The little white church was crowded and hot. The floors were uneven and worn thin where people walked the most and that uneven floor made some of the old people seem even more unsteady as they shuffled in. At first, people tried to keep a polite distance in the pews in deference to the heat, but as more and more people came in to pay their respects everyone had to scoot closer together until my Aunt Reba was sitting so close I could feel the clammy, damp sweat on her arms as her skin brushed mine with every back and forth swish of her big cardboard fan.
The wooden pews were sticky with residue, like someone had spilled syrup a long time ago; when I moved, the backs of my legs stuck and stretched and pulled. Scooting along the pew hurt my legs and Mother sneered at me. She probably thought I deserved to have my legs stick to the seat since I refused to wear the white tights she laid out with the dress that morning. It was an act of defiance on my part, one that would have normally led to an argument, but she either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care enough to address it. With her, it was hard to tell.
All this trouble was why I hated wearing dresses, in the first place. Several times, I stood up and tried to sit back down so the back of my dress wouldn’t ride up so high and my legs wouldn’t stick but then I’d move just a bit and have the same trouble all over again. All of that movement drew one harsh word from my mother, whispered so loud it was as if she were yelling.
My name, spoken like a curse: “Margaret.”
The fake stained glass windows had all been raised and someone had placed a noisy fan on the sill of one of them. The protective cage around the fan blades was loose and it rattled on and on with a persistent clack-clack-clack that made me want to tap my foot and chant one of the rope-skipping rhymes Cousin Patty had taught me. Instead, I tried to sit still, and ignore the heat. The fan only pushed more hot air in from the outside and forced it across the church. It was a subtle, but constant rush of warm air as if someone had just opened the door of an enormous oven outside.
Aunt Reba continued to wave her own fan near her face. The fan was oval-shaped cardboard stapled to a stick like the ones the doctor used to look at the back of my throat every fall when I would go back to school and catch strep throat. On the one side of the fan was a picture of Jesus, floating among the clouds with rays of light shinning around him. It made him look like a comic book superhero, except for the hippy-long hair and the flowing white robe. No superhero would be caught dead in that outfit.
On the other side of the fan, the word “Revival” was printed in big, bold letters, with three exclamation points behind it. “It means to wake up,” my mother told me when I asked her once, in a different context. A school friend had invited me to go to church with her, and she had called it a revival meeting.
“People are asleep?” I asked. The additional question frustrated my mother. Questions often did.
“To come back alive,” she had said. “It means to come back alive.” The way she said it, I knew not to ask for more information.
I didn’t know any better, so I assumed the fan Aunt Reba was using had been printed specially for the funeral and the exclamation was a sort of prayer for the healing of my grandfather, who lay at the front of the church, unmoving in his coffin. When we first arrived at the church, my father had lifted me up and stood with me, looking down at my grandfather. He looked familiar, but not right. For a moment, I thought everyone had their information wrong; this man laying there—while bearing strong resemblance to my grandfather—was in fact someone else altogether. I was sure my mother would recognize the mistake. Instead, her soft crying dissolved into sobbing.
It seemed to me that people who believed Jesus woke up from the dead could pray for the same thing for my grandfather, so I said, “Revival,” under my breath. I tried the word again and wondered if one word was a sufficient prayer.
My prayer was unheard. My grandfather didn’t sit up, look around, and wonder just what in the world everyone was staring at. One of my great-uncles told a story about just such a thing in our family, a long time ago. “In the old days,” he had said. Apparently one of our ancestors had revived right in the middle of her own funeral, sitting up to wonder what all the fuss was about. She insisted on cooking part of her own funeral dinner that afternoon, laughing and making a big to-do about how she was the only person she ever heard of that baked a pie for her own funeral.
She dropped dead, for real, two months later while gathering eggs in the hen house.
