It wasn’t like I had ever intentionally tried to hurt him. Even if I had, he would have been able to out run me, with my tilting limp and underdeveloped body. You see, Jamie was one of those boys. He was quick to laugh, smart, athletic, and his shaggy, blond hair seemed to glow no matter the light. He was a cherub, who always saw the bright side of things and drew a smile from even the sternest of adults. No one, least of all me, could stay mad at the affable Jamie.
He was also the leader of our pack. Not that there were many of us; just Jamie, Cash, Lucy, and me. Just the four of us in the small rural town of Stockport, Ohio. But in a population of 471 people if you counted those like me, who lived in the farmlands around the town, four kids the same age was a blessing.
“Come on,” he yelled back and waved his free hand over his head as if to pull me like he might a large, stubborn fish on a lazy Sunday. “I want to make it back to your grandma’s before she decides that raspberry pie is a poor idea for lunch.” And he disappeared into the tree line.
I lumbered after him. The uneven ground of the machine tilled rows and the dried stalks of summer corn dragged at my prosthetic leg and left pink stripes on my bare arms and flushed cheeks.
The line between the dazzling sun of the field and the dappled, confined space of the woods, enveloped me. Here the stands of walnut, maple, birch, and pine warred with each other for the meagre light from above. Thick, dim, cool. This was the feeling of the woods. The forest floor was tangled with creeper, dew-berry, fern, and the maleficent poison ivy. My nose was assaulted with the moist, raw, and fertile sent of soil and decay.
Jamie had stopped a few yards into the tree-line. He had flushed a doe and she blocked the path, stomping a leg and inflating her size. Jamie’s hand signalled me to slow, to stop, as if I didn’t know the dangers of an enraged deer. Jamie backed to me and we circled the wild beast.
“She’s gotta have a young’un on the floor. But it’s a bit late for that in the season.” He picked his footing to help me follow.
“I don’t know. September fawns aren’t unheard of.” I followed carefully. I was more worried about tripping or having my leg pulled off in a mud bog than just as to why a momma deer would be so protective. Though it was strange, I had to admit. She stood her ground in the middle of the path rather than bounding free and dragging our attention to her.
As we trudged up the wooded hill, I watched berry bush after berry bush pass. “Jamie,” I finally broke from exhaustive silence, “what exactly is wrong with this one?” I pointed at the bird picked bush beside us.
“Nothing, but you know as well as I that the best berries ripen by old…”
“Cedrick’s grave,” I finished for him with exasperation before he could bring out the slurs so often associated with the man.
At least we were now on the flat, though still tree infested, land adjacent to the family graveyard.
It never failed. When I came to the natural glade, now overgrown with wild flowers and blackberry, I would peer from behind the wide, barrier trees and balance on weak knees. Everyone had heard the stories; Jamie and I knew the risks just like every other kid in the region. But these were my people and for me, this was not just a frightful place. The stories were not tales told by teenagers to stalk the nightmares of younger siblings. For me, they were history, my family history.
No matter the time of day, the glade lacked the golden rays of sun lavished on the fields down below. And the cemetery, set at the back end of the glade, seemed to summon shadow to it. The wrought-iron fence erected to confine the dead within, was now worked with berry bramble and poison ivy. The gate had been kept clear, not by my family’s doing, but by the dark arts of my former relatives who now lay within. It hung half on its hinges yet seemed to always return to closed and I knew that there would be a shrill shriek announcing its opening when we did.
Gathering our nerve, Jamie and I walked forward. Jamie carried the reed berry-basket in front of him like brave Sir Gawain. His other hand fast around a sapling stick he often used on hikes.
“So, just in, get the berries, and out?” my voice cracked and I couldn’t help the high-pitched squeak at the end.
“Uh ha,” Jamie’s wild eyes looked back at me.
The black, ornate gate hovered above the threshold rocks, set to keep the ground steady at the entry. I gulped and placed my hand squarely on the cold, lifeless cross plaque which read: DeLong. The name glowed as if freshly polished.
The gate groaned but gave way with the slightest pressure. I trod forward and held the portal agape for my stouthearted friend.
As my hand retracted from the gate, it cried with a demon’s call that let shivers break across my back. I closed my eyes and turned from the exit; I found that I was incapable of looking behind me. A weighted stare hung to my clothes as I continued deeper into the ill-tended mass.
The small plot boasted the marked graves of just over thirty of my ancestors. We all had been interred here until the practice was frowned upon after the first world war. The eldest marker touted that the family had been in the county and on this land since before 1790.
Where the ivy and moss had failed to drape the entirety of the stones, snips of names and dates could be read. Some were eroded by the decades of harsh winters and unforgiving summers. But there were others who were sharp, as if engraved only last week.
I knew the paths here. We had come here on days of celebration – the solstices, equinoxes, and high, holy days. I would walk through here again on Samhain. It was my duty as a DeLong to keep my family here.
Jamie did not know the paths to Cedrick’s rest and found his way by my grunts and gestures.
“No! Don’t step there. That’s Cousin Idabelle’s grave.”
He pulled his step. “But there is no marker here. I thought that it was a path. It’s so difficult to tell in the overgrowth,” he made apology as he stepped around the tomb.
“Cousin Idabelle did not have a proper burial. And her parents refused to mark her grave. Or at least that’s the legend.” I winked at him to try and reduce my anxiety. The sooner we retrieved the berries, the sooner I would be happily on my way back home.
Cedrick’s shrine was set off from the rest of the mounds by low, spiked wrought-iron work. The blackberries seemed to shy away from creeping towards where his coffin must lay.
