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The Fiction Issue 2008

We’re Watching the Trees

Millie Anthony is 38. Middle of the night. Lying there in the still bedroom, looking toward the window. A man called Jeff lies beside her. “We’re watching the trees again,” she says.

This story originally appeared in our June 2014 fiction issue.

Photo by Rhiannon Adam

Millie Anthony is 38. Middle of the night. Lying there in the still bedroom, looking toward the window. A man called Jeff lies beside her. “We’re watching the trees again,” she says. Nine seconds pass before he says, “Yes.”

And there they lie for 53 minutes more until they fall asleep. It’s 3:47.

Millie’s up first and is in the kitchen sitting at the table. Six minutes later Jeff appears. Takes a cup from a cupboard. Goes to the stove and pours himself coffee from the pot. Sits at the table. They look at each other. He sips. “Need some wood,” he says. Finishes his coffee. Gets up. Millie says, “Maybe we should go into town later.” “OK,” he says, and goes outside. Theirs is a remote house with land. Middle of nowhere. Without breaking stride he picks up the ax. Is moving toward trees. The song “Bernadette” by the Four Tops playing in his head: “People are searching for…” Before he reaches the “spot” he decides he’ll resist looking at it. He won’t look at the patch of ground, that patch of ground—and doesn’t. Walks right on by it. “The kind of love that we possess…” He hacks down a few branches. Then chops them into logs. Picks them up and walks back toward the house. Drops the ax. Goes back inside.


It’s a small nothing town. Little more than a main drag with a few streets off it. There are four coffee places—used to be six—and they’ve chosen the least popular. Worst coffee, fewest people. Millie and Jeff share a red leatherette booth. And there they are. He sort of smiles at her. She looks at his face. His eyes. His ear. Her cup. And says, “I think we should move it.” Twenty-seven seconds pass. He’s not smiling now. “Maybe,” he says. Sipping. Coffee. Millie and Jeff. “Might need a new shovel—that one’s on its last legs,” he says.

They’re walking down a side street toward the hardware store. Approaching it. “Keep walking,” he says. “Let’s not do that.” They don’t buy a new shovel. They go to their car. And drive home.

It’s evening, and they’re both standing outside the kitchen as the sun dips and the gloaming seeps in. Jeff looks like he’s about to speak. And does. “OK, let’s think about this. If we do do this—and I’m not sayin’ we shouldn’t—we have to be very precise. Very… mindful. Seventeen million percent. Plan it. And do it. And just do it right. He’s been in there four years.” She’s quick, Millie, sharp. “Not ‘he’—‘it.’ ‘It’ has been in there four years. ‘It.’” “OK, ‘it,’” he says.

He sips his beer. “When? Tomorrow?” Looking at each other. Millie says, “Tonight.” Jeff thinking. “Inkling Woods,” she says. “Forty-minute drive. Deep in there nobody goes.”

“We’ve been there,” he says. She’s staring at the patch. Millie staring at the spot. At the end of the garden. “Yeah, but we’re not ‘people,’” she says.


He’s checked the oil. Topped up the water. Filled it with gas. And he’s driving. Alone. It’s gone nine. Pulls off the highway. Toward the woods. Just him. No other cars. Eases off the road. Onto grass. Slowing. Now hits the brakes hard. The back wheels slide. Carve into the grass. Exposing mud. He’ll be parking here again. Here exactly. Sits. This is just a maneuver, he thinks, a transportation. No big deal. Steeling himself. To dig. Eventually he gets out. Goes to the trunk. Takes out a flashlight. Picks up binoculars, hangs them around his neck. Picks up a small camera. Slips it into his pocket. Picks up a book, Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Takes the old shovel in his other hand. Closes the trunk. Has a good look around. Removes the camera. Photographs forward. East. South. And west. Re-pockets it. Enters the woods. It’s gray in there. There’s a sliver of moon in the sky. Smells good. Now and then a few birds flap above in the trees. Wood pigeons, probably. Flapping. Jeff passes 36 pine trees. Fourteen common oaks. Eight scarlet oaks. Twenty-four yews. All of these numbers and types he scribbles down in a notebook. By flashlight. He will need to find this place again. He stops. “OK,” he says. And he begins to dig the grave.

