By the time she stopped to let the dog rest, the treads of Althea’s trail runners had picked up a thick muck of sodden leaves. March was the bleakest time of year in this corner of West Virginia, more unpleasant by far than winter, when a blanket of snow silenced the woods. Late March and early April only marked time until spring, with a thaw and melt and mulch and stink of fallen leaves that left everything monochromatic and post-apocalyptic. Spent.
Bravo lay panting on his belly, which was normally white but was now caked in grayish-brown, as were his paws. The mud served as camouflage, blending his markings into the rest of his dark coat. Only his muzzle and his heavy pink tongue stood out now. His fatigue and his need for rest breaks were new. They used to run right through this unremarkable part of the landscape, on the way from the house to the pond deep in the woods.
Now, because they had stopped, Althea took a moment to look around. There were rocks everywhere just off the trail, and she walked over to one of them to scrape her shoes clean. It had a jagged edge but also a smooth one, and it took her a moment to realize that she had just wiped her muddy sneaker on a broken tombstone.
Several of the stones she had taken for ordinary rocks were in fact small grave markers, fallen over and faded and sunken into the earth. She tried to read the first one, the one on which she had wiped her shoe, but the letters were too eroded to read. She tried another, just a small stone, clearing the mud more respectfully now, using her fingers to trace the letters like a child learning to read. A shiver ran up her spine before she realized that the name read “Aleta”, not “Althea”, her own.
Aleta Schumacher 1851-1854. No months, no days, just years. She cleared another one nearby. Caleb Schumacher, December 2 1853-January 2 1854. The next one had broken in two, crumbled in on itself. She couldn’t read the name on it, but the cuneiform shapes of the surname suggested it was another Schumacher, and the last year was 1880. Another, William Schumacher, was the largest and least damaged. March 9, 1843-December 24, 1853. Two years older than Nicky had been. She thought of the manicured cemetery in town, with its neat rows and lawns and flowers.
There were seven Schumacher children in all, not even counting the stones she hadn’t been able to read. Except for ten year old William, all of the children had died in 1854. Another William, slightly apart from the others, was probably the father. That stone read 1820-February 21, 1864, with no month of birth.
Bravo had given up on her and was sleeping on the path. In previous years he would have played in the dirt beside her or sniffed around the area, but now she moved around the clearing alone, exposing stones.
She tried to keep herself calm as she searched for the mother; she had to find the mother. Maybe hers had been one of the unreadable ones, or perhaps she had remarried and moved away. It bothered Althea that the mother could suffer such loss and then be lost herself. She wanted names and dates and circumstances, the better to link them across the years. She wanted to know how the woman had made it through the deaths of seven children when the loss of one had cleaved Althea and Mark straight through. The blame and grief had broken them both in two and in two again and left each of them a stone too eroded for the other to read.
Had a stray genetic bullet struck the Schumacher family as it had hers, or a contagious illness, or just an impossible winter? Had they lived up here in isolation, or did they have friends or relatives nearby? Were there more children that did survive? Where had their house been? She and Bravo had run through these woods for eleven years and she had never noticed the remains of a house; but then, they had never noticed the remains of a cemetery either.
Had this family swam in the river that ran parallel to the trail, a few hundred yards to the east, as hers had? Had their animals been pastured by the pond that had always been the destination of her runs? She watched their ghosts for a moment, overlapping with her own more familiar ghosts.
She pictured William Senior digging in the frozen ground on Christmas Day to bury his eldest son, the one named after him. She pictured him again, just after New Year’s, digging a much smaller grave for the infant, one month to the day after his birth, and then five more, over the days and weeks and months that followed. The pain hit her suddenly, as it often did, a wave of broken glass to scrape her raw again. Nicky.
Althea whistled to Bravo, then took off without waiting. He would follow. She ran, as she always ran, headlong for the exhaustion that would silence her grief. She reached the pond still bothered that she could not form a picture of the wife in her mind. The nameless mother. She wondered if that woman, like Althea, had run blindly to this pond after the death of her son. She wondered if that woman had looked out across the surface of the ice and pictured herself trapped underneath, letting the dead weight of her heart pull her down to the bottom. She wondered if that woman, like Althea, had stood heaving at the water’s edge and decided to take another breath, and another, and another after that, until it once again seemed that breathing took less effort than drowning. It might have been spring by then, and beautiful.
Sarah Pinsker is a singer/songwriter based in Baltimore, Maryland. Her fiction has been published in the Emprise Review, TaleSpin, and the City Paper, among others.