When I was a little girl, my mother taught me how to knit. She’d sit with me on the porch of our old house in Rhode Island, her eyes drooping shut from her daily toils, and guide my small hands with their tiny, untrained digits. I’d marvel at the way the yarn wove in and out, putting on a show that resembled a dance more than anything else. My mother never spoke during our sessions; she’d simply smile, pressing her chapped lips together with a sort of loving determination. And I think that’s when I learned to appreciate silence.
Now that I’m a grown woman, I understand that my mother’s silence was her way of reclaiming peace. Peace from the monotony of her life as a wife and mother, peace from the screams of my baby brother as he gummed his way through teething, peace from the whispered insults of the townswomen who’d mutter under their breath as she passed them by with a newly-inked bouquet of bruises on her cheekbone. She’d simply take to her knitting and smile – all day if she could manage it.
When I first moved to Foxtail, Nebraska with my husband, Earl, I brought that silence with me. I knew I didn’t have to carry the burden of his love like I carried the weight of my mother’s abuse, but it provided me with some comfort to know that silence was mine to command at any given moment. The beautiful thing about silence is that nobody can take it from you; it’s a gift that you can give yourself to hide from the indignity of reality. And so, that silence was what brought me to Cemetery Hill.
When the sun would set just beyond the miles-long rolling cornfields, bathing everything in golden fire, I’d hike up to the top of the hill where the cemetery sat content among the rocks and wildflowers. There, the wind carried whispers of those who once occupied the quiet town, and I’d sit cross-legged beneath the old weeping willow, my mother’s aged knitting needles in hand, and I’d listen.
Earl always encouraged me to make friends, but what he failed to understand was that I had all the friends I needed atop that hill. There, I was free to conjure memories of the stories my grandmother would tell me as she tucked me in at night – stories of golems and shadow people that hid in plain sight – I could listen to the forgotten whispers of family secrets and hard-worked paws scratching in the dirt.
Lately, however, my sanctuary atop the hill had been invaded. The whispers had gone from lullabies to screeches and were now accompanied by a constant smell of decay. And that brings me to today.
As I stood before the rusty cemetery gate, I felt the comforting weight of my hunting knife in my pocket. It wasn’t an offensive weapon; it was simply part of me – like an extra limb. The blade made for easy knitting – its sharp edge cut the yarn just the right length for changing colors. That’s what it was for – that and gutting fish down by the river during the brief summers.
I inhaled deeply, feeling my chest rise and fall beneath my cotton blouse, and stepped inside the cemetery. As the sun dipped below the horizon, I nestled up under “Our Lady,” as I affectionately named the willow tree, and pulled out my knitting needles. Tonight, I was making a small scarf for Earl; he always complained about a chill around his neck during his early morning shifts.
Knit one, purl two; knit one, purl two.
The stench of decay hit me like a punch in the gut. I gagged in surprise, my mother’s needles clattering to the ground in my lapse of concentration. It had never smelled like this before. The scent was so heavy – it was as if a cloud of dust had entered my lungs, settling inside me like a hungry parasite.
Panic rose in my throat, choking me along with the smell of death. As I scrabbled around – blind – attempting to find my dropped needles, my hand closed around something cold and metallic.
My hunting knife.
It felt comforting in my hand, a symbol of familiarity amongst the chaos of the rancid air. I decided I should investigate, hoping it was just some poor woodland creature that had met an unfortunate end.
I made my way through the graves, each one becoming more ancient and decrepit the deeper I ventured into the cemetery. That’s when I saw her; a tall, gaunt woman with sallow cheeks and tangled white hair. She was sinking her bony fingers into the earth of a half-dug grave.
“Excuse me?” I managed to choke out, struggling to get the words out past the caustic smell still eating away at my insides. “What are you doing?”
She turned slowly, fixing me with dark, hollow eyes that seemed to see into the darkest recesses of my soul. Her mouth opened to reveal rotten teeth framed by a blood-crusted smile, and she whispered in a voice barely perceptible against the now howling wind.
“These are my children,” she whispered as if it explained everything. The wind shrieked around us, and I felt something odd and slippery slithering up the handle of my knife.
My eyes widened in terror as I looked down at my hands, now slick and covered in dark crimson as the earth began to tremble beneath my feet. Where the woman had been digging, corpses began to rise – small, malformed creatures that were once human children. Their tiny limbs, twisted and broken like snapped branches, clawed at the fertile soil, their milky eyes staring up at me with an unspoken rancor.
The stench of decay was suddenly unbearable, and I felt my grip loosen on the bloody handle of my knife. The once-comforting presence of my mother’s knitting needles began to burn like embers in my other hand. I bolted from the cemetery, leaving the woman and her grotesque offspring behind me.
I never returned to Cemetery Hill after that night. Knitting became a forgotten practice, and I let the whispers of the past stay dead and buried along with my mother’s needles atop the hill.