The Humming Casket by J. Hugo

An open pasture rusted with wild lilies, isolated
on the northern edge of town, a small pond
in the middle ringed by thriving maple:
it was there, thirty years ago,
that Uncle Bill killed himself.

My papaw was the one who drove the hearse
into those outskirts as a squalling summer’s
noon heaved itself over the land and licked
at the white hood of his ’84 Cadillac.
He found Uncle Bill just how Bill wanted

to be found: swollen with pooled blood, swinging
from a high, forked branch by a rope that rippled
the skin of his neck, a fold-up chair collapsed
in the weeds with a .357 magnum handgun.
His head was left a jagged, empty basket,

his spinal cord a stem plucked of its flower.
Skin of his scalp flopped onto his shoulder
like a toupee. Eyelids caved. Maggots clogging
his crushed throat. Around him, policemen droned,
swarmed to the thick, honeyed scent of his death

hidden under sour algae, and the coroner, a rival undertaker,
circled Bill’s dangling legs, whistling some half-tune.
When my papaw asked him if he could take Bill’s body home,
the coroner planted his feet in the muck and grinned:
No can do. I say go ahead and let ‘im hang

till his wife signs his funeral over from you to me.
My papaw knew bodies were crumpled bills in both their pockets,
but his knuckles still ached to bury themselves in the man’s jawbone.
The coroner’s hands twitched on his hips, and the sun sloped
through boughs. The call from Bill’s wife never came.

After another wave of flies rolled in with the muggy heat,
a smile curled beneath the coroner’s spittle-flecked moustache.
No hard feelings. Just business. And then he backed away,
permitted my papaw step up and cut Bill’s rope,
strap him to a creaking gurney, and wheel him off.

Later that afternoon, my papaw learned that embalming fluid
can’t stifle that much squirming larvae. Couldn’t salvage the husk
of meat the world had made Bill, like he was nothing more than a deer
smeared on the side of a road. So my papaw shoved him in a casket,
called it done, carted him out the next day

to a viewing room drowned in daisies,
and after the visitation trickled to an end,
my papaw corralled the casket
into the sterile preparation room, plummeted
the thermostat, but it did little good.

By cold dawn, Bill’s skin churned
like boiling water, the flies crawling under his face.
My papaw could only seal the lid of the casket,
catch the pastor outside by an elbow, beg:
Keep it short. For my family’s sake,

just hurry and get him in the ground.
And when the pastor clutched his worn Bible
with a liver-spotted hand and arched an eyebrow,
my papaw warned through clenched teeth:
Soon, that casket will be humming.


This poem was first published in Grassroots.


J. Hugo lives alone in southern Illinois and doesn’t consider herself much of a poet. The granddaughter of a mortician, she merely enjoys writing about her strange family.

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