by Dan Murphy
Surely he had imagined the scratching.
It was late October, and the cemetery lawn was littered with mounds of browning maple leaves. The casket was heavy and the path sloped slightly upward. Kynia’s brother walked at the head of the casket. He was trying to keep his composure, but a series of swallowed sobs caused him to make a pitiful sound that resembled a throaty hiccup and shook his entire body.
The heavy footsteps, the crunching leaves, the gasping sounds coming from Kynia’s brother — those sounds must have combined in such a way as to produce that aural hallucination. Vince was sure of that. He couldn’t truly have a heard a weak, timid scratch emanating from inside the rose-embossed casket.
The muscles in Vince’s left arm burned. The coffin was surprisingly heavy, and it was made heavier by the 50-yard trek uphill to the waiting grave. Kynia’s brother was desperately trying to control his tears and, as a result, was of little help in bearing the casket’s cumbersome burden.
Vince had been trying to ignore the desire to shift the weight to his right arm while the pallbearers slowly advanced toward the green tent slung over the plot. The musty smell of moist earth permeated the brisk autumn air. He could hear his blood buzzing in his ears. Yes, that must have been the sound he heard. It was just his beating pulse and the shhh, shhh of the leaves the pallbearers were trudging through on their way to the gravesite.
The pallbearers reached the grave and set the casket heavily upon the steel supports erected over the gaping hole. They rolled it along a cold steel framework and until it connected heavily with the head brace.
The family filtered under the tarp. Kynia’s parents and husband were escorted to blue folding chairs set up closest to the casket. The man from the funeral home motioned for the pallbearers to remain standing behind the casket as the rest of Kynia’s family took their places. A few drops of rain fell from the gray sky.
Kynia’s brother bowed his head and laid a meaty hand across the head of the casket, shifting his thick fingers as if he were running them through his sister’s hair. Father McGurty grimly welcomed the family and began the service. But just as the priest sprinkled holy water from a plastic vial across the smooth lid of the coffin, Vince heard the sound again.
The scratching was slow and deliberate but pronounced, coming in short bursts from inside the coffin. It sounded like it was coming from the middle of the casket, directly in front of where Vince stood. Vince felt the blood drain from his face, his tie constricted his Adam’s apple. The air was heavy and still. There was no wind blowing the leaves. The rain was merely a few sprinkles. He couldn’t otherwise account for the sound.
There it was again. A tinny scrape of — something, muffled by a layer of velvet and then horribly distorted by the morbid acoustics of the watertight coffin. At once it sounded distant and unavoidable; faint yet frantic.
The others didn’t seem to hear anything other than the sound of sluggish raindrops slapping the canvas tarp overhead; the uncomfortable shuffling of feet and gentle sobbing that constitute the sounds of a typical funeral. Kynia’s brother’s hand was coiled into a fist on the casket, his head tilted meekly to the side.
The other pallbearers stood with hands crossed at the waist, their heads dipped respectfully. Why didn’t they hear it? The horrible scratching sound reverberated across Vince’s eardrums. The disturbing sound of a slow, weak drag of a red lacquered fingernail creeping across unyielding steel. Again. And again.
But Kynia was dead. She had died four days earlier. Vince remembered getting the terrible phone call. He remembered the awkward, slow-motion reception at Kynia’s parents’ house the next day, the four viewings at the funeral home. Everyone said the poor girl looked like she was merely sleeping, she looked like she was finally at peace. Death made her look even younger than her 27 years. Kynia had always fretted about frown lines and crows’ feet, which was absurd, of course. But laid out there in her dark green dress, her face was porcelain white, flawless.
Almost. Vince remembered rising from the kneeler and bending to kiss Kynia’s cold forehead. He tasted the powdery blush the cosmetologist had excessively dusted over Kynia’s face. But when rising, Vince’s gaze came upon her closed, placid eyes. If you looked closely enough, just above the eyelashes, you could see the thin black stitches holding her eyelids closed. If not for those slender cross-stitches, Kynia’s opaque eyes would fly open, and her dead blue eyes would stare disconcertingly up at those who had gathered to bury her.
Yes, Kynia was dead. She had been dead for days. Yet the scratching was growing more insistent. Vince searched the faces of the mourners and his fellow pallbearers. Everyone had their heads bowed. No one stared into the center of the casket in terror as he did, too terrified to publicly acknowledge the noise. Someone else must hear this. It wasn’t Vince’s imagination. The sound was as real as the priest’s words, as real as the rain against the leaves.
