*This short story was written for the 2016 Author's on Eighth Yukon writing competition. The theme was "World War II," and The Gravedigger's Hands received an honorable mention. The story is based on the life of a hero of the Yukon Territory, Joe Boyle, and on a Gold Miner friend's stories of his own youth.
The Gravedigger's Hands
The old gravedigger’s hands were the first thing Patrick noticed. They were massive – bigger even than Patrick’s own farm hands – and hard with callouses. They gripped the shovel with purpose, and looked too strong to touch anything gently.
“The hole is always seven by three, and six feet deep,” the gravedigger instructed in a broad, West Country voice full of gravel.
“What if it’s a tall man, or someone small?” Patrick asked. His own shovel bit the earth and he filled it with soft English soil. It wasn’t so very different from his work on the farm, except that now he was earning a wage.
April White Books
The gravedigger flung his shovelful away from the edge of the marked ground. “Never met a man who didn’t fit in the wooden box, or end up in one,” he grunted. “The one for a child is built special, but the hole’s the same. Children go in the ground on this side of the churchyard, though. The other sometimes floods, and no one wants to see the small bones rise to the surface.”
Patrick thought it would take a month of digging graves to earn his passage on one of the great ships bound for North America. He hoped never to see the small bones.
The two men dug in silence for a time, until the church bells broke the quiet.
The gravedigger said, “They say the man for this hole was bigger than most, and the stories about him bigger still.”
“Who was he?” asked Patrick. His hands hurt from the work, but he imagined it would make them stronger. He would need the strength where he was going.
“He was Canadian, and a gold miner.” The old man pulled a folded program from a pocket and skimmed it. “A businessman, entrepreneur, spy, and war hero, too.”
Patrick leaned on his shovel. “So why are they burying him in Hampton Hill? St. James isn’t the usual place legends get laid to rest.”
The gravedigger crumpled the paper and tossed it in the hole. “I s’pose even legends just need a place to lie down and call home.”
When Patrick had left the farm, his father had given his blessing, his mother had cried, and his brothers punched his shoulders and begged to join him. But Felicia hadn’t come to say goodbye, and Patrick finally found her down by the creek, sitting under their tree.
“You knew I was leaving today, didn’t you?” he asked.
“I’m protesting,” she said. Her arms were crossed over her knees, and there was a notebook and pencil on her lap. He sat next to her and took her soft hand in his rough one. It seemed too small and fragile for him to hold properly and he set it down again.
“I can’t ask for your hand until I have something in my own to give you.”
“I didn’t choose you for your providing skills.” The words stung and Patrick flinched. Felicia touched his barely-whiskered face with impossibly gentle fingers and held his gaze. “I chose you because you look at me like you’re actually listening. And when you’re not trying to impress me with your strength, you make me laugh.”
“It’s a man’s duty to take care of the woman he loves,” he grumbled. They’d had this argument before, and just as before, Felicia pulled away. She was fierce and fiery and so much smarter than he felt most times.
“Duty?” She scowled. “Then take me with you. We can care for each other and make our fortunes together; sharing the burden as partners do.” Her gray eyes flashed dangerously. “It’s 1923 for goodness sake - women work, and vote, and even serve in Parliament.”
“You’re hardly Lady Astor, Felicia,” Patrick said, and immediately wished he could take back the careless words. Her eyes narrowed, and her voice was cold when she finally stood.
“I wish you safe travels, Patrick. If your duty allows, perhaps we’ll meet again one day when you’ve finally found your fortune.”
After the funeral, the old gravedigger left Patrick alone to stand on the box and pull dirt from the edges into the hole. The rich scent of loam filled the void around him, and for a just a moment he was back on the farm.
“I don’t know if Joe gave much thought to being buried, but there’s a certain irony in his being covered by dirt.” A man stood at the edge of the grave, and peered down at Patrick in amusement. He was in his late fifties, balding, and seemed fairly well-to-do.
