Dead as a Doornail
Nobody in Foxbrush Hollow knew what Becca Dowdy was doing in the old abandoned funeral parlor, but they reckoned she was up to something. "Like her granddaddy afore her," the good folks whispered, rolling their eyes. "Old Franklin Appleskate Dowdy was a decent soul, but crazy as a coot, bless his heart. Poor girl. They say these things run in the family."
True southerners cherish their eccentrics, even while pitying them. It was generally hoped by the community that time would bring Becca around, and if not... well, it wasn't as if she stripped buck naked and ran in the moonlight like Widow Ford, or perched on a rooftop to crow in the dawn like old Cockadoodle Ledlow. If it gave Becca Dowdy pleasure to waste time in her granddaddy's laboratory day and night - a shame, really, since Becca was such a pretty young thing - then all her neighbors could do was supply a casserole or Jell-O salad now and then, and talk about her shamelessly behind her back.
Occasional explosions from the funeral parlor on Boneyard Hill were ignored, more or less. Foxbrush Hollow's sheriff (a devoted angler) counted these as mildly annoying compared to those no-count sumbitches who dynamited fish on nearby Miskatoonee lake. Moreover, he had been puzzling over reports of grave robbing from the surrounding townships of Shelby, Latchkey and Chowderville.
"Never happen in my town," Sheriff Eckles declared. The Foxbrush Tattler ran an editorial on the breakdown of morals and ethics in today's society, citing the desecration of graves as an offense slightly less serious than cannibalism.
Pete Roak, the local postman, wore his legs to a nub trotting all kinds of packages up to Boneyard Hill. "Chemicals and stuff," was all Pete would mumble upon being questioned by the curious. Bribes of coconut cake and fried chicken did not dent his discretion as a member of the United States Postal Service. Pete's own formidable momma threw her hands into the air and gave up on her mule-headed son. There was clearly no enlightenment to be had from that quarter.
The curator of the tiny Foxbrush Hollow museum (which mostly contained relics from the War Between the States) gave Becca a box full of heavy glass bottles which she had found gathering dust in the basement. Mrs. Gatwood was tired of barking her shins on the old box every time she went downstairs to use the employees' rest room. Since Doc Hightower had put her on diuretics for her blood pressure, her shins had taken quite a beating. It was time to return this artifact to its origin.
"Your great-granddaddy's embalming fluid, famed in thirteen states," said Mrs. Gatwood when she delivered the box to the funeral home. She noted with great excitement that Becca had burnt off half her eyebrows, and was looking decidedly seedy. "Elijah P. Cuthbert Dowdy's Everlasting Miracle Preservative, Pat. Pend. Probably the last intact bottles we'll ever see."
Becca's pale face registered a flicker of emotion. Excitement? Hope? Mrs. Gatwood could not tell. Becca reached out, gathered the filthy cardboard box to her chest, and slammed the door in the astonished lady's face. "Thank you," Becca mumbled faintly, and shuffled away.
"Land sakes!" said Mrs. Gatwood later, to her Bridge Club friends. "I stood there with my mouth hangin' open. Didn't her momma teach that girl some manners?"
It was soon after this that the first body disappeared from the churchyard. Pastor Spurlock thought it was a prank by local teenagers. Sheriff Eckles was inclined to theorize about Satanic rituals until his eyes glazed over and he started to sweat. As the sheriff's idea of such rituals involved nude women dancing in the moonlight (with figures unlike the Widow Ford's), his discomfiture was understandable. Mrs. Spurlock, on the other hand, glanced up at the funeral parlor on Boneyard Hill with deep suspicion burning in her breast.
Another empty grave. And another, and another. The only evidence was fresh soil humped about the edges of a yawning gap in the earth. Whoever was doing it had robbing cemeteries down to a science. It did not go unnoticed that it was the recently dead who were being taken. Particularly a party of six young adults who, returning rather drunkenly from a party, failed to avoid a tree whilst speeding around a curve at eighty miles an hour. Four down, two to go. All of them had been friends of Becca Dowdy.
