On Rising One Snowy Evening
by Karen Bovenmyer
The first thing I saw when I clawed my way up through the frozen earth was Vaughn’s tractor, drifted with four inches fresh snowfall, glimmering in bright starlight. In the yard beyond, the farmhouse was dark. Were all my kin asleep? Gone this time? I pulled myself the rest of the way out of the ground, leaving behind a grave full of broken earth shaped like a milkweed pod. Through the fresh dusting my boots punched through a stiff layer of ice over more snow — they’d buried me in cowboy boots this time, not knowing what season I’d come up. It didn’t matter that the leather was thin and crackled with ice — I didn’t feel the cold, and my bare hands weren’t even chapped from the dig.
Not ready to face the house just yet, I tried to gauge how much time had passed by Vaughn’s tractor. I touched the rear tire, smearing my palm with black — too many years — the rubber was breaking down. The door opened with a screech of binding metal, the cab thick with rust. I climbed up and sat down on the cracked seat, fingered Ishtar’s sun-faded eight-pointed-star talisman I’d hung from the rear-view, and took a deep breath. Under the smell of old mouse nests and rotting leather I still smelled Vaughn’s tobacco, and I closed my eyes to the powerful memories of summer sun, bailing hay, and water slopping down his muscled arms as he drank from the bucket I brought fresh from the well. My husband, gone before his time, leaving six kids half-orphaned and 160 acres to till.
I fingered the eight-point talisman and repeated the vow I had made (was it seventy years ago? Eighty now? I’d have to ask my youngest up at the house to be sure). The vow that I would never leave our children, for death or nobody. I had them bury me here each time, by the rusting tractor, so when I came back I would remember my vow to the Sumarian Ishtar, goddess of my immigrant Iranian grandmother, who returned me again and again from her sister, Ereskeigal, Queen of the Dead, when my family had need of me.
I opened the door, my boots found the big step down, and I made my way across the yard to the house. Someone had painted it since last time and the sloping porch had been repaired. It wasn’t easy watching the big old farmhouse Vaughn and I had built with our own two hands fall into disrepair over the years. I always liked waking up in years like this one, when times were good and the house was in good repair.
I didn’t ring the doorbell, just let myself in and left my boots on the rack. My socks had rotted, but the denim of my jeans and canvas of my coat were still good, and I picked my way across the living room barefoot. It was a prosperous time indeed — gleaming glass and metal on the wall in the living room, a device that sent images and sound long distances, much larger and thinner than before. A new rug under my rocking chair. The kitchen counters replaced with marble. The pantry full. I looked at the photos on the new refrigerator — a graduation announcement for my great-great grandson. A whole new crop of babies growing up through elementary — the big family of my youngest daughter had grown. Ten years, must have been, since I’d been here last.
But why had Ishtar wakened me? All looked more than well. I crept slowly up the stairs, careful that the creak of wood might wake a child too young to have met me and learn the family secret. As I passed their bedrooms on my way down the hall, I passed memories — of lean years feeding my six kids and the many returns meeting their kids and kids’ kids until the only flesh of my flesh remaining was my youngest, baby Mary, whose cheeks had still been round when I made the vow.
Her bedroom door was open six inches, just like she always liked it, a rectangle of golden light shining through it. I opened the door silently and let myself in, whispering her name, the sound rough in my unused throat. She was propped on my big brass bed, one of the quilts I had made her draped over her thin knees. She’d fallen asleep with a book across her withered lap and, despite the thin grey hair she’d gathered into braids, and her wrinkled, wizened face of an old woman, I saw my child, my baby Mary, asleep under a dog-eared copy of The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I moved the book aside and settled down on the bed next to her, my cold hands finding her bent and knobby ones. Her breath was shallow, but her watery eyes opened. I felt a spike of fear in my chest. I thought I knew now why Ishtar had sent me this time.
“Mary. It’s momma. I’m here.”
“Mom.” Mary sighed, her voice tremoring with the quaver of the very old. “You look just the same.” Her eyes scanned my face, then dropped to our hands — the reverse contrast of young and old. “It’s my time, isn’t it?”
Fear took my voice, but I nodded, because just then I knew it was true.
“You kept your vow. All these years. What will happen to you now?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and I sat with my youngest child as she breathed her last. She weighed almost the same as she had when I made the vow, and I found it no more difficult now to lift her in the quilt then when I’d first made it. I took the eight-point star from Vaughn’s tractor and lay back down in my grave, pulling Mary close, the talisman between us.
When I next woke, it was to golden sunshine and the scent of fresh-mown hay and tobacco.
“On Rising One Snowy Evening” © Karen Bovenmyer
This story is a reprint, and is on the 2016 Bram Stoker Award Recommended Readings list: http://www.horror.org/awards/2016readinglist.php
Karen Bovenmyer earned an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches and mentors students at Iowa State University and serves as the Nonfiction Assistant Editor of Escape Artists’ Mothership Zeta Magazine. She is the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writer’s Association Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship. Her short stories and poems appear in more than 30 publications and her first novel will be available Spring 2017. http://karenbovenmyer.com/
Digital illustration © Fran Eisemann, photomanip stock from xyadove-stock, http://www.deviantart.com/art/People-28-172215730 http://elleth-stock.deviantart.com/art/Elleth-stock-440-118145079, http://elleth-stock.deviantart.com/art/Elleth-stock-575-190477436, http://a1z2e3r.deviantart.com/, http://a1z2e3r.deviantart.com/art/Old-tractor-563974713