…fair of face…
The boy had a chubby face framed by sugar-syrup-brown ringlets. His folded hands upon his still chest looked so soft, the Undertaker couldn’t resist bending down to brush her lips against the smooth knuckles.
She studied the picture of the boy the parents had sent her: eyes bright, smile shining, arms thrown over a Labrador. The dog seemed to have it the hardest, the family friend had told her, dabbing at his eyes. It kept going to the boy’s bed, yanking off the covers, and then lying on them. It had refused to eat, just kept looking up with doleful eyes at the bed. “We don’t know what to do. How do you tell a dog that its favorite child is never—”
He had covered his face with his hands, and the Undertaker patted his arm.
Now, the Undertaker brushed the boy’s ringlets and straightened his suit made from silk—his parents had spared no expense for this. She arranged the tiny soldier figures and car toys about the open coffin according to the parent’s written instructions, brushed his shoes until they shone. She stepped back from the coffin, looking to see if anything was out of place.
A lone crow peered through the window. The Undertaker took up a hardened bread roll and flung it at the window.
“Not yet,” she snapped.
She tucked the picture under the boy’s hands and picked up the coffin. It wasn’t one of those ridiculously expensive caskets made to soothe the viewers of the deceased rather than the deceased themselves. This one, as all the ones she constructed, was made of plain oak. It was heavy, but her arms were strong.
She carried the boy to the large slab of basalt behind her house that overlooked a western forest. A flutter of wings told her that the crow had followed her to a nearby maple. She laid the coffin down on the basalt and whispered the required prayers as she tucked in a stray curl here, straightened a pants leg there.
More crows landed in the maples around her, their approach silent except for the rustle of wings.
When the afternoon sun began to sink below the tree line far to the west, she reached into the corner of her apron and took out the last item: a shiny copper coin, blank of any engravement. She placed it on the boy’s forehead, then stepped away.
The crows let out a cry and descended onto the coffin.
As they did their work, the Undertaker moved to a slight rise carpeted with clover and violets. She sat and watched the sun finish its journey into twilight. Her hand reached up to touch a small green pouch she wore on a green silk ribbon around her neck.
Another crow, or perhaps the same one from earlier, landed in front of her, clutching something shiny in its beak. She threw a rock at it, but it was only a half-hearted throw.
…full of grace…
“She always loved flowers.”
The woman who sat in the Undertaker’s den was graceful, long limbed—probably a dancer. She had long, curly eyelashes, limned with beaded tears. She kept glancing to the other room, the Undertaker’s workshop, where a young girl the spitting image of the dancer lay in a coffin, her cheeks still the color of peach fuzz at the peak of ripeness. Whoever had embalmed her had done a marvelous job.
“I wanted to bury her under a willow tree, with daffodils, baby’s breath, daisies’. That was her favor—” The woman’s breath hitched. The Undertaker waited patiently for the woman to compose herself, secretly glad that her daughter wasn’t going to be buried in the ground where the worms and the centipedes would nibble at her sweetness. Finally, the woman glanced up at her again. “Will she suffer?”
“Her soul has already fled to warmer pastures. She won’t feel a thing.”
“How will I know?”
The Undertaker heard the unspoken question in the woman’s tremulous voice. Will I suffer? Will I continue feeling this pain?
“You won’t.” the Undertaken soothed.
She held out her hand, and after a moment, the woman gave her a silver coin, blank on both sides.
Later, the Undertaker sat gazing at the sun setting below the trees. A crow landed before her, dropping something shiny at her feet. This time, she reached for it. It was the silver coin, engraved on one side with the image of the girl from this morning, peach cheeks now silver sheened, every detail perfect. On the other side was her name and dates of birth and death in exquisite, small-looped letters. She gave it back to the crow, which took off with the coin in its beak. She watched it soar into the deepening twilight.
