A Beautiful Hill

Zac Smith

A woman came to me at the graveyard with her husband’s corpse, to buy a grave, now that he was dead. I need a good plot of land, the woman said, He deserves a good spot, my husband. He needs a deep grave, she said, A good one, a deep one. Somewhere on the hill, she said, Somewhere it can be good and deep. I nodded, took the keys off the wall and unlatched the iron gate and led her and her husband’s corpse out into the yard. I motioned with my arm for them to survey the place, to look for somewhere fitting, a place for a grave well-suited for the husband’s corpse among the other graves. Her husband’s corpse kicked at a tuft of moss, sucked on his teeth. We have a few hills, I said, Yes, we have a few hummocks, a few different places, a wide variety. Yes, she said, I see, you have some variety here, quite a large plot of land. Very large, I said, Lots of variety here. Her husband’s corpse looked to one of the hills in the back, our biggest hill, over in the back and under the old oak trees. A good hill, there, he said, That hill, there, with the trees. Yes, with the trees, said the woman, A beautiful hill, that one. Our best hill, I said, And our best trees. Are those oak, she asked, Those trees? Yes, I said, Oaks, all of them oaks. All oaks, she said, Beautiful trees, those oaks. Good shade on that hill, I said, Good protection from the breeze, too. Her husband’s corpse nodded, his eyes meandering with each nod. But I like a good breeze, he said, A breeze is nice, you know. Of course, I said, Especially in the summer, a good breeze is a beautiful thing. Yes, he said, A good breeze can be a good thing. Cools you off, she said, A nice breeze in the summer months. Of course, I said, Even with the trees, you can still catch a fine breeze on that hill. On such a fine hill, the woman said, Of course, I would imagine so. Yes, I said, It’s our very best hill, with our best oaks, the best breezes. Expensive, though, the woman said, I imagine it’s expensive on that hill. Yes, I suppose you could say it’s expensive, I said, Relatively so, yes, it is our nicest bit of land, the hill with the oak trees and the breeze. But not too windy, said her husband’s corpse, It shouldn’t be too windy. No, not too windy I said, No, of course, not too windy. But a breeze is nice, she said, A good breeze on a good hill is a very nice thing. Of course, I said, Always a very nice breeze on that hill. We examined the hill from our spot, the breeze stirring the oak leaves. But not too much of a breeze, her husband’s corpse said, Not a strong wind, not a blustery hill, not too much wind. No, I said, Of course not, only a fine breeze on that hill. Only ever a slight breeze, he asked, Never too much wind? Exactly right, I said, Breezy without being too windy. The best hill, said the woman, But also the most expensive. Of course it’s expensive, said her husband’s corpse, But that’s of no concern, no concern for us at all.

We walked to the hill with the oaks and I leaned on my spade as they examined the ground. Do you rake, asked the woman, Do you rake often around here, under the oaks? Twice a week, I said, I rake the whole grounds twice a week in the fall. Twice a week, said her husband’s corpse, Even up on this hill. Of course, I said, This is our best hill, it’s our best bit of land, it deserves a good raking when the leaves fall. A metal rake, he asked, Do you use a metal rake? Of course, I said, Only metal tools here. No plastic, said the woman, High quality tools only. Only the best tools, I said, Only metal tools here. I tapped my metal spade on a stone, for emphasis. Only the best tools on our best hill, I said, Which is full of the best graves. Full, asked the woman, Full of graves? Not quite, I said, No, not so full. But not empty, asked her husband’s corpse, Not a desolate hill? Exactly, I said, Neither empty nor full, plenty of room, plenty of space, but not empty either. And not too many rocks, asked her husband’s corpse, Here on the hill, not too many rocks, not many stray stones, when you use the metal rake? He motioned as if to rake, for emphasis, his rotted skin sloughing from the bones of his fingers. Not many stones, I said, Few stones on this hill. I wouldn’t want to hear so much scraping, twice a week, he said, Not too much scraping but rather quiet, a good quiet. Of course, few stones around, I said, A good clean hill, and very quiet, even when raking. We stood, considering the hill.

