Mom’s breathing was shallow, her skin rough, hair green. I glanced up and saw my father, Fred, checking his phone as his wife of almost 40 years transformed.
Fred and I carried Mom out to the garden. We stood her in the small hole I’d prepared. Her toes elongated and took root in the ground.
“Goodbye, Frank,” Mom said to me. “I lo—” It was all she could get out before her mouth locked, her lips parted around the knothole that silenced her forever. I wondered what Fred would do now?
Fred was a sales agent for a tool company. He called on hardware stores in a three-state territory. Most of his clients were in smaller towns, so he drove everywhere. He’d cut back by the time Mom transformed, but when I was growing up, Fred seemed to travel constantly. Many times he didn’t even come home weekends because hardware stores are open Saturdays and Sundays. At least that was his excuse. In any case, it was Mom who took me to little league, showed me how to fish, helped me with math.
One evening when Fred got back from a trip, Mom met him at the door. She had me at her side, a suitcase in one hand and some letter in the other. She thrashed the letter up and down and asked Fred to explain. I remember Fred hemming and hawing for several minutes and finally getting down on his knees and begging Mom not to leave. My mother hesitated and then ran her fingers through his hair.
For a couple month’s after that, Fred didn’t travel as much. Seemed he could do more business by phone after all. I was getting used to having him around when he hit the road again. Mom said his company had launched a new line of hammers that Fred needed to introduce to his clients in person.
As we mounded the soil around Mom’s trunk, I recalled how she used to tell me about our family history of death-bed transformations. Dad’s Great Uncle Bob, a mean guy and gadabout, chose to become a stud bull. Mom said he met the end he deserved.
Mom’s Aunt Tilly, scared to death of death, tried to delay it by becoming a tortoise. Unfortunately my cousin didn’t take good care of his mother as he promised he would. Aunt Tilly got out of her pen and, apparently looking for food and water, tried to cross a truck route. Mom told me that the lesson learned was that some people can’t be trusted.
Someone Mom did trust was Granny DeGroot. I stayed with her occasionally when Fred was home for a few days. I liked Granny. She laughed a lot and told knock-knock jokes. But during one visit, Granny wasn’t herself. As she was putting me to bed, she asked if Fred had ever hurt me.
I told her he hadn’t, which was the truth. It wasn’t till a few years later that I made the connection between Granny DeGroot’s question and the “purple petals,” as Mom called them, that appeared on her from time to time. She said they flared up because of an ancestor who had become a flower garden.
Not long before Mom began her transformation, I asked her why she had stayed with Fred. She said she was on the verge of leaving many times, but could never go through with it. Mom also said Fred gave her the most important thing she demanded — that he never lay a finger on me. I wish he had. I’d have gladly suffered a broken arm if it would’ve gotten Mom to leave Fred.
A few months after we planted Mom, a woman from one of Fred’s hardware store towns moved in with him. I met her only a couple times before she got sick and transformed.
“You’ll never guess what she became,” Fred said. He wanted me to ask. I didn’t. Later I noticed him wearing a flashy new pinkie ring.
Fred had a few more girlfriends over the next four or five years. Then his social life slowed down. Either all his ladies died or. more likely, got to know him better.
Fred grew sentimental, guilty I’d say, as his human end approached. He’d stand under Mom, who by that time had grown tall enough to cast her shadow on the roof, and say how much he missed her. He told me he wished he’d been a better husband. I think he wanted me to ensure him that he wasn’t that bad. Silence is golden.
When Fred told me about his transformation plans and asked my help, I was quick to agree.
Fred called me to his house the day he sensed his changeover was imminent. I helped him into the bathtub. “You know what to do, Frank,” he said a few moments later. “Don’t mess it up.” He tried to grasp my hand but his fingers flowed around it.
Fred wanted me to remove him from the tub by the pailful and pour him around Mom so that, in his words, “I can rise up and be inside her again.” He also wanted me to bury his pinkie ring next to Mom.
After Fred’s transformation was complete, I stared at the tub of water for a few seconds. Then I reached down and pulled the plug.
As Fred gurgled down the drain, I went out back to Mom. It was a breezy day, and her shadow was dancing on the roof.
David Henson and his wife have lived in Belgium and Hong Kong over the years and now reside in Peoria, Illinois. His work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net and has appeared in numerous print and online journals including Fictive Dream, Pithead Chapel, Moonpark Review, and Literally Stories. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.