Jack Gardner wiped the sweat from his brow, leaving a trail of dirt to cling to his still-soaked face. The night air of late autumn was cool, even chilly when a breeze picked up, but the digging would overheat him even in the depths of winter. He ran a calloused hand over the smooth-worn wood of his shovel handle.
“All right, lad. Let’s finish this.”
The shovel said nothing, but cut sharply into the dirt, guided by Jack’s strong and steady arms. In silence, they dug with the ease of a lifetime of practice; several lifetimes in the case of the shovel, whose wood was greying, much like the hair on Jack’s head and face.
As they neared the end of their work, Jack felt the familiar anxiety well in his stomach. Puttering somewhat, he measured the hole to make sure his dimensions were correct, though by now he could tell by sight. As he suspected, the tape measure reported 7’2” long, 32” wide, and nearly six feet deep.
He took a deep breath and continued stalling, fanning himself with his cap. Through the callouses on his fingers he felt the shovel’s eagerness to complete its work. His father’s words rose unbidden to his mind, as they often did when he neared the end of a grave.
“Son, our lot is a hard one and no mistake. It’s tough work, it’s sad work, but it’s necessary work and it’s more honest than most. And we’re the last strangers ever gonna do good by these folk, and that ain’t a small honor to be sure. Who knows, maybe the one you’re diggin’ for is the kindest sort a person could meet. So quit your sniveling and move that dirt.”
Reluctantly, Jack put the cap back on his head and slid the shovel into the earth once more. Too soon, he cut into the last of the dirt. As he lifted the shovel to add its final load to the pile, its metal glowed a pale greyish blue. An answering light drifted through the graveyard, arriving at the fresh-dug grave just as the shovelful of dirt landed on the pile beside it. As Jack lowered the shovel, the light transformed into the ghost of a young woman, just barely in her 20’s. He removed his cap respectfully and nodded deeply to her.
“Just a moment, miss, let me climb on out of here.”
She smiled at him and waited patiently as he tossed up his shovel and climbed out of the grave. He seated himself comfortably on the ground, his feet dangling over into her new resting place.
“D’you like it?”
She looked around, taking in the view as well she could in the dark and clouded night.
“It seems like a nice spot. Open, peaceful, not too fussy. The grave looks good, too; thank you for digging it.”
“Ah, thanks, it’s an honor to do my part in your last rites and such. Name’s Jack.”
“Elizabeth. Elizabeth Conner, though friends call- well, called me Liza. So is this just normal for you, talking to dead people?”
“Only after digging a grave with this shovel, miss. Been the gift and curse of my family for generations, my Pa always told me. He passed it down to me when he died and his grave was the first I ever dug with it. Before that, I used a regular shovel and nothing strange happened, but I saw plenty of folks with my Pa when I was a boy.”
“Doesn’t it scare you?”
“Sometimes. I dug for a few murderers in my time, and some of them can be scary folk if they were the type took pleasure in the killing, though most were regrettin’ what they done by the time they got to me. Lotta folks, no matter their background, get mad at me, lookin’ for someone to blame. Some try to hurt me, but they don’t do no harm. The only scary ones are them that remind me what sort of twisted minds might be yet living.”
Liza sat down on the opposite side of the grave, leaning eagerly toward him and swinging phantom feet through the dirt wall.
“You’ve met murderers? Who else have you talked to?”
“Forgive me sayin’, but aren’t you upset about dyin’ or wondering about what happens next?”
Liza shrugged. “I’ve known I was dying for a long time, so this isn’t so much a shock for me. I figure moving on will happen if it does, or not, but knowing won’t do me much good. Too much of my life focused on my death, so I’d rather my death focus on life. So, tell me about yours.”
Jack was met with the profoundly uncomfortable realization that this was a query he had never before had to answer. The closest anyone had ever come to asking about his life in the past forty years was the perfunctory “How are you today, Jack?” to which he was always able to reply “Fine, fine, and you?” without a thought. He fidgeted with his cap.
