Mother Damnable's Turned to Stone
The problem with frontiers is nobody can ever remember where the bodies are buried.
Or how long they’ve been down there. So we never really know what one’s going to look like or how bad it’s going to look when we dig it up. And that’s not to say Seattle is such a frontier anymore, but anywhere they stick wooden crosses over coffins means the cemeteries act like frontier cemeteries. Nothing else makes a difference besides what the graveyard looks like and how it behaves and whether or not anyone bothered to mark down where all the bodies went. If Jerusalem put wooden crosses and planks over its dead and lost track of the bodies, we’d call Jerusalem a frontier, too.
Right when we got the job and one of us found out, another one of us had been in the bordello. Or rather, in the hotel. The bordello that pretended to be a hotel so that everyone would call it a hotel and not a bordello.
One of us had walked in on another with the contract while the other was sweating underneath a gyroscopic prostitute in red garters whose ass hadn’t flattened out yet like some of the ones who wouldn’t take off their stockings because they didn’t want anyone to see their pimples and dimples and think they didn’t have to pay as much. One of us was concentrating on staying hard when she’d get carried away and start making that bellyaching whimper. And spear the weight of her palms into our chest and chuck her hips down so her clit pressed against our pubic hair. And she’d forget that she was supposed to be going up and down instead of forward and back. Up and down, up and down on the whole shaft because that was the way men liked it and she was there to make men happy and sometimes women, too, even though she liked the women better because she could whimper and didn’t have to remember up and down. Because it wasn’t supposed to be very good for her. Wasn’t supposed to feel very good, that’s what they always told her, she wasn’t supposed to feel much of anything.
Then the hooker clamped her eyes shut and came, but one of us didn’t.
So that one wouldn’t pay her and that upset her because she’d just finishing shaking and shivering but she’d still have to wait before she saw anyone else and how did we think she got bread for herself anyway. Cumming didn’t make bread. So she screamed at us, If Mother Damnable was here with her apron she’d – .
Down the hall we heard a boozy, Fuck Mother Damnable, bellowed out from a room.
And one of us shouted back at the prostitute, who looked more like a cobra on the end of the bed with her red garters making stripes down her legs and her thin arms splayed out in the air while she hissed. We shouted, Well Miss Whore we just now got the orders to dig her up so we’ll make sure to ask the bitch what she’d say about not paying for a prostitute that gives you saddle rash and a sticky cock for nothing.
Then she started crying and that ran some of the paint off her face and it was obvious she was only a little girl, maybe thirteen at most. Probably brand new to having business at all, which should’ve made one of us mad and the other feel sorry for her but neither of us were, even though the one who’d been under her spat out something about her needing to replace the basin water in the corner she used to splash herself out, because she smelled like a dead mule’s taint.
She stopped yelling after that and just cried. So one of us yanked the other by the tail of his unbuckled belt and corralled him at the top of the stairs until he thudded down like a tipsy sailor on a cargo ship like the ones that blew in and out of the port.
He swooned side to side and buckled his belt without a word to anyone downstairs.
Then it’s not important who did what here, but one of us stood outside with their breath sucked out by the chilly air while the other jacked off behind the porch on the side of the house and then tried to piss, too, but couldn’t get it down fast enough and ended up forking piss all over his boots but didn’t care much.
One of us felt okay after that.
The other didn’t.
The Old Cemetery gets the worst of the floods.
The water goes down enough to let it look like a graveyard, but that doesn’t mean the bones underneath aren’t getting bathed for most of the wet season at least. The water turns the bodies black, but they don’t smell bad. They don’t really smell at all for that matter. Something about the water must take the stench off.
Which helps when they’re brought up because most of the wood comes apart after a couple years and the lids can break under the weight of all that earth, so we’d have to keep a pile of blankets with us for when we’d need to get a body out of a cracked, soggy box and into another box that’d be cracked and soggy again as soon as we buried it. And it helps when the bodies don’t reek at you while you’re doing it, or so they say.
They bob around in the ground, too.
