Human Remains

What strange inheritance did Uncle Kessem leave behind for Roger?


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The rough flakes of ash would not let go of me, despite my fear of being seen. It had been Uncle Kessem’s unambiguous wish to be buried here. I’d told him I’d do the closest thing finances would allow, deposit his cremated remains on and around the gravesite where I planned to be buried myself one day along with my wife, Frieda.  

What I was doing now, stooped low to the ground between mismatched headstones, was most definitely prohibited by the extensive regulations of this cemetery which, having obtained National Historic Site status a decade ago, had moved toward ever more detailed and enthusiastic enforcement of its rules. Fortunately, my gravesite, which I’d had the happy foresight to purchase before prices skyrocketed a quarter-century ago, lies in a lush little depressed hollow near a 200-year-old red oak. It’s a mostly shady spot unseeable from the road or the stone-paved paths that meander everywhere in this celebrated burial ground. Still, it had taken a number of deep breaths and a long, reassuring talk with myself before I could finally open the thick cardboard carton. It held all that was corporeally left of Uncle Kessem. I’d had it sitting under my marital bed for weeks, unknown to Frieda. Now, finally, I’d come to fulfil Kessem’s wish. 

Slowly, slowly, I dipped my fingers into the container and gathered a slight handful. Another deep breath and I commenced spreading the loose matter, soft as talc and sharp as broken seashells, among the blades of unmowed buffalo grass surrounding the small stone marker on the smidgen of land that indicates my eventual decomposition site. 

I had imagined I could distribute the ashes in a subtle arrangement that would not draw notice from anyone who might wander by afterward, someone visiting a nearby grave perhaps, or simply taking an impromptu wander, as is common in this leafy, hilly, statuary-stuffed refuge. But I had not reckoned on the extraordinary volume packed into that modest cardboard box. 

I looked at my bone-filmed hands, at the ash already blanketing the ground around me, and quickly realized I’d have to expand the distribution beyond my gravesite if this act of love and loyalty were indeed to go undetected. Okay, Roger, I muttered, that’s perfectly fine. Leave enough here so there’s something of Kessem for you to commune with when you’re buried someday. As for the rest, well, he was such a kind soul. Surely others won’t mind having some of him seep into their own repositories of earth, spirit, and bone.  

Yet as I contemplated rising to go scatter his remains more widely, I remained squatting, gazing dreamily at my stone plot marker — number ten — my whole being gently ushered deep into a relaxed, yes, a meditative state by the rub of the stuff between the pads of my fingers, the silken coating of my palms, so unexpectedly and pleasantly tactile. My breathing slowed to the very edge of sleep.  

After an unknown time I was roused by excited voices over the rise blocking my view of the road. I half stood, hoping to remain unobserved. Oh, of course. A string of binoculars pointed at piles of last year’s leaves surrounding the knees of a sturdy beech that arched over the road from the far side. I had come early, the moment the cemetery unlocked its gates that morning. Prime birdwatching time. I relaxed. Not one of this group would be interested in me, focused as they were in flushing out a family of wood thrushes whose sharp metallic song I’d noticed in the background of my earlier stupor. I’d just wait until they moved on.  

I turned back to my task, taking another slight handful of grit from the cardboard opening, but looking carefully I saw I’d truly saturated my plot beyond which I could not hope that the ashes would go unnoticed. Still, the birders remained on their spot, and, knowing something about the passions involved, I could anticipate they would stay for some time. So grasping the box firmly by an open edge, I half stood again and, with bent-over gait, crept closer to the nearby oak which, I imagined, would be a happy recipient of some of Kessem’s nature- worshiping essence.  

Squatting fully again, I circled the tree’s deeply ridged silvery trunk, moving like a thrush myself, fingering a gentle cloud of ashes down upon the sculptural network of roots anchoring the massive canopy. Pausing to closely examine the bark, I saw golden brown vertical cracks among the silver furrows and wondered at the wisdom or folly of perhaps rubbing some of uncle’s remains into these … what? Were they open wounds as they surely appeared? I didn’t know enough, I decided, to risk interfering with the tree’s physiology in that way so I continued creeping around the perimeter with the box, removing small handfuls, sifting the stuff slowly through my desiccated hands, and then I felt it. Neither sharp nor satiny, more uniform than the bone shards, a small oval object evident through the caking of ash that had hardened to completely encase it.  

