It’s grim tonight, not a fucking star. The clouds cloak the sky like a spider’s web, and the cold, still air rips my ears raw. My breath comes out in gasps—wisps of smoke that hang in the quiet before disappearing. On a night like this the only bit of warmth comes from digging.
Its second-nature now—the motions—in out, in out. Down and deeper I dig and the smell of the earth is strong. Dirt, I’d say almost nothing smells better than that. It’s a real smell, ancient and inviting. It fills my nostrils and sinks beneath my fingernails, I’ll be smelling it for days afterwards.
I wear my occupation on my sleeves. Dirt lines the cuffs of my coat. Dirt sticks to the sweat on the back of my neck and across my forehead. It clings to the soles of my boots and claims my footprints. I wear the earth proudly and pay no mind to the snickers and snide. I am a gravedigger.
Tonight is no different from the one before; nightcrawlers keep me company and I whistle to stay warm. But tonight there are no stars and my eyes are strained in the dark. I’m not sure how long I’ve been digging. Time stops in a cemetery, you know.
I used to dig during the daytime, but it was deemed inappropriate. No one wants to see the deathbed beneath the tombstone. It’s deep and dark, earthworms sliding together at the bottom and soil crumbling from the walls. You can’t help but imagine yourself lying inside, staring up at the wide, blue sky, dirt in between your toes, filling the hollows of your cheeks and collarbones. The portrait of death isn’t so pretty to picture, I know, but someone has to paint it. I am the artist, the gravedigger, and I dig casually. I rest against tombstones with tired eyes and a cigarette between calloused fingers. I stand with one foot in the grave and it’s unsettling. I wear dirt on my palms and death between my eyes and I couldn’t be sorrier for your loss. No one wants to see where they go when they go; they like to stay on the surface, leave some flowers, and make believe there are no bones beneath their feet. I expose the truth and so I must be hidden.
I live nocturnally now: sleep all day, dig all night. As I work I remember sunlight, splashed across cream-colored walls filling the space in between. The way it shone through tattered curtains, willing my eyelids open, laughing because I’d almost slept the day away. Sunlight pouring through glass, dancing over dusty books and wrapping bare skin in its warmth. Pale fingers two-step across the curve of the neck. Sunlight between two shoulder blades. It spins everything into gold, doesn’t it? I remember shoulder blades, catching in the light.
But, no, I must admit, I like it better now, alone in the dark of the graveyard with nothing but a shovel and the task at hand. The earth is moist, easier to move and the job is quick. Sometimes I dig a grave or two a night.
Dig dig dig away. The moon sighs as it peaks through the gauze of clouds; the trees cast shadows across my face. My teeth are prone to chatter in the cold and to keep them from clicking shrilly together I whisper poetry with every shovelful, ‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.’ Tonight the graveyard is bleak. My fingertips are numb from the cold and my eyes water. Through the dim lantern light I watch the dirt cascade from the walls. I’ll be lucky if I get one hole dug tonight. In out, in out, dig dig dig.
Suddenly I stop; at the bottom of the grave is a bird, half-covered in dirt. At once I feel ill at ease. Seeing the bird, white against the dark earth, sends chills running through my veins. I dig the graves; I don’t usually see the bodies. They are in coffins; I never see their skin—pale and wrapped tight around their bones. Not their lifeless eyes—staring up up up and seeing nothing at all. Never touched a corpse’s hand—cold and heavy. Pale fingers two-step across the curve of the neck. I dig to forget.
Gently, I scoop the poor fellow up with my shovel, lift him out, and set him atop the mound beside me. The bird is large, its feathers are wilted around its body: blue and grey and white. It’s a heron; I recognize it from the nearby marshes, though I’m unsure how it came to be here. Perhaps he got lost in the fog; perhaps it was an accident. I run a finger over its head, streaked with black, and over its beak, golden, long, and thin. The heron’s neck is broken; I touch it, shuddering at how soft and terrible. The beauty, even in the low light of my lantern, is inescapable. Sometimes to dig one grave you have to uncover another. With the bird in the back of my mind, I continue my work.
Later, when my hole has been dug, I carry the heron behind the mausoleums and dig another grave. I lay him down gently, hating the way his dead body feels. Covering him with dirt, I bury him quickly and guilt hangs heavy on my heart. I leave the cemetery before the sun even thinks about rising. Get me to my bed.
The stars are out tonight and, trudging through the graveyard again, I light a cigarette that hangs limply from the corner of my mouth, shovel across my shoulders. The bird—the heron—has been on my mind all day.I remember his limp body in my hands and I’ve been dreading this cemetery. How can death be more real today when it’s always been all around me? Before I dig I must go to the heron’s grave, smooth the soil again, and be on my way. Just one moment and then I’ll begin my digging for the night.
