It’s funny that I didn’t notice it sooner.
Our farm was a pretty fair size: about 10,000 acres of land had been handed down to my father by the previous owner. My father used to take me walking through the fields and groves when I was young. He’d been working on that farm since he was a teenager, so it’s fair to say that he knew every rock and tree of that land. It was from him that I learned the importance of respecting the earth.
“Remember, Cassie,” he’d say as he rocked me on the porch in the twilight, “We don’t own the land. We don’t own anything. We’re just cooperatin’ with her.”
So I grew up wild in the thickets of trees and expanses of corn that surrounded me. By the time I was 10, I’d run barefoot over every inch of that land.
And yet, I still didn’t notice it.
I didn’t stop to take note of the stones until I was about 12. They sat on the far end of the west grove, staking out the edge of a small clearing. They were inconspicuous enough; just a small collection of flat, rectangular stones with rounded edges embedded in the dark earth. But one day, as I stretched my legs out against the grass and let my eyes wander along the edge of the clearing, I noticed something interesting.
The stones weren’t random. They were evenly spaced, lining the clearing at intervals of about four to five feet. I stood up and walked closer to them. I chose the one nearest to me, leaning down and running my hand across its smooth surface. There were no markings on it.
In a flurry of excitement, I ran back towards my father’s shed. It was a long run – the shed was just behind the house, separated from me by the grove – but I hardly felt it. I had found something new, something interesting…something I wanted to explore.
I burst into the shed and rifled through the array of tools littering my father’s workbench until I found a spade. My father didn’t like it when I borrowed his tools without asking, but at this point I doubted that he’d notice. He had been preoccupied for a few weeks trying to track down one of the daughter’s of the farm’s original owner. Something about inheritance. He wouldn’t notice if I took the tools for just a few hours.
I made my way back to the clearing, a thousand possibilities whirling in my head. I knew I probably wouldn’t find anything, but that didn’t stop me from fantasizing about buried treasure and ancient secrets. I imagined a giant treasure chest bursting with beautiful jewels and gold coins. What should I buy first? I wondered.
I found my way back to the stones. I chose the one I’d investigated earlier. It was right in the middle of the other stones – there were five in all. I knelt down and began to dig.
It was harder work than I’d expected: The stones were stuck deep in the ground. What’s more, they were very heavy. By the time I got the first stone out, I’d been working for an hour straight. I heaved it out, huffing and puffing as it tumbled to the side of the hole.
I dug a little bit longer, wondering what had been under it. The dirt was hard, however, and soon it became too tough to dig through. Disappointed, I turned my attention back to the stone.
The stone was lying upside down, encrusted with years of dirt. I reached out and began to brush it off.
As the gray of the stone came into view, I saw that it had markings.
Excitement creeping into my belly once again, I worked like mad to clear the dirt away. Eventually I ran down to the creek, took off my shirt, wet it, and used it as a rag. The perk of being a farm kid is that your parents don’t care how dirty you are when you come home, so long as you come home mostly in one piece.
I washed away the rest of the dirt. Luckily for me, the engraving was pretty clear.
B. Jun 12, 1952
D. Aug 3, 1958
My stomach sunk a little as I realized what I’d found. I replaced the stone, hoping that no one would notice it had been disturbed. Considerably sobered, I replaced my father’s tools and returned home.
That night after my shower, I crawled up on the couch next to my father. He was deep in thought and hadn’t noticed me until I tugged on his shirt.
“Well, well, if it isn’t my sweet little apple pie!”
He hoisted me onto his lap and grinned. “What’s on your mind, kiddo?”
I took a deep breath.
“Daddy, who’s Clarabell?”
My father looked surprised, but not angry, I noticed with relief. I thought for sure I’d be in trouble for discovering the stones.
“Well, she was a little girl who used to live on this farm a long time ago. You know, I worked for her father when I was a kid like you,” he said and smiled at me. “But, Cassie, where did you hear that name?”
I looked down nervously. “Well… I found some stones out in the grove. And one of them had her name on it.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “I figured as much. Well, now you know what they are, don’t’cha?”
