The last rays of a blazing sunset had succumbed early that afternoon to a cold, dark night. Sausage gravy clouds smothered the stars and cloaked the moon. Two streetlights cast a sickly blue-green glare, smearing long, twisted shadows across the parking lot of Pleasant Rest Funeral Parlor, where most of the residents of Oshrey had gathered to pay their respects to two of their own.
A dank haze shrouded the tight cluster of mourners taking a cigarette break near the entrance. Ashlee Austin, wearing too much makeup and an ill-fitting dress, burst through the ornate wooden doors and stomped to her Buick a few rows over. She yanked wildly at each of the four locked doors. Brett Hurley emerged from the funeral home a few steps behind her and clicked the remote control fob in his outstretched hand. Ashlee jerked open the nearest door and slid inside followed by her boyfriend.
Ashlee’s grandmother, Josie, who had served as the organist at the House of Power Worship Center, lay in state in the mint-green Paradise Garden viewing and visitation room. When Ashlee was seven, her father had disappeared. A week later, Melanie, her mother, had left Ashlee with Josie, leaving a note of apology but no explanation. No one had heard a word from either one since.
“Now, Ashlee, I know this is hard,” Brett said. “It sucks, and it hurts, and I don’t know why the hell Melanie turned up here tonight of all nights for crying out loud, but we’ve got to get back in there for Josie.”
“I didn’t think much of it at the time, so I didn’t say anything,” Ashlee said, drying her eyes on a partly used Kleenex. “But last week when I got my highlights done, Maggie Weaver, who’s laying in there right now two rooms over from Granny—you know, that old lady some people say is a witch—“
“Sophie’s grandmother?” he asked.
“Yes. Well, she looked right at me and smiled and said, ‘Are you getting yourself all prettied up for when your mother comes to visit?’ It caught me off guard, and I didn’t know how to respond, so I just smiled and nodded. And then Granny dies, and, lo and behold, in she walks. What the hell? This is too much. Did you bring a joint?”
Back inside, Maevis Dinsmore, having been pressed into service at the last minute, was finishing the final refrain of “Shall We Gather at the River” on the organ, promising herself, in three more stanzas, one more sip of the red wine slightly vibrating in the dark blue glass atop her stack of hymnals and music books. Ed, her husband and the funeral director, had failed to locate a replacement copy of Sacred Organ Solos in time for the evening’s events. Earlier that afternoon, their two-year-old granddaughter had destroyed the compact disc by using it as a chew toy while her mother was preoccupied with completing the restorative make-up jobs for the two deceased women before their families and guests began to arrive.
Owing to the unexpected mother-daughter reunion in Paradise Garden, most townsfolk had drifted into the rose-hued Homecoming Room, which hosted the viewing of Magnolia Weaver. On top of the closed lower half of the casket rested framed images of Maggie with each of her children—Peter, Emily, and Susan—and a honeymoon picture with Maggie’s husband, Emerson, who died in the Silver Mountain mine disaster in 1974. Maggie would be buried in a long-sleeved, violet silk dress with white lace gloves covering her hands, one of which clasped a bouquet of Lady’s slippers.
The pink walls of the room were mostly hidden by banks of flower arrangements, larger ones standing on pillars and wreaths hanging on A-shaped metal stands. In front of those were floor-level step units covered with potted plants and colorful sprays in vases of various sizes. In pride of place near the coffin was an arrangement in the shape of a five-pointed star, each arm of which was filled with carnations of a different color: white, red, yellow, green, and blue.
Two smartly dressed ladies, both fighting their forties, perched on an overstuffed couch in the corner surveying the scene and exchanging comments on their neighbor’s hair, clothing, and flower offerings.
“What a night this is turning out to be, huh? Melanie Evans showing up here after all these years with no explanation about where she or Frank has been. I’m sure there’s more to that business, but I bet it will go with Josie to the grave.”
“Lord knows how many secrets about so many in this town will be buried with Maggie Weaver in the ground tomorrow. Now, that stuff’s not something I personally ever went in for, but I reckon if Pastor Teagan says it’s kosher then it must be A-OK.”
