Your Federal Quarterly Tax Payments are due April 15th Get Help Now >>

Achilles by cuiliqing




                                        Michael O’Malley

       Ralph opened his chair and set it in front of the grave. He nudged the few flowers to one

side with his foot so the legs wouldn’t crush the buds. The ground gave slightly as the chair

settled under his weight. He opened his tattered copy of the Odyssey and crossed one leg over the

other. He was already in Book XI.

       It was sunny, and he was thankful for that. When Ralph had visited the cemetery the

previous year, a spring downpour had swept over the city while he was driving. He had only

stood at the grave for a few minutes before returning home. His coat had been soaked, though,

just in the twenty-yard walk from the road to the grave. This year, a warm gust ruffled his pants

when he opened the car door, flinging numerous threads of pollen into the vehicle. Thick oaks

grew outside the perimeter of the cemetery’s wrought iron fence and littered the grounds every

April with the dusty yellow strings that fell from the branches; those strings seemed to blow

everywhere. Ralph thought they looked like mealworms.

       A shuffle in the grass made him look up. It sounded like a comb dragged through knotted

hair. A man trudged up to the grave beside Ralph. He had a limp and a paling blond beard. Their

eyes met with a flitting glance, and the man gave a slight nod before turning his gaze to the


       “Do you have a light, by any chance?”

       Ralph had only read a few dozen lines when the man spoke to him. He put a finger

between the pages to mark his place. The man was looking at him, holding a cigarette between

his thumb and forefinger like a pencil. Ralph wasn’t sure where it had come from. The man’s

clothes didn’t seem to have any pockets, save for the two on either side of his breast, and those

looked empty. The outfit looked like it had gone straight from the ironing board to the man’s

body. Blanched dress shirt tucked without a crease, night-sky blue trousers pressed into a sharp

peak at the shins. It was like a uniform, Ralph thought, although entirely undecorated. Ralph dug

his lighter out of his pocket and extended it to him.

       “Do you have any matches, actually? I like the way the sulfur tastes better than that

Zippo oil.”

       “No, sorry.” Ralph shrugged and returned the lighter to its pocket.

       “Ah, it’s okay,” the man said. He tapped the cigarette on his palm several times. “I wasn’t

really looking for a smoke anyway.”

       “Okay.” Ralph flipped open the book with his finger and swept his eyes over the verses

until they caught on the line he had left off. A bird’s warble flitted down from among the trees.

Ralph looked at the man’s outfit again. “Are you in the military?”

       “Nope. Never have and never will. I’m a pacifist at heart, you see.”

       “Oh. Okay. I just thought that your uniform—”

       The man looked down at himself. “You mean this?” He tugged his shirt and laughed.

“Nope. Picked it up at JC Penney. The department store right beside that gardening shop in the

mall. You know the one with the fake trees out front? Sometimes I wish they hadn’t put fake

trees there.” He placed the unlit cigarette between his lips.

       “I don’t think real trees could grow indoors.”

       “They could right there,” he said, talking around the cigarette. “They have those skylights

in the ceiling. There’d be plenty of sun. Just needs a little soil, and that could be trucked in.”


          Ralph looked down at his feet. His loafers were darkened from the beads of moisture

they had picked up dragging through the grass. The parking lot was the only pavement in the

cemetery. There were no sidewalks, just grass surrounding the markers. The grounds crew spent

hours tending the lawn, but they never trimmed it shorter than a couple inches. It felt like

walking on a thick shag carpet. Ralph supposed that they wanted to keep a natural look to the

graves. Maybe cultivation looked too artificial. Or maybe they didn’t feel like competing with


          The man pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and pointed it at Ralph. “Do you ever

wonder about these trees here?” He gestured broadly at the oaks with the cigarette. “I read once

that a tree root can grow out from the trunk as far as twice the tree’s height horizontally. You

know what that means? Those roots are intertwining with the coffins, winding in and out all

around those boxes like twine on packages. And then they work their way inside the boxes.

They’ll find the flaws in the boxes and slide in, creeping all in and out the skin and mouth and

teeth and bones and bits of clothing. These trees are practically living off corpses.”

          “No, I’ve never thought about that.”

          Ralph looked at the pollen worms piled in drifts against the tombstones. Some of them

had begun to crumble into dust and dissolve away into the breeze.

          “Do you ever think you can hear them?”

          “Hear who?” Ralph kept his book open.

          “The dead.”


          “Like there.” The man nodded at the headstone at Ralph’s feet. “Who’s buried there?”

       “Just someone.”

       “Someone. Do you ever think you can hear someone? Not in the Sixth Sense kind of

way,” he said. “I’m talking about them sending messages to us, from wherever they are out there.

Calling to us from across the void, heaven or hell or whatever you want to call it. Do you ever

think God allows us to hear them, just the echoes of them calling?”