Maybe in a city, maybe in a town, or farmhouse, the crow would land at a window somewhere. It would tap on the glass until the woman from this morning came to open the window. The woman would take the coin the crow had dropped, blinking at the engravement, tracing the name with her finger. She would then turn to look at the room she was in, note the packed boxes filled with girls’ clothes and baby dolls, the child’s bed dismantled in the corner of the room. She would put the coin away, then continue to pack, turning her daughter’s room back into an ordinary bedroom. She would do this with dry, clear eyes. The toys and clothes would be sold; the bed will be stored in the attic.
If anyone stopped her on the street to offer condolences, she would say thank you with mild confusion, and perhaps a bit of sadness.
But she would keep the coin.
They always did.
…filled with woe…
People grieved over so many things, the Undertaker mused. A failed marriage. Loss of a job. But the loss of a child always hit the keenest. Never mind the grief children felt when their parents died. The old cliché was always true; parents never expected to outlive their children. It was more than just the child who died. It was death of dreams. Of plans. Of potential. Of possibility. Of the future.
Her clientele came from all over. Crying fathers, stoic mothers. Those who wailed and tore at their shirts and pulled at their hair, as if inflicting pain on themselves could bring their children back. Those who sat silent, their only sign of grief a lowering of the eyes, or the tightening of the lips as their beloved child was carried away from them. Most came to her after the funeral had been held. Others came directly from the hospital, the morgue.
The Undertaker was familiar with grief in all its facets. Her role was simple: to sit with the bereft. Listen to them. Provide solace when she could. And for those who needed it, soften the edges of grief so they could move on.
The crows aided her in this task.
Once, a person asked her if the crows ate the children. The Undertaker stared at her, appalled. A horrid idea, eating children. The crows would never do such a thing.
Then where do they go? What do the crows do with the children?
Did it matter? The children were already dead. Nothing could bring them back. It wasn’t her job to provide answers. The crows were not kind. Nor were they cruel. They only made sure nothing was left behind.
Today’s child wasn’t even a child. It was a bundle of blood-soaked rags left on her doorstep, wrapped tight in swaddled blankets. A miscarriage then, or perhaps an abortion. She never knew which, nor did she seek out the truth. That wasn’t her job.
She treated the bundle with the same care as an actual child. She sang it lullabies, brought up one of the stuffed animals she kept for this occasion. She hugged it, placed it in one of her pre-built coffins—it was so small she could carry it in one hand—and placed a spare coin she kept for this purpose on what would be considered the brow.
The crows took the bundle, coffin and all.
Grief, the Undertaker mused, did not conform to expectations. For some, grief hit with the impact of a thousand suns that took years, even decades to recover. For some, grief lingered just long enough only to vanish unexpectedly like the morning dew. And for some, grief never appeared at all. The same person who would be bent double, shrieking in pain from one loss, could be calm and dry-eyed with the next loss. Grief could be fickle.
The Undertaker learned long ago to accept this as well.
She no longer became upset when people didn’t show up to mourn their children. She didn’t get angry when a stoic partner kept still rather than comfort their weeping significant other. She learned that grief contained nuances, complex layers, some beyond her own understanding.
Whenever she did feel angered or upset, she reached up and touched the small silk bag on its ribbon around her neck. In truth, she had done this so often she was no longer fully aware when she did so.
But it calmed her, the slight touch. And that was always enough.
She had no need for money. The crows took care of her needs. They brought her food, objects. And they took the children and the heartache away.
…far to go…
Which was why she was baffled by her own reaction the next day.
The two women sitting in her den each wore a single hematite ring on their left hands. The dark one was sorrowful but dry-eyed, a red scarf wrapped atop her head like a turban, along with a leather bracelet set with a single red jade, as red as her scarf, around her right wrist. The other one was amber to her partner’s ebony, everything about her coiled tight, her cornrows, her face, her fist.
“What would you even know about how I feel?” she demanded.
The Undertaker stopped her spiel about the ceremony mid-sentence. “I’m sorry?”
The red jade woman reached over to pat her partner’s shoulder, but she jerked away. “Why should I give my child to you? What if I don’t want to forget?”
“You won’t forget,” the Undertaker tried to continue her spiel. “It will just ease the pain.”
