Friday, June 15, 2012

Ante Mortem by Ellie Anderson

Chapter Seven


It had been three days since the mirrors had been covered and the boxwood wreath hung on the front door.  The odor of flowers and candles was sickening and Mary desperately wanted to fling open the windows and blow the stench out.  

Ivy had been laid out in the corner of the parlor awaiting the arrival of Mary’s parents from the east, and now that they had arrived and were settled at the inn in town, it was time for the inevitable.  People had been coming and going from the house constantly and she was exhausted. 

Mary stood in the bedroom in her loosely fitting undergarments and slowly picked up her black dress from where she had laid it out on the bed.  Cy was sitting in a chair in the corner, lacing his boots and as she stepped into her dress, she turned her back towards him, hoping he might notice her exposed skin and want to come to kiss her between the shoulder blades like he had before they were married.  He hadn’t touched her for months and she was lonely. She had been foolish to hope that he would show her any tenderness, even at a time like this. 

“Cy, could you button me up?”  She tried to sound alluring, but she felt like a girl who was repeating lines that she’d read in a novel.

He stepped to her absentmindedly, hooked the buttons without really looking and turned to go to the kitchen.  Mary heard him open the side door and greet Reverend Hodge as he approached the house. 

“Mary, it’s time.”   The reverend stepped into the doorway of the bedroom and removed his hat.

Reverend Hodge took her by the hand and moved her through the house and towards the little white coffin.  Cy followed for a few steps but stopped in the parlor archway, grabbed his hat from the coat tree and stood awkwardly, fondling it in front of him.

Mary stepped up to the coffin, put her hands on the edge and remembered that night when she put her hands on the edge of Ivy’s crib.  Ivy’s lace gown hung over the end of the coffin.  She grabbed the lace, noticed the soft texture and tucked the hem inside so that it wouldn’t be caught in the lid when it closed.  She thought of her wedding day and how the fabric felt when she pulled up her skirts as they walked down the stairs from the chapel.  She thought about how her dress that day had less lace than Ivy’s did now.  Mary bent over Ivy’s face and reached down to kiss the cold, waxy forehead.  This was the last moment that she would ever see her child.  Their house would forever be quiet now.  Maybe now Cy would stop shouting and demanding quiet.  He gingerly walked forward, brushed his palm across Ivy’s forehead and quickly turned away.  Reverend Hodge stepped in and gently closed the lid.  It sounded like the “Our Darling” placard on the inside of the lid might have fallen off, but no one seemed prepared to open the box and check.  

Mary grabbed her hat from the coat tree, put it on and started tying the ribbon under her chin as she stepped onto the front porch.  People had begun to gather in front of the house.  Cy’s mother, father and brother were there, but she didn’t see her parents.  She was sure they would be along soon.   Martin Rogers stepped past her and into the house.  He and Cy soon emerged, carrying Ivy’s casket.  The two men placed the casket on the back of the cart that Cy had hitched the mule to earlier that morning, and without a word, people began to follow the reverend as he led the mule and cart towards town.  The crowd grew larger as people joined them on the journey.

Mary’s parents joined in the procession as it passed the inn and she felt a wave of calm when she saw them.  They joined her at her side just in time for the wind to pick up and the sky to darken.  At the far edge of town, they followed the road that led on towards Buck Hill Cemetery.  It began to rain.  It wasn’t a downpour, but coupled with the wind, Mary’s face was stinging.  People began to whisper amongst themselves, now that their words could be concealed by the elements and the sound of the cart’s wheels as they struggled over the rocks on the road.  Mary turned to look over her shoulder and saw Mid Ferguson and Donna Whittle with their heads close together.  Mid was pointing at Cy.  Mary glanced over her other shoulder and saw Widow Jenkins and her daughter eyeing Cy intently as if they were just waiting for him to turn around and make an announcement.”   Even the reverend seemed to be looking back to check on them more often than was necessary and when he looked at Cy, his eyes would soon drift down defeatedly and then look away after a short, thoughtful pause. 

Mary hadn’t yet thought of the repercussions that would follow Ivy’s death.  She should have realized that Cy would be the first that people looked at for the mysterious death. 

Even the doctor couldn’t explain why Ivy had died and it didn’t help matters that Mary hadn’t been able to shed much light on the subject.  It was all a blur to her and it became fuzzier by the day.  Maybe folks should focus on the living.  On her.  She needed attention now more than Ivy did.  What did it matter how Ivy died?  Nothing was going to bring her back.  Ivy was in a better place now and Mary was in a world of hurt.

“Gather round, folks,”  Reverend Hodge instructed as they entered the cemetery.  Cy and Martin placed Ivy’s coffin next to the hole on the hill that had been dug the day before by Jerry Clifford.  He used to have a crush on Mary, but he had one rotten tooth that always made her squeamish.  She wondered if he’d lost it yet or if it was still terrifying young women.

“Gather in close, people.”   The wind was swaying the iron archway that read “Buck Hill Cemetery”  back and forth.  Mary tried to guess whether it would fall on Ivy’s grave if it blew completely down.

“Suffer the little children to come to me.  That’s what Jesus has taught us.  Let us not dwell on the passing of little Ivy, but think of the joy that she brought to her family during her short time here on Earth.”

