Bury Your Children, Bury Your Bones

By Joe Baumann

hey bought the house because of his new job and her pregnancy.  Travis liked to think of it that way, that each of them had come to their cramped dining room table with something to offer, a reason to escape their peeling paint and flickering light bulbs in the rental that smelled like cabbage and was powdered with fruit flies because the woman next door never threw away her trash.

The house, a sprawling modern suburban two-story with vinyl siding and green shutters, sported enough space for an office and guestroom and a nursery.  She loved it.  Hardwood floors were great, even though Rhys’s sneakers squeaked as he shuffled in and out of the living room and hall washroom, looking at the walls like he was in a palace.  A fresh construction, the realtor had called it.  Most people would love this, Travis thought: a chance to begin with a blank slate, to mold and color a place with one’s memories and scents without having to wash away what came before.  Even the smell—fresh linen and springy flowers, a hint of chlorine—was new, exhilarating.  But Travis thought that the house lacked charm, everything echoing with an empty quiet, a carbon copy of the neighboring homes, identical to those across the street.

The agent was all cheekbones and eyeliner, her skirt wrinkle-free.  They wore her down like sharpened pencil asking questions, but she had all the answers, about the school system and the HoA fees—none!  She squealed it out like she was yelling surprise! at a kid’s birthday party—and when she showed them the back yard Lenna put a hand on Travis’s forearm and she squeaked.  Everyone was squeaking at something or other and he knew she would have to have this place.  It fell in their price range, under budget, and the backyard with the pool and the little garden already growing—your heirloom tomatoes, Travis, Lenna said, voice low like she was trying to seduce him—and the back deck with a grill there (for show, of course, but the realtor said it like that was a cover story, that, with the greasing of some palms, the stainless steel, the side burner, the temperature gauge could all still be there when they moved in).

“Okay,” he said when they were out of earshot of the realtor.  Rhys was plucking at grass in the yard.  Travis ran his hand over the smooth cedar porch rail and mustered a wide smile.  “Let’s do it.”

 

Lenna would often wonder about the coincidence of it all: him coming home in a flurry, his tie’s twisted knot going slack, yelling about the new job, the huge pay raise, while she gripped the pregnancy test in her hand, the third one she’d taken, the third one with the two blue lines.  She’d let him calm down, the hugs and kisses and excitement fading before she showed him the test, and Travis went quiet for a moment and then declared, puffing out his chest and reminding her of a peacock, that they would have to find a new house.

And how perfect it was, what, the thirteenth, fourteenth house they’d looked at?  And so inexpensive and ideal.  She could tell that Travis wasn’t in love with it, though she didn’t understand why, and of course Rhys hadn’t a clue or a care, running down every new hallway they looked at, stomping up and down every flight of stairs with wonderment at the unfamiliarity of everything.  Lenna ignored the iciness of Travis’ shoulders as their realtor told them about the vaulted ceilings and central air, two things they certainly didn’t have now, which Lenna could swear the woman just knew; they gave off that vibe of we don’t know these luxuries, we’re not that kind, not yet at least but you could change that, couldn’t you

“What kind of trees are those?” she asked when they toured the back yard, which was, of course, perfect: sure, the pool might not be the safest with Rhys being his rambunctious self, unable to be corralled by the kindest cooing or loudest yelling, but the fence was great and the yard long, sloping down to two thick trees, broad leaves like hands that reached out to each other, the long branches nearly touching, a perfect place for a canopy, a picnic table, maybe a hammock.  And Rhys had taken swim lessons and been promoted to Shark so quickly—the fastest ever, Lenna liked to joke to herself—able to kick and paddle himself above water with only moderate splashing and whooshing water, the plastic lane lines waving like palm fronds.  He would be okay back there.

“I’m not sure what they are,” the woman said, leafing through her paperwork.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Lenna said.  “I was just curious.  They’re gorgeous.”

If only she’d known.

***

Rhys was the first to notice them, when he was done splashing in the pool and enjoying the tickling feeling of the water drying off his skin like dozens of little fingers poking at him.  His parents were lounging on the deck, cooking like hotdogs, and he was bored sitting on the chair whose taut plastic strips stuck to him like bandages, so he traipsed down to the trees.  Looking up, he saw small budding growths, yellow like an old person’s teeth, the size of thick toothpicks.  He leapt, trying to reach them, but his fingers were too short, his jump too low.  He grunted and groaned as he sprung up, but the tree seemed to laugh at him, the branches pulling away at the last moment like an older boy’s torments: grab it from my hand and it is yours, but I know you’ll never reach.

