In this part of the city the land rose above the hazy river to the south and the trees grew taller and leafed more fully than other places. The earth was deep and black and full of the kind of death that gave life more abundantly than other places.
Karl knew these things because he dug in this soil. That was his job…digging holes and filling them in again. He was a kind of sower…planting his sad seeds that never seemed to bear any fruit, least ways not on this side of perdition.
It didn’t pay well but Karl didn’t care because his was a simple life that required little. He had his room supplied by his employer with a single bed, a sink, a shower and a small kitchenette. He didn’t smoke but felt he should have.
The days were filled with work and his nights were filled with wandering until he could wander no longer at which point he would grudgingly return to his room where he would tap away at his computer writing away whatever pain may have bubbled forth in the hours previous until sleep could no longer be pushed off and wrapped its fingers round his throat to drag him to merciful oblivion for a time.
Most days Karl would simply take the backhoe out of the machine shed and dig his holes…then he would drive it a discreet distance away, lean on a tree and wait wishing he had a cigarette so he would have something to do with his hands.
He didn’t have to stay near. There were other things for him to do in the time between the digging and the filling but Karl liked to watch people and listen to them as they said their goodbyes. Some would think him morbid but he wasn’t the type to really give a damn one way or the other.
The funerals were all the same.
Sure they came with different wrappers, different traditions, but ultimately the core was always the same…grieving, praying, speaking, burying and leaving. In the 43 years, two months and 17 days since Karl had started this necessary role they had always been the same whether the dead was young or old, male or female, black, white, or red…death was death was death and Karl covered it all up when the living moved on dragging with them clouds of anger, confusion, sadness, resignation and more often than not – relief.
Sometimes he would hang back longer than necessary to avoid being drenched in these invisible emotional fog banks that were like what the old ladies left behind at the drug store after soaking themselves in the latest perfumes – to what end he was not sure.
Today was different.
He didn’t know why…maybe it was the client. He never liked planting children. He especially didn’t like planting the ones who died violent deaths…but he did it because someone had to.
This one was all that and more. This one the whole city knew about. This one little 10 year old was in all the papers and on the news with words like ‘reward’ and ‘hope’ mixed in and eclipsed with darker words like ‘sex offender’ and ‘body’ and ‘ditch’ like small white clouds overcome by the overwhelming and fast approach of a great black storm.
This one was different and it didn’t matter what words were used to describe the act and the actor, all Karl heard was thief – life thief, innocence thief, light thief…this young one had been stolen and what was left was this empty doppelganger in her place…a quiet doll.
Karl would be the last person of meaning in this child’s existence. Karl was always the last person in the lives of everyone who came and never left. In this he would honor her as he had so many before.
Still this one was different. He knew before she came the way one knows a hard rain was coming. He just knew. It was on the wind and it was inside him somehow.
“I’m gonna dig this one by hand,” he told his boss.
“Ummm…I’m not sure that such a good idea Karl,” Tony said to him with something of a half skeptical, half fearful look. “Just take the hoe out and dig it out like all the others.”
“Can’t do that Tone,” Karl said matter-of-factly. “This one’s gotta be done by hand. Don’t you worry about me, I ain’t gonna keel over and die half way through. It’s a soft place. I know it. It’ll get done and done right.”
“Are you sure…” but Karl had already left the office and was moving to the equipment shed to grab a pair of gloves and a shovel.
Slowly he wandered toward the empty grave site…it would be a couple of days before the funeral and Karl figured three feet today and three feet tomorrow.
The grave stone was already in place. A simple gray granite slab with a small angel carved into it sitting in the branch of a barren tree looking forlorn. Beneath the angel were simple words:
Jill “Jellybean” Atkinson
Sept. 3, 2007-Sept. 2, 2014
“Beloved daughter, and sister – taken from us”
Karl grimaced at the dates…one day before her seventh birthday. He shook himself and muttered out loud “what’d it matter if it happened a day before her birthday or six months later…it happened.”
In the great and beating heat of a late morning summer sun Karl set to work on the grave.
Before the digging could begin he had to remove the sod from the top of the site. He had sliced a 7 foot by four foot rectangle into the grass with his shovel and set to work removing the sod with an old metal device that looked a little like a small plow with a two foot wide blade at the bottom, three inches beneath a dull piece of metal. Karl pressed the blade into the earth and forced it forward watching as a sheet of grass was torn up. Two passes later Karl was rolling up two seven foot long sheets of neatly shorn sod. He soaked them with water from a nearby hose and stored them behind an adjacent tree where they would sit until after the burial when he could refill the grave and unroll them again on top.
A quick drink of water from the hose and then it was time to dig into the exposed black earth.
One shovel at a time Karl was making quick work of the task as the earth was as soft as he thought and miraculously root and rock free so far. Mechanically he would shove the blade into the earth, press it deep with his left foot and pry it back to where he could swing a shovel load up and out onto the substantial pile he had going.
In this time, in the midst of the rhythm he developed, he felt like an old fashioned steam shovel moving thoughtlessly and with instinct with not a single thought in his head.