“Revival,” I tried, once more, but I came to understand that I wasn’t doing it right, so I stopped. Another family member squeezed into the row, pushing Aunt Reba’s damp arm even closer. The whole pew vibrated and groaned and for an instant I wondered what was under the floor beneath us, and all I could imagine was cobwebs and spiders and bones of old dead cats and coons.
Aunt Reba wasn’t paying attention to how close we were, and I worried about the dampness staining my dress, so I tried to move away but there was no room left to move into. I was paranoid about the dress. My mother had bought it for me, just for the funeral. It was black and had the texture of velvet, though I heard mother tell her friend that it was a “just a synthetic made to look like velvet.”
“Lord knows,” she had said into the phone as I lay in the living room coloring, “Margaret will just destroy it anyway. I didn’t see the point in getting real velvet.”
I wasn’t sure what the word synthetic meant, but the implication of my mother’s tone wasn’t lost on me. So, as much as I hated wearing the thing, I wasn’t about to let Aunt Reba sweat on it. I was trying to prove Mother wrong, sitting up straight and trying to make sure it didn’t wrinkle, but we were too jammed in together, all of the scooting together meant I couldn’t keep the skirt flat at all.
As if reading my mind, my father stood, reached over my mother, and lifted me into the air. He sat back down with me perched on his knee.
“It’s hot, Daddy,” I said, shifting to find a comfortable spot, not too close to the heat radiating through the wool of his sport coat. He had to be miserable, but he refused to take it off.
“You go on out back,” he said. “Maybe it’s cooler under those trees.”
Daddy looked at me, surprised at my reluctance to go. “You stay close, just out the back door there, and come back in to pay your respects when you hear the music playing.”
Nodding, I slipped down off his knee and walked down the center aisle, going left toward the door that had been propped open with a stack of hymn books. As I walked I kept my eyes down, avoiding the coffin and the waxy figure of my grandfather laying there. I walked between the first pew and the praying altar with its thick, red kneeling pad made of the same material as my dress. I took one of the Revival fans off of a table and went out the door.
On the step I stood, shielding my eyes against the August sun. There was no breeze and the sun was even hotter. There was an old metal drum near the door with flies buzzing around it, and there was a lingering, rotting smell that seemed to hover there, riding the waves of heat radiating up from the drum’s interior. I jumped down from the step and walked toward the back of the church’s property.
Behind the church was a wooded area, and it was cooler under the canopy of trees. I walked between the trees, kicking up twigs and fallen leaves, decapitating fat-headed mushrooms. Using the fan’s handle, I began poking around, prying up rocks and looking at the worms and beetles and ants writhing beneath rotting branches. Under one pile of leaves, I found a dead robin. Its eyes were dull, shriveled, and dimpled like tiny raisins. Its head was frozen at an odd, crooked angle. The orange breast feathers were dirty and faded. Its little feet were pointing down and clinched as if in anger.
“Most dead birds are never found,” my grandfather had told me as we walked in one of his fields on a cold Thanksgiving Day, not quite a year earlier. We were walking through the field with the stated purpose of checking a drainage ditch. Really, we’d left the house because a fight had erupted between my mother and Aunt Reba over who was supposed to have brought the pecan pie. Granddad decided we would avoid the spectacle.
We took his beagle with us as we set out across the field. The dog raced out ahead of us, nose to the ground, white-tipped tail held straight and high. He followed one scent then switched off to another, occasionally circling back to us. At one point, the dog stopped, dug at something, then returned to us with a little dead sparrow in his mouth. The beagle dropped it at my grandfather’s feet then sat back, looking up at us expectantly. “Spent too many years with a retriever,” Granddad said, referring to a Labrador he’d had until the year before. “He gets confused about what he was bred to do.” He tossed the dog a treat, and we walked on.
“There’re a lot of birds around,” he told me, “but you hardly ever see dead ones. Other animals get them, or they get covered up under leaves and things in the woods.”
I tried the one word prayer on the little dead bird in the woods behind the church, but it didn’t move either.
