Plain China

Annunciation

by Eleanor Griggs · Grinnell College
"I'm Tired of Talking About Myself" , Jennifer Hart · University of Florida

            A week after my mother’s funeral, I decided to stay in Wyoming. It seemed like a big decision, but I made it for small reasons. I was hideously menopausal at the time and the idea of going back to an Atlanta summer was unbearable. Furthermore, I had just broken up with my most recent boyfriend, a depressingly platonic man who played the French Horn in the symphony. His name was Robert and our courtship was so mildly pleasant I had to really work to convince myself that after forty-seven years I’d found the one. Finally, I dreaded going back to my friends, all married and desperate to invite me for drinks so they could bitch about their teenaged daughters. I knew that they’d offer sympathy, comfort, and sage advise about losing a mother, and I still hated that old bitch too much to listen.

            My mother’s house smelled like smoke. She’d smoked herself to death, leaving the world with a wet, cancerous gasp and gifting me with a legacy of a smoker’s cough I in no way deserved. For the first week after her death I left the windows open and let the roaring Wyoming wind pillage every cranny of the house. Like everything else in Wyoming, it all seemed disproportionately big now. Too much house for one little old woman, too much land around us, too much winding dirt road in between me and so much as a bar. But god, it was a cool breeze and I let it rifle through books and scatter decorative bowls of potpourri and tear down curtains and knock paintings from the wall. Then by the end of the week, a storm hit and I finally closed the windows.

            The night of the storm I moved into my mother’s old room. I felt it would help me tame the old house, as I was now its rightful owner. Still, something small and childish felt absurd as I climbed into the bed my parents had slept in. It was a high bed, built by my father who’d stood at six foot five inches until a premature heart attack at forty-five knocked him right down into his grave. I remembered him in Kodak film, hazy and distant, without the crispness of digital quality. His arms lifting me up into the bed when I was still too young to crawl in, he and my mother enveloped in their castle of a bed. I was older now than he ever was and I lay flat on my back in the middle of where he and my mother would have been.   

            Thunder growled outside in rolling waves of grinding power and rain splattered against the window. I stared at the ceiling and tried to keep my breathing even. Sleep was absurd right now, with so much excitement and action happening only a pane of glass away, but I was determined to sleep in the parental bed that night. Rational thoughts kept attacking my resolve. I ought to be back in Atlanta, I had a job I liked, organizing and planning weddings. I had friends and a house there. Half of my stuff was still in that house. I liked my stuff.

            But whenever the rational thoughts began to infiltrate my consciousness, my half-dozing brain involuntarily took me back to my mother’s deathbed. It wasn’t the bed I was trying to sleep on, but in a hospice facility an hour away. Like all things with my mother, I’d dressed for the occasion. My mother had endless rules about the clothing one should and shouldn’t wear depending on season, event, age, and weather, but somehow her nearly comprehensive code did not include what to wear to a death. Funerals were covered, but it seemed rude to wear the dress I’d chosen for that inevitable event. Instead, I wore the jacket she’d given me the previous Christmas, paired with earrings she’d given me for a birthday, and a skirt that had once seemed to impress her at a Thanksgiving. Carefully, I’d applied lipstick and hairspray for the first time in months. Then I sat at her bedside, armored with all her past love and admiration to watch her die.

            “You killed this family,” she wheezed, gurgling in the back of her throat. I felt like she’d reached out and pressed her hand right through my sternum.

            “What’s that mom?” I asked gently, squeezing her hand and smiling. Her eyes struggled to focus on me again; there were so many drugs in her system.

            “You killed it, I raised you fine, but you killed it,” she said with slow determination, “been in this country five generations, daddy worked himself to death and all his brothers in the war, we’re all they left. Came from Ireland smuggled in an old pickle barrel, and that’s what you give them? I was patient, but you couldn’t make anyone want you, selfish, never thought of your family.”

            She broke off into a fit of coughing and I felt a chill run through my body. She’d been a picky woman, always finding fault with some aspect of my life, but we’d had a twenty-year truce on the subject of grandchildren that she had just shattered.

            “It’s okay mom,” I said, trying to be soothing, “don’t worry about it.”

            “I could have had five kids like we wanted if it hadn’t torn me up. I hated being the only child and yet I made you,” she gasped raggedly.

            “I’m sorry mom, I love you,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.

            “You killed your baby,” she said, which was true. But I wasn’t going to think of it that way.

            Then she struggled, a mouthful of acid yet to speak, but her lungs were full of rot and she died.

