Sacred Ground

Lacy Arnett

00:00 / 00:00

In the kitchen, above his basement bedroom, Alex hears voices. His mother’s, mainly—going on about the plot of graves behind the barn.

“Died of Typhoid Fever all in the same week,” she is saying now. “The mother and her three little ones.”

It’s close to noon, but Alex is still in bed. He props himself onto his elbows to listen, wondering who upstairs wouldn’t have already heard the story a hundred times.

“My grandpa just had to start over. Married a young girl and had ten children by her, so that you’d never know he’d had the three before. Dad here’s the youngest of those, aren’t you, Dad?” This last part she yells; Alex’s grandpa is 83 and hard of hearing. “Sometimes I think about that first family. How Dad wouldn’t be here if they weren’t laying out there. It sets my head whirling, I can tell you.”

There are footsteps. The slam of the back screen door. Alex swings his legs onto the floor—searching the sea of strewn clothing for a pair of pants to pull on. He crushes a cracker with his heel as he stands. He has asked Rosalie, his grandpa’s live-in caretaker, to give his room a once over, thinking she might change the bed sheets, too. Or at least gather up the dishes: plates from late-night microwaved nachos he brings down to the basement.

“I’m a nurse,” she tells him. “Not a maid.”

Alex doesn’t see much difference. “If we’re paying her to sit around playing solitaire while Grandpa naps, she might as well vacuum once in a while,” he tells his mother.

“It’s the way you’re asking,” his mother says. “The Sioux don’t like to be ordered around. It reminds them too much of the old days. And, anyway, Rosalie is superstitious about basements.”

But Alex knows that she’s been down in his room at least once to recover a half empty bottle of muscle relaxers he’d taken from his grandpa’s bedroom. Probably, Alex thinks, for herself.

Upstairs, Rosalie leans over the kitchen sink, washing out the old man’s lunch dishes, her coarse black hair braided and hanging loosely down her back. Alex has never seen hair so long on a woman this old—his mother’s age, at least. His girlfriend back in Sioux Falls, Dottie, has long hair, too. Before they moved away, he gave her lifts to the high school and would sometimes wait outside her house for over half an hour, just so she could curl her frayed ends. Now that he lives in Dell Rapids, he drives to school alone. Twenty miles away, Dottie rides the bus.

Alex pours himself a bowl of cereal and sits at the table, a cracked, dark oak surface nobody bothers to cover. The yellow laminate floor peels up at the table legs. Alex’s mother has taped these pieces down, worried her father might trip. Now the edges on the tape have begun to curl, too.

Alex’s grandfather sits across from him. Hunched forward in a flannel button-up shirt, looking bony and uncomfortable.

He sees his mother through the window, near the barn, dressed in a skirt and heels, stumbling in the soft ground, pointing at the sunken markers. A man wearing shorts and a long-sleeved dress shirt—the clothing of a hippie professional, Alex thinks—trails her, snapping pictures.

“Who’s that?” he asks Rosalie.

She carries a damp rag from the sink to wipe his grandfather’s face. It scrapes across his whiskers. “He’s with some magazine. Wants pictures for an article.”

Alex grunts. When they’d first arrived, he’d had the thought to turn the place into a haunted house. Set up a maze in the barn and lead kids into the graveyard. Charge 15 bucks a head. His mother refused. Didn’t want teenagers running across the graves, or shrieking so close to the house, or sneaking up to the barn loft for sex. Now here she was, tromping over the family plots, eager to have the old place splattered all over some newsletter.

Rosalie begins the task of pulling the old man up from his chair. He straightens slowly, looking at Rosalie with an urgent expression that remains even after she pulls him around the corner to the living room, where he’ll spend the rest of the afternoon sunk into a recliner, watching westerns.

“The Sioux used to set their dead on scaffolds,” Rosalie says when she comes back to the kitchen.

Alex slurps the milk from his bowl without looking up.

“Or in trees.” She dries the cups with a towel and stacks them onto the countertop. “They’d wrap them up and wait for their flesh to disappear. Then they’d bury the bones.”

Alex doesn’t like this kind of Sioux talk. The way Rosalie brags about freakish traditions.

“They buried their possessions, too. Their valuables. To take with them to the next life.”

“Sounds pretty ignorant to me.”

