The first thing I saw out the window this morning was the gravedigger hard at work. I guess that’s not the best thing to see when one wakes. It was still dark in my room and a chill hung in the air. The furnace had not switched on in the night. I stood, grabbed my robe from the bedpost and wrapped it around me. It didn’t do much to warm my body—it had belonged to my grandmomma before it became mine and was mostly threadbare with holes in the elbows from years of wear and tear. Still, I cinched the sash and wished I had her old slippers on my feet as I crossed the room.
At the window, I pulled the curtains back. The hangers rattled on the rod above me.
The early morning sun peeked out over the horizon, promising clear skies. I looked out over the yard from the second floor of my grandparents’ home. Ancient trees stood, some tall and reaching for the sky, their branches like the waving arms of concertgoers or church parishioners rapt with their religion and swaying from side to side without care one. Other trees stood, not so tall, bent at what I think of as their waists, knotted and gnarled in what could only be an arthritic curse they suffer from. The grass was tall and gray, having not been cut in months and now the cooler temperatures of a southern fall wither them away to husks of their once vibrant blades.
The cemetery sits beyond the yard, no real walls encircling it, but rocks and stones, cobbled together, stacked one atop the other in a helter skelter manner. I always thought they would topple over with a good gust of wind during one of our summer storms or during hurricane season in the fall, but they never have. From where I stood, I could see graves more ancient than the hundred year old house I now live in, their rounded tops chipped, the names of the dead and their epitaphs faded long before I came into this world. The mausoleum that house the once wealthy members of this small province stuck out against the fading purple background.
And the gravedigger dug his hole, not with a backhoe like they use in the big cities and the well kept cemeteries, but with a pickaxe and a shovel and a strong back and arms. He wore his usual blue coveralls, one suspender strap dangling down around his knee. Heavy clod hoppers covered his feet, dirty from years of digging holes two yards deep, two yards long and a yard or so wide. An old straw hat covered his bald head, one that already had early signs of skin cancer splotching it in places. He drove the spade into the earth, stomped on it just to the left of the handle, shoving it further into the ground. Then, as if he wasn’t satisfied with what he had done, he lifted the shovel up, pulling with it a clump of dirt that he tossed onto a growing mound.
I watched for several minutes, fascinated by the piston-like movements of his feet and arms and back. There was no slow down in his motions, no hesitation, no grabbing of his back from a twinge of pain. He shoveled, and if I would have stood there for another two hours, I would have seen him dig until the hole was deeper than he is tall. Then the shovel would fly from the hole and land on the mound. He would crawl out, grab the shovel and walk away as if he had been playing cards at a table with a bunch of old men like himself instead of doing the hard label of grave digging.
But I didn’t stay there. I closed the curtains, not needing to see the sun continue its rise to its perch in the sky; not needing to see the grave digger preparing someone’s last bed.
Someone somewhere is very sad today, but it is not me.
I showered in the bathroom of the house I live in, the house my grandparents once owned, but now only one grandparent remained with me. Near the toilet was my grandmomma’s old slippers. They were once a light blue color and had been fuzzy, like the bear, but only was he? They, like the bear, were no longer fuzzy, and dirty as well; more gray than blue. I slipped them on and walked through the house in the threadbare robe that still had Grandmomma’s scent of arthritis cream and death.
I went down the main stairs, each step cracking and groaning like old bones in protest. I listened to the sounds, enjoying every pop. I used to go down on my bottom when I was younger, plopping from step to step to step, laughing as I went, but age caught up with me a while ago and my back and hips can no longer take such fun endeavors.
In the kitchen I made a big bowl of cereal—Special K was what my grandparents ate, so it is what I ate. I sprinkled sugar on it—a lot more than Grandmomma would have approved of—and ate it with all the zest of a six-year-old in front of the television watching Saturday morning cartoons. I spilled the milk down my chin when I tip the bowl to drink the last of the sugar-made-sweet liquid.
At the sink I saw from the kitchen window part of the graveyard. The trees block most of it from the view. From here I can always see some of the stone wall and the top of the mausoleum, but the headstones and the gravedigger are obscured by the wooden bones of the ancient trees, some of which are dying, either by age or disease … much like people do. I thought of the gravedigger and his gnarled hands and knotted fingers; his sagging jowls and pooch of a stomach, his thick nose that looks like a strawberry, reddened and ripe from years of tipping the bottle. He’s not a bad person, but a drunk who speaks few words.
I washed the bowl and went back upstairs. I needed to change into something more than a thin robe and worn out slippers. You can’t attend a burial in your bath clothes.
My closet is lined with dresses and slacks, blouses of different colors and coats pushed far to the back. I selected a black skirt that falls to below the knees and a light gray top, sensible in every way. Best to be respectful on a day of mourning, after all someone is sad today. Flats go on my feet and I didn’t put on any makeup, after all the dead don’t care about those things. Only the living, and the living didn’t matter this morning.
In the kitchen I waited until I heard the back door open, the heavy sounds of boots on linoleum in the mudroom, and then the whisking sound of socks on the floor outside of it. The stairs creaked and groaned and I could almost picture them as people laying, belly down, mumbling and grumbling as weight was first put on their backs, then gone a second later.
Above me the shower turned on and water ran for a good twenty minutes. Then the tell tale signs followed of someone walking around upstairs slowly, as if the feet couldn’t be bothered to lift themselves off the floor and set themselves back down.
Another twenty minutes pass and the stairs protested again.
I looked up from the where I sat at the table, my hands folded in front of me. He no longer wears his overalls and the one suspender that always hung to his knee has been replaced by a belt. His boots were gone, replaced by a nice pair of Sunday shoes, and he wore a pair of dark pants, one fit for such a moment. His nose was still a strawberry in the center of his face, and his eyes blue and clear, like the sky in mid-July in the south—nothing clouding them at all; no cancer, no alcohol, no worry.
“Okay, Grandpa,” I said and stood.
“Ya look nice, Marjorie.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I reckon so.”
We left the house and made our way across the yard to the cemetery. We passed through an opening in the cobbled together stone wall and weaved in and out of headstones too tired to hold themselves erect any longer. Soon they will all be lying on the ground like the dead beneath them.
At the hole we stopped. It was longer than the six feet the gravedigger normally made them. One end was sloped like a ramp, leading down into the hole. A freshly built pine box sat at the head of the sloped end. I could smell the strong scent of pine sap. The casket sat atop logs cleaned of all bark and made smooth. Two ropes were attached to the foot end of it, used to pull the casket across the logs so it would roll into the grave.
“Ya have any words to say, Marjorie?”
I walked over to the pine box and tapped on the head in.
“Grandmomma. Ya in there?”
The muffled scream came back to me and I smiled. She was in there and she wasn’t too happy. She beat on the inside lid, nailed down every three or so inches.
I stepped back from the casket. “I changed my mind,” I said. “I got nothin’ to say.”
“A’right, then,” he said, bowed his head and closed his eyes. He prayed, said his amen and grabbed one rope. I grabbed the other. It was time to put Grandmomma to rest. Yeah, someone was sad on this day, but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t Grandpa either.