THE MORTICIAN'S WIFE
By Richard Short
I began to have grave doubts about short engagements and suspected that I might have made a terrible mistake. It was on our wedding night, the time that should have been the happiest day of a young bride's life. Mortimer P. Basquerville the third, my brand new husband, had me soak in a tub of slimy, ice cold swamp water. He scooped it from a stagnant pond along some ditch by a backwoods road in rusty old five-gallon milk cans, which he stashed in the back of the station wagon. He said I should do this before he would make love to me.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because, my luscious, sweet Lurlene," he answered, his ears and mustache twitching. "You are so beautiful when you reach that certain shade of blue--somewhere between the color of a Texas lupine shimmering in the hazy, morning dew, and a purple, fading violet at sunset."
"Oh, Morty, you are so poetic!" I replied, trembling with fear on one hand, and hope, excitement and expectation on the other. "I just want to be a good wife and make you happy."
"It would please me greatly," he said somberly. "If you would shut your eyes and be silent, stock-still and stagnant, like a statue, pretending to sleep, until our union is settled."
I was young and innocent and madly in love. Also I was eager to satisfy my new spouse even if his actions were somewhat unorthodox. Because of my immaturity and naivete, I was not quite certain if this was within the boundaries of "normal" behavior so I went along with his whim. All I ever wanted was a traditional, happy life.
"Do not fear, my lovely, listless lumpkin," he murmured. "You are in the hands of the leading expert in the domain of licensed embalmers."
He carried my shivering, naked body from the bathtub to the bed, laid me out and patted me semi-dry with a cold towel to remove all excess moisture, until I reached the desirable stage of dampness. He also disengaged several blood-sucking slugs and leeches attached to my body that had been scooped up with the swamp water. His long, black, greasy hair covered my face like a dirty shroud and left stains and dark blotches on the pillowcase, and his pale, sallow skin gave off the faint but unmistakable aroma of formaldehyde mixed with a sweet-sour odor of unwashed flesh. It soon became apparent to me that it was going to be quite easy to lie motionless and play dead under these circumstances. Afterward he insisted on giving me a full body rubdown with diluted embalming fluid. This brought a tingling sensation back to my skin. He ended the performance by delivering several stinging slaps with his bare hand to my likewise bottom.
After our less than thrilling weekend honeymoon in the bridal suite at the Super Six Motel right off the US highway 71, north of Parker's Prairie, he brought me to his ancestral mansion on the outskirts of Arago, Minnesota. It was isolated from any neighbors and located at the top of a hill. On the highest ridge of the building perched a huge, scrawny, long-crooked-necked bird. It was outlined against the sky and accentuated by a pale and waning moon. Motionless and ratty looking, the feathered apparition appeared artificial. Then I saw its dead and hungry eyes blink and penetrate me with a piercing, bone-chilling gaze.
The only thing that seemed to be thriving and healthy was an enormous, bizarre, and scary plant over six feet tall. It was located in the shade close to the front porch where you had to almost rub against it to enter the building. I learned later that its scientific name was amorphophallus titanum or as Mort affectionately referred to it, Big Stinky. It is also sometimes called "Corpse-flower" because of the smell. Like putrid, rotting flesh. When it blooms it emits the terrible odor. As we arrived, it was burgeoning in full and glorious splendor. Approaching the house, Big Stinky seemed to reach out and pluck at the sleeve of my sweater. I tried to shake loose, but it clung to me tighter and tighter until I was completely in its grasp. It would not let go and seemed to emit a long whispery sigh that sounded like words running together. The bulging and swollen blood red stamen was pushing itself inches from my face. Throbbing, pulsating and angry looking, it was oozing pollen so that my throat constricted in reaction and fear and I could hardly breath. Mort gently untangled and disengaged me from the sharp hook-like tendrils. I felt a twinge of jealousy because I sensed that Mort really loved that ugly, malodorous plant.
Beyond Big Stinky and halfway down the hill, lay a weed-choked, unkempt, trash littered cemetery with broken tombstones and missing markers. Attached to a bent and leaning four by four by a rusty nail, a weather-beaten old hand-painted sign read:
LOTS and CRYPTS
"Behold, my lovely, lissome, lank Lurlene," Mort announced, his blood-red tongue flicking in and out of his mouth like a viper. "Your new abode!"
He took my arm and led me up the broken steps and across the dilapidated porch toward the front door. As we approached, two lean, starved looking greyhounds came slinking off the end of the porch snarling and growling and sniffing my legs and showing their teeth.
"That's Dog Number One and Number Two." Mort explained as he shooed them off and they disappeared around the corner. "You do not have to be afraid, they will not bite you."
"Are you going to carry me across the threshold?" I asked, as he unlocked the door.
"Of course, the lusty, lilting love of my lonely, loathsome, life." He replied as he grabbed my arm and threw me across his shoulders in a modified undertaker's carry. He promptly broke through one of the rotting porch planks, skinning the shin of his left leg and dumping me flat on my backside, scruffing and soiling my favorite green and pink polka-dot dress.
Inside the house, dust covered everything. Mort's work area was the cellar. It contained a large wooden table for lying out and preparing the bodies. Tools and instruments hung from the walls. In the corner stood the furnace, which also doubled for cremation. A large open space on the first floor contained a sagging couch and two well-worn easy chairs on one side and on the other was the kitchen with a wood burning stove and a large stone fireplace. At the end of the room a stairway led to the second and third floors. The second floor had a dining room, a study, a bathroom and a small living area. The bedrooms were on the third floor. I mentioned that I could see no access to the attic.