Rosalie ignores him. “They’ve found gold in some of those graves. Nuggets men used to find in the mines. Arrowheads, too. Worth money now. It makes me wonder about your great grandpa. Whether he put any of that down there with first wife.”

“Why would he?” Alex gets up and drops his plastic bowl into the sink. He is standing close to her now, scrutinizing her pastel scrubs, her pockmarked cheeks, her top lip, puckered to a point—a soft beak that hangs between her two front teeth when she speaks.

“Mapiya is a Sioux name,” she says.

“So?” Alex thinks Rosalie is cozy enough around the place without spinning links in their heritage. She’s a woman full stories. Full of lies. Up in her gable room one weekend when she’d gone back home to Sioux Falls, he’d once found half a dozen 40-ounce bottleneck jugs of Listerine under the bed.

Alex had been strangely satisfied to see them there. To know that despite her being above dusting his bedroom, this was how she spent her evenings after helping his grandpa to bed—chugging down mouthwash. He took a bottle for himself, able only to swallow a third as he sat on the edge of her iron-poster bed. Later, down in his basement room, he vomited the stuff.

He walks past Rosalie, out of the kitchen and past his grandpa in the living room. When Alex was younger and his grandma was still alive, he and his mom would drive up to visit his grandparents on weekends. He remembers hiding in the shade of the largest grave marker. Thinking that the word Mapiya—crudely carved into the wood, the indents blunted by time and weather—was a secret code. A message meant for him; sent by people in the past. But no, if Rosalie was right, Mapiya was nothing but an old Sioux name.

∗    ∗    ∗

When Sandra finished showing the man—a Bruce Willigens from Nebraska—around the place, she invited him in for coffee.

“No, thank you,” he said. But wondered whether he could take a few more photos of the grounds. He was young—in his early thirties, maybe—with thick blonde hair thatching his arms and springing out of his buttoned shirt. Hair everywhere but up top, where it most counted. This he countered with a ponytail.

“I grew up here,” Sandra told him. “But I’ve been away. My son and I moved back about a year ago to help with my father.”

Bruce crouched low, close to the grave of the youngest child—a two-year-old boy, going by the weathered dates on the wood. He worked for a small history magazine. That’s what he’d told her on the phone when he’d called last week.

He was interested in shots for an upcoming piece on unique burial sites. For an article centering on the ethics of moving graves for the sake of ground water safety.

Or something like that. Sandra couldn’t remember all the details.

After his call, she’d gone to the branch library to check his credentials on the internet. He could have been anyone, after all. A crook wanting to stake the place out for an upcoming robbery, maybe. But she found him listed as staff on the Public Record Magazine website and saw also that one of his photographs had appeared in National Geographic in the early 90s. Meaning, now that she saw him, that he must have been an early talent. She wondered whether the acceptance of his photo in such a prestigious place had bolstered his career. Maybe even launched it altogether. She believed such things—things like good careers—to be mostly due to luck. She clicked the link to the photograph: a silhouetted bird, a simple, shadowy figure against water, and felt proved right. Talent was a matter of timing.

“I could get my father out here if you like. My son, too. Maybe do a generational shot?”

She imagined herself posed: hands clasped at her still-thin waist, positioned between her bent father and slouching son. Shorter than them both, a bright contrast in her lilac tweed suit. If he waited until the sun went down, the sky might go a deep orange. Or pink, maybe. She’d seen fold-out photos like this in other magazines—enhanced on the glossy page—and it thrilled her to think that her face might appear on some stranger’s coffee table as he flipped open to the article and read the caption beneath the photo. Left to right: Beesom, Sandra, and Alexander Schoenberger pose near the family graveyard, where four of their predecessors were buried after a local typhoid fever epidemic in 1919.

“I think we’re all right,” the photographer said. “Unless you want me to take one just for you.”

Sandra lifted her hand to her eyes to block the sun, watching Bruce work. At the least, she thought, there would have to be a byline. A tag somewhere. Something identifying this place with her surname. “When will this come out?” she asked.

He stood from his squat in the grass. “We’ll see,” he said. “Might not get in at all. Some things don’t.”