“I don’t want to ease my pain,” The force of the woman’s anger pushed the Undertaker back in her chair. “He was my son. My boy. There is a hole here and it can’t be filled by anything. And you just want me to ignore that? I was his mother!”
“I was his mother, too…” murmured the red jade woman.
“Why did you even come here then? If you don’t want to do this, get out.” The Undertaker stood, her voice rising. “Bury him in the ground. Burn him to ashes with fire. Let him rot in your arms for all I care. Live with your pain. Let it cripple you until you can’t think anymore. And then what would you do? Something so foolish like trying to follow your son? Make a vow you can’t undo?” She thrust a finger towards the darker woman. “How do you think she’d feel if she lost the both of you?”
The cornrowed woman rose. “I knew this was a mistake.” She left, her partner scrambling after her. Neither bothered to shut the front door behind them.
A crow landed on the door’s threshold, cawing and flapping its wings. The Undertaker had nothing to throw at it this time.
…loving and giving…
There were no children delivered to her today, so the Undertaker closed all the doors and windows to her house and pulled the shades. She entered her workshop, removed the silk bag that hung around her neck, and emptied its contents on the bench.
A chip of bone. A sliver of fingernail, carefully pared. A black coil of hair. A barrette.
I don’t want my hair cut.
Come on, it’ll take a second. See?
It’s too short!
It’ll grow back. I can see your eyes now.
Oh, okay. Maybe you’re right.
The Undertaker braced herself for the emotions. It was twelve years old, this grief.
I’m sorry, but your daughter—
—car going too fast—
—riding her bike, must’ve been too dark—
Most of that time were barely fragments of memory. Heartache. Numbness. Arguments with someone who’s name she couldn’t remember.
—why did you let her go out in the first—
—you saying it’s my fault—
Only two memories stayed with her, sharp in focus.
Walking down a sidewalk, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Not aware of where she is, only knows that she’s been walking, walking so long that there are blisters on her feet, but the pain is nothing, nothing. A crow lands at her feet, pecking at the pavement before looking up at her with one black, bright eye.
—what you looking at? Think you can bring her back? Unless you can take away my pain, go, shoo, take off!
The crow cocks its head again, as if her misery is something to study, then takes off.
—Stupid bird— she mutters.
She’s bringing a book with her to the cemetery (what was the name of the book she can’t remember now). It had been their nightly ritual to read a book together at bedtime. There’s a part of her that hungers to do it again. She hates the thought of her daughter supine under so much dirt, with the worms and centipedes to suck away at her sweetness…
The grave is covered with hundreds of crows.
They are pecking and scratching, a chaos of feathers and claws. They are digging. She never knew crows could dig. They have dug all the way down to the coffin, tearing it into splinters, carrying it away…
Carrying away her daughter…
She shrieks, running into their midst, flapping her arms, grabbing what she can salvage from their grip. How dare they, how dare they do something so obscene…
In the end, she can only rescue a few fragments.
It isn’t until the horror of the act has finished washing over her that she realizes that, for the first time in a long time, she can think. The pain she felt hasn’t vanished, but is muted. Reduced.
The Undertaker, who forsook everything twelve years ago—her name, her partner, her livelihood—sat in a house she had built with her own two hands. She laid eyes on these fragments, all that remained of her daughter, and wept.
Then, she dried her eyes, gathered up the fragments, and placed them back in her bag.
…hard for a living…
The next morning, the Undertaker awoke to a knocking.
The red jade woman stood at her front door. Her scarf was no longer piled on her head, but now was wrapped around a bundle in her arms. She held it out, and the Undertaker held herself still so she wouldn’t recoil from the smell. “Please,” said the woman. “Before she finds out.”
So, the Undertaker took the child. Unlike the other children, this one had not been embalmed. She had to wear a special mask and gloves to perform the usual rites. She used the woman’s red scarf to swaddle the boy’s body. The red jade woman hovered by her, helping when she could, casting glances at the door. The Undertaker had her choose a coffin; she picked one with a rich mahogany hue.