At the next meeting of the Ladies' Bridge and Social Club, Mrs. Spurlock and the rest had the good sense to consult Tally Fenimore Cobb, the town's oldest citizen. It was assumed that Miss Tally was over ninety years old, although it was impolite in the extreme to inquire after a lady's true age. She sat ramrod straight, hands clasped over the silver head of her cane, and listened carefully while the situation was explained to her. She might have been slightly deaf and more than a little lame, but Miss Tally's mind was still sharp as a tack.
She pursed her lips and considered while the Ladies' Bridge and Social Club waited breathlessly. Finally, Miss Tally sighed and said, "Leave her be. I knew Becca's grandma, Ionia. Obstinate as a mule, and Becca takes after old Miss Ionia more'n she does her momma, Marylou. No, I say Becca's got to make her mistakes and learn from 'em. You go giving her what-for, she'll back into a corner and get more stubborn by the minute. So y'all just leave her be. I reckon it'll work out all right in the end."
Not entirely satisfied by this wisdom, the ladies were nevertheless compelled to defer to Miss Tally Fenimore Cobb. Following their usual Wednesday night spaghetti-and-meatball dinner, they went home and refused to tell their menfolk anything about it.
Meanwhile, the mysterious grave robber struck again, despite Deputy Ernest Bedgood and three gun-toting volunteers standing guard over the cemetery. Sheriff Eckles suspected that their dereliction of duty was due to the fact that all four men were drunker than Cooter Brown's goat before midnight had even rolled around. Deputy Bedgood claimed the mason jars of moonshine were a necessary precaution against catching pneumonia, it being common knowledge that cemetery air was bad for the lungs.
"Medicinal purposes, my ass!" cried Sheriff Eckles, kicking a mason jar to smithereens.
Now there was just one left, the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Stokes.
Beautiful Dodi Ann Stokes, called home to the Lord far too early.
Harold Stokes guarded his daughter's grave with a shotgun for three consecutive nights, until the lure of a cold six-pack from the Quik n' Stop on Calhoun Street proved too great to resist. When he returned to the cemetery, replete with Budweiser and a bucket of take-out chicken, it was too late. Dodi Ann's grave was opened, her coffin gone.
Upon reaching home, Harold claimed to his wife that he had been "witched" away from their daughter's grave. She, sniffing beer fumes on his breath, consigned him to sleep on their lumpy sofa. Further reflection made her determine to burn a ten dollar pot roast to a cinder, and give him nothing but liverwurst sandwiches to eat for lunch for at least a week.
Mrs. Stokes wasted no time calling her good friend, Mrs. Spurlock, even though it was four o'clock in the morning. "Menfolk are about as useless as tits on a boar hog," said the aggrieved Mrs. Stokes. "So what are we going to do about it?"
"Not a blessed thing," replied Mrs. Spurlock. "Remember what Miss Tally told us? Leave her be. I have a feeling that it'll be over soon."
"Not soon enough to suit me. I don't much like the idea of my Dodi up there on Boneyard Hill."
"Now, now, Iris Stokes... I know it ain't the best time but... Good Heavens!"
"What's the matter?"
"Why... my George just walked in the front door! George Junior, I mean. Oh, honey-pie!" Mrs. Spurlock dropped the phone.
George Spurlock, Jr. had been one of those killed in the accident. Mrs. Stokes frowned, wondering if Beryl Spurlock had gone insane. Faintly, through the receiver still pressed to her ear, she could hear Mrs. Spurlock's cries of joy.
A moment later, there was a knock on her own door. Iris Stokes hung up the phone, still frowning, and went into the living room. She found her husband in a dead faint on the floor. Standing in the doorway was her lost daughter, Dodi. The young woman looked a bit worse for wear, considering she had spent two months in the grave, but Iris did not care.
"Dodi!" she shrilled, throwing her arms about the slightly moldy figure.
