It wasn’t horrible, the woman contended, laying beneath this weight. In many ways, it reminded her of being tucked into her bed, under heavy blankets. There was no crackling fireplace, but there was also no wind and no draft and nothing to chill her bones apart from the cold that sat with them. She closed her eyes and imagined that she would wake to see the sunrise. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen it; it could have been days or months past. The sickness kept her tired during the day and anxious during the night, so that she found herself walking and walking and walking at the strangest of hours.
She wished that she could stretch her arms out a little bit farther. Her right hand clutched the vial tightly. With her left, she knocked against the wood to a rhythm of a song she had known as a child. It was a comfort—and a strange one at that—to hear the bones of music in such a place.
She felt a bump against the wood and then her hand moved, shifted, really, as though her gravity had tilted. She listened for a moment for the scurry of a rat or the apologies of a weak-willed priest, but she heard nothing. No gnawing or nibbling, nor shouting or speaking, just her breathing. Shallow and hollow; an echo of her sickness.
Her family had followed all of her requests, from the guests at her funeral to the dress that she wore. She wasn’t meant to be awake—she would admit that—but was plenty of laudanum left in the vial and she was in no rush. She began to think again of sunrises and sunsets and birds and trees and everything else that had soured since the sickness.
There was a second bump.
She could not have imagined this one, for a strand of hair flew across her face. She blew it away, wondering what could have bumped against the coffin hard enough to move it. It could have been a rat, perhaps a large snake. Maybe even a gopher. It had been months since she’d walked the grounds and even longer since she had gardened.
The woman had decided early on that there would be no panicking or bargaining with God. When the sickness came, she would play judge, jury, and executioner of her own person. She repeated this mantra in her mind louder, still, and louder and louder, trying not to think about the gnawing she heard and the scratching she felt as something moved against the coffin.
She was so consumed with thinking of these things that when there was a third bump, her hand opened. The vial fell out of her grasp. She could feel it rolling against the heavy wood, mimicking the bareboned tapping of a childhood song, mocking her, as the coffin began to sway slowly. She should have been concerned with what else was beneath her, but all she could focus on was the vial between her feet and besides, she was perfectly safe. All that was near her were the coffins of her kin, buried centuries before her and stacked on top of each other like ingrown tree branches.
No. She would still go peacefully, not into a night, quiet or otherwise, but into a blissful morning where she could see the sun. A blue sky, with licks of orange, hot and cold all at once. With her sickness, every day was quiet, but when she woke again, the sunrise would be loud; loud like the wood chips she felt at her feet, beginning to shuffle against sanded wood.
She was meant to go quietly, laudanum on her tongue. She was meant to go with no panic. She was meant to be asleep the entire time, beneath the covers of ground.
The woman closed her eyes tightly as the wood began to break like shards of sunlight piercing apart the frost on winter mornings. As the gnawing and the nibbling grew louder and louder and louder, traveling from her feet to her ears. As she heard her kin’s voices, robust and percussive, inviting her to open her eyes to the sunrise.
She felt the vial of laudanum roll between her feet, dry now and empty. Not stopping where it should have—where skin would have formed a barrier—but continuing in, lodging itself in her bones. And when it had stopped rolling, she found herself in complete and utter silence, unable to scream as the air left. Buried under the cover of dirt and frost, she waited, waited, waited for shards of sunlight to pierce the winter snow and bring light over her bones.
Caitlin Upshall (she/her/hers) holds a B.A. in English from Western Washington University. Her work has been published by the tiny journal, OyeDrum, The Sweet Tree Review, and others. In her spare time, she enjoys most things dinosaur-related and trivia nights. You can find her on Instagram at @CaitlinUpshall.