            The storm finally settled into a heavy rain around four in the morning and I slipped into a light doze, twisting in the sheets and feeling my too big, too soft body press into the hard, narrow rivet left by my mother on the right side of the bed. As soon as light began filtering through the curtains, I got up. I was impatient with sleep and even though I was tired, I felt edgy and energetic. The living room was still in disarray and through the window I could see that one of the old trees had been ripped up and was now lying across the yard. Pulling on boots, I headed out to investigate the damage. The tree had missed the porch by only a few feet and I would need someone to come cut and haul away the lumber.

            My boots were sucked down into the mud and I picked my way along the length of the tree. Wet leaves grazed my calves and there was a litter of twigs and bark surrounding the fallen tree like shrapnel after a blast. Finally, I reached the end of the tree. The roots undulated in the breeze, shaking off a thin film of dirt. The whole delicate system had been torn out of the ground, leaving a pile of churned soggy soil on the little hill where it had once stood.

            It wasn’t the best soil, clay and rock mixed with a light brown powder, but the tree had stood there for years. I decided to climb the little pile to get a vantage point of the property and I began carefully to climb the sticky lump of dirt.

            That’s when I saw the body.

            The first thing I saw was the hand, unmistakably human, and I froze. My heart began to pound and my vision seemed to blur. I could tell that I was on the verge of something, and that my choice now would change everything. It was like the child spotting the gnome or fairy and choosing to follow, the boy seeing the beauty and deciding to ask her name, the spy agreeing to One Last Job. Every ancient tale or Hollywood blockbuster said the same thing; if you answer the call then you get pain, fear, trauma, and death, but nevertheless saying yes is what makes your life worth hearing about.

            I reached down into the dirt and carefully brushed away some of the wet soil from the hand. My brain insisted on a melodrama, imagining that this could be my father’s crazed romantic rival, or the simple country inspector who happened to discover my mother’s secret meth empire, or my mutated and mentally disturbed twin hidden away since birth until his final and tragic escape attempt.

            The hand was very small.

            I drew away, remembering every forensic crime show I’d ever watched in one glorious burst of rationality. I needed to call someone and I definitely needed to stop contaminating a crime scene. God, the hand was so small. I couldn’t stop looking down at my own hands, unable to comprehend what I was seeing, but slowly knowing. There was a child buried in my backyard, under a tree, and the earth had finally forced it up, at last birthing the little corpse back into the world. Here you are, my baby.

            Several police cars showed up with surprising speed when I informed them that I had found the skeleton of a child in my yard. But after pointing out the grave, I was ushered back into the house and saddled with a young officer to take my information and inquire about the property. As I searched through the wind torn house for important papers, I kept craning my neck to see out of the window at the little group of people gathered around the roots of the fallen tree.

            After an hour of wild confusion, the policemen came tramping back to the house, boots heavy with thick, creamy mud. One of them, a tall, elegant woman, invited me out to the porch to avoid tracking it through the house. She didn’t wear the uniform, but carried a nametag and laminated ID card on her jacket.

            “Ellen Geiger,” she introduced herself with brisk confidence, “how long have you lived on this property?”

            “I lived here as a child, um, eighteen years, and I just inherited the house after my mother passed,” I answered, feeling keenly aware of the armed officers surrounding us.

            “My condolences,” she said without much interest, “may I ask how long that tree has been planted there?
            “I’m sorry, I’m not sure. Longer than I’ve been alive.”

             She nodded to herself.

            “Well then, I have good news for you. I’m a forensic anthropologist specializing in skeletal remains such as these. Obviously I won’t have any certain answers unless I ran some tests, but I can assure you with reasonable confidence that these remains are likely a few hundred years outside of our jurisdiction,” she said with a smile, “I think this is more of a matter for the University of Wyoming than for the police department.”

            “I’m sorry, I’m a little confused,” I began.

            “From my preliminary investigation, I believe the burial is pre-Columbian. Based on its position, its certainly older than the tree, and based on the artifacts found in context with the body, I’d say we have ourselves a pretty old Indian burial,” she said, nodding with apparent pleasure. “We will be contacting the anthropology department at the university and with your permission, they can perform a full excavation to determine the origin of the human remains.”

            And with that I was left with the reality that a dead child had been rotting in my backyard for over a hundred years. The cops left eventually, leaving nothing but a tarp over the remains until archeologists from the university arrived. I watched the tarp fluttering from my living room and opened the windows again. Sitting in the middle of the living room in a wooden chair, I let the wind whip around me, stirring the dust and the papers and the debris into a cloud.