It was at about four in the afternoon that he began to hear it at the very edge of his awareness – the slow, sweet singing of a child. A song without words so quiet Karl thought he might be imagining it. He stopped his work and slowly stood, turning his head and looking around like a periscope raised above the waves.
There was no one in sight.
The sound was a little louder now and unmistakably nearby…a small la-dee-da’ing of a little girl.
The skin on Karl’s arms began to tighten and goosebumps began to appear. His muscles were strung so tight he thought he might leap to the top of the nearby elm tree if but a squirrel were to pop out from behind the grave stone.
Sometimes the voice would giggle between sing-songing.
The heavy air was still. There was neither the sound of insect nor bird to break the ongoing phantom serenade and Karl’s own ragged breath. Anyone else standing nearby would be able to hear the unmistakable sound of Karl’s heart beating beneath his now drenched shirt.
On the verge of dropping his shovel and running Karl did what he had had to do on occassion from time to time in the past – he engaged his small talent, his little trick learned at a point in his life he worked very hard to forget.
Karl took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and in his mind he flipped what felt to be a very real switch. In an instant Karl felt nothing…there was no fear, no warmth, no cold. He felt no love or hate, no joy or sadness. This was a switch that did not get flipped often because, for as helpful as it was, Karl only knew how to flip it off, it came on at a time of its own choosing – and now Karl was his own empty golem.
As if the instructions were written on paper and hidden inside his mouth Karl took up his shovel again and began to dig, ignoring the girl who continued to sing and giggle in the background.
Karl dug and dug and dug until eventually the singing stopped and still he dug losing himself in the task.
His name was shouted as if in exasperation; as if it had already been shouted a dozen times before.
Karl was startled out of himself and stopped his work. It was near dark and he looked up he saw Tony staring down at him in disbelief.
“What the hell Karl? You been out here this whole time just digging?”
Karl looked around himself and then back up to Tony.
“‘Spose so Tone…lost track of time I guess.”
“Lost track of time?!? You went and dug yourself a hole that’s gotta be at least seven foot deep my man…how did you plan on getting out of that thing anyhow.”
Karl stood and surveyed the space he had created for a moment and then threw the shovel up to the ground and held out his hand while Tony just looked on for a minute before grabbing hold and hauling him up.
Karl stood in front of Tony a good foot and half taller, but what Tony lacked in height he made up for in girth.
“You can’t be doin’ this kind of shit Karl,” Tony said still staring at the grave in disbelief.
Karl began to feel the slow, cold burn of a deeper anger begin to grow inside. It was an anger that was always there and he spent a great deal of time keeping buried as deep as the corpses around them.
“You’re gonna want to shut the fuck up now Tone,” Karl said in a low, almost whispered growl. “You wanted the fucking hole and you have it.”
Karl continued to stand and stare icily at Tony who seemed caught between wanting to strike out and back away. In the silence between them Karl was fighting a battle for control within but from Tony’s point of view he may as well have been a calm ocean with a dangerous, unseen riptide beneath the surface…deceptively still.
“Look I just don’t want you up and dying out here in a goddam grave you didn’t even pay for,” Tony said meekly. Karl took this as a verbal olive branch and together they both turned to walk back to the workshop.
“Don’t you worry about that dipshit,” Karl said in false tone that spoke of good-natured ribbing. “You won’t be getting rid of me that easy. Besides if I do croak in one of your graves I’ll be sure to cover myself over and you can take the cost from all my overtime you cheap bastard.”
Tony laughed and Karl pretended to laugh along with him all the while trying to fight off the flood of emotion that came rushing back after the switch returned to the ‘On” position.
Later that evening Karl returned to his small room and tried to forget the day.
He soaked for a long time in a hot shower to try and soothe the knots in his back and shoulders. Afterward he methodically pulled the blisters from his hands where they gloves had worn through at some point during his digging marathon and left them exposed raw to the air.
What the hell was wrong with him, he wondered. He prided himself on his control. He had a plan with that grave and he always stuck to his plans. Maybe a little of his madness was leaking from the concrete vault he made for it deep inside.
Standing at the window with the lights out Karl swept such thoughts from his mind and stared out into the darkness at the cemetery before him…black now except for the grave stones glowing silver-gray in the intermittent moonlight. It was beautiful and brought him peace.
As if on some soundless cue Karl turned from the window and climbed into his creaky single bed, listening to the springs protest and groan beneath him and not giving a damn. His feet hung about a foot past the edge and protruded from the blankets and this was just fine to him…they kept him cool because Karl was a man who ran hot.
In the darkness Karl successfully pushed aside the day and turned onto his left side and began to drift off to sleep.
In the far away, off toward the grave he had dug a voice rose in song and quietly made its ways into Karl’s room. A soft little girl’s voice sang a lullaby of some sort that made Karl break out in a cold sweat.
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before the eve,
I pray the Lord my soul to leave,
that i might wander to and fro,
to find the one who made me so,
and tear from him his wretched soul,
forever this my endless goal”
Karl was paralyzed in fear and shook violently as the song continued sweetly over and over. In the dark his eyes welled with tears that bled to his pillow and as he lay immobilized he decided that tomorrow needed to be a day off.