The Boy in the Whale by Josef Firmage

The Boy in the Whale by Josef Firmage

Fiction, Vol. 5.1, March 2011

Carver stands above a sunken coffin, and is as quiet as his dead son. The town has paid their respects and June has gotten a ride. Alone, he has planned to remove Jonathan from the earth and bring him home; this will be his doing, alone without her.

Carver speaks stiffly, “I reckon I’d like to bury my son in peace.” The grave diggers nod and head to their truck, taking June with them. “We’ll see the wife home.”


Inside the truck June is quiet and the men are used to the sound. Her thoughts are heavy and loud, laden with anger and Jonathan’s half-grown body. She looks out the window and remembers the time he lied about the stomach flu before school. His brown hair, poking into the Star Wars pillowcase, and she reading: Thrilling Tales of Fantasy and Woe, a book which infatuated her as a child, and now Jonathan, sitting up in bed always requesting the stories be read aloud.

“Read them all to me and then I will get better.”

“You’ll get better because you’re such a good boy and that’s what good boys do.”

“Even when they play tricks?”

“What kind of tricks?”

“I told daddy I was sick.”

“You told me you were sick.”

“I was tricking, like Foxy.”

“Well…you get one thing Foxy never did.”




Carver is alone. He begins to lift the dirt and place it back, away from his sleeping son. His sweat is cold and then hot. He thinks of tales of buried boys unearthed by maddened fathers; of graves opened early and too soon.

He climbs in to sweep away the remaining layer of dirt covering the coffin. It’s dark now. He raises the lid and sees his son by moonlight, his comely boy with thick brown hair. His broken nose looks larger in this light, making him seem older, wiser, for having it. Carver concentrates hard on this face so as he doesn’t look below. There may be a suit and tie covering Jonathan’s mutilated body but Carver has seen the worse of it, the severed trunk, the shattered ribs and broken legs, and he doesn’t like to think of it, not now.

Carver feels as if he has allowed this, has allowed his son to be desecrated in this way, knows that he’s let God down, let June down. The idea, like clean sediment, settles, and the glut of it presses against his chest. If Jonathan could sit up and speak, he would let him say whatever he wanted, win whatever argument he had, but keep him close and by his side and make him smile and feel like his son, tell him dirty jokes, make him laugh, tell him the secrets that men held over women.


June stands before Jonathan’s yellow bookshelf. She’s made it through his open door and past his camouflage bedspread. The unnecessary mosquito netting surrounding his bed is no longer unwelcome.

June reaches for her old copy of Thrilling Tales of Fantasy and Woe from the bottom shelf that holds the bigger volumes: picture books of trolls and Time Life books of Outlaws, Penguins, and Mystical creatures. She opens it and puts her face to the page and inhales. She has an urge to eat it. She leafs past Chinese Dragon Myths and Viking Legends to Jonathan’s favorite story, “Foxy, The Inuit Rider of Light.” She absently thumbs through the illustrations of Foxy being swallowed by the Narwhal and guiding it to his greedy brothers who spear the whale and in turn, kill Foxy. In the last painting Foxy is dancing in the Northern Lights and laughing. He looks a lot like Jonathan.

She sits down on the bed and stares absently. An emptiness, a black and growing hole, crowds her heart and guts. June rocks herself into the fetal position. With her head on Jonathan’s unwashed pillowcase, she inhales. Her eyes dampen the warm smell on the cool pillow. She grips and draws it around her face, squishing her eyes and inhaling the folds that still hold her son.

June begins to suffocate. She pulls the pillow away and gasps. She clings to the book and scuries off the bed and into the living room where she falls onto her knees, and pleads to God with words like: shit, why, take, give, die. She has given into hysterics. Her hands reach out and claw the carpet. Minute fibers and particles of dirt and sand wedge and bury themselves up and under her nails, which begin to bend and break off. She takes shallow breaths and looks up. She prays again with sentences like: You can bring him back.

Above the TV is a painting of Jonah’s whale. It’s surfacing so the greater half of it is visible in a green, white, and black sea. The sky above is blue and gray. The water is a tempestuous brush of massive, choppy waves. Underneath the image there is an inscription: Matt. 12:39-40. And because she knows what it means, now and always, she prays aloud to Jesus: Make my belly thy whale Lord. Make it swell for my child once again, Lord. As Jonah was interred, as the Lord was interred, make my belly once again burst.

