Burials – Author Notes
I have always thought that a crime novel misses a great opportunity when it fails to confront the gravity of the murder that is its reason for being. When a story kicks off with a shocking murder but never tells you much about the victim, readers notice. When a dead body that had been a real, living human just a day before slides into a morgue drawer, readers want to feel something. If the storyline never shows us the hole left by a person’s sudden death—orphaned children, grieving families, important tasks that are no longer being done—then the book suffers. In Burials, I do a deep dive into a murder’s impact on the small group of people who cared about the woman who died, Dr. Sophia Townsend.
Burials doesn’t glorify Sophia, and neither do her mourners. She was a prickly woman with a legendary temper. She was unabashedly promiscuous, and she used her palpable physical appeal to control everyone around her. She destroyed marriages, and at least one innocent child suffered because of the things she did.
And yet there remain the questions. Did she deserve to die at just 37? Did she deserve to lie in an unmarked grave until there was nothing left of her but bones stained red by the Oklahoma clay?
No. She didn’t. Even the people she hurt don’t think she deserved what happened to her.
In Burials, archaeologist Faye Longchamp is driven to find out to find out how Sophia really died. She has been hired as a forensic consultant for the murder investigation, so that’s her job, but this contract is more than a job for her. She is driven by her innate desire for justice, and she is driven by her fear that Joe’s beloved but complicated father Sly will be blamed for the murder. Perhaps she is driven by her fear that Sly deserves that blame. It is possible that she has unearthed a collection of bones that will put him back in the penitentiary for the rest of his life.
Faye’s single-minded pursuit of justice for Sophia carries her into shaky ethical territory, and her actions threaten the one thing in her life that she had thought was unshakable: her marriage. Has Sophia Townsend reached beyond the grave to destroy one last home? Is anyone ever truly dead and gone?
Burials – Chapter 1
Powerful forces are constantly at work on a human body that is buried under five feet of red clay. Every cubic foot of that clay weighs a hundred pounds. For simplicity’s sake, presume that the body is six feet long. No, make that five feet long, because this body once belonged to a woman, and a small one, at that.
Perhaps her buried form was two feet across at its widest point. It was probably less, but let’s use two feet for convenience. Thus, she’d offered ten square feet of surface area to the five-foot depth of the clay soil that had crushed her. Simple math says that this fifty cubic feet of soil had weighed—and still weigh to this day—five thousand pounds.
It weighed two and a half tons.
Two and a half tons of downward force will break bones. It will press the flesh from those bones. It will force the air out of decomposing lungs.
Over the years, the overbearing clay moved ceaselessly, swelling when wet and shrinking when dry. Every rainstorm shifted the clay. Some of the motion was vertical. Some of it was lateral. This slow shimmy had disarticulated her bones, leaving them in a configuration that was almost the natural shape of a woman who lay on her bed asleep, but not quite.
The clay had dyed her bones red.
Still she waited for someone to find her. Had she been able to wonder, she would have wondered whether anyone had ever even noticed she was gone.
Twenty-nine years is a long time to go without a proper burial.
Faye Longchamp-Mantooth sat with her knees pressed against the airplane seat in front of her. Her husband Joe’s lanky legs were encroaching seriously on the tiny personal space a major airline considered ample for a full-grown adult, but where else could he put them? Faye and Joe had jammed themselves into these seats because some requests can be sidestepped and some cannot.
When a friend asks for help moving, there are ways around saying yes, but when a man’s father calls and says to him, “I’m ready to scatter your mother’s ashes,” there is no honorable way to say, “Gee, Dad, let me check my calendar. I’m not sure I can get on a plane to you any time soon.”
Joe would hate it if Faye said so, but he looked so much like his dad. They had the same bone structure, straight browbones, strong jaws, broad shoulders, sturdy legs. Their eye colors were different—Sly’s were black, while Joe had his mother’s green eyes—but their sharp gazes were the same.
Faye hoped her husband was happy to be making the trip from Florida to Oklahoma to see Sly, but he hadn’t said a word since the “Fasten Your Seatbelts” sign came on.
Joe Wolf Mantooth hadn’t been home since he was eighteen. He’d left on foot when his mother’s body was hardly cold. His abortive attempt to say good-bye to his father had gone so poorly that Joe was never sure whether the man actually understood that his son was going away.
He’d found Faye in Florida. With her help, he’d gotten an education, had kids, built a business. Together, they’d made the first home he had known since his mother died.
Joe had been past thirty before he boarded his first airplane. Now he sat beside his educated and accomplished wife, munching stale pretzels like a man who belonged in the sky. He knew intellectually that he was successful in all the ways that mattered, but he didn’t feel it. All he felt was regret that his mother would never know how far he had come.
Joe looked down at the countryside, dun-green agricultural squares crossed with the random dark squiggles of a tree-lined creek. When they got to Oklahoma, the dirt would be red where the creeks cut into it, so red that he’d be able to see it all the way up here in the sky. In all her days, his mother never set foot on an airplane. She would have been transfixed by the sight of the natural world from this unnatural angle.
Joe’s memories of his mother smelled like biscuits and gravy. She had possessed the poor woman’s knack for miracles, so she’d been able to turn flour and grease into a meal that tasted like love. But once the meal was over, she had never lingered inside where the air was old and musty. She’d gone outside and she’d taken her only child with her.
Sometimes, Joe’s father had been there as they sat with their feet in the creek, watching minnows flit around their ankles through clear water stained tea-brown by fallen oak leaves and pine needles. More often than not, he’d been on the road, doing what truckers do. When Joe missed his mother, he went outside and found a place to put his feet in cool water, and it usually made him feel better. He could not believe that his father had kept that woman’s ashes indoors all this time, cooped up in a cheap urn.
Fifteen years is a long time to go without a proper burial.