She washes him gently, sponging off blood and other things with warm water and Lava soap, the kind he always used on hands that never came clean. His naked body no longer complies with her touch, and wrestling his girth makes her shoulders slick with sweat. She breathes through her mouth to avoid the smell, not the stench of rot, not yet, but the vaguely unpleasant odor of rising fluids and strange gasses.
She feels full inside at the sight of him laid out on the kitchen table, the oversized maple table where she’s served him twenty-seven years’ worth of anniversary dinners, where they made love one time when she was feeling adventurous, where she fed each of their boys his very first spoonful of strained bananas, where she wept over the bills that kept piling up because he had no head for money, bless his heart, and where he held her hand every night and bowed his head and thanked the good Lord for this food and this home and this blessed family.
She wraps white sheeting around his body, the sheets from their first marriage bed, which she’s saved in her hope chest all these years, unsure why she tucked them away in the first place. It hadn’t occurred to her then that those carefully folded mementoes would become his shroud, although it must have lurked in the back of her mind somewhere, because when they carried him in from the tractor accident she knew immediately how she would wrap him. Her sewing needle clicks against her thimble as she closes him in, the white thread sliding through the soft linen and falling into fine, even stitches under the lengthening shadows.
She gets the boys to carry him to the living room, lay him inside the box they spent all night hammering. Not boys anymore, old enough for families of their own, but they look like boys again, bent under their father’s weight. She wants to hug them, to comfort them, but she knows it would only make things harder, so she lets them hug her. They help her turn him, first one side, then the other, to place blocks of dry ice beneath his torso.
She cuts roses from the shrubs in the yard, shrubs she’s pruned and sprayed and tended from the cuttings he gave her when they first moved into this house. Red and pink and yellow, no white. She hates white roses, the flower of death. They remind her too much of her mother’s funeral and the day she became woman of her father’s house, the day she took charge of the younger ones, an almost-mother at fourteen. Piled around him now, the roses look violent against the blank shroud.
She lights candles around the room, their glow warming the watery dusk. They flicker and cast shadows over the strangely familiar topography of the sheet, creating whispers of movement at the corners of her eyes, so she can almost imagine he’s breathing, sleeping next to her on a hot summer night. Her willow rocker creaks in the instinctive rhythm of a woman nursing her firstborn, a mother comforting a child, a wife cradling her own burning heart.
She opens the Bible, the family Bible, where she has yet to write his name under the word Deaths on the inside cover. She reads aloud, her voice diffusing the silence, until the words lose meaning, begin to sound like a different language. The night presses down, grows black around the edges. Too short and too long, it stretches ahead of her, and she wishes for something to do, something besides simply be. Tomorrow there will be things, things like cleaning the maple table and cooking, cooking mountains of food. And tomorrow she will bury him, bury him and plant a rose bush there, something to tend in his absence.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED