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He Buried His Wife in The Unmarked Grave

by Fishr

1772 – Scotchtown Plantation, Virginia.

A shrill ring is heard from under his kitchen floorboards, and causes us to stop dead in our tracks. Her scream, a long, shrill scream, one devoid of any hope, a scream that emptied her lungs, chills my blood. But deep down I feel for him because the pain and anguish he and his family are going through, is immense. There was a full minute of silence after the shrill of his wife’s initial response had faded away. I study my mentor innocently, mentally shoving down the somber expression trying to break through. It could account for the distraught expression on his face, the knit eyebrows and his cross-eyes look of concentrating.

“If it is any comfort, I am of my own mind, the devil has not inhabited her.”

His reply is somewhat comparable to the creaking of wood, choked up with strong emotion, but nay, naught a shred of proof of remorse is in those steely, dry, eyes.

“A guarded heart cannot enjoy affections,” I dispute. “Surely, shame and disgrace cancels.” I stop, unsure how I can help him feel happier. “You are a family man. I have proof of it,” I add instead.

“I am afraid,” he says.

“Of everything.”

“More than I wish to let on. I am afraid to tell more.”

“Because of losing your reputation in the Legislature, your slaves, fortune, losing Scotchtown; being driven out by mobs, and thrown in water to drown.”

“Similarly, except for the drowning part. Much obliged adding a longer set of fears, which mind you, I am aware of, but that’s not why.”

“Because of her then. Because of your wife.”

“As you said, I am a family man.”

“You did show me where the secret stairwell is located.”

“It took some courage and strength to do so.”

“Only to visit.”

“For your safety.”

“Yes,” I mumble sadly. “I know. Biting.”

“Yes,” Mister Henry nods in agreement.

“You are missing the point,” I sigh.

“In what?”

“I was trying to suggest indiscreetly that my mentor trusts his student.”

“I suppose.”

“I suppose,” I say in the near chocked up emotional voice as him.

“It makes me so sad, Mister Henry.”

He leans forward a little, squeezes my wrist gently, and says quietly, “I know.”

“It’s not fair.”

“The early years of our marriage were very happy. Nettie’s birth put my wife into antipathy.”

“Why are you looking at me weirdly now?”


“Oh, thanks for the answer,” I say.

“Nehemiah, I am thinking you are a remarkable lad. Where society sees the whole family, if one is sick, the entire family will be judged with twisted preconceptions. You see beyond a shadow of a doubt because you knew her character before she fell ill. You’ve formed your own opinions without being swayed.”

“I thought you said your heart is guarded?”

“My privacy is only for these walls. They do not talk back.”

“Well, I did not know one of your children was responsible.”

“Now, you do. At least, my wife’s health decreased shortly after Nettie’s birth. It is all we can come up with.”

“You said walls do not talk back, which is true, but you told me a little more about your family. I am not a wall.”

“Indeed, you are not.”

“Is she eating anything?” I ask, trying hard to keep all of it inside.

“Na—,” he coughs, “Na, no.” Mister Henry’s voice gave out an almost inaudible squeak.

“Will I ever be admitted to the Bar?” I ask, changing the subject.

Mister Henry points to the pages scattered in disarray upon the long, rectangle table first, and then he taps the cover of the Holy Book.

"Hand me the Bible, Nehemiah. I shall engage with the Lord's words while you tidy and straighten the papers upon my table."

And like that, his personality flips a mental switch. The anguish in his voice dissolves. I lower my head. "Forgive me, I have let distractions grip my responsibilities."

"It cannot be emphasized too strongly that your explicit diversion will never earn a seat alongside me in a courthouse," he says, which persuades me further to divert my attention from directly exchanging eye contact.

When I do raise my head, I immediately pass the Bible without questioning. I lean forward. He takes the object. Flipping through the pages, he continues tarnishing my spirit this evening. I listen obediently, and although some of the barefaced phrases he spoke of his apprentice, I sense I was the scapegoat for a reason I could not comprehend.

"Honestly!" he declares to the Bible’s pages, instead of offering the common curiosity of eye contact. "Regardless the service spent under my watchful eye, the time involved has been less than satisfactory. I assumed a lad born into an affluent family, and one whose father manages their own counting house, his son would have the mannerisms of a Saint. But, no, his heir has the manners of a curious child who in my humble opinion has barely learnt the feat of walking.”

I moan. In a silent solution from his attacks, I gather all the pieces of paper, and stack them as neatly as possible. I hope if my mentor sees I listened to his instructions the insults would cease.


