One of the crows fluttered and cawed at Marv’s approach, but none of them made any move to leave. The birds had been here even longer than the people and so they were to be respected. He walked right by them along the boundary and they twittered behind his back, whispering and conspiring, as birds do.
Marv set his shovel against the fence, then removed his hat and set it on a post before shaking off his coat and laying it across the barbed wire. The wire dipped at the weight of the garment. The old leather smelled like home—warm wood fires, strong cigars, and spilled whiskey.
Reaching into his jeans, he pulled out a pack of smokes and a lighter, scuffing his boots against the dusty ground.
The crows watched him as he moved, gleaming black eyes following his every step.
His lighter sparked in the darkness. A crow cawed in complaint. He lit his cigarette and sucked in a deep breath, holding the rich smoke in his lungs like he was waiting for something. Then he scuffed his boots against the earth one more time, picked up his shovel, and walked onward up the hill, the burning embers of his cigarette fluttering to the ground as he went.
When he reached the tree, he took a final puff and then stubbed the cigarette out and leaned the shovel against the tree. He could still hear the whispers of the crows, even from this distance. Marv braced his hands against the bark, feeling his way, grabbing a branch here and a knot there and with that he began to climb.
He was slower than he used to be.
There was a time when he didn’t have to do this alone. There’d been a whole group of them, the boys, and they’d dash across the field and fly up this tree like it was nothing.
They weren’t around anymore, those boys. Davey and the Hinton twins had passed years back, and Joey didn’t make it home from his last stint up the river. The others had moved on, as it were, to their shiny new city lives beyond the fenceline. They’d forgotten about this place. As though this place could be forgotten.
Cowards is what they were, the lot of them. But the town had suffered their absence. Once-great buildings crumbled as the years weighed down on them, toppling and falling to their knees, taking the people’s hopes with them. Those that remained were tasked with keeping the town’s spirit alive, preserving their heritage, protecting their future. It was a noble cause, and one Marv had never been able to run from.
His hands were thick with callouses. It had been years since he had actually been able to feel the bark beneath his fingers. He didn’t miss the sensation.
Marv pulled himself up real slow, thinking how foolish it’d been not to bring the ladder. His knee made a queer snapping sound every time he bent it, but it didn’t hurt. Still, he was getting too old to be climbing trees in the darkness with the crows bearing witness.
Marv hefted himself up to the sturdiest branch and rested a moment. He dug around in his front shirt pocket until he could feel the cold steel of his pocket knife. He pulled it out, flipped it open.
In this darkness, even the stars weren’t enough light to glint off the blade, but the blade seemed to glint anyway, like it was saying hello, stretching out its stiff muscles and yawning so deep that Marv could look down its throat and see all the places it had been, all the times they’d shared together. The boys hadn’t stuck around, but the blade was as reliable an old friend as Marv could ever ask for.
He slid his hands along the branch. Scars rose up from the wood like mountains, dipping and cresting in places, divots cut out and worn down from long use, but every scar only made the tree stronger. This branch was near unbreakable now, after so many years of service.
Marv leaned far over, reaching down the branch of the tree until his blade found the rope and sliced clean through.
The body fell, hitting the ground with a solid thump, and the screech of fleeing crows followed like a scream in the night.
Marv straightened himself back up and glanced down at the heap of limbs and tattered clothes resting quietly now at the base of the old tree.
A breeze swept across his skin, cooling the thin sheen of sweat beading on his brow. He scooted over to the edge now, suddenly lighter and no longer feeling his age.
A sense of purpose overcame him—subtle at first, like a flame licking at the back of his mind, an old dog nudging his leg to gain his attention. But then he felt it surge. There, in the wind, in the scent of earth and rot, in the silence that the crows had left behind them. Just as granddaddy had done, just as his granddaddy before him, so too did Marv surrender to the thrall of fate, of the well-planned path that the good Lord had laid out for them all. The other boys may have tried to forget where they came from, but Marv knew you couldn’t run from your roots.