“You mean the herbs and spirit hoodoo and stuff she got up to?”
“Well now, the talking in tongues is in the Bible, and herbs is just old-timey medicine what like our grandmothers had before prescription stuff. Besides, my niece—” She paused. “Well, I guess I better hold my tongue, but from what I know she done a lot of good and helped a lot of people around here.”
“What happened with your niece? I won’t repeat it to a soul. Cross my heart,”
“Well, little Miss Chelsea, Nita and Bruce’s girl, and that Adam Robison got a little more hot and heavy than they should have, I reckon, and somebody at church told Nita to give Maggie a call. Next thing you know, Nita and Chelsea went up on the ridge for a visit, and when they got there Maggie already had three cups and saucers out and some slices of poppy seed cake. She served each one a different kind of tea. Nita said Chelsea said hers tasted like blackberry. Said they had a nice talk about Maggie’s fight with that coal company wanting to use part of her land for a dump pond. When they were fixing to leave, Nita realized she had left her keys inside, and she went back in by herself. Maggie told her that Chelsea needed to stay home from school the next day and rest and to have her stay hydrated. Now, I don’t know the rest, but Nita and Bruce don’t have any grandbabies yet.”
“Huh. Well, it don’t seem like any of Maggie’s children wound up with those talents, does it? None that I’ve heard of anyways.”
“Nope. Who knows? Maybe it skips a generation.”
Susan, Maggie’s youngest, stood at the coffin stroking her mother’s lace-covered hand. Sophie, Susan’s daughter, stood beside her tapping her phone and trying her best to smile when well-wishers stopped to dole out consolation, each one mistaking the pain on Sophie’s face (caused by recent adjustments to the metal braces on her teeth) for grief and sorrow.
“She looks so happy in that picture with Uncle Peter at the beach," Sophie said.
“It took me forever to find a picture of Peter to use. There just aren’t any after he moved away,” Susan replied.
“Mom, can I stay at Janey’s tonight? Tucker will pick me up and bring me to Mamaw’s in plenty of time tomorrow.”
People will talk, Susan thought. She should say, “No, you need to be at home tonight. You can see Tucker and Janey tomorrow.” But, she was weary from all the We’re so sorry, and Thank you for stopping by, and Y’all are in our prayers, and had so much to do before tomorrow that she’d rather be by herself, so she said, "Are her parents OK with it?” Sophie nodded. “Yes, OK. Stop by the house to pick up your clothes for the service. I’ll head on up to Mamaw’s tonight. Be there by 9:00 sharp in the morning, I’ll need help.”
Peter Weaver headed up the mountain to the family home along the moonlit parallel ruts worn into the soil by years of trucks and farm equipment. No more than a foot’s width separated the unpaved road from the edge that dropped swiftly down a steep slope covered in a dense mix of trees and limestone boulders. The hollow hoot of a barn owl floated on the breeze with the scent of burning leaves and vegetation. Somewhere on the land one of the scattered renters must be clearing their garden.
At the top of the ridge the weather-worn farmhouse flashed among shifting patterns of ancient oak and maple trees. As Peter entered the yard, the wind reared up, thrashing the forks and spoons of his mother’s homemade wind chimes into an angry clatter. Peter recalled, as a child, learning the special knot that attached the silverware to the metal coat hangers and winding the twine to attach the coat hangers to lower branches on the massive ash tree that dominated the center of their front yard. Pieces would inevitably go missing and be replaced with strays picked up on trips to the Goodwill in Clayburn to drop off clothing that couldn’t be let out or handed down.
His sister Emily stood in the kitchen examining some of her mother's jewelry. “Hey,” Peter said as he entered. “Big crowd tonight, right? Where’s the little booger?”
“Checking the place out, I reckon. The living room’s a mess. You should take a look.”
Peter and Emily heard a clanking sound from somewhere in the house getting louder as it neared the kitchen. Josiah, Emily's young son, appeared at the door shaking a Prince Albert tobacco tin.
“Whatcha got there, buddy?” Peter asked.
