By Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt
The elm had to go. It had been diagnosed and determined—Dutch elm disease. The broad branch with the rope swing was already yielding yellowing and twisted leaves, and they had begun to drop and coat the ground. The elm was one of a kind among a small cluster of maples—a volunteer from six decades earlier, swept in on a late June gust, was Conroy’s guess. Seventy years was Lizbeth’s estimate since she had taken the time to measure the trunk, but they had only lived in the house for twelve years so neither of them could be certain about how and when the tree took root.
Conroy had been diagnosed too. He had been prescribed an antidepressant—citopram or citozil or some such medicine—the mildest form the doctor knew of since he was convinced that his was a case of seasonal disorder, the “winter blues” rather than clinical depression. It was true that Conroy slept most of the day, and it was true that he lacked the energy, even after long stretches of sleep, to complete simple chores like mowing or pruning. And even though it was true that Conroy hadn’t sold a single house, even a month before his diagnosis, there was no documented history of depression in his family. Conroy’s mother and father rarely laughed and, in fact, he could rarely detect any expressions of joy toward each other or toward their son. Yet, they seemed content, and even on the days when his father fell into despair, he managed, stoically, to persevere. The doctor did not consider his condition to be clinical depression either.
Within two weeks, Conroy’s medication had begun to do its job, and he began to feel some level of energy returning. He fell into his previous routine of showering and shaving and sitting at the breakfast table with his wife and son. He succumbed to holiday chores around the house—the breaking down of lights and the removal of the Christmas tree. He guessed he would soon return to the real estate office since there was no reason not to. He sold houses much like his own in neighborhoods like his—with lawns and maples and voluntary elms.
Conroy rarely spoke during meals, but listened as Lizbeth filled Eliot in on his condition. “You shouldn’t mistake your father’s silence for indifference,” she had explained. “He listens to us and he cares about us, even when he doesn’t tell us outright,” she told him. “Isn’t that right?” she would say brightly to her husband as she laid her palm across his hand. Despite his wife’s smile, Conroy was slow to respond to her normally infectious joy but eventually managed, “That’s true. That’s true.”
“I have plans for that spot, once the elm’s gone,” she said enthusiastically that afternoon.
She had been repeating that for months—something about a formal garden—hydrangeas and irises and a carefully planned border of boxwood and phlox. She had gone so far as to measure and mark out the section of the yard with pine stakes and red twine. Conroy wasn’t indifferent to the garden, and with the help from the stakes and twine, could even visualize it—the deep green sprigs and the lavender clusters. He could just as easily see the rope swing he had slung over the elm’s large limb that stretched toward a maple. That was three years earlier when Eliot was five, and Conroy was more ambitious. He had pulled the plans from the web, a site called Newtoparenthood.com. Lizbeth had been a regular visitor to the site from the start of her pregnancy and had continued to read articles to him about prenatal care—nutrition and vitamin sufficiency, methods of delivery. Even though the articles from the April issue often contradicted the articles from the March issue, she shared the information with unwavering confidence. She read advice columns about prenatal care. After Eliot was born, she continued to peruse blogs for advice on food preparation and safe home environments—electrical hazards and water hazards and bedding hazards.
“I never realized there were so many threats in the world,” she told him. “I never realized that the world was such a dangerous place.”
Having grown up on his family’s dairy farm north of Ashland, Conroy saw Lizbeth’s observation as naïve. He had heard about children younger than Eliot falling to injuries or death. “Died of blindness,” was how his father referred to one young boy. He’d fallen into a pond at the lower pasture of his family’s farm one afternoon while Holsteins were drinking from it, lapping up the same water he was drowning in. Conroy reminded his father of this
“Got to have your eyes open,” his father replied. “Drowning was way down on the list of what killed that boy,” he said.
Even though it had been years since he last did farm work, Conroy still felt comfortable cutting down trees, having sawed and harvested their Christmas tree from the previous three seasons—last year, a six foot Douglas fir from Spruce Valley Farms. So on Wednesday morning, he sat on the edge of the sofa with his saw in hand. He had tucked the cuffs of his gloves into the sleeves of his jacket. His scarf was wide enough to cover his neck and his turned-up collar.
His wife stared at him with her wide eyes and half-smile.
“Are you up to this?” she asked.
He didn’t answer, and he was perplexed by her concern after urging him to return to his daily routine.
“Sure,” he said, and pulled down the back of his hat.
