Bells chimed. The ritual was taking place -- the ritual where one's inanimate body in a box is tossed into the mud. And then there, within the box within the ground, the resting body rests.
The birds were out, Sally noticed. It was raining -- of course it had to be raining at a funeral -- and so the crows, jackdaws, magpies and robins were making rounds of the graveyard, waiting for the worms to tunnel their way to the surface. Sally supposed she should be grateful; she supposed the body would decompose slower if the birds ate the worms. And yet she could not be grateful. Her thoughts confused her. How does a person become a corpse? she thought. How does a corpse become a skeleton? She didn't know. Perhaps it wasn't worms (or flies, beetles) but a fact of life. Everything must rot, including loved ones.
But, to Sally, funerals were a contradiction. Surely it would be kinder for everyone if the corpse was deposed of immediately. That's why funerals exist, to see the end of one's existence. For closure. The idea of tossing an inanimate pile of bones and skin and organs within a semi-protective wooden shell into the ground struck Sally as being anything but a finite end, and not to mention altogether selfish.
To her annoyance, a preacher was shouting something -- something about afterlife and souls. It's going in the ground and everyone knows it, thought Sally. To her the soul was always the brain, and the brain was in the wooden box, and the wooden box would soon be beneath the grass.
"Is it going in the ground," asked Sally. She did not recognize her thoughts when they'd materialized into speech.
The mourners gasped. There was a deep quiet, where only the patter of rain against the coffin could be heard.
"Sally," said the preacher, relaxing his shoulders with a pleasant smile. "We understand you're upset. But please remain quiet until we're done here. This is no time for games."
"I'm not playing; I want to take it home. Can't I look after it? I'll see that it's well preserved."
"You most certainly will not," said the preacher, flushing slightly red. His bright brown eyes, only a little darker than his gritted teeth, bulbed from his face like fried eggs. "Be silent and clasp your hands together. Perhaps if you pray hard enough for forgiveness the departed souls may grant it. But for now, show the dead some respect."
"Stop giving me orders I've already followed. I've said your prayers, and I respect dead bodies. I don't want that body in the ground and that's that." She tugged at her mother's sleeve. "Why aren't I allowed a say?"
"Sally," said her mother between her sobs. "Please stop."
"Sally," warned her father, his knuckles pink with rage, "look what you're doing to your mother."
She looked. Her veil hid her face, but her neck was green and blue with veins, and bowed like a dead plant.
"Sally," said her brother, "it simply won't do. You can't expect to keep a...a --"
"--a corpse?" she finished. "That's what it is, though you're all so very afraid to admit it."
The crowd again gasped. A robin landed on the wooden box, puffing out its red chest. Its song was shrill against the quiet.
The preacher was staring at her. She could see hard lines around his mouth, his canines protuding through his underbit mouth. "You dare use such horrid language? Of all places. Of all the nerve. Again I'll reiterate for your own sake -- though I do not see much point. But yes, I'll repeat myself, and say what all of us are thinking, and that which you are too stupid and immature to comprehend: show the dead some respect."
"I want to take good care of the dead. I'll look after the body, unlike you; you'll barely wrap it up and send it to the worms. It's wrong."
The preacher winced as though he'd been slapped. His nose sniffed. "Is the soul ready?" he said. "Is the coffin ready?"
"Yes," said her mother, looking all of her forty-nine years. "Yes. It's ready."
Her father gave Sally a cold look. "You watch your tongue, young lady. You know what will happen if you don't."
Her brother's frown deepened. "Let's get this over with."
Without a word Sally ran through the crowd to stand with her arms barring the width of the box. "I don't want this. This isn't right. The body'll slowly get eaten. Worms are going to get in eventually. And flies, beetles. There'll be nothing left of the body anyway. The bones will rot too, I think. And when that happens you won't know it. You'll not care anymore on the day its really gone. That, or you'll all be dead."
There were no gasps this time. They looked at her. A large crow cawed not far from the coffin, atop a weathered gravestone. It was looking at her, too.
"If I can't keep it then I'll get rid of the body, once and for all. We'll grind it up, burn it, feed it to another animal - not worms. Worms, for god's sake. There's nothing slower. We all want this to be over, right?"
The rain slowed, and the sun glittered through the grim clouds for a moment, casting a golden light upon the preacher's frame. Sally looked up at the sky, and when she looked back the illumination was gone. He took off his bright hat. His white hair, what remained of it, coiled upward and between his giant ears.
"You poor little wretch," he said in a slow, shaking voice. "The body -- no, the soul -- must be buried. I don't have to explain myself. I want it to be buried in the ground, and so it shall be. It's important for the soul --"
"Then why can't I keep the corpse?"
"Where is your regard for my feelings. My feelings are important." His voice broke. The preacher crawled behind the coffin and seated himself upon the damp grass. They could hear him crying. "Why is she here? Get her out of here. Get her out of here."
Sally looked again to her mother.
"Please stop," cried her mother. "You've had your fun. Now go, Sally. Get out. Leave."
Her father grimmaced. His grey eyes regarded her coldly. She knew what that meant.
"I think it's best you leave, Sally," - her brother.
"But, why does --"
"Be silent," said the preacher, climbing to his feet, his red robes swirling above black stockings, his jewelry flailing. His voice rose to a scream as he stomped towards her. "Spare me your pathetic drama. I will not tolerate you or your games for a second longer. I won't have it. You'll never see me again, do you know that? Get out. Get out. Am I going to have to drag you? You worthless bitch. Get out of my sight. Be gone. Get out."
