A Better Place
There is a great sadness underneath. Nothing can assuage it. It cannot be willed away. Our baby died and was buried in the backyard, and we all went on living like it hadn’t happened. From that day on, we couldn’t look each other in the eyes. There was nothing to say and no way to say it except this way, the way I am saying it now, which will not suffice.
The baby’s name was Eugenia. She was six months old when she died. I can tell you that much, but I can’t say how or why she died. Nor can I say what she really meant to me. That would take a lifetime. I can say I will never forget her and I miss her every day.
I am her brother. My name is Arnold.
Our parents told people in town that she’d gone to live with our aunt in Omaha because Aunt Josie had no children and we had five and Aunt Josie was going to raise her up. Nosy church people—the Andersons and the Bebouts and the Gullions—acted surprised and suspicious and grilled us kids about the circumstances under which she left, but we did as instructed and responded only by saying, “She’s in a better place.”
We buried Genie near the maple tree behind the barn. In her coffin we placed her baby locket, her diaper pins, her yellow christening gown, her baby brush lined with soft blonde hair. When I think of Genie under that lumpy ground, her wooden box long rotted away, it comforts me to imagine her things close by. In her hand, Father said, he placed her favorite rattle, the one decorated with frolicking lambs.
I say we buried her, but I didn’t bury her, or even witness her burial. Only Father and Mother were there. Genie died in August while the rest of us—Owen and Deirdre and Aubrey and me—were attending Bible camp at Lake Hall. There is nothing to mark her grave. We must take Father’s word that she rests under the tree and that her things rest with her.
It’s been years since Genie died, but I still have dreams that our entire backyard is populated, directly under the soil, with dead babies and their things. The front yard too. But why stop there? Dead babies could be underfoot all over Cedar Valley, all over Iowa, all over the United States. Hell, all over the world!
Dead babies could be underfoot all over Cedar Valley, all over Iowa, all over the United States. Hell, all over the world!
Dead babies are the source of humankind’s sadness. We who are left to walk the earth soon figure this out, try never to speak of them, try our best to ignore them. Frankly, as the years go by, we get tired of them. Those babies crowd us. Think of their sheer numbers! From years and years ago, back to the Stone Age! Most had carefully chosen names and many had families who loved them, but as time passes they become ordinary and interchangeable, all mixed up, a jumble of skulls and bones and fire trucks and Peter Rabbit plates. You couldn’t tell one from another for the life of you, even if you were desperate enough to dig down and try. It’s one big baby party under there.
And why should we give a hoot about them? They didn’t live long enough to get buried in real cemeteries. They didn’t have the decency to get old before they died.
What good are they? They can’t make us want to go on living.
I must confess that I have come to despise them, those anonymous babies, the ones who are not Genie. The fact that they are all down there together, piles and piles of them, not existing, reminds me that one tiny baby sister is nothing and that I should get over it. Get over it, Arnold. Death, at any age, for any reason, is just a fact of life. Your sister wasn’t special, silly. You aren’t special either. Countless others have been in your shoes. In the grand scheme of things, and so on. In time you’ll forget, and so on.
What if I don’t want to forget? What if I can’t?
Mother said we must offer our sorrow up to the Lord and keep going. “Keep going, Arnold.”
So I keep going, but it’s harder in winter, when there are no blackbirds on the fence posts or daisies in the ditches, etc.
This evening, at 5:00, I will lock up the public library, where I’ve recently been promoted to head librarian and start home, back to the house I grew up in, the house where I will live the rest of my days because I am incapable of getting my act together.
Following my usual route, I will cut across the chunky field beside the grain elevator. Even if I stumble, I will not look down at the ruts and frozen clods and withered corn plants. Lo, I will cast mine eyes upon the Iowa sky, even though, for months on end, it will change only from gray to black to gray to black, and so on. As I march, in order to keep up my courage, I will sing Father’s favorite song.
On through the hail like a pack of angry wolves on the trail we are out to get you dead or alive and we’re gonna to get you dead or alive better run better run better run away son you are done throw your gun throw your gun away, and as I stride o’er the field my boots will crunch, crunch, crunch their random baby faces and tromp, tromp, tromp down their dreadful baby bones.
When I have arrived at my back door, I will remove my house key from my pocket, and if this is a good day, I will hear a corresponding rattle coming from underneath the maple tree. It could be Genie’s frolicking lambs, or it might be only the stinging wind rustling the branches. Life goes on either way.
But maybe not. Perhaps today will be the day I finally give in and lie down on the cold ground to wait for the Mounties. Sorry, Mother. Here’s the thing. If I don’t lie down on the cold ground, if I keep going, I’ll have no choice but to enter, yet again, our nice warm house, where all that remains of my baby sister is her name in the family Bible. You can picture it, Mother. I know you see it. There it is on the first page, Eugenia Love Talbot, written so neatly in elaborate cursive by my own stupid hopeful hand. In the house I spend all my time not looking at it.
But say I do lie down, on the icy ground near the back door, arms and legs splayed, the sharp cold seeping up through my underwear and jeans and T-shirt and flannel shirt and sweater and socks and boots and down jacket and cap and gloves, and suppose I still don’t move except to close my eyes and I listen to the changing whistles of the wind—not Genie’s rattle but the wind—the same wind I’ve heard all my life but have never paid attention to, and then I listen to the never-ceasing roar of semis on I-80, which I usually try my damndest to block out but now I will welcome, picturing those behemoth trucks and their anonymous drivers, one after the other, like all those babies, all precious to someone somewhere. And then, suppose, despite the fact that my eyes are leaking, I open them and see the bare branches of the looming maple tree and the yellow light on the shoveled walk and the dark sky clotted with clouds and maybe even a star, an airplane, a sliver of moon, a shadow of owl. No mounties or wolves. Just the usual. If I lie there long enough, perhaps I’ll feel the beautiful drudgery of my life and the familiar aches of my body and the lonesome delights of the Iowa winter seep under my skin and give me something like peace, maybe something luxurious, like joy. Even if I can’t describe exactly what that might feel like, it could happen, couldn’t it? And it could be wonderful, even with my habitual chaser of sadness. My name is Arnold. But you remember me! I’ll take the usual, please. I’ll take it to go. Thank you. Good night.
Elizabeth Stuckey-French is the author of three novels, Where Wicked Starts, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, and Mermaids on the Moon, as well as a collection of short stories, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa. She teaches fiction writing at Florida State University.