I stop fast and hold my lantern high, but the shadows of the mausoleums don’t tell tales. The heron’s grave has been disturbed. The empty hole sends me reeling. Neither ghost nor grave robber could gain anything from digging up the bird’s grave, but, yet, the hole is empty, the heron gone. My hand tightens around my shovel, my brows knit together.
A feather lies beside the grave, silky and grey. I bend to pick it up and, no sooner do I have it soft between two dirty fingers, then I spot another. As I bend to retrieve it the grave comes up to meet me, deeper than I had dug it the night before and down I fall. Down down into the hole, deeper and deeper.
I wake in a cold sweat; my bedsheets are damp and cling to my body. The tattered curtains hold back a sun about to set. The bird’s empty grave imprints itself upon my thoughts. My head is aching. Pale fingers two-step across the curve of the neck. I rub the back of mine, pushing away painful memories. My graveyard awaits.
The stars are out and the grave is whole, bird still cloistered inside; my dreams mean nothing. Still, I dig cautiously and carefully. In out, in out, deeper deeper deeper. Tonight I don’t whistle, I don’t recite poetry. My skin prickles. I’m on edge and every sound makes me jump.
I remember my first grave as I dig. It was hard—gruelling—never thought digging could be so tiresome. I dug to feel satisfied and loosen the nerves that were pulled too tight around my bones. After the grave was finished, I watched the funeral procession. A woman hooded in black who didn’t cry walked solemnly beside the casket. Was she burying her husband? Lower him down into the grave, throw a handful of soil on his coffin, and silently walk away. Farewell to the dearly departed; I vowed to never let myself feel for any of my corpses.
Dig dig dig away. I keep thinking of the heron, dead beneath the ground, shrivelling into the dirt. Pathetic. Why does this bird tie itself around my neck so tightly? Two shoulder blades in sunlight. I dig to forget.
My hands tremble around the shovel; soil is heavy on my boots. Where sunlight once spread thin like a veil between cream-coloured walls, I wrapped bare skin in my warmth. The heron prods me with his unasked questions, makes me lose count of how many I’ve dug tonight. Bird or devil, he is a conjurer of memories. He is an interrogator of the past. My spade pierces the earth, the damp soil is heavy to move, but I dig as quickly as I can. Hurry, dig and leave this graveyard. Before I go I pack more soil onto the bird’s grave, not bothering to ask myself why.
I dreamed the dream again; feathers lie beside an empty grave. I gather them one by one until I tumble, as always, into the bottom of the hole. But this time—no, this time!—the dream doesn’t end there. This time I lie in the grave, staring up at the wide, blue sky. Someone whispers, ‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary’. Dirt trickles into the cavities of my cheeks; it fills my nostrils. The man above me is myself and he digs casually. Moonlight between two shoulder blades. I wake then, shaken. My shovel stands guard across my doorway. It is anxious to dig, I can tell, though I don’t feel the same.
Every night I enter the graveyard and in my dreams I never leave it. Waking or sleeping, I am always there. The only suggestion that I am dreaming is the feathers upon the ground that I collect one by one until I wake in my bed. Each night I shovel more soil upon the bird’s grave before I depart, afraid of the phantoms that may leak from his tomb if I don’t.
I try to stay awake to see the sunrise, if only to remember that it still exists. Though my eyes are heavy, I persevere. I want to see the sun—bright, casting shadows across a beautiful body, arched in the light. I can just imagine it—trickling over knuckles, white, as they fist the sheets, searching for an anchor in passion. I want to feel its warmth—feel the heat of hips pressed against my own. I would taste it if I could—sunlight—lick every last drop of precious gold. I’d run my tongue along the spine, between the shoulder blades, across the curve of the neck—following the path of sunlight. I close my eyes with a strangled sob and a hand between my legs. I don’t deserve to see the sunrise and I wake to greet the moon once more.
Tonight there is a light rain falling across the cemetery, slowly turning the soil into mud. I sink a little with each step, dragging my shovel behind me. I am exhausted before I have even begun my digging. I wonder if I have slept at all. Am I dreaming now? The mist against my face is evidence that I am awake. I wipe my brow with a handkerchief as I follow my now familiar pathway towards the bird’s grave.
My heartbeat goes still in my chest when I catch sight of the empty grave. There are no feathers decorating the earth around it as there have been in my dreams. I get down on my hands and knees to peer into the dark hole. The bird has simply vanished.
Just then, movement above me causes me to look heavenward. There, atop a low-hanging branch, sits the heron. He looks down at me with an inquisitive, golden eye. I stumble backwards, tripping over my shovel. Amused, the bird tilts his silky head. I look from grave to bird wildly. Sensing my bewilderment, the heron stretches its long neck forward and opens its pointed beak.
The simple word uttered by the bird makes my eyes go wide with fear. I crawl backwards, my hands grasping at the mud.
