We buried Angel in November. She was laid out in the living room of her parents’ house, in a casket her father had made of cedar. She was wearing a blue dress, and she was barefoot.
When I walked inside the house, the only thing I could see was the casket with her in it. I went right over and stood there. I made myself look. Not looking wouldn’t have made it any less what it was. It was just Angel, dead, a little girl in a blue dress I’d seen her wear a dozen times.
Sometimes people will say of a dead body, “She looks like she’s sleeping. She looks like any minute she might open her eyes,” but this was not true of Angel O’Malley. Maybe if she had been embalmed, maybe if someone had put makeup and lipstick on her, she would have looked like that, but she didn’t. Angel looked as dead as a bird you find lying on the highway. She looked like somebody’s discarded clothes.
My neighbors pressed up against me in their wet coats and rubber boots. I could hear them breathing next to me, others whispering across the room, someone crying in the kitchen.
The coffin was set on the table where we’d played cards, Angel and I: Go Fish! and Old Maid. Her mother stood at Angel’s head. Her hair was pulled back, and she was not crying. I thought, I wish I had a religion. I wish I believed in God and could think optimistic, hopeful thoughts right now, and not about Angel lying in the ground in her blue dress.
I turned to her mother. “You brushed her hair real nice,” I said.
When you go to a funeral home, you don’t have to be reminded of how things were normally, when the person wasn’t dead. You don’t look around and see the doorway she walked through, or the chair she sat on, or the cushion with the imprint of her back still in it. You don’t have to look up and see her red coat on a hook by the door. In a funeral home you sit on a bench and let strangers do everything for you, and you know what to expect, more or less, and you almost feel like what is happening in this funeral-home place might be contained there, might not follow you out and leak into everything else.
I went to the doorway of the kitchen and looked in. The O’Malleys had a long table that ran from one side of the room to the other. Angel had died only the night before, and from the look of things, people must have started cooking as soon as they got the news. Every bit of the table was covered with food. The women had made pies: blueberry and blackberry and raspberry. Huckleberries are so small you need at least a thousand of them for a pie, but there were two huckleberry pies anyway. People had brought tuna from their freezers: must have set it out to thaw as soon as they’d heard. And the men had brought crab they’d caught in the Alsea Bay and salmon from the creek.
Pictures Angel had drawn were spread out on the counter. She drew pictures of dogs and cats and horses and houses with smoke coming out the chimney. She drew all of us, her neighbors. She drew sunflowers, and she drew angels. She drew angels with blue wings and pink wings and purple wings. She drew dog angels. She drew angels holding hands with a little girl, flying up to the sky.
After a while her father came in from outdoors and picked up the casket lid and set it in place. Then he and a neighbor lifted the box up, one on each side, and carried it. Someone held the door for them.
The men carried her out into the rain. They carried her past where she used to sit in her red cowboy boots and play. She had a box full of little plastic cows and horses. She had a white stallion that stood on its hind legs and an orange deer and a lamb and some other farm animals. The orange deer wasn’t to the same scale as the rest, and it towered over them, even the stallion that reared up. The men carried her past the place where she had played with the animals, in the dirt by the front door. They carried her over the sidewalk where she’d jumped rope. They took her out into the woods, and the rest of us followed.
Her father had dug a hole back there. He still had on his dirty T-shirt, and his face was streaked with mud where he’d wiped the sweat with his arm. He had dug the hole, and now he helped set her coffin on the ground next to it, and he stood there, not noticing the rain, with his hands at his sides. Nobody had thought to bring umbrellas. Everything was so wet it hardly seemed to matter if the rain fell or not. The water came in the air we breathed. It came through the ground we stood on. It came through our skin and through our breath.
Somebody held a tarp over the casket, and someone else took off the lid, and Angel’s mother put something inside, next to Angel — a poem, I found out later. A little girl from up the road set her doll in the casket, and Angel’s aunt put in flowers, and another woman put in a rock. I’d never been to a funeral where you put things in the casket with someone, so I hadn’t brought anything. Anyhow, what would I have chosen?
I had thought that watching them carry Angel out the door for the last time would be the hardest part to bear, but then they picked up the lid and put it over her again, and her father reached into his pocket and pulled out a nail and began to hammer it in. Usually hammering is a good sound. It’s the sound of houses being built, a fence going up, or a roof being fixed. At the end of the nail you always give it an extra-hard whack, and that’s what Angel’s father did. Then he got another nail and started over again. A man appeared beside him with a second hammer, and they worked together, faster now, the sound ringing out across the woods.