“It’s a noise maker,” the boy replied. “Found it in Mamaw’s closet.”
“Let Mommy see,” Emily said, and the boy handed her the can. “Peter, look, there are bones in here. They look like fingers.”
“They’re not mother’s, you don’t think?”
“No, they’re too long, and besides, that was only ever the tips, right?”
“Can I have it back now, please?” Josiah asked.
“Um—here. Go put it back where you found it,” and he skipped out of the kitchen shaking the can.
“Can you believe all those flowers tonight? I wonder what Susan will want to do with all of them,” Peter said.
“Who were those ugly black flowers from?” Emily asked, examining a brooch she had pulled from the jewelry box on the counter.
“They’re called Queens of the Night, those lilies and tulips. They’re dark purple, actually. Not really black. They’re my favorites.” Peter replied. "Jack. Those tonight were from Jack.”
Peter moved to the window and gazed into the night, sending his thoughts to another time and place. “From the moment we moved in together—in our early twenties, still kids really—a ‘bunch of queens,’ we called them, would appear every year the morning of my birthday, every year without fail. So, those tonight, they were partially for me, I reckon.”
“Oh,” Emily replied, looking at her brother, wondering what he could possibly be staring at in the dark.
“Mother and Jack got along famously,” Emily recalled. “Didn’t he take that picture of her and you at the beach that was on the coffin lid tonight?”
“Yes,” Peter replied. “When Mom came out to San Fran to visit for a while. . .when I got sick, really sick, and was in the hospital, he got worried and found her number and called her. She flew out the next day.” Only when he blinked did Peter realize he was crying. “After the pneumonia was treated and I had been home a few days, I convinced the two of them I was strong enough for a road trip, and Mom, Jack, and I drove to Half Moon Bay. She loved it there. ‘Almost as beautiful as the mountains,’ she had said. ‘This is God’s country, too, Petey,’”
Emily eyed the pile of potatoes, plastic sacks of pasta, cans of stock, utensils, and assortment of spice jars labeled with masking tape on the table. “Looks like Mother was fixing to make soup. Everything’s here but carrots and green onions,” she said, her fingers grazing the blade of her mother’s black-handled butcher knife. “What did they do about Mother’s hands? I didn’t look.”
“Those lace gloves from Granny Curtis she used to wear at Easter and weddings,” Peter replied.
“Do you think they’ll take them off before they bury her?”
“I hope so. Sophie should have them.”
. . . Maggie stood at the head of the table gently rocking back and forth. Her hands were shaking.
Her eyelids fluttered wildly, and she spoke
in a language they did not understand.
Emily’s hand had unconsciously closed around the handle of the butcher knife, and her focus drifted into the past. Instead of the green formica kitchen table, their great grandmother’s oak table brought over from England stood before her, partially covered in sliced-up vegetables and chunks of pork. A twelve-year-old Peter stood stock still at the door, swathed in winter layers with a pile of firewood in his arms.
A decades-younger Maggie stood at the head of the table gently rocking back and forth. Her hands were shaking. Her eyelids fluttered wildly, and she spoke in a language they did not understand. Maggie’s left arm raised the butcher knife high into the air and brought it down on the tips of two fingers on her right hand.
Emily was jostled forward in time by the sound of her son once more rattling the box of bones as he entered the kitchen. The wind whistled through the blue glass cylinders on the bottle tree in the yard. “Mamaw’s here,” he said.
“There’s a storm a’comin’, children,” said Maggie, who had appeared in the doorway with her stubby fingers clutching a bunch of carrots in her left hand and scallions in her right.
“Mother,” Peter said, looking up from Josiah now hiding in the folds of Maggie’s skirt.
“My dear boy,” Maggie said, smiling. “The sight of you does my old heart good, Peter. And Emily. I’m so glad we’ll all be here together. Where is Susie? Oh well, I s’pect she’ll be along directly. She always was the last one out the door. Let’s light some candles; it’s likely the power will blow. There’s some white ones above the fridge, I believe, Emily,” gesturing with the dirt-clodded spade she had removed from her apron, ”from the last time I spoke with your father, and those red and green ones we put on the mantle at Christmas, Peter, should be in a box, top shelf, hall closet.”