"Never try to go there!" Mort slammed his open palm against the wall. "You will get into trouble if you do."
Mort's duties kept him around the house most of the time except when he was working on the graveyard shift. When he did leave the premises I never knew when he might come back unexpectedly. So when he informed me he was going to the annual mortician's convention held in a city several hours driving time away, I finally saw my chance. Although I still had not found an entrance to the attic, there was a dormer on the roof, with a small window. All I wanted to do was get the ladder that was lying in the weeds by the carport, put it up against the roof, climb up there and peek in the window.
Trembling with excitement, I hurried off the porch. At that very moment the vulture that had been perched on top of the house since my arrival, swooped down, ragged wings flapping after some small rodent or something, and startled me. I flinched and before I could recover I bumped up against Big Stinky. Since the time several weeks ago when we had our first encounter, I had been wary of him and had given him a wide birth. He seemed to be stalking me. Every time I passed, he tried to make some comment. Mort said it was just the wind but to me it sounded something like, "ahhswachoos" and "hissameebabboo". Anyway, he gave me the creeps. But I had become more used to him and so when I bumped him, and one of his tendrils reached out and plucked at my blouse, I thought to myself, I will not panic, I will NOT panic! Then as I tried to escape his grasp, the odor became stronger and the harder I tried to free myself the weaker I became and suddenly my knees buckled and I collapsed and was enfolded completely into the arms and bosom of the giant plant.
My head began reeling and rolling like when the vertical hold on a cheap TV is out of control. I could feel my entire frame being stripped of clothing and pressed up against the huge, crimson, pulsating stamen. It emitted large globules of a sticky blood-like substance that splashed and battered against me. I was completely powerless to resist the raw, tingly sensation of a thousand devilish, feline-like tongues with fine hairs. They were licking and tickling all over my defenseless, naked body. The sighing sound also became louder and louder and suddenly I began to make out the words. In a low moaning voice with an accent that sounded exactly like Maurice Chevalier in one of his old movies, I heard the gibberish sound of "ahhswachoos" turn into "I waant youu!" and "hissameebabboo" became clearly "kiss mee baaby!" Pummeled and pistil whipped into a state of submission and helplessness, I have no idea how long this violent encounter lasted. I kept going in and out of consciousness. Finally I became aware of being pulled away from my violator and felt something licking my face. It was Dog Number Two. Dog Number One was biting and shaking the remaining tendrils that still plucked at me. Yes! The same dogs that growled at me in the beginning and which I fed and played with till we become good friends had delivered me from destruction. Saved by the Hounds of Basquerville!
By the time Mort came home that evening, I felt much better. A hot bath helped calm my nerves. I had no bruises from my skirmish with Big Stinky and could feel no lasting pain. I just felt completely emotionally drained. Also the experience had been so fantastic and weird that I doubted that anyone would believe me. Especially when I looked at Big Stinky right after the attack and he appeared to have what I can only describe as a self-satisfied look on his face and seemed to be emitting little puffs of smoke. Mort talked for awhile about the Gravedigger's Convention and what he had learned about the care and preparation of cadavers. He became very excited and the topic of live demonstrations on corpses became so stimulating to him that we went to bed that night and had the best sex of our brief married life. I never mentioned Big Stinky, but if I had to compare the two experiences, I would have to admit that the plant had more action.
In the weeks that followed, Big Stinky began to change. His leaves turned brown. His stamen began to wither and droop and shrivel. He even started to smell less pungent. His speech became slurred. Mort tried to revive him with water and fertilizer and even called the county agricultural agent, who came out and looked at him, shook his head and pronounced the condition terminal. Mort was devastated.
I also was noticing some personal changes. I suddenly craved strange and exotic food. My stomach would feel queasy and nauseous and I would rush to the bathroom. Mort took me to the doctor and after some tests, he told us to look forward to a coming addition to the family. Mort was overjoyed. Somehow, I had an uncomfortable feeling that everything was not quite right. Later, when we went in for a sonogram, the doctor explained the picture on the screen,
"What we have here is a perfectly normal little baby, two eyes, two ears, two legs, ten fingers and toes and all of the other appendages." Right then my heart almost stopped as he continued. "Except for the toenails," he paused and indicated on the screen with the pointer. "Where the toenails should be, we have this-" My eyes followed the pointer and there at the end of each of the ten tiny toes, were wispy, spidery, little lines that floated about like kelp in a fish tank.
"It is unusual," the doctor said, "I have not seen this aberration before, but I don't think there's anything to be concerned about as long as everything else conforms."
"At least he won't have to worry about ingrown toenails," Mort joked. We all shared some somewhat nervous laughter.
"It shouldn't limit what he can accomplish in life," the doctor added with a smile, "It might be the first time in history a tree grows up to become President!"
Our son is four years old now and he just adores his father, who plays with him all the time. He has a little shovel and they make a game of digging graves together and playing hide and seek among the tombstones. It makes me a little bit uncomfortable that the nickname my husband has given him is "Little Stinky", but I can see how it somehow fits. One thing I'm careful about, however, is that Little Stinky never stands barefoot too long in one place. Another thing, who cares about what's in that damn attic? I'm too busy chasing Little Stinky to worry about that.