IPREFER WEARING A SKIRT, but the rain precluded that possibility today. Wet, it would tangle around my legs and hinder me, so I opted for jeans, now soaked to my skin. I concentrate on not letting the shovel handle slide out of my grip. The best I can do is wipe my mud-covered hands over the grass flattened by the rain, shake them a bit, then grip the handle tighter. I angle the shovel toward the point I’d danced off and bring my right foot down hard on its blade to tear through the roots holding our black Iowa dirt together. This point, now gashed into a narrow opening, exposes one of the hundreds of numbered subterranean aluminum blooms I spend my afternoons hunting: grave markers. I bring the marker flush with the surface, leveraging the shovel against the gash’s edge. Then, crouching, I mold mud around the marker to fill the wound the extraction has left at the corner of the empty grave.
The rain rinses the marker’s raised numbers, and I step on it to secure its position. Marked. I run my filthy hands over the grass, pick up my shovel, and dance eleven feet along the grave’s boundary in the direction of the next headstone.
The priests of Iowa City needed someone to sell and mark graves for burial and monument placement. I was the first person who came to mind. “Why did they bring you on for this?” I’m often asked. There’s no real answer, so I just shrug and admit I don’t know. I’d never set foot in Saint Joe’s before I was hired.
Lord, extolled in the heights by angelic powers, you are also praised by all earth’s creatures, each in its own way. With all the splendor of heavenly worship, you still delight in such tokens of love as earth can offer. May heaven and earth together acclaim you as king; may the praise that is sung in heaven resound in the heart of every creature on earth.
—from Lauds for Liturgy of the Hours
How does this resound in my heart, Lord? Do you hear it? It’s the sound of my shovel hitting those aluminum markers. They look just like tokens: flat, round, silver. They are treasure literally buried in the earth. I walk out among the graves with a shovel, digging them up. For some reason, earthworms and grubs are drawn to them. It is rare to pull a marker from the ground without disturbing a handful of your more humble and disgusting creatures.
Grubs are so ugly.
As it grows colder, the worms and grubs move more slowly. Often the grubs aren’t moving at all, but curled head to tail in plump little balls. Their waxy white sheen reminds me of pearls. In the cool of early fall, I find myself offering you grubs.
I do think of them as pearls now. And, in the cosmic scale of your design, it really makes no difference whether I’m offering you pearls or grubs. What are either to you?
And so I ask, Lord, receive back these damn grubs as if they were pearls. All you want is love. I know this. I hunt with love, and offer back what I find with love, my love also humble among the graves.
IFORGET HOW MANY LANGUAGES I used to speak, just as a woman forgets how many dresses she’s owned. What’s the point in remembering? When they no longer suit circumstances one frequently finds herself in, there’s no justification for giving space to them anymore. The truth is, I’m simply embarrassed by the extravagance and impracticality of how many there were, the frequency with which I slipped in and out of them, and that I found so many occasions to pour myself into them. God knows how I loved zipping them tightly up my height and around my body.
There are some remnants, though. In the same way my grandmother kept a battered cookie tin of sewing notions, I’ve kept what was too hard to part with, either because of its beauty or potential. I loved that tin full of bits salvaged from finished sewing projects or clothing worn back to the thread from which it was woven. There were mother-of-pearl buttons in abundance, manufactured in the small town closest to my grandparents’ farm, punched out of clam shells harvested from the Mississippi River only a few miles from my family’s land. Sifting through their luminescence, so near both the river and factory, made them more precious to me. They were tokens of the Mississippi, the gravel road the clammers’ trucks bounced down as harvesting hooks rattled against the boats pulled behind, and the wood of the kitchen table where I’d sit and sort four-holed from shanked, chipped from perfect, raw-backed from smooth-finished, flat from gleaming.
That’s the purpose of notions I’ve salvaged from languages: to fasten and adorn. Whereas English takes so many words to bring together that which I find myself reconciling. Sorting through remnants of my once extravagant wardrobe generally yields something that efficient and ornamental English can’t achieve.
