The Ground Under Man
by Dan Pearlman
When Gordon Mundley's wife Lena passed away at eighty-seven, the whole family threatened to boycott the funeral if he went ahead and buried her, as he had declared he would. His sister-in-law Hannah had barely spoken to him for thirty years, but on the day of Lena's death she called him three times. Her purpose, as soon became clear, was not to comfort him but rather to advise him on the proper disposition of the still-warm corpse.
"Are you forgetting," said Mundley, "that I am the mortician, not you?"
"You were a mortician," replied Hannah. "You retired twenty years ago. You haven't had enough business to stay in business for thirty years or more."
"I have never officially retired," Mundley protested. "Now and then I still get a client, you know. Perhaps I haven't needed to make a living from my profession for ... some time now, but I do serve the needs of the occasional--"
"Occasional who?" she challenged. "In ten years, who?"
"--of the very occasional individualist for whom the old-time practice of a Christian burial still offers the grace of a merciful finality."
"Christian burial!" Hannah snorted. "Tell me what's so Christian about burial! In fact, when you think of it ..."
"I know, I know," said Mundley. "'There was only one true Christian burial. And that only lasted three days.'" Her platitudes were as predictable as the platters of red-and-green sprinkled cookies she had been sending over to Lena for fifty Christmases.
"Freeze-Frame used to put that in their advertising a good many years ago, when they still had a little competition from die-hards like me."
"I was not trying to be original, Gordon."
"Have I ever accused you of being original, Hannah?"
"Gordon," she said ominously, "there isn't a single town in New England that has a practising mortician anymore."
"Yes, I'm aware of that," Mundley sighed. "The mortuary arts seem as destined to oblivion as were the secrets of mummification in ancient Egypt."
"There are no working cemeteries anymore, Gordon. The eyesores they were have been turned into parks, like the old landfills."
"Now there I must take exception, Hannah." Fixing the band of the headphone more securely behind his ears, Mundley strolled out of the den into the living room, from there into the office, and from his office into a barely furnished workspace off the main "parlor." There lay Lena on a long slab, her scrawny arms straight out along her sides, her bare body covered with a white sheet as she waited for Mundley to dress her--simply, as she had asked; for the journey, not for the valedictions.
"The Newbury cemetery," said Mundley, "does offer the superimposed delights of a lovely park, but legally it is a cemetery as long as anyone still has title to an unused burial plot anywhere on the grounds."
"Come on, Gordon, you know that no one has exercised such an unspeakable 'title' for over ten years--and that caused such an uproar, thanks to you, that Newbury became the laughingstock of the county."
"Anyway, Hannah," he continued, stroking Lena's white hair and smoothing down her eyelids, which had begun to crank open as if she could hear her sister's voice, "I have such title to a family plot in which there are still six unused grave-sites. One for you, if you're interested."
"Don't be disgusting, Gordon," she shuddered. "Don't humiliate the entire town, as you did to us ten years ago! Newbury Park has become a major regional tourist attraction, as you know. The first week of June it will host one of the biggest arts and crafts fairs in the state. The Fair is only one month away, Gordon."
"Don't try to blackmail me, Hannah!" To his embarrassment in front of the ever even-tempered Lena, Mundley heard himself raising his voice. "If there are fools in this town who wish to make public outcry about a perfectly private thing like an old-fashioned burial, then let them again call the attention of the local media to Newbury! Let the burden of responsibility for any financial damages that ensue fall squarely on their heads!"
"The news of your atavistic agenda could not be suppressed, Gordon. An announcement of the barbaric ritual you intend has been viewed on this morning's Public Notices. It has also come to my attention--since I still function on the Town Council, even though sciatica causes me to miss a good many meetings--that the state's largest news organization has gotten wind of the profanation you propose to visit upon the park."
"They didn't discover the notice by pure chance," Mundley replied. "You know as well as I that Freeze-Frame leaked the news. They are trying to put pressure on all of you to interfere with my rights as a citizen. They view the performance of even one old-style funeral as an attack on all they stand for."
