Salt the Earth and Burn My Bones—Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick

While pregnant with me, my mother began believing that she was carrying the second coming of Christ.

No one was quite sure where she got this idea. She was a decent Catholic, give or take most of the ten commandments, but hardly pious (or virginal) enough to believe she was the next mother of God. For whatever reason, the belief stuck, and she spent her entire pregnancy insisting that I was going to be God incarnate, destined to bring about the end times and usher in a new world.  

My mother had always been ambitious.

She told the doctor all this during her labor. She insisted on delivering naturally, so drugs couldn’t even be blamed. According to my father, the doctor ignored her, for the most part. She pushed and pushed and pushed, and in a rush of pain out I came. I was tiny and pink and wailing and terribly ordinary. When the doctor lifted me up, he took a look between my legs and told my mother the bad news.

“You have a healthy baby girl,” he said. “As for the second coming of Christ, better luck next time.”

(For years whenever I heard this story, I would stomp my feet and complain about the doctor’s misogyny. Now that I’m an adult, I think he had a point. Imagine Jesus coming back as a woman and trying to preach to people on the street. She’d get about halfway through a speech promising the kingdom of heaven when some guy would interrupt and tell her to sit on his face. If Jesus is smart, he’ll stick to being male for the time being.)

Still, my mother wasn’t deterred.   

If I couldn’t be Christ, she reasoned, I still had a shot at being a great prophet. If I was really lucky, maybe I could even raise the dead. Not all of them, of course, but a body or two here and there. That would have satisfied my mother. 

My father put up with her delusions for a bit. He was a man who hated change, and leaving her seemed more of a hassle than it was worth. But she forced his hand when I was in first grade. At the time, I attended a Catholic school, and my teacher was trying to explain the concept of eternal damnation to a bunch of seven-year-olds.

“You must be good,” she explained to us, her gentle tone so at odds with what she was saying, “or God will send you to Hell. And if your parents aren’t good, He’ll send them to Hell, too. And you’ll spend eternity being tortured by demons.”

“Not me,” I told her. “God won’t send me to Hell.”

“If you’re a good girl, you’ll go to Heaven,” my teacher said. “That’s why it’s so important that you listen to your teachers and the priests, so you don’t go to Hell.”

“No,” I said, with the supreme confidence only a seven-year-old could have. “God won’t send me to Hell because I’m like Jesus and Moses and all them. He picked me special, and one day I’ll even be able to raise the dead and cure people and walk on water and all that. My mom said so.”

This did not go over well at home. Apparently, it’s very easy to get sole custody if your wife has convinced your young daughter that she’s a Biblical prophet. My dad and I moved out, and from then on I only saw my mother on supervised visits. These stopped when I turned ten. My mother had breast cancer, and refused to listen to her doctors. She was so sure that I could cure her. By then, I was old enough to know that I couldn’t, but there was no talking any sense into her. She died disappointed in me, her holy child who couldn’t deliver the goods.

My mother was wrong about many things. I don’t have a healing touch, and I can barely swim, let alone walk on a rough ocean. I haven’t been able to raise the dead yet. 

When I was thirteen, however, I did discover that I could hear bones. So maybe she wasn’t as far off as we all thought she was.

It started small, with a rabbit in the garden.

By that point, my father and I were living in a tiny house in the suburbs of New Jersey. A meticulous man, my father insisted on keeping the inside of the house immaculate, and did his best to force our yard to meet his same standards. He mowed the lawn every Sunday, an almost religious ritual that replaced Mass in our home. After my mother, my father thought it best that we keep away from God in general. 

I was sitting on a lounge chair on our deck, sunbathing and blaring music into my headphones to drown out the sound of the lawn mower. I was wearing cheap plastic sunglasses from the drugstore, purple, like everything else in my wardrobe at the time. It’s funny, the details that can stand out so vividly in a memory. I remember that I was intent on watching the clouds, still at an age where finding shapes in the sky could be an hours-long pastime. 

The lawnmower stopped abruptly, and I heard my father curse. I sat up, but he gestured to me to stay where I was.