       “No. I don’t.”

       “Me neither. Not at all.” The man ran his fingers through his beard. They caught on a

tangle, and he drew them back. “It’s nonsense, of course. I’ve seen people die. The dead don’t

talk. Not to us anyway. A lot of people think otherwise, though. Makes you wonder what they

hear. God? Makes you think.”

       “I guess.” Ralph took a breath. “Hey, sorry. I just don’t really believe in God or any of

that. No offense, you know.”

       “None taken, sir. None taken. But not even miracles?”

       “What kind of question is that? I don’t believe in God.”

       The man rolled the cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other. “Let me ask you

something: what exactly does an atheist do at a cemetery?”

       “I sit.”

       “But why here? It’s a plot of ground peppered with boxes of decaying corpses. Used to

be someone, yeah, but your presence certainly isn’t for the benefit of the deceased.”

       “I guess that’s why I brought the reading.”

       “And the flowers?”

       “My wife brought those. She comes here every month.”

       “When do you come?”

         “Not as often as her.”

         “I see.” The man shifted his weight, and his bad leg buckled. He straightened up with a


         Ralph coughed and set his book in his lap. “So, what do you do?” he asked the man.

         “I’m in the Navy. On leave right now, so I thought I’d grow out the beard for once.”

         “I thought you said you were a pacifist.”

         “I was kidding.” The man dropped the still unlit cigarette and ground it into the grass

with his toe, letting it lie twisted and white in the grass. “What do you do?”

         “I’m a regional manager for Morton Co. The box company in the city.”

         “And you’re reading the Odyssey?”

         “Well, I try to read it once a year. It’s…it’s a father-son story. Odysseus and Telemachus

are looking for each other, in a way. That’s what it’s about. I studied literature in college.”

         “Literature! There you go. That’s what I’m talking about. The great miracle. Literature is

proof of God.”

         “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

         “See, your book right there. And this.” He pointed to the tombstone. “And this fence all

around here. Why do people make stuff like all this? Those little flowery engravings around the

name. The exactly square rods on that fence. Fake plastic trees. All those letters on the page,

they’re exactly alike. It’s order. It’s decoration. What’s the advantage of it? Decoration shouldn’t

exist. Not in this world.”

         “You’re not making any sense.”

         “Exactly. Of course it doesn’t make sense to you. That’s what your literature’s for. Do

you want to know why I believe in miracles? I’ve experienced one.” The man pointed to his leg.

        “So what happened to your leg?”

        “Porta-John fell on it. Crushed it flat. I used to work construction, see. We were working

on a three-story home at the time. Apparently the bricklayer decided he was tired of coming

down three flights of stairs to take a leak, so he got the crane guy to perch a John on the corner of

the top floor while he finished the walls. Well, a gust of wind teeters that Porta-Pot back and

forth until it topples over the edge all the way to the ground, right down onto my leg as I was

walking by. Knocked me out cold. I’d been looking for a screwdriver at the moment. Never saw

it coming.”

        “That’s your miracle?”

        “No. The miracle was that fifteen minutes later the worst bulldozer driver in the world

rolled around the corning in one of those yellow monsters and knocked the toilet off my leg. Not

on purpose. He just careened into it. But he found me anyway and took me to the hospital. He

saved my life. I had been lying face down in a pool of that blue crud that they put in to mask the

smell of all the urine. It had all splashed out when it hit the ground, go figure. Do you know what

it would be like choking to death with that in your lungs? Ten years of being in the Navy, and the

closest I come to drowning is in a puddle of spilled Porta-juice.”

        Ralph shifted in his chair. The legs sunk further into the ground. “Are you kidding about

that, too?”

        “No sir. I’m serious as sin. You know I’ve been shot at? Only hit once. Just once, out of

all that chaos of bullets. And I’m still here. Like a flowery engraving, you see. You are, too.

We’re all the decoration that shouldn’t exist.”

        “Well, if that’s your miracle.” His voice trailed off. He looked down at the flowers on the

grave at his feet. His wife had left daffodils that year. The first year it had been lilies, and the

year after that roses. It had only been three years. Ralph remembered the roses best; the petals

had still been full and smooth when he came, dark crimson like velvet folds. She always came a

few days before he did each year. Last spring it had been sunny when she came; she had beat the

storm by exactly four days.

       “And I say, if that’s your literature,” the man said, gesturing at Ralph’s Odyssey. “Now,

whose grave did you say you’ve been sitting at all this time?”

       “Read the name yourself,” Ralph said, rising to his feet. He grabbed his chair and his

book and walked to his car. His loafers got even wetter on the way back. Droplets trickled off the

damp tops onto the floor when he sat down, pooling alongside the oak worms. He didn’t finish

the Odyssey that year. He told his wife he was sick of it, and put the book in the attic, beside the

box containing a pair of new shoes that had never been worn.

To top