"Gordon," Hannah pleaded, "will you please think of us? Who gives a damn about who-did-what right now! Think of your family! This is a small town, Gordon. Think of our hurt, our shame ..."
Mundley clenched his fists and yanked at the shreds of white hair that sprouted over his ears. "Hannah, Lena's own dying wish was to be buried by my own hands, in the earth that she loved, rather than be turned over for processing by Freeze-Frame." Tears sprang to his eyes at the sight of Lena's knobby little frame, and he imagined it stiffening, like his own resolve, minute by minute, under the loose cotton drape.
"Lena was my sister, Gordon, my sister! Don't you think that her own flesh and blood should have a say in what's to become of her?"
Her own flesh and blood! sneered Mundley. They who had never forgiven her for marrying an outcast, the sole surviving mortician in the entire county--perhaps the whole state! He struggled to keep his temper.
"Gordon, you owe the family, at the very least, the opportunity to talk to you, to share with you our point of view. ... I am asking you, in the name of all of us, to come to my house for dinner this evening at six."
Mundley tossed a shrug over at Lena--the way he always had when seeking her advice. She was totally noncommittal. Should he be snide and ask directions to her house? he wondered. "Okay, Hannah," he said. "I'll listen all you want. But I'll be damned if I'll change my mind!"
Mundley stared into the ice-blue eyes of his sister-in-law, who ushered him into her large foyer with strained cordiality. She was three years younger than her sister, but about a hundred and fifty pounds heavier. Lena had explained it to him once--Hannah's belief that by puffing her face out with fat she would prevent the formation of wrinkles: one had to think of one's appearance long after one's death--for other people's sake, if not one's own.
"Let me take your coat, Gordon," said Hannah, her little eyes protruding like blueberries from a ball of muffin dough. "We've all been sitting in the dining room, waiting."
No doubt discussing strategy for hours, thought Mundley. He handed her his coat, then caught sight of the Krebbses' old poodle Sylvester sitting politely out of the way, in the far corner of the foyer, patiently extending his paw to be shaken, far more patiently than in the old days. As Mundley reached over to shake Sylvester's paw, glancing into the old fellow's beady unblinking black eyes, he remembered that the old days were some twenty to thirty years ago, so that the Sylvester he was stooping to fondle was only a quarter of his old self, having been freeze-dried by Freeze-Frame to sit here and greet all who knew him for as long as they managed to live.
"Be gentle," said Hannah, a smile twisting the corners of her lips the first time since he'd entered. "Silly's a lot more delicate now than he used to be."
"I can imagine," said Mundley, pulling himself up straight again and patting at his dark gray suit. "Otherwise hasn't changed a bit, has he?"
"Not a tittle," said Hannah, preceding him to the left through the parlor and into the brightly lit dining room.
All conversation died down at Mundley's approach. The table sparkled with crystal and silver. Candles burned redundantly under a cut-glass pendant chandelier.
"We've reserved you the seat of honor at the head of the table," said Wilfred Spridge, a gray-bearded nephew of Mundley's and head of the local C of C.
People cleared their throats and sat remarkably still as Mundley settled into his seat, one of two high-backed, fake-antique end chairs that would prevent him from slinging his arm comfortably behind him. At the other end of the table sat the master of the house, Morris Krebbs, his lower lip drooping and his wattled neck bent forward from a back humped with age and a lifelong contempt for all exercise. Morris sat still as death and regarded Mundley through the fence of pointless candles as intently as Sylvester had in the foyer. For a moment Mundley checked himself from greeting old Morris. What if Morris had died and Mundley didn't remember? Fortunately, however, the Parkinsonian tremor of the lower lip revealed a somewhat different state of affairs. (But did Freeze-Frame now offer a package including lifelike movements of the sort observed in department-store dummies? Mundley wondered. No. ... Morris croaked a greeting, then dug into his salad.) Hannah trundled from the table to the kitchen. Guarded conversation broke out around the table like sporadic rounds of gunfire at the beginning of a battle.
The attack was not long in coming. Tracer bullets whizzed by Mundley's head as he ingested in one forkful half of a Lilliputian chicken breast. Fortunately, anticipating the Krebbses' hospitality, Mundley had fortified himself at home with a tuna-fish sandwich.
