By Karen Brode
Opal traipsed ahead of her sisters in her white night-gown. She glanced back at Cleo and Jewel, who followed reluctantly.
“C’mon, slow pokes,” Opal whispered. She glanced up at the full moon and then back to the uncertain faces of her sisters. “It’s almost midnight and I’m not telling this story if we’re not at the cemetery by then.”
Opal had insisted that her story should take place in the local cemetery at midnight. She was 13 and almost an adult. She knew better than either of her sisters how to tell a good story. Jewel was only 11 years old and had lived in Opal’s shadow all her life. It was easy to get her to follow orders, but Cleo was her own person and she rarely let Opal – or anyone else – make her feel inadequate.
Come to think of it, Cleo was a tough nut all the way around. Of all the sisters, Cleo acted the most like a boy. She could climb trees and run faster than most of the boys at school. Although Opal tried to explain that boys weren’t attracted to girls who climbed trees and ran fast, Cleo insisted on doing it anyway. Her independence drove Opal a little nuts, but for now she knew she had both Cleo and Jewel right where she wanted.
“I’m so glad the moon is full tonight,” she told her sisters. “Why, it’s almost as bright as daylight.”
In Opal’s mind, the conditions were perfect for a story at the cemetery. Not only was it scarier because of what time it was, she could see the fear on Jewel’s face, as well as the annoyance on Cleo’s. Opal knew Cleo resented her needing to tell her story at the cemetery. She could see Cleo wasn’t afraid, but she also knew Cleo just didn’t like the whole idea and that was satisfying enough.
Opal leaned over to look more closely at Cleo’s face. Cleo pulled back and frowned. Opal saw the scratches where tree branches had scratched her sister’s face in several places. This made Opal feel even better. She knew Cleo and Jewel would have a time of it with their mother at breakfast when they tried to explain how they got scratched up, but Opal never had to explain a thing.
Just then an owl flew low and hooted, as if it thought the glow of Jewel’s blonde hair was a meal. Jewel grabbed onto Cleo’s arm and made a little squeal.
“They sound like women screaming,” she said. Her voice quivered as she spoke. Opal knew Jewel was near to tears but there was no going back now. They had reached the clearing right outside the cemetery where she would tell the story.
Opal sat down on the grass and, together, the girls formed a circle when Cleo and Jewel sat down facing each other. Opal’s eyes danced in anticipation of telling the long-awaited story.
She sat in silence taking it all in, building the suspense, until Cleo said in her deadpan voice, “Come on, Opal. Get on with it.”
Opal knew Cleo was just as curious as Jewel, so she said, “If you say one more thing, you are going to have to walk home by yourself and not hear my story!”
Jewel grabbed onto Cleo’s arm. “No! I promise Cleo won’t say anything else.” Jewel’s big round eyes pleaded at Cleo. Her younger sister sighed and nodded.
And so Opal began.
“Do you remember the couple who lived over by the church for awhile?”
Cleo shrugged. “Kind of. Didn’t something happen to them?”
Opal nodded. “Their names were Sarah and Tom.” Opal pointed in the direction of the church which sat on the other side of the cemetery. “They lived just past there.”
“Sarah was pregnant that fall, but it didn’t slow her down in her canning and quilting and housework. She was happier than anyone had ever seen her! She felt the beginnings of life in her belly and nothing could make her sad.
“Her husband, Tom, worked all day at the rail yard. He came home at the end of the day so tired and hungry. Sarah often made a pie to celebrate how happy they were. It was fun to celebrate little milestones in Sarah’s pregnancy: the first time the baby kicked, the first time Tom was able to feel the movements of the baby through his wife’s skin. It brought them so close together that they almost seemed like one person. They finished each other’s sentences, they always knew what the other was thinking. It was an unusual relationship in that way.
“Sarah waltzed around their little house scrubbing everything until it glowed. A happy home and a happy husband, and a baby on the way! She felt as if she alone had been singled out to feel the cup of her life running over with love.”
Jewel let go of Cleo’s arm and seemed to relax.
“She sounds so happy,” she said. “I hope I have a husband like Tom one day.”
Opal nodded and continued.
“The town doctor then was Dr. Pendergrast. He came by and asked Sarah to lie on the bed while he listened to her stomach area with his stethoscope.
“He smiled and said, ‘That heartbeat is strong! The baby is going to be a winner, for sure!’
“Tom shook Dr. Pendergrast’s hand and even hugged the doctor at at the thought of what was coming soon into his already happy life.