The ghastly bird appears annoyed by my lack of manners. At once, he stretches his wings to their full length. Feathers, once soft and beautiful become hostile. He hops from the branch to land on the handle of my abandoned shovel.
I begin with my hands, clawing the mud to carve out gaping wounds in the soil. But the rain comes down harder; the earth is far too wet tonight. As fast as I can dig, the hole fills up again.
The heron’s voice is firm in my ear. Blood mixes with the dirt beneath my fingernails as I attempt to appease the bird. It is no use. I crawl through the mud towards the cemetery gates, leaving both shovel and heron behind.
I climb into bed without taking off my boots; my sheets turn black with my filth. I wake choking on mud and realize that, for the first time, I have left a grave unfinished. Whether or not I am dreaming, I do not know. I only know what must be done.
The graveyard mirrors my demeanour tonight. It is quiet, the rain has stopped. The earth is solid once again. There is no wind that stirs the trees. Everything has calmed, as have I.
I’ve entered this cemetery with good intentions. I will apologize to the heron, do its bidding without complaint or question. I find the bird perched atop a tombstone and I’m struck by the beauty I failed to see the night before. As I kneel before the grave, the heron turns its head towards me. Golden eyes close as I reach out, running unwashed fingers through silken feathers. I trace the bird’s spine, delicately following the curve of the neck.
I grasp my shovel and begin the evening’s work. The clouds cloak the sky like a spider’s web, and the cold, still air rips my ears raw. The best grave is six feet across and three feet wide, a comfortable resting place to be sure. This may be my best work yet; the artist has outdone himself. My graves are usually six feet deep, but I’ve added an extra two for good measure. My breath comes out in gasps, wisps of smoke that hang in the quiet before disappearing. I rub my calloused hands together gazing down at the grave. It is complete.
I look to the heron for validation. It’s sleek, black heads tilts toward my handiwork. Whether he aims to admonish or admire, I do not know. I lean my shovel against the tree, its final resting place.
The movement is sudden. The heron shoots forward from the tombstone and buries its claws into my chest. I cry out in pain, stumbling back. It is only then that I read the name upon the stone and I know that I am not dreaming. Rivulets of blood trickle down my filthy shirt as the talons seep deeper into my skin. I gasp, swallowing cold air; I take a step back. I’m at the edge of the grave and it welcomes me into its depths. Bird still clawing at my chest, I fall and this time I hit the bottom. The wind has been knocked from me and my cheek is pressed against the dirt floor. My mouth is open in a ghastly realization. I feel an earthworm slide between my teeth. Pale fingers two-step across the curve of the broken neck.
I remember sunlight, splashed across cream-colored walls, filling the space in between. I remember the feeling of blood and bone within my tight grasp. Where laughter once shone in sunlight, I wrapped bare skin with dirty hands. I can see it now—the golden light—trickling over knuckles white, fisting the sheets, desperate to find a way out. A life of love is a life now extinguished. It was better that way. Death between two shoulder blades. I dug to forget.
The bird releases me and I watch it fly upwards, away. His grey body is strong against the darkness of the sky. The heron lands atop the shoulder of a man who looks down at me with inquisitive eyes. His skin is pale, shining in the moonlight; it contrasts starkly with his dark brow. I watch him carefully from my place below, contemplating his hooded eyes and the sharpness of his jaw. I follow the tilt of his head to the curve of his broken neck. Oh, in death we are so beautiful! The man has something in his hands—my shovel. There’s a sorrow in his eyes when he speaks.
Then the bird swoops down again; his sharp beak pierces my skin. He digs into my chest and I know his goal. As the heron sets about his task the man above begins his own. Though he is but a spectre, I’m sure, his hands are solid around my shovel as he fills the spade.
Dirt falls across my body. It spills down the planes of my face; it pervades the hollows of my orifices. I feel the soil, heavy on my tongue and stopping up my nose. The earth fills my ears, but, through it, I swear I can hear poetry. I open my eyes and feel the dirt seep into the crevices, it creeps beneath my eyelids.
The sky above me is dark and, though the dirt continues to fall upon me and though the heron’s talons still scratch against my insides, I am, all at once, at peace. I utter one final gasp as the bird completes its mission. The heron flies upwards to land upon my lover’s shoulder, my heart within its beak. Broken vessels tangle limply around it and blood drips down, turning his feathers red. My body is still within the grave in the grim and starless night.
Grace Hertenstein is a 2013 graduate from the New School in New York City with a degree in music and writing. She has had nine short stories published, including one in Bright Bones: An Anthology of Contemporary Montana Writing and one on Goreyesque—an online literary publication dedicated to Edward Gorey-influenced work. Currently, she lives in Eugene, Oregon where she works as a florist and is at work on several projects both creative and community-based.