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art by Ron Sanders

Burying a Child

Steve Zisson was first a journalist and now runs a medical education publishing company north of Boston. He grew up in the city of Salem, Massachusetts and writes speculative fiction from a nearby town where he lives with his family.

The G'narlons were coming any moment for the harvest. Dawnte liked to wait as long as she could, almost to the last minute. She didn't want her son Charlie to be away from her any longer than he had to be.
It was a two-day sweep as usual. That was the G'narlons time allotment for this sector. They were a busy, industrious, harvesting people. Always migrating, always harvesting. The G'narlons moved fast and seemed to be getting all they wanted.
It was hard for Dawnte to go through with it last year. She hoped it would be easier this year, but there was no way it could be. Still, she knew it was the only thing she could do, but it went against every fiber of her being as a young mother.
The G'narlons only wanted prime three and four year olds and Charlie was now four. He had made it through as a three year old!
This time, it would be nearly impossible for Charlie to understand again, especially at his age. He barely comprehended last year, but maybe his ignorance helped. He'd have to comply if he were going to make it.
It would only be for this year. For just two days. Then he would be done. The G'narlons didn't want the older kids. Then he'd be Dawnte's forever.
Last week, she dug the hole next to the swing set in the backyard, selecting a location a little sunnier than last year, hoping some of the rays would shine through the hard packed clay and warm the soil for the two long nights.
Charlie had said it was so so dark last year. It made her feel better, the new spot, but she doubted much light would get through. How could it?
This new hole was closer to the old silver maple, which shaded the yard for most of the summer and creaked in any puff of wind. She did worry about a big storm felling the old tree and crushing Charlie, but she trusted the tree's strength despite its age. This was the best spot.
The branches over the hole were thin and weakened by age and had already dropped most of their orangey but still green-tinged leaves. Three quarters of the tree remained vibrant, continuing to pull energy from the sun. She could feel the warmth on her hair. It was comfortable.
Dawnte had dug a few test holes, gouging the maple's century-old roots too many times for her liking with her shovel. Each nick, she apologized out loud to her favorite tree. She was grateful for the sun shining through the bare branches and for the early leaf shedding, warming the ground with its orange glow. She didn't bother to rake up the leaves. Leaves are great insulators too.
She heard something. A lone leaf had detached from above and was settling to the ground now. Falling leaves make some noise, Dawnte observed, just enough to pick up with sensitive ears. G'narlon scanners are a lot quieter than descending leaves and she believed she could hear them coming a few minutes before they would arrive.
She'd do anything for Charlie of course. The swing set was a throwback, an ancient metal one she picked up at a yard sale. She had heard through her Mom network that rusted metal nearby could throw off G'narlon scanners. Something about oxidation. Maybe it was just a new Mom's tale or an old wives tale. But it couldn't hurt to try.
She made the hole four feet deep and three wide. Charlie was on the upper end of the range for a boy his age. He was 45 inches and now weighed almost 50 pounds.
Dawnte plumped him up this year, hoping the extra weight could help him withstand the two days without food while he was buried.
When she pulled him out of the hole in his third year, hugging and hugging and licking the dirt right off him, she had all his favorite foods ready for a week. Seven kinds of ice cream, all the apple pie in the world, and chicken soup to warm him up and nurse him back to his healthy self.
"This is a better spot, Charlie boy," she said as she led him by the hand to the hole.
She had tried to make it a game last year. But he didn't buy it.
Dawnte enveloped Charlie one last time, snorting his clean hair until the softness tickled the inside of her nose, and let him climb in the hole himself as if it were by his own choice. Somehow she felt briefly better about that. She didn't have to force him. Once he was in, he looked up with pleading baby blue eyes.
"Do I have to?"
"Yes, Charlie. There's no choice. You want to stay with Mommy forever, don't you?"
"Yes, Mommy."
Still, there were questions. Who could blame a child for asking? Especially about being buried for two days!
"Can I have a swing now?"
"Not now, Charlie. It's broken. I'll have it fixed in two days for you. I promise."
There were more questions. Boys his age are all questions.
"What if dirt gets down my tube? Or a crawly bug?"
Dawnte started to tear up but she caught herself.
"Blow it out, like I taught you. You had no problem last year. You are my brave guy."
It was hard for a four-year-old boy to remember anything past a few days. She had to remind him of things.
"What about the worms, Mommy? They'll bite me!"
"No they won't, Charlie. The worms are your friends. Plus, they don't even have mouths," Dawnte said.
Well, at least she had never seen a mouth on a worm. But she was never one to inspect worms very closely. She didn't like them either.
She didn't bother to look up how worms ate when Charlie brought it up last year, mainly because she didn't want to know and she didn't want to feel like a liar if he asked again. As far as she knew, she had never seen a mouth on a worm.
This was so hard for her, especially as a single mom. She had to make all the decisions all by herself. Where to dig the hole. How deep.
She didn't even have a husband to do the actual digging and to be there as two parents together to reassure Charlie as he hopped into the hole.
Then she reached down and took off his last piece of clothing, his Superstar underwear. His skin had to react with the microbes in the soil so the G'narlon scanners could not detect him.
A dozen years ago, a brave mother had discovered this defense against the scanners out of desperation and the word spread rapidly from Mom to Mom.
A few children had been lost over the years from suffocation, but the success rate was close to 98.3 percent now. She had looked that one up for sure.
Dawnte hated that she couldn't even put a shower cap over his soft, curly blonde hair. She didn't even want to pat him on the head now. Touching his gorgeous hair would make her break down.
With his head so close to the surface, other Moms had said that using a shower cap had given their child away.
Last year, it took two shampoos a day for a full week for her to get the brown and red out of his hair. She had to scrub and scrub his skin raw to bring back his light skin and relieve the itching when she pulled him from the earth smelling wormy and all yeasty.
"Here is your breathing tube," she said, handing him the reddish, camouflaged tube.
Charlie put it in his mouth and instinctively blew it out to make sure it was clear. The breathing tube made her think of soldiers' avoiding detection in long ago wars by submerging themselves in a swamp and breathing through a reed. Somehow fetid water seemed cleaner and easier to deal with than being buried.
She worried about the two, cold autumn nights and reassured herself and her son.
"The dirt will keep you warm, pretend you are in your cozy bed. The leaves are an extra blanket. I love you, Charlie."
"I love you, Mommy."
Then those pleading eyes again, looking up.
She thought she heard something. It was nearly time. The silent G'narlon scanners were approaching she was sure, hovering just above the trees. A mother knows when danger is close even if they are quiet threats.
She took the first handful of moist soil, piled high next to the hole, balled it up and dropped it in at Charlie's feet. It would be faster with a shovel, but burying him by hand she thought was gentler on him.
The hardest thing for a parent is burying a child.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Author Comments

The idea for this story was first hatched by listening to young mothers I know who are extremely protective of their small children. These mothers, of course, would do anything for their kids (with the possible exception of reading this story to them until they are much older). I was also struck by the number of news stories airing where prying TV news reporters stuck their microphones into the faces of parents who had recently lost a child. The conclusion of each heartbreaking news story was: a parent should never have to bury a child. But could there be a time when burying a child might be better than the alternative for a mother who would do anything for her child?

- Steve Zisson
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