When all was ready, they carried the coffin out to the basalt slab. The crows had gathered in the trees above, their bright eyes focused down. The woman eyed them nervously. To distract her, the Undertaker had her say the prayers over the boy. She pressed her hands above the coffin, half singing, half humming her prayers. Without the scarf, her hair was short, tight black coils peppered with gray. After a long time, she took out a coin, a copper with rose tarnish, laid it on the bundle, then stepped back.
“All right,” she breathed. “He can go now.”
Before the Undertaker could respond, something blurred past her—the cornrowed woman, scooping up the child’s body before either of them could move. She glared at them, then took off running towards the trees, the child’s body cradled in her arms.
“No!” cried the Undertaker.
But the crows were already rising as a black cloud, harsh caws pelting the air. They surrounded the fleeing woman, who shrieked and hunched down, shielding the body with her own. Her partner waded in, crying at them to stop. But the crows refused to be thwarted. They pecked and tore with beaks and claws.
The crows were not kind. Nor were they cruel. They only made sure nothing was left behind.
However, they could be easily distracted.
The Undertaker yanked the silk bag from around her neck. Making clucking sounds to catch their attention, she scattered its contents on the basalt stone. “Here! Leave them alone!”
The crows, sensing something that had been denied for so long, left off their punishment of the women. They descended on the altar. Then, in a cloud of feathers, they took off flying west, taking the objects to wherever they always took the children. The Undertaker watched them go, shielding her eyes against the glare of blue sky.
Then she took a deep breath and turned to deal with the bruised, sobbing cornrowed woman, still clutching the dead child tight to her breast, unwilling to let go.
…on a Sabbath day…
The Undertaker offered her bedroom to the red jade woman that night. She shook her head at first, choosing to remain by her partner’s side. The next morning, they buried the child by the slight rise. The crows watched without saying a word.
Later, the red jade woman joined the Undertaker on the back porch. The cornrowed woman sat by the makeshift grave, glaring at the crows who watched from the trees.
“I just can’t see her like this,” said the red jade woman. “What can I do to help her?”
“What makes you think you can?”
“I want to take away her pain. That’s all I want. I don’t want her to hurt anymore.”
“Grief doesn’t work that way,” The Undertaker said, then stopped.
She hadn’t even thought when she tossed the fragments on the basalt slab. That was all they were now. Mere fragments. Not her daughter.
A crow landed on the porch and started pecking at her shoe.
“Grief is a stone.” She told the woman. “It weighs down, burrowing itself deep until it becomes part of you. One day you’ll wake up and realize that parts of yourself have grown over it, that the grief becomes part of your natural landscape. But it takes time.”
“How much time?”
“As long as it takes,” the Undertaker looked at her. “But the question you should ask is, will you walk with her through that time?”
The woman gazed at her partner. The Undertaker already knew her answer.
She took the woman into the house and showed her the workshop. She showed her the coffins, the clothes, the instruments used for cleaning, the toys and stuffed animals.
She then brought the woman to the crows, who cawed and nudged each other, but made no move to attack.
“As long as she watches over the grave, they won’t harm you. But this is only temporary. You’ve committed your son to them, so they will make every attempt to take your son away. You must be ready for when that happens.”
She handed the woman a small silk bag, similar to her own. The woman stared at her. “What—”
“What better way for her to work through her own grief,” the Undertaker said, gently, folding her hands over the woman’s. “Stay. Process your thoughts. When you are ready, give your child away. You’re not going to forget him. The pain won’t cease. But you will accept it one day. The crows will know.”
The woman clutched the bag and gave a slight nod. She went to join the cornrowed woman, taking up the same posture the Undertaker had for so many years now. The Undertaker didn’t know how long they would stay: weeks, months, years…
It didn’t matter. The crows would always find another.
She went inside, packed her belongings, which were few. She dug until she found the slip of paper that carried her old name. She closed the door to the house that wasn’t hers anymore and started walking down the road.
A pair of crows circled over her and dropped a coin at her feet. She stepped over it and kept on walking.