** 8th Place Winner – Writer’s Digest Short Short Fiction Competition (2015)
By Lisa Hoadley
The night air was cool, yet soothing in its gentle caress of her face. The dank smell of freshly turned earth wafted past her nose. She paid scant attention, immersed in her task. The only sound besides the occasional night creature scurrying through the crisp leaves was the rhythmic, soft thunk of falling clumps of dirt.
She paused, stood up and stretched her back, then leaned against the shovel. The hole beside her was deep. It had taken three hours to dig and was taking almost as long to fill back in. But it had to be deep or some animal might catch the scent and start digging. He had taught her that. She was back far enough in the bush that she had only moonlight to see by, but it was enough. She knew this place like the back of his hand.
Still resting, her mind wandered, sifting through snapshots of their past. They were just nine years old when they met. She could see his frayed jeans cuffs, battered sneakers and pale blond hair. She could still feel the sudden jolt in her chest when their eyes met. He told her years later he had felt it too. He said it was two souls that had been together in another life recognizing each other again. She said he was nuts.
Shaking her head, she put down the shovel. She needed a break. Turning, she stepped over the sheet lying on the ground and walked the short distance to the swamp. Sitting on a moss-encrusted log, she contemplated the silvery flat mirror of the green water. An owl hooted nearby, making her jump.
Their life together had been a gift, although he had not been easy to live with. He believed in soul travel, psychics and natural remedies, while she believed in rules, secure finances and regular bedtimes. A true woodsman, he had survival skills rarely seen anymore and was spiritually, almost psychically, linked to the earth. He could smell the weather coming, danced under lightning storms, and grew restless during the full moon, feeling a pull he could never explain.
He never held down a regular job. He never had a driver’s license, or a credit card, or even a bank account. He dressed in jeans and t-shirts, wore his hair in a ponytail and his hands were always dirty from gardening or painting. His volatile nature and total rejection of authority made him a misfit in such a conformist society. He never had any money, or security, and he didn’t care.
It’s all bullshit, babe. Life is for living. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
A slightly sour smell reached her nostrils and she wrinkled her nose. She would have to hurry and finish before that got worse. Rising, she sighed, dusted off her jeans and returned to the hole. Picking up the shovel, she resumed throwing scoopfuls of dirt into the dark crevasse before her. The smell dissipated.
The memories continued to come, distracting her from the pain in her arms and back. Playing tag and building tree houses in these woods; catching tadpoles in this swamp and taking them home in jars; the burning look in his eyes before their first kiss. The first time they made love, on a night very much like this one, in the nightshade of a tree. He had often said he wanted to be buried under that tree, since that was where their life together had started, and she would laugh.
He was so alive. Every fiber of his being crackled with energy, in his snapping blue eyes and hearty laugh, his constant movement and explosions of anger. He belonged in the woods, or in some wide open space – somewhere he could live life free of modern society’s constraints. He was Pa Ingalls, and Wild Bill Hickok. She felt bad that her job kept them near the city, but he brushed it off. He built himself an oasis in their backyard with trees, gardens, and a fire pit. No primly pruned suburban garden, it grew wild like the meadow they once played in. He would spend hours there, his fortress of solitude, shared with some rabbits that found refuge from the concrete jungle under his woodpile. He could grow any flower, name any plant. He could have been a botanist if he’d been able to sit still long enough to finish school.
I don’t need anything but this, and you. And when my time comes, I want to go with your arms around me. No hospitals, babe – promise me. And she would promise.
Then suddenly his time did come. Too soon his dry cough became worse, then worrisome, then the symptom of the eventual diagnosis. Stage 4. The doctors pressed him to undergo chemo. He told them to fuck off. He reminded her of her promise.
Not here…take me home.
He was determined, yet resigned. He was a strong believer in destiny and was convinced everything happened for a reason, even leaving her too soon. His requests were few. To die at home, in his garden. No medicine, no treatment. Last visits with his friends, a few beers and some laughs. To end his life the way he had lived – on his terms, bending to no-one’s rules. To be buried under their tree.
Just have me cremated and sneak out there one night and do it, babe. No-one will know.
He was gone so suddenly. Stretched out on a lounge she put in his garden, the arms about her went limp. The long exhale into silence, an agonizing dead zone of sound…it was over. She had lain with him awhile, studying every line of his face. The shape of his nose, the shine of his teeth; running her hands over his hair, his arms, his thighs…she touched every part of him, branding his image on her mind, not wanting to forget a single thing. Eventually it grew dark and she had reluctantly risen, going to collect the supplies she had put aside weeks ago, preparing for this day.
She stopped shoveling; the hole was full. She scattered the last of the dirt, then grabbed some fallen branches and leaves and began to camouflage the site as he had taught her years ago. Not that it was likely anyone would come by. Kids didn’t play outside anymore – too busy texting.
Finished, she leaned against the tree for several minutes. There was a faded heart carved into its trunk, the time-worn initials “SH + LM” barely visible a few feet above her head. Tears dripped from her eyes and fell onto the mossy roots that had once pillowed their heads. Straightening, she picked up the shovel and sheet and walked back to her car, dragging a large pine bough behind her to brush away her tracks; just like he taught her. She stopped once to look back; the full moon was shining on him. She wondered if he could feel it.
Back at the road, she tossed the shovel and sheet in the trunk. As she dropped into the driver’s seat, exhaustion finally washed over her. She was miserable and elated at the same time. He was gone, but she had honored his last requests – save one. She hadn’t bothered asking permission to bury him; it would never have been given. She was a rule-follower, but this time she did things his way. Just drove up here and did the deed. It was surprisingly easy. The hardest part had been getting him in the car, and carrying him through the woods.
Cremating him would have been an abomination. Destroy that beautiful body that had held her and kissed her, laughed with her and curled up with her at night? Sacrilege. She was determined he be laid to rest in his natural state, returned whole to the earth. She was sure that would satisfy some mystic belief of his, although she couldn’t say which one. But she knew he only asked to be cremated so she could get him here – cremation didn’t fit into his belief system. She wondered if he was watching her, delighting in her audacity.
Didn’t know you had it in ya, babe…right on.
She started the car and drove down the road, reaching up to run her finger gently down the braid of hair hanging from her rearview mirror. The car disappeared into the empty gloom. Behind her the wind grew stronger, the trees bending sharply, their boughs reaching like ghostly arms toward the moon.
– The End –
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