He ran to the porch, flopping his feet against the wood, the last bits of wet leaving behind soggy, elongated prints, and he stood over his father.

“Something’s growing on the trees,” he said.

“Oh yeah?”  His father sat up, the hairy pooch of his stomach crinkling.  He was normally pale like bleached bed sheets, but his skin was cooking an Easter pink.

“Yeah,” Rhys said.

They traipsed down the slant of the back yard, and his father stared into the trees.

“Holy shit,” Travis said.

***

He knew a botanist, a guy he’d played poker with a few times.  They drank beers together, met through a work buddy, and so he called the botanist and stumbled through the greetings.

“I have this tree, and it’s growing stuff.”

“Oh?”

“I think it’s growing bones.”

The botanist didn’t say much except that he could come over on Saturday, nine a.m. maybe, if that would work?  Travis didn’t want to get up that early on a Saturday, especially now that Rhys was finally starting to sleep in, he was nearing that age where seven a.m. and cartoons and fruity cereal start to lose their luster, and he and Lenna were enjoying that bit of quiet, especially knowing it would all go away again when the baby came.

But Travis said, “Sure, great,” and gave the botanist the address.

The bones had been bleached white by the time Saturday rolled around, and some had fallen from the trees, dropped like elongated bombs into the grass.  These were heavier, adult-sized, as if a dozen arms had been picked clean of muscle and tendon, the knotty bones all that was left behind.  Travis hadn’t touched them but the botanist did, just reached down and picked one up like it was a piece of fruit.

“It’s certainly not a piece of fruit,” the botanist said.

“No it isn’t.  What is it?”

“A bone.  You have a bone tree.”

“Is that a thing?”

“It is now, it appears.”

 

Lenna called her ex-boyfriend, the one from before Travis, because he was a coroner.  “We have bones,” she said, when he asked what she wanted.  He had a nasally voice, something she hadn’t really noticed when they’d dated but now seemed so obvious, his nose-y chug-a-chug-a breath when they had sex sounding like a limp steam whistle.  He was thin but smart, and he had a strong hairline, and he did know bones.

She led him down to the trees, Rhys traipsing after them.  Her son was obsessed with the bones, and she knew he was playing with them even though she’d hissed at him too many times not to, repeating herself enough to know that there was nothing she could say to stop him.  She’d have to get over it, let him do whatever he wanted, she supposed, because when the baby came—they didn’t know the sex, they didn’t want to, they liked the idea of the surprise and having to pick out neutral colors for everything—Rhys would be on his own in a way, in a you’re-not-the-baby, you’re-not-the-only-one-anymore way that made her heart sink just so.

“They’re human, alright,” he said.  “You might want to call someone about this.”

“And tell them what, exactly?” Lenna said.  “That we have human bones growing in our backyard?”

“Good point.”  He ran his fingers over the lowest-hanging bones like he was petting an animal.  He bent over and grabbed one of them, tossing it in his hand.

“Dense,” he said.  He took it between both hands and groaned, and when that didn’t work, he huffed, cheeks red, and smacked it against the tree until it eventually cracked open.  He knelt in front of Rhys.  The interior looked like a grapefruit, pulpy and orange-pink.  The coroner stood and gave the end of the bone several more tough whacks against the trunk of the tree until the knobby end split open.

“This,” he said, “is the epiphysis, the end of the bone.”  Rhys moved closer, raising a hand to touch it, but he pulled his hand back as if he had brushed something hot, and satisfied himself with a close-up look: the inside was like a honeycomb, gossamer-like.  The coroner looked up at Lenna.  “They’re real, alright.”

She sucked in a whisk of air and bent over with a groan.  “Oh god,” she said, holding her stomach.

 

Rhys kept a small one in his pocket and rubbed his fingers against it because he liked the feel, at once smooth and gritty, like the edge of a stack of paper, ridges that if you weren’t careful could cut you.  Rhys felt like he and the bones understood one another, like allies.  He’d learned that word in school when the teacher taught them about World War Two, that allies were a good thing, that America had been an ally.

He was sitting in the hospital waiting room, which smelled like the Laundromat where they used to clean their clothes before they moved, a place strewn with bluish sticky stains from spilled detergent.  The coin machine liked to eat dollar bills so the harried woman who ironed clothes behind a puke-green counter would have to shuffle to the register and pluck out quarters.  She’d often yelled at Rhys for trying to climb atop the washers when his mother wasn’t looking.

His parents had disappeared into a room, and he sat under the not-very-watchful eye of a woman in confetti colored scrubs stapling papers behind a desk.  On television another woman with perfect skin and hair was talking about something he didn’t understand, a riot.  The woman in the scrubs had offered him a lollipop but he said no, because he wasn’t supposed to take candy or stuff like that from strangers.

