Old Bones by C. J. Winters
THE OLD LADY in the wheelchair peered up at me from filmed blue eyes. "I need to tell somebody something," she said. "You got time?"
I set down the vase of peonies I'd brought Aunt Maureen, asleep in the other bed, and pulled a chair close to her roommate. "I have until my aunt wakes up from her nap. My name is Carolyn. What's yours?"
"Nina. But everybody in the family called me Sissie. Doesn't matter, they've all gone on."
She brushed aside my trite consolation like an annoying fly. "You ever see a ghost?"
Whatever revelation I might've expected, this wasn't it. "No. Have you?"
Sissie's hands, the dark blue veins standing in high relief, trembled in her lap. "I reckon. Don't know what else it could've been. I was afraid to tell my folks. They were real religious and I figured they'd take me to the preacher and have him roast my feet in a bonfire till I said I'd storied." She chuckled, a dry, raspy sound that held little mirth. "You know the funny notions little kids get in their heads."
"Yes, I know. What is it you want to tell me?"
"I was five. I know because it was the summer before I started to school. It was real hot, even at night, and if you listened close, you could hear the corn growing ... little pop-pop sounds it made. Folks who never lived on a farm don't believe that. Anyway, one night it was too hot to sleep, so I knelt down by the open window and leaned on the sill and looked out at the stars. Then I saw something move, down by the old dry well. I couldn't see it too clear, but it looked like a lady. She was waving to me, like I ought to come down there."
I sneaked a look at Aunt Maureen. She was still asleep, her mouth open like a gasping fish.
"Well, since the lady seemed to think it was important for me to come out where she was, I crept downstairs so's I wouldn't wake anybody, and went out to the well. Sure enough, it was a lady in a long, white dress. Except that she and her dress looked kind of thin. You know, like the bandages they use on wounds?"
"Yes. Gauze." By now I was intrigued and hoped my aunt wouldn't wake up before Sissie finished her story. "What happened then?"
"The lady acted real excited. She kept pointing at the well, and then she'd make this motion--" Sissie folded her arms and swung them back and forth. "Like a little girl rocking her doll."
"And?" I prompted.
"I was only five years old! What did she expect anyway? But when she finally saw I didn't understand, she beckoned to me, like this, and I followed her. All the way down to our back pasture." She shook her head and sucked on her teeth. "If my folks had found out, they'd have skinned me alive! Sometimes I think my daddy liked using the razor strop."
I waited while her train of thought returned to its rails.
"I was afraid of our big black Angus bull, but thank goodness he didn't pay us any mind. The lady stopped and pointed to the ground. I remember I looked back and forth between her and the bull. Then she made this kind of shoveling motion, like I ought to dig right there where she pointed."
"I ran back to the porch and got a hand spade. I was too little to use the big spade like my daddy. All the time I was gone the lady just stood there in the pasture, waiting, and that big old black bull, he just went on chewing his cud like there wasn't nobody within a mile. I dug and dug--that ground was so hard on account of we hadn't had any rain in who knows when. Then I saw something white sticking up in the bottom of the hole, and I started digging as fast as I could. It turned out to be a long, skinny bone. Well, I was real disappointed, figuring it belonged to some animal that died a long time ago. But the lady got all excited again, and she pointed back at the house ... except when we got back there, I realized she'd been pointing at the well, not the house."
"Was it an open well? Or did it have a cover?"
"Oh, it had a cover all right, a big, thick piece of cement. I couldn't have moved it no matter how hard I tried. But the lady kept pointing at it, and then at the bone I'd brought back from the pasture. It seemed so important to her that I hung onto it, and the next Saturday we went to town, I wrapped it up in the blanket I carried sometimes, like it was my doll, and took it along."
Sissie paused, apparently reaching back through eighty years in memory. I waited impatiently for her return, and Aunt Maureen slept on.
At last she resumed her tale. "I took the bone, still wrapped in my blanket, to the doctor's office--I don't remember his name, but his office was in one of those pretty turrets that overlooked the square. I told his nurse I had a problem and I needed to see him." She chuckled. "Imagine a little kid getting by with that today. Anyway, I showed the doctor the bone I'd found. To say the least, he was startled. He asked where I got it, and I lied. I told him I dug it up next to our old well."
"Then what happened?"
"When we got home, some men were digging all around the outside of the well. Of course they told my daddy what I'd shown the doctor. Seems the doctor told the sheriff it was the shin bone of a child, and they were looking for more bones."
"Did they find any?"
"'Course not! That's not where I found it."
Sissie's scornful glance suggested I was being deliberately obtuse. "I walked up, bold as brass, to one of the men and said they ought to look inside the well. And they did. They even dug into the dirt in the bottom of it, where they found the skeleton of a little kid. My mama fainted, and my daddy looked like he wanted to. There was lots of excitement. The men thought the skeleton had been there a long time."
Forgetting about my aunt, I demanded, "Did they find out who the child was?"
Sissie shook her head. "The doctor said it was a boy, about my age. He was mighty puzzled, though, about the bone I'd taken him. He said it belonged to an older child, ten or twelve years old."
Drained and weary, she leaned back in her chair.
I asked gently, "Is that all you wanted to tell me?"
Her head drooped forward in assent. "I always felt bad because I never told the truth about where I found that leg bone. I was afraid of what my folks would do if they found out I'd gone outside at night and done what the lady told me to." She looked up, her ancient gaze still penetrating. "Now I've told somebody, I feel better."
"The older child might have been buried ages ago. Maybe it was an early settler, or an Indian."
"You don't think your--"
How did she know what was in my mind?
Aunt Maureen was still asleep, snoring lightly, and my own family was expecting me home to prepare dinner. I rose, then bent down and kissed Sissie on her dry, cool forehead. "Thank you for telling me," I said. "It'll be all right now."
Lost in her own long-ago world, it was as though she hadn't heard me.
I turned and left, and on my way out, stopped at the nurses' station. "My aunt is still napping," I said, "so I'll come back tomorrow. I was talking to her roommate, Sissie."
"Her real name is Nina."
For a moment a puzzled frown marred the young nurse's smooth brow. "Nina ... Oh, I'm afraid you're mistaken. Nina Freeman was your aunt's roommate. She died yesterday."