Liliane hummed to herself as she turned down the stretch of unpaved road that cut through wide fields planted with green onions. The leafy furrows alternated with rows of irrigation water that glimmered like shiny blue ribbons in the morning sun. She remembered how she had grown up on an organic truck farm, but had left to attend college. After graduating with a degree in business, she had secured a realtor’s license. Now she seldom had time to return home for visits. Although she kept in touch with her parents by phone, she found herself increasingly preoccupied with work after accepting a job at a high power real estate agency.
I suppose my folks will have to sell their farm too, she thought and hoped they wouldn’t hang onto their land as long as poor dear Ida Weatherby. Liliane’s elderly client was half crippled and had already been cheated by the company that leased her acreage. Liliane had drawn up papers to sell Ida’s property to a developer. She had taken on the additional task of resettling the elderly woman in a managed care facility where she could live out her final days in relative comfort. Since land values were high, her large parcel of farmland could be subdivided into enough individual lots to secure an ample retirement income for her final years.
Liliane turned up a tree-lined driveway, parked her car and walked briskly to a two-story stone house. “It’s good to see you, Ida,” she greeted the old woman who met her at the door and escorted her with shuffling steps to a cushioned armchair near the front room window. “I have the papers all in order,” Liliane said as she balanced her briefcase on her knees. She laid the papers on the small, round table and fished in her briefcase for her lucky fountain pen.
“Don’t forget—the movers will be here tomorrow to relocate you to your new apartment. I’ll come over to help you,” Liliane reminded her. When Ida didn’t answer, she hoped Ida hadn’t changed her mind.
As the old woman’s silence continued, Liliane began to squirm. My competitors would kill for a deal like this! She worried that someone had presented Ida with a more lucrative proposal. Other realtors had approached her in the past but their offers had been flatly refused. Liliane’s office manager advised her that old Mrs. Weatherby could be stubborn and quarrelsome.
Consequently, Liliane was careful to introduce herself as a farmer’s daughter. Her knowledge of agriculture had quickly ingratiated her with the older woman. Liliane had always listened sympathetically as Ida complained about the difficulties of managing her house and farm.
“All you need to do is sign these papers,” Liliane repeated and nudged them closer to Ida. Then she held out her fountain pen. The elderly woman didn’t take it. She continued to stare out the window at a towering cottonwood tree growing at the edge of the front yard.
“Ida?” Liliane asked again. She was relieved when Ida finally began to speak. But her voice was barely a whisper and her faded blue eyes remained riveted on the tree.
“You’ve done a great deal for me and I’m grateful,” she said as Liliane leaned forward to hear her. “I have one last favor to ask … I can’t leave until you promise to do it.”
“Ask anything,” Liliane said, eager to finalize their transaction.
“You have to take care of the grave under that tree,” Ida said as nonchalantly as if she were commenting on the weather.
“I beg your pardon?” Liliane was so flustered that she almost dropped her pen.
“There’s a body buried under the cottonwood, you see,” Ida said in the same matter-of-fact voice.
“Someone in your family?” Liliane asked. Ida’s family had owned the property for four generations. It seemed altogether plausible that they would have a private cemetery on their land.
“No, someone my grandpa murdered,” Ida told her.
Liliane’s fountain pen slipped through her fingers and fell noiselessly onto the carpet, but she didn’t try to retrieve it. She didn’t know what to say.
“I plant the grave with flowers every spring,” Ida continued. “It’s important to keep it weeded in the summer and sweep the leaves off in the fall. On Christmas I make a spray out of juniper boughs to cover the grave.”
“Who … what was the name of the man buried there?” Liliane finally found her voice.
“Jose, I think. Maybe Pablo. I don’t rightly remember. I was six at the time he was killed.”
“Are you sure he was killed?” Liliane asked tentatively.
