“One can’t carry one’s Father’s Corpse about everywhere.”
The eerie sound of silence. A cheery beam of rising sunlight illuminates a cloud of light dust dancing waltzs with itself through the air. A scrawny white quail of a teenage girl about thirteen, stares out the bubbly warped glass, watching the early morning sun. Her hair is long, mostly straight, save a few matted places and split ends near her creamy white shoulders. Her tresses are a lioness’ mane of red rust auburn, her eyes delicate marbles of jade hazel green with thick eyelashes. Her pupils, large, endlessly black and curious, flutter and oscillate about jittery nervous in all directions. Suddenly the buzzing of a fly startles her, she turns, and we see the little fiery-headed lass full faced. She’s somewhat freckled, her little mouth drawn, folded over and over again in a curiously reserved press. Her cheeks are small and caked with the remains of what were wet tears. Her little emaciated body barely covered by a rose carnation pink sleeveless “sundress” of the early 21st Century style that looks like it was hand-sewn together from discordant pieces of linen or cotton, and then rush dyed in a homemade barrel. Her long fingered tiny hands are clean and red flushed, her even tinier feet pearl white mixed with the black “rain clouds” of dirt and soot smudges at her bare toes and heels.
The girl is only about 4’5 to 4’7 at best…a red bone-bag of a leprechaun with deep purple blue-black circles surrounding the orbits of her eyes. She looks sickly. She looks as though she never blinks, nor that she has spoken in years. She looks as though she has spent the entirety of her young life in mourning.
She turns. Her eyes fixate on a no-frills bed in a corner opposite the little wooden window. The fly orbits the head of it. The shadowy form of a figure lying still in the early morning dimness, not a single candle burning or a lantern lit. Not a sound comes from the corner save the fly, buzzing, buzzing relentlessly, buzzing endlessly, taunting, baiting the little child to come closer. Her left foot begins to move. Little yellow toenails covered with what appears to be a crusty fungus mixed with dirt. A first step, and then another and another. Her delicate white hand grapples at the air, her lower plumb red lip drops, and draws a shallow breath of putrid blood and puke-sour-scented air. Slowly the little girl walks, crouched, huddled, nervous, curious, through the silence, through the shadows, through that single solitary array of warming sunshine. She nears the figure lying in the bed. A few strands of curly red hair come into her view, a receded hairline, and the top crown of a pale white forehead. A pair of dusty brown steel-toed boots stand upright at-attention at the foot of the bed…handmade, and made well. A man’s boots they were, soldier’s boots…boots that stand in that silent moment ready for anything…except being forgotten.
The girl looks up. She sees the face…the face of a man, middle 60’s, with beady round eyes with flecks of green filled to bursting with robust black pupils. A round fat “Irish” head was on his neck, or make that a “no neck” to be more accurate. His hair was raging bull fire red, ringlet upon ringlet chord of red ocre tresses fixed in place it seems by “clamps” at the sides of gray hair and shades of white. He gave the impression that he was a pug who had morphed into a tenacious “Irish Hillbilly” form. His skin was wrinkled from years of hard work and battle, ghost white mixed with blue and black, large tar-colored nodules, foul pods, “berries” of blood and pus violated the male figure’s neck at both sides. The girl looked into the man’s eyes, those long-staring wide-open eyes, blank, empty, looking on endlessly into nothing and feeling the same. His lips, once small, pink, and pressed together tightly in proud confidence, now lay open as a gaping vulnerable hole of a mouth, a sliver of ice blue skin encircling black emptiness. The fly briefly investigates the still mouth cave shaded in blue, and in seconds, buzzes back out again, having found nothing of interest within the throat, preferring instead to land and do its “leg rubbing dance” on the blood sputter-saturated surfaces of his nostrils and chin.
She reaches down, her sweet, innocent green eyes, fixated on the man’s pale face, while the fingers of her right hand wrap around his arm. She squeezes it once near the wrist, but then her fingers retreat just as rapidly as they arrived, in a startled shock…for it doesn’t feel like an arm at all. It is not the strong, warm brave all-too-familiar human limb of the man the girl remembers, it is a timber of petrified wood…a block, a metal canister of liquid nitrogen, an unyielding branch of ice. Just one touch, and it has chilled her to the very marrow of her still growing bones.
