© Copyright 2021 by Ethel Jean
Steven is the most recent to visit from the other side, which is to be expected as he is the most recently departed. Covid-19 didn’t kill him, though it might have if he’d been around for it. He wouldn’t have worn a mask, except at church where we have to, and he would have been the type to let it sag beneath his nose. But that’s just wistful thinking. Covid hasn’t made any of us very sick, let alone killed us. Mobs and grueling winter exodus pared away certain physical frailties generations ago.
I saw Steven’s widow, Jessica, and their kids last summer. They live in the ancestral valley, a remote, barren-looking little community whose population descends in part from Spanish colonists, in part from Utah pioneers. There is a Pioneer Day Celebration every July—except the pandemic summer of 2020, of course, when there was no parade, no rodeo, no carnival. Certainly, cancelling was the responsible thing to do. But it was too bad. Jessica could have used the distraction.
The last time I saw Steven was during the 2019 celebration. I didn’t go. I just slept at Jessica and Steven’s on the way home from the mountain ranch. Jessica and the kids were at the carnival. Steven was home and welcomed us in the usual Steven way—smiles and hugs and calling me and my girls ‘Sis.’ He was tired and less talkative than usual, so I didn’t bring up the fish farm disaster Jessica’s mom had told us about. Nor did I stay up with him and the girls to watch a movie. He was disappointed, but I had a long drive the next day. And I didn’t know it was the last time I would see him.
An aunt and uncle who also live in the valley hosted a party in their yard this past summer. It was a protest of sorts against cancelling the celebration. There was an enormous inflatable water slide, chairs and awning and food for an army, even a cotton candy machine. I stopped by on my way to the mountain ranch.
‘Are you spending the night at the cabin?’ Jessica asked. When I told her yes, that the Conasons, my parents, and sister were already there, she said, ‘Maybe we’ll come up Sunday. It’s better when we have someplace to go.’ I hoped she would. It had been ten months since Steven’s death, and we worried about her. She’d recently told her sister that she (Jessica) hated her life so much, she hoped to get Covid and die. I was surprised to hear her repeat this at the party, amended, at least, with, ‘or completely recover. None of this in-between chronic stuff some people deal with.’ Her children were listening.
Sunday afternoon, my sister and I were on the bench of the mountain just below the railroad tracks that wind above the ranch. It’s a beautiful place, despite the loss of so many ponderosas to pine beetle in recent years. A clear, shallow river sparkled below us, and thanks to New Mexico’s left-leaning governor, the scenic railway had been shut down due to the pandemic, leaving us with complete privacy—no witnesses chugging by twice a day behind a steam engine. It felt as though everything had worked together just so we could do what we were doing.
On a hike the day before, a cousin had shown us an oblong ring of smooth stones. The ring’s center was sunken. It looked very much like a very old grave, and it was an opportunity my sister and I couldn’t help but seize. So the next day, there we were, taking turns. While one stood hip-deep in the hole with a shovel, the other knelt above her, gently, respectfully, taking soft, orange-brown bones from the one below and piecing together a human skeleton. We were hushed and a bit shaken, having just unearthed the skull. Whoever he was (the height and narrow pelvis make us think it was man), he had excellent teeth and a beautifully round head.
Also, there was a five-inch diameter hole in the back of his skull. He might have been climbing the rocky cliffs above us and fallen to his death. Or perhaps he passed behind an ornery mule.
We did not mention the possibility that he had eaten a bullet.
This is when a white Suburban eased over the bumpy dirt road up to the ranch gate, which was directly beneath us and across the river. It belonged to Jessica.
Suddenly, digging up a dead person seemed like a temptation we should have been able to resist.
“What do we do?”
“We’ve got to finish. We’re almost done.”
“Do you think she saw us?”
“I don’t know. Maybe not.” She hadn’t rolled down the window to wave and was driving on to the cabin, around a wooded hill and out of sight.
“Maybe no one will tell her.”
But we’re not a family famous for keeping secrets, and within 20 minutes a Razor filled with Jessica’s older kids was splashing through the river toward us.
“Maybe this will bring them closure,” I said, “since they didn’t get to see Steven’s body.” I turned the skull face-up so the hole in back was hidden. Then we walked down the hill to greet them.
“Do you guys know what’s up here?”
“And your mom’s okay with you being here?”
Again, they nodded. Kyle, age 21, the one who still hears from Steven, was in the lead. He’d been in Albania serving a mission for our church when Steven died. As he sat in his apartment, distraught and so far from home, he asked, “How could Dad do this?” And then he felt his dad’s presence and heard him say, “I wasn’t thinking, Son.” With the exception of Jessica, this comforted us.
Jake, 18, who had (without success) forbidden people from crying at the funeral, was behind Kyle, asking, “Was it a murder?”
“I don’t think so. Look, there was a casket.” As if coffins precluded the possibility of a violent death. We showed them a square-headed nail attached to a bit of wood and implied this was a mundane death, like from an illness, which isn’t so bad.
Not knowing what to say, I pointed in the grave. “His head was here, and his feet were there, and that’s the east, right? So he was laid out facing the east. Because Christ will come from the east, when he comes again.”