Almost immediately, she let go again. "Oh, sweetie," Iris murmured, "you need a bath somethin' desperate." She wiped her hands on the front of her housedress, mentally consigning the garment to the flames. No amount of Tide was going to get that smell out.
The phone lines burned in Foxbrush Hollow as six sets of frantic parents called each other to verify that they were not losing their minds. This fact established, an impromptu celebration commenced. Pastor Spurlock was called upon to bless the silent, though mobile, resurrectees. It was a great relief that none of the six former corpses burst into brimstone-scented flames.
Becca Dowdy came out of the funeral parlor on Boneyard Hill. The general acclaim of the citizens made her blush. "I just followed my great-granddaddy's formula," she said with becoming modesty. "Of course, I had to experiment with one or two little things. I found the addition of a measure of white lightning to be most efficacious..." She was drowned out by grateful parents, and eventually snuck back to the funeral parlor to continue her experiments.
Jubilation continued. Thanks to Elijah P. Cuthbert Dowdy's Everlasting Miracle Preservative, Pat. Pend., and the eccentric genius of Becca Dowdy, no one need ever lose a loved one forever again. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, Amen! The Mayor announced a plan to bring the rest of Foxbrush Hollow's dead back from the grave, as soon as it could be organized.
Miss Tally Fenimore Cobb, a coat thrown over her flannel nightgown, pursed her lips and said nothing.
However, the gratitude of Foxbrush Hollow was short lived. In the next few weeks, it became obvious that the six returned children were not as lively as they had been. They did not eat. They did not sleep. They did not speak. In fact, all they seemed to do was sit around, or stand patiently in one place, as the case may be. The smell worsened, too. Iris Stokes tried bags of potpourri tied with ribbons around Dodi's neck. She doused her daughter with perfume, floral water, and eau-de-cologne. Finally, she resorted to spraying Lysol directly on Dodi, who did not seem to mind.
"It's not the way she looks that bothers me," Iris confessed to Mrs. Spurlock. "Well, her eyes could be a bit brighter. Not much left there to work with. And there's a stubborn streak of mold on her upper lip, but if I cover that up with some rouge... and her hair is simply unmanageable. That smell, though..."
"Talk about stink! George Jr. reeks like a dead skunk.." Beryl Spurlock said. "I talked to Mrs. Hightower the other day. Did you know that her girl, Ruby, got chewed on by some rats last night? Lost two toes and a hunk off her chin. I recommended wood filler and plenty of pancake make-up."
"The smell is driving me crazy. Harold won't sleep in the house anymore. I think his hair is going white."
"I saw Jim Ledlow - you know, Cockadoodle Ledlow's son - at the hardware store this morning. He had his boy August in tow. Literally. Rope around his waist like he was a calf being led to slaughter. There stood August between the roofing nails and the tar paper, his jaw all askew, tongue swole up and pokin' out. I wish that man over to the Peaceful Ease Mortuary had done a better job."
"It was a closed casket funeral, as I recall."
Both women sighed.
Iris Stokes said at last, "Jeanette Hornby doesn't look too bad."
"Her momma puts a wig on that girl to cover up the hole in her head. Big enough to put your fist through."
"Does she? That might be an idea for my Dodi. Her hair is so dry, I'm afraid it might catch a-fire. I have forbidden Harold to smoke in the house, but he don't stay here much, anyway. Not since..."
"I know, Iris. Not since that crazy Becca Dowdy went meddling with things she ought to have left alone!"
"Why, Beryl! What a thing to say!"
"No, listen to me, Iris." Mrs. Spurlock's voice was low and intent. "I loved my George Jr. from the day he was born. I raised that boy, protected him to the best of my ability. And when he had the foolishness to get himself killed, I mourned him something fierce. I missed him. I wanted him back more than anything. Only now..."
"Now we've got them back, and we don't want 'em." Iris forced herself to say what she had afraid to admit to herself. "I don't know how much more of this I can stand. Dodi just sits there. She ain't rotting anymore, but she ain't alive, either. I'm going crazy! I wish she'd never come back. What are we going to do?"
