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The Ground Under Man continued...
Daniel Pearlman
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"You could be sitting there next to Lena, instead of Thurston, said Hannah, unwilling to desist.

"What? Intrude upon family bliss? Not on your life! And not on my death either."

"Where is your respect for the wishes of your remaining family?" Reverend Bryson intoned with a sweeping gesture of the hand that took in all the room's occupants, both free-moving and fixed.

"The family's remains have no wishes that I can respect," countered Mundley, growing angrier by the second.

"All right, then, Uncle," said nephew Spridge. "If your ears are deaf to the claims of blood, then think of the town, Newbury's image, the coming Fair, the tourist dollars everyone is banking on."

"As far as I'm concerned," said Mundley, "holding a fair over the heads of the dead is sheer sacrilege."

"Don't make a public spectacle of yourself, Gordon," said Bryson. "You will look like a fool standing at the grave-site if you are unable to complete the ceremony."

"And why should I be unable to complete the ceremony? Will anyone here dare stop me?"

"You will be unable," said Bryson, making a temple of his fingers, "to find one single minister, of whatever denomination, in the entire county--nay, in all of New England--who will be willing to officiate. Of that, Gordon, I can assure you."

"I've already thought of that, Jarvis."


"I can do without all you fashion-conscious numerators and denominators."

"How so?" Bryson snickered.

"Henry Birdwhistle has promised to officiate. As chief of the Quampoag Indians here, and a full-fledged medicine man sensitive to the intimate bond between Man and the earth that bore him--"

"How dare you?" said Bryson. Everyone at the table gasped. "Do you wish to pile insult upon injury? When you pulled Birdwhistle out of your hat for your last funeral ten years ago, the family of the deceased didn't object. They were apparently all atheists."

"Solarians," Mundley corrected.

"Pagans!" said Bryson. "But Lena is a Christian. You, despite your anachronistic behavior, are still a Christian, Gordon! God may yet forgive you for your earlier misconduct, but do not expect a blank check from the Lord if you commit your foul blasphemies a second time."

"The Lord has never sent me any checks, Jarvis. I've never worked directly for him, as you do. And if you really must know, Birdwhistle was a friend of Lena's. She met him many years ago when he gave lectures on Indian lore."

"Very well, then," said Wilfred Spridge. "We will shame you into abandoning this atrocious idée fixe of yours. Ten years ago there was only a handful of people out at the park protesting your barbarity. But tomorrow, when you propose to throw Lena into the ground like a container of solid waste, half the town will be out there to challenge your inconsiderate and indecent--"

"But I've changed my plans," said Mundley, struggling to suppress a grin.

Silence descended on the table.

"The burial will not take place tomorrow. It will take place the following day," he announced, "Saturday morning at ten. You will see the change posted on Public Notices tonight."

"Saturday morning?" said Spridge.

"Yes," said Mundley. "When everybody will be attending the Newbury-Bainesville game. A double-header, remember? Our first chance to get back at Bainesville for beating our pants off the last two in a row. Now who in Newbury's going to miss that to go on a protest march against ancient funerary practices?" Mundley smiled sadly. It was as if Lena had foreseen what they'd be up to and had timed her demise accordingly. "And now, ladies and gentlemen," said Mundley, rising and making a sweeping bow to every corner of the room, "I shall have to be going."

"Do you suppose you've managed to trick us, Uncle Gordon?" said Wilfred.

"You will not get away so lightly, Gordon," Bryson shouted after him. "I guarantee you that on Saturday morning there'll be a massive demonstration against your willfulness and pride, even if I have to call every household in Newbury on my own!"
* * *

It would be a one-car funeral. That was all right with Mundley. On Saturday morning, at precisely 9:30, Mundley slipped into the driver's seat of the immaculately polished hearse. It was an old aluminum-fueled electric model, dating from about 2045. With Henry Birdwhistle beside him, he proceeded to wend his lugubrious way through the deserted streets of town toward the cemetery, which lay one mile to the north. The grave had been dug; the company that ran the "park" was sticking to the letter of its legal obligation.

