Say a few words for the dead

by | Aimee Oct Day 2

Grandma sings: a pinch of grandpa there you see sprinkle him around like sweet sugar. She’s given the two of us cousins a plastic cup of dirt she had collected from the garden. She’s wearing her best housecoat and given us each a pouch of grandpa’s ashes. We didn’t want to do this but our grandmother insisted. Grandpa’s gone but he’ll live on she sermonizes, then instructs us to bless our cups of seeds with grandpa’s ghost. We’re all adults now living in outer space and grandma is a witch. She mumbles an incantation and waves her hands over our cups.

I remember the garden. How grandpa tilled and weeded and stomped the earth. Where he tasted the ripeness of the dirt off fingertips. Where he went to get away from grandma, from all the women’s eyes, who were toxic like potato eyes he said, always watching him. We two girl cousins ran like rowdy dogs through rows of yellow squash blossoms and corn sprouts. Maybe we did it to terrorize him like grandpa said or maybe we were running for our lives. He’d chase us with a paddle, his pipe firmly gripped between his teeth. Inevitably he’d catch one of us and sing hush your baby girl mouth or you’re going over the knee. Didn’t matter if we sucked all the sound out of the universe into our guts, we always went over the knee. Hellions born or hellions raised, I’ll never know.

One time we stole his pipe and tobacco and hid behind the shed. We took turns holding a match to the bowl and inhaling, punching each other for a cough. Remember that time, I ask my cousin while we sprinkle ashes around our cups. She had been the one to cough and get us caught. She nods and dips her finger into her pouch of ashes. Remember what he did? I ask. She nods and smears a blot of grandfather’s ashes around her eye like a black eye. I remember the taste of blood but suspect it was another time I am remembering. I dip my finger into the ashes and smear it across my mouth. I lick my lips and taste fire, taste death. This must be what hell tastes like.

Girls! grandma scolds and says we are being disrespectful. What’s in the past is in the past, she says.

Later, when I’m back in my own apartment, I place the cup of dirt and grandpa’s ashes on my sunniest windowsill. After a few days, a tiny sprout unfurls. It continues to grow for several days. I water it and stare at it and decide I hate it. It grows bigger. It sprouts two viny arms and two stalk legs. I hate it even more. I shove it in a cupboard. Out of sight, out of mind. After two weeks, a tapping noise catches my attention. I follow the sound to the cupboard. The tapping grows louder. I slowly open the cupboard and scream.

The spindly arms are now thick and long; they wrap around my wrists and pull me closer. I’m so close now to the plant that I see a bulbous flower or head has sprouted. It looks hideous, like a tumor. It’s got my grandfather’s face, his eyes, his nose, his mouth. He’s gnashing pointed little thorns for teeth. I scream. And before I pass out I swear I hear my grandfather saying, hush your girlie mouth or I’ll bend you over my knee.

8 Comments

  1. Sara Comito

    Wow, AJ! I wonder if you had been thinking about this concept for a while or if it sprouted fully formed for you just this weekend. It’s intricate and the perspective is masterful. The voicing of the girls in every stage of life feels age-appropriate. The grandmother with her aphorisms and sermons seems like she uses them to guard against too much introspection. I love the use of the ashes to show us the harms done to the girls in the past without really telling us, and demonstrates how the girls process the past with their innate wisdom. There may be areas where further compression can be achieved, but I always think that about everything. As it is, it’s really terrific.

    • AJ Miller

      Thank you for this thoughtful feedback, Sara. I’ve really enjoyed reading your interpretations and comments on everyone’s pieces. You’re so insightful. This piece kind of popped into my head, first as a vision of fingers growing from the dirt, which was inspired by one of the images in Aimee’s galleries. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  2. Lucy Logsdon

    Wow–this totally creeped me out! I think you work so well with one of the notions Aimee talked about in our course–how the best horror comes in the realm of intimacy. The creepiness of the very worst of the grandfather coming back as vegetation is perfect. And so creepy. We think and hope that death ends certain dramas and traumas, certain horrors, but this piece shows that sometimes we cannot escape what we thought we had escaped. I think this is a nightmare many of us share –the dead, in all their very worst bits coming back to haunt us. I also think it’s perfect you do it through vegetation–there is something so non-human about it–works wonderfully and is ever so creepy!!

    • AJ Miller

      Thank you, Lucy. I really appreciate these comments and have enjoyed reading your work this weekend. I wasn’t sure if this was creepy or silly and I’m so glad you thought it creepy! Thank you for reading and commenting.

  3. Aimee Parkison

    AJ,

    This story has all the qualities of short horror films that totally captivate me. The narrative is powerfully compressed, starts off revealing the characters and situation so clearly and vividly, and then begins to slowly reveal something isn’t right. You do this brilliantly. That sense of something-isn’t-right builds as the memories of the grandpa’s punishments are revealed and the grandchildren are tasting the ashes.

    Using gardening to mourn the dead is a classic yet contemporary element of culture, and you’ve taken that and twisted it deliciously! I found the ending so shocking, horrific, yet darkly comic. What am image! The talking grandfather plant. I love it and yet am creeped out.
    This works so well as flash fiction and would also make an amazing short horror film with the pacing just right, the cinematic character development, and the absolutely shocking ending, which is so well earned and a visual shocker.

    It’s really funny but also very disturbing. You might consider sending it to Trampset, New Flash Fiction Review, Booth, Hobart, McSweeneys, and/or Black Warrior Review.

    I loved reading your fiction! It represents some of the best new flash horror I’ve read in some time. Thank you for sharing it with me!

    Xoxo, Aimee

  4. David O'Connor

    AJ, the irreverence in this is what creates the beauty and power, I bet hundreds of mags would snap up this micro-non-fiction lickety-split, send it out there, it is so good and so ready, well done!

  5. Gloria Garfunkel

    AJ:

    I love the mundane but mischievous family setting of the girls with their grandparents and the grandmother’s casual but precise ritual for the girls to garden with their grandfather’s ashes. Once he started sprouting, I had to laugh. I love that this was both extremely horrific and funny at the same time. There is something very creepy about a dead man growing back as a vicious plant. It reminds me of the old horror film The Day of the Triffids, where monstrous, homicidal plants take over a town Great story. I really enjoyed it. I also loved the farm that started off with a mundane, inarticulate character with something off in his language and the story just escalated in creepiness at the very end. Greatly enjoyed your work. Thank you for your comments on mine.

    Gloria

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