Eliot sat on the carpet, his legs folded beneath him, his feet and ankles splayed gently to each side.
The tip of the handsaw rested against the sole of Conroy’s boot and the carpet fibers. The hand grip reached his knee. He thought about the elm—the broad trunk, the rope swing looped over and tied off from the broadest branch. He imagined the handsaw sliding through such a broad trunk, but he saw no need to reconsider the girth of the tree.
“Your legs might stay that way,” Conroy said.
Eliot looked up at his father, then stared past him toward his mother as if searching for confirmation of his father’s claim, searching for the truth.
“Your father’s joking with you,” she said as she flipped through her issue of Homes International. “He knows better than that.”
Conroy did know it wasn’t true. He had sat like that for hours himself, when he was a boy—while he filled in cartoon pictures of Jesus and Moses and Lazarus in his Sunday School coloring book, or finished up his history reading Mrs. Jordan had assigned for class. Conroy knew it wasn’t true, and he wasn’t sure why he said it, so he accepted his wife’s notion that it was a joke, even though none of them smiled over it. Eliot’s eyes shifted from his father’s to the saw.
“What about Jitters?” he asked
Jitters had died nearly two years earlier, his neck broken when the Marks’ dog forced his head though the screen of the rabbit hutch. Conroy had cut the timber for the hutch frame with the same handsaw. It was new then.
He had wanted to spare his son from the grisly details and never told him what had killed Jitters. But he was dead, and the two of them had buried him beneath the elm. They had lined one of his wife’s shoe boxes with dropped leaves and laid Jitters inside the box. The reds and golds stood out against the rabbit’s gray fur and curled beneath his ears. That night, Eliot created a drawing of Jitters, lying still against the backdrop of elm leaves. In the drawing, Jitters fit into the box perfectly with room for his long ears and feet to rest on, and a pillow of leaves beneath his head. In reality, Conroy had had to adjust Jitters to fit the dimensions of the box.
Lizbeth had explained to her son what became of things buried in the soil. She told him about the science of decomposition. She explained the consequences of moisture and heat and darkness on paper and bark and flesh. Conroy wasn’t sure how much Eliot understood. Hell, he didn’t understand it all either. When they covered Jitters with the shoe box lid, Conroy had spoken about spirit, since he had a better grasp of grief than science. Now, Eliot was older. They were all older. Conroy could see that. And there were things to be done—tasks to be completed, Lizbeth’s new plantings to take root.
It was only wishful thinking to imagine digging down to the exact spot where Jitters was buried, but Conroy leaned his handsaw against the garden bench while his wife revisited the science of decay. Now, Conroy returned to the door holding two shovels.
“Let’s do this,” he said to Eliot with his new-found energy.
“I’d have had it dug by now,” he thought to himself. “I’d have had it finished,” he thought, and nearly spoke it out loud, as he carried the shovels across the yard—past the flower beds, past the brick work, past the rabbit hutch that still stood, its frame tilting toward the yellowing limb and the rope swing. Even as Eliot sprinted past him to stand, waiting at the base of the elm, Conroy knew it to be true, especially with his medication taking hold. He could have had it dug in a matter of hours—no, minutes. He knew how to persevere—even when there’s no joy in it—especially when there’s no joy in it. He learned that much from his father.
A layer of leaves had covered the grass and had blown and mounded against the elm’s trunk. Conroy began to clear the leaves with the tip of his shovel. Eliot shuffled through the dry leaves to the shed and returned with a rake.
“Here,” he said, and he pulled the leaves away from the tree trunk and from his father’s boots and shovel.
As Eliot raked the leaves, Conroy’s wife stood at the window. From such a distance, Conroy couldn’t ascertain the focus of her attention or the subject of her concern—her husband or her son, the emerging hyacinths or the dying elm, the newly staked plot or the decaying hutch. He wanted to know. He squinted toward the window, but she walked away before he could clearly make out her mouth and her eyes. He leaned into his shovel and began to break through the grass and the surface of the soil. Eliot heaped the leaves under the maples. They dug deeper, each with his own shovel from opposite ends of the hole.
“This the right spot?” Eliot asked as he paused with a shovel full of soil.
Conroy leaned on the handle of his shovel and stared into the elm. He followed the line of rope leading from the branch to the wooden plank of the swing. He squinted into the space between the plank and the base of the trunk, eyeing the distance between the start of the hole and the roots that ran along the surface of the soil.
