Published in The Sun magazine., an excerpt from a novel in progress, All the Home I Have. “Burying Angel O’Malley” was chosen for a notable by Stephen King in The Best American Short Stories 2007. It’s not a true story, but was written in memory of my friend, Tom Smith, who was buried in the woods in back of his home at Tenmile Creek, and a little girl named Mer-lyn.
We buried Angel in November. She was laid out in the living room of her house, in a casket her father had made of cedar. She was wearing a blue dress, and she was barefoot. I walked inside the house, and the only thing I could see was the casket, with her in it. I walked right over and stood there. I made myself look. Not looking wouldn’t make it any less than what it was. It was just Angel, dead, in a blue dress I’d seen her wear a dozen times.
I went to the doorway and looked into the kitchen. The O’Malleys had a long table that ran from one side of the room to the other. Angel had only died the night before, and from the look of things, everybody must have gone right home and started cooking, as soon as they got the news. Every flat surface was filled with food. The women made pies. They made blueberry and blackberry and raspberry. Huckleberries are so small you need at least a thousand of them for pie, but there were two huckleberry pies anyway. People brought tuna from their freezers. Must have set it out to thaw as soon as they heard. And the men brought crab they caught in the Alsea Bay and salmon from the creek.
There were pictures she had drawn, spread out on the table. Angel drew pictures of her dog, and she drew cats and horses and houses with smoke coming out the window. She drew all of us, her neighbors. She drew sunflowers, and maybe it was because of her name, I don’t know, she drew angels. She drew angels with blue wings and pink wings and purple wings. She drew every color of wing. She drew dog angels. She drew angels holding the hands of a little girl, flying up to the sky.
After a while her father came in, and he picked up the lid and set it on the casket, and then he and a neighbor man picked it up, one on each side, and carried it. Someone held the door open for them.
The men carried her out into the rain. They carried her past where she used to sit in her red cowboy boots and play. She had a box full of little, plastic cows and horses, a farm set, and she had a white stallion that stood on its hind legs and an orange deer and several Indians with arrows, one squatting and the other standing, and she had a lamb and some other things. Most of them were the same size, but the orange deer wasn’t to scale, and it towered over the rest, even the stallion when he was reared up. And Angel would make places for the animals in the dirt there by the front door. They carried her past that. They took her over the sidewalk where she’d jumped rope. They took her out, and they took her into the woods, with the rest of us following.
Her father had dug a hole back there. He still had on his dirty T-shirt, like he hadn’t thought to change it, and his face was streaked with mud where he’d wiped his arm against it. He had dug the hole, and now he helped set her coffin on the ground next to it, and he stood there, not noticing the rain, with his hands at his sides.
Nobody had thought to bring umbrellas. It was only November, but it had been raining for weeks. Everything was so wet it hardly seemed to matter if the rain fell or not. The water came in the air we breathed. It came through the ground we stood on. It came through our skin and through our breath.
Somebody held a tarp over the casket while they took off the lid, and her mother put something in it, next to Angel. A poem someone said later, her mother had written for her. A little girl from up the road set her doll in the casket, and Angel’s aunt put flowers, and someone else put a rock, and someone put a toy. I’d never been to a funeral where you put things in with someone, so I didn’t have anything, and anyhow what would it be.
I had thought that taking Angel through the doors and outside for the last time would be the hardest thing of all, but then they picked up the lid and put it over her.
Her father reached in his pocket and pulled out a nail, set it on the top and began to hammer it in. I never saw where the hammer came from, but someone would have thought of it. Usually hammering was a good sound. It was the sound of houses being built. It was the sound of a fence going up or a roof being fixed. At the end of the nail you always give it an extra hard whack, and that’s what her father did, and then he got another nail and started it again. Then another man was beside him with a hammer, and they worked together hammering fast now, the sound ringing out in the woods.
When it was quiet again, the men lowered her into the hole, trying to keep the casket even, trying not to think of her in there, getting tilted from one side to the other and not being able to right herself.
The hammering: now that has to be the worst of it, I had thought. That terrible noise. The idea of shutting her up forever, nailing her in, sealing her off, has to be hardest, and after that things ease up, is what I thought. But when I saw her going down into the ground I almost turned and ran. I thought, now I’ll run until I’m too tired to think of Angel and everything else you can’t do anything about. I’ll run like an animal but not a deer or something that’s eaten. I’ll run until I’m far away from this, and I’ll be so tired all I’ll want is sleep. I’ll eat a big meal first, with meat, and then I’ll fall asleep. Maybe I’ll be at a motel, and there will be a pool, and I’ll go swimming. Or at least there will be cable TV.
But I didn’t go anywhere.
The casket had ropes strung under it, and when it was finally in the hole, the men pulled the ropes free, and there it sat. We didn’t know what do to and stood, stupidly, looking into the hole. I saw cows once when one of them died, how they looked at it, curious and not knowing what to think, and that’s what I thought of then. How we don’t know any more than those cows did.
Her mother threw a handful of dahlias into the hole. And then I noticed that there were baskets everywhere filled up with flowers, and everybody went up, one or two at a time, and they got handfuls of flowers and tossed them in: gladiolas, peonies, delphiniums, campenellas, hundreds of kinds of flowers every shape, size and color because this is the Northwest after all, and we may suffer from the rain that doesn’t stop and the sunless sky, but we get flowers, anyhow. And if you live in the Northwest, and you’re lucky enough to die in the summer, you can have a beautiful funeral.
