Anika K. Clausen
His shovel hit the wooden coffin with a thud. He stopped to listen for intruders roaming the local graveyard. Sometimes youngsters would have the brilliant idea to hang out and drink, leaving their waste behind, which he would have to clean up the next day. For he was a gravedigger, and his job included managing the presentation of the graves. Wilfred’s current undertaking was, however, not part of his job description and he couldn’t be caught in the act. He heard nothing but the night crickets singing their forlorn songs. No soul in sight. At least none he knew of.
Another minute of complete silence. The smell of wonderful humid soil filled his nostrils and took him back to the old days. He closed his eyes to carve this moment into his brain in all its glory, as he always did. Each time was as imprinted on his mind, but some of the memories were starting to slip. He had been working at the graveyard for almost four decades after all.
One last gaze at the stars before getting back to business. After this, he would only need one final piece to finish his life’s work.
It all started one late night on the road with his abusive father. They were on their way to the musty cabin which his father had built with his bare hands. The cheap material was timeworn, and his father had no interest in renewing the place. No wonder the leftover pieces of scrap wood didn’t excite then 10-year-old Wilfred who preferred to stay at home, alone in his room. But that had been out of the question.
“The boy needs to get out of the house and learn how to be a real man. You’re turning him into a wimp, letting him sit in his room all day, doing Lord knows what!” his father had said to his frail mother. The structure and outcome of his parents’ arguments were always the same.
What Wilfred did in his room would have made his father furious. He knew that. Reading books was useless to the brute dimwit. Work and hunt: those were his two dearest occupations in life and the only things he understood. But Wilfred had fallen lightyears from the tree. He spent most of his time at the town library which had become his home. The librarian always smiled at him and gave him the same compliment every single time.
“You’re quite the bookworm, Willy.”
This repetitive act was pleasant compared to the beating and yelling he would come home to after closing time. A home which resembled a poorly insulated box of plywood situated at the heart of a dodgy neighborhood in the American South, known for high crime rates and drug trafficking. A place that most people avoided at any cost, no matter the time of day.
To make sure he wouldn’t regret spending time with his father at the dusty cabin on the lookout for prey, he had packed a book in his backpack, in secrecy. This one was about trees and their effect on the ecosystem. He had found that biology interested him the most. Little did he know the world of wonder that would reveal itself to him and that he would soon discover his true passion in life.
“Boy!” That’s what his father called him. Did he know his name? He doubted it. What was certain was that his father was too drunk to aim at anything, whether moving or not. If they weren’t successful, he also knew that he would be the one paying the price.
“Bring me a beer! And take the rifle with you while you’re at it!”
The night was going to be long. But then something moved in the dark. Wilfred caught a glimpse of a silhouette passing by. After another ten minutes, it came back but stayed this time. It was impossible to tell what it was, as it hid behind the bushes.
Meanwhile his father had gotten out of his armchair, all excited and anxious to get a hit.
“Come on, boy! What are you waiting for?”
“But what if it’s a fawn?” Wilfred asked, in a low voice.
When his father yelled like that, he knew that it meant “do as you’re told” or the belt. Wilfred hated the belt.
He fired a first time and then a second. They heard the creature fall to the ground.
Wilfred had been right. As they both approached the doe, they noticed its hard gasps for air.
“Shoot again,” his father commanded.
He did as told but would never forget the fawn’s big brown eyes looking up at him, begging for mercy. But he knew what he had to do.
He helped his father carry the carcass to the cabin. From then on, everything went red. Blood splattered everywhere. His father was a butcher, or had been, before he got fired for being drunk on the job. He removed the guts and then started with the paring. That was the first time Wilfred saw his father in his element. Sober and in control.
His stomach started to turn, as his father ripped into the skin. His astronomical butcher’ s knife, which he had stolen upon his layoff, lay next to the naked pile of meat. Chop, chop, chop. The sharp blows of the knife cutting through the flesh rang in his ears, as his father repeated the movement over and over, in slow, agonizing intervals.
