Issue > Fiction
Stephen Mannion

Stephen Mannion

Stephen Mannion lives and writes in New York State. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Boise Weekly, 34th Parallel, The South Dakota Review, The Blue Lake Review and elsewhere. He is 23 years old.

A Burial

He pulled the car up onto the grass as close to the woods as he could. He brought Sheryl and the lantern first. He dragged her for ten minutes through the woods. When he got there he set the lantern down and lit it. He stepped back. He turned it down. He started to walk away, turned back, turned it up, walked away. Better to risk a light in an empty wood than lose a body out here.

Next he brought the shovel. He left the limestone fertilizer for last because it was heavy, and he was tired from dragging Sheryl. He got to the lantern more quickly with the shovel, though he walked slowly until he could see its light.

Last he went back for the limestone, sweating as he carried two forty-pound bags at once. He cursed under his breath. He had to stop frequently. The limestone was harder to bring than Sheryl, because he couldn't drag it, or the bags would rip. Instead he leaned backwards to balance the weight, straining his middle-aged spine. He rested the bag as best he could on his chest, over his moderate girth.

He would've breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the light again if the bags had not been so heavy against his chest. He pressed on, murmuring self-assurance under his breath. Give Sheryl her burial. I'll do it in no time and then get out of here. But still he had to take a break, stacking his two bags and sitting down on them heavily. Looking into the woods at his lantern's glow it seemed, somehow, as though he had placed it in the blackest part of the woods. His lantern cast a circle of light within an area of utter darkness, surrounded by the lesser pitch of the outer dark. For a wild moment Caleb's heart jumped, again, thinking that morning was nearing in this outer dark. But no, it was too early yet, it was just the utter dark that made the rest of the night hint at daybreak by comparison. Caleb regathered his limestone and hoisted it to his chest. He pushed on again through the woods.

As he got close enough to see the light grow bigger with each minute, he began to close his eyes for twenty, thirty seconds at a time, re-opening them to himself closer.

Caleb opened his eyes to light. A wolf stood over Sheryl.

Caleb stood still. The wolf was standing with its front legs on opposite sides of Sheryl's head. Its snout was tipped in speckles of blood. It had been nuzzling the gash in Sheryl's head. It didn't seem to have been eating her—eating her body. Caleb shuddered. It seemed a monstrous concept. Inhuman.

The wolf was doing neither, now, nuzzling or eating. Instead it stood, not even quivering, staring into Caleb's dark eyes. Caleb wanted to remain still but he could feel his arms shaking. Not from fear. Caleb was not afraid of the wolf. He had to bury Sheryl. His only concern was that this animal might violate her in some way. That would leave a mess, here, where he wanted none.

His arms shook under the weight of the limestone. He thought about kneeling down to deliver them to the ground slowly, gently, quietly—but then he thought of the effect this would have on the animal. Was it wolves that cared about status—would it charge? Weren't there fake charges? No, of course not, stupid—that was bears—but still, it would be better not to lower himself. To not invite subjugation.

So he would drop them—but no, no, wolves were more scared of us than we are of them—no, that was snakes. No, spiders. But stupid to make a loud noise. He would kneel after all.

Slowly he dropped his right knee. He lowered the bags until his knuckles scraped the soil and then pushed them forward, onto the ground. He rose, slowly, but less slowly than he had gone down.

The pistol in the car—he'd forgotten. Of course he'd meant to bring it out with him. But maybe the wolf would leave on its own.

It didn't. For a half-hour Caleb and the wolf locked eyes, neither moving. Absurd, in a staring contest with this thing, this wild animal. He wondered why it did not growl.

The wolf watched him with the undirected passion of a daring but stupid animal. It had dark eyes. Caleb began to feel ill. It would not get away from Sheryl.

He decided to get the pistol. It could not do much damage to Sheryl in the time it would take him to get to the car and back—and what it did do, it would pay for. If it touched her.

Caleb took a step back with his right foot. He felt as though the wolf's eyes had snapped suddenly to his, though he knew its gaze must've been unbroken while he himself looked away and back. He took another step.

One after another he took backwards steps, retreating front-facing and watching the wolf and lantern and Sheryl grow smaller and barred across vertical by silhouetted trees. He kept his arms extended behind his back, outstretched and feeling for obstacles.

After a few minutes of this, no longer able to see the wolf, he turned and walked forward out of the woods. He paused frequently to listen but he could not hear the wolf pursuing him. He had not seen it move as he had backed away.

When he reached the car he walked around it one full time and looked out across the clearing. He worried it was getting lighter. He opened the passenger side door and slipped his hand under the seat. He rooted around and removed the pistol taped underneath. He flipped the safety off and started into the woods again.

