The Laying-Out

The Laying-Out

By R.C. Capasso. 

A wagon passed them as they moved out of the village.

Martha followed it with her eyes. “We’ll need something to carry the body out.”

Dora made herself nod. This was her first time at a laying-out, and the thought of touching a dead body made her stomach knot. If it were her grandmother, or anyone in a neat, proper house…

Martha carried a basket with soap, towels, a hairbrush, comb and clean clothes. Dora lugged a jug of water, because they couldn’t even be sure of that being free of muck in the Matthews house.

People had so much bad to say about old lady Matthews.

It was early morning; that helped at least. The sun announced itself faintly behind massed clouds climbing up from the horizon, and trees hung over the lane, but still, it was daylight.

Martha found the body last night, she’d said.

“Did you go there often?” Dora stole a quick glance up at Martha. Stolid, unimaginative, the older woman lingered always at the back of any gathering, quiet and unassuming, alone. But whenever you needed any kindness, Martha appeared.

“Not often. More in the last few weeks.”

That probably translated into months. “You knew she was poorly?”

Martha’s lips tightened. “Yes, but I didn’t expect her to go so fast.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean…!” No one could accuse Martha of thoughtlessness.

The cottage lay just a few paces up on their left. Dora swallowed.

“We can get in from the back.” Martha made a quick gesture.

A low stone fence marked the front of the property, though no gate prevented entry. A faint path through high uncut grasses and wild flowers showed where Martha had passed. Martha and… Dora cast a glance over her shoulder.

“Have you seen…?”

“Not for days.”

The wild girl, the one called Bethany, was known to come to old lady Matthews, like a dog skulking round a door where someone might throw scraps. Why she went to the old woman was anyone’s guess. There was no family tie that anyone could imagine; Bethany had just appeared out of nowhere one day and couldn’t be persuaded to move on.

They turned the corner of the house to what had once been the back garden. Up till last season there had been some planting; the weeds weren’t so wild. But no new beds of plants interrupted the spread of the vines, and against the far fence an unpruned apple tree grew luxuriant, fruit weighing the branches down to the ground.

“You brought your own food for her.” Dora addressed Martha’ back as she shifted her basket and reached for the door latch.

“Had to.”

They entered a cluttered kitchen. Dora held her breath, but there was no rotting food, no dirty dishes. Martha would have seen to that in her visits. Yet everywhere lay scattered, reasonless objects. A cluster of smooth stones from a stream bed on the kitchen table by a basket with a broken handle, a ragged shawl thrown over a chair, a leaf caught in its pilled yarn. An open cupboard door that Martha closed as she passed.

Then into the front and only other room. Just two small windows facing the lane and covered with thick dark cloth. A dim fireplace with a muddle of ashes and partially consumed wood. Another table with two chairs, all nearly buried under carelessly folded sheets, a rusting tin box, a basket of corn husks…Too much to take in. In the far, darkest corner crouched a small unoccupied bed, with a crumpled blanket. But Martha turned to the opposite corner, toward a larger bed, an adult’s.

“The Lord is my shepherd.” The words came out of Dora without thinking.

Martha half turned, gazed at her face, and finished the psalm with her. Then, for good measure, they recited the Lord’s Prayer.

Martha gestured toward the fireplace. “See if you can start a fire. It would be good to make the water warm.”

Old lady Matthews wouldn’t feel it, but the soap would work better, their hands would be comforted. And the fireside was opposite the bed, away from the body, so Dora wasn’t disrespectful as she hurried turned her back.

Martha moved to the windows, pulling aside the dark cloths enough to let a workable light inside. She grunted, shoving aside a chair laden with old boards and books that blocked the front door. With a creak of protesting wood the door cracked open. A breeze moved from the kitchen, through the room, out the door,

Dora found a reasonably clean pan and poured water from her jug, then set it on a hook over the growing fire. She made herself come to stand beside Martha. On the bed before them lay a shape covered by a rough blanket.

“What do you want me to do?”

“I’ll need help turning her, to wash her. Then we need to dress her. I can do that, if you want to comb out her hair.”

