The Unmaking of June Farrow
When Margaret Anne Farrow died in her sleep on June 10, 2023, I became the last living Farrow on earth.
The setting sun fell behind the hill that overlooked a wide expanse of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a rolling sea of soft violet peaks. Only a few of those who called the town of Jasper, North Carolina, home had gathered to bid Margaret farewell.
Put me to sleep with the fiddle at sunset, she’d said, because she’d known she was dying. We all did. We hadn’t planned to say any words because she hadn’t wanted that. There weren’t many things that were clear, especially in those final years when Gran’s mind had all but slipped away, but a burial on this hill at sunset with a fiddle playing in the wind was one of them.
The headstone was made of simple, rough-cut white marble to match those of the other Farrow women who were laid to rest only feet away. Mildred, Catharine, Esther, Fay, now Margaret. One day, my own name would stand beside them—June Farrow.
To the town of Jasper, I was first known as the Market Street Baby, words made eternal the day the Chronicle put them on the front page. Just before daybreak on October 2, 1989, Clarence Taylor was on his way to open the cafe when he heard the sound of a baby’s cry coming from the alley. It took only hours for the whole town to hear about the baby girl in the basket with the birthmark beneath one ear and the locket watch tucked into her blanket.
The necklace was an heirloom that had been passed down in the Farrow family for generations. The last woman to wear it around her neck was my mother, Susanna. Susanna—the only name missing from the cemetery because Gran had refused to raise a headstone over an empty grave.
There was no mistaking who the baby was when they found that locket watch. It had been almost fourteen months since my mother disappeared. There was no shortage of theories on the matter, but no real answers. Susanna had simply walked into the woods one day, her belly swollen with child, and never returned. There were those who thought she’d met a tragic end. That she was a victim of some unspeakable crime. Others believed she’d lost her way in the deep woods and was never found.
The easiest and most widely accepted explanation for my mother’s strange disappearance was madness—the same affliction to befall every woman in my family for as far back as anyone could remember. We were cursed—the Farrow women.
By the time night had fallen, the sheriff was knocking on my grandmother’s door, and that’s where the story ended. My mother was gone. She wasn’t coming back. So it was just the two of us, Gran and me.
Two finches arced across the darkening glow of the horizon, drawing my gaze up from the headstone as Malachi Rhodes drew the bow down his fiddle. The notes stretched deep and long, sending a melody into the air that made my heart twist painfully inside my chest. The same tweed flat cap he wore fly-fishing on the river every morning was pulled low over his wrinkle-framed eyes, but he was one of the few in town whom Gran had considered a true friend, and he’d made the effort of wearing his nice jacket.
The windows of the little white wooden church at the bottom of the hill were still lit. On Sundays, it was filled for service, when everyone in Jasper piled into the pews. Most everyone, anyway. I’d never set foot in the place; neither had Gran. That was one of the reasons the young minister, Thomas Falk, had pretended not to watch as we’d made our way through the cemetery gates. It was also one of the reasons that only four other souls stood on that hill besides me and Malachi.
Ida Pickney, our next-door neighbor, dabbed at the corner of her eye with the tissue balled in her fist. Her daughter, Melody, was at her side, and Mason Caldwell stood a whole head taller than her only a few feet away. He’d had the misfortune of being the only kid in grade school foolish enough to sit beside me at lunch, and he’d eventually grown into the only fool who’d jump from the river bridge with me in the summers or cut class with me our senior year. Then there was Birdie Forester, Gran’s oldest friend, who was more like family than anything.
Her hand found mine, squeezing, and it was only then that I could feel how cold my fingers were. I blinked, pulling my eyes from the narrow steeple of the church to look over my shoulder. Birdie stood at my back, the lace neckline of her black dress fluttering along the curve of her collarbones. Her silver hair was pulled into old-fashioned pin curls, making her look exactly like the photographs of her and Gran when they were young. There were dozens of them in the basement. Arm in arm in front of the soda shop. Perched like chickens atop hay bales on the farm. Standing knee-deep in the river in only their underwear.
“Made it to holy ground after all,” Birdie whispered.
A smile pulled at the corner of my mouth, my eyes flitting again over the five white headstones of the Farrow women. There was a time when this corner of the cemetery didn’t exist. When Gran was little, the Farrows were buried outside of the fence because they weren’t baptized. But eventually, as the need for more burial plots grew and the fences of the churchyard were moved, the banished graves fell within its borders. Gran had found an endless humor in that, saying she’d make it to holy ground after all.
There were things that made this town what it was. The scent of honeysuckle blooming along the black tar roads and the rush of the Adeline River, which cut through the land like the scrape of a knife. The curious gazes that followed me and Gran on the street and the rumors that skipped in the air no matter how much time had passed. Their stories were nothing compared to the ones that Gran had regaled me with when she tucked me into bed as a little girl. The town of Jasper had no idea just how different and strange we were.
The wind picked up, and goosebumps surfaced on my skin, tracing from my wrist to my elbow when the feeling of eyes crept up the back of my mind. I swallowed hard before I followed the movement at the corner of my vision back down the hill. The square of golden light on the lawn beside the church was painted with a sharp black shadow.
My gaze rose to see the silhouette of a man framed in the window, shoulders squared to the cemetery. Even from here I could feel those eyes focused on me. But the parking spot where the minister’s car had been an hour ago was now empty. So was the church.
It’s not real, I told myself, tearing my eyes away. There’s nothing there.
When I blinked, he was gone.
The notes of the fiddle slowed, drawing out against the wind as the last bit of light disappeared in the distance. The trees swayed in a balmy summer evening breeze that made my skin sticky to the touch, and a moment later, there was only the sound of the footsteps on the damp grass as the others made their way through the headstones and back to the road.
I stared at the dark, crumbled earth that filled the grave. Gran had taught me how to work the farm, to weave flower crowns, and to make her grandmother’s biscuits. She taught me how to ignore the whispered prayers women uttered beneath their breaths when they came in and out of the flower shop. How to read the coming seasons by the intuition of the trees and predict the weather by the look of the moon. I hadn’t let myself really think about the fact that it was what came next that I most needed her for. But she wouldn’t be there.
Birdie and I waited for the last of the headlights to bleed away before we finally started the walk back, following the bridge over the river to the single block that was downtown Jasper. I chanced one more look at the church and found the window still empty, like I knew it would be. But that sick feeling still swirled in my belly.
I unbuttoned the top of my black cotton dress, letting the cool night air touch my skin before I pulled off my shoes, a pair of black slingback heels Gran had probably had in her closet since 1970. The same was likely true for the pearl earrings I’d fished from her jewelry box that morning.
The crickets woke with the darkness that fell over the thin strip of town that lined the road, not a car in sight. Small communities like this one usually went to sleep with the sun, and Jasper was mostly farms, which meant its residents would be up when the roosters crowed.
The main street had some other name no one ever remembered, a combination of four or five numbers that only showed up on maps. In Jasper, it was known as just the river road, the only way to town from the remote stretches that were tucked into the surrounding mountains. South took you to Asheville. North took you to Tennessee.
A banner for the upcoming Midsummer Faire was stretched out across the only intersection, catching the wind like a sail. The redbrick-faced buildings were more than 150 years old. They snaked along the Adeline River, which, that time of night, with the moon waning, just looked like a wall of black. The only reminders that it was there were the hiss of it running over the rocks in the shallows and the distinct smell that the churn of mountain water put into the air.