Someone’s Sad On This Day–A Short Story

The first thing I saw out the window this morning was the gravedigger hard at work. I guess that’s not the best thing to see when one wakes. It was still dark in my room and a chill hung in the air. The furnace had not switched on in the night. I stood, grabbed my robe from the bedpost and wrapped it around me. It didn’t do much to warm my body—it had belonged to my grandmomma before it became mine and was mostly threadbare with holes in the elbows from years of wear and tear. Still, I cinched the sash and wished I had her old slippers on my feet as I crossed the room. 

At the window, I pulled the curtains back. The hangers rattled on the rod above me. 

The early morning sun peeked out over the horizon, promising clear skies. I looked out over the yard from the second floor of my grandparents’ home. Ancient trees stood, some tall and reaching for the sky, their branches like the waving arms of concertgoers or church parishioners rapt with their religion and swaying from side to side without care one. Other trees stood, not so tall, bent at what I think of as their waists, knotted and gnarled in what could only be an arthritic curse they suffer from. The grass was tall and gray, having not been cut in months and now the cooler temperatures of a southern fall wither them away to husks of their once vibrant blades. 

The cemetery sits beyond the yard, no real walls encircling it, but rocks and stones, cobbled together, stacked one atop the other in a helter skelter manner. I always thought they would topple over with a good gust of wind during one of our summer storms or during hurricane season in the fall, but they never have. From where I stood, I could see graves more ancient than the hundred year old house I now live in, their rounded tops chipped, the names of the dead and their epitaphs faded long before I came into this world. The mausoleum that house the once wealthy members of this small province stuck out against the fading purple background. 

house-2187170_1920And the gravedigger dug his hole, not with a backhoe like they use in the big cities and the well kept cemeteries, but with a pickaxe and a shovel and a strong back and arms. He wore his usual blue coveralls, one suspender strap dangling down around his knee. Heavy clod hoppers covered his feet, dirty from years of digging holes two yards deep, two yards long and a yard or so wide. An old straw hat covered his bald head, one that already had early signs of skin cancer splotching it in places. He drove the spade into the earth, stomped on it just to the left of the handle, shoving it further into the ground. Then, as if he wasn’t satisfied with what he had done, he lifted the shovel up, pulling with it a clump of dirt that he tossed onto a growing mound. 

I watched for several minutes, fascinated by the piston-like movements of his feet and arms and back. There was no slow down in his motions, no hesitation, no grabbing of his back from a twinge of pain. He shoveled, and if I would have stood there for another two hours, I would have seen him dig until the hole was deeper than he is tall. Then the shovel would fly from the hole and land on the mound. He would crawl out, grab the shovel and walk away as if he had been playing cards at a table with a bunch of old men like himself instead of doing the hard label of grave digging. 

But I didn’t stay there. I closed the curtains, not needing to see the sun continue its rise to its perch in the sky; not needing to see the grave digger preparing someone’s last bed. 

Someone somewhere is very sad today, but it is not me. 

I showered in the bathroom of the house I live in, the house my grandparents once owned, but now only one grandparent remained with me. Near the toilet was my grandmomma’s old slippers. They were once a light blue color and had been fuzzy, like the bear, but only was he? They, like the bear, were no longer fuzzy, and dirty as well; more gray than blue. I slipped them on and walked through the house in the threadbare robe that still had Grandmomma’s scent of arthritis cream and death. 

I went down the main stairs, each step cracking and groaning like old bones in protest. I listened to the sounds, enjoying every pop. I used to go down on my bottom when I was younger, plopping from step to step to step, laughing as I went, but age caught up with me a while ago and my back and hips can no longer take such fun endeavors. 

In the kitchen I made a big bowl of cereal—Special K was what my grandparents ate, so it is what I ate. I sprinkled sugar on it—a lot more than Grandmomma would have approved of—and ate it with all the zest of a six-year-old in front of the television watching Saturday morning cartoons. I spilled the milk down my chin when I tip the bowl to drink the last of the sugar-made-sweet liquid. 

At the sink I saw from the kitchen window part of the graveyard. The trees block most of it from the view. From here I can always see some of the stone wall and the top of the mausoleum, but the headstones and the gravedigger are obscured by the wooden bones of the ancient trees, some of which are dying, either by age or disease … much like people do. I thought of the gravedigger and his gnarled hands and knotted fingers; his sagging jowls and pooch of a stomach, his thick nose that looks like a strawberry, reddened and ripe from years of tipping the bottle. He’s not a bad person, but a drunk who speaks few words.

I washed the bowl and went back upstairs. I needed to change into something more than a thin robe and worn out slippers. You can’t attend a burial in your bath clothes.