"I reckon we've got to go up to Boneyard Hill. Let Becca Dowdy know the error of her ways. I've talked to Mrs. Hightower, and the Hornbys, the Ledlows... all of them that are suffering under this curse. They feel the same way we do."
"Oh, yes, Beryl. Thank God! And we've got to stop that pea-brained Mayor of ours from resurrecting anybody else."
"Good Lord! I'd clean forgot about that. Can you imagine what would happen if Old Man Ford was walking around again? I mean, my George Jr. doesn't do much on his own, but I figure Old Man Ford might have more gumption."
"You're right! No woman in this town would be safe from that old lecher. He used to chase anything in a skirt, until he broke both hips pursuing the Bartle twins. Good thing they had on rollerskates, 'cause that man was a caution, even at seventy-five."
Both women reflected on the possible horrors about to be inflicted on Foxbrush Hollow. The cemetery contained honorable ancestors, but it also held horse thieves, bank robbers, dipsomaniacs, nymphomaniacs, pyromaniacs, just plain maniacs, and other skeletons from family closets.
"It must be stopped," Beryl Spurlock said at last.
"Amen," agreed Iris Stokes.
"I'll call the rest of the ladies from the Bridge Club."
"Shall I whip up a banana pudding for after?"
Mrs. Spurlock considered. Finally, she said with deep regret, "Much as I love your nanner puddin', Iris, I just don't think it would be appropriate."
"You're right. Don't forget to bring George Jr."
"We'll all bring the bodies back to Boneyard Hill," said Beryl Spurlock darkly. "Better tell Harold to round up some menfolk, start digging graves. Becca Dowdy might need one, too, if she survives the tar and featherin'!"
Although they bore flashlights instead of torches, it was an angry mob of women who stormed the funeral parlor in search of Becca Dowdy. They found her in the morgue, surrounded by bubbling, flashing, beeping, chattering equipment. Empty bottles of Elijah P. Cuthbert Dowdy's Everlasting Miracle Preservative were neatly stacked in the recycling bin. Everything was tidier than they had expected in a mad scientist's laboratory. There was even a gingham tablecloth draped over the embalming table.
"Look what you done to my Jeanette!" howled Mrs. Rosalee Hornby, thrusting her daughter forward. Jeanette's brunette wig fell off, revealing a large hole in the crown of her skull.
"And my George Junior!" screamed Mrs. Spurlock, pushing her son towards the shrinking Becca. George Jr.'s clothing was stuck all over with air fresheners. Mrs. Spurlock pulled a can of Glade out of her purse and sprayed him liberally, dislodging a cloud of flies. Iris Stokes followed suit, unleashing a burst of Lysol at her daughter, Dodi.
Mrs. Hightower was weeping, but her face was mottled crimson with rage. "I had to fix her face with wood filler," she choked, pointing a finger at her daughter, Ruby, "and God knows where her toes went! If I hadn't heard those rats rustling in her clothes..."
"What about my August!" said Mrs. Ledlow. Her son August's shattered jaw had been bound up with a red handkerchief.
"Take a look at this mess! Like he done been rode hard and put away wet!" The last of the six mothers, Mrs. Newsome, almost swallowed the wad of snuff tucked behind her lower lip as she shouted her accusation. She spat a thin stream of tobacco juice on the floor, narrowly missing the feet of her silent, unanimated offspring. Roy Newsome, driver of the car that had wrecked six lives, and gone on to wreck six families. One of his arms was backwards, the elbow facing forward. Like the rest of the resurrectees, he appeared rather worse for wear. Like the others, he stared blankly at the space in front of him. No reaction. No expression. No life.
Becca held up her hands in a futile effort to stop the screeching that was hammering away at her consciousness. Besides the enraged mothers, most of the other women of Foxbrush Hollow had come to put their two cents into the matter. Some of them were waving ax handles. Others had pistols. There was an ugly atmosphere of violence. The morgue could barely contain the mob; they were pressed together tightly as tinder, awaiting a single spark to set off an explosion. Becca shook, terrified, her face white to the lips.
