“Okay, this is bullshit.” Paul climbed down the ladder from the barn’s loft. “Dieter, we have to admit Uncle Wolfgang was a nutter and a hoarder.” He held out a little box to me. “Look at this! A box of dust. Shelves and shelves of junk and a pewter box of dust.”
I took the box from him. The silver-gray metal chilled my hand. I rubbed some of the crud from the cover. “Look,” I said, “you think these are real rubies?” Red stones inset into the box’s top formed a circle. They glowed in the dim light.
Paul wiped sweat from his forehead. “Rubies? Right. I say screw it. We’re gonna sell this place anyway. Let the new owners deal with the mess. They’re going to bulldoze it all for development.”
My hand tightened on the cold, little box. “You really want to sell this place?”
Paul slapped dirt from his jeans and pulled at the cobwebs stuck to his shirt. “Why would we keep it? What the hell are we going to do with a run-down, old, citrus farm? Most of the trees were froze out when Father was a boy.”
I hated that he was right. “But this was the center of our family. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
He walked to the barn door and slid it open. The old slider groaned. We’d had a hell of a time getting it open this morning. He said, “Look. You’re younger. Maybe you remember it different. All I remember is coming out here for Thanksgiving and Christmas and listening to the stories about escaping the Nazis. And, of course, all the guilt about the ones that didn’t make it. Then there was the tension between Grandpa and Wolfgang. You’d almost think he wished Wolfgang hadn’t made it out.
“Guilt, the big, open wound in this family we all pretended didn’t exist. It oozed on everything. I get that all of that shit screwed them up, but they let it mess up their kids and grandkids. I won’t have it do the same to my family. I won’t.”
I didn’t want to hear this. Paul always blamed Grandpa and Uncle Wolfie for our family problems.
He went on, “Don’t you remember the fights Mom and Dad had about coming here?”
I pressed the cold box against my stomach. “No,” I lied.
Paul shook his head. “You’re never going to admit why Dad killed himself and Mom left, are you?”
I looked past Paul through the open door. The summer thunderstorm had past and steam rose from the gravel yard between the old farmhouse and the barn. “He killed himself, because he was depressed.”
“Exactly.” Paul stepped out into the yard. He looked up at the sky and then back at me. “And then we had to live in this hell hole. I don’t understand why you stayed as long as you did.”
“This was my home. My family was here.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets and shook his head. “You can keep whatever you want from here. I’m done with it. I’ll call the realtor in the morning. Are you sure you want to spend the night here?”
“I… I want to say goodbye.”
Paul said, “I did that years ago.” He turned and walked to his car.
I sat down on an old, wooden crate and waited for him to leave. I didn’t have any argument left in me. I pulled a bandana out of my back pocket and started rubbing the box. Maybe if I could rub away the decades worth of dirt, cobwebs, and rat piss, I could rub away some of the family stain of crazy. Paul’s car door slammed, the engine revved, and then tires crunched on the gravel as he drove away.
I got up and walked to the barn door. The rising haze of humidity softened the old farmhouse like something from a memory. It was two stories of whitewashed clapboard and a rusting tin roof. The screened porch that ran along the back of the house sagged.
I hadn’t seen Paul in a year and a half. I’d stocked the fridge with food and beer hoping he’d want to stay and talk. Be a family again for a few days. I was wrong. I stepped out into the sun and my boots crunched on the gravel as I headed for the house. Well, I could sit on the back porch, have a beer, and remember by myself.
I set the little box and my bandana on the table next to the rocker on the back porch and went into the kitchen. When we got back from the funeral, I’d put the flowers on the table. They drooped in the heat like they were too tired to stand. I closed the windows and turned on the little A/C unit that stuck out of the window above the sink. It’d be a while before the room cooled down. I took a beer out of the fridge and went back to the porch. I sat down in one of the rockers. The sky to the east was still a dark, gray-purple from the storm. I tossed the bottle cap into an old bucket and took a swig.