            I suppose it wasn’t particularly rare. After all, humans had walked and lived and died on this planet for thousands of years before we regulated them to cemeteries with clearly noted headstones. The earth is swollen with decomposing bodies, thousands of bodies without history or voice or any living decedents. All that had happened during the storm was that the earth had given one back, a perverted gift.

            But I wasn’t going to think of it that way.    

            For the next few days I felt the proverbial dead baby in the room hovering over everything I did. As promised, a team arrived to excavate my backyard, but it was a slow process. At first I watched from the window, antsy without really knowing what I was anticipating. It wasn’t like they would walk in one day and present me with a photo and autobiography of the little skeleton in the yard, but at the same time, everything I heard them mention made me more curious.

            “Only a year old?” One of my high school friends asked incredulously as we had a few beers at the Laramie Red Lobster. Bored and stir-crazy, I’d phoned her up and she obliged me with her reliable sameness. “God, that’s so sad.”

            “No known gender because the baby is so small, but they found beads and carved bone, as well as a few points, clovis points,” I said, parroting my new and boundless well of information.

            “So you think it was a she?” My friend giggled.

            “Who knows, the point is it looks like a clovis point which means this baby lived nearly thirteen thousand years ago,” I said, trying to make her understand without sounding like I was brushing her off.

            “Neat,” she said.

            “That means this baby was one of the earliest human beings to live on this continent. These people existed along-side mammoths and sabertoothed tigers, they literally were the first people to spread across this country,” I urged her.

            “Do you think they’ll let you keep an arrowhead? My dad used to collect em,” she replied, sipping her beer and checking her watch.

            “This find could have enormous archeological significance, this baby’s genetic material could tell us so much about the origins of humanity in the new world,” I said, beginning to explain to her about haploid X and the Solutrean theory and Beringia.

            “How are you holding up after your mom?” She asked. I smiled.

            “Do you want to share one of those coconut shrimp baskets?”

            What I didn’t say was this. Around thirteen thousand years ago a mother gave birth to a baby and it died. Maybe it was sick, or there was simply no food, or it just wasn’t cut out to live. And even in that alien land populated by gigantic hairy elephants and ravenous cats with spear-like fangs dripping blood, the mother and whoever else walked with her loved the baby. And when the baby died they took the things they’d made, their tools and their arts, and gave them to the earth along with the little body on the little hill. They took red ochre, like violent death or equally violent birth and they sprinkled it on the baby’s corpse. Then they piled the place with wildflowers, leaving a shower of ancient pollen to mix with the red ochre, to coat the stone points, to work its way down to the brittle bones that turned halfway to dust while thousands of years went by and everything that lived in the world the baby was born into died and changed until it made me.

            But I wasn’t going to think of it that way.

            I got into the habit of inviting the archeologists in for a drink every night before they packed up. They liked whiskey, which I usually hated, but I bought it and learned to make a variety of mixed drinks so that I could get them to come in a talk to me about the baby. Some of the team were graduate students and they were particularly talkative about what they were doing out in my yard. One of them was a short, pinkish girl named Liz who seemed to be something of a functional alcoholic but loved to share her theories about Paleo-Indian archeology. At first I had imagined them as Indian Jones figures who spent their days breaking into ancient tombs or detecting secret patterns that led them to hidden cities. Instead, much of what they did seemed to be sifting dirt and deeply analyzing pieces of rock with an impressive variety of chemical and microscopic techniques. And frequently they came back to the subject of the tree.

            “It’s just so unfortunate,” said Liz, leaning back in her chair and shaking the ice in her drink, “those roots completely fucked with the stratigraphy. If it weren’t for that tree, the skull probably would have eroded out years ago.”

            “Weird place for a tree to grow, too,” remarked one of the male students.

            “Maybe we could use the dendrochonology somehow,” Liz mused, “it could help with the timeline.”

            “It’s less than a hundred years old, Kinney, barely a sapling,” remarked one of the professors with slight scorn.

            “My parents didn’t even build the house here until forty eight,” I said, interjecting quietly, but another discussion over something called coprolites that everyone seemed to find very funny had begun instead. Suddenly I missed Atlanta and realized that I should go home.

            “Goodnight everyone,” I said, standing up and shooing the archeologists out of my living room. I was too drunk to stand, but I stood. The room looked trashed, debris still lying wherever the windstorm had thrown it and I was suddenly embarrassed. The single-minded drunk compulsion urged me to clean everything in sight.