“Looks about right,” he said, although he knew he couldn’t be sure. “Let’s not get our hopes up,” he said. “We may find something or we may not.”
He didn’t know if Eliot believed him. Conroy wasn’t sure he believed it himself—whether it was the remnants of his depression that colored his thinking, or some new understanding of the world. Somehow, it all seemed inconsequential, but for his son’s sake, he approached their task as if there were some meaning to it all.
“It’ll be worth it either way,” he said. “At least we’ll know, which is a lot better than not knowing—always wondering.”
Eliot’s spade, although smaller than his father’s, bit deeply into the earth with the speed and agility that his father lacked. Conroy paused now and then feeling the need to measure his progress. He eased down the tip of the measuring tape. Twelve inches. He could tell that his son’s end was deeper even without using the tape.
“Let me catch up,” he said, and began shoveling again. Eliot watched as the hole gradually widened. Dry dirt loosened and slipped down the incline and back into the hole.
A blue ring jutting out from the tumbling dirt caught Eliot’s attention, and he gently pulled on it. Half a tea cup emerged from the dirt—not the kind of cup his father used, which was tall and round like a snare drum. He kneeled down and scooped through the dirt with his cupped fingers. Another half-cup slipped downward. He fit it against the portion with the blue ring. The jagged edges matched.
Conroy stopped digging and stared into the hole. He compared his side of the hole to his son’s. He was nearly down as far, but not far enough yet, since neither of them had reached Jitters. He didn’t remember the hole being this deep. And he could have been off target with the exact location, it being marked by only the memory of its relationship to the position of the rope swing. He couldn’t be sure of the condition of the cardboard either, or the flesh and the bones.
Eliot held out the two cup halves—one in each hand, but Conrad didn’t see this as bringing them any closer to Jitters. He puffed and groaned as he stabbed his shovel into the dirt. He scraped the metal face against the sloping sides, but Eliot’s attention remained on the porcelain fragments. Yellow leaves scattered across the opening and drifted into the hole.
In the curve of the hole, Eliot uncovered a seashell—charcoal and gray and white—with scores and ridges on the half-hidden surface. This transported Conroy’s thoughts even farther from Jitters’ grave, and he began to envision the beach house—the bungalow raised up on timbers that had been driven deeply into the sand and the soil. He had almost purchased the house. The ocean was as far as he could travel from his family’s farm, and the shifting sand suited him fine. He had climbed the stained wooden staircase. He had wandered through the small bedrooms and the galley kitchen. He had sat on the thin cushions of the maple-framed sofa and the corner chair. He had studied the lackluster prints on the far wall of sunrises and surf, and the clustering of conch shells surrounding the souvenir ashtray on the end table beside the arm of the sofa.
“Everything’s included,” the salesman had told him, as if it were a selling point, as if polished shells and ashtrays and seaside prints and used furniture were items of value instead of the burden of someone’s past life, which is what Conroy knew them to be. He stood by the bay window and stared toward the horizon, toward the grassy barrier dunes and the uncombed shoreline. He could hear the persistent surf, even through the walls and windows of the house. He had almost purchased the house, but he didn’t. In the long run, he could not bring himself to face the coast each morning, like some ancient mariner, a descendant at the edge of the world.
This was before Eliot, even before Lizbeth, when he had little vision of the future, and no concept of permanence—in spite of the thick timbers driven deeply into sand and soil, lifting that beach house beyond the dangers of rising tides.
Eliot continued to unearth shells—clams and mussels and scallops, sand dollars.
“Look at this, Dad,” and Eliot handed his father a thin blue shell.
Conroy dropped his shovel and took off one glove. He held the shell up toward the sky. Rings of blues and whites were visible through the translucent shell. Tiny chips surrounded the edge where soil and stone had worn through. Beneath the afternoon sun, he could see the shadow of his fingertips under the lines of color.
“Think there was ocean here before houses?” Eliot asked as he crouched and touched the surfaces of the small collection of shells.
“It’s more likely they were brought by people than by the ocean,” Conroy said. He handed the shell back to his son.
“Mom will know,” Eliot said, and he continued to gather the pieces of porcelain and seashells as he shoveled. Conroy tried to keep up, but the hole became increasingly uneven.
Eliot retrieved a box from the house and placed his assortment of porcelain shards and shells in the box.