“Boy, take these pieces to the freezer.”
His father had squeezed each individual piece in an airtight plastic wrap, all of which put together weighed more than little Wilfred. When descending the stairs to the dark basement, Wilfred dropped one of the pieces which fell with a loud thump on the fractured ground.
“Did you drop something, boy?” his father yelled in a menacing tone.
“No,” Wilfred lied.
He had no time to lose. First put the clean pieces in the freezer and then take care of the rest. When he went back to get the fallen piece, he noticed the torn wrapping. Something stuck out. He took a closer look. The color and texture were something he’d never noticed before.
“What the hell is taking you so long?”
“Nothing.” He wrapped the meat, threw it in the freezer, and ran back upstairs.
As an adult, he recalled the spark he had felt. The indescribable tint, the form, even the smell of the bone. He was captivated by its composition which demonstrated a superiority he couldn’t grasp.
That was the single fond memory he had of spending time with his father.
His obsession started out harmless. Whenever they ate meat at his alien home – which was often, given his father’s old habits – Wilfred collected the remaining bones of whatever animal they had consumed. In order to not get caught, he volunteered in the kitchen and cleared the table when they were done. Before doing the dishes, he snuck the remains into his pockets and hurried to his room the moment his duties were done. His father didn’t mind him staying in his room on a weeknight, as it meant he could either watch baseball or whatever other sport on TV or grope his mother. The latter made his mother sob in the kitchen. She never told anyone and neither did he. If they had, maybe she would have lived a long and peaceful life.
One night, he had used the hose to cleanse the bones when she burst out the door to sit on the front porch and bawl her eyes out. He had ceased hosing, hoping she wouldn’t realize what he was doing and tell his father. Even though it had been pitch-black, the dim outside light illuminated enough for both to see each other. She had stopped crying and stared at him in silence for what seemed like an eternity. Then she went back inside, and they never exchanged a word about it.
That night, he spread his entire collection on his bedroom floor and studied each piece, one by one. Over the years, he had categorized the bones to know which belonged to what animal. The neat presentation on the white sheet he had found in their dumpster allowed him to relish the aesthetic exhibition. Granted, the sheet had been covered in stains, but he had cut those away.
At first, he didn’t know what to do with the bones. But then it hit him. He separated the bones in the first pile into body parts. Legs, body, head, and wings.
Then, he assembled the pieces to make a full skeleton. He did the same for the other three complete collections he had managed to accumulate. Having a father who loved hunting had its perks after all.
To the right of his room, he made a pile of leftovers from various animals. He split these into body parts as well. Then he placed the parts closer together to create a new species. It had a deer’s legs, a hog’s body, and a sheep’s head. He had never seen anything quite as beautiful.
He disassembled the other carcasses and mixed and matched the bones, until he was satisfied with the result. But something was missing. Nothing a little roadkill or dead animal left to rot in the woods couldn’t fix. For now.
Wilfred never talked to his classmates about his hobby nor what was going on at home. He knew they wouldn’t understand. It didn’t matter too much, as he didn’t have any friends. He was alone, but with the carcasses in his closet, he didn’t feel as lonely anymore.
One day, his peace was disrupted.
“I’m so sorry, Wil, I didn’t mean for him to see,” his mother had said, all while sobbing and pleading for his father to leave him alone.
“Leave him alone?! The boy is a fucking nutcase! I don’t want to see that shit in my house. You hear that, boy?” His father screamed at him.
That night, his father had been worse than ever. Both with him and his mother. He knew he had to stop, for his mother’s sake. He couldn’t let her take the fall for his misdeeds. However, it didn’t keep him from going through the trash at night, when his father was fast asleep, snoring like a freight train. Yet, however deafening his father’s snores were, his mother’s silent weeping resonated in Wilfred’s ears like excruciating cries for help.
