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Story 4

Laura J. Underwood


Laura J. Underwood sold her first pieces of writing over 40 years ago, and was surprised to learn people would actually give her money to do so. She has nearly 300 short stories, articles, novels, novellas and book reviews to her name. Her first fiction sold to Marion Zimmer Bradley for the SWORD AND SORCERESS anthologies, and her first novel, ARD MAGISTER came out in 2002. Her most recent publications include TALES FROM KELTORA, a collection fantasy published by Yard Dog Press and ARD MAGISTER: DEMON IN THE BONES, book two of the Ard Magister series.

When not writing, she is a librarian, a hiker, an occasional harpist, and most recently, a collector of ball-jointed dolls. She lives in East Tennessee with her family and a cat of few grey cells.

For more about Laura, visit her webpage at

When Cassie left Old Bedlam Hollow, she thought she was through with her relatives, but when she heard that her Uncle Gerald had died, it all came flooding back.


How to Have Fun at the Family Funeral

Laura J. Underwood


     When I first learned that Uncle Gerald had died, I was hoping the family had forgotten where I lived.  It's not that I don't love my relatives, but I just wish they would leave me alone.  I left Old Bedlam Hollow when I started college, and decided that I would be better off out here in the real world instead of tucked back in that surreal, bucolic setting where traditions are older than the hills.

     And no, I am not knocking bucolic settings.  I'm as fond as any of my kinfolk of sitting back in the hollow, watching night falling over the mountains or listening to the trill of a screech owl on the hunt.

     I'm just not fond of family funerals, even when they can be fun.

     I think it started when I was a child, and they told me, "Cassie, you gotta kiss Aunt Minnie on the lips or she'll be hurt."    There was a part of me that couldn't understand how she could feel pain if she was dead.  Do the dead have feelings?  I don't think so.  But there was also the gross factor.  Have you ever actually kissed a corpse?  They're cold and clammy, and the mouth has been sewn shut, so there are stitches and if you press your lips against them too hard -- well you get the picture.

     Still gives me the willies just thinking about doing it.

     But there were other customs, like the fact that they always put a plate of salt or a divot of sod on the chest of the dearly departed to keep the spirit from wandering away from the corpse -- or so I was told.  You see, back in the hollow, they didn't have a lot of the modern conveniences -- like a good education.  They believed that a hoot owl singing after midnight meant someone was going to die, and that if a mockingbird got into your house, someone in that house would pass away.  Sparrows came and took the spirits of the dead, and will 'o' the wisps out in the wet woods were the wandering dead who couldn't find their way to heaven or hell. 

     Me, I stopped believing that the dead could wander when I stopped believing in Santa Claus -- which was about the time I turned seven and heard my dad cussing as he was trying to put together the bicycle I'd asked for.  He'd dinged his finger when the screwdriver slipped.  He kept insisting Santa didn't have time to put the bike together for me, but I was pointing to the Sears and Roebuck tag still attached to the box before he could hide it.  I had to promise that I wouldn't tell Mother I had figured it out on account of her still thinking I was an innocent.

     Father was born in those backwoods, though, and he used to tell me tales of dead wanderers and phantom armies and wampus cats.  I liked his stories, even if I didn't always believe them, which might explain why I grew up to write them down for so much a word.

     It was Father who told me they used a plate of salt or a divot of dirt to keep the corpse from wandering off.

     And that is where my tale really begins.

     You see, I was all of sixteen the day Aunt Delia crawled out of her coffin and proceeded to walk out of the family room and out of the house, just because her husband, the aforementioned Uncle Gerald, forgot to put a plate of salt on her chest.

     Uncle Gerald had a problem with things like that.  In life, Aunt Delia pretty much led him around by the nose because he couldn't remember half of what he was supposed to do.  He was a simple man, fond of collecting butterflies and secretly reading the old romance novels Aunt Delia used to keep on her nightstand.  Sometimes I think he wished he could be like one of those hard-bodied heroes who could crush a woman to his chest like a bag of corn chips on game day.  Instead, he was a small man, wiry and thin like a bunch of sticks held together by hints of flesh. 

     Aunt Delia was his opposite, a large woman of ample chest and double chins.  She considered herself the social butterfly of the hollow, and many a "ladies tea" and a "summer soirée" was on her weekly agenda.  She entertained like a true southern belle, and the folks who lived back in Old Bedlam Hollow came to respect her opinion of everything.

     Personally, I thought she was more of an old busybody who couldn't stand not knowing every word of gossip dripping off local tongues.  More than once I was a victim of her tawdry tales.  She told Mother about my diary -- which was really one of my early efforts at a novel -- and Mother read all about my conquest of a certain handsome bag boy down at the green grocer and decided that I was the child of sin.  I was forced to watch as my "diary" was burned in the wood stove.  Then Mother locked me in my room and told me to read the bible, not that I did.

