Another short story from my strainge-fiction alter ego, Eric Stringer… although this one is almost mormal.
To begin bluntly and at the beginning, my mother’s recent passing was a source of great distress for the men of the town and a source of great relief for the women.
As is the custom in Malanimo, and might be the custom in your town as well, the body has been laid out on an old quilt in the coffin, its head positioned on an old pillow, and the whole thing has been set on the oversized antique oak table in the dining room for a wake.
Now I hasten to add, the quilt and pillow inside the coffin were old only because they had been hers in life. She had enjoyed them, hardly ever asking any of us to get new ones for her, and we believe she would have wanted to take them with her. Also, the soft, thin mattress-like coffin liners are expensive, and if you think about it, they will never be put to practical use.
None of the men said those words, of course, about her passing being a great distress. The bravest man in town would not be so forward as to utter those words. And to their credit, none of the women said anything about her passing being a great relief. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not even the most jealous of the women were so brazen.
But the eyes of men and women alike said all that was necessary, and those opinions were split directly along the line dividing the fairer gender from the other. I’ll leave you to sort out which is which.
The wake was an opportunity for head shaking and a final wistful touching of her capable hands and the muttering of sad clichés for the men of the town, all of whom attended and all of whom applied to be pall bearers.
We had only to match height and physical ability as all of the men were dressed alike. They wore the finest white cotton trousers and the finest white cotton long-sleeved blouses. They were fitted perfectly, and the stitching in them had disappeared into the fabric itself, and the seams with it. They all wore smooth leather sandals and finely woven straw sombreros to keep the sun at bay.
Only six men were chosen as she was a small woman and the coffin was of light, inexpensive pine. It was only going into the ground, after all, and we were certain our mother would have approved of our adherence to principles of thrift. The remainder of the men were named honorary pall bearers, as they all quietly insisted, one at a time. It was a bold enough move for meek men who have lost something the likes of which they expect never to get back and never to see again.
So the wake was an opportunity of sorts for the men, a chance to say goodbye.
It was an opportunity for the women too, but an opportunity of a different bent. It was a chance for them to verify first hand my mother’s death. The entire morning not one woman approached the coffin, and it wasn’t because the men were crowding around, which they were.
The men were gentlemanly enough, or perhaps scornful enough in their grief, not only to make spaces among themselves for the women but to actually encourage them to come forward and view the beautiful Rosario in her final bed, one far too narrow for any activity other than rest.
But none of the women came forward. All of them remained distant, although many did so actively, as if on perimeter guard, their attention locked on the coffin and its occupant as if daring the decedent to rise.
Still, men and women alike were polite enough to me and to my younger brother, who was only seventeen, and my sister, fourteen, to partake of the beverages we offered them, the men eagerly, the women with a measurable amount of disdain.
When the wake closed at just after noon on that day, I, as the eldest at twenty-three, closed the coffin lid and latched it.
Normally that would have been the sad duty of the father of the family, but our fathers, all three of them, had preceded our mother in death. Mine had passed first, four years earlier. My brother’s had gone next, three years before this sadness, and then my sister’s had followed the first two soon after she had turned twelve.
The sharp click of the coffin lock was a catalyst for sighs of disbelief from the men, accompanied by moaning and frowns and tears, and for sighs of relief from the women. Those latter were the more pronounced, coming across like steam escaping a locomotive when it comes to a halt and a pressure valve is opened.
Had my mother been able to issue her own sigh, I’m certain hers would have reflected her relief at all the hateful looks being locked out after having endured them for hours on end. She would have been annoyed that the hateful looks existed at all. After all, it was not her fault that she had been blessed with a beautiful face and a figure to be envied and skin as light and smooth as a cool spring morning, not to mention her varied skills and talents, especially that one for which the men would never forget her and the women would never forgive her.
My brother and I glanced at each other, a light shrug playing through our shoulders. My sister only rolled her eyes at the dramatics of those in attendance, all of whom were only slightly less dramatic than she, an amazing feat for them given her age.
The chosen men, as if on command, stepped up as one, grasped their assigned rope handles, and brought our mother to bear on their shoulders. I took my place in front of the coffin and directly behind the priest, who would lead us to her resting place.
He had chosen to attend the wake not only in his official capacity but also because he was a man, after all, and a man of the village. As such, he appreciated my mother and her special gift as much as did any of the other men.
I was glad to be able finally to turn my back to that thin container stretching away behind me. I had grown weary of contemplating it and the resulting moods of the others in the room, male and female. There is only so much an elder son can endure.
My brother and sister were waiting on opposite sides at the head of the table to fall into the trailing position, my brother to the left, my sister to the right. I hoped they would hold hands, but whether that would happen was beyond my control since it all depended on my sister’s mood.
