A tall figure stood at the gravesite, a backpack at his feet. “Talk to me,” he said. “Tell me something.” He knelt to touch the curved branches of a weeping willow carved on the stone, then spoke again, “You died so young.”

Jenny approached him warily. “Who are you talking to?” she said.

Startled, he popped up, “I’m talking to Ottoline.” He indicated the headstone. Ottoline Schreiber was inscribed on the marker in a Gothic font, barnacled with serifs. 1969 – 2005.

“Why on earth are you talking to my dead mother?”

The man was mid-thirties, about Jenny’s age, nice looking in a disheveled sort of way, a head of unruly brown curls drawing her eye away from his craggy features. He was definitely not some long-lost brother or other relative, mourning belatedly. The Schreibers were all short and blond. “By the way,” she added, “it’s not Ottoline, like a line. It’s Ottoline, like Lynn.”

He turned to her, all elbows and awkwardness. “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

She crossed her arms and waited for an explanation. When none was forthcoming, she said, “She’s not going to answer you, you know.”

He shrugged, “One can always hope. Sometimes they do.”


“Oh,” he said; “Yes. Sorry. I didn’t explain.”

“No, you didn’t. Please do.”

“I’m a writer. When I need inspiration, I walk over to this cemetery and wander around until a particular name or gravestone catches my attention. Then I try to imagine what their life might have been like. Sometimes it gives me a story. Or a strand of a story. Sometimes not.”

“So, you’re kind of a grave robber?”

“No. It’s just that stories need characters and conflict, and here I’ve got both. I think maybe death is the source of all conflict, ultimately. Our awareness of it, anyway.”

Jenny wasn’t sure if he was deep or just weird. He was interesting; she’d have to give him that; “So why did you choose my mother’s grave?”

“Um. Yes. Her name. It’s lovely. It’s even lovelier that way you say it.” He looked away; “Also, she died young. That’s the beginning of a story.” He seemed to realize something, “Oh. Of course. I’m sorry you lost your mother so young.”

Jenny looked at him; “Your social skills are a little rusty.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“What story are you planning to tell about my dead mother?”

“Not planning. Yet. And not about your mother. About a woman named Ottoline who died young.” By now they were standing side by side, looking at the grave as if grieving together. “The weeping willow is an ancient mourning symbol,” he said.

Why did men do this – lecture you? Assume you didn’t know what they knew, assume you’d want to know; “Not just because of the weeping, which is kind of a visual pun on a gravestone.”

A pun? On her mother’s grave. Every time she softened toward this odd person, he said something off-putting.

He seemed to realize his clumsiness, shook his head, took a breath, started again, “Aside from any Biblical context, willows are symbols of immortality. They can suffer significant storm damage, and still regenerate fully as long as their root system remains unharmed. Cuttings from willow trees can grow into new trees even if they’ve been left on the ground for months, even if they’re planted upside down.”

Jenny herself was a cutting from a storm-torn willow tree, left abandoned on the ground – at least that’s how it felt – after her mother’s death. Her father was long gone, and her mother’s family was all elsewhere, a distance of place and interest. She had planted herself in the stony soil of her life, and … oh shit. Tears. Why now, after all this time? Not now. Please, not now. Her cheeks were wet, her eyes were red, her nose was red, and soon she would start gasping. She dug in her purse for a tissue. Now desperate, she was tossing purse debris on the ground – a small brush, some receipts, an old cough drop, a candy bar, pens and pencils, an emery board. Finally, a Kleenex.

“Oh, no.” He took a half step toward her, then backed up the same half step; “I’m sorry. Is it what I said? I didn’t mean to upset you. I don’t know what I said to make this happen.” He bent his lanky frame toward the ground and started to gather the jetsam. “Here,” he said, his arm extended, the assemblage of purse detritus piled in his large hand; “Oh. I have some water. I haven’t opened it yet.” The cohort of pens, receipts, et al dropped back to the ground as he reached into his backpack for the bottle of water.

This time she bent over to retrieve the contents of her purse. She accepted the water, drank long and thirstily from the bottle, sprinkled a bit of water on her face and neck, and moved to sit on a nearby bench. “Don’t you dare walk away,” she said, even though he hadn’t moved; “You owe me. Tell me a story about the woman who isn’t my mother.” The woman who didn’t drive her car into a tree when she was 36, leaving behind a fifteen-year-old who lived with her best friend’s family until she graduated from high school, got an apartment and two jobs, but didn’t get a life.

“Tell me something about your mother.”

“No. Your story’s not about her. Besides, you already know the most important thing. She died young.”

He shook his head.

“Please,” she said.

He went back to the grave for several minutes. She heard him mumbling, “Talk to me, Ottoline.” He pronounced it as she had corrected him; “Tell me something. Anything.” After a long while, he said, “Okay, it’s a mystery. It could be an illness, an accident, a suicide, a murder. The story could be a lover’s quest to find out what actually happened. Hmmm. The lover was out of the country when she died, so not a lingering illness. He feels guilty – he traveled often on business. It was a point of contention between them. They did not part on good terms. He had rushed off to see if he could save his business. On the brink of depression, she had begged him to stay, just this once. Or maybe she discovers it’s not really a business trip. So. Maybe a suicide, an accident that wasn’t accidental.”

“That’s enough.” Jenny’s voice sharpened. She gulped the rest of the water; “Tell me a different one.”

“Last name’s German, but Ottoline is a French name. I looked it up. So maybe she’s from Alsace Lorraine, half German and half French. We’ll ignore the dates. She’s a war bride. An American soldier had been injured, stranded behind enemy lines. She found him, nursed him, hid him. She’d submitted to the unwelcome attentions of the town constable, to distract him from searching the house and barn. She never told the soldier, later her husband. The constable had been cruel, had injured her somehow – I’d have to do some research. Eventually, she dies of some aftereffect. The doctor says something to the husband, who goes to Germany to find the constable.”

Jenny had stopped listening. His voice on a loop in her head said, “Maybe a suicide, an accident that wasn’t accidental.” Was that true of her mother? Although she rarely drank, she’d been drinking that night. Why? And why did any of it matter now? After it happened, it was all Jenny could do to get through the day. She kept pushing herself forward. Looking back was like looking over the edge of a cliff, a vertigo she couldn’t afford.

“Can I stop now?” He walked over and sat beside her on the bench; “It’s just how I get my ideas. Once I start writing, the stories take over. The result might be utterly different from what I thought I’d be writing. But I never use the first and last name from the same grave. I won’t use the name Ottoline if you don’t want me to.” But his voice lingered on the last consonant as if he were loath to let it go; “Let me buy you a coffee or something. There are so many ideas churning in my head now. You. You are, well, an inspiration, I guess.” He looked at her with a kind of eagerness, “I’m bad at this, aren’t I? On the page is the only place I have any grace at all.”

“Yes. And no, we won’t be having coffee. I don’t want my personal grief splashed all over your pages. And no, please don’t use my mother’s name. There are thousands of graves here. Find another name.”

He nodded, chastened. He moved as if to touch her arm, thought better of it, and backed away.

After he was gone, Jenny went back to the grave. “Talk to me, Mom,” she said. “Tell me something.”


Michele Ruby’s fiction appeared in Literal Latte (short-shorts contest winner), Arts&Letters (fiction prize winner), Adirondack Review (Fulton Prize finalist), Ellery Queen, Shenandoah, among others, and in Lilith’s first print anthology Frankly Feminist. Story collections were finalists for the Flannery O’Connor, St. Lawrence, Hudson Prize, Press 53, and Autumn House awards.