by Brian Leung
It’s not a crime in Tulkum County for an exhumed grave to come up empty, which is what happened when we got to Eleanore Verris’ plot, or as we were obliged to record it, Number Seventeen. There was her limestone marker alright; the worn engraving said she was a beloved wife and mother and had lived from 1897 to 1926. On May twelfth of her final year, or maybe the day before, someone had dug a hole into which Eleanore was to be lowered, and we’d dug one to lift her out, only, where her remains should have been, what we found was nothing but clay soil and about four or five inches of river stone. As it turned out, Number Eighteen, Number Nineteen, and Number Twenty-One, all Verris family members, were also without their human tenants. Aesop Verris’s stone was Number Twenty, but it had no expiration date, just “January 10, 1874,” and the image of a squirrel hanging from a tree while extending an acorn to several smaller squirrels on the ground, the kind of tableau most every father constructs in his head. We didn’t expect to find anything in Aesop’s plot, but we dug anyway. It turns out there’s something more interesting than graves with no bones, and that’s a grave that has more bones than it’s supposed to, which in this case meant none of Aesop’s, as the investigation revealed, and instead, the remains of four other people if you relied merely on the skull count.
What does an unearthed pile of human bones look like? Not much, to be honest. At first, it’s gray dots and stripes in black, musty soil. It’s not until the site starts playing Hamlet with you and you’re staring into empty eye sockets and a decaying grin that it hits you, hit us—widening the highway was going to be delayed until we got this sorted out. Setting the forensics aside—yes, they were indeed Verrises, and almost certainly Eleanore and her three children—what The Weekly Upright printed on May 11, 1926, was this:
Death of a Wife
Eleanore Ado Verris, wife of Reverend Aesop Thomas Verris, and mother to three
previously deceased children, County Road 14, died on Monday, May 10, after a brief
illness. She is survived by her husband but no known relatives. The private burial is
arranged for May 12 at Whole Cloth Cemetery.
There is no record of why Reverend Aesop T. Verris never took up residence beneath his pre-ordered headstone, and no explanation of why his and Eleanore’s plots are separated by two children, with the fourth, a daughter named Abital Elizabeth, with a marked plot to Aesop’s left, rather than alongside her siblings.
The reinterred Verris family, complete with Aesop’s apocryphal stone, if not his remains, rest at a newly dedicated cemetery at the crest of a hill, which on a clear day offers a view all the way to the previous location. In late spring, fields of glimmering corn tassels reach upward, tall enough to conceal the highway that obliterated Whole Cloth. Each Verris, Abital, her two brothers, and Eleanore, got their own, if unadorned, caskets. No claim was made that every bone made it out of the previous graves, nor that every piece of calcium phosphate made it into the right casket. There are twenty-seven bones in a human hand alone. And in this part of the country, it wouldn’t have been unheard of for a finger or toe or a few teeth to go missing even in the youngest of living citizens. The highway needed expanding, so at some point we had to be satisfied with what we’d gathered and were more than likely leaving behind. Perhaps there is comfort in the thought that Eleanore may be at rest, at least in part, with all of her children gathered around her in their own caskets. But in the weight of human concerns, nobody these days thinks about what might have happened to the Verris family and their patriarch. It was big news for a week or so, but folks have moved on, are agitated about highway maintenance and wondering just where their taxes are going if not to keep up the roads. We all complain about what matters to us most, which is generally what matters least.
Brian Leung is the author of Ivy vs. Dogg: With a Cast of Thousands, Lost Men, and Take Me Home. Among other honors, he is a past recipient of the Lambda Literary Outstanding Mid-Career Prize. Brian’s fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry appear in numerous magazines and journals. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at Purdue University. His forthcoming novel, What a Mother Won’t Do (C&R Press), will be released in fall 2021.