“How long do ladies have to be pregnant to have a baby?” Jewel asked.
Opal frowned at the interruption but she enjoyed being the source of all information for Jewel, so she simply said, “Usually around 9 months.”
Jewel sat up straight and pressed her hands to her belly as if trying to imagine how it would feel to have another human inside her body. A few seconds later her face squinted into confusion and she shook her head. Opal, the knowledgable big sister, allowed her to have this moment before continuing on.
On a cold, January night, Sarah woke in great pain. She tried hard not to be loud and wake Tom up, but the pain became too much and she finally yelled out to him.
“What’s wrong honey?” he asked.
Sarah looked at him in the dark. Her eyes were wide and full of fear.
Without hesitation, Tom jumped up and ran to get Doc Pendergrast. The snow was falling hard and thick, but Tom didn’t even notice.
Doc Pendergrast threw on his robe, grabbed his black bag, and headed back to Tom’s house with him. The doctor shivered along the way. It was so cold, but being cold took a backseat to saving Tom’s wife and baby.
By the time they got back to the house, Sarah had fallen onto the floor and was bleeding. Tom ran to her. He cradled her in his arms and rocked her back and forth.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he said, stroking his wife’s hair. “The doctor’s here now. It’s gonna be okay.”
Doc Pendergrast got out his stethoscope. He listened to Sarah’s heart rate and felt of her swollen abdomen. Things were not good. He motioned for Tom to go into the next room.
“The baby is breech,” he said. “I’ll need your help. We have to get the baby turned around.”
Tom fell to his knees and wept. The only thing he knew about breeched babies was what he had heard about others, and not a single one had survived that he knew of.
Doc Pendergrast bent down and shook Tom’s shoulders.
“You can’t do this right now,” he said. “Your wife is in the other room in pain. She needs your help now.”
The two men went back to Sarah. She groaned and cried out in pain. Tom ran to her and held her upper body but he felt completely useless and scared.
Sarah’s cries and writhing went on for about an hour. Dr. Pendergrast tried and tried to get that baby turned around. But after a while, Sarah stopped crying. Her body went limp in Tom’s arms. Slowly, Dr. Pendergrast looked up into Tom’s eyes. He reached for one of Sarah’s hands and felt for a pulse. He stood and pressed his fingers to her neck, willing her heart to keep beating. But he felt nothing.
The doctor placed a hand on Tom’s shoulder and he shook his head.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “She’s gone.”
Tom’s eyes became wild like an animal’s. How could his wife be gone? She was just here, moaning in pain.
He sat up and gently laid Sarah back on the bed, but he refused to believe she was dead. He kissed her on the lips. He shook her shoulders. He lifted her hand to his chest and begged her to wake up. He looked from his wife to Dr. Pendergrast and then he knelt beside her.
“Please come back, Sarah,” he said. “I can’t live without you.”
Dr. Pendergrast knew Tom needed some time to get used to the idea that his wife and unborn child were dead, but it was early January and it was colder than usual. They had two more months of winter ahead. This meant that it was only going to get colder. The ground was only going to become harder. They needed to bury Sarah as soon as possible.
The doctor cleared his throat and tried to be as gentle as possible when he said, “Tom, I’m sorry to say this but we need to get Sarah buried as soon as possible.”
Tom looked up from Sarah’s body, his eyes red from crying. They looked even wilder than before.
“Buried?” He said, his voice rough with emotion. “No. I need more time.” He reached across his wife as if to protect her, to keep her from going anywhere.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “You can’t wait to do this. We’ve got a hard freeze coming. The ground’s going to freeze, too. No one would try to dig a grave in frozen ground.”
“A grave?” Tom stood up so fast that Dr. Pendergrast braced himself for a punch in the jaw, but just as quickly, Tom sank back and fell into the chair nearest him.
“You don’t worry about that right now, Tom. I’ll go talk with Demetrius and see if he can get started on a grave. You stay here. Rest a bit. I’ll be back soon.”
Tom put his head in his hands and wept.
Demetrius was the prime grave-digger in town. He was the only man who could dig a grave completely perfect in an eight-by-four rectangle in a short amount of time. He was was a rough and lonely kind of man. He lived alone in a box car out in the woods not far from town. The only company he kept there was the wooden caskets he built and stored in one end of his box car. Death and the business of death was what he knew best. It is also what put alcohol on his table.