The hammering: now, that had to be the worst of it. That terrible noise. The idea of shutting her up forever, nailing her in, sealing her off. After that, I thought, things would ease up. But when it was quiet again, and I saw her going down into the ground, I almost turned and ran. I thought I’d run until I was too tired to think of Angel or anything else you can’t do anything about. I’d run until I was so tired all I’d want is sleep. But I’d eat a big meal first, with meat, and then I’d fall asleep. Maybe I’d sleep at a motel with a pool, or at least cable TV. That’s what I thought.
But I didn’t go anywhere.
The casket had ropes stretched under it, and as the men lowered Angel into the hole, they tried to keep the casket level. I didn’t want to think of her in there, being tilted from one side to the other, unable to right herself. When the cedar box was finally at the bottom of the hole, the men pulled the ropes free, and there it sat. We didn’t know what to do, so we stood stupidly, looking into the hole. I saw cows once when one of them died, how they looked at it, curious and not knowing what to think, and that’s what I thought of then. How we don’t know any more than those cows did.
Angel’s mother threw a handful of dahlias into the hole. There were baskets filled with flowers, and everybody went up, one or two at a time, and got handfuls of flowers and tossed them in: snapdragons, pansies, violets, purple sage — every shape, size, and color, because this was the Northwest, after all, and we may suffer from rain that doesn’t stop, but we get flowers, anyhow. At a regular funeral, after you watch the casket get lowered into the ground, you go eat casseroles, but we weren’t getting off that easy.
Angel’s mother threw in the first handful of dirt. She didn’t lean on anyone when she did it. She just walked up and opened her hand over the hole where her daughter lay, and the dirt fell from her palm onto the smooth cedar casket, on top of the flowers we had grown in our gardens when Angel had been alive.
We followed her. The dirt was wet and cold, and we threw it down. It takes a lot of dirt to fill a hole six feet deep. It takes time, too, even though later we switched to shovels. It’s slow, filling it all in, and everything about it — all the sounds and the smells and the motions — had one message: She’s dead.
At first I didn’t think I’d be able to stand it. We didn’t talk. Nobody said, It’s too hard, we’re going to have to give up, we can’t take it, we’ll never get through it, but I know that’s what everyone thought.
Filling the hole took a long time, and it was hard work, so even if you wanted to give in to grief and collapse and roll on the ground, you couldn’t. You were too busy. You had too much to do, and you couldn’t stop until you were finished.
And then we were done. We wiped our hands on our muddy clothes. Someone smoked a cigarette. I looked around at my neighbors, and every bad thing I’d ever thought about them, every complaint, seemed small and not worth noticing. And I thought, I’ll always remember that we die. I’ll live like I believe in our mortality, like I believe in death. But of course it isn’t that easy. Mortality is like a bad dream we kindly let ourselves forget, and every now and then something reminds us, but then we forget again.
“The last picture she drew was a little girl being carried to heaven by angels,” someone said. Everyone knew this by now, but we didn’t mind hearing it again.
Then Angel’s mother turned to leave. We were finished. It was done. Her mother had a sister who’d come from Portland, and some girlfriends, and they walked with her through the woods back to the house. But the rest of us stayed there.
Angel’s father sat down next to the mound of dirt and pulled a pint of bourbon out of his pocket and took a drink. He sat on the ground, on the wet dirt, but somebody spread out a blue tarp for the rest to sit on. The women pulled their skirts around their legs. The pint was passed around, and we all took a drink from it. A man from Five Rivers had brought a guitar, and he played a song, and then it was quiet again. The guitar was wet, but he didn’t wipe it off or put it away when he was done.
“I had to bury a ram one time, and it took me a backhoe to do it,” said one man. He wiped his hands against each other.
Overhead three crows flew in circles: caw, caw, caw.
“I had to bury a horse once, after rigor mortis had set in,” said someone else.
“That old gray horse you used to have?”
He didn’t answer. “Danged if I didn’t have to saw her legs off to get her to fit.” He lit a cigarette.
“Remember the Presley cow?” said a woman.
The Presleys were two old brothers who lived alone, and when a cow of theirs had died, one of the brothers — no one was sure which one — had decided to dynamite her. Each brother blamed the other and liked to tell the story to show what he’d had to put up with all these years. Everybody loved that story, especially the part about the puzzlement of each Presley brother, not being able to understand how his brother could be such a danged fool, and everybody could do an imitation, but nobody felt like it today.
So we sat next to Angel’s grave and thought about the Presley cow and the gray horse with rigor mortis and burying a sheep with a backhoe. We sat on the ground in our regular clothes with our regular faces, and we talked, using the same words we had always used. And as we talked, the extraordinary, shocking, outrageous death of this child, Angel, became part of the banality and mystery of life.
We sat in front of the mound we had made, drinking bourbon from a pint bottle. Sometimes someone sang an old gospel song — “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or “May the Circle Be Unbroken” — and sometimes one of us would think of something to say. The mound that covered Angel stood maybe a foot or two above the ground, but eventually the dirt would settle and move down.