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An Open Coffin

General Estiano hired me to take care of the body, but he avoids speaking to me. The only times we did talk was by telephone, when he insisted that this job would require my full attention and care. “A family matter,” he said, “I’m sure you will understand.” What awaited me in the front room of his house was an embalmed corpse resting in a beautiful crystal coffin, stuffed with alcohol, glycerin and preservatives to keep somewhat of a life-like appearance.

“Do you think it unsettles him?” I asked one of the maids.

“No, no,” she answered in a hurried whisper. “I think it calms him down.”

It was then that I looked more closely at the body for the first time: thin auburn hair, white skin turned waxen, eyes closed in blissful sleep.

“Good heavens—the death . . . When did it happen?”

“1985,” the maid said. She didn’t look at the body at all, like it wasn’t there. “A shame.”

Shame didn’t explain what lead someone to keep a body in display. Still, I found some beauty in the gesture, in the filial love, perhaps. This thing—this human being—must have been adored to be kept in the house.

“There is something else you must know about this job,” she told me, as we walked through the corridor that lead to the stairway. “Sometimes, others will come to visit the body. You must always let them in.”

“Others?”

The maid stopped walking, and placed a necklace with one key in my hands, trembling.

“Don’t ask too many questions.”

The visitors came every week, and they didn’t seek to meet the owner of the house. They only had eyes for the body; I suppose General Estiano found in those occasions an opportunity to rest, as I didn’t see him at all during the day. For this reason I had to answer the door, shaking everyone’s eager hands before kissing their cheeks.

“I’m Amélia, the new caretaker.”

“We’re so glad you’re here!” Aunt Laura was the first to greet me, her strawberry wig slightly misplaced. “It’s tragic that you had to be introduced like this, my dear. To be here in such a sad moment, instead of the good old days . . . ”

“Tragic indeed.”

One by one they came in, congesting the front room with their presences and handbags. The second one to greet me was Jair, a spindly man with sunken eyes, who hugged me like we were old friends.

“I reckon you must be close to General Estiano,” I said.

“Yes, yes, we joined the army in the same year!” Jair opened his arms, as if trying to embrace the whole room, coffin included. “Have you met him before?”

“We didn’t have the chance to meet face to face.”

“Of course. You’re too young to remember that time, after all.” Jair sat on the couch, watching as the women placed white lilies around the body. “This death . . . Amélia, right? This death, Amélia, it took us all by surprise. It ruined the christening of my son, such was our shock.”

“Some people simply can’t be replaced, right?”

Jair looked at me for a second, but his bloodshot eyes went back to the crystal box lying on the other side of the room. Then, he smiled, nodding.

“You’re right—you’re absolutely right.”

“Amélia, querida . . . ” Someone called in a singsong voice. I’m not found of being called darling by a person I’m not close to, but it was my job to smile at the sixty-year-old in front of me, and allow her to grab my arm. “Would you please bring a glass of water for this band of fools?”

Even if I couldn’t, her glittery eyes left no space for a no.

Laura, Jair and Josefina, I repeated to myself, trying to memorize all of them. My mind wandered, stubborn, finding everything I needed in a mechanic way: water pitcher, three glasses, napkins, a tray. Well, if it’s just three people . . .

I must have been too silent in this moment of concentration, because when I returned, I found them all around the coffin, hands and noses pressed against crystal. Josefina, who had asked me for water in such a nice, sugary way, was touching the surface with her face while she prayed. Jair clasped his hands together, murmuring what sounded like a religious chant, and Aunt Laura kissed the wooden table where the body stood.

The intensity of the moment took me by surprise, and the glasses fell from the tray, shattering against the floor. Josefina turned around, still kneeling, still rubbing the glass.

“Are you feeling unwell, querida?”

“I—I’m fine, thank you.”

I need this job for the kids, I thought, trying to clean my own disaster, pretending the visitors were not there. One of the shards cut the tip of my finger, drawing more blood than I imagined possible. It’s a simple, peaceful job.

Aunt Laura’s feet, compressed by her Pilgrim pulps and adorned by twisted purple veins, were standing in front of me, stepping over the pool of water I tried to wipe clean.

“This room hides a little treasure,” she said, placing her hand on my back. “You’ll understand how we feel one day, Amélia, I’m sure of that.”

Every morning after breakfast, I had to go to the front room and devote myself to my most important routine: taking care of the body. For that, I needed to regulate the air conditioner, unlock the coffin with my personal key, and bring everything I could need to groom it.

“Sorry,” I said to the body. Someone had left a plastic bag with ironed clothes in front of my bedroom an hour before, accompanied by a small note: Please change. “General Estiano asked me to do this.”

It was like playing with a human-sized doll. First, I washed it with a wet cloth and brushed its light hair, combing it back. Then I held its arms, removing the beige jacket and using two pillows to support the torso.

Only after I finished I could fully appreciate my hard work—the form-fitting jacket, colored juniper green; the golden buttons; several badges and medals placed on both sides of the chest; the shoulder marks begging for an epaulette.

