He let me go on like that; at least I dont recall him telling me to hush. He simply knelt beside me, alongside my mother, listening. When I finished, he remained quiet.
Mommy, I whined, poking her arm, clutching Patrice to me, her dolls eyes fluttering with each jostle. I want to go home. I wanted to sleep in my own bed, not in Grandmas with her musty blankets and sharp toenails, with bedtime stories about mothers passing on to eternal damnation.
Thats when Mr. Mulrey again took my hand in his. Shes dead. He brushed aside a lovely curl that flipped over my mothers brow where the worst gash had been to reveal the precise row of stitches hed made with thread to match her flesh.
Wheres all the blood? I asked, but he misunderstood. Id meant the blood that concealed her face in our final moments together as we lay in the street. He tugged open her collar to expose three neat stitches in her neck, telling me how he drained her blood from the carotid artery and replaced it with formaldehyde that then hardened inside of her. In spite of myself, I was awed by his ability to erase the wounds, to help me see my mother again.
I kissed my dolls cheek and settled her against my mother, watching until Patrices eyes trembled closed. I almost snatched her back. I wanted to. Instead, I unraveled the calling card twined to her tiny wrist and hid it at the very bottom of my dress pocket. It would be the only memento I had of my mother. When I started to cry, fingering the three stitches (onetwo-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, breathe), Mr. Mulrey placed a hand on my shoulder and whispered, Never mind what the others say. Were all sinners and all sinners are welcomed by God.
But I wasnt comforted by a god who couldnt give me back my mother; I found salvation in the undertaker who could. I suppose thats why I became one.
my finger finds the carotid artery in the old womans neck and plucks it through the throat. Against my powdered glove, her tissue appears more gray than it actually is. Cancer does that; it drains the color from a persons body as it drains the life, leaving the once vital carotid grizzled. Taking my scalpel once again, I slice the artery to empty it and turn my attention to what I imagine had once been a shapely thigh. I massage it before penetrating the slack skin with the syringe pump, straight into her femoral artery. A vibrant pink formaldehyde will restore the luster to her skin. Her sunken cheeks will need plumping, so I ready those syringes as well. Glancing at the bulletin board to a photograph her son gave me, I begin planning how Ill sculpt her face. Itll comfort her loved ones to be reminded of the woman she was before the cancer devoured her.
As her blood flows out and the embalming fluid flows in, I suture her mouth. People almost always die with their mouths open. Linus, the funeral director here, once said he thought it was because a persons soul was expelled with the last breath. Im often reminded of that while threading the needle through my clients lips. It seems a naive sentiment for a man whos lived as much as Linus. Most people in the town of Whit-man and in the adjacent city of Brockton trust Linus to lead them to their next world because his is a sincere belief. I used to think it was an ideal born of good business sense. Looking up at the golden-hued portrait of Jesus gazing out over a moonlit village, and beyond to the woman lying before me, I realize I should have known better. Linus hung the painting in this workspace when he opened his funeral parlor more than forty years ago. The artist, whose signature Ive not been able to decipher these past twelve years, christened it The Shepherd. When Linus showed me around my first day, he said it reminded him that he and the dead were not alone. For me, it was never the case. Ive always known Im alone with the dead.
Excerpted from Tethered by Amy MacKinnon. Copyright © 2008 by Amy MacKinnon. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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