‘Burying The Past’ is a gentle but haunting tale, about death, regret and loss. First published by Fear and Trembling Magazine in 2011
Last year’s leaves were a brittle carpet underfoot as he strode through the woods. A small casket was tucked under one arm; his free hand grasped a spade. His shoulders were hunched under the black leather of his trench coat, and he glanced to neither side.
Every so often he stopped to listen, but the trees were wrapped in a dead silence. Nothing moved; no birds called, there was not the snuffle of hedgehogs or the sudden scamper of rabbits. The woods lay sleeping this short February afternoon as if the cold had frozen the life within it. The pale sun was already casting long, weak shadows as the man looked up to the grey sky and shivered.
“Too cold to snow,” he muttered. “So they say.” Then he bent his head and resumed his pace, staring at the hard ground scattered with the debris of autumn.
He did not stop until he found an ancient tree standing in the heart of a shallow hollow. He placed the casket on the ground with exaggerated care. He ran his fingers over the wood, unvarnished but velvet smooth and his hand shook. So little, and so much was held inside these wooden contours. Memories that had lain in ambush crowded his thoughts.
He began to dig to bury thought, to push the memories back into the muddy morass of his subconscious. He attacked the ground with an intensity that made his knuckles stand out white against the mottled flesh of his cold hands. Sweat gathered beneath his arms despite the chill day; blood rouged his cheeks.
Twenty minutes later he paused, breathing hard and gazed at the hole that yawned under the roots of the dead oak. Had he gone deep enough, he wondered. He bent to dig again, and then a splash of red, vivid against the grey landscape caught his eye. He lifted his head to look but it had gone. Just his imagination; his exhausted mind playing tricks, he told himself. He hadn’t slept more than a few minutes at a time since that fateful night. He turned back to his task and then again came that flash of bright scarlet.
Before he could stop himself he was back in the cottage on that barren Welsh hillside. He saw Sarah’s tiny, skeletal frame curled on the dirt floor, her primrose dress spattered and filthy. He saw the axe fall from his hand; he watched himself fall to his knees and gaze into his wife’s dead eyes.
He noticed with a curious detachment, as if he was watching a movie, that his hands were smeared with the blood still bubbling scarlet from her limbs. His too-late gentle fingers smoothed away the dark curls from her pale, still face, and he heard himself whisper, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” And then he watched himself weep as the horror of what had happened, what he had allowed to happen, began to sunk in.
The man straightened up with an effort and took several deep breaths. He took off his square rimmed glasses and squeezed the bridge of his nose; he rubbed his eyes with the back of a grimy hand, leaving a smear of dirt. He replaced his glasses and looked up to the leaden sky again. The pale winter sun had slipped behind a heavy cloud and the man shivered.
And then there was that scarlet movement again. The man swore softly, because this time he recognised it for what it was. He threw down the spade and began to stalk towards the cluster of holly bushes where it had disappeared.
Emily was fingering the berries of the holly bush that were brighter red even than her coat when she felt the fingers clamp down on her shoulder. Fear, huge and raw, exploded within her and she gave a shrill shriek. Strong hands spun her round and suddenly she was gazing up into a man’s face lined with anger. A thin smudge of earth ran from his brow to his cheek behind his spectacles.
“I told you—”
And then he was clasping her close to him, and she pushed her head against his chest, feeling warm, soft leather against her cold cheek. They stood like this for what seemed an age before she pushed herself away from him and said, “I know why you’re here, Daddy.”
“How did you know I would be here?”
“This is where you come to forget,” Emily replied simply.
Her father sighed, and rubbed his eyes again. After a while he said, “I didn’t know I was that transparent.”
Emily gazed at him levelly. “I’ve known you ever since I’ve been born. That’s seventeen years, Daddy.
“For what happened?”
He nodded, unable to speak.
Silent tears were running down Emily’s cheek. It was with difficulty that she spoke. “I realised a long time ago that I needed to forgive you. I needed to help you. After that night I hated you for what had happened to Mummy, but now…” Her voice trailed off.
“My hate died.” She spoke with the sure knowledge of youth. “Anything will die if you don’t feed it, and I chose not to feed my hate.”
Her father gently touched her cheek. “You’re so much older than seventeen, you know that.”
She smiled, but without humour. “Come on.” She took his hand and led him back to the oak, as if she was the middle-aged man, prematurely grey with sad brown eyes, and he was the teenager, youthful features scored with tight lines drawn across the forehead and beneath the eyes.
The fresh soil he had piled up was a rich velvet brown against the pale earth. Somehow it reminded him of dried blood around an open wound. For a little while they stood and stared into it as it gaped up at the sky.
“Is this is where…?” Emily pressed her face into his sleeve.
Her father nodded. “This is where I’m going to bury what we have left of your mother.” He turned to her, his voice suddenly harsh. “It might be best if you go now. I’ll see you at home.”
Emily pressed his hand hard. Then she turned and walked the few paces to where the casket lay. She knelt and ran her fingers over its surface, just as he had done earlier. She looked up at him, asking permission. He nodded and turned away.
With fingers that trembled she flicked the catches and opened the lid. For a minute or so she simply gazed into the open box before she reached in.
