John Ryland lives in Northport, Alabama with his wife and two sons. Although he has placed several poems in national publications this is his first short story publication. He has also recently finished a full-length novel, which he hopes to publish soon.
You can find more of his work at https://facebook.com/JRylandtheWriter .
The scene that I arrived upon was just as strange as I expected. The wife of a friend of mine stopped by and explained to me that her husband was digging his mother’s grave, by himself, and asked if I would help. It was a hot, dry day in mid-august in central Alabama. The humidity was already marching toward 90 percent and the temperature was outpacing it. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. This was no day to be doing hard physical labor out in the sun.
Naturally, I agreed to help, although I had no idea what it entailed. My mind conjured up images of old men in heavy, black coats skulking around a cemetery in the middle of the night, always a little dirty and usually with the smell of cheap liquor on their breath. Putting aside what I had planned to do that day, which was as little as possible, I hopped in my truck and headed out.
The church was a small one, out in the country. The bumpy dirt road ambled along through the woods, ran along the side of the graveyard and continued past the church, but I pulled off in a shady spot on the opposite side of the road of the cemetery and got, looking at the row of tombstones that were older than I was.
He stopped digging, already sweating profusely, and looked at me as I approached. “What’re you doing here?” he asked breathlessly.
“Just passing through and saw you. Thought you might need a hand,” I lied.
Shrugging, he went back to work.
I surveyed the damage done to the dry, brown grass. A rusty rectangular frame had been traced on the ground with blue spray paint before being cast aside and now lay haphazardly against someone else’s tombstone. Most of the edges had been assaulted with a shovel, removing large chunks of the red clay, which looked like they hadn’t come willingly.
I grabbed a pickaxe and went to work on the center of the rectangle. Raising the pick high above my head, I brought it hurtling earthward with a mighty groan. The rusted metal dove through the hot, still air and slammed into the gravesite. It penetrated to a depth about of two inches before coming to an abrupt stop. I pried it loose and looked at it, disappointed. My herculean effort yielded a small divot in the unforgiving dirt.
“It’s kinda compacted,” he said. I agreed and hefted the pick again, and again, and again. Each time I struck the earth with as much force as I could muster, and each time it penetrated about the same two inches. It was going to be a long day.
He suggested spelling me and I gave only a weak argument while handing over the pick. He, being considerably larger and more adept at such things as digging graves, managed a three-inch penetration, each swing prying chunks of angry, red clay dirt from the site. “Gonna be here a while,” he panted when he finally took a break long enough to wipe the sweat from his face.
“I got all day,” I told him, and I did. I just hadn’t planned on working this hard on my day off. As he went back to picking at the compacted earth, I spared a moment to look across the graveyard. The old, weathered tombstones testified to its age. This was an old country church and a lot of old country people had been laid to rest here, undoubtably while someone sang “Amazing grace” or “May the Circle Be Unbroken” and the preacher said a few words, some of which might have even applied to the poor souls being laid to rest.
Working with the shovel, I dug chunks of ground out of the shallow indentation and tossed them onto the rapidly growing pile next to us, amazed at the fact that the pile of dirt looked to be twice the amount of what came out of the hole. I made note of this to my friend and quickly learned that, once free of its earthly confines, dirt expands and loosens itself.
Mildly amused and pleased to have learned something that I’d never really considered, I went back to work beneath the merciless sun. Together, we got the hole about a foot deep and stopped for water. I had a bottle in my truck seat, and he had one sitting in the shade of a nearby tombstone. Neither was cold. He suggested we take our refreshments to the shade and I agreed.
With half my luke-warn water in my belly, I looked at him. “Sorry to hear about your mama.”
“Thanks,” was all he said. I didn’t figure he wanted to talk about it. I’d gone through the same thing about ten years earlier and I never did want to talk about it. There wasn’t much to say that would make a difference anyway. I didn’t dig her grave. I was overseas with the Navy and didn’t get back until the night before her funeral.
Leaving the rest of our refreshments for later, when they’d be even warmer, we marched unenthusiastically back across the dirt road and into the cemetery. Deciding on a different approach, we both took up pickaxes. He positioned himself at the head of the grave, according to the layout of all the other graves, and I took up the foot end. Taking turns, we each took a swing at the dirt in the grave, loosening it chunk by chunk until we’d finished a three-inch layer.
