Short Stories

Deep Down
(3351 words)
Flight
(708 words)
The Fellowship of Butterflies
(2647 words)
OPUS CHRISTI
(1521 words)
Unusual Safari Sightings
(1171 words)

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Deep Down


"I don’t think I can go through with it," she whispered as we drove past lush green pastures where cows grazed contentedly. We were on our way to the small rural cemetery just beside Cavalry Baptist Church. "Why not," I asked, "it's been done for generations?" "Well, the whole idea gives me the creeps and I’ve been dreading it for as long as I can remember." She twitched a little in her seat and settled her long wrinkled fingers in her lap. "But you are the oldest in the family, aren’t you interested in what happened to them?" I asked. "Oh I don’t know, I guess I am but, I wish someone else could take my place." Her shoulders rose and fell in a sign of resignation and just as we came around the wide bend in the road the cemetery appeared.

All the memories of the past came flooding back. I could clearly see my brothers, sisters and cousins trampling across the graves bringing great shame and embarrassment to our parents since we never learned to show ‘respect’ for the dead. I can almost smell the fried chicken floating through the hot stale air as picnic blankets were thrown down under tall shady trees. Old men, some in their Sunday best, others in brand new overalls stood under trees holding old fashioned Coca-Cola bottles in one hand. While the other crumpled arthritic hand steadied their large frames on thin homemade walking canes. From time to time, one of them would lift his bottle slowly to his lips for a slow swig. Gurgling it around inside his mouth, like mouthwash before his Adam's apple bobbed up and down as the sweet, syrupy juice slid down into his recesses. We watched from behind a headstone with trepidation and jealousy. Who didn’t need a fresh drink in 100 degree heat? And why, we wondered did we have to wear dresses and suits and ties when these old timers were allowed to hang around in the shade in nothing more than work clothes?

I can see Edith in a "mad-as-you dare" floral print dress, laughing heartily with some distant relatives underneath an intoxicatingly sweet mimosa tree, loaded with pink fluffy blooms. Within days, they would ferment and fall to the ground to the delight of thousands of honey bees. Just then, I could remember the scent of childhood, so precious to aging complacency. The scene brought back forgotten memories of Easter egg hunts with cousins, fishing in Uncle Rob’s pond while cows the size of dinosaurs rex grazed on the other side of the water.

Now as I look at her tall, thin frame trying to ease out of the car with some grace and dignity, she seems frailer than I ever remember. Her only glow comes from the newly applied "blue hair wash" from Johnny-Sue’s Beauty Bar. It very nearly sparkles in the late afternoon sun and it brings a smile to my face as I marvel at how color and hairspray can withstand weeks of activity without apparently losing its shape.

The cemetery had hardly changed, except for the two large pecan trees which had been removed to make room for more graves everything was much the same as I remember. I hadn’t been back to Alabama for years. Now, I had come for something unique, something that I hadn’t known existed all those years ago when we wandered around examining names on old headstones. We were looking for left over civil war veterans or relatives we had not only met, but those no one could remember. There was Aunt Sally, who died at the age of three from scarlet fever, Uncle Jo, who had been shot by his brother Bert, carelessly wielding a shotgun one quite Sunday afternoon in 1932. Of course, I never met him since I was born some thirty years later. No one ever talked about it. I’m not sure why, accidents do happen but, I suppose it was a real sore spot with Bert, not to mention his parents. He left them with five daughters and only himself to carry on the male line.

As I stepped out of the car, my inappropriate high heels sunk deep into the damp grass. Even though it was only the first week in May, it was already warm and bright.

By any orthodox religious community, it would have been the 1st of November and the celebration would have been known as All Soul’s Day. But, as these were Southern Baptists it was May and the event has for generations been known as Decoration. Normally, on the first Sunday in May family members brought flowers to the graves of relatives. In the old days, there were picnics of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and apple pie laid out under the two trees which no longer survive. Now the graves are exposed to the hot baking summer sun or the cold winter rains, and fewer and fewer people come to remember those already gone. But this year is special and I feel sure many people will attend. Once, every 30 or so years, family members dig up their relative’s graves. Instead of bringing flowers, the eldest family member spends the night in the grave in order to take courage in the spiritual presence of the dead relatives.

As Edith and I ascended the three crumbling stone stairs onto the oldest part of the cemetery, work was nearing completion. Mounds of damp earth had been piled neatly beside each grave. Uncle Bob stood up, resting his sweaty arm on the top of his shovel as he watched us approach. "That just about does it for me," he said as I handed him the cold bottle of water I’d brought with me. Edith pulled a wrinkled Kleenex tissue out of her skirt pocket and pressed it tightly to her nose. She wandered around looking into empty pits before the damp, musty smell sent her into a sneezing frenzy. Looking up with red eyes she said, "See, I don’t know if I can do it."

"Sure you can, there’s nothing to worry about," I said trying to sound convincing, even as the stench of decayed bodies nearly brought me to my knees. Bob either ignored her or did not hear her. He said nothing, and with one arm still propped on his shovel he drank his water in silence, then jumped back down into the pit, continuing his task. Every now and then a gravedigger would stick his head up, like a mole in a hole, to notify those around that he’d found a coffin or a body spilling out of a coffin. After a moment of excitement, there followed a brief pause of remembrance for the deceased. The gravediggers took their job very seriously indeed.

