My great aunt, Marty Pestil, was a natural at tending to the dead. She got bodies ready for the all-night watch when folk gathered to make sure no bugs, dogs, or ghosts could get to the ripe-for-decaying flesh. I helped my aunt since I didn't have no other place to go. My aunt took me in when my mama started talking to wallpaper flowers. Papa had walked off before I was born.
I never got schooling, but not many people did in mountain-tucked Gray Valley, Kentucky during the early 1920's. We picked up a common-sense kind of learning. Aunt Marty taught me her trade. She said living and dying fit together the way bare-treed winter followed full-blossomed summer.
Almost everybody agreed, but some folk thought Aunt Marty turned the winter dying part into a show.
Men took care of the departed men and boys. The man who took care of the dead in Gray Valley looked the grim job. He wagged his finger so hard at my aunt it about blurred his whole arm.
"You act like you was bigger'n God -- it just ain't right. Pretending you can step off into the afterlife with the dead."
My aunt stared him down. She didn't argue. "Our job is to open the next world. When the silver coins fall off the eyes of dead folk, their souls got to be ready for the hereafter. Ain't no more I can say about it."
He backed off, groaning, like there ain't no sense talking to a crazy lady. It wasn't 'til later I learned he got picked accidental-like to prepare the dead and hated every second of it.
Aunt Marty said the folks that set themselves for eternal damnation didn't want to go, and Aunt Marty had to say somebody from the underworld would come for them anyway, so they may as well scat before the rotting set in, and their souls smelled, too. Besides, St. Peter listened to a good story. Usually they ran for that last chance.
I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere. I got to be known as Lost Lacy. Hank Ross was my only friend. Hank helped my aunt and me with our truck garden. His papa owned the General Store. The Ross family didn't care that Aunty Marty talked to floating souls.
Sometimes Hank and me would cook together. I thought of him as my connection to the earth and sun, to breathing, to the smell of boiling turnips and hot sliced pork.
"I like when you don't have your hair pulled so tight on the top of your head, like it's caught in a trap," Hank said. "Relax once in a while."
I shrugged. "It don't make sense to hoe, pull weeds, or move bodies with hair in the way."
Besides, I traveled from death to death the way a butterfly goes from flower to flower, especially when typhoid or scarlet fever hit. I guess Aunt Marty and me was lucky we never got no bad sickness. Butterflies get to drink nectar -- I touched the cold skin of folk that followed both Beelzebub and St. Michael.
No matter how many times Aunt Marty handed me the magic coins and I rubbed them over my fingertips I never felt nothing special in them. They'd been used to close so many eyes. Everybody thought old Miranda Mill had been best friends with the devil. She cursed and stole and some folk even say she got away with killing her own husband. I could have sworn I saw that body twitch as Aunt Marty talked honest to it, even though it was as hard-cold as a middle-of-February icicle.
Eleanor Case, the old schoolmarm, brought extra lunch-bucket food for the kids that didn't have nothing. If angels ever wanted to borrow a human body, Miss Case is the one they'd use.
Bodies all just looked dead to me.
Aunt Marty told me I would inherit her gift. I didn't want it. Maybe the magic coins knew how I felt and that's why they wouldn't let me know their secrets.
The strangest experience I had was when Ida Mae's twin sister, Carrie Mae, died from a seizure caused by a high fever. Ida shook like a thunderstorm had formed inside her and was getting stronger and stronger, until it tore her apart from the inside. Aunt Marty must have noticed, too. Real slow, as if she was trying to soothe an injured bear, she reached over and patted Ida's arm.
"I got a message for you. And it's real important. Your sister says that she would have run out into the cold rain to pick apples even if you hadn't had a hankering for them. She wanted some, too. And the fever -- this is the important part -- the fever didn't have nothing to do with getting soaked through."
Ida's eyes opened about as wide as her face and she choked, "But how do you know about the apples? I never told."
"Your sister's telling you she can't go to her eternal reward until you know her dying ain't one-bit your fault."
Then Ida dropped onto her sister's body and sobbed. Aunt Marty didn't stop her until I saw the slightest light, no brighter than a candle flame flicker, pass through Ida and out through the wall.
