Signs of Sacred Places
by CAROLINE MISNER
I was thirteen when I first learned that some lives are mourned more than others. It doesn’t necessarily mean that those lives are more significant or influential or even that they were human. It’s just that some people know how to do it right, whoever or whatever the deceased may be. Death had never affected me much; both sets of grandparents were still alive and I never had any pets. Death was something I heard about on the news or read in books or saw in movies. Even the dead birds or squirrels I sometimes found crushed in the gutters on my way home never really interested me. Once I saw a cat splayed dead in the middle of the road, blood leaking from its nose, inert as a discarded stuffed toy. I barely gave it a second glance.
I spent every summer of my childhood with my Aunt Shelly and my cousins at their large white summer house just outside Burlington. The three-story house was old, painted every year by Uncle Max in anticipation of the season’s occupancy. Its gleaming green shutters and a wide screened porch overlooked the squat grassy hills that sloped down into a valley where a mucky creek separated the property from the woods beyond. In late June when we first arrived, that creek was a torrent of shallow rushing water, icy from the spring runoff. By late August, when we began packing up to leave, it was little more than a sluggish trickle of mud.
Melanie was my age—our birthdays were less than a month apart in February, and our birthday parties were one of the rare times we got together in the winter. Gillian was three years younger and a persistent tagalong. I can’t really blame her. By the time Melanie and I were ten, Aunt Shelly had another baby, a boy named Matthew, and had little time to entertain Gillian, so she instructed us to keep an eye on her.
The first few summers weren’t so bad. Each morning we’d leave the house and spend the bulk of the day exploring the hills and woods beyond the creek. Melanie and I caught butterflies and various other insects and pinned them into cork boards and made collages that we proudly displayed on the patio. Aunt Shelly wouldn’t let us bring them into the house. We built forts out of rocks and branches and whatever cardboard debris we found floating down the creek. We hauled stones into the creek and built foot bridges across the water so we could cross into the woods where we explored and tried to scare Gillian into believing we were lost and doomed to wander the forest forever. Gillian would have none of that. Even then, she had few fears. Once we came across some unfamiliar scat and told Gillian it was bear poop and the bears would charge out of the brush to eat us. She laughed and said she always wanted to meet a bear. By the time we returned to the house in the late afternoon, the three of us were scuffed and sunburnt and absolutely filthy. Aunt Shelly fed us on the porch and wouldn’t let us into our rooms until we bathed in the big claw-footed bathtub in the first-floor bathroom.
Gillian had copper hair that she liked to keep short and bluntly cut at the chin, so unlike the mousy unkempt mess on my head. She had rounded cheeks and a pug nose, both sprinkled with freckles like the skin of an overripe banana. Her eyes were a radiant blue, a sharp contrast to mine and Melanie’s nondescript shade of beige. Gillian was too young to be called a great beauty, but she would grow into what older men would call a “real knockout.”
Gillian was an ardent animal lover, always chasing frogs in the creek or bringing home some injured bird that she begged her mother to nurse back to health. We never saw the birds again and I suspected Aunt Shelly discreetly put them out of their misery and discarded them after we went to bed. Gillian was always a bit sullen and teary when this happened, but we never spoke of it to her.
Like most kids her age, Gillian was fearless, almost to the point of recklessness. We had discovered on her fifth birthday that the only thing she really feared was clowns. Aunt Shelly had found a recipe for ice cream clowns in a magazine and decided it would be fun to make them for the party. After topping scoops of ice cream with pointed waffle cones, she used icing to paint little clown faces and decorate the cones into clown hats, all served upside down on a tray. When Gillian saw her mother carry them out to the patio where everyone was seated with their balloons around the table, she went into hysterics. Her small mouth fell open and she began to wail so intensely that it roused a flock of birds roosting in the bushes beside Uncle Max’s tool shed. It took a very flustered Aunt Shelly almost an hour to calm her down. By then all the ice cream clowns had been eaten, and some of the kids’ parents were arriving to pick them up. We never got a good answer from Gillian as to why she had been so upset by something as innocuous as ice cream clowns, but we had a feeling that Gillian felt things more strongly than we did. Later that night as we huddled with a flashlight under the blanket fort we had built on Melanie’s bed, Gillian told us “How could she?” It was the indignity of her own mother desecrating perfectly good ice cream that had set her off.
