil. “Sorry to be rude, but I don’t want her knowing anything.” About what, I wondered? “Your house looks old,” I said, following her, mosquitoes humming in my ears. “It needs some work.” She held a branch that would have whacked me in the face. A good distance out of earshot, turning her head so I could hear, she said, “Heather is nine and she has some recent health issues, although her doctor and the school seem to think she’s psychosomatic.” We reached a clearing and she was waving her hand to disperse mosquitoes. “Just up here is our family cemetery.” It was enclosed with a stone and mortar wall, snug against a field stone wall, the sort that marks property lines. There were twenty-two graves, four rows, unevenly spaced, most of them Keatons. “Here we are. It’s not the entire family. Some headed out west. We buried relatives here until 1920. Then we ran out of space and put them in the public cemetery.” She led me to an old slate, near the front, three feet tall and tilted slightly to the left, bearing chiseled initials M.D. and that same life span. It was weathered but legible. Mary rested one hand on the scalloped top. “This is where she’s buried. She, whose name I’m avoiding saying.” She tried to smile but looked scared. “And now I’m hoping you’ll destroy that new stone you put up.” I knelt to touch the rough stone. “Just her initials are here.” She nodded and looked away. “Yeah. What I was told by my father, and he was told by his, is that she was brought here a slave, she bought her freedom, and fell in love with John Dutton, another African. They moved from Dedham to here and he built this home. He died,” and she touched a neighboring stone, "in 1786. About two years after they came here. She had three children, two after John died. She was poor. She may have been a prostitute, or just poor, whatever. But there is this family legend that she messed around in stuff.” Still kneeling, studying the stone, no longer hearing the skeeters, I looked up at her and supplied the term. “Witchcraft?” She looked irritated. “Or something. African rituals. Witchcraft to the uninformed.” She stood in front of the stone with arms crossed. “The legend is that there isn’t a name on the stone because if someone says her name, bad things can happen to them. Now,” Mary spoke even more softly, as though to keep the chipmunks from hearing, “it happens that none of my ancestors are named after her, and my daughter, Heather, seems to believe the legend. Two weeks ago, around the time you said you changed the stone, I got called by her school. She’d blacked out in class. She’s blacked out twice more since. She’s out for like half an hour, forty- five minutes. We’ve been to two specialists, I can’t afford any more. One says it’s all in her head, one thinks it might be a, uh, tumor in her brain.” Mary teared up. “Heather told me about Missy when our G.P. said there seemed to be nothing wrong with her. ‘Mommy, maybe it’s Missy doing this to me,’ she said, out of the blue. I don’t know how she ever heard about it. I haven’t said anything. I consider it foolish.” She turned to look into the woods in the direction of her house, her back to me. “And I know how utterly ridiculous this sounds, but since I’ve shown you where she’s buried, and you know she isn’t in the town cemetery, could you chisel her name off the new stone? Please?” We heard a scream from the house, high and shrill, childlike, and she ran, and because it seemed the right thing to do, I followed. She ran through the woods, across the yard, glanced back ever so briefly to see me chugging behind her, and she yanked the back door open and disappeared inside. I paused at the doorway, until I heard another scream, this one ending in a cry. “Mommieeeeeee!” I heard footsteps upstairs, and then I heard Mary yell, “help!” Heather was lying on her side in bed and struggling to breathe as blood poured from her nostrils. She was coughing and gagging and Mary was using her fingers and the blanket to clear her nostrils. 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