How could he be so cold?
Still looking into the face, the eyes open that would’ve once returned her gaze instantly, and then added an overjoyed smile of greeting, didn’t even see her now. They held that useless pose, and would now reflect back only a dumbfounded expression until the end of time or decay. The man looked as though he were nothing more than a gnarled plastic effigy, a poorly made ghoulish redheaded life-sized doll that had never lived at all.
That’s not him…that’s NOT him…it CAN’T be…
A pair of tears raced down the girl’s cheeks. Reality was now sinking in. After this morning, she knew she would never see this man again in this world.
The girl began to sob…her chest aching with a flood of grief to go with the pure water thunderstorm of liquid sadness that showered forth from her eyes. The strongest man she had ever known was gone.
She felt alone.
“Laura LEA MASON!! Do you wanttah’ catch yur death AGAIN?!?! Git’away from there… NOW!!”
A woman has appeared in the doorway as little Laura’s head jerks back to meet the speaker’s gaze. The woman rushes forward and “herds” the child away from the bed by forcefully slapping the girl on the behind with the flat palm of the hand.
The woman is not tall, only about 4’10, a lean bony limbed little creature that exploded below the waist into all rump and hips and then suddenly back into chicken legs. She bares resemblance to the little girl she’s peering cautiously at, both the same shaped graceful “oval almond” head, the same length of long hair combed in virtually the same way, the same patented nose, the same long-staring eyes, soft features, and a sea of freckles scattered about both their faces. But everywhere the little girl could be found to be red, the woman was jet black coal, her eyes, her smattering of freckles, and her long straight hair. She was as white-skinned as the young girl, yet her overall appearance gave the slightest hint of an impression that she may have some strong Latin or even Indian blood in her.
The black haired woman was thirty years of age, though the hardships of the times had clearly crept up on her in the tired lines, creases, sunspots, and the occasional gray hair of a woman well into her forties. That having been said, something shone through her “chipped” surface. A flame of inner strength in her eyes, the way she held her head up upon a still smooth, and swanlike neck. Anyone could see that in her youth she had likely been the most beautiful woman in all of North Carolina, and that there was still something of that intoxicating beauty in her even now, for her midnight blue long dress of mourning was impeccably clean underneath the dried blood and vomit-stained white canvas cloth apron tied around her waist, and her hair had a curious luster to it like sunlight mingling through the waters of a mountain creek. This was clearly the form of a proud woman, one who would bow to no one…this woman was clearly a survivor.
Laura brushed the streams of tears from her eyes, but couldn’t stop the crying in her voice when she finally spoke.
“But MAMMAAA, it’s Da-“
The woman’s face briefly furrowed into a tender sigh as she rushed forward again, this time to take hold of her child from behind in a protective hug.
“I know Darlin’…I know…”
The woman began to shed tears herself from those black pearls, sharing willingly in her daughter’s pain, and briefly exposing her own, “…but we almost lost yu’ta the Devil once…I don wantcha getting’ it all over agin…yu’r tha’ ONLY one I got left now…after tha’ Twins passed…’an I juswanna keep ya’safe…yur Daddy would wan’ that too ya’know…he wouldn’t want ya’riskin’ yur neck agin…even if it wuz ta’just be close ta’ him onemore time…”
“Mamma…” Laura uttered meekly at nearly a whisper, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s ul’RIGHt now Laura… go’on…”
A loud knock at the front door suddenly startles mother and daughter, as well as a quick rhythm of heavy men’s boots descending an unseen set of stairs in another part of the house, as if the boots had been expecting the knock’s arrival. The woman rushes to get the door, as young Laura follows close behind, hiding in half-profile as her mother turned the knob.
