The soil was red with clay and stained in places with white or dark gray and it was not so compacted as Zola imagined it would be when she began her efforts. There were no rocks, which made the task easier, and few invading roots from the nearby trees. She had only to dig a foot down before she reached the first bones.
She carefully brushed the soil away and lifted away the bones and set them on a blue plastic tarp spread out between the trees. There was still bits of fabric attached and surrounding them--mostly from the polyester blend shirts that were popular among the men of the time. The bones left an imprint on the soil below them, and she felt an odd sadness at destroying them in order to dig further down. She was careful and took her time to excavate each individual skeleton, arranging the bones on the tarp until she was sure the skeleton was complete. She took a photograph, and impressed the teeth into a slab of inexpensive clay that she then let dry in the sun. Finally she wrapped everything up in a clear plastic sheet and labeled it with tape with the date and an identifying number.
When she complete twelve skeletons the town's policeman came to visit her. She knew him when he was a soldier, and remembered the night that he came to her door and held a gun to her head.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked, standing on the ground above her head as she scooped out soil with her trowel.
"You cannot arrest me for this," she replied. She laid down her trowel and turned and looked at him. She had no forgiveness for him, but she was not angry. "Why are you here?"
"I heard you were out here poking around."
"I guess that is true, in a sense."
The sun came out of the clouds just behind his head which darkened his face to her. She shielded her eyes with her red stained hand.
"You should leave this alone," he said.
"I intend to finish this."
The policeman shifted his weight and put his hand on his hip, next to his holstered gun.
"Those days are long over; those things are done," said the policeman. He tried to make his voice sound more commanding, but it cracked instead. "We, the whole town, has moved on."
Zola let her hand fall and she looked at the policeman's feet. His shoes were nearly worn through. He was not the type of policeman like the ones in the neighboring towns who sat in their offices with the fan on and took bribes.
"I will finish," said Zola.
The policeman stood for awhile looking past the open pit and into the quiescent forest, then he went back to his car. Zola picked up her trowel and began to dig again.
"Here," said the policeman, standing again at the edge. He tossed her an unopened bottle of water. "You should drink in this heat."
Zola nodded her thanks and the policeman left for good. She returned to her work and over the next several days as the heat and humidity climbed, she unearthed sixteen more bodies before she came to the skull of a child. Her heart raced and she worked fast even though her fingers shook. She could not tell if it was male or female but the size seemed right. The front teeth were knocked out, which Zola thought could have happened when the body was put into the grave. She had been hoping to recognize him by the gaps he had in his top teeth. The clothes were degraded beyond recognition, so it wasn't until she came to the left arm and the yellow plastic watch still on his wrist that she knew this was her son.
She felt as calm as the clear azure sky above the treetops. She stroked the cloudy plastic face of the watch, and for more than ten minutes she sat completely still. Then she began to brush the soil from the bones of his left hand.
Over the rest of the afternoon Zola extracted the rest of her son's body and laid him out on the tarp to make sure she had all of him. She photographed him and numbered him as she'd done with the others, but did not make an impression of his remaining teeth. She wrapped him up gently, and was suddenly reminded of having swaddled him when he was an infant and then she began to cry, her strength finally broken.
She forced herself back into the pit the next day and worked on the next skeleton, and the process became routine again. By the end of the summer her task was complete, with two hundred, eighteen bodies extracted and waiting identification. She placed the bodies back in the pit in neatly ordered rows and made a map of the numbers. She filled the soil back in using a shovel borrowed from her neighbor. The grass, ferns, and flowers grew back over the pit and Zola returned every Friday regardless of the weather to spend the afternoon with her son.