“You don’t want to see this,” he called over.

He left the lawnmower and went into the shed that sat in the farthest corner of our yard. As soon as he was out of sight, I ran over to the lawnmower. There laid the decomposing corpse of a small rabbit. My father hadn’t killed it, he had merely hit the body. It was almost entirely skeleton, with some gristle and fur still clinging to the bones. 

I could hear the normal sounds of summer in the suburbs: birdsong, my neighbor’s dog barking, and a car horn somewhere in the distance. But now, standing over this little dead rabbit, I heard something new. Not words, not exactly. It was more like a swirl of emotion and a simple form of memory, pain and fear and excitement echoing in my ears and burrowing into my mind. It played over and over again in a loop, and it was so overwhelming that I vomited on the grass, right next to the tiny skeleton. My father came out of the shed to find me retching, and he ran over to me.

“I told you not to look,” he said as he gently pulled back my hair, trying to keep the tendrils out of the vomit and spittle I was still choking up. 

I tried to answer, but I could barely hear him over the sound in my head. I gritted my teeth and shut my eyes and concentrated on the sound of his voice, the distant traffic, the birds, anything but that sound. Slowly, it faded until it was just a murmur, not gone but easier to ignore. 

I straightened up, and my father released my hair as I wiped the back of my hand across my mouth.

“Sorry you had to see that,” my father said. “Poor little guy. Looks like he’s been dead for a while. I’ll get the shovel and bury him. Why don’t you head back inside?”

“Yeah, sure,” I mumbled, desperate to get away but strangely unwilling to leave the bones behind. I stared at them, and the sound in my head got louder. I looked away, and it faded into the background once more. That’s what I was hearing, I realized. I was hearing an echo of the rabbit’s life, trapped in the bones. I looked in awe at that tiny rabbit, and then heaved up whatever was left in my stomach.  

I thought the first time I heard human bones would be more dramatic.  

After the rabbit, I spent a few years hearing animal bones. Honestly, it didn’t impact my life very much. The bones were small, and fairly quiet. A bird on the side of the road, a rat dead in a wall; I learned how to tune into them, and then how to block them out. Larger bones were harder, more insistent. A dog flattened in the street or a deer carcass passed on a hike could send me spiraling for an hour or more. I never questioned why I could only hear animals. I had enough on my plate dealing with that to suspect something bigger was around the corner. 

When I was seventeen, I broke down on the side of a tree-lined road. I called my father, who promised to come get me as soon as he called for a tow truck. I could see a small clearing in the distance, and knowing that I had at least an hour to kill before help arrived, I decided to check it out. If nothing else, I could at least sit in the sun for a while.

I walked through a short line of trees until I reached the clearing. Straight across from me, about a hundred yards away, was a small group of headstones, weathered and chipped like crooked teeth popping out of the ground. Not a clearing, then, but an old family graveyard. Curious, I approached them, hoping to make out some of the text carved into the stone. But the elements had worn most of it away, and though I could feel the outlines of words when I ran my hand over one of the tombstone’s surface, I couldn’t read the inscription. 

I was so intent on the tombstones that I didn’t notice the humming at first. It started soft, almost like a buzzing, but the more I concentrated on it, the more I could hear words form. They bumped against each other and seemed to flow in a continuous loop, like a murmured prayer or lullaby. I settled into the grass and sat very still, hoping to make them out. There were more now, five or six distinct voices, if you can call them that. And each told a tale of love and grief, of first kisses and last touches and children birthed and parents buried. Of betrayal and heartbreak and bits of inexplicable joy that left me weeping as though those feelings had been pulled from my own heart. 

My father found me like this, crying into the earth in front of those graves. He didn’t say anything, just shrugged off his jacket and wrapped it around my shoulders before helping me to my feet. It had gotten dark and cold since I entered the clearing; I realized I didn’t even know how much time had passed. Our ride home was silent, though not uncomfortable. I think my father knew that I didn’t have the word to talk about whatever had happened. 

