THE FAMILY PLOT
Ty Landers’ deeply moving short story is part ghost story part family mystery. It takes a wry and life-affirming look at how families cope with loss. Illustration by Aydan Hasanova
After the doctor left, and the sedative finally wrestled my wife into a shallow, restless sleep, I sat down on the edge of my daughter’s hospital bed to tell her about the family plot. I took Daisy’s hand and shook her gently awake. Her eyes opened and closed in time with each step of the lazy line stumbling across her heart rate monitor.
“Dais?” The bed creaked as it elevated. My wife stirred but didn’t wake. “Can you hear me?”
Daisy forced open her heavy eyelids, smiling despite the pain.
My mother appeared in the corner, flickering like a bad light bulb. Our eyes met and I motioned toward the door. This was something I needed to do alone. Mom blew me a kiss and passed through the wall, into the hall. I pictured her gliding down the stark, white corridor like a girl on ice-skates, finding my Dad in the lobby behind a National Geographic, nestling in next to him, soundless and unseen.
“How’s your pain?”
Daisy looked at the carafe of water on her bedside table. I poured her a glass and she took slow sips.
“Need to talk to you about something but—” I glanced back at Erin. She was whimpering, fighting something in her dream that could never be worse than the reality she would wake to. “It’s got to be just between the two of us, okay? It’s important.”
The right words were out there. I had rehearsed, but every angle I took, every metaphor, every example just clouded the water. She was only ten, too young to see it with her own eyes. My mother was forced to give me this talk after my aunt Emma died. I snuck out one night to see my girlfriend, when I snuck back in I found Emma rooting through my bedside table, looking for cigarettes. I screamed and woke my parents. After mom scolded poor Emma for the invasion of privacy, the two of them sat me down and told me everything. Told me about the family plot.
I was sixteen though. Old enough to see Emma materialize. This would all be a lot easier if Daisy could see her dead grandmother fussing over her, eavesdropping on doctors, and slipping through walls.
“The doctor said they were going to make you comfortable.” I swallowed hard. “This might be our last chance to talk.”
She looked at me, then her eyes retreated to her lap.
I gave up on the pitch I’d rehearsed and decided to just wade in.
“Our family. Me and you. Grandma and her Dad. All up and down that side of the family tree. For some reason…we…come back.”
“From—” I paused, tried to choose the right word. “From…dying.”
She crinkled her nose, looked at me like I was stupid.
“We can’t die?”
I shook my head. “No, we do…your body will. But the real you will stay here.”
“Like a ghost?” She frowned. “I don’t want to be a ghost.”
“Okay, that’s why we’re talking.” I leaned in, put my arm around her. “You don’t have to. This is going to sound crazier than the first thing but…there is this piece of land in South Carolina. It’s kind of like a family cemetery. If any of us are buried there, we don’t come back. We go wherever everybody else goes.”
“Absolutely. You’d absolutely go to heaven. Are you kidding me? It wouldn’t be heaven without you. It would be…well, I don’t know. But it would suck and that’s like, the opposite of heaven.”
She laughed and I saw it hurt her to do so.
“So, I would be like, buried there?”
“Why there? Why South Carolina?”
“I don’t know. There’s something about the place. That particular patch of earth. The dirt there is our dirt. It’s on a quiet little island. There are tide pools, salt-marshes, beautiful trees. Have you ever been homesick?”
“I think so.”
“If you’ve ever been homesick, that’s the place you were homesick for. Even though you’ve never been there. You’re like a lost puzzle piece, incapable of completing some bigger picture until you are placed back there. And if you never do, if you’re never laid to rest there…you’ll roam.”
Her eyes closed. Machines whirred in the background, muffled voices came from the hall. For a moment I thought she was gone.
She fought, with great effort, to open her eyes again and said, “Are you going to be buried there?”
“I’m going to do whatever you do.”
The little coffin was a garish pink the color of Pepto Bismol. Erin insisted Daisy would have loved it and, knowing what I was going to have to do, I didn’t protest.
When I told my wife that Daisy had decided to be buried in the family plot she did what any mother might do; she balled up her fist and punched me in the eye.
It wasn’t the first time she had heard of the place. I brought it up a few times after we got married, hoping she might fall in love with the Lowcountry and want to be buried there together. But, she never took it seriously. Now, she thought it was a sick joke. We moved to Erin’s home state of Michigan when Daisy was a baby. Erin probably thought I was exacting revenge on her for moving me out of the South.