When his father finally appeared, he was pale and he didn’t say much to Rhys, except that it was going to be a while, because something was wrong.  Rhys didn’t respond except to grip the bone in his pocket harder, the ridges digging into his fingers.  Wrong: another word he didn’t truly understand, fuzzy and amorphous as cotton candy.

 

When she went into labor with Rhys, Lenna had thumped into the living room and pressed a hand against the recliner, stopping Travis’ back-and-forth sway.  He’d been waiting for the detective show he liked to start.

“He’s coming,” Lenna had said, and he’d leapt out of his chair and grabbed his keys in one fluid motion that was so smooth that anyone who saw it would have thought he’d practiced it every night in anticipation.

Traffic was light, as if all the cars recognized that their baby boy was on the way and they were parting like the Red Sea for Moses so Travis and Lenna could get to the hospital no problems, no delays, no complications.

Rhys was fine.  He was pink and swirly like an ice cream cone, his hair plastered to his gooey head, and he cried for a few minutes but then he quieted and almost seemed to be purring like a kitten.  When Travis looked at him and then at sweaty Lenna, he felt full and perfect and content.

He found Rhys waiting patiently in the lobby, his Velcro shoes slapping against the legs of a plastic chair.  The boy was like two different people: at home a whirling monster, unable to sit still for more than a moment, his utensils rattling like drumsticks against the table at dinner, his footfalls pounding away on the carpet when he should be doing math problems.  But taken from the house he became angelic, stoic almost, and when he looked up at his father it took everything for Travis not to break apart, to let burst out everything that had taken up in his chest in the last hour.

 

She remembered Rhys being so easy.  Yes, Lenna had lain in her hospital bed for interminable hours, and the pain of pushing him out was, even with the oooh oooh ohhh breathing she and Travis had worked on for weeks prior, the most immense, blinding thing she’d ever experienced and she was sure she must have crushed a few bones in Travis’ hand while she squeezed and squeezed, but out had come the baby, cawing like a newborn should, the afterbirth following with smooth ease, and she had seen his little arms wriggling, tentacle-like and purplish with tiny fingers that looked like gummy bears.  They’d given him to Lenna after cleaning off the vernix that looked like a sheet of cottage cheese, and everything was as she’d imagined, the doctors sighing and content. She felt split in half, but in a raw, achingly pleasant way, like the emptiness in your lungs after a long, incisive run.

But this.  This was something else.  The baby didn’t resist, Lenna barely had to do any work, and it came slipping right out and she just knew something was off, the world tilting out of balance.  The silence in the room, from the doctors, from her husband, from, worst of all, the baby that should have been crying and screaming because that’s how babies were.  The doctors and nurses were frozen like they’d been petrified.  She wondered if she’d gone deaf, but then she heard herself asking, “What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” in a clear, bright way that was the opposite of what it’s like to shout under water, but no one responded to her and suddenly the baby was scooped up—yes, that was the word, scooped, like it was an unaccounted mass, a puddle of water being siphoned into a bucket—and disappeared.

She asked what had happened but no one would look her in the eye and the room started to empty in a slow, deliberate way until she was alone,until the last nurse let the door swing shut.  She wanted to scream and so she did, asking where everyone had gone and where was her God Damned Baby.

Travis came in with the doctor, finally, and their mouths opened and shut like fish and she said someone better tell her Right This God Damned Minute What Is Going On.

And the doctor did.

He said that her child, although alive, did not have any bones.

***

Even though his parents had told him not to, Rhys shoved a bone in his backpack, bigger and whiter than the ones he kept in his pocket, the length of a pencil and thick like a chair leg.  He showed it to his friends at lunch.

“What is it?” they asked, leaning over their pale lunch trays covered in square, squeaky pizza and radioactive green Jello.  The cafeteria lady had a mole on the tip of her nose so no one liked to look her in the eye when she scooped them the creamed corn no one ate.

“It’s a bone.”

“Is it real?”

“Yeah.”

One of the boys, Ryan O’Brien, who was short and pudgy and something out of a comic strip, snorted.  Ryan O’Brien always snorted, and Rhys didn’t like him much, but Ryan followed Rhys and his friends around like a viral infection, sticking to one of them and then another until he was back at the start again.  “I bet it’s fake.”

“It isn’t,” Rhys said, withdrawing his hand.

“I would know,” Ryan said, crossing his arms.  “My grandpa needs a bone marrow transplant.”