“You look good,” I smiled, closing the coffin again to clean the surface. “Slightly disturbing, but good.”

There were more visitors in the following week. Aunt Laura brought her husband, her sons and her cousins, and Jair was followed by his wife and two little boys. Josefina hugged me tightly and kissed my cheeks, introducing me to her small entourage of friends: five women above the age of sixty, all of them unmarried, all chatty and cheerful.

“Good afternoon, everyone,” I said, closing the door. “General Estiano is not feeling well, so please bear with me.”

Seventeen people besides myself crowded the room, eager to see the coffin. They seemed happier than the last time we met; Josefina, in particular, looked splendid in a velvet dress and the heavy jewelry around her wrists and neck.

“Amélia, querida, you have no idea how happy I am to see you again!” She trapped me between her arms, making me feel like a child desperate to squirm out of an auntie’s grasp. “I bet you’ll love my friends as well.”

“We went to the lyceum together,” said a thin little woman, squeezing my forearm.

“Our group is a bit of an inner joke,” told me another. “Because we studied together, and we’re all spinsters.”

“Never met the right one?” I joked, but Josefina laughed way more than I thought she would.

“Oh, met several . . . ” She made a small pause, looking at the many rings in her fingers. “It’s just that you can lose more than you can win when you marry, you know?”

“I don’t think she knows about that, Josefina.”

“I don’t,” I agreed, starting to feel annoyed. “I’m married, but he’s working out of town right now.”

“Enough with this talk, we have too little time! Amélia, querida, won’t you fetch us something to drink? Maybe an appetizer or two, it’s been a long journey, you know!”

Of course I wanted to say no and remind them that I was just there to care for the body. I’m not a maid, the words were in the tip of my tongue, but they soon turned into an affable smile and a nod of the head.

In truth, what bothered me the most was the idea of leaving them alone with the body, which drew my attention to the door separating the room from the kitchen. It was made of mahogany and glass, and its two windows were covered by white curtains. It would be easy to spy through it and check what they were doing inside.

Do it, Amélia, I told myself after filling a plate with cassava starch biscuits. Do it.

And I did.

In the front room, Jair lifted one of his children, forcing the boy’s lips against the coffin, while his mother held the other one in line. Two of the spinsters placed even more white lilies on the floor under the body, and Josefina raised her hands in the air, looking possessed. Part of me wanted to find General Estiano and tell him about this nonsense, but the other part was too hypnotized to look away.

One by one, they gathered around the body like vultures, touching the surface, staining it with their hands. Then, they all did it at the same time: Josefina bent over it, placing her open palms above the body’s head, the kids sat down, about to be swallowed by the adults, Jair rubbed his face against the crystal, and some of the older women tried to look inside like one looks through a microscope.

“No,” I breathed, watching Aunt Laura climb over the coffin, covering it with her entire self. Her wig fell to the floor, revealing bald spots, and I could almost see her eyes wide open, unblinking, glaring at the body.

From a distance, they didn’t look human anymore, they were just enormous insects crawling over each other, piling over this rectangular box of food.

When I entered the room, they stopped what they were doing, and slowly knelt on the floor. As if they really believed I wouldn’t notice anything wrong, they started to pray with religious fervor, like the deceased person in front of them was some kind of a saint.

“Oh, Amélia, querida!” Josefina’s white cheeks were red, and her teary eyes were bulging. “Won’t you join us?”

Join?”

“Yes, come here!”

I left the untouched tray near the door, and went after her.

“You don’t know how life was—how beautiful, how glorious this country was—when . . . ” Josefina was panting, clearly finding it difficult to talk.

“When . . . ” I pointed at the body. “ . . . was alive?”

“Yes!” She answered with enthusiasm. “Yes, Amélia, yes!”

“She really doesn’t know,” Aunt Laura’s husband, a man with a somber look, intervened. “She’s too young.”

“I can only imagine.”

“That’s it!” Josefina pulled me by the wrist and forced me to kneel with her. She had red lipstick smeared in her teeth, and her hands were trembling. “That’s it, Amélia. You can imagine. We could have this again.”

“Ma’am . . . ”

“You just need to wish,” said a long woman with a hooked nose, who I recognized as one of Josefina’s friends. “Just look into the coffin and pray, and you’ll feel a little bit like in that time . . . ”

“If only we could touch it,” Jair chimed in. “Amélia, if we could . . . ”

The woman with the hooked nose buried her nails into my skin, dragging me toward the body. Its crystalline tomb glowed under the artificial light, and I felt like passing out. The key was tied around my neck, but no one was supposed to touch it besides myself.

“I don’t think today is the best day,” I said, my voice but a whisper. I could imagine them touching the body, mauling it with their hands, biting the pieces and swallowing them whole. “I will have to ask my boss if I can. Maybe next time.”

“Oh,” Aunt Laura grimaced. “Of course, that . . . ”

She never finished the sentence. Josefina continued, her saccharine smile making my stomach twirl:

“You’re right, querida. Maybe next time.”

