by Eva Oladottir

When she reaches the clearing, she’s relieved to have found it at all. Even she, who’s lived her whole life on the edge of the woods, sometimes gets turned around and led in circles. The darkness gets so dense and she doesn’t see well anymore. The woods smell heavily of wet earth, and there’s no sound but the hum of still air. Even once she’s through the worst of it, she can see nothing but flat shadows and the nearest tree trunks, bleached white where her flashlight hits them. Night clogs her senses. She tires easily. Her knees are already aching just from the short walk.

She pulls the tarp off the grave and is disheartened by how shallow it still is. She knows she needs to make more of a dent each night, but it just isn’t happening. The shovel is too heavy, her movements too slow. The soil resists her, wears her out. She clambers down into the grave and digs for an hour then gets dizzy and has to stop. She leans on the shovel to catch her breath, but her breath never lets itself be caught anymore. It has started to rain again, an icy drizzle that looks like fog in the flashlight beam. It’s a little bit deeper now. Another two nights, she thinks. It will just have to be shallow. Any more time and the body will start to rot. She pulls the tarp back into place and heads home.

At home she puts the kettle on, then goes to check on Viv. To fit her in the freezer, she would have had to cut her up. Instead, she turned the heat off in the bedroom and placed Viv in the center of the double bed. She piles on bags of ice a couple of times, every day. Most of it melts and soaks into the sheets and through the mattress. Water drips steadily on the floor below, gathering into puddles and warping the wooden boards. It’s November and the weather is miserably cold already. She hopes it will stay that way. Back in the kitchen, she makes tea and pours the rest of the water into a hot water bottle. Maybe the house is a little colder or maybe it’s just her weariness, but she can’t ever seem to get warm anymore. She curls up on the sofa to sleep, hugging the hot water bottle. She doesn’t bother to shower. It’s too cold and she’s alone, anyway.

That afternoon, the grocery delivery van pulls up to the house and she’s shocked to realize what day it is. How long it’s been. She’s surprised that the smell isn’t worse. Axel appears in the doorway, a box of produce perched on his hip, and greets her with hesitant warmth.

“How are you doing?” he asks.

“Can’t complain.”

Axel nods. “It’s cold out,” he says. “You got a hot cup of coffee for me?”

Every week, she invites Axel in for coffee. It’s become a tradition. She tells herself she needs to do everything she normally does to avoid suspicion but once they get talking, she gets lost in it. He listens to her talk about the first telephone call she ever made, about the time she tore her Achilles tendon, and about this book she read last Christmas. She doesn’t know why. It’s not important. Axel’s son has yet another ear infection. They need to take him in for tubes. While they talk, his eyes roam the room. She knows who he’s looking for and she also knows he’ll never ask. People will talk to her and they will talk to Viv but they won’t talk to her and Viv; to her about Viv. With their things strewn around the room, with both their boots in the hallway, Viv’s potted plants in the window sill and her sweater flung over the back of a chair, Axel sits there and doesn’t ask about her. For the first time, these rhythmic gaps in the conversation give her a feeling of control. Now, she is the one they protect.

She’s tired out by the time he gets up to leave. Axel turns around in the doorway.

“It’s good to see you’re doing all right,” he says, his tone uncertain.

She lies down as soon as Axel is gone, hoping to nap away the evening and gather some strength for the night, but she doesn’t wake up again until dawn. She’s lost an entire night and she curses herself as the day grows lighter. It’s not safe to dig during the day. The nearby township has started encroaching on the woods and you never know when some hiker might wander off the path. Eventually, she decides to spend the day sleeping. She needs to get the whole thing dug tonight, she really does. She makes herself some porridge and checks the bedroom. Adds a few bags of ice. Considers showering but doesn’t see the point. She retires to the sofa, wraps herself in a quilt and wills herself to sleep.

The air in the house has smelled vaguely like wet earth for almost as long as they’ve lived there. The floorboards creak, like the wood is trying to return to life. Mold turns up in the corners of North-facing windows; it doesn’t bother her anymore. There is a kind of life in the shifting, greyish black shapes it forms. Back when they had dogs, there would be hair everywhere but now there’s only dust. She doesn’t go upstairs anymore. They turned the dining room into a bedroom when Viv couldn’t manage the stairs anymore. They always ate in the kitchen, anyway. She can’t remember what they did with the dining room furniture. Maybe it’s upstairs.

She wakes at dusk and feels rested. For a few long moments, she breathes easy and hope fills her for the first time in days. She can do this. She’ll finish tonight. She’ll take Viv with her now. Smiling, she gets up and makes herself more porridge, washes her hands and puts on her boots. Combs her hair for good measure. They keep a wheelbarrow under the porch. It hasn’t been used for years, and it whimpers and moans when she sets it upright. She hauls it inside and lines it with a duvet from their bed. Viv lies on the wet mattress, hair and clothes soaked by the melting ice. In some intangible way, the shape of her face has changed. It’s closed up, collapsed. The room smells like the leaves they used to clean out of the rain gutters every year, with an undertone of meat left too long in the fridge. She pulls Viv onto her lap. She has less strength than she used to but then, there’s also less weight to Viv. They both became skinny old women. She touches her cheek to the top of Viv’s head, then rolls her off into the barrow as gently as she can and covers her with a matching comforter.

Getting there is harder than she anticipated. The rain has turned the ground to mush and the wheel repeatedly gets stuck in tangles of dead grass and mud. The wheelbarrow swings this way and that, almost toppling over several times. At one point, she has to heave Viv out and drag her a few steps, going back for the barrow. She pushes, she drags, she gets dizzy and nauseous, and her breath escapes again. The world is spinning when they finally get to the clearing, and she still can’t breathe, and she plops down on the wet, muddy ground and bursts into tears. She’ll never have the strength to finish digging. Not tonight. Not after this. She’ll never have the strength to get back home, either. She’ll never manage it. She’ll have a heart attack and die right there on the edge of the grave, with Viv huddled in the stupid wheelbarrow. She cries until blood buzzes in her ears, and her sobs turn dry and then to coughs. She coughs and coughs, and she cries until it all drains out of her. These days, everything just drains out of her. She sits there and stares at the dead grass and the crumpled tarpaulin in the flashlight glare.

There were times when they were younger when everything seemed to go wrong. Whatever they had between them would stutter and cramp, like an overwrought muscle, and leave them with hard silences where there should have been a gentle pulse. She would lie awake whole nights and worry that it would never get better. But it always did.

She hasn’t been alone in a long time. That morning, when it was time to make the call and hand Viv over to be buried in the village cemetery. That was the first time in a lifetime. The silences crashed in. Their whole life might disappear into them. She’d put on her clothes, and gone to buy a tarpaulin.

There’s a sound in the darkness. With a sigh, one of the wheelbarrow’s legs sinks deeper into the muddy ground, and then the whole thing starts moving. It slowly tips to the side and falls with a light thump, spilling its cargo. The comforter half-unravels, an irregular mound on the dark grass. Patterned with geese in flight. She stares at it for a while, then looks around for the shovel.

The sky is lightening when she’s done digging. She’s too tired to lift the body and just pushes it until it slides over the edge of the grave and lands on the bottom. Then she gets up, picks up the shovel and looks down into the deep shadow. She still has to fill in the grave. It will be another week like the last, shoveling dirt every night, sleeping all day, hoping her limbs don’t give out before she’s done. She nods at the figure under the comforter, shining blue in the shade, and stoops for the tarpaulin. They are halfway there.

“Sketch of a Young Man” by Holly Day