Perilous Adventures
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Olvar Wood Writers Retreat


The Recent Dead

Tara Goedjen

We saw the extra hands looking for work when Digs' horse hoofed the Pass. To our left were the tracks cloaked by trees, yet for a split second my eye settled on an open railcar. They were hanging their legs off its side, some crew of eight or nine. Young with hard eyes. An airrush upon them, some standing near the wooden edge as if daring to leap. I thought of the train coming to a fast stop. I thought of screeching blue sparks, bodies rolling the rocky slant, skull under hooves. But the train mauled the track west toward the ridge without error and we headed to the job Digs had secured us from Shannon Lukker, the funeral house owner. Our job was reburying the bodies, those that hadn't been carried too far by the hillwaters.

The boys must have jumped from the car, or more likely, slunk off at the stop in town and strode away full of the bravado that belongs only to the young. Digs heard through barroom talk that there were indeed extra hands come to town after the storm: strangers hard up for work. Downright reliable boys, Lukker had called them. And as for the three of us old men with the graveyard job, he said maybe it was more than we could handle. That maybe we were working too slow for the money he was paying. The lot of them could work all trades, all lung and muscle they were. Flotsam washed up with the storm, Malfair said to Digs. Can't be relied upon.

We were cursing Lukker while standing beside a recent grave, one that had a rectangle of sand over it because the grass had yet to grow back. Digs sat on a headstone to catch his breath. Pulled off his flat cap and wiped his sunburned hand across his white brow.

We get paid in full,’ he said, ‘we get paid in full for this job and we're set.’

‘I'd like to buy me a good horse and hit the road,’ Malfair said. ‘Take the Pass and get outta this place.’

‘Three ways the pay is good,’ Digs said. ‘Anymore and we'll take a hit.’

Malfair found a sliver of shade beside a tree and stood there with his shovel piercing the ground. He was a short man, oddly fitted: a cotton pullover covering his belly, his legs like sticks in trousers. He shifted his weight and the sole of his boot weighed on the edge of his shovel, sinking it another inch into the topsoil. 

‘Think Lukker gonna let them boys run us out?’

Digs grunted and pulled something wrapped in newspaper from the satchel at his feet. The smell of rot was thick around us but he paid it no heed and stuck a biscuit in his mouth. We heard a piece of it crack, or maybe it was his tooth.

‘I believe I just bit into something petrified,’ Digs said. ‘Old as my wife.’

‘We still digging or we taking a break?’ Malfair asked. ‘I'm like to die out here.’

‘Don't you dare.’ Digs gray sideburns rode the movement of his jaw as he spoke. ‘That'd just mean one more body for me and One Eye to bury.’

The sun left the hills. It caught the roof of the funeral house and cast over us gold. I wiped the sweat from my face and took a swig from a canister of cold coffee. It tasted better when my wife had made it. I spat grit and then looked up, craning my neck to sweep my eye across the grounds. The gray of the mountains loomed in the distance on three sides and sloped to the surrounding trees, save for the stretch of land Lukker'd razed for his cemetery, where the earth sagged over shallow graves. Debris edged the burying ground, whorls of dead leaves and broken wood where the water had carried some loaded coffins to the base of the funeral house and smashed them open against the brick. The flood hadn't hit the countryside near as hard as it hit town—the streets were littered with bloated carcasses of animals, dogs, pigs, even some cattle that the women were lifting their dresses to step over. But here the sun bleached the bones of the dead, and on thinking that my knee gave.

‘Lord,’ Digs said. ‘The hell is wrong with you?’

‘You alright?’ Malfair asked. 

‘We best keep going,’ Digs said. ‘We don't need no extras here.’

