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Alaska Shorts: "Digging Robert's Grave," by Don Rearden

49 Writers - Thu, 07/17/2014 - 7:00am
Don Rearden
Through a mouth full of Copenhagen he gave some of his last words of wisdom to me: “No good when you die in the winter. Gonna leave too much work behind.”
A couple hours into digging and I understood what he meant, and I wanted to shoot the guy came up with six feet as the regulation depth of a grave. I worried we wouldn’t be finished in time. Just one day to dig the hole. One day. One day before the village carried his plywood coffin to the cemetery. Men stopped by to help. Someone brought an old red Sears chainsaw that looked like it had been digging graves since the day it left the store shelf. I thought about the irony of digging the grave with a chainsaw when fifty miles of tundra stood between the village and the nearest real tree. Why not use it to cut frozen dirt, why not dig graves?
I thought the men who came to help probably saw in my face that I needed to dig the grave by myself. Robert wasn’t a relative, not even a distant uncle, but the old man was special to me and somehow everyone seemed to understand this.
After a quick demonstration without words, Robert’s brother handed me the rumbling saw. I crawled back down into the hole and began gnawing away at the black earth. The hungry saw sputtered and threw a fine dark mist of permafrost. I kept my eyes fixed on the tip of the saw blade and worked it into the iceblock soil. I would pull the blade and hungry chain out, and make another slice, until I could kick with my boot and loosen a chunk of the frozen ground. Robert’s younger brothers stood over me. They waited to relieve me. To grieve with me. Their shadows crept into the grave. The lights from the small village houses turned the white crosses in the cemetery into an army of straight soldiers, their dark arms held out against the snow.
Over the whine of the small saw's engine, I felt the men grow restless. I sensed they no longer wanted to help dig. They wanted the warm comfort of home. Perhaps it wasn’t the icy burn of the wind getting to them, but the chill of standing amongst the spirits of their ancestors. Still, they didn’t leave. They stood guard, at the edge of the grave, watching this battle with the frozen earth.
My fingers and toes had lost all feeling, and I could feel the frost cutting away at the tip of my nose. I tried to think of Robert and find strength in his last breaths. How the river ice must have just opened up and swallowed him, how he scrambled from the swirling black water and pulled himself to shore, his clothing soaked. I pictured the small patch of willows where he spent his final hours, minutes, seconds, fighting for life, for warmth. I wondered why he didn't just allow the water to take him, why he put up such a struggle in the howling, burning, cold winds when he didn’t have anyone left to live for.
When they found his body, he was huddled beneath the willows. A small pile of dried yellow grass and green twigs half-blackened, his lighter had almost managed to save him. Almost. He hadn't dug into a snowbank for warmth, knowing he was already too wet. It was more important they find his body so that his spirit could be properly cared for. So someone could dig him a grave. Perhaps he knew it would be me.
At the sight of Robert, I had collapsed to the snow and cried. Robert. Frozen in a ball, on his side in the back of a long plywood sled, wrapped in a blue tarp. Forever selfish, I thought nothing of anyone, except myself. My friend, my teacher. I was alone again.

But in the grave I was too busy working, thinking, and I didn’t hear the saw sputter out. My mind still in the sled, wrapped in the blue tarp. I heard a voice, "No more gas."

I looked up and saw the hand reaching towards me. Then lowered my eyes to the saw, dead. I started to hand the saw up to Robert’s brother, but he reached for my free hand and he began to pull me up and out of the grave.
"That's good,” he said. “We’ll finish in the morning. Robert can wait another day, if he needs to."
I looked down at my three sad feet of progress against the impossible permafrost. Pathetic. A day of digging and no answers. My arms, legs, and back hurt, but I couldn’t stop.
Don Rearden grew up on the tundra of Southwestern Alaska. His experiences with the Yup'ik culture shaped both his writing and his worldview. His critically acclaimed novel The Raven’s Gift was named a 2013 Notable Fiction selection by The Washington Post. You can read a sample chapter or order The Raven’s Gift here. Don’s writing has been published internationally and he is also a produced screenwriter and poet. His heart often draws his writing back to characters and stories that originate on the tundra; in his fiction, he hopes to shed light on the struggles of everyday life in rural Alaska. Rearden is an Associate Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and president of the 49 Writers. This excerpt is from “Digging Robert’s Grave,” a fictional short story of a young man dealing with the tragic death of a father figure. To read the rest of the story, download the free Alaska Sampler.

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Categories: Arts & Culture

Book Review Winners Week 5

Juneau Public Library Blog - Fri, 07/11/2014 - 5:48pm
From the Mendenhall Valley Library Kee Cole, age 1.75, a gift certificate to Bullwinkle’s for his review of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star by Jane Cabrera. “One fascinating part of this book is that I finally know what the song is about!”  Keeley Rielly, age 9, an art book from Fairweather Gallery for their review of […]
Categories: Arts & Culture

Game Day at the Library

Juneau Public Library Blog - Fri, 07/11/2014 - 4:15pm
Saturday, July 12th, 11 am – 5 pm at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library Dixit, Wits & Wagers, 7 Wonders, Settlers of Catan, Forbidden Island, Set, Citadels, Munchkin, Ticket to Ride…. You are bound to find a fun game to play, or bring your own! While all are welcome, available games are rated for ages […]
Categories: Arts & Culture

Accepting movies for summer JUMP

JUMP Society - Mon, 06/09/2014 - 11:29am
Download this awesome poster! You’ll never get bad advice from three adult men wearing pug shirts, so go ahead and submit your short film for the JUMP 2014 Summer Film Fest! Deadline is July 10 or so. Screening at the Gold Town Nickelodeon July 17-20. See the guidelines and submission form for more info.
Categories: Arts & Culture


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