Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep. Any shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood: Howdy boys! Remember me? The thought of it kept us digging even after the blisters on our palms had burst, reformed and burst again. Every shovelful was an agony—the old man, getting in his last licks. Still, I was glad of the pain. It shoved away thought and memory.
When the hole got too deep for our shovels to reach bottom, I climbed down into it and kept digging while Henry paced and watched the sky. The soil was so wet from all the rain it was like digging into raw meat. I scraped it off the blade by hand, cursing at the delay. This was the first break we’d had in the weather in three days and could be our last chance for some while to get the body in the ground.
“Better hurry it up,” Henry said.
I looked at the sky. The clouds overhead were the color of ash, but there was a vast black mass of them to the north, and it was headed our way. Fast.
“We’re not gonna make it,” I said.
“We will,” he said.
That was Henry for you: absolutely certain that whatever he wanted to happen would happen. The body would get buried before the storm hit. The weather would dry out in time to resow the cotton. Next year would be a better year. His little brother would never betray him.
I dug faster, wincing with every stroke. I knew I could stop at any time and Henry would take my place without a word of complaint—never mind he had nearly fifty years on his bones to my twenty-nine. Out of pride or stubbornness or both, I kept digging. By the time he said, “All right, my turn,” my muscles were on fire and I was wheezing like an engine full of old gas. When he pulled me up out of the hole, I gritted my teeth so I wouldn’t cry out. My body still ached in a dozen places from all the kicks and blows, but Henry didn’t know about that.
Henry could never know about that.
I knelt by the side of the hole and watched him dig. His face and hands were so caked with mud a passerby might have taken him for a Negro. No doubt I was just as filthy, but in my case the red hair would have given me away. My father’s hair, copper spun so fine women’s fingers itch to run through it. I’ve always hated it. It might as well be a pyre blazing on top of my head, shouting to the world that he’s in me. Shouting it to me every time I look in the mirror.
Around four feet, Henry’s blade hit something hard.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Piece of rock, I think.”
But it wasn’t rock, it was bone—a human skull, missing a big chunk in back. “Damn,” Henry said, holding it up to the light.
“What do we do now?”
“I don’t know.”
We both looked to the north. The black was growing, eating up the sky.
“We can’t start over,” I said. “It could be days before the rain lets up again.”
“I don’t like it,” Henry said. “It’s not right.”
He kept digging anyway, using his hands, passing the bones up to me as he unearthed them: ribs, arms, pelvis. When he got to the lower legs, there was a clink of metal. He held up a tibia and I saw the crude, rusted iron shackle encircling the bone. A broken chain dangled from it.
“Jesus Christ,” Henry said. “This is a slave’s grave.”
“You don’t know that.”
He picked up the broken skull. “See here? He was shot in the head. Must’ve been a runaway.” Henry shook his head. “That settles it.”
“We can’t bury our father in a nigger’s grave,” Henry said. “There’s nothing he’d have hated more. Now help me out of here.” He extended one grimy hand.
“It could have been an escaped convict,” I said. “A white man.” It could have been, but I was betting it wasn’t. Henry hesitated, and I said, “The penitentiary’s what, just six or seven miles from here?
“More like ten,” he said. But he let his hand fall to his side.
“Come on,” I said, holding out my own hand. “Take a break. I’ll dig for a while.” When he reached up and clasped it, I had to stop myself from smiling. Henry was right: there was nothing our father would have hated more.