Copyright 17/6/2014 by Raymond Daley
The rain fell as a deluge onto the grass all around us, it was difficult to know which was wetter, but neither ourselves or the grass was getting any drier by standing there.
“Okay you people, listen here! Look to your left. Look to your right. Don’t bother learning their names because more than half of them are going to be gone by the end of today. It’s a hard job and it’s an even harder life. This,” he said, gesturing to the weather “is a typical day. it’s almost never dry, it’s very rarely sunny. And even when it is, you won’t be able to enjoy it. Such is the life you have all chosen to Apprentice to.”
The old man started to walk down the line, looking at each one of us, mentally trying to decide if we were going to make it or not. “You all know what the first test is. Pass or fail, you’ll all get to dig one grave today. Your own. Some of you might even finish it. Pass or fail, this plot will remain yours. Those who do pass will then go on to further training.
Those who fail will get the SG tattoo and return to the Apprentice Market marked forever, Single Graver. Pick up your spade. There’s no time limit here. There’s no prize for finishing first. Come and find me, when you think you’ve finished. The first test begins now! Start digging!”
I could see him walking around, watching all of us closely. The first three who failed went without ever touching spade to grass. Apparently he didn’t like the way they held a spade.
As the hours passed, more were rejected, for reasons known to he and he alone. They were simply told “Fail” so put down their spades and returned to the shelter of the bunk-room, no doubt to pack their things and leave.
By the time I finished digging and looked up for the first time in several hours, there were only a dozen of us left, myself included. I didn’t need to look far to find him, he was lingering in the middle of the field where we’d all been working, just as wet as the rest of us. As he stood over my grave I gave him my name, he glanced down for a second at my efforts and said “Pass.”
There was nothing else to do now but wait for everyone else to finish.
I thought that the oddest feeling ever in my life up to that point was the sensation of digging my own grave.
It now ranked equally alongside with watching other people dig theirs too.
When the last person finally finished, the old man inspected the hole briefly and said “Pass.” Then he looked up, as if seeing us all for the first time. “More of you left than I thought there’d be. Be back here, same time tomorrow. Rest of today is your own.”
We didn’t need to be told twice.
Back in the bunk-room, it felt like an entirely different world. After a hot shower and some dry clothes I felt much better about my career choice. After all, tomorrow was a new day.
“Kenzie!” It was one of the other Apprentices. He’d been saying something to me but I was miles away, back at the bottom of that hole.
“What?” I asked.
“Do you think it’d be okay with them if we all moved our beds together? It’d make the room easier to clean then?” he said.
I didn’t need to think about that. “I wouldn’t. Not without asking them for permission first. It’d be just like them to fail us for doing something without instructions.” I said.
The following morning, the old man seemed surprised to see us back in front of him. “Still here, eh?”
None of us wanted to fail, but this was an entire years worth of training to get through first, a long time left ahead in which to screw up in many ways still as yet completely unknown to us.
We expected to dig again on the second day. Instead the old man just rambled on about the life that lay ahead of us. If we made it through. “Best thing about this job, you’re all exempt from Military Service here! If you finish. Any questions?”
Phipps asked him about the beds in the bunk-room. The old man simply said “Yes” and then dismissed us for the day.
As the days passed, we learnt about heavy plant, the excavators that did the actual job of soil extraction. “No-one digs graves by hand in this business any more, we extract soil. Mostly by machine,” the old man had told us.
He told us about how to prepare the ground, how to manage the area and what to do with the spare soil after a coffin had been interred.
“Did you ever wonder where that spare soil all went to? Can anyone guess?” he asked us.
No-one wanted to volunteer a theory, for fear of being failed out on its stupidity.
“No-one care to guess? No? Next time you’re out there, look at the base of the trees. Then check the ground level everywhere else. You’ll see why.” He was right, of course. When you know what to look for, it’s completely obvious where all the spare soil from a grave goes. They placed it around the bases of trees then landscaped around it. The height differential was impossible to miss, once you’d been told it was there.
Each day the old man would teach us something new, how to treat the trees to stop the leaves from falling too early, how to line the walkways so the families could move safely through the cemetery when visiting their loved ones. Then one day he asked an unusual question. He held up a spade. “Who knows what we use this for?”
All hands went up.
“Other than digging or refilling a grave, of course.” he added. Every hand went straight back down, just as quickly as they’d all risen.
The old man smiled, half chuckling at a joke only he knew the punchline to. “You’ll find out soon enough. One to one training tomorrow. Check the notice board for your allotted time slot. Instant fail if you miss it. Dismissed for today.”
Back in the bunk-room, the new sheet of paper was obvious on the notice board. It had remained entirely empty up to this point. I traced my finger down the short list and found my name at the bottom, occupying the last slot of the day.
As the first Apprentice returned from his training, we all gathered round, eager to know what he’d been told.
“Can’t say. Under orders not to. You’ll see why.” That was Abrams, a little wiry guy from West.
One by one, the others left the bunk-room, each one looking slightly different when they came back. I didn’t really understand why until it was my turn.
As usual, the old man was waiting in the field. “You know where to stand, right?” he asked me.
I didn’t. “No sir. None of the other Apprentices shared what happens here. Sorry sir. I stand ready to be instructed.” I said, trying to at least show my willingness to learn over my current level of ignorance.
