Lizzie buried her best friend on a chilly October day, the kind that ushers in a cold storm and turns the sky a deep watercolor blue. Pregnant clouds hung low over the fields, threatening those who stood on the hillside—dressed in Sunday best—with their fecundity. Lizzie clutched her bag tightly, grateful to have something to tether her to the world. She could barely feel her hands inside the gloves she wore.
“And now, from Revelation 14:13, a few words of comfort as we lay Tabitha to rest,” Reverend Townsend intoned. “‘And I heard a voice from Heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’”
He paused here for dramatic effect; it was a tactic he used during sermons when he felt the congregation slipping. The sudden silence jolted them into guilty attention. “We say goodbye to Tabitha knowing how much she did for our community and how beloved she was in all her 40 years. If you would like to leave a flower with her, you may do so now.”
The group separated from around Lizzie and reformed shoulder-to-shoulder at the grave, a murmuration of mourners with single roses in hand. One by one, they dropped the blooms onto Tab’s coffin; Lizzie could hear crumbling dirt pattering on the wood. A sudden gust of wind swooped across the hillside, waking the trees in a rush and flipping their leaves up to expose pale underbellies. To Lizzie, it sounded like a spectral sigh, an expression of exasperation on a different plane. It sounded like Tab.
Back home, the woodstove was nearly empty and the sky bloomed like India ink across linen. The storm was still threatening from its perch, darkening the day so deeply that Lizzie was jolted when she heard the clock strike 4 p.m. Her sorrow was a fist-sized knot in her abdomen, a hard and cancerous thing with teeth, and the day had drawn out like a blade because of it. She sat at the kitchen table, tracing rings and scars with her fingers, and didn’t look up when Steven came in laden with a cord of wood.
“Startin’ to feel more like winter than autumn out there,” he huffed. “Gonna have to cut more wood tomorrow.”
He was whistling past the graveyard, and she ignored it. “Maybe we should leave. Take the train into Tennessee and visit for a while.”
Steven had begun loading the stove; now he paused, kneeling, without looking at her. “Why would we do that?”
“Because I can’t stop thinking about her. The way she looked.”
Lizzie rubbed her hands together. She wasn’t that cold anymore, but the blue light of the day made her wish she had a hot cup of tea.
Steven placed the last piece of wood inside the stove and closed the door softly. “It’s going to be bad for a little while. You got to put that out of your head. Things’re hard enough without all that.”
He stood near and touched her cheek softly. She had always marveled at his hands; not the hands of a farmer at all, but those of a sleek magician who had traveled with the Ringling Brothers show in his younger days.
“Push it away,” he said. “Tomorrow we’ll take the Hudson into Greenville and have a nice dinner.”
“Have to. It won’t look right otherwise.”
She pressed her face against his palm and nodded, knowing she wouldn’t be able to keep the tears out of her voice if she said anything else. When he’d closed the backdoor behind him, she stood at the kitchen sink and watched him walk through the gate, past the lavender wavering softly in a gathering wind. She stayed until she saw his porchlight come on, and then she poured three fingers of whiskey into a coffee mug and let it carry her into sleep.
She dreamed of Tabitha. They’d met in grade school, Tab the tomboy with auburn braids and Lizzie the one who dreamed of being a movie star, her flaxen hair a beacon for attention. They were opposites in every way but quickly grew to love each other as sisters, with Tab fighting her way through the bullies who thought Lizzie was putting on airs. It got especially bad in the 9th grade, when she began to bloom and every boy in the county wanted her attention. Tab didn’t feel jealousy like the other girls. Instead, she shook her head at Lizzie as she recounted another date and scowled magnificently, unable to grasp why her friend would want to waste so much time with boys.
It was this version of Tab she dreamed about, the sullen girl who didn’t understand her own beauty. They sat together beneath their favorite tree, the town spread below them in the bowl of the holler. The two of them wore blue dresses of different shades, their bobbed hair glinting spun gold and bonfire sparks into the dusk.
“Don’t you want to go to school? Travel? Get out of this damn town?” Tab was asking.
“I’m gonna do all those things, but I need to save some money if I ever want to get to Hollywood,” Lizzie said. “That part can’t wait. My looks won’t last forever, you know. Those directors aren’t going to cast a 40-year old woman as their star.” Ain’t had been carefully rendered to aren’t with much practice.
