TW: Death, blood.
Your dead eyes, open still in agony, bore into my body, my soul. Your skin is as white as a winter sun, but unlike it, you are cold, cold as hoarfrost. My fingers freeze as I brush the dust off your body and adjust your clothes. You were buried under debris when I found you. Now you will be buried under dirt. You came from the earth, and now you will return to it. It is time. Even if it was not your time to die.
The whoosh of the shovel is my song, its handle my tether to reality. Push in, lift up, let fly. The repetitive motions of digging keep me grounded. Soon, your grave is finished, next to the hundreds of others I dug before. I lay your body into the grave. You remind me so much of my mother. Because you are my aunt.
The tears I've been holding in slip free and the memories come crashing back. I can’t bury them fast enough. The cold, stinky cellar. The dull thunder of the bombs as they fell from the sky. The ringing silence after. The white dust. The ash and the cackling fires. The faces of those who had died in their sleep. The faces of those who were awake while they suffocated. My screams. My sobs.
I finally find my mental shovel and bury the memories. Burial is my specialty, literally and figuratively.
Throwing the first pile of dirt on your face is hard. It always is. After all, I am condemning you to eternal darkness. I remind myself you are dead and shut your eyes. Once I am finished, there is nothing left of you but a sliver of earth where the dirt has been disturbed. I move to the pile of corpses I just gathered and begin digging another grave.
I see the slight girl digging, an ethereal being so out of place in this world of silence and destruction. She should be in the woods. A sprightly nymph weaving through the trees, splashing through gurgling streams, and braiding flowers into her pale blonde hair. But instead, she is here, in this place that sucks the life out of her emaciated form, out of her clear blue eyes. I have been to this place before. I watched her uncover the people that would never breathe again. I had a large haul that day.
She looks toward me now, and there is such defiance in those eyes that for a minute, I think she can see me. But she can’t, for I am a shadow. And she is starving. It is time.
After I bury today’s pile of corpses, there is nothing to distract me from my hunger. It lances through me, an all-consuming feeling. I’m so tired. I don’t want to obey the pleas of my body. But I must find food. There are still so many more to bury. And I need to feed my parents.
I walk through the rubble of my hometown; if you could even call it a town. It is a labyrinth of death and ruin. Of silence and sorrow. The crunch of debris is the only thing I hear. Houses that used to be full of laughter and life are now collapsed, dead, just like the people inside them. Dust hovers over everything. The sun’s silhouette climbs towards the west. The sky is cloudless, gray. Fitting.
I find a house at the edge of town which is mostly intact. The walls are cracked and the windows have shattered, but it’s still standing, like me. I haven’t been in this neighborhood since it rained bombs. My work is methodical; I need to bury everyone in the town center before I start working outwards.
The door creaks as I open it, a welcome sound. I find the kitchen and start opening the cupboards. I smile, the first time I’ve smiled in a long time. Because I have found ten cans. I lick my lips in anticipation, wondering what will be inside. I discover a can opener in one of the drawers and pack everything into my bag.
The house sighs as if happy to help.
Apparently, it isn’t time. The scent of the girl’s ending was so potent yesterday. I couldn’t ignore it. But now its sharp tang is gone since the girl has found food. I came too early. It happens. It’s hard to tell whether someone will give up or go down fighting. I will leave for now, since other scents are beckoning me. But I will be back when it is time.
“Guess what I found,” I call as I open the flap of the small tent I erected. My parents stare at me, huddling under a threadbare blanket. They are weak from hunger and fever. But that can be fixed, hopefully. Unlike the demolished buildings outside.
“I found ten cans of food. Plus a can opener!” I force cheerfulness into my voice as I set my bag and shovel down. Mother smiles shakily. I open a can at random which turns out to be red beans. Thank goodness. I dribble the juice into Mother’s mouth, then into Father’s. Then I slowly feed them beans, one at a time. Their eyes shine with gratitude.
I open the next can(also beans) and eat like a wolf, shoving spoonful after spoonful into my mouth. When I’m finished, I lean back. It feels so good to be full. It’s been a while.