Kynia’s heart had stopped at the hospital. She could not be revived. Was there an autopsy? Vince didn’t know. Surely, the corpse must have been embalmed. Kynia’s body was drained dry and pumped full of — whatever bodies are embalmed with. Formaldehyde? That must have been done, Vince thought. It’s a matter of common procedure.
Her eyelids had been sewn shut. Was her mouth sewn closed? Vince never noticed. The stitches may have been inside her mouth, under her gums, unseen. What other things must be done to prepare a body for three days of waking, things to prevent gases from decomposition from escaping through any orifice? The thought repulsed him and Vince forced it away. Yet through all of these dread preparations, was there any possibility the girl had somehow managed to survive? Of course not. But something was trying to tear its way from the black, cold cocoon that was perched on a metal scaffold, about to be buried deep into the earth for all eternity.
Kynia’s hands had been at her waist, not crossed at the chest, when she was laid out for the wake. Could she have awakened, perhaps during the drive to the cemetery when an unseen pothole shook the hearse and jostled the coffin against its constraints? And what of when she tried to open her eyes? Or tried to cry out in terror, and found her parched lips held fast by dozens of painful holes bored through her lips? And when she tried to move? If she had somehow impossibly managed to cheat death, she had not eaten in days. There was no room to bend her elbows to pound at the unseen ceiling over her. She would be too weak to throttle at the walls closing in around her.
Maybe the sensation of being jostled had roused her. Unable to see, unable to cry out, in abject confusion and ungodly fear, she had managed to rotate her right wrist outward. In sheer desperation, the frail fingers scraped at her surroundings, frantically looking for a way out, to alert someone that she was in fact alive, that she wanted to go home.
But this is all impossible. The thoughts were racing through Vince’s mind. I must be imagining this. The doctors, the embalmer, the family. We couldn’t have all been wrong. Kynia had died. But was she dead?
What could he do? In the midst of the funeral prayers, before the poor girl’s friends and family, could he interrupt the service and declare — despite every rational instinct — that the coffin must be pried open? That somehow he alone heard Kynia’s desperate signs of life? If he did, would anyone even act, or would they stare at him in mute amazement until the funeral director placed his arm around him and led the hysterical pallbearer away?
Even worse, what if Kynia’s brother acted on Vince’s insane command? He was barely in a rational state as it was; the slightest provocation might cause him to react rashly, maybe even violently. He would loudly demand the coffin be opened and if anyone resisted, he would force it open himself.
And what would await us there in that cylinder? Would it be the monstrous visage of an emaciated woman, eyes and lips sewn tight, flailing about in unspeakable terror? Or could the sound be coming from a rodent of some sort that managed to cloak itself in the casket before the lid was closed and Kynia was carried from the funeral home into the hearse? If they opened the casket in frenzied anticipation of reviving the girl and came face-to-face with a corpulent gray rat, perched on her delicate breast, gnawing away on the girl’s stomach and absently scratching the coffin walls in appreciation of its meal...
At the priest’s invitation, each member of the family stepped forward and laid a pink carnation on the top of the casket. Vince looked into the eyes of each mourner as they laid the flowers before him. No one gave any indication that they heard the chilling sound that tore through his nerves.
If only one person so much as hesitates, Vince thought, if someone gives me a look like they can’t believe their ears... If someone else asks or makes a remark, I will seize upon it and say I think I hear something myself. I would be quite insistent, as would my witness. But my word alone would be insanity. For the love of God, someone else hear this sound. Please.
Kynia’s husband was the last to come forward to the casket. He gently set a red rose atop the heap of carnations and touched Kynia’s brother’s hand. The brother choked on a sob and grasped his hand. Then, they slowly parted, and Kynia’s husband began to step away.
Vince was trembling. He felt the urge to vomit. Kynia’s husband walked to him and guided him away from the casket. The rain was growing steadier. A thunderstorm was coming.
“She’s in a better place now,” the husband said. “She’s finally at rest. In a way, it’s better this way.”
Vince felt very tired. The casket had been so heavy and the last few days had taken a terrible toll on him emotionally. He cast a glance back at the coffin and the cemetery workers gathering under the tarp.
Yes. Yes, perhaps this will all be for the best.
Copyright © 2007 by Dan Murphy