"Not a soul in sight," said Mundley. "They're all twenty miles up north for the game."

"In a way that's too bad," said Birdwhistle. "I would have appreciated a nice-sized audience. It isn't often I get to gussy up in full medicine-man's regalia. Not too many of the tribe are still around, you know."

As Mundley slowly drove, he could not help darting an occasional glance at his passenger. Birdwhistle's legs, between his mocassins and his knees, were symmetrically painted in alternating white and red spirals. He wore a girdle made of the fur of a silver fox from the borders of which dangled hundreds of knotted leather cords. From his neck a great breastplate of many-colored cylindrical beads hung over his chest, and his neck itself was bound in a collar strung with bear teeth. Rays of red, black, and white fanned back from his powerful nose, and his braided black hair remained devoid of all ornament, waiting to be crowned with the enormous mask that Birdwhistle cradled in his lap. It was a hawklike, parrot-feathered mask of red-painted wood from which beavertails and strings of little shells hung down on every side. To top it all off, in one hand he held a pair of sticks tipped with brightly painted gourd-rattles.

Mundley felt that Birdwhistle, in spite of his ridiculous get-up, was a good deal closer to God than Jarvis Bryson. In his spare time the chief worked a regular four-day, ten-to-four week as a corporation lawyer off in the big city.

"Great baseball weather, don't you think, Henry?"

"So far so good, Gordon. ... What's that up ahead?"

Mundley had expected to see a token group of protesters circling in front of the cemetery gate. There appeared instead only a Herald 3V-17 newsvan, and out of it popped a young man who scurried up to the driver's window with a mike stretched out in his hand. "Mr. Mundley, we're showing this ceremony live," said the reporter. "Lots of folks in this state are curious to know how an old-fashioned burial was conducted. Since we're sure you too are interested in sharing your lore with the public, may we ask that you not proceed with the actual physical burial till the end of the first inning of the Newbury-Bainesville game, which starts in just about--"

"Get your hand out of my window, you idiot!" Mundley had slowed down on passing between the great stone entrance pillars, but he had no intention of stopping altogether. "What'd I tell you, Henry, not a soul in sight!"

"So far so good," said Birdwhistle, "but my damn arthritis is acting up."

"You don't really intend to go through* with this, do you, Mr. Mundley?" said the reporter, skipping along beside the window.

"How'll I even get there if you keep your mike stuck in my face, you fool?" Mundley sped up just a little.

"Do you expect to fly in the face of that whole huge demonstration up ahead, Mr. Mundley?" the reporter persisted, sprinting sideways like a ballerina.

"What demonstration?" said Mundley. The grave-site would not loom into view for another winding half mile or so of trees and laser-trimmed lawns that were studded with old metal plaques that kids used for bases when they played ball here after school. "Everybody's at the game! I don't hear any screaming or scurrilous shouting or Protestant hymns."

"Tune in to our radio station, 103 FM."

Mundley bore down on the pedal a little, leaving the reporter half-heartedly jogging behind. Up ahead on the left he made out five huge cross-country moving vans in the parking area just before the final turn to the grave-site. The drivers, asprawl on the sun-lit grass near the trucks, guzzled beer as they watched 3V. They hardly looked up at the hearse as it curved around beside them.

But as soon as Mundley spun around the bend he saw them all out there, waiting for him, eloquently silent, a sea of white heads, the frozen in all their finery crowding the grass in a multitude of chairs, some few reclining on blankets on the ground, others standing up by means of props at their backs. They had all been carefully positioned to produce the greatest possible deterrent effect. As in a Roman phalanx, close-packed squads of the dead were turned to face him at his approach. They had even drafted men and women of the cloth. On Mundley's left stood old Rabbi Kenner, bowed in eternal contemplation over his favorite biblical text, the Book of Ezra. Close in on the right, fingering her rosary, sat Sister Bernetta, gazing in rapture upon a fistful of holocards.