“Didn’t have to be so short.” 

Mary couldn’t make out which man in the group had said it.  Reverend Hodge continued as if he hadn’t heard.  Surely he was used to this kind of thing.  He’d performed hundreds of funerals and a child’s funeral, especially one whose nature of death couldn’t be determined was sure to bring out grief, anger and fear in everyone, not just family members. 

“I hear him shouting at night.  At both of ‘em!”

This was a woman’s voice from somewhere behind her.  Mary quickly looked back and once again, couldn’t place whose voice it was.  She couldn’t let Cy be blamed for this.  If folks were looking to him to place blame then he would become angrier and more distant than he already was.  Her life would be even more miserable than before.

The reverend began singing and the crowd quickly joined in.

 “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.  Calling for you and for me.
See on the portals he’s waiting and watching.  Calling, oh sinner, come home.
Come home.  Come home.  Ye who are weary come home.
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling.  Calling, oh sinner, come home.”

The crowd continued singing.  Cy and Martin placed the casket on ropes and slowly began to lower Ivy into the ground.  Mary’s mind started to race.  Ivy would be cold.  How could she sleep at night knowing that her baby was in the ground, freezing?  What would happen as the lid of the coffin disintegrated?  Her baby would be crushed and her dress would be soiled!  What if she was really still alive?  How would they save her?

“Cy Jensen, you’ll burn in hell for this!”   Another random voice stopped the singing of those that heard it.   “We all know you did it!”  The rest of the singing stopped.  The crowd began moving.  Arms were flying around as people began shouting, some turned to each other and grasped hands.  Some of the women started to cry.  Cy let go of his side of the ropes and Ivy’s casket crashed to the bottom of the hole.  A roll of thunder sounded in the distance, and Mary felt the rumble through her feet.  She stepped closer to the hole to try and get a look as the crowd became more agitated.  What if Ivy was on her side?  Her body would be all crumpled as it rotted, rather than laid out in a ladylike fashion.  The reverend was doing the best he could to calm the swarm, but the rage seemed to grow the longer Cy stood looking at them blankly.  

Mary stepped closer, looked into the hole and saw the coffin tipped on a slight angle.  The sides of the hole were being washed in by the rain and the top of the coffin was spotted with droplets of dirty water.  Some of the folks on the outer edges of the crowd were starting to leave, and some turned to look back and shout as they shook their fists at Cy.   It shouldn’t be this way.  Mary lifted her head.  Widow Jenkins was walking towards Mary, her daughter in tow.   Where were her parents?  Her mind was starting to reel.


It came from her left.  She turned her head in that direction.  Cy had begun angrily kicking dirt into the grave.


This time it was on her right.

The reverend was shouting over the wind and the rain, begging people to stay.


This time she spun around, sure to find someone teasing her cruelly.  Who would be doing this to me?  Can’t they see what’s happening here?  I’m a grieving mother and they are abandoning me and mocking me.

The earth began to slip from beneath her feet and her arms flew out as she failed to find her balance and catch herself before falling backwards into the hole.  She landed and felt the lid of the coffin give way underneath her weight.  Oh, God!  Ivy would be crushed.  Oh, God!  Oh, God!

“Mama.   Mama.  Mama.” The voice grew louder and she felt raindrops falling into her mouth as she screamed.  Cy, Reverend Hodge and Martin were looking down on her with panic and several other unrecognizable faces were staring in over her shoulder.  Cy was pushing her mother and father back away from the hole.

“Mama!  Mama!  Mama!”   The voiced was punctuated with giggles.  Ivy’s giggles.  Mary’s mouth opened wider and took in more rain as the horror of the moment grew.  She could taste the dirt that the drops carried down.  Down. Down. Down into her throat.  She imagined the dirty water travelling through her body to the very core where she had created life and given birth.  She struggled to stand and knew that with every struggling movement she was crushing Ivy more and more.  Crushing her so that no one would  know her if they were to look upon her.  Mary’s fingers clawed clumsily at the wet, dirty walls and she was overcome by silence.  Sweet silence.  She screamed silence.  Her voice had moved beyond the range of human possibility and become a beautiful cry of anguish intertwined with the harmonious silent shouting from above that only the angels could hear.  She found herself walking through a field of wheat with Ivy toddling amid the golden stalks.  Ivy giggled as it started to sprinkle.  Mary held her hands out to stroke the wheat, closed her eyes and looked heavenward to let her face be washed by the tears of the angels.  When she opened her eyes to see how Ivy entertaining herself in the rain, the wheat field was gone.  Cy’s face, was inches from hers as he pulled her from the hole and squatted on the ground, holding her.  She could see panicked faces around them.  They all moved their mouths at the same time and made noises, but as she closed her eyes, the sound of their mouths became the chirping of the birds in the trees surrounding the wheat field.  She could hear Ivy giggling close by and she ran towards the sound.


Sabrina E. Ogden said...

I'd feel bad for Cy, but he really was cruel. I could see this scene unfold from the very beginning and the photo of little Ivy is quite moving. Is this an internet find or a family photo?

Wonderful series, Ellie. I'm really amazed by your writing.

Anonymous said...

It's an old family photo. I have always loved it and it gave me a lot of inspiration (unexpectedly) for this chapter. I'm so glad you like the story!