Harris Lahti ~ Exquisite Corpse

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.”

Where, exact­ly?”

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.

For what?”

That neck­lace.”

This worth­less thing?”

Fine. Fifty.”

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, fine.”

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 then.”

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.

We’re lying?”

We’d nev­er.”

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…”

What 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…”

The roots…”





For their…”

Beloved child…”


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.