She reopens the book to the picture of Foxy dancing in the Northern Lights. Foxy is climbing into the Narwhal’s mouth and she sees Jonathan. He is small and running from his father, sneaking up on a fox, and climbing into the mouth of the whale. June reaches out her finger. “Climb on. I’ll protect you.” Jonathan is mute but reaches out from the page and climbs onto her ragged nail. She rotates her index finger, points to her face, and stares at her son. He shifts his weight slightly forward with large and doleful eyes. June smiles sweetly and says, “Okay.” She places her finger in her mouth and he crawls inside.


Carver leans against the porch railing drinking the last of his morning coffee. The sky is cool but will warm soon enough. He lowers his head and inhales the weathered railing, remembering a dangling boy. As a child Jonathan would climb and hang on like a monkey and would hop the railing to try to race Carver to the barn. Carver sets his mug down, pulls his gloves from his back pocket, and steps off the porch. He walks towards the barn, feeling the compression, that inside-out loneliness that sadness brings. His boots stir the cold, fertile dirt.

He looks down at his damp and calloused hands. They’re small but strong hands; hands that have never failed him. Today they’re heavy and want to quit; to claw up and cold. He considers his wedding band. He struggles with the ring until it is off and places it in his pocket, not wanting to bother with the care.


She falls back in bed and blames Carver for rejecting Jonathan’s dreams. Did he even understand anything besides dirt and church? This place could die but Jonathan wasn’t supposed to. What do sheep, and land, and crops matter? All that was grass and it would be there long after they were gone. It didn’t really need tending to. But families did. And Carver may have been good with sheep and goats but he was an ass with a child. His forceful religion was meant for Puritans and drowning witches. It wasn’t meant for her, and it wasn’t meant for them, for no one but jealous Gods and insecure townships. Carver and his old school Bible thumping ways drummed Jonathan’s dreams and hopes to death. Why did the men in this town have to hold on so hard? It’s how they all were and once she gathered strength from it but now she wasn’t so sure. Now, they could hardly speak to each other, but this was all mourning. They were still in stage one. It’d only been a couple of days, but what would come about when the tears dried up and the house was theirs only? What would they say to each other? When wells dry up people either dig deeper or move on.

But now something was happening; now something was right and they could start again. At least she could, with or without him; she wasn’t sure what was right, what she wanted.

She thinks of Jonathan, small as her finger, inside her body now, or was it figurative and would this next try create some kind of resurrected clone, whatever that meant? Thoughts of aliens and sci-fi pop into her brain. She grabs the Bible on the nightstand. She remembers something strange and familiar and finds in the second book of Kings she is the old woman:

And the woman conceived and bare a son…according to the time of life. And when the child was grown…he said unto his father, My head, my head. …And when he was brought to his mother he sat on her knees till noon, and then died. And she went up, and laid him on the bed of the man of God…and went out… And when she came to Elisha she caught him by the feet. …Then she said, Did I desire a son of my lord? Did I not say, Do not deceive me? …And when Elisha was come into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid upon his bed. Elisha went in therefore…and prayed unto the LORD. And he went up and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and he stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm…and the child sneezed seven times.


Carver stands in the dimly lit barn, surveying his task at hand. In front of his boots lies a pine box.

The coffin is five and a half feet in length, and two and a half feet in breadth, and a foot and a half in height. Lining the interior is a leather hide from his first born calf. On the outside of the box, rope handles are set by the four corners. Each section of rope is seventeen inches looping through two holes, with eight inches exposed. Carver walks over to his shelving unit and grabs a sheet of fine grain sandpaper. He kneels next to the coffin.

Carver hears the sound of feet pacing outside the barn. His back stiffens. Déjà vu: His son standing outside the barn, hiding behind the door. He knew Jonathan was gathering his nerve, and waited for the boy to come in and tell him that he had slept in at Lawrence’s, that he wouldn’t do it again; they stayed up late and forgot all about the time. How often had it come to this? Why was manhood always so far out of Jonathan’s reach? Carver jerks his head to the side to get a better listen.

He thinks maybe it’s June. But he can’t bear the thought of her near, not now. He gets ready to stand. He wants to hide what he’s doing, to walk off briskly and be alone. His heart quickens as he contemplates why. A wiry, gray coyote pokes its nose around the door, and takes a step closer. The small coyote looks at Carver’s face, sniffs the air, and runs away.


