Ephraim had always taken after MacArthur’s tall, pale, and stocky frame so Daphne was quite surprised to see how tanned and muscular the boy had grown during his studies. Doctors were expected to cultivate their own herbs and have a well-stocked medicine cabinet throughout the year. She wondered how her son had found time to do anything other than study, grow herbs and learn how to make salves, poultices and medicinal teas.
Isaac was as quiet and content as ever. He’d come back much darker and thinner than his childhood self, but nothing Daphne said could convince him to speak more than a few sentences about his apprenticeship. He insisted he was happy and that he looked forward to building more furniture and houses in the fall.
It wasn’t until Ephraim challenged him to a push-up contest while Daphne washed the breakfast dishes that Isaac’s face cracked into a genuine smile. Even he couldn’t resist his brother’s boisterous taunts or Lemon’s enthusiastic barks and playful pouncing.
“You’re going to break something,” Daphne said, swallowing her laugher. “Out of my house!” There were vegetables to harvest, water to gather, and a few holes to patch in the roof now that the rainy season was more or less finished. She gave her sons the list and warned them not to come back with Lemon until it was finished.
Just before lunchtime Nevaeh appeared at the front door for lunch. It had been over a week since her last visit, and Daphne had been beginning to wonder if Nevaeh was angry with her for some reason. It was rare for such an extroverted woman to stay away for so long, especially now that Daphne had a front row seat to the latest community news. Daphne wasn’t sure how long it would take Nevaeh to realize that certain information was confidential, and she wasn’t at all interested in churning the gossip mill.
“I’m here for lunch and bad news,” Nevaeh said. She carried a jug of cool water and what was probably her first radish harvest of the new year. Daphne added a few pieces of fresh cornbread to their simple meal. At this time of year everyone was earnestly waiting for their gardens to finish ripening before summer began.
While they ate Nevaeh spoke quietly about all of the families who were nursing this strange illness: the Eversons, the Reeds, The Grabers, and even Nevaeh’s own daughter and newborn grandson.
The Harris family had been struck particularly hard. In the last day and a half three of them had died of this strange disease, and two more were at death’s door. Naomi Everson also seemed to be loosening her grip on life, although Nevaeh understood if Daphne preferred not to pay her respects in that particular sickroom.
“They aren’t having a wake,” Nevaeh said in a puzzled tone. She had been brought up to believe that anyone who didn’t hear the story of their life or death was bound to repeat all of their mistakes when they were born again. “Their daughter-in-law and sons will be buried tomorrow morning, but the family is looking for volunteers to help bury the bodies. I thought you and your boys might be able to help with that. I’d go myself if my daughter wasn’t ill.”
Daphne nodded. Like many of their neighbours Nevaeh avoided the dead and dying out of fear of catching what had killed former friends, but Daphne had stopped worrying about death a long time ago. It would find her when she reached the end of her days, and in the meantime there was nothing she could do to entice it or keep it away.
Death could be a mercy for someone in labor for three days like Daphne’s mother, or when an infection spread to the bloodstream after a hunting accident like her father, or even for those as arthritic and confused as her grandfather in his final months. She had expected to die when her sons were born and was pleasantly surprised that all three of them survived it. The gods must have been been in a happy mood when they wrote that chapter of her life.
“We’ll go,” Daphne said, suddenly realizing that her jumbled memories had thinned out the conversation.
The hike to the Harris’ land was the quietest hour Daphne had known since her sons came home. Even Lemon sensed the heavy mood and for once he stuck to the path and left the rabbits alone.
Daphne wasn’t surprised to see that she and her sons were the only guests at this event. Half of the Harris’ were too sick to attend this funeral themselves. Normally a clan of nearly 20 men, women and children would be bustling with activity at this time of day. It was eerie to see how few of them were still healthy enough to walk.
The body of a woman in her late teens was being wrapped in elk hide as Daphne and her sons walked up the stone staircase to the main house. From the scorch marks on the hide Daphne could tell that the woman had been married and had one child before she died. Two of the daughters-in-law fit that description, and Daphne wondered if she was looking at the shell of Lola or Casey.
Two smaller bundles beside Lola or Casey had already been prepared, but Daphne could tell nothing else about them because children were clean slates. Nothing they did counted for or against them in their next life unless they were born with more than one soul. When they died, then, they were returned to the gods with no record of to whom they had belonged.
The blind underworld was coming for the dead ones now, and it was best not to speak until the mission was complete. No spirit could take you before your time, but they had been known to follow some mourners home and spook the animals or move household objects when no one was looking.
A numb processional carried the woman and children to their grave. No sooner had the bodies been deposited than the weakest family members began the short trek home.
Isaac held the dog at a safe distance from the dead as Daphne, Ephraim and one of the Harris grandfathers began shovelling dirt over the shallow trench.