"But you didn't send Carrie's spirit into heaven," I whispered to Aunt Marty.
"It's okay," she said. "Ida Mae done it."
Ida Mae told her best friend that story. Versions of what happened got spread around the county. My aunt and me turned into either witches or messengers from the Almighty, depending upon the notions of who heard. Some thought we was gods, the kind that shouldn't be approached 'til there wasn't no choice.
I loved my aunt. I would have been an orphan without her. But the magic coins knew her, not me. Besides, in a month or two I would be sixteen years old. And all I saw ahead was more burying.
"Pick you some happiness if I could," Hank said one spring day as we searched the woods for some poke for a salad.
So, I told him about how I wanted to do something different than travel from one pine box to another. "I wouldn't mind rendering hog fat over a hot stove all day, if I could work for the living."
"How about you and me getting married?"
"Ain't never thought about it." I looked at the basket of fresh-picked poke, good-for-you in early spring. Poison later in the season.
"I'm mighty crazy about you, and I think we can work together. Maybe even create living folk." He turned red as a over-ripe tomato.
Hank made sense. Marrying him could change my life. A lot. "Think we should tell Aunt Marty together?"
He looked at me like I was a tadpole that turned into a full-growed frog fast as ice melts in a hot pot. "Should we tell her right now?"
"Yup. No point in waiting. She'd figure us out anyway."
"Then I think it's time you knew the secret." He put his arm around my shoulder. "How do you think Aunt Marty makes them coins magic?"
"I figured she had some kind of special power over them. They don't look no different."
"She learned how from my papa. It's a business we do most folk don't know about." He sat on a huge rock at the edge of the trail. "True, you seen these coins when they been put on the eyes of folk to keep them closed, when the time's come to look inside and see the whole of themselves. Just before they open before eternity. You don't know how the magic forms before that happens.
"The magic comes from inside a person. You've got to care about what you're doing. A lot. And keep caring All the time. But that ain't how it ends."
Hank pulled a coin from his pocket, like the ones Aunt Marty used. Then I put the poke on the rock and let Hank drop the coin into my hand. It warmed immediately. I suddenly felt drawn to Hank's eyes. Strange how I'd never seen them the same way before. His eyes was the color of a lake at noon when the sun shines. I noticed how his smile seemed to come straight from his soul.
When Hank and I walked into Aunt Marty's cabin, my aunt wasn't in her cane rocker, like usual. She lay in bed, her face white as a bleached sheet.
"Ah, you are both here," she said, as if her voice came from far away.
I took her hand, cold as snow.
"Good, you have found your path. I feel it." She whispered, but her smile filled her face. "One last request. Lacy, you will send me on to my eternal reward. Then you and Hank will live in this house together. Promise?"
We both nodded. Aunt Marty's body shook once and then remained still. We got her lying as peaceful as if she was taking an afternoon nap. Then I dropped an aspirin in a bowl of soda water and wiped her face. Hank waited outside the door while I done the full washing.
When I placed the coins over her eyes to keep them closed, the coins told me what to do. I called to Hank to stand by my side. A wavering light appeared.
"Follow the light. Your mama is waiting."
The brightness turned around and came back into me.
Hank grabbed my hand and the light jumped into him, too. When I looked at our arms I saw the fresh skin of our youth turn the same sun-gold, and I realized we'd been given power.
We used our magic in the truck garden to grow enough vegetables to feed us, the poorer folk in town, and the young'uns in the orphanage in the valley.
Ida Mae took over for Aunt Marty, and when she got married her husband led the men to their destiny. They knew the secret of the coins, but they didn't talk out loud to spirits like Aunt Marty did. They talked to them silent, soul to soul.
The magic coins never made our lives perfect, but they made us rich in a peculiar kind of way. As of this telling, Hank and me have been married sixty years. We had five girls and four boys, and each one of our kids had two or three young'uns, and they ain't stopped growing the family. Our sons and daughters all know how the coins work. They continue to make better whoever they touch, so that nobody knows where the goodness starts or ends.
I think that's the way it's supposed to be.