Playing Dead

By Noreen Graf

The putrid odor meant something had died.

Elle figured it was one of the opossums hiding out in her garage. She had intended to discourage their squatting but instead left the door ajar each night, providing them refuge. The problem was, she couldn’t determine when the creatures were out for the evening–in which case she would certainly have secured the door. But what if, when the adults were out foraging, their babies were left burrowed into some paint-rag nest? Elle couldn’t bear to lock the youngsters inside with no food or water, and no chance of parental rescue. Ultimately, the entryway stood open for so long that closing it became an ordeal not worth the effort. Bags of compost, soil, and empty planters soon leaned heavy against the tattered oak door. Pots of deceased flowers, succulents, and seedlings were mounded atop like stacked afterthoughts.

It was beyond Elle’s comprehension why people gifted plants in times of tragedy, particularly for the death of a loved one. A leafy green spawn could never commemorate, or alleviate, a loss of such magnitude. Plants needed to be fed, watered, pruned, and repotted. And when the plant ultimately died—because nothing lives forever—there would be lingering guilt for not having sustained its life. Elle hardly had sufficient energy to rise from her bed, much less take on nurturing a finnicky orchid or fiddle-leaf fig intended to heal her grief. So, she had watered them once and stacked the plants against the open garage door with a sincere apology to the Goddess of Botany.

The garage had previously doubled as Elle’s studio and she could recall her joyful rush to it– steaming coffee cup in hand–to underpaint a new canvas, glaze over dried oils, or add contrasting hues and final highlights. She had toiled for over a year on her Garden Slices series depicting the tropicals from her backyard–the bird of paradise, ginger, bougainvillea, mandeville, papaya, sago palms, and various ivy and ferns. The painted plants danced and dotted and twisted and splat across the primed surface. They soared and crept and tangled into glorious sunlit pools of pigment. Now unfinished canvases leaned dusty against one wall and Elle entered her studio only to retrieve garden tools. Her muse had departed months ago.

Standing now at the threshold of the garage, the smell of death was thick. Having no backup for unpleasantries, and a compulsive desire to tend to her garden, Elle held her breath, flicked on the light, and dashed inside. But her forward momentum abruptly ceased when she saw the tufts of fur, white and grey, stuck to a leftover piece of cedar fencing. Holding her hand over her mouth and nose and breathing through her fingers she could see that beneath the fur, a blackish stain had seeped deeply into the wood.

“Another fight to the death,” Elle whispered.

But these kinds of thoughts were no good for Elle. Gagging on the rancid taste in her mouth, she left without her pruners. In the months that followed, Elle didn’t prune, or hedge, weed eat or mow. She sat. She ate. She contemplated. She slept. When a notice from the city gave her three days to cut the grass, she thought about phoning her husband. Yard maintenance had been his job. But he was paying all the mortgage now and she couldn’t bear to ask for more help.

Elle had done everything to catapult Leo out of the house, even packed up his things. She had needed to grieve alone but knew he wouldn’t let her. She didn’t want his arms suffocating her in hugs. Didn’t want him touching her face because his fingers felt like razors. It wasn’t only that she had lost another baby. This time, she had been a witness, seen life extinguished, extinguishing. These kinds of thoughts were no good for her and she swallowed them down.

When Elle entered the garage to comply with the city mandate, the foul stench remained, crouching under the turpentine and oil paints she hadn’t covered or capped. She had intended only to oust the lawnmower and gas can, but again hesitated as she neared the stained cedar board. This time noticing the tiny bones.

For the next weeks, Elle caught up with her dying yard, reviving what she could and clearing the rest. Every day she dreaded walking past the tiny bones. When she could bear it no longer, Elle reached for an olive jar whose turpentine had evaporated. She picked up the tiny bones and placed them inside. Certainly, she reasoned, there must be more bones, bigger bones. Thus, one at a time, she moved aside the stacked boards, all the while worrying she might encounter an angry opossum family.

The smallest bones she found were titanium white. Others were tubular and curved with stained umber and ochre patches. She knew some were ribs, but with no ligaments to hold the bones together, they lay scattered about like discarded trinkets. Lifting away more planks, Elle found the bones of one tiny hand, still intact. Gingerly, she picked it up, tipped the jar, and slid it into the olive jar, then jiggled it upright. When Elle pivoted away the last of the cedar, she found no large bones to complete the skeleton. And she didn’t find an opossum family huddled together, playing dead. They had moved on. Elle smiled as she imagined the joeys waddling away in single file after their mother.

At last, she closed the jar and placed it on the table next to her easel.

Autumn was summer’s twin in South Texas, but at last, the heat gave way to the quasi-dormancy of winter that allows gardeners to rest and to make ready. Elle cleared away the pots and planters and bags of soil obstructing the door. The putrid smell had abated, and she filled her brush jars with fresh turpentine.

Near the garage entrance, beside a spindly ixora, Elle dug a hole. Into it, she emptied the contents of the olive jar, and planted a flowering white oleander atop the tiny bones. Taking off her gloves, she smoothed the fragrant earth over the gravesite.

And that night, Elle pushed the oak door closed.

Noreen Graf is a finalist in the James Jones First Book Contest, and the runner up in the Chester B Himes Short Fiction Prize. Her poetry, flash, short fiction and graphic literature has appeared in Ocotillo Review, Sixfold, Dirty Chai, MERliterary, and Political Irony. Graf is an MFA student in the Creative Writing program at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.