Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
My granny died on Thursday. She was just about the oldest woman in these parts, being seventy-two years old and as wrinkled as an old paper bag, but possessing several teeth still, which we was all proud of. Most old folks of that age have nothing but gums.
Granny’s been prepared for her cremation, which will take place in the clearing by the pond, then her ashes will be interred in the graveyard us Bills has been in for the last sixty years or so. Grandpa has been there for eight years already. I hardly remember him. Uncle Shooter is there, Great Aunt Lou, two of my siblings that I never knew because they died before I was born, and my mama is there too. Those are just the recent Bills burials. Granny’s place is dugged and ready. It’s very small, just big enough for the jar. We seem to be the only ones around here who go to this trouble.
Today is dark with heavy clouds. I can tell the wind is building up to somethin’, and Daddy says that’s fittin’ for a funeral but not good for a cremation.
Granny hasn’t been left alone since she died, though she wasn’t alone much when she was sick neither, even though she just sort of slipped off when no one was looking at her on Thursday.
Everybody had paid a good deal of attention to her while she was feeling poorly, not that we had much choice, the way she’d demand whatever she wanted, even if it was just someone to sit next to her bed and read to her while she slept. She’d been a demanding soul for as long as I’d known her, and I’m fourteen years old, so I guess that was just her way.
People in town aren’t talking honestly about her. They came up to me and Daddy on Friday when we was notifying the authorities and buying a good jar from Paulson’s. Several people would start a sentence that seems like it was going to be a question, a did she, uh… then they’d stop short and say, “But she was a good woman, a good woman.” I sensed fear from them, but put it down to the living not suppose to talk ill of the dead.
She and I weren’t the greatest friends, but now I’m sorry for that. She lived for twelve years with my Aunt Mae and her family just down the road a bit, but when Granny became poorly she came to stay with Daddy, me and Little Edmund because Aunt Mae has younguns. When I asked why that made a difference, Daddy and Aunt Mae looked nervous and Daddy said it was ‘cause Mae’s got enough to do. So Grandma came to live with us instead of Uncle Monroe. Wanna guess why? Because there was a girl in this house who could spend all day and night nursing her, that’s why. Uncle Monroe was her son same as my Daddy, but Monroe has two boys in the house instead of a daughter, and he said, you know boys can’t take care of her, and that was that. I had to leave school and become a nurse. Men seem to think all females long to take care of people. Granny died after a month under my care and I hope they’ve learned a lesson.
I expect that soon I can go back to school. I like being there, sitting in the little classroom at my own desk to read and listen to Miss Winthrop tell us about what’s happened a long time ago. I love hearing stories, and Miss Winthrop is a good storyteller, she talks just like she was there and seen everything for herself and it makes me want to see things for myself too. Some day I will live in a city and have high heeled shoes. I’m going to Europe too, to see castles.
If I’m being honest with you, I like being in school because of the other pupils too. I like seeing Lila and Johnetta, and I’ve missed Red Willis. I think when he came by on Thursday to check on Granny, he was really coming to see me. I told him the ol’ girl was hanging on, and then we went out to look at our chickens, who did nothing out of the ordinary but it was better than being in the small parlor smelling her. He asked if I thought the stories about her were true and at first I was too surprised to say anything. I’d always thought Red was smarter, but I told him that she was no different than his own granny.
Red stayed with me outside for a good while and our hands kept brushing, which I liked so much that I kept makin’ it happen. He ran off through the woods when he heard Daddy’s cart comin’ up the path. I turned as Daddy stopped and climbed down, asking what I was doing just standing there.
“Feedin’ the chickens. They still want to eat.” That reminded me, I hadn’t feed the chickens or Granny yet.
Daddy pulled the saddle from Hattie and gave her skinny rump a smack towards the barn. She was so thin and old that nobody would steal her. Daddy thumped his saddle onto the post and asked if we had eggs.