The summer Melanie and I were thirteen, things began to change. I got my first training bra and Melanie had her first period that previous winter. We had begun the gradual transformation from frog chasing and fort building to painting our nails in alternating colors and swooning over pictures of boys. Melanie and I spent our afternoons in the screened porch, giggling and passing magazines back and forth as we sipped cherry Kool-Aid and licked the centers out of cookies. Gillian sulked in the corner, alternately glowering and whining out of boredom. She was only nine at the time and still thought boys were gross.
“Let’s do something,” she griped. She had been rhythmically bouncing a small rubber ball against the wood plank floor with increasing ferocity and the persistent thumping was getting on my nerves.
“Later,” Melanie mumbled without raising her eyes from the Teen Beat magazine spread out on the table before us, reluctant to be torn away from the blue-eyed heartthrob of the moment.
The day was hot; heavy bees and dragonflies flitted among the azalea bushes clustered round the patio; a cicada droned from some distant place. There was no wind and the air was humid. We had been sitting out on the patio since lunch and I was getting restless. When Matthew went down for his nap, Aunt Shelly would shoo us away so she could get a little rest herself and it was almost that time.
“I wouldn’t mind getting out of here,” I said, leaning back in my chair and stretching.
Gillian brightened and said, “Let’s go down to the creek.”
Melanie sighed and closed the magazine. It was too hot to argue. Gillian let her ball roll away and stop in the corner next to Aunt Shelly’s tin watering can. I was grateful the noise had stopped.
The wildflowers were in full bloom that time of the summer. The hills were draped in vivid yellows and purples and oranges. Normally, a breeze would ripple the grasses and the delicate flower heads, but this afternoon was strangely still, almost as though the day was holding its breath. Gillian bounded down the hill in front of us, fully expecting Melanie and me to follow, but we held back, picking our way down the hillside, careful not to trip and leave grass stains on our knees or pebbles in our sandals because we had just polished our toenails in bright pink that morning.
Gillian stopped halfway down and gazed across to the next hill, shielding her eyes with a flattened palm. By the time Melanie and I reached her, she was squealing with glee.
“Look!” she said, pointing to a nearby hill. “Over there. See it? It’s a gopher.”
Melanie and I peered through the thick air. The gopher holes were hard to see but we knew the hillsides were pocked with them. Many times we had gotten our feet stuck and nearly twisted our ankles as we raced toward the creek. We had never actually seen any gophers, but the year before, I had tried to goad one out with a stick I thrust into one of the holes. Gillian had snatched the stick from me and broken it in two over her knee, threatening all kinds of horrific fates if I ever dared to do that to a living creature again.
“Where?” Melanie asked, not really interested.
I squinted into the sunlight. A cluster of tall grasses flanked by wild daisies drooped in the sultry air. A fat brown gopher waddled out from among them, followed by three equally corpulent but smaller babies. It was a family: a mother and her offspring leisurely munching the abundant grasses that flourished around their hole.
“Aren’t they cute?” Gillian smiled.
“Adorable,” Melanie said, her curiosity piqued now that she had seen some of the creatures.
Gillian crouched and parted the tall grass to get a better look. “Don’t get too close,” she whispered. “You’ll scare them away.”
Melanie and I knelt beside her and watched from over the tall grass. The babies loped after their mother when she moved farther down the hill to get a nibble at some tasty grass that had already begun to yellow in the summer heat. They deliberately nudged one another in a sort of game.
“Are we going to watch them all day?” Melanie said and wiped away the sweat from her hairline. “It’s getting too hot.”
“Just leave them alone,” I suggested and rose.
Gillian was reluctant to be pulled away. She could have spent all day watching animals. We started back down the hill again when we heard a dog’s bark echo across the hills, followed by the jingle of licence tags so commonplace to all dog owners.
“Where did they come from?” Gillian stopped short.
