By Larry D. Harwood
“Smells terrible!” she said.
“No worse than some people,” he replied.
Any other time she would have laughed, but the stench seemed almost toxic as it spread closer to the couple already dirtied by their task.
“The coffin wasn’t sealed!” she said.
His nose followed the scent and spotted the skunk before she spoke again.
“Course it was,” he said, slightly annoyed, and he grabbed her hand and yanked her behind another stone with him to wait the guilty animal out.
“He’ll go soon, and we’ll get back to work,” he said.
“I’m not so sure about this anymore Jim.”
“You need to know. Stay with me, and we’ll both see. You’ll get to see him for yourself.”
“I don’t know anymore!” she said.
“We will in a minute. Soon as that animal goes far enough.”
In little hurry, the skunk ambled over the pile of fresh soil and cast his nose into the digging hole as he sniffed at the earth. Jim remained anxious to finish, and tossed a rock in the direction of the furry creature that now scampered out of sight.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“I don’t know, Jim; will you listen to me!” she said.
“Look. Let’s get this done. We can settle this thing—once and for all. We’ve got more work than digging earth.” He smiled at her.
“I don’t think we should be doing this,” she said.
“You wanted to know; we can know!”
“Catholics don’t have to dig to see it!”
“Well, we do—I mean you do. So we gotta get him up.”
Carolyn Jones wanted to marry a Protestant boy, though she was fonder of him a week ago, and before she slipped and said Protestants had no saintly bodies, unlike some Catholic corpses that never decomposed after a life of holiness. Jim demurred.
She and her family had witnessed one in Rome two years earlier, and she had never forgotten. When he took issue with her—said Protestants had saints too—she brandished her Rome example, complete with two photographs and a postcard, but Jim Strusser shrugged, unmoved. He told her that Protestant bodies were as saintly as Catholic bodies, and he could prove it for her.
Her parents never cared for the boy.
“And why not?” she had inquired.
“Didn’t like him from the first minute I laid eyes on him,” her father said.
“Why?” she had demanded. When her father paused, went back to his paper, she left—stomped out—but he stopped her. She stood waiting, presuming he would say something more, maybe answer her question, something. He said nothing.
“No crucifix totted on his chest?” she offered, and her father, and then her mother too, erupted, and the screaming match stalemated after they prohibited the girl from seeing the boy again. She persisted despite their order.
The anxious couple prematurely settled on a Protestant lady. Gloria Hayes was revered in their community until two years ago, when her dead body slid down the right side of the pulpit, finished after a heart attack killed her before she concluded with the church announcements. Carolyn objected to the woman from the beginning, saying this candidate was exceptionally pious for a Protestant, and that Jim had claimed that all true Protestants were saints, and therefore, any Protestant should suffice as well as any other Protestant, and therefore they should examine one not so saintly. Carolyn had a good logical mind, and Jim Strusser was in love and wanted Carolyn’s hand in marriage, so he would do what it took to get her. He consented to find a deceased that had not lived the godliest life, but had nevertheless, in Jim’s words, “been washed by the Blood.”
Jim felt doubts that Bob Savoy was the best choice for this venture now that he was about to see Savoy again. The man had gone to prison multiple times over his criminal career, but finally turned in all his sins at the cross, and became a new and changed man for two months exactly before a trailered vehicle hit and ran over him in the street. Jim knew good works didn’t save a man, no matter how good, but Savoy was so bad before, he might take more redeeming than your average sinner.
“No, that ain’t right,” he said to himself, and he slapped his face.
“What you doing?” she asked.
“Bob Savoy was a saint, because of Jesus, and not because of himself,” he said, now sufficiently chastened for his error with a reddened face.
“What you saying?” she asked.
“I’m saying we’re opening him up—for you to see—and me.”
Carolyn saw his resolve, knew no hope remained for trying to halt this boy sick with love for her, but she asked if they could pray first, and whether Jim could open the lid by himself, and she only look.
“That’ll work for me,” he said, and he slid his slight frame back beside the uncovered casket, after his prayer.
“Grave digging it was?”
“Yes Sir,” Jim said.
“Mind telling me what you meant in disturbing the dead like that?”
“No harm intended, Sir. Only needed confirmation,” he said.
“Confirmation? Of what?”
“Rather not say, Sir.
“Boy you’re about to be charged with intent to commit murder. You better say something.”
“I didn’t harm her,” he said.
“Don’t look that way to us. Appears you was about to dispose of her in that casket. After you had surmised her state, that is,” Officer Dummes said.
