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.

Ankles.

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.

One-hun­dred?”

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.”

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…”

We…”

Eat…”

Into…”

Animals…”

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.