For all linear systems, the net response at a given place and time caused by two or more stimuli is the sum of the responses which would have been caused by each stimulus individually
SUMMER, 1807 AND 1992
The three youngest crouched together against the trunk of a pine tree that had once stood what felt like hundreds of feet tall. Now, the uppermost portions of the tree had been gnawed down, its branches a singed, naked chaos of scattered twigs. The fields of tobacco that stood taller than men had been reduced to dust. The fire had burned out hours ago, but they couldn’t escape the stench of charred wood and burnt tobacco. The clumpy white and gray ash that stuck to their eyelashes and hair. The youngest brother Jack hadn’t bothered to wipe his face of it, and the only distinguishing facial feature Thomas could make out were his bushy eyebrows. Caterpillars, he’d thought, they looked like furry caterpillars.
Behind them, what was left of the house smoldered around the stone fireplace and cast iron stove. The floors, the walls, the furniture, their clothes, their wellbeing lay in an array of melted, disheveled, deconstructed waste. Everything was gone. The brothers weren’t cold, it was too late in the summer for that, but they couldn’t stop shivering against one another as the night fell deeper toward dawn.
“Get up. Come on now, get up,” Jacob coaxed the eldest from the group to join him, handing his son a cracked bowl.
Thomas hadn’t seen his father in bed garments before, and the sight was jarring, especially in the black of night like this, the only light coming from what was left of the waning moon, and what was left of the smoldering fire. Unable to speak, he followed his father, turning the bowl over and over between his hands. It had been cracked in half, his mother’s favorite china pattern veritably split in two, the careful blue illustration smeared with a black that just wouldn’t rub off. He wondered if the smoke and ash would leave his skin similarly stained.
- - - -
Before having left for the hospital, before having changed her dress and reapplied her makeup, Abigail Robinson Clay Conrad had gently wrapped what was left in the mauve and navy hand towels hanging up next to the sink. She had hated those colors anyhow, always wanting something bright and citrusy in the bathroom. Mitchell’s mother had insisted, though, that all proper southern women swore by the colonial color pallet. Everything a muted, faded primary. She had imagined when the colors had been contemporary, they had been bright and bold, that their fade was a result of some misplaced, uninformed nostalgia. Not unlike her own marriage. Life with a Conrad had dimmed her, turned her into a woman who wore a nightgown and stocked her bathroom with mauve knick-knacks. Rose-shaped decorative soaps and dyed toilet paper.
Abigail set out for the yard after night had fallen, before the grass was damp with dew. She held a tiny flashlight between her teeth as she carefully tip toed across the lawn, as if anyone could have possibly heard her out there. Mitchell and the children had long since been tucked in, passed out, conducting a cacophony of noises that came with sleep. Her son Mark always slept on his back with his mouth wide open, snoring so loudly it often kept her awake until the early hours of the morning. It terrified her that a five-year-old kid could produce such sounds. She would have been awake anyhow, she had told herself. It had been years since she actually had a restful sleep; most of the time it was just another chore: closing her eyes, trying to shut off her mind, sleeping. She often woke up more exhausted than before she went to bed, the bags under her eyes growing heavier by the day.
She just couldn’t anymore.
- - - -
Thomas clutched onto the back of his father’s night clothes as he led them through the night, away from the house to a pocket of the woods where the grass was still green and wet. When Jacob paused for a moment, Thomas stooped down to brush a hand against the dewy grass, then across his face where the ash was still caked on. It turned darker as it rubbed onto his fingers, wet with dew or sweat or tears, Thomas couldn’t tell anymore. Behind him, their home, hand built from scratch nearly fifty years before had been reduced to ash and a stone foundation. A few burning embers were still making their way to the ground.
Jacob seemed to have reached the destination, and he set the iron box he’d been carrying, which was no bigger than a couple of books, onto the ground. The trees surrounding the space were old, older than sin, with trunks so thick he couldn’t wrap his arms around them. Half of them had burned up in the fire, their leaves catching flame, their trunks blazing in the middle of the night. He’d have to chop them down in the morning before they could rebuild. Jack, the youngest of the brothers, would be devastated.
“What’s in the box?” Thomas asked, picking at the broken ceramic. When his father didn’t reply, simply knelt down and to survey the wet grass, Thomas pressed again. “Where’s mother? Is she alright? Did she make it out?”
