Sky Burial


This story originally appeared on our now defunct 

Western fiction webzine The Big Adios.

Earle watched the blood in the water drift away like a line of campfire smoke spread thin by the night wind. The crimson ribbon washed down the creek, twisting around the stones as though it had a purpose and couldn’t be delayed. There was Hell to pay and blood settles its debts in fast time.

Earle had bloody debts to pay.

Above him in the clear azure sky the noonday sun shone hot, feeling like an iron right off the stove pressed to his back. He thought about peeling his shirt off and wading into the creek for a bit of a cool down and a whore’s bath. But Addams’ body spilling its red into the current kept Earle on dry earth, sweating out his own life a little slower, but just as final.

The desert breeze dried a man out. It dried him out and left him wishing for a cleansing rain to push the blowing dirt back down to the ground where it belonged. You can wish for rain all you like, Earle, but you ain’t gonna make water fall from the sky any more than Addams asking forgiveness was going to make you stay your hand. He looked at the water extending as far up the gulch as he could see and thought how it would only last a little while longer. Maybe a week, maybe less, until it thinned like Addams’ blood, died out and dried out for the summer. Then, the bed beneath it would bake, bleach and crack in the sun until next year when the snow in the mountains melted again.

Earle stared at the man he’d shot. He’d imagined killing Addams a hundred different ways. He thought of what it would be like to hang him from a low branch and watch his toes dance in the dirt while his eyes bulged and his extruded tongue turned purple. He imagined beating the man to death with the butt of a rifle and breaking his neck and choking him and whipping him with a strop until there was no skin left on his back and dragging him behind a horse and… and… and…. The daydream that occurred most often was facing the man in the narrow hallway outside the room at McClintock’s, where the reprobate stayed, and sticking a bowie knife into his guts, breathing in Addams’ last breath like cigarette smoke and watching the light go out of his eyes as the tide of his life soaked the boards and Earle’s boots. But then the whoreson had to go and run. He made Earle chase him from Holbrook to wherever the hell they’d gotten to when his horse gave out. Then Addams had made him chase him some more, right down to the creek where he’d turned to fire one last shot.

Earle was faster on the trigger than pleading words on a desperate man’s lips. He had hate to quicken his eye and reflexes. He gunned Addams down with a shot in the throat that spun that man around, dropping him to his knees in the mud. Earle had contemplated firing a second time, but the sound of his quarry gasping and gagging was like the prettiest hymn he’d ever heard his precious Evangeline sing.

How he’d loved going to church just to hear that girl raise her voice. The preacher would drone on about hellfire and damnation, about how the world was degraded with sin and debauchery, but none of it meant a shit to Earle. Not until his Little Evey would sing. He would sit there through those sermons and wait patiently, and then she would open her mouth and his spine would straighten and his heart would be lifted right up to Heaven on her breath. No big celestial mansions or cathedrals or even flights of angels heralding the majesty of the Lord could compare to that voice. It elevated him. Gave him the feeling of being held by something too beautiful for this Earth.

And it was gone. Silenced by the man bleeding out in ephemeral water. Dying the same way his Evey had done. Addams slit her throat and hid her body under a mattress where she stayed for a day while he got his head start out of town. Then, she began to stink. Everyone in Holbrook knew what a corpse smelled like. It was as common an odor as beer farts in a tavern, but still, it wasn’t something to ignore anywhere but on the streets. Nobody in Holbrook cared much about a dead cleaning girl—especially a colored one—even if she could sing, so no one figured it’d be worth trying to raise a posse to round up Addams and hold him accountable for the killing. Not even her employer, the preacher.

No one but Earle.

He tracked the coward to a ranch where Addams had stopped for a day or two of work before the owner ran him off for looking a little too hungrily at his daughter. Afterward, the rancher gave Earle rest and food and encouragement to go finish the job he said he should have done. Earle had thanked the man for not shooting Addams. “I’d’ve missed having satisfaction,” he said. Now that satisfaction was his, however, he still felt empty. There was a place deep in him, hollow and aching to be filled with the souls of every god damned man Earle could shoot, strangle, or slash.

It was the place where her voice had once lived.

Earle reckoned he’d waited long enough. Unless Addams had grown gills in the last twenty minutes, he wasn’t about to get up to any more trouble. He reached beneath the dead man and undid his gun belt. He then pulled off Addams’ boots. Earle anticipated the need for a second pair since his own mount had fallen to one of Addams’ wild shots and the walk home was going to be long.

Out of a boot dropped a pearl-handled straight razor. Earle caught it mid-fall. He thumbed it open. Maroon crust at the hinge flaked and came off onto his fingers. He raised them to his tongue, tasting Evangeline one last time. Her blood was saltier than her skin had been, but still it reminded him of tasting her body those nights when she could steal away. He closed his eyes and imagined her standing at the end of his bed, bare skin glistening with sweat, her dark eyes looking at him with love and hunger. He would ask her to sing. She would softly intone the first few lines of Now the Day Is Over or I Need Thee Every Hour, filling that place in him before she would climb abed to be filled herself.