When he looked back Emily was sitting cross-legged on the ground, a doll in front of her. As she carefully held its porcelain figure, staring directly into its eyes, he saw her as she was over a decade ago, an innocent child playing, unaware that the world is hard and cruel. How things had changed since then, he thought.
She looked up at him as he crossed over to her. She dipped into the box again and brought out a pair of earrings, emerald green that he had bought Sarah in a Marrakech market ten years and an eternity ago. Emily fingered the smooth stones.
“These were her favourite.”
He nodded. “She always wore them for parties. They had special memories.” He thought back again to that sultry, tumultuous holiday in Morocco.
Emily picked up the doll once more. Brown, the colour of dried blood stained its dress. “I remember this. Gladys. I always thought it was an odd name for a doll, but I never told her that.”
“She had had that ever since she could remember. It was about the only constant your mother had in her childhood.”
“I remember her saying this was her only friend, that Gladys was the only one she could really trust. Even as a kid I thought that was an odd thing to say.”
“She would say that when she was upset with me. It was true though, in a way. Your mother wasn’t good at letting people get close to her. She was a lonely person a lot of the time.”
“Do you think Gladys was her only friend? Before she met you, I mean?”
“Do you know, I think she was.” He thought for a moment. “She didn’t really seem to be close to anyone else. As for her parents, her father was a man who I hope will burn in hell for what he did to her.” He spoke with a sudden ferocity. “Her mother, too.”
Emily gazed at the doll and the earrings. “And that’s all we have left of Mummy.”
“I threw everything else away a long time ago. But somehow I felt I had to keep these.” He took the box from her and stood, waiting. “Until now.” He glanced at the hole he had dug.
She looked from the box to the hole, and then up at him.
“I think it will help me let go, not forget. Help me forgive her, and those who caused her to be the way she was.” He looked at Emily seriously. “You do understand that, don’t you?
She reached up and touched his hand. “I’ve never even asked you what happened that night.”
He looked at her, puzzled. “Surely the social workers told you?”
She nodded. “But somehow it would help if you were to tell me yourself. Now.”
He grimaced as he squatted down on stiff haunches, and then carefully lowered himself to the ground. They sat opposite, like children about to whisper secrets to each other.
“It was our wedding anniversary. We just needed some time away; you know your mother hadn’t been well for a long time. I wanted to take her somewhere nice, the Med maybe, a nice hotel, get a bit of sun, something cheerful. But she had found this cottage on the side of a hill in Wales on the internet, more of a ruin really. It was used by cavers and climbers on the weekends, but she had managed to rent it for a week somehow. She said she wanted something secluded, somewhere a little solitary where she had time to think. That didn’t sound good to me, but you know that you could never argue with your mother.” He leaned forward and picked a leaf from the forest floor, brown and crispy. He stared at the veins that ran through it, that had once carried life-giving sap. “Maybe she had it all planned when she booked that cottage. I don’t know.”
Emily reached out and stroked his arm.
“The cottage, it was a single room affair, a couple of chairs and a table and a few things to cook with. It was cold even in the middle of summer. The only heating was this wood burning stove plumb in the centre of the room. It was filthy, covered with the soot of years. I took one look at the place and wanted to leave. But your mother said she liked it there, that it was perfect. And like a fool, I thought it was best to humour her.
“I found an axe by the wood stove and went outside to chop some wood. She had seen me take the cutlery with me, anything I thought she could hurt herself with.” He took a deep breath, held it and then slowly expelled it. “I had to go a little way up the hill to find any wood, and I never heard her smash the window. She used the broken glass to puncture three arteries. She was dead when I got back.” He was breathing hard now, great lungfuls of cold winter air. The sun was fast sinking behind the trees and dusk was falling but neither of them noticed.
“When I got home I found three complete months of her medication hidden in the toilet cistern, untouched. She hadn’t taken a single tablet for all that time. I think she had made herself ill so that she could solve what she always saw as a problem for others—herself.”
Emily stared at the earrings in the palm of her hand, fascinated by their green luminance.
“She always said that we were better off without her. She was scared of history repeating itself, I think. She didn’t want to do to you what her parents had done to her.”
“But she wouldn’t have done that.” Emily looked up at him in sudden fear. “Would she?”
Her father looked away, his fingers crumpling the fragile leaf into powdery fragments. Then in a small voice he said, “We’ve both seen her when she wasn’t herself. When she had no control over herself.” He took Emily’s delicate hand, and held it in his own. “I know it sounds perverse, but she did what she did because she loved you.
“She loved you, too.”
“I know,” he said in a blank, empty voice. And for a long time the two of them sat and gazed out into the growing gloom with thousand yard stares.
“I want to let go. Not forget, but let go. So I have to bury what she left behind. Like we had to bury her.”
Emily clambered to her feet and picked up the casket. “To forgive, not forget.”
Wordlessly he climbed to his feet, and picked up the spade. He watched as Emily replaced the doll and the earrings and then carry the casket over to the hole he had dug. She placed it gently at the roots of the oak, and then stood back as he began to shovel in the loose earth.
As he began to bury the past.
@ 2011 James Rawbone