Where their postures permitted, the deceased were fitted out with placards which they held out like hex signs to block his advance. They forced themselves on his attention as he drew near:

"DIRTy-minded Mundley/Go home!"

"Do not commit this GRAVE offense!"

"This is a PARK/Not a human LANDFILL"

"Isn't death insult enough?"

"Human worth/Does not mix with earth"

"Mundley, think twice!/Put Lena back on ice"

Mundley marveled at the reverend Bryson's organizational talent. In the morning hours they had managed to plant here, like scarecrows, scores of the county's deceased--most of whom Mundley had personally known! The stares of their vacuum-dried eyes bore into his skull like shotgun pellets. None of them physically* obstructed the way between the hearse and the open grave. Bryson would be sure not to do anything illegal. No, he was counting on the force of moral suasion, of social pressure--indeed, even of supernatural terror, to make him back off. Ahead, at a semi-respectful distance to the left of the grave, stood another newsvan, cameras rolling, pruriently awaiting the neolithic ritual about to unfold on the bright morning grass. Behind them waited an old yellow earth-moving vehicle, the driver seated on the fender with his mini-3V.

"How do you feel?" asked Birdwhistle. "If you want to turn back, you know, I'll completely--"

"No! Damn them all to hell! ... Looks like Old Home Week, doesn't it, Henry? Bryson's got some sense after all. This is where they should all have been gathered in the first place."

Birdwhistle began to mumble: "My knuckle-joints are killing me. ... Say, you know what I think, Gordon?"

"Include them all in your routine! Hear me, Henry? I'm feeling expansive today. I'll pay you extra if you throw in a dance that covers the whole bunch of 'em."

"I'll do that, Gordon."

Mundley did a perfect parallel park at the right edge of the gaping hole. Mounds of earth bellied up around the other three sides. The press of a button on the dash lifted the left side of the hearse like an awning, revealing the wreath-covered casket to the newsmen twenty feet away. A sudden cloud passed over the pit like an angry ghost. Mundley wriggled his creaking body out of the cab, nudging Birdwhistle to do the same. Standing at the head of the grave, he ran his hands down the sides of his tuxedo jacket. He glanced around at the motionless semi-circle of faces, many familiar to him since childhood. They had been arranged to confront him all the way around from the newsvan to the other side of the hearse. Here too they held up messages of rebuke to his face, and Mundley began to shiver --not just from the cool breeze that whipped through his jacket, and certainly not from the terror of malediction, but mainly from the fact that the signs were fastened to the hands and laps of all of Hannah's freeze-dried relatives! Not a single living member of the Krebbs or Mundley clan had seen fit to attend.

Hannah's mother and father jointly supported a sign that said, "Lena, we'll never forget--and never forgive!" Across the knees of her seated grandparents rested a card that read, "Leave our Lena in peace--in one piece, Gordon!" Her despicable brother Thurston faced him too with another bit of doggerel: "Gordon, what have you got/If you let poor Lena rot?" But what wrenched him the most was the sign placed in the lap of the fair-cheeked Miriam:


Not a living Krebbs to send Lena off! If they didn't see the burial, they could deny it ever happened. They could keep perpetually vacant, for Lena's eventual homecoming, the seat beside the window next to Brother. ... Weird sounds erupted at Mundley's shoulder. Birdwhistle leaped atop a hummock of fresh-dug earth and began his keening chant in a language known to only a few dozen people in all the world. A language of sorrow and love and death. A chanting that echoed the voice that rose from the open pit itself and reeked of finality. The Quampoag medicine man, attired in blood-red mask and in feathers and tassels and streamers from neck to knee, entered into his rhythmic dance, shook his gourds in complex, varied patterns of syncopation, and his knees lifted and his body twisted to the sounds from his lips and his rattles. The yawning earth listened, the newsmen listened, the gathered dead paid keen attention, and the sky--above all, the sky paid heed to the medicine man's incantations.