“Oh yes, I saw my grandpa murder him. The migrant workers wanted better pay for picking onions, you see. This fellow was the ringleader. He and my pa and grandpa stood in the front yard yelling at each other. Then Grandpa went back in the house and got his shotgun. He usually kept it load with buckshot. I’m sure he meant to pepper the man with pellets … just scare him a little. But he died straightaway. Grandpa and my pa dug the grave. The next day I went outside and looked at the mound of dirt. Grandpa came over to me. He reckoned I knew what it was. He said, ‘Everything’s going to be all right, honey, just so long as we keep his grave clean and pray for his poor soul.’ That’s what I’ve done ever since. Otherwise my grandpa will go straight to hell.”
“Well … ” Liliane cleared her throat as she searched for words. “I could certainly pray,” she said to break the pall of silence that settled over them after Ida finished her confession.
“You promise?” Ida asked.
“Oh yes, I most definitely promise to pray.”
“Good. I can’t leave until I know he’ll be looked after.”
“Set your mind at ease,” Liliane reassured the old woman and picked up her pen. This time Ida took it and bent close to the papers as she painstakingly signed her name.
“I’ll be back tomorrow to help you settle into your new home,” Liliane reminded her then headed for the door. She waved as she drove away.
There probably isn’t a grave under that tree, Liliane told herself as she drove past the onion fields. Given Ida’s advanced age, she no doubt suffered from bouts of dementia. Liliane focused her thoughts on the papers secured in her briefcase. They were as valuable as bricks of gold. She calculated her commission and fantasized about a possible promotion at her real estate office.
When Liliane returned the following morning, she was pleased to see a moving van parked in front of Ida’s house. But she frowned as she noticed men lounging idly on the front porch.
“She won’t open the door,” one of them explained as Liliane approached them. “We pounded and yelled, but no one answers.”
“Ida, it’s me! It’s Liliane,” the young woman called and rapped on the door. “She’s elderly and nervous about moving,” she explained to the movers as she took Ida’s spare key out of her briefcase.
“Ida?” she called as she opened the door and stepped inside. The movers hesitated at the doorway.
“It’s going to be alright, Ida,” Liliane promised as she crossed the shadowy front room. The drapes had not yet been drawn to admit the morning light. Ida’s bedroom door was firmly closed.
Liliane knocked on the door. When there was no response, she turned the knob and peeked inside. “Time to wake up, sleepy head!” she forced a note of cheerfulness into her voice.
Ida didn’t answer. She lay very still in a pool of sunlight on her shadow laced bed. The soft light sculpted her face and traced her limp arm flung across the flowered quilt. Liliane tried to speak but her words caught in her throat like a piece of dry toast. Inching forward, she touched Ida’s hand with trembling fingers and found them icy cold.
“Call 911!” she shouted to the movers as she ran out of the room.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. An ambulance arrived and medics tried to resuscitate Ida unsuccessfully. Afterwards Liliane waited for the mortician. When she finally returned to her office, she slapped her briefcase on her desk and collapsed in her chair as she stared at the wall.
“What just happened?” she asked rhetorically, knowing full well that the business deal of a lifetime had slipped through her fingers.
“A Mr. Adkins who’s been calling for you,” the secretary interrupted her bewildered thoughts.
“Who?” Liliane muttered.
“He says he’s the attorney handling Ida Weatherby’s estate.” The secretary handed Liliane a memo marked “urgent.”
I’ll call him later, Liliane thought but the secretary returned a few minutes later to say Mr. Adkins was holding for her on line two.
“I’m sorry, I just got back—” Liliane apologized mechanically as she took the call.
“It’s I who should apologize for my persistence,” Mr. Adkins interrupted. “I understand you’re the one who found Ida. I’m sure this has been a very trying day.”
You have no idea! Liliane thought. Aloud she said, “Yes. What can I do for you?”
“Mr. Haroldson from Valhalla Mortuary had explicit orders to contact me as soon as Ida passed. I’m calling you with regard to the dispensation of her property.”
“It will be up to her heir to decide what to do.” Disappointment exacerbated Liliane’s heartache over Ida’s unexpected death.
“That would be you,” Mr. Adkins told her.
“What?” Liliane didn’t think she had heard him clearly.
“Ida left you her entire estate.”
“But I … I barely knew her!” Liliane stammered her disbelief.