I give us all a cup of water from the bucket I filled when it rained. Now comes the hard part. I pull back the blanket covering my parents and cringe. Father’s legs are rotting and covered in blood. I pick off the decaying skin and wash off the blood. But there is nothing I can do about the infection or the fever.
Now it’s Mother’s turn. I clean and rewrap the gaping wound by her hip from where she got hit with shrapnel. She has a fever too. I turn away, trying to hide my despair. Mother grips my wrist and forces me to look at her. You can do this, my little flower her eyes say, giving me the strength and hope I need. I can do this.
A month later, the girl still isn’t dead. How is this possible? I have seen so many in situations similar to hers and they all go easily. Some rage and scream at me while they latch onto me. They reek of bitterness and rot. Others embrace me with open arms, imploring me to take them. Their scent is heavy and loaded. But not this one. Her resistance is subtle and powerful, not at all degrading. She refuses to directly acknowledge me, even though she feels my presence emanating out of every grave she digs. It is why her scent is so sharp.
Hour after hour, day after day, she digs through rubble and drags out bodies. She digs holes and buries neighbors, relatives, friends. She finds food and collects water. Every day, I smell the scent of her ending, and appear beside her, ready to take her. But every day, the scent disappears as soon as I get there.
I have buried all the bodies I can find. I scoured the whole town today, and dug through more rubble than I have ever dug before. But I have found no one. And I haven't found water or food in days. Now, I am staring at my handiwork, the graves I toiled over for so long. Slivers of turned dirt, arranged in neat rows, stretching into the distance. My work is done. I never thought this day would come.
There will be no one to bury me.
I watch the girl gaze at her graveyard. The scent of her ending is the strongest it has ever been. When I approach her, it doesn’t go away. It dulls, the familiar sharpness gone. I feel angry, angry at her for resigning herself to this fate after all she has done. Live! I want to yell at her. Don’t die now. Die in a place far away from here, far in the future. In a place where you are surrounded by people you love, not by corpses. In a place where there will be someone to bury you. But I can’t talk.
She walks to her tent, and I follow her. I’ve never been to her home. Her steps are quiet and defeated instead of confident and purposeful like they always are. She enters the tent and stares at a threadbare blanket lying on the ground. There is no one underneath it.
She murmurs, “Hello, Mother. Hello, Father. I finished the graves today.” And then it hits me.
Mother and Father barely nod. They are fading. Father’s eyes are glazed, and he stares into the tent’s ceiling. Mother’s eyes beckon me to her. You have to let us go now. It is time. But I am so proud of you. More than you will ever know. I love you. Tears spill from my eyes, and I close them. When I open them, Mother and Father have disappeared.
I was hungry that night, the night before everything died. I went down into the cellar to get food. I ate. I fell asleep. The raining bombs woke me up. I waited for an eternity, scared to leave my safe haven. When silence fell, I came out of the cellar and found my parents dead in their beds, the softness of sleep still gracing their expressions. They were the lucky ones. They died in their sleep.
It’s ironic how phantoms and corpses are the only things that have kept me alive these past months. But now those things are gone. My work is finished. My responsibility is fulfilled I lay down on the blanket and close my eyes. I will see my parents soon. For it is time.
The girl welcomes me with open arms. But unlike the others, she does not beg. She thanks me and treats me as an equal, a friend. And I am. I have been with her every step of the way since those bombs sealed her fate. We understand each other, her and I. She never gave up on her work and neither will I. Her work is done, but I will continue soldiering on with mine, just as she did. The scent of her ending is sweet and fresh now. Peaceful and expectant. Because it is time.
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Hi Sophia! This was a great piece! I love how you balanced the two narrators and you kept the piece on theme throughout. My heart was breaking by the end of it. I think I’d love to read another story about how and why the world got to the place it ended up in for this piece. My favorite two lines were: You were buried under debris when I found you. Now you will be buried under dirt.
Oh thank you so much! Your comment made my day.