The grave keeper has hollow bones, like a bird, pneumatized and porous, more air sac than marrow. She claws at the dirt with her fingers, long and gangly like pholcid legs, and earth fills the sliver of a gap between finger and nail, as though the more she digs the more the soil might sink through her skin, might fill her bones and anchor her to the ground. The bouquets are not allowed to overstay their welcome; the wind peels and plucks their petals, cleans up the surroundings so the grave keeper can dig without distraction.
The new body was lowered into the ground recently, buried under layers of dirt, roots of invasive plant species, earthworms and beetles, rock deposits unwilling to dislodge until you come at them with a mattock.
The closer the grave keeper gets, the stronger the stench of decomposition. When her fingers scrape at the hard boards of the burial container, she rests briefly, but long enough to peer upward and wonder how she already wound up so deep, if the wind could still lift her out of this hole, off the ground, scatter her above the speckled trees and shrubs, lost among the aerosols and clouds.
The grave keeper pries the container open, her fingers remarkably strong. She places her hand over the body’s face, over its closed eyes decorated by a wrinkle or two. She then lifts the body’s arm and bites.
The grave keeper is always hungry. It is part of her job, she supposes. Part of some biological instinct to seek the dead to drag her down into the earth, tethered and unmovable. She bites through the decaying skin and chews at the limbs and sinewy muscle, the tough flesh of a bicep, the soft tissue of a rounded, fat-cushioned face, not completely dry yet. Here she is, crouched in a hole she excavated with her bare hands, feasting like a crow. She leaves nothing—not a bone or a toenail or the long-striped socks whose colors have faded but seams remain intact, a pair favored but not exhausted. She wipes her mouth on her sleeve and shuts the casket. She climbs out of the hole and pushes dirt back over the bamboo wicker lid, then walks around the other tombstones, every step slightly lighter than the previous, the imprints of her heels in the grass growing less and less prominent. One grave can keep her around for about a day; one body can keep her full for about a day; then she must look for another.
When someone is about to die, the flies are first to know. They gather at the person’s orifices—eyes, mouth, ears, anus, nose—waiting for the last breath, the last heartbeat. Next come the rats, maggots, vultures. But if the body is buried deep enough, the creatures can’t pick up on the scent of decay. Instead, the grave keeper finds the body first, cares for it like her own child, stuffed down her throat in bite-sized pieces, subsumed. She spends the remainder of the day walking with an airy gait like she might fly away at any moment.
Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in The Boiler, The Hunger, Fractured Lit and elsewhere, and anthologized in Best Microfiction 2021. She edits for Barren Magazine, Heavy Feather Review and Pithead Chapel. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.