Millie’s in the bedroom. She’s showered. Wet hair. Naked. Standing in front of the mirror. Staring at her face. Her body. Her self. She runs her thumb softly across the faint, silvery five-inch scar that tracks from her collar bone toward her chest. Frank’s scar. From beating number four. The last one. She can hear the sound of Jeff’s car returning. Staring at herself in the mirror. Watching her face. Millie. Millie says, “Ha.” Forces herself to smile at herself. Walks to the bed. Pulls on her jeans. A sweatshirt. Boots.


Jeff in the kitchen. Standing. And Millie comes in. Looking at each other. “You OK?” he says. She nods. “You?” “I’m fine.” Millie says, “Are you hungry?” “I’ll eat later,” he says; “let’s dig him up—‘it’ up.” He smiles at her. She smiles back. “Could be grisly,” he says—“four years.”

At the patch. At the spot. The shovel easing into the earth. And out. And in. Jeff digging. Millie watching. A different sound. Jeff stops. Staring down. Millie comes closer. Jeff digs more. Gently, carefully. Like an archaeologist. See a dirty-white shower-curtain ring. Using the shovel like a broom. Lightly sweeping. Scraping. Now the grimy plastic shower-curtain shroud. Frank’s body inside. Nothing of him visible. Just a shape. Frank the Mummy. Jeff takes a break. Is breathing heavily. And into his head comes Levi Stubbs singing. That last imploring cry: “Bernadette!” He looks at Millie. With such love. Resumes digging.

Together they manage to ease the shape out of the ground. Prize it out. Both panting. They’ve been here before, but it’s easier now. What weighed 200 pounds has become less than 80.

The smell—faint but there. Hanging. Hovering. A note of a smell. Fungal yet sweet. Almondy. Icing sugar-ish. No, not that. It is what it is—the smell of dead husband.

Jeff says, “Can you get some old newspapers and line the trunk?” Millie goes into the house. Jeff looks at the body. “Gonna lift you up now, pal.” He said that before. Four years ago. Gets the thing onto his shoulder. Like a dead mouse, he thinks, a big dead mouse. Takes it to the car. Millie finishing lining the trunk. Jeff drops the body into it. Onto the newspapers. It lands with a small sound. A dull sigh. They look at each other. He slams the trunk shut. Millie gets into the passenger seat. Clips the seat belt. Sits. Jeff gets in. Starts the engine.


On the road. Driving. Millie says, “Let’s go someplace. Get a beer.” “You serious?” he says. “Get a beer, listen to some music, have some fun.” He’s looking at her. Driving. Looking at Millie’s face. He laughs. “No, let’s not do that. Let’s do that sometime else.” She shrugs.

So they come to the woods. Park in the same place. Jeff gets the dead thing onto his shoulder, and they go in. It’s darker. Smoky clouds block the moon. But Millie has the flashlight, and tree by tree they find the newly dug hole. Flop the body into it. Shovel earth onto it. Cover it with leaves, twigs, moss. And it’s done.

They walk back to the car. “It’s not that way—it’s this,” he says. “Are you sure?” she says. “Yes,” he says. And he’s right. They reach the car. Get in. “He’s farther away now,” Jeff says. Millie fixing her seat belt. Saying nothing. “When we get back we burn the newspapers and fill in the hole.” She nods. Jeff starts the car. Says, “And that’s that.” They head home. It’s 1:57 AM.

Millie Anthony lies in bed. The room is still. Her eyes are open. Jeff, beside her, is asleep. Not snoring exactly, just breathing deeply. In and out. In and out. She can see the tree outside the window. Swaying tinily. Sometimes brushing across the glass pane. In and out. In and out.

I am a skull with a gold tooth. A skeleton with a loose wristwatch. I am in mud. The plastic around my head has all but rotted, and bits of papery flesh cling yet to my thin bones. Around me float my credit cards and a greening wallet, ginger centipedes, fat woodlice, assorted maggotry. Forests are silent. I grow weaker. I perish second by second. I crumble. Disintegrate. Weaker. Only rarely now am I steam on glass. Shape in snow. Man in supermarket. Scream in the wind. And never trees.

Several years will pass before he is dug up again and moved yet farther away. But today, right now, Millie and Jeff are in a bar. Drinking beer and listening to music.

Louis Mellis co-wrote the screenplays for the 2000 film Sexy Beast and the 2009 film 44 Inch Chest.