by D. Kohl Glass
Janice Blackwell’s funeral was poorly attended. Up until one week prior, Janice Blackwell had been the most powerful woman in Eldritch. She was loud, stubborn, and heavily opinionated, with a proclivity for trying to solve other people’s problems. For the past twelve years, Janice Blackwell’s strawberries had been awarded “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tast” at the Fragaria Strawberry Festival held in Eldritch every April. This year the longest run in Fragaria Strawberry Festival history had ended, and power had shifted. Four days later, Janice Blackwell died.
The twelve-year queen of Eldritch was feared, obeyed, but most of all, she was hated. The only funeral attendees were her estranged daughter, Janice; her three assistant gardeners, Miguel and the two Jorges; her friend and sycophant, Sally Firth; Sheriff Stone; and the mayor, Charles Samuel Masters, although he was there only to officiate at the funeral of Eldritch’s most prominent citizen. There was also an older woman named Celeste Willets. Celeste stood apart from the funeral and listened to the ceremony from under the cemetery’s only tree. She did not feel comfortable standing among Janice Blackwell’s mourners since, after some twelve years of losing to Janice Blackwell, her strawberries had taken “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty” and sent Janice to her grave. It had been a very hard year for Celeste; her winning “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty” was the first thing that had gone right in a while, and she wanted to pay her respects to her fallen adversary. Celeste continued to stand under the cemetery’s only tree after the funeral was over and she was alone with Janice Blackwell’s grave. After a moment’s pause, she turned and quietly left the cemetery with the whispered parting, “A worthy opponent.”
The second Janice, or, as the town called her Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell, moved into her mother’s home shortly after the funeral. As part of her inheritance she took control of all her mother’s wealth and property as well as her twelve-year award-winning strawberry patch. The second Janice was so much like her mother that many in Eldritch hardly felt the gap between the going of the first and the coming of the second⸺except the second Janice had never taken “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty.” Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell often vowed publicly that she would regain the “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty” crown to avenge her mother’s death, which struck many of the Eldritch townspeople as odd since it was gossiped that she had hated her mother when she was alive. Nevertheless, the second Janice swore a strawberry vengeance on Celeste Willets.
Three days after the funeral, Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell knocked on Celeste Willet’s door. No one answered. She knocked again, then again, and then slowly peered into the front window. The house was nicely furnished in the quaint country style that was the standard in Eldritch, and Celeste was not home. She was going to try the door but decided to cut to the chase and go around the back to the strawberry patch. Upon circling the house, Janice saw something that struck her as odd. Celeste Willets had two strawberry patches: one that was nestled up close to the back door of the house, and another that stood a good distance away, sitting on the slope of a hill, surrounded by a small, white picket fence.
“Why would she be so harebrained as to have two?” she thought to herself.
From the house, the second Janice could see that the fenced in patch was far better tended that the one by the house, though the one by the house was still producing strawberries. Janice reached down and picked a strawberry. It was of average size and color⸺definitely not a possible contender for “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty.” She looked from the strawberry to the hillside patch. She put the strawberry in her pocket and started off for Celeste Willets’s fenced strawberry patch on the hill with a slump of frustration at the walk before her, for Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell, like her mother, enjoyed a pampered life and had not grown accustomed to the physical act of moving. After much labor on the small grass-lined path that connected the two patches, Janice heard someone speaking.
“What a glorious crop you brought this year. ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty.’ As good as your word.”
Janice stopped and looked around; she saw no one, though she had clearly heard the voice. She moved closer to the patch.
“You’ve made me so happy.”
She looked around again but saw nothing. Reaching over the short picket fence, Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell picked a second strawberry. This one was brilliantly red and massive yet perfectly shaped. It was cool to the touch, and juice seemed to be condensing on its skin, which left a faint red smear on Janice’s fingers. It was perfect; it was “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty.”
