Ephraim didn’t find out his dearly loved wife, Lola, had been hiding something from him until she was cold and dead. What he found out nearly undid him.
Ephriam and Lola cleaved to each other for over fifty years. Many of these years they shared in quiet affection, working their homestead farm on the distant world Athena. When Lola died, Ephraim set to the labor of grieving as he had always done. For every difficulty, he found work for his hands. Now while digging her grave, Ephraim learns that there had been one part of her which Lola had kept to herself, and learning this, he is forced to reexamine his own judgments and prejudices.
He Dug the Grave Himself
Ephraim chose the spot with care—the low spot down near the pond. The spot where the tree came and sat every evening, soaking in the last westerning rays of Athena’s star. The ground was soft there, tilled regularly by the probing roots. Ephraim knew that if he put her body there, the tree would linger, covering her, absorbing her, soaking in her nutrients until she became part of it, and so, to Ephraim’s desperate grieving mind, Lola would live on with him. He would see her any time he wanted. He could think of no tribute more fitting to give the woman who had been the light in his darkness. Besides, Lola had enjoyed the spot, near the Earth cattails they had planted and the bench he had built her when they first arrived on their frontier homestead.
Ephraim turned the earth with the spade he had taken from the barn at the edge of their tree pasture. Tonight, he had penned up the trees before he came. He didn’t want them to disturb his work. He would let them out to pasture when he had finished. The rhythm of the work felt good. It focused his mind. It forced his body to take action.
Actions… deeds and few words. These were the gifts he had given to his wife over the course of their marriage. These things had caused her to cleave to him, to become bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. For all her light and hope, Lola always had a hard time preventing her mercurial passions from overwhelming her. Ephraim had been her rock, her stability, her “Steady Eddy” as she called him.
She, on the other hand, had been his guiding light, his pixie, his joy. She had brought life and exuberance into his darkness and taught him to smile—to play. Now the light was gone, and as he dug, Ephraim knew he was burying his soul.
He looked up to see Pallas, the maiden eater, crossing the star-filled sky. The smallest of Athena’s moons, Pallas was the young one, the violent one. Her peaceful surface and beauty hid a molten core which sometimes escaped and ran like blood over her surface, but not tonight. Tonight Pallas honored his wife with silence, it’s smooth surface gray, like freshly cut slate.
Lola had loved Pallas. There had been a time maybe ten years before when a great eruption tore at her. Pallas had vomited out her insides so hard, they had spewed into space. On Athena, the little bits of moon guts created the most spectacular light show. Little particles of Pallas burned up in the protective blanket of Athena’s atmosphere. Lola had been entranced. In the middle of the night, she had gently woken Ephraim as he slumbered in their bed.
“Get up, Ephraim,” she whispered in his ear, allowing her lips to just tickle his skin.
Ephraim opened his eyes and felt the swell of Lola’s breasts brush lightly against him, her protruding nipples hard and covered only in something gauzy and thin. He said nothing, allowing her to reach across him and pull him from the bed by his hand, just enjoying the feel of her body draped over him. He smiled as he felt his penis stir—an occurrence which age had robbed of its frequency, but hadn’t yet fully smothered. He followed her through the house, led by the glow of a woman who shone bright with the wonder of a universe re-discovered once again, a woman enraptured by its holy beauty. They sat together on the broken down steps of their front porch and looked upward, Lola in front, leaning back into him.
Ephraim wrapped his arms around the thin gauze of her nightdress. At one time, her breasts had been firm and hard. Now in their old age, they drooped more, and there were wrinkles, but they still responded to his touch, and he still loved to feel their fullness in his hands. Lola’s breath caught a little.
They made love then, on the ground near their broken steps. Lola rode on top of him, orgasming with a depth and ease that came from nearly fifty years of intimacy. She cried out. Buried in pleasure, Ephriam looked up to see his angel on top of him, naked in the wilderness, moaning, crowned with a blood red moon, and bathed in the light of its shooting stars.
Ephraim put down his spade. He sat on the ground and wrapped his wrinkled hands around his knees. Sobs, unbidden and unwanted, wracked his body as he wailed. Why was it that everything reminded him of Lola? Why couldn’t he be left alone in peace to carry on as best he could in the barren wasteland left to him?
Head buried in his hands, Ephraim heard the crunch on the ground before he saw the approaching stranger. The Timcree came and sat a respectable distance away. Ephraim felt his gall rise in his chest. He didn’t want anyone around right now, least of all them.
The excrement left over from vile genetic experiments centuries before, Timcrees had a bad name in the settler community. They weren’t really human any more—at least to Ephraim they weren’t. It wasn’t so with Lola, and remembering this, Ephraim kept silent.
He picked up his spade again.
It took a few minutes before Ephraim’s head cleared enough to wonder how the Timcree had known to come. It took a few more stabs at the fertile earth before he realized it must have been Ted. Ted owned a trading post down the road, a place he and Lola used to go to get the few things they couldn’t go without. News traveled fast when it got to Ted’s. Ephraim had no doubt that the whole frontier community knew about Lola’s death now.
The Timcree came there sometimes, when they had need. Ted seemed indifferent. “Money is money” he used to say when one of the frontiersmen complained about the Timcree in his store.
However the Timcree found out, there were soon more of them sitting on the ground together at a respectful distance—women and children along with the men. None of the frontier community came. They left him alone to gnaw on the bitter nubs of his grief.
And still the Timcree came. There must have been a hundred of them there now, all sitting in silence while he worked.
Ephraim had a hard time not cringing as he looked at the bulbous faces and malformed limbs out of the corner of his eye. He wondered why none of them offered to help an old man dig his wife’s grave.