No more.

He blinked away the memory. Returning to the gulch, he gave brief thought to concealing Addams’ body. He decided face down in the dirt was how he liked him better. Hiding the scalawag under a pile of rocks felt too much like giving the man a decent Christian burial. Earle had never had truck with religion except to hear Evey sing. One time, though, he’d spent an afternoon talking to a Chinaman about Booderism or whatever he’d called his pagan faith. He’d told Earle when his papa died they chopped him up into little bits and fed him to vultures. The chink had said it was because the ground where he was from was always frozen and too rocky to bury anybody anyhow. He called what they did “sky burial.” Whatever it was called, it sounded downright unpleasant for everybody except the vultures.

And a fitting end for this piece of shit.

Grabbing Addams’ ankles, he dragged the dead man out of the water before cutting open his clothes with the razor and stripping them off so the carrion-eaters could have at him better.  Throwing them into the water he shouted, “I hope the afterlife is a long swim through a coyote’s bowels, you whoreson! You hear me? I’d track you to Hell just to kill you twice!”

He took a deep breath and tried to remember the words the Chinaman had taught him to say to relax, doing his best to groan them out low as the fella had done—way back in his throat like there were a bunch of guys singing and not just one. Earle wasn’t sure if what he sang was words in Booderism or China-ese or any other language for that matter. It just made him feel better to focus on something other than Evey and Addams. He knew his rage was wasted on a corpse, but doubted he was ever going to stop feeling it. Instead, he did his best to take comfort in the thought that critters might eat the man and thereafter reduce him to shit.

He repeated the sounds until his breathing was back to normal. Still, he felt it, unquenched, hot and burning despite the cooling body at his feet. Anger was there threatening to make his heart race, tire him out and slow his progress through the desert. It hovered behind him like a reaper’s upraised scythe. If I don’t keep it together I’ll be face down in the dirt myself before I’m halfway home.


“Om mani padme hum,” he droned.

Returning to the fallen horse, Earle used the razor to dissever the saddlebag not trapped under the beast’s carcass. He figured he could spend all his effort trying to raise the nag off the ground enough to slide the whole thing out, or he could make do with half of Addams’ stores. Half was better than wasting all his strength trying to get a dead horse to roll over. His own bags were worthless. He’d set out with revenge in mind—not safe return—and they were empty.

What is there to return to? A two room shack on the outskirts of town with an empty bed? A job looking after cattle for the Hashknife Outfit? Always smelling like cow shit and never having anything better than whiskey and drunken oblivion to look forward to? He felt a sudden craving for a snort and regretted directing his thoughts toward anything but getting out of the sun. He felt his father’s contempt and heard the man speaking to him through the years from over a fence in their corral. Focus on that horse, boy. You’re a god damned day-dreamer; it’s gonna get you killed. That same horse kicked his father in the face and put him down the way Earle had never had the balls to do himself. Unless you counted bouncing a rock off that horse’s ass with a slingshot having the balls.

Shoulda gave him a sky burial.

He set up Addams’ lean-to, crawled under, and pulled his legs up close trying to shrink into the meager shade it provided. He ate some of Addams’ food and drank stream water and tried to nap while he waited for the sun to set. Eventually, he slipped out of the world for a spell of fitful sleep. He was plagued by visions of Evey. She stood in his room frowning at him, tracing the crimson smile at her throat with a wet finger and asked in a rasp why he wouldn’t come nearer.

“Can you sing somethin’ for me?” he asked.

She tilted her head back and pulled open the lips of her wound. The sound that spilled out made the walls blacken and crumble around them until they were left standing outside in the shadow of the church. The preacher stood on the front step with his hand out. Evey let him lead her inside. He slammed the door behind them, shutting Earle out in the night.

He awoke with a start to the setting sun burning red on the dusty horizon. It looked like Hell had come to Holbrook and started without him.

Composing himself, he stood up straight and buckled on the newly-acquired gun belt. He anticipated a three day walk back to the ranch and then, if he could manage to talk the rancher out of a horse, another day’s ride to Holbrook.

And then what?

And then to church.

Earle vowed he’d leave no one living who could accuse his beloved of being a whore. Maybe he’d leave the white-collared bastard out for the scavengers and give him a sky burial too.

He walked off into the night whispering to himself, “Om mani padme hum.” Mindful of his rage.

~ fin ~

MacLeod author photo

Bracken MacLeod lives in New England and has worked as a martial arts teacher, a university philosophy instructor, for a children’s non-profit, and as a criminal and civil trial attorney.  While he tries to avoid using the law education, he occasionally finds uses for the martial arts and philosophy training. His stories have appeared in Sex and Murder Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Femme Fatale: Erotic Tales of Dangerous Women, Reloaded: Both Barrels Vol. 2, and Ominous Realities from Gray Matter Press. His debut novel, MOUNTAIN HOME, is available from Books of the Dead Press on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.