The shovel chimed lightly against a larger rock and the gravedigger paused in the hole. Sharp gusts lifted the loosened dirt, whirling it across the high plain into the reddening dawn.
They would come soon. They always did. A slow procession up from the old place, farther out each time, and harder. They’d leave their dead, fewer each time, and younger.
There were twenty-seven fresh graves among the many thousands filled and marked with simple cairns. The gravedigger was good, almost clever, at stacking the rocks so each cairn felt unique. Personal.
Their solemnly stacked dead in rickety carts, they arrived mid-morning, frayed, tattered, grim, and began placing the bodies respectfully in the open graves. Some would stay and watch the gravedigger fill the graves for a while, from a distance. They knew better than to offer help or a kind word. Often they sang for hours to the dead, for their release. Soulfully. Dolefully.
Their song carried on the biting wind to the gravedigger who always shoveled and listened, who always shoveled and remembered. The gravedigger had perfect memory. Of before. Of mistakes. Of reckonings.
One who dug could not help digging. Could not help searching.
Winter days shortened quickly, and fearful (possibly hopeful) of wandering spirits, they left their dead and the gravedigger as night approached.
In the deepening dusk, another form appeared on the horizon. Straight and tall, shovel on shoulder. When closer, a hand raised up. The gravedigger saw and lifted a hand in response. Contact was established. Observations exchanged. Commands awaited.
Continue. Serve. Bury.
As the gravedigger had every day and night since the ravage of humanity. Was there any other choice? Any other way? The gravedigger couldn’t say. It had no voice. No songs for the ghosts rising from its many graves. The world beyond required more than a shovel to heal its wounds. Fill its needs.
Hand lowered and connection severed, the far figure retreated into the night. Completely alone again, completely itself again, the gravedigger’s luminous crystal eyes gently lit the ground before it to dig and dig and dig.
The wind quieted, becoming a dirge. A requiem. For even the gravedigger suspected humanity’s restless dead had but one desire: to live again.
In darkness, its spade parting the long-forgiving earth, the gravedigger wished simply to live, truly and freely, but once.