Just a hole

It is just a hole. Just a hole. No different than any other he had dug in the past twelve years. Once he finishes, he will feel accomplished. He will wipe the sweat from his brow and peer into his finished task with a small but warm sense of satisfaction. Knowing his sweat and sore hands will reward him with this familiar feeling inspires a shy smile to creep across his face. He allows it to linger. He tries not to think about what it means to finish the job he has begun. It is just a hole. Just a hole. No different. Knowing the hole was for himself only just scratches at the recesses of his mind.

The day is beautiful, the earth soft and inviting, and he takes great pride in his work. Cherishing every sip from his canteen, he is sure not to persist while resting. He decided before he began that he would not pause his work out of fear, but only out of thirst. He wants his last job to be the same as every other job. He will finish digging the hole with the same love and attention to detail as he always has. He takes his time to make sure that the sides are perfectly perpendicular to the bottom and that no roots stick through. Everything must be flush. His attention to detail is flawless. The last seven loads of his collapsible shovel would only barely fill a pint glass.

Sitting now, on the edge of his own grave, with the toes of his boots only barely scraping the bottom, he thinks of Seattle and the day everything changed. For a brief moment fear grabs his skin and tightens it with an all too familiar cool sensation. His arm hair stands on end, and a shiver runs down his spine and legs only to stop dead where his boots clench the backs of this calves. His only response to the shiver is a slight yet strained tilting of the head. Suddenly he chuckles. Knowing now how everything has ended, he can’t help but laugh. Life is so predictable, but only in retrospect, he thinks to himself. “Gramps, you’ve always had it right.” He says coarsely in looking up.

Jim settles into his grave with an assertiveness that surprises him. He is more comfortable with what he is doing than he ever thought possible. Looking into the crowded canopy of the moss covered pines he holds his breath. The soft bristle of pine needles rolling over one another on the forest floor and the faint swish of boughs brushing against the sides of neighboring trees brings a fine sense of serenity to Jim’s ears. If we are blessed with the foresight or happenstance of knowing our end before its ending, it is not where we go once we die that defines us, but rather where we go to die. Jim had chosen the perfect spot. In what seems to be an intentionally delayed moment, the dry husk of a pine cone falls slowly toward Jim’s position in the hole. It wavers slightly in the light wind and lands just on the edge of the grave, bouncing down it comes to rest on Jim’s chest, sitting upright as if to say hello. Jim lets another smile creep up the side of his face. Staring into the bent thorns of the pine cone Jim entertains himself with the thought of lying in the hollowed out earth until God himself decides to bury him. Looking down towards his feet, he tries to calculate how many pine cones it would take. Feeling satisfied with his calculations he glances back up towards the canopy and starts to count all the browning cones he can see. After only a minute he realizes that there aren’t nearly enough to finish the job. Jim closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and holds it.

When he opens his eyes he looks straight up at the blue faded tarp dangling above his head. He figures he probably loaded it with at least two-hundred and fifty pounds of dirt and rocks – more than enough to hold a man his size down in a lying position. His hands are hot and sweaty and he remembers that he is still wearing his work gloves. Finger by finger he slowly removes his leather gloves and places them on his right thigh. Having his had on his leg reminds him of the rabbit skin bound manuscripts he wedged behind his knees before he settled into the grave. In an instant of panic he reaches down to feel the edge of the carefully wrapped collection of notes and letters, making sure they are still there. He exhales a soft sigh of relief the moment his hand finds the bundle. It is, after all, the real reason he is here.

His hand returns to his side and finds the stock of his .22 gauge rifle. Years ago the rifle belonged to his grandfather and had a standard single shot bolt action. Shortly after leaving Seattle he asked a friend of his retrofit it to accommodate a ten round cartridge. He hoped he wouldn’t need ten shots today but he was a man that prided himself in always being prepared. Jim raises the rifle from his side and props the barrel against the side of the grave. He then saws a small cup into the dirt to cradle the rifle. In supporting the butt of the gun against his collar bone he can look down the sight without raising his head off the ground. He knows he will struggle when the load of dirt comes crashing down on him, it is only natural, but he doesn’t want it to last any longer than necessary and he certainly doesn’t want to be able to sit up or claw his way to the surface. After all the hole is only three feet deep. He had loaded he heaviest of the rocks into the side of the tarp that hung directly over his chest and head just for this reason. Maybe, if he was lucky, the force would be enough to knock him unconscious and he wouldn’t have to worry about what came next.

Jim steadies the gun and takes careful aim down the sights. The yellow nylon rope is stressed from the weight of the tarp’s contents but he knows that the rope was five hundred pound test and he would need a direct shot in order to severe it entirely. He exhales slowly and squeezes the trigger just as his grandfather had taught him. A sharp report rings out and echoes amongst the trees. The recoil is enough to cause the butt of the gun to shift off of Jim’s collar bone and hit him in the chin. A blow he mistakes for the load of rocks and soil hitting him in the face. After a brief moment Jim breaths in, slowly relaxes his face and opens his eyes. He had only just grazed the rope. A few small threads of rope curl away from the rest and the nylon slowly stretches a few inches. Jim looks up and notices the tarp is just barely shifting. Its weight now slightly off center, a rock rolls across the top of the soil to the other side of the load and scrapes against the edge of the tarp. A faint twang vibrates off of the rope as another sliver gives lose and curls away.

Jim holds his breath in suspense, waiting for it all to be over but nothing more happens. The wind seems to hold its breath with him and in that moment Jim realizes that this is the most silent he has ever heard the forest. He doesn’t like it. It feels unnatural. He exhales loudly and hotly and he instantly becomes aware of the awkward crunched up face he had been holding. Embarrassed by the fact that he had cringed in such a ridiculous way he giggles nervously. Just as Jim’s giggling begins to fade, a pine cone comes drifting down from one of the pine trees blocked from his view by the tarp. Jim traces the cones’ movements carefully with his eyes and as if to cheer it on he contorts his mouth into an O shape as it approaches the ground. It bounces at a sharp angle off the root of a tree and rolls forward with just enough force to reach the precipice of Jim’s grave. He lets out a small “oh” as it tumbles over the edge and lands directly between his boots. He greets its landing with raucous laughter. The gun falls to his side as he grasps his stomach and snorts out bursts of amusement. Between gasps of air he manages to blurt out, “Only seven hundred and forty two to go” to the tops of the pines. The natural sounds of the forest that seemed so absent before answer him in force and his grave feels like just a hole again. 

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