“Last week Ida came to my office and told me she’d found someone who would take care of her land.” Mr. Adkins paused as if he hoped for clarification. When Liliane didn’t answer, he added, “I presume Ida gave you some special instructions.”
“Well, yes, she did.” Liliane recalled Ida’s story about the migrant’s secret grave but decided not to disclose it. “I don’t understand,” she said instead. “Ida seemed perfectly fine when we spoke yesterday.”
“I’m sure she’s resting in peace, knowing she can count on you to carry out her final wishes,” Mr. Adkins said, but his words only fueled Liliane’s consternation.
“Do you know if—I mean, did anything of interest ever happen on the farm?” She wondered if she could substantiate the murder allegation and if there had been an investigation.
“Oh, I’m sure Ida had lots of stories, but she’s taken them with her to the grave. As I recall, her family were homesteaders and had been on that land since the late nineteenth century.”
“Do you know anything about Ida’s grandfather?” Liliane came straight to the point.
“My dear,” Mr. Adkins laughed lightly. “I’m old but not that old. Certainly not Ida’s age.”
“Of course. I didn’t mean … ” Liliane’s voice faded away. “I just wish I had asked Ida about her family,” she said to mask her true motive.
“I’m sorry I can’t be of more help,” Mr. Adkins sounded sincere. “Unfortunately, everyone who might have known anything has passed on.”
After making an appointment to come to his office, Liliane hung up and sat in a daze. She tried to fathom that that she was now in possession of a large and valuable piece of property. As well as a grave, she thought grimly.
A week after Ida’s funeral services, Liliane came to a decision. To insure that the grave would always be kept in good repair, she hired a landscape architect to design a perennial garden around the cottonwood tree.
“I’d like some junipers as well,” she informed the supervisor. “This needs to look presentable in winter as well as summer.”
“We can’t place them too close,” he advised. “Cottonwoods take a great deal of water. We have to be careful not to crowd too many plants around the base of the tree.”
She listened as he discussed the placement of gazanias and Shasta daisies, but her mind kept wandering back to the grave. Was it deep or shallow? Would the landscapers discover a human skeleton if they dug around the tree’s roots?
“Do whatever you think is best,” she finally said, but returned every day to oversee their work. To her relief, no body was discovered.
Maybe there’s a clue somewhere in the house, Liliane thought as she sorted through drawers filled with papers and photographs. She found ample newspaper clippings, but most of them were recipes. There were no references to a missing migrant worker. The lack of evidence set her mind at ease as she boxed up books and knickknacks. But an acute pang of grief seized her as she cleared a dresser and found a tortoise shell comb tangled with a strand of long, white hair. Tears sprang to her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Ida.” She whispered, feeling like an executioner as she disposed of the old woman’s personal treasures. She imagined Ida’s bony finger pointing to a china vase arranged with a few wisps of dried flowers. Liliane collected the more valuable keepsakes in a box. Within a few days, and her own apartment was cluttered with collectibles.
Got to pare this down! she chided herself. But she felt she could leave the antique furniture, at least for the time being. It lent a pleasant ambiance that made the house more presentable. She planned to list it separately although she began negotiations with a developer to subdivide the rest of the land into a housing development.
Before she advertised the house, Liliane hired painters to freshen the rooms with bright, modern colors. She visited daily to check on their progress, but could never bring herself to enter Ida’s room. In the end, she left orders to repaint it the same mauve hue although that reminded her of wilted roses.
I can’t keep avoiding this room! She chastised herself, knowing she would have to walk into it once she started showing the house. But she shuddered every time she thought of Ida lying very still in the pool of frozen sunlight.
A pipe burst and plumbers were called in. They dug a trench across the yard that cut through the perennials planted at the knees of the cottonwood tree.
“Ma’am?” the plumber startled her as he tapped on the door.
“Did you find anything?” She couldn’t filter the anxiety out of her voice.
“Uh, no,” he looked puzzled. “Were we supposed to?”
“No, I’m joking,” she smiled feebly as he explained that the tree roots had penetrated the sewer line. Eventually her facial muscles began to relax.