"Oh," he interrupts, "cease on the formalities, and you might as well call me by my name. You have been an apprentice in my home, how long now?" he asks.

"Little over a year, si–, I mean, about a year and a half, Mister Henry.”

In response, Mister Henry reaches up, and grips his spectacles resting on top of his head. He drops them abruptly on the table, and rubs his temples counterclockwise.

“Mister Henry . . .”

“Patrick,” he groans.

“I mean, sir, Mister Henry, I mean, Patrick,” I sputter.

“Spit it out, Nehemiah.”

“Are you sure?”

“Say whatever in God’s good name is distracting you,” he encourages, all the while massaging his temples, rubbing them clockwise and counterclockwise.

“Uh, you might not like it.”

“The only thing I do not like right now is your being vague and stupid.”

I swallow nervously. He is an authoritarian, but he has always been diligent with his teaching practices, either by willingly following along with an index finger while I read out loud in books in preparation to be tested, or patiently explaining certain passages thoroughly in such a way I understood, mostly anyway. My conscious mind comprehends I am not the tidiest man to ever have graced God's green Earth, but Mister Henry's attack was a bit hurtful. Although, I have kept my composure by not physically displaying emotions.

"Mister Cuthbert?" I felt a hand jerk my shoulder blade.

I shook my head quickly and blink. "Huh?" I ask confusingly. I blink again, and then I watch Mister Henry fold his hands neatly in his lap, crossing one leg over the other. He glares.

"The toll has chimed seven. What is troubling you?"

“Miss Sarah.”

He winces at the words.

“It seems now that life will offer me little respite from woe and anguish,” Mister Henry says in another hoarse croak as before.

“You wish I change the subject.”


I open my mouth to say something but before I can, “You are not a cod fish, Nehemiah. Close your mouth.”

I did as I was told.

Mister Henry's missus has been nothing but supportive and encouraging in my favor. The Henry children, their vibrant youth shows when they frolic, hoot and holler. The children's energy and enthusiasm for life, they always put a smile on my face. In fact, once while the six of us, (including myself, which made it seven), were sitting in the parlor exchanging morning prayers with the Mighty Lord, the oldest, Miss Martha, tugged the sleeve of my shirt, forcing me to halt. I glanced up. She smiled, like the pretty young thing Martha is, with her youthful rosy cheeks; she had received her Mother's looks, which was certain. The master and my teacher never looked up but continued muttering Psalms. Mister Henry’s missus, Miss Sarah, never acknowledged one of their children had stopped an hour too soon but regardless, I sat back in my seat and returned Martha's enormous smile. I put a finger to my lips, cautioning her not to laugh and mouthed the words, ‘Do not move,’ so sounds would not disturb the others. Instead, Martha ignored my gesture completely by reaching across the table. She slipped her tiny hand in mine. A crumbled ball of parchment was left in my palm.

I closed my fist with concern. I glanced first at Mister Henry. His head was still hung low, muttering amongst himself. I remember exhaling with relief and then I observed Miss Sarah. Her head also hung low with folded fists like her husband. John and William Henry mimicked their parents. I remembered smiling again and opened the paper. There was an awful crinkling, and so it was enough of a sound to trigger distraction. Mister Henry instantly looked up and frowned. I coughed, and fidgeted uncomfortably in the chair. Through the corner of my right eye, Miss Sarah glared at me too. The Henry children giggled, which only made the humiliation worsen. I reacted by staring at the table blankly.

"Give it here, Nehemiah," Mister Henry said pointedly.

I flinched at the tone of his voice. I grabbed the piece of paper, and passed it to Miss Sarah.

"Thank you, Nehemiah," she said politely. "Children!" Miss Sarah clapped her hands. The boys closed their jaws. I was grateful for the silence and voluntarily basked in it.

I watched Miss Sarah pass the paper over to her husband. I momentarily glanced at Martha. She was still smiling and it appeared it broadened upon her face.

"Read it Papa!" Martha giggled.

"Shh, m'dear," he cooed to his daughter. "I am having a time deciphering a child's handwriting."

"I will tell you what it says!" Martha roared enthusiastically.

Mister Henry placed the paper in front of him and then folded his hands again upon the parlor’s table. "Enlighten us, m'dear. Explain the message," Mister Henry said without a trace of an expression.

Miss Martha boldly stood up on her chair and pointed directly at me, giggling. " Nehemiah came to live with us. I am glad about it."

"Oh? And that is what you wrote?" he asked.

Martha nodded, and then sat.

Mister Henry reached across, cupped the top of his missus's knuckles and graced me with a thoughtful smile. At once, my anxiety disappeared. I smiled awkwardly at him.

