"Coal Dust on the Tombstone" reminded me of a story I published some years ago in a now-defunct ezine. It's a dark little thing based on what I thought was a childhood memory, something I heard told in my father's West Virginia family. But they all deny knowing about such a thing. Read it, and you tell me what's wrong with me.
When she saw what the dog had in its mouth she screamed so hard that a vessel burst in her throat. She fainted and fell on her back. The blood poured into her lungs. She would have died on the kitchen floor. But because the mill closed early her husband came home to find her.
Three days before her baby had taken his own desperate gasps, a dozen all he had in this life. When she stopped crying and fell asleep her husband pried the little body out of her arms and wrapped it in newspapers and twine. There were five other children still alive in the two rooms of their tarpaper shack past the end of a dirt road near the ridge line. FDR had yet to bring happy days here again to Osage West Virginia. Until then there wasn’t going to be money for a funeral or even spare sheets for a shroud. He went behind the house and up to the treeline. With a summer Appalachian downpour beating on his back he scooped out a grave and laid his baby in it.
When he told his wife what he had done she cried harder than she thought she had tears for. She swore and swung at him. Her nails raked his cheek. Because he was ashamed, this once he took it. For days she lay in bed and listened to the rain drum on the tin and plywood and tarpaper above her. She thought of the baby sleeping in the mud. But at last she remembered the babies who had lived and got out of bed.
Still heavy with birth she waddled into the kitchen. There was a little window over the big tin tub that was her sink. She braced her hands on either side of the tub and stared out the window, getting used to sunlight again. Halfway between the outhouse and the treeline she could see a dog scrabbling in the mud. It was a colorless medium sized coonhound that someone had got tired of feeding and thrown stones at until it finally got the message. Blinking in the rain-filtered morning light she watched the dog frantically delve. Because she liked dogs she smiled a little as it stopped and beat its tail in triumph.
When the dog planted its hind legs and pulled harder she laughed, expecting a Walt Disney dinosaur bone to pop out of the earth to dwarf the industrious pooch.
What the dog had in its teeth was a tiny arm, bluish gray. Just as she recognized it for what it was, her baby was free from the mud. Teeth now in the abdomen, the dog gave the body one triumphant shake and trotted off with it into the woods.
After her husband found her she stayed in bed for another long time. The rain had stopped. She had nothing to listen to except what was inside her head. The first time she got up her husband came home from the mill to find her filthy with cracked and bleeding nails. She explained with the utmost patience that she had gone into the woods to find where the dog had buried its bone.
At first he reasoned with her, and then he prayed over her, and when that didn’t work he beat her until she promised to stay close to the house. But he came home to find his yard cratered with shallow pits she had dug with their soup ladle.
He tied her to the bed that night. The next day she swore she’d be good. With five children, the youngest not yet a year old, he figured he didn’t have much choice. So he let her loose.
Because there was a lot of work at the mill that week it was late when he got home. Even though it was midsummer the light had almost faded from the ridgeline as he made his way up the switchbacked trail to the house. She sat on the unpainted two-by-four steps that were their porch. He smiled because she rocked a blanketed bundle in her arms. Their youngest. He thought, she’s getting better. Still smiling he leaned forward to kiss the child she held up to him.
He spent the rest of his life trying to convince himself that his lips never touched what she had wrapped in the blanket. Gagging he struck it away. She screamed and fell on him with teeth and fists. It took the two oldest to help him tie her to the bed with belts.
He sent the middle boy to get the county doctor. When the he arrived her head had been beaten in against the iron bedstead. Her husband explained that she must have done it while he was out in the yard waiting.
The doctor listened to the story. Night had fallen long ago and his car was parked at the end of the road, nearly a thousand yards away. There was blood on the husband’s hands.
Misadventure, said the doctor. Death by misadventure. The husband nodded. In his hands was a baby blanket to which shreds of mangy fur and leathery dried skin still clung. The doctor left as fast as he could. As he hurried his feet crunched scattered marsupial bones and a possum’s skull wrapped in a blue bonnet.