The porch’s old floorboards creaked too loudly as I rocked, or maybe the place was too quiet. It’d never been quiet when I was a kid. Grandma’s chickens would fuss with one another in the yard, arguing over a bug or announcing to the world they laid an egg. A dog always barked somewhere, and the milk cows offered up their opinion on something as they moved from the pasture to the barn. Now there were only weeds and they didn’t say much. My family was gone and the farm baked, empty, in the summer sun. Soon, it’d be scraped clean for neat little rows of houses. Neat little houses for neat little families. My family had never been neat.
I set my beer down on the table and picked up the box. Was it really filled with dust? I looked at the cover in the light. The red stones sure looked like rubies, but what did I know? I noticed something that looked like etching or engraving on the front edge. I wet my bandana with a bit of beer and rubbed it. The letters looked Greek or Russian. I had no idea what they meant.
I took another swig of beer and then looked back at the box. I pulled out my phone and searched for a translator app. I waited for it to download. The reception wasn’t very strong here in Live Oak and the only comm-tech in this house was a hundred-year-old, copper wire running to a rotary phone in the kitchen. My phone buzzed announcing the download and install was complete.
I snapped a photo and the little app chugged along. “Old Church Slavonic” came up on the screen along with the text it scanned from the photo. I looked from the screen back to the box. From what I could tell, it got all the letters right. What the hell was Old Church Slavonic? And why would an old, Jewish guy like Wolfgang have a box with it engraved on it?
A little button on the screen flashed at me, wanting to know if I wanted to translate it. I tapped yes. It started to blink as the little processor churned along sending information to a server somewhere. I took a sip of beer and waited. Nothing. I looked out at the empty farm; nothing but the skeletons of froze out citrus trees covered in vines. Why in the hell didn’t they ever plow those and replant? I emptied the bottle of beer. The screen was still blinking with happy little lights like some computer from a 1960s TV show.
I left it on the table and walked back into the kitchen. The A/C had pulled some of the humidity out of the air, but it really wasn’t cool yet. I pushed through the door into the living room and turned on that air conditioner too. Then decided to get the one upstairs in my bedroom going. That room always baked with the afternoon sun.
When I got back down to the kitchen, I grabbed another beer from the fridge and went back out to the porch. I don’t know why I kept looking out at the yard, the pasture, and the barn. Did I really expect something to change? I glanced down at the phone. Red text glowed on a little, black rectangle on the screen, To dust and from dust, dark love grows from the seed planted under the full moon.
“What the hell?” I whispered.
I picked up the box and gently opened it. “Oh shit!” I dropped it on the table and backed away. That wasn’t dust. It was ash—human ash. “What the fuck, Wolfgang?”
A few grains of ash had fallen out onto the table, but most of it had shifted to the right side. There was something shiny peeking out from the ash. I wasn’t sure I wanted to touch it. Maybe it was the stories told about people being burned in the camps, but the whole idea of human ash sent shivers down my spine.
I used the bandana to dust the ash off the table and back into the pewter box. I slipped my phone back into my pocket. I thought about shaking the little box to see if the object would come to the top of the ash, but I was too chicken. I didn’t want any more to spill out, or get on me.
I went into the kitchen and placed the box on the table. I didn’t like it. The physical remains of death in the middle of the family dinner table. Everyone that had sat around that table, everyone but Paul and me, had gone to dust. Death in the empty little house. The house that’d be smashed to dust itself in a few weeks.
“Oh, for God’s sake, get a grip.” I shook my head and got another beer from the fridge. I took a swig, then another. I put the bottle on the table and went to the cupboard on the right side of the sink. I took a plate down from the shelf and placed it on the table.
I picked up the box. It was still too cold. I shrugged and tipped it over the plate. The ash poured out. It reminded me of the sand in grandma’s old egg timer. I looked around the kitchen wondering if it was still here.
Tink. Tink. Tink.
Three hard objects fell out of the box. They had rolled down the little mound of ash and rested along the edge of the plate. In the center, a ruby about the size of my thumbnail glowed in the afternoon light. It was fashioned in the shape of a tear, or maybe a drop of blood.
I might have been tempted to take the ruby and examine it except for the other two objects on either side. Fangs. My uncle had a box with human ash, two fangs and a ruby in it. I sat down in a chair and reached for my beer.
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