What I Did
First I had to get his body into the boat. This was more than ten years ago, and I've forgotten some of what came before and after, but that night and the following day I remember in extravagant detail. I had lain awake all night, trying to imagine how I might get him off the bed and down the stairs and into the rowboat, since he weighed at least a hundred and fifty pounds and might have gone stiff. My bed, I remember, felt absurdly uncomfortable, as if someone had slipped walnuts and bolts into the layer just beneath the ticking, and there was something sharp and prickly, like hay, poking out of my pillow into my face and neck, yet I hardly moved all night. Every noise paralyzed me with fear. I had to force my eyes shut to think, literally hold them shut with my fingers, and in this way I worked through the problem-getting him into the boat-over and over again, allowing for variations, so that by morning I was pretty sure I had it down. Once he was in the boat it would be easy.
When it was light I sat up and put my feet on the floor. The room rocked and tilted slightly, like a room in a fun house or a ship. Lack of sleep made me dizzy, which caused a sense of unreality that I found comforting, as if now I was finally asleep, and only dreaming. But the feeling did not last, and after a minute or two I found some clothes on the floor and got dressed. I had worn these same clothes the day before, and perhaps the day before that, and as a consequence they were limp and smelled a little like onions. I washed my face in the bathroom sink, used the toilet, and went downstairs.
In the kitchen I made myself a sandwich and put it in a plastic grocery bag, then got a small shovel from the back porch. It was the trowel I used in the garden, still caked with hard lumps of dirt. I cleaned it off as well as I could with my fingers, then gathered myself together and walked over to my mother's house.
Though it was still August it was getting cold in the mornings, and the grass was dewy, and a mist hung over the lake at the end of Fox Street. The air, when I breathed it, had a taste like cold lake water. Later, I knew, it would get hot and the wind would carry the smell of the ketchup factory from across the lake in Wallamee. That smell had always been a signal for me to dig out my leather shoes and wool skirts, that summer was ending and school was about to begin. Though I had been out of school for four years by that time, the smell still had the power to excite me, or more exactly, stimulate me. I had a tendency to be lazy in summers. It was a delicious feeling at first, but it cloyed. Fall aroused me to action, though I don't mean this as an excuse for what happened.
The boat-a battered metal rowboat with peeling green paint that had washed ashore on Train Line's little beach one day, and that no one else had wanted to claim-was in the garage behind my mother's house. The garage was rickety and packed with junk, but I kept my boat there because I had no storage space at my apartment. I took it out on the lake quite often, so I was pretty sure that anyone seeing me drag it down to the dock would not find it odd. I lugged the boat up to the back door, attached the hose to the outdoor faucet, and pretended to wash the hull. Water tributaried across the small dead lawn and puddled around the laundry pole. The sun, though it was barely up, burned the top of my head and made me feel spot-lit and uncomfortable, as if I was being watched. Just in case, I continued my charade: giving the hull another good rinse, winding the hose back up, smiling slightly. Then I got a blue tarpaulin and some nylon rope out of the garage and went inside to get Peter.
He was where I'd left him, of course, in the upstairs bedroom that had once been mine. When I was a little girl, I'd demanded red gingham wallpaper. It was still there. So were the shelf of paperbacks, the failed ant farm, the blue-flowered linoleum, and the rag rug made from my old dresses. It smelled of dust and dead wasps, the closed-in odor it always got in summer when I'd left the window shut. And another smell, a hot, difficult one I didn't want to acknowledge: Peter's smell. He smelled more powerfully like himself now that he was dead than he had when he was alive. It made me angry-suddenly and obscurely-that this had been done to my room, where I had once been so happy.
Peter was in bed. One of his feet, still in its worn brown shoe, stuck out from the blankets. I recalled closing his eyes when it happened-I was sure I had done it-I remembered that I couldn't look while I was doing it and that I had to turn away and find them by touch. But now one had opened up again. It stared milkily at the lightbulb on the ceiling. With my thumb I pushed the lid down again; this time it would stay only halfway shut. His mouth hung open, too, but there was nothing I could do about that except not look at it. It occurred to me then that I had not lost my mind, but had instead put it somewhere so far away and hard to reach that I had little hope of ever retrieving it.
Dragging him from the bed onto the tarpaulin, which I'd spread on the floor, was like pulling a long root from damp soil. I couldn't lift him, so I tugged him by his arm, then by his leg, and little by little extracted him from the bed. He hit the floor and the whole house shook. Again without looking at his face, I got him wrapped in the tarpaulin. By this time I was sweating and having trouble catching my breath. I sat down to rest at the top of the narrow staircase and looked down into the living room below. Hardly any light made it past the drapes, but I could see the glint of the clock pendulum and the long-legged shape of the oscillating fan. Good-bye, I said to it. So long. I wasn't really going anywhere; I'd be coming back and this room would be exactly the same, but this ordinary fact was impossible to believe.