“Yes, sir, let me get them,” I replied as I scurried into the coop, prayin’ that there would indeed be eggs. I hadn’t checked today, and while I was at it, I scattered a handful of feed out when I heard Daddy go in and shut the door. Seven eggs, that was enough for us all, along with fried bread. I hurried in the house to start dinner, but as soon as I walked in, Daddy asked, “Constance, why didn’t you say your granny died?”
He was leaning over Granny on her little bed in the parlor, bundled in nearly every blanket we had so that me and Little Edmund shivered all night. I couldn’t see her face. I didn’t want to. “She’s dead?” I asked. “Yes, she is,” Daddy answered. He had been holding her wrist but let it go, then held fingers to the side of her neck before shaking his head and straightening up. He looked down at her, and I felt bad for him because I knew this was his Mama. I had lost mine. I knew how it felt.
He told me to saddle up Hattie and go tell Mae, and then send Abbott to bring the preacher.
You don’t know my relief from hearin’ Daddy sending me out instead of him leavin’ me to sit up with Granny. I ran out.
Everyone came to our little home, the women bringin’ what food they could spare and the men bringin’ jugs of their homemade White Lightenin’, which they drank non-stop. I don’t blame them. The men stayed in the parlor room with Granny’s body overnight, sittin’ up with her. That’s what it’s called ’round here, ‘sittin’ up’ with your dead, making sure that body ain’t alone until they’s buried. The dead is kept in the house, in their wooden box or just on a door that’s been layed down. The dead is washed and dressed for the funeral by the women in the family, and the men stay up drinkin’ and tellin’ stories and lies. I hadn’t ever touched a dead body and felt such a great relief when Aunt Mae and her sisters-in-law came and dressed Granny instead of making me do it, but then, it’s the least she could do seeing how I’d been left to care for her mama.
I asked Daddy, back when Mama died, why the men sit up with the dead, and he said it’s because the dead need the company, and that this is their last chance to be part of the family. Daddy made me go to school the next day even though I just wanted to sit by the creek and cry. Most of my classmates knew my mama had died and asked why I was there. All I could do was shrug. I told the class that Daddy and Uncle Monroe were sittin’ up with Mama, and Billy Cleave, who hadn’t been asked anything, turned round and said that people do that to make sure the person is really dead, that some people have been accidentally buried alive. “Like your family,” he said, and Miss Winthrop spoke up and said that that the main reason for sittin’ up was because the wild animals can smell the dead and will try to get in to drag the body away and eat it.
The funeral was going to happen Sunday. Granny was all prepared but our kin was riding in from all over Georgia and that takes time, so Granny still laid there in our little parlor, a white-ish lace tablecloth that was hardly more coverage than a spiderweb draped over her open coffin. At least the door was shut so I didn’t have to see in. Even though it was cold, whoever was in the room with her, and there was always at least one man, they kept the front window open because Granny was starting to ripen. I went about my chores with the animals and cleaning, I made beans and cornbread and fed Little Edmund. Daddy and Uncle Monroe and some of the men had a few bites each, but they was more interested in drinking and kept that up until late afternoon when the sun was low and the wind was pickin’ up. It was so cold I was wearing my coat and mittens in the house and made Little Edmund put his coat on too, which he fought me over. If it weren’t for me that boy would be dead.
I’d already put the animals in the barn as it was too cold for even the shaggiest goat to be outside overnight. When I came back in, the door to the parlor opened and Daddy came out, fairly staggering.
“Constance,” he slurred, “I need you to come sit up with Granny for a bit.”
I stood there like a mute.
He repeated himself, adding that they wouldn’t be long.
I still stared at him, unable to find the words. He took my silence for acceptance and nodded. To their credit, each man hemmed and hawed, and Uncle Monroe said he’d stay behind, but Daddy said, “It’s your truck. My old mule can’t haul that thing.” So they were getting Granny’s gravestone, and they was so drunk that it would take all of them, or Daddy thought so, because he wouldn’t allow Mr. Caldwell or Mr. Tabot to stay behind either, they all had to go. I found my tongue.
“I’m not sittin’ up with her!”
He finally looked at me. “There’s nothin’ to do, just sit in there. You don’t gotta look at her.”