Suddenly, a voice called out, "Hold up a damned minute!"
Mrs. Stokes was the first to see the newcomer. "Lord have mercy!" She stepped back, right onto Mrs. Ledlow's foot.
A woman pushed through the mob, headed straight towards Becca. She was tall and dark haired, with brown eyes that were snapping with fury. The brief shirt she wore did not conceal a line of black stitching around her wrist. Closer inspection revealed more stitches - delicate french knots in front of an ear, a row of beautifully executed running stitches in her hairline, shadow stitches on her collarbone. More black ties below her navel. Turkey, chain, herringbone, lazy daisy, blanket, cross, and mosaic stitches, all scattered here and there on the woman's body.
A shockwave rippled through the mob, whose members abruptly wished that they had somewhere else to go.
Mrs. Spurlock managed to regain her voice. "What in tarnation are you?" she asked the newcomer. "A person or an embroidery sampler?"
"My name is Legion, for I am many," the woman replied. Everyone knew their Bible verses; they all took a step backwards, heedless of the damage done to toes and shoe leather.
"That's a little joke," she continued with a smile. Mrs. Stokes noted, partly with horror, partly with dawning interest, that the woman's gums were decorated with feather stitches, much finer than her own needlework.
"I made her," Becca said simply. "Her name is Jubilee."
Jubilee nodded, put an arm around Becca's shoulders. "That's right. So settle down, because I'm not going to let you hurt Becca Dowdy. She's my sweet little honey-lamb, and I'll get right angry if anybody does anything foolish. Understand?"
Iris Stokes cleared her throat. "What do you mean, you made her?" she asked Becca.
Becca blushed. She was a shy girl, not much given to public speaking. Jubilee nudged her in a good-natured way, a whip-stitched elbow planted gently in her ribs. "Well, you see, all my life I've wanted this perfect girl to be my special friend. I had a picture of her in my head. Only I couldn't find her, so I had to build her from the ground up, so to speak."
"Is that why those bodies disappeared in Shelby, Latchkey and Chowderville?" asked Mrs. Eckles, the sheriff's mother.
"Yes," Becca admitted. "I mean, I know it says in the Bible that the dead in Christ shall rise..."
"First Thessalonians," murmured Mrs. Spurlock.
Becca continued, "...but I didn't think they'd mind me borrowing a part or two. An arm here, a leg there, and so forth. Not really that much different than somebody having something amputated. I figured the Lord wouldn't mind all that much."
"Get on with it," demanded Tally Fenimore Cobb, a latecomer and somewhat out of breath from the climb.
"Yes, ma'am. As I was saying, I found the right parts in Shelby, Latchkey and Chowderville. Nice and fresh. I just had to put them all together. Animating the body was troublesome." Becca smiled at Mrs. Gatwood. "I sure am grateful for those bottles of great-granddaddy's formula. I had to tweak it some, but at last the experiment was successful. Jubilee became part of my life. I love her, and she loves me."
"Sure do, dumplin'," drawled Jubilee. "I love you to pieces."
There were a few raised eyebrows at that remark, and some silent consideration. It was eventually decided that Jubilee was not being literal, and the ladies relaxed somewhat.
Mrs. Gatwood asked Miss Tally, sotto voce, "Is this like those two spinsters who live together over on Turtle Lane? Those special friends? You know, Maybelle West who does Home Economics over to the Shelby High School, and Shirley Jean Gooch who drives in the monster truck rally."
"I imagine it's something very much like that, Myrtle," said Miss Tally. "Now be hush and let me listen."
"If all you were after was making a friend," cried Mrs. Newsome, punctuating her remark with more tobacco juice, "how come you brung back my Roy in such a state?"
