Sunday, December 9, 2007

How the Old Man Died

By Mary Overton

Long before the Old Man died, his body began to mummify. How horrified El Viejo would have been, had he known, to see the changes in his skin, to see his fine, aristocratic paleness turn the color of mahogany wood. He darkened like something smoked over a slow fire, and the heat from that unseen flame began the drying process.

The heat came from inside the Old Man. In the fullness of life he had glowed with it; he had been brilliant, irresistible, potent, and merciless. According to his daughter, according to the documentation of his American life, he expired at age 103, in the year 1970, but if one interviewed the ghosts of his Guatemalan youth, the dead from the villages of Ch___ and T___, and other places now unnamed because the words for them are lost, one might be told that El Viejo died several times, and that when one counted all his lives, he would be closer to 428, give or take a decade. Of course, how reliable are the confessions of ghosts?

The Old Man had that sort of glamour about him, a prosperous vitality that kept him working into his eighties. His pace could tire the whippersnappers, which is what actually did happen, when he pushed a crew of his loggers past what was wise – the Old Man had been known for many things, but rarely for wisdom – and the accident struck. Two men died. The Old Man was expected to die, but he wasn't ready yet, so he didn't. He wasn't ready for twenty more years, during which time his daughter bathed him and changed his diaper and administered the complicated regimen of medications and talked to him. Talked and talked and talked, not one word of which he ever answered. She forgave him everything but his muteness. She knew he was listening.

The Old Man mummified so slowly that his daughter did not realize what was happening until six years into her caretaking. She had brought him to the cabin to die. It had been his favorite place, amid second growth forest off a logging trail, and six years into her vigil there she was pleased one day to see what she thought was the white mist of his soul rising up from his body. That soul was absolved, having been blessed by the priest when El Viejo first entered a coma. That soul, his daughter firmly believed, prepared to vault directly into the company of saints among whom he had his own personal throne awaiting his arrival.

She opened the iron box and retrieved her rosary. Popi – she was the only person in the world with such an informal name for the Old Man – had given her the crystal beads for her first communion. Now a woman of 26, she sat at the bedside, reciting her prayers, filled with exultant gratitude that at last he was dead or dying, she wasn't sure which. But it became apparent, bead by bead, that the corpse still breathed. The more fervently his daughter repeated Hail Marys and Our Fathers, the more noisily the Old Man's breath whistled through his nostrils.

The white smoke continued to rise. It was not El Viejo's soul. It was exactly what his daughter had seen – a mist evaporating off his body, a coiling trail of moisture grown dense enough to be visible. The man was dehydrating, like fruit preserved on drying racks.

In her frustration, she berated the Old Man for his legendary selfishness, his extravagant pride, his many cruelties, and once started she launched into a catalogue of his crimes. She spent two years reminding him, detailing for him the specifics of his wickedness, and those were the deeds of which she was aware. God and the Devil together would be hard pressed to say how long it might take to list them all. By the exhausted finish of her tirade the Old Man’s daughter could see the changes in him, how bit by bit his flesh diminished, his skin thickened, his bones shrank.

By the end, he was a doll that fit into her arms, a nut-brown, curled infant of a doll made out of impermeable shoe leather. He was naked, because his bodily functions so decelerated that he had not fed or excreted in several months. He was fleshless by then, entirely dried like a gourd. When she moved him, she heard the rattle and shush of desiccated organs, some of them hard seed pods, others disintegrated into dust.

In the end, his heartbeat and respiration slowed to an imperceptible rate. Time lengthened between each pulse. His daughter measured them hourly, then daily, weekly, fortnightly. His daughter waited until the body went a full month, from one new moon to the next, without movement of any kind, before she wrapped him, like a gift, in tissue paper, placed him in the iron box, and buried him three feet deep in forest loam. Even then she could not know for certain that the Old Man was wholly, exclusively, indubitably dead.

Mary Overton's published work includes a book of short stories, The Wine of Astonishment, from La Questa Press, 1997, and short fiction in several anthologies, among them , Grace and Gravity from Paycock Press, 2004. Her stories have appeared in both literary and commercial magazines, including Glimmer Train, Zahir, So to Speak, and Potomac Review. This story first appeared as part of the Invisible Cities wiki-novel experiment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Was the daughter born when the old man was well into his 70's?

I liked the tone of the narrator.

Nice piece of flash.

J. Michael Shell