Slowly, Celeste Willets rose up out of the patch. The second Janice quickly stashed the strawberry paragon into her pocket with the first strawberry. Celeste had not seen her yet; her back had been to Janice when she stood to stretch. She had a small garden spade in her hand and a bonnet on her head. When Celeste did see her she was not startled, but said, “Janice Blackwell, what an unexpected surprise.
What brings you out to my garden?”
“I wanted to see this year’s patch and maybe pick up a few gardening tips.” Janice forced a smile.
“Oh, I’m not revealing anything to you; you inherited your mother’s ‘Second in County, Sweet ‘n Scrumptious’ strawberry patch. She may be gone, but right now those strawberries are the strongest contender against my patch.”
“You mean patches. I couldn’t help but notice that you have two. That must take a lot out of you⸺to work both of them.”
“Oh, I don’t compete with the patch down by the house. That was my old patch, and it never did well at festival. I just keep growing the berries to sell. This patch was a gift from my Harrison before he left, and I expect to give your mother’s record of consecutive awarding of the ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ a run with it.”
“You’re not as young as you used to be and tending a prize-winning strawberry patch is a lot of hard work. My mother died in her strawberry patch.”
“Did she? I had heard that she was on the couch with her feet soaking in her Footcuzzi, eating chocolate cake,” Celeste said. “At least that is what Dr. Campbell said. I guess that goes to show you can’t trust gossip!”
“No, she was in her patch when it happened, just like she always knew she would be when she went.”
Celeste came closer to the fence now and looked at Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell. She looked sorry for what she was about to say and softened her voice. “Janice, I’m worried that you’re a little confused on the facts about your mother. It was less about strawberries and more about status with Janice. She hired Miguel and the two Jorges to work her garden⸺I don’t believe she ever went back out there except for newspaper photos.”
“How dare you suggest such a thing! You listen to me, Celeste Willets, your little victory will go down in Eldritch history as a fluke when I reclaim ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ once again. Your name will be but a blemish in a sea of Janice Blackwells!”
Celeste became emotionless and in a cold, even voice said, “My Harrison gave me this patch before he left, and a sweeter man there never was. I have no reason to fear you or your mother’s patch. Good day to you⸺the berries need my attention.” With that, Celeste sank back into the patch and Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell walked down the hill much faster than when she came up, this time powered by both gravity and fury.
Sally Firth was tending her own strawberry patch when Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell rattled on her garden gate. Sally Firth’s strawberries had always done poorly at the Fragaria Strawberry Festival; so seven years ago she had given up growing the domestic breed of strawberry and began cultivating foreign and exotic strawberries. Since that time she had won “Best in County, Foreign ‘n Fancy” every year. Unfortunately, “Best in County, Foreign ‘n Fancy” was a title that meant nothing to the town of Eldritch, mainly because Sally Firth was the only one who entered that category.
“Sally Firth, it’s Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell,” the second Janice called. “It’s important.”
Sally Firth carefully pulled open the heavy gate. “Shhh! The
Fragaria Manchuria cannot be exposed to loud noise after six p.m.”
“I went up to Celeste Willets’s place this afternoon, and do you know what she said? She said that my mother didn’t work her own garden and died because she was power hungry!”
“Well, you know that she did entrust a lot of the work to Miguel and the two Jorges. In fact, most of the work.”
“Her assistants? They were just migrant workers when she hired them. It takes education and genius to be ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty.'”
“I guess you’re right, but still I hire them out every other week ever since one of the Jorges saved my dying Manchurians. That’s the one that took ‘Best in Counry, Foreign ‘n Fancy’ this year,” Sally giggled in a way that made Janice stare at her in disgust.
“Did you know that Celeste Willets has two strawberry patches? She said her husband left one of them for her. How long has she been a widow?”
“Oh, her husband didn’t die, at least not for sure. He just left.”
“Oh, no one knows. Celeste said that one morning he declared that he had some hunting to do and wasn’t sure when he would be back. He hasn’t been back since.”
“How long ago was this?”
“Going on a year this September.”
“I picked these two strawberries from Celeste Willets’ two patches.” The second Janice pulled the two strawberries out of her pocket and Sally Firth examined them.