The grave digger could usually be found at the seedy bar over on the east side of town around mid-afternoon. Any other time he was at home sleeping off whatever he drank at the bar. Rumor had it that Demetrius had ten children with a nice lady in the next town but they all hated him because of how he behaved when he drank.
Dr. Pendergrast had never been to Demetrius’ box car but he knew the general direction. He had hoped he could go his whole life without ever needing to visit the man, but now he was forced to go in the middle of a cold winter night. He took a deep breath and banged on the box car, yelling as loud as he could to try to wake Demetrius from his alcohol-fueled coma.
It was a long time before Demetrius came to the door. When he finally did, his eyes were red and bloodshot. Dr. Pendergrast thought briefly about running away. The man looked like a demon in the night.
The doctor forced himself to stay put on Demetrius’s steps and he shivered—out of fear as much as cold—as he told Demetrius what had happened.
The grave digger nodded. His words were slurred and slow. “Yeah. Yeah. I understand you.”
He leaned to one said and, for a minute, Dr. Pendergrast thought the man might fall over. When he came back upright, though, he had a shovel in his hand. “Show me where you want it dug.”
As they walked through the snow, Dr. Pendergrast wondered how many drinks Demetrius had had before he went to bed. Not that he judged the man. No one managed to get through life without a little help. Knowing he was in good company, Dr. Pendergrast took a whiskey flask out of his coat pocket and took several swigs.
He led Demetrius to the spot near Tom’s house where the grave should be dug and then he told the grave digger about Sarah so he could pull a coffin from his boxcar to fit her. Demetrius started digging and Dr. Pendergrast turned to go help Tom prepare is wife for burial.
He fell in the snow twice on his way back to see about Tom. All of his extremities felt frozen solid but at least he had some warmth in his stomach from the whiskey.
Walking along in silence, Dr. Pendergrast’s thoughts fell to Tom and Sarah and then on to his own marriage. His wife wasn’t anything like Sarah. She was judgmental and disappointed in him. But it hadn’t always been like that.
Lily had been the belle of the ball when he met her. Every boy in the county wanted to dance with her and escort her to parties. She looked at him sometimes with fluttering eyelashes as she was whisked off on some other guy’s arm. It had taken him a long time to get his courage up to ask her out, but when he did he realized that he was always the one she wanted. It had made him feel so good, so happy to know that a woman of such high social standing would want anything to do with him.
Things had been so good in the beginning. Lily stayed with him through all the hard years when he barely eked out a living while he was in school to become a doctor. Over time, though, she had come to see him differently. She often looked at him like she didn’t recognize him. In his mind, all she did was judge and resent him.
His family was not wealthy like many of the other guys from medical school. He never took Lily or anyone else home to meet his family. They were all crazy, every single one of them. Everybody but him.
He thought back to his home. He hadn’t been back in decades. Back into his whiskey-muddled mind tumbled thoughts of his life back home. His poor daddy worked other men’s fields to try to put food on the table. His momma sat by a window in the parlor with a wad of snuff in her mouth. She kept a can nearby to spit in, but she didn’t always hit the target and she didn’t care either.
His younger sister really wasn’t right in the head. When he left home, she was 19 and still played with dolls, drooling food out of her mouth as she conversed with people only she could see. His parents tried to ignore it because there was no alternative. In school, he had learned about mental illness. It was then that he decided that they were all mentally ill, so he stopped going home.
When he got to Tom and Sarah’s house, Tom was sitting near his wife. He wasn’t crying anymore but he seemed to be in a state of utter disbelief.
“Doc, I think I saw her move a little bit,” he said, his voice hopeful.
The doctor shook his head and put his hand on Tom’s arm to help him up. He needed to get the man away from his wife’s body.
“I’m sorry, Tom. That can’t be. Sometimes we want things so bad, our mind plays tricks on us.”
The doctor led Tom into the parlor and had him sit on the sofa.
“Listen, I know this is hard. I’ve asked Demetrius to dig a grave and prepare a casket. That snow out there is falling hard. We need to get Sarah to her final resting place before the ground is frozen solid.”
“She was just here, Doc,” Tom said. “We went to bed like nothing was ever gonna be wrong. We had our whole lives ahead of us. You saying you want me to just toss her in the ground now?” Tom stood up and paced to the other side of the room. “I need more time to say goodbye!”
Hours went by and the sun was beginning to crest the horizon. The doctor spent that entire time talking Tom into what was going to happen next. It wasn’t easy. At times, Tom was belligerent and angry. But by the time, Doc heard Demetrius outside kicking snow off his boots on the front porch, he was pretty sure Tom understood what needed to happen.
