Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Three Encounters with the Gravy Yard
Andrée Collier Záleská 

Inside the Rocket Bag
One Saturday morning, on a whim, I turned on the television so that my four-year-old son Kuba could watch the landing of the space-shuttle Columbia.  Kuba is enamored of all things space.  His “rocket-bag”—green, in the shape of a turtle—carries small plastic models of every rocket in the history of the space program.  It was ten minutes before the landing and we were watching CNN: a view of the NASA command center, people sitting behind computers with their backs to the camera, the voice of a nervous reporter.  Contact with the shuttle had been lost.  When the shuttle was two minutes late for landing, those people still looked sedate.  There was no sense of emergency, only the reporter’s anxiety was tangible.  He had little to say and nothing to broadcast except archival tape of the mission.  He surely had enough professional expertise to know what this delay meant.

Kuba kept asking for interpretation: What are they talking about?  When is it going to land?  The shuttle was ten minutes late, the NASA engineers still impassive, when we saw the famous footage of the shuttle breaking up in the sky over Texas: a fiery streak, then several burning streaks.  And that was it.  The shuttle had exploded and this was all there was to show for seven lost lives and a destroyed rocket.  We watched it over and over again, trying to see more.   I realized that I had to supply the details.

“That’s the shuttle, Kuba.  It’s exploding in that picture, see?  It’s not going to land.”

“How will the astronauts get down from up there?”

“They won’t.”

It was a weird, modern encounter with death that left us nothing to focus on.  I was shaken and sickened, and I felt guilty. I made resolutions to ban TV that I did not keep.

Later that day, Kuba had his rocket-bag out again, playing with his model space-shuttle.  He launched it into the air.  With his hands over his head he turned to me and explained, “This is a magic space-shuttle.  If it blows up it can put itself back together again.”

A Conversation
I like the idea of taking my sons to church, but in practice it often hasn’t gone as planned -- it requires too much sitting still, so until Kuba was about five we never made it through a service.  Sunday school often seemed geared more for those docile girls who are happy drawing pictures of their families, or listening to stories carefully selected from the Bible or Native American traditions.  Instead of these prescribed activities we would burst out of the building into the eighteenth century graveyard behind the church.  Kuba would run a big loop around the periphery and clamber up a short slope to slide down the lid of crypt.

It didn’t occur to Kuba to ask about this place at first, but around the age of three he became very curious.  People underground?  Not them, but their bodies?  I was choosing my words so carefully that it was confusing to him.

“Why do they call it a gravy yard?’

“Well... it’s where you go to turn to gravy after you die!”

Kuba gave me a blank look, and there was no one else around to appreciate my joke.

“What really happens when you die?”

Children will initiate conversations that you would rarely have with any adult.  Many of these are about farting, but some address the truly profound.  A combination of lack of shame, curiosity and general orneriness makes them bring up the very issues that we evade.  Sex has lost its status as the last taboo—now the last taboo is death.

I am dedicated to scientific explanations of phenomena, and particularly to the concept of evolution and how it brought us all to where we are.  I make it a point to answer children’s questions as best I can and to look up information where my own knowledge fails.  This is easy, unproblematic for my conscience, satisfying.  But I also have other beliefs: I have faith in the reality of the soul and the validity of spiritual life.  I am not ashamed of these things—wiser folks than I have held similar beliefs throughout history.  But my spiritual life is mostly private.  I do not often share it with friends or even with my mate.  I feel silly and childish talking about things that can’t be proven, as if these tenuous notions would suffer from exposure to air.

I feel a need to share my spirituality with my children, however, to give them a sense that believing is not wrong.  But I hesitate, falter in my wish to be fair and scientific: they should be aware that I may be wrong, that others believe otherwise, and that unlike much of what I tell them (don’t run into the street, don’t eat so many sweets) this is not doctrine.  It comes from your mom, but it’s a fallible notion, possibly no more than a wish.  This is a hard statement for a parent:  I could be wrong.

“No one knows the answer to that question, but…”

“No one knows?  You don’t know?”

“I don’t know—really nobody knows.  But I believe that we are more than our bodies, and that when we die a part of us that is really important goes out of our bodies and lives somewhere else.”

There, I said it.

Digging the Hole
The bad news came by phone at seven in the morning.  People do not call for ordinary reasons that early.  Our neighbor had found Bubak the cat on the next street over, hit by a car in the night.  She wrapped his body in a cloth, scooped it into a blue recycling bin, and brought him over.  I interrupted Kuba watching television to tell him what had happened.

“Bubak was hit by a car?”


“He died?”


“I didn’t notice it.  I was watching TV.”

“It happened in the night, while we were all asleep.  There was nothing you could have done to prevent it.”

We chose a spot for his grave at the edge of our backyard, near a tiny grove of trees we call “the woods.”  Digging the hole was so involving, and such an unusual activity for a summer morning before breakfast, that it consumed Kuba’s thinking.  We put Bubak in without unwrapping him from his shroud, placing the dirt on top of him.  Then, to give the event the meaning that seemed to be escaping Kuba, I gathered nearby stones for the grave and told him that this was the place where we would come to remember Bubak, and talk to his spirit.  We stood solemnly and I said a few things:

“Goodbye Bubak.  You were our favorite kitty and we’ll miss you.  We hope you are happy wherever you are now.”  Kuba repeated the same words gravely.

We decided in favor of sending Kuba to daycare, because he didn’t seem traumatized and the staff there had known our cat and would be sympathetic.  Later that day I heard he’d told everyone that Bubak was killed by a car, but that we would get another kitty and call him Bubak too.  I realized it would be a while before he understood.

But it wasn’t long.  In the evening sun, after an afternoon at the playground, we visited Bubak’s grave with some flowers.

“Hi Bubak, we miss you!  We hope you’re having fun somewhere else catching squirrels.”  I paused.

“What will his spirit say?  Will it say meow?”

“You won’t hear anything, but that doesn’t mean that Bubak’s spirit can’t hear you.”

Abruptly, Kuba crumbled.  The heat, a bit of dehydration and hunger, and the intensity of this experience swept over him and he began wailing that he wanted Bubak to come back, to come out of the hole.  When he finally calmed down, near bedtime, he began asking questions so pertinent they were painful: Why can’t Bubak come out of the hole?  Where is his spirit now?  Who hit him, and why didn’t that person say he was sorry?

Insipid parenting books often tout the death of a pet as a “good opportunity” to discuss death with a child. Bubak’s grave, which we visited daily until the leaves fell in autumn and obscured it, was a catalyst for good conversations.  My favorite was a discussion about the possibility of parents dying.

Barring illness or accident, we should be around for a long while, I explained.  But, I added, it’s normal for parents to die first, before their children.

“Simon and I will still be alive when you die?”

“Yes, I hope so.”

“When you die, Simon and I will dig the hole.”

“Oh.  You won’t have to do that—there are special people who do that.”

“When you die, I want to dig the hole.”

“Ok then,” I assented, “you dig the hole.”

It’s true.  In one sense or another, he will dig the hole.
Andrée Collier Záleská writes fiction and essays, and translates literature from Czech. Her work has been published in anthologies from Northwestern University Press, Catbird Press and MIT Press, and in magazines and newspapers including Two Lines, Partisan Review, Chicago Review, Parents, and the Prague Post.  She lives in Boston with her husband and two sons.  You can reach her at zaleska@world.std.com