Though surprised, I immediately understood what it was. Kessem had shown it to me once in the delirious months, pulled it from a pajama pocket wrapped in a wad of what was surely a used handkerchief, and handed it to me. “Your inheritance, Roger,” he’d growled. “Don’t forget.”  

But I had forgotten, until this moment, along with the other oh-so-many cryptic assertions he’d made during that period when the uncle I knew was gone, replaced by a pain-and-drug-addled alter ego who mouthed things I rarely understood. Things like, “She killed the horse with a blue poker chip,” pointing at Maggie, one of the aides we’d hired to stay with him, the one who spent six nights a week by his side. Things like, “I’m the overlord of artificial intelligence, you know, Roger.” Or, “Your mother was a mermaid before you were born but she lost her scales getting you out of herself.” 

“Don’t just sit there,” he’d demanded that day, as I tried to take the wadded cloth from him without actually touching it. “Take a look for God’s sake.”  

So I’d reluctantly unwrapped the delicate mucus-crusted rag, gingerly removing a small metal object. A casting lure? No. Something smaller. About the size of one of my multi-vitamins and rather fancily engraved. I’d gone to wash my hands then and when I’d returned to the recliner where Kessem spent all his days and nights by that point he’d straightened noticeably and, with one eye gleaming and the other closed, nodded at the thing, which I’d left in a glass saucer on his medicine table.  

“Nice, huh?” 

“Yes, Uncle,” I remember nodding. “Very nice.” 

“Titanium,” he’d told me, a nodding parody of his former sagacity. “Your inheritance. Don’t forget.” 

Now I was certain that same small object lay once again in my hand, enameled over with a hard bit of Kessem’s fused remains. I scratched my brain, pawing at the memory for details, but all I had retained was the sight of his one shiny eye cut to sudden dullness by a cough that seized him then, exhausting him to wordlessness.  

I needed to make absolutely sure there was a bunch of him in my final resting place. Returning with the still-laden box to my gravesite, I cast about for something to dig with. Finding a short, sturdy branch, I broke off an edgy piece and slowly scraped out a narrow hole, four or five inches deep, just to the right of marker stone number ten. Placing a few fistfuls of Kessem’s ashes in the impression I covered them with the earth I’d removed, tamping it all down with one palm.  

I pocketed the ash-encrusted oval, wondering with a disoriented detachment whether I had any hydrochloric acid left in the wood shop.  

I noticed the air had grown still. Rising once more to a half-stand, my knees crunching in protest, I saw that the birding group had moved on.  

Eager to get home now, excited to clean and examine the object in my pocket, my focus shifted to disbursing the rest of Kessem’s remains widely and efficiently. Circling deeper away from the road, I stopped at each of the many graves decorated with ivy or shrubs and quickly emptied the rest of the box’s contents among these convenient plantings without, I believe, being seen by anyone at all.  

Now, what to do with the vacant container? I couldn’t simply toss out something reeking with my uncle’s essence, not even into the cemetery’s dead-flower-laden wire trash cans which, I imagine, they compost the offerings from. Or perhaps not. Probably not. Maybe they burn the trash. Which made me think of the pile of kindling in our yard. Yes, that would do. We’d have a little ceremony and burn the crematory box in our fire pit, toasting vegan marshmallows to Kessem’s memory. I flattened the container, shoved it in my backpack, and headed toward the exit gates. 

* * * 

“You know, honey,” Frieda was telling me, a bit condescendingly for my comfort, “there’s already tons of A.I. therapy programs. They’re pretty common.”  

We were sitting on the porch swing watching the sun sink into the trees, passing my inheritance back and forth between us along with a lighted magnifying glass we’d brought home when we’d finally emptied out Kessem’s apartment.  

“People have been using A.I. for therapy for years,” she added, more gently. 

“This wouldn’t be therapy,” I told her earnestly, glancing down at the object in my hand, which had turned out, when its crust of ashes was dissolved by the acid bath, to be quite beautiful. Something else I’d forgotten. A small, light, elongated oval nugget covered with diminutive symbols. “It wouldn’t be therapy,” I repeated, a bit more insistently. “Kessem was interested in affecting humanity writ large. His A.I. research had more of a social engineering, anti-capitalism, pro-democracy focus.” 

She snorted. “Anti-capitalist? A.I.? Really, Roger?” 

I nodded slowly, talking half to myself, gazing at the talisman in my palm. “Look, Kessem was dying. He was deranged. And he broke through his crazies to tell me about this thing. That’s how I know it was important to him. It’s got to have something to do with the stuff he was talking about after the extermination, the stuff all the suits gave lip service to until everyone just shrugged and moved on.” 

