They all bring flowers. Sometimes Hadley finds roses wrapped in green florist’s paper, but mostly they bring a single bloom like a cornflower or blue bell to commemorate an individual life. They put them just outside her small wrought iron fence, bestowing their gifts near the miracle, or chudo, as the Ukrainian say.
They are here to witness sightings of Hadley’s recently departed husband near the grave-like depression in her front yard. Olga, Hadley’s next-door neighbor, turned her lawn into a religious curiosity weeks ago by claiming to see Erik in the yard.
“He was sitting down,” she said in her heavily accented Ukrainian accent. “But he looked up at me and smiled. He looked the same, wearing those torn blue jeans and a t-shirt with some music group on the front.” Since the sighting, Olga, who is 72 but claims to be closer to 80, has been miraculously cured from a debilitating hip ailment that plagued her for years.
The people – Hadley thinks of them as supplicants – cluster in groups outside her house. She doesn’t know them, the mothers with their dark haired children in braids and babushkas in housecoats who have lived in the Ukrainian Village for decades and yet still somehow inhabit the Old World.
Last week Hadley found a folding table in the storage shed and placed a pitcher of water and some jelly glasses on it. Even though she doesn’t welcome this newfound attention, she feels some responsibility. Throughout the day and into the night someone is there. Last night Hadley walked to the front dormer window and looked down. A young woman sat with her head cradled in the crook of her arm. Hadley thought she was asleep until the woman moved. Hadley walked out the front door carrying a light blanket.
“You might get chilly out here,” she said, holding out the blanket.
“Thank you,” the woman replied, settling the warmth around her shoulders.
“Doesn’t it make you nervous, being out here alone?” Hadley asked, looking down the quiet street.
“Oh no,” the woman said in a clipped Polish accent. “He will take care of me.”
“Who?” Hadley asked.
The woman smiled. “Your husband. He will protect me. I have very bad multiple sclerosis. I can’t afford the medicines much longer, but he will heal me. I know it.”
“Keep the blanket,” Hadley told her, walking back into her house past the open ground carrying her unbelief along with her.
Hadley hasn’t told anyone about the letter she received from the City of Chicago’s office, but it’s why she brings Gabriel, a yard specialist from Home Depot, over to her house. Gabriel smells like a combination of sweat and coconut oil when he settles into her car. Hadley can’t decide his age because his face is lined from overexposure to the sun. His brown eyes watch her watching him.
“So what’s your project? Let me guess. You want help planting flowers?”
“One more try,” he says. “You want to install a pool and need help with the landscaping.”
“No. You’re not going to figure it out. My husband was recently killed,” she begins.
“I am sorry.”
“Thanks,” she automatically replies. “Then some kind of a sinkhole appeared in my front yard. It looks like a grave. I don’t know the depth. Maybe three feet down. And then my neighbor claims to have seen my husband since he died.” She doesn’t think the healing claim is relevant to the project.
“Do you believe her?”
That’s something she doesn’t want to answer. Erik said her idea of religion was based on her beloved Victorians. Research for her latest publication was the excuse for staying at home on Sunday mornings when he went to church. He tried to coax her to go along but she refused. He went to a different one each week and returned home talking about architectural details of Saints Voldodymyr’s domed ceiling or the craftsmanship displayed in Louis Sullivan’s design of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Lately Hadley hasn’t been able to concentrate on her research and misses the solace it normally provides. But she can’t even bring herself to focus on the Victorian’s beliefs.
“It doesn’t matter,” she replies, turning onto North Avenue. They park in the alley behind the house and walk through the narrow passage between her house and Olga’s next door. The patchy shade is a welcome relief from the June sun.
“What’s going on over there?” Gabriel asks, pointing.
“Those are things she doesn’t use anymore.” Hadley glances at Olga’s backyard and notices a pair of brown orthopedic shoes perched on top of an ancient steamer trunk next to a naked mannequin who’s missing a leg. She’s lying on the ground with her plastic hands twisted up towards the sky.
“Why does she leave that stuff outside?”
“People know if it’s in the backyard, they can take it. She’s the one who saw my husband,” she adds.
“That’s the woman these people listen to?” he scoffs.
When they reach the front yard, she waves to the group of women standing at the gate. They wave back and carefully watch Hadley and Gabriel, as if they shouldn’t be so close to the shrine.
Gabriel holds the Cubs hat in his hands, paying respect to her yard while staring down into the hole. His black hair is flattened in sweaty peaks where the cap dented it.
“Erik spent hours on that patch of grass. He would’ve noticed if the ground began separating from the house’s foundation,” Hadley tells him in a low voice.
“What do you need me to do?” he quietly asks.
“The letter I received from the City told me I needed to have this looked at to see if the damage might extend to the sidewalk and harm City property.”
“OK, I can take a look, but do those people have to stay back there?”
“I don’t know how to make them leave.”
He clomps toward the back of the house in ridiculous high top sneakers. About ten minutes later Hadley watches from the living room as Gabriel reaches the front yard holding a notepad. He seems to be drawing. She watches his pen move in quick, assured strokes over the page. One of the women asks him something. Hadley can’t understand what she’s saying, but her voice gets louder. Hadley steps onto the tiny front porch.
“It feels safer with you out here,” he says.
