I wrote this short story a while ago, inspired by the recent trend of eco-friendly burials. Enjoy! ~Christina Delay
The dead chatter in the branches. Their blood runs through the veins of every leaf. Their bones feed the souls of the trees.
Don’t ever go into the forest.
“Grams, you can’t. It’s not…” I look out the hospice window and search for the right word. “Natural.” Outside, trees whisper in the slight breeze, leaves rustling against each other like old, dry skin.
Grams raises one tattooed brow at me and recrosses her legs under her tie-dyed skirt. The bangles on her arms jingle in defiance. Cheeriness vs illness. Life vs death.
“I’ve got one month and I’ll not spend it fighting.” She crosses her paper-thin arms. Stubborn to her end. “Besides, I want to be buried next to your Grandpa.”
“This isn’t being buried. It’s being planted!”
“Allie, I’ll not tell you again. Don’t defy me, child.”
I pick up the brochure she’s thrown at me. The front picture has a giant seed pod with a tree growing on top. The caption “Help the planet and live on through the life of a tree” is typed underneath. On the inside of the brochure, images show how the deceased is folded into a fetal position and stuffed inside a biodegradable shell. From which a tree feeds and feeds and feeds. I toss it back onto the generic nightstand next to the hospice bed.
She holds up a shaky finger. Thins her lips. If she were stronger, and if I were nine instead of thirty-five, I’d be sent to a time out.
“We just got each other back. Please. Don’t fight with me.”
The guilt of my past bombards me. The powers-that-be had finally let me out of witness protection. Grams had been the one person they’d warned me not to contact, and the only one I could.
I look down at my own set of crossed arms. Despite years of doing everything I could to not be like Grams, I’d turned out just like her. I even married my own bad-boy-turned-convicted-felon.
Grams coughs, a never-ending trainwreck of spasms that shudders her entire body like it’s falling off her life’s tracks. I jump up from the chair, wrap an arm around her shoulders, and help her sit up. The hospice-provided pillows slump behind her back. I rest my forehead against her shoulder.
One month. I just got her back. Only one month left with the only person in the world who cares, or even knows, I’m alive.
And she’s almost dead.
The doctor lied. Grams didn’t have a month left. She had a week. I thought I’d have a month to come to terms with losing her, but nope.
If I’d had a year, I don’t think it would have made losing her any easier.
“I’m sorry, what?” I tune back into the funeral director’s words. Flowers surround the funeral home and overpower the air with rose and lily.
“Your grandmother has chosen to be a part of the prison system’s replanting project. As a spouse of a deceased convict interred into this program, she elected to be buried next to your grandfather.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“There’s a problem.”
Awesome. Just what I need while dealing with Grams’s death and executing her will. A will I strongly disagree with. Problems.
I take a deep breath, one that threatens to poke through my numbed emotions. “And that is?”
“The prison’s records are a little…disorganized. This is a relatively new program and kinks are still being worked out.”
“We don’t know where your grandfather was buried.”
My heart folds in two. Relief at not having to see my Grandpa’s burial place scuffles with panic at not being able to fulfill Grams’s one request. Grief throws a knife in the middle of the fight.
“But we can guess.” The funeral director concludes. He seems like a nice man. Probably goes home to his wife and two children. Tells them stories about his day. Drinks light beer.
I hate him.
“You want to guess? Bury my grandmother next to some random convict? A murderer or a rapist or a child abductor?”
The director peers over the top of his smudged glasses. “Remind me what your grandfather did?”
I shoot him a Smith & Wesson 9MM glare.
“Death row inmates were buried according to date and crime. It’ll help us better identify his location.”
I swallow back the bite of shame, seasoned with a few pinches of guilt, and answer. “Boss of the Chicago Outfit.”
Mr. Funeral Director develops a tick beneath his right eye. “Ah. He’ll be on row nine then. Trifecta Lane. ” He turns a map depicting a large square with rows of straight circles. “Either this tree, or this one.” He taps two circles with his pen.
“What’s Trifecta Lane?”
“Death row inmates convicted of three or more felonies.” I hear the hesitation in his tone, though his words don’t falter.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my family legacy.
I drive down a country road to a fenced off field. Dirt kicks up around my car and poofs behind my tires. I turn off the road at a painted sign that reads Renewal Fields. In other words, the state’s federally sanctioned experiment on executed inmates. Turning their bodies into a forest. Very eco-friendly.
But something about it gives me the creeps.