“But Roger, you just said it. He was deranged.”  

“I know. But he showed this to me for a reason. And he didn’t give it to me while he was alive. He kept calling it my inheritance. Then he made sure I’d find it when he’d died so —” 

“Yeah, I’m not following that. What do you mean exactly?” 

“Well, like I said before, he had to have swallowed it, right? It’s the only explanation that makes any sense. If he’d been wearing it around his neck or had it in a pocket, the undertakers would have removed it. It might have been lost or thrown away, or even stolen. It’s very pretty, after all. I’ve heard things like that happen at those funerary places. But Kessem was brilliant, remember? He must have swallowed it when he knew he was close to death to make sure it would wind up in his ashes. To make sure I got it. Don’t forget, he’d made me promise to spread his remains, and he knew I’d keep that promise for sure. So he figured I’d find it when I did that. And he made a point of telling me it’s titanium. He knew it wouldn’t burn up or melt away when they cremated him.” 

I could see Frieda mulling that over. “So, what are you saying? What do you think it is?” 

I sighed, knowing I was going to sound stupid now, possibly as nuts as Kessem had been at the end. 

“Empathy 101.” 

Frieda frowned, but remained silent. 

“Look again,” I handed her the magnifier. “See, it’s on both sides as clear as can be. The empathy symbol. And opposite those is the infinity mark, which was Kessem’s shorthand for the future. And remember his password?” I nudged her. “When we went through his lab we had to keep using it to get into everything? To see his records?”  

Her frown deepened. “‘Love lab,’ right, with some numbers after that?” 

“Yeah.” I nodded. “‘Love lab 9876 asterisk.’” 

“So?” she shrugged.  

“Empathy 101,” I repeated. “That’s what he called what he was working on. Using A.I. to help humans gain empathy. He was always talking about designing algorithms for that until he got so sick. I know I told you. He’d been thinking about it for years, maybe working on it here and there. But after the extermination he just got obsessed with using the technology to do good, to prevent more horrors. He’d broken it down into specific skills he said A.I. could teach masses of people, starting from childhood. How to listen. How to respond less often but more appropriately in conversation. That type of thing.” 

She shot me that great leaping beam of a grin of hers. “Well, those are things Kessem was really good at.”  

“Well, so, what if that’s my inheritance? Maybe that’s what he left me.” 

“Well, yeah, obviously you got that from him. You’re a great listener. It’s actually why I married you,” she told me, not for the first time. 

“No, I don’t mean what I got from him being my uncle. I mean what he might have encrypted in this thing he left me. Maybe it’s his research. Empathy 101. What if that’s my inheritance and this is the key to it? Because, honestly Frieda, he was really insistent that I remember this little chunk of nothing. And like I said, he obviously swallowed it to get it to me, probably right before he died.” 

She looked at me pityingly. “Roger, we’ve been through his lab. There was nothing there.  

“I don’t believe that. We just didn’t know what to look for or even what we were looking at for God’s sake.” 

“You’re wrong, baby. I’m sorry, but whatever he told you he was working on, it obviously never got past the thinking stage. It doesn’t take an engineer to see there wasn’t much there. No code to speak of at least.” 

I hung my head. “We must have missed it. He was so brilliant. It’s such a good idea, an important idea, and something he was perfectly situated to do.” 

“Well,” she spoke softly now, “his body gave out on him too soon. Or maybe there were other reasons.” 

“Yeah, like maybe he was stymied by a greedy world.” 

“Maybe he was worried about unintended consequences.” 

I looked at her, stupefied. “You’re saying you think he fried his own research?”  

She shrugged again. “I don’t think there was any research, but if there was, maybe he fried it.” 

“He wanted to give it away!” I was suddenly aware that I was shouting, but it sounded very far away. “He wanted to give it away,” I lowered my voice, quickly. “Sorry,” I mumbled at her startled look. “But what if that’s the inheritance? What if he wanted me to finish it up and give it away for him?” 

“Oh Roger, think about it. Even if he got the A.I. right, how would something like that ever even get adopted?” 

“He had that worked out too. You know those happiness studies, right?”  

“And besides,” she said, ignoring my question, “did you go get an engineering degree while I wasn’t looking? How would you even do that? Finish up something he was working on? And why would Kessem, who was, as you say, brilliant, ever think that would be something you’d even be able to do. You’re an artist for God’s sake. A woodworker. It’s not like he didn’t know that.” 