∗    ∗    ∗

The trailer is dark when Alex pulls up. Marcus keeps it this way on purpose. To save on electricity. Keep the place low profile. Alex is coming from work, an afterschool job detailing cars at a garage. Marcus worked there, too, before he got fired. Alex is delivering a load: gasoline, batteries, disposable face masks—stolen supplies for the meth lab in Marcus’ back room. Marcus’ wife, Heidi, goes out to stores in town for the rest, taking along her kids to avoid too much suspicion. She buys diapers and cough syrup. Candy and cough syrup. Beer, fingernail polish, Kleenex, and cough syrup.

He climbs the wooden porch. Heidi lets him in. Her two girls sit facing the television, perched on separate piles of laundry, their downy hair reflecting the blue of the screen. The trailer floor is littered with soda cans and cigarette ash, which sometimes shows up on the girls’ feet and faces.

After being fired from the garage, Marcus struck a deal with Alex to bring over whatever he can sneak away. Alex is eager for the extra cash, and bored, besides.

When the arrangement had started four months ago, Marcus’ daughter—the younger one, always half naked, lugging a bottle of milk—had pierced her foot on the sharp angle of a flattened can. While Heidi held her, Alex began gathering the cans to throw into the trash.

“Wait a minute.” Heidi, a heavyset blonde, set the bawling girl down and struggled off the couch. “There’s money to be had in those.” She brought him a garbage bag from beneath the kitchen sink and helped him fill it. Then set it in the corner, between the couch and the wall.

Alex sees it now, stuffed to capacity and spilling out onto the floor.

“Marcus is out,” Heidi says, clearing a spot on the kitchen counter for the box.

What bothers Alex more than Heidi’s laziness, more than the state of the trailer, are the children. The oldest girl, especially. It’s her unnaturally pale eyes, he thinks. A dead sort of blue color that takes Alex by surprise every time he sees her. And the way, unprovoked, she sometimes shoves her sister, who lands softly, sinking as if on an airbag in her sagging diaper.

He has told his girlfriend Dottie about them over the phone. “Someone should get those girls taken out of there.”

But Dottie, who grew up in foster care, who now lives in a group home, insists that they’re better off where they are. Alex wonders how that can be, considering the state of the trailer—the walls shredded in places by cats. The back room a volatile lab. Still, he never asks about Dottie’s childhood. Likely molested by some foster cousins. He doesn’t want to know.

“He coming back soon?” Alex asks.

Heidi shakes her head. She is wearing one of Marcus’ t-shirts—too small for her. Taut on her bulging belly and breasts. He thinks of the mounds in the back plot at home. How, with the recent rain, the ground will be soft enough to break through. How Rosalie will have left for Sioux Falls for the weekend by now. How his grandpa can’t get up out of bed on his own.

“You got any sleeping pills?” Alex suddenly asks.

She takes a bottle from the counter. She is a self-proclaimed insomniac; Alex thinks she just swallows too much meth. “Nothing works for me anymore,” she says. “But I cut them up into bits for the girls nights they won’t go to bed. Why?” she asks, handing him the bottle. “Can’t you sleep?”

But Alex isn’t listening; he’s thinking now of Mapiya’s bones. Of the gold his great grandfather might have buried with them and what it will bring pawned.

Heidi gives him his bag of meth crystals. Payment for delivery. He crushes and snorts it there on her filthy countertop, his head full of the adrenaline of possibility.

∗    ∗    ∗

Sandra sat on her father’s bed—hers now; the guest bed was shorter, easier for him to be lowered onto. On the television was a woman named Annie Maddox, who’d grown up in Dell Rapids. Sandra had gone to school with her and remembered Annie for the way she’d held her clarinet reed in her mouth during band. Lips puckered and slobbering, trying to look sexy.

She was older now, like Sandra. Wrinkled through her stage makeup. Playing somebody’s mother in a cable movie about a girl gone missing at eighteen. Sandra had seen it before; she had taped every one of Annie’s television appearances. But even her first time watching, she knew how the story would end. The girl had to be found. Why else would they have bothered with a movie?

Rosalie rapped at the door with lunch: ham sandwich and potato salad.

“Is Dad sleeping?” Sandra asked.

