They’re what have me out here, standing in the cold wind, shivering. The blue fingernails aren’t mine, but attached to somebody else—some dead guy I’ve never met before. The Christchurch sun that was burning my skin earlier this afternoon has gone. It’s the sort of inconsistent weather I’m used to. An hour ago I was sweating. An hour ago I wanted to take the day off and head down to the beach. Now I’m glad I didn’t. My own fingernails are probably turning blue, but I don’t dare look.
I’m here because of a dead guy. Not the one in the ground in front of me, but one still down at the morgue. He’s acting as casual as a guy can whose body has been snipped open and stitched back together like a rag doll. Casual for a guy who died from arsenic poisoning.
I tighten my coat, but it doesn’t help against the cold wind.
I should have worn more clothes. Should have looked at the bright sun an hour ago and figured where the day was heading.
The cemetery lawn is long in some places, especially around the trees where the lawn mower doesn’t hit, and it ripples out from me in all directions as though I’m the epicenter of a storm. In other places where foot traffic is heavy it’s short and brown where the sun has burned all the moisture away. The nearby trees are thick oaks that creak loudly and drop acorns around the gravestones. They hit the cement markers, sounding like bones of the dead tapping out an SOS. The air is cold and clammy like a morgue.
I see the first drops of rain on the windshield of the digger before I feel them on my face. I turn my eyes to the horizon where gravestones covered in mold roll into the distance toward the city, death tallying up and heading into town. The wind picks up, the leaves of the oaks rustle as the branches let go of more acorns, and I flinch as one hits me in the neck. I reach up and grab it from my collar.
The digger engine revs loudly as the driver, an overweight guy whose frame bulges at the door, moves into place. He looks about as excited to be here as I am. He is pushing and pulling at an assortment of levers, his face rigid with concentration. The engine hiccups as he positions the digger next to the gravesite, then shudders and strains as the scoop bites into the hardened earth. It changes position, coming up and under, and fills with dirt. The cabin rotates and the dirt is piled onto a nearby tarpaulin. The cemetery caretaker is watching closely. He’s a young guy struggling to light a cigarette against the strengthening wind, his hands shaking almost as much as his shoulders. The digger drops two more piles of dirt before the caretaker tucks the cigarettes back into his pocket, giving up. He gives me a look I can’t quite identify, probably because
he only manages to make eye contact for a split second before looking away. I’m hoping he doesn’t come over to complain about evicting somebody from their final resting place, but he doesn’t—just goes back to staring at the hollowed ground.
The vibrations of the digger force their way through my feet and into my body, making my legs tingle. The tree behind me can feel them too, because it fires more acorns into my neck. I step out of the shade and into the drizzle, nearly twisting my ankle on a few of the ropey roots from the oak that have pushed through the ground. There is a small lake only about fifteen meters away, about the size of an Olympic swimming pool. It’s completely enclosed by the cemetery grounds, fed by an underground stream. It makes this cemetery a popular spot for death, but not for recreation. Some of the gravesites are close to it, and I wonder if the coffins are affected by moisture. I hope we’re not about to dig up a box full of water.
The driver pauses to wipe his hand across his forehead, as if operating all of those levers is hot work in these cold conditions. His glove leaves a greasy mark on his skin. He looks out at the oak trees and areas of lush lawn, the still lake, and he’s probably planning on being buried out here one day. Everybody thinks that when they see this spot. Nice place to be buried. Nice and scenic. Restful. Like it makes a difference. Like you’re going to know if somebody comes along and chops down all the trees. Still, I guess if you have to be buried somewhere, this place beats out a lot of others I’ve seen.
A second flatbed truck sweeps its way between the gravestones. It has been pimped out with a wraparound red stripe and fluffy dice in the window, but it hasn’t been cleaned in months and the rust spots around the edges of the doors and bumper have been ignored. It pulls up next to the gravesite. A bald guy in gray overalls climbs out from behind the steering
wheel and tucks his hands into his pockets and watches the show. A younger guy climbs out the other side and starts playing with his cell phone. There isn’t much more they can do while the pile of dirt grows higher and higher. I can see the raindrops plinking into the lake, tiny droplets jumping toward the heavens. I make my way over to its edge. Anything is better than watching the digger doing its job. I can still feel the vibrations. Small pieces of dirt are rolling down the bank of the lake and splashing into the water. Flax bushes and ferns and a few poplar trees are scattered around the lakeside. Tall reeds stick up near the banks, reaching for the sky. Broken branches and leaves have become waterlogged and jammed against the bank.
I turn back to the digger when I hear the scoop scrape across the coffin lid. It sounds like fingers running down a blackboard, and it makes me shiver more than the cold. The caretaker is shaking pretty hard now. He looks cold and pissed off. Until the moment the digger arrived, I thought he was going to chain himself to the gravestone to prevent the uprooting of one of his tenants. He had plenty to say about the moral implications of what we were doing. He acted as though we were digging up the coffin to put him inside.
The digger operator and the two guys from the flatbed pull on face masks that cover their noses and mouths, then drop into the grave. The overweight guy from the digger moves with the ease of somebody who has rehearsed this moment over and over. All three disappear from view, as if they have found a hidden entrance into another world. They spend some time hunched down, apparently figuring out the mechanics to get the chain attached between the coffin and digger. When the chain is secure the driver climbs back into place and the others climb out of the grave. He wipes his forehead again. Raising the dead is sweaty work.
The engine lurches as it takes the weight of the coffin. The flatbed truck starts up and backs a little closer. With the two machines violently shuddering, more dirt spills from the bank and slides into the water.
About five meters out into the lake, I see some bubbles rising to the surface, then a patch of mud. But there is something else there too. Something dark that looks like an oil patch.
There is a thud as the coffin is lowered onto the back of the truck. The springs grind downward from the weight. I can hear the three men talking quickly among themselves, having to nearly shout to be heard over the engines. The rain is getting heavier. The dark patch rising beneath the water breaks the surface. It looks like a giant black balloon. I’ve seen these giant black balloons before. You hope they’re one thing, but they’re always another.
“Hey, buddy, you might want to take a look at this,” one of the men calls out.
But I’m too busy looking at something else.
“Hey? You listening?” The voice is closer now. “We’ve got something here you need to look at.”
I glance up at the digger operator as he walks over to me. The caretaker is starting to walk over too. Both men look into the water and say nothing.
The black bubble isn’t really a bubble, but the back of a jacket. It hangs in the water, and connected to it is a soccer ball–sized object. It has hair. And before I can answer, another shape bubbles to the surface, and then another, as the lake releases its hold on the past.