Ahoy mateys. Brandon here, with a bit of a deviation from the usual post. I’ve just been sitting here at my desk, sipping a cup of two-day-old coffee that hasn’t seen nearly enough microwave time, and wondering what sort of post to write for Thursday. And it’s finally dawned on me: I want to tell you a Hallowe’en story. It’s one without comics, but don’t worry. It’s short. Short enough that you’ll be able to finish reading it and still have time to catch tonight’s mind-blowing new episode of Glee. Or wash your hair with sulfuric acid. Not that I recommend either of those things, but hey, some of you, dear readers, are incredibly odd.
Anyway, here we go. I call this short-short story “Fare Thee Well.”
It was the day of the digging.
Dell stooped low, lifted free a spade full of moist earth, and heaved it atop the pile. The exposed dirt was dark with the wet of recent rains and it filled the air with the pungency of decay. Dell planted the blade of the shovel, took a leaden breath, and hefted it again with a grunt.
He had been digging for almost thirty minutes, but still the hole was not deep. Not deep enough, he knew. His body was covered in sweat, and the light breeze which made the overhead leaves dance brought gooseflesh to the skin of his arms. Summer was ending, and therefore the weather was no longer comfortably warm.
Dell paused, stood fully upright so that his entire torso protruded from the hole.
The entire town had turned out for the event. Such a thing was customary. There were nearly two-hundred of them: men, women, and the young ones. They were all in attendance. And all of them Dell knew well. He could see the Leighmans, dressed all in black, standing nearest to him at the crowd’s perimeter. Their family had brought animals to be butchered by Dell’s for more than three generations. And beside them, Dell saw the widow Laura, also dressed in shades of midnight pitch. Her lacy veil did not conceal the tears she wiped away every few seconds. There were others. All of them, really. And every face began to blur into the next, melting into a sea of sorrow as hot tears streamed down Dell’s own red cheeks.
Dell dragged a shirtsleeve across his face and gulped hard. The air was silent, save for his own heavy breathing and the sound of the rustling leaves. He did not want to, but could not keep himself from looking at the thing. It demanded his attention, a fishhook pulling at his heart. He stared down at the long pine box. It was the first time he had done so since picking up the shovel. A black dread filled his chest and for a moment Dell thought he would be sick. And he would have been, but he had not eaten in days. The guilt bore a hole in him, one far vaster and more deadly than the one he’d made in the ground.
Even through the layer of carefully nailed wood, Dell could see her lovely face staring back up at him. He imagined her smile, remembered how her kisses always tasted of sweet nectar after they had returned from a day picking grapes for wine. He saw her hair, that curtain of rich chocolate, and recalled the way it framed her high, lovely cheekbones. She was perfection, his one and only. She was his life.
Dell collapsed then. Half of him leaned against the edge of the partially dug grave. The other half lay splayed across the top of his wife’s simple coffin.
“I’m so sorry, Ana,” he wheezed between sobs. “I’m so sorry that I couldn’t have seen it coming.”
After a moment, a hand nudged Dell’s shoulder. He raised his head to see Father Medson looking down at him. Without saying a word, the holy man made a solemn gesture toward the hole.
Dell sniffled and nodded slowly. He rubbed the pinewood casket once more, softly, and returned to his work.
He dug. He strained and lifted until his hands were raw. White blisters had appeared, even on his toughened palms, and had torn open to expose burning skin beneath. Finally, he knew it was done. When he stood upright, only the very top of his head poked out the top of the plot. He gave the pain in his battered hands no consideration, because he knew what happened next. He knew that he would have to say farewell, that he and Ana would be parted forever, each doomed to their own paths.
The town Sherriff, Paul Twine, appeared at the foot of the grave. His bulky frame blocked out the sun and washed Dell in shadow.
“Come on up, son,” Twine said. “Let’s get done what needs to get done so this woman can rest in peace.”
Dell’s throat had choked up tight, so he simply nodded at the Sherriff and began to climb. When he emerged, the townsfolk were closer. They were within ten feet of him. He could see the Andersens, Chip and Nona, watching him with pained eyes. Their son Pete, probably almost ten now, dropped his eyes to his muddy shoes when Dell looked at him.
“Thank you all for coming,” Dell managed. His eyes were running freely now and he made no attempt to stanch their flow.
“Come now, son,” the preacher said quietly, “you know it is custom.”
Dell turned and half-stumbled into a kneel at the side of the casket.
He ran a hand across its surface, pretending in his mind that he could stroke his lover’s face again. Bloody smears stained the wooden lid. He wanted so badly to feel her soft hands upon his cheeks and hear her tell him that she loved him, and only him, forever and always. But he knew that she could not do that. She hadn’t.
“Please forgive me, Ana,” he said. “I miss you so bad.”
And then the Sherriff cleared his throat. “Alright, Dell. It’s time.”
Dell began to shake uncontrollably, quivering as he regarded Twine. “B-but, I’m not done yet. I haven’t said goodbye. Can’t a man at least say goodbye?”
The Sherriff hoisted Dell to his feet. He could hardly stay upright, but somehow managed to stand there beside the gaping earthen mouth. His nerves were the only thing keeping in place.
“You already said goodbye, Dell.” Twine drew his pistol and let it rest at his side. “You got your last request. The talking’s all done, now. Nobody here wants to hear it. Least of all, that poor dead girl.”
“I love you,” Dell said, stammering at his wife. “I always did.”
Sherriff Twine took aim, thumbed back the hammer of his revolver. The crowd stood silent. And when the sound of thunder exploded through the trees, birds scattered.
Dell toppled, lifeless, into the empty pit.
After a long moment, two young men with shovels began filling in the hole again. And the gathered mass of townsfolk dispersed, carrying Ana’s coffin with them.
There you have it, folks. I hope you enjoyed that Hallowe’en tale of sorts. And if you didn’t? Well, sorry, no refunds. But at least I didn’t put a piece of cat poop wrapped in a Tootsie Roll wrapper in your trick-or-treat bag. Or did I?
Beer: Left Hand Milk Stout
Music: Waylon Jennings