Some of the ones we opened had their arms and legs and heads folded all over the place and upside down like they’d been tossing or had trouble sleeping. That’s because they float in their boxes anytime the water seeps in. And the water always seeps in. Because that’s just how water works. They don’t bother sealing coffins like you’d seal roofs. Nobody cares if the roof of a coffin leaks and makes you toss and turn in your sleep when you’re dead.
One of us cut the sod with a spade over each grave to break up the topsoil that’d been tamped down and used a pickaxe to get whatever roots out of the way. Which wasn’t very hard with the first digging since the grave had already been dug. But the second digging wasn’t as easy.
They said they were building a park. The kind with grass and footpaths and gazebos.
We ate on the cart around the mules one afternoon when we’d just come back from working on the new site and one of us asked how they expected kids to run around or fairs to be held in a field of death. Nobody really bothered answering since we all knew there wasn’t supposed to be any bodies left once we did our job and nobody wants to admit that they’re not going to do their job right. We wanted to do the job right.
But water gets into wood almost every time and that includes the markers. We were bound to miss a handful. Frontiers just aren’t a perfect science that way. Of course, we’d all swear that we’d gotten all of them.
And then there’d be the ones we couldn’t miss if we tried.
We’d all seen that headstone, too.
For some reason none of us broke the earth there. We knew there’d been a Mother Damnable and we’d all heard the stories. And we knew she’d died. But when we got to that grave we just moved on to the next black body like all the others. We trusted this instinct, even if we didn’t know why.
The undertaker watched us drag our shovels to her marker at first and stand just close enough to read the dates. He came across the cemetery and stood with us. He said, Don’t worry boys she’s not getting up anytime soon though if the Lord did want to usher in Revelations after all, she’d probably be Pestilence, Famine, War, and Death put together and then we’d all be fucked for our sins.
Then he walked off and we didn’t spend much time around her marker after that.
One of us felt better once the bodies went into their new coffins. The old water-rotted ones got replaced with clean pine boxes like the pine floors in the brothel. Then they didn’t slip around or stick on the pikes when we had to fit the box between the shoring in the new hole.
And then the blackness wasn’t there anymore which was the worst part to begin with, especially since they didn’t stink. You’d think that bodies should stink when you move them. It’s better if they stink when you move them. It’s better if they fought back that way. Or gave some indication that they didn’t want to be desecrated. At least when they stank, then you knew for sure beyond a doubt that maybe you’d made a mistake or it would’ve been better if you’d let them be.
We couldn’t help fixing our eyes on the black inky blotches that came out of those old boxes like they’d been covered in tar. And after a couple graves the blankets were covered in tar, too. And the mud didn’t help, so all of us got tar on us, too, in the end.
That blackness doesn’t just go quietly. Not like you’d want it to.
Two of us stopped in at the hotel because now we had work and could get a drink even though everyone else there were wellto- do officers and merchants. They gave us bad looks. One of us only went with the other because we liked to go upstairs and sit with the some of the girls when they weren’t busy. Especially the little one who’d hiss and spit like a snake whenever she got red hot about something one of the men did. She didn’t always know what to expect yet, so she got roughed up about some things but she picked up fast after that, and one of us wondered why she wasn’t working in town in an office keeping figures. Or at least somewhere where they’d listen when she bit into something clever and started hissing over it. The other girls never listened to her, except maybe the ones who’d known Mother Damnable more.
And the hotel was run now by a pockmarked turkey from Georgia who sucked the tobacco stains on her crooked fingers and didn’t care much what happened to any of her girls or what they thought about anything. The pockmarked turkey just cared that the men weren’t interrupted before they paid for company. So when the girl with red garters got taken in the room at the end of hall, one of us would slink back downstairs like we’d stepped on a rug with our boots on.
After a week of afternoons like that, one of us went to the room looking for the girl with the red garters again, but we heard by accident, You’re enjoying this too damn much, you enjoy this too much, coming from behind a heavy door on the second floor. It sounded like the sailor or logger or dockman or lawyer had his mouth up against the keyhole so everyone heard his accusations but pretended not to notice or not to care.
