The blazing sun scalded the earth with unrelenting fury. Browning grass in the tiny cemetery bristled at the sky. The month-long drought had sapped the strength of humans, animals, and plants alike.
In a corner of the cemetery, a pile of drying earth grew with the labors of a gaunt man, already up to his shoulders in the grave he was digging. He paused, squinted up at the sun, and dug a kerchief from his overalls. Wiping his forehead, he smeared the sweaty grime rather than removing it. He stuffed the kerchief back in its pocket and sighed with weariness.
Hoisting himself from the hole he was digging, Ernest Treves, the gravedigger, surveyed his work with satisfaction. Bone weary, he retrieved his spade from the grave and trudged to the only shade in the cemetery. Ernest slumped against the trunk of one of two maples planted to remember a town founder and waited. He longed to lie down and rest in this shade. He had dug far too many graves this month.
Pursing his lips, he whistled a tune he had heard countless times in this burial ground. The sound gave him comfort while he watched for the preacher and the family to arrive with the horse drawn funeral carriage.
Minutes passed. Sweat on his clothes and body evaporated, cooling him. He grunted as the carriage rattled through the wrought iron gates. The small procession of mourners followed on foot.
Ernest surveyed the family from his distant shady spot. The older womenfolk wore black veils and gloves. Their ankle length dark crepe dresses were cinched tightly at the waist. He wondered if, under the heat of the midday sun, any would faint. It had happened before.
He grimaced when the rough wooden coffin was placed on the grass. His own three year old daughter Emily could have fit inside it. He shook his head to dislodge the thought and replace it with another.
Perhaps his wife already had a large pot of water for washing up coming to a boil on the cast iron stove. He relished a bath after a job like this.
The Watkins family assembled before the preacher. The father, the wide black sash of mourning draped over his shoulder, took his wifeís hand. Ernest scrutinized the manís blanched skin and pinched look around his eyes and mouth. He wondered if he would appear the same should one of his own die.
One of the youngest girls, with hair almost white blonde, gave an older brother a sideways kick in the shins with a black-booted foot. Despite his tiredness, Ernest smiled.
The melody he had whistled came back to him, reverberating in his memory. He wished he knew the words and their significance. The preacherís message drifted across the headstones toward Ernest. He leaned on his spade, waiting for the service to conclude, watching for anything out of the ordinary which he could relate to his family later that day.
A slight breeze stirred the leaves above him. Startled, he peered in the distance to see dark clouds beginning to form in the sky. He hoped the service would end before the rain fell. He did not fancy shoveling mud into the hole. His strength was about spent for the day.
The preacher led the family in a prayer. Then the small company began singing the song which had given him such peace. Ernest strained to distinguish the words.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . .
Grace. Ernest studied the faces of the family. Was that what gave the Watkins family the appearance of peace even when surrendering one of their own to leaf mold and cold ground?
That saved a wretch like me?
Ernest could not describe himself as a wretch. A hard worker, a man who loved his family more than his own life, yes. Yet something nagged at him. The times his stubbornness had caused his church-going wife to weep, the times the discipline he meted out to Emily was a bit too severe. Maybe he was a wretch.
I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.
The service was over. The family was departing. Even as Ernest shouldered his spade, the words continued to haunt him.
When he looked toward the grave through the mist which had begun to fall, through the mist in his own eyes, he determined in his heart to ask his wife about grace that afternoon.
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