It is just a hole, Jim thought to himself as he inspected the rectangular pit he had hollowed out around his feet. No different than any other he had dug in the past twelve years, he figured - intended for a singular purpose. He wiped the sweat from his brow and peered into his finished undertaking with a small but warm sense of satisfaction. Knowing his hard work had rewarded him with this familiar feeling inspired a shy smile to creep across his face. He allowed it to linger. He tried not to think about what it meant to finish the job he had begun. Knowing the hole was for himself only scratched at the recesses of his mind - knowing this was the last hole he would ever dig.
The earth was soft and inviting. Warm rays of light danced up and down the sides of the hole. Jim took great pride in his work as he always did. He cherished every sip from his canteen, but was sure not to delay his work for too long while resting. He decided before he began that he would not pause his work out of fear, but only out of thirst. Jim wanted his last job to be the same as every other. Pretending his sweat and sore hands would be rewarded with a handsome paycheck eased his mind. He completed digging the hole with the same love and attention to detail as always. He took his time to make sure the sides were perfectly perpendicular to the bottom and that no roots stuck through the sides. Everything had to be flush. The final few scoops of dirt were so precisely considered, they would hardly fill a salad bowl. It was too perfect.
Sitting now, on the edge of his own grave, with the toes of his boots only barely scraping the bottom, he thought of Seattle and the day everything changed. For a brief moment, fear grabbed his skin and tightened it with an all too familiar sensation. His arm hair stood on end, and a shiver ran down his spine and the backs of his legs only to stop dead where his boots clenched at his calves. He chuckled suddenly. Knowing now how everything had ended and was going to end, he couldn’t help but laugh. Life is so predictable once you get to the end of the line, he thought to himself. “You’ve always had it right, Pops” He said coarsely, in the direction of the unforgivable humming sound echoing through the treetops.
Jim settled into his grave with an assertiveness that surprised him. He was more comfortable with what he was doing than he ever thought possible. Bodies belong in the ground, after all, he reminded himself. Looking into the crowded canopy of the moss covered pines he held his breath. The soft bristle of pine needles rolling over one another on the forest floor and the faint swish of boughs brushing against the sides of neighboring trees brought a fine sense of serenity to Jim’s ears. He breathed slowly and evenly, enjoying the fresh air. Closing his eyes, he tried to clear his mind. He tried to ignore the incessant humming that had been following him, haunting and hunting him for two days. Forcing his ears to focus beyond the hum, Jim let the forest fill his ears - the near silence so specific to nature. When only the wind remained, a poem forced itself to the forefront of Jim’s thoughts, burrowed in like a tick and whispered to him.
If we are blessed
with the foresight or happenstance of knowing
our end before its ending,
it is not where we go
once we die that defines us,
but rather where we go to die.
Foresight or happenstance, Jim had chosen the perfect spot. He opened his eyes to shake the words from his thoughts. In what seemed to be an intentionally delayed moment, the dry husk of a pine cone fell slowly toward Jim’s position in the hole. It wavered slightly in the light wind and landed just on the edge of the grave, bouncing down it came to rest on Jim’s chest, sitting upright as if to say “hello.” Jim let another smile creep up the side of his face. Staring into the bent thorns of the pine cone, he entertained himself with the thought of lying in the hollowed out earth until nature herself decided to bury him. Looking down toward his feet, he tried to calculate how many pine cones it would take. Feeling satisfied with his calculations, he glanced back up toward the canopy and started to count all the browning cones he could see. After only a minute, he realized that there aren’t nearly enough to finish the job. Jim closed his eyes once more, took a deep breath, and held it in.
When he opened his eyes, he looked straight up at the faded brown canvas dangling above his head. He figured he probably loaded it with at least three-hundred and fifty pounds of dirt and rocks - more than enough to hold a man his size down in a lying position. His hands were hot and sweaty and he remembered that he was still wearing his work gloves. Finger by finger, he slowly removed his leather gloves and placed them on his right thigh. His hand returned to his side to find the stock of his .30 caliber rifle. Years ago the rifle belonged to his grandfather and had a standard single shot bolt action. Shortly after leaving Seattle, he had a friend of his retrofit it to accommodate a ten round magazine. He was fairly certain he wouldn’t need ten shots today, but he was a man that prided himself in always being prepared.
He raised the rifle and propped the barrel against the side of the grave. In supporting the butt of the gun against his collar bone, he could look down the sights without raising his head off of the ground. He knew he would struggle when the load of dirt came crashing down on him, it was only natural, but he didn’t want it to last any longer than necessary and he certainly didn’t want to be able to sit up or claw his way to the surface. After all, the hole was only three feet deep. He had loaded the heaviest of the rocks into the side of the tarp that hung directly over his chest just for this reason. Maybe, if he was lucky, the force would be enough to knock him unconscious.
Jim steadied the gun and took careful aim down the sights. The yellow nylon rope was stressed from the weight of the tarp’s contents, but he knew that the rope was five-hundred pound test and he would need a direct shot in order to sever it entirely. He exhaled slowly and squeezed the trigger just as his grandfather had taught him. A sharp report rang out and echoed amongst the trees. The recoil was enough to cause the butt of the gun to shift off of Jim’s collar bone and hit him in the chin - a blow he mistook for the load of rocks and soil hitting him in the face. Jim slowly relaxed his contorted face and opened his eyes. He had only just grazed the rope. A few small threads of rope curled away from the rest and the nylon slowly stretched under the stress. Jim looked up and noticed the tarp was just barely shifting. Its weight now slightly off center, a rock rolled across the top of the soil to the other side of the load. A faint twang vibrated off of the rope as another sliver gave loose and curled away.
Jim held his breath in suspense, waiting for it to be over but nothing more happened. The wind seemed to hold its breath with him, and at that moment, the forest fell absolutely silent. The silence hung on the moment as it does at critical times. Nothing remained but the slightest echo of the shot and the sharp percussion of the report reverberating in Jim’s ears. Slowly, the sound faded into a familiar hum. He exhaled loudly and hotly and became aware of the awkward crunched up face he had been holding. Embarrassed by the fact he had cringed in such a ridiculous way, he giggled at himself nervously. Just as Jim’s giggling began to fade, the humming grew more distinguished and one of the miniature drones popped into sight. Jim instinctively aimed the rifle at it, but it was useless, the thing darted away through the trees before he could even look through the sights. Then a noise came from the treetops - a slight rustle as something fell slowly through the branches. Jim jerked up, startled, trying to catch a glimpse of what was falling, hoping one of the drones had crashed into a tree or finally ran out of power.
A still-green pine cone came bounding down from one of the ponderosas blocked from his view by the canvas. It bounced at a sharp angle off of the root of a tree and rolled forward with just enough force to reach the precipice of Jim’s grave. Jim traced the cones’ movement carefully with his eyes and as if to cheer it on, he contorted his mouth into an O shape as it approached the foot of his grave. He let out a small “ooh” as it tumbled over the edge and landed directly between his boots. He greeted its landing with raucous laughter. The gun fell to his side as he grabbed his stomach and snorted outbursts of amusement. “Only seven hundred and forty-two to go,” he blurted out to the tops of the trees. His laughter echoed through the pines and faded into the wind.