When I was growing up, my grandparents lived in a huge and beautiful farmhouse. There were many rooms, and most of them were frightening if you found yourself in them alone. It was heaven.
The rooms were scary because my grandmother loves Victorian paintings of doomed children.
I can still see them…
A little girl stands alone in an abandoned barn. She strangles wildflowers in a death grip while staring at something outside the frame of the painting. Obviously, the Devil.
In another painting, a child helps her fisherman father row a boat. He smiles down at her. She stares, seeing nothing. Her face is expressionless and her eyes are empty. Why? The rowing child is, you guessed it, dead.
A 19th century youth prays over her breakfast in bed. A soft-boiled egg. Toast and tea. There are animals on the bed, a dog and a kitten. They wait for her to close her eyes so they can steal food. Therefore, the child prays with her eyes open, watching the food. The prayer of a glutton.
I just realized why she’s eating breakfast in bed instead of doing her duty developing blood-lung for 14 hours in a textile mill. It’s because she has the brain fever or trench mouth or the flux (it could also be mania or “milk leg”). She’s dying.
Wait a minute…now I realize why her eyes are open. It isn’t gluttony. Not anymore.
I should have known.
How long before the dog notices and eats the egg and toast? How long before the kitten notices and eats the child?
This is what my grandmother’s paintings do: they paint another painting in your mind: the Devil; a fisherman father who can’t let go, so he ties the hands of his dead child to the oar and makes her come alive again every time he rows; a gore-slathered kitten napping on a half-devoured textile employee.
There were some rooms to fear for even better reasons. The previous owner of the house had died in the living room. No one knew how. He was simply found not alive and then declared dead. In the old days, people were allowed to die of death. It didn’t have to have a fancy name. The man was. Then he wasn’t.
“What happened to old Abner?”
“What got him?”
We the grandchildren would stand in the room where Death got old Abner, waiting for something to happen. Would we feel a chill? Would we see breath fogging one of the windows, the breath of Death as he watches us from outside, here to revisit the scene of his crime? If we laid on the little couch, right where Abner ended, would his spirit whisper something to us, tell us where the gold is buried or how to stand downwind of Death so we can smell his approach and flee?
Another room to fear was the canning room in the cellar. Behind the creaking stairs, down a dim little hall, then turn a corner into darkness. Pull the string and a bare bulb snaps on, leaking yellowish, underwater light. Then you see it, the door of the canning room. White, the paint cracking like the wrinkles of an unwrapped mummy. A tar-black knob. You stare at the knob, waiting for it to rattle, to slowly twist like a hell hound tipping its head, reading your mind; you wait for the knob to turn from the hand of something inside that wants to get out.
The knob doesn’t move, it doesn’t move, so you lunge for it before it has a chance to move and you throw the door open.
There’s another string to pull. But before you dive for it, making a growling sound to spook away demons, you imagine not a string but a rope that hangs old Abner by the neck in the middle of the room. His body swings gently in spirit breezes, and the long nails of his pale toes scratch hieroglyphs in the dirt floor.
A conveniently visiting local linguist and doctor of cult cryptography translates the toes’ writings:
“If you speak these deadly words aloud,” whispers the terrified language specialist (especially Hindi), “you will open a door — ”
“A door to hell?!” the grandchildren sing out, excitedly.
“Worse,” says the linguist. “To the chamber in hell where Satan himself sleeps, and dreams, harvesting his garden of nightmares.”
And the deadly words, naturally, are exactly the ones I memorized and said over and over again as a child, the only satanic words I could get my hands on, the ones I learned from my extensive research: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
“Kali ma, Kali ma! shakthi deh — ”
“Stop!” screams the linguist.
But I can’t be stopped. It feels so gloriously Halloweeny in the canning room, I want more and more. I would be the most famous kid alive if I said “Trick or treat” at the bedroom door of the Devil.
Another room to fear was the big cellar of the barn. You got to it through a trap door. Down there was a far more interesting version of Charlotte’s Web. Wilbur was Legion, divided into a hundred ghosts, and Charlotte was a billion Charlottes. She was all of them.
Charlottes’ webs connected across the entire ceiling. It wasn’t a spider village or town or city. It was a spider civilization. Pluck one strand of that low hanging ceiling, a ceiling the same gray as a snow-bloated sky, and you summoned every spider on earth. See them descending slowly. Black snow. Living ash. That cellar was the nerve center of all spiders, a family as reunion-prone as mushrooms, which I’m told are all connected underground, all one, making mushrooms the second largest living organism on earth. What’s the first?
Spiders. Connected by that old barn cellar. A collective.
We are Spider.
Beneath that spider sky was a dirt floor pocked and scared by the feet of all the Wilburs who once lived there. Humongous Wilburs, like Bane, born in darkness, sculpted by it. Dare to stand in the middle of that pig colosseum and close your eyes and you could feel the rumbling of the ground as the spirit pigs emerged from corners to crush you and feed.
There were two trap doors leading into the cellar, the one with stairs and the other that was a straight drop into the dark. The drop was the one used for pouring down food. Old Abner opened the hatch and rained slop to his family of pink Rancors, their human teeth snapping, their eyes glittering in the dark.
I remember when I was very young, my father showed me this trap door. We stood together gazing down into pig world. The pigs were long gone by then, but the darkness and quiet carried their presence thickly. It congealed beneath us and reached upward.
“If you fell in there when the pigs were here,” he said, “you’d never touch the ground.”