As I stood there watching him throw shovels full of dirt to the top, I began to wonder if she would go through with it at all. Then, suddenly I had an idea. The bright blue sky and the crisp spring breeze no doubt contributed to my giddy feelings. I would make sure she fulfilled her duty by keeping a night time vigil at the cemetery when the time came. I wondered if it had been done before. If it had, no one to my knowledge had ever mentioned it. But, I looked forward to the idea, creepy as it may have been.

It was late afternoon, early evening by the time all the plots had been uncovered. Edith and I decided to meet some of the men at Perry’s Fish House restaurant a few miles down the road. It was a country-style restaurant in the middle of nowhere. It served fish, fish and fish with soggy French fries and hush puppies. Edith hardly touched her deep fried platter. Her mind seemed far away and everything I tried to bring her back around with small talk or with a topic like quilting, which would usually elicit hours of discussion but she just nodded absentmindedly.

Afterward, we went back to her house to find something to wear to the grave. Standing in front of her closet, which overflowed with frilly dresses and somewhat dated polyester pantsuits in cranberry and mint green she suddenly said "Do you think they will be able to see me? Should I wear my Sunday best or maybe this hat?" She picked up a feather and bead encrusted hat which was covered in so much dust it was hard to make out it’s right color. "It was my mother’s you know. I wonder if she would remember it?" She sat down on the edge of the bed and said once again, "I don’t think I can go through with it. I feel queasy and I have a stomach ache, maybe I’m ill. I think I’ll just lie down for a while." "I don’t think that’s a good idea," I said knowing that she wouldn’t get up again if she feel asleep.

"Why don’t you have a little sip of Uncle Jim’s whiskey?" I heard myself saying "I might steady your nerves."

"Good Lord, girl what’s come over you, you know I never drink… never have, never will, and that’s that. Now, don’t you go mentioning it again, I won’t hear of it, me Edith Lancaster sippin' whiskey, I deeeclare I’ve never heard nothin more upsettin in all my days!" "But I wouldn’t mind a tall glass of ice tea if there’s some in the fridge."

She drank her tea quietly, contemplating the task ahead.

Luckily, the Lancaster family plots were in the corner of the cemetery near the edge of a large fenced cow pasture, surrounded by thick hedges of boxwood and juniper bushes. I had plenty of room to hide and at the same time observe what went on around the grave. It was eerily quite at 11:00pm when people began to arrive. One by one, I saw flashlights flicking here and there as they made their way to open pits. Finally, Edith came along between a row of graves and with a flashlight in hand she bent down until she was squatting next to the large hole. Her arthritic fingers struggled at the edge of the pit as she lowered herself down. She wasn’t very tall to begin with maybe 5 foot 3 and she had to descend down nearly six feet. "Thump," she hit the bottom. I didn’t dare sneak up and look over the edge but, I’m certain she was lying down trying to make herself comfortable.

The crescent moon sat high over my left shoulder, and it caused a dark night. The only extra light was provided by a lone street lamp at the edge of the cemetery, which cast a long shadow over most of the graves. The warm sultry wind set the pine trees dancing, casting ominous shadows on the nearby lawn. The lone howl of a dog rang out somewhere down the road, I wanted to run but, I forced myself to stay. As I crouched beside a juniper bush, its leaves rustled lightly, then as the wind picked up they began to shake violently. I held my breath until it died down. The hot, sticky wind pushed hard against my face, I could hardly breathe, my pulse was racing. A putrid smell, of decaying flesh, oozed out of the mound of soil beside the grave, like a gas released into the air. I could see it in the dark, clouds like fog rising up and up until they disappeared into the air. Voices rose and fell on the breeze, words rang out louder and louder until a chorus of men and women were clearly identifiable. I heard Uncle Jim’s voice in the distance, faintly at first then it rang out on the wind and passed just near my arm. He was agonizing over his betrayal of his four wives, one was already torturing him down under. Aunt Margaret shouted verses from the Bible as her voice rose out of the pit. "All lies," it screamed as it drifted by "All lies." Another voice rose out of the dirt mound hoarsely crying out, "tell everyone there is no afterlife, its all an illusion."

Suddenly, I heard the voice of Edith’s father pierce the night air, "Everything we taught you was a lie. There are no pearly gates, no everlasting peace, no redemption or rapture. There is nothing but damp, musty earth for eternity and boredom. Oh God, the boredom I can’t cope with the same people, the same dirty hole day in day out. But don’t worry dear, I can hardly smell it anymore, my nose has decayed and nearly rotted off my face."

His voiced faded almost as suddenly as it appeared. Another voice I didn’t recognize floated by: "We should have been Buddhists, that’s what the centipedes Down Under tell me. I could have been reincarnated. But, oh no, that wouldn’t do. Now I’ll have to spend an eternity down here."