The morning sunlight through the doorway outlines the forms of two men, one young and one much older, both dressed in rough pairs of homespun blue denim overalls and long-sleeved homemade shirts with bandanas covering the bottom halves of their faces. The older man to the immediate left from the inner doorway’s perspective wears a familiar black slouch hat with the headband lantern insignia of the Night Watchmen, he’s in his late thirties, though based on the few rough lines one can see near his blue eyes, one could easily add ten years to that. The second man in truth could barely be called a man at all, by our own standards, yet for the times in which he lives, he’d have been considered an adult for more than two years now. He’s just seventeen going on eighteen, mildly disheveled hair already fading in patches from its youthful innocent blonde bright yellow, rusting into brown and red. His eyes sunken in steel wool blue, his limbs are gaunt and gawky, and his chin covered in peach fuzz that was slowly switching into stubble seemingly a whisker at a time. The young man was uninspiring, a geeky lad who gave off an air of both fatigue and sadness. The look in his eyes sent out a kind of quiet S-O-S to anyone who would see them that he’d much rather crawl into a warm blanketed hole of serenity with a book and never come out to this ugly world again. Laura stared up at the young man concealed behind the folds of her Mother’s dress, gazing with a strange curiosity into his blue eyes, and how the bright red of the bandana that sat upon the bridge of his nose brought out the blue grey sharp steel of their luster even more. He didn’t appear to have noticed her this time.
The young man nodded meekly at the proud dark eyed mother in greeting but said nothing.
“Chief Campbell, Constable Randolph.” The mother offered in stoic greeting, puffing up her chest as much as she could muster, trying to bare herself up from her sadness and grief as if by her merely willing it away with pride, that it would stop it from bleeding through her face.
“Miss’uss Mason.” Answered Chief Campbell with equal heavy brevity. They all stood in a silent beat, Campbell hanging his head for a half a second or so, before letting the already known words of his purpose spill forth in their unwanted manner, “Mornin’ Dead Check Miss’uss Mason…no one ta’ bring out’ere ta’day, I hope.”
At this moment, a strong young male hand caressed the top of the head of young Laura, and placed another hand on the shoulder of Mrs. Mason. Laura looked up at the one who now lovingly ran his fingers through her hair. He was tall, 6’ at least, with the same red hair and facial resemblance to the male “effigy” lying in bed down the hall, except that he was much younger at eighteen years of age. His hand felt good to Laura, a warm gentle comforting blanket of strength in a new colder, much more bitter world.
Mrs. Mason took a deep breath, bracing herself for what she knew she had to say. With a double stream of tears cascading down her cheeks, she let the awful sound of the truth go, “Mis’ter…Mis’ter Mason…we…we lost’um early this mornin’ “
“Lord no, NOT the Colonel!”
“Yessir Chief, ‘fraid it’s…it’s so.” Said the young red headed man, as he took out a bandana and leather gloves from the pocket of his dungarees and prepared to put them on. Mrs. Mason could only nod in this moment and cry more tears.
Chief Campbell removed his hat, in a gesture of reverence. Constable Randolph lowered his head as well and bit his lip, as if by doing so it would somehow stem the tide of grief…but to little effect. As he raised his head again, he could just make out a pair of jade green eyes watching him from behind a corner of Mrs. Mason’s dress. As soon as he met their gaze, they quickly disappeared behind protective cotton foliage of their mother again.
“If I thought ANYBODY wuz’a’gunna whup this’ere thing…I reckoned sure it’d be the Colonel.” Added Chief Campbell in a low mumbling tone drenched to dampness with melancholy.
He paused to collect himself, a sniffle, a bat of his heavily moistened eyes, and he was back to “playing” the “part” of strength the town expected of him as a Chief.
“Very well…Boy, lead the way if you please, and let’s get’after it.”
Mrs. Mason jerked both herself and little Laura out of the way so the tall redheaded lad and the two Night Watchmen could have a clear path to the bedroom where the newly made corpse lay.
As Mrs. Mason went to shut the front door, Laura slowly drifted away from her mother’s watchful eye and set herself at a safe distance near one of the open doorposts to the dead man’s last sleeping quarters. Little Laura saw everything….the steady workman-like efficiency in which the three men went about their grim task, rolling back the sheet on which the dead Colonel was lying from the bed at each corner, then hoisting him up, bedding, what little of a pillow had comforted the man’s head at the end of his life, and all, on down to that simple wood floor. They said not a word, nor did they need to, for each of the three knew their place in this “dance” of macabre death all too well.
“Practice” makes perfect.