Patrick climbed out of the grave to shovel the dirt from the far side.
“Joe looked a lot like you when he was young – tall, strapping, and strong as an ox,” the man said. He spoke in flat, Canadian tones, and watched Patrick work. He seemed to want to talk, and didn’t need much in the way of encouragement.
“The legends about him had some basis in fact, of course.” He ticked off his fingers. “He did sell a company only to steal it back, worked for the Bolsheviks and against them, bought his way into the war, then earned his way out.” He shook his head. “He also left every wife he ever had to love a queen he couldn’t keep.”
The Canadian seemed mesmerized by the box and the dirt that covered it. “He never believed there was a thing he couldn’t do. During the war, the Russians got their trains in a hopeless knot, so he just pushed the empty cars off the track to untangle the mess.” He chuckled and shook his head. “And then he stole a train car to bring some crown jewels back to Romania. He did everything like that – he could see the problem and the solution in one fell swoop.”
The Canadian met Patrick’s eyes, took off his glove and held his bare hand out to shake. “I’m Teddy, by the way. I live just across the street.”
Teddy didn’t seem bothered by Patrick’s filthy hands, and it impressed the young man. “You knew him well?” Patrick asked.
Teddy chuckled sadly. “Indeed. Joe came to stay with me after Marie … after he left Romania. He had business in London, and I was an old friend from our days chasing gold.”
“What was it like then, in the gold fields?”
Teddy studied Patrick as he spoke. “Like all the young men, when we got to the Yukon we hired on as laborers, doing work not much different than what you’re doing now. Joe wasn’t like most of us though – he had vision, and he realized very quickly that panning by hand was not the way to get rich. He wanted to dredge, and by 1910 he’d built the largest dredge in the world.”
Patrick paused his shoveling to stare down at the last uncovered corner of the box that held Joe, the man who built the largest dredge in the world. “Wow,” he said softly.
“You look like a young man with dreams bigger than shoveling dirt,” Teddy said with a smile.
Patrick stood a little straighter. “I have a fortune to make, sir, and a girl to marry.” He ignored the twinge of conscience and flexed his fingers.
“And not afraid to work, I’ll wager,” Teddy said, admiring the gravedigger’s hands. “Thing is, Joe managed to keep the fortune, but never the girl. I always wondered if they were mutually exclusive.” He finally shrugged. “I suppose if you’re hell-bent on the fortune, the question to ask yourself is: will you be the man who does the digging, or the man who builds the dredge?”
Patrick’s hands had gotten thicker in the month since he left the farm, and his shoulders no longer burned under the weight of the boxes. He had received one letter from Felicia with cordial news of his family, but writing back was hard when his fingers ached, and anyway, he didn’t know what to say that would change how it was between them. There were things a man must do before he was boxed and put to ground and Patrick believed he was doing them.
He missed her though, every day. He missed the sound of her laughter, and the flash of her gray eyes when she was angry. But most of all he missed talking to her; how she worked through problems like puzzles, how she found her ideas. Felicia had once said he looked at her like the moon shone through her eyes, and Patrick felt as though every night had been moonless since he’d left the farm.
He had just finished back-filling a hole when the woman in black first spoke to him. “Excuse me, young man. Could you please direct me to Joseph Boyle?”
She was English, but there was something exotic that colored her words. The question confused him until he pictured Joseph Boyle’s headstone. “Right over this way, ma’am.” He laid the shovel down and then led her to the first grave he’d ever dug at St. James.
The woman stepped forward to read Joe’s headstone, and Patrick moved back so he could study her without seeming to. She was his mother’s age maybe, but her hair was soft black, and her skin still smooth. Fine lines at the corners of her eyes and the turn of her mouth gave her the look of someone who laughed easily, but there was only deep sorrow in her face as she gazed down at Joe’s grave.
She caught Patrick staring and he blushed, but she seemed not to care. “I need your help,” she said quietly.
“Anything, ma’am,” Patrick said, and he meant it.
