Ancestors' Bones


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Bobby Neal Winters

Paul crossed the South Canadian River and said, "I sure am glad that I am not driving a herd of cattle across the Canadian today."
His wife Sophia said nothing. He didn't expect her to. He had made that same remark every time that he crossed the South Canadian for the last fifteen years of their marriage regardless of the time of year, time of day, or the weather. It had been made abundantly clear to her that he was not fond of the notion of driving cattle across rivers.
He really didn't know why he even said it. It was true. Perhaps, he thought, telling the truth is a good thing even if it is an inane truth.
He always felt like he was on his home turf whenever he crossed the South Canadian. This was where he had spent his life until he went off to graduate school at age twenty one. It somehow didn't matter as much that he knew far more people up north of the Spring River. He hardly ever noted crossing it. However, he had to mark the transition when he crossed the South Canadian.

Paul began to think of rivers as boundaries. In many of the old westerns that he was so fond of, they served as barriers that had to be overcome. Once one of his history professors at college had explained that no good military commander wanted to fight with his back to a river because there would be no way to retreat. So in that sense, a river was a barrier that once crossed there would be no going back.
This was shades of Heraclites: "No man can cross the same river twice because the second time it is a different river and a different man."
Paul was on a roll now—in his own mind at least. Moses had parted the Red Sea, and then Joshua had parted the Jordan so that the Children of Israel could cross from the Wilderness into The Promised Land.
But the Canadian was not the Jordan for Paul. He had left that part of Oklahoma that lay South of the Canadian long ago. Almost as long ago as he had lived there. This was a place that was in his past. A past that was sweetly remembered, but one that he could never return to.
It was more like the Euphrates had been to the Jews during the time of Exile in Persia. Persia had been a place of higher culture than Israel had been, but even from there, the Children of Israel had yearned for their Province-Beyond-the-River where their ancestor's bones lay.
The summer sun had set with a beautiful red glow. It didn't worry about being predictable. Paul drove on is silence. Most of the conversation between him and Sophia had been used up during the five hour trip. The book on tape that they had been listening to had finished, and the only sound left was that of tires moving down the road.

It was late spring, and they opted to turn off the air conditioner and roll down the windows. The smells were lovely. Already the honeysuckle had begun to make itself known. As they drew closer to the home of Paul's brother Pete, this honeysuckle smell was joined by the sulfurous smell of the oilfield, and the occasional dead skunk. Sophia affectionately referred to this combined smell as "The State Smell of Oklahoma." It fit.

The darkness was almost total now as they pulled into the driveway. Paul was glad to be here

He was home.
Paul finished his breakfast of bacon, eggs, ham, and biscuits. He smiled as his mother's comment of how much better he looked now that he had lost some weight. She had barely taken a breath before she asked him whether he would like some more.

He declined with heavy heart the offer of more. He needed to get going.
Paul and his brother Pete were going to make a visit today.
He and Pete left the house and got into Pete's pickup. It was a Dodge just like the last truck that their grandfather had owned. This one did not require as much coaxing to start, however. Grandpa's truck had been a '54. Occasionally the grandsons would have to push it up a hill and then down the hill to get it started. Pete's brand new truck started immediately and almost noiselessly.

They left Pete's house with its satellite dish, computer, and internet connection and were driving into the woods. The road had deteriorated to blacktop oilfield road. The woods were encroaching on the road.
They crossed over a small creek where they had gone swimming as small children. Paul remembered this creek well. He remembered
having "almost drowned" in it. Once when he was about four, he took a step off into a portion that was over his head. A Chickasaw boy had stepped in and grabbed him and brought him crying to his parents.
We wondered if he really would have drowned if the Chickasaw boy hadn't been there. The boy had been about eight or ten when he had saved Paul. He had felt connected to the boy from that point on. He had kept and eye on him for years in the way that younger school children follow the exploits of the older heroes. The Chickasaw boy had gradually grown smaller and dimmed from view. Then Paul had heard that he had been killed while drunk driving at age 18.

Paul thought that he probably wouldn't want to take his children swimming in that creek these days. He knew too much about the bladder habits of cows. When he was growing up, pollution from the oilfield would have been a real issue, but nobody knew about it then, and now that they did the oilfield was not much of a going concern.
The changes that had take place in the last twenty years in response to the dying oilfield had been interesting to say the least. In some real sense, the wilderness was coming back. Paul couldn't remember a single instance of seeing a live deer in the wild while growing up. Paul and Pete hadn't been deer hunters while growing up or they would have seen more, but these days there was seldom a trip when they didn't see a deer or some sort of wildlife.

They saw a coyote cross the road.