While young Boone and the redheaded boy held the sheet secure from one end, Chief Campbell deliberately and carefully began to roll the body of Colonel Mason up inside it a little at a time, like a pig in a blanket. Laura tried to catch one last glimpse of her dead father’s face, one last look into those empty eyes, before they were gone from her forever behind the sheet of linen that had become his shroud, but the three were much too swift at their duties. Once the corpse was tightly secure inside the roll of white, Campbell took the ends of the sheet and folded them up over the top of Colonel Mason’s face and feet, before tying them off with lengths of hemp rope he had produced from the pockets of his overalls. At the last, the redheaded young man brought out a short square leather pocket case, and from this emerged a needle and thread. As quickly and as precisely as the young man could manage, he sewed up any of the exposed leading edges of the sheet, as an added measure to secure the respected Colonel’s body, and to preserve his dignity. All told, this process took about two minutes to complete. Minutes were all they had…there was no telling how many more bodies they’d have to pick up that morning alone.
Once the preparations were completed, Campbell took his station at the Colonel’s leg-end leading the way out the door, while Booney anchored them by baring up the body at the head and shoulders. Laura quietly followed the men out a footstep or two behind unnoticed, silently observing as they carried her father’s body out to an open wagon stationed at quite a distance from the roadside, and laid the officer’s corpse as carefully as they could in the wooden bed behind the driver’s bench. It was already several sheeted bundles deep, a curious sour musty smelling bouquet with cotton and linen, “caterpillar cocoon petals” of white, boy blue, coffee brown, and the rarest of all, red or pink. They were the chosen colors of the taken, the last set of bedsheets the newly minted dead would ever own.
Laura drifted out still further into the front yard, her bare feet pleasantly welcoming the kiss of the early morning May spring dew between her toes. She now saw Chief Campbell with his hat at his side and his bandana dangling around his neck as he talked with her mother on the front porch. The tall redheaded young man and Constable Randolph were standing together much closer on the lawn within her earshot, both of their gloves and bandanas also removed, they too taking a brief respite of conversation before the Night Watchmen would have to push on.
“Booney.” Said the tall redhead lad somberly.
“Abner.” Replied the gawky boy Constable in a tone of equal gravity and the subdued emotions of youthful machismo.
For a moment neither spoke. They just stood there in the serene quiet, almost shoulder-to-shoulder, savoring the light Spring morning breeze or the call of a whipperwoul. Finally, Constable Randolph found something appropriate and brief to say.
“I’m sorry about yur Daddy…the…the Colonel was a mighty fine man.”
“Thank’you… much…much abliged.” Abner replied. After a beat to rub his nose with the back of his hand, Abner staggered to speak again, “How’s Y’all’s family been holdin’ up?”
“Not so good…Humber done had to cart away Hiram a’couple’a’days ago when he ‘wus on the evenin’ run…and ya’see them three brown bundles in the back there over yonder together?”
“Those’er’mah last nephews by’um…Hiram and his whole durn family ‘ergone now…gone like nothin’ at all ta’the burnin’ pit in lessen’a’week!!”
“CHRISTALMIGHTY!! when is ‘dis here Gawdawful bug of puke, piss, shit’en’blood ever gonna end?”
Of course, Booney had no answer for Abner They could only stand helpless together..and share in each other’s pain and frustration.
“Still it’s shame ‘dat yur Daddy’s gotta go out like this…the man’s a freakn’ HERO ‘fer’cryinoutloud…he deserved a’HELLofalot better than to be burned up in some pit in the danged ol’ground outside’a’ town… like he weren’t no’better than a hog!”
“Nossir Booney, Daddy’d’want ta’be with his people…treated no better then anybody else…I know why you’ve gotta do it…an’so would he…we’s gotta protect our own…his job…all his life…and yurs too now. We all do what we got to.”
“That we do.”
Constable Randolph then turned his attention to the nagging speck that had been in his peripheral, and saw that young Laura had been watching, listening intensely to the two boys the whole time. He gave her a sheepish smile of awkward warmth…trying to be as cheery to the young girl as he could manage, even though it seemed to be hardly the occasion for any kind of a smile to him.
“Mornin’ Laura Lea. Glad’yu’must be feelin’ a lil’better at least.”
The young girl froze, her tongue paralyzed, caught completely off guard. She hadn’t expected to be noticed standing out there on the lawn, and least of all by HIM.
“Dangit girl, the Hell’ya’doin’out here this early in’themornin’ ANYWAAY?! If you wasn’t still comin’ outta bein’ sick like’a’miracle an’all, I swear’ta’Gawwd Momma’d take a switch ‘ta ‘yur’lil’hide! Ya should be inside in bed restin’ up!!”
