"No, there's no lief arguin'. I got my mind fixed. Run along with your silly wicker basket. Land, where you ever get notions like that? You just skit out of here; don't bother me, I got my tattin' and knittin' to do, and no never minds about tall, dark gentlemen with fangled ideas."
The tall, dark young man stood quietly, not moving. Aunt Tildy hurried on with her talk.
"You _heard_ what I said! If you got a mind to talk to me, well, you can talk, but meantime I hope you don't mind if I pour myself coffee. There. If you'd been more polite, I'd offer you some, but you jump in here high and mighty and you never rapped on the door or nothin'. You think you own the place."
Aunt Tildy fussed with her lap. "Now, you made me lose count! i'm makin' myself a comforter. These winters get on mighty chill, and it ain't fittin' for a lady with bones like rice-paper to be settin' in a drafty old house without warmin' herself."
The tall, dark man sat down.
"That's an antique chair, so be gentle," warned Aunt Tildy. "Start again, tell me things you got to tell, I'll listen respectful. But keep your voice in your shoes and stop starin' at me with funny lights in your eyes. Land, it gives me the collywobbles."
The bone-porcelain, flowered clock on the mantel finished chiming three. Out in the hail, grouped around the wicker basket, four men waited, quietly, as if they were frozen.
"Now, about that wicker basket," said Aunt Tildy. "It's past six feet long, and by the look, it ain't laundry. And those four men you walked in with, you don't need them to carry that basket-- why, it's light as thistles. Eh?"
The dark young man was leaning forward on the antique chair. Something in his face suggested the basket wouldn't be so light after a while.
"Pshaw," Aunt Tildy mused. "Where've I seen a wicker like that before? Seems it was only a couple years ago. Seems to me-- oh! Now I remember. It was when Mrs. Dwyer passed away next door."
Aunt Tildy set her coffee cup down, sternly. "So _that's_ what you're up to? I thought you were workin' to sell me somethin'. You just set there until my little Emily trounces home from college this afternoon! I wrote her a note last week. Not admittin', of course, that I wasn't feelin' quite ripe and pert, but sort of hintin' I want to see her again, it's been a good many weeks. Her livin' in New York and all. Almost like my own daughter, Emily is.
"Now, she'll take care of you, young man. She'll shoo you out'n this parlor so quick it'll--"
The dark young man looked at Aunt Tildy as if she were tired.
"No, I'm _not!_" she snapped.
He weaved back and forth on the chair, half-shutting his eyes, resting himself. O, wouldn't she like to rest, too? he seemed to murmur. Rest, rest, nice rest. . . ."
"Great sons of Goshen on the Gilberry Dike! I got a hunderd comforters, two hundred sweaters and six hundred potholders in these fingers, no matter they're skinny! You run off, come back when I'm done, maybe I'll talk to you." Aunt Tildy shifted subjects. "Let me tell you about Emily, my sweet, fair child."
Aunt Tildy nodded thoughtfully. Emily, with hair like yellow corn tassels, just as soft and fine.
"I well remember the day her mother died, twenty years ago, leavin' Emily to my house. That's why I'm mad at you and your wickers and such goings-on. Who ever heard of people dyin' for any good cause? Young man, I don't like it. Why, I remember--"
Aunt Tildy paused; a brief pain of memory touched her heart. Twenty-five years back, her father's voice trembled in the late afternoon:
"Tildy," he whispered, "what you goin' to _do_ in life? The way you act, men don't walk much with you. You kiss and skedaddle. Why don't you settle down, marry, raise children?"
"Papa," Tildy shouted back at him, "I like laughin' and playin' and singin'. I'm not the marryin' kind. I can't find a man with my philosophy, Papa."
"What 'philosophy's' that?"
"That death is ridiculous! It run off with Mama when we needed her most. You call that intelligent?"
Papa's eyes got wet and gray and bleak. "You're always right, Tildy. But what can we do? Death comes to everybody."
"Fight!" she cried. "Strike it below the belt! Don't _believe_ in it!"
"Can't he done," said Papa sadly. "We all stand alone in the world."
"There's got to be a change sometime, Papa. I'm startin' my own philosophy here and now! Why, it's silly people live a couple years and are shoved like wet seeds in a hole; but nothin' sprouts. What good do they do? Lay there a million years, helpin' no one. Most of them fine, nice, neat people, or at least tryin'."
But Papa wasn't listening. He bleached out, faded away, like a photo left lying in the sun. She tried to talk him out of it, hut he passed on, anyway. She spun about and ran. She couldn't stay on once he was cold, for his coldness denied her philosophy. She didn't attend his burial. She didn't do anything but set up this antique shop on the front of an old house and live alone for years, that is, until Emily came. Tildy didn't want to take the girl in. Why? Because Emily believed in dying. But her mother was an old friend and Tildy had promised help.
