Rites by Rich Larson

When I die, my mother always said, bury me in the forest.

She probably didn’t figure on me being the one to kill her, but life’s funny that way. I came over trying to be a good son, for starters. Trekked all the way out to her half-collapsed shack in the middle of a storm, in the bucketing rain, just to check in on her.

She was in a state when she came to the door, all ranting and raving. Had about a fifth of Walker in her, as she typically does, but it’s not just the boozing lately. Ever since she moved out here to the sticks she’s been losing her goddamn mind.

“God is in the swampy air,” she always says. “In the sheet lightning, in the big black bugs, in the growing and the slithering. You won’t find God in the city, no sir.”

Always said, I mean. On account of what happened next: me soaked to the bone, trying to get warm by the stovepipe, her snarling at me about how she won’t think of moving, she belongs here, without me having even brought it up.

She was jabbing that familiar bony finger into the small of my back while she spoke, so I spun around and gave her just the smallest shove. More of a nudge. But down she goes, tripping over one of them big wooden birdcages she keeps making, and cracks her fool skull clean open.

She used to be so much nimbler. So much stronger. Used to seem immortal to me, in fact. Even the times I wished she would die — when she made me take a kerosene bath for scabies, when she smacked me around — it never seemed possible.

But there she was, dead as a doornail, blood pooling around her head in a sticky red halo. And I knew I’d be in shit for it, due to that other argument a few months back. So I decided, then and there, to honor her wishes.

Which brings us to now: me dragging her body through the woods. Ropes of rain lashing down on my head, knurled and ancient tree branches thrashing on all sides. Every step sinks me ankle-deep in mud.

But it’s for the best. The rain will hide my tracks and be an alibi besides. She always was wandering off in thunderstorms; this time she wandered too far. I slog on, hauling her over twisty roots, down slippery humps of mud and moss.

These woods are dark and frantic and I almost see what she likes about them. It feels like one big animal with a thousand spasming limbs. When I hit a point so deep that the sky’s knit shut by branches, so deep I can barely see the lightning flash, I know it’s time.

I drop her, then unstrap the shovel from my back and get to digging. The wet earth is slick and heavy, but the hole doesn’t have to be deep. Nobody’s coming out here for an eighty-odd alcoholic who never did make many friends. I work my way around a pale twisty root, dislodge a rock about the size of a baby’s skull.

Deep enough. I curl her up, like she’s a baby herself, and bundle her into the hole. The earth seems hungry for her, seems almost to suck her right down. That’s good. I get to filling, near exhausted now, because shoveling is hard work even when it’s not pouring rain, even when mud’s not caking to your blade.

The last stretch is a struggle, but finally she’s gone. I drop a glob of spit on top for good measure. What sort of last words do you say for a mother who drank and hit and never could let even one little thing go?

“I hope that lake is real fiery,” I say. “And the life preservers are made of barbed wire.”

Then, as I’m turning to go, I hear the sound. The sound of growing. Of slithering. I don’t want to look, but a bony finger turns my chin. Pushing up from the fresh mound of mud, something not quite plant, not quite animal, something bone and bark and blood and xylem.

Gnarled limbs veined with vines, poison-bright blossoms shooting out of empty eye sockets. I try to run, but the thing already has roots, and they spring up around me now like a cage, one of them twisted wooden birdcages filling her shack. The roots grow spines, curved and sharp, the teeth of a gutsick wolf.

I think: hell, maybe she did know it would be me that killed her. I think: she never did specify, did she, which god was in the forest.

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