Dora nodded. Someday she would do this for her mother. Someone would do this for her. There was no need for fear. The Lord was her shepherd. And Martha, Martha would do the worst.

Martha cleared a chair, set it near the bed, then fetched the pan of warmed water and laid it on the chair seat. She caught Dora’s eye, held it a moment, then reached for the blanket. Together they lifted the coarse cloth, and Dora took a quick breath, mouth closed. It was just an old woman. Pale, motionless, though the room seemed to vibrate around her. Just a person.

Martha began to undo the buttons of the nightgown, and Dora made herself reach for one sleeve, to fumble with the buttons at the wrist. She couldn’t look at the hands. Then, as Martha reached to lift up the gown and pull it up over the thin body and the head, they both gasped and stepped back.

Scars. Brutal white scars, all over the upper thighs, the chest, the shoulders, the arms.

“I didn’t…” Martha swallowed, stepped back further, then pushed forward toward the bed. “Help me turn her over.”

Dora swayed, but reached out one hand, grasping at a bony thigh.

Old lady Matthews’ back was covered with white ridges, crisscrossing the skin like long claw marks. Whip marks.

Martha dropped her hands, and Dora had to grip the body to lower it with some dignity.

Across the room, to the front door, and out into the weeds facing the street Martha stumbled, with Dora behind.

Martha brushed through the weeds and nearly fell onto the low stone wall. Dora lowered herself carefully, knees shaking.

“I didn’t see that last night. It was too dark.”

The sun was just touching the grasses in the yard, awakening their dry, clean scent.

“What happened to her?”

Martha turned a white face to Dora. “My mother always said…”

A bee buzzed near them, peaceful. “Yes?”

“My mother always said her mother — Anna’s mother — was harsh.”

Anna? How strange to think that old lady Matthews once bore a woman’s name. But now it seemed wrong to call her anything else. “Her mother?”

“Those are old, old scars.”

A sound from the house made Dora turn, but Martha gazed into the weeds, seeing something else. “My mother told me to be nice to Anna, because no one would play with her. She wasn’t easy to play with. Even as a girl she kept apart from everyone, like she did all her life, even when her mother passed on. Sometimes she’d walk with me a little, if I was down in the woods picking mushrooms or berries, but she’d never come over to our house or anyone else’s. Poor soul.”

Then Dora leapt to her feet. “There’s something in the house.”

Was it a spirit? Anna, wandering? Or worse, a darker soul like her mother’s?

Martha stood heavily, her eyes landing on the house and resting there a long moment. “Then let’s go in.”

“Martha!”

“You can stay out. I can take care of her myself.”

But as Martha retraced the path they’d crushed in the weeds, Dora had to follow. Martha stood one moment at the door, then disappeared into the gloom.

“I shall fear no evil.” The words echoed in her mind as Dora put her foot on the low, split wood of the threshold.

By the bed stood a thin figure in a shapeless sack of a dress. The wild girl Bethany, holding a rag and sponging gently at the scarred white chest of the old woman.

Martha stood beside her, stubby fingers carefully undoing the long tangled gray braid of hair.

Martha looked over her shoulder at Dora. “You can see why this one found a place here.” She gave a long sigh. “One wounded creature finds another.”

The girl gave no sign of understanding their speech.

Dora took a step forward. “We’ll have to help her?” She didn’t want to make it a question, but her voice betrayed her.

“If she’ll let us. When we take Anna away, no one will want the house. The girl could stay here. I can bring her food, if she doesn’t know how to fend for herself. I’ll clean a bit. Her and the house.”

Dora leaned next to Bethany to take the second rag from the pan of water. The girl smelled of filth and the sun on wild grasses. Dora moved to the woman’s feet. “I’ll help.”

It would not go on, the mysteries, the fears, the rumors. They were here now, and this time they would not step away.

About R.C.

R.C. Capasso enjoys learning languages, travel, and writing any kind of fiction or nonfiction. Recent publications appeared in Bewildering Stories, Fabula Argentea, Infective Ink, Black Heart Magazine and A Long Story Short.

Picture by andrea.drago

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