"Emily," continued Aunt Tildy, to the man in black, "was the first to live in this house with me in all the years. I never got married. I feared the idea of livin' with a man twenty-thirty years and then have him up and die on me. It'd shake my convictions like a house of cards. I shied off from the world. I screamed at people if they so much as mentioned death."
The young man listened patiently, politely. Then he lifted his hand. He seemed to know everything, with the dark, cold shining of his eyes, before she opened her mouth. He knew about her and World War II, when she shut off her radio forever and stopped the newspapers and beat a man's head with an umbrella, driving him from her shop when he insisted on describing the invasion beaches and the long, slow tides of the dead drifting under the silent urgings of the moon.
Yes, the dark young man smiled from the antique rocker, he knew how Aunt Tildy had stuck to her nice old phonograph records. Harry Lauder singing "Roamin' in the Gloamin'," Madame Schumann-Heink and lullabies. With no interruptions, no foreign calamities, murders, poisonings, auto accidents, suicides. Music stayed the same each day, every day. So the years ran, while Aunt Tildy tried to teach Emily her philosophy. But Emily's mind was fixed on mortality. She respected Aunt Tildy's way of thinking, however, and never mentioned--eternity.
All this the young man knew.
Aunt Tildy sniffed. "How do you know all those things? Well, if you think you can talk me into that silly wicker basket, you're way off the trestle. You lay hands on me, I'll spit right _in_ your face!"
The young man smiled. Aunt Tildy sniffed again.
"Don't simper like a sick dog. I'm too old to be made love at. That's all twisted dry, like an old tube of paint, and left behind in the years."
There was a noise. The mantel clock chimed three. Aunt Tildy flashed her eyes to it. Strange. Hadn't it chimed three o'clock just five minutes ago? She liked the bone-white clock with gold angels dangling naked about its numeraled face and its tone like cathedral bells, soft and far away.
"Are you just goin' to sit there, young man?"
"Then, you won't mind if I take a little cat nap. Now, don't you stir off that chair. Don't come creepin' around me. Just goin' to close my eyes for a spell. That's right. That's right. . . ."
Nice and quiet and restful time of day. Silence. Just the clock ticking away, busy as termites in wood. Just the old room smelling of polished mahogany and oiled leather in the Morris chair, and hooks sitting stiff on the shelves. So nice. Nice. .
"You aren't gettin' up from the chair, are you, mister? Better not. I got one eye open for you. Yes, indeed I have. Yes, I have. Oh. Ah, hmmmm."
So feathery. So drowsy. So deep. Under water, almost. Oh, so nice.
Who's that movin' around in the dark with my eyes closed? Who's that kissin' my cheek? You, Emily? No. No. Guess it was my thoughts. Only_dreamin'. Land, yes, that's it. Driftin' off, off, off.
AH? WHAT SAY? OH!
"Wait while I put on my glasses. There!"
The clock chimed three again. Shame, old clock, now, shame. Have to have you fixed.
The young man in the dark suit stood near the door. Aunt Tildy nodded.
"You leavin' so soon, young man? Had to give up, didn't you? Couldn't convince me; no, I'm mule-stubborn. Never get me free of this house, so don't bother comin' back to try!"
The young man bowed with slow dignity.
He had no intention of coming again, ever.
"Fine," declared Aunt Tildy. "I always told Papa I'd win! Why, I'll knit in this window the next thousand years. They'll have to chew the boards down around me to get me out."
The dark young man twinkled his eyes.
"Quit lookin' like the cat that ate the bird," cried Aunt Tildy. "Get that old fool wicker away!"
The four men trod heavily out the front door. Tildy studied the way they handled an empty basket, yet staggered with its weight.
"Here, now!" She rose in tremulous indignation. "Did you steal my antiques? My books? The clocks? What you got in that wicker?"
The dark young man whistled jauntily, turning his back to her, walking along behind the four staggering men. At the door he pointed to the wicker, offered its lid to Aunt Tildy. In pantomime he wondered if she would like to open it and gaze inside.
"Curious? Me? Pshaw, no. Get out!" cried Aunt Tildy.
The dark young man tapped a hat onto his head, saluted her crisply.
"Good-by!" Aunt Tildy slammed the door.
There, there. That was better. Gone. Darned fool men with their maggoty ideas. No never minds about the wicker. If they stole something, she didn't care, long as they let her alone.