“I’ll let you catch up,” he said to his father and he carried the box toward the house.
“What about Jitters?” Conroy called out to him.
“I’ll let you catch up,” his son repeated, and he maneuvered the box through the mudroom door.
Conroy stared into the uneven hole. He put on his glove and tucked it into the cuff of his jacket. He began to dig again. As he reached the depth of Eliot’s hole, he could make out the feathered edges of gray-green paper, then a thicker layer of cardboard deeper yet. He kneeled down and reached into the hole. He scooped the dirt away with his gloved hand, then brushed the dirt from the lid and from the sides of the box. His breathing deepened as he grabbed Eliot’s small shovel and speared the soil pressing around the box. Once all four corners were uncovered, he cradled the bottom with his forearm and carefully lifted it out and set in on the layer of leaves that had blown back toward the elm. Exhausted, he folded his torso over his tucked legs and rested his forehead on his arm. Dust rose from the rim of the hole as he breathed. He pulled himself up to his knees and examined the box. Aside from expected dampness on the corners, it was surprisingly intact.
He set the box on a scrap of wood plank from the garden shed and carried it toward the house. He stopped at the window and watched his wife and son gathering together chunks of buried treasure from beneath the elm. He was suddenly conscious of his task that, until that moment had been confused with cutting down trees and digging holes and gathering blue and green cups and saucers, now scattered across the table. It was Jitters’ grave, and it was Jitters whom he had greeted each morning, before and after his death. He had meant to tell Lizbeth. Now she was assembling found porcelain into something recognizable, something complete. But what about a grave disturbed, he wondered. What does one do with such a thing?
Inside, he stood by the table where Lizbeth sat with their son as he laid out chips of the porcelain he had gathered from the hole. He was arranging them by color and by size. Lizbeth counted out the rings of porcelain spread out before them. “One, two, three, four, five,” she counted. Conroy conducted his own count—one for this man, one for this woman, one for this daughter, one for this sister. Or were they only used for special occasions, for entertaining, for guests visiting on holidays? That’s what his wife would have used them for, he thought. They might have been for a family dispersed, as fragmented as the cups spread before them.
Eliot was suddenly drawn to the box of shells, and he flitted from shells to cups, from puzzle to puzzle, lacking the perseverance to stick with one thing was how Conroy saw it. History to family to mollusks to graves. Perhaps Conroy expected too much of a nine-year-old boy whose potent and scattered energy led him from one discovery to the next, one event to the next. What else could he expect?
“Think there was ocean here—before houses, I mean?” he asked his mother as he flipped the translucent shell to the inner surface. He had asked Conroy the same question, but didn’t believe him.
Conroy stood quietly holding the stained and dusty shoe box as if it were a gift or an offering.
“What about Jitters?” he said. He imagined his voice with either anger or energy, neither of which he had felt for some time. He could sense his blood rising to his skin, flushing to his face and his throat and his chest. But his movements displayed no such energy—his hands and arms and lips less energetic than the blood beneath them. His wife and his son barely reacted to his words.
“Are you interested?” he whispered, and he wondered if he had spoken the words at all. “What is it?” he said.
He couldn’t locate the center of his anger, any more than he could locate the center of his grief, but he imagined it burgeoning even as his voice remained subdued. His movements, too, were subdued, and he could only imagine the violence within his soul. He was moved to sweep the shells from the surface of the table, to toss the half-cups to the floor, to shatter them against the wall—the ornate representations of the previous family, of history. He imagined crushing the sea shells beneath his boots—the remnants of the impermanent shoreline, the shifting sands. He imagined destroying it all. But all he could do was raise the shoe box and hold it out to his wife and his son. He lowered it again and lumbered outside.
He lowered the box onto the garden bench and sat beside it. He picked up his handsaw and wiped the dirt from the cold surface. Staring out at the elm, he thought about the job he had set out to do that morning. The sun was still high, with plenty of light left to get started. But the grave digging had tired him out more than he realized. There was still the shovel in the yard, and there was still another grave to dig. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. There was time to wait for his son. Conroy was tired, and it would take two of them to dig the new hole. His palm grazed the lid of the shoe box. For a moment, he thought about opening it, but there was time for that too.
About the Author:
Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Ascent, Quiddity, and Adirondack Review. He was two-time finalist for the Fulton Prize in Short Fiction and has been nominated for Best of the Net. His website is http://www.jlihlenfeldt.com.