by K.E. Knox

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short fiction

I’ve outgrown my patent Mary-Janes, but Mother does not know that cadaver toes cannot grow buckled inside shiny polished coffins. I avoid putting them on and patter around in white ruffle socks. She preens before the vanity in her terrycloth robe. One crane leg protrudes, smooth and searching the carpet as her slim fingers unroll one of Oma’s midnight velvet pouches. Pearls emerge, a strand of little moons. She rolls one into her lychee beak and whispers to the mirror in Mandarin, “I can taste value.”

When Oma first flew away to that flightless coop so deep into New Jersey it was almost Pennsylvania (but it did not matter because she no longer discerned the difference), Father went into the Big House and carted her magpie box of treasures back to Manhattan. I watched in horror while Mother sorted the jewels into piles. Extracted each item like a terrible Egyptian embalmer palming defunct organs. One by one, she unwrapped them and weighed their fates: sell, keep, not-sure. I coiled my tongue against my teeth until a gold sparrow brooch with tiny, freshwater pearl eyes reported for judgement—the one Oma used to pin to the woolen Austrian walking hat that tilted aloft her grey-blonde curls every time she left the house.

“Birdie,” Oma once whispered to me, “was the first gift your Opa ever gave me when he came from America with his army to liberate Germany after the war. Because we were young and still alive and in love. One day when I am gone, darling girl, Birdie will be yours.”

Birdie was the first item Mother dumped into the “sell” pile.

“It’s ugly. Your white family has terrible taste. Not like your Wàipo in Shanghai. She’s immaculate. Colonially regal, like me. Like you will be, maybe, if you get out of this scrappy wood-urchin phase your Nazi grandma encouraged. No, no, girl, don’t cry, you know I hate that! Trust me, when you’re older and cultivate a bit of style, you won’t want any of this old European junk. You’ll see, I’m doing you a favor.”

The last time we went to see Oma, she did not know our faces. While Father shouted at the khaki-clad women in charge of dressing and feeding, I sat beside her brushing the curls from her well-grooved forehead and stroking the cerulean veins streaking the back of her alabaster palms like jet-streams in an inside-out sky. I talked to her. Of summertime, when I used to cross the Oma Bridge to Saddle River to stay with her at the Big House, where Father was once little. And of our garden, clearing raspberries from heavy vines in the mornings to squash into our lemonade in the afternoon.

“Just get on with it, Wing!” Father shouts at Mother in the same way he shouted at the khaki women. “No one is coming to the funeral. No one. All my relatives are dead. All my mother’s friends are dead. The dead don’t care how you dress.”

“That’s obscene American stuff. In my country, what you wear to a funeral is how you pay respect.”

Mother scoops up a Wall Street Journal and thumbs slowly through the sports section, complaining that sports are vulgar. Father snatches the newspaper and tears it in two. She ignores him and turns on CNN.

“Wing, I know what you’re doing! Today is not the day to be a bitch. Get dressed. I’m burying my fucking mother. Where is your god damned sense of decency? Do you hear me, Wing? I’m going to the funeral home right now. And I’m taking the child. Meet us there, and don't be late.”

Mother grins and turns up the volume so that Anderson Cooper, who never shouts, is now shouting. Father storms out, his bleary blue eyes bolted ahead like a bird’s, forgetting that he is supposed to take me with him. After the door slams, Mother silences the television.

“He’s just prissy because he misses his mommy. So, girl, are you staying with your Mother or going off with him?”

I say nothing. I just buckle up the coffin shoes and go. On my own, I drag through the lobby over to Madison Avenue, then up. My black velvet funeral dress sticks hot against my skin. It itches. After a few blocks, I glimpse Father’s dark grey suit. He is tall and strides long. I hobble after him as fast as my Wàipo’s wàipo, feet bound. The migration to the large building of non-offensive brownstone looming on the corner of 81st and Madison seems an eternity.

A white man in a black suit stands outside guarding a Cadillac hearse blooming with fresh-cut flowers. Somehow, Mother is already there, proudly swanning out of a taxi and fingering the carnelian juzu beads Wàigōng brought her back from the Asakusa Shrine when she was a young girl. She poses on the corner looking like a 1920s actress in a silent film about a war-won Jade bride. Wind breaths up her skirt as she stares with eyes wide as wontons into the window of the cashmere boutique across the street where a sign proclaims SALE. Her ensemble is elegant, but eggshell: a finely pleated crêpe de chine skirt and matching jacket.