Rosalie nodded. She’d been hired by Sandra’s father at the start of his decline, just after his wife died, to make his meals and keep the floors swept. As he deteriorated, Rosalie moved into the upstairs gable room. Bathed and fed him. Changed his catheter. Sat up nights to make sure he didn’t get into the kitchen knives; his medication gave him terrible hallucinations.

Before she and Alex had moved in nine months ago, Sandra had wondered whether there wasn’t something going on between them. It was the main reason she’d come when she had—to make sure Rosalie hadn’t coaxed her father into changing his will. Annie Maddox, in fact, had been in a movie like that. The friend of a woman accused of manipulating an old man’s affections. But a week home showed that Rosalie was benign and dispassionate, almost detached. A relief, really.

She set the plate in front of Sandra and took a seat in the wicker chair beside the bed.

“Do you remember me telling you about Annie Maddox?” Sandra asked, nodding toward the screen.

“No,” Rosalie said.

Sandra could never read Rosalie. She was too stone faced. Unsmiling. Even during the late night shows they sometimes watched together in the front room. Some evenings Rosalie would join her, others, she’d stay shut up in her room. And yet, other times, like now, she’d spontaneously fix Sandra lunch. Sit next to her in the wicker chair like they were good friends.

“She was that girl from Dell Rapids. Got discovered at Nalleys when the arcade in the corner was used as a stage. Some talent scout was in the audience one night, in town visiting his aunt. Took her back with him to L.A . Got her on the Ed Sullivan show once as a backup singer. She doesn’t sing much anymore, though. Just these bit parts.

Rosalie grunted.

“I used to sing at Nalleys around the same time. I stopped when I got pregnant with Alex. His father didn’t like me going out much at night. Didn’t want me turning out like our friend, Connie, who kept her baby in a play pen by the side of the pool table. But people used to say I had a good voice. Better than Annie’s, even.”

After a moment, Rosalie spoke. “I used up all the mayonnaise,” she said.

Sandra took a bite of the salad. Too glommy.

“So, what happened?” Rosalie asked.

Sandra traced the stitching on the bed quilt. “She stayed out there. Married some kind of TV producer, so he has to give her something, I’m sure. I’ve never thought she was any special talent myself.”

“I meant,” Rosalie said, “what happened with Alex’s father?”

“Oh. He walked out just after Alex was born.”

Rosalie nodded slowly, her face toward the television. “I have a son like that. Without a father.”

This was the first Sandra had heard about it. “An older boy?” she asked. She hadn’t been able to fix Rosalie’s age. She could be like Sandra, in her 40s. Or she might be a decade older.

“He’s fourteen. Stays with my sister during the week.”

Sandra wasn’t close to her own son, but he’d always lived with her. She imagined Rosalie’s son looking up from the couch when his mother came through the door on Friday evenings, saying hello as casually as he might to a television repairman, having probably inherited his mother’s expressionless ways.

∗    ∗    ∗

Alex calls Dottie on the drive home. “There’s a chance I’ll be coming into some money. A real good chance.”

“Your grandpa die?”

“If I get it, I’m coming back to Sioux Falls. I’m going to take you someplace far away. Someplace nice.”

“Like Nebraska?” Dottie spent a summer there with one of her foster families. It’s the only place she’s ever been.

“Someplace better than Nebraska,” Alex tells her, thinking of Montana. Or California, if his car will make it that far.

∗    ∗    ∗

Downstairs, Alex smashes up the sleeping pills—a more difficult job than he’s expected—with the butt of a butcher knife and then stirs them into his mother’s drink with the blade to dissolve the bigger bits before bringing it upstairs. Wine from a bottle in the pantry.

“To celebrate,” he tells her.

She is in her bedroom, wearing her flannel robe, working out a Sudoku puzzle.

“Celebrate what?”

“Dottie,” Alex says. “To Dottie’s pregnancy.”

It’s not a lie, exactly. Dottie thought once last year that she might have been pregnant, but nothing ever came of it. He doesn’t feel guilt about his mother’s drink; she’ll come into her inheritance once her father dies. Any day now, by the looks of his grandpa. Alex, on the other hand, will have to wait years for an inheritance. If he gets one at all.