“No Sir,” wasn’t like that at all, Jim said.
“Well, how was it then?”
“I couldn’t have got her in that thing, even if I wanted. Besides, I didn’t hurt her—I love that girl,” he said.
“Don’t appear that way to her family nor to us.”
“You’ll be charged with intent to kill that girl.”
“She knows better!”
“Well she can’t talk in that coma, now can she? And you, you won’t talk.”
“Okay. We I mean I wanted to see if Bob Savoy was a saint.”
“A saint? He was a criminal; everybody knew that. A saint, son? We talking about the same man?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Jim said.
“Why you digging him up?”
“I had to see.”
“See?” he asked.
“To see if he was a saint.”
Jim Strusser claimed that when he pushed the coffin lid up the girl had passed out and fallen onto the edge of the hard steel. She had a large gash on her forehead, while the doctors worried about the state of her brain. Her face could be fixed.
Meanwhile the prosecutor made hay with Strusser’s story about an accident, but Strusser stuck with his story, although his lawyer urged a plea bargain. It soon became clear that the boy chanced losing the case against him, and so Strusser’s lawyer had recourse to a string of character witnesses on his client’s behalf, but the chilling story of a grave digging, and a girl lying in a coma as a result proved too much to jurors who knew and respected the Jones’s.
With hope receding for Strusser, his lawyer made another attempt to get the youngster a lighter sentence by pleading guilty to a lesser charge. The stubborn youth, however, refused again.
All might have been well, if the girl had recovered, had come out of the coma, but she didn’t recover, not for a long time, and the boy went to prison for almost as long.
She hobbled when she walked, and Jim Strusser got out the wheelchair to navigate her around the stones more easily. The terrain of the cemetery was bumpy.
“Don’t know exactly where they’re at,” she said. “I suppose somewhere with the rest of the Jones’s.”
The darkness didn’t help, and a dim flashlight proved little aid, but eventually they found the graves.
“Sure you want to do this?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” Carolyn said.
He was still as agile with a shovel as he had been before prison. He did not stop to rest until taking three feet of earth from the top of one of the graves.
“No need to open both,” she said. “Either one will do,” she added.
“Okay,” he said, and he put his shovel back in the same hole, as he stared momentarily at the adjacent grave, and the marker that read Together Forever.
“Still sure you want to do this?” he asked again.
“Still sure,” she said. Her graying hair was pulled back, and made her look older than her years.
“I’ll be done soon, and we can get out of here,” he said, as he threw another shovel of grave dirt on the mounting pile.
“No police will bother us tonight,” she said.
“They’re there,” he said, nervously.
“They’ll keep their distance,” she said. A police car had pulled up to the cemetery, and the engine stopped as lights went off. Jim saw one inside the car with binoculars pointed their way.
“About done,” he said. “Still sure?” he asked again.
“Yeah,” she said. “You?” she asked.
“No, don’t think I can,” he said.
“Dummes is there in the car. I expect he’ll be willing to do it; I did say something to him about it, I mean that I might need his help.” The woman’s voice started to crack.
He tossed the shovel into the pile of dirt. The dirty coffin lid lay in plain view finally.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll let my parents rest after this—what rest is theirs; I just need to know,” she added.
“I know,” he said, and he leaned over her wheel chair and kissed her cheek.
“I won’t be long,” she said, after she returned the kiss.
He walked away.
She motioned toward the police car, and Jim walked toward Dummes, making his way toward Carolyn and the opened grave.
“Thanks,” Jim said when the two met.
“Don’t mention it,” Dummes said. “You can sit in the car with my deputy if you want,” he offered.
“No, I’ll just wait for her here. But thanks,” he said.
Dummes’ age had hardly made him frail, and he easily broke the lid free of the box after a couple minutes of work. He looked back at Carolyn Strusser before he would open it further.
If the woman had not been present he might have set this corpse and the one beside it on fire himself.
Jim Strusser saw her head go into her lap when Dummes stepped out of her way.
Her wails pierced the night air, and the sparrows that habitually nested in the cedar trees roused themselves to move away from the noise. She called for Dummes to turn her chair around, and Jim came for her.
Dummes signaled his deputy to come to the grave, and the two of them began the work of filling the hole up again.
Larry D. Harwood is a philosophy teacher who sometimes writes short stories. He currently teaches a class on “Philosophy and Literature.” Larry has had short stories published in Windhover and The Dead Mule.
Photo "Cemetary" courtesy of Simona Dumitru, Paris, France.
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