Thick gray clouds tumbled out from nowhere. A lascivious wind licked at the skirts of the dead. Mundley looked up and wondered if he should call it all off. Interrogating the swirling cloudmass, he received for answer a spattering of gloppy raindrops on his cheeks. Suddenly the sky fell down and the earth was strafed with water.

"Get back in the car!" he yelled to Birdwhistle, clambering back behind the wheel, slamming the door and raising the window. Birdwhistle didn't seem to hear. He went on dancing his dance. What were they saying, those newspeople? Mundley wondered. He remembered the reporter mentioning 103 FM and fiddled with the radio.

"--truckmen are dashing frantically around like chickens with their heads cut off," said the excited newsvoice. "The demonstrators are getting quite a soaking! Let me get out of the van and ask one of the movingmen what all the panic is about." Mundley looked through his window, but it ran with rivers of rain, and he saw only amoeboid blobs of the still-rocking figure of Birdwhistle.

"--a disaster in the making, ladies and gentlemen. ... Sir, how many of you men are available to hurry and--"

"It's impossible! We had a dozen guys, but they didn't want to stay, they went off to the game. We figured it was all right, but now, my God ...!"

"The problem, folks, is not that the rain is soaking all these beautiful garments. It's ... yikh ... melting the freeze-dried demonstrators! Freeze-Frame's going to be in for a slew of law-suits. ... It's absolutely disgusting! I can't bear to describe it. Don't the organizers know that New England weather ...?"

Mundley scrambled out of the car to see. The fingers! They were the first to go. Diminishing stumps of hands dropped their hortatory placards to the earth. The dead were alive with twisting motions of their arms and heads. A handful of men ran with a body under each arm, snapping pieces off their charges before they could haul them back to the sanctuary of the vans. And now the faces! Mundley looked in awe as noses and chins dissolved down the fronts of silk blouses. The beat of the rain was torrential. Birdwhistle maniacally hopped and spun and continued to shake his gourds while shoulders slumped and blouses sagged over breasts that were turning to pulp. The truckers whirled around and cursed each other and the sky. The jackets of standing patriarchs hung askew. Exquisitely tailored pants drooped down over pitted thighs.

Mundley looked for Miriam. What was left of her head had rolled into her lap. The bottom half of her face, turned toward him, had not yet dissolved. He watched with fascination as her lips curled back over her perfect teeth in an ever-widening smile.

"Stop it already!" he shouted to Birdwhistle. He grabbed him by a gourd, but Birdwhistle shook him away. Mundley slipped back alone into the hearse. When the rain let up, he would push the button that would extend Lena's coffin outward and then lower it by a pair of straps into the living, drunken earth. He opened his window halfway, liking the lick of rain on his face, and breathed in deeply the smells of spring, the rich dark odors of the earth.

At long last Birdwhistle returned to the hearse, his mask streaming rain over his shoulders.

"What the hell were you doing out there?" asked Mundley.

"First, a rain dance. And then the more solemn ritual of the final rite of passage. ..."

"You worked a miracle!" said Mundley.

"Not entirely. I just hastened the inevitable. I knew that a rain was coming on. My arthritis ..."

"That mask of yours works wonders," Mundley marveled. "How many generations has it been in the tribe?"

"None. I made it myself. From things I've seen in museums and such. Represents a kind of pan-Amerindian eclecticism, from the Tlingit to the Orinoco."

"Take it off your head, Henry, or the flood will last forty days."

Birdwhistle complied.

"And where'd you get these magical rattles?" asked Mundley.

"Maracas. Genuine. From Mexico."

Mundley grabbed them and gave them a shake while the voice on the radio said, "--only a few drops out here in Bainesville, though, where Newbury's already scored once in the top of the first."


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'The Ground Under Man' by Daniel Pearlman