Sky Burial

Ran his fingers through his hair he had just shaved real close. Fingers pricked over stubble and the boy felt like a monk.

His left hand remained on the wheel, held low, below the level of the dash. Repeated running his hand over what was left of his light-blonde hair as though he might want to bring it back and then placed his right hand back on the wheel as he took a curve. The road had devolved from paved to graveled to dirt and his wheels dug tracks in the red dirt in those parts which were bare and over fallen and decaying leaves in those parts were wooded.

Was grateful for the dry weather. Was like God giving his blessing for the task at hand and so far he could tell was only trying to do what was difficult and rightful.  

Windows were rolled down and the outside air was unseasonable, uncomfortable warm and soggy humid, fighting with the air-conditioning even with it at full blast. Course, could’ve rolled his windows up and only been with the air-conditioning and the dying dog in the crate but that would’ve been another worser way of being uncomfortable.

The curve straightened out and the wheels found a rut and the truck was directed forward, truck which wasn’t new but wasn’t so old as to be unpresentable. Was a good solid American truck and was paid for indirectly by the US Army how a paycheck derives first from the employer writing the check or the big tabulating machines which ran the checks off how everything was going automated and those checks were spent by the recipients on the necessities and luxuries of life. Trees on either side of the road had grown tall and their limbs had spread, and those branches formed an archway over the road, and so he drove his truck which was a respectable vehicle for a boy making his way in the world directed by dark brown ruts under the yellowing-leafed archway.

Caught the dog-crate in his rearview beneath the gun rack and the rifle in that rack. Over the blasting sound of the air-conditioning and over the dimmed sound of the inrushing air, had to slow down in the road, the ruts had slowed the truck down, boy heard his dead daddy’s dog whimper. Sound couldn’t have been so loud considering the shape the dog was in.

Boy looked at himself in the mirror to look at something else. Was a dirty ring around his neck the color of sorghum. Undid the buttons of his collar going far enough down to open his shirt to the breast. Had sweat underneath the armpits. Jeans were riding up, pinching, but he had expended what spare energy he had opening his shirt and left them to pinch.

Had been sure he would recognize that field when he came upon it even if he never had known the address. His daddy’d used to lease it. Lease had expired before his daddy did. Dog had liked the field, daddy took the dog oftener and longer than he had him. Dog had been his daddy’s. Boy had heard dogs sometimes liable not to make it much longer than their owner, at least, the kind of dog was attached its owner and didn’t see fit to pine for him and just went ahead and decided would up and join them.

Suppose this dog was in the middle of those kinds of dogs. Was still breathing like a dying organ. Couldn’t say dog could do much more than that but had a persistence like it was trying to push all the air out of its lungs and only kept breathing more air in without meaning to and having to prolong the process of dying.

Hadn’t been driving himself last time had been to where he was trying to drive his truck and his daddy’s dog. Course, couldn’t bring his daddy with him now and daddy hadn’t left directions behind written somewhere they could be found. To be fair, not that he was expecting any kind of a writing any more than he would have expected anything from his daddy even last words.

If the county sheriff hadn’t made a call to the base would not have known his daddy was dead. Had been plenty of delay, not a soul other than the dog had been with his daddy except maybe the spirits of the already dead if those saw fit to hang around after they was gone and boy couldn’t see much point in that. Hardly would have been much to see except a dead man rotting and his dog making a mess in the house. Might have been something to cogitate on, a man dying and still sitting in his chair while there got to be less and less of him and what was still there was putrid and corrupt, but that wouldn’t seem like it could be much interest to folks was already dead.

Maybe of interest for the living.

Was the kind of consideration like his former girlfriend had told him happened in places weren’t America. That girl was a stripper turned hippie reverted back to being a stripper and hadn’t been as much fun at any of those periods as he had expected her to be. She had tried reading some and mostly didn’t finish the books except the dirty ones and he had ended up finishing some of the ones she had left open and the dirty ones too because hell he was a man weren’t he. She told him about that kind of consideration one night after they had taken blotter-acid because she was a hippie then and had said all the hippies in San Francisco took it and it made sex something else and maybe it was true about the hippies taking it but he hadn’t found it true about sex at all.