Emily and Peter exchanged glances. “You spoke with Daddy, Mama? Recently?”
“Well, yes, why wouldn’t I? Let’s see, it was about a week or so ago, I guess.” Maggie moved to rinse the vegetables and her hands. “I was out on the front porch hanging up some bunches of rosemary to dry, and there was your father walking up the yard out of the woods still in his work clothes. He was grinning from ear to ear and was cradling his lunch pail under one arm. When he got right up to the porch, he opened it up, and it was filled to bursting with Lady’s slippers he’d harvested from that grove of pines down near where we used to water the horses. ‘Why Emerson,’ I said, ‘how thoughtful of you! I’ve had the hardest time finding any of these, and I sorely need to cure a mess of them for the tonic I promised that Messer girl for her bleeding. She’s got to take it before the moon gets full again.’ It had started to rain. He led me out into the yard, and we danced around and around in the wet grass with the rain rinsing the coal dust from his face and neck.”
“Uncle Peter,” Emily said, “how about you help Josiah get ready for bed?”
“I’d be glad to. Come on buddy,” Peter said, bending down so that Josiah could climb up on his back, and they horse-hopped out of the room.
Emily stood, went to the doorway, and said, “If we’re going to burn these candles, may as well shut off the lights,” which she did. Thunder sounded in the distance.
“Mama, those fingers in that tobacco tin there. Whose were they?”
“Oh, those are Frank’s, honey. Frank Austin. You remember him, I reckon. I kept them in case his girl—uh, Ashlee’s her name, I believe—ever wanted to speak with him.”
“Where did you get them?”
“Now, Emily, don’t you go upsetting yourself, sweetheart. I caught him out here digging up ginseng. Hadn’t even called to ask or nothing. When I looked at him, I saw he’d been beating that Melanie he wound up marrying after you left. He was down on his hands and knees putting the roots in a sack, and I don’t think he even noticed me until I picked up his grub stick he had laid to the side. Next thing I knew he was laying there all bloody. We buried him right and proper in the woods.”
Maggie turned from the sink and counted the place settings at the table. “Honey, set another place, if you would, dear. Susan will be joining us.”
The parking lot at Pleasant Rest had finally begun to clear out. Ed was helping Maevis stagger back to the office the short way—straight through the visitation rooms.
“Well, Ed, if you had just sucked it up and gone over to Westerly’s, I'm sure Doug would have leant you his CD as a professional courtesy,” Maevis spluttered, unsuccessfully attempting to reposition several strands of hair that had strayed from her shiny, brown bun.
"I'm not taking nothin’ from that man. No way, no how."
“I done told you we never done nothin'. I don't know why Louella found that lipstick under their bed. Just because it's the same shade of Mary Kay that I wear don't mean it's mine."
Maevis misjudged the step down into the Homecoming Room and landed at the feet of Susan who was removing the cards from the floral arrangements and noting the type and color of each on the back of the card to reference in the thank-you notes.
“Thank you so much for the beautiful music tonight, Maevis,” Susan said, without looking up from her task. “Mother would have loved it. You play beautifully. Did you study with Josie? Everybody who’s any good around here did. It’s awful, her and Mother passing within minutes of each other apparently.”
Maevis nodded, completely broke down into loud, messy sobs, and stumbled from the room. Staring in her direction, Ed said, “I’m so sorry, Miss Susan. Please forgive us for the disruption,” as he crossed the room to the far doorway. “No, this way, honey. Oh, hello, Reverend and Mrs. Teagan. Busy night for you two, I imagine. Well, goodnight, all. Take as much time as you need out here,” and with that he headed in search of his wife.
Adelaide Teagan stood at the casket looking at the family photos. “Susan, I sure do miss your sister Emily.”
“Yes, it was an awful tragedy when she died, both her and her little boy, Josiah, who was only six.”