The crowd peered down at her from behind the preacher's shoulders, nodding their heads with an uneven rythym. For the first time she felt that perhaps she'd gone too far. She still did not understand their unreasonable contention to her suggestions, but their conviction seemed real enough. Maybe she was wrong, she supposed; maybe she'd no right to make such decisions for a corpse.
Sally swallowed deeply. "Can't I please stay? I'm sorry."
"You're sorry?" the preacher returned, tilting his head with a broken expression. There were large tears crawling down his face, and his tongue flicked from the corners of his mouth, as though regarding her request seriously. "No. Forgiveness is not so easily given. You've wounded me too dearly. Leave me alone."
She stumbled away, looking occasionally over her shoulder, but none of her family did the same. Only when she approached the graveyard's green gate did she realize that the preacher was watching her. And at that moment Sally knew that she was in the right; the corpse must be destroyed.
The ritual was over. Her family had returned, but save for her father they'd not spoken since. Sally tried to avoid the mirror.
It was late evening; the orange sun was dipping as she sat waiting in the prison of her bedroom. She had been drawing a pair of magpies, and the result was terrible. The first one had been drawn with meticulous care; it seemed complete; for a short while she was impressed with her talent, but after she'd drawn the second -- in which she'd taken less than five minutes, without the aid of a pencil sharpener or eraser -- the entire drawing was ruined. It was the second magpie's fault. It was awful, yes, but what's more it highlighted the first's many imperfections: the thin blocky beak, the tiny triangular wings, and its outline entirely etched with thick jagged lines.
Blaming herself didn't feel right, for she'd never felt comfortable enough to give the drawing her undivided attention. The funeral had been replaying in her mind, and its echo -- a dark purple hill on her face -- had been bulging out at her from the mirror. She'd not wanted to look at it, but now that her drawing was irrepairable...
She raised a hand to it. Her fingernails felt like hot needles against her cheekbone. Much like her grey eyes she'd inherited the bruise from her father.
Sally sighed. The weather had not improved, she noted, as she looked outside at her father's dripping spade head from the window. Not yet, she thought. She would not risk angering her father. Not until it was midnight.
The sky gave little light when she arrived at the gate. A full moon swelled dimly from behind the curtain of cloud as she pulled at the gate. Its stiff hinges groaned, but its pleas were swallowed by the shouting of wind and rain. And, with spade in hand, Sally entered the graveyard's mouth, hoping for solitude within. But graveyards are never empty: saluting stones were watching on her every side; naked trees reached out, their branches and roots twisting and biting in and out of the ground; and the begging bodies rotted beneath her, blind and unaroused.
She heard a sound. It was not the wind playing tricks on her; on the small mound where her deceased love had been buried there sat a crooked figure, perched atop its grave with legs that kicked playfully.
"Poor little wretch... " she heard. The voice was shouting against the elements. "I thought you might return."
"Why are you still here?" she shouted back.
His head drooped to his chest. A glinting of glass and scarlet winked at her from his hand.
"What are you doing?" said Sally. He replied, though many of his words were inaudible, even as she walked towards him:
"Me... always loathed apathy... never had any shame in admitting that I... Me... content with the way things should be... not enough for you. No, my little girls and boys have to keep pushing... that a child can deny my traditions... think such a thing, let alone vocalise it, out loud, in front of your family? In front of me. Why do you have to push?"
Sally looked at him. It seemed as though he was crying again; it was difficult to see his expression in such weather. He had changed his clothes; he was now wearing a black suit, a black tie and bright black shoes. "What's happened," asked Sally.
The preacher paused. And then erupted with a barking of wild laughter. He raised his bottle of red wine to the hidden moon. "It's gone! I've buried an empty box! Oh, it's all gone." He sang the words.
"Gone? What's gone, the corpse?"
He shook his head violently. "You seem suprised - perhaps a hint of disappointment. Why? This is what you wanted."
Sally looked away. "I don't know. I suppose I wanted the body to disappear." She shook the water from her face and strained her eyes through the raging torrents. "How could it disappear?"
He shrugged his shoulders, and then they spasmed with what seemed to Sally to be amusement. "I opened the box, and nothing was in it."
"You must have made a mistake."
"Why can't you trust me?"
"I can't believe that a body can vanish into thin air; I need proof."
"Proof?" he shrieked. Sally did not see the preacher's movement, but she heard the smashing of glass behind her. "Oh, you want to see proof? Fine! Oh, you've asked for it! This is what you wanted." He slid from the grave, and attacked the ground with a black rage, shovelling away fistfuls of mud.
"I have a spade."
He did not hear her. "Yes, the proof!" he snarled. "The poor little wretch needs more than my word -- she needs the proof."
The box was empty.
They'd spent an hour digging; Sally with her spade, the preacher with his fingers. The box was empty.
She didn't know what to say, but she knew what to think: there was no need to be here any longer; the corpse was gone. The funeral was finally over. She hopped onto the box and from it climbed her way out. She was exhausted, and she'd need to be back early to stand a chance at escaping her father's wrath.
"Wait," said the preacher, waving a hand after her, his voice a rasp, his breathing erratic. "Please. What's that on your face? Are you alright?"
She did not answer.
"Where are you going?"
The preacher giggled. Something jerked to and fro from within his skull. "What's that like? I can never go home... Please stay. Don't you want to? I'm lonely. I don't want to be alone at such a time. It's dull and it's too cold. I'm frightened."
"I don't care," said Sally with a sigh.
She looked down at his face for a final time. Much of his skin was grey and taut. The remainder was painted with mud, and puntured with black shadows. She could not see his eyes, only their bottomless sockets.