It was a triumph of teamwork and precision, not unlike the workers of old pounding in spikes on the trans-continental railroad track. One man would swing then retract his tool, then the other. Back and forth, one catching his breath while the other assaulted the earth, keeping it under constant attack. There was a rhythm to the pain that lent itself to song, maybe something about John Henry, or “Sweet Chariot”, but we didn’t sing. It was too damned hot to sing.
Using this strategy, we pounded the hole to a depth of three feet before the molten orb of lava in the sky forced us back into the shade for a brief respite. We crawled out of the hole with tired muscles and sweat soaked shirts. The sun, right above us now, beat us like a man with a whip, pushing the temperature somewhere between molten steel and a welding torch, and the humidity was determined not to be outdone.
Having finished our water, we made small talk in the shade-which only lowered the temperature a few degrees- unwilling to renter the theatre in which we were doing battle. We were halfway through, and three quarters worn down. It was going to be close.
Unlike the wild west days when someone could take a shovel and dig through loose, sandy soil and bury a person without messing up the bandana around his neck, and still had the energy to court a beautiful, young woman, digging a grave was more specific that I’d thought it would be. As it turns out the rectangular frame wasn’t just a way to plot out the site. The entire structure had to fit in the grave and slide down the walls all to the way to a dept of six feet. The walls had to be straight, square, and more or less smooth. This was accomplished by a specific set of tools intended for just such work. Grave tools. Turns out that even in death there were certain legal responsibilities that had to be fulfilled.
Standing at the bottom of a freshly dug grave, or rather a grave in progress of being freshly dug, gives you a strange perspective. Six feet in the ground feels deeper than it sounds, especially when you’re just under six feet tall. Staring at the cross section of earth within its walls recounts the history of the land in ways that are rarely considered. But then again, the chance that I might have been having a heat stroke wasn’t entirely out of the question either.
We’d made it to five feet when his wife showed up with drinks and chips. To us she resembled a Red Cross disaster relief crew. We were nearly spent. Out of water and neither of us had had much to eat, we were in desperate need of replenishment. I do believe if she hadn’t shown up, they might have found two bodies at the bottom of that grave: mine and his.
The cold drinks and peanut butter crackers were mana from heaven, which we chomped down like a couple of hungry wolves. Afterwards we sat in the shade of a towering red oak, our clothes stained with red clay dirt, and watched the sun bake the recently unearthed mound next to the grave. I wiped a sweat tear away as it ran down the side of my face and sighed. As undesirable as it was, we both knew we had to get back out in the sun. Like a boxer who was taking a beating, but determined to finish the fight, we stood with achy, reluctant groans.
Kissing his wife goodbye- him not me- we went back to work and removed the last foot of red clay from the bottom of the pit. I offered a hand up and he helped haul me from the grave, then jumped in himself, his muddy boots striking the bottom with a dull thump. I handed the frame over the edge and he slid it all the way to the bottom. When it finally rested on the fresh bottom, he let out a yelp of joy and handed it back to me. As unenthusiastic as it was, it did say that we were done.
I looked at the mountain of dirt next to us, then at the hole that it had come from and shook my head in disbelief. The loose dirt looked to be twice the amount it would take to fill the hole. The tape measure said we’d dug a neat, six foot by four-foot hole straight down to the depth of six feet one inch. We were hot, sweaty, dirty, and tired but most importantly, we were done.
When I came back with a bottle of water he was sitting on the edge of the grave, his legs dangling inside, looking at the bottom. I nudged him with the bottle and offered it to him. He took it and drank thirstily.
There was no doubt in my mind that he was thinking about his mother laying in her casket in the hole we’d wrought from the compacted, uncooperative earth, and maybe the finality of death and the preciousness of life. I had never met his mother, but I’d helped dig her grave. But I didn’t dig it for her. I dug it for my friend. For me it was almost a novelty, digging a grave, but for him it must have been cathartic in some way, a fulfillment of some final duty. One last act that a man could do for his mother. Either way we had moved one hundred forty-four cubic feet of begrudging Alabama dirt from the ground on a sweltering day in August and we had survived, that was something to be proud of.
I clapped him on the shoulder as he sat on the edge of his mother’s grave and said, “Love ya, brother,” as I walked toward my truck. “Call me if you need me.”