Of the two exercises in Chapter 4 of Steering the Craft, I thought this one was the harder. It was also the first time Le Guin gave us the option to write a complete short story. The other exercises had pretty tame word counts – 150, 250, 350 words – but this time, she didn’t limit us. And if Ursula Le Guin suggests doing something, I figure it is worth a serious listen.
“Part Two: Structural Repetition
Write a short narrative (350-1000 words) in which something is said or done and then something is said or done that echoes or repeats it, perhaps in a different context, or by different people, or on a different scale.
This can be a complete story, if you like or a fragment of a narrative.”
(Page 41-42 of Steering the Craft, by Ursula Le Guin)
I did try to make it a complete story – came in a 1285 words – woo!
Even though the surrounding hills were lined with tract houses rising side by side up gently curving streets, it was still shocking to see the denuded foothills straight ahead on the freeway. The yellow and brown chaparral, which burst into green every spring as long as rain fell during winter, was now raw dirt. Earthmovers and bulldozers were leveling terraces for another development in another Los Angeles suburb. They pushed the heavy clay soil to and fro across the face of the mountain.
Like punctuated equilibrium, thought Lily as she drove north on the freeway towards the San Gabriel Mountains that bracketed L.A. The hills evolved into housing in fits and spurts: lawsuits or recession would lull the progress of bigger developments for a time, but eventually the next hill was stripped and built up.
She tapped the top of the steering wheel a couple of times to bring herself back to the present. It was strange to be here in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Usually, she only saw L.A. now on weekends and holidays when she came to see her family. Why am I even going to this funeral? What am I doing? She asked herself. Well, I’m going because I was asked to go. But that was the part she wasn’t sure about.
The funeral was for the mother of her old high school friend, Gillian – but it had been 15 years since she last saw Gillian and they hadn’t been very good friends at that. Lily had never actually met the woman they were going to be burying today.
She had lost touch with Gillian after high school and had gone through college and graduate school most peaceably without her. But then the message had come on social media a couple of years ago – Gillian wanting to connect. This was all fine and they had messaged back and forth some, catching up. Gillian had a son but didn’t post pictures of him on social media. She asked if Lily wanted to exchange numbers so she could text her photos of her kid. That too sounded fine and Lily had sent her number.
And it had stayed like that for the last few years: the occasional photo or happy holiday text.
Then came the text a week ago about Gillian’s mother’s funeral. Initially, it was simply the information on the service, with no other message. Lily didn’t reply at first; she thought maybe it had been some sort of massive group text or accidentally sent to her. The next day another text from Gillian came in: “Are you able to make it, Lily? It would mean a lot to me.”
Lily was at work and didn’t respond right away to this one either. She looked at her calendar: she could make it. But it would be a hassle. A day off work, a several hour drive, figuring out whether she would stay the night with family or try to drive back same day, and ugh the traffic. She hadn’t even known the woman – had no idea what the lady died from – not that it mattered, but still. The address given was a church, so it would be religious and therefore long and full of platitudes.
But as she finished up at work and drove home that day, one thought overrode all of her objections. There must be a reason she asked me. You don’t ask someone to come to a funeral on a lark. Maybe the whole thing was a giant family mega-drama and Gillian just needed to see a friendly face in the crowd, one not associated with the mess surrounding her. Lily didn’t know. But you don’t get asked to go to a funeral for no reason.
When she got home, she texted back: Yes, I can come. I will be there.
The reply was immediate: Thank you (little prayer hands emoji)
And so here she was a week later, back in the valley, 15 years since she moved away.
The church turned out to be a non-denominational one on the grounds of the cemetery. A black felt sign with press-on letters listed the services taking place that day with arrows pointing in different directions. Gillian’s mother’s arrow pointed off to the left of the church.
It was outside, graveside. Several blue awnings shaded rows of white folding chairs. A few people were already seated. Lily took a seat in the last row, on the end. She didn’t see Gillian or anyone else she knew.
A miniature backhoe was parked about 10 feet away from a small pile of dirt; down the hill behind a low rock wall was another earthmover, a small bulldozer. A large square of plywood and a fake grass carpet covered what Lily presumed was the hole for Gillian’s mother. A few more people trickled in.
Gillian and her family entered in a procession from the back of the church, with a young boy in a suit with a crooked red tie carrying a polished wooden box. It seemed almost too big for him to be bearing. Gillian walked slowly next to him in dark sunglasses, a hand on his shoulder to guide him or maybe to rescue the box if things went wrong suddenly.
If Gillian saw Lily, she didn’t acknowledge it.
The service was short and Lily learned all she was to know about the woman from the eulogy the minister gave. One of Gillian’s sisters also gave a eulogy, talking about their mother’s obsession with her Thanksgiving china set that elicited a few chuckles. The box sat serenely on a small table and from Lily’s angle was perfectly framed by the backhoe’s arched mechanical arm. Like the machine was giving her remains a hug, Lily thought.
The service was over and a cemetery employee stepped forward and asked if the family and friends would like to stay for the internment or if they would like to proceed to the reception room beside the church.
Some folks moved off towards the church. Lily had never seen an actual internment; this had not been a question asked at the few funerals she had attended for elderly distant relatives. So she stayed discretely in the back but sat up so she could see. Two men in blue hard hats were removing the fake grass and plywood.
The cemetery employee narrated for those that remained. “Would the family please place Annie’s remains in Ronoldo’s arms?” Ronoldo being the man in a hard hat now standing in the narrow hole as deep as he was tall.
“Now Ronoldo will gently place Annie into her final resting place.”
“Family, is the placement okay?”
“Now our ground crew will intern Annie.”
Ronoldo climbed out of the hole. The other man from the ground crew was in the personal-sized backhoe, inching it forward, leaving track marks in the grass.
He deftly filled the hole and then backed to and fro, pushing the earth over it. He tamped it down a few times with the bottom of the shovel attachment. The raw dirt was shocking against the deep green of the irrigated grass over the other graves. The finality was shocking too; Lily found she was tearing up and fished in her purse for a tissue.
The ground crew placed some sod squares over the naked earth as an acknowledgment that the ripped ground was not whole, not healed. Gillian and her family made their way towards the church.
Lily stayed while the ground crew finished up and crawled the backhoe away, down the hill towards the rock wall where the small bulldozer waited. Then she got up and went to her car to start the long drive back home.