At this, he went in the parlor, grabbed one of the wooden chairs the men had been sittin’ on and turned it to face the kitchen, away from Granny in her box. He slapped the seat and said, “Sit.”
I begged him not to leave me alone, pleaded for someone to stay with me as he pulled my fingers from his arm and said again that the stone was heavy, but it was really that he was drunk and probably planned on buying another bottle while they were out. But he hesitated a second as the others shifted around, then he walked out the front door. The rest of ’em followed.
We didn’t have electric lights back then. They existed, but we were not well off and we were still living by candles and oil lamps, which I had with me that night. It was dusk and Daddy had taken the best lamp, the one with the handle, with him. That left me Mama’s pretty little bedside oil lamp, made of etched glass, burning on the table in the parlor, along with a candle burning out on the kitchen table and another on the sideboard. Aunt Mae had taken Little Edmund to her house for the night, knowing how the men would drink, so I was all alone and I felt it. I knew that it was breakin’ the rules to leave the room, that someone was to be with Granny at all times, but being alone with her scared me so badly that I got up and took the sideboard candle into the room I shared with Little Edmund and got one of my books from school. My grade was assigned to read a story called The Turn of the Screw by an English writer named James that I’d never heard of, and even though my class would probably be past this story by the time I was back in school, I wanted to keep up so that I wouldn’t look dumb when I got back. I got the book and slowly returned to the doorway of the parlor, telling myself don’t look, don’t look, don’t look. I might have been whispering it, but I couldn’t help it, how do you enter a room without looking up? I did, and saw the box draped in the spiderweb tablecloth, and through that I saw my Granny layin’ there, wearin’ her Sunday dress, her hair braided real nice by Aunt Mae, and without meaning to, I looked right in her face. She was looking back at me. Her eyes were open and she was gently squirming in the box.
I screamed and threw the chair out of the way before I slammed the door shut. My mind must have went black because when I heard the scratching on the door I found that I was pressed to the kitchen wall opposite the parlor door. Small house as it is, I was still no more than twelve feet from the room Granny was in and had a straight view of the door. The one she was clawin’ at. With each thump and scratch, the candle that sat on the sideboard next to the door flickered and wavered. And then she began moaning.
“Uuuughhhh…” Softly as first, so that I had hope that I was imagining it, but then she seemed to gain some strength and the moan became louder.
“UUUGGHHH…” The soft scratchin’ was becoming more determined. I held my breath, not on purpose but because I was so frightened that my body had become rigid and stopped working. I stood there listening to her, unable to move until I heard her bump against the brass door handle. There was a pause that came after, and I knew as well as if I was on the other side of the door watchin’ her, that she had just then realized that here was a way to get out of that room. The pause in her moaning was her remembering how the handle worked, and then I watched, shakin’ as hard as my body could shake, while the handle slowly, slowly, slowly turned, and pulled inwards.
The candlelight from the sideboard twitched, and Granny stood there. Her skin had turned the color of a bruise, blue and gray and black. Her face had shrunk, the skin over her cheeks looking like leather pulled over ankle bones. Her lips, thin and wrinkled when she was alive, were now so loose that they sunk into her mouth. She stood there in the doorway looking at me and I couldn’t breathe, I stood there frozen and shaking.
Art by Danny Ingrassia
“Sweet grandbaby,” she slurped, and I will still swear that I could smell her fetid breath from across the room. It smelled of a slop bucket and decay all at once.
“You didn’t feed me like you shoulda,” she said with a loose smile. Her head tilted as if she were jokin’ with me. “You didn’t give me that medicine your daddy bought.”