They all knew this.  Ryan’s grandfather was in bad shape, lying in a hospital bed, where he’s been for the last several weeks while his family waited and hoped that his name would float to the top of the donor list and that a match magically appeared.  He almost died last week, apparently, a fact that Ryan blared out like a fire alarm.  His face grew flush, as it always did when he was upset.  His cheeks changed shades so often the boys thought of him as a living mood ring.

“Maybe it will match,” Rhys said, before he could stop himself.  And he held the bone out to Ryan.  The gesture just came to him, like flicking at a mosquito that lands on your arm, or seizing up into a ball when someone jumps out at you from around a corner.  Ryan plucked up the bone and, scowling at it, shrugged, depositing it in his pocket.  The tip stuck out like a mole peeping out from its hole.

Rhys stared at his empty hand, weightless and phantom.

 

The knock on the door surprised them both, because visitors had been few and far between, unlike the days following Rhys coming home, when their tiny home had been a revolving circus of cooing relatives and awwwing friends all poking at their son, declaring him gorgeous and cute and precious and some of them playfully asking if they could hold him, Lenna or Travis saying of course, of course, passing their peachy bundle in his blue hat and matching footies to whichever visitor wanted to ogle him up close.

But now the house was silent; they’d told no one that Lenna had given birth, not even her mother.  Lenna had been discharged, no side effects from the birth, perfectly a-okay, they needed the bed so she would have to go, please, while their sagging, empty child that was alive in a way no one could explain was kept intubated and under close watch, the heart monitor blipping out the beats that fluttered under its gloopy chest.

Travis answered the door because Lenna was spending all of her time lying on the couch.  He recognized the woman, red-haired with a splash of freckles over her nose and under her eyes, so many they might have been a wave of spray paint.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi.”

There was a pause.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m Ryan O’Brien’s mom, Patricia,” she said.  “He’s a friend of Rhys.”

“Okay.”

The woman dug into her purse.  “I wanted to ask you about this.”

She held out a bone, off-white like a freshly-brushed tooth.

 

Before Lenna could process the whole cavalcade traipsing into her backyard, her house was filled with people: scientists staring up at the trees, gawking at the miracle bones, reporters who wanted interviews, greasy, grizzled cameramen aiming the big glassy lens eyes on their faces, erected lights blinding them.  No one bothered to ask her about their tragedy, no one knew about the drooping, boneless child still being watched in the hospital, clinging to life.  No one was hemming or hawing over that miracle, that child born as a messy pile of muscle and tendons.  No one cared about a deformed baby.

But, she thought with a sour tang on her tongue as she pulled the covers over her shoulder and rolled away from Travis after those strangers had finally gotten the hell out for the day, if you find bones that are a universal match for people needing marrow, everyone wants to hear about it, and why not?

Ryan O’Brien’s mother, it turned out, had taken the bone that Rhys had smuggled to school and had it tested on a desperate, thoughtless whim, not even wondering why or how her son had come into possession of a human bone.  A perfect match.  The first match they’d been able to find for her father, who would now live.  Words did what they did, flowed like a river, and suddenly everyone wanted to pluck from that tree, take what they could while trampling around in Lenna’s wonderful backyard, not even saying thank you.  Travis wanted to throw every stranger out, but he couldn’t say no to their desperate pleas to study the bones, could he?

“This will change the world,” one of the scientists said.

“A revolution in medicine,” a spunky reporter yelped into her camera.

“A place where miracles come true,” Tom Brokaw’s voiceover, deep and resonant, announced while the image on the screen panned over Travis and Lenna’s back yard.

“Please turn it off,” Lenna said as she thunked a bowl of pasta down in front of Rhys.  They were eating dinner while a worker plucked bones from the trees in the yard, dropping them into a burlap sack like apples.

***

Rhys watched from the back porch, huddled against the rail, as strangers stepped in and out of their home.  The more that came, the more the bones went away, and this terrified him.  The trees started thinning, their leaves drooping and washing out, the green turning to a brittle yellow.  After dinner, the sun a pearly pink dipping below the roofline, Rhys trundled down to the trees and searched for the bones that might have been missed.  The people picking them tended to take the larger, plump ones, those whose outer layers had turned as white as could be.  They propped ladders against the trees and muscled their way up into its highest boughs to find as many as they could.

He’d asked why, and his father had only said, “To help people.”

Rhys found a handful of yellow, unripe bones, so tiny he thought they might snap in his grip, and he took them to an untouched corner of the yard where no one went, far away from the bone trees, and he used his hands to dig out a place for them, dropping them into the ground, pushing the loosened soil back over.  Then he took some pool water, which was getting colder as the days grew shorter, scooped it right into his curled palms, and told himself his fingers were glued together as he ran back to the buried bones.  Rhys imagined the ground sighing with relief when he poured the water onto the mound.