Instead, had tripped and walked across rolling green fields like a grassy sea and knew in himself like it was rushing through his blood that he was a long-time ago in Ireland before the English came, and this was strange because he was Scots Irish which meant he came with the English and besides he hadn’t been alive anyway would’ve been his ancestors were as dead as his daddy even if they had been dead longer. But had felt peaceable, perfectly peaceable, and like all things were good even if that country was going to get occupied and blighted because there was that grassy sea that was perfect and green and curved past the blue horizon line and having existed once would always exist in eternity.

Girl had told him when he was back from the green fields and still plenty high and not able to do much when it came to sex there was something monks in Tibet did before Tibet was Red Chinese. That when a monk died the other monks took the dead one to a butcher and the butcher dismembered the dead monk into easy to carry pieces. The monks carted those pieces of him to a hill and spread him out. Then they up and sat and watched while the pieces was eaten by buzzards and other carrion-eating birds. Spent the time they spent watching thinking over life and how life didn’t last.  

Girl who was a hippie then and trying to read even if it went against her nature said they called it a sky burial.

He’d asked why she told him that and she said it was because she wanted to freak him out and he said it hadn’t freaked him out because it was beautiful and she got real quiet and didn’t suggest doing acid after that.   

Later on after he told her he was going career she’d gone on a tear about his having voluntarily made himself an instrument of the war and was bad enough he hadn’t burnt his draft card and now he was committing himself willfully. She had called him the universal soldier, which was the title of a peacenik song with a spitting on the troops quality to it, and he had called her plenty more things and that had been the end of their relationship not that he regretted the ending. Had swore off hippies and strippers and not kept his promise to himself.

Still read the books she’d left behind, she had taken the dirty ones with her but hadn’t missed them too much and there was always the opportunity score a Tijuana Bible but hadn’t seen any other copies of the Mahabharata around the base. 

Hit a rut and didn’t hurt the suspension none, truck could handle plenty, but upset the crate and was a cruelty to the dog to keep on driving until could find the old lease. Hadn’t been that field so long, even before falling out with his daddy so they didn’t speak none his daddy had started going on his own with the dog, and that didn’t help the boy’s sense of time and distance how not knowing where you are going makes the journey longer.

And was cruel to daddy’s dog having to drag out its waiting. Boy had to do his own waiting but oughtn’t put that waiting on the dog.

There was a stretch of good shoulder on the road adjacent to a low fence. Kind of fence was put up more to mark property than to ward off trespassers, didn’t have no wire on it. Boy pulled his truck off there.

Beyond the fence was a field he didn’t recognize but would serve even if it did have weed grass at the fence as tall as his knee. Read in one of those books his girl left behind were monks went to places that were run down and degenerate to meditate on life and this might’ve been one such place.

Kept the keys in the ignition and the engine and air conditioner running. Rolled the windows up to keep the cool air inside the truck. Stepped out of the truck and boots were reddened and the spit shine was ruined in the dust. Was a moment of doubt standing there with the door open and the low fence in front of him and gathered himself and muttered under his breath and shut the door behind him and he was committed as though he had made a contract with God instead of only telling himself this was what he ought to do even if his daddy had been a bastard and there was more than one way to bury him and this was one of those ways because the county had buried him another way and denied him the burial.

Made sure his jeans were tucked into his boots and his shirt tucked into his jeans and closed his shirt up to the neck. All was a way to prevent ticks from jumping or climbing from that high weed grass onto him. Exercise also burnt up a little time and that wasn’t something he was averse to even if he was committed because hell he was only a man, weren’t he.

Stepped out to that fence and could tell the field beyond had been cleared out at some point with no trees or stumps across an acre was bounded on three sides by trees ridden with kudzu and the fourth by that fence.