So, there you have it, I said, This is the best hill we have, the best hill with the best view and the best trees. But also the most expensive, said the woman, More expensive than the other hills. I suppose so, I said, Yes, the best hill does demand a fair price. But that is no concern, said her husband’s corpse, No concern for us at all. What do you think, I asked, About this hill here? This should be fine, he said, A fine hill to be buried in. It is indeed the finest hill, I said, Of all of our hills, it is the finest. A very fine hill, said the woman, Yes, of course, a very fine hill. But also the most expensive, I said, We do have other hills. Of course, said the woman, I’m sure they must all be very nice. But this one, said her husband, This is the nicest hill.

I sent them away and began to dig. I dug deep, a good deep grave in the very best hill. A wide, deep grave, deep enough to keep out the wind and the rain and the sound of the rake, even if there are few stones, because there are always stones, and so there is always the chance of a metallic scrape of the rake against a stone, especially toward the end of autumn, right as it nears winter, when it is quiet and the clouds are low, and the sound would carry in all directions. So I dug the grave deep and wide, a good grave on our nicest hill with the oaks and very few stones. The woman returned with her husband’s corpse and examined the grave. We all peered in at its depth, of which I was exceptionally keen to show them.

A good depth, I said, Deeper than most. Very deep, said the woman, I’ve never seen such a deep grave. Yes, very deep, I said, We don’t dig them this deep, usually, but I dug this one especially deep. They don’t dig them this deep, the woman said to her husband’s corpse, But here, this one is very deep. All well and good, he said, It is deep, of course it’s deep. But, I said, But. But, he said, How deep doesn’t matter if the soil is light. If the soil is light, I asked, If the soil’s too light? That’s right, he said, The soil must be dense. Dense soil, I said, Densely packed. Right, he said, The deepest grave is nothing with cheap soil. I see, I said, Of course, the soil must be dense. How is the soil here, asked the woman, The soil you have here, how dense is it? We have many kinds of soil, I said, Many kinds to choose from, from all throughout the grounds here. But mostly thin soil, said her husband’s corpse, Cheap soils, all of them, I imagine. Some dense soils, I said, We have many kinds, but at different costs, as you can imagine. All different prices, said the woman, For the different soils. All local soils, asked her husband’s corpse, All from this lot here? Mostly, I said, Mostly local, but some others, too. Imported, asked the woman, You have imported soils? Yes, I said, Some imported soils. Expensive, those imported soils, I imagine, said the woman, Expensive to import different soils. Expensive, yes, but of higher densities, I said, Different compositions, all especially good for a deep grave. Expensive soils, said the woman, The denser soils, more expensive. Let us see, said her husband’s corpse, Before we decide on the grave, we must decide on the soil, the soil is of utmost importance. Of course, I said, We have a few kinds I could show you, all different densities.

I led them to the soils and we examined them. The woman peered into the barrels with her hands in her pockets. These here are all local, her husband’s corpse said, All local soils here, in these barrels. That’s right, I said, From all over the grounds here, but also some others, some others from nearby, from further up north. Canadian soils, the woman asked, You mean soil imported from Canada? No, I said, Not quite so far north as that. Of course, her husband’s corpse said, Not Canadian soil, that would be too much of a bother. Perfectly good soil, though, I said, Not Canadian, but close, nearly Canadian. Even better, he said, Better than Canadian soil, denser than Canadian soil. Of course, I said, Nicer soil on this side of the border, all told. Lots of good kinds of soil from here as well, said the woman, Gorgeous colors, these. These are the local ones, I said, Very good soils, all sourced from these very grounds. And they’re cheaper, asked the woman, Cheaper than the northern soils? Of course, I said, Cheaper, yes, but still very good, still quite dense. And nothing from further south, asked her husband’s corpse, Nothing from south of here? Further south, asked the woman, Soil from further south? Further south, I asked, South of here? Right, he said, Further south. No, all local, I said, Or from further up north, near Canada, as I said, but still very good. But nothing from further south, said her husband’s corpse, Nothing from south of here. Right, I said, Nothing like that here. Well, these look fine, said the woman, These local soils, they look dense to me, very good soil I imagine. But all local soils, said her husband’s corpse, And these local soils are all sandy or loamy or rocky, nothing good and dense like from further south. Did you have anything in mind, I asked, From anywhere in particular?