He walked more slowly, even, than he had bringing Sheryl or the limestone. He paused every twenty or thirty seconds, listening for the wolf.

The lantern's glow came into sight in the utter dark and grew slowly, intolerably. He did not shut his eyes this time. Twenty yards out he moved past a tree and could see the wolf, unmoved.

Caleb advanced to the spot on which he had first opened his eyes to the light and the wolf. The pistol glinted in the lantern light, but the wolf's gaze did not break from his own. He paused for a moment and watched the wolf stay still.

He was about ten feet from the beast. It still stood over her. Caleb took one step forward and then paused again. The wolf did not move.

Slowly, deliberately, Caleb took another step, slightly larger. he stopped again. He was seven feet from it. The wolf's eyes blazed obsidian.

Caleb counted off a full minute in his head before resolving to take another step. He counted off another two, then took it. Five feet away. He didn't count the pause after this step, but it was long.

Another step. Three feet. Caleb raised the pistol, right-handed, right foot forward. His arm extended at a forty-five degree angle from his torso. Still he did not break his eyes from the wolf's. Their gazes ran the length up and down his arm and the barrel of the pistol. The bored hole of the gun must have looked like a third eye to the wolf.

Caleb looked away from it.

He heard the wolf emit a low, gravelly growl. Caleb shot it dead.

The bullet punched a hole in the crown of the wolf's skull, just over the eyes, and crumpled it around the eye sockets, caving it in. The animal collapsed so quickly that the muted thud it made hitting the ground came between the brief, stunning report of the shot and its echo. Brilliant, viscous blood flowed dully over now-matted fur, to each side of its snout out from the destroyed crown.

Caleb cursed quietly and held his arm, aching. He should have held the gun with both hands. He paced in a small circle in the tiny clearing, eyes peering wildly, kaleidoscopically, into the woods about him. He stopped and crouched staring at the soil. He stood up, breathed deeply. He picked up the shovel and began to dig.

The ground was harder than he had expected. He constantly encountered the root structure of the nearby trees. He hacked at them sideways with his shovel. He wished he had brought clippers, or an ax. Eventually he tried to work around them, removing the dirt and leaving the roots protruding from the irregular sides of his hole like claws.

Gaining depth, his hole-bottom felt moist and warmer than the outer night. The crisp crust of the surface dirt, pine-needly and dead-leafy, had given way to a damp clumpy soil that coated his shovel-head. He covered the bottom with a quarter of one of the limestone bags.

Caleb took Sheryl under her arms and cradled her over to the hole. He rolled her onto her back next to the hole, so that when he rolled her in she would be face-up. He pushed her in and she crashed down through the outstretched roots.

For the first time, Caleb looked at the corpse. The head of the animal was almost unidentifiable. The legs protruded from under its body at odd angles, vestigial of its rapid collapse. Caleb swallowed and walked to it. He bent over.

You fucker, he said.

With one hand he grabbed one of the creature's front legs and with his other he took both of its hind legs in a firm grip. He began to drag it across the dirt. As he dragged it, he left chunks of its broken skull and face behind. You deserve this, he said to it as he pulled. You deserved what you got, you fucker, you slut, you—little shit—He stopped talking.

He pulled it to the edge and pushed it into the hole with his foot. It flopped grotesquely onto Sheryl's legs. Caleb winced.

Caleb picked up the open bag of limestone and sprinkled more of it onto Sheryl. He coated her body well but could not bring himself to pour it more thickly on her face. He left her face sprinkled with the powder. The second bag he dumped wholesale onto the wolf. It mounded onto the twisted form and ran in rivulets down the fur and skin. He covered the fractured head of the beast completely. He threw the empty bag in on top of the wolf and limestone.

He turned around and picked over the ground for the pieces of the wolf's head. He tried not to inhale as he held them in his left hand. With his right he picked each shred off the ground and deposited it in his left. Then he tossed them into the hole and shook his hands over it limpwristed as it he were trying to dry them in a public restroom.

Caleb picked up his shovel again and began to refill the hole. The protruding roots broke the fall of the dirt and shattered the larger clods. It rained dirt on Sheryl's face. Caleb tried to look her in the eyes. But he had to turn away.

He filled in the hole more quickly than he had dug it. When he had finished, he paced around the clearing. He looked in the lantern light for evidence he had missed. He looked it over a few times and then he picked up the lantern and left.

Caleb picked his way back through the forest. He stopped several times with the wild urge to run back and dig up Sheryl and put her in a different grave. When he got back to the car the sun was up and it was light.

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