Lola never seemed to notice their ugliness. As the local midwife, she had served the Timcree women just as she had served the frontier women. Every time a safe delivery brought a new child into the world, she would come home all aglow, content with her place in the universe. It didn’t matter to her that one child entered the world looking healthy and pink while another looked ashen and malformed like a gorgon. Each birth was to her sacred, an act of worship. Ephraim envied the sense of purpose Lola found in her work.
Finally, Ephraim couldn’t help himself. Looking at the young man who had appeared first, he asked, “Why? Why won’t any of you help an old man dig a grave?”
The young Timcree looked up, surprised by the question. “In our community, it is not our way to interfere with the work of grief. It is the right of the one who has lost the most. It isn’t this way in your community?”
Ephraim thought about all the frontier families whose children had arrived in the world through the work of his wife and how they were absent. He looked at the ground and spoke his reply more than half to himself. “I guess it is that way. We just don’t stare at the grieving man.” He turned away and continued to dig.
When he finished, Ephraim went to the house. He lingered a moment or two, hoping the Timcree would leave, knowing they would not. He went back to their bedroom where the naked body of his wife lay. He had planned to bury her that way because he didn’t dare do anything which would cause the tree to reject her, and he worried that the tree might not accept her synthetic clothing.
He cringed now, feeling the indecency of taking her out that way before a whole group of strangers, and Timcree at that. Then his will hardened. Let them stare. Let them see her as she was to him. If they came to grieve one they barely knew, let them see her as he who knew her best saw her. Ephraim picked up his wife and held her in his arms for the last time. Her head flopped back and her arm slung down. She didn’t cling to him and giggle as she should have—as she had in the past. Something about that moment brought the truth washing over him again; his wife was good and truly dead. As he walked down the hill from their home, struggling in his old age with even her featherweight body, Ephraim wept openly. When they saw her coming, naked as God made her, many of the Timcree wept with him.
Ephraim laid her in the earth. He turned, filled the shovel with dirt, looked back at his wife, and fell apart. He sank to the ground all over again. He couldn’t bury her. He couldn’t do it. For a second, he pictured throwing himself into the grave on top of her, but that wasn’t his way. It’s what Lola would have done if he had died first… or at least, it’s what he imagined she might have done.
Ephraim heard the sound of the spade. He looked up in time to see the young Timcree drop a shovel of dirt into the shallow grave.
“Lola became my grandmother when she hid me from the settlers in the cave. She made me tea.”
The words so shocked Ephraim, he momentarily forgot his sorrow. When had Lola hid the Timcree? he thought.
Another Timcree took the shovel. “The settlers came and burned my home, and I was not there because Lola hid me.”
And so it went shovel after shovel.
Ephraim felt as if his world turned a little more inside out with each shovel. Things made sense to him which had confused him greatly at the time. A few years ago, there had been trouble between the Timcree and the frontier families. A young girl got pregnant, and at the time, she claimed it had been a Timcree. When the baby arrived, she had taken it back, but not before mobs of frontiersman had burned three camps, killing eight.
Ephraim had been no Timcree supporter. They were thieves, mostly, and filthy. Just looking at them, he was inclined to believe the stories about child kidnapping, but he had stayed out of the way when the cleansers came through. Ephraim was no thug, but neither had he lifted a finger to help the Timcree escape. Apparently, his wife hadn’t felt the same.
This new piece of the Lola he thought he knew so well reared up from the grave, almost as if her corpse had sat up. Ephraim wondered what other pieces of his wife had been hidden from him. What else had she done in secret, fearing his interference and disapproval? This thought plagued him. Never before had he felt like there had been something hidden between them. Their relationship had been built on trust. They had shared everything, or so Ephraim had thought.
As Timcree after Timcree came forward, making statement after statement, Ephraim felt more and more a stranger from Lola. Under normal circumstances, when something like this happened, he would have just gone forward with his life, chewing on the new information, unwrapping it slowly as he went about his daily chores, but here at Lola’s grave, Ephraim felt compelled to confront this revelation—to contemplate without work for his hands. Fighting against the great weight of his own complacency, he forced himself to see that the one piece of Lola which he had not fully embraced had been her compassion. Until that moment, he had always mistaken it for another of her unruled passions—a river overflowing its banks. Now, he was no longer sure.
The morning she passed, she dictated a list of her things she wanted given to various people in the surrounding area—a comb here, a tablet there, each gift carefully chosen for its new owner. Ephraim had a stack of things sitting in his home waiting for distribution. He had figured to do the job over the next few days. He didn’t want it to linger. Now he saw that even in this she had hidden from him. Nothing in the pile had been designated for a Timcree. There was no memento to honor her relationship to them. Why? Because she knew that I wouldn’t have approved. I wouldn’t have delivered the gifts.
This thought nearly undid him. She had hidden from him something of herself because she felt his compassion to be less than hers, that he was not equal to the task. Ephraim knew he didn’t want this to stand between them. Especially as her body disappeared into the cold grave, he wanted to know that he had loved his wife, and that she hadn’t needed to fear his disapproval or see him as weak.
Ephraim stood up. He walked back to his home, while the Timcree continued to bury his wife. He walked to their closet. He looked at her clothing and then his own. There wasn’t much there. Neither of them had been anything more than practical when it came to clothes. Ephraim gathered the whole lot into his arms—hers and his mingled together, saving only a few precious things for himself.
The pile wasn’t nearly enough for all those who honored his dead. Their need was much greater, but the Timcree were a people of symbols and gestures. He hoped Lola— wherever she was—would understand this one. He came back to the Timcree. Looking at them all, he said quietly, “My wife and I wanted you to have these things.”