Twilight arrived and the house had been quiet for several hours save for Opa’s snoring.
The old chest of drawers scraped against its joints as it slid open and the scent of mothballs raced out. Why Oma still used camphor was a mystery. The white shiny spheres looked like candy but the smell burned Aria’s nostrils. If she were a moth, trapped in a camphor rigged drawer, she’d flutter to the edge, seeking escape, waiting for help. If she were released, she’d declare herself a defector to the allure of wool. People have a way of controlling everything, she thought, even when they’re not around.
The moon shone on the cotton pouch lying alone in the drawer. The outline of the video cassette bulged almost expectantly from the material. There was something pitiful yet disgusting about the way it appeared, mocking, a last attempt to exert power over her. Grabbing the pouch she looped the strap around her neck.
The rest was automatic. She knew her grandparents’ house like a mouse knows its basement joists. She knew the boards that creaked if you stepped on them and the stair rails that rattled if you pushed too hard. She knew which windows stuck and which to open for the best summer breeze. If blinded tomorrow, she’d be able to comfortably make her way around unassisted. Moving in the dark from the bedroom to downstairs, she headed towards the kitchen door. Aria bit the inside of her mouth, willing her body to feel dread or fear. Only a metallic taste and a pocket of saliva around the broken membrane resulted. She thought, her fear was too busy consuming her sadness to notice she had been left alone. Or maybe, she reasoned, she’d become used to the small deaths that happened to her spirit, each time she remembered the incident with Herr Rausche.
If she was going to make it to July 17th, she needed to bury the video cassette. There couldn’t be any evidence. Aria felt her will to live hinged on the possible miracle that her mother was alive and could return if Aria completed the Batizado. Until then she’d have to go with her father who was unpredictable and unreliable, almost a stranger, at least emotionally. She felt her fingers pop and dance. She hummed the bass notes of the requiem she learned from her uncle.
Stepping through the kitchen door, she entered night’s domain. Rain had finally come that evening. The air was thick enough for dreams to float and the souls of the dead to ride. Stars winked, flirting with Venus. The half-moon blessed the backyard path with a gentle light. Shrubs and flowers blended into shades of blues and blacks; a zephyr gently tossed her curly mane.
She sucked in the cold air and blew out a small white cloud.
Dig a hole as wide as your mouth and as deep as the ocean,
Whisper to the earth what you cannot tell.
A line from a poem Oma often recited echoed in Aria’s head as she made her way off the wooden deck.
Opa, her grandfather, had left a shovel outside the shed, near a pile of manure for Oma’s bed of snapdragons and orange poppies. He was preparing the bed for garlic and onions and cilantro, Oma’s favorite herbs to cook with. The metal of the shovel chilled Aria’s hand, sending a cascade of goose bumps up her arm and down her back. As she balanced the handle in her palm, the blade and stem swung back and forth like a metronome, keeping time with the rhythm of her swaying hips. She made her way to the path hoping that this would go fast and easy. Down the slight decline, she hopped from cobblestone to cobblestone, avoiding the loose white pebbles surrounding them. Oma and Opa were sound sleepers, but why take chances waking them by making noise?
Stillness and the scent of honeysuckle embraced Aria as she moved through the dewy air toward the arms of the great tree. Her mother, Idelina, and her mother’s siblings had grown up in this house and played in this yard. The children had chosen a place, under the weeping willow, to bury their dead: Gruffy the Guinea Pig, Cracker the Parrot, Stick the Tarantula, and Kip the Gold Fish; they were all there beneath the tree. She and Mother would sit on the plush sofa, cuddling close, looking at old pictures of the family and their beloved pets. Her mother would whisper the secrets of her life and childhood stories. Aria cherished these memories, even more now since her mother was gone.
Pushing back the fine foliage, she entered the domed space. Aria inhaled the beauty, and relaxed into it. Flickers of golden moonlight made their way through the branches and tear-shaped leaves. The breeze shifted the arrangement of the canopy, making light dance on the grass and along the thick trunk.
Indifference was acceptable, but not this.
Beauty was not supposed to mix with ugliness—the scent of honeysuckles, the dancing light and the forgiving nature of the night.
This burial is not worthy of any of this.
On the far side of the tree, next to the six-foot-tall wooden fence, she thrust the shovel into the ground four times. Wedging through woven roots, she ripped through the grass and removed the skin of the earth. After she exposed the body of land, she continued until the broken soil measured about a foot-and-a-half wide. There was no sound as the blade sliced through the air. No sound, like when she tried to scream for help. Bits of dark dirt leaped into the air, half of which raced back into the new hole. The scent of soil filled her nose.
The whole process moved along easier than expected, still, cloud-like. After all, it was just an act. Maybe this meant she was done thinking about Herr Rausch: his disgusting teeth and greasy hair, the memory of his smell burning her nostrils, the suspended scream and then feeling the thud against her soul.
Just get it over with. She worked rhythmically: dig, haul and place; dig, haul and place. Her exhale condensed into white.
Frau Graff, the neighbor, would be coming out to her porch at 4:00 a.m. to “bring in the day,” as she called it. She’d clear her throat, squint her ice-colored eyes, and croak out the same ole’ Polish song she’d been singing every morning for the last ten years that Aria could remember.
Oma said, “If Frau Graff wanted to act like a lunatic, she earned every right in the war. Leave her alone. She’s singing off her grief.”
Aria thought about the long, deep familiar song. Each time, Frau Graff ended on a lilting note that carried no sense of hope, only unresolved pain. She gave these to the night, she thought, hoping the moon would maybe slip them into the ether of the lost, to be forgotten. But each day the shadows of sorrow seemed to find their way home, creeping back, reloading in Frau Graff. Was there ever any justice to the tragedies people experience?
Stuttering inhales gave way to an inward wail, allowing her breath to clear. Tears welled and streamed as she exhaled slowly. She stepped on the blade for anchor, determined not to be interrupted by the swelling grief.
The tears continued, dampening her nightshirt. She stepped on the shoulder of the blade, falling into the hole. She dug deeper until the soil became rock-laden, compact, and hard. No golden light now danced in the bottom of the hole. It was deep enough.
The pouch strap pulled at her neck. The cassette had positioned itself between her budding breasts, close to her heart.
Her hand burned as she reached into the small bag. The tips of her index finger and thumb lifted the cassette then promptly dropped it into the hole.
“Get out, Get out, Herr Rausch. You can’t hurt me anymore.” She spat into the dark pit. You can’t hurt her. Us. Anymore.
Whisper to the earth what you cannot tell.
She swept the dirt into the small cavern with the shovel. Replacing the tufts of grass, she fell to her knees, beating the blocks back into place. Her hands were numb, maybe from the night air or maybe from the repeated pounding. They felt like two balls rather than articulated appendages. Several coils of hair stuck to her forehead and irritated her shoulders. She noted a bleeding wound on her right knee. Her left index finger dragged blood along her inner thigh, to the remnants of a small scar. Touching it, a pain gathered in her chest, and scraped its way to the top of her throat, vocalizing words she’d never spoken before now.
I made her leave. I did this. I did this.
She noticed the yellow eyes of a cat watching her from under the drooping branches. It must be Herr Lustig, the sweet feline who spent hours sleeping on the kitchen windowsill.
“I’m okay, Lustig,” she said through her tears, “I always am.”
A shudder cascaded outward from her heart to the ends of her thin body.
Herr Lustig slowly closed his eyes and disappeared into the night’s foliage.
The notes of Frau Graff’s strange song drifted around the backyard. The new day would soon break.