     Fortunately, my memory was good enough to rewrite the whole darn thing, but I made sure to leave out real names and hide the book in a cupboard up in the attic after that.  I told Aunt Delia that I hated her guts and I would laugh at her funeral. 

     She merely snarled that if I had the lack of class to do so, she would come back from the grave and drag me down to the netherworld with her. 

     Not to be outdone, I let her know that I would remember what she had done.  I would be certain to make her a bitter old hag of a character in a future novel, and see that she got her just deserts. 

     She merely smiled her infamous southern belle smile and threatened to tell my mother she had seen me kissing the bag boy.

     So I said I would just have to tell Sara Brown, who had been her country fair rival for ages, that Aunt Delia used cake mix instead of making her little petit fortes from scratch. 

     We went on with this uneasy truce for years.  Because of Aunt Delia, I knew the Kelsey Twins were really triplets whose daddy sold one of the babies to a city lady just so he didn't have three mouths to feed.  Mrs. Gable was really Mr. Gable because he liked to dress in women's clothing.  And it was rumored that Mrs. Bedlam whose family were the first settlers in the area, had buried three husbands -- two where no one would ever find them again.  There wasn't a bit of nasty gossip that old girl couldn't winnow out of someone, and I am ashamed to admit, I got just as good at it to get back at her when opportunities arose.

     I was not the least bit upset when the old girl took a tumble that broke her neck.  She slipped on the edge of the porch after Uncle Gerald had scrubbed it down.  She had made him wash it with a toothbrush and dish soap in a cup because she said he was the one who tracked the mud up and down it when he got back from one of his forays into the fields for butterflies.  Naturally, he got distracted and didn't rinse it off as well as he could have, and then he went off chasing a butterfly, and well, accidents do happen, and those who gossip do get their comeuppance.

     There was a wake, of course, a powerful tradition in these parts.  You die, and everyone throws a party, and there is a lot of food and drink.  And that doesn't say a whole lot about the way people think of you as far as I am concerned.  One gets the impression they're glad to see you go.

     At any rate, Aunt Delia's wake became the most memorable in Old Bedlam Hollow.  Everyone gathered about the lawn while Mr. Fogarty, the local undertaker, was making last-minute adjustments on Aunt Delia's makeup and hair.  Uncle Gerald was apparently out in the kitchen preparing the salt plate when a Speyeria cybele, otherwise known as a Great Spangled Fritillary -- and yes, I had to look that up because I had no clue what Uncle Gerald was talking about -- flew past the window.  Since it was one he didn't have in his collection, he went running into the laundry room to snatch up his net and hat and bag and charged out the back of the house, unbeknownst to anyone else.

     Now I was sitting over on the wall under the apple tree, and the bag boy -- whose name was Pete, by the way -- was over at the gate making eyes at me.  And I was imagining what he would look like decked out in tight velvet breeches and a white shirt open to the waist when I heard a round of bickering start up over near the porch. A gathering of chairs and a podium had been put up near the old arbor so the preacher could stand in its shade to give his eulogy for Aunt Delia.  It was Harold Baker and his cousin Johnny Lee Stonewall, both of them over eighty and thin as porch rails.  What started the fight, I'll never know.  One minute, they were calling each other names, and the next, their fists were flying like leaves in the wind.  Problem was neither could fetch a sound blow on the other, so it looked more like two girls having a fight in gym class; a lot of slapping and squealing, mostly because Harold wore one of those horrid old hearing aids that sent a sharp sound echoing when his ears were pulled.  At that moment, it was Johnny Lee doing the pulling -- with his gums because his false teeth were on the ground where he had spat them out as the argument progressed.

     I have to admit I was laughing, but then so were a dozen others.  Mother told me to stop making a spectacle of myself, and I was hard pressed not to tell her that I was not the spectacle at the moment.  She pushed Father and ordered him to go over and stop those two before one of them got hurt.  Bad move.  Father was holding a plate filled with Cousin Birdie's fried chicken intended for the funeral table, and the plate took a tumble, sending chicken parts everywhere.  And at that moment, the Nelson's dogs decided to come over the fence and charge into the fray to lay claim to the scattered bits of succulent hen, and Father tripped over the dogs and the plate.

     By that point, I was ready to fall off the wall laughing when movement at the door caught my eye.  I turned and looked, and I know my mouth was an "o" because there on the porch, her front half decked in the clothes Uncle Gerald had chosen to bury Aunt Delia in, was the old girl herself.  Her face was contorted into an expression of righteous rage, and it was clear that she was trying to open her mouth, and but for the stitches keeping it shut, she probably would have been screaming.

     Of course, a number people helped her in that department.  Her cousins Ophelia and Mavis shrieked in unison.  Several others began to flee for the gate.  I caught a brief glimpse of the horror on Pete's face before the rushing horde ran over the top of him in their attempts to escape.