At this, she began shuffling through the doorway, just an inch at a time, her legs moving stiff as planks. I had no doubt now, Granny was aimin’ to reach where I stood against the kitchen wall. She slowly straightened her left arm out towards me and I remembered that Granny was left-handed, the sinister hand. I had been frozen on the spot when she began shufflin’ but now that I understood that Granny was comin’ for me, for what she thought might be the poor care I give her, I screamed out in terror, a scream that I felt coming from the center of my body and up my neck and burst out my throat like a rooster’s crow. Granny stood still for a moment as I screamed but as soon as the sound died she curled her upper lip at me and I heard the sound of her flesh twisting, like a dry leaf being crushed underfoot. She shuffled closer, the hand reachin’ towards me, and that’s when I was able to uproot my feet and flee sideways out of her reach. I could have taken one of the long knives from the kitchen counter and put an end to her, maybe, but I ran to the front door instead, flung it open and ran screaming down the length of our yard and out into the dirt lane. I ran west in the dark towards Aunt Mae’s place, screamin’ until the air was gone from my lungs, then I’d nearly pass out until I could take in enough breath to scream again.
At some point I became aware of other screams, these from men. It was my father yellin’ for me to stop. I saw his face in the glow of the lantern he carried, and Uncle Monroe callin’ my name, and behind them was Mr. Caldwell with his own lantern, and Mr. Tabot, trottin’ along and lookin’ like he was just comin’ so’s not to be left out. I didn’t care how many growed men was behind me, I kept runnin’ and screamin’ until I reached Aunt Mae’s. I burst in through her front door babbling about how Granny was chasing me. Aunt Mae leapt to her feet, and so did the whole ladies church group, all of them, who had been there to comfort Aunt Mae in her time of need and to eat cake. I screamed at Aunt Mae, tellin’ her about Granny openin’ the door and walkin’ right out. I didn’t say nothin’ about what Granny accused me of because I didn’t think to repeat it, but by the time I got to Granny reachin’ for me, Daddy and the other men were in the house and they listened to me describing Granny movin’ about and they seemed pretty damn sober now. Daddy told me to stop yellin’, that I was scaring Little Edmund, who was indeed crying and clutching at Aunt Mae.
‘He’ll see her soon enough,” I replied.
“We’re going on home and, and…we’ll fix this,” Daddy said. “I guess I shouldn’t have left you.”
I looked at Aunt Mae, then to Uncle Monroe. None of the growed ups looked shocked. I’d say they seemed more ashamed.
All the church ladies were lookin’ at me with such pity that I hesitated, wondering if I maybe got myself all worked up, lettin’ the shadows and fear get to me. Lookin’ at everyone made me feel like I was Little Edmund’s age, and it was only this humiliation that got me to agree to walk back home.
The church ladies made their excuses and left their half-eaten plates of cake on the kitchen table. They was whisperin’ to each other as they left and I heard somethin’ like, “I knew it. Didn’t I say the preacher couldn’t do nothin’?”
Daddy, me, Aunt Mae, Little Edmund, Uncle Monroe, Mr. Caldwell and Mr. Tabot, all walked back to our house. I was still terrified and became more so the closer we got, and once we reached our front garden I had to be shoved along by someone’s hand on my back. Daddy approached the wide open front door and held his lantern up to look inside. He stepped in and the other men stepped around Aunt Mae, Little Edmund and me and went inside too. I saw their lanterns swinging about and no one yellin’, so the three of us outside stepped in. The lanterns were turned up all the way.
Daddy looked relieved as he said, “The door’s still closed, she ain’t been out here spookin’ you.” With that, he opened the parlor door and leaned in while holdin’ the lantern up to show that Granny still laid in her coffin, but he suddenly jumped and the light from his lantern jumped across the walls. Everybody but me all leaned towards the doorway and Uncle Monroe yelled “Good Lord!” at the same time that Aunt Mae gasped in horror. Mr. Caldwell and Mr. Tabot made some such noises too and Little Edmund, unable to see in, started cryin’ anyway.
I knew, even without seein’ her, that I was right. And then the growed-ups backed away from the doorway like I had done earlier, and I had a view of her, sittin’ up in one of the wooden chairs and smilin’ at us. Her loose mouth released long dripping ropes of redness that clung to her chin before meeting her lap, and sliding out with the bloody spit were ground bits of fur and meat, and then the gnarled mouse tail.