Another five minutes passes full of nothing but empty fields. Am I in the wrong place? There can’t be too many cemeteries of trees, right? I pull over to the side of the plowed road. Dust catches up with my car and settles around the windows, leaving a film of red powder. I turn on my wipers and clear the windshield, and…there, yes. On the horizon. A group of buildings.
I pull back on the road. As I get closer, the empty fields turn into planted rows of saplings. The tallest are six feet, slender and bowing under branches full of leaves. The smallest, capped by a protective dome and less than a foot tall. I park in front of the first building. Made of cut stone and marble, it looks every inch a mausoleum, but a gold plate on the outside claims it’s an office. Again, creepy.
My fingers reach for the handle and tremble against the silver-painted plastic. Am I ready to bury Grams? The last of my family?
No. No I am not.
I open my door anyway.
A breeze kicks up, blowing dandelion seeds around the air. My black dress pushes the back of my legs into a walking motion. That’s all the past few days have been. Motions. Not actual actions. Just mechanics of living.
She’s here, she’s here, she’s here.
A round of whispers ride on the breeze and a cold finger bumps along each ridge of my spine. I shoot my gaze around the area. The grounds are empty, save the circle of trees rustling in the wind, which dies down and sucks the whispers away.
My head has been stuffed full of death for a month and now I’m hearing things. Awesome.
I head into the small office. It’s a windowless block of a room, with one rose sitting in a clear vase on a marble-topped desk. I ding a shiny gold bell. The tinny cling echos against the close walls. If someone didn’t hurry, I’d catch claustrophobia.
“Hello? Anyone here?”
A low, grating sound like thick claws on a chalkboard shakes the water in the rose vase. My heart startles, stops, hesitates to beat. My breath fastens to the back of my throat.
The back wall of the office swings open. A woman the size of a raisin, and with more wrinkles, scurries out.
“You rang?” she says in a spot-on Lurch voice. Then she laughs so hard she slaps her own knee.
“Uh…” I shake my head, blink a few times. Nope, still a tiny, old, probably crazy, woman that just walked out of a wall. “I’m here to bury my grandmother?” My words tilted into a question at the end.
“Ah, yes. The DeLuca planting – er – burial. Come, come with me, girl.” She snaps her fingers and turns on her garden boot. “I’m so sorry for your loss, by the way.” She tosses over her shoulder as if it’s a spilled grain of salt.
“Sure you are,” I mutter and follow the raisin through the back wall and into a sunlit glass room. The room is full of tiny trees in big pots, fertilizer, garden spades, and potting shelves. Orchids line the walls. Ferns create a walkway.
“S’cuse the mess. We’re still getting everything ready for visitors. You know, you’re the first.”
“Yup. No one ever seems to make it to these burials. Can’t quite figure it out.”
“Maybe because they’re all convicted criminals?” I suggested.
“Nah. That ain’t it.”
“Maybe because this is all a little weird?” I gesture at our surroundings.
The raisin spins on her heels and sticks a finger with dirt-lined cuticles in my face. “Now you tell me what, what is weird,” here she shakes her hands around in the air, “about Mother Nature taking back what’s hers?” Her hands plant themselves on her hips and she waits for my answer.
“And when did we define different as bad?” She spins back around and walks quickly through the greenhouse, talking with her hands and her hips. “All the greatest inventors were…” she glares at me over her shoulder. “Different.”
“I’m sorry. Did you invent this process?”
“Hell, no. I’m just the gardener. Come on. Better find Mrs. Deluca ‘fore she starts composting.”
I follow Raisin into another greenhouse. This one is even less ready for visitors. The bottom half of each wall is made of corrugated plastic and lined with steel shelving units. Something sweet permeates the rich loam and fertilizer riding on the air. Not a good sweet, but a dead-squirrel-in-the-wall sweet.
“This ain’t supposed to be a part of the tour, but since it’s just you and me, eh. Rules, schmules.” She shrugs and offers me a girlfriend grin. And then she points to a corner of the greenhouse.
In the corner, blending in with the corrugated plastic and mounds of dirt, sits a six-foot-tall egg. Light brown shell. Shadow of a crumpled human inside.
“Is that…” I trail off as the bones in my knees disappear. I grip onto the nearest shelving unit to hold myself up.
Raisin gives me a double-take, seems to realize for the first time that this isn’t a tour of a museum, but a burial for my grandmother.
“Sorry, girl. Better with plants than people. Why don’t you wait outside?” She chins toward a door hidden at the back of the greenhouse. “I’ll be right out.”
