Isabelle McNeur


As Jude watched the mourners huddle around the coffin, she wondered whether it would be better to fake sadness, blankness or pity. What she really wanted to broadcast was impatience, but that had to be even worse than pity. Right?

She hid a wince as the casket crane – or the final drop, as people in the business called it – began to jerk the coffin down into the hole Jude had dug not five hours ago. Sodden from the rain and grief-hazy, the mourners joined Jude in ignoring the metallic scrape for thirty agonizing seconds before the coffin finally came to a rest.

“How did you know Glen?”

Jude startled. The guy had been inching towards her for most of the ceremony, despite Jude shifting from the outskirts long before the priest – reverend? Pastor? Definitely not a rabbi – had stopped talking.

“Mm,” Jude said. She cleared her throat. It wasn’t just that the guy’s eyes were too big, or that he looked on the cusp of too old for her, or that she batted for a team he definitely wasn’t on. It was more that she didn’t want to know the kind of person who would try to hit on someone at a funeral. “I’m just the gravedigger, actually,” she said, then corrected herself. “Apprentice gravedigger.”

Officially, Jude was a cemetery operative. In other cemeteries that meant learning how to use a machine, but other cemeteries had funding that St. Peters didn’t. It also included, but wasn’t limited to, light gardening, cleaning headstones and measuring to-be grave spaces. Rick, the graveyard supervisor and occasional digger if they were understaffed, admitted he would’ve been sceptical of Jude if he hadn’t caught glimpses of her throughout her childhood trailing constantly after her mother, the embalmer.

You can get used to the physical side of it, Rick had said. What we really need is someone who can handle the psychological shit – spending more time with dead people than living ones.

It was a solid conclusion to make after watching Jude grow up at the funeral home, and by extension, the graveyard. Jude would finish her homework fast and get bored of waiting for her mother to finish, and there was a field a few minutes away even if it was covered with inconvenient jutting stones.

Lately, all Jude did was dig. She had dug the grave in front of them and now she needed to fill it up before heading to the south and digging another grave with Rick. By the looks of it, she’d have to hurry her way through the next one. These people didn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.

The guy’s brows raised. “Really? I didn’t know they made girls gravediggers. Uh, women.”

Jude tamped down on her incredulous look. Grieving, she reminded herself, though she wasn’t convinced. “Oh, no, yeah, that was the main goal of second-wave feminism. Equal pay and the right to dig graves, uh-huh.”

Going off the guy’s uncertain smile, he didn’t know if she was kidding. Jude pulled her jacket closer around her and buried her chin in the scruff. The fake fur around it was damp, but it was an excuse to look back towards the mourners, who were now doing increments of Jude’s job – shovelling an ounce of dirt each into the hole. Well, every bit counted.

Glen, then. Nowadays, Jude based her opinions on people through the reactions of their funeral-goers. From the looks of it, Glen was a good guy before that heart attack. There were several people who looked vaguely familial and they were all crying into each other’s shoulders, but there were plenty of people that looked annihilated and not remotely related, which meant Glen had friends who liked him enough to break down at his funeral. There was a man who sniffed continually, his eyes the kind of red that suggested weed or that he’d cried earlier. A couple shared an umbrella, but they could’ve fit someone else underneath from how close they were holding each other. Beside them was a woman they probably should’ve invited to join them – the thirty-something wore a rain jacket that covered everything but her belly, which protruded far past the rest of her.

The man beside Jude tried, “You seem young to be digging graves.”

It sat behind her teeth; she was taking a gap year. She wasn’t sure if she was going to extend that after this year ended. The idea of staying in stasis terrified her just as much as the idea of picking a path for her life to go down.

“Yep,” was all Jude came out with. She eyed the pregnant woman’s belly. Dead people, Jude could handle. But something about a woman being almost overly pregnant never failed to give her the creeps. It was like she could gusher-burst any second, Alien-style.

The man cleared his throat. “I’m David.”

