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The Crying Bride

Is your tape still running? Oh, they don’t use tape anymore? That’s clever. Very good.

But really, you came all this way to interview me about the family and what happened to the land and now we’re talking about ghosts! Now, in the twenty-first century, the magic future century we were all promised? No. I don’t believe in ghosts because the crying bride never haunted us. God knows, if anyone had reason to, it was her. You might think that would worry me now that I’m pushing eighty-nine but it doesn’t. It might surprise you, young lady, to learn that I’m pretty satisfied with everything I’ve done.

Yes, Cecelia. I always think of her as the crying bride because that was what I called her when I was a little girl, before I learned her real name. She was in the photo album, white dress with the train piled all around her feet, white flowers clutched in white fingers, tear-trails clear as knife cuts down her face once you knew to look for them. Her name was scratched out of the spidery caption beneath the photo and neither Ma nor Grandma would say it. There were no other pictures of her and I’m not sure why Grandma kept that one, except that it was also a picture of Ma and her brothers all together, dressed up sharp as members of the wedding party, and it wasn’t too long after that that Uncle Robert—he was the best man—went in the Army and no one would ever be able to take a picture of all of them together again. No, he died in a Jeep accident.

Have you seen the photo? She was very beautiful. Here, let me get it for you.

Whew! Even that little bit of walking takes it out of me now. Anyway, you can see there, the tears. You might not notice them if you just flipped by the picture, but as I said, once you learn to see . . . This was the first picture I ever saw of a wedding, you know, and it sort of superimposed itself on all the weddings I saw afterward. I never could quite believe the smiles, or think that anyone was really happy to look at someone else and say yes, this is the end, there will never be anything better or new for me again.

Oh dear. I’m sure your wedding will be lovely, sweetheart. Anjali seems like a wonderful girl and anyway, things are quite different nowadays. Girls marrying girls is a fantastic idea, compared to some of the men we used to have to marry! But, you know. If you ever need anything from your old auntie, don’t hesitate to ask.

Okay, okay. Yes, the apple orchard, we’re coming to that. The first time I realized that it was important I must have been about eight. I know I was outside and I wasn’t allowed to come back in, because your uncle Don was a baby and I would wake him and because my father was working night shifts at the bottling plant and I would wake him.

It was drizzling a little, on and off, so I went to sit under the apple tree that stood away from the house—there was only one apple tree then, no orchard. I was a dreamy child. I would sit in the grass and pluck it and braid it, or I’d make up stories about people so tiny that I had to be careful not to crush them with the heel of my shoe. Or I’d listen to the mourning doves perched up there and pretend they were telling me secrets.

I got hungry. It was the Depression and a lot of children went hungry in those days, as I was reminded every dinner time that I turned up my nose at something, and I was very lucky that we all lived on Uncle Ray’s farm, and I didn’t really know what hungry was, and so on. But it made me fretful. And just when I was thinking that I’d risk sneaking into the kitchen and making a noise, an apple fell right out of the tree and into my lap.

It was all wrong and I knew it, too early in the year for apples. But it looked fresh and delicious and I ate it anyway. Afterward the tree was my friend, and I’d be under it even when it wasn’t raining—even when Ma hadn’t told me to go outside! When I wasn’t around she couldn’t make me do chores and I didn’t have to listen to Donny bawling or Ma and Dad and Uncle Ray all yelling at each other when they got in a mood. I was closer to understanding the mourning doves than ever, and when I was hungry an apple always fell.

Nothing good can last, of course. School started again and then the snow came and by the time spring warmed up enough to spend the weekends outside, Donny was old enough to come hang on my skirts all day long and bother me instead of Ma. Taking my daydreaming time away from me was the first great robbery he tried to commit, although I ignored him as much as I could without letting him fall into the well or wander into the road. And he wouldn’t stay under the tree for so much as a minute. He ran away, or he bawled if I tried to hold him there. When he got a little older he started throwing rocks at the mourning doves to make them flutter, though he couldn’t connect. Once I even gave him a bite of an apple but he spit it out.

The house and all the land where the orchard is now, it all belonged to Uncle Ray at that time, him being Ma’s oldest brother. Ma and Dad were renters, really, although how often rent got paid was one of the things they would ruckus about. Grandma lived just across two fields in the smaller house where Ma and all her brothers had grown up, before the family made good and the fancy new house got built for Uncle Ray and his bride.