“It ain’t all about your looks. It ain’t all about what men want you to be. Christ, Lizzie, you’re the smartest girl I know!” She was high-tempered, her cheeks flushing just below those dark eyes that saw everything. She leaned back on her elbows and plucked a strand of tall grass, split it, and put it to her lips, where it made a sorrowful sound like a train whistle when she blew. “All I know is, I won’t ever let some man tell me what I can do.”
Lizzie jerked awake, into the silver gloom of dawn. Into the strong scent of freshly cut roses.
The women in town often made the trek up the hill to see Lizzie when they needed something that was out of their reach: true love, a child, money. Sometimes what they wanted was to be rid of something. She had learned at her mother’s elbow from the time she was very young, watching as she mixed small but complicated batches of desire for the women of Pine Hollow. A homemade wind chime made of colorful glass bottles hung from the eaves of their front porch, calling them forth, and her mother always knew exactly what they needed.
Lizzie looked over her collection of herbs and tinctures, separated and organized by color. She never labeled anything; she knew from the feel and smell what they were. One small blue bottle was nearly empty. She picked it up and held it to the light, remembering. It seemed to her that blue was the color of memory.
A knock on the door stirred her and she set the worktable to rights, carefully replacing the blue bottle amongst the others. It was Jocelyn Baker, who had once sought Lizzie’s help to conceive a child. Five consecutive miscarriages had driven her nearly out of her mind; her son, a healthy towheaded boy who sometimes helped Steven with field work, was now 12.
“Lizzie,” she said as she October breeze swept her in. She wore a dress the color of fresh cream, with tiny purple flowers printed all over. “I need to talk to you.”
“What’s the matter? Is Matthew well?”
“Oh yes, he’s doin’ fine, healthy as a horse and eating me and Jacob out of house and home.” She paused, tilting her head to look over Lizzie’s shoulder. “Is someone else here?”
Lizzie looked behind her, so powerful was Jocelyn’s gaze. Like she’d seen something. “No, I’m alone. What’s got you so shook?”
Jocelyn fiddled with the oversized buttons on her coat. “I debated whether or not I should even come. I know you’re grieving.”
Lizzie remembered seeing Jocelyn standing at Tab’s grave, dropping in a rose with the rest of the town. They hadn’t known each other well, but it was expected. Small places run on courtesy and gossip.
“I just… I thought you should know what people are saying about you,” Jocelyn said finally.
Lizzie felt her face lose its openness; the eyes narrowed, the jaw clenched. Her mouth was a tightrope no one could walk across. “And what’s that?”
“They say that you’re… takin’ up with a married man. It ain’t none of my business and you know I’ll always be in your debt for Matthew, but I thought you should know. Because of, you know. What you do.” She gestured toward Lizzie’s worktable, the rows of bottles and jars. “If they turn on you, it won’t be long before they start talkin’ about that. Even good people can be cruel.”
She was right, of course. Half the town knew about Lizzie’s gifts, but once the talk started they would recuse themselves from her orbit. It wouldn’t matter that she’d helped them when no one else could; she would become a prize to be held aloft by all those who couldn’t wait to pounce on someone else’s sin. Lizzie leaned against the kitchen sink, looking out the window. From this vantage point, she couldn’t see Steven’s house; the grass had grown too tall. A large crow sat on the plank fence, presiding over all.
“Still growin’,” she said hoarsely.
“Pardon?” Jocelyn said.
“The grass. It’s the middle of October and the first frost has come and gone but that grass is still growin’. Why do you think that is?”
Jocelyn shook her head, confused. “I couldn’t say, Lizzie.”
Lizzie turned to her, saw the worry on her face, and smiled tightly. “It’s alright. Thank you for tellin’ me. The holler wouldn’t be the same without the rumor mill churning.”
Jocelyn’s mouth turned up cautiously. It was a smile that wondered why Lizzie wasn’t denying anything. “I’m so glad you aren’t upset. I thought for sure you’d run me out of here on a rail!”
“You’re a good friend,” Lizzie said. “The world needs more people like you.”
Later, after Jocelyn was gone, Lizzie walked out back, crossing her arms against the wind. The grass was knee-high and yellow, wavering down the hill toward Steven’s place. She was too far away to see anything through the windows, but she imagined he was in there, or out in the barn working on one of his wood pieces.
Her boots were sinking into the soil. She looked down at the spongy black dirt and frowned. Swiping a finger across it brought a shudder; it was like touching rot, like feeling decay. She wiped the finger absently across the hem of her dress and examined the grass, which was dead and so dry it rattled in the wind. The sound was bones in a coffin. A warning.
