Where It’s Buried
By Denise H. Long
One night in mid-October, Libby buried the ashes of her daughter in the backyard.
She’d said the wrong thing to Aaron—again—and he’d stormed out of the house. Sometimes Libby’s words tumbled out before she could catch them. And it had never taken much to send Aaron shooting out the door. She knew he’d return before sunrise, bloodshot and haggard, but still there.
After he was gone, Libby stared out into the backyard, watching the sun set beyond the branches of the little crabapple tree in their yard. Not long later, she found herself behind their house with a shovel, a flashlight, and a half-empty bottle of cheap wine. As she pushed into the dirt, feeling it relent and move and shift, her shoulders and back began to ache, and it felt good. The energy thrumming through her body was being pushed into the ground and with each pull of the earth, she felt a little more of herself break free.
When she was done, she smoothed the sod back over the hole. In the beam of her flashlight, the outline of where she’d buried the box seemed clear, and she planned to mark the spot in the morning.
Each time her mind wandered to what Aaron might say, she shoved the thought back down, covering it in the relief she finally felt settling in her bones. If he wanted to keep walking out each time things turned tough, he didn’t get to have any say.
Years earlier, the box had bounced from place to place throughout their house for weeks after their daughter had been born, and died. In time, the small purple box had come to rest on the back shelf in Libby’s closet. It’s smooth, shiny surface—a perfect square cube—looked perpetually new, even though it was covered in dust.
Aaron suggested putting the ashes in an urn or some sort of container. Something decorative and portable with a lid that would stay in place. “Where exactly do you plan on ‘taking’ her, Aaron? Sight-seeing? The father-daughter dance?” The words felt comical in her mind, but hanging in their air between them, she heard the sharpness of their edges. She had stared at her glass after saying them, wondering if maybe she should have bit her tongue this time.
Aaron had sighed and grabbed a beer from the fridge. “You can put them wherever you want. You’ll change your mind in a week anyway.”
But the box had settled in the back of the closet, where it would stay until the night she took it to the backyard.
The morning after she buried the box, Libby saw that Aaron’s side of the bed had been slept in, but he was already gone from their room. She’d never heard him come in during the night, but it must have been after she’d put the shovel and the flashlight away. After she’d closed the garage, locked the back door, tucked her empty bottle into the trash, and crept up to her room to revel in knowing the closet was empty. She fell asleep with her back to the window that overlooked the backyard.
When Libby sat up in bed, the room felt too bright, the light shattered through the blinds in piercing white. A surprise October snow blanketed the world outside her window. Libby sprang out of bed and pulled open the curtains, admiring the silence and beauty of the white covering every inch of their yard and the rooftops nearby. But then she realized that her daughter’s ashes, tucked hastily into the ground the night before, were now covered in a thick blanket of snow.
There was no way of seeing where the box was buried. She had only the vaguest notion of where she had been in the dark.
Libby and Aaron had never planned to have a baby. Getting married alone had been a lark. They’d known each other since college, part of a group of friends who frequented the same trashy bars out near the highway. The two had laughed at the same jokes and had the same calculus professor and one night, they stumbled home together and it just became a habit. Neither one had much in the way of family so not expecting much from the other came naturally.
They’d never even been on a real date before the weekend they became man and wife. Over Labor Day weekend, they’d been camping near Festus Lake and on the second day, and the second keg, everyone started talking about the nearby chapel that also served as a liquor store. Nobody knew anyone who’d ever been married there, and they all agreed it’d be a funny story to share.
Aaron was never one to back down from a dare. He turned to Libby and said, “Well, I’m done with beer and ready for some hard stuff. What do you say?”
She’d laughed, made him promise to buy some wine too, and off they went. The following Monday morning, the car ride back home was silent and stale. Neither one knowing if the other had meant what they’d done. Aaron had dropped Libby off at her apartment, given her a hug and a kiss, and she thought to herself, Well that’s that. But a few weeks later, Aaron showed up at Libby’s apartment with a pair of cheap gold rings and a carload of his stuff. A year after that, they had bought their house.