"Look." Aunt Tildy smiled. "Here comes Emily, home from college. About time. Lovely girl. See how she walks. But, land, she looks pale and funny today, walkin' so slow. I wonder why. Looks worried, she does. Poor girl. I'll just fix some coffee and a tray of cakes."
Emily tapped up the front steps. Aunt Tildy, rustling around, could hear the slow, deliberate steps. What _ailed_ the girl? Didn't sound like she had no more spunk than a flue-lizard. The front door swung wide. Emily stood in the hall, holding to the brass doorknob.
"Emily?" called Aunt Tildy.
Emily shuffled into the parlor, head down.
"Emily! I been waitin' for you! There was the darndest fool men here with a wicker. Tryin' to sell me something I didn't want. Glad you're home. Makes it right cozy--"
Aunt Tildy realized that for a full minute Emily had been staring.
"Emily, what's wrong? Stop starin'. Here, I'll bring you a cup of coffee. There! -
"Emily, why you backin' away from me?
"Emily, stop screamin', child. Don't scream, Emily! Don't! You keep screamin' that way, you go crazy. Emily, get up off the floor, get away from that wall! Emily! Stop cringin', child. I won't hurt you!
"Land, if it ain't one thing it's another.
"Emily, what's _wrong_, child . . ."
Emily groaned through her hands over her face.
"Child, child," whispered Aunt Tildy. "Here, sip this water. Sip it, Emily, that's it."
Emily widened her eyes, saw something, then shut them, quivering, pulling into herself. "Aunt Tildy, Aunt Tildy, Aunt--"
"Stop that!" Tildy slapped her. "What _ails_ you?"
Emily forced herself to look up again.
She thrust her fingers out. They vanished inside Aunt Tildy.
"What fool notion!" cried Tildy. "Take your hand away! Take it, I say!"
Emily dropped aside, jerked her head, the golden hair shaking into shiny temblors. "You're not here, Aunt Tildy. I'm dreaming. You're dead!"
"You _can't_ be here."
"Land of Goshen, Emily--"
She took Emily's hand. It passed clean through her. Instantly, Aunt Tildy raised straight up, stomping her foot.
"Why, why!" she cried angrily. "That--fibber! That sneakthief!" Her thin hands knotted to wiry, hard, pale fists. "That dark, dark fiend; He stole it! He toted it away, he did, oh he did, he did! Why, I--" Wrath steamed in her. Her pale blue eyes were fire. She sputtered into an indignant silence. Then she turned to Emily. "Child, get up! I need you!"
Emily lay, quivering.
"Part of me's here!" declared Aunt Tildy. "By the Lord Harry, what's left will have to do, for a bit. Fetch my bonnet!"
Emily confessed. "I'm scared."
"Certainly, oh, certainly not of _me?_"
"Why, I'm no spook! You known me most of your life! Now's no time to snivel-sop. Fetch up on your heels or I'll slap you crack across your nose!"
Emily rose, in sobs, stood like something cornered, trying to decide which direction to bolt in.
"Where's your car, Emily?"
"Down at the garage--ma'am."
"Good!" Aunt Tildy hustled her through the front door. "Now--" Her sharp eyes poked up and down the streets. "Which way's the mortuary?"
Emily held to the step rail, fumbling down. "What're you going to do, Aunt Tildy?"
"Do?" cried Aunt Tildy, tottering after her, jowls shaking in a thin, pale fury. "Why, get my body back, of course! Get my body back! Go on!"
The car roared, Emily clenched to the steering wheel, staring straight ahead at the curved, rain-wet streets. Aunt Tildy shook her parasol.
"Hurry, child, hurry, before they squirt juices in my body and dice and cube it the way them persnickety morticians have a habit of doin'. They cut and sew it so it ain't no good to no one!"
"Oh, Auntie, Auntie, let me go, don't make me drive! It won't do any good, no good at all," sighed the girl.
"Here we are." Emily pulled to the curb, and collapsed over the wheel, but Aunt Tildy had already popped from the car and trotted with mincing skirt up the mortuary drive, around behind to where the shiny black hearse was unloading a wicker basket.
"You!" she directed her attack at one of the four men with the wicker. "Put that down!"
The four men looked up.
One said, "Step aside, lady. We're doing our job."
"That's my body tucked in there!" She brandished the parasol.
"That I wouldn't know anything about," said a second man. "Please don't block traffic, madam. This thing is heavy."
"Sir!" she cried, wounded. "I'll have you know I weigh only one hundred and ten pounds."
He looked at her casually. "I'm not interested in your heft, lady. I'm due home for supper. My wife'll kill me if I'm late."