My closet is lined with dresses and slacks, blouses of different colors and coats pushed far to the back. I selected a black skirt that falls to below the knees and a light gray top, sensible in every way. Best to be respectful on a day of mourning, after all someone is sad today. Flats go on my feet and I didn’t put on any makeup, after all the dead don’t care about those things. Only the living, and the living didn’t matter this morning. 

In the kitchen I waited until I heard the back door open, the heavy sounds of boots on linoleum in the mudroom, and then the whisking sound of socks on the floor outside of it. The stairs creaked and groaned and I could almost picture them as people laying, belly down, mumbling and grumbling as weight was first put on their backs, then gone a second later.

Above me the shower turned on and water ran for a good twenty minutes. Then the tell tale signs followed of someone walking around upstairs slowly, as if the feet couldn’t be bothered to lift themselves off the floor and set themselves back down.

Another twenty minutes pass and the stairs protested again.

“It’s time.”

I looked up from the where I sat at the table, my hands folded in front of me. He no longer wears his overalls and the one suspender that always hung to his knee has been replaced by a belt. His boots were gone, replaced by a nice pair of Sunday shoes, and he wore a pair of dark pants, one fit for such a moment. His nose was still a strawberry in the center of his face, and his eyes blue and clear, like the sky in mid-July in the south—nothing clouding them at all; no cancer, no alcohol, no worry.

“Okay, Grandpa,” I said and stood.

“Ya look nice, Marjorie.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Ya ready?”

“I reckon so.”

We left the house and made our way across the yard to the cemetery. We passed through an opening in the cobbled together stone wall and weaved in and out of headstones too tired to hold themselves erect any longer. Soon they will all be lying on the ground like the dead beneath them.

At the hole we stopped. It was longer than the six feet the gravedigger normally made them. One end was sloped like a ramp, leading down into the hole. A freshly built pine box sat at the head of the sloped end. I could smell the strong scent of pine sap. The casket sat atop logs cleaned of all bark and made smooth. Two ropes were attached to the foot end of it, used to pull the casket across the logs so it would roll into the grave. 

“Ya have any words to say, Marjorie?”

“Yes, Sir.”

I walked over to the pine box and tapped on the head in.

“Grandmomma. Ya in there?”

The muffled scream came back to me and I smiled. She was in there and she wasn’t too happy. She beat on the inside lid, nailed down every three or so inches. 

I stepped back from the casket. “I changed my mind,” I said. “I got nothin’ to say.”

“A’right, then,” he said, bowed his head and closed his eyes. He prayed, said his amen and grabbed one rope. I grabbed the other. It was time to put Grandmomma to rest. Yeah, someone was sad on this day, but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t Grandpa either.

AJB

 

The Cedar, A Short Story

“I’m scared, Mrs. Lilla Mae,” Rosalie said as she crawled into the bed. Her eyes were wide blue orbs on the backdrop of her pale skin. Her light blonde hair smelled of a flowery shampoo. A flannel top and bottom covered her body. Some would say she was too old to be scared at bedtime, being thirteen and already blossoming into a pretty young woman. But they would be wrong. Bedtime is when the monster came out; a monster that looked like a man that could have been her father. 

Mrs. Lilla Mae sat on the bed, her small frame barely causing the mattress to sag under her weight. She had been plump in her younger years, but as time caught up with her, the extra pounds she carried as a young woman had worn away, cutting her into half the woman she had been. She brushed a strand of hair from Rosalie’s forehead and tucked it behind her ear. “Oh, child, don’ be afraid. Mrs. Lilla Mae won’ let an’thin’ happen to you.”

“But he’s out there. He’s waiting, Mrs. Lilla Mae.”

“Maybe, child, bu’ he ain’ go’ nothin’ for you. He ain’ never goin’ have nothin’ for you again.”

Rosalie shook her head from side to side. She didn’t think Mrs. Lilla Mae understood. The old woman rarely stayed overnight. She was the day maid, someone her mom needed to help tend the house while she was out of town on business; someone to tend to her dad, who suffered the disability of alcohol and laziness, but claimed an injured back kept him from working. Mom believed him and worried, not about his physical disability—her job more than paid the bills and allowed them a life far better than most of her peers had it—but his emotional disability. It came with a price, though. When Mom wasn’t home, neither was Dad, or at least not the Dad Rosalie knew and loved when she was a little girl with bouncing pigtails and little pink dresses and white shoes that tap tapped when she walked.When Mom wasn’t home, Rosalie was terrified, not of the dark, but of what night brought.

“But, Mrs. Lilla Mae, Mom’s gone and that’s when …”

The ancient woman with mahogany skin put one neatly manicured finger to Rosalie’s lips. It smelled of sweet tobacco.

