She was already dead, the doctors told us. Had been dead for quite some time. There was nothing to do about it now, nothing to do but what had to be done. It wasn’t sinful, they said. We were just burying a corpse, after all.
We took her out at dawn. Out over the hills, past the crumbling buildings and hastily-hammered fence posts, into the far-off forbidden forests where bramble twists thick and muck runs deep. The trees leered at us as our boots sloshed in the mud, waiting for one of us to stumble, to falter, to succumb to the soil and be consumed. We almost fell, too — when her body thrashed violently in our arms and sent us lurching into the mush — but we managed to restrain her, somehow. Eventually, we reached the spot.
It was a small patch of black loam beneath a pair of wide oaks. Barely big enough to fit the four of us, but it felt homely. Sacred. The others held her in their arms while I broke the earth with my shovel and began to dig. It was slow going at first. Thunder cracked, the sky broke, rain trickled then spilled down from the treetops and into the trench. I steadied my footing between the sides of the pit and pitched my shoulders downward, thrusting harder. Mud filled my boots, splattered all over my arms and face. I could feel a weight kicking up inside me — a roiling ball of such terrible heat and energy that I wasn’t sure I could stand it. My stomach seized. My fists tightened around the shovel handle until its wooden splinters burrowed into the pads of my fingers. I kept digging.
When the pit was approximately six feet deep, we set her down inside. One by one, we said our final prayers, and then I performed the last rites. After all was said and done, I drew my revolver, pulled back the hammer, and aimed at her forehead.
She grabbed my arm.
I recoiled, and nearly dropped my gun.
It was coarser, flakier than I’d remembered. There was something impossibly frail about it — as if it would crumble to dust as soon as she let go. But it was hers. Unmistakably hers. The hand that had cupped the faces of my children, wiped the grime and tears from their cheeks, cradled their sore feet and warmed their frostbitten ears. That had weathered the hard times with me, that had foraged too far and too deep for our survival. That had buried our youngest. That had held my own for so long it felt like a part of me.
Slowly, I pushed her hand off my arm.
That was the fungus talking, the doctors would say. Not her. I could see its sporocarps flowering up from her forehead, blooming ever so gently in the space between her eyes. I swallowed. Even now, there was something hauntingly beautiful about those scarlet fruiting bodies — the way crystal dew drops condensed on their cupped surfaces, tiny stars trapped by flesh. I understood, then, what had so transfixed her all those weeks ago. Why she had plucked those spore-ridden cups from the soil, and in a feat of whimsical insanity, held them to her face. It was the same insane desire that drew me closer to her now, that made me want to press my face into hers and feel, one last time, the brush of her lips across mine.
I don’t know how I did it. Miraculously, impossibly, deplorably, I resisted. I held my urge deep in my chest and clenched, clenched until it was concrete, until it was tar, until it was nothing but cold dark paste nestled in folds of emptiness. For a moment that felt like an eternity, I feared the pressure would break me. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, that fear stopped being fear. The weight inside me cooled, cracked, crumbled. I raised my revolver to her head. I cocked back the hammer. I held my breath.
I did what had to be done.
We buried her there, beneath the oaks. We filled the pit to the brim and tamped the soil down with our shovels. Meticulously, we replaced all the stones and logs we had overturned. Rain washed over the site, turning the crumbly loam into mud. Within minutes, there was no evidence that we had ever been there at all.
During the journey back, we didn’t speak to each other. We simply marched and marched and marched, onward through the mire. Eventually, the worst of the woods were far behind us, and we could almost pretend that what we had done was make-believe. A dream. Something faint and insignificant — as blurry and distant as stardust, as fleeting as twilight, as infinitesimal as a spore captured in a drop of rain, or in a tear.
Valmic Shridhar Mukund is a writer from Northern California with a passion for the surreal, the absurd, the magical, and the beautiful. He enjoys exploring strange neighborhoods, meeting interesting people, and driving past colorfully-lit street signs late at night. You can often find him at work at his computer or drowning himself in music.