Behold the Bones - Natalie C. Parker


Hear this the tale of Mad Mary Sweet,

Who crawled through the swamp on her hands and her feet,

In the wild lost her way,

Her voice it did fray,

And now she’s got none but her teeth.



It’s a family tradition: Once in every Craven’s memory, a child will be born on the day some other Craven dies. In the infinite loop of cosmic justice, that child will grow up to be killed by the birth of another. We call it the Craven Curse and every year on the anniversary of Grandpa’s death, we visit the family graveyard and listen to Uncle Jack recite the list of all those who have carried this fine tradition of death by birth forward.

That’s why every year, before they wish me happy birthday, my family hauls me to a backwoods graveyard to remind me that I, Candace Craven Pickens, killed my own grandpa.

The family plot is on the forested piece of Nanny Craven’s land. August is a brutal time to be tromping anywhere in Sticks, Louisiana, but a braided cover of pines makes it bearable. Nanny Craven is set up in a deluxe camping chair right next to Grandpa’s headstone; one of her bejeweled hands caresses the cold stone, the other grips a jar of Clary hooch. As Uncle Jack continues through the line of our cursed ancestors, Nanny alternately sips and pours a bit on Grandpa’s grave.

Nearly all of my living relations are here, crammed inside the low, wrought-iron fence that separates holy ground from regular old ground: twenty-three cousins—second cousins, double cousins, and cousins some-number-removed—two sets of aunts and uncles, my parents, and the bones of who knows how many ancestors. Everyone is dressed in their Sunday best but for footwear—only a fool would cut through the summer wood in anything less than a full boot. We’re an odd collection of Sunday hats and cowboy boots, button-up shirts and sweat stains.

We’ve been standing in this sticky heat for exactly thirty minutes and though we were a jubilant parade on our way here I can see tolerance draining from the faces of my near and distant kin. I can’t hardly blame them. The older ones keep their eyes glued to Jack, willing him to lose the spirit of telling this familiar tale, the younger ones slouch against gravestones and fiddle with the cell phones in their pockets, and the very youngest get away with playing a quiet game of hide-and-seek. The pervasive feeling is that we’ll be here until we’re ready for the very graves on which we stand. This is the sort of thing we do because we always have.

Jack lords over Grandpa’s grave like a pulpit. He abandoned his jacket first thing and now his sleeves are rolled to the elbow, his forearms are tanned and muscled, his hands broad and calloused. He speaks with the authority of someone who was there to witness the passing of each Craven.

“Louis Paul inherited the curse from his father and passed it on to his daughter. He was injured in a fishing accident and took ill from his wounds. On the day little Annemarie Craven was born, in the winter of 1788, our great-great-great-great grandfather passed away in his bed, God rest his soul,” he says with immense sympathy. “And as most of us well know, Annemarie did not have an easy life. Married at the young age of eleven, she was ill-treated by her husband. The poor girl ran away into the swamp one night and was never heard from again. Only when the death of her cousin Lettie-Rae coincided with the birth of Johnny Jacob Tatum did we understand that Annemarie had passed away when Lettie-Rae was born. She is the only soul not resting here in this very yard.”

In between each story, Aunt Daisy rattles a tambourine, and Nanny Craven solemnly tips a little hooch for Grandpa. It’s a waste of good hooch if you ask me, but nobody ever has or ever will.

The stories and sweat stains continue to grow. Finally, Jack reaches the tale of Solomon Craven, who fought in World War II as a young Army man, prized working with his hands, hunted gators and ducks and deer, and was tough as nails. His death took everyone by surprise, as did my birth, for which I was one month early.

“Dad was not a quiet man,” Jack says, frowning at the sudden quiver in his voice. He clears his throat. “And even in the face