Father reviews her outfit angrily then rubs the sweat from his brow with the back of his palm. “Jesus, Wing. What the fuck are you wearing white for?”

“In my country..."

But he doesn’t let her finish. “We’re not in your country."

He snatches Mother by the wrist and yanks her inside with just a little too much force. The doorman turns away politely, trained by corporate not to notice.

Inside the fancy funeral home, everything is oxblood. The brocade walls, gloomy chandelier, Ottoman rugs, and chesterfield yawning with clawed iron feet. On a marble credenza beneath a gilded mirror an ivory St. Michael stands on one leg inside a glass box clutching a flaming sword. I want to touch the archangel and see if he vanishes—poof—but disapproving eyes warn my fingers away.

A bald funeral director appears wearing a diagonal smile. He extends his hand in reverent sorrow. Father clasps it, firmly.

“Mr. Scott, welcome. I am so sorry for your loss. Can I offer you some coffee, tea, champagne?”

“Champagne,” says Mother.

“Whisky,” says Father.

“Lemonade!” I cry.

The silver tray arrives without the lemonade. The funeral director waits until his clients sigh into their sips to speak again.

“Now, Mr. and Mrs. Scott. Now, everything is ready, just like you arranged. After the viewing, a limousine will take you to the cemetery, where the Lutheran minister from your Mother’s German parish will be waiting. The car will wait to return you to the city for lunch at Günter Seeger. Please, follow me, the visitation room is right this way.”

Father slugs and Mother swishes, but I remain rooted. A gaunt attendant wearing white gloves rakes back the old elevator grille. Mother steps all the way inside the movable coffin and twirls round like a model turning at the end of the runway.

“Get in here, girl, right now!”

I shake my head no.

“Don’t make me...” Mother raises her voice, but the bald funeral director and his staff lower their eyes, so she softens her tone. “And why not, darling? Don’t you want to see your precious grandmother one last time?”

“Not like that.”

“You mean dead? Surely, you’re too old to be scared of corpses?”

“No. The dead don’t scare me. I don’t want to see her like that.”

Mother snatches my wrist and yanks just a little bit too hard. “Now you listen to me, girl, in my country, we sit there with the dead while they’re dying, until they’re all the way dead. And when they’re dead, we sit with them some more, then we take the corpses to burn. We even chant things at them and offer them tea and rice and watch the bones char. It’s perfectly natural; the only way to accept death is to see it. Otherwise, it isn’t real, and you get stuck in the stupidity of sadness. What my people call Samsara.”

The juzu beads jangle. I glance at Father with begging bowl eyes, but he is gazing at the wall in between the crucifix and the clock and gulping down the last of Mother’s half-sipped champagne.

“Daddy?”

He doesn’t look at us, his daughter and woman, only the Son of Man. His chest heaves, as if heavy stones are crushing it. “Wing, if she doesn’t want to see her dead grandma then she doesn’t have to see her dead grandma. Let’s just get on with it, shall we? I hate to keep the minister waiting. Germans are very punctual, as you know.”

“Oh, yes, dear, everyone knows how the Germans are. Fine, it’s your mother’s funeral, after all. Ok, last chance, girl. Once they bury her, she’s gone. You can never say goodbye again.”

“But I’ve never said goodbye before.”

Father points to the chesterfield beside the archangel. “You wait there. Talk to that cross and ask God to take good care of Oma. Maybe it’ll do you some good. Wing, come.”

But I can tell he is not thinking about God or Oma, only about himself and the Bordeaux he will swallow at lunch now that the free whisky is gone. Bordeaux, then brandy, billed to Oma’s estate. I sit with ankles crossed and avoid eye contact with the cross. The buoyant leather reeks of potpourri and formaldehyde. Then, up they go, Mother and Father, trotting behind the bald undertaker to see whether he has embalmed Oma so that she looks dozy in her mahogany box lined with lilac satin sleeping-bags.

