Magda, or…part of Magda would be home soon. I ascended her ladder and opened her trunk. The linen there, folded so neatly, so expectantly. Pulling it out, I saw a design embroidered in white, barely visible against the natural linen. With the morning light strong and slanting, I held up the long piece to see it more clearly. It was breathtaking.
Roses, sunflowers, cherry blossoms, fruits of all sorts, squirrels, deer, swirls and loops, and mingling through it, that same verse:
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12:24”.
What workmanship. I looped it over my arm and descended the ladder. I was going to take it to the clothesline to let the wrinkles relax out when I heard the helicopter blades’ thump, thump, thump.
Thank God for Carl. He was out there, signing forms alongside an elderly woman in a faded sundress. This must be the great aunt. My eyes fixated on the long black bag the copilot was unloading. Magda. Magda was home.
There were six of us ladies, well, seven if you count Magda, right there on a long wide plank on the table. There were tears as we looked down on her. I couldn’t help but remember her naked beauty down at the stream, when life coursed through her and infused her with strength and zest. I had hated her a bit that day. I felt rawest love now. How? Just in a matter of days? I shook my head.
Magda’s great aunt, by the name of Virginia, cleared her throat. “Let us pray.”
All heads dropped, causing a fresh deluge of tears to hit the floorboards from overfull eyes.
“God, our Father. Help us honor our sister through the work of our hands today. Amen.”
With that, she pulled from some mental rolodex a task for each of us to tend to, corralling the helpless weight of our grief into useful work. “Mel, make the bread that she liked, oh, four loaves. Susan, flowers, please, Magda has plenty and if you need more, go on up to my place. Esther, the sausages in the smokehouse, get ’em in here and start the cookstove. Jeane, round up the wine hereabouts; I know there’s a good chokecherry in her root cellar and Carl’s got blackberry”, she smiled slightly, “We’ll need it.”
Turning to me, “Naomi, you and I will prepare Magda. Please go bring two buckets of water up from the stream. I’ll gather the rest…soap, washcloths, cotton, the dress, comb, yes…now go ahead, I’m just talkin’ to myself now, dear.”
I returned with numb and shaking hands. Virginia, who preferred “Ginny”, had everything ready. “We’ll wash her down first, soap and water. She’s going to be stiff, so if you need to get under an arm or something, sort of massage and flex the limb first. Where she is…” deep breath, “…where she is torn just do to the edges and don’t wet all that open area or we’ll have a mess.”
I’d never touched a dead body before. I felt bile rising in my throat and pinched my eyes shut. A vivid picture from just a few days ago came flooding back, Magda, drenched, happy, and dabbing at my bloody wounds. One area at a time, I said to myself. One at a time.
I started at her foot, which had escaped all the violence. She had rough, trail-walking-barefoot tough feet. After I first dared to touch her, my fear seemed to drain out my feet. This, this was Magda’s body for 32 years, there was life just in it yesterday. This is just another way to love and honor that life. Death had a less hollow feel somehow.
We worked our way over her body, a linen towel covering the sensitive areas for modesty’s sake. We got to her face. There wasn’t a way to clean between the gashes. Someone brought us wine. We chugged it back and considered her hair.
It was truly her glory; waist-length, naturally curly, every hue from platinum blonde to dark ombre represented throughout. And it was now matted with blood and dirt. “I can handle this”, I heard myself saying, and before I could contradict myself I left for more water. During high school I had taken a summer class at a beauty school…I’m not sure why my parents agreed to such a thing, but they let me do it, even though it wasn’t going to propel me toward the heights they had forever in their eyes for me.
Anyway, I knew how to work with curly hair. I could do one beautiful thing for Magda. I smiled through my tears.
As I washed and combed and scrunched Magda’s hair into a shiny halo around her, Ginny wrapped the open wounds with cotton, even stuffing some into Magda’s mouth for shape and her nostrils to prevent seepage. Sue split the linen dress down the back, and we arranged it over and around her. Her arms lay at her sides peacefully. Sue placed a crown of braided flowers on her head and we all stepped back and let out our breath. She was both broken and beautiful. We took the shroud between all our hands and draped it evenly over her, tucking her in. People were arriving.
to be continued…