He craved the weight of the bones in his hands, the smell of death. Most of all, he longed for the beauty of his creations which had become more and more diverse and imaginative over time. He had found his purpose, a reason to live. But for now, he was kept from fulfilling it, at least for as long as he lived under his father’s roof.
Wilfred left his childhood hell at the age of 17. He had quit school two years prior because he didn’t see the point. He hated the other kids and vice versa. The teachers didn’t take much interest in him either and kept their distance.
He worked at the local woodshop to save enough money to get his own place. The owner was a pleasant man who taught him a lot about woodworking and work ethics. Wilfred had grown fond of him, as he didn’t make a fuss and didn’t ask any questions about his private life.
Occasionally, they would get special requests to build wooden coffins for a cheap price. These orders were processed after official working hours. Although it wasn’t much, Wilfred could earn some extra cash under the table.
After four years of work, his boss, Mr. Chapman, was diagnosed with stage four cancer. He had been open about it with Wilfred whom he had taken a liking to. His actual son was a deadbeat who did nothing but play video games all day. As much as Mr. Chapman wanted to leave the shop to Wilfred, his wife wouldn’t permit it.
All he could do was let him take over the coffin business until the day of his passing. This would allow him to introduce himself to Mr. Black, the local graveyard supervisor. Mr. Chapman had heard that the old gravedigger was retiring, which meant that Mr. Black would need to search for a replacement.
“It might not be the most exciting job, Wil, but it provides great job stability, and you know that you’ll never be out of business,” Mr. Chapman had told him. If only he knew how long Wilfred had been waiting for an opportunity like this, he may not have been so fond of him after all.
Mr. Black hadn’t required much convincing. A young chap who didn’t mind physical labor, a minimum wage, and didn’t ask questions was what he needed.
Wilfred started working as a gravedigger four months later. He had thought the job would entail digging graves and filling them again, digging the old ones up and replacing them with new ones. Old Mr. Jefferson showed him the variety of tasks that he would have to handle, such as preparation of graves and the surrounding area for the arrival of the dead and their beloved, general maintenance of the graveyard site, and showing relatives of the deceased to the graveside, ready for funeral services. He detested the last part. Communicating with people and showing empathy was not his forte and it was always awkward.
Despite the contact with the living, he loved his job. He was left to work on his own in the graveyard which soothed him. Yet a feeling of incompleteness remained.
It wasn’t until he had to dig up his first grave after a couple of months of apprenticeship that he understood what had been gnawing at him, what had been missing since his carcass-collecting days.
Wilfred and old Mr. Jefferson had been asked to dig up a rather young grave of only 10 years. The US state regulation stated that graves could be excavated after 100 years, but at Hopeland Burying Ground they followed their own rules.
“How come?” Wilfred asked old Mr. Jefferson one day.
“Folks around here don’t have a lot of money for this kind of business, kid. And most people come to us when they don’t have money to spend on their dead relatives. They get 10 years, and we get more money.”
They recycled the graves by removing the coffin with the remains and making the hole deeper than the usual six feet to dump the skeleton into the ground. To cover enough for others not to detect the remains of the previous corpse, they added a thin layer of earth. The new coffin was then placed on top for the next 10 years in which time most of the old bones had turned to dust due to the humid and acidic soil. This was accomplished with a mini excavator which Mr. Black had invested in to make the process cleaner and more efficient.
“What now?” Wilfred asked old Mr. Jefferson, after having moved the six feet worth of dirt.
“Now, we have to get the coffin out of the ground, open it, and dump the skeleton in the grave. While you open it with the nail puller, I’ll dig out some more dirt,” Mr. Jefferson answered.
Opening the coffin was tough and he understood why Mr. Jefferson had to take an early retirement.
The lid made a cracking sound and the odor sieved through the cracks. As Wilfred removed the top, he was overwhelmed by the accumulation of dead coffin flies, inanimate maggots, and the smell of decay. He had not been exposed to that kind of smell for years, and he had to step back for a minute. He had gotten sensitive.