Another voice passed by: "Live now, make no sacrifices before you slip into nothingness." Just as that one had passed, another ascended from a grave next to me. A hoarse female voice rose up saying: "Does anyone have a remedy for the worms. I’ve only been here a few months and half of my face has been eaten away, can someone please help me." No one replied, but a silence fell on the other graves. How lonely it must have been for that one. During all this time, I was frozen to the spot, I wasn’t sure, I was still breathing, but I must have been because I’m still here. I felt as if I had been suspended for eternity, but when it was over it seemed as if I’d only been there ten or fifteen minutes.

The Day began to break over the cemetery. The voices died down and the putrid smell was replaced by the sweet morning dew and the honeysuckle vine dangling from an electricity pole. My head was light and tired, but I managed to move back behind the bushes so I wouldn’t be seen. Slowly, the visitors crawled out of pits and Edith hoisted herself out of her hole with great difficulty. Her clothes were covered in red dirt but, she made no attempt to tidy herself. I could see the stunned expression which covered her pale, ashen face. She moved like a ghost. No one lingered by the graves, corpselike and without a word to each other they walked slowly to their cars and drove off. I was alone except for a noisy mockingbird cackling into the air. With the sun pulling itself over the horizon, I made my way to my own car further down the road. I drove the 15 miles back to Edith’s place in a daze. I wondered what she was thinking and what she would say later that day as the rest of the family arrived.

When I arrived, Edith was sitting quietly in her bedroom reading the Bible. I was surprised, after last night I wondered why bother. She seemed highly agitated. Swaying from side to side as she repeated verse after verse to herself. Later that evening everyone in the family gathered in a silent pious atmosphere to hear what the distant spirits conveyed to Edith. Everyone that is, except Uncle Jim. He was sitting outside on the long front porch with his whiskey in one hand. I could see him out the living room window, his hound dog, Jeb was lying next to his rocking chair while he tapped his walking stick on the ground with his free hand. Every once and a while he would take a long, slow sip of his whiskey and then rest his arm back on the chair rail staring out into the front yard. He was trying to give the impression that he had more important things on his mind but, I wasn’t convinced. I knew what he was thinking, "I just made the hole in the grave, nothing else, I don’t want anything else to do with it". He didn’t really believe in God anyway, it wasn’t the manly thing to do in his view. He only went to church on Sundays so he wouldn’t have to listen to Edith nag him all week about it. He knew it was better to take the path of least resistance otherwise the prayer club would be hanging around his house all the time trying to convince him of the importance of being called to God. He didn’t have time for that. He and Jeb preferred to spend their time in the wood paneled den with a beer and one hand, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, watching baseball or NASCAR racing on the television. Right now, he was trying to pretend he wasn’t interested in what was going on inside. I couldn’t help noticing he’d pushed his chair closer to the window and I’m sure he was trying to eavesdrop on Edith’s show.

Edith was reigning like a queen from the middle of the green and beige, floral print sofa. Uncle Bob was sitting next to her, trying his best to quietly unwrap a piece of peppermint candy to soothe his nervous cough. Edith refused to let him smoke inside the house. Aunt Caroline, Bob’s wife, was perched on the edge of a faded green chair on the other side of the room, her fingers gripped the armrest so tightly that they were beginning to turn blue. In between, on the other side of the sofa was Aunt Margaret, holding the old worn out family bible that Edith insisted on keeping nearby. It was so big and bulky with soft patches of brown leather peeling around the edges, it seemed almost human. Uncle Bill and Aunt Ruby were trying to share a large chair next to the window. While Edith’s youngest son, Timothy, stood at the entrance to the living room, leaning against the wall with his hands firmly clenched in his pockets. All the younger family members, cousins Jeff, Samantha, John, William, Gary, Katie, my brother Andy, my sister Rachael and myself, sat huddled in small groups. We listened divided by age and sex sitting on the floor. It was reminiscent of a Christmas gathering with everyone waiting anxiously for presents to be passed around.

We sat in silence for some time, I tried to look around, but all eyes were fixed on Edith. She seemed to be meditating. Her stiff gray hair remained unruffled as she swayed forward and backward on the sofa. The silence was deafening and it went on for some time, when without warning Edith jumped up, grabbing the Bible out of Margaret’s hand. Shouting, "Hallelujah, Christ is coming to meet us all at the pearly gates, rejoice, rejoice." I heard Uncle Bob say, "Amen" then, another "Amen" came from someone else. Edith continued on with spit flying out into the air like a fine mist. She sounded like a preacher in an outdoor summer revival tent, but I could no longer hear the message. A word, "faith", "redemption" "revelation" passed over me every now and then, but I couldn’t comprehend the meaning of it all. I had heard the spirits and I knew what they said. But, I couldn’t muster the courage to speak out. My mouth was dry, words evaporated in my mind, I felt nailed to the ground. And I knew then and there that everything, EVEVERYTHING, would continue as before. I stumbled out of the living room like a drunkard, passing through the foyer and the front door onto the porch without a word. I sat down next to Uncle Jim and I silently wondered what I would do in thirty years time. Surely, I would rip the veil from everyone’s eyes. No doubt, I was confident I will tell everyone exactly what the spirits tell me when I come back from the grave. Absolutely, I have no doubt! But, what do you think, will I be able to?

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