June walks to the bathroom sink and turns on the faucet; the water streams out cold. She thinks of baby Jonathan and the small noises he made, his hands that held onto her hair and pulled her face close to his, the memory of his forehead and the warm, clean smell of his cheeks. She cups the rushing water, bringing it to her face, her head, matting her hair; the water runs down her neck in little rivulets. She turns off the faucet and brings a towel to her face. June looks into the mirror.

Deep bags sag in pockets below her eyes. Her lips are thin and tight with small crow’s feet perched at the edges. She mouths the words: “fifty six.” June brings her hands to her face. Her cheeks are surprisingly firm. Her gray hair is still gray and clumpy and her curls are in tangles. A few strands hang in front of her eyes and she gently plucks them, and then brushes the bulk to the sides. Her hands grip the sink hard as her knees buckle. Her features haven’t changed. She is still old and how could her body…how would it handle things again?

She is not different on the outside but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t prove anything. She thinks of Sarah, of Elizabeth, and that is enough. She’s changed on the inside, or she is going to change; either way, it’s happening. God has spoken. It doesn’t matter how, so much. She would just like to know when. And then she is mad at Carver again.


Carver brushes sawdust from his face. He walks the length of the casket, running his hands over his work. The wood is clean and still warm to the touch, and so soft as to be comfortable. Carver presses his hand down on an edge and looks at the lid propped up against his stool.

He walks to the stool and notices the graffiti Jonathan has carved into his worktable: Nails don’t care where they lie. Why should I? He grabs a cold sixteen penny nail and traces the letters backward.

When Jonathan was small he would grow tired from watching Carver work so late and fall asleep in that stool, bent over the worktable. Once Carver was done for the night he would gently release Jonathan’s grip, replace the tools, lift his son, and carry him to his bed, singing a popular song from his own childhood: “The tractor loves combing the earth/ And the hours that you’re putting forth/ Cause the ground loves the tractor’s tender care/ Smile son, you’re doing your share.”

One night after putting Jonathan to sleep, he noticed a large rope burn in Jonathan’s palms. He knelt and gently kneaded the wounded hands, and whispered to the boy a promise. Later, he opened his Bible and wrote out the promise: I will always carry you and lay you down when you’re tired.

Carver walks over to his large, red anvil. Jonathan had painted it red at fourteen, put stickers on it–Zeus Lives, Heroes of the Realm, Nature’s Father–and used it to shape and shift metal for hatchets and swords Jonathan and his buddies would play with. Jonathan was part of some kind of mountain man club.

One day Carver had walked in on the boys. Shawn had a video camera pointed at Jonathan and Lawrence. Lawrence, wearing a homemade chain mail shirt, held a sledgehammer above a fallen, bare-chested Jonathan. Ketchup covered his boy’s stomach. Lawrence was yelling something about justice, and Jonathan lay shrieking on the ground. Carver cussed at the boys, grabbed a crosstie, and left.

Carver never cared for Jonathan’s imagination getting in the way of work. Dreaming was for nights and wives. But Carver never thought of Jonathan as a rebellious kid, or even lazy; oh no, he was a busy bee. He just gave too little to the right things and too much to the wrong. At fourteen, when Carver really needed his help, Jonathan was always gone with his friends.

Carver stands stooped above his anvil, pounding a pulsing cross, manipulating the metal bulk flat. Flames lap the air, reaching out of the forge. The tongs grip the iron cross. Carver sweats and hears his son’s voice behind him,

“Why do you make fun of the things I do?”

Carver doesn’t turn around or look back, but slows and stares at the wall. “I just want you to work harder, to apply yourself.” Carver lets the hammer hang, and loosens his grip on the tongs, the cross still glowing bright, not yet fading.

“I help out. I do my chores.” Jonathan’s voice is high, not quite a man’s.

“No, you don’t.” Carver can’t stop the exchange. He can feel his lips move.

“Oh, so I don’t do my chores? Who took care of the feeding this morning?” There is a smile in his voice.

“Don’t get smart with me, boy!” Carver drops the hammer with a thud. He watches himself as he whirls around to face his son, crowding him.

Jonathan stands, almost stumbling backward, then eye level with his father, he regains his ground: “Yeah, you don’t seem to understand smart.”

