Eli went down quietly in his coffin, as if not alive at all. I watched from a distance as they lowered him into the ground. Mother stood right there with everyone else, sobbing loudly. No one could have heard Eli if he had cried out. He didn’t. He was always such a good boy, and Mother had told him to be quiet.
Mr. Ace from the funeral home held the pipe. It ran through a modest hole in the coffin next to Eli’s head, and up, all the way to the surface, long enough so it would stick out after they filled the grave. Mr. Ace held the pipe steady while the gravediggers shoveled, his face calm and neutral above the pearl grey of his jacket. Before the burial, he’d tied the string around Eli’s wrist and run it through the length of pipe. Eli had held still, like Mother told him to.
Mr. Ace would wait until the service was over to tie the bell to the string and hang it from the ironwork arch attached to the end of the pipe.
Mother had ordered the bell. Her sisters had told her to get it. They had looped their arms through hers and dragged her slender body all around the solarium. I had peered through the bright tropical flowers while beaded water poured down the windows like tears.
“There’s always a chance, Emily,” they had told her. “You must have the bell.”
At the end of the service, Mr. Ace stood by the pipe, waiting for Mother to leave with the others. She shook her head and gestured: go on, said her hand. She waited while he tied the string to the little metal loop on the edge of the bell. If Eli moved, the bell would ring. It was silent as Mr. Ace crossed himself. It was silent as he shuffled across the graveyard.
I wanted to start digging right away, but Mother stood there for a long time, until long shadows fell across the headstones. I sat on the cold ground and wrapped my arms around my knees to keep still. As soon as she left, I could dig and Eli would be safe.
The bell was silent.
The clouds over the lake turned red with the setting sun. The cold, sour smelling wind that blew all the time puffed into my nose and mouth. Mother kneeled, her skirts rustling and billowing. She touched the headstone, with its engraved lamb.
“Good boy,” she said.
Mother stood and moved toward the cemetery gates.
The bell began to ring. Mother paused under the iron arch, and turned back to look.
“Go,” I whispered. “Keep walking.”
The bell rang more loudly, jumping on its string.
She turned and walked away, her movements like liquid. She always was graceful.
I had to start digging. Night bells in the cemetery don’t call help.
I ran to the grave and sank my hands into the fresh earth. It was damp and cool. I tried to pull it away, but my hands slipped through it. The dirt stayed where it was.
The bell rung.
I put my ear to the pipe.
“Help,” Eli called.
“I’m here!” I shouted.
“Help! Mummy!” he called.
I sat back down on the grave. “No, it’s me,” I said.
He began to cry. Shadows shifted in the treeline. The bell rang more softly now.
A shadow broke away from the line of the trees. As it walked, it took the shape of a woman.
Mother. I scrambled and hid behind the headstone. She bent down over the pipe, listening.
“Hush, darling. Mummy’s here.”
I couldn’t let her have him. I leapt up. I tried to hit her with my fists. She didn’t feel me, didn’t see me. She never did want me.
She murmured into the pipe. “I’m sorry, Eli. I thought it was just your sister. I thought once she was gone, everything would be perfect. But it was you too, wasn’t it? You wouldn’t leave me alone. You wouldn’t let me be.”
She took a pair of heavy iron scissors out of her pocket, leaned down, and cut the string.
“Don’t worry, Eli,” she said into the pipe. “You drowned, darling. That’s why you’re in your grave. It will only be a little while longer. All you have to do is wait.”
She walked away. I sat down on my brother’s grave. The sour wind ruffled my hair. I couldn’t save him after all. All I could do was wait too.
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