“You know, I haven’t been inside before.” Jamie gestured around the area. “Normally, we take the berries from outside.” For, indeed, Cedrick’s grave was against the back-fence line.
“Understandable.” I shuffled forward and traced the spearpoints on the break before me. “You’re the only one I have ever brought in. We don’t often share this place. It’s hallowed to my family.”
A quick look over at Jamie made me question if I should have shared that revelation. I wondered if my friend would look at his invitation inside as a curse.
“Do you know who these people were?” He asked as his hand hovered over the closest enticing fruit.
I watched and waited. When his hand just hung there, I answered. “Sure. They were all my family. I know that most people can talk about back to their grandparents, maybe their great grandparents, but my family has a tradition of talking about those even older. It means that I have grown up knowing them and,” I fell silent.
“So, who was Cedrick then? He seems to have been more important.” Jamie’s fingers plucked the first berry.
“Cedrick’s my great, great grandfather’s friend. He’s Odawa. And some sort of excellent tactician/negotiator. He’s just as blood thirsty as my grandfather when things don’t go his way. So, in that respect, he fit in to the family.”
Jamie’s eyes slid sideways to look at me. His face grim. “He is, is he?”
A stricken giggle left my lips. “I guess he just seems so real in the stories. Ya know?”
I joined Jamie in stripping the large, ripe fruits from the bushes and filling the basket. After a prolonged pause, Jamie stilled his collecting.
“So, if he wasn’t really your family, why is he buried here? And why the separate fence?”
I placed a fat berry into my mouth and chewed as I thought about the best way to explain.
“Well,” I stammered, “he is part of my family. Or he could have been. My great, great grandfather had a brother, this brother had a daughter – Idabelle DeLong. Story goes: she and Cedrick love each other. Her parents say, ‘No way, are we giving you to a Native American savage, no matter how refined he seems to be.’ So, Ida and Cedrick see each other in indecent liaisons until one day they are found out. The father,” I point to Julius DeLong’s grave. The green light of the place filtered down and struck the moss skin of the bulwark covering the grave marker. It was a magical effect that made me smile. Looking back, Jamie stood jaw slack. “got his gun and he shot Ida. They say that he was saying something about sullied reputations, no good man would want, and so on. Cedrick cradled Ida until the other side finally took her moments later. And in his last words to Julius, he swore that he would take revenge.”
I shrugged and turned back to the berries. “It’s quite the family scandal.”
“I think that we have enough.” Jamie’s face was pale and his eyes wide when I turned to take him in.
“Really?” I investigated the basket. It was now nearly overflowing. “Great. Let’s get out of here.”
A shiver traced my spine. I turned to see the dark collapsing the green light on Julius DeLong’s grave. “Please. Not now.” I mouthed.
“Come on.” I grabbed for Jamie’s arm and turned him from Cedrick’s grave. “Follow me and stay close.”
Maybe it was the timbre of my voice, but Jamie followed so closely that I thought he might run me over. I laboured to the gate and had just placed my hand on it when the earth rumbled. I struck a defensive pose as I whirled around and threw Jamie behind me.
“Who dares take from the DeLongs?” The words cut the moist air. An oppressive feeling descended.
“Who, who the hell is that?” Jamie’s shaking hand shot out in front of me; pointing to the imposing figure of Uncle Julius.
“By all that is holy, leave us alone,” I commanded as I reefed the gate and pushed Jamie through. “Run, I yelled.”
Jamie took off like a jackrabbit and Julius thundered by soon after. My hand still on the gate, I had allowed the horse to bolt. I summoned my energy and made way after them, the gate slamming behind me.
I ran through the glade and plunged into the tree line. Darkness shrouded me. Far more darkness than the height of the sun would allow. Undaunted, I pushed harder. I could hear the crashing of my best friend as he, panic ridden, made his way down the forested hill.
My concern must have manifested in cleared paths and wild speed because soon I was witnessing the chase: enraged Uncle Julius and my poor Jamie. As I neared, Jamie tripped, sending his basket and stick flying wide, an aerial arch of sanguine orbs haloing his blond head. A blond head that smashed into the ground.
“Desist!” The command had come from behind me. I spun to see from whom and my artificial leg snagged in the groundcover, sending me into a heap and rolling me towards the fight below.
The world spun – ground, canopy, ground – until I was both sick and disorientated. And what felt like a lifetime later, I came to rest beside the slackened body of the athletic boy. His hair imbued with crimson rivers, his eyes closed in a sleep close to eternal.
A ruckus up the hill from me drew my attention. I wrenched my body to look. A gloom clung to a small area of trees and a battle raged. A large Native American clashed with Uncle Julius. I swallowed. The taste of blood roiled my stomach. The craven light above me dimmed further.
The old children’s rhyming games came back to me. Ring-around-the-rosie, pop-goes-the-weasel, and the one the others never seemed to know:
We keep the fence to keep the peace,
We watch what it is we reap.
For if Cedric should be released,
Into our lives damnation will seep.
I woke in the cornfield. Twilight was setting. My hand brushed Jamie’s. Turning my head, I could make out his form. He breathed. Relief flooded me.
The voices of my family, calling our names, seemed distilled through water.
I tried to sit but my head throbbed heavily.
Looking towards the sky, I saw him standing near, the Odawa warrior in full regalia.
He searched over me, standing statue still. Then in a movement too fast to imagine, he knelt beside me. His skin was worn with age, thickened and wrinkled by the sun. The velum of his face split to show solid, clenched teeth. His eyes flared. “Your grandfather sends his love.”