The comment still bites, still stings, but worse now that he is not here. Carver thinks this is not real but feels his old anger rising and justified. He watches himself reach out, marionette and helpless; he had hit his son.

Carver looks up and watches translucent spider webs dangling from the rafters like strings. He brushes them from his shoulders and arms and is violent with the hammer.


June lies in bed and puts the Reader’s Digest down on the face of the article describing Pica and tries to crave things she craved when pregnant with Jonathan, but she isn’t hungry. A woman in the article craved cigars and glass, and extremes are easier for her mind to work with so she tries to think of mud, but can only muster Carver’s dirty hands, and blunt nails. June remembers corn starch, and walks toward the kitchen. The hallway leads into the living room. Embroidered throw pillows with pictures of Madonna and child line the couch. Ceramic angels play harps and fiddles on top of the piano. Pictures of her sister’s kids accent the end tables. She pushes and swallows past the photos.

When Jonathan turned five and it was time to start school, Carver bought him a camouflage shirt with matching shorts. Jonathan had been excited and he put the clothes on right there in the living room. When his little head popped through the collar Carver kept making jokes about not being able to see his son. He walked around the room calling out, “Jonathan. Jonathan, where are you?” Jonathan would call back, “Right here. Right here.” But the joke went on too long and Jonathan began to cry. June grabbed her boy, and ripped off his shirt.

“Daddy,” she said, “tell your son you can see him.”


In the kitchen June opens the cupboard and fumbles around for the corn starch. She pulls the box down and begins to pour it into her mouth, but choking on the dryness, she spews small granules across the counter. She places her face underneath the sink and flushes her throat with water.

There’s a knock at the door. June swallows two Tylenol and waits for whoever it is to leave. The knock comes again. June pats her hair, feeling the overall shape, and wipes her eyes. A third time the knock sounds. June creeps toward the side window and through the thin white curtains she can see Debbie, Shawn’s mother. She crooks her head a little more and sees Lydia, Lawrence’s mother. Both ladies are holding Tupperware containers.

Lydia turns toward the window. June ducks and holds onto the door’s curved handle. She places her ear to the door and listens.

“Was that…?”


“What…we do?”

“…leave …dishes…poor dear.”

“I wouldn’t come to the door…”


June waits, sitting on her heels. She hears the sound of a truck driving off but imagines the two women dutifully standing at the door, somehow tricking her. June doesn’t hear voices anymore. She peeks through the slit in the curtains.

She opens the door. Sitting on top of the green Tupperware container is a card. She closes the door and opens the card. It reads, “In Loving Memory of Jonathan.” Inside is a Polaroid of the three boys: Jonathan, Lawrence, and Shawn. It’s a picture from Jonathan’s tenth birthday party and they are gathered in front of Bettie, an old horse of theirs. Jonathan is in the middle with his arms around his friends. The two boys wear cowboy hats and Jonathan’s in a yellow decaled shirt of a Smurf and is wearing a coon-skin cap.

June walks to the end of the hall, enters her bedroom, and sheds her nightgown.


Carver removes the cross from the forge. He stands over the coffin and lowers the glowing iron over the lid, centering it within the pencil markings designating the proper alignment. As the iron sinks into the pine, thick ropes of smoke roll up from the sear, brushing against his legs and crowding the air. Fire leaps up from the brand. He pulls the iron from the lid, places it back in the forge, and throws the heavy tarp over the coffin, smothering the flames.

He lifts the gray canvas and surveys his work. A simple cross stands out starkly against the vanilla casket. The burnt edges overlap any pencil markings left behind. He takes off his gloves and runs his fingers along the warm cross, measuring the depth and evenness of the brand. The cross’ vertical line measures just over a foot.

The sun beads down and warms Carver’s neck as he walks to the root cellar at the back of the house. Along the cement foundation, small veins of webs and skeletal roots cling tightly to the cool and shaded gray. Carver looks into the kitchen window as he passes and sees his wife staring at a photograph. Her hair is a mess. She is still in her nightgown. His muscles contract and he can feel a part of him automatically going to her but he stands his ground, because what would he tell her? What could ease the blow between them and make her accept his offering, to see that Jonathan was well taken care of and home? Regardless, he would have to tell her soon.