Two unfamiliar dogs loped toward us. One was a black Labrador with a bright red collar around his neck. His companion was a smaller golden spaniel. They both barked as they bounded down the hill where the gopher family was still enjoying their meal. The mother immediately scampered toward the safety of her den. They had strayed too far from their hole and the babies had difficulty keeping up with her. The dogs were too fast and the smallest gopher, the runt of the litter, lagged behind. The mother and the two larger babies scuffled into their hole just in time. The two dogs reached the baby gopher before he had a chance to even poke his head inside. The Labrador seized it in his jaws and raised his head in triumph. The spaniel yapped his congratulations.
“No!” Gillian wailed, shocked at the dogs’ behavior. They seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, breaking the quietude of the afternoon. They had probably come from one of the local farms, but it was rare to see an unaccompanied dog this far out.
The Lab shook his prize back and forth; stubby brown legs flailed from his mouth, but the gopher didn’t make a sound. The spaniel snapped his teeth into the hunch of the baby gopher that flopped from the Lab’s jaws and the two of them, growling playfully, began a game of tug-of-war.
“Stop!” Gillian screamed and ran toward them, waving her arms over her head to scare the dogs away. “Get away! Leave him alone!”
We chased after her, afraid the two strange dogs would turn on Gillian now that they had a taste for blood.
The dogs stopped pulling on the gopher’s body and pricked up their ears when they heard Gillian screaming toward them. They stared at us with perplexed and somewhat guilty expressions.
“Drop him, you stupid dog!” Gillian yelled.
The dogs exchanged worried glances, and the Lab dropped the gopher into the grass before we could reach them. They turned and ran back toward the far hills until they disappeared, tails wagging and back paws flicking dust and dead grass. Gillian chased after them for a few yards but wouldn’t give up until they were out of sight. She finally turned and trudged back to where Melanie and I stood, dumbstruck.
We searched the area where the Lab had dropped the gopher until we found it nestled in the grasses and flowers. The baby gopher lay on its side, its limbs twisted unnaturally, its beady eyes opened in terror as it panted and twitched. I was amazed that it was still alive after what it had been through. There was very little blood; just a few drops on its whiskers and around its mouth.
“Oh, the poor little thing,” Gillian cooed. Melanie blocked her from reaching toward it.
“Don’t touch it,” she said. “It’s full of germs.”
“That’s dumb,” Gillian said. “You have more cooties than this poor little thing.”
The baby gopher jerked and looked as though it was trying to stand up. It raised its head off the ground and opened its mouth. With one final spasm, it stiffened and fell onto the grass, dead.
“No!” Gillian shouted and balled her fists against her lips.
“There’s nothing you could have done,” I said. “It would have died no matter what.”
“Those stupid dogs!” Gillian screamed and turned toward the hills where the dogs had left. “Murderers! You’re both murderers!”
Her eyes widened with oncoming tears. Though Gillian was often dramatic, I had never seen her so frantic.
“What should we do with it?” Melanie asked.
“Leave it for the coyotes?” I suggested.
“No!” Gillian choked. “We can’t just leave it.”
“Well what should we do?” Melanie said, “Give it back to its mother?”
“We’ll bury it and give it a funeral.” Gillian knelt and gingerly scooped up the furry little body. The gopher fit perfectly in the bowl of her hands. She peered down at it and her tears dropped like rain onto its fur.
Aunt Shelly wouldn’t let us bring the gopher into the house, so Gillian left it on the bottom stair of the porch while we went to her room to get everything we needed. We found a discarded shoe box we could use as a coffin and Gillian gathered craft supplies she kept in the lower drawer of her desk. Gillian placed the gopher’s body gently in the box along with a few wilted chrysanthemums Melanie and I pinched from a vase on the dining room table, and we followed Gillian down the slope toward the creek and the woods.
Gillian was inconsolable. Her peeling sunburnt shoulders heaved beneath the straps of her tank top as she sobbed over the opened box in her hands. Melanie and I exchanged awkward glances, unsure if we should say something—anything to comfort her. It was, after all, just a gopher.