The passed a pecan grove that had been hit by a tornado thirty years before. There were still stumps from broken trees remaining.
Paul remembered the night that that particular tornado had hit. There had been a whole cluster of the things. This one had come through and had only cut a swath through the orchard. Another that same night had taken out a ranch in different part of the county.

The whole family had gone over to see the destruction. The images that were stuck in Paul's mind were those of chickens. Dead, naked chickens lay here and there and everywhere. Their bodies beginning to swell slightly in the hot, Oklahoma sun. The family who had own the ranch had survived physically, but they had sold out and moved to town after that. They had been well-off financially, but this had broken their spirits.

Pete came to the section line corner and turned left and proceeded several more miles. He crossed a small river, one of the fishing holes of his childhood. Fishing here had been one of those delightful pleasures of youth.

Paul remembered that his Dad would not let them fish there very often. It took him almost forty years to figure out why. There were multiple reasons, really.

One of these was that it was privately owned land. Paul and Pete's grandfather had been a rather friendly individual. He had a philosophy: It is better to apologize than to ask permission. This is a useful philosophy for a fisherman. Especially a friendly fisherman. However, the road to this fishing hole went past the owner's house, and the owner was a rancher who was home a lot.

Another reason was that Paul and Pete's Dad had been a rather straight arrow. He didn't relish risking brushes with the law, and so he forbid his sons from joining their grandfather on these excursions.

Paul's mind was pulled back to the present as that slowed to a near stop. They had come to the gates.

Above the gates, carefully crafted out of surplus sucker rods left over from the heady days of the oilfield, was a sign: Hilltop Cemetery.
Paul and Pete had been with their grandfather when he bought the family plot. There had been a previous family plot in town, but it had been sold. The original plot had been bought because one of their cousins had been killed. They had never known the boy, and it had all happened long before either of them had been born. All they had been told as children was that he had been five years old and had been run over by a car; it had been held up as a reason not to play in the road. Their father had bought the grave plot for the boy, because his brother—who was the boy's father—did not have the money. The parents of the boy had not stayed together long after that.

The plot had been sold to the ex-wife for the same price that had been paid for it all those years ago. Paul and Pete's father did not believe in making money out of the death of children.

Paul remembered his grandfather's conversation with the cemetery's caretaker. Frequency of mowing had been a primary concern. Grandma had placed a high value on a well-mowed lawn and had used Grandpa as a means to achieve her goal. Grandpa had developed a desire to spend eternity watching other people do the mowing.

On first inspection, Paul thought that the cemetery was empty because he saw no cars. However, as they made their way up the road that sloped up the side of the hill, Paul saw a woman in a plain, brown cloth dress of a type that had never been in style but was never truly out of style. She was sitting on a tombstone with her face in her hands. She appeared to be in her thirties.

They made a right turn and drove a few hundred feet further before coming to a stop beside an oak tree.

Paul said, "They have kept it mowed."

Pete said, "Yes, every once in a while they mow too close to a marker and knock some chips off, but they usually do a good job."

Pete had walked over to their grandparent's marker and removed some slightly faded plastic flowers from the vase and replaced them with the best that Wal-Mart had to offer.

Paul kneeled down in front of his parent's stone on which the mother's death date was still not marked (and he hoped wouldn't be for many years), and he pulled weeds from around the base. He had put his knee down on one of the sand burrs that grew so well in the poor, sandy soil of the cemetery. When he stood, he removed it and thought no more about it.

Having satisfied themselves with the condition of the family plot, they began to walk around the nearby plots. Paul went to visit one that he always did on such occasions. It was a Chickasaw grave. There was a "doghouse" that had been built over it. In front of the small house were some of the belongings of the occupant of the grave.

A toy airplane.

Pete, Paul, and their Dad had often visited this one when their Dad was still alive. The marker was one of those that had a photograph on it. It was of a little boy. A three year old little boy.

None of them had known the little boy. Pete and Paul had known his "stepfather." They had gone to school with him. He had been a crazy, mean son of a bitch then who was capable of short periods of humanity. Apparently, one of those periods of humanity had been long enough for him to get the Chickasaw girl to take up with him, but it hadn't been long enough to get the little boy much passed his third birthday.

Paul thought about the murderer. He remembered one day when this man had been a high school boy and had pushed Pete off of the porch at school. Hard. It had not be a playful thing. In hindsight Paul could see that it had been done out of sadistic meanness. Pete had not told on this boy even though the principal's office had been just yards away.
Pete and Paul paused there at the grave for a while. They took out their pocket knives and cut down the grass that had grown up around the base of the marker like their father had done before them. They put the toy plane back in place from where the wind had knocked it askew.
Neither of them said anything.

