by Billy Joe Stratton
In the waning moments of bluish light, Ransom handed the coffee can to the boy. “Bury it somewhere the dogs and varmints can’t get at it,” he said. Royse took the cylinder of tin, but its contents gave it a weight that felt leaden, substantial, abhorrent. He couldn’t bear to hold it out from his body.
His mother’s soft weeping echoed like a distant whip-poor-will following him out of the house into the still crispness of the mountain air. The hound on the porch raised its head slightly and let out a muffled bark, more an acknowledgement of the boy’s presence than any kind of alarm. His heartbeat quickened, resounding against the can, lingering above the steps before the opposing mountain. He tried to trace the line that divides tree and cliff from sky but couldn’t make it out.
Royse glanced back and saw his father’s shadow through the window and heard his voice repeating, “Rest, Lucinda.” Ransom’s shadow then joined to hers before moving across the wall towards the back of the house. When the murky shapes and muted voices had disappeared, he descended the steps and set off along the path that led by the gnarled ancient beech that stood near the edge of the creek. He passed the coop along the way, and the hens murmured plaintively from their roosts as he checked to make sure the door was secure. It’d been a month since they’d lost their last chicken to a possum that had dug under the fencing. Gray and white speckled feathers strewn under the roost were all that was left of one of their best laying hens. His daddy cursed “the damned thievin’ animals” while he filled the void with dirt and reinforced it all with several rocks.
When Royse neared the beech he could see the great tree’s roots spread across the ground by the coming light, protruding like the bones of some primeval beast along the curvature of the cutbank. This was the rooted place, and the boy came here often.
Beyond the roots, the ground was covered with patches of velvety moss that adhered to fallen trees and smooth rounded stones. The beech overlooked a stretch of the creek where it curved and widened, making the water swirl and pool. Holding the coffee can to his chest, the boy paused beneath the outer reaches of tangled gray limbs that jutted into patchy wisps of fog. Royse pressed his lips against the lid and swept his boot through the dampened leaves in an arch several times, then knelt on the exposed soil. He set the can gently down and pushed away the remaining leaves with his hands. With the dark, rich soil revealed, he pulled an implement from under his belt and commenced to gouging at the earth. The digger had a rounded blade and was fashioned from some discarded farm implement.
A pungent heaviness wafted up from the damp earth and burrowed inside his chest. Royse went on like a penitent as if in observance of some doubtful ritual, digging and scooping out the broken clods in his slender hands.
Royse paused, setting the can into the hole to measure its depth. With a few more blows the grave would be ready. Bringing the funerary can back to his chest, he whispered some words only he would ever know and set it into the hole. He began pulling the dirt back over the can. With a small depression still visible, he drew up his arm and wiped his dripping nose the length of his forearm. Glancing around, he then pinched up a portion of soil and put it in his mouth. The taste was acrid, heavy, coarse.
Swallowing the last bitter grits, Royse went to the edge of the creek to wash his hands and drink. He caught a glimpse of himself through the mirrored water, a wavering image that looked more leaden than his fragile bones felt. He began to wonder what she would have looked like but thrust his hands and forearms down into the cold stream to chase away the thought. Pulling his hands back up to break his image, he cupped some water up to his mouth and slurped greedily.
Once satisfied, he wiped his hands on the front of his shirt and rifled through the stones. Choosing one with shiny flecks of white quartz, he placed it atop the dark earth. He didn’t consider it any sort of marker, but merely a contrivance to keep the dogs, raccoons, and other animals away. He’d remember where it was by the roots and the creek, with the stone securing her presence while merging with the beech.
Royse tapped the stone lightly with his foot, as if securing it over the grave, and thought he felt the ground sink down, if only a little. He kicked some leaves back over the spot to obscure the marker and conceal the signs of his digging.
He thought he should get back but felt a pull from the beech. Staring towards where the creek sank behind the curve of the mountain, he became lost in the rustle of water. The sun broke over the mountain making vivid the leaves that wavered above, with beams flooding through the shadows which retreated back over the slippery stones into the thickets of the forest. A strange apprehension began to spread inside, and he wondered if the water of the creek could rise over the roots.
Drawing a pocketknife from his pants, he used the blunt side of the blade to cleave 3 2 2 on the base of the tree. Its bluish-gray bark curled to reveal a moist and dense gamboge flesh. The numbers were sharp, jagged; they would become a dark scar to mark this day for a long time to come.
Her name would’ve been remembered, her heart would’ve been loved. Her arrival in their lives would never be spoken of within the walls of the house, nor the night she fell too quick and fragile into this world, slipping through Lucinda’s trembling hands.
Billy Joe Stratton is from Eastern Kentucky, the son of a coal miner. He currently teaches contemporary Indigenous/American literature in the Department of English at the University of Denver. His writing has appeared in numerous outlets including TIME, Salon, Arizona Quarterly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Wraparound South, Transmotion, Big Muddy, and Cream City Review, among others. He is the author of Buried in Shades of Night and edited The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones.