by Erika Skorstad
The damp soil, a shovel, and the secure swathe of night – my old reliable friends. Years ago, the manual labor caused crippling pain to shoot through my back and shoulders, but I had become accustomed to it, or numb to it. Or, perhaps just better at accepting it. No matter how hard you try, you can never escape pain. You can try to dull it with drugs, sleeping with random women, or alcohol (although I never drink), but it always comes right back to bite you in the ass. But when you do what I do, you come to realize that in order to appreciate the beauty of life, pain needs to be embraced.
After digging for a while, I paused to wipe the bead of sweat that had accumulated on my furrowed brow, feeling thankful that I only worked under the guidance of the moon. I inhaled the comforting earthy aroma and popped another candy into my mouth. My job had a certain stigma attached to it, but I didn’t mind. I liked being able to glance up at the milky moon while I worked, the sweet night breeze caressing my face. Peaceful. With my job, I didn’t have to deal with rude people like when I worked at the supermarket. Their stupidity and rudeness infuriated me. At the graveyard, I don’t even have to talk to the people I work with. And even if I did, they wouldn’t answer me.
I like to imagine what kind of people they were. What stories they would tell if they could. I’m not allowed to know their personal details – I just read their name from a burial slip the day before their funeral so I can prepare their plot. This plot was for Martin Hengle. I imagine that he was a white stockbroker, or something to that effect. Mid 50s. Had a midlife crisis which included buying a Porsche he couldn’t afford, getting a tattoo in honor of his mom, and cheating on his wife with a leggy girl named Jessica who was young enough to be his daughter. Or, perhaps he was an old German physics professor who died, respected by many for his stellar work in the field, and left behind a doting wife, children, and flaxen-haired grandchildren.
As I dug, I also thought about how someday my name will end up on the burial slip. I’ll be just another number on a piece of paper, at the mercy of another gravedigger. Hopefully they’ll make sure my vault lid is on correctly so water can’t get in. The five or so years I’ve been doing this, I’ve dug up many bodies only to find them soaked.
I dumped the last bit of soil in the massive pile next to the plot. Perfect. The next day, the body would be laid to rest following the funeral, and then I would cover it back up. A repetitive cycle, much like life and death. I mentally patted myself on the back for digging a nice hole. Nowadays, many gravediggers use backhoes to dig the plots, but I was the only gravedigger in our small town, and they couldn’t afford machinery like that. Fine by me – I preferred digging by hand anyway, although my arthritis that had begun to flare up would indicate otherwise.
Despite my unusual occupation, I was an average man – well, mostly. I was in my late 40s, with a nicely tousled mop of hair (and a hair line that was only slightly receding), brooding eyes, slouching posture due to hours of digging, and stubble that led women to make the assumption that I was a “bad boy.” I had been seeing a gorgeous girl with freckles, Stephanie, for two months. I usually date a woman for a few months, end things, and then move on to the next one. On one of the many occasions when I psychoanalyzed myself while digging, I determined that this was, predictably, a result of witnessing my parents’ sham of a marriage that had been peppered with affairs, impulsive behavior, and much darker things. One night, a sickening memory popped into my head, as if it was an old friend – and once eye contact was made, you had to greet them.
My mother fidgeting on the couch (popping her peppermint candies in another desperate attempt to kick her addiction to menthols). My father stumbling through the door drunk. Yelling. Slapping. Me turning up the music to drown it all out, while whispering the lyrics to myself.
My father finally left us. My mother and I were free from his metaphorical chains, but she was never the same. Despite the harm my father caused us, she was more alive when with him. After his departure, the life had gone from her eyes, and she mostly sat around smoking cigarettes, seemingly catatonic and refusing to do anything. Like a haunted house, no matter how hard you tried to cleanse it, the old demons wouldn’t detach themselves. I’d tried to take care of her, but she wouldn’t accept my help.
Women tend to get like that. To avoid pain, they bury their feelings until no part of themselves remains and they’re nothing but a shell. I’d rather die than live that way. Which is interesting if you think about it, considering my vocation. I suppose I like doing what I can to feel alive, which is why I’ve always liked the thrill of a new relationship and the hunt.
Stephanie knew about my job, and didn’t mind it. This was probably because she’s a nurse who is used to seeing death. And working odd hours. I looked at my watch. 3:00 AM. I had promised Stephanie that I’d pick her up after her shift and I’d make her my famous spaghetti with pesto and focaccia bread. I really did like her, but we’d been together a little while and I felt the familiar itch to move on. Maybe I would do it tomorrow. Strangely enough, this time the thought made my stomach feel full of lead. Maybe because I liked her so much. I got off work at four, but I had one more matter to attend to. I had to visit an old friend.
I sauntered a few rows over, savoring the simmering silence that was pleasantly full, like a hot cup of tea filled to the top. I didn’t have to look – I knew which grave belonged to her. I bent down and placed a dirt-eincrusted hand on the tombstone.
1982 – 2016
Beloved daughter and artist
I could have sworn I smelled her scent. Floral with just a hint of cloves. I stood up and grabbed my shovel. As I’d done several times before, I plunged it into the supple dirt. As I dug, I began to whistle “Clair De Lune.” My favorite piece ever since I’d heard my mother play it when I was a child. After a while, the coffin peeked through the dirt. Brushing it off, I grabbed the lid. Stuck. After wiping my sweaty hands and getting a better grip, I opened the coffin with the utmost care and unwrapped the blanket as if it would unravel if I used too much force. Ivory skin, succulent lips, stronger scent – ah, that’s right…it was apple blossom with cloves.
She had been my girlfriend. I’d buried her here myself four months ago, and my previous girlfriend three months before that. I’d cried the whole time, allowing myself to embrace the pain.
As I leaned in closer, the apple blossom with cloves smell disappeared without leaving even a wisp of it behind, leaving me to wonder if I’d imagined it. Ashen skin, blue lips, pungent rotting flesh. But the scar. I could see it perfectly in the moonlight. It wrapped around her long elegant neck like a pink ribbon. Despite the decomposition, it remained unchanged – the skin on the edges hadn’t even puckered up yet. Smooth as well, as if done with a surgeon’s precision. Well, I’d had a lot of practice.