By the time the funeral rolled around, Erin and I weren’t speaking. She sat with her parents and her sisters, all of them glaring at me like a colony of agitated birds. I sat, sulking over my black eye, my back to the hideous fuchsia casket, watching Daisy and my mother tear around the funeral home. Mom had changed, appearing as the ten-year-old version of herself and had immediately taught Daisy how to do the same shape-shifting trick for herself. I couldn’t take my eyes of them. Daisy, glittering and resplendent, the technicolor antithesis of that poor grey little thing that had died in that hospital bed. Her hair had returned, thick and wild, like a plume of almond smoke trailing behind her. They challenged each other to contests, did cartwheels and back handsprings, stopping only long enough to collapse into giggling heaps.
At the end of the service I found myself alone with the ugly pink casket waiting in a side room for the pallbearers to move Daisy to the hearse. The thought to pause, to try again to include Erin, came to me then. Excluding her was risky. If she found out, she would probably have me arrested, might even try to kill me. I thought about scenarios that would allow me to do what needed to be done and allow us to re-stich the seam that had widened between us. But, that rip couldn’t be mended now.
I took Daisy’s tired, pale body out of the electric pink casket and was forced to improvise. The transition room, a faux library with hunter green carpet, wood paneling and a fireplace, had walls lined with bookshelves. At the base of each was a big cupboard with double doors. I slid Daisy’s body into one of the empty cupboards, covered her with throw pillows from the library’s sofa and shut the doors. I repacked the coffin with some of the books to give it a similar weight, closing the lid just before the pallbearers came in to move the casket to the hearse. I followed them out, unlocking a window before I left.
Later that night the break in went as smoothly as the burial had gone. The house had been full of Erin’s family when I left but I managed to sneak a few tools into my car, pack a bag and grab the wooden box my mother told me not to forget.
After shimmying through the window at the funeral home, Daisy watched me carry her body to the car, peering down from her perch on an overhead powerline. I wrapped her in a blanket and placed her gently in the back seat. When I closed the door my mother was there, shooing Daisy off her tightrope and chasing her through the roof of the car and into the passenger seat.
“You want to come with us?” I asked.
“No. I want to give you two the time.” Mom looked into the back seat. “Did you get what I told you to get?”
I nodded. “You sure?”
“Absolutely.” She smiled and framed my face with her hands. “I’ll see you there.”
She vanished, leaving behind a blue mist that briefly caught the moonlight before dissipating.
I got in the car and we headed south.
On the road we talked, laughed, sang to the radio, enjoyed the comfortable silence we always shared. Hours passed and sometimes I forget she was dead.
From time to time I caught her looking at her blanketed body lying in the back seat. A barrage of questions about the family phenomena usually followed. Questions I couldn’t answer. Driving through Indiana, she asked what would happen if she didn’t go through with the burial, if she stayed, what it would be like on Earth in a hundred years or a thousand. She asked what would happen to our family if people made the planet unlivable.
“What if it’s like, just a big garbage dump?” She looked out the window at the trash strewn shoulder of an on ramp. “We can’t clean it up if we’re ghosts. We’re stuck right? What if all the plants died?”
I pictured the two of us, walking across a barren planet like ghosts on Mars.
We stopped at a motel in the mountains outside of Asheville for the night. I hid Daisy’s body as best I could and tried to grab a few hours of sleep. I woke up around 3:00 AM and Daisy was gone. I checked the car and saw a strip mall across the road. One of the stores was called Carolina Bridal. Blue light flickered through the storefront window like someone had left a TV on.
The empty parking lot shimmered, sodium lights reflecting off an early morning rain. I snuck up to the window. Daisy was inside, trying on wedding gowns. She had changed again. She was a young woman, maybe the twenty-five-year-old version of herself. She looked like her mother did at that age. She was perfect, beautiful. There were white dresses on headless mannequins and she popped in and out of them like a life-sized paper doll, admiring herself in the store mirrors, batting her eyelashes, arm in phantom arm with the headless, tuxedoed dummies on displays. She waved to invisible crowds of fawning friends gathered at the church in her mind. The blushing bride of a wedding that would never happen. The happiest day in a life that never got that far.
I tried to get back to the motel without her seeing me. But as I shrank away, she swept in beside me and looped her arm in mine. She placed her head on my shoulder and I escorted her through the predawn loneliness of that parking lot and back to the room.
We pulled off the highway before noon and began snaking our way through the tubular rustic roads of the Lowcountry. Live oaks dripped with Spanish moss, choking out the blue sky above, allowing only dappled golden coins to sprinkle onto the gray sand roads.
