Katy Thornton, Calluses

It was approximately 10:30 AM on the first quiet Sunday morning in many weeks, when Emma came into the kitchen, dragging the shovel that was nearly twice her height along the floor, spreading the debris of its last use across the linoleum, and made her announcement.

“I’ve found another one, Dad.”

Kevin sighed and took a sip of his lukewarm coffee, that was only minutes away from reaching that undrinkable, tepid temperature. His six-year-old daughter didn’t speak with any emotion, at least not one that he could decipher, though her eyes looked urgent – this matter could not wait for him to finish his breakfast. He hadn’t been that interested in the granola and yoghurt combo anyway.

“Okay, Emma. Just let me grab my shoes. And leave the shovel there, in future I’ll get it.”

Kevin rather hoped there wouldn’t be a next time, but this was the fourth in the last two months, fifth if you included the one that had started this whole ritual. He’d always known, even when they had made the purchase seven years ago, that this house had one major fault, and that was that it ran parallel to a main, and more importantly, busy road. They had almost lost their dog Hector to a speeding car one afternoon, a tragedy that Kevin would’ve happily taken on the chin at the time but despaired at how his children might react and later felt an unexpected wash of relief when the mongrel bounded out of the vet’s office, practically good as new, if perhaps even more hyper.

Kevin pulled on a coat and scarf – it was raining lightly, the sky an ombre of greys and whites. He was thankful that the rainfall wasn’t heavier, the last time it had made the whole affair, which under the best circumstances was unappealing, almost downright undoable. His boots were still caked in saturated dirt; whole clumps of grass were still embedded in the rubbery teeth of their soles. It had made the digging of the hole even less pleasant too – every time he’d shovel away a substantial piece of muck, it would slide back in, slippery and wet. That same mud had now been pulled from the shed, through the conservatory, into the living room and settled in the kitchen, but Kevin wouldn’t scold Emma over it, he thought as he retrieved it. She was a sensible girl, even at six. She’d been told to not do something again, and so she wouldn’t.

Emma was tucking her ears into her woolly hat – while it was like drawing blood from a stone to get her brother Andrew into clothes appropriate for the near-freezing January weather, Emma had her scarf and gloves on before even Kevin did.

“Where is it this time?” Kevin asked, hands on the lock. There was a low whistle of wind outside.

“By the road, near the path. I think someone moved it there.”

“You sure you don’t want to stay inside? It’s awful cold out there.”

Emma looked like she contemplated the suggestion, though Kevin was quite sure she had already made up her mind. She had her mother’s stubbornness.

“I’m sure. Let’s go.”

The pair moved swiftly through the crunching pebbled driveway – the rain was so light they barely felt it. Kevin spotted it immediately through the forest green gates – he’d always hated that colour, but Karen had insisted; supposedly it matched the trees and gave a bit of life to the otherwise drab road.

The mound was large. The fox had been healthy, well fed. Its tail was bushy and full, curled in around its hind legs, like a blanket. There was a streak of blood that ran from the road, although that had already begun to wash away, all the way to where the fox was now lying. How strange that someone had thought to move it off the road but not discard of it completely. Kevin wondered if it had been one of his neighbours, who were all well used to the roadkill by now. Although annoyed his Sunday had been interrupted by such a task, he was grateful that he hadn’t needed to pick the poor creature up from the middle of the road; cars were seldom this early, but it really was difficult to get this job done with any vehicles about.

“Must’ve been hit by a car,” Kevin mused out loud, looking down at his daughter, who even for a six-year-old was small, a measly 3 ft 1, according to the last marking of her height, which had been recorded on the bathroom wall three months prior by her mother. Kevin supposed she might’ve grown since then, but it didn’t look like it.

“Poor fox,” was all the sentiment Emma allowed. “Where will we put him?”

“Next to the others, I suppose. Sound good to you?”

The little girl nodded, and so Kevin got to work, for the fourth time of five burials that month, at creating a hole for the poor fox, who could easily have been sleeping except for the unsettling loping of its neck.

*

The third burial had been a hedgehog – Emma had never seen one before and the excitement of discovering a new species was quickly overshadowed by the fact that its bottom half was smushed into the tarmac, its prickles flattened, not sharp enough to fend against the tires that had rolled over it so carelessly.

Andrew had found this one, four days after the second. Kevin had told him so many times to not go that close to the road and even more so in the last few weeks.

“Look, Emma. He’s dead.” Andrew was nothing if not observant.