Mildred Spridge, shapeless wife of the president of the Chamber of Commerce, arrested a clot of potato in mid-air to declare how everyone would "sorely miss our poor, dear Lena."
"But of course," said Jarvis Bryson, the Presbyterian minister, who was some sort of cousin of Mundley's at some incalculable remove, "no one really has to miss Lena, if the wishes of all who have loved her are taken into account."
"In fact," said Hannah, just as she waddled off again toward the kitchen, "how uncivilized is the very notion of spiriting her away from the bosom of family and friends, both living and preserved, including her own closest blood relatives."
"Her own flesh and blood!" belched Krebbs from the other end of the table.
In one quick swig, Mundley downed his evening's ration of wine that must have been squeezed into his glass through a medicine-dropper. "She is ... dead, you know," he mumbled, absently twirling his glass.
"My dear Uncle Gordon," said nephew Wilfred of the C of C, "you talk as if death implied some sort of end to all our social obligations."
"I should have thought so," Mundley nodded, thrusting out his glass toward the center of the table, where the decanter of white wine had been shoved behind a hedge of lifelike flowers. Hannah disapproved severely of overimbibing at dinner.
"Well, my dear Uncle," snickered Wilfred, "you are simply cutting yourself off from the whole social and technological surround of the twenty-first century."
"When I die," replied Mundley, "do you think I'll miss this precious surround?" He held out his glass more aggressively. Finally, Reverend Bryson, regarding the decanter with pinched lips, nudged it a couple of feet down the table in Mundley's general direction. (Thinking, Mundley supposed, to catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.)
Hannah stood filling the doorway to the kitchen, her fists sunk into the taffy of her hips. "How is it possible," she sighed, "that my dear brother-in-law can remain so detached from the progress of life?"
"And the progress of death," added Mildred Spridge.
"Hear, hear!" said a chorus of voices, and a volley of spoons clacked plates in righteous approval.
"Gordon," said the overly familiar Burgess Wort, a rat-faced young lawyer related to Mundley at various removes through a long-dead (and buried, thank God!) older brother. "Gordon, old man, look here, you mustn't stand in the way of progress. You can't stop time, you know."
"I can't stop time?" he mused while watching the mousey-haired wife of Wort, who had taken it upon herself to refill Mundley's glass, since she sat closest to him on the left. "You're quite right. I can't stop time." Wort's wife stopped pouring the clear liquid after decanting something less than two ounces. Mundley grabbed her wrist firmly and bent it down, filling his glass to the rim. "But don't you see? I'm not trying to stop time. You people are the ones who have lost your common sense and are determined to stop time. That's the whole point of Freeze-Frame, is it not?"
"Gordon, you are just playing with words," said Reverend Bryson. "I can understand a loyalty to one's métier. I can imagine how the last maker of chain-mail must have felt when there were no more orders for him to fill. Here you are, a mortician--like a backwoods surgeon who still practises bleeding despite the triumphs of modern medicine--and you want to persist in your reflex habits even though society finds them both disgusting and obsolete. Just try, Gordon, try for a moment to really picture what will happen to the precious body of your dearly beloved if you stash her under a mound of earth. Can you hear the chomping of a billion microbes eating away at her organs from within? Can you see the worms winding through dark sockets that once held her lovely eyes? Can you permit black beetles to gnaw at the flesh of her breasts? ..."
"Stop it, you disgusting sadist!" snapped Mundley, polishing off half a glass of wine. His hand trembled as he placed the glass down. "In the first place, Lena loved worms. They enabled her flowers and vegetables to grow. In the second place, Jarvis, as a man of the cloth you should know what is meant by 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.'"
Jarvis Bryson tugged for a moment at his clerical collar. "That was in the Middle East, where the sand and the air were dry. No moisture, no worms, no degrading invasions by beetles. Why, sometimes archeologists there discover the most remarkably preserved individuals. What a contrast to soil conditions throughout the civilized world, don't you think?"
Mundley drained off his wine glass at a gulp.