“Oh my. You would think that the same area of land worked by the same gardener would grow similar berries.”
“But it wasn’t the same gardener.” Janice held up the large, perfect fruit. “This is Harrison Willets’s strawberry.”
“A man working a strawberry patch in Eldritch? Ha! Men only attend the Fragaria Strawberry Festival⸺they don’t compete.”
“Is it against the rules?” asked Janice.
Sally Firth stopped in her amusement at the idea of an Eldritch man growing strawberries and thought for a second. “I don’t think a man has ever entered.”
Charles Samuel Masters was the president of the Fragaria Counry Board of Fragaria Festival Judges and the mayor of Eldritch. No man knew more on the subject of strawberries, both cultivation and culinary preparation, in the entire counry of Fragaria. However, although it was well known in Eldritch that Mayor Masters knew every aspect of what happens to a strawberry up until it passes his lips and absolutely nothing about it after, he had limited his interaction with strawberries exclusively to the latter, post-lip, portion of the process and had never physically ventured into his realm of expertise a day in his life. Janice Blackwell and Mayor Masters had never enjoyed contact in in all their years as fellow cttizens of Eldritch.
This fact struck many in Eldritch as ironic since Mayor Masters, along with the rest of the Fragaria Counry Board of Fragaria Festival Judges, had awarded Janice Blackwell “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ every year the previous twelve years of the festival. Regardless of
Charles Samuel Masters’s dislike of her mother and hands-off policy on strawberries⸺excluding of course the “dish, utensil, and beyond” segment⸺he was the next target of inquiry in Janice Blackwell’s daughter’s investigation.
This second Janice Blackwell had telephoned demanding that he come immediately, which happened to conflict with Mayor Masters’s habitual pre-dinner reclining time. The mayor, however, took his pre-dinner reclining time because he knew that an “immediately” from a Janice Blackwell was urgent only to the Janice saying it.
“Well, Mayor Masters, how does this town get along when one of its citizens has an emergency and receives this kind of promptness?”
The mayor stood rested on Janice Blackwell’s porch.
“Well, in true emergencies I do not often respond personally. A pressing matter came up that needed my attention. Perhaps I should call the proper authorities?”
Janice made a mental note that his pressing matter had pressed his wispy hair into a sea fan formation on one side of his head, which now waved in the evening breeze, and had left a red crease along one of his cheeks as well. “Don’t overwork yourself. Please come in.”
“It begins,” thought Mayor Masters, grimly foreseeing his golden years with this new Janice Blackwell.
Janice led him into the front room and sat down on a high-backed love seat. He sat opposite Sally Firth on a matching couch. The room was dominated by twelve identical wooden cutouts of a little old lady holding a giant strawberry tole painted with exquisite detail, which hung along the wall near the ceiling. “Best In County, Tart ‘n Tasty” and a year were written on each strawberry. Each tole represented a year of Janice Blackwell’s supremacy, and it was a sight that left both Mayor Masters and Sally Firth in awe. The space following the last tole had been cleared and the wallpaper was even cleaned, but it stood bare except for a small, framed, wallet-sized photo of Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell.
Janice spoke first. “As President of the Fragaria County Board of Fragaria Festival Judges, please tell me: are men allowed to enter strawberries in the Fragaria Strawberry Festival?”
The mayor and Sally were still gazing up at the twelve toles of power when Janice asked this question, and after a moment, Mayor Masters looked away and collected his thoughts. “As President of the Fragaria County Board of Fragaria Festival Judges, it is my honor to say there are no rules against men entering the festival.”
“Has a man ever entered his own strawberries in the festival?”
The mayor looked at her curiously when it dawned on him how bizarre Janice Blackwell’s questions were. “I’ve never heard of a man entering in festival.”
“Can you think of any reason why a man would keep a strawberry patch himself?”
The mayor put more thought into this. “I can’t think of one.” And that was the dead honest truth.
“This will come as a shock to you, but Celeste Willets’s ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasties’ came from a patch actually tended by her husband.”
