Powerful forces are constantly at work on a human body that is buried under five feet of red clay. Every cubic foot of that clay weighs a hundred pounds. For simplicity’s sake, presume that the body is six feet long. No, make that five feet long, because this body once belonged to a woman, and a small one, at that. Perhaps her buried form was two feet across at its widest point. It was probably less, but let’s use two feet for convenience. Thus, she’d offered ten square feet of surface area to the five-foot depth of the clay soil that had crushed her. Simple math says that this fifty cubic feet of soil had weighed—and still weighs to this day—five thousand pounds. It weighed two and a half tons. Two and a half tons of downward force will break bones. It will press the flesh from those bones. It will force the air out of decomposing lungs. Over the years, the overbearing clay moved ceaselessly, swelling when wet and shrinking when dry. Every rainstorm shifted the clay. Some of the motion was vertical. Some of it was lateral. This slow shimmy had disarticulated her bones, leaving them in a configuration that was almost the natural shape of a woman who lay on her bed asleep, but not quite. The clay had dyed her bones red. Still she waited for someone to find her. Had she been able to wonder, she would have asked whether anyone had ever even noticed she was gone. Twenty-nine years is a long time to go without a proper burial.
Faye Longchamp-Mantooth sat with her knees pressed against the airplane seat in front of her. Her husband Joe’s lanky legs were encroaching seriously on the tiny personal space a major airline considered ample for a full-grown adult, but where else could he put them? Faye and Joe had jammed themselves into these seats because some requests can be sidestepped and some cannot. When a friend asks for help moving, there are ways around saying yes. If you say you have to work, he’s not going to press you to give up your overtime pay. If you remind him that your kid plays baseball on Saturdays, he’ll understand. Other requests can be refused outright. When a stranger asks you to donate to a political cause that is not your own, it isn’t rude or even unexpected for you respectfully to decline. But when a man’s father calls and says to him, “I’m ready to scatter your mother’s ashes,” there is no honorable way to say, “Dad, let me check my calendar. I’m not sure I can get on a plane to you any time soon.” Faye’s husband was an honorable man who had adored his mother, and who was still surprised to realize how much he loved his old man. Faye loved both of them. When their bank balance didn’t cover the plane tickets, the two of them had scrounged up a tiny consulting job that she could do while they were in Oklahoma. Sure, it would cut into her family time, but this trip wasn’t about her. It was about Joe and his dad. Joe would hate it if she said so, but he looked so much like his dad. They had the same bone structure, dark hair, strong jaws, broad shoulders, sturdy legs. Their eye colors were different—Sly’s were black, while Joe had his mother’s green eyes—but their sharp gazes were the same. Faye hoped her husband was happy to be making the trip from Florida to Oklahoma to see Sly, but he hadn’t said a word since the “Fasten Your Seatbelts” sign came on.
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Joe Wolf Mantooth hadn’t been home since he was eighteen. He’d left on foot when his mother’s body was hardly cold. His abortive attempt to say good-bye to his father had gone so poorly that Joe was never sure whether the man actually understood that his son was going away. He’d found Faye in Florida. With her help, he’d gotten an education, had kids, built a business. Together, they’d made the first home he had known since his mother died. Joe had been past thirty before he boarded his first airplane. Now he sat beside his educated and accomplished wife, munching stale pretzels like a man who belonged in the sky. He knew intellectually that he was successful in all the ways that mattered, but he didn’t feel it. All he felt was regret that his mother would never know how far he had come. Faye knew his body language well enough to know that this was a good moment to rub his shoulder and mumble something that sounded like, “You should try to get some rest.” He was grateful for the caring gesture, but he was still more grateful that she didn’t press him to talk. Faye always knew when to leave him be. Joe wished Faye could have known his mother. Patricia Mantooth, whose education had ended with a GED, would have been intimidated at first by his wife and her big words and her doctorate, but they would have bonded over recipes for blackberry cobbler. They would have squabbled over the best bait for catfish, but they would’ve gotten over it. Joe took a moment to imagine his tall ivory-skinned mother and his tiny brown wife dangling hooks in the water while his children gathered berries for the cobbler. His mother’s and his wife’s looks had contrasted in every way, although their sharp wits and loving personalities were very much the same. Patricia’s hair had been long and red, and it had hung in ringlets. Faye’s hair was a short, sleek black cap. Patricia’s eyes had been green. His wife’s were a dark brown, almost black. The image of the two women side by side was a beautiful one, but it hurt, because they were never going to meet in this life. Joe looked down at the countryside, dun-green agricultural squares crossed with the random dark squiggles of a tree-lined creek. When they got to Oklahoma, the dirt would be red where the creeks cut into it, so red that he’d be able to see it from all the way up here in the sky. In all her days, his mother never set foot on an airplane. She would have been transfixed by the sight of the natural world from this unnatural angle. Patricia McCullough Mantooth had loved the outdoors as much as Joe had loved her. When he remembered his mother, that’s where she was, outdoors, sitting on a creekbank with a cane pole in her hand. Afternoon sunlight was shining on auburn hair and skin that always freckled and never tanned. She lived her whole life in crummy little houses where no amount of scrubbing would ever lift the stains from the floor. In Patricia Mantooth’s world, outside was always better than in. Joe’s memories of his mother smelled like biscuits and gravy. She had possessed the poor woman’s knack for miracles, so she’d been able to turn flour and grease into a meal that tasted like love. But once the meal was over, she had never lingered inside where the air was old and musty. She’d gone outside and she’d taken her only child with her. Sometimes, Joe’s father had been there as they sat with their feet in the creek, watching minnows flit around their ankles through clear water stained tea-brown by fallen oak leaves and pine needles. More often than not, he’d been on the road, doing what truckers do. When Joe missed his mother, he went outside and found a place to put his feet in cool water, and it usually made him feel better. He could not believe that his father had kept that woman’s ashes indoors all this time, cooped up in a cheap urn. Fifteen years is a long time to go without a proper burial.