“The happiness studies,” I said more insistently. “He was going to use those to promote it.” 

“What happiness studies?” 

I repressed an enormous urge to roll my eyes. “We’ve talked about this so many times, Fre,” I sighed. “You know. All that research showing people are happiest when we’re helping each other.”  

She turned her whole body toward me in the swing. “That’s why Kessem was always taking in strays,” she said, her voice husky, “those kids who showed up at the memorial.”  

“I never knew he did any of that. If the moms hadn’t told us, we still wouldn’t know.” 

She nodded. “That’s what he was counting on.” 

“You know what else he told me?” 

She tilted her head to one side but said nothing. 

“He thought A.I. could train people to think long term. You know how everyone’s always talking about that but never doing it? He talked about using A.I. to manipulate our dopamine spikes to project positivity into the far future. But I don’t think he’d gotten too far with that. He seemed really focused on Empathy 101. Still, it’s a cool idea, right?” 

She nodded. “Very cool,” she agreed. 

* * * 

This time I’d had the forethought to bring a spoon, at least. A nice big, weighted soup spoon from our kitchen drawer, because I couldn’t find a single one of our half-dozen garden trowels. It was always like that. Maybe humans really can’t think ahead, I groused inwardly.  

Grateful I’d at least had the foresight to dig the hole in a place I’d remember, I scraped away at the earth next to marker number ten. Removing one spoonful after another of Kessem’s remains that I’d buried — what, five weeks earlier? — I told him everything. 

“Sorry, Uncle. Really sorry. I took pictures and all. I decoded all your symbols. The future, the empathy, the patience, the love. Here’s the thing, though. No one knows what you were doing. Frieda was right. There was nothing we could find in your lab. Not on your other devices either, the ones in your apartment and your car. I found one in your gym locker too, but nada. Nothing in the cloud except pictures and poetry. I love your poems, by the way, Uncle. That one about tracking the moose in Newfoundland? That’s great. I’m going to try to get that one published, and maybe also the one about the balls of light in the banana trees. I hope that’s okay with you.” 

I’d unearthed all the ashes now which, to my surprise, looked exactly like they had when I’d buried them.  

I took the elongated oval from my pocket, held it up to the cloudy morning light, then placed it gently down into the hole. Our little casting into the future. It looked exactly like it belonged there under Kessem’s ashes. I wondered whether it would get encrusted with them again over time. But no, that alchemy had arisen from the intense heat of the crematory. Unless the Earth itself burned one day, the amulet would simply rest there between dirt and ash, at least until the ground was disturbed for my own burial. Mine or Frieda’s. Or until I found a reason to come dig it up again, a possibility I favored. Because, here’s the thing. I don’t really believe there was nothing to find in my uncle’s lab.  

I picked up a handful of the dirt I’d removed from the hole, examining it closely. Closing my eyes I sniffed its fresh scent of ground rock and ancient vegetation. Such a useful, inspiring transmutation, soil is.  

“None of your stuff is getting recycled or trashed,” I told Kessem. “We’ve got it all safe and dry and stored in case we figure it out. We’ve got everything you ever put up online, everything you wrote on paper. I’ve photographed my inheritance from every angle so I can leave it here safe with you. Just in case I never find anyone to continue your research. This is the safest place, here with you buried on Frieda’s and my gravesite. But don’t worry, I’m still looking. I’ll talk to anyone who doesn’t think I’m just a crackpot. I promise. If I find someone or we figure things out and we need my inheritance, well, I’ll know exactly where it is.” 

I dropped the handful of soil into the hole, peering in as it covered the oval. Taking the spoon from the ground, I scraped the ashes back into place, covered them with a layer of earth and, once again, patted it all down with my palm. I sat gazing at the red oak just across the path. After a long while I rose, threw the spoon into my pack, and walked over to examine the ring of human remains I’d surrounded the venerable tree with five weeks earlier, but no evidence of my hallowing remained. A knot grew in my chest. 

Returning to my gravesite, I retrieved my pack, nudged it onto my shoulder, and walked quickly down the slate path to the empty road. As I neared the cemetery’s Gothic stone gatehouse, I checked my watch against the iron clock hands ensconced in its tower, pleased that the times matched exactly. Turning onto the busy sidewalk I maneuvered myself into the stream of people and headed home.  

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  1. Very nice story. With all the chaos in the world, it would be nice to store empathy and keep it forever.

  2. Ms. Weiss, you tell a very unusual type of story in an equally unique way that’s very engaging. Thank you.


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