Fiction: The Burying
By Cliff Hightower
The sun barely made its way through the trees.
The foliage of the canopy drowned the noon sun, which, if he were in a desert, would be scorching the earth right now, bright on the golden sand and reflecting into the heavens.
But, he found himself in the thick brush, surrounded by hearty briar patches with thorns that poked through his canvas britches and poked into the skin.
He had been battling the briars for almost half an hour, trying to get a little further up ahead, looking for an opening through the dense thicket.
He looked at his watch.
Sweat beaded upon his brow and he reached up, wiping it away with a black and white bandana that had already been soaked from three hours of bushwacking.
He brought the ax up once more, sliced downward and tore through more brush.
“How much farther,” a voice said behind him.
“I don’t know. We’ll get there when we get there.”
His son was 16, a boy turning a man. It wouldn’t be long before he would find himself going off to college and the man would be all alone again, just like he was when the boy was firstborn.
Just like he had been for 16 years.
At least he thought the boy would go to college. He had talked about it when he asked him, and that’s what the boy said he would do, but he didn’t know if he was saying it just to make him happy. Maybe he was.
He hoped not. He wanted the boy to be his own man.
“Should you look at the map?” the boy asked.
“Hell, no. I know where it is.”
“Seems like we’re lost.”
“Seems like it.”
“Just shut the hell up.”
He kept swinging the ax, biting his way through the briars and the thorny shrubs that were invasive to these woods that used to be open woodlands when the Cherokee stepped foot in them. It was now the range for plants brought from Europe and Asia, an army of invaders that now were the kings of the forest, replacing those trees and shrubs native to the once green and flowered fields.
What was left was browned vines and briar patches.
He swung the ax.
“I see something up ahead,” the boy said. “Looks like it clears out.”
The man stopped and looked. Yes, just up ahead, he saw the forest thin some and the trees disappear.
He kept going, chopping the vines and the thicket.
“We’ll be there in just a bit,” the man said.
The vines and the thorns finally gave way and they stepped out into the light of a small field. The man looked around. The mountains could be seen on all sides, towering in the sky. The boy stepped next to him.
“This is cool,” the boy said.
“Yes, it is,” the man said.
They walked through the field, looking around, eyeing the hills. At the top of the hill, they saw a marker. A concrete slab that rested in the tall grass that barely could be seen. They wrestled the grass to the marker and found themselves looking at it.
There was a sign on the marker, made of iron that was cast on the marble underneath.
The sign talked of two men who had died at the same spot in 1878. It said they had frozen to death while walking over the pass during the winter when snow had fallen and left them stranded, no way to get out of these mountains.
The man imagined the two men, hunkered down, the snow falling, death coming as they knew their fate. Their eyes closing, going into a deep sleep to never awake and to be found and buried just weeks later in the same dirt where he and his boy now stood.
“That’s some crazy shit,” his boy said.
“Yeah, it is. Way life used to be then.”
They walked a little bit away from the marker and the man felt the sun now, coppering his skin.
He patted down a bit of grass and sat down and motioned for the boy to do the same. He took two sandwiches out of his pack and handed one to the boy, along with a bag of chips and they both sat there for a few minutes, silent, and eating their sandwiches.
The wind whipped hard on top of the mountain and it was a strange combination of heat and cold he felt on the hill. They sat 6,500 feet above sea level, above the snow line in winter.
These hills were rough and tough for anyone.
He finished his sandwich and put the baggie it came in back into his pack and when his boy handed him his baggies, he did the same.
They sat there for a few minutes, quiet and looking out at the hills.
The man looked down into a valley below. A few houses littered a road that wound through the holler and he wondered to himself who the people were below. How did they live? Did they live good lives?
He wondered if he would ever have a good life again.
Maybe this was as good as it got. Maybe heaven was eating a turkey sandwich on top of a mountain with his 16-year-old boy who was on the verge of being a man.
“I’m dying,” the man said.
“What?” the boy asked.
“I’m dying. I thought I should tell you.”
They sat quiet for a few minutes and then he heard the sobs start.
“Of what?” the boy asked.
“Cancer. I have stomach cancer.”
“Can’t they do anything, chemo or something?”
“I don’t know…”
The man’s voice trailed off.
“They said it may be too late.”
The boy’s sobs came harder now and they both sat there, quiet, feeling the wind come from the east, straight from North Carolina, where the mountains rose higher.
“I want you to throw my ashes here,” the man said. “Why I brought you. This is one of the prettiest places I ever saw.”
The boy quit sobbing for a minute.
“I’ll do it,” the boy said. “It is pretty.”
The man looked out. In the distance, he saw the tallest mountain in the eastern United States, rising up into the clouds. His hands ran through the grass around him.
“Yes, it is,” the man said. “It’s a good place for burying.”
Cliff Hightower is a professional writer who has appeared in more than 90 publications with his fiction and nonfiction writing. He has published fiction and poetry in The Phoenix, Appalachian Voices, and Poetry Super Highway. He is also author of the novel, Canaan Mountain. Hightower lives in the Appalachian Mountains where he writes dark, gritty, neo-southern gothic stories.
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