Still, even as Abner accosted her, Laura could say nothing…she stared, doe-eyed, transfixed, by death, by surprise, by butterflies in her stomach, by grief in her throat, by fear, and every other emotion in between.
“Sis, Dija HEAR what I done said and what Constable Randolph said ta’you?? Laura?? Laura Lea??”
Laura didn’t move and her eyes didn’t blink…she looked out into the world unresponsive…alive…but temporarily dead in shock.
“Laura Lea?? Are’ya’alright??” Added in the young Booney.
“Laura?? Laura Lea?? Laura Honey?? LAURA LEA???”
Called out Boone looking at her eye-to-eye, this time his voice slightly deeper, and filled with concern, his work overalls and red bandana covering a gawky face now traded in for an older man’s body in his Sunday best suit, and a thicker chin free of stubble or peach fuzz.
Laura blinked at last. The spring sunshine of her front lawn and her childhood now switched with an instant snapshot flash of her lids to the musty inner interior of the Night Watchman’s shed. It was eight years later, the present, early Sunday afternoon. She was Laura Randolph again, age 20, and the dead, shattered body of Dusty the murderer lay on a table nearby. A crisp white sheet was covering him chest high. His face was uncovered with half-open eyes that seemed to be looking right at Laura.
“Derek, fer crissakes, cover up the guy’s face…we don’t need THAT part!” Deputy Chief Randolph swiftly ordered to a pair of black man’s hands holding the sheet near the head. The hands quickly pulled the sheet back up in place.
Boone’s voice softened a little as he could see in her face that she was coming back to him.
“Sweetheart, are ya’okay? Are you SURE you can do this??”
The muscles on Laura’s face ever so slowly began to twitch and roll to life.
“Uh…Uh…Yeaaa…I uhhh….I uhh….just gotta’a’lil’….uhh….distracted’fer….fer’a’sec.”
She glanced down and saw a side table efficiently laid out with a rough-made piece of blank brown paper and her leather pouch filled with charcoal sticks and antique crayons.
“I’s still don’ git why she’s got ta’be in here…he’s a’startin’ ta’stink mighty power’ful already Booney, it’s not right fer a lady’tah be ‘round’a’ stank like ‘dis, ‘specially in ‘er Sunday Dress an’ all, what kinda man are yu’man …” Admonished Derek “Black Hands.”
“Awwww Neveryumind, we’ll both be outta here in two shakes of’a’lambstail anyhow, LOOOONG before Chief gets on back ta’put’um in the dirt. Besides ya’got a BETTER idea on how ‘tah get that funny mark looked at properly?”
Deputy Randolph gave a quick comforting smile to his wife, who in the interim had opened her drawing pouch and with a quivering hand and withdrew a red crayon from within it.
“You’ready again Honey?”
Laura raised the crayon in her hand like a pointed saber and nodded affirmatively.
“Al’RIGh-t…Constable Lewis, lift the sheet over the arm…yeah…YEAAAH, right there…THAAAT one.” Instructed Boone as Derek peeled back the white sheet revealing the unusual wound on Dusty’s left bicep.
“Ewwwww” Exclaimed Laura as she leaned over the murder’s body and examined the wound more closely, “I dunno Babe, that’s gonna be a bit tough ta’ make clear on a piece of drawlin’ paper…but ya’know I’ll do what I can.”
Laura paused for a moment and withdrew a small clay jar from her sack purse lying next to a leg of the side table.
“WHAT’er’you’doin??” Asked her husband slyly.
Before she would answer, the wife took the index and middle fingers of her left hand and stuck them in the clay jar, and withdrew a large glob of some clear jellylike muddled colored paste and slathering it on generously underneath her nostrils and at the part in her upper lip. She smiled at Boone with her upper lip shiny slick in this disgusting “greasy paste” and then did the same motion again, another glob, and approached her husband, who in turn recoiled with a crinkled prune face, away from her.
“Put this’ere under yur nose.” Laura ordered in a softly polite voice.
“Tha’HELL I am Woman!! What IS that stuff anyway??” Boone asked defiantly.
