A workboot pushes a shovel into earth. The blade lifts dirt over the grave digger’s shoulder. Dust falls on his white t-shirt, dissolves in sweat under his collar. He leans the shovel against the side of the hole. Smears his forearm against his brow.
He blinks, distracted by beeps from a vehicle in reverse. He is just tall enough to see, through grass at the top of the hole, an ambulance backing towards him, floating as if borne by a current.
In the distance, shimmering in the heat rising from the road, a priest approaches on foot.
The grave digger places his palms on the grass, pushes himself up. He hooks a knee over the edge, plants a boot, stands. He brushes his hands against his pant legs. He steps back as tires grind gravel, and the ambulance runs aground at the gravesite.
The cargo doors creak open. A silver gurney rolls forward to sparkle in the sunlight. Sheets billow atop the body moving underneath. An old man’s head emerges, bobbles unsteadily. His eyes blink against sunlight.
The side doors of the ambulance swing open. Paramedics step down like heroes in slow motion. Their gait is powerful, their stride sure. They are well-trained, and prepared to lie.
Their thick hands grip the gurney, guide it from the ambulance. Its silver legs unfold majestically, like an alien descending from a starship. Metal snaps into position. Wheels sink into wild grass.
Lying atop the gurney, the old man tugs at the paramedic’s collar, licking his lips to speak. He pulls the paramedic close, and whispers into his ear, “Am I going to die?”
“Buddy,” replies the paramedic, his hand pushing the sheet down against the breeze. “Calm down. You’ll be alright.”
The paramedic glances at his partner. Good lie? His partner nods.
The gurney rattles to the grave and stops. The paramedics raise the back wheels. Down slides the old man and his sheets. The click of a cell phone captures his wide mouth and raised brows on-screen. He lands at the bottom of the grave, in an open casket, with a whump.
Mourners in dark clothing gather round the grave. Loved ones weep. Handkerchiefs dab at cheeks. Mouths whisper goodbye. A hand drops a cell phone into a coat pocket.
The old man in the casket raises himself onto an arm, coughs. “I don’t want to die,” he says again, glancing upward.
“Well,” comes the voice of the priest, his shoes crunching gravel as he approaches the grave. “You are going to die.”
He arrives, the toes of his shoes overhanging the edge. He gazes down into the pit at the old man and sighs. “We’re all going to die,” he says.
He bends at the knees, scoops a handful of earth, drops it onto the white sheet below. His rises, wiping his own hand on his vestment. He sprinkles Holy Water on the old man below.
He turns to the mourners, slings Holy Water over them.
“Could be twenty years, could be tonight,” continues the priest, walking among the mourners, dousing them. Some weep. Some wipe dollops of Holy Water from their sunglasses.
The old man’s son puts his arm around his mother’s shoulder and pulls her close. The mother, behind her veil, sniffs and whimpers. In her hand is a kitchen knife, blood dripping down the blade. She wipes it clean on her hip. First one side, then the other.
The priest slings Holy Water to the left, as if his thumb is on the spout of a garden hose, then to the right.
“I don’t want to die,” comes the muffled voice of the old man from below, his fingers sinking like grappling hooks into the grass at the edge of the grave. His chin clears the edge. His fingers slip, slide, disappear. A whump as the old man finds bottom again.
The priest claps his palms against the son’s cheeks, kisses the son’s forehead. The son vanishes. The priest claps his palms against the widow’s cheeks, kisses her forehead. She vanishes. He repeats with the other mourners. They all vanish.
The paramedics collapse the gurney, hoist it back into the ambulance, slam the doors. They circle around the side and climb up into the cab.
The priest claps a hand against the ambulance, kisses it. It vanishes.
At the grave, elbows dig themselves into grass again. The old man pulls himself onto his belly, throws a knee over. Exhausted, he lies there panting. He struggles to rise, unsteady. His sheet draped like a tunic flutters in the breeze. “I don’t want to die,” he gurgles to no one. Death rattles in his lungs.
Perched on a tombstone now, the priest cups a lighter, flicks a flame against the tip of a cigarette. He sucks. It crackles. He blows smoke towards the sky. “Lately,” he says, rising. “I’ve been wondering why -,” he approaches the old man, claps his cheeks, cigarette pinched between two fingers, “- we go through so much trouble. To postpone the unavoidable. And prolong the pain of being alive.”
The priest kisses the old man on the forehead. The priest vanishes.
A breeze catches the sheet wrapped about the old man, lifts it away from his abdomen, exposing flesh. The old man’s fist is pressed against his belly, holding his insides in. His knuckles pinch blood.
The grave-digger sweeps the old man’s legs from under him and carries him towards his grave.
This story is adapted from the lyrics of “Priests and Paramedics” by Pedro the Lion.