In the Family Way

Jane Healey

They buried my great-great-grandfather neck-deep in earth to save him, but since the earth was not of his homeland, and instead of some other land sighted halfway through the godforsaken voyage of the Dauntless, he cried for the duration of his treatment, bore womanly tears while the two other sailors buried next to him smiled and wriggled their extremities in the earth—feeling whole and human again, and embarrassed by the sailor weeping beside them—and he never recovered, not truly, not in the head, and neither did my family’s reputation. Through the years since then, we have been cursed by failure and shame and I want to go back to that burial, his first burial, and understand why.

They called it earthsickness then, not scurvy, and believed the cure to be soil itself, the very essence that the men lacked when they were at sea. For men were not naturally seafaring creatures, could not survive for long without sight of land. Other cures besides burial were similarly strange—walking on land, inhaling the smell of herbs and grass, rubbing roots over their sun-cracked skin. The men on my great-great-grandfather’s ship did not know that what saved them was the meal they shared after landing—the vitamin C crouching in the fresh meat, the herbs, the tubers—to them it was clear they were creatures of the earth and would die without it; only through burial would they be saved.

The marks of scurvy borne by my great-great-grandfather were comparatively mild—weeping sores, bleeding gums, aches, spotted skin, yellow eyes—he was not on death’s doorstep, but could have been if they had not found the shore within the next few weeks. But worse than these hurts was the way that the scurvy had reversed the passage of time. For as the cellular connections of scar tissue had broken down, his body leaching them for vitamins it could not find elsewhere, each past scar and wound was uncovered again, raw and bleeding, a map of old hurts unearthed.

 

There had been a jovial mood at the burial, despite the weakness of the other sailors, all suffering from sea legs and a touch of scurvy themselves. The sun was hot, the grass of the hillside stiff but welcome on bare toes punctured by generations of wooden splinters, and from their vantage point the sea looked like a rust-mottled mirror, a faraway thing to be forgotten for a little while. And there he was, my great-great-grandfather, naked and chest-deep in soil, struggling against the men pushing him further into his hole, grunting and telling them they would have the devil to pay. Only when he was tucked in tight, and the other men had stepped back, did his mood shift and tears groan out of him.

And yet it is not true to say that my great-great-grandfather was crying only because of homesickness; he was also crying because his prison of dirt was preventing him from distracting Peter, his sea-time lover, from the whores waiting ashore. Unable to move his limbs, his body erect in the earth like a parody of the thing, he sobbed his heart out over that blue-eyed sailor. And if he was a woman I might have called him a witch, because Peter died from a whore’s disease a few months later, tipped cold overboard into a storm on the Atlantic while my great-great-grandfather slept below deck, so maybe they were mourning tears before the event occurred.

Like my ancestor I cling to the opposite bank; I swim against the tide; I row for the other team. I wonder if he could have imagined marrying his sweetheart as I have mine. I wonder if he imagined coming home to a house for just the two of them—a single rickety bed, a shared shaving mirror and comb—and if, when the earth of that island curved around his open hand, he kept mistaking it for Peter’s in his delirium. If the warmth pressing against his backside reminded him of nights slept tight together, like twins inside a mother’s stomach.

Crying is not a symptom of scurvy, is the thing, so I must look for another cause. Maybe a worm had wriggled its way into a sore on his calf, or an ant bit him on the testicle, a rock wedged itself between his tender toes. The only way to tell for sure would be to be there or to copy it, but I don’t have the money for a trip to the bluff of land where he was buried the first time. I will have to settle for my back garden, as countless other explorers with shallow pockets or timid hearts, full skirts or demanding children with sharp, sticky fingers, have done before me.

I walk the garden now as I sort through my head, sort through my family’s memories. It is a fine garden according to my wife’s grandmother, a one-acre plot according to the estate agent, and the best place to hunt small rodents and birds according to our two cats. It is a perfect family garden for children to grow in; it has a thick tree for climbing, a woody bit for hiding, and a large flat lawn for running—but my wife and I do not have children yet.

We are using part of the lawn to grow vegetables, and recently we cleared away a whole section of hedge so that the views down the hills to the sea are unobstructed. I love to walk to the end and look out at the water, the waves that look so timid from far away, and the little dots that could be flotsam or seal heads, surfers or driftwood. I have never been on a long voyage like my great-great-grandfather. I work in an office, although I am on leave at the moment; my wife works as a lawyer; and I have as yet ignored the family impulse to wander and encounter troubles.

