The White Church

It seemed like a long drive from Winnipeg to Haywood. So long I thought my brain would go numb. Winter. Nothing to see along the roadside as we drove out there. Just long deep white fields that disappeared into the distance against the white sky. It seemed like the air was frozen hard. Too frozen for anything to move. Too frozen for anything to be alive out there.

They were all black, like a murder of crows, except for the priest who was in white and his helpers, who were in white, like they were the ones alive and the rest of us were like their dead prisoners. Even the church was white, on the outside. It looked frozen to the land.

They were all there, the dead French Uncles and Aunties. Buried in the frozen ground behind the white church. They had all been little once, grew upon farms around there, went to the white church every Sunday and when they died, they got buried in the ground behind it. We could see them as we walked from the parking lot into the church. They stuck out of the ground like frozen fingers of stone. Some flat stones, some stone pillars, some stone angels, there was even one small stone house with dead people inside. Lots of them had the same last name.

I had to stand in the line with the black crows. Some of the ladies had thin black veils coming out of their black hats, to cover their face, but you could still see them through their veil. The line shuffled single file up the aisle of the church and he was there, Uncle Dan. Sleeping in his coffin box. Dressed in his linoleum selling suit with a new white shirt and new necktie. His eyeglasses rested on his chest looped behind his neck by a pretty long chain. He only needed them to read so he wasn’t wearing them. His face was painted with makeup and he didn’t look happy or sad. People just walked up and stood looking at him for a bit then went and sat.

When it was my turn, I said to him, in a whisper voice, “sorry, I heard your heart attacked. Does it hurt?”

I pretended that he opened his eyes a little and whispered back to me, “naw, I’m just going to have a little snooze, you go play and we’ll get the checkers out when I get up.” Then I sat down in the church bench with my little brother who brought a couple dinky toys to play with.

I had been to Catholic church before. I knew it would be boring, but it was even worse. It went on so long. There was singing with all the songs sounding the same. The chanting and talking was like listening to a hive of bees moaning for a long time. Lots of it was not even French. There was praying and lots of standing up and sitting down, sometimes kneeling. And waving smelly perfume smoke and sprinkling water on Uncle Dan’s coffin box.

I had been to this church before, when I was little. Uncle Leo and Aunty Therese had their wedding at the church. But it was different. Nobody was dressed in black clothes then and everybody laughed and smiled and was happy. Uncle Leo and Aunty Therese were there on Uncle Dan’s funeral day, but dressed in black, like the other crows. They were in the bench right in front of me with their little girl, dressed in a little black dress. She knelt on the bench and looked back over at my brother playing with his dinky toys. I think she wanted to play too but her mom wouldn’t let her. When they stood up to sing, I pretended Uncle Leo and Aunty Therese were dressed in their happy wedding clothes.

When it was finally done, we put our coats and mitts on and went outside. They carried Uncle Dan down the aisle and out to the graveyard behind the church. They set him down on the flat ground beside a deep hole. A big dirt hill was piled on the other side of the hole. I tried to get close to look into the hole, close enough to see but not fall in. It was deep. It was black as night, I couldn’t see the bottom. They were going to put Uncle Dan into that deep hole and he would fall all the way to hell. I was sure of it.

The air was still. There was a rumble in the distance that grew louder. The priest stood at the top of the hole and talked. The rumble grew louder,  you could feel it in the ground. A gentle soft vibration, then growing bigger and louder. When the rumble was so loud you couldn’t hear the priest’s voice, there was a high-pitched shriek that cracked the frozen air in two. Shrieking so loud it hurt my ears and scared me. Shrieking that sounded like Aunt Mary’s Eeeeeeeee and the tea kettle whistling, mixed together, shrieking together. The big black train engine blew out it’s steam whistle as it passed by on the far side of the graveyard, drowning out the priest’s grave words for Uncle Dan.

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