“Harrison Willets disappeared over six months ago. Patches are planted in the spring. He has been gone too long to work a patch.”
“Then how do you explain this?” Janice pulled the stolen specimen of strawberry perfection out of a bowl she had behind the love seat. The mayor’s eyes grew wide at the sight of it.
“Ah yes,” he said a little excitedly. “That is one of Celeste’s. I haven’t seen strawberries like this in many years.”
“She outright admitted that he left her that patch⸺the patch she took ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ with!”
The mayor furrowed his brow. “I fail to see the problem with this. If there was a rule against entering strawberries from a patch that has been inherited, you would be left out in the cold right next to Celeste Willets. If you could even prove that hers was inherited.”
“All I am saying, Mayor Masters, is that I strongly believe that a strawberry like this cannot be grown without some crookedness. There is something just not right about it!”
“You have to be joking. It is just a straw⸺” Janice Blackwell and Sally Firth stared at him aghast, and the mayor realized the severity of what he had been about to say. “Quite right,” he continued a little more softly and deliberately. “This would be the first time foul play entered the Fragaria Strawberry Festival, at least as far we have detected. I am just struggling to see what one could do to a strawberry patch that would constitute foul play.”
“Genetically altered seeds.” Janice Blackwell’s voice was cold and even, as if she spoke the purest, most despicable truth. Mayor Masters jerked up his head. Mayor Masters was a lifetime subscriber to Strawberry Quarter: A Journal of Science, Cultivation, and Culture, which for the previous two years had run a series of articles following the efforts of Richard Glack, Ph.D., in creating the Genetically Enhanced Super-Strawberry. This series had consumed Mayor Masters’ mind, until the most recent issue of SQ had exposed Richard Glack as a charlatan and his experiments as a hoax.
“No such thing,” Mayor Masters said painfully.
“Well, what then? Super dirt?”
The mayor paused. ‘Actually, the only thing one could really alter is the fertilizer, and there are thousands of different ways to fertilize a strawberry patch.”
At nine the next evening, Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell pulled up into Sally Firth’s driveway and honked once. Sally came out the side gate with a shovel and some plastic bags.
“Shhhhh! Please, you must be quiet, or my berries won’t color right!”
“Just get in.”
Sally loaded the shovel into the back, and they drove off. The drive was a quiet one, with the task at hand weighing heavily on their minds. The plan was simple. They would collect soil samples from various levels of Celeste Willets’s “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ patch. They would then take the soil samples to Jack Harris, Eldritch’s resident fertilizer specialist, for analysis. Later they were to convene at the Fragaria County Sheriff’s Office to decide if they should employ Sheriff Stone in an emergency stripping of the “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ title.
Janice Blackwell turned off her lights and rolled to a stop on the small country road just outside Celeste Willets’s winding driveway. Celeste’s house was dark. Sally pulled out the shovel and plastic bags, and they started off for the strawberry patch on the hill. Janice had a flashlight, which she left off until they had circumvented Celeste’s house and approached the patch from the back side. Both women were huffing by the time they reached the small picket fence, but the pumping adrenaline drove them right to the task. Sally collected the first dirt sample by scraping some topsoil into a plastic bag. She then looked to Janice Blackwell for instructions.
“Start digging!” hissed Janice.
Sally reluctantly positioned the shovel and started digging.
After three shovelfuls, she stopped. “This is good enough. Let’s just get two. I don’t feel right about this any more.”
“Give me the shovel!” Janice snatched the shovel away from Sally and started digging furiously. She stopped to take the second sample and then continued digging nosily. She seemed to be getting angrier and angrier. She stopped and took the third sample and again began digging.
“Janice, we only need three! Let’s go.”
“I’m getting four! There is no way she’s going to get away with whatever she’s doing!” Janice, who was now sweating prorusely, continued her digging frenzy.
“Please, Janice, she’s going to hear us! You’re scaring me.”
Just then the shovel hit something and stopped with a thud.
Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell scooped out the dirt and pointed the flashlight into the hole.