 

My great-great-grandfather, since he did not return from the sea with the full complement of his mind, soon ended up in Bedlam, but not before marrying and impregnating a short, angry young woman who was only too happy to see him leave and have a reason for the ill humor that had dogged her all her life, since she first screwed up her face in distaste around her mother’s pointed nipple. Their son, my great-grandfather, did not inherit her black moods, but he did receive a full complement of his father’s bad luck. He travelled by ship, too—even though his mother forbade it, because she knew that he would only get into trouble, and because she was selfish and would rather he die young in a factory than leave her alone. He was a lover of women, as long as they were taller than his mother, was which was not hard since she was so very short. Tall or of average height, blond or brunette, fat or thin, Protestant, Catholic, or heathen, my great-grandfather did not care. His lust was renowned, almost feared by the men on board who worried he might take one of them if the boat was too long between stops, a fear that did not have a chance to be borne out because naturally he died after being marooned on an island for smuggling such a woman on board—starved or drowned swimming for another shore; it makes no difference. He left a wife with one son and one daughter—twins—behind, many more fatherless children too, perhaps; and the only thing known about his wife is that she was a schoolteacher and kind.

I know of all this family history because my father is writing a biography of his paternal line, and when I visit him he tells me the stories that were passed down to him and the historical details he has researched. That my great-great-grandfather cried when he was buried in the earth to save himself is clear from an odd little diary written by the ship’s clerk, but why is not, and my father does not seem to care for any reasons. It is simply an anecdote, an origin for his story. I am stuck on it, though, on the tears and the burial. Surely the beginning of a story has to be right for the rest to follow?

I do not have scurvy, but lately I have been examining old wounds. When I drove away from the hospital last month it was petty hurts that I remembered and which stung. I would sit in bed and stare at the walls of our bedroom and remember the way the cashier pursed her lips when I mentioned my wife while buying a pregnancy test; a trick my classmates pulled on me at school; the time I fell on my face when trying to do a cartwheel. Those little pinpricks of shame that linger in the woven stuff of our memories.

 

At twenty, my grandfather joined up to fight abroad in the Second World War before compulsory conscription—a common theme of voluntary exile from home soil is becoming apparent to you by now, I’m sure—and came back without a left hand. His mother had helped him hide the fact he was naturally left-handed before he joined, and she was dead by the time he returned, so he had no one to share the extra hurt with. His wife soon left him; and his twin sister, who had been raised for much of her life in another family due to reasons that still escape us, moved in with him to share the burden of the household. Whatever else they shared no one will know for sure, but the townsfolk were certain that they did know and that they did not approve; they laid spit in a train behind the two of them when they walked to send packages and letters at the post office or buy shoe polish and cloth, things they could not make themselves in their homespun existence on the headland at the edge of town. This was before my father arrived—a baby left on their doorstep—and grew old enough to take their place on trips to town. He was so handsome, so pink cheeked and curly-haired, that the townsfolk felt they could not spit in his wake.

The twins kept horses: my grandfather had the soft tender touch that they needed, and a wounded soul they recognized; my grandfather’s sister had the strength to break them and to sell them, to bring back foals or small animals—puppies, rabbits, cats—that eased my grandfather’s sorrow until the next loss. I have no memory of meeting them, I was only little when they died within a week of one another; their wills leaving their money to one another and then to the old town midwife—no longer active unless there was an emergency that required her still-steady hands—who was kind to them and always offered them tea when they passed, and who, in turn, left it to her daughter, who used the money to open an animal shelter, which I’m sure you will agree my grandfather and his sister would have approved of, even if there wasn’t enough pasture for horses. They did not leave their money to my father.

I have been out there to the farm where they lived. The house is small and well-loved, and it is true that there is only one bed. The ground is hard, and in the space where the horses were led and reined, the earth still bares a wide circle where grass will not grow.

Five weeks ago, I lost our baby and my womb with it. I am barren. My uterus cannot be ploughed and furrowed and seeded because it is no longer there, and not even the kind attentions of the very attractive nurse-and-doctor team could stop me from lapsing into hysterical grief after I woke with no baby to hold and no womb to keep. There are still eggs of mine—bloomed to life with the sperm of a man known only by number, as if he were a convict or a casefile, an index card—in storage. They are frozen, their development paused, their timeclocks stopped. They are marooned.

