By Jon Beight.
We was dirt poor sharecroppers. We lived in a leaky shack near the north end of a cornfield that we worked each year. The shack, our home, held Daddy, Momma, Aunt Elly, and me and my younger brother Amos. Momma and Daddy slept in the back room, me and Amos shared a bed in the loft near the woodstove pipe that was good at warmin’ us most winter nights, and Aunt Elly had a bed near the dinner table. She’d been sick with some kind of bad fever that came on all of a sudden like and gave her awful sores and made her sleep a lot. Momma did her best to keep her comfortable, but Aunt Elly was gettin’ weaker ever’ day. Daddy said she got sick from the sprayin’ them planes was doin’, and Momma said it’s on account of the water we have to drink ain’t clear, but I don’t know.
Within rock throwin’ distance from the shack was a black water pond. It was wedged between our cornfield and the neighborin’ farm, and it had a thick stand of real tall buttonwoods circlin’ it that only allowed daylight in when the sun was shinin’ directly overhead. They kinda looked like they was protectin’ the pond from any kind of evil that might come its way. I liked to go and sit by it ever’ so often. That water was as black as the painted eyes of a doll, and I’d just sit there starin’ into it, tryin’ to figure out who I was and where I was headin’.
Sometimes I would fall to sleep there and have these wonderful dreams of floatin’ on the water like a water skimmer, adventurin’ out where the water was deep and cool and I’d be standin’ on top of it. I’d feel powerful and natural and I’d dance around the stumps stickin’ out of the water like they was my partner.
But the dreams always come to an end, and I’d wake up rememberin’ that I’m never gettin’ away from here, so just sittin’ around thinkin’ about it didn’t do no good for getting corn planted or picked or kept clean of borers and rootworms.
Daddy’s back was no good for farmin’ anymore, so it came to me and Amos to do the plowin’ and plantin when springtime come along. I couldn’t of done none of it without Amos. Daddy said we had to plow ever’ last inch if we was to keep on the land. Where we didn’t grow corn, we grew our own vegetables to put by. We had a few chickens for eggs and we would get flour and even meat sometimes from the church.
One summer day, while we was workin’ the field, I heard Momma start wailin’ from inside the home. Amos and I dropped everything and went runnin’ to see what the matter was. Getting inside, we saw Momma layin’ over Aunt Elly’s bed, holdin’ Aunt Elly close and cryin’ so hard. Momma finally got it out that Aunt Elly was talkin’ some nonsense ‘til she finally reached out and called out for Jesus, then she went limp and died.
Daddy was sittin’ in his rocker and called me over kind of quiet like and told me the land owner ain’t gonna allow no land to be used for no burial when crops could be growin’ on it instead, and we sure couldn’t afford no funeral. We agreed that since I was the only one that knew how to swim, I could set her out in the pond as her final resting place.
We kept her in her sleepin’ clothes. She was so skinny by then that it weren’t no trouble for me and Amos to carry her to the edge of the pond. Momma said a few kind words, askin’ the Lord to take her into his home, just as soon as we got this over and done with.
I stripped out of my overalls and waded into the water. I had never been in the pond before. The water was cold but felt real nice on my legs. I could feel twigs and rotted leaves that tickled the undersides of my feet and moved between my toes, and I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t ‘cause Momma wouldn’t understand. Every step got me a little deeper, and as the water kept comin’ up, I felt like my body was gone and there was nothing left but my shadow disappearin’ into the darkness. There was a tree stump in the middle of the pond that looked kind of like a church steeple. I thought that’d be a proper spot for Aunt Elly.
When I got to the stump, the water was at my neck. I took as deep a breath as I could and dove under. I couldn’t see nothin’, but I kept feelin’ for sticks and stones and kept clearing ‘em out until I was pretty sure there was a nice little spot fit for a person of Aunt Elly’s size. Meantime, I told Amos to get me as big a flat rock as he could find and carry.
Me and Amos got her into the water, and she sort of floated as I towed her along. I walked out slow, tryin’ not to make a ripple, and I real quiet hummed “Rock of Ages” ‘cause it’s the only bible song Momma ever taught me.