When he regained his strength, he went back and saw the beauty that revealed itself to him. He felt the spark he had felt as a child at his father’s decrepit cabin. He couldn’t help but reach into the coffin to touch it. Unlike any carcasses he had ever touched, this was sensational. The carcasses had been brittle, but these remains were sturdy to the touch. He could achieve much more with human remains than he had ever imagined possible with anything he had hitherto had access to. The graveyard was his promised land.
If only he could keep the bones, but his pockets were too small and old Mr. Jefferson would take notice thereof. He wanted them all, especially the right femur.
“Okay, I’m done digging. You can dump the skeleton.”
“Sure, Mr. Jefferson. Could you get me a soda while I do that?” Wilfred asked.
“No problem. Be right back.”
“Take your time, I’ve got this.”
Mr. Jefferson trudged along the narrow path to the small church. Wilfred waited for him to be out of sight. Then he snatched the right femur and hid it under his thick work jacket.
“Here’s your soda, kid,” Mr. Jefferson said. “You alright? You look a bit pale.”
“I think I just need to step away for a second.”
“The first time is always the hardest. You’ll get used to it. Take the rest of the day off. Looks like we’re done here anyway.”
“Thanks, Mr. Jefferson,” Wilfred said. What a relief.
He went home and took out the femur from under his jacket. He inspected it from every angle. Remarkable. He knew what he had to do. It necessitated another 205 perfect pieces.
Even though the graveyard was mostly empty, and visitors limited, Mr. Black would show up from time to time to check on Wilfred and his work. He never received a complaint, but he guessed Mr. Black had to at least pretend to do his job.
Once in a while, the occasional visitor would come along as well. Stealing bones during working hours was too risky. He therefore adopted another strategy to return at night when he had detected a piece of the puzzle that qualified for his project during working hours. Using the excavator would of course have been easier but noisy. He had to go old-school and use a shovel. As he prepared the graves for recycling during his dayshift, he could ensure a smooth nightshift. He covered the skeleton with the lightest layer of soil possible, but it had to be thick enough to cover the remains. Wilfred had learned his lesson when Mr. Black had caught him one day.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Mr. Black had asked with a fierce look of disapproval on his face, as Wilfred was about to finish for the day.
Wilfred had been flabbergasted by the question and stared at him with big eyes, his mouth wide open.
“That’s not enough soil. Cover it up.”
Wilfred made sure to not make the same mistake again. He would have to find other ways to facilitate his work at night. One such strategy involved filtering out the bone he desired and placing it at one of the corners of the grave for easy retrieval. Time was of the essence.
Wilfred had moved a few times since he started working at the graveyard. To fulfill his calling, he had acquired a modest house in the woods which resembled the old cabin he used to frequent with his father. It was better isolated and had solid bones. Most importantly, it had a large basement where he could work on his project undisturbed by anyone or anything.
His project was almost done. It had taken him 40 years to collect 205 perfect bones to create a flawless human skeleton. 205 bones from 204 individuals.
Once he had been lucky enough to find two perfect bones from one body, Mrs. Linda Jackson, maiden name Linda Rose Young. His mother.
He had asked around what had happened but all he found was that she had been delivered to the graveyard with an anonymous note indicating her name and birthdate along with some cash. Both of her nasal bones were impeccable.
There was still one piece missing. The frontal bone. The bony part of the forehead. But the past year he had had no luck. All the skeletons had been mediocre at best.
On one rainy day, Wilfred ran through the fresh fallen leaves to meet with Mr. Black Jr. A nice guy who, much like old Mr. Black, let him take care of things without a fuss.
That day was special. Unlike most funerals, the one being prepared had the highest priority, as the family members paid a substantial sum to guarantee no one would know about it.
“Apparently the guy committed fraud and got some men killed. I don’t really know, and I don’t want to know. Can you make sure everything goes well?” Mr. Black Jr. asked.
