Then I felt the first drops of rain hit my face. Henry! I yelled.
The rain was falling lightly now, but before long it would be a downpour. The water would start filling up the hole. Id feel it creeping up my legs to my thighs. To my chest. To my neck. Henry! Laura!
I threw myself at the walls of the grave like a maddened bear in a pit. Part of me was outside myself, shaking my head at my own foolishness, but the man was powerless to help the bear. It wasnt the confinement; Id spent hundreds of hours in cockpits with no problem at all. It was the water. During the war Id avoided flying over the open ocean whenever I could, even if it meant facing flak from the ground. It was how I won all those medals for bravery: from being so scared of that vast, hungry blue that I drove straight into the thick of German antiaircraft fire.
I was yelling so hard I didnt hear Henry until he was standing right over me. Im here, Jamie! Im here! he shouted. He lowered the ladder into the hole and I scrambled up it. He tried to take hold of my arm, but I waved him off. I bent over, my hands on my knees, trying to slow the tripping of my heart.
You all right? he asked.
I didnt look at him, but I didnt have to. I knew his forehead would be puckered and his mouth pursed??his my brother, the lunatic look.
I thought maybe youd decided to leave me down there, I said, with a forced laugh.
Why would I do that?
Im just kidding, Henry. I went and took up the ladder, tucking it under one arm. Come on, lets get this over with. We hurried across the fields, stopping at the pump to wash the mud off our hands and faces, then headed to the barn to get the coffin. It was a sorry-looking thing, made of mismatched scrap wood, but it was the best wed been able to do with the materials we had. Henry frowned as he picked up one end. I wish to hell wed been able to get to town, he said.
Me too, I said, thinking of the whiskey.
We carried the coffin up onto the porch. When we went past the open window Laura called out, Youll want hot coffee and a change of clothes before we bury him.
No, said Henry. Theres no time. Storms coming.
We took the coffin into the lean-to and set it on the rough plank floor. Henry lifted the sheet to look at our fathers face one last time. Pappys expression was tranquil. There was nothing to show that his death was anything other than the natural, timely passing of an old man.
I lifted the feet and Henry took the head. Gently now, he said.
Right, I said, we wouldnt want to hurt him.
Thats not the point, Henry snapped.
Sorry, brother. Im just tired.
With ludicrous care, we lowered the corpse into the coffin. Henry reached for the lid. Ill finish up here, he said. You go make sure Laura and the girls are ready.
As I walked into the house I heard the hammer strike the first nail, a sweet and final sound. It made the children jump. Whats that banging, Mama? asked Amanda Leigh.
Thats your daddy, nailing Pappys coffin shut, Laura said.
Will it make him mad? Bellas voice was a scared whisper.
Laura shot me a quick, fierce glance. No, darling, she said. Pappys dead. He cant get mad at anyone ever again. Now, lets get you into your coats and boots. Its time to lay your grandfather to rest.
I was glad Henry wasnt there to hear the satisfaction in her voice.
Excerpted from Mudbound by Hillary Jordan Copyright © 2008 by Hillary Jordan. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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