The backyard garden is a fenced-in pool of murky black Jell‑O that sucks and belches up Heather’s feet as she collects its monstrous and mishappen produce into wicker baskets—onions the size of bowling balls, carrots bent at right angles, apples whose fragrance draws the deer to the fence each night to moan.
All morning, she hoists these loaded baskets into the bed of Vic’s pickup for the farmer’s market, a new endeavor in which her husband has pledged no help because: “Sundays are for taming the lawn.”
Returning for a final basket, Heather hears a muttering from behind the blackberry bramble. By that leaning gravestone that—after discovering in the basement years prior—Vic decided, in all his wisdom, to wedge in the far corner of the garden. And removes a pair of gloves she hangs on a nail for such occasions (too many mornings, she’d come out to weed only to discover a dead gopher or rabbit lodged in the dirt, their hearts exploded with fear).
But today it’s only Junior, her eight-year old son: Berry-stained, sunk to his kneecaps.
At first, he doesn’t notice her. His little hand continues moving between mouth and bramble as he continues muttering—a nonsense language that still dredges worry. Even after the specialists confirmed that he was within a normal developmental range. Not mute, not deaf. A healthy brain. That his silence had nothing to do with her pregnancy diet of bizarre produce, sprung out of this black dirt, like she thought.
Now Junior falls silent. He lifts his arms, clasps his fingers around her neck as she strains to free him, the black dirt gurgling with every inch of him it gives her—
A pair of shins.
With a final belch, the toes.
Yet, where the tension should’ve released, the tension remains. A root? A stone? An undead hand!? Heather has no idea. Only that the black dirt doesn’t want to release him, seems to want to pull him down. Before, sudden as the tension began, Junior comes free with a popping sound.
Heather hugs him, coos soothingly as if he were crying, like she imagined another little boy might. Instead of stone-faced and silent. Then: something bumps against the leg of jeans—a necklace, she realizes, setting him down. Dirt-caked, rusted.
How would such a thing even have gotten down there? she wonders. Sure, the house was old—dated to the Revolutionary War—but she sees no reason why a necklace such as this should be bubbling up in the yard. Unless the neckless had slipped off some buried body, its coffin shipwrecked with rot. Ridiculous, she knows.
At the next booth, a farmer with a tombstone-shaped head sells small containers of artisan goat cheese. At twenty dollars apiece, all morning long, the shoppers slip them into canvas bags. Meanwhile, Heather sells nothing.
Perhaps Vic had been right about the farmer’s market, she thinks. Much like last week, the shoppers tend to gawk instead of buy. To pump the freakish produce like weights, take a photo, move on.
“I’m about to rebrand as an all-natural gym,” Heather tells the tombstone-headed farmer. “Or start a vegan freak show,” she says. But he is too busy accepting twenties to chuckle. His buck-toothed smile says it all: these idiot yuppies.
A few booths over, a woman in a white dress and a crown of roots tunes a guitar on a stool, readying to sing a song. “Sibilance,” she repeats into the microphone. “Sibilance…”
Finally, old tombstone-head turns to Heather—his head going from thin to broad: “What was that?”
“Never mind,” Heather tells him. Yet he keeps staring at her. As if x‑raying through her flannel shirt to photograph her naked body. This perverted gnome! Or so she thinks until remembering the necklace: sliding it on, and pulls the chain taut against the back of her neck so he could get a better gander.
“Exquisite,” he says. “Where did you find it?”
“At some estate sale. A farm. Out in the black dirt.”
“I don’t remember.” Heather doesn’t know why she lies. Or why she slips the rusty necklace inside her shirt and busies herself rearranging heads of enormous cauliflower no one will buy.
“I’ll give you twenty dollars for it,” he says, unrelenting.
“This worthless thing?”
In her palm, Heather reevaluates the necklace. What had she missed? Despite having hosed the dirt off, the pendant isn’t any more impressive. Just clearly brittle, its lines less defined. “It’s not gold or silver far as I can tell. No diamonds.”
“Seventy-five, highest offer.”
“Is there some kind of historical value you’re not mentioning here, bub?”