“She and I were best friends back in school. I’ll never forget, she was the belle of the ball at our senior prom. She and Frank—Frank Austin—had been sweet on each other since we all were just little things. They only broke it off, I reckon, when she went away to school.”
Susan, who had done so well all night, felt hot, wet tears slide down her cheeks. Adelaide put her arm around Susan, and they sat down. Pastor Teagan pulled out a starched white handkerchief and handed it to Susan. Adelaide smiled and silently praised herself for having insisted all these years that he always carry an extra clean handkerchief.
“I’ll get there around nine in the morning, Susan, if that’s alright, and I’ll bring some of Addie’s cinnamon buns,” Pastor Teagan said.
Susan was grateful to have at least one less thing to think about. Her mind drifted briefly to a vision of her mother’s front parlor. Maggie lay face-down in the center of the room, the concentric circles of the rug beneath her body tricking Susan’s eyes, making it seem that Maggie was falling soundlessly through an infinite set of rings . . .
“Oh, thank you so much. I hope it isn’t too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” Adelaide replied. “I’ll pop them in the oven in the morning, so they’ll still be warm.”
Susan was grateful to have at least one less thing to think about. Her mind drifted briefly to a vision of her mother’s front parlor. Maggie lay face-down in the center of the room, the concentric circles of the rug beneath her body tricking Susan’s eyes, making it seem that Maggie was falling soundlessly through an infinite set of rings, falling away from her, her back turned and arms flung out from the shoulders. The room was covered in spilt bird seed and feathers. Maggie had collapsed while feeding and cleaning the cages of her two parakeets and star finch, all three of whom had fallen afoul of Maggie’s cat, who had fled the moment Susan opened the front door. Slowly, the image of her mother on the floor resolved to that of her in the casket.
Susan made a mental note to stop for milk for the coffee and, come to think of it, coffee, just in case, before she headed to her mother’s house. Having had so much to do practically all by herself, there had been no time to prepare, and her mother’s grocery shopping had become so erratic and unreliable lately. Maggie probably had nothing suitable for company on hand.
Adelaide’s voice caught her off guard. “Most of our Eastern Star sisters will be at the graveside service to perform the rite for Maggie. I’ll be down at the tabernacle helping prepare the meal for y’all. Is there anything in particular you’d like us to fix? Anything Sophie likes especially?”
Susan knew the menu was set and the supplies had been bought. “No, but thank you for asking. Whatever you fix will be a comfort and blessing,” she said, grasping for language her mother would have used to satisfy the appropriate social graces.
“Your mother, Sister Magnolia, was a favored child of the Lord,” began Pastor Teagan. “God blessed her with many spiritual gifts: the word of knowledge, speaking in tongues of the spirit, and prophesy. All of these I have been blessed to witness the many years I have known her. Rest assured, when the dead arise in a body more radiant than the sun, she will sing with the angels and dance at the throne of God.”
“Thank you, Pastor, for your kind words,” Susan said, wrapping a scarf about her neck and slipping quickly into her coat, knowing that if she allowed him to continue she’d have to hear the same speech again tomorrow at the funeral.
Susan headed west from downtown and instinctively navigated the switchback curves up the mountain. She was now the last of them, and Sophie was Maggie’s only living grandchild, much more like Susan’s mother than she or her siblings had been. Thoughts of Sophie lead to thoughts of Josiah and of her sister Emily, who had passed less than two years before when they had been shot in their sleep by Emily’s mentally unstable husband. It still made most too uncomfortable to speak of it, just as when Peter had died years before from an illness no one was willing to name. It comforted Susan to know that she would see them all again soon in her mother’s house as she sifted through family photographs and sorted out what among Maggie’s belongings she intended to keep, or pack away, or sell.
At the top of the ridge, a twisted slash of lightning struck and split the mighty ash tree infusing the forks and spoons with energy. Sparks flew, and a crackling blaze ran down the smoldering cleft as the branches were engulfed in flames. At her friend’s house in town, Sophie sat up in bed and screamed. At that moment, Susan’s car slid off the wet, muddy edge of the road and tumbled into a rocky ravine where it erupted into a bloom of smoke and fire.