Jude had been named for that Beatles song, which had been the same story from every Jude she had met throughout her life. She’d never met a Jude old enough to predate the song. Her mother had picked it and her dad went along with it quietly, which was his gut reaction to everything including being left two years prior after as many decades of marriage.

“Cool,” said Jude. She spared a wistful thought to hair, which she was growing out. Guys never tried hitting on her when her hair was cropped to the scalp.

Just in time for David’s hand to lower, she realised he had been holding it out for a handshake. She focused on the impossible stretch of stomach instead. Why didn’t people just adopt? Jesus, look at that belly. She had a tiny person in there. Were her organs just... what, squished out of the way? How did every pregnant woman not die from pregnancy complications?

“I’ve always been interested in the gravedigging scene,” David said. “I mean – not in an odd way, I’m not – and not that you’re odd for being a gravedigger. I just always thought it would be interesting to see the small details, how everything happens.”

Jude had six months of on-the-job experience for a graveyard and a lifetime of behind- the-scene experience in the embalming studio of a funeral home. She had slept on the plastic seats outside. When the metal stretcher that held the bodies was empty, she had turned it into a jungle gym. When she was older or her mother was too immersed in the work to stop her, Jude would sit in the corner and read as her mother put makeup on corpses and removed any unnecessary fluids. Jude supposed it was morbid to find comfort in the soft gushing noise of gas leaving a cold body, but sometimes her mother would look over at Jude and smile or ask what she was reading, which made it worth it.

“Mmm,” said Jude. She pressed her face into her coat, up to her nose. Wasn’t the pregnant woman terribly uncomfortable?

At a glance up to the woman’s face for the first time since Jude noticed her stomach, she blinked. The woman did indeed look uncomfortable. In fact, it was an uncomfortableness that, judging by the tight strain of her lips, bordered on pain.

“That’s Aunt Lily.”

“Huh?” Jude brought her face out of her coat. Beside her, David was hunched against the rain. He gestured towards the pregnant woman.

“Well,” he said, “Not aunt-aunt, but you know how it is, we all just call her –”

Jude was too far away to hear anything, but she watched as Aunt Lily’s lips parted. If she took six steps closer, Jude bet she would hear something too solid to be a gasp.

“Um,” Jude started. She got to the middle of Is she okay before Aunt Lily’s knees hit the wet grass.

In retrospect, Jude’s first thought shouldn’t have been ‘hey, maybe they’ll leave now.’

She stuttered a step forwards. David said “oh gosh” behind her, then he was beside, and then in front, and his momentum carried Jude until she was hovering at the edge of the crowd that was gathering nervously around Aunt Lily. Aunt Lily was holding her stomach in one hand and the other was pushing wet hair out of her face. She wore a stunned, near- numb expression akin to a toddler who had just skinned his knee for the first time. For a moment they couldn’t believe the pain could be real.

David approached hesitantly. His hand hovered over her shoulder like maybe it’d blister on contact. “What’s... what’s wrong?”

A teenage girl that was just young enough for Jude to feel weird about finding her attractive piped up. “Do you need someone to drive you to the hospital, Aunt Lily?”

Aunt Lily took several measured breaths. Her eyes kept darting like birds on a power line unsure where to settle. “I,” she said, and then squeezed her teeth together along with her eyes. “I think... ambulance. I’ve been having pains since this morning.”

A pause that could very well be called pregnant lingered until David cleared his throat. “Would you say these pains felt, uh, contraction-like?” 

Embarrassment and pain warred to be clearer in her voice. “I thought, they weren’t that bad until I got here a few hours back. Then I didn’t want to make a scene at Glen’s funeral.”

Jude eyed the hole that Glen Whatsisname was going to stay for the foreseeable future. The dirt that the mourners had piled in would be sludge on the coffin lid, and it was up to Jude to scoop more sludge on top of it until the ground evened out. After that, she had to go to the south of the graveyard and make way for the newest addition. Then she’d go home to the silence that pressed down on her like graveyard dirt on coffin wood, where the only sound was her calling I’m home and getting no reply even though her father would have gotten home from work half an hour ago. They’d meet in the kitchen when the timer went off for the dinner he put in earlier, and the both of them would retreat back to their bedrooms. When Jude woke up the next morning, he’d already have left for work even though he didn’t officially start until nine.