“Dang,” Jake repeated. “I think we buried Dad the wrong way.”
“No, Dad’s buried the same.”
“He was pretty tall.”
They were talking about the skeleton now. Kyle laid down next to it. He and Skelly (my sister and I had named him) were similar in size. I wanted to take a picture but thought I’d better not. The kids would ask for it, show it around, and who knew where things might end up? Probably with my sister and I being fined or going to jail—there might be a law against digging up old graves. There is no cell phone reception on the mountain ranch, so this is not something we could have googled at the time. Not that we would have. We still haven’t.
The shovel and I were back in the hole, seeing if we missed anything. “I think we got it all.”
Jane—Steven and Jessica’s thirteen-year-old—pointed at my feet. “Is that something?”
I looked where she pointed, seeing only dirt and my filthy shoes. “Here,” I said, “I’ll get out and you can get in. I don’t see anything.”
I climbed out, managing to hit Jane in the head with the shovel handle as she stepped down.
“Oh, Jane, I’m so sorry!”
“It’s okay,” she said with the stoicism all her siblings exhibited. She scraped at the ground but only found a rock.
“Well, then, let’s rebury him.”
We gently placed the bones in a pillowcase from the cabin and lowered it into the deepest end of the grave. As we were refilling the hole, Jessica joined us. Her kids had gone back to the cabin by then.
“I can’t believe you guys dug up a grave,” she said.
“Archeologists do this stuff all the time. Why shouldn’t we?”
She shook her head and helped us find stones to fill the hole, and we pounced on something else Jessica’s sister told us Jessica had told her.
“You know, Jessica, no one blames you for Steven dying. There was nothing you could have done. It’s the same as if he died from cancer. The body can get sick, and so can the mind.”
Again, she shook her head. “People blame me.”
“You do, maybe.”
The air was heavy with regrets and empty words as we fumbled for something to say that might serve as balm. We failed. Neither of us had visited her particular hell, nor did we have a map showing the way out of it.
The pillowcase was buried when I found a small bone we had missed. “Sorry, Skelly,” I said, dropping the bone into a hole between rocks.
“He’s going to haunt you,” Jessica said. She didn’t laugh. She didn’t even smile. And I thought of Heathcliff, begging his beloved Cathy to haunt him, though Jessica, who used to have boundless energy, now lacked both Heathcliff’s vitality and his desperate hope.
We walked back to the cabin, and Jessica told us about her older boys, how they wouldn’t give up on the fish farm. “They’re out there all the time,” she said, “and always trying to get me to go out with them. But I won’t.”
“You haven’t at all?”
“No way. It killed Steven. I told the boys I’d give them $20,000 to put into it, but then I’m done. That’s all I can afford.”
How many years had it been since we’d stood around the fire pit in front of the cabin, roasting hotdogs while Steven told us about his plans for a fish farm? Five, maybe?
“I won’t have to pay anything for the water,” he told us, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “I’ll be making $200,000 a year, and that’s a low estimate. There’s almost no risk!”
He promised to take my dad and Uncle Conan fishing off the Florida coast, and we smiled and hoped he’d remember the rest of us when he was a millionaire.
But the fish farm seemed cursed, culminating with the tank breaking and all Steven’s fish dying. After that, Steven stopped sleeping. He no longer acted like himself. He’d mortgaged his house to fund the fish farm. His brother was a doctor and gave him prescriptions that didn’t help him sleep or feel better. (But it’s not a big deal, we want to shout backwards at him through the tunnel of time. You still have your day job! Jessica would rather be dead than have your life insurance payout!) The last morning of his life, Jessica took him in her arms, promising it would be okay, they were going to get him help—they had an appointment with a specialist in just a few days.
And then Jessica went to work, calling Steven periodically. He never answered, but that was normal. He was often outside cell service.
What was abnormal was Steven not showing up to Jane’s basketball game. Jessica called his best friend, asking if he’d seen Steven. He hadn’t.
So Steven’s friend went to the fish farm, where he found Steven and a gun. He called Jessica, told her he’d found him, and it wasn’t good.
Not long ago, Steven visited Kyle again. It was a vision, and in the vision, he and his dad were just happy to be together until they looked toward Jessica. A dark cloud enveloped her, and Kyle asked, “What can I do about that?”
Steven replied, “I don’t even know.”
We had become accustomed to our dead seeing further than we can see, knowing more than we know. Lisa (dead) pointed out to her husband (living) the woman—a complete stranger—who would raise her (Lisa’s) seven children. Grandma Barbara (dead) told my sister (who can’t have biological children) where to find her next child. Grandpa Clair (dead) helped a family friend locate my lost toddler.
And now Jessica does all the right things—weekly grief counseling, cares for her children, goes to work—but doesn’t seem to be getting better. We don’t know what to do.
Steven doesn’t know what we should do.
says the Lord will give those that mourn beauty for ashes. We hope
this is true, and that the exchange is being made even now, while we
watch and wait. Slowly, like Zenos describes in the Book of Mormon,
he must be clearing away the bitter to so the good can grow. So
slowly Jessica can’t quite see it, but someday, surely, she