One of us pretended not to notice or care.
A sailor or logger or dockman or lawyer had slapped her around and slugged her in the eye that day, maybe the same one that told her she’d enjoyed herself too much. But then we knew there wasn’t just one of them who said that, either.
So one of us spent the night holding wet towels on her cheek and ended up rooting her anyway and feeling sorry for rooting such a sweet girl with a black eye, that didn’t seem right, even though she didn’t mind and didn’t ask us for money but in her flowery hoarse voice that tricked men into thinking she was older than she was, she said she was glad to get rooted and not bought for once even if we didn’t mean it and only wanted to hump her. She just thought it was different we didn’t leave right away and asked that one of us if we could keep it a secret that we’d rooted the girl with the nasty shiner, since secrets were hard to have but she’d always wanted one, she’d always wanted to have a really good one she could save from the other girls and guests that haunted the hotel. She liked this secret and didn’t want to muck it up with everyone knowing everything all the time like poltergeists on your shoulder who wouldn’t try to turn you anywhere but still never let you forget anything and wouldn’t go away.
She looked at us with one eye open from behind the towel and told us rumors.
Mother Damnable kept rocks in her apron to throw at men who acted up like they owned the place. She wore petticoats over petticoats on her stout frame, too, like a sour cotton onion who’d flap like a mad vulture at anybody who caused trouble. She swore fluently in five languages, at least, with a couple more she could spar with once she’d exhausted her first five and emptied her apron of rocks.
Rocks. English and French. Rocks. Spanish, Portuguese. More rocks. Chinese, German.
One of us interrupted and kissed the girl in the middle of her sentence because we didn’t want to hear any more about the dead woman.
The prostitute, the girl in the red garters was alive. One of us put our cheek against the veins in her thighs and tried to make her moan an actual moan and we listened to her heartbeat, the muscled thump of warm blood where it belonged, going everywhere we couldn’t see it. One of us listened for the pulse and put our hands around her buttock and felt for it, under her armpits, lifting her up off the davenport and trying to get her to suck in her stomach so she’d have to push it back out again and sigh and giggle and make her torso swell in and out, in and out.
She wasn’t very much like Mother Damnable, and she gave every hint of being alive.
But one of us couldn’t stop thinking that people had been wrong about that before.
In the first week we were ambushed by the Sitting Man.
The Sitting Man hadn’t been in the ground for very long, maybe two days, which made us wonder why they bothered filling in the hole in the first place. Or why they buried him in a cemetery getting relocated anyway. There were a lot of things wrong with the Sitting Man.
The coffin had cracked open under the weight of the dirt and we decided we’ve give the body a second chance with another new coffin for the new grave.
At first, nothing really surprised us about him. We dug the hole, we hoisted up the box, we set it down, we cracked open the two halves of the lid. The man was laid out like most of the other bodies but hadn’t tossed or turned yet. One of us kicked the box and he shook like a shaken match in an empty carton. Like one stiff wooden piece that’d been jostled, and he knew it.
Three of us walked off to get the mules and bring over another coffin so only one stayed and started shoveling dirt back into the empty hole.
That’s when the Sitting Man sat up.
The one moving dirt cried out and almost fell into the hole and swung the shovel at the head of the dead man sitting straight up in his coffin. We heard the sound. A sharp thunk and a hum. The Sitting Man tweaked over like a capsizing ship and sat there with his back straight, leaning over the side of his box.
The rest of us ran back to the grave without the coffin and found the guy who’d been moving dirt with a leg in the hole and his eyes shut. He’d been startled, that’s all. Two of us had seen it before, when rigor mortis sets in just right and bodies laying out in the open sit up out of nowhere and scare the daylights out of anyone nearby.
We had to stomp back to get the coffin we’d dropped.
When we got there we saw that we’d cracked that lid, too.
What most people don’t know or don’t think about is that vampires were actual bodies. Or rather, that the corpses really existed. You can visit a cemetery where the vampires are buried and dig them up and see the wooden stakes sitting in the empty broken bowl of their ribs.
