Deep under the hot grass, the panting dogs, the flower beds, the grasping willows, the bottle caps and condoms, the grit, rubble and pipes, the starveling city earthworms, under the pure dark earth we lie.
But not so pure as it looks; no. This earth was disturbed, and disturbed again. Ottawa’s boneyards are temporary, their residents transient. Covered up, dug up, built over. Slow factories for stripping the flesh off; a cauldron would be quicker. The corpses go in, and the bones come out. Most of them.
We, the deepest bones, we were left behind.
This ground was sacred once. This boneyard was new when Canada was new, before Ottawa was its capital. There was a time when it was the clean, soft resting place for exhausted men and consumptive children.
Now they call it a dog park, when they call it anything.
The neighbourhood people, the ones who put signs in their lawns, who are proud of their little bit of history, they call it Macdonald Gardens, but that name means nothing to us. The students, who watch the fireworks drunk from the high ground here on our Queen’s birthday, call it the Boneyard. It is the best name.
Yet they do not think of us.
They have their little flower beds, covered in wood chips and, strangely, plastic flowers, laid there in the dry dirt with care by the ragged lady who thinks she is talking only to herself.
They have their picnics on the round hill: too round. Unsettlingly like a barrow, yet surely there are no bones there. No stones, there. There are no stones overhead to bear the names that even we have forgotten. The only stones are rocks mortared into the wall of the gazebo perched on the very top of the hill that is not a barrow.
Oh yes, and there is a small plaque, over there, in that corner shaded by new houses and young maples. The plaque bears the map of the four sections that once divided us neatly by Christian sect, because God could not, in fact, be trusted to sort us out.
sacred to the memory
but she turns and waves her hand
relict of late
he was a ship boy
by fleet or slow decay
departed this life Oct. 18, 1843
there are also interred here five stillborn children
1913: They are not good boys. No one would call them good boys. They are the products of indifferent pedagogy and bullying older brothers, never mind the raw material. But they are not quite old enough to be criminals. They are still collectors: collectors of stories about said older brothers, or borrowed from them; collectors of greasy feathers and bottle shards and marbles.
So when they find the first skull, they kick it not out of malice to the dead, not out of conscious disrespect to their families, not out of any antisocial impulse.
They do not consider how the families might feel to see the jawbone crack when it collides with the blunt toe of a small and shabby boot.
They have little enough empathy for the living, none to spare for the dead.
They do not muse on whether the skull’s occupant was or was not a fellow of infinite jest; they do not shiver at the foreshadowing of their own inevitable ends.
They do not kick it to make a point.
They kick it because it is there, and also because it is disgusting, and also because they want to see how long it will hold together.
They kick it, and score points in a desultory game, until the skull comes apart in three pieces and no longer holds any claim to spheroidity.
In the philosophy of a ten-year-old boy, the eschatological and the scatological merge.
And we, the dead, bear them on our backs, as we have done a million times. They play on our green grass while the sun slants indulgently over their tousled boy heads. And as they play they trip and scud and open the turf, and more bones tumble out.
Until one day, when Mr. Morningstar, a prominent resident of Besserer Street, decides he will walk in the new park they call Macdonald Gardens. He takes his dachshund with him, a yippy little thing that panics and dances when a small boy comes barrelling past, kicking up dust in the late afternoon light, his dirty face a delta of tears. Mr. Morningstar puts out one hand, grabs the boy by his collar and brings him to a stop that is not exactly gentle.
“And where are you off to so fast? Running from your parents or your master, I’ll warrant. Out with it, boy, you’re waiting here whether you tell me or not. No escaping them now.”
But the boy cannot form words in his terror.
Around the corner comes a bigger boy, old enough that in a couple of years he’ll be lying about his age and a couple of years after that dead in the mud at Passchendaele, with something that looks a great deal like a skull.
“Tell him he must put it away!” screams the smaller boy, the one whose grimy collar is still between Mr. Morningstar’s fingers. “Tell him to stop chasing me with it! I’m afraid of it, and I don’t care if they know it!”
Once the victim has been calmed and released, Mr. Morningstar confiscates the skull, but the sullen bully smirks and boasts he has nine more just like it at home.
“Where do you purchase such awful things?”
He shrugs. “Who needs to purchase em? I can get you one right now. Just let me get a strong stick and I’ll have one dug up in five minutes. I know all the best spots.”
Mr. Morningstar writes to his friend, an editor at the Ottawa Citizen, who makes inquiries of the Improvement Commission, which is responsible for the park.
“I do not see how it is possible,” says Mr. Stuart, the superintendent of the Improvement Commission. “We keep a caretaker there at night and are careful to sink down any remains that are found. We have already had to sink down more than five hundred relics. We were not aware that so many burials had been left there when the cemetery was closed in the last century. We were told nearly all the coffins had been transferred. We have nonetheless been diligent in dealing with the unpleasant reality, and I do not see how the boy could have been telling the truth.”
so teach us to number our days
I go to her but she shall not return to me
this silent marble weeps
age 9 years and 8 mos
killed by an accident in machinery
died drowning in Ottawa River
died in infancy
who died of cholera
We were laid in this ground when Bytown was small and nasty, and people hoped to live through the plagues of cholera and typhoid, and men carried truncheons in the dusty streets.
Later, the living started calling their town Ottawa. Scrub it up! Cover it up! Spit and polish! Strike an Improvement Commission! Tear up the train tracks! Tear down the slums! They were afraid of the past, unwilling to be reminded, not only of death, not only of disease, but of the outmoded varieties of death and disease. They did not want their pretty capital sullied with stories of bar brawls and cholera wharfs.
They did not want their dead so near.
So they dug their families up and moved them to where the dead seemed to want to be, to the outskirts. They pushed them and their filthy frontier stories beyond the limits of the new clean city, the city razed of its memories.
Shovels in the ground, lads! They pulled up clods of black earth with worms half-dangling out, stretching and retracting in their shiny pink skins. They rooted up skulls and bones, creaking coffins, bits of rotted fabric and rings. They carted them off across the splashing and treacherous Rideau River, to a new place. A pleasanter place, they said. Beechwood Cemetery is a lovely place, they said; you can see for a long way from there.
For some of the skeletons, it was their second uprooting. They had been buried, first, in even older boneyards. Again the living came with their shovels, and said the little city has grown again, it’s pushing you out, there’s no space for you here.
But some of us had no families left to haunt. No one to pay for the men to come and move us. And no one to care for us either. Our stones sank into the ground, our bones worked their way through to the surface, until finally the living, tut-tutting in their committees, buried all the leftover bones and stones deeper, deeper, deep enough to be forgotten.
We, the deepest bones, are here, forgotten, abandoned, while our fellows have long since settled into more hallowed ground. Some of us are part-skeletons; our feet lie in Beechwood and our heads lie here, as if we were giants.
Witches cannot cross running water, or so people said, once. What of ghosts? Which parcel of earth would they haunt, those ghosts attached to bones now exhumed and carted across the river?
We don’t know; we only know we haven’t seen them since.
Story copyright © 2014 by Kate Heartfield
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Luke Spooner
Kate Heartfield is a newspaper editor and fiction writer in Ottawa, Canada. In 2013, her short stories appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Black Treacle, Waylines, Postscripts to Darkness 4, and Spellbound. A ghost story, “Traveller, Take Me,” will appear soon in On Spec. Kate is working on a historical fantasy novel. She is on Twitter as @kateheartfield.
Luke Spooner a.k.a. “Carrion House” (artwork) currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.