Sep 06

The Funeral

The Funeral

One of the scariest things in my life happened when I was ten years old.  We drove our family car, a well-kept, nine year old Chevrolet sold to my dad by his father-in-law, to the funeral of one of my father’s cousins who died at the age of thirty-three.

It was my first funeral.  It was deep in the most rural part of the piedmont Alabama Appalachian Mountains. The relatives were poor and I was warned the body would be in a coffin in the house.

We set out after sunset on the three hour drive.  The two-lane highway wound through miles of pine forest being farmed for turpentine used in solvents and fuel for outdoor lamps.  We turned off the concrete highway onto a gravel road which eventually soon narrowed to a dirt road eventually becoming not much more than a wagon track cutting through thick forest.

It was about ten P.M. when we saw lights and turned onto rough dirt lane.  Just ahead was a house.  The front yard was not really a yard at all.  Once part of a forest, it had been cleared long ago, and now only a few huge pine trees were left.  Tall grass grew here and there, but gave way to dirt paths where people had walked between the pines.

Light came from every window.  An electrical wire stretched fifty feet from the top of the front porch to the biggest pine tree I had ever seen.  Six bare bulbs—affixed to the wire—dangled about seven feet above the ground.

In one of the circles of light beneath the wire, folding chairs occupied by men of various ages, formed a perimeter.  In the center of the group, where a fire might be in fall, sat a large washtub filled with melted ice and bottles of Coca-Cola, RC, and Nehi soda pop.  The men stopped talking to study our car.

First one and then another rose and started toward us until the chairs sat empty.  They all greeted my father who was out of the car shaking hands and hugging his relatives.  My mother stood beside him accepting introductions.

Too nervous about meeting strangers, I climbed into the front seat and studied the creepy old house.  It looked as if it had never seen a coat of paint.  The gray planks warped and strained against the rusty nails, which bled dark-red streaks from years of rain.  The steep, tin roof was nearly invisible in the night sky.  Where the main metal roof ended, another began.  A shallow slope formed a roof for the porch, which ran across the front and left side of the house.

Underneath the porch roof, bare bulbs with dangling pull-strings cast a yellow glow on all the women sitting in rockers.  Conversation halted while they examined the new arrivals.

Mother opened the car door and had me join the group of people.  I was introduced and everyone said hello, hi, how-are-you, good to meet you, all at once.

My father and mother ushered me toward the house to meet the womenfolk.

A few kids—ranging from my age to teenagers—stood in the background shadows, studying their new relatives from the city, and waiting for me to be released to play.

I heard singing coming from inside the house.  Three female voices, accompanied by a guitar, sang.    I couldn’t quite make out all the words, but I knew it was a hymn.

Not anxious to be dismissed to the outlying kids, I followed my parents toward the porch steps.

A mixture of nervousness, anxiety, and fear caused me to keep his eyes glued to my feet, and I soon found my high-top Converse sneakers at the first weathered step to the front porch.  Mother patted my shoulder as she said, “Let’s go in, Steve.”

I listened to the song coming from the house as I took the first step.

“There is pow’r, pow’r, wondrous-workin’ pow’r . . .”

With the next step, an unknown fear entered me.  I remembered the warning about the dead man being inside.

 “In the blood of the Lamb . . .”

I wanted to be anywhere but there.  I didn’t know these people.  I didn’t want strange kids asking questions and laughing at me.  I didn’t like these people.  They were more different than I expected.

 “There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood. . .”

I reached the actual porch floor, made of old pine boards.  Mother gently pushed me forward and to the left.  She leaned over and whispered something to me, but the song prevented me understanding.

 “There’s wondrous-workin’ pow’r in the blood.”

“Steve,” my father said, “meet your great-great-aunt Ruby.”

My eyes moved from my shoes along the porch’s floorboards until reaching the bottom of a rocking chair and a pair of old-timey-looking, lace-up, women’s ankle boots.  Above the boot tops, white, cotton socks peeked out to separate the worn, black leather from a long, front-button, dark-calico dress.

I could tell the woman in the rocking chair was thin as a rail.  When I saw her skinny, mottled arms and clawed, arthritic hands, I could not stop the thought of an old witch.

Eyes reaching her emaciated chest, the dress seemed nearly empty, as if worn by something less than a full human skeleton.  Though the high-neck button of the dress was closed, the collar hung loosely around the creped neck.

The song finished.  Silence came from inside the house.  The lack of music, the silence coming from the unknown house, terrified me more than the lyrics of blood.

As if on their own, my eyes followed their upward path.  The mouth, misshapen by missing teeth, smiled.  I wanted to turn and run.

My eyes lifted and my heart stopped.  I thought I might wet my pants.  I knew I shouldn’t; I knew I couldn’t.  I would never live it down, but what I saw did not allow me to simply act normally and perform to my mother’s training.

There, in the middle of Great-Great-Aunt Ruby’s face, I saw a large, open sore. Purple flesh, with dark-red meat and what looked like a piece of bone just beneath stretched, scarred skin. Great-Great-Aunt Ruby had no nose—just an unimaginable hole in her face.

I had no idea how I looked, standing there frozen in horror, trying desperately not to pee my pants.

The song, the witch with the hole in her face—it was too much.  I screamed.

It took my mother nearly an hour to calm and stop my crying.  We sat on a bed in a small bedroom.  She kept telling me it was alright.  But I was in the worst of two worlds for a boy.  Terrified by what I had seen and embarrassed by how I reacted.

The above is a true story, circa 1957.  It is also part my book, Longclaws.  Steve Peek