“You gonna have to believe me, child. Ev’ry thing will be okay.”

“But …”

“No buts, child. Mrs. Lilla Mae is gonna take care of you. You jus’ trus’ me, okay?”

Rosalie nodded, but she really didn’t believe everything would be okay. Mrs. Lilla Mae was as old as Time itself. How was she going to protect her with her slow gait and brittle bones?

“Now, we gonna do somethin’ ya momma ain’ done before.”

“What’s that, Ma’am?”

Mrs. Lilla Mae smiled, showing hints of yellow teeth behind her upper lip. “We gonna smudge ya.”

She frowned. Her brows crinkled. “What’s that?”

“Stay right her, child. I’ll be right back.”

Mrs. Lilla Mae shuffled off, her feet whisking across the scuffed hardwood floor. She left the room, leaving behind her tobacco smell, something Rosalie loved. A few minutes later, she came back. In her hands was a bundle of leaves held by brown twine. She set it on the bed, pulled the knot on the twine, releasing it. The leaves separated and unfolded, revealing what looked like green and brown sticks bound in white thread. 

“What’s that?”

Mrs. Lilla Mae picked it up. Beneath it was a box of strike matches. “This be a cedar stick.”

“What’s it for?”

“Prote’sion.”

“Protection?”

“Oh yes, child. You ain’ gonna have no trouble with the monster tonight.”

CedarSmudgeSticksnew-product_2x-1548268550She set the cedar down and picked up the box of matches. She opened it, pulled out a match and closed the box. She struck the match on the sandpaper side of the box. A flame appeared with a chuffing sound and an acrid smell. Mrs. Lilla Mae set the box back on the bed of leaves, then picked up the cedar. She held it up and set the flame to the bottom of it. After several seconds, the cedar began to smoke. Mrs. Lilla Mae shook the match out and dropped it to the leaves as well. 

Mrs. Lilla Mae lifted the cedar to her face and blew on it. She brushed the smoke toward Rosalie with the back of one hand. It smelled faintly of pencil shavings and fresh urine. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t all that great either. 

“Yuck,” Rosalie said and pinched her nose. “That stinks.”

“Hush, child,” Mrs. Lilla Mae said. “This ain’ for ya. It’s for the monster.”

Mrs. Lilla Mae ran the cedar along the bottom of the bed, then shuffled her way to the closet. She opened the door, ran it along the floor there and up the door jamb. She made her way back to the bed, set the still smoldering cedar on the bed of leaves. Slowly, she rolled the leaves around the cedar and then retied the twine. Again, she went to the open closet, set the cedar on the floor. 

“Ya do your job, now, an’ protec’ this youngin’.”

Mrs. Lilla Mae partially closed the door, leaving it open a good half foot. 

“You’re not closing the closet door?”

“Oh no, child. It nee’s to be open.”

Mrs. Lilla Mae grabbed the ends of the sheet and blanket and pulled it over Rosalie’s legs. “Lay on down.”

Rosalie did as she was told and Mrs. Lilla Mae pulled the linens all the way to her shoulders. “Ya gonna be okay, child. I vowed to ya momma, and I keep my vows.” She leaned down and kissed Rosalie on the cheek. The smell of sweet tobacco was stronger and Rosalie smiled. Her world started to dim along the edges and she wavered just outside of sleep. 

“Go on and sleep, child. Ya gonna be safe.”

Rosalie felt herself falling into the grayness of sleep. But there was something in that sleep with her, something green and scaly and feathery, and somehow, very cold to the touch. Then, she was under completely.

***

48944832_10218167673244386_2427968716353306624_nShe woke. Something … some sound had roused her from the world of dreams and her dream had been one where she slept, tucked beneath the sheet and blanket, a smile on her face and no worries in her heart. In her dream, a large creature like a skeletal bird, its wings not quite bare of feathers, its backbone exposed, sat on her bed. It was green and it smelled roughly of pencil shavings and fresh urine. And it stared at her with a mother’s love. 

But the noise had woke her and the creature vanished, leaving behind its somewhat bitter scent. Her eyes opened and she tried to focus them in the gray darkness of the room. Something was in there with her. She couldn’t see it, but it was there. Rosalie blinked several times, hoping her eyes would adjust, and hoping she was wrong about something being in there with her.

The noise came again. Heavy footfalls, not quite dragging or shuffling the way Mrs. Lilla Mae did, but heavy and plodding; the sound of boots. Rosalie’s heart stopped, as did her breath. She lay on her back and stared toward the bedroom door. Though it was closed and no light shone in beneath it from the hall, she knew that was the direction the noise came from. And she knew what the noise was.