Jacob reached into his belt where he’d stuffed what was left of a shovel he’d managed to pull from the fire. With the spade, he began to dig into the grass, the dirt, setting it aside as he worked. Thomas followed suit, hacking away the ground with the broken-off piece of china.
What Jacob’s intentions were with the box, its contents, the digging, was lost on Thomas. He couldn’t erase from memory how his heart pounded as he grabbed Jack and raced out the front door into the yard to watch as the house burned. He’d counted fingers and toes. He wasn’t sure why he’d taken inventory of the digits, but in the moment, in the chaos, it was the only thing that gave him any sense of calm. He had all twenty. Jack had all twenty. Wallace, the middle brother, he had all twenty too. It took a moment before he realized he’d stopped digging, that he’d rocked back onto his heels and was staring down into the hole his father was digging with tears rolling down his cheeks.
- - - -
The moon had been full and clear that night, and the flashlight had been unnecessary. Abigail was glowing against the darkness, her ankle-length nightgown nearly blue against the black night as she advanced towards the edge of the woods. The shovel and box were tucked under one arm. Still weak from earlier in the day, she stumbled every few steps. There was a cramp deep within, worse than anything she’d suffered before: the ache of absence, the weight of what she’d done, the resolve of having made the right decision.
She’d decided she would bury it just beyond where she was certain no amount of intrepid adventuring and land cultivation could uncover. It was peaceful there, dark and quiet. Several tree stumps still stood broken off, even now. Smaller trees sprouted from within a older stump so wide she couldn’t have fit her arms around it. In her nightgown, she knelt to the ground, sticks and damp moss and dead leaves grinding against her prematurely arthritic knees. She quickly found that digging into the earth, displacing it, was more work that she’d imagined, and she worked up quite the sweat. Abigail peeled off her nightgown, noticing for the first time the clay and grass stains against the knees. She lay the gown on top of the tree stump where a few saplings had finally sprouted, returning to work in her panties. Her breasts, smaller than she’d wished, swung in concentric circles as she dug.
It took twenty minutes to create a hole wide and deep enough to fit the box and properly re-cover it. Twenty minutes to bury the truth. The container had been far too large for its contents, but Berta’s cigar box was the first thing she could find. She hadn’t remembered Berta traveling to Cuba, and suspected the box had just been a cheap pine knockoff she’d picked up at Myrtle Beach one weekend with whatever few friends she had that weren’t dead yet. The stickers were all written in English. Where ever it was from, it would have to work.
- - - -
Jacob kept clearing the loose dirt from the hole he and Thomas had created, as if it would have kept the box clean, as if it would have made a difference. By then, the broken-off piece of china had been tossed aside, and Thomas crouched behind his father watching as he placed the box into the carefully sculpted hole. What could have been salvaged? What could have been so precious?
“This is everything,” Jacob said simply, patting down the last of the dirt before readjusting his shirt, noticing that his white clothes had become sodden and dirty vestments. Standing up, he walked past his eldest son who stood slack-jawed, marching back toward the ruins of his life, the ruins of his family. They would rebuild, eventually, shovels to the dirt and bricks to the sky, but for now they would have to make do with what they had.
Thomas stayed behind as his father walked back to the smoldering rubble. He felt his knees begin to buckle, and he lay onto the ground, on top of the plot where they had buried their everything. The sky had been rather clear that night, and even through the smoke, he could make out a smattering of brilliant stars. The moon had been directly above him, and it was haunting how beautiful it had been, how blindingly bright. He imagined telling his children about the star that night, how it illuminated the family, dressed in white against the blackest night, the ash. All they had to do was survive.
- - - -
Without ceremony she placed the box in its misshapen hole, apologized only once and without tears for having wrapped it in such horribly-colored cloths, and refilled the hole with the dirt she’d just dug up. As the dark had faded away, she stood, wiping her hands on her thighs, and looked down at her body. Nothing had changed, externally. She was no thicker, no thinner, no darker or bluer or yellower. No better or worse. For all intents and purposes, Abigail Conrad was the same woman she had been twelve hours earlier.
Plucking the nightgown off the tree, she shook it off and draped it over her arm. She returned to the house that way, bare-chested, unburdened by the nightgown, by the expectations everyone else had held for her. She was certain this feeling was not pride, no, she was not proud of what she had done. She had simply performed as she had to, as she imagined they all would have to, in order to survive.