Understand, your great-uncle Ray, he was a drunk. Whatever he may have been when he was the handsome young groom in that picture, by the time I was old enough to remember he was soaking in whiskey every night. The barn was fitted for milk cows but it was all Ray could do to plant the fields in corn and oats every spring and sell the crop every fall—the only livestock left were one cow that gave milk just for the family and a small flock of chickens, all tended by Ma because Ray was usually at the roadhouse by milking time and passed clean out in the morning when the eggs were laid. He wasn’t a mean drunk, really, except when he decided he needed that rent money to buy more whiskey. He was maudlin. Crying all night, singing sometimes. Starting long reminisces that Ma would cut off with a short sharp word. That frightened me more than meanness did, though I could never quite put my finger on why.

Yes, so one morning—I think this was not long after Dad lost his job at the bottling plant and the ruckusing got worse—I was up at dawn because I hadn’t slept for Ray’s singing. Everyone else could sleep through it, but not me. Outside my window the world looked new and secret in the colorless light and I knew that if Donny came grabbing at me and demanding and spoiling everything right then, while I was in that state, I’d call him a name I’d get whipped for saying. So I slipped outside before anyone else was awake and went to my tree.

There was something in the grass. It glinted and was gold though the sun wasn’t yet there to glint off of it and everything around it was still gray. I grabbed it like I was afraid it would slither away but it was just a chain, a fine gold chain and a little pendant the shape of the doves at church. I looked up. The real doves were there, and as if they’d just seen me they began talking again. I was dreamy with exhaustion and I could understand them then, they were telling me that I was better than this and could fly away with them.

I woke up in full sunlight, Dad carrying me back to the house. I got a whipping anyway for scaring everybody so much. But I never let go of that little gold chain, and I always wore it under my shirt so no one would ask where I got it.

From when I got the chain things seemed to go better for me at school. I’d been as daydreamy there as I was at home, before, and the teachers didn’t expect much of me. Now things started to make sense, as though someone was whispering in my ear, not just the answers, but how everything worked. Like they were showing me a map of the world and describing the path through to the heart of things, you know? Times tables stopped being arbitrary rows of numbers and became as obvious as how to put your foot down on the stairs. My third-grade teacher was surprised but she was pleased as punch. Ma and Dad too.

It didn’t take even a year before no one was surprised anymore when I got top marks. The teachers were still pleased but Ma and Dad . . . well, Dad forgot anything was ever pleasing, he was so down about the lack of work for an honest man. With Ma it was something different. She seemed . . . what the bird whispered to me was that she was suspicious, didn’t think it was a good thing that I was quite this smart. I couldn’t think what she might be suspicious of. It wasn’t like I cheated. But it was true, I could feel it, and more and more I thought the bird thoughts were my thoughts, now that I was smarter.

She was getting quite frantic that Dad couldn’t find a job, and yet Uncle Ray asked for rent more and more, to go up to the roadhouse with. She did the best that she could with selling eggs and the bit of milk that our one cow made, but that wasn’t much. One night Uncle Ray said that if Dad was no earthly use maybe we ought to head on out to ride the rails like hobos and though he was bouncing Donny as he said it—“how would you like that,” he said, “to be a little hobo boy?” and Donny laughed—he looked across at Ma and I saw the storm gather. And even though I dreamed of getting away from the farm, I hated Uncle Ray in that moment more than I’d ever hated anything. He’s always been this way, I thought, I was a fool not to see it before.

That night he didn’t go out to the roadhouse—no rent, no money, no whiskey. I suppose in hindsight his credit was long gone, or maybe even then he was too proud to take it. He sang all night, but I stuck to my room this time and tried to will myself to sleep. I suppose I must have slept, because I had a dream, and in the dream I was the Crying Bride. I was trapped in that dress and Uncle Ray was trying to kiss me as I turned and turned my face away from his breath because it smelled so terrible. I woke up hating him even more, and as sad as though whole world had disappeared. I couldn’t sleep even when he didn’t sing, after that.

Pretty soon Ma was scolding me for being cold and sour to Uncle Ray, even though I could tell she was still angry with him. It didn’t seem fair.

It must have been a month or so later that he rattled his Dodge—another relic from when we’d been some of the wealthiest farmers in the county, before I was born—into the garage when only I was awake, of everyone in the house. I listened for the slam of the door, dreading his singing, but it never came.