The four of them moved on, Aunt Tildy in pursuit, down a hall, into a preparations room.
A white-smocked man awaited the wicker's arrival with a rather pleased smile on his long, eager_looking face. Aunt Tildy didn't care for the avidity of that face, or the entire personality of the man. The basket was deposited, the four men wandered off.
The man in the white smock glanced at Auntie and said:
"Madam, this is no fit place for a gentlewoman."
"Well," she said, gratified, "glad you feel that way. It's exactly what I tried to tell that dark-clothed young man!"
The mortician puzzled. "What dark-clothed young man is that?"
"The one that came puddlin' around my house, that's who."
"No one of that description works for us."
"No matter. As you just so intelligently stated, this is no place for a lady. I don't want me here. I want me home cookin' ham for Sunday visitors, it's near Easter. I got Emily to feed, sweaters to knit, clocks to wind--"
"You are quite philosophical, and philanthropical, no doubt of it, madam, but I have work. A body has arrived." This last, he said with apparent relish, and a winnowing of his knives, tubes, jars, and instruments.
Tildy bristled. "You put so much as a fingerprint on that body, and I'll--"
He laid her aside like a little old moth. "George," he called with a suave gentleness, "escort this lady out, please."
Aunt Tildy glared at the approaching George.
"Show me your backside, goin' the other way!"
George took her wrists. "This way, please."
Tildy extricated herself. Easily. Her flesh sort of--slipped. It even amazed Tildy. Such an unexpected talent to develop at this late day.
"See?" she said, pleased with her ability. "You can't budge me. I want my body back!"
The mortician opened the wicker lid casually. Then, in a recurrent series of scrutinies he realized the body inside was . . . it seemed . . . could it be? . . . maybe. . . yes. . . no.. . no. . . it just _couldn't_ be, but . . . "Ah," he exhaled, abruptly. He turned. His eyes were wide, then they narrowed.
"Madam," he said, cautiously. "This lady here is--a--relative-- of yours?"
"A very dear relation. Be careful of her."
"A sister, perhaps?" He grasped at a straw of dwindling logic, hopefully.
"No, you fool. Me, do you hear? _Me!_"
The mortician considered the idea. "No," he said. "Things like this don't happen." He fumbled with his tools. "George, get help from the others. I can't work with a crank present."
The four men returned. Aunt Tildy crossed her arms in defiance. "Won't budge!" she cried, as she was moved like a pawn on a chessboard, from preparations room to slumber room, to hall, to waiting chamber, to funeral parlor, where she threw herself down on a chair in the very center of the vestibule. There were pews going back into gray silence, and a smell of flowers.
"Please, ma'am," said one of the men. "That's where the body rests for the service tomorrow."
"I'm sittin' right plumb here until I get what I want."
She sat, pale fingers fussing with the lace at her throat, jaw set, one high-buttoned shoe tapping with irritation. If a man got in whopping distance, she gave him a parasol whop. And when they touched her, now, she remembered to--slip away.
Mr. Carrington, Mortuary President, heard the disturbance in his office and came toddling down the aisle to investigate. "Here, here," he whispered to everyone, finger to mouth. "More respect, more respect. What is this? Oh, madam, may I help you?"
She looked him up and down. "You may."
"How may I be of service, please?"
"Go in that room back there," directed Aunt Tildy.
"And tell that eager young investigator to quit fiddlin' with my body. I'm a maiden lady. My moles, birthmarks, scars, and other bric-a-brac, including the turn of my ankle, are my own secret. I don't want him pryin' and probin', cuttin', or hurtin' it any way."
This was vague to Mr. Carrington, who hadn't correlated bodies yet. He looked at her in blank helplessness.
"He's got me in there on his table, like a pigeon ready to be drawn and stuffed!" she told him.
Mr. Carrington hustled off to check. After fifteen minutes of waiting silence and horrified arguing, comparing notes with the mortician behind closed doors, Carrington returned, three shades whiter.
Carrington dropped his glasses, picked them up. "You're making it difficult for us."
"_I_ am?" raged Aunt Tildy. "Saint Vitus in the mornin'! Looky here, Mister Blood and Bones or whatever, you tell that--"
"We're already draining the blood from the--"
"Yes, yes, I assure you, yes. So, you just go away, now; there's nothing to be done." He laughed nervously. "Our mortician is also performing a brief autopsy to determine cause of death."
Auntie jumped to her feet, burning.
"He can't do that! Only coroners are allowed to do that!"
