Stories No. 43 – James Claffey

Dark Soil Dug
by James Claffey

The nightmares terrify her. His hands tighten about her neck and his mumbles and groans are incomprehensible. She screams his name, “Charlie, Charlie! You’re killing me.” His fingers are thick, sunburned stubs, incendiary devices crowned by well-filed nails. In the dim bedroom she trembles under the covers as he thrashes about beside her, his hands busy with the knotted cord of his pajama bottoms. This, the man who twinkled an eye her way. This, the man who took her off the aged and jaded parents who never thought they’d be rid of her. This, the man crumpled inside a Toyota station wagon as the firemen deployed the jaws of life to extract his remains before night fell.

“Nights in White Satin,” is the backdrop to the latest meteor shower. The three teenagers are on their backs in the wet grass, passing a joint between them, staring at the kaleidoscope of stars, and the shooting streaks of blue that cross the sky, tracer bullets in Kandahar. Crickets sing loud in the echoing air, their chirruping resonating as the neighboring houses go dark as their owners take to their beds. With thirty days in the school year left, the boys are fingertips from summer’s freedom and fall’s college orientations.

In the shade of the Matilija poppies a gopher snake takes the sun, its variegated body slick under it. A lost set of keys is nestled in the shade of a rock, rust forming on metal. The woman leaves the house with a duffel bag and a gallon jug of water. Inside the bag a jar filled with gray dirt, a foldaway shovel, and a copy of the Daily Office. Her yellow Sports Walkman has the tape of a Bach overture she knows her husband loved. The night before, a carload of tourists died when a falling meteorite struck their vehicle.

Inside the gates of the cemetery they follow the directions to the family plot; a square of graveled space overlooked by a stone angel with a gold-painted halo. The boys pull weeds and put the discarded bits into a plastic shopping bag before allowing the mother to scrape the gravel away from a small square in the top right corner nearest the headstone. “Keep an eye, Donal,” she tells the closest boy. He sits on the curbstone surrounding the plot and watches for anyone official-looking. Watery sun lights the ground and the woman pulls out the shovel and after snapping it together, takes several shovelfuls of soil and neatly piles the dirt on the grass verge.

Only the face of his wife and sons kept him from letting the day overtake him. Even as the fireman told him to hang on, he could feel the energy leaving his body, the soothing comfort of imminent death familiar, welcoming. He closed both eyes and waited for silence and blindness to come over him, but his wife’s face kept reappearing, and the voices of the boys rang in his ears. “Good man, almost there,” the fireman said. The car’s bodywork creaked, the same sound as the fingers his old teacher used run down the blackboard to get attention. When he felt the pain in his thigh he knew the closeness to death had passed and misery and family waited.

Into dark soil each boy digs his fill. Solid lads. Take care of your mother he’d always reminded them, should anything happen to him. As clouds cover sunlight the mother presses play and reads a passage from the book she’s brought. Eternal. Rest. Attempted murder. Not his fault. Each of them lets a handful of earth drop on the father’s ashes as they mum the words of the prayer along with their mother’s recitation. Soil returns to its rightful place, they strew the gravel back on the spot and pack the shovel and bag of weeds in the duffel. A few quid saved from the local government bureaucrats who’d told the mother in the letter that it’d take three grand to do it right. Her dead husband was right, she didn’t come down in the last shower, and she’s already picked the perfect mattress and headboard to replace the ones in which he’d too many times tried to kill her in his sleep.


Writer, James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. He is fiction editor at Literary Orphans, and the author of the short fiction collection, Blood a Cold Blue. His work is forthcoming in the W.W. Norton Anthology, Flash Fiction International.

August 5, 2015
Photo by: Gessy Alvarez