The organ started up and the gathered mourners began to sing, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.” After re-covering the bird with leaves, I stood in the doorway and my mother looked over at me through teary eyes. Her expression changed from grief to anger. Looking down, I saw bits of leaves and clumps of dirt clinging to the velvet texture of my dress and I was suddenly aware of the damp patches on my knees from where I had knelt to look at the dead robin. I watched the funeral from the doorway, rigid and transfixed; I was frozen in fear and filled with disappointment in my own inability to prove my mother wrong. It was hot there with the fullness of the sun beating down on me and I was sweating. I couldn’t ignore the foulness of the stench from the garbage can, but I couldn’t force myself to move inside. It was my self-inflicted punishment.
I closed my eyes when the prayers were said, and the lifeless image of that little bird remained with me, as unnatural and upsetting as the plastic features of my dead grandfather. Familiar, yes, but changed. While they were praying I kept repeating to myself, “Revival, revival, revival.” My eyes were closed. Behind me, there was movement among the leaves, but when I turned around for a better look, I couldn’t see anything.
The preacher said some things that didn’t make any sense to me. The words were familiar, but they seemed out of order. At one point, his talk was interrupted by a robin that flew into the church through the open window and landed on the open lid of the casket. Everyone watched as the bird tilted his head sideways as if he were surprised to see the gathered crowd. The bird preened a few feathers, then flew back out the window.
After the final prayer, the mourners filed past the casket. The funeral men closed it and my mother’s crying turned to wailing when the latch on the casket lid caught hold with a loud clicking that filled up the church and spilled out through the open windows.
These were the two clear memories of my grandfather that would remain with me: the sound of that lid closing a final time, and his words when we took a walk in a field on Thanksgiving Day: “Most dead birds are never found.”
Before I met my parents around front, I went back to where I had covered the bird with leaves. Using the fan stick, I tried to find it again. I looked and looked, but I couldn’t find the little bird’s body. My father came around and said it was time to go to the grave yard, so I followed him to the big, black car that the family got to ride in.
Mother didn’t speak to me at the grave service, at the dinner afterward, or during the entire ride home. The leaves and dirt had brushed off easily enough and the dampness on my knees was quickly gone, but there remained a fine powdery residue lodged deep in the velvet. When we entered the front door of our house that night, Mother said, “Go upstairs and change immediately,” without even looking in my direction.
In my room I took off the dress and laid it carefully across the foot of my bed. The un-worn tights were stretched across the quilt, their fabric feet splayed out like lifeless legs. Mother came in as I was putting on a t-shirt and my short overalls. Again she refused to look at me.
“Your grandfather would be so ashamed of you,” she said, looking down at the dress and stockings. She wadded them both up in a ball and walked away. I stayed up in my room. When Daddy called me down for supper, Mother was not at the table. I knew he had prepared the food because we had French toast and bacon, which was the only meal he knew how to cook.
“I didn’t mean to get dirty,” I said.
“It’s okay,” Daddy said. “Your mother is just upset. This is a hard time for her.”
We ate quietly, but I wasn’t hungry. The syrup was too sweet. It seemed like getting a treat and I couldn’t finish the whole piece of toast. The kitchen garbage can was under the sink, and when I pulled it out to scrape my leftovers into it, my dress and tights were balled up at the bottom of the canister, waiting to be taken out with the trash.
Eric Sheridan Wyatt is a writer and educator living in Bradenton, Florida with his wife, Cami, and their beagle, Joy. He graduated in January from the Creative Writing MFA program at Queens University, Charlotte. His fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Ozone Park, The First Line, and The Four Cornered Universe.
Entered easily at the beginning, and (reluctantly) left at the end. Story-telling at its best!
Wow, William. Thank you for the compliment!!
Very resonant story, with a wonderfully captured child’s perspective.
Thank you, Michelle. That’s very kind.
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‘He looked familiar but not right’–a fine, spare description that says so much in a story that draws us in to watch and walk around.
Great piece, Eric! I love the characters and the atmosphere your create. Good writing! I look forward to your novel.
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