Today marked the seventh year in a row that he had come here to dig.
The muscles on his arms and back rippled as he pushed the shovel again and again into the cold, unwilling earth. Sweat ran in rivulets down his face, joining other beads of perspiration to form little streams that flowed down his back. A cold wind picked up, but he did not feel the chill. A pale moon hung overhead, bathing the world in a silver light. He did not carry a torch; the moon was enough.
The ground was harder this year than it had been last year; there was a dull ache in his arms already, but he wasn’t done digging. Or maybe I’m just not as strong as I used to be, he thought. Maybe I’m growing old. The thought saddened him.
He blocked all other thoughts from his mind and fell into a rhythm: the shovel went down, soil came up. He’d lost track of time, but it did not matter. He continued to dig. The shovel went down, soil came up. Slowly, steadily, the hole grew deeper.
Dig, dig, dig. After a while – thirty minutes? Two hours? He could not say – he decided that it was deep enough. He stopped digging.
He straightened up, letting the shovel drop from his fingers to the ground. His back ached, but he welcomed the pain. It distracted him, kept him from thinking… thinking of what he did… thinking of her…
Seven years. Happy Anniversary, he thought bitterly.
Turning his back, he walked away toward the spot where he parked his car. It was an old and battered thing, not much to look at. But the sight of it filled him with memories, as it did every time. He picked her up for their first date in this car… it seemed so long ago and yet he could remember everything. Would that he could only forget. Fishing a key from his pocket he popped open the trunk.
The girl was there.
The blood had stained through her wrappings, a deep angry blot surrounding her head. It dripped from the cloth into the trunk. He sighed. That would leave a stain.
Slowly, gently, he reached into the trunk and lifted her in his arms. He took particular care not to bump her into anything on her way out. Then he turned and walked back the way he came.
The walk back took shorter than he remembered; before he knew it he was back at the site he had dug, with his shovel lying discarded in the sand. He knelt in the freshly dug earth and slowly, softly, laid her in the ground. As he did so a portion of the cloth covering her head came away, revealing her face. She had been beautiful once, but death had taken that away from her. No, not death, a voice inside him whispered, you did this. The marks that his hands had left on her face had disfigured her, left her face swollen and bleeding. But this girl had been beautiful once, as she had been beautiful, all those years ago.
Seven years. Happy Anniversary.
“I’m sorry, Emily,” he whispered to the girl. “Forgive me.”
The name of the girl lying in the ground was Melissa.
He first met her earlier that night. Picking her up in his battered Toyota, he drove her to the house where he lived. When they entered the living room the girl pressed her body against his, ran a slender finger down the side of his face and asked him: “So how do you want to do this?” No doubt she was expecting him to take her up to the bedroom and fuck her.
Instead he walked over to a stand beside the old fireplace. He picked up a worn ring case and opened it. Inside the case lay a ring; a slender band of gold inset with a single blood red ruby. It was a simple thing, and beautiful in its simplicity. He carried the ring back to the girl and placed it delicately into her hand. “Put it on,” he told her.
The girl’s face showed bewilderment, but only for a split second. She was a prostitute, after all, and no doubt she’d heard much weirder requests from clients than simply ‘Put on a ring’. Smiling coyly, she eased the ring onto the middle finger of her left hand.
“No. Not there,” he said to her. “Your ring finger.” The girl did as he said. The ruby caught the light in the room, glowing on her slender finger.
“Now,” the girl purred in a sultry voice, “what should I do?”
“Tell me you’re carrying my baby,” he replied.
The girl said, “What?” In her confusion, all the silkiness dropped from her voice. She spoke with a sharp accent.
“Tell me we’re going to have a child. Tell me you’re carrying my baby.”
She looked at him queerly for a moment, but then her professionalism took over. She flashed him her sweetest smile and said the words that had haunted him for seven years.
“We’re going to have a child.” Here she took a step toward him. “I’m carrying your baby.”
Deep inside him he wanted to take her in his arms and tell her that he forgave her, that he understood. He wanted to tell her that everything was going to be alright. Deep inside him he wanted to succeed with this one where he had failed with all the others.
Instead he hit her.
The girl fell backward, her face dissolving into a mask of pain and confusion. It was quickly replaced with fear as he climbed on top of her and hit her again.
After a long while her body went limp, and she ceased to cry out. He knelt astride her immobile body, his hands dripping with blood, and said: “I’m sorry, Emily.”
His mind wandered back to the present, kneeling in the ground.
He rose up out of the pit and fetched his shovel. Working with quick movements honed by years of practice, he shoveled the earth onto the dead girl. As he worked, it seemed to him that the eyes of the girl were staring straight at him. He worked faster.
It took him fifteen minutes to completely cover up the grave. Once again he thought of the girl lying beneath the ground, and how he had failed with her. How he had failed with all of them. The moon hung low in the sky; daybreak would soon be upon him. There was one final thing to be done.
Casting the shovel aside once more, he reached into the pocket of his sweat-soaked trousers and drew out a package in which were seven slender roses, carefully wrapped. He opened the wrapper, and even in the dim light the pale blue color of the petals was plain. Lavender roses. One of the rarest types of rose in the world.
He knelt and placed a rose reverently on the freshly-dug mound. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
Turning, he walked away from the site – not back toward his car, but in another direction. The ground here was barren and hard, and unmarked except for some wild weeds growing here and there, but he knew where he was going.