One of us didn’t like to read that much but we read a book about this anyway. You can’t help doing certain things like that, even when you don’t enjoy it.
The book told us that the myth came from bodies dug up by dumb peasants a handful of hundred years ago in places like Medvegja. Places where the ground worked on the bodies just right. And Serbian farmers dug them up and didn’t know that bodies get plump when they rot how they’re supposed to rot. They’re supposed to bloat, but sometimes only just enough to make them look healthy or fattened up. And the plumper they get, the more gas pushes blood up from the soup in their lungs and out from the mouth. Then their hair gets longer and their nails get longer and even their teeth can stick out because everything soft gets smaller and tighter on the outside while at the same time it’s getting fatter and coming apart in other places on the inside. That’s the interesting part, that bodies work against themselves and yet to anybody watching they just look like they’re doing fine, even coming back to life.
But that’s not what made the peasants want to stab wooden stakes into corpses.
They did that because of the groan. For months after somebody bites it or kicks it or however you want to say they died, air comes out of their chest right past their throat. A stiff with its skin falling off could just cry at you with a moan out of frozen-hell nowhere. So if you didn’t know better, you might think a body that groans and fattens and gets blood on its lips had been climbing out and sneaking around, sucking on folks in their sleep.
Or you might if you were a dumb peasant.
So the dumb peasants crammed wooden spikes into pulpy hearts like Sitting Man’s. But they were happy with that. They could feel safe about it. There wasn’t anything really sinister about exterminating monsters that had it coming.
We buried Sitting Man again but we had to flip him over on his stomach to get the coffin closed. We put a blanket over him and stuck him on his belly and flattened him out and he kept putting his ass back in the air until we shut the lid and nailed it down and dropped him in the new hole with a spiteful thud. When we filled the dirt back in we packed it down tighter than we needed but none of us felt bad about that.
Staring at the mound afterwards, one of us wondered what the peasants did when they dug up a body that wouldn’t groan or bleed or roll over or play the part, whether the townspeople just sat around an open casket with a dead body in the middle that looked like shit and definitely hadn’t been up and around or sucking sleepers at all.
One of us wondered who got to close the casket back up.
Legend said Mother Damnable got stranded by her husband when he sailed off on his whaling ship to Alaska with a bunch of Russians. She’d taken over the hotel from somebody who’d gotten too important for hotels after they’d brought the building over in pieces in the cargo hold of a brig named after a long line of important forgotten presidents, like most ships are.
Some called her a witch. They might’ve believed that. But most just said she’d been a madam since the beginning of creation and gave Lilith her first pair of stockings and taught the Whore of Babylon’s how to lace up a proper corset. If prostitution was the oldest profession, then Mother Damnable came up with the idea of giving it a laundry service.
When the territorial government held lynching trials in the hotel, Mother Damnable housed and fed the judges and attorneys and jurors for a fair rate in competition with the other meeting halls in town. She prided her house on the clean sheets and good food, and managed the business with a crusty vernacular saltier than any mariner’s. One of the girls on the second floor liked to talk about the time a prosecutor demanded a receipt. Mother Damnable gave him a receipt on his head in the shape of stove wood and kicked him across the room with an earful. Nobody ever asked for a receipt again.
Another time the Navy dropped anchor in the bay to fend off hostile Indians. They wanted to build a new road through the town but they needed to cut down the bushes around the hotel to finish it, even though Mother Damnable said the bushes gave her guests privacy. She met the admiral on the road when he came with his soldier sailors and she stormed an entire division back to their ships without ever breaking her waddle.
It had been the quartermaster that came back.
He went up against a torrent of rocks and sticks and stove wood from the bottomless pockets of the angry onion woman. He shouted over the frothing mutts at her heels and he called her a devil. He said something about thunder and Baltimore and the pretty girls on the second floor of her brothel and the husband that’d been gone whaling at sea for a record number of years, even for a job like whaling.
Mother Damnable grabbed her skirts and flapped back to the hotel and slammed the door.
The Navy cut down the bushes after that. Then they finished their road.