            Before I went to bed, I crept out to the grave again. It was an empty hole now, the body had been sent to the lab piece by piece. Then I went back and started to clean up the house. I hung the pictures back on the walls, straightened lampshades, picked up a slew of papers and finally began sorting through them. Estates, wills, bank accounts. I found an orange envelope under a pile of ancient bank statements and the soft paper opened at the bottom, spilling the contents onto the floor. It was an envelope full of old pictures, the kind that had to be specially developed from film on a very old camera. They were still in black and white.

            I swept them up, trying not to look, but inevitably I looked. There was my father holding a tiny bundle in his arms, there was his friend Fred Bolton holding the same bundle, there was the bundle up close with its wrinkly, squished face. Me. Me lying in a crib, me sucking a pacifier, me and a bottle of formula. My mother held me in a few, but you could tell she’d only just been handed the baby. She stood, stiff and formal, her clothes far too nice for someone taking care of an infant. Her smile, stretched not-too-wide across a perfectly made up face. Baby me pulls away from her and I felt the anger again. She couldn’t even bare to love me.

            She looks terrified, I thought.

            What I didn’t think was this. Around thirty years ago a fat girl whose mother made her dress like an old lady and who cried too quickly when other kids made fun of her went to a party. She’d told her mother she was going to sleep over with a friend, and that’s what she thought she’d be doing, but her friend laughed when she saw the sleeping bag and told her that they were going to a party out at someone’s ranch. Her friend’s older brother drove them and then disappeared into the crowd of older people. The girl talked to a boy a year older than her she knew from school who was that kind of wild high school boy that either seems alluring or repulsive depending on taste. The girl thought it was a fairy tale, but even then her heart pounded and she felt sick with fear. They went upstairs and she didn’t say anything. He said, it’s okay, I’m doing you a favor, you want this, you’re supposed to like this, it’s not like anyone else would do this with you. The girl didn’t say anything and so maybe it was all fine and there was no problem. But in a few months she knew there was a problem, a sick, swollen problem and she felt scared and she asked her mother to help her. They drove to a doctor in Laramie and they never said anything about it again. So maybe it was all fine, all better.

            But I wasn’t going to think of it that way.

            My mother was not buried and so there was no grave to spit on, no dead body to scream at, not even an urn to smash. I wanted there to be a headstone so I could knock it over and scream fuck you for making me feel worthless because I never had some baby and because you let me. So I tore the picture of her in half and that felt good. It served her right to be afraid of what she created. I am un-mother, anti-life, destroyer. I birth a hundred dead babies into the earth and then they come crawling back out. I am not a story of ended lines and frustrated potential and entropy. I create the lives, the feelings, the stories of every silent pile of bones still trapped beneath the earth. I plan and build and grow weddings and reunions and occasions for remembering. I give birth to myself after my mother drives me home from the doctor’s, still sleepy and bleeding a little. Covered in red ochre.

            At some point I passed out on the couch and when I woke up I had to unstick my face from the glossy surface of a photo. When I pulled it off, there are only shadows left and when I looked in the mirror I saw ink on my face. We all absorb our history differently.

            I called my friends back in Atlanta one by one and told them I’m coming home in a few days. I requested that we all meet up at Red Lobster and eat coconut shrimp and laugh and bitch about teenaged daughters and then maybe I could rant about my mother and tell them a pretty wild story about a thirteen thousand year old baby that will create controversy and discovery and progress.

            I swept up the photographs and threw them away. The last one stuck to my foot at I looked at it. My mother, absurdly dressed in all white, kneels in the dirt outside of my house. In her arms she holds a little sapling tree and a trowel. She is laughing as she holds her tree, like a prize.

            Stupid, uptight old bitch who blamed me for all of her shortcomings and never rose above her rotten set of standards and planted a tree to hide, to impede, to destroy.

            But I wasn’t going to think of it that way.

About the Author

Eleanor Griggs · Grinnell College

Eleanor Griggs grew up in rural Ohio and attended Grinnell College in Iowa. She graduated in 2015 after majoring in English and history. Eleanor currently works for AmeriCorps VISTA in Tucson, Arizona. "Annunciation" firat appeared in The Grinnell Review.

About the Artist

Jennifer Hart · University of Florida

Jennifer Hart graduated from the University of Florida in December 2015 with a degree in Integrated Biology and Art. She currently lives in New York City working at an ad agency as a producer, but she still creates art and writes poetry on the side. "I'm Tired of Talking About Myself" first appeared in TEA.