Emma had been a bit upset by the statement though had Andrew said nothing, it was inevitable the little girl would’ve come to this conclusion herself. Kevin’s children were too well acquainted with death, the subtler kind, the kind that weaves in and out. Such a bold declaration of death was rather difficult to explain away.

Kevin had been at work during this discovery – no rest for the wicked – and the kids’ grandmother, Ethel, was looking after them, although looking after them was probably a loose description of what she’d been doing seeing as they’d both made it out to the pavement by the main road. Andrew was tall enough to climb over the gates – Kevin once again thought they should never have installed gates where climbing was an option, though Andrew had only been a toddler at the time – although thankfully Emma was still too small to follow her brother and likely would be until she was too old to consider climbing over the gate. She looked on through the gaps, fingers wrapped tightly around the metal.

Kevin had been in the door no more than five minutes before Andrew burst with the news, shirtless even though it was no more than six degrees outside, a towel tied around his neck.

“We saw a hedgehog today.”

“Really?” Kevin asked, feeling a warmth in his stomach from the undoubtable enthusiasm in his son’s voice.

“Yeah. He’s dead.” Emma finished the story, sitting at the kitchen table with waxy crayons drawing back and forth on paper and onto the wood. Her grandmother was beside her, drinking a cup of tea. She didn’t stop the girl’s wandering arm, left and clumsy.

“Dead?”

“Outside, on the road,” Emma didn’t even look up from her piece.

“Oh right,” Kevin was at a bit of a loss for what to say – he’d hoped that this kind of talk was finished for a while, when the last of the visitors had returned to their lives, pressing play on all that was going on with them, that had been paused for the last three days to deal with Kevin and the children. Kevin shrugged out of his coat, dropping his briefcase on the coffee table, a rumbling groan invading his stomach. There was a pot on the hob but upon further inspection there was very little stew left behind – Andrew’s appetite had grown just as his and Emma’s had waned. Ethel looked at Kevin with a sad apology, but it was weak, like she barely had the energy to move her lips and cheeks. Instead Kevin popped some stale bread into the toaster. Andrew ran around in mad circles for about thirty minutes, a mixture between Superman and Tarzan. Emma kept scribbling until the crayons were hot with friction and waxy shavings in burgundy, brown and grey littered the table. Kevin thought he saw distinctive brown spikes, but Emma’s kept her arm protectively around her picture, hiding it from view.

Ethel left about 8PM, just before Emma’s bedtime. Andrew had since lost steam and was watching The Simpsons – Karen used to reprimand Kevin for letting him watch it, but Kevin was adamant that any rudeness would go right over Andrew’s head and one day he would be watching with his own children and wonder how it ever had.

Kevin’s feet were blistered – there’d been no break from his work shoes as there normally was, and he was glad to get into a pair of slippers. He tucked in his daughter, whose eyes were wide and unclosing. She was certainly tired, she couldn’t not be. Still, her eyes drank in her surroundings, flickering to and fro.

“What will happen to the hedgehog?” Emma asked.

“Well, he’ll go to hedgehog heaven, I suppose,” Kevin replied a little sketchily.

“Is that different to normal heaven? People heaven?”

“Ye-yes,” Kevin asserted, not without delay.

“But who will bury him?”

The question slumped Kevin, who was exhausted and a little too lazy to make up something fantastical.

“Don’t worry, there’s people who take care of that. He probably won’t even be there in the morning.”

Emma didn’t appear entirely content with this explanation, but she said no more, clutching her stuffed bear to her chest, her mouth hidden.

The next morning the hedgehog was still there, more dishevelled than it had been the previous day. The children noticed it as they walked to school, despite Kevin walking on the part of the pavement where it met the road, hoping it would obscure the corpse from their view. It didn’t.

Two days later, the hedgehog remained, undignified and bloody. Kevin wanted to phone someone about it but wasn’t sure who to and wasn’t sure he wanted to deal with the hassle of it all. But the hedgehog was spiteful; it would not stop until Kevin acknowledged him. That he even thought of the hedgehog as a him proved the children’s influence, their constant wonderment about his wellbeing.

“We should bury him.” Emma, again.

“That’s a stupid idea.” Andrew, assertive and aggressive when it came to any thoughts his sister had.

Kevin didn’t want to have to bury the hedgehog, but he realised it was his own fault, having buried a dead crow that had been lying stiff and still uncomfortably close to the front door, the evening of the funeral, when the echoes of conversation had dispersed, along with all the guests and the coffin. As if his family hadn’t had enough grief, there it was. The crow was matted and slick looking, its wing broken, a gash in its neck. Its eyes were open, glassy and unseeing. Feathers littered the front garden. Neither of his children said anything upon seeing it – Andrew took his sister by the hand and led her inside. When Kevin had finished burying the crow, in a hole that Hector had dug up at the bottom of the garden, easily covered with crispy leaves, the pair were eating coco-pops at the kitchen table – Andrew’s with too much cereal and Emma’s with too little, floating in discolouring milk.

