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2018 Short Stories

Highly Commended

Highly Commended

A Man Digs a Grave
Jacqueline Winn

Possum Brush, NSW

Boot pressed to the spade, he kicks down and slices into the sun-crackled turf, levering away, revealing stone-dry ground beneath. Ground so thirsty no amount of downpour can ever meet its crying need. Dying of it, truth be told.

At first, he’s careful to place the new-peeled layers of turf one on top of the other in the shade of a massive gum. Do a job, do it well, they say. Though as he moves on he figures the grass is as dead as it’s likely to get, wearies of any kind of ordered plan, lets the turves fall wherever his spade happens to toss them.

An hour or so past sun-up, the morning is already far too warm for this kind of work. But you can’t help the timing of these things. Surer than anything, death comes and today is the day.

He interrupts his digging to pace out the length with long strides, kicks a marker stone into place at the end of each turn. Rests a moment, considers the glint of low sunlight on the windows of his mother’s house over on the far hill. If she was still there, he might not be digging a grave in this barren corner of the old farm. But then again, he might.

When he’s cleared a rectangle twice as long as wide he stands heaving for breath, wiping sweat from his face with a handful of grubby t-shirt. Stringy hair drips rivulets onto his shoulders, grey-specked stubble glistens with salty moisture. Should have chosen a cooler day. Should have chosen a lot of things. Better. But he didn’t and now he’s stuck with the best of all his bad choices.

Long swig of water, wipes his hands dry on dusty shorts. Could do with a smoke, a comforting bit of weed, but he can’t afford to drift out of focus. Not today. He’s always been hopeless with resolve. Ask any woman he’s ever loved. If they ever thought to say his name nowadays, they’d use that word. Lifts his head, shouts it to the sky. Hopeless.

The drugs pull him in so easily. It’s not that he doesn’t know, it’s just that he doesn’t care. That’s something those rehab counsellors don’t get. He could write a textbook on what he knows but try pinning down a bit of resolve that lasts more than a day or two, now that’s the trick. Gotta have a good reason to quit and he’s never managed to crack that one.

Once those thoughts start niggling around his head, there’s an urgent tugging at his gut. He could walk back to the ute right now, take out a little bit of weed. Just a little smoke to tide him over till the job’s done. Or even a little bit of what he’s got in his backpack, a little bit of something stronger. Just one little hit. That’s always been his way. Little by little until suddenly it’s a whole lot and he’s out there on that wide road again, taking whatever he can lay his hands on. Buy, nick, whatever. Like a movie with endless sequels, each one the same as the last. He’s weary of sequels. Can’t see the point anymore.

In the mirror last night, he checked the silver taking over his skull and the stubble on his chin. Looked under his armpits and down at his pubes. Grey hairs telling him it’s been a heck of a long time since he took his first smoke. Party time back then. Couldn’t help a bitter laugh at the wreck staring back at him from the mirror. Party invitations dried up years ago.

A bit of bad health or awkward debts to vindictive idiots, he could deal with that. Has done for the last thirty years or more. But it’s all the things he’s done that he can’t bear bringing to mind, in case he shivers with the unbearable shame of it. Shivers all the way down to his dusty boots. Dusty boots on thirsty ground. Dusty boots beside the grave.

Another long swig of water. Sets his eyes on the ground, doesn’t allow so much as a glance away to the ute. Deep breath, mighty clap of his hands, snatches up the mattock. Several thumping blows into the rocky clay and he’s back on track. Several more blows before swapping back to the spade, clearing away the debris.

As the depth of the hole increases, so does the height of the rubble he sets to one side. Every now and then he takes a breather, considers the pile. Not his problem. He only has to dig. Someone else will fill. Tries not to imagine who that someone might be. Hopefully someone who’ll do the job before the police get involved and start making the whole business far more complicated than it is.

Morning hours wind on, the sun pushes shade away from his workspace until he’s gasping for breath, sweat pouring down his back, t-shirt long soaked. Trickles run down his arms, dripping into his palms, making it difficult to keep his grip on the tools. Stops occasionally to dry his hands, slake his thirst, before throwing himself back into the task.

Shade has shifted to the other side of the gumtree by the time he’s up to his armpits in the hole, chipping and scraping away at the bottom. Six feet under. Nah, doesn’t need to be that deep. Floor squared-off. Nah, doesn’t need to be that neat. Never was one for regulations. Do a job, do it well. Fuck that.

Hasn’t looked skyward for hours. Hasn’t noticed the slow build of clouds creeping from the west. As he spears his spade up out of the grave onto the pile of rubble, the first drops spatter the dry ground.

