A symphony of survival wound its way through the emerald tobacco fields of the Early farm. The dead things sang their harmony in the mid-July heat, loud enough to drown out the cicadas’ screams. By the roots of a sycamore tree, half a jawbone waited in the dirt for Laurel Early to find it. It was a good jaw. It had held on to most of its teeth even after the gums peeled away and beetles stripped it of its flesh. She rinsed it in the shallows of the river running alongside the fields and tucked it into her bag as she continued her walk, looking for more bones to add to her collection.
The jawbone had belonged to a fox, but when he laid his head down and failed to lift it again, he left his jaw and every other part of him up for grabs. What was left belonged to Laurel. That was the rule with bones. Unless you hid them in a casket below the earth, anyone could eat, break, or use them to their advantage.
Laurel was one such scavenger. She made half her living off growing tobacco and the other half off what the dead left behind. She needed the cash flow now more than ever. Her student loans would soon dry up into debt without the degree she’d set out for last fall. So, she boiled flesh and fat from bones or let them dry in the sun, then strung them onto bracelets or twisted them up in wire to make hairpins and brooches. These sold in her online store for far less than their lives were worth.
In her leather bag were two deer sheds, one three-pronged and the other with only two. She’d found them while following the narrow trails that scarred the near-vertical slope of the wooded ridge, stopping only to check on the decomposition status of a possum whose skull and vertebrae she wanted. These paths served as the only roads on the walk she took each morning, when the river was nothing more than a stream of fog, and the tobacco plants were wet and would bruise from a careless touch. Where their trails ended, Laurel used the slabs of limestone jutting out from the soil as steps toward the secluded cemetery at the top of the hill.
Laurel stopped there each morning to catch her breath before heading back. It was a hard spot to see until you were right up on it, the view from the main road obscured by honey locusts. From there you could look down and see the whole of Laurel’s world: the tobacco barn high upon the hill, the equipment barn in the bottoms, surrounded by its own graveyard of skeletal old car frames and farm equipment covered by ragged blue tarps. Above it was the small white farmhouse where she lived with her uncle. She kept a cheerful-looking rabbit hutch painted a fading red in the yard, behind a slanting little washhouse. A wire fence restrained a garden heaving with vegetables. Below, six acres of tobacco fields sprawled, and beyond that, the thin arm of the shallow river cradled the property.
The cemetery’s border stuck out of the ground like jagged teeth grinning atop the hill. It was an eyesore, all chicken wire and thick wooden fence posts, a rust-speckled bull gate instead of a wrought-iron entryway. Laurel loved the practicality of it, uniform with the rest of the fences and gates of the Early property. It was farm-functional, no different from the fields where the tobacco grew. It wasn’t violating a sacred space when she hopped the bull gate; it was stopping by for a visit.
Buried in a concrete vault and a metal casket six feet below ground was another set of bones. These belonged to Laurel’s mother and had been there for the better part of twenty years. Other bones had rested there longer: Laurel’s Early grandparents, her great-grandparents, great-great aunts and uncles she’d never met, and a baby a hundred years older than Laurel, marked with a date but not a name.
Her mother’s gravestone was her favorite of the grim assortment. Laurel loved the way the rain-stained marble looked sticking out of the earth, engraved simply ANNA EARLY. Laurel had traced those letters with her fingertips since long before she could read them.
“Didja miss me?” she asked, half whispering. “Well, you won’t have to anymore. I’m staying home for good. College didn’t work out.”
The wonderful thing about having a tombstone for a mother was that she couldn’t disapprove.
“That’s where I was yesterday,” she explained, shifting from one foot to the other. “Had to drive all the way back to Cincinnati just to drop off a library book. Set up exit counseling. Officially withdrew. Took forever, but it’s done. My advisor barely cared.”
Laurel dropped down to the ground to lie by Anna. She plucked a blade of grass and twirled it between her fingers. “It’s for the best. I can make it work here at home. I know what to do. I’ll bloom where I’m planted.”
The sky was a single shade of deep blue, framed by sycamore branches. The sun lingered somewhere above her shoulder. There’d be blackberries soon enough, if a storm didn’t shake them from their brambles. On days like this, Laurel could imagine staying on the farm for the rest of her life. She closed her eyes in the sleepy heat, her body solid against the patch of earth that would one day be her own. When she imagined her mother in heaven, it looked a lot like this: a Kentucky field in midsummer, perfumed with wildflowers, the blue sky above dotted with fluffy clouds and white cabbage butterflies. It was a good summer, bright and hazy with humidity. It was nothing like the summer Laurel had been born. The drought had been so severe that the soil was still parched and ashen in the fall when her mother’s grave was dug.