The monster was in there with her, the one with her dad’s face and hands, but it wasn’t her dad. No, it was the other Dad, the one who liked the bottle and to do things with her  when Mom wasn’t around. He took a couple of steps forward, then stopped. Rosalie could see an outline of him now, the way he wavered from side to side, his hands down at his sides. He stared at her with his monster eyes. If the light was on, she would probably see drool trickling from one side of his mouth. She shuddered at the image in her head. 

Tears formed in her soft blue eyes. Heat filled her face as fear—not of the dark, no, never of the dark—swelled behind her budding breasts. She tried to keep her breaths even, tried to pretend she was asleep. Maybe if he thought she was, then …

“Rosalie?”

She tensed. His voice was rough and he had slurred the S in her name. Her breath stuck in her throat. It was loud in her own ears and she was certain he heard it. 

“Rosalie?” His hand touched her leg, just above her ankle.

She wanted to jerk her leg away and curl into a ball, one so tight he couldn’t pry her legs open once he ripped her pajamas free, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. Moving was impossible. She clutched tight to the blanket as tears spilled down the sides of her face. She wanted to scream for Mrs. Lilla Mae to come save her, to protect her like she said she would, but her voice was as paralyzed as the rest of her body. 

His hand moved up to her knee, then beyond it until it came to rest near the top of her thigh. He leaned down, patted her leg several times and whispered her name. The stench of alcohol overrode the pencil shaving and urine smell, and Rosalie gagged. She couldn’t help it. 

The monster roared and tore the linens from her hands, ripping off one of her fingernails in the process. He grabbed at her pajamas and Rosalie screamed. One hand lashed out, catching him on the arm. A growl tore from the monster with her dad’s face and suddenly her head snapped to the side. The left side of her face stung and the buzzing in her ear was loud. Even through the ringing she could hear her own screams off in the distance.

“You stop screaming, Rosalie. You stop screaming or I’ll make you stop.”

His hands went around her throat. Her windpipe closed and suddenly she couldn’t breath. She felt his weight on top of her, his legs straddling her hips and his hands squeezing harder and harder. Her eyes bulged and her tongue jutted from her open mouth. She struck his arms with her hands. White dots appeared in her vision and pressure built in her face. It felt as if her head would explode.

Then, as suddenly as he was on top of her, choking her, his hands released and his weight disappeared. She heard the loud sound of something crashing into the wall, but she could only roll onto her side and clutch her throat. She took big gulping breaths, trying to get oxygen into her air-starved lungs. 

The monster with her dad’s face screamed, and this time he sounded like Dad. She shook her head, trying to force away the throbbing in her skull but only made it worse. 

The monster screamed again, but there was something else mingled in with it. Was that the smell of something burning. She sat up, sniffed the air. The earlier smells of pencil shavings and fresh urine were stronger now, almost to the point of reeking. 

“The cedar,” she said and stood from her bed. Her head swooned and she almost fell to her knees. Instead, she braced herself on the bedpost until the wave of dizziness passed. 

The monster screamed, but now she could see him. His clothes were on fire, as was his hair and arms. He swung balled fists at something large and … bird-like; something skeletal that still had a few feathers on its wings. Its beak was like a large talon and it jabbed at the monster.

The bedroom door swung open, the knob striking the wall hard enough to produce a hole and get stuck in the sheetrock. The light came on, flooding the room in a yellow glow. Mrs. Lilla Mae stood in the doorway, the blue top and long gray skirt she wore the day before still on. She didn’t look as if she had been asleep or even laying down. She also didn’t look surprised to see the monster on the floor and the wall bashed in where his body had been slammed into it; his hair burned completely off. She didn’t look surprised to see his skin smoldering, and acrid smoke billowing up from him. She didn’t look surprised to see the odd green and brown skeletal creature that could have been a bird or a lizard with smoking fingers, and its beak nibbling down on the monster. No, she didn’t look surprised at all. The small smile on her face was one of delight and satisfaction.

Rosalie gave the monster with her dad’s face and the other creature a wide berth as she ran to Mrs. Lilla Mae. She hugged the old lady tight, burying her head in her bosom. “What is that … that thing?”

“Nothin’ but the cedar, child. Nothin’ but the cedar.”

“But it’s …”

The ancient woman put her arms around Rosalie, stroked her hair and whispered, “Hush, child. Let the cedar do its job.”

As Rosalie listened to the sound of the monster’s body burning away, and the cedar eating its skin, she could no longer smell the heavy odor of pencil shaving and urine of the cedar. No. It was drowned out with the aroma of sweet tobacco …

AJB

(The image up above of the little girl sleeping and the creature on her bed is the inspiration for this piece. It was written for the Stitched Saturday prompt at the end of 2018.)