A little Lutheran church out in the country, not yet gentrified into “charming,” gives you hard, dark wooden pews, chilly air, and an old bell calling dutiful Germans to change out of their cow-shit-covered barn boots, dress up, and sing serious, organ-emphasized hymns written four hundred years ago.
Sunday service is severely early (rich people go to church at 10:30 and even 11:00, but not these spartan farmers), but today is a weekday. Not many are gathered yet. It’s a school day. Across the street in the cinderblock elementary school, a tetherball hangs unused in the big yard while indoors, teachers, besides ministers, the other towering figures of life, lead children into the world of books and numbers, holidays and society beyond these gravel roads. Behind the school is a creek and woods that no one finds especially beautiful. Home for these kids is an old farmhouse, a new ranch-style house, or a trailer house. School is this modest place that matters, greatly matters. Church is a brick one with a small cemetery behind it where lie the Schmidts and Schultzes of past generations, dead from scarlet fever, war, and meningitis.
We, the family, are here, exploring the church, dressed up for the small, white, rectangular box with gold-colored handles that holds the center.
“I’m afraid to go up there,” I whisper to one sister.
But my other sister, Amanda’s mother, calls, “Come and see how beautiful she looks,” and, because she can do it, I have to. I walk, step by trembling step, up to the altar.
As beautiful as Snow White, she lies in perfect, peaceful quiet, a pink rose. My sister strokes the golden hair, moves a ribbon just so. And she was right. There is nothing scary. “You can touch her,” my sister says.
Gently, I touch the flaxen hair, so bright and shiny it seems to have been washed with dish soap. It’s smooth and a bit stiff with hairspray. She is peaceful, beautiful, even comforting. I know her spirit would linger by her mother, so I say something to the body. Was it the Lord’s Prayer? Was it “May you be filled with loving kindness; may you be peaceful and at rest?” Or was it “Goodbye, sweet, beautiful girl. We love you. Thank God, your pain is over.”
“She’s an angel now,” my sister says. She arranges the collar of the new pink dress with a practiced and proprietary hand.
It wasn’t frightening, but a relief to see the beauty, the calm, closed eyes, the warm-colored pink skin. Erased was the sunken flesh of leukemia, erased the Hickman line her mother learned to flush out, erased the puffy flesh of steroids, erased the face masks and hand-washings of visitors, erased the big basket of stuffed animals, the array of cards from schoolmates, erased the transfusions all for naught, erased the hapless jerking of her body as they suctioned out her lungs, erased the tube that prevented questions or crying, erased the eye patches that preserved precious fluids and hid the world and her crystalline-aqua eyes so that in the end, she spoke only in slow tears dripping from beneath the eye coverings, only in the weak pressure of a thin hand holding her mother’s, her uncle’s, her aunt’s hand as they sat by her hospital bed, reading, singing, praying. Erased was her mother’s hope and constant vigil. Her mother’s arms raised up at last to receive the agony her child relinquished.
The girl lay up front, a perfectly coiffed doll, inserts in her cheeks to make them round again, eyes closed, relaxed, free of pain.
Friends and relatives filled the pews; slow music began. Teachers from her classroom across the street led their students, curious and awed, into pews. In single file, they walked up to see how she, their first dead person, looked, even gingerly touched an edge of clothing.
The minister in his suit stood in front and spoke of God’s goddamn will and our duty to kiss God’s boots and how God wouldn’t do a thing for us unless we accepted Christ as our personal savior first. The girl in the coffin hadn’t done so. We sang some unconvincing hymns about Easter and resurrection to make sure we focused on our sin and salvation and not on the little girl in the white and gold box, still there and yet erased.
Men with screwdrivers walked up. My sister leapt up and staggered from the front row, sobbing and shaking. She ran for the door behind the altar, trailed by her husband and a close friend. She had asked the church to tell her when they were about to close the coffin, to give her a warning.
When the service was over, we went outside. The funerary machines had already made a rectanglular hole in the near-frozen earth behind the church. Hydraulic engines moved the coffin from the gurney to a sort of portable elevator to the hole in the ground. We stood in the cold, watching the machines, then went inside to eat sloppy joes, ham, potato salad, rolls, cole slaw, potato chips, brownies, cookies, coffee.
I talked to a couple who raised Polish Whites, a kind of pig. “Do you ever get attached to them?” I asked.
“Oh yes!” the woman exclaimed. “They’re just like pets.”
I didn’t know what to say. Just like pets you kill and eat?
Then it was over except for the fierce struggle of divorced parents over tending the grave plot. When the snow had melted away, my sister arrived in the churchyard and ripped out the white picket fence and daisies her ex had installed. She planted instead a white and gold cross, a pink rose.
Lita Kurth holds an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and has published in three genres in journals and anthologies and has had Pushcart nominations in both fiction and creative nonfiction. “Are We Not Ladies,” was nominated by Watershed Review for Best of the Net, 2017. “This is the Way We Wash the Clothes,” (CNF) won the 2014 Diana Woods Memorial Award (Lunchticket). Her creative nonfiction “Pivot,” and short story, “Gardener’s Delight” (Dragonfly Press DNA) were nominated for Pushcart Prizes. A sampling of publications: Atticus Review, Brain, Child, Main Street Rag, Microfiction Monday. In 2013, she co-founded San Jose’s Flash Fiction Forum, a popular reading series.