by Emma Dolan
JILL THOUGHT ABOUT DEATH sometimes. Liked sleet pricking her cheeks and the smell of rotting grass clippings, sharpened by gasoline. Looked at herself in the window reflection, sometimes, and thought about what her bones tasted like.
Her guinea pig died when she was ten. The babysitter found him in the corner of the cage with his eyes open.
There was shit caked all over his back. The babysitter put him in a bag and set him in the freezer. Jill stuck her hand behind the ice tray and pet him through the plastic even when his toes curled up and his eyes turned white.
Her father had dug a hole in the narrow space between the back wall of the garage and the deck, then left a shoebox and the guinea pig on the patio table. Jill took him out of his bag and almost wanted to let him thaw just to see if he would get soft again. Instead she placed the box gently in the earth.
LATER SHE SAW HER father squatting in the space between the back wall of the garage and the deck. He had his fingers in the dirt. His back was to her and he wore that light gray t-shirt he always wore. His spine rippled the cotton. Dad are you cold? she asked through the sliding door but he didn’t listen.
DAD HAD A SKULL collection. It started with a mountain lion. Now there was a cow and a deer with half an antler and a seagull and three owls.
There was also a raccoon. Jill knew the raccoon. She was the one who found him decaying under the locust tree in the front yard two summers ago. Dad had put on gloves and lifted the raccoon in a box and left him in the ground to bathe.
“The worms will get him clean,” he told her.
Five months later Dad dug up the raccoon, but then he had used a shovel.
DAD ROCKED BACKWARDS. He unlocked his knees and sat on the dirt, palms flat on either side of his hips. Jill asked what he was doing.
Dad reached one hand behind his head and pressed his fingernails into his scalp. The nailbeds were dirty. When Dad brought his hands back down Jill thought she saw four perfect crescents of black imprinted just below his bald spot.
AFTER DAD DUG UP the raccoon he cut off its head and boiled it. Jill kept looking into the pot expecting to see its brain seeping out through its eyeholes.
Instead only air bubbles escaped from a crack near where the nose used to be. Jill turned the heat up from simmer to medium when Dad wasn’t looking.
THERE WAS A GROWING pile of soil between his legs. The sky was windy but Dad wasn’t cold. He didn’t have goose bumps, just dirt on his hands as the day turned into night.
“Stop digging.” Jill switched the porch light on and off.
Dad had hit the clay below the topsoil and Jill remembered the lesson they had on the water cycle in the second grade, how she had torn off a tiny piece of clay and kept it quiet in her pocket. She spent the day rolling it between her pointer finger and her thumb until it crumbled.
Dad too ripped chunks of clay with his fingertips.
Jill turned the porch light back on and stared at the bulb until everything turned blue.
DAD LEFT THE RACOON skull out to dry for two days. Every six hours he swabbed it with rubbing alcohol. His hands dried, cracked, and bled. That one spot on the kitchen counter never lost its smell.
When Dad was done the skull was perfect white.
“STOP DIGGING,” JILL SAID.
Dad stood up but didn’t look at her. His hands were blackened now but the pad of each finger was caked orange with clay. Dad picked the soil from beneath his nails and when he dug at his cuticles with his teeth, Jill wondered if the dirt tasted like cocoa in his mouth or if it was just like grass, and she wanted to say Dad do you know you’re bleeding peeling the skin back with your teeth like that? And Dad there is a piece of gravel there on your face just there in the corner of your mouth but all she did was watch him lick the grit from his lips. In the porchlight Jill watched him swallow.
IT WAS DAY AND it was night, too. Dad had a hole deep enough to put his forearms into.
Jill went back inside and closed the door. The cover had blown off of the grill. Dad dug deeper. He did it quick like a dog digging for bones.
Dad pulled a shoebox up from the hole he’d dug with his hands in the little space between the back wall of the garage and the deck.
He picked up the box and shook it.
“Put it back,” Jill said through the glass.
Its corners hung limp over Dad’s palm.
“Put it back.”
Jill went outside and climbed down to where Dad was. The hole he had dug gaped between them. She reached over the box he held out to her and grabbed his wrists and felt their close weight, she felt the Dad hairs on the bone that poked up funny and the scar from where he burned himself taking potatoes out of the oven. She pulled his wrists and the box back down into the hole and felt his fingertips press into the soil as his knuckles brushed the dirt.
Jill packed the earth into the spaces between his fingers. She cupped the black soil in her hands and let it fall until she buried them both.