One Wicker Day
Andrew S. Fuller
She looks across the table at her husband, his head pitched forward into his plate.
In the stillness, the only movement is his fork flipping end over end across the kitchen.
This is a quiet town. There hasn’t been a murder on record since the turn of the last century. Death has always come as a reminder, the lightest touch on the shoulder. The people here forget how the world is changing, and closing in. It is only what has followed death, in the last five years, like the brighter burning of the sun in the hottest summers. The new ones are frightening. The ones in white.
She sees Harry’s face in his plate, and she screams. Once, and bites a knuckle. Hoping no one heard.
In this moment, his fork is moving through the air, tumbling in an arc over his head. Netta does not watch it. Her eyes are looking slightly above and to the left of him, though she sees nothing at all. This is the moment she knows and accepts that he is truly gone.
Damn it, Harry. How many times did he promise, this is the last, isweartogod, Philly steak sandwich? How many times did she ask him to go on morning walks with her? And how many bottles of flax seed oil, to this day, remain unopened in the vitamin cabinet? She doesn’t scold him aloud because she knows even as she thinks these thoughts that she is not in denial, that she doesn’t mean them. Just as she knows he’s certainly gone, that his body is empty. She is trying to fill the calm with a distraction. There is a calm where she knows the memories will come later, and she will weep for hours and days. But now, underneath the peace, she feels the rise of something else that she doesn’t want. She is angry and panicked. About that, she will not admit why. Damn it, Harry, don’t do this! You know how much I hate them.
The fork clatters in the sink.
They came for Goldwin Langford last week. He and Irene had lived in the corner house for fifty–two years. When the unmarked white vehicles slid up to the Langford house, the neighbors looked on like they were frozen in time. For, even when the silent white uniforms surrounded the house and their leader announced himself at the front door, on–lookers were stopped in place. It might have been awe, or the helplessness that comes after invasion. Some witnesses to the spectacle might have recognized the efficient intruders from the recent Channel 9 news clips. That the actual Service existed outside of television, that it had come to their neighborhood, immobilized John Kenrick in his front yard holding his rake and leaf bag, halted Sybil Fletcher in mid–sip of coffee at her kitchen window, among others. The neighborhood absolutely stilled as Service executive director Mr. T. Morrow adjusted the rose on his lapel, opened his perfect smile wider, and knocked at the Langford front door. There was no answer, the door remained solid in his face. The neighborhood shifted slightly only as autumn wind passed through. The Servicemen lined the street with formation and spacing of military precision.
White. It was a joke for what they did.
Still, no one protested. No on intervened. No one helped Irene Langford as Mr. Morrow hammered at the door with an elegant though insistent rhythm, then kicked at it with a single accented attack. Then he straightened his sleeves, improved his composure and motioned to one of the humming Service trucks. Two more white suited officials appeared. They rushed the front door with a perfectly cylindrical silver coffin, and gained their entry.
Four Servicemen carried the coffin out. They set the silver torpedo down on the threshold for ten seconds. Enough time for Mr. Morrow to say, “We must remember: From dust we came…” Then they slid the coffin tube into the extended–bed six–wheel SUV. Irene Langford was restrained on the porch. While across the street, Sybil Fletcher’s face alternated between sobbing and incredulity and rage, and in the neighboring yard, John Kenrick dropped his hedge shears and stepped forward, and raised his hand slightly and half–pointed, half–made a fist, but settled it on the fence. A row of broad–shouldered white suits moved in unison to obstruct their view. Irene was sobbing as ED Morrow gave her a logoless card, indicating the quarter–hour chapel funeral service and cremation precisely scheduled for the following day. Then the tall man took long, neat strides down the steps and into the afternoon sun, showing off his tan face, his impossibly white teeth. A performance more suited to a celebrity, but making it quite clear: a man who loved his job. At the door to his limousine he turned. “We cleanse,” he announced, slick as a slogan.
It was happening all over town.
Three weeks ago, Mr. Tanner, owner of the hardware store for over thirty years, was taking inventory in aisle four, garden tools, when he clawed the air soundlessly. His assistant, Carter, saw the man stiffen and fall, and knocked over a stack display of water–based floor varnish while making for the phone. The tall, smiling, white–suited Service Executive was at the front register before Carter dialed. “You’ll find no need for an ambulance,” said Mr. Morrow, the sun bronzing the back of his neck. Looking over the high shoulder, Carter saw the white suits blocking the door, lining the sidewalk outside the front display window. “We’re proud to offer you immaculate, prompt, legally–bound service.”
Theresa Sworden, the minister’s wife had lost to cancer two months previous. The Service had come to the hospital. Nurses had protested the crowd of obdurate white suits blocking the hallway, the tall man (certainly not a family member) intruding on Minister Sworden’s grief. A doctor was paged. Two Servicemen picked up the doctor when he touched Mr. Morrow. They threw the struggling physician out the window. Mrs. Sworden had died in a room on the fifth floor. They took both bodies.
The Service came to town a year ago. Not long after the first funeral parlor closed. Not long after some residents noticed the new monthly deduction in their social security statement, line item COLLECTION. Federal press conferences mentioned urban growth regulation and disease control.