This would not be my last time hearing human bones. On the contrary, I now look back at the first seventeen years of my life as a blissful age, a time of quiet. After the gravestones in the clearing, I began hearing bones constantly. There was no escape, and they were just so loud. I was used to pushing away the sound of animal bones, but human bones refused to be ignored. They called to me with every step I took. I was lucky that the first bones I heard were so gentle, even lovely. Many were not. They were furious, and they bellowed their anger and their sorrow at whoever could hear them, which as far as I know was only me.    

I read a theory once that hauntings are actually time loops. What we think of as ghosts are actually just bits of energy, destined to replay certain events over and over again. This is the best way I can describe what our bones do. They take the memories that cling to us the most deeply, the feelings imprinted on our structure, and they keep them alive, playing them over and over until the words run together and it’s just a song in the night. 

And what, you might be wondering, of the other things? Not the muscle and fat and organs, not the things that can be broken down and eaten by the hungry underground. That thing that is supposed to be the purest version of us, that thing we’re told can live forever. Does that, too, sink into the earth, or does it go somewhere else? 

Your guess is as good as mine. I can’t hear that. 

I wonder, sometimes, if hearing bones is only a precursor for the main event. If one day I’ll prove my mother right and be able to call up a whole body. That’s a pretty big “if.” Bones love to talk, but don’t seem as interested in listening. I’ve tried a couple of times to talk to them, to see if they’d respond. I don’t even say anything particularly interesting, just a general, “Hi, how’s it going.” You know, trying to break the ice. But they never take the bait. They just keep on repeating whatever it is that’s so important to them that not even death can keep it quiet.

So, will I be able to raise the dead? I hope not. That sounds like a huge headache. What if it’s something I can’t control, and I start accidentally calling them up, one by one? People really take for granted how many bodies we have lying around. In horror movies, a nice family always accidentally moves into a house that’s built on top of a burial ground. To get away from the ghosts and ghouls in their home, they simply have to leave. In real life, it isn’t that easy. Want to live somewhere that’s burial ground-free? Jokes on you, because actually corpses are the bedrock of this country. They’re everywhere. I should know.

You try to raise the dead, and they’ll be clawing through concrete and hardwood floors. They’ll rip up roads and parks. There’s nowhere that the dead aren’t. My mother used to tell me that, during the end times, Jesus will come back and raise up all those who’ve died. When the world ends, there goes the neighborhood. It’s bad enough now, when I can hear them constantly. I would do anything for a little peace and quiet. But you try finding an undisturbed patch anywhere in America, a place without bones. 

When I turned thirty, I decided to try to hear my mom.

I avoided the graveyard ever since I heard that first bone. It wasn’t hard. My relationship with my mom had obviously been complicated, and my dad never pressured me to go. I didn’t think he had ever gone himself to visit, though when I eventually found her headstone, I was surprised to see it was tidy, with a small lantern and statue of the Virgin Mary next to it. An attentive caretaker, perhaps, or a relative I’d never known. But I suspected it was my dad, keeping the final home of his ex-wife as tidy as he kept our house. 

I pulled up to the graveyard at sunrise one May morning, as soon as the cemetery opened. I even took a day off from work, figuring that there wouldn’t be much of a crowd at seven in the morning on a Tuesday. I didn’t know what I might hear, and I wanted to have as much privacy as possible, in case things got bad. I didn’t tell my father that last part, obviously. I just told him I wanted to be alone with mom. He seemed surprised, but didn’t argue, and gave me clear directions to her burial plot. I drove slowly through the cemetery, following the hand-drawn map he made me. 

Once I found the right section of graves, I pulled over and parked the car. I was right to come early; I seemed to be the only person in the entire cemetery. I got out and, still clutching my father’s map, made my way up a small hill. I didn’t bother to avoid stepping on graves, which would have been the polite thing to do. But when you realize you’re always stepping on bodies, well, you get less precious about things. I felt the hum of the graveyard start to rise, but in the years since I was seventeen, I had gotten better at ignoring them, even if I couldn’t completely keep them out. Eventually I found my mother and her neat little grave, the solar lantern still glowing in the early dawn light. 