"We are delighted to have you in our home, Nehemiah, even if it is temporary," Miss Sarah commented cheerfully.

"Yes, Nehemiah, at best, you have proven to be an apprentice which any decent gentleman would willingly accept. And, I appreciate assisting my wife with the children when I am elsewhere."

"In a short while, we will retire, Nehemiah. The hands are pointing to seven-thirty of the Clock, and I am extremely exhausted. There will be no time for you to continue.”

His voice snaps me out of the memory. I nod earnestly. "Yes, sir, I mean, Mister Henry.”

“Patrick,” he yawns. “I foresee a lawyer within you yet. Keep to your studies, and your work ethics will reward you eventually."

"Thank you," I say simply.

"You are quite welcome. Now," he yawns again, "it is time."

A deep sigh is heard. I watch my mentor turn around and glance at the clock affixed to the wall. Another sigh comes, and then he turns to face me.

"Nehemiah, your parents entrusted me to care for you. In truth, when this tentative lad first entered my home, I admit, I had my doubts. Here was a well-dressed gentleman, and his son whom spoke two words in the entire introductions. Yet, now here you remain, and by all accounts, Nehemiah, heir to Ezra Cuthbert, you are intelligent. It is why I remain rigorous with your studies, I honestly sense potential."

The compliment only makes me flush. "I promise I will finish this chapter tomorrow. I will not disappoint my mentor," I remark firmly.

He points to the Bible. "I have copy in my quarters. Take this with you, and may He visit you in your dreams."

"Thank you, Mister Henry. I will read some before I sleep."

“Patrick,” he yawns loudly.

Mister Henry stands, leaving behind his spectacles and trudges wearily away.

I stood, grab my books, the Bible, and shove them under my right arm. Before I exit the kitchen, I push the two chairs neatly under the table so Mister Henry would not have another chore to attend too.

"Nehemiah, it is past the hour of eight o' clock," he calls. "We will continue tomorrow at precisely six in the afternoon."

I whirl around. Mister Henry is watching me over his left shoulder. I obey and quickly catch up with him. We walk side-by-side, and then make a right-hand turn, which leads to the bedrooms. Mister Henry walks to his quarters first, yawning loudly, and I follow his slow pace from behind.

In the hallway, he pinches the nape of my neck gently with a thumb and forefinger. "May the Almighty protect, and watch over a member of my family."

I lower my head sheepishly. Vibrations of footsteps echo. I glance up. Mister Henry trudges slowly in the direction of his bedroom where he, sadly, shares a space by his lonesome.

His remark causes a smile from ear to ear. I turn to my right, heading for my own room, and one I have all to myself. I hope Miss Sarah’s mind comes back and angry outbursts become less prominent. Mister Henry knows quite well about disability so I shan’t worry too much in future gatherings studying for the Bar. I pull the wool blankets high above my shoulders. My last thoughts turn to him. Mister Henry respects me. Miss Sarah, I wonder, I do hope she is not too terribly chilled in the cellar. Perhaps, I should, should, spare a few of my blankets. Yes, she has been kind until she fell ill. I swing my legs out of bed. I lit a candle resting on a bedside table and tiptoe into the hallway. I hear snoring from Mister Henry’s room, which is a relief. Now that he is asleep, I can sneak down the secret stairwell.

I find Miss Sarah on her back in bed. She starts to mewl incoherently, and saliva dribbles down her chin; she tries to voice incomprehensible words sputtering in confusion. Perhaps what I had heard was her thin mewl of frustration, which issues from her again. There are a few wool blankets already wrapped around her like a cocoon. It makes me unhappy to see Miss Sarah in confinement, and in restraints. A strait-dress cannot be at all delightfully comfortable, but it is very necessary. Still, she was not shivering. I decide after a few moments to sleep in the cellar with Mister Henry’s wife. He will likely be agitated in the morning, but he said I was akin to a surrogate family member. Next to Miss Sarah’s bed, there was a chair where Mister Henry watches over her. I nudge it far enough with a toe so I may have more space, but I also judge carefully an approximant width where I will be excluded if Miss Sarah should decide to spring on me like a rabid, viscous animal. With a decision in mind, I create a place on the dirt floor, folding my couple of blankets in half. I did not have a third for a top layer but fortunately, warmth aplenty was in the ambient air.

I shall keep his secret. It would be a blot to my mentor’s good name if colleagues of his discovered his missus is in concealment, restrained, but in the most comfort Mister Henry and Miss Sarah’s loved ones try to provide. I imagine he would be especially mortified. I see her now muttering on about a message she deems important. Finally, my eyes were too heavy to keep open. I sleep right through the night until I jump in the early morning.

