a little after We Ate the Road like Vultures and a few feet below the ground...
If you find yourself up to your arse in a wet, dirty hole in the ground in the darkest part of night, you have to be careful with the spade – because when it hits you in the foot and severs your sense of balance, you have to keep your “fucking shit hells” to yourself. It is also when you will realize that six feet is a long fucking way to dig by yourself with garden patch tools. A. Long. Way. And when you are trying to find a coffin, you have a kind of tentative stealth that keeps you from working quickly or efficiently and you become, in fact, a criminal, even if all you are searching for is the truth.
So convinced was I that I would find exactly what I thought, that my bag was packed and sitting somewhere up there on the grass, getting moist in the midnight dew and keeping a useless lookout for my father or the Vet. It had taken some time to get my father to answer my question of whether there were bones or ashes under the grey, carved headstone that was glaring down on me. Mostly because he didn’t speak to me with anything but vitriolic rage for weeks after I ran away to Mexico last winter. Despite the international police and his expensive private investigator, not a soul had stopped me on my trip, not to check my passport, my age or my intentions. I had walked casually off his property and just as casually back on and that was what really angered him. I’m sure he didn’t miss me. And I know the Vet didn’t. I’d been driving him more and more mad as they years go by. Perhaps I am becoming my mother, though I can’t figure a hippy bone lies buried anywhere in my body. Finally, when he was wandering back into general conversation over breakfast and I ambushed him with the ask.
“Did you bury Mum’s body or cremate her?”
“What?” Toast was half in and out of his body and I watched his mouth wish fervently it was too full to answer. “Why do you want to know that?”
“Why would I not want to know?”
“Uh.” He put the toast down. This is a man who can artificially inseminate a cow to breed only the best possible stock. A millionaire amongst the farmers who are up and selling the fence palings to pay the rent. And I am still able to outsmart him by simply saying and asking whatever the fuck I want to. It knocks him out cold. Once, when he was berating me for taking the quad-bike into town at midnight to use the internet café after he turned off the wifi, I simply asked him if he thought fellatio took power away from women. He went completely silent and walked away.
“Buried.” He coughed a little. The Vet was paused over the stove pretending to cook eggs that had long since seized up. “She wanted to be buried. Go back to the earth. You know what she was like.”
“In a coffin?”
“Of course in a coffin! I’m not a heathen.” He got up and started to walk away but wasn’t angry enough to leave without his toast and had to come back for it.
The Vet looked at me with a face I knew she had composed in the mirror to form a soundless, “Why do you treat your father with such disrespect when all he has done for you is give, give, comma, more verbs and disgust, et cetera.” I stared back until she swung around to attend to anything else. The Vet interests me as much as a door. I love my father in that strange way everyone loves difficult parents but the fact that she is in love with him, means I cannot understand her and am mildly nauseated by her. Especially her very blunt fringe which is both too short and long to be fashionable.
So I found myself digging around in the wet, cold mud for my mother’s body in a coffin. And just when I thought I might call the night enlightening, I hit something hard that echoed with the dull sound of wood. I hit it again and rubbed the dirt off. Definitely wood. Brushing away more with my hands I worked faster, tears starting in my eyes because I had been so sure there was nothing here, that I could dig to Kazakhstan and still be in soft, wormy self-righteous dirt. But there it was, rough and solid, a rounded wood area below me. I had to stop then, not knowing if I actually did want to see the body of my mother six years after she was laid to rest, and yet knowing if I didn’t I would be back down here a week or two from now having the same debate.
The first time my mother went away I was four. Or maybe that was just the first vanishing that I remember. Not that I remember her actually walking away. I do remember the police truck, its lights dancing off trees and stars, jouncing across the cow shit to where I was sleeping in a shed at the back of the property. Where she had left me. I don’t remember fear and I didn’t feel abandoned. I just wanted to know where she had gone. It was Madagascar in the end, St. Marie’s Island, more specifically, and she came back four months later as though time was the same for a four year old as it was for a traveller. She told me stories while she braided my hair and she drew maps on my skin with a thick black pen that didn’t come free in the river or the bath. There was a pirate graveyard, grey with the effort of holding them down, and trees full of lemurs, smug in their tuxedos. There were many things. But not the things she was looking for.
The second time was two years later and I am surprised she lasted so long with the cows when she clearly wanted pirates. This time I was asleep when she left and when she came back two months of yo-ho and coconut oil later, a thinner, browner girl, it felt like I was the mother and she the rambling, storytelling child who I reminded to do her chores and eat her vegetables. Her parents came down from the mountains sometimes to see her, three old hippies – all female – who had raised her and wouldn’t tell her which was the biological mother. They squabbled like magpies and judged my father for his capitalist life choices. None of them looked like her, they all had white pointed faces and thin hair, while Mum had the soft look of someone who rose out of a seashell each day while merman sang, her hair thick ropes of brown that hung halfway down her back.
I adored her, in an unearthly, visceral way. But there were times, despite my disgust at my father, that I understood his horror at what he had done. He had married the Siren and found himself shipwrecked on the rocks. The trips away became longer as I grew taller, perhaps because I didn’t need her anymore. Perhaps because she needed something more than me. It is the needy psychology of an abandoned child I know, but I liked to think, when I waited and when I stopped waiting, that she couldn’t be with me until she found what she had lost.
I took notes. I kept them inside things my father would never read. Photographs and pressed flowers inside The Dharma Bums. Drawings and scraps of poetry and songs abandoned in the troublesome pages of Howl. Itineraries and passport stamps -St Marie’s, Tortuga and Port Royal - all folded safely into Junky.
And then, it was the last time she went away. And I didn’t know it and I just sighed and shrugged and went to school as though it was another season: rain when I wanted sun, nothing more. I went overseas for a summer camp. To escape my father, the Vet and the waiting. And when I came back she was home, dead and buried. My father wonders why I don’t believe him.
I lifted the shovel and hit the wood hard. It made a dull, surprising sound and a small wet piece of timber chipped away. I hit it again and there was the same solid sound. I picked up one of the chips and lifted it close to the nearest light I had – the yellow glow of my watch. It was fresh wood, living. Not nearly the dead wood of a coffin. I scrambled head down and brushed more dirt away, my heart so loud it shook dirt from the walls. It was a tree root. The living root of the giant tree he had buried her under, her favourite tree apparently. And it was old. There was no way he had buried her here – even six years ago. This root was a clown’s foot wide and went right through the middle of her grave. There was no coffin here and there never had been. My mother was not dead.
The hole was my farewell note and I left it yawning – he would know exactly what it meant and now that I was eighteen he would not be able to have my banks accounts frozen or call the police. I wiped the buried treasure off my hands onto the crystal dew and picked up my brand spanking backpack, filled with travel and five thousand dollars and I walked down the two kilometer dirt track to the main road without any blues or gloom, knowing where to go and how, knowing why to leave and when.