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16/12/2015

The Community

Joanna Graham

Chapter one of a novel

Galen wore a doctor’s mask as extra protection against his allergies as he sat cross-legged in the grass under the open kitchen window, eavesdropping on his parents’ conversation. The clapboard edges on the house’s outer wall pressed into his back, but he stayed still. His parents were discussing the best way to cook his grandmother’s heart.

A bleached but sturdy wooden fence surrounded the green of his yard. Beyond it, tall yellow grass grew around a slow stream in front of a birch tree forest. If he took binoculars on clear days he could see deer grazing between the trees. He’d found part of a carcass there last summer. The doe’s right front leg was missing, and the meat around her haunches had been chewed away.

Galen knew his grandmother was dead. The phone had shocked everyone awake at two in the morning to deliver the news. His parents had hurried to the hospital and returned with a small blue and white cooler just after the sun came up. He’d been following them ever since, trying to overhear as much as he could.

Tomorrow there was going to be a burial, a eulogy and a wake. His parents had explained their community’s funeral customs at various points when he was growing up, but this would be the first time he would truly experience them, the first time he would be expected to consume the deceased.

His grandfather had died ten years ago, but Galen hadn’t been old enough to eat solid foods then. His sister D.D. used to tell him he was different from the rest of the family because he hadn’t eaten the ceremonial pie. His parents assured him they’d spoon-fed him some of the gravy.

‘Do you think Robert will come?’ Galen’s mother’s hesitant voice floated outside over the sound of onions frying on the stove. The sharp, sweet smell mixed with the cool smell of damp earth. His stomach growled; he hadn’t eaten breakfast. His father didn’t answer.

Galen had never met his Uncle Robert. He was the only person Galen knew of that had left the community. But before he’d left he was being raised to be the next community surgeon, the same position Galen was in now. His father always said Robert had abandoned them.

His mother continued. ‘Lucy said she’d call him as soon as she got home.’

Galen’s chest twinged. It would be strange for Aunt Lucy, coming home to an empty house. His eyes stung.

‘I don’t want him to,’ his father said. ‘I know he came for Dad’s, but –’

‘He should be with his family. Your mom would’ve wanted …’ his mother trailed off. Tap water rushed into the sink, then stopped. ‘Are you okay?’ she asked.

‘Right now, I’m just tired,’ his father answered. ‘We have to do this now?’

‘Yes,’ his mother said. ‘It needs to cook as soon as possible, and slow cook. But I can take over from here. Go sleep.’

‘No, I’ll help you in here, then maybe we can both have a nap. I don’t want to be alone today.’

The kitchen was quiet then, except for the sizzling. Galen rubbed his eyes, pushed himself up and walked to the back door. He took off his mask and shoved it in his jeans’ pocket as he stepped inside. The onions made his eyes water.

He wiped tears away and paused when he saw his parents. His mother was hugging his father and rubbing his back. His father was bent so his head rested on her chest, and his face was scrunched up, blotchy and wet. Galen’s mother spotted Galen hovering and beckoned him to join them. As he did his father straightened, put one arm around him and one around his mother. Galen relaxed.

When they broke apart Galen poured a bowl of cereal and sat down at the kitchen table, watching his father peel rubbery bits of dead tissue from the brown lump on the counter. Galen stared, but couldn’t reconcile the slab of muscle with the clean, precise diagrams he’d studied. His father sliced it in half and used the edge of his knife to pry wet, cobweb-like strings out of the deep red cavities inside. He cut the meat into cubes while Galen’s mother moved the onions around with a long wooden spoon.

‘He could still move back one day,’ she said. ‘You could talk to him about it.’

His father picked up the cutting board and slid the cubes into the onion pan. ‘No,’ he said.

‘But he belongs here.’ She checked the recipe beside her, focusing on the old piece of card paper until Galen’s father replied.

‘No he doesn’t,’ he said and put the cutting board and knife in the sink. ‘I’m not going to waste my breath.’

Galen crunched his cereal and watched pink foam spread over his father’s hands as he scrubbed the dishes. The smell of meat cooking made Galen’s stomach rumble, even as he was eating.

 

The burial would be a quiet start to the ceremonial day, community members gathering to return his grandmother to the earth. Galen’s family waited around the open grave while a dull grey sky hung over them, refusing to rain. Galen buttoned his suit jacket and crossed his arms. D.D. peered into the hole in the earth; her dark hair hung around her face so he couldn’t see her expression.

