By Eliot Gregory
It was December 3, 1918. William stood in the snow with stinging pellets of sleet slashing his face. Although he wore a wool coat, gloves, and a warm scarf around his neck, nothing could stop his shaking.
He took a moment to lean on the shovel. The sky seemed to be glowering at him in anger. There was no sense in what had happened. He wanted to shake his fist at God. He had always served God and he was a good man. He knew he was. Shouldn’t these things happen to scoundrels and wicked people? Not him.
Now he wasn’t even sure there was a God. Why would God let this happen?
His thoughts turned to the day he and Annabelle had gotten married. It was the happiest day of his life. She was beautiful and she was his. That had been less than a year ago. Things had seemed so happy and bright. He had looked at her with awe that such a beautiful woman would even look twice at him. It was still hard for him to believe that she loved him.
He pushed on the shovel and tried to push those thoughts from his mind. He couldn’t think about it right now. He pushed again and again but the ground was too hard to break up. It was frozen. He stood on the shovel but made only small indentions in the ground. He reached up and wiped sweat off his forehead. He knew he would probably be sick, too. He couldn’t help wishing that he, too, could be carried away by the Spanish flu. Maybe it could still happen. He didn’t want to go on living without them.
He had contacted several grave diggers, but none of them were available. They were either trying to nurse someone in their own family or they had this awful flu themselves. Who knew that something like this would come and take everything away from him?
He should not have been so happy, he told himself. He shouldn’t have allowed himself to be so taken by the baby. Maybe God was mad at him for loving Annabelle and the baby too much.
When little Henry had been born, no one was ever as happy as he and Annabelle had been. They took him everywhere with them. Henry was such a good baby. He didn’t cry and take on like some babies at church. Annabelle was very discreet and kept a blanket over her chest when she nursed him. Everything about Annabelle was first rate. He sometimes worried that he wasn’t good enough for Annabelle.
Fresh tears ran down his face as he pictured his baby son. The tears froze into icicles against his face. Little Henry had begun smiling at William when he was a little over a month old. At first he and Annabelle had thought the baby had gas, but no, he was overjoyed at the sight of his father when he came home at the end of the day. William would sit in the chair by the fireplace in the small kitchen and hold the baby while Annabelle finished cooking supper.
He and Annabelle had named the baby Henry after his grandfather. It made him so happy that Annabelle wanted to name the baby for the grandfather he had loved so much. Having that sweet baby named after him was almost too much happiness for one man. He had been 21 when he and Annabelle married. By 22, he had everything he had ever dreamed of having, and then so quickly he lost it all. The rest of his life looked bleak and hopeless.
When he had been a child, he often spent time with his grandfather. He loved listening to the old man’s stories about the good ole days. Sometimes his grandfather would tell him something sad about his own life. It was hard for William to imagine his grandfather ever playing any role in life except being his grandparent. He tried to think of what his grandfather might have been like as a child.
If only he could go and talk to his Granddad Henry about all this. It wouldn’t make it go away, but he would feel a little less burdened. He knew he couldn’t talk to him ever again. It was too sad to think about. Wherever Granddad was his heart must be breaking, too, because they had loved each other so dearly. William would’ve given up everything he owned to bring any of them back. Even as he thought it, though, he realized he was asking for the impossible.
It seemed an intolerable cruelty that he had to dig the grave that would hold the two people he loved most in the world. He wondered what he had done to deserve it.
People all over the village were screaming and crying in anguish at the death of another beloved relative. He didn’t want to hear them. He had heard enough screaming and crying to last the rest of his life.
He and Annabelle had held little Henry over a steaming pot of water on the stove. Henry coughed so deeply and even in the beginning, it made William shake when he felt the cough that rattled his son so deeply. Then one night William went to check on Henry in his sleep and, well, he couldn’t dwell on that. No amount of grieving would bring him back.
Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, Annabelle came down with the same thing. She had cried and wailed when the baby died, but William couldn’t comfort her because he was wailing on the inside. Annabelle lived 36 hours after Henry died.
William thought about the Black Plague that had decimated entire families all those years ago in Europe. In the night, wagons would go up and down the streets and carters yelled for people to throw out their dead. Bodies of the dead were taken to a common grave outside of town and dumped in with all the other bodies. He felt sick when he pictured people being dumped in with other dead bodies just because no one had the time to grieve or to move on. He could do precious little for Annabelle and the baby now, but he would see that they had a proper grave, and a headstone.
He had sent his brother a telegram to tell him what had happened. It said: “Wife and baby both dead STOP. Come if you can. STOP.
Some people in the community didn’t bother with funerals. William wanted Annabelle and Henry to have a nice service. He was burying them together.
He looked again at the sky that that was still spitting snow at him. Slowly the hole in the ground that would receive the bodies of his beloved Annabelle and his two-month-old son began to take shape. The afternoon was colder and darker as he chipped away at the graves, but he knew he could not stop because if he did, he might never be able to start again.
Eliot Gregory is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. We look forward to hearing more from him in the coming weeks and months.