“This marker is not distinguished enough for Mr. Boyle, so I’ve brought another one. Would you place it for me?”
He hesitated, then dared to look in the woman’s eyes. “Of course, ma’am.”
She managed a small smile, but it transformed her face into something radiant. “Thank you,” she whispered.
The woman’s driver brought down a carved stone cross and then retreated. When Patrick had placed it to her satisfaction, the woman in black sank to her knees on top of the grave and bowed her head. Sadness bore down on her shoulders, and Patrick felt he couldn’t leave her to carry it alone.
“Can I get you anything, ma’am?” he asked tentatively.
The woman looked up, her eyes bright with tears. “What is your name?” she asked.
“Well, Patrick, I would be very happy if you would keep me company for a time. I find I do not much care for solitude these days.”
“I’d be honored to, ma’am,” he said. He knelt down a few feet away from where she sat with Joe, and looked at the marker she’d brought. “It’s a beautiful cross.”
“It is a thousand years old. Joe and I found it on one of our rides in the hills of my country.” Her tone warmed with the memory. “He said whoever had placed it must have cared for someone very much. I thought it fitting.” Her voice trailed off, and he waited in silence for her to return.
“Do you know,” she said finally, “the first time we met I asked him if he had come to see me, and he said, No ma’am, I’ve come to help you.” She smiled sadly. “Joe had the heart of a knight, and yet he never made me feel that I needed his help, only that I warranted it.”
“I don’t understand the difference,” Patrick said.
The woman in black looked at him steadily. “Joe respected my strength and my courage, and no matter the disparity in our sex, our titles, our fortunes, or our upbringings, with Joe I was an equal, even as he made me feel cherished and adored.”
Patrick was silent a long moment, thinking about the lady’s words.
“Ma’am,” he finally said.
“If a man loves a woman, is it not his duty to provide for her?” He met her eyes, anxious at what her reaction might be.
The woman in black absently traced the ancient lines on the cross with her fingers. “Duty is a self-inflicted condition. Why is it a man’s duty to provide for a woman? Could it be that society has not afforded women the opportunities to provide for themselves, and has therefore imposed duty to correct the inequity? Why is it a mother’s duty to provide for her children? Could not a father give the same care?”
She held the young gravedigger’s gaze.
“It is my duty to feed my people, but I believe they are better served if I invest in ways to make my country stronger – to employ the people, and pay them a wage so that they can feed themselves.”
He stared at her. “Why is that your duty?”
The woman in black sighed. “It is a queen’s duty, even when the people she serves turn against the man who helped her save them.”
Patrick scrambled to his feet and nearly tripped over them in his haste to help her off the ground. “Your majesty, forgive me. I didn’t realize …” his voice trailed off as she accepted his hand with grace, and he helped her to stand.
“I suppose it is not often one meets the queen of Romania visiting her lost love in a graveyard.” The queen looked into Patrick’s eyes, daring his judgement with the same fire that he admired in Felicia. When she saw none, she exhaled softly. “I had a partnership with Joe. We provided for each other the support, companionship, friendship, and love that made us stronger together, even when it was no longer prudent to be.” She caressed the stone cross one more time, then took Patrick’s arm.
They walked back to the road in silence, and Patrick marveled that when a queen held his arm, he felt more capable than his work had ever made him feel.
“Ma’am?” Patrick asked her, as he helped her up into her car.
She took his big, rough hand in her own, and the softness of her skin fit around his callouses like a velvet glove. Felicia’s hands had always felt the same way to him, and a deep longing for his girl flooded Patrick with the certainty that he would do anything to hold her hand again.
“My girl Felicia, I think she’s a lot like you.”
The queen smiled at the comparison. “Then I suspect you will have some things to discuss when you get home, won’t you?”
She held out her hand for his kiss and he took it with a gentleness his fingers had never before understood. He felt real strength replace the weight of duty on his shoulders, and he knew then where his fortune lay. “Yes, ma’am, I hope we will.”