Go downstairs, something told me. Go out to the garage. When I got there I found the car still running and Uncle Ray slumped over the wheel, mumbling to himself and sounding less like a human than the mourning doves did. The necklace was on the outside of my nightgown—I liked to look at it at night when I couldn’t sleep—and when he lifted up his head his eyes locked onto it. He tried to stand and he tried to say something and he failed at both. He probably wouldn’t have remembered come morning but you never know. You have to be careful.

I looked him over and thought Good riddance and on my way out I stood tip-toe and stretched as high as I could to reach the cord on the garage door. It took my whole weight to close it but I managed.

I slept a long time that night and woke up in the morning to the sound of Ma shrieking worse than anything I’d ever heard, even when Donny was born. It’s funny, I barely remember the actual funeral except that it was long and Catholic and boring, and that there was no mention that Ray had ever been married, or a drunk for that matter. What I do remember is the slowly dawning realization that the farm was ours now. Uncle Ray had no wife and no children so everything went back to Grandma, and she was no more going to farm that place with hired hands than she was going to flap her wings and fly. It might sound funny that I’d done the one thing that could bind the farm to us tight when I wanted to get away, but I was young then and I still wanted Ma to smile. And going to live in a box car wouldn’t make my life any better. The last thing I wanted was to be cut off from my tree.

I was a naive kid and I was genuinely surprised that Ma wasn’t happier about all this. We wouldn’t be hobos, she wouldn’t have to cry and yell about the rent and ask why Uncle Ray didn’t sell the damn car if he needed money so bad, or that whore’s jewelry. But Ma wanted to do nothing but mourn with Grandma for the longest time. Once I went in to sit with them, and that was when I found out that they wouldn’t say Cecelia’s name, you know. They were looking at the photo album and Ma stabbed her finger down and said “It’s all her fault” and even though I knew she wasn’t talking about me I couldn’t help but shiver.

Grandma said “Aye,” grimly but that wasn’t enough for Ma. “He was happy before her. What did she trap him for if she didn’t even want him? He was never right after.”

“She wasn’t so smart as all that,” Grandma said, “no matter what they say. She never had no plan, she just wanted a bit of fun and got caught out.”

“I say she did it on purpose,” Ma insisted. “Thought she’d get the big house and all the land and fine things and good times with Ray. A lot of good it did her.”

Who would want all that, I thought. Good times sounded nice but there were none on the farm.

I’ll skip ahead a bit, I know when you’re being patient with an old woman. Years went by and the only thing that changed was that Ma seemed to be more and more suspicious of me doing so well in school. Part of that was Donny’s fault—he stayed her baby and he liked to call me a know-it-all and a teacher’s pet and say that I thought I was too good for the farm and my chores. Which I was, mind you, I wouldn’t have needed the necklace to see that! But Ma, well, I realized after a while that there was something wrong with Ma. She had loved her brother more than she loved what was right. Part of figuring that out was listening to her and Grandma, and part of it was what happened when I was nineteen, when your mother was born.

I’d gone off to college the year before, Cornell School of Agriculture on a full-ride scholarship. In those days women were for the School of Home Economics but the birds told me plant science and into plant science I went. My last gift from the apple tree before I left home was a cutting no longer than my pinky that I kept and tended like a child until I found a place to graft it in the spring.

My roommates took to calling me Janey Appleseed. I liked that well enough. When it came to fruit trees—not just apples, pears too and stone fruit and even berry bushes and grapevines—my hands could do no wrong. The professor who taught me Intro to Genetics asked me to marry him, but that was a snare I saw and leapt over. My roommates thought I was insane. He was thirty years old, and in their eyes, a real catch!

Anyway, I made my weekly long-distance call to Ma. I never mentioned the proposal, Lord how angry she’d have been if she knew I was turning down perfectly good proposals! She told me that after no less than a decade of Donny having it all his own way, there would be another baby in the family. A late-life surprise for Ma and Dad, and speaking of which, if I hadn’t have done what I did to Ray, Dad wouldn’t have got a farm deferment and you might not even be here now. So much for you looking all shocked! Ha!

I went home that summer to help Ma around the house—at thirty-eight she wasn’t as spry as she’d been, and Grandma was past being much help. But I soon realized I’d made a mistake. No matter how I tried, no matter how wise my hands had been at school, everything I did back home was wrong. I was trying, you know. Maybe not hard enough, but I was trying, until the day the gold chain slipped from under my blouse and the little gold bird was somehow on top of the fabric when I went to bring Ma her eggs at lunchtime.

