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BROKEN STONES • by Sarah Pinsker

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.


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BROKEN STONES • by Sarah Pinsker, 4.0 out of 5 based on 67 ratings
Posted on March 10, 2012 in Literary, Stories
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  • Lillias

    I found this story both moving and, at the end, with a ray of hope. I liked how we learned more about Althea and her losses as she learned more about the family whose graves she discovered. I also liked the intertwining of Althea and the missing mother’s fate, which we never learn. And the ending, for me, was perfect. Thank you!

  • http://internetexplorer Mary Markstrom

    This is one of my fvourate stories so far. Really tugs at the heart strings without being overly sentimental.
    Very well written. I look forward to reading more from Sarah Pinsker. Thank you.

  • LeaP

    A beautiful and moving story, Sarah. My favourite so far. Althea is an amazingly, strong character who I was immediately drawn to and I wanted to know more about. A novel to follow, perhaps?

  • Mary J

    Very moving. I love the last sentence.

  • Rose Gardener

    Beautifully written. There is something noteworthy in every paragraph, but my favourite image is ‘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.’ I will remember both mothers here for a long time to come. Well done, Sarah. Hope to read more of your stories.

  • http://users.beagle.com.au/peterl P.M.Lawrence

    “Had this family swam [sic]”?

    For what it’s worth, in the days of high mortality it was customary to have a few graves dug in advance, not just to have them ready but to avoid having to dig them in frozen ground.

  • http://www.deborahblood.com Debi Blood

    Unspeakably moving.

  • http://www.bethcato.com B. Cato

    Beautiful.

  • http://www.paulfreeman.weebly.com Paul A. Freeman

    I’m afraid I found this story a bit too overdramatic, written for a society / era expecting three score years and ten (or more) plus all the frills.

    Life isn’t (and wasn’t) always like that.

  • http://stuartlarner.blogspot.com/ stu1

    a very tragic and scary tale. She must have been very damaged and insecure for her observations to have had such a profound effect on her. Yet so spooky that after eleven years of running through there she had never noticed the graves before.

    A little bit of over-elaboration at times, but very well written and atmospheric.

  • http://michelle-ann-king.blogspot.com Michelle Ann King

    Evocative and sad. Nicely done.

  • http://www.theprodigalscribe.com Mickey Mills

    Very well written piece. For short fiction I think the underlying emotion carries the couple of slightly overwritten spots. Taken as a whole however this is a great piece of work. Thank you.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Astounding in its power.

  • vondrakker

    Well done Sarah
    5 *****

  • http://suburbannoir.com Cathryn Grant

    Beautiful writing, and very moving. The 2nd to last line is wonderful.

  • Gretchen

    This story ends strong, with a nice tie-in to the beginning and just the right mix of “sad” and “hopeful.”

  • Tony Press

    Evocative and strong. A good one.

  • andrea

    Good story, and an enjoyable read. I wondered if the reason the last person alive (Mrs) did not have a grave marker might have been due to there being nobody left to bury her? Some comments refer to there being potential for a sequel – especially with all the foreshadowing of the dog being sick. It could also go the way of a suspense crime novel, or whatever. I’m sure this writer can deliver a linked story from her material.

  • judith

    As someone who has often processed the decision to take the day’s worth of breaths while walking in cemeteries, i like this. She’s young, or sounds it, or perhaps grief, like love, makes us young in our helplessness. And she still has to choose for her own reasons.
    Some tragedies call the decision to live into question, yes, but it is the intersection of of the tragedy and the way a person is – the life of experience and development a person brings to that intersection. A woman from the 1850’s , no matter what her situation or experience, brought different perspective and experience to the births and deaths of her children.
    I like that the story doesn’t let her know what happened to the mother – it would have been too easy to give her a story she could read and interpret. A dead child can indeed take any parent to the edge of existence, but whatever the parent decides, it is for their own sake -impenetrable and private.

  • judith

    As someone who has often processed the decision to take the day’s worth of breaths while walking in cemeteries, i like this. Even more I like how alone it leaves the reader – how it underscores the arrogance of assuming we understand people because their actions or experiences look familiar.

    Some tragedies call the decision to live into question, yes, but it is the intersection of of the tragedy and the way a person is – the life of experience and development a person brings to that intersection. A woman from the 1850’s , no matter what her situation or experience, brought different perspective and experience to the births and deaths of her children.

    I like that the story doesn’t let her know what happened to the mother and more than it lets us know what will happen to Althea – it would have been too easy to give her a story she could read and interpret. A dead child can indeed take any parent to the edge of existence, but whatever the parent decides, it is for their own sake -impenetrable and private.

  • Elaine Williams

    I have been reading and enjoying Every Day Fiction for a couple of years now, and this is the best story yet. Good job.

  • http://VerskinLaw.com Milton Verskin

    The language is succinct and carefully controlled. The focus of the story is on the protagonist’s feelings and there is nothing about her character, personality, or appearance. The result is that, although the story is very short, it has something of the weightiness of a prose poem. A very good bit of writing.

    Milton Verskin

  • http://andreapawley.blogspot.com/ Andrea Pawley

    What a great story. So well-written and tightly focused.

  • Cheryl

    Sarah, I found myself observing Althea almost to the point of stalking. I find that your stories hit in the heart, not necessarily just a cognitive journey. During her adventure, I wanted to see what she found and how she processed it. Your writing always encourages me.

  • Larry

    Great work, Sarah.

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  • Samantha

    NIcely written. I found it over dramatic but appreciate what the writer tried to do with the correlations.

  • http://jeffswitt.wordpress.com/s3p-a-story-in-three-paragraphs/ Jeff

    I need more quality writing like this in my life, sorry to be 3 years late in telling you :)

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