Welcome once again to Flash Fiction Wednesday. I must say that some of your sentences have proven to be a wonderful challenge. This one stumped me for a long time.
Please enjoy the story I’ve written for Laura Drake’s sentence:
She’d have believed her mother’s assurances more, if it weren’t for the empty casket, waiting in the next room.
Sitting Up With The Dead
Auda May wasn’t expected home that day. Sarah and Conroy were asked to keep the child with them for the night until her mother could find a way to explain.
“What’s to explain, Mama?” She craned her neck toward the sliding doors. She’d have believed her mother’s assurances more, if it weren’t for the empty casket, waiting in the next room. “Either you’ve got Gran’s dead body in there or not.”
“I told you, your grandmother is fine.” She quickly closed the doors. “She’s in her room watching her soaps.”
Auda snatched up her book bag and went to her grandmother’s room. Gran had not moved out of her room for weeks. April had come and Gran was in the yard cutting lilacs for the big vase on the dining room table. She turned to hand the branches to Auda and fell over. What Auda remembered from that day was the icy chill of her grandmother’s hands.
The doctors told them it was her heart. And what she needed was complete bed rest. At that moment Auda’s heart pounded in her ears and the walk to the back of the house was agonizingly slow, as though she were slogging through mud.
When she finally opened her grandmother’s door, sweat dotted her upper lip and her mouth was so dry her tongue felt glued to her palette. “Gran, you okay?”
Auda quickly rushed to touch her hands, to feel their warmth and know Gran was safe. “Gran, why am I supposed to stay away? Why can’t you leave this room yet? Why… ”
“Child your whys are about to wear me to the bone. No tellin why. Just do as you are told.”
“Mama tried to hide it from me, but I saw. I saw a casket in the living room. Those are only for dead people.”
“Well, you’ve got that right.” Gran patted her hand. “Is that what this is all about? You think your mama’s getting ready to put me under?”
“Who is gonna be in the box, Gran?”
“At least you’ve changed from the why to the who.” She straightened the quilt over her legs and motioned for her granddaughter to sit. “Sit and let me tell you a story.”
Auda smiled. She loved her Gran’s stories.
“When I was a little girl, if a person passed, we kept them in the house. We didn’t leave them with strangers or let strange hands tend them.”
“Mr. Oliver tends to the dead.”
“Yes, he does. And he charges more than a body needs to do it,” she said. “So, we’re bringing back some of the old ways. Me and your mama that is.”
“What old ways?”
“The ways of sitting up with the dead,” she said. “The ways of taking care of our own and helping the ferryman take our loved ones across the river.”
Auda leaned on her gran’s shoulder and listened to the tale of the ferryman of the underworld river. “Charon’s duty was to ferry the dead across the river. And the payment was two shinning gold coins.”
“Why did they do that?”
“Well, in my day we rested pennies in the eyes to reflect the soul of the one we had lost,” she paused. “And it also fills in the eye socket so not to frighten those who come to visit.”
“You mean we’re gonna have a dead person up in that box in the living room? And strangers are gonna come and visit?”
“They won’t be strangers, child. They’ll be our neighbors. Those who lost their jobs when the factory closed and can’t afford the new ways.”
“Why don’t you put the body in the garage?”
“Well, that’s not very hospitable now is it, Auda May? Leaving our neighbor in the cold of the garage.”
Auda was allowed to stay home and watch the events of the next twelve hours. Her mama explained, “Old Jonas Marks has passed on to the other side. But his body will be with us for a spell.”
Women came to help, some to cook, some to wash the old man. Gran showed her the new pennies she would put in his eye sockets.
“Then we’ll sit up with the dead.”
This meant that for two days and two nights someone would sit next to the box. “Is that so he doesn’t get lonely?”
The morning he was put into the ground, the preacher came to say prayers, Auda May’s cousin sang a sad song, and some of the men dug the grave where the family had picked for his mortal body to rest. “Of course, you know Auda, that his soul has already gone to rest with Our Lord.”
It turned into a feast. Men brought in kegs of beer and fired up the outside grilling pit. The women brought in lots of fried chicken, salads and tons of pies and muffins. Auda May ate until she felt stuffed like a Christmas bird.
Gran was able to leave her room and life pretty much returned to normal until three months later when Auda May came home from school and saw another casket in the living room. “It’s nothing for you to worry about.”
But once again all the assurances wouldn’t make her feel safe until she found her gran and felt her hands. Once the warmth of her gran’s hands touched her face, she smiled and said, “I hope the women make lots of fried chicken and apple pie.”
Gran smiled, “I’m sure they will, child.”
In recent years, there has been a trend of going back to the old ways when people kept loved ones in their homes. I chose this story because each time I read Laura’s sentence my mind was flooded with the memory of an incident from my youth and the first time I learned what it meant to “sit up with the dead.”
I was eight years old. One day after school my mother told me that a boy two doors down had died from leukemia and would be “viewed” in his parent’s living room. I found out that he was the baby brother of twin girls in my class.
Children were permitted to visit and my mother informed me I would represent our family since his two sisters were my classmates. It was a private house with a bay window in the living room where his casket sat on a high platform. It was small box, lined with pretty white satin and surrounded with all white flowers.
He wore a navy blue suit. What he would have worn had he lived long enough to receive his First Holy Communion. He was blonde and beautiful and their only son. His mother sat next to the small box with silent tears rolling down her cheeks.
It was our custom to say a pray when we were in front of an open casket. I walked over and looked into the box. I saw a small, blonde boy who looked like he was sleeping. I couldn’t pray.
I turned and saw my twin classmates, with swollen eyes, their faces rubbed red. I mumbled something, nodded to his father and left.
What was your first experience with death?
Do you think we should celebrate death as we do life?