A Good Death by Gretchen Hopkins

Competition: Short Story Challenge 2019, Final Round

Genre: Open  Subject: Side effect(s)  Character: A gravedigger

Original Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg

I swept aside the mulch under our fig tree. It looked like a good spot, like virgin earth. Damn this clay soil, though, and the cold snap. The ground was hard with frost. I took a few short stabs with my trowel and then rested, already sweating through the February chill. The white rocks laid nearby were scrawled with writing, some more childish and faded than others.

            Here Lies Claude, The World’s Best Bunny.

            Diamond, Rex, and Bowie, Goldfish.

            Three Baby Birds.

            I dug out a few more shovelfuls, chipping out a hunk of clay. The grave had to be at least eight inches by six; I used my hands to measure. I had dissuaded Julia from using a shoebox, gave her a length of my brightly flowered quilting cotton instead. I think the cloth will decompose well. Wemberly (A Kind And Smart White Rat) was laid to rest in a vintage handkerchief, and when I accidentally planted a bulb too near the next fall, I found only threads and bones.

            I had to dig at least fifteen inches deep to keep away the raccoons, and also so if a kid was digging for treasure one day she’d be unlikely to come up with a rodent skull instead of a gold doubloon. It was hard going; the clay was half-frozen, and my arms are like noodles these days. I felt the familiar nausea rise, and swallowed it down. No. I cut a few more inches from the side of the hole.


            As deaths go, Wizard’s was lovely. Curled nose to little pink paws in his burrow under a pile of bedding, the gerbil simply did not wake up. Julia was brushing her teeth; I whispered the news to Dean to avoid giving Julia a shock. We decided to tell her after school. I slipped Wizard into a Ziploc bag and a paper sack and hid him in the fridge, behind the milk. I learned the hard way about refrigeration; once our cat, Alfie, brought home a field mouse. We didn’t find it until the next morning, and when Julia insisted on burying it (Mouse, We Never Had A Chance To Know You), I used an empty box of Zest soap as a coffin and was grateful for the fresh scent as we prepped the mouse’s final resting place.

            Julia took Wizard’s death well. We’d brought him home from the humane society when she was eight, a few months after losing Wemberly (who died right in her food bowl mid-nosh; a splendid way to go). Wizard was already middle-aged, and we gently encouraged Julia to pick a younger pet, but Julia was sure he was the one from the moment she held him, warm and whiskery, in her arms. We warned her that he wasn’t likely to live many more years. “I’m okay with that,” Julia said, with her usual equanimity. “I’ll just love him while I have him.”


            I realized I’d been sitting on the ground lost in thought, which happens a lot lately. I heard the sliding door, then footsteps in the grass. Dean stopped a few feet away. Once he would have come close, put his knees against my back, but a strange thing has happened. As my time has grown shorter, space has expanded like a bubble between us. The chemo makes my skin sensitive and raw-feeling and I’ve become thin and sharp, breasts like empty balloons with the medical port protruding above the left one like a rude pimple. A chemical smell, somehow both sweet and acrid, overlays my skin like a shroud. I wondered how big Zest boxes get… maybe we could have a special one ordered. I laughed, then remembered Dean behind me and stifled it. He doesn’t understand how I can still laugh. Sometimes I can’t stop, and he looks at me with grief in his eyes, and I feel annoyed. What right does he have to grieve now? He’ll be here to dig the graves for the next round of goldfish.

            “Ugh,” he muttered, watching me exhume the sticky clay. “It would have been easier to keep him in the freezer until spring.” He went suddenly silent, the truth between us like a knot: I have to do it now. I knew he was sorry he said it. It’s awkward, this going-gentle-into-that-good-night thing. After a few moments of watching me stab at the earth, he asked quietly if I want help. “It’s fine, I can fucking do it,” I snapped, and immediately regretted it. He turned, as if a steel wall had come down, and walked back to the house. I saw him through the window with Julia, his arm around her shoulder. Through the glass, they seemed joined, fused into one figure limned by the light of the kitchen. I dug harder, faster, feeling my lungs wheeze, the incessant pain under the bottom of my ribs sharp and deep.


            When Julia came home from school and we told her about Wizard’s passing, her eyes filled with tears; then she exhaled one long, deep sigh. “I thought he seemed sleepier than usual yesterday,” she said. “I just held him a lot. And I gave him an extra bit of carrot before bed.” Dean gathered her in for a hug, and she pushed her dark curly head against his chest. I rubbed her back, noticing how tall she’s become. She doesn’t hug me tightly anymore (“Mommy’s fragile, be careful,” Dean reminded her so many times at first, and now she complains that I’m not soft to cuddle like I used to be). She disengaged from Dean’s arms, went out to the decorative river rock along the walkway to pick a big, smooth, white stone for the grave, and disappeared into her room with the stone and her box of Sharpies.

            I heard the sliding door again. Dean and Julia were walking across the lawn. Their breath puffed out like cotton candy, the wan winter sun fading quickly into cold blue dusk. Julia snuggled Wizard in his chintz wrapping; Dean carried the stone in both hands like a holy relic. I struggled to my feet, feeling my stiff knees pop, willing strength into my bones. As I pulled off my gloves, I knew the work had scored purpling bruises into my hands. They reached the grave, and I put one hand lightly on Julia’s back.

            Julia unwrapped a bit of the cloth and laid her palm against Wizard’s soft rusty coat. She stroked him tenderly, not minding his stiff little body, and spoke. “Wizard, you’re a wonderful friend. You always cheered me up when I had a hard day, and even though you won’t be here anymore, you’ll still be with me, because you live in my heart. I hope you had a nice life with us. We love you.” She sniffed and wiped her cheek quickly before squatting to lay Wizard into his grave. She tucked the cloth about his body, covering him against the dark, frozen earth. “Do you guys have anything to say?”

            I met Dean’s eyes over our daughter. He shook his head. I couldn’t speak, my throat bound tight. Julia rose between us and we moved closer, sliding our arms around her. I felt the weight of my husband’s arm over mine, solid and heavy. We stood that way, looking down at Wizard, until a brisk gust of wind blew through. Julia shivered. “I’m going in to watch TV. Can you cover him up and put the stone on top for me?”

            Replacing my gloves, I knelt next to Dean, scraping cold, wet clay into the hole. I tamped it down and smoothed the cover of mulch over the earth, leaving a bit clear for the stone. Dean set it into the depression. We could barely make out the words in the dark. Wizard, it read, You Will Be Missed. I felt Dean’s shoulder shake against mine. He was weeping, silent sobs shuddering through him. I laid my head against his and took his hand. He grasped it tightly as the last of the dusk fell into night, golden light from the house spilling out like a cloak.




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Gretchen Hopkins lives in Northern California with her family, cats, and several unexceptional houseplants. When she’s not writing, she occupies herself with existential angst.






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