After a while he stopped, then knelt and placed another rose on the ground. This was where he’d buried Anna a year ago. I’m sorry. He walked off again, and did the same for Denise. Denise, with her quick smile and big, bouncy breasts. Denise, who he’d brought here two years ago. A short distance beyond her he did the same for Celine (three years ago).
After Celine he couldn’t remember their names, but he placed a rose on each of their graves anyway. Each time he whispered how sorry he was, but no matter how many times he whispered those words the guilt and the shame were always with him. And then he came to the last one.
As he stood over the grave of the woman he once called Wife, the woman he’d loved with all his heart – the woman who betrayed you, a voice inside him whispered fiercely – he began to cry.
And with the tears came flooding back the memories of that night, seven years ago…
“I’ve got something for you,” he said to her.
Emily’s eyes lit up at that. “Oooh, what is it?”
He reached behind her ear and with a practiced move of his wrist pulled a single flower form his sleeve. It was a trick he had learned from a street magician many years ago.
Emily’s eyes went wide as he theatrically knelt and held out the rose to her. “A lavender rose?” she breathed. She reached out and took it slowly, as if she were afraid that moving too fast would shatter the illusion and cause everything to disappear.
He smiled. He knew the symbolism of the gesture wouldn’t be lost on a flower-lover like her. Lavender roses – rare, beautiful – were generally recognized to be a symbol of enchantment and love at first sight.
“Happy Anniversary,” he said, rising.
Emily threw herself into his arms and kissed him. He thought about the other gift in his pocket: a gold ring set with a single dark ruby. He was not a rich man, and it was not a cheap gift; he’d saved for months to be able to afford it. But she was worth it.
Emily pulled out of the kiss and said, “I have something for you too.”
Oh? Well this was a pleasant surprise. He grinned. “I’m waiting.”
She stepped back and squealed: “I’m pregnant!”
His smile vanished. A heavy silence descended upon the room like a cloud. He asked quietly, “Are you sure?”
This was not the response Emily expected. Nevertheless, she nodded and said excitedly, “Mm-hm. I went to my doctor today, and he confir—”
He hit her.
It was a backhand slap, cruelly delivered. Emily’s hand flashed up to her face, where an angry red welt was already developing. Shocked, she blurted, “What the hell – ?”
The next blow sent her sprawling to the ground. As she lay unceremoniously on the floor, their eyes met for a brief second. And in that moment something changed in her eyes as realization dawned, and suddenly there were no secrets between them.
In the years that followed he went back in his mind and relived that moment many times, but all he remembered was a blinding rage overcoming him, moving his body as if on its own accord. He vaguely remembered that Emily tried to flee, crawling on her hands and knees into the kitchen and slamming the door shut, but he threw his frame against the door and broke it. That was one of the things he could not bear to think about: He hunted his own wife like an animal.
Emily was backed against a wall with nowhere to go, and then he was all over her, hitting her till she screamed no more.
And when it was over and the punishing revelation of what he had done hit him, he knelt over her unmoving body, hugged her disfigured face to his chest and cried. Try as he might he couldn’t remember exactly how long he cried for, but he knew it must be hours. There was nobody around to hear him as, with emotion choking his voice he whispered into the silence, “I’m sorry, Emily.”
It was much later that he realized that the little ring was still in his pocket, untouched.
That ring was in his pocket seven years later, as he stood over the grave he dug for the woman he still called Wife.
…He wipes the tears off his face with the back of his hand. He kneels and places a lavender rose on the weeds which have grown to cover the site. He says nothing; there is nothing to say that he hasn’t already said in the years since he beat his wife to death. The voices in his head still decry him. The guilt and shame are with him still; constant accusers, everlasting companions. In a way he welcomes them; they are familiar faces, they are his friends in a world in which he has precious few…
The horizon to the east had taken on a light tinge. Dawn was not far away. It was time to go. He fetched his shovel and walked away from Emily and the others. As he walked, he fingered the ring in his pocket. Maybe next year, he thought. Maybe next year he would finally be able to make things right…
After a few minutes he came to his car. Tossing the shovel carelessly into the back seat he climbed into the driver’s side. After a few minutes of coaxing he got the engine to start. He did not drive away immediately, but instead sat staring into space, silently cursing everything he could think of.
He cursed God, if indeed ‘He’ was out there. Fuck him.
He cursed Emily, and he cursed the others too. He cursed them for making him do what he did.
He cursed the man he had become, for it was a man he passionately loathed.
But most of all, he cursed the disease he had contracted when he was fifteen: the disease that almost killed him but changed its mind and left him with a haunting secret he would keep forever. He cursed the disease that left him sterile, unable to father children.
…We are going to have a baby, she said…
The sun was rising. Sighing, he put the car into gear and drove slowly away from his garden of buried memories, and never looked back.
“What the heart has always known, leads to that path of stones. A hand that destroyed its own, forever returns to a garden of bones.” – Kwabena Amowi Koomson.
I started A Garden of Bones in October of 2012, but I got stuck somewhere in the middle and abandoned it until very recently, when someone came along and gave me a well-needed push. This story is dedicated to Kiiki Quarm, without whom I would never have found the discipline to finish it.
As always, I thank you for reading.