Sandra sets down her pencil, widens her eyes and drinks. “This will change everything.” She is referring to Alex’s life, but thinking also about logistics. Wondering whether Dottie will come to live in Dell Rapids. Whether she will think that Sandra will be the primary sitter, having no mother of her own to ask. It seems unfair to have to take on a baby now, with the magazine article coming out. There might be others—curious historians wanting to see the place. Tourists, maybe. And she doesn’t want to miss what might be her last chance at the spotlight.

Now she feels overwhelmed and lightheaded. “Did you know Rosalie has a son?” she asks him. “Practically just a baby himself. Maybe she’ll bring him up here, too. We’ll be like one big family.” She is slurring now. Alex takes her glass before she spills what’s left onto her bedcover.

∗    ∗    ∗

At two feet down, Alex hits a burlap bag. He is sweating and tired. The ground is harder than he thought, and the weight of the shovel burns his shoulders. He drops down to dig by hand; along with gold, Mapiya may have been buried with china dishes. But the bag is flat. Empty. He turns it upside down and shakes what little dirt it contains onto his shoes, then hurriedly kicks it off in case Typhoid Fever, like treasure, can reemerge.

On the opposite side of the property, a line of trees sways with the light wind. In the dark, he imagines their branches lashed with dead Sioux. Rosalie’s ancestors, taunting him. He imagines, too, his grandpa at the window. His face like the one in the young photo of himself on the downstairs mantle, the one that is so like Alex.

He has had too much to drink, he thinks. Shouldn’t have finished off that bottle of pantry wine. He is too disoriented to dig any farther. To see if what Rosalie said about nuggets and arrowheads is true. He leaves the grave as it is, not even half dug, hoping, at the least, to offend Rosalie, who probably considers anyplace an old Sioux is buried as sacred ground.

He’ll go to Sioux Falls, anyway, he thinks. Take Dottie away with him, even if it’s just to the Antler Motel outside of Teacup.

∗    ∗    ∗

Sandra woke up with a headache. For a moment, she thought she smelled eggs cooking but then remembered it was Saturday. Rosalie wouldn’t be home and Alex never woke up before noon. The sun came in bright though the window. She glanced at the clock. 11:30. So maybe it was Alex after all.

How had she slept so late? She stood and had to steady herself on the window frame. It seemed to have rained the night before. Or maybe that morning while she slept. The ground looked fresh out in the graveyard, where she and the photographer had walked yesterday.

“I never knew my grandpa,” she had told him, “but I try to put myself in his shoes. To think about what it must have been like to live in a time when a thing so small as a fever could wipe out your past completely.” She paused, thinking he might jot it down to quote in the article. But Bruce stayed squatted, shuffling, crablike, through the grass, occasionally pressing his shutter button, seeming not to have heard her at all.

She sat back on the bed, her head reeling, and suddenly remembered her dream from the night before. Annie Maddox, in a white, low-cut dress, pulling a small baby out from her cleavage on a chain. A pendant. The baby sang out until Annie pulled it off her neck and handed it to Sandra.

It disturbed her to recall it now, but the feeling at the time had been one of triumph. In the dream, the baby was something she’d wanted. And despite her grogginess, she felt a residue of joy. A consolation in Annie Maddox’s success, in Rosalie’s apathetic presence. A temporary peace, even, with her coming grandchild. Or was Alex’s announcing Dottie’s pregnancy part of the dream, too? No. That part, she felt sure, had most certainly been real.


ART: Zachary Tate Porter, Jeannie Vanasco

FICTION: Katya Apekina, John Henry Fleming, Lacy Arnett, Claire Harlan Orsi, Chantel Tattoli

NONFICTION: Emily Carr, Nancy Singleton Hachisu, Johanna Stoberock, Steve Wasserman

POETRY: Janelle Adsit, Ryan Bender-Murphy, Monica Berlin & Beth Marzoni, Dan Chelotti, Lisa Ciccarello, Christopher DeWeese, Elisa Gabbert & Kathleen Rooney, Tyler Gobble, Fanny Howe, Lo Kwa Mei-en, Nick Lantz, Matthew Lippman, Aditi Machado, Alice Miller, Marc Paltrineri, Christopher Rey Pérez, Allan Peterson, Jessica Poli, Lynne Potts, Dan Rosenberg, M. C. Rush, Ed Skoog, Cindy St. John, Russel Swensen, Emily Toder, Laurie Saurborn Young

00:00 / 00:00