The cellar doors sit open as Carver waits for the air to clear. The temperature cools as he descends the four steps, bends low, and crawls forward. Around him the smell of mildew is slight and the damp air is almost sweet. Carver squints as his eyes adjust to the dark. He smells old blood and then something acrid. The thickness of the smell wets the back of his tongue and sits on his throat and he begins to gag, as he has to press his stomach down a few times, coughing, and swallowing. One hand covers his mouth and nose, and the other reaches blindly at first, then with purpose as his eyes adjust to the cellar.

The first things his eyes settle on are the empty canisters of rat poison. Not too far from the foot of the steps, on top of a blue tarp, is his dead son. He is wrapped inside a flannel comforter. And in this dank root cellar he lies severed in two, and dead underneath the earth, swaddled and warm.

Carver grunts as he squats low and pulls with both hands. His knees creak and his hips tighten. The tarp won’t budge, but his pressure and weight take hold and it begins to jerk and glide to the steps. Carver wedges and inches his hands, knuckle down, then his arms underneath the blanket, pulling his son to him with his fingers and forearms, feeling the weight and parts of his son for the first time since laying him down there two days ago.

Jonathan’s smell reaches up through the covers like the guts of heavy compost. Carver tucks in his bottom lip and digs in underneath the loose, dead weight. He heaves upward, lifting and balancing the body, and turns toward the stairs. Carver carries his son above the earth and toward his coffer.

Carver remembers getting the call from the sheriff and embracing his small wife as they stood at the tracks and confirmed Jonathan’s identity. He remembers his son being taken away in the ambulance and deciding that the funeral would be performed the next day, because there was no point in dragging it out any longer; that the casket would be closed, and being assured that their boy would be cleaned up, for there wasn’t much else to do but to go home and mourn, because he and everything else was in Jesus’ hands now. It was all in Jesus’ hands. But they had gone home and wept until sleep came and took mercy on at least his wife and he stayed up absently flipping through the Bible because there was nothing else and no words to do anyone any good, almost not even God’s, except then there was that promise he had written. He flipped open to that sacred page and knew that it was in his arms that the boy should be and not in some strange mortician’s, no matter how well-intentioned, and it was in his house, on his land, that their boy needed to lie because at least he could do that. That was as sincere and as good as anything ever got, or could ever be again. And then, as if Jesus himself was right there pointing things out in support, Carver lifted his thumb and read the verse next to his own promise: “God is not a man, that he should lie, or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” And that made it so. That made it settled.


Two days before Jonathan died was a Sunday. After services were over Carver came in from the hallway to find June sitting alone and listening to Jonathan playing a wandering hymn on the piano. What was it…? She was wearing her blue dress, with the slight ruffles. Jonathan’s hair was combed, but he had mussed it up some. His denim collared shirt began to make him look handsome, but he was still a boy. The pew was uncomfortable but the chapel was warm. Carver spoke and squeezed her hand and together they watched their son.

On the ride home Jonathan sat by the window, tight by her side. His foot kept on jerking and tapping as he talked about his day. This irritated her bladder.

“It’s just all so simple, you know.”

Carver looked over, then back at the road. “No, I don’t.”

“Why don’t you explain further, Jonathan?” She patted him on the knee, stopped the tapping, and hoped he would be faithful, would believe as she believed.

“Ok, well, why does the Bible say barely anything? Jesus was born, was lost at twelve, found teaching in the temple, got baptized way later. It all just seems like it’s some kind of pre-log.”

“It’s prologue, honey.” She brushed an eyelash from his cheek.

“No, because it comes before; and ‘pre’ means before. Anyway, it’s missing out on all the important stuff. I mean, he had to of been doing things at my age. What about his friends? What about what he liked to do?”

“Son, the Bible tells us what’s important.” Carver stared ahead at the road.

Her eyes followed the edge of her husband’s jaw line, his round shoulders.

“There’s other stuff besides church, dad. There are just as important things, maybe even more.” He mumbled the last part.

“You can’t even say that proudly.”

She tried to twirl the ends of his hair that hung just above his collar, but he shook her off.

“But there is. What are we doing right now?” He gestured quickly.

“What, driving? In the long run a man has his work, his country, his family, his God. You need to learn this now before it’s too late.”

“What about friends, n’ dreams?”

She smiled at this.

“No dream is bigger than God, Jonathan. God keeps things in perspective, keeps you grounded.”

“You always say that. There are other things.” He stared at Carver.

“No, that’s where you’re wrong.”

“Mom, can you believe it?” He turned toward her.