“Of course, Mr. Black.”
“Good. Thanks for your discretion.”
Wilfred was about to go to his locker when Mr. Black Jr. yelled after him.
“Could you check on the mortician’s preparations and see if she needs help?”
The mortician had progressed quite a bit and was almost done.
“I’m the gravedigger. Mr. Black asked me to check if you needed help with anything,” Wilfred said, mustering up all the energy he could to seem like a regular human being.
“I’m the mortician. Mr. Black asked me to prepare this funeral,” the mortician said in a teasing tone. She smiled at him, just like the librarian used to do. She had a beautiful face, he thought.
“You’re new,” he said in a manner-of-fact tone.
“Here, yes. But I’ve been doing this for years,” she answered while resuming her work with her complaisant client.
“Do you need anything?” he asked.
“Nope, all good.” Her attention remained on the corpse.
“My name is Kaitlyn by the way.”
He walked away. Once in front of his locker, he couldn’t help but feel he had missed something. Had he forgotten something? No, that wasn’t it. Had the encounter with Kaitlyn been awkward? Not in particular. Something had struck him though. His thoughts went back to Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn. Yes, there had been something about Kaitlyn. Her remarkable facial features.
Mr. Black Jr. had informed him that she was their new mortician. The other one quit for unknown reasons. Wilfred would thus have time to figure out how she worked and get to know her better. He could try to befriend her. No, that was too much work. At the same time, she seemed to be nice. He had been patient enough for all these years, hadn’t he? He would retire before her, so he wouldn’t outlive her, let alone have access to her grave. The fawn’s eyes flashed before his own. Those big brown fawn eyes.
The next thing he knew, he was contemplating a gun purchase.
“What’ll it be, sir?” asked the greasy salesman.
“The rifle over there,” Wilfred pointed at one of the rifles put on display behind the counter. It matched the rifle his father had made him use time and time again. Had the kid called him “sir”? That must have been the first time anyone addressed him in such a formal manner.
On his way out, he bumped into Kaitlyn, who looked at him again with that contagious smile. Then she stared at his hands.
“Do you hunt?” she asked.
His gaze followed hers to the rifle.
“Yes.” Awkward silence. “How did it go with the funeral?”
“Only the daughter came. She spit on his grave. He must have been quite the father figure.”
He didn’t hear the rest of the story, as he couldn’t get his eyes off her forehead.
“Are you listening?” Her question interrupted his thoughts.
“Sorry, have a lot on my fore… on my mind.”
“Sure, you must have with the job you do.”
They said their goodbyes and went their separate ways. Could he do this?
Mr. Black Jr. called him as he was walking home with his new weapon. Something had gone wrong with the funeral, and he had to hurry back. Wilfred wanted to go home first, but Mr. Black Jr. wasn’t having it. In all his years at Hopeland, there had never been an emergency like this. The people were dead for Christ’s sake! They weren’t going anywhere.
It was dead silent at the graveyard. As always. No living soul in sight.
He opened the door to the tiny church that looked more like a shabby shed than a building suitable for prayers of hope.
“Surprise!” Mr. Black Jr. and some other people he didn’t care about yelled.
“40 years, Mr. Jackson! Congratulations!” Mr. Black Jr. said, patting him on the shoulder for a brief second when he must have recognized Wilfred’s objection to the gesture.
“You know, Mr. Jackson, after all the time we’ve worked together, I get the feeling I still don’t have a clue who you are.”
Wilfred looked at him in silence.
“Enough with the seriousness, let’s celebrate!”
Wilfred guessed that a celebration was in order, just not of what they thought. He was about to approach the table with the spirits when he noticed Mr. Black Jr.’s perplexed look on his face.
“I hunt,” Wilfred said.
Mr. Black gave him a nervous smile and went back to occupy the others.