Hitched a leg over followed by the other and he was on the other side of the fence in the field. Was a low hill a short distance into the field and the grass was not growing so high on it. Hill was rounded and reminded him of a burial mound like the Indians used to make and where he supposed some are buried. From the top could see over the trees towards more trees and the line of the horizon. The stretch of kudzu ended before reaching the horizon and at least some trees were free of that weed even if they were still as doomed to death as every other living thing. Was a hawk circling over something which was either already dead or would be after the hawk swooped down on it.

Supposed was the nature of things how life was suffering.  

But, even in suffering, there was something to be said for the act of living and here was one of those acts of living which was doing right by his daddy even if his daddy had been a bastard and his dog which hadn’t done nothing wrong except love a bastard longer than his son had.

The weed grass wasn’t the soft green of Ireland back sometime when somebody’s ancestors was living there and might be still there, boy had never been to Ireland and so couldn’t say. Might also could have had the right field and where he was now situated would have to be lying to himself to claim this was his daddy’s lease but would have to be of service how the imperfect is always the servant of the perfect.  

Made his way down the field and felt the ground curving under him like the lines in grammar school that could go on forever past the end of the page rising endlessly by slow degrees and the rest of the field was like the first part of those graphs, the long part of the line that hardly rises at all and he reached his truck at the point where everything was zero which was the center.

Back door of the truck opened by a handle which could only be gripped when the front door was open and so he would have to open both doors. After opening the front he leaned in and turned the key in the ignition. Weren’t going to need the air anymore. Only then he took the needful next motion and opened the back door and was looking through the grate of the dog-crate.

Daddy’s dog was still breathing and body was rising and falling shallowly and in widely spaced intervals. It was a black lab though its coat had turned closer to grey and its coat was matted where the dog had been biting and pawing at himself. That activity must have used up what energy dog had left.

Opened the mesh and dog didn’t respond, not that he expected him to. Considered carrying only the crate but it had been spoilt by urine. Smell mixed with gun oil. Boy’d had to clean the rifle and had then put the dog into the crate with the oil still on his hands and so there was oil on the dog’s matted fur. Had cleaned his hands after but not considered that here-now the smell would be stronger.

Reached in and took his daddy’s dog in his arms.  

Felt the dog’s pulse because of how little there was left. Boy held the dog close to his chest, head lolled over the boy’s arm as though dog’s neck were broken. Propped his head onto his arm. Smell soaked into its coat was ammoniac.

Boy’d hoped to make only one trip but the dog was too heavy and too awkward to hold in only one arm and so he would have to leave the rifle on the rack. Left the doors open because whether they were open or closed didn’t seem consequential.

Had a great fear of dropping his daddy’s dog like doing so would not only be cruel to the animal but sacrilegious like interrupting a church funeral. Hitched over the fence and while raising his second leg was conscious of being off-balance, of the nearness of falling. Had the thought those same monks went to bad places to meditate operated on the principle what might save you will probably kill you. Fear of falling like his soul responding to that fearsome insight.

Placed his daddy’s dog at the crest of the hill and dog was uncomplaining because he was unmindful which might be a kind of perfect acceptance achieved through negative ends. 

Went back for the rifle and gripped it with both hands and lifted it from the rack. Admired the smoothness of the barrel and maybe that girl had been right about something else because he had in his hand an excellent machine that was excellent because it was suited to its task and that task being hard was no mark against the instrument. Might have been the universal soldier because he was either born or conditioned to admire such quality and preferred to believe his soul had been born to it. Some of those monks talked like that too, that a man might be saved by becoming aligned with the action that suited his own soul and he had never regretted going career.    

Chambered a round and put a spare in his pocket from the box of ammunition in the glove compartment. More to assure himself he was pragmatic and prepared for an unlikely eventuality even if he was committing himself to something strange and thinking about monks from places he weren’t from and he’d only heard of because he’d thought that girl looked damned fine on stage.

His daddy’s dog hadn’t died in the meantime which would have been gentler but then life and necessity are rarely gentle.           

Said an improvised memorial over the dog that he wouldn’t have said if he thought folks could hear it. That his daddy might have been a bastard but had loved his dog and his dog had loved him because the dog didn’t know no better and so they might least be together now even if they was going to be born again and so maybe their spirits would follow each other. And then did what had to be done and the shot was clean because he took good care of his rifle because he respected its quality.