"Well, we sometimes allow a little--"
"March straight in and tell that Cut-'em-up to pump all that fine New England blue blood right back into that fine-skinned body, and if he's taken anything out, for him to attach it back in so it'll function proper, and then turn that body, fresh as paint, into my keepin'. You hear!"
"There's nothing I can do. Nothing."
"Tell you _what_. I'm settin' here for the next two hundred years. You listenin'? And every time any of your customers come by, I'll spit ectoplasm right squirt up their nostrils!"
Carrington groped that thought around his weakening mind and emitted a groan. "You'd ruin our business. You wouldn't do that."
Auntie smiled. "_Wouldn't_ I?"
Carrington ran up the dark aisle. In the distance you could hear him dialing a phone over and over again. Half an hour later cars roared up in front of the mortuary. Three vice-presidents of the mortuary came down the aisle with their hysterical president.
"What seems to be the trouble?"
Auntie told them with a few well-chosen infernalities.
They held a conference, meanwhile notifying the mortician to discontinue his homework, at least until such time as an agreement was reached. . . . The mortician walked from his chamber and stood smiling amiably, smoking a big black cigar.
Auntie stared at the cigar.
"Where'd you put the _ashes?_" she cried, in horror.
The mortician only grinned imperturbably and puffed.
The conference broke up.
"Madam, in all fairness, you wouldn't force us out on the street to continue our services, would you?"
Auntie scanned the vultures. "Oh, I wouldn't mind at all."
Carrington wiped sweat from his jowls. "You can have your body back."
"Ha!" shouted Auntie. Then, with caution: "Intact?"
"Blood in it?"
"Blood, my God, yes, blood, if only you'll take it and go!"
A prim nod. "Fair enough. Fix 'er up. It's a deal."
Carrington snapped his fingers at the mortician. "Don't _stand_ there, you mental incompetent. Fix it up!"
"And be careful with that cigar!" said the old woman.
"Easy, easy," said Aunt Tildy. "Put the wicker on the floor where I can step in it."
She didn't look at the body much. Her only comment was, "Natural-lookin'." She let herself fall back into the wicker.
A biting sensation of arctic coldness gripped her, followed by an unlikely nausea and a giddy whorling. She was two drops of matter fusing, water trying to seep into concrete. Slow to do. Hard. Like a butterfly trying to squirm back into a discarded husk of flinty chrysalis!
The vice-presidents watched Aunt Tildy with apprehension. Mr. Carrington wrung his fingers and tried to assist with boosting and pushing moves of his hands and arms. The mortician, frankly skeptical, watched with idle, amused eyes.
Seeping into cold, long granite. Seeping into a frozen and ancient statue. Squeezing all the way.
"Come alive, damn ye!" shouted Aunt Tildy to herself. "Raise up a bit."
The body half-rose, rustling in the dry wicker.
"Fold your legs, woman!"
The body grabbled up, blindly groping.
"See!" shouted Aunt Tildy.
Light entered the webbed blind eyes.
"Feel!" urged Aunt Tildy.
The body felt the warmth of the room, the sudden reality of the preparations table on which to lean, panting.
The body took a creaking, slow step.
"Hear!" she snapped.
The noises of the place came into the dull ears. The harsh, expectant breath of the mortician, shaken; the whimpering Mr. Carrington; her own crackling voice.
"Walk!" she said.
The body walked.
"Think!" she said.
The old brain thought.
"Speak!" she said.
The body spoke, bowing to the morticians:
"Much obliged. Thank you."
"Now," she said, finally, "cry!"
And she began to cry tears of utter happiness.
And now, any afternoon about four, if you want to visit Aunt Tildy, you just walk around to her antique shop and rap. There's a big, black funeral wreath on the door. Don't mind that! Aunt Tildy left it there; that's how her humor runs. You rap on the door. It's double-barred and triple-locked, and when you rap her voice shrills out at you.
"Is that the man in black?"
And you laugh and say no, no, it's only me, Aunt Tildy.
And she laughs and says, "Come on in, quick!" and she whips the door open and slams it shut behind, so no man in black can ever slip in with you. Then she sets you down and pours your coffee and shows you her latest knitted sweater. She's not as fast as she used to be, and can't see as good, but she gets on.
"And if you're 'specially good," Aunt Tildy declares, setting her coffee cup to one side, "I'll give you a little treat."
"What's that?" visitors will ask.
"This," says Auntie, pleased with her little uniqueness, her little joke.
Then with modest moves of her fingers she will unfasten the white lace at her neck and chest and for a brief moment show what lies beneath.
The long blue scar where the autopsy was neatly sewn together.
"Not bad sewin' for a man," she allows. "Oh, some more coffee? _There!_"
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