The morning after the snow, Libby hid upstairs until she heard Aaron’s car back down the drive. He was on Saturday duty at the tutoring center and would be gone most of the day, proctoring exams and helping students. Libby forced herself into the backyard. She walked circles, her feet crunching on melting snow. The sun was bright and warm and all the snow was slush already. She scanned the yard, trying to remember where exactly she’d been in the dark, looking for spots where the ground looked different, overturned—but she found nothing.
She somewhat remembered brushing away crabapples before digging, so she started looking near where its trunk rose from the ground. But now, all the earth around the tree was sodden and warped. The grass poking through was mashed and the color of straw, and she couldn’t fathom where she had been when she’d started digging.
She slumped down and leaned against the small trunk of the tree.
Aaron had gone to the plant nursery and a few weeks after the baby. He’d not said a word beforehand, and at first, Libby bristled at the idea. Aaron had planted the tree himself, digging smooth quick strokes into the soft earth. First he had asked Libby where she thought it should go.
“Anywhere,” she’d said. “I don’t care.”
“Well, it should have full sun. And be in a spot with good draining.”
Aaron, who knew nothing about plants, was obviously repeating what someone had told him. “I just thought we could use something to look at.”
He gazed up at the second story window, as if waiting for someone to yell down to him, give him direction or a sense of what to do next.
His eyes darted everywhere but Libby’s face, and she realized he had that same look she’d been seeing for weeks—on the edge of rage or tears. She couldn’t decide which she wished it wouldn’t be.
“It was nice idea, Aaron. Thoughtful.” She tried. “Something simple that doesn’t require a lot of work. I know how busy things have been.”
“Have you been busy, Aaron? Doing what?” Libby asked.
“The nursery said they’re resistant to disease. Things like fire blight, powdery mildew—they’ll hardly bother this one. It’s strong and hardy. That’s what the guy said.”
“I guess that’s what we need.”
She convinced herself that if she just walked over every inch of space, she would know the right spot. It would feel more solid. Or less solid. Or something. She began in one corner of the yard and walked heel-to-toe the entire length of the yard, pausing with each step to see what her foot could feel. She wiggled her toes in her shoes and tried to feel deep into the ground beneath them. When she reached the opposite side, she’d turn and start a path back the other way precisely beside the path she’d just made, leaving a trail of flattened snow in her wake.
She spent hours tightrope-walking across her backyard. At one point, she slipped off her shoes and socks, thinking barefoot would give her an even greater sense of what lay beneath. But the snow numbed her feet and she realized how impossible it would be to explain away frostbite on her toes.
Before Libby had gotten pregnant, both of their drinking had gotten a bit out of control. They’d both liked to have a good time, but as more and more of their friends settled into lives that involved Little League and PTA, theirs continued to be filled with Monday mornings that came too soon with headaches and black spots of time from the last two days. Through the week, they’d tiptoe around one another, Libby sure she’d said something she shouldn’t and Aaron sure he’d spent too much time looking at or talking to some other girl.
By Thursday night, though, they’d find their way back to pushing their bodies against one another in the night, ignoring anything that might have happened and ready to go through the same motions again.
When Libby found out she was pregnant, Aaron vowed to stop drinking, rising to the idea instantly when Libby showed him the positive test.
“Solidarity,” he’d said. “Let’s do this.” As if becoming a father was some new dare he wanted to conquer.
Libby wasn’t quite so prepared. “We don’t know the first thing about being a family, Aaron. This wasn’t part of the plan.”
“We had a plan?” Aaron asked, laughing.
“Maybe not,” Libby said. “But I sure as hell didn’t sign up for this. And I’m not.”
But Aaron showed up the next day with a onesie and bibs and a stuffed pig he called “Pumpkin,” and Libby thought maybe she’d give this a try too.