“And you won’t go disturbin’ them anymore, will ya?”
I shook my head.
He smiled and goaded mom into giving us a slice of homemade pie for a late-night snack. For a long time after that, the stones lay forgotten at the edge of the clearing.
I was 16 and fighting with my mom when I found myself out in the clearing. I had been looking for a place to cool my head – she and I are both stubborn as mules – when I happened on that little patch of shaded grass.
After a few minutes of grumbling and swearing, I flopped onto the ground, staring up at the clear blue sky. I could stay out here forever, I thought with just a hint of spite. My eyes drooped closed as I drifted off to sleep.
The clearing looked different. It was all stuck in shades of gray, shimmering like a mirage. I tried to focus, but my head felt as though it was stuffed with cotton.
My eyes drifted to the edge of the clearing. There sat the stones, each attached to a short chain. The chains disappeared into the grove. I stood up and walked on unsteady feet towards the trees.
I followed the chain on Clarabell’s stone by instinct. As soon as I entered the trees, I saw where it ended: Wrapped around the neck of a little girl. Her skin was drained of color and her eyes were sunk deep in her skull. A tattered bow drooped in her hair as she cried, a sharp piercing wail.
I was reaching out for her when the world began to spin and go dark.
I woke up with a start, my breathing coming in ragged dregs. The image of the little girl was burned into my eyes. I sat for a long time, trying to calm myself down, but that image didn’t fade the way dreams were supposed to.
I found chills crawling up and down my spine. Suddenly, the clearing didn’t feel like the safe, quiet place it had been in my childhood. I bounded to my feet and headed for the edge of the clearing.
On a whim, I turned back around to stare at the stones.
This time, there were six.
My father died last month. I returned the hundreds of miles home to be by his side as he passed. Watching my father die was the worst moment of my life: I had loved him as much as any child could love a parent.
Just before he began his final descent, he handed me a crumpled, yellowing letter.
“Cassie,” he said, “My sweet little apple pie…” He paused after this, halted by a coughing fit, one of many to come. “After I’m gone, I need you to read this. It’s just for you.” He smiled at me with tears in his eyes. “I love you, Cassie.”
That letter lay forgotten until after the funeral and interment were over. My mother and I sat in that old farmhouse, laughing and crying by turns, telling stories about my dad and consoling each other. After she turned in for the night, I pulled the letter out of my pocket, steeling myself for the heart-wrenching goodbye that I was expecting.
It is hard for me to explain this to you. I always thought I’d have more time, but this will have to do. I know it will be confusing and difficult, but you have to trust me…and hopefully, by the time this letter is done, you’ll know what you have to do.
The Greens were the original residents of this farm. I worked for Mr. Thomas Green until he died in 1973. They were a big family: There was Mr. and Mrs. Green, and then there were eight children. Six of them have passed away.
Mr. Green always had a special connection with this land. He used to tell me that he didn’t own it, but the other way around: He and his kin all belonged to this little slice of earth. He told me that they all had to return to that earth, sooner or later.
Mr. Green entrusted me with a special task when he died. None of his children would take care of the land – they all believed it was cursed. He entrusted the land to me and told me to ensure that all of his children and their children returned to the land when it was their time.
There are now two left. I had hoped that I would have the chance to bring them home myself, but I know that my time is coming.
It’s up to you, Cassie. I’m leaving the farm to you. When it’s time, when the land wants them back, it will tell you. You’ll know. And it will be your job to bring them back to where they belong.
Remember, Cassie. We don’t own the land. We don’t own anything. Our job is to cooperate with her.
The dreams started a few nights ago. It’s one of the daughters, Missy Green, and her husband, Peter…at least, those are the names I hear in my head. They are chained to those stones, just like that dream I had long ago. They’re wailing. They’re screaming.
But I get the funny feeling that they’re where they’re supposed to be.
Each time I’ve woken up in front of my father’s gun cabinet, my hand reaching for the .22. At last I know what my father meant. I know what I have to do.
After all, I can’t disappoint my father.
The land wants what it wants.