“Kick it,” said the old man. “See if it’s real.”
The young man kicked and his face paled.
“Did you hear that?” he said.
“What?” said the old man, looking somewhere else.
The stranger listened and shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Well, now,” said the old man, knocking out the ashes from his pipe. “How much free dirt you need?”
“I hadn’t thought.”
“Yes, you have,” said the old man, “or you wouldn’t have driven your lightweight delivery truck up by the cemetery gate. I got cat’s ears. Heard your motor just when you stopped. How much?”
“Oh,” said the young man uneasily. “My backyard’s eighty feet by forty. I could use a good inch of topsoil. So …?”
“I’d say,” said the old man, “half of that mound there. Hell, take it all. Nobody wants it.”
“I mean, that mound has been growing and diminishing, diminishing and growing, mixtures up and down, since Grant took Richmond and Sherman reached the sea. There’s Civil dirt there, coffin splinters, satin casket shreds from when Lafayette met the Honor Guard’s Edgar Allan Poe. There’s funeral flowers, blossoms from ten hundred obsequies. Condolence-card confetti for Hessian troopers, Parisian gunners who never shipped home. That soil is so laced with bone meal and casket corsages, I should charge you to buy the lot. Grab a spade before I do.”
“Stay right there.” The young man raised one hand.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said the old man. “Nor is anyone else nearby.”
The half-truck was pulled up by the dirt mound and the young man was reaching in for a spade when the old man said:
“No, I think not.”
The old man went on:
“Graveyard spade’s best. Familiar metal, familiar soil. Easy digging when like takes to like. So.”
The old man’s head indicated a spade half stuck in the dark mound. The young man shrugged and moved.
The cemetery spade came free with a soft whispering. Pellets of ancient mound fell with similar whispers.
He began to dig and shift and fill the back of his half-truck as the old man from the corners of his eyes observed:
“It’s more than dirt, as I said. War of 1812, San Juan Hill, Manassas, Gettysburg, October flu epidemic 1918, all strewn from graves filled and evicted to be refilled. Various occupants leavened out to dust, various glories melted to mixtures, rust from metal caskets, coffin handles, shoelaces but no shoes, hairs long and short. Ever see wreaths made of hair saved to weave crowns to fix on mortal pictures? All that’s left of a smile or that funny look in the eyes of someone who knows she’s not alive anymore, ever. Hair, epaulettes, not whole ones, but one strand of epaulette, all there along with blood that’s gone to silt.”
The young man finished, sweating, and started to thrust the spade back in the earth when the old man said:
“Take it. Cemetery dirt, cemetery spade, like takes to like.”
“I’ll bring it back tomorrow.” The young man tossed the spade into the mounded truck.
“No. You got the dirt, so keep the spade. Just don’t bring the free dirt back.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Just don’t,” said the old man, but did not move as the young man climbed in his truck to start the engine.
He sat listening to the dirt mound tremble and whisper in the flatbed.
“What’re you waiting for?” asked the old man.
The flimsy half-truck ran toward the last of the twilight, pursued by the ever-encroaching dark. Clouds raced overhead, perturbed by the invisible. Back on the horizon, thunder sounded. A few drops of rain fell on the windshield, causing the young man to ram his foot on the gas and swerve into his home street even as the sun truly died, the wind rose, and the trees around his cottage bent and beckoned.
Climbing out, he stared at the sky and then his house and then the empty garden. A few drops of cold rain on his cheeks decided him; he drove the rattling half-truck into the empty garden, unlatched the metal back-flap, opened it just an inch so as to allow a proper flow, and then began motoring back and forth across the garden, letting the dark stuffs whisper down, letting the strange midnight earth sift and murmur, until at last the truck was empty and he stood in the blowing night, watching the wind stir the black soil.