When she couldn’t find the spot where she’d buried the box in the backyard, Libby threw herself into cooking supper. Something she hadn’t done in weeks. And, later, while watching Aaron twist strings of spaghetti around his fork, Libby brought up the box without even realizing she would. The words slipped past her lips before she could stop them. A reckless train in the room.
“Aaron, do you ever think about when we picked up the ashes? At the funeral home?”
Aaron set down his fork and swallowed.
Libby went on, talking about the attendant bringing out the box, which had been so much smaller than expected. Libby had lifted it from the counter, sure it was empty and that there had been some sort of mistake.
The attendant was an awkward young woman, terrified when Libby turned toward her with questioning eyes. “Smaller bodies mean fewer ashes,” she’d muttered, to everyone in the room’s horror.
Libby’d fled out of the building, leaving Aaron to carry the box. His fingertips barely touched it on the way to the car, as if it might burn him if he held on too tight. From the front seat, Libby had closed her eyes and taken deep breaths to calm the pounding in her chest, listening to the back door open, buckles snap, a door close. Then, Aaron slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine.
Just before he backed out of their parking space, Libby had turned to see that he’d fastened the box into the car seat they hadn’t yet removed from the back. When Libby gasped, Aaron suddenly realized what he’d done and, in spite of everything, he’d laughed.
And Libby had laughed too.
“Do you remember that, Aaron? The laughing?”
“I do...” He sat for a few moments, quiet. “I remember feeling like I was going insane. I mean, who does that? It felt horrible, and I think I laughed because I wasn’t sure what else to do.”
“What else were we supposed to do, though?”
Aaron’s brow drew together and his lips slid into a tight smooth line. “But, I thought I’d gone to the funeral home by myself that day. Didn’t you stay home?”
“No, Aaron. I was with you.”
Aaron’s eyes dropped to his plate and Libby waited to see what he’d say next. A moment later, his fork made its way back to his mouth, his jaw clenched in a bite. Libby closed her eyes, listening to the sound of him chewing, and then she took her plate to the sink and silently left the room.
Aaron didn’t leave that night, although Libby kept waiting. From their bed, where she lay trying to read a book, she strained to hear the back door slam and his car tires crunch their way out to the street. When she realized he might not go, she waited to hear him popping open a bottle of beer or mixing a drink downstairs, but it was only quiet.
When she couldn’t bear it any longer, she crept down the stairs and found him lying on the sofa, a worn afghan tucked up to his chin.
She knelt beside the couch and shook his arm. When he finally pulled his eyes open, he sat up and stared at her, fear skittering behind his tired eyes.
“I need to tell you something,” she said.
“I buried it.”
“The box. I buried the box. In the backyard.”
Aaron’s brow furrowed until recognition drew it back apart. “You buried it? In the backyard? When?”
“Last night. Before the snow.”
Aaron’s mouth gaped as words formed in his mind then stopped and reformed and stopped again—nothing ever coming out. He sprang from the couch and went up the stairs, two at a time. She knew her saying it wouldn’t be enough. He had to see that it was gone for himself.
When he came back downstairs, he stared at the floor just to the left of the spot where she sat.
“I buried it, Aaron.”
“I heard you. Where?”
She sighed. “In the backyard.”
“I know in the backyard,” he bit off each word as if it were stuck in his teeth. “Where in the backyard?”
“Well, that’s the thing. It snowed. And I didn’t mark it. Now I don’t know for sure where I was. I tried to find it. I did. But I can’t figure out where it is. I’ll find it, though. It’s just going to take time and we might have to wait until after all the snow melts, a few days maybe…” The words tumbled from her mouth like a waterfall, and she waited for the relief she thought she would feel.
“Was anyone with you when you did this?”
“What? No. Of course not.”
“You did this alone? Just decided to bury our daughter’s ashes in the backyard? Without talking to me? Or anyone?”
His words were icy. She shivered and nodded because there really didn’t seem to be anything left to say.
He shook his head and walked out of the room.