For a few minutes he sits at the bottom of his diggings, tucked into a slim mercy of shade, leaning against the coolness of new-cut earth, watching clouds edge slowly across a ragged patch of sky. Spots of moisture tap at the ground, spatter his shorts, tickle his bare legs. Then stop, as if the weather can’t make up its mind.

Rain or sun, you can deal with nature. But you can’t deal with the unnatural, with things that aren’t part of the ordained order of living. His father would have loved a phrase like that, might have used it from the pulpit with a salutary story from the Bible. Sour old bastard, his father. But he had a point. Some things won’t shake out of his head however hard he tries.

Sucks in a long breath, hoists himself out of the hole, heads for the ute. Takes his backpack out of the front seat, unzips the pocket, checks his gear. He’s been denying himself the harder stuff for weeks, knowing the job would need to be done sooner rather than later. Making do with weed rather than compromise his intentions. Wouldn’t want to go to all this trouble and find he’s short of what it takes to hammer home the final blow. Wouldn’t do to go off half-cocked.

Walks across to the grave, tosses in the backpack.

Back at the ute, reefs off the tarp and throws it aside, reaches in and lifts the blanket-wrapped bundle. Light. Not surprising. The life is gone and the pain along with it. He grimaces at the thought. It was the heaviest thing he’s ever known, watching old Billy Dog haul his crooked hips around the place, head low with the effort, tail dragging to keep up. He curses himself for keeping the old fella alive so long. But Billy Dog was his last mate. Never once a scrap of judgment in those rheumy old doggie-eyes. Needed him more than anyone.

Selfish, though. Should have dealt with it after his mum died, when the arthritis started waking the poor mutt in the middle of the night. Even asleep, the dog groaned like his dreams were full of pain. Know that feeling, he whispers as he buries his face in the musty blanket.

He’s been planning for a while, trying to find the guts to take charge. Then last night the poor bugger was in a terrible state and just before first light he decided enough was enough. Though, taking the vial and holding it to the lamplight, he baulked for a moment. Always said if Billy Dog dies then I’m off as well. Too late for second thoughts, he told himself. Filled the syringe and all of a sudden it felt easier. If the last mate you ever had was a dog like this one then you didn’t end up with nothing.

The dog’s eyes opened at the prick of the needle into his shoulder. He hoped the poor thing wouldn’t wriggle, try to pull away from the jab. Instead Billy Dog turned a soupy brown gaze up at him and relaxed, as if glad of help to ease him over from this life to the next. His eyes closed, his breathing slowed and he was gone.

Several minutes, he continued to watch, wondering where the old fella had gone, what he might find on the death side of things. Then he wrapped him in a blanket before taking him to the ute. Came back inside only to put his own necessaries in the backpack. The mattock and spade he threw in last then tugged the tarp tightly closed. Resolve. It was more than he’d known in years. Felt almost good.

Beside the grave, he lowers the blanket-wrapped bundle to the ground then jumps into the hole. Eases the dog down to the bottom, settles him, paws and head, as if to make sure he’s comfortable. Looks like he’s asleep, the sweetest sleep he’s ever had judging by the contented smile on his slack old jaw.

He glances up at the sun starting its trip down the other side of the sky, dodging between scudding clouds. A few more raindrops on his face. A long grumble of thunder in the distance. A bit of drama seems fitting. Time to finish it. He’s lasted the distance, almost proud of himself. It’s taken him over six hours to dig the grave and he’s managed to abstain for longer than he can ever remember. Except in rehab, when abstinence was someone else’s good deed, not his own.

He crouches, runs his fingers through the soft curls under Billy Dog’s chin. Good dog, he whispers, good Billy Dog.

Quickly unzips the backpack, pulls out the tourniquet, loops it loosely over his arm. Rummages for the syringe and a small handful of vials. He lifted them from unattended drugs cabinets while cleaning the floors in the middle of the night at the nursing home. Surprised he’s never been caught. Overheard a couple of nurses talking about a good five. Each vial is five mls, usual dose for pain relief. Two vials adds up to a good five, a sure way out for when someone’s had enough.

Wonders how it’s going to feel. Easy, if the dog is anything to go by. Half chuckles as he fills the syringe. Funny how this business is far from sad. Tightens the tourniquet, slaps the grimy inside of his elbow, pops the vein with the needle.

Serious drops of rain splash on his face, mingle with his dirt-caked sweat, sting his sunburnt arms, smudge the dog’s black coat and puddle in the fresh earth around him. Thirsty ground, soaking up the gift of the storm. Thirsty all my life, he murmurs. Head back, opens his mouth wide to let the teeming rain trickle down his throat.

Squeezes down on the plunger and releases the tourniquet. Rush of sweet release slides along his arm, spins upwards into his head. Eases himself down alongside Billy Dog. Presses close, threads his fingers through the soft fur around his ears. Smiles. Good to have a mate beside you at the end.



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