The Smallest Holes
by Grace Queen
Daddy looked up at the sky and adjusted his hands around the handle of the spade. The question hung in the air. His mind was in the spring-house. It was March and though there was plenty of work to share, it would be yet another month before the ground would yield anything to the table. After a moment he nodded, and led the two new boarders to the converted milk house where they would now live. It was windowless and damp, standing only a few yards from the barn, but it was better than what many contented themselves with in those years.
March passed, then April. The valley blushed green from root to tip. Wild onions seasoned our suppers. The days grew hot and long.
The boarders, twins, Will and Albert Caldwell were honest to their introduction. They worked hard, and took only their fair share. Almost never were they apart. While in years before able-bodied men of their age would have taken a wife and bought a parcel of land; in those years those that had land fought to hold on to it. Those that did not have land stood little chance of obtaining it. It was because of this that the expectations of before fell away, and little was thought of two brothers.
There was one particularity of the twins however, which could not go unnoticed. When the church bell would announce a death in the valley by tolling the number of years the deceased had lived, Will and Albert would set aside their tools, no matter the task, and gather their shovels and picks. Often before the echo of the bell had left the valley they would be out of sight, making the three mile walk to the churchyard. There they would begin to dig the grave.
Only in recent years has there arisen a profession of men who deal in the details of death. In those days it was not unusual for members of the community to contribute their skills to the process of burial and service. What pricked the interest of the valley was not the twin’s tireless digging, nor their perfectly rectangular holes, but rather the silent stream of tears with which they watered the earth that slowly lowered beneath their feet. For every hole. From start to finish.
Rumors sprang up as neighbors speculated over the mystery mourning. But I could give no truth to the stories they asked me to verify. I had heard of no lost loves, nor dead third brothers. In truth I spoke no more to the twins than did our neighbors. Will and Albert were shy and to me they expressed only quiet complements on the food set before them.
When I married and moved to the eastern slope of the valley on a track on land set aside for me at birth I gave no more thought to the twins than to the chickens, all of which continued their lives near Daddy’s barn. I saw them when I saw all the neighbors of the valley, Sundays. They did not join us for the family dinners that followed the service.
It was not till the birth of my second child, a little girl wrinkled and red, who arrived a month too soon and stayed with us only a week, that I thought of them again.
There in the family plot, on a hill overlooking the church, we walked after the service to the hole that the brothers had prepared. Deeper than long or wide it stood, and the twins beside it with their shovels waiting. I watched the little maple box in its slow descent. I thought of the tears of those two men having baptized this earth. Salt water from which nothing could grow. The preacher said a few words. The guests formed a line. The brothers, Will and Albert, began to fill the hole.
To this day I remember nothing of the well wishes of neighbors as they paid their respects. I remember only the words of Albert, last in line, after the hole had been filled and decorated. He said in a voice no louder than the one I had heard praising potatoes or greens- The littlest holes are the hardest to fill.
Neither he nor Will shook my hand, only took their shovels and began the silent walk back to the farm.
Grace Queen is a sixth generation local of Waynesville, North Carolina. She recently graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina in Asheville.