Prompt Day #101: Write a piece about the pennies placed on a dead man’s eyes
I took only the slightest liberty with this prompt–due to inflation, I changed the pennies to silver dollars. Otherwise, I think I stuck to it. Although in my research on putting coins on the eyes, I found a lot of interesting theories. I used to think it was to pay Charon, the ferryman on the river styx, but actually, those coins were often put in the mouth of the dead. Although some of my readings said that this was a Greek and Roman tradition that changed to eyes when Christianity took hold. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me–why would Christians believe in the river Styx and Hades and all that? So then I remembered seeing a picture of Lincoln with coins on his eyes, and I looked that up and it said that it was to hold the eyelids closed back in the days before modern funerary science. Then another site said that it was done for when the dead body was shown in the home for a few days and to ensure no premature burials, they put coins or stones on the eyes so if the “corpse” came back to life, they would hear the coins falling off and run in to welcome their loved ones back to life. I don’t know, it’s all a little strange and morbid and absolutely enthralling. Lastly, I just want to say that I struggled with having Sal say the word “retarded” because I hate that word and I know how hurtful it is. But Sal is a fifty some year old man who would use that word and then blow off anyone who tried to tell him that was not nice or politically correct. Then, out of my discomfort, I went back and told him I didn’t like it and wished he wouldn’t use it. He humored me a little at least. Please forgive me, and know that I know it’s a terrible word, Sal is just a man stuck in his ways.
Windows to the Soul
“So what are we doing here again?” Sal asked Frank
“So, listen, my Gram used to tell us about this plot of land out here where the poor would bury their dead so they didn’t have to pay death taxes and shit like that.” Frank said hoisting the metal detector over his shoulder and handing Sal the shovel.
“And we want to go dig them all up?” Sal asked confused
“Yep. Just trust me.” Frank said and started out through the empty field. Sal jogged a bit to catch up. He carried the treasure bucket and the flashlight.
“So, you said the poor buried their dead, you think they buried them with jewelry?” Sal said a little out of breath. The spare tire that showed up right around his fiftieth birthday added an extra twenty pounds to his bulk. He was already sweating “Buddy, I gotta say, I ain’t too keen on digging up corpses and shit.” Frank glanced over his shoulder and smirked at Sal, shook his head and kept going.
“Frank, I’m serious. Why are we doing this?” Sal stopped again, forcing an answer from his friend. Frank stopped, stepped forcefully towards Sal as if he was about to hit him. The two life-long friends had become like a married couple, each playing their particular role to make the relationship successful. Frank was the leader, the decision maker, the hero and Sal was the follower, the crony, the sidekick. When Sal stepped out of line and questioned Frank’s motives, Frank had found the best way to bring the kid (Frank was two years older) around was to make him flinch. As kids, Sal would have earned two punches for the flinch, but anymore the flinch was enough.
“C’mere” Frank said grabbing Sal by the collar and pulling Sal’s face within inches of his own. “When my Gram was a girl, she said that they used to put silver dollars on their dead’s eyes, see?” He let go of Sal’s shirt and shook the metal detector at him.
“Why the hell would they do that?” Sal asked nonplussed by the close talking
“Because I don’t know, it held their eyes closed or I read something about you had to pay to get into the afterlife, but who gives a shit, Sal. Point is, this field might be full of silver dollars from a hundred years ago….are those wheels turning in there now?” He knocked on Sal’s head like a door. Sal’s mouth hung open in deep concentration. Frank always thought it was a wonder the guy didn’t walk around with a perpetual line of drool dripping off his chin.
“So, we dig ‘em up and take the coins?” Sal asked timidly
“You got it now, Sherlock” Frank said. He started walking again and Sal stayed with him this time, his brain too busy calculating the possible value of silver coins from a century ago to ask for any more details.
An hour later they heard the familiar whoop of the metal detector and saw the image of a coin on its digital readout.
“Bingo” Frank said and started digging. He used to do all the digging, he liked to have first dibs on all the treasure they found. Sal’s only job was keeping a light in the hole and holding the treasure bucket. But these days, they took turns digging. The unspoken rule still stood though that Frank got to pull the treasure out and inspect it first no matter who was on the end of the shovel when they hit pay dirt.