I’ve been going through Daddy’s things lately, clearing out his personal effects. I had always wondered what had happened to my writing of that night. Eventually I just decided that I must have burned it or hid it so good that even I couldn’t find it. Now I know that Daddy had gotten it and hid it away all these years. Why, I don’t know. It was all true.
That was 12 years ago.
The last day of my childhood, and the last day of normal living for any of us. Little Edmund was taken in by Aunt Mae after Granny came back. Not right away, but when Granny began grabbing for him from her bed, and making that terrible hissing, Daddy sent him to Mae’s and she raised him like he was her own. He never forgot that she was being kind, and I think that’s why he was the most conscientious child anybody had ever met. He told me once that he was making sure Aunt Mae had no reason to send him back to our house. Sometimes I was glad for him, but lots of times I wondered why he was allowed to go and no one offered me a place.
Edmund enlisted in the Army when Pearl Harbor was attacked and has been sent off somewhere in Europe. I don’t know where because he doesn’t write me. I guess I don’t blame him. He probably thinks I’ll beg him to get leave and come back to take a turn with her. I probably would.
Daddy got killed working in the munitions factory last year. He went off that morning, and that afternoon a Captain in uniform came to tell me Daddy was dead. The Captain spoke of Daddy being crushed by some heavy piece of equipment, but then he kept talking, very slowly. He was choosing his words so carefully but even in my despair I knew that when they rolled the equipment off him, Daddy must have come back. “You have to cremate him to make it stop,” I remember saying. The man’s eyes opened in surprise, and he told me that they were carrying this out as we spoke, and that he would deliver Daddy’s ashes when they were ready. I knew the hag was listening at the door, I could hear her rubbing her dry face against the wood. It was another soldier who brought Daddy’s ashes to me two days later. She was wailing in the parlor and the boy, for that’s what he was, shoved the box at me with a “Ma’am,” and ran back to his vehicle.
“I’m hungryyyy! You’re gonna starve me again!”
She only eats meat. I stopped eating meat myself years ago, but I have to slaughter a chicken or goat daily to stop her wailing for even a while. All day. All night. She never tires. She’s more than capable and willing to get out of bed if she’s angry enough, and I find her standing in the kitchen grinning at me and drooling. Sometimes I know she’s doing it just to show that she can go anywhere. And she has. She walked down to Aunt Mae’s two years ago and was slapping on the front glass and hissing that she was hungry. Aunt Mae was alone and scared out of her wits, and she put her house up for sale days later. Of course, no one in their right mind would buy it, so it sits empty, along with any other house that used to be occupied nearby. Mr. Caldwell abandoned his farm years ago because Granny kept trying to climb through the fence. She chased his children around the woods and fields when she could, frightening them half to death and causing Mr. Caldwell to fire his shotgun at her, which made her run inside each time. But his children were able to go off somewhere else. I had to stay. I believe this is what’s called penance. Or maybe hell on earth.
I have several locks on my bedroom door because there have been times when I wake in the dark to hear her standing on the other side of the door calling my name in a raspy whisper. I’ve yanked away a bent wire coat hanger that she had quietly shoved under my door, the hook crawling and slapping upwards at a lock. Daddy used to ask each morning if I’d slept alright, and I knew he was asking if she’d done anything during the night, because that’s when she’s most active. When I got older I started asking him the same question. At least we had each other then.
I never did get to go back to school, and it didn’t matter once the news got around that Granny was back, and the way she was. The kids called me “graveyard girl” when I went to the shops. Red didn’t come over any more. He enlisted like Edmund, and Mae says he wrote to his mother four months ago that he was going to France. I envy him. When I go to Paulson’s for my own food, or for feed, anything I need, people stare. I learned long ago not to approach Miss Winthrop, or Mrs. Logan now as she got married some time ago and has children. When I tried to say hello she pretended she didn’t know me. The Tabots are polite and talk to me a little, but it’s always the same, asking how Granny’s doing. What they mean is, is she still moving? Have you still got her contained?
I don’t believe I’ll ever get to leave this town as she seems immortal. I wonder what will happen when I die.