As soon as she saw it she grabbed me by the chain, with more strength than she should have had, and I couldn’t pull away for fear of breaking it.

“Where did you get that,” she said in a voice that was not her voice, made of spite. “You treacherous little bitch, where did you get that necklace?”

“I found it,” I said, which was not a lie.

“Found it,” she mocked. “Stole it more like. That was your uncle Ray’s.”

I couldn’t help it. I laughed out loud at the thought of drunk, red-faced Ray wearing that fine chain, and since she’d pulled me in close I laughed right in her face.

She slapped me so hard that for a moment I was nothing but a flash of heat and darkness. But to do it she let go of the chain, and I got away.

“You know what happened to the last clever bitch who wore that necklace?” Ma said. “She’s buried out under the apple tree.”

I walked out of the room and that very afternoon I was on a bus back to Ithaca. I called up the professor who had wanted me to marry him and in a little bit he’d found me a rooming house and I had made only promises I’d never have to keep. The rest of that summer and the seasons after I plunged into my research, and when your mother was born I never heard about it but later I checked my notebooks and I’d grafted seven trees that day with cuttings from the first cutting I’d taken from the apple tree back home. Not a large number, only a lucky one.

It wasn’t just my roommates calling me Janey Appleseed in little while, it was my colleagues, then my students.

I did go home sometimes, never let anyone tell you I didn’t. Every few years I went back and the apple tree was still there, though apple trees do not live long and it was old when I sat beneath it as a child. I brought gifts to your mother and said stiff words to Ma and Dad and Donny. Grandma died, and that was another tedious Catholic ceremony. I graduated a bachelor, a master, a doctor, and no one came. Dad sent packages of beef and bacon and maple syrup though. I went home and I planted a little tree here, a little tree there. I surrounded the tree that was mine with fellows and friends, like the ones I’d found in my new life. If anyone noticed they said nothing.

I was a full professor by 1965, when your mother moved out and left Donny and Ma in their dreams of a future that would never return. Dad had died the year before, no Catholic ceremony there thank God because he’d decided somewhere along the line that he wanted to be cremated. He wasn’t a bad man, your grandfather. Not a good man, but he did his best.

I went home just after your mother left thinking it might be the last time. The porter at the train station complained about the weight of my luggage, and no wonder. I had a rock already carved, a piece of granite they’d denied her. Do you know how strange it feels to travel half the state by Amtrak with a tombstone in your bag, even a small one? Cecelia Trybusckewitz. No dates because I didn’t know them, and no words because I didn’t know them either. Just her name and a chiseled dove. So now you know where that came from.

In my chest, which the porter complained less about, were fifty cuttings from a tree that came from a tree that came from the first tree, the size of my pinky finger, and fifty small rootstocks to grow them on.

I planted the trees across every field for corn and oats. A normal tree they would have mowed over in the fall at harvest. Not mine. My hands could do no wrong. When I went away, I left your Uncle Donny with an orchard he’d never wanted, trees he could neither hew nor burn. There was not a damn thing you could do with them, really. The apples, if I must be honest, were on the bitter side for the first few years, although once the tree was mature they were heavenly sweet. Birds could live in them, if you cared about birds.

Donny, he had to grow up at last. Leave or starve, like I had. The land was no longer of any use to anyone, because it was just too damn embarrassing to admit you couldn’t clear a simple apple tree! Ma went with him. She wasn’t going to stay there with the rock I’d placed under that first tree, so near her kitchen window. She never spoke to me again.

Afterward . . . well, you know. It’s not like you came here without doing your research, you’re a good girl. But I had a good life, and went from strength to strength, from award to award, and was never burdened with husband nor child. And the vast orchard, when Donny threw up his hands at paying the taxes and it was mine, I turned it into a park, a place for birds. And I was never haunted for one single day.

I supposed I cheated you out of an inheritance if you ever wanted a few acres of the armpit of the agricultural world. Or I could give you something better.

Your could bury this necklace under the granite stone where it should have rested all along. Or you could take it and wear it, and set your foot on the path into the heart of things.

About the Author

Carrie Laben grew up in western New York and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. She now lives in Queens. Her work has appeared in such venues as Birding, The Dark, Indiana Review, Okey-Panky, and Outlook Springs. In 2017 she won the Shirley Jackson Award in Short Fiction for her story “Postcards from Natalie” and Duke University’s Documentary Essay Prize for “The Wrong Place.” In 2018 she was a MacDowell Fellow.