I drove on feel. The land, our land, pulled me toward it, vibrating the spirit trapped inside my body like the moon pulling at the tides. The road forked and my mother was there, waving us in, pointing the way before vanishing in the cloud of dust kicked up by the car. The road ran through thick woods, past ancient live oaks with trunks the size of houses, eventually emptying into a clearing.
When we got out of the car, they came from everywhere: the woods, the marsh, the intercostal waterway at the southern edge of the family plot. Generations of our family, all there to welcome Daisy home.
They formed up in rows, flanking the sides of the path that led up to the cemetery. Some I recognized from Christmas memories as faded as the photographs in the family albums. Great aunts and uncles who died before I got to know them, grandparents so many times removed that their names were unknown, their faces more amalgamations of family features than known entities. The vast unknown outer rim of our ancestral orbit intermingled with those I recognized. Old family. Family whose bones rested on other continents, their graves lost to erosion and the passage of time.
Daisy walked through the crowd. Some, nodded, some waved, some tipped bowler hats, one leaned against a sword and hooted. Hands were offered and eventually the levy of polite awkwardness broke and Daisy was showered with hugs.
They were sharing something private and I used it as a distraction, hefting Daisy’s body out of the car and carrying it to the outcropping of weathered headstones at the center of the family plot. I grabbed the shovel, the pickaxe and my mother’s box from the car.
There was a smooth, dry patch of ground on the eastern side of the cemetery, beneath an arching branch thickly shrouded in the white, star-shaped blooms of Confederate jasmine. I dug her grave to the sound of laughter careening through the surrounding marshes. Our family gave Daisy a going away party that could only be conceptualized and executed by the dead.
When the rough hole was dug, I climbed out. The gathered masses of family ghosts surrounded the grave on all sides. My mother held Daisy’s hand. They both stood smiling, watching me.
Seeing the two of them together for the last time caused the dam inside me to break. The flood came and I cried my first real tears since Daisy got sick. Maybe it was exhaustion catching up, or the emotional toll of digging a secret grave for my only child, the strain of my world collapsing, or the final realization that, even though we all had the ability to continue on in this manner, we were making the choice not to see each other until my time on earth ended.
Death grants preternatural wisdom to those who have passed. Just as I was losing it, Daisy was beside me, changed, older, maybe in her sixties, the age when the dependent and the caregiver switch places.
“Dad, this is what I want.” She looked around at the family ghosts surrounding us. “This is amazing but…I don’t want to stay. If you don’t do this for me now, I’ll be stuck here. As great as this is, I don’t want it forever.”
I looked at the hole. “I want to crawl in there with you babe.”
She shook her head. “It’s going to take time, but I want you to live well. Start over. Go where you want to go, do what you want to do. Time on Earth is short. Just because I’m gone doesn’t mean you won’t see me again.”
The haunted peanut gallery crowded tightly around us voiced their agreement to this statement as if it were an undisputed law of nature.
Daisy knelt beside me. She was ten again. My version of her.
“I’ll live in your memories of me.” She smiled. “Talk about me, think about me, think about every beautiful moment we shared until we see each other again.”
The crowd parted. I staggered to where her body lay, removed the blanket, placed her frail little frame in the grave.
My mother’s box was glued shut and I had to use the pickaxe to break the seal. I searched her out for final assurance but she was in no mood to discuss.
“I’ll keep her company.” She pointed sternly at the ground.
She blew me a kiss. I poured her ashes into the grave beside the body.
They were holding hands. I told them I loved them, then started filling the hole. My mother disappeared first, winking out like she had been turned off by a switch.
Daisy faded slowly with every turn of the spade until her smiling face finally vanished.
The ghosts dispersed, each one coming by to pass on encouragement, to pass a phantom hand through my back, or to pantomime
I loaded the tools, disguised the grave with palm fronds and walked past the family plot, into the woods. There was a soothing, low thrum coming from the east. Through the trees I found a thin line of beach. The tide was going out. I took my shoes off and sat at the edge of the surf.
I knew then that I would stay there and would never go back to my wife. There was something about that part of the Earth that was magical for me, for us, and I didn’t feel the need to have any of it explained. I felt it was my job to protect it, to find someone else who would see to it that I was placed there when my time came. I was still young. Maybe I could even create that person. The way I had a hand in creating Daisy.
I buried my feet in the sand and watched the sun drop beyond the horizon. And when I could no longer see the sun in the sky, the beauty of the sunset reminded me that, although the sun was gone, I would see it again.
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