When I was nineteen, my father began to talk about dying. “You’ll be the head of the house once I’m gone,” he’d say. “Don’t let those shysters at the funeral parlour take my money. Bury me behind the chicken coop for all I care; I’ll rot no matter what box they put me in.”
I said I doubted that was legal, and he probably shouldn’t call people shysters. He said what the hell did I know, and that he’d lost half his cousins to Warsaw, and that it wasn’t like he’d wanted to be in Hitler Youth. He spoke to me in English, always, for the same reason he’d changed the spelling of his surname. As if that made a difference, when he sounded like a Bond villain.
In the end, there was nothing to bury. Maybe that was Death’s way of getting the last word despite his preparation. My father was forty-nine. He was tired, maybe, or the transmission finally went, or a wasp flew in through the open window. Anyway, his sendoff was explosive: a fireball, scoring a dark slash from the highway to the creek below, scattering twisted metal. When the cop told us, my mother tried to hit him with a half-plucked rooster.
We paid for a headstone.
It turns out there was something buried behind the chicken coop the whole time.
I find it a year later under the spiderwebbed canoe and a mouldering stack of old fence posts while excavating an irrigation line. The yard is chewed up like something from one of his war stories; I don’t know where the hell he put the shut-off connector. He’d have some trick for finding it besides digging like a rabid gopher.
Clink. Shovel against — metal box, once I’ve dug it out enough to see. My stomach lurches.
The first thought is that he’s in there, even though it’s only three feet long, even though that makes no sense, because it’s more logical than his being nowhere. I open the lid with shaking fingers. It takes two tries. When I see what’s inside, I laugh loud enough to startle the chickens.
It’s full of C-4. Neat little wrapped bricks, stacked like gold bars, labelled. Enough to blow my head off twenty times over. Just add det. Enough to make an invading army think twice about strolling up our driveway, I guess.
Where in seven hells did it come from? Did the military surplus store sell plastic explosives to bearded men with soup-thick Axis accents after the war, so long as they had the cash? Never mind where — what now?
Put it back. Hand it over to the cops, maybe the same one who’d narrowly escaped a bird carcass to the cheek, explain that I have no explanation, sorry, sir. What if they arrest me? What if they want to dig the whole place up? What if, while they hold me, the irrigation system bursts, and there’s only Ma to fix it, and nobody to get her out of bed?
That night, I load the canoe onto the roof racks and the box into the truck bed. The whole town is asleep, except the moon, which is more awake than I’d like it to be. My heart’s about beating out of my chest as I turn the ignition key. “Moonlight paddle,” I practice saying, to cover the too-loud roar of the engine turning over. “Couldn’t sleep.” The moon looks skeptical.
Ten minutes to the boat launch. No cops. No cars. Sweaty palms, and is this how it feels to dump a dead body? Is that what they’ll think, if they see me hauling something from the truck bed to the water? I wouldn’t have the nerve for war.
My father used to lift the canoe from the roof racks with such ease. His strength was as close as he ever got to artistry. I manage, but it’s only thanks to adrenaline.
I hardly dare breathe as I pull away from shore with my contraband cargo, riding low. The water’s unknowable. Impassive black, surface sheened with silver. My paddle breaks the illusion of impenetrability.
Dip-dip, swing. Dip-dip, swing. Forward into emptiness.
I stop where it’s deepest, where the creek outflow spits a steady stream of sediment. The silence resounds. The boat drifts. The shore feels like a dream.
I stare at the crate. Suddenly reluctant, afraid I’ll miss this thing I never asked for. I imagine the plunge through dark water, past startled sturgeon, the cloud of silt and bubbles, the finality of the bottom.
With gritted teeth and clenched forearms, I hoist the crate and lower it over the side. The splash is obscene in the stillness. The backlash nearly tips the canoe, and I flinch as cold water hits, throw my weight to the opposite side. The boat rocks, stops an inch from the broken surface. Rocks back. I peer over the edge. I can’t see anything except ripples.
“Bastard,” I say.
Katya Kirschmann is a Canadian writer and visual artist. Their writing has been featured in Ryga, The White Wall Review, and the Brave New Play Rites theatre festival. Katya’s current project is a memoir about chronic illness, productivity culture, and a road trip across America.