The rumor was they'd been hired by Lukker, since we'd seen them ourselves a day ago when Digs' wagon shocked over mud and merged onto the Pass. A road first named for the treaty that sent my grandfather walking, alone without his pale family. I think of his head bowed, his hair smelling of sweat and blood as he hacked his way through the trees, the army prodding with bayonets, the scramble of horses and trudging footfalls on and on. Now the Pass winds along the edge of town—past machine shops, boiler shops, plow makers, piping smokestacks where charcoal smelters burn. A road that leads to the paddocks, where my grandfather and his people were kept before heading West by ferry and foot. They were herded like beasts, and the ones that made the journey were only resin of human flesh and bone when they came out the other side. That's how the extra hands looked on that railcar hurling into town. Like only fragments of humans—the same way a boy is only a fragment of a man. The way I'm a fragment of my grandfather, as Digs said. White enough to trust. If I'd been born with darker skin, would the army have seen how my insides matched? But I was overlooked and Digs needed a man so we've worked these forty odd years since and picked up Malfair along the way.

‘Reckon these skeletons gonna bury themselves?’ Malfair said.

One of his suspenders hung loose as he bent to pick up a parched bone, a scrap of pink beside it. We'd been around long enough to remember what some of them were wearing, to remember their funeral dress, now gone ragged. The three of us had dug for Shannon Lukker a long time before the storm and we'd been the ones to close every coffin and lower each into the ground. I remembered all we'd buried—their hair and skin, their clothes clean and laundered—and so I replaced their watered bones in the proper place, under those thin slabs of stone etched with names spoken less and less. It seemed the dead were forgot by all, save old Malfair, Digs, and me. The easiest ones to remember were those buried with trinkets—engraved jewelry, a family brooch, a felt hat, a lock of hair, letters wrapped in twine—now wrapped around their ribs or lodged inside their mouths or gone forever with the flood.
I wiped sweat from my forehead and my eye wandered the grass, looking for him. My own dead son. What I saw instead of bones was Lukker's shiny buggy—it seemed he could afford to keep it washed. In the back were the extra hands. Young faces shorn of hair and covered with dirt.

‘Goddamn,’ Digs said.

Shannon Lukker, a man known for his sense of commerce. A man born rich and stayed that way. He drew his horses to a halt and the boys hopped out fisting shovels. I squinted at them through my one eye as their shadows swelled on the ground before me and sunlight crowned their heads.

‘Now wait just a second,’ Digs hollered with a cupped hand shielding his eyes. ‘We had a deal, Lukker.’

‘Ya'll are moving too slow. Whole town's wondering when we're going to get these people back to their graves,’ he said. 'Hell, it's like they naked out here. It's indecent.'

‘When you say naked I'd rather not think of dead folks,' Digs said.

‘They ain't gonna just run to their graves,’ Malfair said. ‘One Eye already asked them, didn't ya, One Eye?’

‘You're real funny,’ Lukker said. ‘I'm close to ordering a mass grave, and I don't care if my own granddad's on the bottom.’

‘Whoowee,’ Digs hollered. ‘We'll set about to finding your grandpappy, then.’

Lukker took off his hat, smoothed his hair. ‘I'm sorry ya'll, but folks just don't want to think about…’ His voice fell short as he stretched out his hand and then let it drop at his side. He looked strange amid the rubble with his tailored suit, his smooth hands. The stiff white triangle of a handkerchief showing from his pocket, the golden chain of his watch hitched to his vest like he'd worn his finest to be buried himself that very day. He tiptoed around the muddier stretches of grass, trying to keep his shoes clean.

‘Don't want to think about what?’ Malfair asked.

‘Well, this around us. This evidence,’ he said and coughed.

Behind him the extra hands digged and dipped, their torsos lean and breaths heavy. The slope of the land was marred by broken caskets and skeletons and frayed clothing updug six feet from the storm. It hit the Pass with churning clouds and lightning and a tumult of rain that drenched the topsoil until it nearly turned to quicksand, like the devil was hankering to fill his pit, Malfair had said.

‘How much you sign them boys for?’ Digs asked.

‘Less than what I signed you.’ Lukker unbuttoned his jacket. ‘And for more work, seems like.’

‘Well, if you weren't holding us up in conversation…’ Digs said.

'Do they know where to put them?' Malfair asked. 'Between us old men, we know where to put them proper.'

'They're tucking them in the ground,' Lukker said, 'and that's all there is to know.’

He walked to his buggy and left the extras at the job. Malfair watched him set off and spat amber chew as Digs hoisted himself atop his wagon and whistled.