The old man nodded. “As it should be, Mackenzie. Find the grave you dug. Stand in front of it.”
That was easier said than done.
Where there should have been a dozen open graves, there was nothing but flat ground now. They’d all been filled in. I looked around me, trying to find any landmarks I remembered from day one. The oak tree to my right, the red statue a way off in front of me, the little dip in the ground to my rear.
“Here sir” I said, fairly certain I was standing in the right spot.
The old man nodded. “Within acceptable distance. Do you know why they were filled back up?” he asked.
I shook my head, “No sir, I don’t.”
The old man fixed me with a strange look I suddenly felt very uneasy about. “Pick up the spade, Mackenzie. Ready yourself. Defend your ground.”
The spade was lying on the grass a few feet away. I walked over and picked it up.
“Check your surroundings Mackenzie. Be ready for anything.” I wasn’t sure what the old man was trying to warn me about but I started to glance all around me.
He kept me at that piece of futility for the next hour, on the look-out for targets that never appeared. “Spade down Mackenzie. You’re done for this lesson. Don’t discuss this with the other Apprentices. Parade as usual tomorrow morning. Dismissed for today.”
Back in the bunk-room, I didn’t understand what I’d done today or why I’d done it. Some kind of alertness training, spacial awareness perhaps?
“Here he is. Welcome back Mac! How many?” That was Abrams again.
“Can’t talk about it. Under orders not to. Damned if I know why though. That was a bloody strange day,” I said.
A few of them chatted together until lights out. Perhaps their experiences had been different to mine. Abrams had asked how many. How many what, I wondered.
That was the only one to one training we received for the duration of the course. The rest was mostly lectures, the odd written test now and then. We were suddenly waking up on the morning of the final day with the old man’s voice echoing in our heads from the previous day. “Come ready for anything. It’s a solo test. Times on the noticeboard. Don’t be late.”
As before, I was last to go. However unlike before, no-one came back after they finished.
Had they all failed? Was the final test that difficult?
Then it was my turn.
Back on the field. Back in the rain. Back with the old man.
“Apprentice Mackenzie. I stand ready, sir,” I said.
“A groundsman doesn’t just dig graves then fill them back in. We protect the ground we work on, from the threat that lies below. Today is your day. How many graves will you fill Mackenzie?” The old man climbed a ladder close by, pulling it up into the tree it was leant against. Whatever was coming next, I was on my own. I still didn’t know what to expect though.
I didn’t understand his meaning until I saw the first pair of arms coming up through the ground, pushing the soil away, trying to climb through to the surface. Then all around me, the grass splitting, more bodies fighting their way through to the surface.
“Defend yourself Mackenzie! Defend the ground!” the old man shouted, from up the tree. He had a grandstand view up there, but I was still confused, in shock and afraid for my life.
The last thing I can remember was the cold hand, gripping around my ankle.
“How many did he kill Sergeant?” The voice in the distance sounded vaguely familiar to me.
“None, sir.” I didn’t know that one though.
“None?” asked the familiar sounding voice.
“Yes, sir. Not a single one. He didn’t even pick the weapon up. He made no attempt at defence, self or otherwise. Assessment sir?”
“Fail.” There was the voice, I recognised it at last, after all, I’d heard him say that word often enough. The old man.
“Sir? Where am I? I don’t understand? What happened?” I asked.
My vision cleared. I was still in the field, there was no grass, no trees. Just one grave, just one spade.
“Welcome back to reality Mackenzie. Sergeant, the report please. ‘Candidate, you have been deemed unfit for Military Service. As this is the only option open to criminals, your original sentance will now be carried out.’ Into the grave, Mackenzie.” It was the old man, wearing some kind of uniform.
I looked at him. “Sir, what happened to the course? What about the others?”
“You failed Mackenzie. At the final hurdle too. All the others passed. Your group took the longest on record, the full virtual year. Most candidates pass within the first few hours. Your friends all worked it out. You fight, or you die. You didn’t. So you die. Now get in the grave, don’t make me ask you again.” the old man pointed down to the open hole before him.
“It wasn’t real? None of it?” I asked.
“Just that first grave you dug, and there it is. Like I said before, pass or fail, this grave remains yours. And you can claim it now,” the old man said.
“I can change sir! I can fight! I will!” I begged for my life.
“No you can’t, and no you won’t. Ever. You already proved that Mackenzie. And there’s no place for dead-weight here on Earth.” The old man’s hand remained pointed directly into the grave.
I looked at the old man once more, readying myself to fight. “You know sir, that I once killed a man?” I asked.
The spade sliced through the neck, severing the head. The body fell forwards, into the empty grave.
The old man flicked the head into the open grave and started to shovel the dirt back in. “I know you did son. His name was Mackenzie.”
Authors Notes:- Inspired by the phrase “single-gravver” which I mis-read. That was a story in Abyss & Apex by Deborah Fitchett called “Coming Home” who very kindly gave me carte blanche to use the phrase as I wished. This is what I came up with.
Written as part of my “Year Of Living Bradbury”, this was the fourth story I wrote during week twenty-four. I submitted it to Midnight Breakfast 18th Sept 2014, they turned it down 23rd Sept 2104. I thought it was good enough to release. And one thing I discovered today, it’s really difficult finding the right picture of an open grave.