WE BURIED UNCLE CHARLES WAY out back, beyond the orchard, a good two acres from the property line. We picked his bones clean and criss-crossed them end over end in a log cabin of sorts, like building a campfire. The leftover scraps of flesh and sinewy bits we burned in the center, praying that his spirit might rise with the smoke to watch over and guide his skeletal remains as they grow into their new form.
His bones’ flexible tissue matrices will unfold and expand, breaking through the soft dark dirt in a miniature arrangement of their eventual state. Daily sprinklings of crushed mountain herbs revitalize their internal mineral reservoirs, bolstered by cold-pressed oils and fresh water from the natural spring still trickling behind the original cabin built by our progenitor’s hands some four centuries ago. His widow, whose name has evaporated in family memory, cleaned his bones and arranged them in an open grave in accordance with a pact known only to them. She crawled down and flattened herself upon his bones, tossed a large basketful of foraged lichen and herbs over their bodies, and lay there until she passed two days later.
Their bone heaps grew together into an oblong but sturdy moss-roofed structure with a large main room and slanted loft. Their six estranged children were called home by some preternatural beacon, all returning with their families and later dying on the property. They were buried in the same manner as the pioneer and his widow, their bones transmuting into additional rooms that have been fastened onto the family cabin.
The custom was passed on—through heredity, through a sensitivity, through the ether—and, like my father and his father, I’ve grown up inside the protection of my ancestors’ bones.
I never saw my Nana without a book in her hand, quietly piercing each page with her focused predator gaze. Horticulture, anthropology, world music, finances—cultivating an intelligence both deep and broad may have strengthened the phosphorus and calcium deposits in her bones. Delicate and insubstantial as they were when she passed, Nana’s bones grew into a high-ceilinged foyer replete with ornate frills and meticulous etching in the trim and baseboards, a breathtaking corporeal reminder of her mental vitality. Truly a new centerpiece for the estate, revitalizing and expanding what had naturally languished over time.
In the weeks after the burial and Sacraments of Renewal, tiny details will appear in Uncle Charles’s bones, opening and unfurling their sacred geometry from a precious cache of proteins. The best we can hope for from him is a decent mudroom, somewhere to remove boots stiff with compact clay, rinse them off, store them until needed for slogging across the perpetually sodden fields toward the blood-dark orchard. Not to suggest Uncle Charles was a doormat, mind you; he was able and virile, a possessor of purely functional virtues, so we expect his bone room to be something useful. Practical but mundane.
Dad was always closer with Nana’s side of the family, but Uncle Charles was not. A philosophical rift opened a couple of generations ago, gradually splitting the family’s priorities. Brains against brawn, theory versus action; the same old dilemma, timeless and insoluble. Dad says intellect does more to influence the final bone structure than the physicality of the flesh that once encased it; I doubt Uncle Charles thought so, but he was never one to waste much time mulling over abstractions like that. He worked the fields and orchard, and that was that. The second house—now called ‘the homestead’ to distinguish it from ‘the estate’ that bloomed from the original cabin—that’s where Uncle Charles fits in dispositionally, and soon, physically. His last words to Dad were, “Nana’s house looks nice. So, what?” Situating Uncle Charles’s room in the homestead will reinforce the traits those kin shared, distilling them into a purer form of their utilitarian family ideal, like a slow-release fertilizer feeding, embracing, and guiding all subsequent beneficiaries for better or worse in that enduring manner only family can provide.
My generation’s dilemma is now compounded: we’re the first who can choose which side of the family to live within, whose guidance to accept, which traits to inherit and nourish. Is it a new Genesis or a new Exodus? Dad has no words on that one. We watch from afar as the cousins heave Uncle Charles’s room onto a makeshift cart and lumber it away, not so much as a head nod in our direction.
Dad looks past me, brow knit. He raises a solemn hand toward the estate, then wriggles it toward the homestead as if to say, “Go on, take your pick.” But how much say do I really have? Are my ancestors simply living on through me or do I get to decide for myself where my body winds up?
Andy Spain is a video editor and motion graphics designer living in Durham, NC, with his wife and four children. His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, X-R-A-Y, Corvus Review, and Emerge Literary Journal. His debut novel Cash Grab is forthcoming from Humorist Books in 2021.