She knows what he means. The women make her anxious with their faith. They believe in her husband with a conviction that astounds her. It’s as if their belief in the sacredness of this place trumps any property rights – including Hadley’s memory of the living, breathing person her husband had been.
Hadley looks at the women and smiles at them. “He will be careful,” she says, unsure of the meaning behind her words. “Don’t worry.”
Gabriel sidles over to the sidewalk. His hat is back on his head pulled down low. One of the women points an accusing index finger at him and mutters something. He ignores her and kneels down by the edge of the yard against the fence. Hadley watches him smooth the dirt with his fingers before standing up and walking back to the edge. He’s careful to stay on his haunches and doesn’t reach down toward the grave.
Olga rides past the house on her bicycle and stops when she sees them in the yard. The women scoot over to give her room.
“Hi Olga,” Hadley says, wishing she was inside. Even before Erik’s death and subsequent sighting, she had avoided her neighbor. Rumor had it she kept illegals from the Ukraine in her house. Hadley had tried to look in the basement windows, but they were dusty from years of neglect. Through the gloomy film, she had only been able to glimpse a woman sitting in a rocking chair. It could’ve been Olga, but the woman seemed taller.
“Gabriel. He’s looking at the sinkhole.”
“You mean the gravesite,” Olga corrects.
Hadley remembers Erik defending Olga. “Loneliness can do awful things to people,” he had told her.
“Why does he need to do that?” Olga asks with possessiveness, glaring at Gabriel’s back. He remains impassively hunched over.
Hadley sighs. “He’s just making sure the house isn’t going to fall down,” she says.
“These houses were built by people from Ukraine!” Olga says angrily. “It is strong like me. Your husband healed me. Look! No more hip problems.” She bends down in a downward facing dog yoga posture. The women clap.
“You better go and check on that guy,” Olga says, after she’s right side up again. “He might try something over there.”
Grateful for the unexpected escape, Hadley turns around and walks over to Gabriel.
“Do you want to know?” he asks as she kneels next to him. They both stare down into the hole. It seems even larger today, as if it might swallow the left side of her house. She digs her fingers into a small plot of grass.
“I can’t find any reason for this to happen. You don’t have a sprinkler in the yard. Usually too much water causes sinkholes. And we haven’t had nearly enough rain to cause something like this.”
He points to the notepad. “I surveyed your house. The foundation isn’t uneven. I can’t see that the ground has shifted.”
“Ok,” she says, hugging her knees to her chest. Her long dark hair tilts forward in a curtain around her face.
“Has there been any roadwork done around here?” he asks. “Sometimes vibrations can cause these kinds of problems.”
“No. No construction,” she replies. “So what’s the diagnosis?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“And?” she asks, turning toward him.
He shrugs. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
She laughs. “You mean this is some sort of supernatural aberration?” Hadley looks over at the group of five women. She wants to scare them away. Every day when she sees them is a physical reminder that Erik isn’t here. Instead she has an immigrant nation.
“Maybe. I mean just the crazy lady seeing him wouldn’t be enough, but then with this…”
“There’s got to be something you can do,” she insists.
“I can take soil samples,” he says.
“Whatever. Just please do something.”
“Can I ask what happened to your husband?” Gabriel removes the hat and twists it in his hands staring down at the Cubs logo.
Hadley remembers Erik in the yard, smiling. “I’ll be right back, just have to get some more bulbs,” Hadley glancing up from one of her damned papers, nodding, “see you soon.” The phone rang several times before Hadley had risen from the porch. It had been an unfamiliar voice telling her to meet him at Rush University, which confused Hadley because that’s where Erik worked. “He had to perform surgery?” she asked, unable to understand “he’s in surgery.” Later, sitting alone on the roof of the hospital, wearing Erik’s lab coat that smelled like his cologne and cigarettes, tennis shoes dangling over the edge, she had watched the first nightfall over the city without him in it. She wondered what reason she could find to continue without him. She’s still looking.
“Are you all right?” Gabriel asks.
She feels his hand touch her wrist. Gabriel slowly lifts his hand from her arm and she sees a smudge of dirt where his fingers had been.
“Erik was hit by an elderly woman driving an SUV. Her license had been taken away last year, but she filched her daughter’s keys and took off. She didn’t even have a destination in mind. When the cops pulled her over, she just said that she wanted to go somewhere by herself instead of her daughter ferrying her around.”
“I am so,” he begins.
“I can’t imagine the impact,” she says, interrupting him. “I don’t know how the car must’ve felt against his body. I don’t know if he was conscious before someone called an ambulance.” She glances over at Gabriel as he stands up. “You probably don’t want to hear that.”
“I don’t know what to say,” he answers.
“It’s ok. Go ahead and take your soil samples. I’ll stay here.”
Hadley remains by the sinkhole – tomb– she thinks. While it’s still here, the least she can do is try to pretend Erik is nearby. She thinks about how afraid the Victorians were of being buried alive. Last semester she had given a lecture devoted to their fear. Many had bells placed outside of graves in case they awoke under the surface with a string stretching upwards from the casket. Men were hired to sit outside of new graves through the night in case the bell rang. That’s what I’m doing now, Hadley thinks, with her feet propped on a ledge of dirt. I’m waiting along with the women, just in case he reappears.