It was the strangest funeral I’d ever attended. Sunsoaked—on the old farm field behind Sally’s house—the bereaved dressed in a rainbow of colors, the air sugared with cotton candy and the pangs of a string quartet. A downy white pony for children to ride.
Sally saw me and came sailing across the lawn, a loose yellow dress lashed to her body.
“My mother’s,” she said, hiking the address past her knees, as if she were a little girl crossing a mud puddle. “I’m so glad you’re here”. She gave me a wet, splintering smile. “I almost thought you weren’t coming.”
But she was already gone, and engulfed by relatives, all of them echoes of her: lithe Nordic bodies, white-blonde hair, long noses. Polished people who looked like they’d be cold to touch.
I had not wanted to come. It had been three months since I so much as grabbed coffee with Sally, and in those months I finally felt able to think straight.
Weddings and funerals make very popular settings for short stories, or scenes within novels or movies. There’s all that emotion right there, leaking on to the characters and, by mental association, the readers. Great numbers of characters from the past can be brought together, to demonstrate either change or stagnation, to paint relationships in actions and dialog rather than recollection, and to allow a kind of time-shift in perception: I used to have a lot of fun with these people; what did I see in them? for instance.
It’s also a great opportunity for quirks that either reveal character or simply create interest. Don’t you want to know more about this funeral, about the person who planned it, about the people who’ve attended, just from the opening paragraph? I know I do.
In fact, it’s such a convenient trick, it can seem like a gimmick. But I think Hyde pulls it off very well, because the funeral, with its strange cheerful veneer and the underlying death that’s at its center, is very related to the core of the story: the progression of the relationship between narrator Madeline and her once-BFF, funeralista Sally.
Upstairs, Sally lay on the bed next to Carlton, who still wore his clothes from the night before. Sally, though, was naked. It was how she liked to sleep. I have seen her naked plenty of times, but never so still. Never like that. It shocked me – the vulgarity of nude flesh – her flat chest, hip bones jutting forward, pubic hair shaved away. There was nothing I couldn’t see.
Much of what works are little pieces like that, scenes so intense the reader becomes a voyeur. Sometimes a single sentence, like “Sally draped an arm on each of my shoulders, so that for a moment her face eclipsed my whole vision”, put me right there in the backyard milling around before the funeral. But they aren’t in the story just for the sake of emotional heightening; they signify as well. Woven throughout are inserts of technical descriptions of the white pine tree, related to Madeline’s work as a botanist; these, too, signify, one sentence in particular: “The tree, however, is relatively resistant to fire.”
I had some gender-confusion early on. I’d assumed the narrator would be female, given the author’s name, but in the opening paragraphs, for some reason I changed my mind. This was quickly resolved by her name, but it made me think about cues we pick up, assumptions we make, even when we think we’re open-minded and gender shouldn’t matter. Vigilance, always.
In some way, this story reminded me of Bret Anthony Johnston’s work, how every sentence is carefully arranged and the entire narrative is perfectly groomed to lead to one spot. Sometimes I have to admire the story, even if I don’t particularly “enjoy” it (whatever that means). But here, I both admired and enjoyed. Hyde’s first story collection, Of This New World (which includes this story, as well as some science-fiction-fantasy work), is due for release in October 2016, and I’m genuinely curious to see more of her work.
In the end, the story comes down to reading a remark that could be an offhand remark except it’s repeated later in the story (and I’m ambivalent about the repeat; is it really necessary?). I’ve debated whether I should reveal that remark or not. I want to, because it’s nicely done: it invites the participation of the reader, and, while it definitely gives a direction to things, it allows for several possibilities. But, it is something of a subtle spoiler. So I think I’ll omit it. I have to leave some room for curiosity, now that the festive funeral is out there.