“Nehemiah. Nehemiah, why in God’s splendid name, are you in the cellar?”

I yawn, and then sit up. He holds a chamber stick near my face. It was difficult determining Mister Henry’s disposition but by the glow of the candle, although he is frowning, I sense not a trace of discontentment.

Yawning deeply again, I rub the sleepiness out of my eyes. “I wanted to make sure she had enough warmth, sir.”

“It is, Patrick, not sir,” he groans. “You may call me Patrick in my home but in the public eye, it is Mister Henry, but never a sir.”

“All right.”

“Let us go upstairs and fix breakfast before the children wake.”

“You are not angry?”

“No, Nehemiah.” I watch Mister–Patrick–stretch his arms high over his head and yawns himself. “Sarah will need to be bathed today. I will do it, not you.”

“Understood.” I thought for a moment. “Patrick? Why are you not showing annoyance or exasperation? It cannot be suitable to be down here with your wife. Sleeping nearby too.”

Patrick’s fingers were under his shirt, scratching the left side of his ribcage. “Because.”


“Yes, because. Now get up, put some clean clothes on and for God’s sakes lad, would it kill you to comb your hair before leaving? You seem to have a habit of not doing so.”

“But your own shirt is untucked,” I remind him, quite pleased with my observation, if I may so myself. I beam happily for telling such a clever comment. “And you are not wearing a pair of breeches. And your side curls are sticking out in bunches.”

“Never you mind about how I dress, or appear. And take note, my shirt falls long enough. I am covered. Now, go.”

So much for that brief boost in esteem. He has an uncanny way of crushing it, even if he does not know. Upstairs, Mister Henry blew out the candle and set it aside. Still, a strong feeling bubbles to the surface. My body moves on its own. I rush forward, and hug him, which he staggers and produces an “Oomph,” sound. Mister Henry gently pushes me away after a bit of time. I grin.

“Well, yes, I am quite fond of you too. By the way.”

My grin dissolves. “What?”

His palm ruffles my unkempt hair. “It pleases me to see another person show facilitated tenderness; unconditional love and affection towards a human whom is not related to them but he is compelled enough to show acute concern towards my bride’s situation. It is in good faith I am indebted. I entrust my student keeps my requested secret private, regarding my wife?”

“Yes, of course I have, Mister Henry.”

“If you keep insisting referring to me as Mister, I will put the straight-dress on you instead.”

“Apologies,” I groan, disappointed I cannot break the habit.

I hear chuckling and not ridicule.

“Superb. Eggs and sausage or leftover salted pork and beans, Nehemiah?”

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203 Reviews

Points: 8110
Reviews: 203

Fri Nov 26, 2021 10:52 am
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Liminality wrote a review...

Hi Fishr!

My first impressions of this story are that it seems to be primarily about Nehemiah and Patrick, whereas Sarah is more of a background character. The title feels a bit odd now, having read the story. "buried" makes it seem to me as though Patrick has 'forgotten' his wife, though the story shows that is not the case. If the title on its own is meant to frame the whole scene as being disturbing rather than neutral and more like a horror story, I'm afraid I didn't catch that on the first read. ^^'

This story is slow-paced and seems to create a sketch of their lives. It feels like this is a side-story or an extension to a longer work, somehow? My hunch might be wrong, though. I think it functions just nice as it is, although I found it a bit hard to get into the world of the story in the first few paragraphs, possibly because I'm not so familiar with the historical context in which it takes place.

Family and interpersonal relationships seem to be the main theme, and the scenes focus also on how Patrick and Nehemiah interact and relate to each other. Patrick seems like a complicated person to Nehemiah. On the one hand, he's a strict teacher who's not afraid to point out his student's shortcomings; on the other hand, he trusts Nehemiah with his family's secrets and says explicitly that he's more than just a student.

Then to contrast with that, there's the whole situation with his wife. I found myself uncertain on how to take it. I read in a reply you made to another review that it was meant to be 'creepy', and it did feel that way for some parts. The casualness with which Patrick talks despite his wife being in the cellar does make him seem detached from reality. But the POV character Nehemiah also seems to spend most of the passages thinking about Patrick and what Patrick thinks of him. It wasn't obvious to me if he found the situation creepy, which makes it hard for me as the reader to get that creepy atmosphere. Nehemiah also seems to be on Patrick's side about keeping Sarah in the cellar, saying to himself she is " in the most comfort Mister Henry and Miss Sarah’s loved ones try to provide" and that the restraining " is very necessary". Maybe he's meant to be an unreliable narrator?