His wife lunged in, crayon in her right hand, and the glob on the first fingers of the other, brandishing it about the squirming retreating face of her husband.
“It’s lard and some ot’ther stuff mixed with some sweet smells all ta’gether…ya’know, for the nasty smell of the dead fella and all. Now, stop squigglin’ about like a’SISSY boy!”
Derek laughed. Booney turned briefly to give his fellow Night Watchman a scowl.
“If HE don’ wan’none Laura, I’ll take some of that sweet smellin’ goop!”
“Awww HELL Derek Ya’ain’t even gonna be staying in here with us too much longer anyhow!!”
Boone quickly turned his head back to his wife, intending to “glare her off” of him, but he found her fingers ready and waiting to “stamp smear” the sweet-scented rub all under his nose. In the jerking struggle of his neck, she accidentally smeared some over his lips and chin, in addition to the intended target.
“Dadgummit Booney, yur a big baby sometimes!” Laura exclaimed with a deviously playful sneer.
Constable Lewis slowly ignited into an explosive toothy grin, followed by a full round of laughter, with Laura gladly joining him. Finally, after a few seconds, Boone cracked a genuine little smile joining them in the humor at his expense.
“Derek, watch the door.” The Deputy asked in a voice part friendliness, and firm authority.
“Yessir, but y’all best hurry on up…” Derek reminded, peaking his head through the doorway to the shed one last time before shutting it behind him.
Laura was already at her work, her hands and eyes moving in perfect time with one another, studying the details of the skin in the wound, the contours and lines, before pointing the tip of the crayon to paper, and then once having done so, running it along at an expert clip. She circled in slow sideways footsteps, leaning in and carefully examining every angle, investigating the way light and shadow played on the flesh mark to insure that her artistic rendering was as accurate and as easily discernible to the viewer’s eye as possible. She only stopped from these orbits when taking an extra careful stroke to a portion of her paper sketch, and to remove her awkward Sunday dress heels. (Laura has always hated wearing shoes, but most especially her one pair of heels!) Her husband sat in a corner in a rocking chair he had brought up from the main office, sporadically rocking back and forth and reading a heavily aged copy of Grey Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby. (One of the many, MANY books one could find scattered about on his desk at the office.)
Boone was on page 47, when he finally felt eyes on him through the shield of the printed word. He lowered the book and saw the hands of his wife holding up the sketch paper for him to view.
“Howsthat Babe?” Laura asked.
Boone examined Laura’s work with a cautious nitpicker’s eye. After what seemed like an interminable purgatory of five minutes, (with the added sound effects of impatient sighs after about two minutes and the artist rolling her eyes unseen on account of the sketch) her darling “beloved” spouse finally said something about her masterpiece.
“Well thank you…glad’ya like so very much Dear!” Laura smirked with a sly hint of sarcasm in her voice, handing it to Boone as he rose from the rocking chair and closed his book.
“NOOW, we head’on back to the house an’get changed, then I’ll take this on over ta’ see Unca Georgie about it…” Boone answered Laura with a saucy knowing smile, “Ya’can come on with me, if you like.”
Laura rolled her eyes one last time and sighed, slapping her hip in slightly feigned aggravation.
“Ga-REAAAAT!! Now I gotta go as soon as we git home and BAKE a whole pan’a’those muffins he likes!! As IF I don’ got ENOUGH stuff ‘ta do today!!”
They stared at each other for moment, Laura’s eyes clearly flashing the “Morse Code” of a wife annoyed. Boone smiled and kissed Laura on the tip of her nose in playful gratitude. Laura then coolly “returned fire.”
“Weeeeell WHILE I’m bakin’ those danged muffins, YOU’LL be watchin’ Addie. I figger she’s done dropped a fat loaf ‘er two a’poo by now an’ is probably gonna need changin’.”
Like the thousands of years’ worth of fathers who had come before him, Boone’s face crinkled up in horrified annoyance upon heating this “disturbing” news. One painfully long sigh later, and Boone was ready to accept his coming fate of baby poo up to his elbows with the Zen-like calmness of Buddhist monks. He held out his palm.
“I’m gonna need another coat of that smellin’ goop…” Boone grumbled.
Laura only smiled an “evil” smile of victorious satisfaction, and handed the “condemned” man her little clay jar.
Okay, that’s it for now.