Mrs. Langford refused to get into the complimentary Service limousine. They did not make her go. The ashes were not sent to her.
Now Harry has fallen into his hash browns. His hand, upturned on the table, has stopped its spasms. Blood runs from his nose. Netta will not lift his head. The blood would be covering half his face in a mask, with one wide eye staring out from the middle of the red.
Netta looks at the phone in its perch by the refrigerator. How did we get to this…? She does not bother getting up. It isn’t worth dialing a number. Even now, there is a knock at the door.
The rapping is gentle at first, not taking long to become quick and tenacious. Out of habit, she stands and heads for the door. Years ago she learned the best way to deal with solicitors wasn’t to ignore the phone or the door, just tell them straight off. Passing Harry, turning into the hallway, she sees a bubble rise and pop in the red pool around his face. She knows it’s the last loose of air, lungs settling, but she falters in step. Harry! …you’re still with me?! Her feet keep falling forward and catching, around the corner, pointing her to the front door. He’s gone now, Netta. They are here, after all. They know.
The hallway grows and stretches, pulling the door farther, taunting her; and she lifts her chin and walks it, swallowing thickness of tears, expecting more thunder on the heavy oak, a rattling of the brass handle — even splinters off the sticking bites of an ax head; the entire door to fall in, crushing her toes, opening her sanctuary to the changed world, the dark clouds reaching down, and a terrible giant white suit, the smile with teeth too bright.
She clicks the lock back. She pulls the door handle.
There is no smile. The man on her doorstep is wearing a black suit. She is astonished and glad, feeling a tremor of giddiness, just to see the color. The only thing white about him is the pale face — a whiteness of caves, of underground. His hands are folded before him, just above the stomach, in a manner that is quite natural, but not completely calming. He seems to stand still. Too still. Maybe he knows this, because he lets the hands fall, as if only for movement. His expression does not change, and he does not speak, if it seemed like he was about to.
Netta does not recognize him immediately. The well–kept hair is not the frizzy wisps she was used to seeing in the aisles, and behind the counter. And the complexion is so tamed, unlike him. Mostly, he is the last person she expected.
She steps back, covering her mouth. Uncovering it. Not knowing where to put her hand when she takes it down, clenching the fingers.
Still the man says nothing. And finally she knows. It is Mr. Tanner.
Behind him is Mrs. Sworden and Mr. Langford, with two others — she’s trying to recall… (Isn’t it Jane and Don Alaway, killed in the car wreck last November, new to the weekend church group dinners? Wasn’t it after their accident that the dinners thinned out?) Resting between the four of them, riding by their shoulders, they carry a long wicker basket. They are all wearing black. The same, almost tired and calm expression has settled in the pallid lines of their faces. And beyond them, someone else waits patiently on the top stair before the porch. Mid–morning sun shows the last face without mistake. Still, she cannot — will not — allow herself to know. From behind, the silence of the kitchen is stinging at her nape.
She has seen those baskets before. It was the old way.
After not waking up his final morning, the Raneys had laid Grandpa out on the dining room table. He had lain there all day. She had helped her mother and brother wash Grandpa. Then, Grandma and Dad, with Uncle Robert and Uncle Norm had carried Grandpa out in the same kind of basket.
The white limousine sliding up to the front walk almost relieves her. In a moment of confusion.
The driver gets out and opens the rear door. Mr. Morrow’s tall white suit unfolds onto her lawn, chest jutting forward a spot of red on his lapel. Two white shuttle buses pull up behind the limousine. Their bulk hasn’t stopped moving as back doors bang open and white coveralled men pour out. The vehicles block the Neufelds’ driveway, keep their engines running, and don’t put on hazard lights. Mr. Morrow checks his watch. Obviously pleased with himself, his smile increases, catching the sun. The glint falters, and Netta feels a giggle escape her. He probably sees the crowd on the porch. Long legs propel the Service executive director across the lawn. The six black apparitions (that’s what they are! they aren’t even breathing!) don’t sway or turn.
“What’s going on here?” Morrow pushes through the silent people and stops in front of Netta. He is much taller in person, and must bend under the doorframe to glare at her. (That rose is in her face.) “What is the meaning of this?” His teeth are impossible. Too straight and too bright. He is already losing his smile.
She lifts her hands and shoulders, nearly protesting, silently stutters her empty words, then almost frightened he will condemn her gibbering, she turns to look past the broad shoulders, to put the blame to Mr. Tanner, and finally just relaxes, even smiles back at those teeth. It’s all fine, she thinks, knows. It’s not for me now. It’s not me, it’s for Harry. And it’s them. “Mostly,” she says this aloud, not breaking her eyes from Mr. T. Morrow, “It’s not you.” And she goes on smiling.
“What?!” Morrow wheels left and cranes lower to growl at Mr. Tanner. The celebrity teeth are caught in a snarl.
That’s right, says Mr. Tanner, his face quiet as forever, and the earth. It’s for us. Us and Harry. Not you.