“Janice, what is it?” Sally asked. Janice just stood there, looking down. “Janice, what is it!?”
“I knew it.” With that, the second Janice dropped the flashlight, burst out of the patch, letting the gate close loudly behind her, and disappeared down the hill.
Sally was petrified. “Janice?” she whispered into the dark.
“Janice?” She was almost in tears. The flashlight, still on, lay in the dirt next to the hole. Slowly, Sally got up the courage to move from the spot she had been rooted to and pick up the flashlight. “Janice?” she whispered one more time. She had almost convinced herself to run down the hill, but it was not knowing that made her most afraid, and looking into the hole would solve some of that.
Slowly, very, very slowly, she directed the beam of the flashlight down and let it rest inside the hole. Then, very shakily, she looked in. A decayed skeletal face stared back up at her through dirt filled sockets. Sally Firth screamed louder than she had ever screamed before. She spun toward the road just in time to see Janice’s headlights come on and then speed away. She screamed again, and Celeste Willets’s back porch lights came on. Celeste was standing just outside the light like a ghost. Sally screamed a third time and fled towards the mountains, weeping.
Janice burst into the Fragaria County Sheriff’s Office, where the mayor was sitting at Sheriff Stone’s desk. Sheriff Stone was sitting at a small table cleaning a gun. Mayor Masters was closing the large red Fragaria Strawberry Festival rule book just as she burst in. She had a wild look in her eye.
“Well, I hate to say it, but I just read this book cover to cover, and there is no rule about using unorthodox fertilizer or inheriting patches,” said the mayor, oblivious to Janice’s frantic manner.
“Is there any rule against murder?” she said, out of breath.
Both the mayor and the sheriff looked up at her. “I believe what was once Harrison Willets is buried about a foot deep in Celeste Willets’ ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ strawberry patch. That’s right, murder most foul.”
Mayor Masters and Sheriff Stone looked at each other, and then Sheriff Stone quietly put his gun back together, stood up, and said, “Looks like I better go out to Celeste Willets’s house and ask her some questions. I can tell it is going to be one of those nights. Literally.”
When Sheriff Stone pulled into the Willets’s drive, all the lights were on in the house. He got out, walked up the gravel drive, and knocked on the door, which was never answered. After a few more sessions of knocking, he circled the house and walked up the hill to the second strawberry patch. Celeste was there, filling the hole that Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell had dug.
“Celeste,” the sheriff said. Celeste stopped her work, and he could see that she had been crying. “Celeste, Janice Blackwell, the daughter, claims to have seen a body buried in your strawberry patch. Literally. Is that true?”
“Yes.” Celeste’s response was immediate.
“She says it is the body of your husband, Harrison. Now I don’t see how she could possibly know⸺”
“It is my husband, Sheriff,” Celeste almost looked proud as she stood like a sentinel pillar above her patch, surrounded by the dark and her strawberries. Sheriff Stone reached under his hat and scratched his head as he tried to sort things out.
“Well this is killing me, Celeste Willets. Literally. But I gotta take you down to the station.”
“That’s fine, Sheriff.” Celeste picked up the small spade she was using to fill in the hole and a few other tools and started down the hill with Sheriff Stone.
“Could you do me a favor, Sheriff?” she asked as they walked.
“Yes, ma’am, what is it?”
“Could you send someone to look for Sally Firth? She ran off through that field over there after Janice left her. I can hear her screams every so often on the wind.”
The next morning Sheriff Stone and part-time Deputy Silus Marc exhumed Harrison Willets from this years’ Fragaria Strawberry Festival’s “Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty” strawberry patch. It was a lengthy process in which the men took great care not to harm any more of the patch than was necessary. Harrison Willets’s body was taken to the only morgue in the county, Jarkins Family Morgue, where the county coroner, Ed Baker Senior, performed an autopsy. Celeste Willets quietly waited in the jail cell of the Fragaria County Sheriff’s Office, saying only, “It will all turn out in the end.”