‘Maggots!’ he said. ‘Ya'll ever heard of a hex?’

The boys who bothered to look up from their work just shrugged.

‘I have me a regular Shaman who'll hex you good,’ Digs said. ‘You keep working here and you're bound to pay for it with your life.’

The boys sniggered then.

Shaman my ass, one of the closer ones said. He was a fast digger, a fresh hole in front of him deep to his knees. He turned to me and pointed with his shovel. ‘Why don’t you go and cure your own eye then, Medicine Man?’

I said nothing, just kept to my work.

‘We ain't leaving 'til we get our money,’ a towheaded boy said.

‘Take your money to the grave, then,’ Digs said. ‘Just wait.’

We put in a long day, assembling what we could of the bones. Here a child's femur, here a woman's skull. I shut my eye for each body I found, hoping it was long or stout. 

‘Why you taking twice as long as us?’ one of the boys asked. ‘Is it because you're half-blind?’

‘Hush up,’ Digs said. ‘Indian men can see far.’

‘A man's got to take time to prepare in this line of work,’ Malfair said. He held a rusty saw in his hand to fashion a casket.

‘Why's that?’ the boy said.

‘Because,’ Malfair said, hefting his weight to hack at a tree. 'He never knows what he might uncover.’

Digs belched and unscrewed his flask as dusk shrouded the field, reminding me of the dreams that'd been plaguing me.

‘Gonna sleep with the dead?’ Malfair asked. ‘Or are you coming with us, One Eye?'

Digs untethered the horses, readying to haul out. I rode with them as far as my cabin, then tipped my hat goodnight.
Inside I looked at the sketches on my wall, the only thing I'd saved when the floodwater came. My sketches of past things seen—my hand to paper, deer hide, wood, before I lost my eye. Black and white charcoal, sketches of shadowed faces. Each with a story I told to my wife. Her family had managed to escape, their baby girl swaddled and quiet. And yet she'd returned then hit the Pass years later, left of her own accord.

I lit a pipe and remembered her lips. When the embers died I fell asleep; the whole night I dreamt of her walking the Pass. The whole night I dreamt of things aboveground that shouldn't be. Her bare feet stepping over risen tree roots. Creatures at her side, slithering worms and blind moles and skeletons unearthed. Something creeping behind her as she walked. Under the light of a full moon I saw what followed her, some misshapen creature with nocturnal eyes. Its snout pointed at her heels, its long tail wagging. The skeleton of a possum, its bones clicking as it lumbered behind her. She never looked at it, just kept her stride from me, a rhythm to her wending. Not a word for me, not now, not ever, since she left. Not one word.


The next day we were late. One of Digs' horses went lame so we hitched up Malfair's donkey, though I'd rather have walked. My feet tracking the Pass the same as those who'd gone before. I rode with Digs and Malfair though, and when we got to Lukker's burying grounds, the extras weren't there. It was already mid-morning.

‘Well,’ Malfair said, with a wad of chew in his lip. ‘Looks like you done scared them off.’

Digs grinned, gave a stern preacher nod.

We worked without the extras as we had before. When Lukker came solemn with the wagon, we thought he'd found another set of bones washed up in the woods. But then he got close and we saw what he had was covered by a blanket. When the wagon tire hit a rut the blanket fell away to flushed skin and light-colored hair and a face that might've only been sleeping.

‘Let's get him set up,’ Lukker said. ‘There'll be no wake.’

Lukker'd lost his jacket and there were heavy sweat stains darkening his shirt. His leather shoes were scuffed, one of the soles was loose.

‘Who the hell is it?’ Mayfair asked.

‘One of them boys you was working with. Got trampled trying to hitch a ride. I saw it happen,’ he said. 'Interrupted my breakfast.'

‘It's usually best just to walk out of here,’ Digs said, then shut his mouth.

I grabbed the boy's heels and Malfair got under his arms and we hoisted him into a coffin we'd intended for bones. The recent dead took priority.

‘Well I'll be damned,’ Digs said, groaning as he slid the wood onto the wagon.  ‘What's his momma gonna say?’

