Martha walked through the woods alone, strayed off the dirt path, and stopped at the base of a wide sycamore tree. She placed her right hand against its shedding bark. She looked up and spied the hole where a loose knot, and before that, a weak limb, had once been.
The townspeople whispered about the murders. Even though it happened 100 years ago, committed by a Civil War vet, before streets had been named and houses built – even though relations had long since passed, the town’s citizens in 1964 still claimed the deaths as their own and this was their legacy to endure.
Martha was still new enough not to feel ashamed. Her cheeks didn’t burn when a bored newspaperman showed up at Turner’s Drug Store to ask if the bones had been found. At least one reporter appeared every year around this time, November days slanting into winter. At least one asked about the bones, rumored to be stashed in a tree, stirring up shame.
She had moved to Laceyburg from Tricreek, three towns away to the east. Here Martha hoped to settle briefly, a way station on her migration west, out of the low Appalachian hills that spoke to her at night. She didn’t want to hear voices of the southern village Scots, or the Moravians or the Lenni Lanape, the Delaware tribe, converted by the Moravians.
Martha rested her head against the sycamore. “I hear you,” she said. The bones rattled deep within the trunk. A daughter, a son, a wife, a mutt. Martha imagined the blood and muscle and organs decomposing decades ago, turning into waste and seeping into the clay soil. She had done her job and now she would drive back into town to report to the Laceyburg Gazette editor.
Baxter Wilhelm was at his desk, smoking a cigarette, laughing at the funny pages that would fill the Sunday section. He looked up at Martha. “So, did any trees talk to you?” She was his last chance at finding the remains of Capt. Elijah James Walker’s victims. She nodded.
“Take me there.” Baxter grabbed his coat and hat.
“You’ll need a ladder and a flash light,” Martha said.
These backward shifts in time wore her out but they were profitable and Martha didn’t see anything wrong with profiting from her gift. She needed the money. But it was much easier when she was tasked with settling something innocuous, like finding a lost ring or resolving an argument among two old men over who took Sally Martin to the 1920 town picnic.
They drove out to the expanse of woods deeded to the county by the Walker cousins a decade ago. Martha led Baxter through the thick underbrush.
“How did you find the tree? Did you hear voices?”
Martha bit her lip. If only it were that simple, a voice directing her to whatever mystery she was attempting to solve. It was more intense than that. She had to let go of the present, disappear under the watery surface of reality and enter a murky realm in her head. With her eyes closed, she spun herself in circles until she sensed another being—it could be a cat, a toad, an elephant, a saint, a carnie, a young girl. The dizzying spin forced her to sit, and then she listened. The first time it happened she was imitating her friend Kay who was spinning in the front yard, collapsing and giggling when the dizziness overwhelmed her. That first time, Martha saw a toad in the palm of her hand and it told her that she had “the long backward glance.” The next time, Martha spun alone in the backyard and an old man appeared before her, apologizing for his hard heart.
Over time, she learned how to communicate with these beings, asking them questions, urging them to let go because they were burdened with regret. And then she discovered that she could find lost things, treasures and loves and hope. But where she lived, along the Appalachian foothills with its history of violence and conquering of women and subjugation of the peoples who belonged to the land, she couldn’t bear the wailing and prayers.
Martha held her arm out to stop Baxter from walking further. “Here,” she said. She pointed to the tall sycamore ahead, and the circle of dirt that surrounded it. “Nothing will grow near this tree. See? The earth knows these things too.”
Baxter placed the ladder at the sycamore’s base. The top of the ladder rested just beneath the hole near the lowest crook in the tree’s enormous limbs. He shone the flashlight into the hole and then stuck his head in for a look. Martha tapped her foot and closed her eyes, nervous. She heard Baxter gasp.
“Oh, dear Jesus,” Baxter said. “Bones and skulls. It’s filled with ‘em. That’s gotta be more than three people.”
Martha nodded. “Elijah was an angry man. The dead were in his head.”
Baxter scurried down the ladder, excited. “This is gonna be a hell of a story.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can’t write his story. He is still in the world. He is not regretful.”
“Young lady, beg your pardon, but that makes no sense. Elijah is long dead.”
“You don’t know me and I don’t know you. You have to trust that I know what I’m saying, regardless.” Martha took the flashlight from Baxter’s hand and started back to the dirt path.
“If you say so,” Baxter called after her.
Martha knew then that Baxter would call the fire department out to the sycamore tree to unload its contents. He would stack the bones and photograph them. Releasing the bones to sunlight and air would fill the woods with death. Martha would have to move on, further west, away from the fetid fog that would find its way into the fields outside of Laceyburg.
She took the money Baxter promised and drove.