He found his mother watching him from the porch.

“Why did you do that?” she asked, her arms wrapped around her waist, the belt of her bathrobe swaying like a streamer.

“To save them,” he said.

Lenna said nothing, but she tugged on his head and drew him close, the fuzz of the terrycloth itching his cheek.

***

When the phone rang, Travis somehow knew.  Deep down in his gut, a stirring gurgled when he heard the brazen trilly ring, and he knew it wasn’t another reporter, another scientist, another grateful recipient who was cured of whatever disease Travis couldn’t pronounce.  It would be something about the baby they still had not named, and he felt for a moment that this was why it was just a sagging bag of body parts that didn’t have shape or real breath or real life: a thing without a name is just a thing.  It cannot be a person, cannot have eyes or fingerprints or a voice that you can recognize when it calls to you from across the street.  It cannot have a scent, a wafting cloy that grabs you when you hug, chins hooking over each other’s shoulders.

The baby was missing.

Travis asked how that could happen, how babies—especially those with no bones with which to move one’s legs, or the puddles of skin shaped like candy canes that one would normally identify as legs—could possibly go missing.

“We think,” the voice on the other end of the phone said, “that it was your wife.”

 

Lenna knew Travis wouldn’t call the police, but she waited until after dark anyway, slinking around the side of her own house, the baby in its scratchy hospital blanket.  She felt like she was carrying a wet loaf of bread and she had to pause and adjust her grip every few minutes.  A melting ice cream cone, so she only had so much time before it seeped through the fabric.

Not once had it screamed or gurgled or cried out or spit up or slobbered on itself.  She’d so hoped it would, that there would be a sign, a something, anything, a piece of evidence to prove she should stop.  But no.  Nothing.  She wasn’t even sure the thing was breathing.  Lenna didn’t know if her baby could breathe.

The back yard was dark, the pool pump humming and burping.  A frog leapt across the gray concrete and splashed into the deep end.  It would probably get sucked into the filter and die, she thought.  She pictured the frog, squashed and grayed-out, after flailing in the endless pool, trapped by that overwhelming dragging force with no dry edge in sight.

She chose the corner where Rhys had buried the bones.  She tried not to upset her son’s garden, the little flabs of soil that he watered each day, scooping water from the pool—finally using a plastic cup she’d nudged his way—and dousing the soil to sponginess.  He had not unearthed his bones, nor had anything broken through the surface, not one epiphysis.  She liked the word epiphysis, the way her lips rolled around, tongue still.  Like labyrinth or ellipsis, words that felt more gymnastic than they maybe really were, words she never used in conversation but liked to say to herself.

The ground was runny and malleable, and it took her no time to scoop out a cubby with her hands.  She set the baby down, the unmoving mass, and felt herself start to cry because of the finality of it.  Lenna felt like she was on a teetering scale: this was it, wasn’t it?  All around her, in the trees, in the ground, in herself, so many bones, a myriad of those strong white sticks that hold everything together, that give shape and size and structure to things, and here she was, staring down at some thing with none of that, no sound or rhythm or air.  She pushed the scooped-out earth over the child and waited for a reaction that, of course, did not come.  When she finished she remained on her knees, patting the earth tight, thump, thump, like the way people clap each other on the back during platonic, rejuvenating hugs, the sort that say, it’s good to see you, bucko, or, keep your chin up, these hard times will pass.  She did this over and over, letting the tears leak out of her, in little Morse Code blips, hiccups that echoed in the darkness.

 

Rhys would never tell what he saw from the porch.  He’d slid the patio door with a slow patience, the squeaky track quiet as he nudged the glass open.  Even his footsteps, normally skittering and clamorous, were steady and measured.  He watched his mother bury the baby, keeping his breath low and deep.

She knelt in the grass for a long time, and her crying made his stomach clench.  Then he looked up toward the second floor of the house.  He couldn’t see through the dark glint of the window, but he knew his father was there, looking down in the dark.  Could his father see his mother?  Did he want to?

None of them moved for a long time.  Rhys wondered what would happen in the morning, when the place was crawling with people taking the bones, people talking about them, murmuring about the future.  The future, he wondered: would someone come for the baby that was down there under the grass?  Would they uproot it like they’d taken the bones from the trees?

He heard his mother squeak a slippery single word: “Why?”

Rhys wondered, too.  Why?  Why the night, why the bones, why any of it.  Why couldn’t the sun bring new life, where everything bloomed and burst from the center of the earth?

 

——————–

Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others.  He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks.  He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri.  He he has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was recently nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.


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