A cry jerked Jude’s gaze sideways. Aunt Lily, halfway helped up, had begun to sag back towards the grass.

“Where’s the nearest shelter?”
Jude jumped at the touch of a hand on her shoulder. “What?”
It was the teenage girl. Her face was more freckle than skin. “The parking lot’s too far 
away; we need somewhere to wait while the ambulance gets here.”

“Right,” Jude said. “Right! Uh... there’s public toilets. Never mind,” she said when she got a pinched look from not only David, but several of his probable relatives. “This way – the funeral home.”

The crowd thinned as Jude led it away. Parents and children ducked towards their faraway cars; Glen’s old co-workers had to be somewhere that wasn’t around a woman in labour. It left a smattering of people trailing behind Jude, two of them propping up Aunt Lily- David and the teenage girl, now on her phone to the ambulance.

“What’s the address of the funeral home?” the teenager hollered in Jude’s ear as they crossed the road.

Jude opened her mouth and realised she didn’t know. How the hell could she have spent half of her life here growing up and not know the address? There was no mailbox, but she knew how to walk here with her eyes closed.

“The receptionist can tell you,” she told the girl. She tried to conjure a name, since the receptionist had been here since before Jude started and always tried engaging her in small chat when Jude came in on errands, but found she couldn’t recall anything but the first letter.

The receptionist, whose name definitely started with R, was short and had a face suited for worry, which fit perfectly with the pregnant woman that came staggering in with a group of dripping people.

“Shit,” said R-something. “Have you called –?” The teenager cut her off. “What’s the address?” “What?”
“Here! The address!”

R-something wavered at the end of her desk before reeling it off.

Jude asked, “Do you have anywhere we can sit,” and then headed down the hall she was pointed towards. Aunt Lily staggered after her, wobbling even with two people supporting her.

“Welcome to the break room,” Jude said as she held the door open. Huh. It was a lot flashier than the cemetery operator break room, which had two rickety chairs and a table and sometimes a microwave. This break room had a couch and even a TV.

As Aunt Lily passed the doorframe, she made a noise that Jude once heard an elephant make in a poaching documentary. Jesus!

Jude sidestepped and waited until Aunt Lily was seated on the couch – mostly, anyway. She seemed not to like the principle of sitting. Then Jude stood in a way that didn’t remind her of penguins until she noticed her arms moving in and out. She forced them to still.

She started, “I have to –”

It was easily talked over. The teenage girl was pushing a cushion behind Aunt Lily’s back and answering “I don’t know, what do I look like?” to a question from David, who looked like he was regretting not making a run for it when he had the chance.

Jude sympathised. She found herself longing for the smothering silence of home. Hooking her thumb over her shoulder, Jude started, “Hey, so, I gotta –”
“Yeah, okay,” Aunt Lily croaked. Some of the dampness on her forehead had to be 
sweat. Her hands were claws on her stomach; nails pressing enough to dent inwards. She didn’t seem to notice. She asked, “What’s, uh, your name?”

“Jude,” said Jude.

Aunt Lily nodded. “Like ‘Hey’,” she said, and started warbling The Beatles in a way that bordered on manic.

“Oh, um. Yeah, like the song,” Jude said, backing towards the door. “Yeah. So, I’m going to – you’ll be fine?”

“Ambulance should be here in a few,” the teenage girl nodded, pushing her hair out of the way. It was the same colour as her freckles. Jude stared at her and tried to imagine being a girl who helped carry pregnant women into funeral homes without prompting.

Aunt Lily let out another bellow, trying to double over but getting foiled by her colossal belly.

Jude heard herself say, “Great,” and then she was opening the door before she turned around fully. She closed her eyes in relief as she pressed it shut behind her.

