Garden of Bones
My sister died in a war overseas. I don’t know what war. It doesn’t matter really. They shipped her body back in a metal box packed with ice and draped with a flag, like a beer cooler at a tailgate or Fourth of July party. That’s what matters.
I haven’t told my parents about Natalie’s death. They think she’s stationed somewhere safe ignoring their phone calls. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. Last time the three of them talked our mom couldn’t stop asking Natalie why her hair was short and our dad told her no one appreciated her sacrifice as much as they ought to. Then there was yelling, questions about why she hadn’t stayed in school, why not become a nurse like me, stick around town like me, meet a nice guy like me. I glanced at Natalie, waiting for her to admit she would never meet a nice man because she didn’t want to meet a nice man because she didn’t want to be with a man at all. But she stayed quiet and walked out the door. Three days later she flew to Iraq. I haven’t decided when I’ll tell them yet.
And then she returned in an aluminum tin in a cardboard box stamped with the DoD logo. The bald eagle stared awkwardly from the box, neck forcibly turned and broken with wings splayed to the sides. The military personnel told me she would be delivered to any morgue I wanted. I gave them my address.
I wanted to bury her in my backyard even though Jim told me not to. I wanted her close to home, close to a home she was welcome at anyway. When I first rummaged through the small rusted shed, Jim tried to pull me away.
“She doesn’t belong here,” he said. He gripped my arms close to my elbows, preventing me from bringing the sharp corner of the shovel near his forehead. “Would you want to be buried in a backyard of weeds and mushrooms, or with your fellow soldiers?”
I screamed until he dropped my arms. “She loved laying on the grass,” I said, old shovel in hand. I pushed past him and thrust the shovel into the moist, uneven earth.
It took longer to fill the hole than to dig it. My anger swallowed me in a world of red and black, of the flitting speckles behind closed eyelids outlining the world we just shut away. I kept my eyes open, but I don’t remember what I saw. Jim helped me place the metal box in the hole. I didn’t want a coffin, no funeral or eulogies or prayers said over podiums and cheese platters. Natalie never liked crowds anyway.
I planted bluegrass over her grave. As kids we often ditched the confines of home life and wandered the open Maine fields behind our house. My sister would pluck bunches of daisies and chickweed, caress bunchberries at the base of a tree far older than us. But she loved bluegrass more than any of them.
The seeds bloomed in May, four months later. I told my parents of Natalie’s death the month before, but that her body couldn’t be found. They thought I was joking, a cruel trick from a daughter caught in the crossfire between sibling and parents. It wasn’t until I pulled the letter from her commanding officer out of my pocket that they realized how serious I was. They held a small funeral, shed tears that I felt sorry for and spoke to how brave and brash she was. I didn’t speak.
At first I thought the flowers were dead; their white stalks looked limp but sturdy, like a marble statue of a woman draped in sheer, wet cloth. Jim told me to leave them, let them sit in peace unlike what I’d done for Natalie, but I went outside and sat at her gravesite. I gently touched the flowers, edging around small blossoms and stalks, wondering how they bloomed dead. Everything was pale, the color of cream or eggshell, and yet bunches of flowers bloomed over the rectangle of bulging earth. I yanked at the flowers, wrapping my fingers around the stems and leaves, and still the flowers did not wilt or snap. I wrenched and pulled on the flowers, fighting with a memory of my sister until I realized why the plants stood strong.
The bluegrass was bone. My sister’s bones burst from her grave in the form of flowers.
I tend to my garden every morning, splashing spring water over blossoms stiff and elegant. There are asters and meadowsweet, fireweed and morning glories and bunchberries sprouting from my sister’s grave, all the color of cream and eggshell and bone.
Samantha Toner currently attends Chatham University’s MFA program focusing on fiction writing and pedagogy. Her previous short story “A Creole Pint” appeared in The Original Magazine and the critical work “Of Cloth and Bolts and Fur: The Three Relationships of the Cybernetic Triangle” was published by Forbes & Fifth.