A man in black remains behind to make sure I don’t break St. Michael or anything else valuable. He whispers something to an attendant. A second silver tray appears, this time, with lemonade. As I accept the clear, cold glass, and the corners of his mouth turn up in the only kind of smile allowed in that place. His smile says, this is no place for a kid. I grin back. We are agreed.

I finish my lemonade, then stand up and drift past the archangel and crucifix towards the front doors. The man in black does not stop me. Outside, the sun blazes. It feels hot on my dark clothes. More than anything, I want to kick off my coffin shoes, race into Central Park, and press my ribs to the tallest rocks—the ones they couldn’t grind to asphalt when they created the park because the bedrock rising from the city’s bones protects its heart. Oma and I used to do just that, when she’d drive in from New Jersey to look after me during long weekends when Nanny went to Newark to cook and clean for her own children. But Oma never climbed up with me. “That’s where children belong,” she’d say, “climbing in the clouds. I’ll keep my feet on the ground and make sure it’s safe for you to come back down.”

Rooted in the earth, she would crane her neck through the breeze and delight in watching me dart towards the birds, higher and higher, readying herself with raspberries to refresh me when I slid back down. Sometimes, she would get so fearful I might fall that she’d tighten her fists without realizing it and crush the raspberries in her hands to jam. When I came down, I always thought they tasted sweeter that way.

Nanny’s gone home, but this weekend was not one of those long weekends. Still, the breeze blows familiar promises. I look up at the man in black, whose silhouette is bracketed by slow moving clouds, then shift my eyes towards Fifth Avenue and Central Park. He knows what I’m after and shakes his head uh-huh. That’s when I see the little brown and oxblood bundle eviscerated at my feet. The hatchling is dead, crushed by its plummet from the nest. The bird's viscera are flipped inside-out. Gore the color of crushed raspberries smears the sidewalk. She has no wings, only their suggestion, an outline of soft, unfeathered plumage, and grey toothpick bones. She is the first dead thing I have ever seen.

A dog comes along on a blue leash and lunges at the tiny, mangled bird. Just before the dog’s jaws seize the lifeless body, its owner heels him with a resolute yank. I throw myself onto the sidewalk, rubbing my knees into the cement, and entomb the dead in my hands. I glare accusingly at the man in black.

“Don’t just stand there looking at me! You’re a funeral director, let’s direct her funeral.”

“But I’m only a—” he starts to reply, but now, tears are rolling down my cheeks. I am still on my knees in the street, trembling in my nice funeral dress, and my coffin shoes are shining. He relents with a sigh. “Ok, kid. But we gotta be quick, or I’ll lose more than just my job. Capeesh?”

We hurry down 81st St., past the tourists swirling on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum. Green treetops wave at us beyond the low stone wall that divides the city from the park. We break into a jog until we near the reservoir. In a circle, runners bounce up and down. The man in black points to the pond. “Burial at sea?”

I hear birds chirping in the other direction, so I ignore him and chase their song. He follows me into The Ramble, so green and overgrown it almost feels like New Jersey. All the way to the roots of an enormous pine. Migrating birds repose in its branches, because people who care for living things have strung up pinecones stickered with seed. The birds chatter and nibble about the pine like Oma’s guests at her once-famed Christmas soirées. Just beyond, a primordial rock rises. I run towards its summit. The man in black does not follow.

“I’ll wait for you here. But for the love of God, kid, be careful!”

My coffin shoes slide around on the slippery shale, so I tear them off, white ruffle socks too. My bare feet smack the stone. Rough and cool kisses on my soles. For the first time since Oma died, I smile. I don’t stop until I reach the top. Where to bury her? How to bury her? Why do we bother to bury at all?

I feel around with my toes until the rock splits and a small chink opens, a tiny crevasse padded with muck and leaves. I open my hands. Organs crushed to jam. Blood stains the creases of my palms the color of squashed raspberries, but I am no longer afraid of blood, feathers, or flesh. I stroke the pile of feathers and bones as gently as Oma used to brush my hair before bed. Then, I lower the hatchling into the open grave. With my fingers, I rake mud, leaves, and tears over the corpse. I use dried stems to tie two sticks together into a cross and mark the sacred site. Dear God, please give us all wings. Even Mommy and Daddy. But especially this hatchling and Oma and me. Amen.