‘He don't have one.’

‘What's his girl gonna say, then?’

‘Too young for one.’

‘That's a damn pity,’ Malfair said.

Lukker was already hauling the boy away to the funeral home. Digs rolled a tight cigarette and struck a match. Smoke trailed away from his mouth. ‘Something like this happens,' he said, 'and all you can do is try to forget.’

Try to forget. My wife had done the same. She walked away and forgot us. It happened long after Digs had given me the job when no one else wanted to, but I could read and write and I was strong. We'll be like partners, he'd said. We gathered shovels that sparked brick and grated our bones when we pummeled the hard dirt. I painted Dig Works on Digs' wagon in smooth black paint. We'll take it to 'em, he said, and meant the town. The sign read: Will Dig Anything: Graves, Wells, Fences, Basements. Later Digs added Treasure in spidery letters, but we never got any requests. Likely people digging for gold want to keep it to themselves, my wife'd said. Hide it away for no one else to touch. Those times I tried to laugh but it was like a palm was clamped over my mouth.

I let her leave me. I watched as she readied and packed—there wasn't much—and then she turned at the door and told me she was going. Just what do you have to say to that, Vern? Her head cocked to the side, bag in hand. If I'd said something except what I did, maybe she would've stayed. Instead I mustered a voice like I hadn't in a long while and said, You're leaving us, then? My throat burned and so I shut my mouth and fisted my palms as I waited for her to answer. Us? she said. Us? I thought she might cry but her eyes held steady; it was my own eye that watered. I'm leaving you, Vernon. Just you. She turned and started walking, her spine to me, her hips prodding the dark. You. A rush in her step. Just you. Her strong legs and lean waist, the lighter skin of her breast, those sharp nipples I put my tongue across. Her straight shoulders and high chin: not a walk of retreat.

As I watched Lukker wheel the boy away for burial, I wondered about my wife. She'd left of her own will, had walked the Pass until the trees dropped away and the water ran dry and there was nothing for shade. Just barren fields and a sun that pierced. Gone the trees, the river. Gone all she knew. I think she looked up to the sky and said, Rain on me, said, Rain on me, said Rain on him, too.  

When the storm broke we didn't get a warning. The floods laid trees flat and set boulders to rolling. The water rose to the rooftops in town, engulfed houses, carried the unlucky away. Malfair got the canoe I'd cut for him and paddled to my cabin and said, Knew I'd get some use out of this. Digs looked out over the floodwaters and said, Let's use this to fill our bellies. When the water dried up, surely there would be things in town to be dug up, or buried back, and there was.


That afternoon under Lukker's watch, we made the newly dead a fit hole. I walked around the perimeter and eyed the sifted dirt—full of earthworms and broken roots. Lukker read a passage from the Bible over the casket, but he couldn't stop coughing between his words. We heard a sound to the east and saw a boy running in a dead sprint down the hill.

‘Don’t shut him away yet!’

‘Just hold on,’ Digs said to Lukker.

The boy came to us panting. Lanky with the trace of a mustache. Hair long and black like mine used to be and dark as my wife.

‘Where's the rest of your crew?’ Malfair asked.  

The boy lowered his head. ‘They left,’ he said. 'Got out of town. Said that ya'll was crazy, that that Indian of yours was a witch.’

‘I don't recall owning any Indians,’ Digs said. 

We moved from the casket to give the boy some space. All the blood let from his cheeks as he approached. Our stomachs went tight when he halted and then jerkily bent forward as if to kiss his friend. We thought we'd see it—some tear landing on the dead one's cheek. But instead the boy tossed a handful of coins into the box. All of us flinched as they clunked on the wood.

‘What in the hell,’ Digs said.

‘It's his share,’ the boy said. ‘His share of the job.’

‘Excuse me, son,’ Malfair said. ‘The dead don't need money.’

‘Seemed right,’ said the boy.

Digs picked up the coins from the casket and flattened the boy's hand, put his money palmcenter. ‘Take it,’ he said.

He pulled out his wallet, leather worn thin and thin just the same. ‘I'll cover your friend's share.’