Libby and Aaron’s daughter had been born in early spring. Late one night, she’d felt a rush of wetness flooding the bed between her legs. Reaching out to grab for Aaron, she’d whispered, “It’s time.” But he wasn’t there. She’d found him downstairs, dozing in front of the TV, a small glass dangling from his fingers, melting ice tremoring in amber.
“It’s time, Aaron,” she’d shouted. The frantic pitch of her voice sounded foreign and new.
Aaron stretched and shifted in his chair. “I’ll be up in a minute, Lib. I’m comfortable here.”
“No, Aaron. It’s time. The baby.”
He’d jerked to his feet and the glass had slipped from his fingers, splashing the carpet near Libby’s feet. She’d waited in the car while he cleaned up his mess.
At a stop light between their house and the hospital, Aaron had leaned over and kissed Libby’s cheek. He’d pulled Libby’s hand to his lips, smiled and then placed it on her lap. Libby had run her hand across her swollen belly, the tension of the skin frightening in its stillness. She tried to remember the last time she’d felt the baby move, but chased those thoughts away. Telling herself the feeling was normal. Just nerves.
When the baby was delivered, the room had suddenly gone quiet. Silence crowded out the sound of the monitors and the occasional rush and whir of the oxygen. The doctor stood, cradling a tiny baby in her arms—this black and blue little girl who wasn’t crying. Who wasn’t breathing. Who wasn’t anything but still. The doctor tenderly cleaned the baby herself—not the nurse, not the assistant. She cleaned the tiny, silent girl and wrapped her gently and brought her to her mother. Libby clutched the little body so close to her chest, so close to her heart, as if she could somehow pull her back into her body. But a part of her wondered if that wasn’t a very safe place to be.
In the middle of the night, after Libby had told Aaron about burying the box, she again crept into the backyard with a flashlight. She pulled the shovel back down from its hook in the garage, feeling the weight of its metal and wood. She touched the dirt along its edge and told herself that even if her feet didn’t know, maybe the shovel would. She still had no idea where to start digging. But she wasn’t giving up this time.
When dawn broke and dim light filtered through the tree and into the yard, Libby felt eyes upon her, but she kept digging.
Aaron came out the back door. He stalked through the yard, past Libby, and headed straight for the garage.
“Don’t go now, Aaron. I know it’s a mess, but I’ll fix the yard.” She didn’t want Aaron to leave like this. This couldn’t be the moment he left for good.
But, without a word, he returned from the garage holding the small gardening shovel. He found a section of the yard that Libby hadn’t yet touched, dropped to his knees and began to dig.
Together, yet apart, they destroyed their suburban backyard in silence. Their fingers turned black and the slop of the melting snow left them shivering and numb. For hours, they pushed into the ground, using what strength they had to make the hard cold ground break free. The dirt heaped into sloppy piles beside each hole, and sometimes they used their fingers to feel gently into a well-dug hole for the smooth lid of the box.
“It has to be here,” Libby muttered. “It can’t be that deep. We’ll find it.”
“I know,” Aaron said.
The determination in his voice washed over Libby and she felt a bit of warmth as the early morning sun peered through the clouds.
Libby stopped digging for a moment and turned to Aaron, watching his face tense as his arms pulled and gripped at the ground. She looked at the tree that he’d buried and how it was growing above him, the limbs and branches stretching across the sky. She stood and took a step toward him, weighing her words with thought.
“What if we don’t, Aaron? What if we never find the box? What if it’s just gone? Can that happen?”
Aaron sat back on his heels and stared at her. He looked at her so intently and for so long, she was suddenly aware of the dirt and mud covering her clothes and the sweat matting her hair. A part of her wanted to turn away, to go back inside, take a shower and pour a glass of wine —to convince herself none of this ever happened. But first, she wanted to hear what Aaron would say.
“Anything can happen, Libby.”
He turned to a new section of ground and cleared away more slush and ice making a spot for his shovel to pierce.
Quietly, Libby crept to where he was poised over the untouched ground. She pushed her shovel into the dirt and began digging again beside him.