I moved to sit down, but the ground was still wet with dew. Cursing myself for not planning ahead, I shrugged off my jacket and laid it down, sitting on top of it. I shivered in the early morning cool and felt the damp begin to seep through the light cotton of my jacket and into my jeans. I tried to ignore it and focus on the task at hand. 

There it was, her name on the headstone, a birth date and death date and nothing more. No biblical verses or quotes or even a “beloved mother” etched into the rock to show passing mourners what she was like. At first I thought the simplicity made her tombstone look almost elegant, but then I decided it just made it look sad.

I sat there for a few minutes, eyes closed while I tried to work through the gentle murmur of the bones around me. I was surprised that I wasn’t able to lock onto her sound immediately, that it didn’t stand out against the others, and with a pang I realized I had not heard or thought about my mother’s voice in two decades. I sifted through the noise in my head until finally I heard a familiar tone.

It was like being a kid and hearing your mother calling for you in a crowd. Once I recognized her voice, it got louder and louder, blaring over the bones around her. It seemed impossible that only a second before I couldn’t hear her at all, and now there was nothing but her. It hit me so hard that I doubled over, hands digging into the wet earth as I tried and failed to stop my mother from completely overwhelming me. 

I don’t know if it was because these were the first bones I knew, or because my mother lived a sadder life than most, but I was helpless in the face of my mom’s memories. They screamed at me, an endless carousel of her disappointment, her loneliness, the feeling that the world owed her something and never paid up. I felt the terrible song of my mother’s bones fill me up until they pushed out everything that was mine, until I was just my mother’s sorrow and pain. 

It was too much. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I scrambled to my feet and ran blindly to the car, leaving my jacket behind at the grave. I wrenched open the door and threw myself into the driver’s seat, my shaking hands making it hard to jam the key into the ignition. I could still hear her, she was just too loud. I turned the radio up to a deafening volume, but even that wasn’t enough to drown her out. I drove quickly out of the cemetery, going much too fast. It wasn’t until I was several blocks away that her voice began fading, and by the time I arrived at my apartment building, snot and sweat and tears making me a mask of grief, I could no longer hear her at all. 

It wasn’t until later, when I was in the shower trying to wash the cemetery off of my body, that I realized my mother’s bones did not say anything about me. No single melody of love or hope about the child she left behind. In all my mother’s grief and rage, it was like I never existed. I don’t know why I expected anything different. 

I’m terrified of being dead. Not of dying, that doesn’t bother me much. Dying is natural and, if I’m lucky, might not even hurt. But being dead, turning into these bones, shouting out over and over for eternity or Judgement Day or whatever comes first, that keeps me up at night. I don’t want to be like my mom, or that rabbit, or any of the others I hear. I just want to sleep in peace and quiet.

I’ve been watching the show Supernatural. In it, the lead characters travel around the country, fighting demons and ghosts and werewolves and all that. The heroes have a go-to move for banishing boogie men and sanctifying a space. All you need to do, according to the show, is salt the earth and burn the bones of whatever malevolent force is bothering you.

I wonder if that would work for me. Could it really be that easy? Just spill a little salt on the ground and light a few old bones on fire, and presto! Silence, finally. I dream, sometimes, of an earth set on fire, scorched until it chars up every last bone. Maybe that’s unfair, though. Maybe the other bones don’t mind. I’m just the one with the problem.

So maybe I’ll just focus on myself. Leave a clause in my will, explaining exactly what I want. Crazy old granny, not content with the usual burial. Let my family gather around, and burn my bones, and salt the earth before they go. And then these old bones can fade away, and I’ll have some quiet at last. 

Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick (she/her) lives in Philadelphia with her husband and black cat. Her fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, Cauldron Anthology, New Gothic Review, and Coffin Bell Journal, among others. You can find her on Instagram at @shaunyfitz or on Twitter at @shauny_fitz.

photo by Gavin Allanwood (via unsplash)