Sven stood watching as his brothers, Nils and Erik, began digging. An icy wind had started, and the snow was falling hard again. It had been snowing steadily now for ten days. Sven folded his arms tightly against his body, more out of habit than for warmth; the question was more bitter than any pain the cold and the snow could bring.
Why had He brought them here for this?
Back behind his family’s tent Sven could see the other members of the company moving their carts into line getting ready to start for the day. A large man wrapped in a heavy wool blanket left the line and walked to their camp and stood by their fire.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” the man said, “but there’s no time for this. You’ll just have to cover her with snow. We have to be moving.”
Nils slammed his pick down and glared at the man: “We won’t bury her in the snow.”
“We’ll catch up,” Erik said.
The man glanced over his shoulder at the line of handcarts.
“We’ve lost people who’ve stayed behind and tried to catch up.”
“The wolves …” Erik said. “It’s hard enough for our father as it is. We can’t bury her in the snow.”
The man looked at the tent and nodded his head.
“I heard your father was taking it pretty badly.”
The man held his hands over the fire for nearly a full minute savoring the heat.
“We can’t help you if you get into trouble. I’m sorry. There were five others who died last night.” The man turned and walked away. Nils started hammering at the frozen earth again. Erik looked at Sven.
“Get the covering from the handcart and put it in the tent.”
The canvas was frozen stiff. Sven shook the snow from it and then carefully folded it. In the tent he found his father kneeling next to his mother. Except for the paleness of his mother’s face, she looked more alive than his father did.
“You’d better come out by the fire, father,” Sven said. His father didn’t move. He was a large man. He’d been a stonecutter in Sweden and planned on helping to build the temple in Zion.
Now, Sven thought, his face looks like it’s been cut from the same gray stone he once worked with. Sven set the canvas down and backed out of the tent. Through the haze of the falling snow he could see the line of handcarts moving slowly away. He watched until they vanished.
When the grave was nearly two feet deep, Erik stopped digging. “This will have to do.”
“No,” Nils said. “It’s not deep enough.”
“It’s nearly noon. We won’t be able to catch up to the company if we wait any longer.”
“Just a little more.” Nils started digging again. Erik stepped from the grave.
“Sven, you’ll have to help me.”
Erik bent down and entered the tent. Sven followed. Their father hadn’t moved. He was still kneeling next to their mother.
“We’ve finished digging, father.”
Their father remained motionless.
“We’re nearly half a day behind the company.”
Erik took a deep breath, picked up the canvas, and spread it next to his mother’s body. He then took the blanket that was covering her and laid it on the canvas. Sven knew they needed the blanket, but it felt right to leave it with her. She’d given them so much.
The question was now an incessant drumming in his consciousness that muted all other thoughts and memories.
“She looks so young,” Erik said. “It’s as if death is giving her back her youth.”
Sven looked at her face. She did look young. There was a slight smile. He remembered how easily a smile had always come to her face. When they had decided to go to Utah, he remembered how happy she had been. “Zion,” she’d said. “We’re going to Zion.” Sven had never heard a word spoken with more pleasure.
“Zion.” He unconsciously whispered the word out loud. His father looked up at him.
“Lift her shoulders,” Erik said.
They lifted her onto the blanket and then carefully wrapped her in it. Erik tied the bundle with a cord. Their father followed them out of the tent. Nils stepped from the grave, and they laid the body down gently. The dark earth in the grave and the canvas were quickly covered by snow.
“What do we say? The prayer should be right.”
“I’ve never done it before, not a funeral,” Erik said. “I think father should do it.”
He shook his head without looking up.
“Maybe it’s like the baptism prayer.”
“We have the priesthood,” Erik said. “It will be right. The words will come.”
Erik reached out his hand for Nils and his father. They took hands, the four of them, and knelt in the snow.
“By the power of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood and in the name of the Savior,” Erik began the prayer. He whispered the words and sometimes the sound of his voice was lost in the wind, but still, somehow, they all heard the prayer.
Sven felt the tenseness in his brother’s hands relax. The pain that he felt also should have been softened by the prayer, but the question, the drumming noise in his head that was as intense as thunder, was too loud.
How could God allow this to happen? Sven had seen others die on the journey to Zion, friends, people he loved, but somehow that was distant, and then his mother had always been there to help him understand. In Sweden when his best friend, Ole, had drowned, his mother had talked with him the entire night after the accident happened. Where was she now for this death, the death that he needed her the most for?
When the prayer was finished, they stood.
“I wish we had some flowers, anything.”
“She always loved flowers.”
Erik took the shovel and began to fill the grave.
Their father held out his hand. “Wait.”
He walked over to the cart and took out a small bag and then walked back to the grave. He poured the contents of the bag into his hand.
“They were her favorite flowers.” His voice was hoarse.
He scattered the dark seeds over the grave.
That night, when they finally reached the company, and two days later, when help reached them from Salt Lake City, the question with its dulling thunder was still with Sven. It was with him five years later when he was traveling from Salt Lake City to the East to buy equipment for their stonecutting business.
The weather was cool and crisp when the sun came up over the mountains. Sven’s breath steamed up in the morning, but the newborn sunlight was warm on his face. It was spring. The leaves on the trees were a bright yellow-green, and the earth was covered with new grass.
Sven made his way carefully down a slope. He’d been drawn back to this area. This was where they had traveled with their handcarts. Somewhere on this trail his mother was buried.
He started up a long narrow swale. The floor of the hollow was covered with clover, and dandelions were scattered along the edge of a small stream. Sven couldn’t remember the stream or the trees or even the shape of the land, but the place was still familiar. His recognition was more of a feeling. The morning was warm now. The sunlight was strong, but Sven felt cold. He shivered. The question was drumming hard. It was more than just a question about his mother’s death now. It was his own death that he was facing also.
Sven stopped. There was something, something familiar, a fragrance. It was a memory that took him back beyond the day when his mother had died, back to Sweden. It was a good smell, the smell of his old home. With it came the memory of other smells of baking bread, of a warm fire, of linen. He started walking toward the fragrance. The small valley twisted ahead, and around the turn it broadened into a meadow. Sven stopped again. He began to feel what he knew was true, about eternity, about the things his mother had tried to teach him, about life continuing after death.
An area in the meadow, near the stream, was covered with the same flowers his mother had planted around their home in Sweden.