I haven’t found in English what I need to describe this sensation I’ve only experienced in my graveyard. Instead, I’ve sifted a word from Russian: naoborot. I won’t translate it for you because that will ruin it.
You’ll learn its meaning much better this way.
First, fill your mouth with it.
I will teach you how.
Its sound curves like an hourglass, beginning generous and full, then cinching to a narrow throat that empties into a patient chamber. Naa: generous and full. Ba: the narrow throat. Rote: a patient chamber. The patient chamber becomes full once the throat finishes drinking the mystery measured through it, the hourglass is turned, and it all begins again.
While only measuring a little mystery, the perpetual tumbling naoborot endures, ensures there is no end. Mystery is eternal, fool. It isn’t a matter of your being wise enough to solve it. Mystery is a pledge, a promise to you. You are filled with what your finitude can turn over, not in hope of understanding, but to grow in the desire of wondering at it beyond the limits of time.
This is how naoborot fastens life and death together in my graveyard, just as a mother-of-pearl button can fasten the shimmer of the Mississippi River to the dust of a gravel road. The turning, filling, tumbling I endure while spending so much time walking over corpses disorients. They are alive, and I am dead, naoborot, baptized into the death of Christ, waiting to be born into eternal life as those under my feet have been. The trees in my graveyard are not rooted in the ground, their summer leaves photosynthesizing light. No, their naked winter branches are rooted in the night sky, naoborot, drawing down to earth the order with which the stars burn; just as order flowed through Jesus’s cross, in the darkness of Good Friday, fashioning a remedy for our own mortality out of death itself.
Turn and fill me with the measure of mystery you’ve granted me, my God. Over and over. Naoborot.
MY HUSBAND TELLS ME if I’m going to keep this job, I can’t get emotional,” I say to the gravedigger and burrow my gloveless hands deeper into my coat pockets. It’s cold out. I feel cold.
The gravedigger is sitting in his red three-quarter-ton Chevy pickup, and I’m standing near his driver’s-side window at the edge of one of the roads winding through Saint Joseph’s Cemetery.
“She was only two years old,” I say.
We’re waiting for her procession to arrive.
I make him promise to do his work as soon as the vault company moves its gear.
“You don’t need to stay,” he says.
He knows my five kids are waiting at home for me. And so I thank him and walk through the graves to lock up the office. He’ll wait in his truck until it’s time to “close,” as the funeral directors euphemize: to fill her grave. “Tuck her in right away,” I’d told him, my own idiomatic sleight of hand.
I’d supervised the setting of her headstone in the fall, remaining hopeful I’d come to marvel at it as a monument to a miracle rather than to death. For being stone, everything about it is soft: the pink, the curves, the wispy flowers engraved up its height, and the script spelling out her name and date of birth.
The similarities between birth and death have fermented to cliché for me. This child’s death liberated their freshness again, but the sorrow for me came not in words about how short or full of suffering her life was, but rather in how little space her body took up in the ground. I found myself sorrowing over how little dirt we moved. I am measuring life in terms of displacement, as legend has it Archimedes measured the purity of a gold crown by the volume of water it displaced, as the ancients calculated weight before the invention of scales. So many things in a graveyard can be disorienting, and this case is the perfect illustration: the smaller displacement betrays a heavier weight.
Today she is the little queen of Saint Joseph’s Cemetery, but I know the deer are going to eat her flowers as they do everyone else’s, that in time her grave will settle and grass will grow over it. Her headstone will someday be surrounded by those of her family and hundreds of strangers, relinquishing its solitary reign over the southern section. She will, though, always wear the glorious crown of incalculable purity she received upon her entrance to heaven. I hope she will pray for us long after her grave is dwarfed by the headstones of her elders and the memory of this day gone.
Ann Thomas lives in Iowa. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Examined Life, Dappled Things, and Ever Eden Literary Journal, with work forthcoming in Ruminate.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.