A bunch of loggers played their instruments in town to celebrate the announcement of a northern freight railway. There wouldn’t be any passengers on the rail, but there was something to celebrate besides lynching and logging so a handful of the hotel girls went into town to sit on the musicians’ laps and hook their arms through the elbows of sailors and curl their legs around brewers for a free drink. The red gartered girl went with them.
One of us saw her in the crowd, but she wasn’t wearing the red garters. Or we just couldn’t see them. One of us almost tripped when we spotted her because we were trying to get a good look.
She hung on the arm of a tailor and brushed sawdust off his shoulder.
Another one of us pushed themself over a low fence into the street, where the crowd danced and spun circles, or just watched the loggers bang and clack and fiddle around on their patched-up instruments. This one was drunk. He shoved a fist into the tailor’s chest and said, Don’t waste your money on that hussy, she’ll just leave your pecker pole hard, and take your whiskey funds anyway.
The tailor pushed the fist away and spat. He put an arm around the red gartered prostitute’s waist.
She told the drunk one, Go get yourself another bottle and paint the town, there’s no good fighting when there’s music and pretty cats everywhere. Then she added, There’s plenty of other pretty cats that won’t leave your pecker hard.
That drunk one got angry and tried to grab the tailor’s collar, but two buttons popped off.
The tailor yanked a chain out of his breast pocket.
He flung it like a whip at the face of the drunk one, who’d harassed every man he’d seen around the red gartered girl that morning. The chain whistled by his ear but missed, so he pulled a knife out of his boot and tried to slash the tailor but also missed, and cut the frills on the red gartered girl’s dress above her tits.
The prostitute had been wrestling with the tailor’s arm, trying to take the watch chain before anybody got killed or lost an eye. But when the knife caught her dress she stopped and growled at the drunk one who had the knife. That drunk one still wanted to slice the tailor and raised his arm with the knife again, but didn’t land anywhere because the watch chain came back down and left a crimson streak on his jaw.
He pedaled backwards and his heel tipped into a rut.
He sat down heavily on the street and touched his jaw with two ginger fingers. He had just enough time to look up at the girl before she brought the chain down again and flayed the top of his nose open. He curled into a ball and jerked and yelped every time she brought the chain down on his back or his ribs or his buttocks.
Then the chain broke.
There were only a couple short links still wrapped tight around the girl’s purple fingers, so she started swearing and shrieking like a mad deck swabber, and jingling the broken chain over the bloody drunk one on the ground.
She screamed, Why don’t you goddamn savages listen to decency anymore. And then a tirade of other words that were harder to make out.
Everyone who’d stopped to watch the whipping swore she screamed in Portuguese.
One of us met the priest in the chapel and called him Father until he said not to call him Father, that Father was only for mackerel- snapper Micks. And so we called him Sir until he said that wasn’t right either, and one of us asked whether Almighty Lord cared what the fuck he was called or couldn’t we just get on with what we were trying to confess. The Priest Chaplain Pastor Deacon said confession was also just for mackerel-snapper Micks, so one of us got up and almost left the chapel before the holy man clapped our shoulder and licked his lips and blinked and said, Fine, nevermind, get on with your confession.
One of us told the Priest Chaplain Pastor Deacon about digging up the graves and the broken coffins. But we left out the girl in the red garters. Then we asked whether or not we were monsters.
He told one of us about the soldiers who crucified Christ and how Christ spoke in his suffering to ask his Almighty Father to save them, for they knew not what they did. They were regular men doing regular work, so they could still be forgiven because there wasn’t anything extraordinary about tying a criminal up on a piece of lumber and stabbing him with pointed sticks.
Then the Priest Chaplain Pastor Deacon asked what exactly I’d done apart from the others. I told him that we’d all done it. There was no I, and there was no him, and we’d done it all together. It wasn’t really important who did what here. Only that we’d all played a part in what happened.
After that, one of us asked if monsters could be saved and the Priest Chaplain Pastor Deacon said no, monsters couldn’t be saved, only villains could be saved because the wicked might at least know their badness and have remorse but monsters couldn’t do that, because they didn’t know they were monsters to begin with.