Anna Early had been a strange woman, in a town that knew few strangers. Whatever field she slipped her fingers into always produced a good yield. She’d been damned for that peculiar streak of good luck, envied by the honest and cursed people of Dry Valley. Even Anna’s parents’ deaths, tragic as they were, caused more suspicion than sympathy. Folks had made up their minds about that girl long before she’d lost them, and when Anna’s parents were buried, the wild, strange look in her tearless eyes did little to change their opinion.
Whether it was fated or the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Anna only grew stranger the stranger they said she was. One year she barely left the farm, walking restlessly through the woods on dark, new-moon nights without a flashlight. The next year she was gone more often than she was present, leaving gaps not even Laurel could fill in, no matter how she played paleontologist with the artifacts left in the room her mother had slept in, or the stories she could pull like teeth from her uncle Jay, the only other Early left alive.
When no one knew how to do anything but farm, one bad year could bring a town to its knees. In hard times, people gorged themselves on gossip to occupy their hungry mouths. One dry year, they ate Anna Early alive. At the start of that summer, Jay found the young tobacco blighted in the fields. And before the first frost, he found Anna’s body at the bottom of the old livestock well.
At nineteen years old, Laurel was only a few years younger than her mother had been when she died. She’d inherited Anna’s ash-blond hair and the weight of the town’s judgment. But even when she was a child, Laurel’s ironweed resolve was strong. She could handle schoolyard whispers and the sometimes sympathetic, sometimes disgusted grocery-store gazes. She even learned to live with the one irritating nickname that spread across Dry Valley like the sickly-sweet scent of graded tobacco off to market in the fall.
The devil’s daughter.
It was a fitting nickname. Laurel, like her mother, had strange gifts, though none so useful as a green thumb: sometimes, a bone would offer her the story of its death. A flash of teeth; a bullet rending flesh; a long, slow starvation or wasting illness. She could feel it through the dried marrow, singing out. It was a useless ability, a parlor trick, nothing so practical as buying a wart like witches from the hills could do. Nor was it a holy gift. There was no Bible verse that brought it forth, not like drawing fire from a burn or stilling blood in a cut. There was no mystic promise, either, no way to gather knowledge of things yet to pass. She could not see the future, she could only feel the bite of the past.
Laurel reached into her bag, sifting through her finds until her fingers settled on the jawbone. It was an ugly thing, but she could see potential in any carcass. She brought the jawbone up to her face, cracking her eyes open to study its shape, looking for something to salvage. It was tense and buzzing in the palm of her hand, heavy with potential, waiting for some kind of midsummer magic to bring it back to life.
Laurel closed her eyes to the sun’s glare, letting the filtered stain of blood pumping inside her eyelids swallow up her sight. She breathed into the red. She could taste the morning in her throat, the pollen-tinged flavor of the air, the copper and salt of the dark river sand, the sunlight settling into the dust by the side of the road. Her heartbeat, a hair too fast, rattled against her rib cage.
A shadow passed across her face. Not cool, like the shade of her mother’s gravestone or the current of the river. Cold as death. Her jaw clenched, rigor-mortis tight, her teeth splitting the skin inside her cheek. Her whole body went black with the taste of blood.
At once, Laurel sat up straight. Her vision turned blue, just in time to catch a vulture’s wing circling out of her line of sight. The taste of river mud was thick in her mouth. It was only the aftershock of pain against her cheek that told her she was tasting her own blood and not the last memory of a fox’s jaw snapping shut.
Laurel spat pink into the grass. Her heart settled back into her chest, blood warming in her veins. The vulture took another lazy lap high above the cemetery as the wind shook the trees, and her mother lay, unmoving, underground.
Laurel set the jawbone at the base of her mother’s gravestone and studied it. Two missing molars, the gray stain of sediment sunk into its pores. If she picked it back up, it might be body-hot in her hand, as if still wrapped in muscles and veins full of blood. She considered leaving it there, an offering to her mother, but it was no crayon drawing to hang up on the refrigerator. It was nothing her mother’s dead eyes could see to love.
She sighed, picking it up. The world stayed warm and still. The bones stayed dead.
Laurel held the jaw aloft, swinging her legs over the bull gate and onto the road once more.
Copyright © 2022 by Elizabeth Kilcoyne