Every once in a while, something very interesting will come into my mom’s library. We live in a small town, so people often go to the library for answers, knowing that my mother has an extensive background in researching things like history and genealogy. Those are the people we get most often, actually: people with questions about their own family history. Oftentimes they’ll come in with partial records and ask my mother to fill in the gaps. She’s always more than happy to do it. Not only is she good at it, but it also serves as an acceptable reprieve from the relative boredom of small-town life.
I enjoy helping her out, too, from time to time, and hearing about the cases she works on. Some of them are interesting and tell stories you wouldn’t believe – murders, secret graves, sordid suicides, and a million other gritty pieces of humanity that have been swept under the rug. Since I was a child, this has fascinated me.
But I wish that my mother hadn’t taken on this last case.
It was an elderly woman living on the edge of town who brought the photo album in. She claimed it wasn’t hers and didn’t know where it had come from. “It belonged to my mother, but I’m certain that none of the pictures are from our family. She must have gotten it from someone, but for the life of me I just don’t know who! I’m sure it belongs to someone in the town. Perhaps you could find the original owners?”
My mother was all too eager to agree. After all, she loves a good mystery. She can never walk away from one. So the woman handed over the album and left in good spirits, glad to be rid of it as it was “cluttering up her house.”
I didn’t understand that last statement until I saw it. Let me tell you, the album is HUGE. It’s perhaps the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen, actually. The cover is thick and heavy, definitely made of wood, and bound with a fabric that was probably once resplendent but now resembles a slice of dilapidated old carpet from a murder house. The pages are thick, too, but of what material I’m not entirely sure. They are burgundy in color and each page holds about four photographs.
And the photographs.
My mom practically squealed when she saw them. The latest pictures are from 1910, with the majority of the pictures from the mid-1800s. The pictures are clear and most of them are labeled with first names, which my mother found very interesting. “Why no last names?” she muttered as we looked through the pictures. But she didn’t seem to mind, it just added to the mystery. It would be a fun challenge.
But something about those pictures really freaked me out. I mean, I was really, really uncomfortable. And I just couldn’t explain why. There wasn’t anything strange about them, but I found that I didn’t want to look at them very long. I just felt like I’d stumbled across something I shouldn’t have.
After a few weeks, my mother seemed to have reached a dead end with the album. No matter how hard she looked, she was unable to identify its original owner. Although an “S” was inscribed on the metal clasp, none of the families in the area with last names beginning with “S” seemed to have any connection to the album. And the more my mother looked, the more confused she became.
“Maybe it isn’t from our town at all,” she mused to me one afternoon. “Maybe it’s from somewhere else…that woman’s mother could have gotten it from another acquaintance or another family member. At this point, we’ll never know. But I really don’t think it’s from around here.”
I sort of shrugged it off. I was kind of glad that it came to nothing. It made me feel a little more relaxed.
But it shouldn’t have.
As a last resort, mom decided to stop out at the old town cemetery. It was in use up until the mid-1900s, at which point it was too full, and a new one was opened up closer to the edge of town. The cemetery was fairly dilapidated now, but my mother did her best to take care of the gravestones that were left, hoping to preserve some of history.
Mom asked me to go with her, and I came along, for lack of anything better to do. Would it be terribly strange to say that I rather liked the old cemetery? It always seemed so peaceful to me, and the strange quiet had a tendency to still my nerves. Sometimes, I would even go there myself, just to walk around and get a grip on life.
Since I didn’t know what we were looking for, mom did most of the searching herself. She gave me a few names to look out for on the off-chance that I saw something, but I wasn’t too invested as I began my slow walk around the graveyard. I came to the back right side and decided to spend my time there. It was the corner of the yard dedicated to children.
Now I’m going to sound really morbid, but the children’s stones were always my favorite. Of course, it broke my heart to see them, but there was something beautiful about those tiny white stones – well, they used to be white – with the little lambs carved into them. And I took a strange comfort knowing that the children had only suffered a little hardship before they died…at least, that’s what I hoped. That’s what I told myself.
So that’s where I was wandering, absentmindedly reading a few of the stones, when something caught my eye.
It was one stone inscribed with two names. The inscription was remarkably clear for its age, and I was able to read almost all of it after rubbing the dirt away.
Martha and Mary Armstrong
B. June 6, 1862 D. August 8, 1862
“Mama, listen, Papa, listen,
A harp to me was giv’n;
And every time I touch a string,
‘Tis heard all o’er Heaven!”
For whatever reason, those names stuck out to me. Why did they sound so familiar? I was almost positive I hadn’t looked at this stone before…
“Hey, mom!” I called out across the graveyard. She must not have had anything yet because she came over immediately, eager to find anything. “Do you have the pictures of the album? Can I take a look at it?”
My mom kept pictures of each photograph on her phone. It was the easiest way of keeping all the information without lugging the giant sonofabitch around everywhere. She handed her phone to me until I found what I was looking for.
It was a picture from the back of the album. Two women about eighteen years old, identical twins, with austere faces. One was sitting and the other stood behind her. Inscribed beneath their picture were the names “Martha and Mary.”
My mom looked at the picture over my shoulder, then looked at the headstone. “Huh… that’s… really weird.”
“Yeah… but there’s no way…” I trailed off, frowning and wondering… was there a way?
Mom and I had no other leads, so we stuck to the children’s stones, looking for more matches.
And we found them.
Out of the thirty-two pictures in the album, we identified twenty of them. All of them infants, all of them dying within a few months of being born. We might have been able to identify more, I suspect, but some of the stones were so old that the inscriptions had been rubbed away and were unreadable.
But there were too many similarities for it to be a coincidence.
I could tell that my mother was a little bit unsettled. I was, too. But we took pictures of all the stones and recorded the epitaphs so that we could take a closer look at them at home. Mom decided to go to the county courthouse and try to find any remaining records on the infants, although neither of us held much hope – dead children don’t leave many records, unfortunately.
As for me, well… I couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling that I was missing something.
My mom left me at home a few days later to go to the courthouse and continue her research. I took that opportunity to take another look at the album itself.
I don’t really know what drew me to it – I suppose it was the mystery, the intrigue of the unknown. All that poetic shit. But I couldn’t deny that it held a fascination for me that I would rather not have had. It still made me uneasy, still frightened me.
And this time, I noticed something even stranger about it.
I had been running my hands along the edge of the back cover when I felt a ridge under my finger. I lifted the book to get a better view, at which point I realized that a portion of the stitching on the cover didn’t match the rest of it. In fact, it looked like it had been re-sewn.
Curiosity got the better of me, and I fetched a knife from the kitchen.
As carefully as possible, I cut through the stitching and peeked inside. There was definitely something in there. I slipped a finger inside – it was about all I could get in – and dug around until I managed to pin it down and drag it out.
It was a photograph.
It was exactly like the others in that it seemed to date around the mid-1800s.
Unlike the others, however, I knew the people in this one. After all, how could I not recognize myself, my older brother, and my older sister?
My heart almost stopped as I saw our unsmiling faces staring at the camera. There could be no doubt that this was us.
With a shaking hand, I turned the photograph over, hoping that there was some kind of explanation, any kind of inscription.
And there was.
I’m really starting to wish she never brought the goddamn thing home.