Wilfred looked around while pouring himself a drink. Then he felt something warm on his right shoulder. It was Kaitlyn. They didn’t say anything, just cheered with their glasses. Clink. He had never felt this comfortable with another person before. Too bad.
After the festivities, Wilfred went home. Drowsy and drunk, he went to glare at his yet incomplete human companion. The big hole in the cranium seemed to grow bigger every passing day.
The doorbell rang. He had a doorbell? Who would come out here at the middle of the night?
He crawled upstairs and saw the front porch light was on. He peeped outside and opened the door.
“What are you doing here?”
“You left your rifle at the party and Mr. Black thought it’d be best I bring it to you,” she said with a smile.
“Thanks, do you want to come in for a drink?” He took the rifle and placed it in the kitchen before opening the fridge and waiting for her answer.
Kaitlyn looked at him in hesitation. Her forehead wrinkled. She was younger than him but not by much.
“You know what,” she said. “Sure.”
“Beer?” he asked.
He handed over the glass. She started talking about the job and how she liked it because of how peaceful it was. He half listened, half thought about the rifle which waited behind the kitchen counter. He chugged his beer.
She pointed at her glass which was full.
He went to get a better look at the rifle when he heard his father yelling at him.
“Come on, boy! What are you waiting for?” You either did as told, or you got the belt. Wilfred despised the belt.
He opened his eyes. Her beer had spilled all over and her upper body fallen flat on the dining table. Hopefully her forehead remained intact.
He lifted her head. Only a little scratch. The question now was how to go about with the paring. That had been his father’s job. She looked at him with piercing eyes.
As he needed her frontal bone, he chopped off her head with a rusty axe. It took willpower to separate it from the rest but as long as the forehead was unscathed, everything else didn’t matter. Nutrition for the trees.
Removing the flesh without damaging her bones was a surgical act. His tools weren’t adapted to the surgery but sufficed to separate the frontal bone from the rest of her skull.
He cleansed the bone with the home remedies he could find which included an extensive collection of cleansers he had used on the other dead parts.
The void was filled. She was perfect.
Work continued in the same vein as always. Mr. Black Jr. hadn’t enquired about the mortician who had disappeared. Many had done so before her. However, Wilfred noticed that Mr. Black Jr. stopped checking in with him like he used to.
Wilfred went on with his normal life with a bit more spunk in his step. He was content. Now that his project was finished, he could focus on his job. He did miss her smile though.
One day, he heard a knock on his door while he was pouring some cheap wine.
“Do you have company?” Mr. Black Jr. asked, pointing at the two glasses of red wine on the dining room table. As Wilfred didn’t answer, Mr. Black Jr. continued.
“Look, I hate to disturb you, but I have to ask: Do you know what happened to Kaitlyn after she brought you your rifle? Her family has called me several times to figure out where she went.”
“She left right after,” Wilfred answered, hoping that Mr. Black Jr. wouldn’t sense the nervosity in his voice.
“That’s what I thought. Sorry for bothering you and have a good day.”
Mr. Black Jr. was about to leave when he spotted something in the entrance.
“What is that?” he asked. He lifted the plastic bag laying on the floor. Scrap bone was sticking out which Wilfred had collected as backup for the bones that had made the final cut. Wilfred had been meaning to get rid of the bag but had for some reason never gotten to it. He didn’t know why.
Mr. Black Jr. stared at Wilfred in fear and ran towards his car. Wilfred knew that he wouldn’t understand. No one ever would.
Mr. Black Jr. fell to the ground, facedown.
Wilfred approached Mr. Black Jr. and turned him around. His sternum had always fascinated him. Maybe he could use it for his next project.
Anika K. Clausen writes poems and short stories that entertain the dark corners of the mind while alluding to the masked realities of today. She is a multilingual writer from Denmark who has published on the Yard: Crime Blog, has forthcoming work with Vine Leaves Press and Wingless Dreamer, and is currently working on a collection of short stories. Find her at https://akclausen.com/ or on Instagram @anika.kclausen.