I grabbed the rag from my pocket and wiped my brow. It was late fall and the weather was cool but anxiety had me sweating. I stood several feet from the old man observing him. He was a professor from upstate somewhere, probably one of those fancy schools. He wore a long dark coat and shiny black shoes. He had a large pair of glasses resting on his nose and his hair was thick and silver. He stood on the grave and wrote hurried notes in a small journal.
He snapped the journal shut and crammed it inside his coat pocket. Turning toward me he said, “Your fidgeting grates on my nerves. Is there a problem, boy?”
“No sir,” I lied. I stuffed the rag in my back pocket and stood still. I was annoyed that he called me ‘boy’ when I was well into my twenties. I suppose I was a boy compared to his old age.
“I’m assuming you’ve never had to dig up a coffin before?” He was an arm’s length away from me now.
“No sir,” I admitted. I focused my gaze on the ground, not wanting to make eye contact with him. “I dig graves to lay the deceased to rest in the earth. I never thought I would be in the business of digging them out of the earth. It seems so…unnatural, sir.” I fought the urge to grab my rag and wipe my forehead.
“Unnatural, eh?” He looked toward the grave. “So you’re a superstitious fellow I presume?”
“I’d like to think that I’m simply respectful of the dead, sir,” I replied.
“Well, look at it this way boy. This man that’s buried six feet under — his death is a bit of a mystery. His cause of death isn’t listed and it’s my job to find out how he died. So I’m asking you to view this as showing ‘respect’ to this man’s life. He deserves to have his mysterious death looked into. Don’t you agree?”
“Well, yes sir. I suppose. If it helps the deceased rest in peace.” His view of the situation put me at ease a little.
“Now, I have a court order for the exhumation of this man.” He tapped his breast pocket. “You dig the grave; I examine the body — that’s how this works.”
He backed up and leaned against a nearby tree. Taking the hint, I grabbed my shovel and started to dig. Once my shovel hit the coffin the old man helped me haul it up and out of the grave.
The coffin was surprisingly light. I reminded myself that I was accustomed to laying fresh corpses in the ground. This man had been dead for a couple of decades and was probably just bones by now. I shuddered at the thought.
The old man knelt beside the coffin and immediately began picking at the lid. Realizing what he was about to do I quickly stepped away and turned my head.
“You see dead bodies all the time, Gravedigger,” he said.
“Yes, sir. I’ve just never seen one that’s been dead for this long.” I was wiping at my brow again.
“I’m having trouble; I need your help with the lid.” The old man was out of breath.
I ignored his request. “Wouldn’t you normally do this in your office, sir? It doesn’t seem proper to open it here, out in the cemetery.”
“You want your money, boy? Now man up and get over here.”
I stuffed the rag back into my pocket and went over to the coffin. Even with the two of us it took several tries to get the lid free. We set the lid on the ground and I looked away, not wanting to see the remains.
“Just as I’d figured,” he said.
At first I thought he was talking about me. I looked over at the old man to reply but he was solely focused on the coffin. I glanced down to see what he was referring to.
The coffin was empty.