Lukker beckoned for us to lower the coffin, so me and Malfair nailed the lid shut and then grabbed the leather straps and heaved. The wood clapped in the ground the same way every coffin did and the boy gasped, wiping his eyes with his shirt sleeve.

‘What you lookin' at, mister?'

‘He's looking at your eyes,’ Digs said.

‘Well,’ the boy said, mustering some fight. 'I'd look back but he's only got the one.'

Digs laughed and the boy's face reddened. He grabbed the shovel from Malfair and started heaping mud over his friend's resting place.

‘I like this kid,’ Digs said. ‘You want to stay on for awhile, boy?’

‘What's it matter what I want?’ He didn't relinquish the shovel.

We worked through the evening until the land looked tamed again. A graveyard once more, with hardly a reminder of the storm. I walked among the slabs of cement, marking an X with charcoal on the ones that we'd found a body for and buried accordingly.

‘Hey!’ the boy called out. ‘I found me a little one!’

‘Whoa there,’ Malfair said. ‘Now just hold on.’

Beside the boy a two-foot casket was sprung open behind a cedar and my breath caught in my lungs. The piece of charcoal dropped from my hands and into an opened grave as Digs strutted over, his hat pulled low over his gray hair, his neckerchief damp with sweat. His shadow met my boot and I looked at him, shading my eye in the light, unready to see my dead returned.

‘You sure it's the one?’ Malfair said.

Digs held up the contents of the coffin. ‘Take a look,’ he said. ‘Go on, now.’

I saw her stitching first. A design of bright colors, the wool dyed with ink. Bright colors over white bone. I blinked and the colors faded to lace. My heart trembled anyway when Digs took one soiled thumb and lifted the scrap of a veil. Underneath—the bones of a small child, my own boy's age. I remembered him, perfect and red on the blanket my wife made. Before he'd died, liquid poured into that blanket, wet it through and through. There was vomiting, fever. Reams of sweat from his body. How can it be? my wife asked. How can so much come from such a small child? Then others in town took sick and soon the rash appeared, first on his face. Little red sores. On his hands next, then all over his body. Scabs and scars and blood. The doctor came too late and whispered over my son's closed eyes what sounded like a church prayer, because there was nothing else to offer. The disease that took my boy was passed in part to me, since on that day one of my eyes swelled red and shut. My wife wanted to stick it with a needle to release the fluid. Let it out, she kept saying. Let him go. All I could see from my one good eye was my son dead in a blanket. I covered my blind eye with my hand to hold the blackness in, wanting it to stay as it was—the darkest tribute.


It was me who finally took the small casket and laid it again in the ground. Malfair sung a hymn and Digs recited a Bible verse, though Malfair said its accuracy was suspect.

‘What's with him?’ the boy asked. ‘Don't he ever speak?’

I didn't look up from my burying. The heat settled around me like six feet of dirt and I cupped my hand over my good eye so it was just as dark as the other one. I thought of my wife, how the last time I'd been inside of her she'd looked past my face to the ceiling as if she could see all the way to the moving clouds that warned of storms to come. I thought of walking away from her then, not knowing she'd be the one to do it. I looked again and again at my sketches of the Pass as if they were half-made maps that beckoned to be charted to the end. You don't talk anymore, she'd said. Since— But she wouldn't name our son, like she'd forgotten what she couldn't see, what could never be forgot.
I uncupped my eye to finish the burial and saw the tan boy leaning over the top of the shovel, his chin resting on his knuckles as he stared at me. Digs ambled over, hauling another casket of someone longdead and needing a burial again. He dropped the handles of the wagon and they banged loud against the dirt.

‘That one the last of them?’ Malfair said.

Digs nodded and grinned so wide we could see the dark spaces where his molars were missing. I closed my eye and held my breath, intending to hold it forever, had the boy not poked me with the blade of his shovel.

‘Why don't you move so we can dig,’ he said.

Tara GoedjenAbout the Author

Tara Goedjen's fiction has been published in North American journals such as Agni, Bomb, Fairy Tale Review, New England Review, Prism, and Quarterly West. She is currently a DCA candidate at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales. This is her first Australian publication.


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