The visitors returned after a week, but I decided I wouldn’t open the door this time. General Estiano still didn’t find time to meet me, even after I left a note under his door saying we needed to talk urgently.

I needed to take the lead.

“Amélia, open the door! It’s us!”

It was them indeed. I could see their shadows through the curtains: Jair and his sons, Aunt Laura and her husband, Josefina and many other people I didn’t recognize right away.

“We know you’re in there, querida!”

Dear this, dear that, but I wouldn’t obey.

“Open the door, Amélia!” Somebody else said.

I’m not sure how much time we spent there. For minutes or hours, I waited behind the door, my forehead against the wood, cold sweat running down my neck. Go away, I kept repeating to myself.

When they stopped, I fell slowly to the ground. One of the maids found me there an hour later, and helped me back to my feet:

“What about the visitors?” She asked, handing me a glass of water. “You didn’t let them in?”

“No, of course not.”

She covered her mouth, looking intently at the rug under her feet.

“Amélia,” she said. “Don’t do that again. None of us should oppose them. They . . . ”

The maid shook her head, and stopped talking.

“Maybe you should rest for today.”

That night, I dreamed of being back at my apartment, neighborhoods away. The kids were sleeping peacefully in their bedroom, and I kissed their foreheads, feeling their soft skin and hair. I couldn’t remember in the moment that I didn’t see them in a while; thirty days and counting, ever since my husband went to another town.

“Amélia?” José asked, hugging me from behind.

“I didn’t know you were here,” I answered, smiling, feeling calmer than I had been in a long while.

If José answered, I didn’t really understand his words. I only knew it was time to go to bed, so I kept talking, in that confusing daze that only happens when you sleep:

“Yes, go to bed,” I said, my face warm against his chest. “I’ll be there in a while. I just want to hug the kids again.”

José wasn’t there anymore, but I paid it no mind.

The twins, I thought. I need to kiss them good night.

But when I entered their bedroom, it wasn’t our building anymore, but the old, darkened house. Their beds were not beds, but a stand for a crystal coffin, and the visitors were tearing the body apart.

“Stop!” I tried to tell them. I ran toward the body, trying to mend its broken, dried up parts.

“Will you join us, querida?” Josefina asked. She wore epaulettes over her dress, and Jair’s shirt was covered with golden medals as he chewed on the corpse’s legs.

When I woke up, I was drenched in sweat, but luckily, the body was well.

General Estiano ignored my note. My husband doesn’t answer the phone. The maids forced me to come back to this place. There is no sight of the visitors, but their presence lingers in the house, their voices calling out to me in the dark: “Amélia, open the door, we know you’re there.”

Every now and then, I have to sit down and take a deep breath. Everything is well, I tell myself. They won’t hurt you, they’re just loud. But even when I begin to relax, I hear them again: “If you only knew about the old days . . . ”

I wish I could open the windows and have some light in this horrible front room, but I can’t. If they come, they will be able to see me crying in the sofa, and that would be no good. If they see me, I won’t have any excuse.

“It’s just a job, I can leave if I want to,” I say out loud, fondling my own hands. The coffin seems to mock me from across the room. “If they come again, I’ll just quit.”

“Amélia . . . !”

This time, it’s not just my imagination—it’s Josefina’s melodious voice. Not only her, but everybody else.

Querida . . . ! Where are you?”

It’s just a job.

“Amélia, stop being a child!” It’s Jair’s turn to scream.

I can just quit.

Ignoring their horrible noise, I walk toward the coffin. Seen from above, the body looks just like a body, trapped in this hideous vitrine. The same thin hair, the same closed eyes, the same bloodless lips. Oblivious to their continuous screaming, I find myself eager to unlock the coffin, and take a look at it.

“I don’t think they will stop,” I say, straightening the green jacket. “What do you think I should do?”

The golden and silver medals shine under my fingers, and something underneath catches my attention. It’s a patch of fabric with embroidered letters, reading:

E, S, T, I, A, N, O.

Outside, the noise becomes even louder, and I think of my dream again, feeling like they will break into the room and destroy everything in their wake.

“Help me, please,” I tell the body, feeling my voice crack. “I don’t know what else to do . . . ”

Pressing my cheek against its chest, I wish for them to disappear. Aunt Laura, Jair, Josefina, their cousins and classmates. Gone like the last strands of my determination, gone like General Estiano, gone, gone, gone . . . Just me and the body in the dark front room, safe at last. And I would be safe, if it weren’t for someone’s wandering hands, someone’s fingers creeping up my sleeve for a firm embrace.

“Open the door, Amélia,” I hear it whisper. “Let them come in.”

And, after a long pause, I do.

About the Author

H. Pueyo (@hachepueyo on Twitter) is an Argentine-Brazilian writer of comics and speculative fiction. Her work has appeared before in print and online venues like Clarkesworld, Capricious, and Sharp & Sugar Tooth: Women Up To No Good, among others. She currently lives in Brazil with her husband and their interminable piles of work to do.