Finally the priest issued a barely discernable nod to another man, the first honorary pall bearer, so named because he was the largest man in the room. At the priest’s signal, he opened the door, then stepped to one side and removed his sombrero. He would fall in behind my brother and sister as we all passed. Everyone else would trail along behind him for the same reason he had been named the first honorary pall bearer.
As we all stepped off to escort my mother to her grave, it was all very sad for everyone except the aforementioned women. However, I was pleased to note before we began the journey that all of them had curtailed, at least up to that point, the smile that filled their eyes and tugged at the corners of their mouth.
Out the door we went, those of us in the main procession pacing respectfully, rhythmically, over the saltillo tile and concrete walk that stretched away to the arched front gate. I was a little concerned at the prospect that the bearers might fumble my mother in a botched attempt to bring her through that gate, but I needn’t have worried. I forget sometimes how much they loved and respected her.
We turned left past the gate and walked almost a half-kilometer along the main road to the cemetery, heat mirages rising, wavering and disappearing before our advance, a fine cloud of dust hovering at our ankles with every step. At the appropriate place halfway along the cemetery fence, the priest led us through a gate to the right, then along the path that led from it to the far side of the yard.
There, at the eastern base of the only tree in town, was a rectangular hole. Three sturdy ropes lay nearby, stretched flat far enough in the middle to make room for the coffin.
The priest stepped over the ropes and went a few more steps before raising his right hand, silently calling a halt to the procession. I took two extra steps and joined him, and when we turned about we saw that he had halted the bearers directly over the ropes.
With a gesture of the priest’s hand, he bade them lower the coffin onto the ropes. They did so, then used the ropes to raise the coffin again. With a few shuffling steps they repositioned it next to the grave.
The funeral began graveside at one hour after noon. The sun had gained its apex and turned up the heat so that the priest rushed through the service. He was a kind man, though, and nice enough to try to make it look is if he were not rushing at all. Most of the parts he skipped were in Latin.
I must add that nobody would have blamed him for rushing, though. That particular cemetery is so unkind that even dandelions cannot grow there. And as everyone knows, dandelions possess very well-adjusted personalities and can be happy almost anywhere, smiling even when they know they are underappreciated and not welcome.
After the funeral and after a break to allow everyone time to go to their own homes and attend to whatever they had to attend to, I and my brother and sister hosted a small reception back at my mother’s house. As it turned out, everyone who came to the funeral came to the reception as well. All of the men were still mourners, and certainly with good reason, but all of the women had shifted their concern from eager confirmation to polite reservation. It was good of them.
Although she didn’t quite join the women in their polite acceptance of the removal of a thorn from their side, my little sister turned up her nose at the men’s mourning just as I and my brother would have expected her to. It’s simply a matter of fact that despite having similar interests, everyone has different talents and levels of skill.
As women usually are, my mother and my sister were interested in many of the same talents, but of course age and therefore experience would dictate that my mother’s skill set and my sister’s were not comparable, although my brother and I probably, and naturally, were at the far end of the pool of those less able to judge fairly. After all, we both were a bit biased in favor of our mother and neither of us knew much at all about our sister, again due in large part to her age. Most often we avoided her in much the same way a nervous chihuahua might avoid annoying a Siamese kitten.
At the reception, finally everybody had eaten a small bit of food from each dish that everybody else had brought with them. Everybody deposited their paper plates and foam cups in the trash, and one man—though not the one everybody had expected to do it because he was among the lesser in stature of my mother’s clients and might not have been named the first honorary pall bearer even at the funeral of a midget—hefted the dark plastic trash bag over his shoulder and struggled with it out to the burn barrel.
After he returned to join the rest of us, everybody stood about chatting nervously for no more than a few minutes before, as if on a signal, they all began checking their watches. Very soon after all of that, the women and men alike said how sorry they were for our loss and then said they wish they could have known my mother better, because after all that’s what mourners and polite people say.
The men, of course, meant it wholeheartedly, as unable to disguise their sorrow as the women were their relief.
But even at the reception in her own house with less than two hours elapsed after we had seen her lowered into the ground, the women who said they wish they could have known her better couldn’t hide from their eyes the fresh sense of joy and relief that still was washing over them.
To this day I feel they really were very good women. I think they and my mother might have been great friends had they been able to get beyond their jealousy of her.
After all, women do have different talents.
One might be exceptional at baking, another at putting up preserves.
Another might be great at other aspects of homemaking.
Some, like my mother, become so advanced at their interest that they move their talents outside the immediate family. It is a practically inescapable conclusion that any woman who practices her craft repeatedly and loves what she does will develop a certain level of excellence.
And those, my friend, those are the women who are in such high demand for certain skills that it makes all the other women of the town jealous.
Such was the case with my mother, Rosario. Every man in town had been the proud recipient of her prowess as she had deftly manipulated the cotton, the needle and the thread. She was the finest seamstress the village had ever known.
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