Later, Emma asked what he had done with the birdy, after Kevin half-heartedly flicked through Peter Pan, neither of them interested a bit in the story. Sometimes Kevin would make up what happened, pushing Andrew to hysterics, because he could read what the book actually said, while Emma goaded him on, asking for princesses and mermaids, to create a whole new universe of Disney characters.

“I buried the bird.”

“The birdy was dead, too?”

“Yes, Emma. The bird was dead too.”

She went to sleep soon after, exhausted from the day’s interactions – family members and old friends of Kevin and Karen had seldom left the little girl alone, as if they were all in competition for who could cheer her up the fastest and for the longest period of time.
Kevin wasn’t entirely sure why he had buried the bird – it would’ve been just as easy to bin it or let the neighbour’s cat have its way but, in the moment, there hadn’t been a question as to what he was to do with it, only that he needed to do something with his hands and it was cathartic. He’d slept well that night, perhaps for the first time in a while.

Still, that urge to bury had disappeared, but Kevin realised upon Emma’s declaration, he had no choice. He had unknowingly set up a standard of care when death came knocking, and for whatever reason it kept knocking near their house, therefore their responsibility.

So, he’d set to work, carrying the dead creature carefully on the end of the shovel he’d used to dig a tiny hole, and together the three of them said farewell, though Andrew snorted and guffawed the entire time. The next morning, before the children went to school, Kevin noticed them both near the fresh grave, waving at the mound of earth.

Since then there’d been another dead bird, this time a pigeon, only distinguished by the fluffy grey feathers – it was half eaten before Andrew discovered him and informed them all at the dinner table, over Spaghetti Bolognese no less, that there was a bird outside on the path with its innards spilling everywhere. Emma wouldn’t eat the rest of her dinner then. The next morning, Kevin set to work on burying the pigeon, or what was left of it, beside the crow – there seemed to be some symmetry to that.

*

The hole required for the fox was much larger than the other animals – Kevin was digging for a good thirty minutes while Emma played with a deflated football, occasionally inspecting the width and depth, never offering any advice more helpful than “keep going.”

Finally, it was time to transport the fox, whose limp body became more apparent once on the shovel. It was heavy, and Kevin urged Emma to back away from him as he moved it, with the fear the body might drop at any moment. Once in the hole, he quickly shovelled the dug-up dirt back in, covering the fur of the fox, which was still bright and auburn. Once he was finished, he wiped his hands on his jeans, hands callused from the unusually frequent digging of the past two months, and looked at his daughter, who was staring earnestly at the grave, the fifth she’d seen in her life.

“It’s cold, I’d like to go inside, Dad.”

She turned on her wellie boots, squeaking as she trudged back to the house, surprising Kevin not for the first time in recent weeks. Where she’d been so sentimental about the death of the animals at first, it was as though she had now simply evolved – death was a part of life – a well-known fact but not for someone so young.

There’d been no tears at the funeral, though Emma had worn that same expression, not of grief, but of deep understanding for what had happened and the implications that would have on her life. She wore her sadness like a new scarf, wrapped around her, wound tightly; Kevin couldn’t remember what his little girl had looked like without it.

The ritual of burying the unfortunate animals continued for a few months, though thankfully they were few and far between. Sometimes Emma insisted on watching, or helping dig the hole, sometimes she didn’t. When the summer came, Kevin sent both his children off to camp and after two weeks in the sun, playing football and camping, and making new friends, neither child seemed to expect any more burials. Instead they spent their time playing fetch with Hector, or watching cartoons, or competing on the PlayStation. More foxes were found on the road, not always directly outside their house, but close enough that Emma and Andrew would see.

Sometimes Emma went as far as to say “poor fox” but it never went beyond that.

Yet for reasons that Kevin could not seem to grasp, each time this happened, he fetched his shovel from the shed – it felt lighter each time he went for it – and dug another hole in the garden, savouring each time he felt the biting of the wood against his callused skin.

 

 

Katy Thornton is a Creative Writing MA student at University College Dublin, currently working on a novel and some short fiction. She is also the fiction editor of
The HCE Review Literary Magazine. The story “Calluses” takes a subtle approach to discovering how people, families, deal with grief and the loss of a loved one.

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