At regular funerals, you watch the casket as its lowered, and then you go eat a casserole, but the O’Malleys weren’t letting us off that easy. The folks around here are real do-it-yourself types, and they weren’t having anybody else do anything, as far as I could see.
Her mother threw in the first handful of dirt. She didn’t lean on anyone when she did it, the way you might imagine. She just walked up and opened her hand over the hole where her daughter was, and the dirt fell out from her palm onto the top of the smooth cedar casket, on top of the flowers we had grown in our gardens on other days when everyone was alive, and then she stepped back.
We followed her. The dirt was wet and cold, and we threw it down. It takes a lot of dirt to fill a hole six feet deep. It takes a lot of time, even though later we used shovels. You fill it all in. It’s slow and everything about it, all the sounds and smells and the movement, has one message: she’s dead.
At first I didn’t think we’d be able to stand it. We didn’t talk. Nobody said how it was too hard, and we were going to have to give up, we can’t take it, we’ll never get through it, but I know that’s what we all thought.
Filling the hole took a long time and, as we went along, we started to calm down. It took such a long time that our minds started to catch up. And it was hard work, so even if you wanted to give in to grief, to roll on the ground or collapse or whatever giving in would be, you were too busy. You had too much to do, and the fact is you couldn’t stop until you were finished.
We wiped our hands on our muddy clothes. Someone smoked a cigarette.
I looked around at my neighbors, and every bad thing I ever thought of them, every complaint, seemed small and not worth noticing. And I thought, I’ll always remember that we die. I’ll live like I believe in our mortality, I’ll live like I believe in death, I thought, but of course it isn’t that easy. Our own mortality is like a bad experience we kindly let ourselves forget, and every now and then something reminds us, but then we forget again.
“The last picture she drew was a little girl being carried to Heaven by angels,” someone said, and we already knew it. Everyone had mentioned it by now, but we didn’t mind hearing it again.
Then her mother turned to leave. We were all finished. It was done. Her mother had a sister there, from Portland, and some girlfriends, and they walked with her through the woods back to the house, but the rest of us stayed there.
Her father sat down next to the mound of dirt, and he pulled a pint of bourbon out of his pocket and took a drink. He sat on the ground, on the wet dirt, but somebody else spread out a blue tarp, and the rest of us sat on that. The women pulled their skirts around their legs. The pint was passed around, and we all took drinks of it. A man from Five Rivers had a guitar, and he played a song, and then it was quiet again. The guitar was wet, but he didn’t wipe it off or put it away when he was done.
“I had to bury a ram one time, and it took me a backhoe to do it,” said one man. He wiped his hands against each other.
Overhead three crows flew in circles. Caw, caw, caw.
“I had to buy a horse once, after rigor mortis had set in,” said someone else.
“That old grey horse you used to have?” But he didn’t say.
“Danged if I didn’t have to saw her legs off, to get her to fit.” And he lit a cigarette.
“Remember the Presley cow,” said a woman.
The Presleys were two old brothers who lived alone, and they tell a story about a cow of theirs that died. One of the brothers decided to dynamite her. And the oldest brother liked to tell the story to show what a big fool his brother was, and what he’d had put up with, all these years, living with him, but the other brother, he told the same story, said it was his brother that did it. And everybody loved to tell that story, especially the part about the puzzlement of each Presley man, not being able to understand how his brother could be such a danged fool, and everybody could do an imitation, but nobody felt like it today.
So we sat next to Angel and talked about the Presley cow and the grey horse with rigor mortis and burying sheep with a backhoe. We sat on the ground in our regular clothes with our regular face, and we talked, using the same words we had always used. And as we talked, the extraordinary, shocking, outrageous death of the child, Angel, started to become part of what we understood as the mystery and banality of normal life.
We sat in front of the mound we had made, drinking a little bourbon from a pint bottle. Sometimes someone sang a song, Swing Low Sweet Chariot or May the Circle Be Unbroken, old Gospel songs, and sometimes one of us would think of something to say. The mound that covered Angel stood up maybe four feet above the ground, but eventually the dirt would settle in and move down.
Burying Angel O’Malley
Sometimes people will say of a dead body, oh she looks so alive. She looks like she’s sleeping. She looks like any minute she might open her eyes— but these things weren’t true of Angel O’Malley. Maybe it’s something funeral parlors do that makes it possible for people to say such things. Maybe if she had been embalmed, if someone had put make-up on her face, and lipstick, she would have looked like that, but she didn’t. Angel looked like a dead person. She looked like a little bird you find lying on the highway. She looked like somebody’s discarded clothes.
I felt other people pressed up against me, still in their coats, wet, in their black rubber boots. I could hear their breath next to me, someone whispering across the room, someone crying in the kitchen.
The coffin was set on a table where we used to play cards, her and me, Go Fish! or Old Maid. Her mother stood there, at Angel’s head. She had on an orange dress, and her hair was pulled back, and she was not crying. I thought, I wish I had a religion. I wished I believed in God and could think optimistic, hopeful thoughts and not about Angel laying in the ground in her blue dress. I turned to her mother. “You brushed her hair real nice,” I said.
When you go to a funeral home, you don’t have to be reminded of how things are normally, when someone isn’t dead. You don’t look around and see the door she walked through or the chair she sat on, the cushion with the imprint of her back still there. In a funeral home you don’t have to look up and see her red coat on a hook by the door. You sit on a bench in a funeral home, and somebody has done everything for you, and you know what to expect more or less, and you almost have a feeling like what happened is about this place, this funeral home place, like some of it might be contained here, might be kept here, might not follow you out and leak into everything else.