“Lizzie,” the breeze sighed. “Oh, Lizzie.”
The crow took flight, beating its wings so forcefully that Lizzie felt their wind on her face.
November brought an erasure of snow.
Lizzie normally enjoyed the cold, loved the way the fields were blanketed in white, the color of non-memory. Now it only magnified the sense of loneliness she felt and made her think of endings.
Steven hadn’t been to visit in four days. She had wondered if perhaps he’d heard the gossip, suspected he had. He said everything was fine, but Lizzie had felt him retreating since the funeral, a slow removal of his presence that left her wondering whether their relationship had mostly lived in her body. In fact, she couldn’t remember ever feeling so out of sorts.
Things were changing inside her home. She woke most mornings to find that the bottles on her workstation had been rearranged or even knocked over; certain rooms were broiling hot, while she could see her breath in others. She poured milk into her tea one evening to find that it had curdled, even though it was only a day old. And always, the powerful scent of roses followed her.
When the crow perched on her fence one evening and wouldn’t leave—demanding her attention with his beady gaze—she made a sudden decision. Bundling up, she marched out the back door and shooed the dark omen away. The bird flew ten feet from her and landed in the snow, staring sullenly over its shoulder. Ignoring it, Lizzie kept walking down the hill, not caring about whether anyone saw her.
Steven was home; she could see his shadow flitting through the lamplight like a moth.
“Lizzie,” he greeted her. “What are you doing out in the cold?”
“I need to talk to you,” she said, looking over his shoulder. “Are you alone?”
He frowned. “Of course I’m alone.”
She searched his eyes for a moment before sliding past him, into the warmth of his living room. It felt strange, being there after so long. Steven always came to her place; it was easier for both of them.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
Lizzie sighed. “It just feels like you’ve forgotten me. Where have you been?”
He shook his head, looked at the floor. “I’ve been busy, that’s all. Takin’ care of things.”
“What things? Not me, not anymore.”
“I thought the whole point of all this was so we could be together. I’m goin’ crazy up there alone in that house, do you know that? I don’t want this.”
“I warned you it would be bad for a little while. Didn’t I tell you that?”
“Yeah, you warned me. But I wasn’t ready for it, for the way she looked. Her eyes saw right through me. It was horrible, and you don’t even care.” She had begun to cry despite her resolve not to.
Steven had been standing in front of the door; now he shifted his weight slightly, revealing two large suitcases. They sat benignly, offering an explanation Lizzie didn’t want.
“Oh,” she said. “You’re leaving?”
Steven held up his hands, as though she had turned a gun on him. “Just for a little while. I wanna get my head right.”
She walked slowly toward him, her anger curling up from a place deep in her body. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. I’ve loved you since I was nineteen. I gave up my dream of becoming an actress for you! I stayed here in this shitty town. For you.”
“I never asked you to stay,” he spat through his teeth, advancing on her. They stood inches apart, a different sort of heat gathering between them. “That was your choice.”
“But you did ask me to kill your wife,” she said softly.
He snapped his arm out and clenched the collar of her coat in one strong hand, pulling her into him. She could smell sourmash on his breath but didn’t turn away. She took courage in her fury, cradling it against her bosom like an infant.
“You wanted her gone as much as I did,” he said. “I never promised you anything, Lizzie. I’ve been stuck here the same as you. Do you think I ever wanted to be a farmer? You stay in one place long enough and it grows into your bones like cancer, it eats at your plans until you can barely remember what they were. I can travel now, the way I used to.”
Lizzie reached up and placed her hands over his, suddenly overcome with grief. The weight of her madness fell upon her and she began to wail, keening like a mother who has lost her child.
And suddenly, a knock at the door.
Lizzie quieted immediately and turned her head towards the sound, the tendons in her neck so tight they creaked. Steven turned as well, eyes wide. When it came again, it sounded less like a hand and more like a series of pecks.
And when the wind blew the door open on its hinges and they saw what awaited them, Lizzie recalled the words of Reverend Townsend over Tab’s grave. She could almost hear them on the fragrant gusts that rolled in, redolent of roses.
“‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’”
Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work can be found in publications such as The Hellebore, Barren Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, and more. She is a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Indie Horror Book Award nominee; two of her collections of horror poetry, The Madness In Our Marrow and Tall Grass, made the shortlist for Bram Stoker Award nominations. Amanda currently lives in Kentucky with her husband and two children.
photo by Ameen Fahmy (via unsplash)