[STORY]: The Ballad of the Body

This past year, I threw my hat in to compete in the New York City Midnight Madness Flash Fiction contest. Authors were asked to write a very short story (under 1,000 words), that contained certain criteria. For my first year competing, I did alright. Only the top five out of every group would proceed to round three — I was number six.

Since I’ve been eliminated, I am now free to share the work I contributed. This is the entry from the first round. The criteria my group was given was:

  1. Historical Fiction
  2. Had to be set in a funeral home
  3. A chainsaw had to be in the story

I’m really proud of this one, and I hope you like it.

The Ballad of the Body

By: A.P. Miller

(c)2020 A.P. Miller – Any reproduction or duplication without the author’s consent is strictly prohibited.

Renacido, New Mexico – 1881.

The parlor of the funeral home was draped in black, the smell of pine wafted from the freshly built coffins lining the room. Jeffrey Valentine took off his bowler and smoothed down his waistcoat, seemed the proper sign of respect in a room meant for mourning. 

Two men emerged from the door at the far end of the funeral home. The taller, sturdier man wore a blood stained apron, like a butcher’s. The other wore a suit of distinction, carrying a device that looked like a thick knife with a wooden handle and a hand crank on it. Jeffrey recognized it as an Osteotome, saw teeth on a chain that spins around a spindle when the crank is wound, used to cut through bone.

“Thanks for your help, Doc.” The aproned man said.

Doc tipped his hat to the man in the apron, then again at Jeffrey, and Jeffrey obliged.

“You the new apprentice?”

“Yes, sir.” Jeffrey said.

“Good. The bodies are piling up. Follow me.”

Jeffrey followed the Undertaker through the door and into a room staged with four tables, a body on each. A heavy chemical odor burned Jeffrey’s eyes.

“We’re lucky enough to have Formaldehyde, that’ll buy some time. A lot of bodies are coming.” the Undertaker said.

“Yes, sir.” Jeffrey said, donning the apron the Undertaker handed him and rolled up his sleeves. “What happened that there are so many bodies?”

“Coal mine collapsed. Took a lot of good boys with it.” The Undertaker said, plunging thick needles into the artery in the neck of the body he was working on, then another thick needle into the opposing artery. Tubes connected the needles to large jars, ones full of a clear liquid, the others empty.

The Undertaker began spinning a wheel on a pump connected to the tubes, coaxing the clear fluid into the body and the blood out into the jars. The Undertaker nodded to Jeffrey, a signal to begin.

Jeffrey grabbed a needle and approached a man’s neck. A jagged hole in the side of the man’s head surprised Jeffrey.

“Sir, you reckon a lot of the miners had been shot?”

“No. He’s not from the mines.” the Undertaker said. “Broken heart killed him.”

“Did you know him?”

“No. His body told that tale.”

“How so?” Jeffrey asked.

The Undertaker approached the body, turning over a hand. “His hands are rough, he was a hard worker. He’s got punctures in his palm, he’d been mending a barbed wire fence that morning. Then there’s an awful bruise on his leg, he’d been shoeing a horse and got kicked.”

“Chores broke his heart?”

“Look under the nails,” the Undertaker said, lifting the hand, “there’s skin. He’d dug his fingers into someone, but the skin is light and fair. A woman. His knuckles are rough, but not cut up, he wasn’t violent. Devil only possesses a man like that for a few reasons.”

“His wife shot him?”

“There’s a bruise on his cheek, the bone is busted. No woman I know can belt a man like that. He must have seen her with another man, lost his religion, and the man tried to defend her.” The Undertaker said.

“So her lover shot him?”

“No. This man killed them both.”

“How can you tell?” Jeffrey asked, intrigued.

“Two oblong bruises on his right shoulder, same shape, one just a little off from the other. The butt of a shotgun makes a mark like that. He didn’t shoot the gun often, that’s why he bruised like he did.”

“He shot one, moved, and then shot the other?”

“Correct.” The Undertaker said.

“He shot himself?”

“I reckon.” The Undertaker said, nodding.

“Why do you think he had a broken heart? He shot his wife and her lover, maybe he was scared of hanging.”

“There is a white line on his finger where his wedding ring was. He took it off. If he put the bullet in his head out of fear, he wouldn’t have bothered. He took the time to think about his marriage and take the ring off. Despair put the gun to that man’s head, not fear.”

Jeffrey paused, contemplating the Undertaker’s logic.

“I’m sorry, Sir, but I just can’t buy that. He’s got farmer’s hands, maybe he was shooting at Coyote, a bandit robbed him, and there was a struggle.” Jeffrey said.

“Go look at the other bodies.”

Jeffrey did as he was told. When he pulled back the sheets, there was a man on one table and a woman on the other. There were large wounds in their chests, small lead beads still embedded in the skin. The woman had skin clawed from the back of her neck and the man’s knuckles were broken open.

“She was pregnant too.” The Undertaker said.

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Doc told me. Doc didn’t think she could have babies, but it was her husband that couldn’t produce. I reckon that’s what put him wise to the affair.” the Undertaker said, shaking his head. “That’s why Doc was here with his chain-saw contraption, he thought it fit for the youngin’ to have a proper burial at the Boot Hill and had to get the baby out.”

A tear trailed down Jeffrey’s cheek.

“After you’ve been here a while, you’ll see these things too. Unfortunately, you’ll stop seeing them as people and only see work.” The Undertaker said.

Jeffrey hoped not.

The bell above the front door rang, someone had come in.

“C’mon, those folks are arriving and we’ve got a lot of work to do.” The Undertaker said.

Jeffrey nodded and went back to work while the Undertaker tended to the visitor out front. 

The End.

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