There father had instilled in them a respect for the dead. Their father's grandma had died back in the 1930's, and her grave had not been marked at the time. It was finally lost as the landmarks had changed. Their father had taken them as boys to the cemetery where she had been buried on several occasions in order to find the marker. He and Pete had finally found it when Paul was off in graduate school, and they had put a marker on it. A short time later their father had died.
They continued on being drawn from one plot to another with Pete pointing out the new occupants of certain plots. He told Paul about the various family interconnections and the stories of the people that connected them to their own family.

They came to a big plot. It was an entire family.

Around the perimeter of the plot were the children. None of them had lived passed the age of ten. All of them had died in the1930's.
There was a marker in the middle for the parents. The father had died in the late 1950's. The mother's side of the marker had no death date. Paul looked at the grave itself. The grass over the mother's side gave was only weakly grown in. It looked to Paul's eye as if it had been opened a year or two ago, but the poor soil had not been yet been able to put forth grass strongly enough to completely cover it over.
The mother had died, she had been the last, and no one had been left to fill in the date.

Paul thought about what a different world he lived in than this lady had. To lose any child would be a tragedy, but to lose them all was beyond measure. Was her marriage bitter after the children died? Did her husband provide emotional support for her, or did he drink himself into an early grave and leave her alone for more than thirty years? Did she have friends?

None good enough to see that her date was marked, that was plain to see.

Paul shook his head and walked on.

Paul had only taken a few steps before he turned to his brother and said, "Wasn't that the tombstone where the woman in the brown dress had been sitting?" He hadn't seen her leave, and in an isolated location like this any car driving up would have been noticed.

Pete said, "I never saw a woman in a brown dress. I never saw any woman at all."

Paul screwed his mouth and shook his head.

They got back in Pete's car, retraced their path, and went home. When they got there, they put a video tape in the VCR, and watched a movie.
You make the point earlier of rivers being boundaries, but to me this is a ghost story.

Not the cheap tacky "boo! ooh! I'm scary!" type you can buy in a shop, but the real thing - something that creates a very real haunting feeling. The experiences in this peice are pretty rich and very evocative.

Everything about the story is about the ghosts of the past - but not simply the people, but the landscape as well. That's where the Hereclitus quote works best in its application. Everything is different through time. And every experience in the now is merely a ghost being made to be reflected back upon. Even the writing of that story is a part of that.

The woman in the graveyard is the open symbol of it all, though, and it works really really well.

This is definitely one of my favourites. Thanks for posting it. :)
The Fool said:
You make the point earlier of rivers being boundaries, but to me this is a ghost story.

Not the cheap tacky "boo! ooh! I'm scary!" type you can buy in a shop, but the real thing - something that creates a very real haunting feeling. The experiences in this peice are pretty rich and very evocative.

Everything about the story is about the ghosts of the past - but not simply the people, but the landscape as well. That's where the Hereclitus quote works best in its application. Everything is different through time. And every experience in the now is merely a ghost being made to be reflected back upon. Even the writing of that story is a part of that.

The woman in the graveyard is the open symbol of it all, though, and it works really really well.

This is definitely one of my favourites. Thanks for posting it. :)
I'm glad you like it. In some sense it represents a height that I achieved early in my writing that I aspire to again. These days I am getting better at the mechanics, but I feel as if I have lost touch with some of the "strangeness" as it were.
I think a principle difference is that you were trying to fit quite a lot into this one. For a start, you were using a semi-biographical character as a vehicle to including a lot of near experiences, rather than the more overtly personal relationship with the reader you use now. You tend to be a lot more concise with how you relate experiences nowadays as well. In simple terms, there's almost a danger of there being too much included in this piece. The digressions to the various people covered are very noticable, but are otherwise well linked.

And that's a particularly strength of this piece as well - the subject matter. You're touching on very powerful themes of death and past and change, etc. That in itself gives "Ancestor's Bones" a very real advantage as a standalone work, in terms of the emotional clout you can work with.

In some ways it is better, simply because it touches on deeper issues, and covers more widely the topic than perhaps you would now. But I'm seeing a real maturity in your writing over the past couple of years - your structure is much cleaner and flows much better. You're very good at conveying what you need to.

I guess if you feel that you're becoming too formulaic, though, you can always experiment again, as the Paul Reasoner stories essentially were - a way of exploring form, to find your strongest voice. The Paul Reasoner stories had their strengths and weaknesses, and this was an example of the best of that group, perhaps. But there's still a lot of strength in what you're writing about at the moment, and it seems much leaner.

2c, anyway.
Thanks, Brian. Your remarks are really helpful.

I was at writer's groups this evening and had some helpful discussions there as well.