The next morning, Mayor Masters and Sheriff Stone visited Celeste Willets in her cell.
“Celeste,” began Mayor Masters, “we have a positive ID on the corpse. It is your husband, Harrison.”
“I wasn’t aware that his identity was in question,” Celeste said sweetly.
“We needed to be sure.” Sheriff Stone looked uncomfortable. “We are trying not to jump to any conclusions. You know your rights, but we would like to maybe hear your story, just so we can get a clear picture. Literally.”
“Please don’t be so nervous, Sheriff, I’m glad to answer any questions that you or the mayor might have.” After a moment’s hesitation, the mayor asked the first question.
“How did your husband end up in your strawberry patch, Celeste?”
“I buried him there.”
“Did you kill him before burying him?” asked Sheriff Stone.
“No.” There was another moment of silence, then Mayor Masters spoke again.
“Did you bury him alive?”
“Heavens no, Mayor,” laughed Celeste. “He was dead when I buried him. If you can call simply filling up the hole burying.”
The mayor and the sheriff looked at one another thoughtfully.
“I loved my husband,” Celeste said. “I miss him fiercely. The only thing I have left of him is that patch. He left me that patch, and it was one of the most beautiful acts a husband has ever done for his wife.”
“So you didn’t kill him?” asked Mayor Masters.
“No, Mayor, I tell you I didn’t kill him. I would give my ‘Best in County, Tart ‘n Tasty’ title and all the strawberry patches in the world to have him back. But that can’t be. However, Harrison gave me the next best thing⸺the best strawberries in Eldritch.”
“So what exactly did happen?” asked Sheriff Stone hesitantly.
“I’ll tell you.” Celeste Willets then told them the story of her Harrison. The story had begun the previous summer. Celeste Willets had lost to Janice Blackwell for the twelfth year in a row and she had come home sad and defeated. Harrison had not attended the festival that year because he had just retired from the mine and was suffering from cancer. He was a meek man, one who did not trouble others with his problems, so he kept his illness a secret from all but Celeste. Harrison got up out of his chair with great effort, took Celeste in his arms, and suggested that she try a new location for next year’s patch. They walked out in the back, past Celeste’s strawberry patch, all the way up on top of the hill behind their house, and chose the spot. For the next two weeks, Harrison, despite his condition, cleared the area and built a small white picket fence around it. When the work was done, Harrison told Celeste that he was going to go hunting as a break. This worried Celeste because he was deteriorating faster than ever. That night he didn’t come home. The next morning Celeste climbed the hill to see if she could see Harrison coming home, but instead found him dead, lying in a shallow grave that he had dug himself, in the middle of the fenced-in square of dirt. In his hands was an amendment to his last will and testament instructing Celeste to fill the hole and plant the new patch over him. In exchange, he promised to give her the best strawberries in Eldritch.
As Celeste Willets finished her story, she had tears in her eyes. She looked up at the mayor and the sheriff. “A better man there never was. Even in death he was beautiful. When I’m in that patch working, I’m with Harrison again. Within that little picket fence, I have the same feeling I’d get when he’d bring wild flowers back to me from the fields, or when he’d sing to me when I was scared of the howling night winds outside: things he did that told me that he thought about me and cared for me. In the patch I have all that back again. I have him again.”
Mayor Masters and Sheriff Stone stood silent. The phone was ringing. Part-time Deputy Silus Marc answered the phone, spoke for a moment, and then told the sheriff that he was wanted.
“Well, Celeste,” Sheriff Stone started slowly. “You’ve given us a lot to think about. With a little time I hope we can sort this out.” The two men excused themselves and left Celeste’s cell.
“That was one of the most touching stories I have ever heard about a strawberry patch. Literally,” Sheriff Stone said as they slowly walked up to the front so he could get the phone. The man on the phone was county coroner Ed Baker Senior reporting that the autopsy was completed and requesting that the sheriff and the mayor come right over to Jarkins Family Morgue.