 

My father was handsome, still is despite his wrinkles and stoop, but handsome does not shield you from life’s woes any more than wealth. At first it seemed that the curse of my great-great-grandfather had finally faded away, perhaps because my father was not genetically connected. My father was popular, well-liked by young and old; he was good at school and a leader at University. He didn’t marry the first woman he fell in love with, and he didn’t take the first job offered to him. He was a liberal and supported good causes before the majority. He adopted a three-legged dog from the animal rescue center. There were no accidents, embarrassments, misfortunes at sea. But his parents had not left him their money—had they known something was amiss?

It is difficult to talk about my father at one remove, so matter-of-factly. I have not spoken to him for ten years. I have seen him, and I have listened to his tales of our family’s past, but I have not said one word. My father always said that words have power, and that if I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all.

I had whispered Godspeed when they implanted me with the baby, and maybe I should not have said it at all, should not have taken the event so lightly; maybe I should have listened to those sailors’ superstitions and broken a sugar bottle over my shins or spat over my left shoulder, smudged pig’s blood in the crease of my elbow and burnt a prayer to Poseidon. Maybe, my mother’s sister Ruth had said, I should not have tried to cheat nature and God and all righteous things, but I do not talk to Ruth anymore and I do not count her as any aunt of mine. I don’t know what I expected, anyway; every plant I have tried to grow has died, every vegetable has refused to take root. It is my wife who tends to the garden, and who has the childbearing hips fit for the role.

She has been on my case about vitamins since I left the hospital, and in my head I tell her vitamins won’t bring my baby back, but never out loud because she’s only caring for me in her own way. I take a multivitamin, two separate vitamins for menopausal women and a sour, chewy vitamin C tablet in honor of my ancestor. I am my parents’ only child, the only child of all my mother’s siblings, and therefore the end of both parental lines. Maybe my family’s bad luck and shame will end with me.

A letter from my father arrived yesterday, thick and heavy with new stories and memories of the past, but I did not open it, my hands were too angry to rip open the envelope.

Ten years ago, my father killed someone over what he describes as a disagreement; beat him first with fists and then with a brick, and buried him in a too-shallow grave off a quiet countryside road.

If he had buried him deeper, would his crime have been discovered? Perhaps this is what he thinks about and worries over in his cell. I think of the days in between crime and discovery: of our Christmas dinner and New Year fireworks and how utterly normal he was, how full of good cheer and generosity; how he laughed like a boy when the Catherine Wheel fizzed and raced around with a whine.

Is it a coincidence then that his family story begins with a burial? Do narratives of bad luck simply hide mirrored ones of good luck? What about the women, the wives and mothers? Did they feel unlucky? Did the loss of their men strike them as unfair, or were they glad to see the backs of them?

I know that men buried men to cure them of scurvy, and I know that my family has a history at sea, that wandering travels in our bones. But what is the history of the Western world but a history of wandering where we are not wanted, where we should not go?

 

A few weeks ago I could not sleep, imagining the other sailors digging the ground for my great-great-grandfather. What would they have used? Shovels, sticks, buckets, hands? Would they have been paid to do the job, lest they run away and souse themselves in the nearby harbor? What was it like to bury a man alive?

I decided then, in that dangerous hour before dawn, that I was going to use a regular shovel to dig my own hole, and that I too would make it deep enough to hold me up to the neck.

The digging of it took me many more nights than I would have imagined. I say nights because my wife could not stand to see me digging a hole during the day. She would worry at her lips and walk in and out of the back door frowning; she had rubbed a patch of skin raw on her left wrist with anxiety. But fretting could never keep her from sleep, and even when she told me before bed that I should not be out there in the cold in my condition, and held tight to my arm with the claw of her hand, it only took a few moments for her to slide into sleep and release me. I could lie-in in the morning, anyway; I had nothing else to do.

