FINAL RESPECTS
Peggy Insula

Sarah threw a handful of dirt onto the plain wooden box.

Heads down, hands in coat pockets, a sparse gathering of mourners, better described as obligated attendees, shifted from foot to foot and hovered around the open grave as the weak light of late afternoon gave way to twilight.

Apart from this small gathering, the drab cemetery, clinging to a remote hillside and surrounded on three sides by sighing pine forest, lay deserted by the living. Weeds and uncut grass shivered in the chill winds that caressed forgotten graves. Aged tombstones, streaked by rust-colored water stains, leaned and crumbled at their edges. Gray-green moss dotted the monuments as if sponge-painted here and there.

Sarah stood by the grave, her posture as rigid and motionless as the tombstones surrounding her. One by one, attendees paid their respects to her and escaped to cars lining the dirt track at the base of the cemetery’s slope. They didn’t look back. Even the two hovering grave diggers, after leaning on their shovels and waiting for several minutes while Sarah stared into the grave without moving, tipped their caps and murmured that they would come back at first light.

At last, Sarah stood alone at the edge of the grave in the moaning wind. For a while, she continued to stare into the open sore in the earth. She breathed in the pine-scented air tainted by a pungent essence of dirt and decay. She did not cry.

The flimsy wood of the box was all that separated Sarah from the corpse, who, by his own request, was buried by sundown, interred with neither coffin nor embalming. Sarah snorted. Maybe his only virtue had been a hazy sense of respect for the environment. Or had he only been a cheapskate right up to the end, even when it came to his own final resting arrangements?

She kicked a little sandy soil into the grave. At least his wooden crate gave her the opportunity she needed. She took off her coat, draped it over a nearby tombstone, and surveyed the road and the empty cemetery to assure herself that she was alone with the dead. Pine boughs nodded and swayed. The gusty wind still complained. Grass and weeds bent lower to the ground with the sputtering gasps of cold air. Clouds passed in fits and starts in front of the setting sun and cast fleeting shadows across the open pit. But apart from vague, animal stirrings in the forest, no other living being was evident at this forsaken site.

Sarah took a deep breath and eased herself on top of the wooden box. The rough, uneven planks creaked and bent under her weight. Without a moment’s hesitation, she leapt up and down on the box with unrestrained fury. The loud thudding of her boots rang in her ears and rolled off into the forest. As she jumped, she imagined that she stomped the cold, unresponsive—cold and unresponsive? Ha, that was nothing new—man inside.

“Oh, no, you don’t!” she screamed, startling night birds out of their roosts in a flurry of flapping wings. “No resting in peace for you. I’m not through talking to you. All our life together, I’ve ached, I’ve pleaded with God, for you to shut your mouth and listen for a change.” She leapt higher, pausing only to stomp where the dry boards showed signs of cracking. Exhausted at last and breathing heavily, she lowered herself into the pit in the narrow space beside the box. Clawing at the cracks in the boards with her bare hands until each of her fingers throbbed with pain and dripped with blood, she pulled back the splintered wood bit by bit to expose Mark’s silent, gray face, handsome even in death.

Edging around the box between wood and the crumbling dirt sides of the grave, she yanked back and broke boards smeared with her own blood to uncover Mark’s shoulders. Dirt slid down into the pit and covered her feet. After shaking off her boots, she laid her head on her arms on top of the crude box and rested.

Having caught her breath, she straightened her back, pushed herself up on top of the boards still covering Mark’s torso, and knelt facing him.

She spat in his face.

A great gob of spittle struck between the corpse’s eyes and rolled down his finely chiseled nose. He didn’t flinch or change his expression.

Sarah smiled. At last she had his full attention. “Do you have any idea of the harm your womanizing and drinking have done to our children? Well, that’s over.” She slapped his cold, hard face. “If you wanted to live like a single man, you should’ve had the balls to divorce me.”

She grabbed his shoulders and shook him. His stiff head bobbed up and down with his stiff shoulders.

“Stiff, stiff, stiff!” Sarah threw back her head and shrieked to the shadows. “At last you’re well and truly dead!” She filled the cemetery with her wild, abandoned laughter. Then, gritting her teeth, she straddled the box, raised Mark’s torso as far as she could, and slammed it back onto the hard bottom of the box. “I only wish that I could hurt you like you hurt us. Now, burn in Hell.”

The hoot of an owl close overhead startled her. In the fading light, the predator cast a black shadow over the dead man’s frozen face.

Dark was falling fast now. Sarah stood above the husband she’d poisoned without detection and gave him a parting stomp to his face. Then, stepping onto the grass beside the pit, she tossed handful after handful of blood-tinged dirt onto the eerie, moon-whitened face until earth covered it. On and on Sarah worked in the dark like a robot until a layer of dirt covered the entire top of the battered box.

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When the two gravediggers returned the following morning to fill in the grave, they were pleased to find their work partially done for them.