One of us asked if that was their fault or not.
The holy man didn’t know.
We waited to touch Her grave until the very last.
Mother Damnable. That’s what the headstone said, Mother Damnable.
Once we got the dirt out, the casket wouldn’t budge. Four of us yanked and pulled on the ropes we’d strung underneath but the box sat at the bottom of the hole like it’d been nailed to the earth. We called over the undertaker and he fetched his assistant and the six of us yipped and strained until we’d gotten ahold of the box and set it down on the muddy grass next to the marker.
The undertaker, Had never seen anything like it, he said.
The casket had to weigh at least four hundred pounds, or a ton. Or two tons. There wasn’t a scale there. We didn’t know if the cart would carry her without splintering the spokes on the road. So one of us took the crowbar and pried open the lid.
Inside the casket was a statue. Or rather, inside the casket was Mother Damnable. Or rather, Mother Damnable was a statue inside in the casket. Her body was white like marble underneath a thin film of dust. She’d been disfigured around the joints and face but everything on her body was still intact after eleven years in the ground. And she was smiling. A beaming smile cut right into the stone of her face. She looked dead, didn’t look like she’d been up or anything and none of us doubted that what we saw laying in its box was a dead body.
The undertaker again, Didn’t know what to make of it.
She looked up the at sky, still dead.
Maybe they buried the marker without meaning to, one of us suggested.
No, then she’d be an angel or a child with a lamb on its shoulder, another said, They don’t just chisel stone women up from the quarry to stand around in cemeteries and do nothing.
She ain’t standing anywhere, another said, she’s laying right in the box they put her in under six feet of mud.
Okay, said another, but nobody carves up goddamn statues of sluts from the quarry for that either, do they.
The undertaker put his thumbs through his belt and swallowed. All the other pioneers get eaten up with bugs and worms, he said. But she refused even that, the impenetrable bitch. Couldn’t even let the worms get her. Not anything. Not even worms, he said.
One of us stuck out a hand and brushed dust off the forehead because we were afraid to touch anything else.
The coffin was painted black and not in bad shape like the others.
After a while we nailed it shut again.
The mules were tired once we got to the new site and we didn’t get very far off the road with the casket.
Once we couldn’t move her petrified body any further with the six of us grunting underneath it, we dropped her down and one of us said, That’ll have to be far enough, start digging over there. So the undertaker left us with the shovels and the mud and the grinning statue in the box and we dug. When we finished digging, we flopped the casket across the grass foot by foot until it teetered on the brim of the hole and we lugged it over the shoring. It dropped like a stone. Or, it dropped like a casket full of stone. One of us thought the drop would make a noise but it must’ve been so heavy that the dirt below didn’t take it right. Like when you get socked so hard you can’t feel the fist like you normally would.
Then one of us sat down on the dirt with our hair puffed out by grubby hands coated in pine rot and waterlogged death. Two others shoveled rocks and soil and clumps of grass roots back into the hole we’d just finished. A fourth didn’t sit down or undig the hole but just leaned on the shovel and watched the first man on the ground twist his hair and say, We can’t ask her, she’s all turned to stone.
Another said back, We can’t ask her ‘cause she’s dead, you dumb halfwit Pollack.
We kept un-digging one shovel after another in a semi-circle around the foot of the hole. The black wood box grimaced out from underneath the pile of dirt in the pit.
Our voices were weird in the cemetery. Like sitting on a cork in your back pocket because you forgot you’d put it there.
She’s all stone, one said again.
I’ll make you a stone if you don’t shut it, said another.
We can’t ask, she’s all turned. W
e can’t ask because she’s dead like a doornail.
She’s all stone, We can’t ask her.
We can’t ask her, we can’t ask, she’s all turned, she’s turned to stone. Only three shovels gave us time to think while we worked, and we don’t usually care all that much, sometimes its good to think when the shovels are swinging around like that, one after the other in a half circle. But this time we thought more than other times. And normally we’re happy to do the job with just three shovels but now there was the thinking to account for.
Just this time we wished there’d been more shovels.