His parents stood at the foot of the grave with fingers interlaced and arms folded together, leaning inwards so Galen couldn’t tell who was supporting and who was leaning. His father wore a nicer suit than the ones he wore to work, and his dark hair was shinier and stiffer than usual. His mother wore a navy dress that matched his father’s tie. Her dyed-black hair was swept into a low ponytail.

Aunt Lucy was between Galen and his parents in a long dress that trailed in the grass. She clasped her hands over her stomach and stared at the town. He followed her gaze towards Drummond.

It was a different perspective, but everything looked the same: one and two-storey buildings spread in a grid with the hospital looming above them from the centre of town. The haunted church was the second tallest building. Its high wooden spire looked white, even though Galen knew most of its paint had chipped off, making the structure seem diseased.

He heard engines and rolling tires before he saw four cars and a truck turn onto the cemetery’s dirt road. The sound was comforting, but the quiet was even more present when the engines sputtered off and the guests stepped out. They were cousins, second cousins and however-many-times-removed cousins Galen saw regularly. They all clustered together before walking towards the fresh grave in an uneven line, the grass muffling their footsteps as they weaved between rows of tombstones. The group was smaller than he’d expected it to be; he hoped more people would come to the wake.

His parents and Aunt Lucy stepped forward to greet the approaching guests. They hugged and shook hands, exchanging whispered greetings and apologies. Their voices were more subdued than usual, not sharp enough to cut through the heavy air. They nodded at him and D.D. before settling into a semi-circle behind them.

Dinah, the community’s current surgeon, arrived after the main group, hurrying through the graveyard to join everyone. She was a white-haired woman Galen knew well because of his regular visits to her office. She stood behind him and squeezed his shoulder. His throat tightened and he nodded instead of speaking, then looked into the grave beside his grandfather’s. Beneath the brittle grass and pale, dry earth the base looked damp and grey. He expected something to move inside it – a worm or an insect – but nothing did. His grandparents’ graves were at the edge of the graveyard. Behind them flat fields stretched to the horizon, interrupted by the low, scattered shapes of scarce and distant trees.

Three strangers appeared after Dinah: a tall man, a woman and a girl. The tall stranger was thin with glasses and a short beard. He looked familiar, but Galen didn’t know why. He and his family stood apart on the opposite side of the grave. Galen could see the sky between their bodies.

None of them were still. The man was trying to keep his hands folded in front of him, but they kept straying to smooth his tie, adjust his pocket square or rub his chin. The woman was constantly shifting and Galen realized it was because her shoes were sinking into the earth and she had to keep readjusting her weight to pull them out. She was blonde, and something about her skin, her hair and the fabric of her clothes looked shiny and out of place. The girl was twisting and untwisting her long braid around her finger. She was blonde too, with a buttoned grey sweater that faded into the bleak sky. She looked bored.

Galen wanted them to go; they were intruding, but no one else was reacting to them. A few cousins glanced at Dinah and Galen’s parents. His father’s stare remained fixed on the grave, but Aunt Lucy’s forehead tightened and the corners of her mouth twitched upwards; the tall man didn’t return her smile.

Galen turned to D.D., but four funeral attendants arrived with the coffin on their shoulders and he forgot what he was going to whisper to her. For several minutes Galen heard nothing but the wind and the deep, strained breathing of the mourners around him as they watched the coffin approach. He backed away as the attendants moved it over the grave, and, with a nod from his father, began to lower it.

Galen and D.D. moved closer to their parents. D.D. shivered against their father, who squeezed his arm tighter around their mother, who found Galen’s hand and knit her fingers into his. The coffin hit the earth with a muffled thud. D.D. started to cry and Galen felt like the air had been pressed out of him. Two funeral attendants, a squat, middle-aged woman and a teenage boy, started shovelling dirt into the grave. Galen winced as it scattered over the coffin lid.

The tall man had wrapped his arms around himself. His chin was trembling, and he looked as if his body was about to collapse inwards. Galen decided it was okay for him to be there as long as he was upset. The man’s family didn’t comfort him. The girl fiddled with the hem of her sweater, and the woman kept her head bowed, looking at nothing but her own feet, until she touched his elbow and tilted her head towards the road. The three of them walked off, and Galen was relieved when they disappeared.

A few minutes later Dinah took her leave as well, patting Galen on the shoulder and nodding to his parents as she stepped away. The remaining guests followed her, touching his family in some way as they departed: a hand on his father’s upper arm or a quick kiss on Aunt Lucy’s cheek.

His immediate family lingered and watched the attendants fill in the grave. Galen thought about how the hole in the earth was being filled and wondered what had filled the hole in his grandmother’s chest.

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