Jesus. Jesus, Mary and Joseph and all the other ones. Judas. Matthew. Matthew was in the Bible, right? All those old-timey white names were in the Bible. David was definitely in there somewhere.

And Jude – Jude was a saint, right? St Jude of impossible causes. It forced a laugh up her throat.

She had a grave to fill and another to dig, but she paused. She turned to look at the door. Behind it came a guttural moan; it sounded like the final drop stalling. She cast herself back to Glen and his funeral, all those people slack with grief. She tried to picture her parents’ funerals, distant relatives, the friends her mother was making all those miles away.

For a second Jude tried to picture her own funeral, but the mourners stayed hazy and unfocused. The only solid thing was the gravedigger, shovelling dirt.

Jude stayed still until the paramedics came charging through.
“We’ve been getting updates,” one of them began. “Where –”
Jude pointed. As the door yawned open she caught a flash of an impossibly small head 
glistening with gore. Then a paramedic dragged the door shut behind him.
Jude stared at the wood. She still had graves to finish. If she made her eyes go blurry 
she could imagine a coffin, but no sound came from coffins. The noises drifting through the door were death-like, but deceivingly so.

Somewhere in the building, a phone rang. It trilled underneath Aunt Lily’s screams and Jude thought of tiger maulings, shark attacks. Even though she’d caught a glimpse of the baby’s head haloed in the bloody maw between Aunt Lily’s legs, Jude pictured the tight drum of that stomach gusher-bursting.

When she approached Glen’s grave, she found Rick scooping shovelfuls of mud into it. “Hate doing this in this goddamn weather,” he said when he spotted her through the rain.
Jude said, “Mm.”

Digging his shovel into the dirt, Rick continued, “We really need to invest in those mechanical diggers.”

“Maybe we should try a fundraiser.”
“Yep,” said Jude. She crouched and picked up a shovel. Rick must’ve carried two out 
here because he knew Jude would be accompanying him. She thought about thanking him. Her mouth was dry, so she swallowed in an effort to make the words slicker, smaller, easier to crawl up the channel of her throat.

“Thanks.” It came out as a croak. Rick nodded and kept pushing his shovel into the dirt sitting in curved tarpaulin, then shifting it into the grave.

Jude’s wet fingers curled around the shovel. Rick had been a flickering figure through her life, but a consistent flicker. How was it that she knew almost nothing about him? She sometimes sat with him in the break room when the weather was like this and she couldn’t retreat out back to read.

She licked her mouth, though it was already wet with rain. The urge to connect on some level, any level, was roiling in her stomach. Did he have a wife? Children? Was this what he yearned to do growing up? If not, why hadn’t he changed it? Had he ever lived anywhere else? What were his parents like? Did he have any reoccurring nightmares?

The words stayed wedged inside her. The rain was turning the background noise to static and she would have to raise her voice. He’d give the usual answers if she asked the mundane questions, and he’d look at her strangely if she asked the bizarre ones.

She thought briefly back to what he’d said after hiring her; he’d needed someone who could spend more time with dead people than living ones. It had struck her as a comfortable existence, at the time. Dead people didn’t make you come up with small talk or probe into your family life or ask you to go bowling with your other co-workers on Friday night – an awkward invitation that Jude had turned down twice and never received again.

She looked up from the grass to see Rick squinting at her. Water dripped from his eyelashes. “Hey, you good?”

I think I’m sick. It would be easy. She heard herself say it.

Rick rolled his jaw from side to side. He was watching her with something that bordered on worry but didn’t quite make it. “Yeah, you seem a bit...” He hesitated, then waved a hand. “Go home. I’ll get someone else to help me with this.”

She thought about thanking him again. Instead she nodded and left.

Jude was bracing herself against the rain when she spotted a familiar face less than a block from the funeral home.

David wore a dazed look as he sat ramrod straight under the bus shelter. He looked so out of it, he probably wouldn’t notice it if she passed, and she could always walk behind it so he wouldn’t spot her at all.