The woman looked back toward the hill with the oaks. Her husband’s corpse limped toward her as bits of bone and old blood peered out from under his torn trousers. They spoke quietly and I leaned on my spade. It was a beautiful day. The woman dug around in her purse and withdrew her cell phone. She sighed.

We can take a rideshare, her husband’s corpse said, That might be the quickest way. A rideshare, I asked, A rideshare to fetch soil for the grave? You know how much we need, he said, You can decide how much we need for such a deep and wide grave. Of course, I said, But it will be a fair amount for this grave. Yes, I’m sure, he said, A rather large amount of soil for such a fine grave, but no matter, no matter at all. How far is it, I asked, How far are we going for the soil?

The woman looked down at her phone, then motioned toward the barrels of soil. The van is on its way, the woman said, He should be here soon with a van. How long will it take, do you think, I asked, I’ll need to close early if we’ll be gone long, although it’s a shame to close so early and lose out on potential business. Of course, the woman said, Yes. Where are we going, I asked, If you don’t mind me asking, where are we off to? Pittsburgh, said her husband’s corpse, We’re going to Pittsburgh. We’re going to Pittsburgh, I asked, Someone agreed to drive us all the way to Pittsburgh? Yes, said the woman, I suppose so. Of course, said her husband’s corpse, Yes, of course, that is their job, to drive, so he will drive us to Pittsburgh to get the best soil. Good soil, of course, I said, Very good soil near Pittsburgh, they say. Will it be okay for the hill, asked the woman, Is it okay to use soil all the way from Pittsburgh? Of course, said her husband’s corpse, Of course, it’s fine, it’s the best soil, the very best soil. But there will be a fee, I said, If I am to accompany you as far as Pittsburgh for the soil. A fee, said the woman, A additional fee. Of course, said her husband’s corpse, As expected, this is work, valuable work, a fee is no matter, no matter at all, and so we will pay what we need to pay, we will compensate you as needed. It will have to be a generous fee, I said, For so much time, for so much travel, for so much work. Of course, he said, Money is no matter, no, it is the grave that matters. We are here for a good grave, I suppose, said the woman, Of course. The money is no matter at all, he said, Only the grave matters, nothing else, we can spend as much as needed, as high as your fees can go, set them there, and we will pay them. But these local soils, said the woman, They all seem nice to me, the local ones, nice and local and dense, I would say, though I am no expert, surely we don’t need to go through so much trouble. Absolutely not, said her husband’s corpse, No, absolutely not, none of these local soils will do, just terrible, all of them, look at them, they are full of rocks, of twigs, of old bits of bone and dung, no, absolutely not. The trip will be so expensive, she said, And then the soil itself, we will have to pay for the soil, too, and we will have to pay to transport it back, and we will have to pay for the truck, for the soil and the truck together. No, it’s my grave, he said, It’s my grave and none of these soils will do, no, we will fetch some better soil, all of us. I refuse, he said, I simply refuse to be entombed in such terrible soil, to be surrounded by such offal, to be encased in a dung-heap, to be buried beneath such rot, such loamy, disgusting rot. No, I simply refuse, he said, This is unacceptable, such low-quality soils, simply unacceptable soils. Not even dirt, he said, All gravel and twigs, not even worthy of the name, not worthy for any grave, not sufficient for even an unmarked grave, not even for the lowest of men, not even for a criminal, a fiend. I refuse, he said, No, I simply refuse, nothing of this sort for my grave, absolutely not. It’s my grave, he said, I know what kind of soil I want for my grave. Yes, it’s my grave, he said, It should have the soil I want for it, and the expense is no matter, the soil is what matters, not the expense, solely the dirt. The soil is what matters, he said, It must be good soil for a good grave, for my grave, good soil for my own grave where I will be buried. No, I insist, I absolutely insist, only the best for my grave, he said, Nothing cheap, no expense spared for my grave, as much as it has to cost, it will cost, and we will pay. I will not settle for just any cheap soil, he said, I will not settle for a cheap local soil, for shit and twigs and bits of rat fur and acorns, for stones and plastic and bits of garbage. Of course, said the woman, We mustn’t settle for cheap soil.

I covered the barrels of soil, refitted their lids, turned the pegs. I looked at my watch.

Zac Smith is the author of 50 Barn Poems (CLASH Books, 2019). Thank you.