He pushed himself off the branch, heavy boots landing hard on the dirt, but his knee didn’t give out and the shock didn’t jar his senses, and even this small blessing only confirmed for him that this was where he’s meant to be.
The body stank to high heavens—three days in the sun with crows pecking away at your flesh will do that—but Marv didn’t turn away. He reached down and lifted his hangman, heaving it over his shoulder like a bag of rotten potatoes and adjusting the weight until he found his balance again.
Marv retrieved his shovel and shuffled down the hill with his cargo. The man’s shoe fell into the dirt. Marv stooped to retrieve it and continued on.
At the factory, Marv was what they called a lifer. Day in, day out, he’d show up at work, grind his way through the shift, and shovel…and shovel…and shovel. He didn’t even feel it anymore, his muscles were so used to the work. But it was different on the hill at the edge of the world, and in a way Marv felt like that was how it should be. Shouldn’t be no easy task, digging a man’s grave. There should be something to it. It should hurt. If it hurts, you know it means something.
At the bottom of the hill, Marv laid the body out and got straight to work. His back started to ache as he thrust the shovel into the earth. His muscles burned as the hole got deeper, and sweat stung his eyes and he thought to himself, yes, this was the way it should be. It felt right, like a long day at the factory, putting his all into the motion. It felt like work should feel, like an exchange of labor for reward. And he could already taste the rewards this labor would reap.
It took half the night to dig the grave, but not an hour to fill it back in. Shovelfuls of dirt rained down on the hangman, and beneath his breath, Marv prayed.
Earth covered the man’s lower half, and Marv remembered just then to throw in the shoe. He could still make out the man’s buttoned jacket, a treasure he’d been allowed to keep, given the circumstances. They weren’t like the crows, Marv’s people. They weren’t scavengers. It was only right to let the man keep his earthly possessions on his journey to God’s kingdom. That and a bellyful of meat and wine were the gifts bestowed upon him before his final rest.
The buttoned jacket was of a fine wool, its quality craftsmanship clear as day even in the middle of the night. It suggested affluence, maybe a banker or a tailor from the city—fine, but not too fine. Marv couldn’t make out the man’s face. He could have been a young’un. Or maybe he’d lived a full life and seen the sun set a thousand times, a world away from here.
His face was swollen, tongue hanging out like the head of a black snake slithering from his lips, and the smell was foul, but still Marv didn’t turn away. Wouldn’t do any good now to be a coward. Wouldn’t serve this man’s memory or any other. This was Marv’s purpose and he would serve it just as his hangman had served his.
When the dirt was even and the air smelled cleaner, Marv wiped his hand down his forehead, leaving a long smudge of sweat and dirt and satisfaction. He stomped on the earth to flatten it, then dragged some rocks on top to keep the animals away.
Wiping his hands off on his dirty jeans, Marv stood and stretched and yawned so big that somebody passing by might have thought he was trying to swallow the sky. He wondered if he was like the blade, if you look could down his throat and see deep, deep down to the bottom of everything he was, where all the bodies were buried. The thought fluttered through his mind, a long black feather, but it was gone just as quickly as it came.
He grabbed his shovel and made his way back up to the top of the hill, to the hanging tree where the crows had now gathered. They watched him knowingly from the branches as he pulled out his knife and flicked it open once more. Running his fingers over the scars in the tree’s bark, Marv counted every notch along its west flank. Could barely feel the oldest ones anymore, the ones granddaddy’s granddaddy had carved into the flesh of the tree.
He stood very still, counting under his breath.
The crows counted with him, a low and haunting hymn.
And when he was done, he added number one-hundred and forty-seven with a flick of his wrist and bowed his head in reflection. In three days he would return to begin his service again—neglecting his ladder, climbing that old tree, digging until his back near broke, baptized once more in the sweat of his labor. This year the people would see a harvest like they hadn’t seen for more than a generation. Marv would make sure of it.
The crows watched him silently as he walked away, long black feathers rustling in the night air.