In terms of plot, the story seems character-driven, and specifically by Patrick's move to make his bond with Nehemiah closer by revealing to him the secret about Sarah, and by Nehemiah's apparent story goal of becoming a lawyer. From what I understand, the former succeeds and the latter is left undecided. I wonder what the consequence of Patrick's actions will be on Sarah, though? How will she be affected by Nehemiah knowing about her condition?

Now for some line comments:

“Na—,” he coughs, “Na, no.” Mister Henry’s voice gave out an almost inaudible squeak.

Did he mean to reveal she was eating something that begins with 'Na-', or was it a random noise he made?

“Oh, thanks for the answer,” I say.

This part feels a bit anachronistic. The speech pattern feels a lot more modern and 21st-century than the rest of the dialogue in this piece.

“As you said, I am a family man.”

This bit of dialogue was really interesting to read. I like how the characters speak to each other and how Patrick seems to be avoiding the topic by parroting Nehemiah's words back to him here.

“Will I ever be admitted to the Bar?” I ask, changing the subject.

This change of subject did feel a bit sudden. Maybe if there had been a few lines of description between this and the previous very intense and uncomfortable discussion about Sarah, it might have read a bit more naturally to me.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty well-structured piece, just with some ambiguities in language and the content of the story. For the most part, I thought the time period that these people lived in seemed to shine through in the way they talked and behaved. It's a touchy subject, writing about how the mentally ill were treated in those times. I wouldn't claim to have any knowledge on it, so I can't really comment on the accuracy of the depiction here. (Maybe someone else on the site might know how?) But based on just the story I'm reading, I think you've got some solid groundwork here for a dark story about a family's troubles.

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Fishr says...

Thank you so much for the insight and suggestions! The title is a work in progress. The story itself is not part of a longer one. Patrick, because he insists, is not talking much and is basically telling his writer, %u201CGo away.%u201D I am considering working on a stronger outline of the mental illness she began suffering through.

Liminality says...

Ah, I see! Good luck with the writing and hopefully Patrick will start talking again soon. c:

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41 Reviews

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Reviews: 41

Tue Nov 23, 2021 2:57 am
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RealSadhours296 wrote a review...

Thank you for requesting a review! I'm thankful to have seen this work. I really like it!

I feel its biggest strength is the dialogue and the characterization. A lot went into making these characters alive, relatable, and fun to read. I especially like the contrasting personalities between Nehemiah and Mister Henry, which makes for some interesting interactions.

The descriptions were also rather detailed, yet never bordering on purple prose, which thankfully keeps my ADHD brain absorbed in the work. The paragraphs were, usually, not too long, but I'd say there are a few in there you could split apart; especially the first one.

As for grammar, spelling and punctuation, I didn't notice any eye-catching errors grammar and spelling wise. There are a few instances where you could've placed a comma to improve wordflow but there aren't any punctuation mistakes in there I noticed either.

Now, here's my biggest problem with this piece. I found myself confused on multiple occasions on what was actually going on. You want to know what I thought was going on at first? I thought Mister Henry was a priest training Nehemiah, and Mister Henry's wife was in a mourning because one of their children died. Because of her hysteria he's shut her in her room, hence "He Buried His Wife in the Unmasked Grave. More than half-way through, I determined that first, Mister Henry is actually a lawyer...I think, and second, his wife was actually just straight up mad.

Now, the interpretation I had at first isn't purely the texts fault, but I really shouldn't have been as confused as I was reading all of this. To be honest I'm still confused whether Mister Henry is a priest or a lawyer, it might have something to do with the countless religious themes combined with that "You'll make a great lawyer" comment, or maybe I accidentally skimmed over some details. I don't really know. I ain't intimately familiar with olden everyday happenings so, yeah. My biggest advice right now I suppose would be to clarify more of what's going on in the text, if you can?

But yeah, enjoyed the story. Loved the characters. I think this might have potential to be a full on novel centered around mental illness back in the romantic period.

Keep up the good work! ^v^

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Fishr says...

Sweet! Thank you for pointing out what had you confused. I will clarify this detail more. Patrick Henry was a lawyer, albeit, but also very, very religious. His wife did have a mental breakdown, and became violent. I didn%u2019t make up those details. I think it%u2019s super creepy both characters are carrying on this conversation with their banter while Sarah Henry is under the kitchen floorboards. XD Eek. Again, thank you.

There is nothing more radical or counter-cultural, at the moment, than laying down one’s cynicism in favour of tender vulnerability.
— John Green