Places To Go When You Die
(under the title Spades this story was short-listed for the John Spencer Hill Literary Award)
Deep into the earth, crushed grass and damp soil scenting the
air, he put aside his shovel and leaned his chest against the side
of the grave. Only his head and neck could be seen. He lifted his
cap and placed it back over his wet hair. Sunlight slid quickly
down the slope as a cloud tugged free. He squinted. One part of
the hill was crosses and monuments. The other was still grass.
Since the spring before they had been working their way down into
it. He had cut into acres of grass, as if he were a farmer,
mounded the earth neatly, come back to fill the hole by himself or
with a partner, watched the stones grow up behind him as he opened
new rows and slipped closer and closer down to the river. There
was a fence that had been built two years earlier. One day they
would fill in the last of the holes and the cemetery would have to
expand in a different direction. Generations of bodies. Sometimes
the end of families, no children left to carry on. A bloodline
begun in England or Poland or Germany five hundred years before.
Ended here on the Canadian plains. There was plenty of room for
more if you made the prairie one huge enclosure. Could Russia or
Ukraine be more full of earth and distance? Sun settled like dust
on his forearms.
“I don’t see any bodies, Nicholas,” he told his son. “Just
“Can I come and look?”
“There’s nothing to see.”
“Can I dig with you?”
“Taras,” said Nicholas’ mother. “He just wants to see where
his father works. What is the difference between a grave and a
Taras took the boy to the cemetery. Nicholas refused to look
or act tired. When his father stopped to drink coffee he kept
shovelling. Sometimes their spades clanged together.
“The bells of the dead,” his father grunted.
“How far down do we go?”
“A lot farther. Tired, eh?”
Taras made Nicholas prop up his shovel for lunch. Grandmother
had made the sandwiches, dark rye heavy with sausage and pickles.
There was a small bottle of warm milk for Nicholas. Delicate
spring light flicked at the purple and white crocuses in the grass
and at their fingers.
“Can I have some coffee?” asked Nicholas.
“Aren’t you hot?”
“The coffee’s hot. Drink your milk.”
“It tastes funny.”
“Let me see. Tastes all right.”
“If I’m digging with you I should be allowed to drink
“Who says so?”
“Did you want coffee or a coffin?”
Nicholas laughed. “Coff-eee!”
“Here. I’ll dump some into your milk.”
“Do you like doing this, Papa?”
“It’s hard to get work, Nicholas. Does it bother you?”
“There’s nothing here. Mama said it’s only mud and grass.”
“Do you want some more coffee? We have to get back to our
“When are they going to use it?”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who fills it in?”
“In the afternoon.”
“I’ll fill it in with you.”
“Nicholas. This is not a game.”
“Can I help you?”
They picked up their shovels and chopped at the clay that was
at the bottom. At night Nicholas dug past the clay and past the
rock. He found a large cavern full of people who had skin as pale
as worms. They were sitting in rows. They smiled. A man came
This is where the dead come after your father buries us. He
has done a good job. You may join us. You won’t have to die.
I want to go back.
You can’t. You have to stay here.
I want to go back.
He tried to make himself wake up but the dream was too
strong. The man had an arm on him. He kicked and bit.
“You’re all right, Nicholas,” said his father. “You’re in
your bed. You’re with us. What were you dreaming?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was not about the graveyard?”
“Remember what your mother told you. It’s only mud and
“It wasn’t about the graveyard.”
“Where are you going?”
“I have to go and use the bathroom.”
“Are you sick?”
“I have to pee.”
“Don’t wake your Uncle Michael. He’s napping on the couch.”
When he came out of the bathroom he opened the back door and
stood for a moment under the apple tree. The sky was clouded over
and the darkness was like the walls of soil that had surrounded
him while he dug. He touched the tree trunk and crushed a blossom
in his fingers. A breeze moved up his leg, over his head, and
disappeared. He could not hear anything. He turned quickly and
went back into the house.
“What? What is it, Nick?”
“Is it only mud and grass in the graveyard?”
“I was sleeping, Nick.”
“Where does everybody go when they die?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Haven’t you seen people die?”
“Do they stay here?”
“What are you afraid of?”
“After you’re dead is it like you’re trapped somewhere? Is it
like you’re suffocating?”
“Is that what you think?”
“Is it like there’s a ton of dirt on top of you?”
“I don’t know, Nick.”
“Haven’t you seen anyone die?’
“What happens to them?”
“They stop breathing.”
“But do they breathe somewhere else after they’re dead? Do
they see anything?”
“A good Catholic would say you go to purgatory for awhile and
then you go to heaven. It’s supposed to be bright and clean. Wide
open. You could take in big lungfuls there. See God. Other
“Is that what you think? Do you think that happens?”
“I’m not much of a Catholic, Nick.”
“What would you like to happen?”
“What would I like to happen? You think that makes a
“If you died. What would you want to happen?”
“I kind of miss the jazz bands in Chicago. A little of that
wouldn’t hurt. A whole lot of brass and some very smooth sax. That
“Did you ever feel like you were going to die?”
Uncle Michael’s face burst into flame and glowed as he drew
on a cigarette.
“In the war or anything? Did anything ever happen?”
“There’s been a few times.”
“Vimy. I thought my head had been cut off and it was spinning
away. Everything was going around and around and up and down. I
vomited all over myself. Couldn’t hear a thing. Then the spinning
stopped. All I could see was a bunch of stones. I was on my
stomach. I was dead. But pretty soon I got a ringing in my ears.
Then I could hear voices. And guns going off.”
“Was there blood on you?”
“Was that the only time?”
“No. There were others. It’s all the same. You get confused.
You don’t know whether you’re coming or going. Can’t think
straight. Don’t remember anything. Then you come out of it.”
“When was the last time?”
“Take it easy, Nick.”
“Does it ever scare you?”
“It’s too fast.”
“Did you ever feel like you were suffocating?”
“Did you ever feel like you couldn’t get out of it?”
“You don’t even think about stuff like that. You’re just here
and suddenly you’re there. You’re looking at something and
you know what it is. So you’re okay. You know you’re okay.”
“What if you don’t recognize anything?”
“Then you’re dead and it’s over with. No more nightmares.
Pain. Hunger. Love. It’s all finished. The end.”
Nicholas watched Uncle Michael smoke. Uncle Michael’s eyes
never moved from him. Nicholas looked down at the floor. At the
strips of wood.
“Go get yourself a drink of water, Nick. You’ll be all right.
It was just a dream.”
Nicholas left the house by the back door and stood under the
apple tree again. The darkness remained solid and without motion. Starlight
fell like rain upon his face. He took a deep breath and let it out as
slowly as he could.