The plumbers suggested laying a new line. Afterwards the landscapers were called back to repair the garden.
“I’ve done all I can,” Liliane reasoned as she paused by the window to admire the vibrant flowers that decorated the grave. Circling them was a row of dwarf junipers to grace the drab winter months. “There’s nothing else I can do,” she said aloud, sensing she wasn’t alone.
The next day, Liliane was scheduled to show the house to potential buyers. Why am I so nervous? she thought as she greeted a young couple who seemed eager to own a vintage home.
“Just look at the woodwork,” she gushed as she ushered them past the staircase and into the living room. “You don’t find craftsmanship like this nowadays.” They paused at the bay window and studied the garden surrounding the cottonwood.
“It’s been recently landscaped,” Liliane explained but she couldn’t bring herself to look at the tree. “You’ll want to maintain it, of course, so it looks its best at all times.”
She directed them to the dining room. The cottonwood tree was still visible from the corner window. “Of course this overlooks the garden as well,” Liliane rambled. “Let’s go to the kitchen, shall we? The enamel cabinets on the wall are probably collector’s items.”
“How many bedrooms does the house have?” the young wife asked.
“Three—no four,” Liliane corrected herself. “There are three upstairs and a downstairs room that’s also a bedroom … that was a bedroom,” she stammered and led the way back to the staircase.
“Is this it?” The husband paused by Ida’s room.
“Yes. And there’s a bathroom across the hall, tucked under the stairwell. The upstairs has a bathroom too.”
The young couple opened the door and stepped into Ida’s room.
“The furniture is gorgeous,” the wife said as she ran her hand over Ida’s cherry wood bedstead. “Does it come with the house?”
“I suppose it could.” Liliane hovered in the doorway, unable to step inside.
“We’d be interested in buying most of the furniture,” the husband said as he drew back the lace edged curtains to reveal the cottonwood tree spreading its leafy boughs to the sky. A pool of sunlight fell across the bed. Out of the corner of her eye, Liliane imagined Ida lying small and shrunken on the coverlets.
She shook her head to clear it but could still see Ida’s waxen face and her fine, white hair spread across the starched pillow. The husband let the curtain fall back and the splash of sunlight disappeared. The apparition dissolved into shadow.
What’s the matter with me? Liliane chided herself as she stepped back into the hallway. She followed the young couple upstairs and let them prowl through the rooms. The husband climbed onto a chair and pried open the trap door to the attic. He took a miniature flashlight out of his pocket and searched its recesses.
“There’s not a stitch of insulation up here,” he announced.
“The elderly woman who lived here couldn’t manage the steps. She probably didn’t heat the upstairs,” Liliane answered in a stupor.
“I’m sure the electrical wiring has to be updated,” the man said as he studied the fixtures. “We’d like to submit a bid on the house, but we want to take into account all the repairs that need to be made—”
“The price is non-negotiable.” Liliane was adamant.
“But… this old place needs a lot of work. Could you at least speak to the owner?” the husband requested.
“I will,” Liliane promised, but she knew the answer.
After they left, she phoned her office and told them she was removing the house from the market. Then she stood transfixed at the bay window, watching robins flit from the boughs of the cottonwood tree. As she turned away, she felt strangely drawn to Ida’s room. She hesitated then opened the door and stepped inside. It was still shadow cast, but everything seemed clear as if the curtains had been pulled aside and the room flooded with light.
Taking out her cell phone, she called home. “Dad? This is Liliane. Could you help me set up an organic farm? … Yes, I’ve got land. There are full water rights and a good irrigation system. What I need is a plan to make the farm pay for itself.”
She and her father spoke for an hour. He agreed to come out with her mother and help her set up operations.
“There’s plenty of room,” she assured them. The sunlight shimmered on the leaves of the cottonwood tree outside the window as she assumed ownership of the house. “I’ll take care of the grave, Ida,” she whispered as a beam of sunlight stroked her hand. It was as soft as the old woman’s delicate fingers. “I’m going to work the farm too. You’re going to be proud of me. I promise.”
Published in Stories