Now another shopper—a young pregnant woman—approaches him, holding a container of goat cheese for purchase. “Is this cheese pasteurized?” She stands there patiently while the tombstone-headed farmer begins peeling off twenties from the wad he unsheathed from his dirty jean pocket. “A clean eighty then,” he says.
“No way,” Heather says, finally.
“What exactly is this?”
For another moment, his eyes remain dark, squinting. Like Junior’s squinted back in the garden. Then he blinks, turns away. The spell broken—his broad head going thin again as he accepts the pregnant woman’s money. Then someone lifts one of Heather’s eggplants like a barbell. And a flashbulb explodes as in the distance a guitar strums and an angelic voice sings: Dead Flowers.
At dinner that night, Vic can’t believe she didn’t sell the necklace. It wasn’t gold or silver as far as he could tell. No diamonds. “And the farmer wanted how much?”
“I already told you.”
“And you found it where?”
“I told you that, too.”
“It just makes no sense. Unless—” He cuts off, looks from her to Junior. On the table a great roasted cauliflower steams like a boiled brain. Through the fog of which Junior pokes at a cross section, chews.
“How’d your day with daddy go?” Heather asks him.
Junior keeps chewing, without answer, stares into the cauliflower’s sloughing folds. A nervousness, as if beaten into this silence. By who and by what? If the specialists hadn’t missed anything, if the silence truly didn’t generate from within, who else’s fault could it have been but theirs?
“Junior?” she says. “Did you help daddy mow the lawn?”
Still, silence pervades. And pervades.
Moments like these, Vic usually steps in. To diffuse his glaring vacancy enough to allow the moment to move on again. To say something like, “He sure did. Sat on my lap the entire time.” Yet, tonight, he keeps chewing and staring at the necklace with the same frozen squint as Junior and old tombstone-head. “Let me see that thing again, willya?” he says, finally.
Now Heather pulls the chain taut against the back of her neck again, holds out the rusted pendant.
“No,” he says. “I mean, can I hold it?”
Heather can’t conjure any reason why he shouldn’t. So, after another moment of consideration, she hands him the necklace.
He stares into it, at his palm. “Maybe there’s historical value,” he says after a while.
“That’s what I thought. But to discern that at a glance? I didn’t tell him anything.”
“Still… Maybe I’ll swing by the jeweler for an appraisal tomorrow. Alright?”
“Alright,” she says.
“Alright, then.” And as his hand closes around the necklace and disappears into his pocket, Heather has no idea why she wants to throttle him. Only that she didn’t want to wait until tomorrow to have the necklace back. Then she looks at Junior, wondering if he even notices when they fight. Then toward the window where night’s fallen. And the dark glass throws their dull reflection back at her. A superimposition of a family hovering within the square of blackness. Slightly distorted by the old glass. Not theirs but a different one, with no sad looks upon their faces. As if long ago the house itself had sunk into the black dirt of the garden and trapped them down there to wait until they were yanked up again.
Next morning, after Vic drives off for work, Heather enters the garden in search of answers. A short-handed shovel in hand, a rubber mallet. The black dirt fighting for possession of her feet as she makes her way along the rows, to the blackberry bramble. With Junior inside, watching TV—an activity which he seemed content to do for endless hours.
All morning, she drives the shovel in the black dirt, pounds it deeper with the rubber mallet, works the shovel back up hoping its edge might hook something. Anything. Some sign of what else is down there.
After a while, she grows desperate, begins calling for her son. Until, eventually, she can hear the black dirt sucking at his feet as he makes his way to the back corner of the garden.
“Take your shoes of and eat some blackberries,” she says.
Then she instructs him to stands there, eating blackberries. His hand moves to his mouth without any real expression. Back and forth—until his toes sink, then his ankles. And his shins disappear. Then she strains to pull him out.
For the rest of the morning, Heather repeats this. Allowing him to sink a little deeper each time. But each time: she comes up empty. No clues, no signs. No jewelry.
That night, Vic enters the kitchen, begins his usual routine: tussles Junior’s hair, pours himself a drink, then sits at the table to catch them up on his workday of painting this intricate farmhouse. “A Painted Lady,” he says it’s called. For two Canadians who may be twins or lovers. Real tabloid stuff that’d usually interest her. Except for tonight.
On the table, another cauliflower steams alongside bent carrots.