I plow through the swinging door and into a row of saplings and rest my hands on my knees. Air plays hide and seek with my lungs. Grief penetrates the novacane I’ve injected into my emotions, twists my heart in opposite directions, and slices through my chest.
She’s here, she’s here, she’s here. The leaves rustle in the wind.
Why did Grams have to do this? Why couldn’t she be cremated or buried in a box or live? Why did she choose to die, rather than fight?
Why did she leave me alone?
A sharp prick stabs my toe through my shoe.
I jump into the arms of a tree and catch a glimpse of a sharp stick slithering back into the ground.
That can’t be right. Sticks don’t slither.
I shake my head and head back to the greenhouse. The door swings open and Grams in her seed pod is wheeled out by Raisin.
“C’mon then. Minister’s here. You ready to say goodbye?” She pats Grams and I’m not sure if she’s talking to me, or Grams.
I follow any way.
We walk along the edge of the field, toward the back where the first planted trees stand tall. Grandpa is under one of them. Feeding one of them.
Because of me.
I wait for the dart of pain, but this time, I can’t feel.
Raisin wheels Grams into a line of trees. A man in black with a white collar waits a few feet in. Behind him, a giant hole is carved into the earth.
There is no one else.
This is not a funeral people attend. This is not a life people celebrate. It’s an inevitability. A lonely inevitability.
The leaves brush against each other, louder than before, wind picking up and playing a symphony of she’s here all around us. The minister does what he’s paid to do, leads me in cupping a handful of dirt on top of Grams’s seed, gives me his blessing, and leaves.
Raisin pushes a button on the wagon holding Grams and the seed moves forward over the hole and is gently lowered into the earth. The dirt the minister and I so carefully poured over her shell shakes loose, falls to the ground. A smudge of dirt the color of ashes marks our goodbye.
I wait until Raisin pulls the wagon away from Grams’s new resting place. I wait until dirt is poured on top of Grams and she disappears under a cascade of rich earth. I wait until the hole is filled and Raisin leaves and the whispers on the wind die.
I wait until I find the courage to leave and face what’s left of my life.
If I could, I’d wait until the hole Grams has left in my heart is filled with something as rich and dark and all-consuming as the earth she now rests in. But some holes are meant to stay holes.
Twenty Years Later
When you get the call that someone you once loved has died, it’s amazing how mundane tasks become the entire world. When the prison calls about Nate, I’m drying a coffee mug. A freebie from some place or other, but it becomes imperative that every drop of water is soaked up by the towel and the cheap porcelain is buffed to a shine.
Two days later, I pull into Renewal Fields. The painted sign has been replaced by a brick marquis with gold lettering. The R in Renewal hangs upside down, held on by one nail. The empty field has turned into an overgrown forest. Only the tops of the trees give any nod to their once orderly rows.
I drive down the entrance road, now gravel and tree-lined. The program had been discontinued years ago due to a change in administration. Not sure why or how Nate chose to be planted rather than buried. Not sure why he requested me, his ex-wife and reason he was in jail to begin with, to be at his funeral. But the woman on the other end of the line had said, repeatedly, that he would be buried at Renewal Fields and it was his last wish that I attend.
The trees grow thicker and taller the closer I get to the office. The once white stone and marble building is covered in vines.
“Hello?” I call out, no wish to go into that office. But there’s no answer. The trees scrape against each other. I shoulder my purse, shut the car door, and walk inside. The office door resists my tug, but finally releases. Whatever company manages this place needs to be fired. Everything is in disrepair.
Inside, not much has changed. The bell, a little worse for the wear, still shares the marble desk with a rose.
My gaze travels back to the rose. The rose has grown roots.
I look closer.
No vase. Must be a statue. The rose statue’s roots grow along the marble top and fall to the ground.
Not a choice I’d make for my home, but this is a funeral home.
“Hello?” I ding the bell. No answer. The hidden door in the back wall stands ajar, so I push it open and walk through.
“Anyone here?” I feel the emptiness of the place. There aren’t even shadows to keep me company.
“You made it.” A gnarled voice jumps out of nowhere.
I spin around. Raisin sits in the corner.
“I did. Ex-husband this time.”
“Good ol’ Nate. Always was a carogna.”
Last time I was here, Raisin didn’t speak Italian. Raisin didn’t know Nate. Raisin certainly didn’t know Nate was an asshole. The only person who had ever called him one in Italian was dead.