We crossed the creek using the footbridge we had built with stones lugged in from the woods. It was almost an annual ritual to build that bridge. Early each summer we would build the footbridge in the same spot where the creek was shallowest; each winter and spring, the runoff would wash it away and we would have to build another using more stones we found in the woods the following summer. This time of year, the water was sludgy and low; barring a sudden rainstorm, there would be nothing left but bug-infested muck in a few weeks.
We followed Gillian through the woods, diverging from our regular path. It was a relief to get out of the hot sun and bask in the cool dewy shade of the trees. By then Gillian seemed to have recovered some of her senses and strode with a purpose, her chin held high. She brushed aside some low hanging branches from a copse of cedars and we stepped into a sunny clearing.
Melanie and I had no idea she kept such a place. We knew Gillian was an animal lover, but this was unexpected. The clearing was dotted with tiny graves. Little Popsicle-stick crosses were tied together with birthday ribbon or those plastic strings we used to thread beads on when we made toy jewelry. Some of the older graves had crooked words scrawled on them in crayon or magic marker, words like “Babee Bird” and “Litle muse” and even one that said “stinky skunck.” The newest grave was marked by a red brick, more neatly labeled “Small opossum.” Many were decorated with wildflowers in all colors and varieties, some fresher than others.
“What’s this?” Melanie crinkled her brow.
“It’s my cemetery,” Gillian said in a quavering but dignified voice.
She dropped to her knees in a vacant spot beside the grave of some poor chipmunk with a droopy daisy chain draped over the arms of its cross. With a cheap children’s shovel, the kind you can get at any drugstore for less than a dollar at the start of the summer, Gillian began to dig. It was difficult to break through the mat of grass and roots, and the handle of the shovel bent backwards and threatened to snap. Melanie and I used lengths of thick bark to help her. We dug until we had a hole wide enough to accommodate the shoebox. To hell with our carefully manicured nails.
“Good bye, little friend,” Gillian said and placed the lid over the box. Her cheeks were ruddy and wet. She kissed the lid before placing it the grave.
We used the dirt we had dug up to cover it, but the grave wasn’t deep enough, and we had to pile most of the dirt into a mound on top of the box. Gillian patted it smooth and said, “Don’t worry. It will flatten out after a few days.” She fashioned a Popsicle cross and Melanie wrote “Baby Gopher” across the arms in red magic marker.
“Now what?” I asked, brushing the dirt from my hands as Gillian stuck the cross at the head of the grave.
“We pray,” she said.
“Pray?” Neither Melanie nor I were particularly religious. Church was a rarity in our family, attended only for weddings and funerals, and sometimes the odd Christmas or Easter pageant. We didn’t think Gillian was the religious type either.
“Yes, pray.” Gillian dropped to her knees and motioned for us to do the same. Melanie and I had no choice. We knelt on opposite sides of Gillian, the weeds prickling our shins and knees, and clasped our hands together in front of our mouths.
We closed our eyes as Gillian intoned: “Dear God, please bless this little gopher. He didn’t need to die. Please take care of him in heaven. And while you’re at it, please forgive those two dogs. They didn’t mean to hurt him. They were just being dogs.”
She was crying again when we muttered a half-hearted “amen” and opened our eyes. It wasn’t the kind of elegy I was expecting from Gillian, who moments before had called the dogs murderers. We gathered the rest of our things and trudged back through the woods and up the slope in silence. The air was so thick, it felt like a veil weighing down on us. Clouds were gathering behind the treeline. A storm was headed our way, the kind that creeps up on muggy summer nights and shatters the air with thunder and lighting. I glanced toward the hill where the gopher family lived and saw the head of the mother gopher poke out between two tall weeds, watching us with sad, hooded eyes.
Caroline Misner’s work has appeared in numerous publications in the US, Canada, India, and the UK. She has been nominated for the prestigious McClelland & Stewart Journey Anthology Prize for the short story “Strange Fruit”; in 2011 another short story and a poem were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in the beautiful Haliburton Highlands of Northern Ontario from where she continues to draw inspiration for her work. She is the author of the Young Adult fantasy series The Daughters of Eldox. Her latest novel, The Spoon Asylum, was released in May of 2018 by Thistledown Press and has been nominated for the Governor General Award.