“Get to the part about the necklace?” she says, finally.
“Ah, the necklace…” Her words seem to have set off a desperate spasm in him. He pats the sides and rear pockets of his painter’s whites. The cargo pockets. The sides and rear again. Before lifting his windbreaker off the back of his chair, rifling through those pockets. Cursing softly, then louder. Then bolting upright, his finger fishing inside the collar of his t‑shirt.
Then, with a yank, finally: the necklace.
“Thank God…” she says.
“The appraiser had me going,” he says. “Must’ve spent forty-five minutes peering through that eyeglass. But, yeah, you should’ve sold it to the farmer when you had the chance.”
“Worthless.” Vic tucks the necklace back under his paint-flecked t‑shirt, resumes shoveling cauliflower into his mouth. When Heather raises her eyebrows—a gesture she feels should’ve clearly expressed her desire for him to hand the necklace back—he just keeps eating. Oblivious as his son.
“Can I see the necklace please?” The enunciation is so perfect, so clean, that she shivers. She didn’t think she’d spoken them, only thought them.
Junior pokes, chews, quiet. They look at him, back at each other.
“You heard that right?” Vic says.
Is that how my son’s voice sounds? Heather thinks as they continue to gawk, come to their sense a little. Of course, he could talk. But with such perfect diction? She feels awful having neglected showing him sooner. When in the past twenty-four hours they’ve discussed nothing but!
Vic must’ve felt similar because next thing he’s wresting the necklace from beneath his collar, handing it to him with a quivering hand. “Isn’t it pretty, son?”
“Isn’t it full of history?” Heather says.
“How did it get into the garden?” Junior says in that voice again.
Heather and Vic exchange glances: a transmission of the shipwrecked coffin, the shrunken body. The possibility of all that. The history of the house revealed in the silence.
“How do you think it got down there?” Heather says.
Junior doesn’t answer, stares into his palm. That same expressionless gaze. Like whatever person just surfaced dipped below again. And who knew for how long. The possibility of this hovers in the room like a thick fog, makes them desperate. The continued jolt of his voice upon them, like some drug.
“Someone must’ve buried it,” Vic says, answering for Junior now.
“Like treasure,” Heather says.
“Two hundred years ago they didn’t have many banks, son!”
“They buried all kinds of things.”
“Did you know that, Junior?”
“J?” Yet, despite their efforts, his speechlessness remains, a reinstated blackness that muffles their words. Forces them silent as Junior continues staring at the necklace. Its rusted chain. Its brittle pendant. Much like the tombstone-headed farmer had.
“You’re lying,” he says, finally.
“I know how they bury dead bodies,” he says. “I know our house is old and people lived here before us. I know they died because they don’t live here now.”
“That’s right,” Vic says.
“Brilliant,” Heather says.
“The daughter who died had a big round belly,” he continues. “She was pregnant with a farmer’s baby son. I know a lot of others things,” he says.
“What else do you know?”
“I know her husband was an ugly fox. And I know her father traded her dowry for a sack of onions. I know he had three fingers blown off in the war…”
“Revolutionary,” he says, speaking words as if reading them from the necklace in his palm now.
Then, that silence again: Junior receding below the surface of himself . As he continues staring. Into his palm, the necklace. With each subsequent moment the strange digression becomes stranger, dream-like, like it hadn’t happen at all.
“And what happened to the last of them?” Heather asks.
Yet, still, Junior says nothing. Deaf, mute again. Their still and quiet son.
“A pregnant woman died. She was buried in the garden—”
It’s not Junior who speaks this time, Heather realizes. But Vic’s voice, Junior’s proxy. How she’s used to hearing him. The Junior she knows. As he stares at the necklace with him. Both sporting the same expressionless face. Like something else is speaking through them.
Then Junior says, smiling: “Between the three oak trees out in the yard—”
Then Vic says: “The husband went mad with grief…”
Heather jumps in now: “They planned to have ten children…”
“The husband hanged himself…” Junior continues.
“In the garden…”
“To be with her…”
“In the garden…”
“Where to this day…”
“They still knit…”
Harris Lahti’s work has appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, Hobart, New York Tyrant, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He paints houses in upstate NY and edits fiction for Fence. Read more: harrislahti.com.