It was Sal who was at the shovel when it hit the rotting wood of an old, homemade casket. Frank shoved him out of the way and reached down to pull at the wood. The moist planks disintegrated under his meaty hands crumbling away. Sal had the flashlight again shining it on the human shaped shadow inside the box. The shaking of his hand was betrayed by the amplified cone of light coming from the torch. Sal swept it in an arc to help disguise his unintentional tremor. He didn’t like to think he was superstitious but he did not like this at all. It was disrespectful and it had to be bad luck to steal from a corpse. Plus, in the dimming twilight, his imagination and the trembling light gave the impression of movement from within the crate.
As the light swung across the hole, it caught a glint of metal and then another as Frank was widening the opening in the lid.
“Hey, Hey, Hey!” Frank yelled, reaching up and waving a stop right there signal at Sal. “I think I saw the coins. Bring that light up this way a little more.”
Sal walked up towards the head where Frank was now frantically ripping away the decomposed box to reveal a skeletal corpse and shone the light directly down. He tried not to look but like a car accident at the end of a traffic jam, he couldn’t help himself from checking it out. He was surprised to see some flesh and hair attached to a skull whose mouth gaped wide open in a scream of mortification at having been disturbed in a most personal situation. The big silver coins that covered its eye sockets only lent to the shocked appearance of the corpse. Sal watched Frank reach down to grab the coins and reflexively shut his eyes tight like a child anticipating a frightening scene in an otherwise fascinating movie.
This is what Sal recalled much later when the medications kicked in and he was calm enough to put the images scattered in his head together into a semblance of order:
Frank lifted the coins off the eyes with both hands, carefully as if defusing a bomb. As his fingers made contact with the coin, Sal shut his eyes. But then he heard Frank mutter something like what the hell and Sal then opened his eyes. There was an orange glow coming from the orbits where the coins had just been. Frank’s hands were closed in fists and Sal assumed each held a silver dollar. Frank, however was now leaning down into the face of the body in the ground as if he was taunting it the way he bullied Sal. Sal thinks he may have inquired what Frank saw or perhaps he asked where the glow was coming from. That’s when Frank muttered his last words which Sal swears went something like I can see straight into Hell. And then Oh Fuck. This is as much of what Sal said that went on the official police report. What he said next was chalked up to shock and delirium.
“That’s when the orange light turned into two beams—like in them old UFO movies—what do they call ‘em? Tracker beams or somethin’? Yeah so they come up out of the dead guy’s eyes and lock onto Frank’s. Then Frank’s face goes all slack, his mouth was hangin’ wide open just like the dead guy’s. This big line of drool comes running out of Frank, like he turned retarded or somethin’ or I mean mentally challenged or whatever you’re supposed to say these days. Anyways, then the dead guy, he sighs, like this loud, creaky kind of gust of air comes out of him, but it was black, I could see it. Black smoke but not smoke, like solid air, you know? It comes out of the dead guy and goes right into Frank’s mouth. Frank don’t even try to stop it. He’s just sitting there all stroked out I guess that’s what their calling it, ain’t they? A stroke? It wasn’t though. It was like he opened a portal to hell when he took those coins and then maybe the dead guy’s soul came out and Frank’s went in. Like they traded places, you know? So you gotta release them coins back to us, I mean me or Frank’s wife, Shelley. They gotta go in the grave with him, we gotta put them on his eye and close that portal. Cause that ain’t Frank in there anymore and I think It’s just biding its time until it can get out. We gotta put them back. We never shoulda dug up the dead to begin with, I told Frank that.”
The RN arrived with a dose of Haldol for Sal who was getting too agitated to continue the questioning. The police thanked him for his time as his eyelids began to drop.
“When that black soul got into Frank, he started laughin’. You hear me? He died laughin’ Put those coins back before it’s too late.” Sal fell under the spell of what his nurse called Vitamin H. His breathing slowed, his mouth fell open. The drool began to pool on his pillow as the officers walked out.