In a small gathering held right over the draped form of Harrison Willets’s body, Ed Baker Senior admitted that he did not know the time of death, but he said that he did know the cause. It wasn’t murder, but cancer. And in Harrison’s shirt pocket, he
had found an amendment to his last will and testament carefully preserved in a Ziploc bag. That was enough for Mayor Masters and Sheriff Stone, and they were about to return to the jail to release Celeste Willets when Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell called Jarkins Family Morgue for the fifth time that day. Mayor Masters told her the whole story and said that they were planning on releasing Celeste as soon as they got back to the Fragaria County Sheriff’s Office. The second Janice was furious and would not allow the mayor to get off the phone until he promised that he would try to find some charges to bring against Celeste Willets.
“All right, Janice, we’ll look into it and see if we can find something,” said the mayor, and he hung up, defeated.
That evening Sheriff Stone knocked on the Blackwell residence door. Sally Firth answered, and it was visibly evident that she had not been able to find shelter the previous night. “How are you feeling, Sally? I heard you spent a rough night out in the fields. Literally.” When part-time Deputy Silus Marc had found Sally, she was so mentally disheveled that she kept running and screaming and wouldn’t get in the car. In the end, he had to physically place her in the cruiser.
“Yes,” she said sweetly, “but I’m all together now. Please come in.”
She led him to the front room and he sat looking up at Janice Blackwell’s twelve toles of triumph. Janice entered and urgently asked, “Is Celeste Willets still in jail?”
“No,” said Sheriff Stone, “But let me explain . . .”
“I knew it!” exploded Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice
Blackwell. “I knew you would do nothing! This town lost any spine
it ever had the day my mother died!”
“Quiet!” shouted the sheriff, standing up abruptly. The second Janice Blackwell sat fuming but silent.
“There are no charges we can bring against Celeste Willets, because she hasn’t done anything wrong. Let me tell you something: there may be laws in other counties about how and where a person can be buried, but Fragaria hasn’t caught up to those places yet. In Fragaria you can be buried in any fashion on any property that you have legal control of. There are, however, laws protecting last will and testaments. Literally. Harrison Willets’s last will and testament states that he wanted to be buried in that strawberry patch on the hill behind Celeste’s house. So that is where we are putting him tomorrow morning.”
“I can’t believe this.” Janice Blackwell’s daughter Janice Blackwell growled through her teeth.
“However,” the sheriff continued, “there has been a crime committed. Right now I have both you and Sally for trespassing. ”
Both women sat up in their seats. The sheriff continued, “But since the mayor knew about it and Celeste Willets is unwilling to press charges, this will have to go unprosecuted. Literally. The mayor and I, after some consideration on your character, Janice, tried to convince Celeste that it would be in her best interest to file a restraining order against you, but again she was unwilling. So, let me say this. I better not hear of or see either of you near Celeste Willets ever again, or there will be prosecution. Literally.”
With that Sheriff Stone stood up and left the Blackwell house. Both women stayed seated in their chairs, completely shocked. Finally, Sally Firth broke the silence with, “Well, I never!”
Celeste watched as Sheriff Stone and part-time Deputy Silas Marc unloaded Harrison Willets’s body from the back of the sheriff’s truck and laid it in the hole from which he had been exhumed. While Celeste was in the county jailhouse, Miguel and the two Jorges had come and tended her strawberry patches. They had cleaned up and squared off the edges of the hole, so, despite its shallowness, it did resemble a grave. With Harrison in the grave, the sheriff and deputy took off their hats.
“It seems that something should be said right now.” Sheriff Stone spoke reverently.
“There’s no need for that, Sheriff,” said Celeste. “He’s said so much in death I don’t think anyone can improve on it.”
The two men put their hats back on, filled the hole, and quietly left. The entire time they were putting Harrison Willets back into the ground Celeste stood outside of the little white picket fence. She watched the men leave and did not move until their truck was out of sight and most of the dust it had kicked up along the country road had settled. She walked to the gate, paused, and looked down the road again at the corner where the truck disappeared. Now, finally alone, she entered the gate and began tending her patch.