She tried to chime in, “Well, Jonathan, there are more imp…” but she was cut off.

The truck skidded to a stop, as the horn blasted. Two small does bounded across the road and into the surrounding brush. Carver breathed hard and turned, “You want to talk to me like a man, talk to me like a man! Don’t go running to your mother.”

“Well, now I don’t want to talk to you!”

“Then be a boy and don’t.”

“I hate talking to you.” Jonathan punched the seat between his legs.

“Don’t you punch my truck, boy!” His voice was threatening.

“That’s enough! Calm down.” Her gaze washed over her boys. “Everyone’s alright.”

Jonathan stared straight ahead. She tried holding onto his wrist but he pulled away. Carver put the truck in gear and drove on.

At night, in bed, Carver closed the Farmer’s Almanac and placed it on the nightstand. June stared at the ceiling. He removed his reading glasses and looked at her. She yawned and pulled the covers to her chin. Carver rolled into June, spooning her. She brushed his kisses off, pulled away and spoke, “Sometimes I hate your ways.” He blushed and started to speak but rubbed his feet together and closed his eyes.


Carver carries his son into the barn. He steps over to the coffin and steadily lowers the two halves of his son into the pine box. The comforter spills out over the sides of the casket so Carver stoops down and begins tucking and pulling until the quilt is even and holds Jonathan securely as one.

He wants to think of the past, of grouse hunting with Jonathan, chasing wild turkey, or teaching Jonathan to drive, but it’s pointless. He doesn’t want this pain, to be that old cowboy sitting still and crying, talking over beer about the boy he never got to raise. He wants to rest and watch his son grow. He wants to be a good father and a friend. Why couldn’t he have had this? Why did fathers have to be stern and hard, to be responsible, and always teach? Why couldn’t June have understood this? He was good. He was a good father. Why did he have to hold onto this?

Carver sits still and absently pats his son’s silent chest.


June stands naked, facing down the hallway with her arms outstretched toward the ceiling. She feels lost and enclosed, like she is shrinking. She breathes heavily and presses her palms against the walls. Her lower back spasms and her vision blurs.

Her heart races and she can feel her gums. She feels far away while standing still. Her toes curl underneath her feet. Her thighs clench as her hips buck. A small moan rises from her belly, swells through her chest, and lurches from her throat. It leaps into the hallway, and stares blankly at her before exploding in a white light. She chokes and spits. Her fingers bend, pressing into the walls. Her chest heaves. Her eyes roll back into her head. Her neck tightens. She grinds her teeth.

Her knees give out. June slumps to the floor. She hangs forward, places her palms on her thighs, blinking rapidly. She looks down at her lap. There is blood. Her breathing deepens. She reaches her index finger down and sinks it inside herself. She puts her finger up to her nose and the smell causes her breath to rise in a short, catching stutter. The smell is both completely familiar and new. She cries with joy knowing the Lord is preparing her body to hold Jonathan again.


Carver opens the kitchen door and walks in to explain that the casket is ready, that within lies their son and they will be burying him in the back where Jonathan skinned his first deer, under the large oak tree, where blood has already been spilt. He has practiced this. Whatever her objections, all that matters is that their son be laid to rest by those who bore him, in the land that is their own.

Carver turns and sees June running down the hall shouting his name.

“You’re naked.”

She smiles back, “I’m bleeding.” She walks up to him and stares into his eyes, and considers her husband. Through blood the Lord has told her that she’s going to have to depend on Carver for this child just as she depended on him once before. The Lord never meant for this to be done alone. And if things were to be just as before she would have to love him just as before. And she could do it. She could forgive him like she was commanded to do. And she could be converted to him again, to her love again. Yes, her love would convert her and she still had it, it was smaller than before, but she still had it. She needed it. Everyone needed love and forgiveness.

She looks up and smiles at her husband.

Carver hesitates then pulls her in close and she clings to him. He takes in the scent of her hair, her crown. And she is warm…and then he’s scared and thinks how morbid he will look to have brought their son home. He pushes away and walks to the sink.

“What’s wrong?”

He takes a clean towel from the drawer, and puts it under the faucet. He hands her the towel. “I thought your body was done with that.”

June takes the cloth and cleans herself. Her eyes never leave Carver’s, “But it’s not.” She tosses the towel in the sink and reaches for him.