Once I had Aunt Elly at the stump, I kinda steadied her and went back to the shore one more time to get the rock. That’s when I noticed Amos had scratched her name into it. Carryin’ it out weren’t too hard until I got out to the stump. I had to fight going under ‘cause the weight of that rock made me sink deeper than before and I had to put my head back to keep breathin’. I finally got to Aunt Elly, and she had sunk below where I couldn’t see her anymore, so I put the rock down next to the stump and reached out to find her. I pushed her down to the bottom and settled her in. I felt around and put the rock on her chest and crossed her arms around it like it was her favorite doll. It reminded me of tuckin’ in a child. I was done.
Not long after we buried Aunt Elly, Daddy got the same sickness. It didn’t take long ‘fore he was just sleepin’ all the time. Momma knew what to do, and told me and Amos to keep workin’ the crops cause without them we would be made to move out.
Daddy looked like skin and bones when he died, but he was still a lot heavier than Aunt Elly. It took a lot of pullin’ and draggin’ by the three of us to get him over to the pond, but once he was in the water, he glided and settled just like Aunt Elly done. I put him in the place I fixed up, right next to Aunt Elly, and when I went back for the rock I saw that Amos had scratched Daddy’s name into his rock as well. Now Daddy and Aunt Elly was at peace, each of them holdin’ their rock like they was squeezin’ a pillow.
During Daddy’s last few days, Momma started to feelin’ poorly. When she helped drag Daddy to the pond, it was all she could do to help. It weren’t too long ‘fore me and Amos was buryin’ her as well. Amos scratched her name into her rock just like he done on the other two. I laid Momma down next to Daddy the same way they used to sleep in their bed. I thought they’d like that, bein’ that way.
Me and Amos did fine by ourselves for a while, and we was startin’ to get ready for the harvest. Then one day Amos fainted out in the field. I thought it were the heat that got him, but it kept happenin’. He kept sayin’ he was fine, but the color was startin’ to go from his face, and he didn’t have the appetite he used to.
Finally, one day he said he was going to take it easy, that he needed the rest. I went out and worked the crops all day by myself. When I come back, I found Amos on the floor in full fever and shakin’ real bad. When I took off his shirt, he had them same sores like Momma, Daddy, and Aunt Elly.
It didn’t take more than nine or ten days ‘fore Amos died. I did my best with what I had to keep him comfortable while he was alive, but with all them sores and him burnin’ up with fever, I ain’t sure I did a very good job.
I dragged Amos to the pond and put his best clothes on him so he’d look presentable when he got to wherever he was goin’. It was right then I saw the rock that Amos must’ve gathered for himself the day I left him alone, ‘cause it had his name scratched into it.
I floated Amos to the steeple, and went back for the rock. When I picked it up, I let out a wail ‘cause there was one more rock underneath it and my name was scratched into it. Amos must’ve done it at the same time as his. I carried his rock out to the steeple and then, after I placed Amos next to Momma, set the rock on his chest, folded his arms around it, and kissed him on his forehead.
I started to think that I didn’t want to come up for air. I was feelin’ like folks do that go and visit a loved one at a regular grave. Sort of peaceful, but still sort of empty. At some point in our lives, all we get left with is the memories. For the lucky ones, that’s enough, but for the less fortunate, it can’t never be good enough. They’ll spend their days wishin’ for somethin’ that won’t never come again.
That’s me. I been hangin’ ‘round the pond a lot these past few weeks, wishin’ I didn’t hurt, wishin’ I could put a light to the darkness in my heart, wishin’ I could go back in time to when we was a whole family. But I know it can’t never happen.
Tonight is the Harvest Moon. It comes when the corn is ready for pickin’ and the nighttime chill draws up a mist over the water. Tonight, when the moon is right overhead and shinin’ straight into the pond, I’m goin’ there to watch the water sprites as they float and streak the air over the water, swirlin’ graceful as ballerinas. Tonight, I’ll walk out on the water like a water skimmer and dance with the mist, spinnin’ and cavortin’ in the moonlight, until I’m all wore out. Then I’ll lie down in the place I already prepared, right next to Amos, and hold my rock tight to my chest and dream.
JON BEIGHT lives in Western New York. He has had photographs and prose published in Foliate Oak, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Literally Stories, and other fine publications.