"Oh." Becca flushed. "I do apologize for that. It wasn't my intention to hurt any of you. I needed to see if the formula worked. I reckon Roy, Ruby, Dodi, August, Jeanette and George Jr. were just a mite too old for the preservative to really kick in the way it's supposed to. My intentions were good, I swear. I hoped to return your sons and daughters, since they had been taken away so very cruelly. I did my best. I'm sorry if I caused you more pain."
"Ah, well," sniffed Rosalee Hornby, "your heart was in the right place, I guess."
"So is mine," Jubilee said, grinning widely.
Mrs. Hightower blew her nose into a handkerchief which she had pulled from the vast recesses of her bosom. "It was a nice thought, Becca," she said. "A real fine gesture."
The former mob looked at Becca and Jubilee thoughtfully, their wrath subsided. Ax handles were placed in an out-of-the-way corner, while pistols were returned to purses. Everyone seemed just a little bit embarrassed by their former behavior. Miss Tally stumped forward, supported by her silver-headed cane.
"You see what comes of messin' about with things that don't concern you?" Miss Tally said fiercely to Becca. "Man was not meant to play God. Let the dead rest in peace from now on. You hear me, Becca Dowdy?"
"Yes, ma'am. Besides, all of great-granddaddy's preservative is gone. I was going to try and make some more, but I won't."
"Good. By the way, where did you learn to make such a lovely herringbone stitch?" Miss Tally asked, examining a patch on Jubilee's upper arm.
"Momma taught me," Becca replied with simple pride. "I got bored with all that surgical needlework. Wanted something prettier. Do you like it?"
"It's serviceable," Miss Tally said critically. "I'm expecting to see you at our next quilting bee, girl." She prodded Becca with her cane. "You've been hiding your light under a bushel long enough."
Mrs. Spurlock did not like to interrupt Tally Cobb, but she had a pork roast in the oven that needed tending. "Excuse me, but what about my George Jr.? I don't mean to sound ungrateful, Miss Becca, but something's got to be done."
"Hear, hear!" seconded Mrs. Stokes, followed by Mrs. Hightower, Mrs. Newsome, Mrs. Hornby, and Mrs. Ledlow.
"Well," Becca offered, "I think the crematorium out back still works."
The mothers looked at one another, their neighbors, and the floor and ceiling. After some quiet deliberation, during which many significant glances were exchanged, Mrs. Spurlock spoke for them all. "Let's do it, then. I'd rather have an urn on the mantelpiece than George Jr. smelling like summer roadkill in the corner of my sitting room."
"That's mighty sensible of you, Beryl," said Miss Tally, patting Mrs. Spurlock's arm.
"Thank you, Miss Tally," Beryl Spurlock sighed. "Now, does anybody know the number of the gas man down in Latchkey? I reckon we're going to need to get that tank filled forthwith. We've got six cremations to attend to."
And so it was that the Stokes, Hornby, Hightower, Newsome, Ledlow and Spurlock families returned home, each carrying an urn full of ashes. The Mayor was inclined to get touchy when informed that his resurrection plan would not go through, but Harold Stokes had a talk with him. No one knew exactly what Harold said to His Honor, but the man tottered out of City Hall and into a week-long drunk that lasted until his wife got fed up, and took him to Sarasota Springs to rest his nerves.
After his momma spoke with him, Sheriff Eckles threw away the grave robbing reports from Shelby, Latchkey and Chowderville, and lost his own files in a cigar accident. Jubilee Dowdy, as she came to be known, was accepted by the community at large, although she wore long-sleeved shirts and jeans when she went out of town. She remained Becca Dowdy's special friend, the two of them as happy together as pigs in mud.
The matter of Elijah P. Cuthbert Dowdy's Everlasting Miracle Preservative was largely forgotten by mutual consent. Life - and what passed for life - went on.
When Miss Tally Fenimore Cobb died the next spring, no one talked openly about taking her body up to the old funeral parlor, but a few eyes glanced towards Boneyard Hill. Then everybody sighed, and conversation turned to the weather.