"Would I have let my dear brother decay into filth like that, instead of keeping Thurston with us forever, as we have?" said Hannah. A shudder set all her flesh ajiggle. "Would you want me to let my dear Morris rot away like that into a mound of dribbling garbage? ... Oh, come on, everybody, it's time for dessert and coffee. Shall we retire to the Family Room?"
"The Family Room? Why the Family Room?" Mundley objected. He wanted to sit tight over another glass of wine.
"Because we always have dessert and coffee in the Family Room," Hannah retorted with incontrovertible logic. "Isn't that right, Morris?"
"That's right, dear," gargled Morris.
"It's too ... crowded in the Family Room," Mundley protested.
"Nonsense!" replied Hannah. "It's been enlarged. When were you last there, a quarter of a century ago?"
"I think I'd rather skip dessert and coffee," said Mundley, staring at his empty plate. He should have suspected that Hannah might resort to the cheapest imaginable tricks. Resolved to resist communal pressure, he finally consented to go plodding off with the others through a large pair of doors that led from the parlor into the climate-controlled Family Room.
In the center of the room a table was set with an old-fashioned silver coffee dispenser, gold-laced antique china cups and saucers, and heaps of home-made cakes and cookies (with sprinkles on them; everything had sprinkles). The family were cozily scattered about the room. Hannah's mother and father occupied armchairs arranged beside the crackle and flicker of the artificial fireplace, knitting needles poised in the hands of one, a newspaper in the other's. The unlit pipe in father Krebbs's mouth was the one whose burning ash he used to dump out on his wife when he lost his temper. Since they had rarely ever spoken to each other in life, the tableau they now presented to Mundley's view seemed irreproachably authentic.
In a group to the left of the fireplace an old uncle sat hunched over a deck of cards while his wife stooped opposite him picking up a hand he had dealt. She had always hated cards, and Mundley remembered how her husband would snap and snarl at her and accuse her of cheating on the few occasions she could not avoid winning a hand. From the sofa next to them, her lovely hands laced across her lap, their daughter looked patiently on. Mundley's heart leaped to see Miriam, who had drowned forty years ago, looking as young and fresh as in those days long gone when he had nursed a secret passion for her--the only Krebbs he had known, apart from Lena, with a zest for life. The space on the sofa next to her still remained vacant. The shrewd Hannah caught him staring.
"Poor Miriam," sighed Hannah. "Her husband Timothy won't ever sit beside her because his third wife has placed him with her family, you know."
"No, I didn't know," said Mundley. Taking his seat, he was overcome with nausea at the thought that he would rather be sitting with Miriam.
"Don't you agree, Uncle Gordon, that Hannah takes wonderful care of the family?" said Wilfred.
"Wonderful," Mundley conceded. In another corner of the room he spotted an old cousin of Hannah's. Beer can in hand, he sat in his Red Sox cap in front of an antiquated TV watching a pitcher wind up to throw a ball that would never leave his hand. The image was forever locked in freeze-frame.
"Whenever I go puttering around them with a feather-duster," said Hannah, "I make sure to bring them all up on the news. They're very concerned about you, Gordon. They want to know all about you and your ... plans."
The coffee Mundley was about to sip never reached his lips.
"Even Grandma and Grandpa are worried about you," she said, watching his eyes drift off to a window to his right where the ancient sparring partners stood propped in matching rockers. "Don't you remember, Gordon, how they always loved just sitting there and peacefully watching the sun set over the sycamores?"
Mundley gritted his teeth and glanced at the farther window. In front of it sat Hannah's brother Thurston, who had repeatedly raped Lena when she was only a child. The armchair next to Thurston's was empty.
"Don't you remember how Lena loved looking out at the birds and squirrels, Gordon? ... She could still enjoy them, Gordon. Even now. Thurston loved nature too, you know."
Mundley pushed away the cookies Hannah was pressing on him. "Lena's enjoyed all she ever will," he pronounced, "and that's that."
His indelicacy evoked a wheeze of insucked breath.
"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:
WHAT ARE YOU REALLY BURYING, GORDON?
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."
"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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