“It’s time now, Tom. Nothing we do is going to bring her back and nothing good will come from you hanging onto her now.”
Before Demetrius could knock on the door, Doc went to it and opened it to let him in.
”I couldn’t get it dug more’n five feet down,” the grave digger said coming into the parlor. He seemed somehow invigorated by the job he had just done, but when he caught sight of Tom, he bowed his head in respect. “Sorry, sir. I have the coffin waiting right near the grave, ready when you are.”
Tom wailed and fell to his knees. The doctor led Demetrius to Sarah’s body and, together, they wrapped her in blankets and a small rug. Tom couldn’t leave Sarah to go to her grave alone, so he followed behind.
As the doctor and Demetrius laid Sarah into the coffin, Tom tried to keep the men from putting the lid on top. To the doctor’s relief, Demetrius stepped in and gently lured the grieving husband back. Then he went to nailing the coffin shut and as the last nail was hammered, Tom turned away and sobbed.
It took less than half an hour for the burial to take place. When it was all over, Tom stared blindly at the mounded grave.
“Come along, Tom,” the doctor said. He patted Tom’s arm to try to wake him out of his shock. “Let’s go home and get you a hot cup of coffee.”
Tom shook his head and looked directly into Doc Pendergrast’s eyes.
“You don’t…,” he choked on this words and then cleared his throat. “You don’t have anything that could help me join her, do you?”
Dr. Pendergrast pulled away from Tom and shook his head. “Oh no, son. You don’t want to do that. You’ve got years ahead of you yet and you’ll feel better soon.”
Dr. Pendergrast turned away to take a swig of his whiskey so he didn’t see Demetrius nod as if to tell Tom he had just the thing to take all his sorrows away.
Tom nodded and reached for Demetrius’ hand. “Thank you. I’ll get you your payment as soon as I can.”
Demetrius nodded with an extra knowing glint in his eyes. Then he turned and walked back toward his boxcar.
The doctor went back with Tom to help him get settled in. He stayed as Tom slept fitfully. Eventually, Dr. Pendergrast fell asleep on the sofa but he awoke when he heard Tom screaming.
“Sarah!” He said, coming out of his bedroom. “I heard her calling to me!”
He ran to the chair where his coat had been laid and he started putting it on. “I need to go to her. I need to go get her!”
“No, Tom!” The doctor blocked him from the door and gently pushed him back toward the kitchen. “Sit down for a minute. It was just a dream.”
He went through the cupboards and found a bottle of brandy Sarah must have used in her cooking. He poured a glass for Tom and half a glass for himself.
“Here, drink this. You’ll feel better after.”
Thankfully, Tom was more tired than agitated, so it wasn’t long before the brandy had him sleeping again.
Tom woke up several more times, sure Sarah was calling to him and, each time, Dr. Pendergrast tried to convince him otherwise.
“Look, Tom, Sarah is too far away. Even if she was screaming, you wouldn’t be able to hear her unless you stood right next to her grave.”
This went on for two days and Dr. Pendergrast was so worried for his friend that he stayed with him the entire time. Finally, though, Tom said he was going to the grave and he took the shovel.
Dr. Pendergrast knew the only way to convince Tom that his wife was indeed gone for good was to let him do what he needed to do. He followed Tom out into the bitter cold and watched as Tom dug through the foot of snow and the dirt.
“I just have to see, Doc,” he said as he worked. “I’ll never rest if I don’t do this.”
When he dug to the top of the coffin he pried off the top with the tip of his shovel. There, unraveled from the rug and blankets was his dead wife. Tufts of hair lay all around her, as if she had gone mad in the struggle to get out. The bottom half of the coffin was covered in blood and between his wife’s legs lay the baby, blue and frozen.
“Oh my God,” he said. “They were alive.”
Before Tom could say anything more, Dr. Pendergrast grabbed the shovel and hit Tom in the back of his head as hard as he could. Tom fell into the coffin on top of Sarah and the baby. The doctor kept hitting Tom until he was certain he was dead.
Methodically, Dr. Pendergrast piled the dirt back on top of the coffin, and then continued to fill the space above with snow. He bent down to make sure nothing looked out of place. Then he went to Demetrius’s box car, and leaned the blood covered shovel against it.
He only fell once on the way back to Tom’s house, but he would have a tall one when he got there. Then he would sleep on Tom’s sofa as long as he wanted.