He backs away to the air behind him and gropes for the counter. He is strange for a second. June stops and tilts her head. She drops her hands and anxiously scratches her thighs. “I’m not angry anymore. We can bring him back.”

Carver whispers, “I did.”

“What?” She leaves her intoxication for his faraway.

“After the funeral.”

June is silent and stares at him, waiting.

“I brought Jonathan home.”

“Not this way.”

“It’s okay. He’s home.” Carver leans toward her.

“He needs to be back! He needs to be buried!” She is shrill and starts to shiver and places her fists underneath her chin, her arms tight against her chest.

Carver walks down the hall and grabs for what will keep her warm. She stands still while he dresses her.

June speaks fast but softer this time, “He needs to be back. He needs to be buried.”

“He will right now. Come with me.” Carver leads her out back to the sycamore tree. A deep grave is neighbored by a mound of dirt and the coffin sits next to it. He waits for her to speak.

“You can see him. We’ll have our own service, open casket.” Carver’s digging for words now that she’s here, Jonathan’s mother, and he almost forgets his stake in all of this, because he is about to say his peace and bow out to let a boy’s mother grieve, but she reaches for him and they hold onto each other and mourn. They mourn like they have been forgetting this whole time, like his death is a new thing, and almost even worse since they’ve never known a person to die twice, and now it’s their son. They tremble and fall to their knees in the fertile dirt. Their sorrow has come full circle.

They stop together and wipe their own faces. And then he presses his lips to her head and stands with her. He asks her if she wants to see her son and she says that she does.

Carver stoops and removes the lid. Jonathan’s brown hair curls against his forehead. June touches his thick lashes and strokes his chin. She pets his face, kisses him, and begins to sing part of an old hymn. Carver kneels next to her and joins in.

And after they sing and weep over him again she asks Carver to pray. And when it’s done she pronounces it to be good and that she is ready. Carver slides the coffin into the ground and remains a little while before he looks to the shovel.


June walks past mirrors and wonders when the time will come. At nights, with Carver, they do not often laugh, nor make love, but sometimes they do, and sometimes they look to the ceiling and are quiet in the dark. She thinks of Jonathan in the mornings and wishes sickness would come upon her.

In the barn she stands and watches Carver lift the sword against the light. She has watched these past days as he has shaped and shifted the blade. He never lost count of the folds but he says it’s not important how many, just that Jonathan will know. He explains that a headstone wouldn’t be proper, wouldn’t keep their son to themselves; that folks just wouldn’t understand.

They stand at the head of the grave. Carver raises the sword to the sky. The glare of the sun is blinding and June squints and considers her husband. Carver is silent and he rotates the sword, blade down, and buries it up to the hilt, where the headstone would be.

And then she’s back in the house and she sees it, she sees all of it as it’s usually meant for prophets, but this time it’s meant for her. Carver is sitting next to her on the couch and he is watching John Wayne search for the Indian niece he no longer wants. June’s eyes drift away from the TV to the painting of the whale above. She stares at the ocean waves as they blur and begin to breathe up and down, in and out. The whale rises out of the stormy sea, blinks its eyes and then submerges. The sea is wide and empty, and she notices a wooden raft. She can see a small movement in the center. It belongs to baby Jonathan. He lies on his back, laughing and flailing his stubby arms and legs. The massive grampus resurfaces, opening its large mouth to swallow her child before disappearing into the sea. Carver is saying something but she doesn’t hear it and the painting is still. And then she feels something inside of her, something small and certain.

She grabs Carver’s hand and says so. He pulls back but she pulls even harder until his hand is resting on her belly. And he is not certain, but later he will claim something moved and he will wait and dote on his wife. He will believe with her, and he too will wait for the return of his son.

But right now, right now he has to make a decision, whether to accept her newfound wildness and her stories of blood and miracles or to ride this out until she cracks, to abandon her to herself and her heavens. Could he be so cruel? And as she looks at him, expectant, hopeful, and presses harder still, and the most subtle of noises escapes her lips, that’s when he feels it. He feels what he has always felt and stronger still. And as sure as shit-fire he can feel it stir within him and plunge down into the deep and dark of his bowels. He loves this woman larger than this. He loves his wife and her eyes, leviathan and asking, pleading for his consent to believe. And she will have it. So he squeezes her belly and leans and says, “Yes. Yes, I feel it too.”

Bonfire by Timothy Gager

The World Behind His Back by Roberta Branca

Leave a Response