“There’s not much to tell, truthfully. I was raised by my Pa after my mother left; I don’t remember much of her, really. He got me what schooling I could have and taught me in the family business. We’d go out at nights together when he had work and he got me used to graveyards and talking to folks after their graves was dug. I worked a bit at a grocer’s until I was hired on as a gravedigger after Pa retired, then I got his shovel when he died not long after that. Since then, I’ve been doing this and whatever other handiwork I can get. Also I’m a fair whittler. I make flutes sometimes.”
“So that’s it? Graveyards, groceries, and flutes?”
“No travel? No whirlwind love affairs?”
He looked sheepishly into the darkness of the grave. “There was a girl I was sweet on when I was young. I kissed her once, but she got killed not long after. Some freak accident, real sudden. Pa knew I was sweet on her and wanted me to come with him when he dug her grave, but I just couldn’t. I was too coward, and I wish I done right by her.”
“That’s it?” Her voice was angry, and sparked anger in Jack.
“I didn’t live my life for your entertainment, girl! I’ve done good work all my years, and there’s no shame in that. So I didn’t talk to too many folk before they was passed, so I only kissed one girl. From the stories you lot have told me, all that just comes with a pack of drama and heartbreak.”
She studied him with new sadness in her eyes. “It doesn’t sound like you lived your life for anyone’s entertainment, even your own. You’ve just been living vicariously through dead people’s stories instead of getting out there and doing it yourself. You’re like those people who spend their whole life reading about travel without ever once packing a bag, only worse because you do it with the whole spectrum of living.”
Though her voice had been calm and even sympathetic, it burned in his ears and made him hot with rage. As quickly as his old and tired bones could manage, he stood up, shovel in hand, and seethed.
“I didn’t ask for any kinda mental analysis from some brat couldn’t even live ‘til 30. What do you know? What kinda wisdom do you have? Can’t be much; you was going to do the same thing, living through my story of my own life. I’m so terrible sorry it didn’t entertain you like you was hopin’. At least I do folk some good ‘fore I hear their lives, and let me tell you, listenin’ to them speak ain’t exactly a picnic most of the time.”
“Well, at least you had choices, opportunities. Even well past your prime, you’re still healthier than I ever was. You can still go out and do things with your life; I was bedridden since childhood. Dying was my first chance to ever really do anything, so forgive me for thinking that maybe someone as able-bodied as you might have some interesting stories of his own to talk about. You mean to tell me you never heard anyone tell a story that inspired you to go have your own adventures?”
Flustered and abashed, Jack leaned heavily on the shovel and avoided her eyes. “I did.”
“Well, why didn’t you do it?”
“I have obligations, duties. My job is important, and there was never enough money anyway.”
She raised an eyebrow. “After hearing hundreds of stories of regrets, that’s the best excuse you could muster?” She waved her hands and spoke in mocking tones “’Oh, I was too busy digging holes in the ground for dead people to live my life before someone has to dig a hole in the ground for me! It’s so important I just don’t have the time to learn from anyone I’ve talked to!’”
Jack glared at her. “It’s near dawn, and you got an early service. I should clear out. Have a good afterlife. Rest in peace and all.”
She snorted as he walked away. “My life was peace, so I hope for a little more excitement in the afterlife.” Her tone softened as she called to his retreating back. “Hey, Jack? Get out there and live a little. Have a good life. I mean that.”
He didn’t stop or look back or give any acknowledgment that he’d heard, but her words blazed in his mind and the shovel felt heavier than ever as he carried it home. He kicked off his dirty boots at the door and moved out of habit to place the shovel in its honored spot above the mantel, where his father had always kept it. As his hands reached up to rest it on its hooks, Liza’s final words to him played on repeat in his memory. His hands froze and his face contorted into a strained and scrunched mixture of anguish and anger. His fingers clasped hard around the shovel as he struggled with the echoes of her voice and the voices of all the dead he’d served. Finally, his hands and face relaxed. He lowered the shovel and stepped barefoot out into the yard, feet soaking in the dew-covered grass as he walked to his tool shed and tossed the shovel within.
He returned to the house and grabbed a box from beneath his bed. Wiping the dust from its lid, he carried it out on the porch and opened it as the sun began to rise. In the light of the fresh dawn, he looked longingly through the years of collected travel brochures promising adventures in places he’d heard about through the dead.
The sun cleared the horizon and he walked back into the house, ready to pack his bags.