The final room to fear was the little garage clinging to the side of the barn.
What was in that little garage?
Grampa’s coffin shop.
Grampa is a believer in saving money. He’s also a man who’s enraged over the cost of funerals. Did you know the American “funeral market” is a 20 billion dollar industry? And do you know who pays?
It seems to be mostly melancholy people. Bereaved types.
These vulnerable boobs are so grief struck that they forget things like appointments and sleep and the will to live. Grief drunk, they lose their keys daily; they forget what day it is, what year; they misplace their wallets again and again —
“Your wallet is right here with me,” whispers the friendly neighborhood funeral director. “I’ve been looking after it for you.”
“Why is it wrapped in webs from your anus?”
“I understand you’re upset, but now is a time for grieving.”
“Sorry, you’re right.”
When life gives you lemons, drain the blood out of them and sell it on ice. Like this:
“Sure, you could go with our economy coffin, a sausage mix of particle board and mulch, or you could go with our deluxe Promethean Bronze Model lined with Burmese lotus flower silk for a mere $22,000! But enough business for a moment. Tell me about your mother. How much did you love her?”
“That’s it!” grampa roared. “I’m making coffins! I’m making ’em pine and I’m making ’em cheap!”
So, he started building. They were pine. They were cheap. But they were well made, sturdy things with one job to do: get the dead respectfully into the ground and give the suffering family a money gift somewhere in the range of two to ten thousand dollars.
There was a long bench in his coffin shop, a bench covered with tools. Grampa’s a man whose tools are out in the open. Free range. They don’t have one spot to live. All spots are theirs for living.
Once, trying to give each tool a single home, he hung them from nails on the wall. Then he traced around each tool with a black marker. This way, every tool had an outline which served as the porchlight left on: “Here’s how you find your way home again.”
But the tools didn’t listen. After departing from the wall, they didn’t go back. This meant they left behind them a vast plain of empty outlines. Remember that scene in Gone With The Wind when the camera pans back, showing all the dead and wounded soldiers? The tool wall was like that, but remove the bodies and replace them with chalk outlines. Still a very moving scene.
Anyway, the tools roamed wildly on the long bench, but they stayed away from the other bench, the one at the far end of the garage. This one stood alone, not connected to any wall. It was an island, robust as a butcher’s cutting table. It was the coffin bench.
Grampa made his first box. Then he made his second. But he was nervous. He’d heard the hardest part about coffin building was the bottom, arguably the most important part. Why? Because there are stories of people carrying coffins into churches…and the bottom drops out. Very memorable.
So, grampa needed to make sure the coffin could sustain weight. With weight inside, he could lift up one end and then the other and see what happened to the floorboards.
At grammy and grampa’s house, there were always grandchildren around. All grampa had to do was shout, “Hey!” and some little face would soon appear in a window or a doorway.
“Hey!” he shouted, and one of my cousins appeared. My oldest cousin. The first born. “Come here a minute,” grampa said. “I need to check something.”
He helped her climb into the coffin. Then he went to one end and lifted it — good, the boards held — then the other. Good. The pine didn’t budge. It didn’t even creak.
But then he glanced inside the coffin.
There was my cousin. And she was doing exactly what I would have done if it was me in the box: playing dead. Hands folded together nice and neatly over the stomach. Face peaceful. Eyes closed. Exactly the way she would look if she was dead.
Grampa couldn’t move for a moment. A frozen man. But then he said, quickly, “Out. Out!”
Out she came, sitting up like one risen from the dead. He helped her down, and away she went, skipping off into the barn to play.
And that coffin, the second one, the one that for a brief moment held my dead cousin, was the last coffin grampa ever made.
He had seen what no grandparent should ever see, the great nightmare: a grandchild dead. Immediately, his will to build coffins ran from that little garage. It did not stop running.
He closed and locked the door, hung a dart board on it, and threw darts, hard, mumbling funny things that made us laugh, things like, “From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Ye damned Death…”
“Who you talking to, grampa?” we asked.
“You. Now hurry up and throw.”
Where are the two coffins now? I found them the last time I was home and visiting my grandparents. I went for a nosey little walk in the garage of their new home and eventually worked my way into the cellar.
I found migratory tools. I found darkness. I found a blooming spider kingdom. Then, against the far wall, I saw them…
The coffins. They were stacked, one on the other.
And that’s where they are at this very moment. An air compressor hangs from the wall above them, dangling blue and yellow cords, antennae curiously tapping the boxes, making sure they’re still hollow. The coffins, like raccoons, have gathered miscellaneous found objects around themselves: boxes here; a stack of trashcan lids there; car batteries; a paint-stained aluminum ladder; some leaning lattice; a forgotten basketball; a dark red cabin door with a black latch.
I spent some time with the coffins when I found them. They made me feel deep. I’m the kind of guy who hangs out in cellars with Death. Want to be friends? Of course you don’t. You fear my depths.
When I first saw the boxes I thought, “Oh neat, he still has them!” Then I did the math (two coffins…two grandparents) and I thought,
“Oh. He still has them.”
I took a picture with my phone then looked at the picture to see if I could see ghosts anywhere. None. Just the pine boxes and the rubble around them.
Then I did more math: two coffins in the cellar; two grandparents in the house.
Immediately, I froze. My will to feel deep vanished. Then I un-froze, and like one running from his tomb, away I went, and quickly, out of the cellar — Out, out! — and I skipped off into the house, amazed at my luck:
I get to see them again.