She felt her feet carry her into the dry space and sit down a safe distance away. “Hey,” she said when he didn’t notice.
His head jerked towards her like an afterthought. It seemed to take several moments 
for his eyes to focus and for recognition to seep in. “Hi.”
Then he turned back to staring out into the rain. It felt like less of a dismissal and more 
that he wouldn’t be able to conjure up a suitable response even if an asteroid crashed into the street next to them.

Jude twisted her wet fingers together. “Where’s Aunt Lily?” He blinked slowly. “Ambulance. No... hospital.”
“Is she okay?”

“Is the baby okay?” She tried to imagine it cotton-candy pink and swaddled in a blanket but all that came to mind was that gory head.

David said, “Yeah. They’re both... they’re good. Doctor guys said they’re good.”

His throat clicked. Jude tried to picture everything gathering up in the cave of his mouth, unable to make it past his teeth. Where was the freckled girl? Probably in the hospital with Aunt Lily, making calls or chatting to nurses.

“I’m Jude,” said Jude.

David nodded. Did he remember Aunt Lily warbling The Beatles or was he just blindly absorbing?

Jude’s gaze fell on something other than water that hung from David’s hair. She waved until she got his attention and then pointed at her own fringe. “You have, uh.”

He reached up like he was moving through custard. His hand came away with a fleshy smudge on it. “Yeah. Probably – placenta, or...” He swallowed again. “There was a lot of...”

His eyes bulged. He bent in half, hands on his knees, a gag getting halfway out his mouth before cutting off wetly. “I’m fine, it’s fine,” he croaked when Jude shifted like she was going to move to a safe distance.

They both startled as the bus pulled up in front of the stop. Jude watched David look at it, still fumbling through reality like he was half-stuck in a dream.

Give me something, thought Jude. Anything.
She stuck out her hand. “It was nice to meet you.”
David twisted his head to look. He eyed it for a moment until something like his old self 
began to flicker back. He started to reach forwards, then paused to wipe his hand on his shirt before clasping her hand. Instead of shaking it, he squeezed gently.

“I don’t know if good is the right word,” he said.
She nodded, squeezing back. “It was... something.”
“It was,” he agreed. He dropped her hand and Jude resigned herself to the choking 
silence of the home she had to head to when David paused, turning back. He reached out once more, tentative, and this time he squeezed her shoulder.

Jude looked into his face with relief. There was nothing predatory or even heterosexual about the pressure. There was a bizarre urge to thank him, ask him to keep her updated on Aunt Lily, offer to tell him more about gravedigging.

But her mouth stayed shut and he let go of her shoulder, and she watched him step onto the bus. It pulled out into the empty streets and Jude watched until the rain smeared it into a blur.

Her hand and shoulder glowed with imagined warmth. She pressed them together to make it stay and looked out into the rain. She could be home in five minutes. If she waited another twenty minutes, a bus would come and take her in the opposite direction. Half an hour of sitting in it would see her to a terminal that could take her away.

Somewhere in the field there was an unfinished hole where Rick continued to heap mud onto Glen’s coffin. David could be watching the water beat the bus windows; freckle-girl could be pushing wet hair out of her face as she walked through a plethora of possibilities.

It wasn’t until another bus pulled up some time later that Jude realised she was trembling. She watched the doors part expectantly. For a moment she pictured getting up and walking through the metal hole into something else.

The bus pulled away and Jude tuned into the warmth of her hand against her shoulder, or rather the lack of it. Both were long cold. She dropped her hand and stood, stepping out into the rain.

Isabelle McNeur

Isabelle McNeur studies at Victoria University, where she has completed several IIML courses. In 2015 she won the Margaret Mahy Award for Best Folio at the Hagley Writers’ Institute, in 2017 she won the Prize for Original Composition in at the IIML, and in 2018 she will be completing the Hachette Mentorship Program. She hopes to one day be financially stable enough to adopt a dog.