I used a headlamp, bought for a walking holiday never taken, and a good solid shovel left by the previous owners of our house, who were sturdy homemakers unimpressed by our soft city hands. There is a strange excitement about walking in a garden after dark, tripping your way over grass, feeling the night-breeze tickle your skin, encountering foxes and neighbor cats who stare at you like you are a ghost come to haunt them. I chose a patch as far away from the house as possible and got to work. First the grass was dug up, not as tidy as I’d have liked it to be, next the soft mulch of our soil. I managed a foot and a half the first night, but after that my progress slowed. The earth was harder, resisted the press of my shovel; my shoulder ached; my nails split and my palms bled. I would only have to dig a hole four feet deep, because I was much shorter than my great-great-grandfather, but four feet of earth is a task far greater than I had imagined. My wife made me take a wooden ladder with me, a flask of tea, a blanket, and my phone strapped to a hip. I’m not going to lose you now to some hole in the garden, she said, not after I’ve fattened you up just how I like. She was trying to be jovial but I could see the worry in the twitch of her lip. The last few nights she came out with me, stood or crouched in the pile of earth next to the hole, yawning and watching me bob up and down in it, dodging the sod thrown up. She did not help with the digging, though, and I was glad for it.

Finally, early this morning, the hole was done. And here I am ready to be buried. The occasion doesn’t feel as amusing as I thought it might; I had been preparing a few quips while I dug, but it seems cold today, despite the sun, and my skin is prickling. I hand my cup of tea to my wife and strip down to my knickers. There are no neighbors close enough to peek over the hedge to see me, no one else looking out from the windows of the house. Just us two and the hole, the shovel and the great mound of earth ready to be filled in around me.

It looks deep, she says.

I crouch down at the edge, my feet sinking into the mess of earth. Then I hop down into the hole. I can reach both sides of it with my hands if I stretch them out. It is dank and earthy; the lip of the hole is perfectly aligned with the base of my neck.

Lucky we don’t live on chalky earth or clay, my wife says, that would have been a bugger.

I’m ready now, I say. My throat sounds dry.

She takes up the shovel and earth pours down around me. My heart stutters and I take a quick gasp before I begin the type of breathing a birthing women might use; in-in-in, out-out-out-out. We have discussed the burial beforehand, that the earth must be packed very lightly in case I get stuck, that it is important for both of us to keep calm.

It is up to my shins now, then my knees. I realize I must trust my wife a lot to do this, and I don’t know why that is surprising.

Hip-height now. The sky looks very blue; the sun has warmed the top of my head. I am like a mushroom.

Belly, chest, shoulder. I watch her face, the way her cheeks have turned red, her forehead smeared with sweat. She has strong arms for a lawyer and I want to take her to bed. The earth around my limbs is hot. I am aware of all the surfaces of my body, the nooks and crannies, of the space that I take up.

Last few shovels, she says and it sounds like a question.

I’m OK, I reply. I focus on the blades of grass of the lawn. I have never seen them from this angle before.

And when the last piece of earth is packed in around the nape of my neck, warm and rich, and my wife has bent down and pecked me on the forehead and gone back to the porch and her own cup of tea, when I am cradled four feet deep in the earth of my own backyard, I know then exactly why my great-great-grandfather cried. And I cry my own tears, brought up from somewhere deeper than the soles of my feet. My face dries and cracks in the sun, my lips pucker and my voice thickens from keens that shudder the soil around me like small earthquakes.

And for weeks after my wife dragged me out of there, laughing and crying and sneezing, I smelt like freshly harvested carrots, spring buds, and the base note of high-quality horse manure she had bought so that the grass was at its best. In bed she called me her little gremlin, and poked at me until I wrestled her into submission and bit at her shoulders, so that she had to wear high-necked shirts to work. We made love for the first time since the hospital, and I found a new familiarity with my body despite the absence inside.

 

The hole in the garden where I was buried is filled in, but the earth is displaced and fluffy; it sits now like a mound, not a hole, and my wife is planting new roses there and thinking about digging up the rest of the lawn for flower beds. I tell her that the roses are enough work and she says she’ll make an optimist of me yet.

Six months later, I let her take my eggs inside of her, and they plant themselves deep and true inside a womb that will not wander like those hysterical organs of old, nor fail like my own. A warm sea, to bring our children back to me. Perhaps in their foreign ocean they will be washed clean of the remnants of my family’s bad luck, perhaps not.

Godspeed, I whisper again when my wife has her knees held up and a paper blanket shielding our eyes from the procedure, and she pinches the skin of my arm hard and laughs, and I cry again, just a little, from the pain of that tiny wound.

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