And then boy sat on his haunches and waited.

Thought about nothing for a long time and felt like he was back in that green and grassy sea after thinking about nothing for a long time. Flies found the dog first and that wasn’t surprising even if it weren’t so grand as the carrion-eating birds and some of the flies landed on him and he kept sitting on his haunches thinking of nothing.

When the first crow landed on the dog was like a strange kind of deliverance.

Boy didn’t know how much time had passed but there was a flock of birds and swarm of flies covering the dog and eating away what was left of it before sunset and he had hardly moved. Because the mass of things around what had been his daddy’s dog were shifting and changing their place constant the dead half of the pair was in greater motion because what was left was becoming part of the birds and the flies. And so from once perspective by extension dog was moving with them and from another perspective was being annihilated and from another dog was dead and everything after being dead didn’t matter so much. Although boy didn’t accept that last way of looking at things, didn’t know if he could reject it either but there was a way of not holding it close to him and instead having it out at a middle distance.

Because he wasn’t one of those monks would spend all his time meditating in an abattoir and didn’t think he would like to be one even were he given the opportunity, and because he had spent enough time thinking of nothing and not bothering the flies that the sun was lowering in the sky he started back to get the shovel from the bed of his truck.

Digging felt honest and rightful. Wasn’t how the Tibetans managed dying but then he weren’t in Tibet and his daddy and his daddy’s dog weren’t monks in Tibet so there was room for adjustment. Digging also longer than folks imagine, and it is hard work, and he dug deep. Motion rubbed his hands and opened a blister and didn’t stop him but there was blood on the handle.

Used the shovel to scare away the birds and couldn’t do much about the flies and he came near to retching using the shovel to pick up what was left of his daddy’s dog. Wasn’t picked through clean to the bone because the process had run its course earlier than that but there was bones showing. Tried to catch down vomit and gagging and holding the shovel as far from him as he might because he found his limit of what he could stomach because he was a man, weren’t he, and got the remains into the hole in the hilltop.

Started shoveling dirt back into the hole and looking down was reminded of something else. Was a thing a different group of monks said in Cambodia which was a little country boy could find on a map because it was next to South Vietnam, what those monks said on seeing a corpse because he gathered monks must spend most of their time around the bodies of the dead.

These monks would say something like this condition of being dead and putrid was their fate too, and fate of all men and everything could count itself alive and weren’t nothing they could do to escape their fate which was being dead.

Boy kept piling dirt and pondered on that. Couldn’t argue the logic of it, short of Jesus coming back tomorrow and even that would be the raising of the dead because near-enough everybody who has ever lived is now dead. And his daddy was dead. And boy like as not would die someday because he wasn’t putting too much money on Jesus who seemed to keep His own arrival mysterious and leisurely.

But, now the dirt covered the remains and the boy thought, that is a different sort of being dead. Being in a grave. Getting a funeral. Might even amount to a funeral if it’s monks watching a body being eaten by birds and flies, sure enough had been something for the boy sitting on his haunches through it. Didn’t fix the part of being dead which was the act of dying but might be that sorted itself out through religion and maybe it didn’t and then there wasn’t nothing could be done. But was something different to this way of being dead.

Boy patted the dirt flat and had some of the weed grass that had been pulled up with the soil still mixed with it, and same weed grass would cover the hillside grave. Boy knew would like as not never be at this spot of earth again.

Left the shovel on the grave because he had no more need of it and wouldn’t have wanted to keep it even if he had.

Thought of his daddy and was grateful for that girl who hadn’t known a damned thing but ended up teaching something how a man’s path can be revealed to him by unexpected and unknowing teachers and perhaps he in turn teaches others without meaning to.

Walked down to the fence and hitched his legs over the fence and didn’t fear losing his balance this time and took that as confirmation he had done something rightful. Got in his truck and put the rifle back on the rack and started off again.

Ran his hand over his hair that he had just shaved real close and the boy felt like a monk.

© V.N. Ebert 2022

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