     I stayed on the wall, not sure what else to do.  Mother was busy trying to get Father up off the ground, and he was busy trying to find the eyeglasses that had taken a tumble when he did.  They were off somewhere in the grass, I imagine.  I didn't really care.  I was busy watching as Aunt Delia started down the path, her arm extended like the finger of accusation towards Harold and Johnny Lee.  The latter keeled over, clutching his chest while the former soiled his shorts and took off at a desperate run, moving pretty swift for a man in his eighties.  His hearing aid squealed with each stride.

     It was at that point that I learned that when you die and a funeral director "dresses" your body, he doesn't really "dress" you.  In fact, he cuts the clothes open in the back and tucks them in around the body once it has been laid out in the coffin.  So there was Aunt Delia, walking stiffly towards Johnny Lee, working her jaws up and down, her arm still extended, and her flabby blue backside exposed to nature and all God's creatures.

     That was when I finally lost it.  I started laughing so hard I got the hiccups.  Preacher Jeremiah didn't help matters. He got on his knees and started praying to God to stop the devil that was making poor Aunt Delia walk again.  Mother was on her knees as well, and Father was trying to wrestle a single piece of chicken from one of the Nelson's terriers -- yeah, he really liked Cousin Birdie's fried chicken enough to defend it.

     Johnny Lee finally managed to get to his feet again, and he was staggering back against the stone wall that surrounded the front part of the property. 

     "Forgive me, Delia.  I never meant to upset your funeral!" he cried.

     I don't know if that confession actually satisfied her, but at that moment, she turned towards me, and I could see that there was nothing but wickedness in her eyes.  She started to stumble towards me, rigor mortis stiffening her stride. I scrambled back over the low stone wall that fronted her property.  All the dire threats she had ever made against me raced through my mind.  I wondered if she was about to carry one of them out, and while I didn't worry about her telling my mother anything -- how could she with her mouth sewn shut -- I remembered that she once said if I dared to laugh at her funeral, she would come fetch me into the netherworld with her. 

     Pete was just getting up, and he saw me heading for the road with a look of uncertainty in my eyes. I guess he thought he should try to do something heroic, but Aunt Delia headed for the gate and stepped out onto the road, and knocked Pete back when her stiffly pointed finger poked him in the eye.  He went down squealing as she started towards me.

     There was nothing I could do but run.  Where?  I wasn't sure.  I rushed over to the family station wagon thinking I could get inside and lock the doors as thoughts of those horror movies where the dead came back to eat the brains of the living flooded my mind.  The last thing I needed was Aunt Delia eating my brains.  Unfortunately, my father had locked the car and as I tore at the handle in desperation, Aunt Delia was getting closer.

     I started to run on, but Aunt Delia stumbled and blocked my path.  So there I was, stuck between two cars and a high stone wall, a shambling, half-naked, flabby old gossip bearing down on me.  I backed away, trying desperately to think of what I would do next when a butterfly net came down on Aunt Delia's head.

     "Run, girl!" Uncle Gerald shouted.

I took the instructions to heart and scrambled over the front of the cars and back into the open road.

     Aunt Delia was struggling in the grasp of the net, turning and growling like some sort of beast.  Uncle Gerald merely pulled her off balance and forced her to fall down.  It was then that Mrs. Bedlam came charging up with a big slab of sod and slammed it down on Aunt Delia's chest.  She gave one heaving sigh of a breath and stopped moving.

     Slowly, folks began to gather around.  Mr. Fogarty came out with his assistants and a board.  They carefully moved Aunt Delia's now truly dead remains onto it and took her back into the house.  I heard the sound of several hammers pounding after that while the preacher gave his eulogy.  I guess they were making sure she didn't get up out of her coffin again.

     Uncle Gerald came to me later while the wake was slowly coming back to life and apologized.  "It was all my fault.  I knew Delia was going to make a spectacle of herself, but I just couldn't resist that Speyeria cybele.  I hope she didn't hurt you, Cassie."

     I assured him that I was fine, but I have to admit that inside, I was a bowl of gelatin, quivering and cold.  Besides, the only people really physically hurt were Pete and Johnny Lee.  The former was holding a steak over his eye, while the latter had been carted off to the emergency clinic.  We had no idea where Harold ended up, but some said it was over in the next hollow. 

     Oh, and Father had to have his hand bandaged because the Nelson's terrier bit him and won the tug of war over the chicken.

     All that aside, it was at that moment that I made up my mind to leave Old Bedlam Hollow, which I now considered appropriately named.  And even now as I sit writing these words, taking my revenge on Aunt Delia in a way that no fiction could ever get right by relating this tale, I can't help wondering if someone will remember to put a plate of salt on Uncle Gerald's chest.

     The last thing we need is him half-naked, chasing butterflies around the hollow.


The End


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