I had to push Peter down the stairs. He slid, like a large fish, about halfway, then I pushed him again.
* * *
I dragged him to the boat, tipped it onto its side, and rolled Peter into it, then hauled the boat the block and a half to the lake. Anyone looking might have noticed I had something bulky and heavy in it, but I was right to think no one would be out. Summer was almost over.
On the lake, I rowed hard, my feet braced somewhat awkwardly on either side of Peter. Mist still hung over the surface, and droplets clung to my eyelashes and hair. The lake had been carved by glaciers; it was long and slender as a crooked finger. I rowed the length for half an hour, then navigated my way through a narrow inlet. There were cattails here, and the wreck of an old beaver dam, but my boat was steady in the water and nimble, and I slipped right by.
I was going to a place I'd visited a few times as a teenager, at the end of the lake and up the shore a bit. In fact, once I'd brought Peter there for a picnic. It was a grassy clearing, hidden from boaters on the lake by a tree-covered spit of land. A little farther inland there was a dilapidated barn: the only sign of people anywhere around. At the edge of this clearing, about fifteen feet from shore, was where I planned to dig the hole.
I left Peter in the boat while I dug. I didn't care if the hole was very deep, just that it was long enough. Once when I was a child I tried burying a dead cat in a hole not big enough for it, and I still cannot forget pushing down on it to make it fit, pressing its head with my trowel. Its ears filled horribly with dirt.
* * *
It took all day. Though it was a clearing there were lots of rocks and roots I had to dig out, but I'd told myself all night that I would be patient, that I wouldn't do a rush job under any circumstances. At one point, a pair of fishermen floated around the spit. I lay in the weeds, looking at my dirty hands and praying they wouldn't find my boat, which was hidden in a stand of cattails. I could hear them talking.
"Too shady back here, man."
"Like the underside of my ass."
"Well. All right."
"I know this other place, back where we were."
"Whatever you say, man."
They floated off again.
The dirt, which was soft and wet, had a fetid odor. It was the smell the lake acquired in summer, sometimes, when the water fell and exposed the rank mud. It was an odor of such active decay that I felt reassured-the earth would absorb Peter in no time.
I couldn't eat the lunch I'd brought.
By mid-afternoon the hole was about four feet deep and five and a half feet long: the length of Peter Morton. I pulled the boat to shore-I was quite tired by this time, and shaking-tipped Peter onto the ground, then rowed out around the spit to make sure no one was coming. There was one boat on the lake, a speedboat, but it was far off and didn't appear to be headed in my direction, so I rowed the boat to shore again.
I realized, after I'd dragged Peter over to the hole and opened up the tarpaulin, that I should probably take his clothes off. People can be identified by their clothes; I had read this somewhere, or maybe seen it on a television mystery. The thought hit me with a wave of sickness, of almost incapacitating regret. I took his wallet from his pocket, put it in my lunch bag, then unbuttoned his shirt. I had to tear it to get it off over his arms. His pants were easier. I unzipped the fly and pulled them down, an action so familiar I could close my eyes and pretend for a moment that we were somewhere else, in any of the dozens of places we had made love. I quickly tugged off his briefs and rolled him into the hole.
He lay facedown. He had pretty hair, black and wavy and shiny as an otter's. I couldn't bring myself to throw dirt on it. I couldn't do it to his narrow back, either, with its delicate, knobby spine and shadowed ribs. I was almost knocked over by an urge, then, to pull his face out of the muck and blow into his mouth, to clear the mud from his eyes and his nose and save him.
I turned and ran into the woods. I despaired that I would never get lost in them, that I would always be with myself, that the world was not big enough to swallow me whole. I wanted him to get up and be alive again; I wanted to fly apart. My forehead slammed and tore against the rough bark of a hickory tree, and the pain calmed me.
Wiping blood from my eyes, I filled the hole.
When it was all done, I threw my shovel and his clothes, weighted with stones, into the lake and walked up the rise to the old barn. Inside I found a wooden trough full of rainwater. I washed my hands and face as well as I could, then I lay down on a fallen beam, looking upward. Through the gapped boards of the roof, the sky was blue. I watched clouds slide by.
It was a ruined world.
Reprinted from After Life by Rhian Ellis by permission of Viking Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2000 by Rhian Ellis. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.