Down below, in the verdant aisle, the man in black takes his hands out of his pockets and shouts, “Hey, kid! Hurry up!”

I slide down the rock, my bare feet hard on the stone until I am caught and lowered gently to earth. His large hand enfolds mine, indifferent to my gravedigger palms, and we fly from the park.

Once more inside the funeral home, I smooth my skirt and pleat my hair in imitation of Mother at her vanity. I used the glass surface of the box where the archangel is imprisoned as a mirror, then resume my polite position, ankles crossed, on the chesterfield.

Pssst, kid! Go wash them hands!”

I bolt into the bathroom and scrub as hard as I can. My palms look like I’ve been working Oma’s raspberries again. Most of the death rinses down the drain.

My parents’ voices crescendo on the oxblood stair. How prettily and politely they speak to strangers! I do not have time to resume my seated pose, so I straighten my back where I stand and wait, but the ghosts do not acknowledge me, merely summon my obedience with their presence. I trail after them, chin down and mute. The man in black rushes to open the door.

Mother takes no notice of him as she swoops into the backseat of the limousine and turns her gaze back towards the cashmere hanging in the window across the street. I linger with Father and the bald funeral director on the curb. The man in black is joined by his twin and they bolster the doors wide for the mahogany coffin. As it goes by, Father kisses it, but I do not. It’s too far away, and I’m too embarrassed to perch on tippy-toes and press my lips to the polished box. I worry that I will fall face-forward onto it, and the men in black will drop it. Smash! The lid will fly open, Oma’s corpse will pop out like a jack-in-the-box, and everyone will scream. Mother, shrillest of all.

Into the hearse’s trapdoor swings the box. Daisies, lilies, and roses. Slap, slap, slap go my bare feet on the sidewalk. Blades of torn grass sprout between my toes. My shoes! There was no need for a cross; two unbuckled patent headstones now marked the hatchling’s grave. Father wobbles in the heat and almost trips. His breath is sour from the whisky. He grabs me by the wrist, just a little too hard, and spins me around. His blue eyes sear into my brown ones. Almost-tears gather, but do not fall. Instead of shaking me by the shoulders and yelling, he seizes my hand, which I’ve balled into a fist, and pries it open. He does not notice the traces of raspberry red any more than he ever noticed the bittersweet fruits his mother shared with him from our garden. Instead, he simply presses something shiny into my hand.

“I think she wants you to have this. It was still pinned to the Austrian walking hat she always wore. Did I tell you we’re burying her in it? But don’t tell your mother; she’ll sell it like she did the other one. My father bought my mother these brooches a long time ago, before I was born. I don’t know if you ever knew that they came as a pair, just like Oma and Opa.”

While Father clasps hands with the bald funeral director, I pin Other Bridie to the inside of my black funeral dress. The bird’s pearl eyes push against my skin as I slide into the limousine beside Mother.

We climb out of Manhattan onto the Oma Bridge, bending North over the Hudson towards Bergen County Cemetery, a wide pitch of undulating green that was converted to a burial ground from a golf-course. Once, both were whites-only. When Father’s little brother died, he told Mother and me, “One day we’ll all be buried in the Scott Plot. My father bought enough spots for us all.”

Mother flushed mango and replied, “Not me. In my country, we incinerate ourselves to ashes.”

Suddenly, Mother screams. I crane forward to see whether Oma’s rotting skull has poked out from the casket and is goggling through the rearview window of the Cadillac hearse, but no. She is gone. We will bury her. One day, we will bury Father, Mother, even me. Then, I remember Birdie. One hand flies to my heart to protect the brooch, and the other balls into a fist—I’m ready to fight Mother to keep her, if necessary. But Mother has not yet spotted Father’s treachery.

“Jesus, Wing! What is it now?”

“Look! Our little heathen escaped from the funeral parlor, lost her shoes, and ran around in the dirt! She can’t walk around a cemetery with no shoes! It’s indecent.”

Father says nothing, only turns away from us, away from the hearse, for our little procession has now entered the cemetery that has already swallowed his father, little brother, and in another moment, will take his mother also onto its tongue of dirt.

“No, Wing, she can’t. After all, we’re not in your country.”