Alaska Shorts: "Digging Robert's Grave," by Don Rearden

Don Rearden

Through a mouth
full of Copenhagen he gave some of his last words of wisdom to me: “No good
when you die in the winter. Gonna leave too much work behind.”

A couple hours
into digging and I understood what he meant, and I wanted to shoot the guy came
up with six feet as the regulation depth of a grave. I worried we wouldn’t be
finished in time. Just one day to dig the hole. One day. One day before the
village carried his plywood coffin to the cemetery. Men stopped by to help.
Someone brought an old red Sears chainsaw that looked like it had been digging
graves since the day it left the store shelf. I thought about the irony of
digging the grave with a chainsaw when fifty miles of tundra stood between the
village and the nearest real tree. Why not use it to cut frozen dirt, why not
dig graves?

I thought the
men who came to help probably saw in my face that I needed to dig the grave by
myself. Robert wasn’t a relative, not even a distant uncle, but the old man was
special to me and somehow everyone seemed to understand this.

After a quick
demonstration without words, Robert’s brother handed me the rumbling saw. I
crawled back down into the hole and began gnawing away at the black earth. The
hungry saw sputtered and threw a fine dark mist of permafrost. I kept my eyes
fixed on the tip of the saw blade and worked it into the iceblock soil. I would
pull the blade and hungry chain out, and make another slice, until I could kick
with my boot and loosen a chunk of the frozen ground. Robert’s younger brothers
stood over me. They waited to relieve me. To grieve with me. Their shadows
crept into the grave. The lights from the small village houses turned the white
crosses in the cemetery into an army of straight soldiers, their dark arms held
out against the snow.

Over the whine
of the small saw’s engine, I felt the men grow restless. I sensed they no
longer wanted to help dig. They wanted the warm comfort of home. Perhaps it
wasn’t the icy burn of the wind getting to them, but the chill of standing
amongst the spirits of their ancestors. Still, they didn’t leave. They stood
guard, at the edge of the grave, watching this battle with the frozen earth.

My fingers and
toes had lost all feeling, and I could feel the frost cutting away at the tip
of my nose. I tried to think of Robert and find strength in his last breaths.
How the river ice must have just opened up and swallowed him, how he scrambled
from the swirling black water and pulled himself to shore, his clothing soaked.
I pictured the small patch of willows where he spent his final hours, minutes,
seconds, fighting for life, for warmth. I wondered why he didn’t just allow the
water to take him, why he put up such a struggle in the howling, burning, cold
winds when he didn’t have anyone left to live for.

When they found
his body, he was huddled beneath the willows. A small pile of dried yellow
grass and green twigs half-blackened, his lighter had almost managed to save
him. Almost. He hadn’t dug into a snowbank for warmth, knowing he was
already too wet. It was more important they find his body so that his spirit
could be properly cared for. So someone could dig him a grave. Perhaps he knew
it would be me.

At the sight of
Robert, I had collapsed to the snow and cried. Robert. Frozen in a ball, on his
side in the back of a long plywood sled, wrapped in a blue tarp. Forever
selfish, I thought nothing of anyone, except myself. My friend, my teacher. I
was alone again.

But in the
grave I was too busy working, thinking, and I didn’t hear the saw sputter out.
My mind still in the sled, wrapped in the blue tarp. I heard a voice, “No
more gas.”

I looked up and
saw the hand reaching towards me. Then lowered my eyes to the saw, dead. I
started to hand the saw up to Robert’s brother, but he reached for my free hand
and he began to pull me up and out of the grave.

good,” he said. “We’ll finish in the morning. Robert can wait another day, if
he needs to.”

I looked down at
my three sad feet of progress against the impossible permafrost. Pathetic. A
day of digging and no answers. My arms, legs, and back hurt, but I couldn’t

Don Rearden grew up on the tundra of Southwestern Alaska. His
experiences with the Yup’ik culture shaped both his writing and his worldview.
His critically acclaimed novel
The Raven’s
Gift was named a 2013 Notable Fiction selection by The Washington Post.
You can read a sample chapter or order
The Raven’s Gift here.
Don’s writing has been published internationally and he is also a produced
screenwriter and poet. His heart often draws his writing back to characters and
stories that originate on the tundra; in his fiction, he hopes to shed light on
the struggles of everyday life in rural Alaska. Rearden is an Associate
Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and president of the 49
This excerpt is from “Digging Robert’s Grave,” a fictional short story
of a young man dealing with the tragic death of a father figure. To read the
rest of the story, download the free Alaska Sampler.

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