“What’s — ? Who are you people?” Morrow has stopped smiling and he snaps looks at their black clothes, their faces. He looks out to the lawn where his men wait in four rows of five white uniforms. His eyes finally stare at the wicker basket. “What’s that? What’s going on here? What the hell?” Netta thinks the language is terribly unprofessional, and some of it simply uncalled for.
Let us show you, Mr. Tanner says. He takes Morrow’s long white sleeve and motions them all into the house. Netta leads them, turning back to see who is last to come in the house. Who ever it is, he closes the door carefully after him. It is a sunny November day, but it is November. Without orders, the uniformed Servicemen stay outside.
Morrow pulls his arm free. With it cocked back, he trembles as though he is going to strike Mr. Tanner.
They all continue into the kitchen. The basket is set down. Five of the quiet ones clear off the table with quick arm sweeps. The shattering breakfast dishes, against the cupboard, onto the floor, make no sound. When Harry is laid out, the sixth arrives in the doorway.
It is Grandpa Raney. Netta finds herself crying. He has Harry’s black suit from the closet upstairs.
Grandpa, she mouths, no sound.
“Just what do you think you’re do — ” Morrow’s smile is lost in impatience.
Mrs. Sworden puts a single finger to her stale lips.
They dress Harry while Morrow shifts his weight in the corner, drums his fingers on the counter, sighs out loud, and clears his throat a few times. They wash the face, clear off the blood, and touch him. The cheeks must be massaged gently, the eyes closed. He must be like them: content. It is a quiet sleep.
When they are done preparing him they bow their heads. Netta bows with them. Morrow rolls his eyes, but does not interrupt.
They lay Harry in the wicker basket, folding his hands before placing the lid. Taking the procession out the back door, they pass the garden, the garage, going into the open space of the dry lawn. The leaves mat under their feet, soft from the recent rain and a few rare few days of warmth. There is absolutely no sound.
She and Mr. Tanner look at the ground. She finds herself nodding. Grandpa is at her shoulder, smiling, and not, doing so if he could. Mr. Tanner looks at her.
“In the garage,” she whispers, and goes over to the back entrance. She returns with two shovels and gives one to Mr. Tanner. The ground is hard and frozen and the digging takes time. I should have a jacket and scarf, Netta thinks, I will be sick. She looks at the wicker basket, and feels at ease. Perhaps I will follow. She does not think this, anywhere more stark than her subconscious.
“Alright, folks. Okay. Real cute an’ all. But, show’s over.” All faces turn to Morrow. Netta continues digging. Mr. Tanner moves to speak. Grandpa moves in ahead.
Silence, kid, says Grandpa Raney, Today is made of silence.
“How did you people beat us here?” Morrow is visibly pouting.
Netta and Mr. Tanner turn back to the work. The cool hole and pile of soil are complimenting each other, balanced.
The quick and the dead, Grandpa jokes.
“This is going to stop. Just stop all this.” Morrow points. “Drop those shovels. And turn over that filthy, that — that — primitive… basket.”
Go put yourself in an oven, Grandpa tells him.
“You’re interfering with government business.”
Govern my eye.
“I’m trying to be professional, here. I could just take the body, you know? There are only seven of you. Don’t make me — ” The Service executive director stops talking, and he straightens up, and bites his lip.
Grandpa is not looking up at the tan face. He is not looking at the lapel rose, the teeth, or toward the driveway where Netta expects marching boots to thunder. Grandpa is looking past the fence, looking West where the cemetery has grown to twenty acres in the last two hundred years. Grandpa holds that look until Mr. T. Morrow follows it. Then Grandpa turns his empty face (somehow stern with meaning) to the gaping mouth (full of purposeless teeth). Then he turns back around, ignoring. Even a young government mind should understand.
“I have… resources. I can mobilize more personnel, equipment, funds…” But Morrow’s voice is unsteady, like he really doesn’t believe it would help. He is backing away. He is done talking.
Grandpa takes the shovel from Mr. Tanner, shaking his head. As tired at the motion is, lost even in this stoppage of time, the rite of burial, Netta sees an expression that is entirely his, unique from her childhood. It is a slow shaking of the head, one of silence and knowledge, with a closing of the eyes. She remembers when she had run to him, crying about her sister’s teasing jokes, vowing hate and revenge, and he had come down on one knee and shaken his head. And while she had wanted him to agree, say yes, her sister was cruel, he only shook his head, slowly, assuring he didn’t give answers where they were known. No, he said, then and now, Don’t you start a war.
Andrew S Fuller grew up in the no/everywhere landscape of the (U.S.) Midwest, with occasional residency in other places. He now resides in Portland, Oregon with his dog Grendel, where he read books and climbs rocks, working by day to conserve the bioregion. His fiction has been appeared in Fantastic Metropolis (and its print anthology), The Harrow, House of Pain, Anotherealm, and Blood Rose. Though his first love is short stories, he has dabbled in poetry and graphic novels, and his dusty first novel manuscript “From Out the Dark Valley” is again courting a publisher. In his spare time he serves as editor of the Three–lobed Burning Eye magazine.
Visit him online at owlsoup.com/andrewfuller.
Story © 2008 Andrew S. Fuller. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish