Burial by Joy Clark

in Fiction/Issue One

THEY SAID IT WAS A SIGN OF GOD—all those dead folk coming up from their final rests, coming instead to rest in the branches of sugar maples, caught between QwikStop pumps, stranded lonely in fields of washed-away cornstalks. Birdy believed that recognizing signs of God was one of her gifts—the Spirit’s fruit—born alongside humility, patience, and a need to serve. She’d seen signs from God in all manner of strange places—bulbous clouds, a child’s finger-scrawl on a dirty car—knowing just when to raise a hand and say, The Lord is trying to tell us something here.

In her church’s parking lot, folks gathered under FEMA’s white tents for a few gallons of water, a box of MREs, some pull-tab cans of beans. Birdy didn’t need the extra help—she was a full twenty-five miles from Hardin, and her home—despite loss of power—slipped through the floodwaters fingers. Instead she showed up as a volunteer, walking around the clustered groups to offer a word of prayer and a cup of hot coffee from the carafe she brought with her.

She happened upon a group saying just what she had been thinking: that the flood waters washing up all these graves meant something. A kind of message, characteristic of the cavern-forming, chariot-sending, dead-raising Big Miracles God that so many people had lost sight of lately.

“Can I pour you some coffee?” she asked, stepping inside their circle. “You know, I had just been thinking the same thing. We know the Lord is with us in Missouri, but could be there’s a lesson to learn…”

“Are you with FEMA?” asked a woman who looked old, much older than Birdy, who noted her stoop and her wheezy breathing. 

“I’m just hear to serve,” said Birdy. “Offer prayers, blessings, you know.”

One of the younger men in the group took her proffered coffee, dumped the coffee out onto the asphalt, and sunk his teeth into the Styrofoam so that it left marks. He walked off like that, chewing the foam.

“He’s pissed. His daddy was in that cemetery,” someone said, as an explanation.

Birdy felt an inner light, a peace and clarity which she knew was given to her for a purpose. “The Lord has always had hard messages for his people.” She looked into their eyes, hoping to watch the light come into their faces. “He sends us loss so we may understand His loss, His son who died, to bring us closer to Him. The dead around us is a sign that we will rise again—a message of hope and restoration. We make think Hardin is dead and buried right now, but it will be pulled up from its grave!”

From the looks of them, she knew they were religious folks—they had been talking about God just as she stepped in, and two were wearing cross necklaces, gold catching the light. But the way they looked at her now, or rather, they looked at one another instead of her, made her wonder if she missed something.

Then, one of them—the older one—made eye contact.

“You have anyone buried there?”

“No,” admitted Birdy. She felt strange about the turn this conversation was taking, strange that they might ask about her own dry bed, stashes of flashlights, generator running when she needed a hot shower.

“Just think, you idiot,” said the woman, “Think if it was you!”

Birdy didn’t know what she was supposed to think. The group dispersed without saying anything more to her, some with their arms around waists, some walking so close that their shoulders bumped. Two-by-two, thought Birdy, just like the Ark. The summer floods had turned them into animals, little mysteries with their own secret grieving. 

Birdy set the carafe on the ground. If they wanted nothing of her gifts, she would bring them elsewhere. The Bible said so—depart from that place, shake the sand from your feet. Sometimes grief just did that, she thought, it hardened hearts and closed minds.

Still, while she was driving home, she couldn’t help wondering: if what was me? what would be me? Would Birdy have buried someone or been buried herself? Would she have been swept away? Would she have been the flood, running rampant, desperate to get to the ocean?

Foolish, she thought.

But she didn’t go her usual way home. She told herself it was because half the roads were closed anyway, or because it was the aftermath—a rare day of sun—and she might as well drive a little further, enjoy the temperature, listen to the gospel radio still crackling.

That’s how she found herself at the floodwater’s edge. She knew she was trespassing, even though no one was out to stop her. She walked. It was dark water, contaminated with the neighborhood it had swallowed. Each rooftop she passed, barely poking through the surface—mangled and leaning, she felt curious about. What would happen to them? Trees had been stripped of their lower branches. Little human artifacts floated everywhere: rags of clothing, cassette tapes, hamster homes, pop bottles, purses. What would the contents of her own house look like, floating around amongst the trees and rooftops? 

She waded out a little bit, just up to her knees. She told herself she felt that there might be something important for her to find, some reason God had brought her to this place. But something drew her farther into the water. It was sunlight-warm around her thighs. It didn’t smell rotten, like she thought it would, but strange—smelling of everything at once. There was so much water in the world. It hurt her mind trying to think of it—the way the oceans connected continents, connected bodies, sustained life.

She tried to redirect her thoughts to God, to the Bible, but her reflection was there in the water, right in the midst of all the destructed and dead. Murky, of course, because water hid entire alien worlds, birthed alien worlds. It stole corpses with one hand and homes with the other. It wasn’t right to think about things God had hidden, so she tried to think instead on Christ’s Baptism. The water rested at the bottom of her ribcage, her feet brushing against strange objects in the dark as she moved carefully forward, thinking of the dove, the light from heaven. During her own baptism, at eleven, she had prayed to begin again. It had been crucial then, going into junior high lonely. A person like a blank space, praying to be colored in, finally. That’s what baptism was for, what water did—no! she reminded herself, that’s what Christ’s blood did. Blood, not water, gave second chances. 

It moved around her, disturbed by her body. There was a bit of a current that she hadn’t noticed before. Strange, she thought, to be tugged by the water’s arm, extended all the way from the Missouri River. Now covering her breasts, now rushing at her legs, now lapping like a pet at her chin. She moved into it, surprised at how close it felt to dancing, pulling her one way, and another. How intimate. How like being completely held, sustained by the holding, the way you could only be before you were born.

 


Joy Clark is a MFA candidate at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, AR, and she graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in 2015 with a B.F.A. in Creative Writing. Her work can be read in places such as Juked and Oblong. In 2017-2018 she was awarded the Walton Family Fellowship for Fiction.