By Gabriel Schenk
This is how I found him: crumpled up in a tight circle beneath a tree like a sleeping dog, his eyebrows, beard, and eye-lashes thick with frost. At this time of year, a man can stay preserved for months, too frozen even for wolves to eat, and if he dies out in the open, most times the snow will bury him before anyone even knows he’s there.
He can’t have been long-dead on account of his slack limbs. Given a few hours more, and the only way you can move a man is by fixing him up to a horse and dragging him along the snow. Not dignified, but it gets the job done, and better to get him in than leave him out.
I heaved the body onto the back of my horse and took it straight to Dr. Truax in the center of town. The doc sees a lot of corpses in his work, but even so, he took his hat off as a mark of respect, and wiped away the remains of his lunch with his white handkerchief.
“Take him down to the basement,” he said. “We’ll store the body there.”
He lit his pipe as I pawed through the man’s belongings. Twenty dollars; three slices of stale bread wrapped in a napkin; a box of matches, empty; a map of the Klondike; a leather-bound book with the Jewish star on the cover.
“I’d be very surprised if this fellow was from Yukon,” said the doc, lifting the man’s hood over his head, revealing a black velvet hat.
“He could be from Dawson,” I said. “They got Jews in Dawson.”
“He doesn’t look like he’s from Dawson. Nobody from Dawson would go out walking in January.”
This was true: the ones who died in the cold were never local. We used to find them littering the pass every spring during the gold rush. “So what do we do with him?”
“I remember treating a fellow back in ‘98,” said the doc, taking a long puff from his pipe. “Had a fall on Chilkoot, and I couldn’t save him. The second I declared he was dead, his companions took him away for immediate burial. I asked why. They told me it was Jewish law; something about the soul’s torment when the body goes unburied.”
He blew a wispy cloud of pipe-smoke into the frigid air.
“But that was in the summer. We’ll have to wait till the ground thaws in the spring. I’ll put a notice in the papers in case anyone wants to claim him.”
I looked again at the dead man’s face. His eyes were scrunched tight, and the sides of his mouth were pulled down. Granted I’ve never seen a happy corpse, but this one appeared especially vexed.
“Seems to me a fellow should be buried the way he wants,” I said, my voice quivering a little. Not every day I stand up to the doc.
He shrugged. “I’ve got patients to look after. Living ones. If you want to dig a grave, you dig a grave.”
So I went out to dig a grave.
I found a quiet spot just outside town near the tree-line where the snow was light and got to work. After an hour with the sledgehammer and pick-axe, I had carved out a shallow pit in which I lit a fire. When the fire was big enough, the heat would channel through the pit and thaw the soil. At least, I hoped so.
I sat down to eat my dried fish, smoke my pipe, and watch the flames grow. As I waited, I thought of the displeased expression on the man’s face, fixed forever by death and a layer of frost, of how unfair it was that everyone else got buried as they pleased. “Damn the doctor,” I mumbled to the fire, “a man should be buried the way he wants.”
I looked after that fire as if it were a child of my own, keeping it fed, sheltering it, pushing logs around with my boot to give it air. I figured it had grown hot enough when it made me sweat even standing at the edge of the light. I hooked the burning logs with the head of my pick-axe and placed them carefully to the side. The fire weakened but held on. I shovelled through the glowing ash as fast as I could.
It was easier to dig now the soil had thawed, but digging is hard work no matter how warm it is. When I got a foot deep, I stopped for another rest and saw a yellow light twinkling in the distance. For a moment, I thought it was the dead man’s soul, drawn to the spot where his body will lie. I knew that was just superstition of course, but it was only when it got close that I saw what it really was: Dr. Truax had walked in from town to see what I was doing.
“It’s cold out,” he said. “Come back inside, and we’ll finish in the morning.”
I ignored him and kept digging.
“You’ll catch your death out here,” he said.
“Digging keeps me warm,” I said, though in truth it was so cold it hurt to breathe, now that my fire had dwindled.
“Damn, boy,” said the doc. “You’re gonna get me killed as well.” He jumped into the hole and started digging with his own shovel.
The stars and moon were out by the time we’d finished. We stood back and surveyed our work. The grave was only three feet deep and messy around the edge, but it would do. The doc said we’d need to wash the body and wrap it in a shroud; that’s what he’d seen done before, with the fellow on Chilkoot. We could do that now, he said.
The fire was still burning a little. I gave it my last two logs, and the flames pounced on them greedily, scattering sparks into the night. It began to snow, and the white flakes joined the orange sparks. The snow fell down, and the sparks rose up. A gust made them spin around each other like dancers.
We walked back to town, together, to fetch the body.