“Excuse me?” The sharp ends of my ribs stab into my stomach. Another thought hits the back of my neck and shoots razor-edged chills down my spine.
Raisin should be dead. She had to be over 100 by now.
“It’s good to see you, mia bambola.”
No. No, no, no.
I back away. I hadn’t heard that endearment since I gave testimony against Grandpa thirty years ago. Betrayed him, my family. Sent my own husband to jail along with him. Had to live years in witness protection.
Raisin gets to her feet, but it’s more like she is pushed up from behind. Her legs go straight and then, she’s standing. How do you stand without bending your legs?
She jerks toward me, her feet drag along the floor with each step. Her head lolls around on her neck.
Ferns brush the back of my legs, and I catch myself just before I fall backwards. Raisin takes another step towards me and raises her head.
Her eyes are gone. Replaced by two twigs that hug her upper eyelids. She opens her mouth, and inside, a web of small, budding branches replace her teeth. Tree roots have embedded into her legs and make her twitch. Make her move.
“Took me some time, but I figured out a way to see you again.” Her mouth moves in time with the words, but it’s not her.
It’s Johnny DeLuca. Chicago’s most notorious mafia boss in history.
A throat-ripping scream shreds my vocals and propels my feet. I run. The glass above my head darkens. Cracks. I look up.
Thick vines race overhead, track my every movement. The greenhouse plunges into twilight. I fumble for the door leading to the next greenhouse, push against the vines covering it. Tiny pricks of pain lace the inside of my arm. One, last, push. I break through. Slam the door shut behind me.
My arm is covered in a hundred miniscule droplets of blood as if I’ve been poked with a hundred needles. I shake it off. My heart drums against my throat. The vines above have disappeared. Did I lose them?
Or did they let me go?
I tiptoe to the end of the greenhouse. My internal alarms switch to silent mode. Flashing lights, no ear-breaking screeching. The door pops open in a cloud of dust, breaking through years of disuse. No vines in sight. No tree roots.
Let her go, let her go, let her go. The trees whisper. All those years ago, it hadn’t been the breeze, but the whispers of the dead.
I don’t hesitate. I run for my car. Each step pounded into the dirt is a risk. Just like twenty years ago, those tree roots could stab out of the earth.
The car handle is in my hand when the dirt around the office cracks. The marble and stone walls shift. The building caves in. I slam myself into the car, lock the door, shove the key in the ignition.
A tree root as big as the greenhouse shoots into the sky, Raisin speared on one end. She crumples in from the middle, and is sucked inside out. Bits of bloody flesh hit my windshield like hail.
I reverse out of the parking lot, throw the car into drive. The road is a five minute drive at normal speeds. I could make it in a minute. How far did his roots reach? How far?
The pedal touches the floorboard under my foot. I can see the county road. I can see the entrance sign. I can see…
The world turns upside down and I fly. My bones shake and something important rattles loose when the roof of my car plows into the dirt. Roots beat at the windshield, sneak in through the air vents and I am trapped. Upside down, held prisoner by my seatbelt.
I fumble for the release and punch it in. My head bangs against the roof of the car. Blood leaks from my arm, from my head and distracts the roots for a precious second. I push my way out of the door and run.
One foot makes it past the fence’s boundaries.
The other is speared in a fiery attack of pain. Grandpa’s voice and a thousand others fill my head at once.
“I, too, once thought I was almost free. When mia bambola took the stand, I thought, I am saved.”
The root is needle-like and pushes through my heel, into my leg bone. Adrenaline ices the pain.
“But you betrayed me.” The root wrenches and thrusts deeper. “You betrayed Nate.” It splits my foot open and a distant part of me screams, screams, screams.
“You deprived my wife of a husband.”
Is Grams in here, too? Do I have a savior in her? No, no. Grandpa holds power over the rest of the trees and the souls trapped in them. They are one mind. His mind.
I’m going to die.
The root squirms in my thigh, drinks my life out of me. Feeds the trees. Trees brought up on human flesh and bone and innards. They crave more. They’ll feed on whoever enters this forest. Grandpa, just like in life, is a cancer in death. Unstoppable, untreatable.
I reach for my purse wrapped across my body and dig out a pen. I stretch as far as I can, and am able to just reach the white fence post. Maybe no one will read this. Maybe the forest will spread, destroying cities as it multiplies. But maybe someone will read, and be saved.
The pen digs into the wood.
The dead chatter in the branches. Their blood runs through the veins of every leaf. Their bones feed the souls of the trees.
Don’t go into the forest.