"Does God write verse?"
This was only one of the fifty questions put to Captain Mellersh, aboard the British gunboat "Rattler." He had been sent in the summer of 1854 on a fact-finding mission up the Yangtse to Nanking, where a rebellious sect of Chinese Christian fanatics had defeated the armies of the reigning Manchus and established a rival kingdom. Though the rulers of this new state of Taiping, the Earthly Paradise, refused to admit Captain Mellersh into their Heavenly Capital, they didn't let slip the opportunity to learn more about Ye-huo-hua from foreigners who were old hands at worshipping Him. They wanted to know the Heavenly Father's height, the length and color of his beard, the style of his dress, whether his first wife was the Celestial Mother, if he could write poetry, and how quickly. The makeshift synod Captain Mellersh assembled gave typically evasive Occidental replies to the fifty questions and advised the Taiping rulers to search Scripture for the answers.
I could be steaming up the Yangtse myself. Torrents have washed out the main road to the highway. The rain is still falling hard, swift currents rolling small branches along the back road, where I'm inching along, speeding up only to splash my way through the lakes at every depression in the pavement. A curtain of rain shimmers in my headlights each time my windshield wipers slap clockwise, and I think maybe God does have a knack for sonnets. Then, when they slap counter-clockwise, the world goes blurry and I doubt if He does.
Because I don't trust the traction of my retreads on the slick surface at any velocity over ten miles an hour, it's easy for me to stop for the pickup slewed off to the side of the road. Three figures are huddled over a rectangular box in the bed of the truck. Three women, it turns out, wrapped tightly in black plastic garbage bags pulled over their heads. Only their faces show in the glare from my headlights, and a few straggles of dripping, dark hair.
"You got a tire iron?"
The voice is gravelly and imperious. I fetch the tool from the back of my station wagon. My suggestion that maybe we should jack up the truck first is met with hoarse laughter. The box, I notice, made out of cheap pressboard, is gouged along the side, where the women have apparently been trying to tear the top off with their pocket knives. Still chuckling, one of them bangs the tire iron home, into the seam along the cover. The others crouch over the box again. Their glistening faces, lit from below, are eerie with shadows. They could be the weird sisters in Macbeth, cackling as they toss frogs and fenny snakes into the bubbling cauldron. They are sisters.
"Our mom's in here," grunts the one with the tire iron before putting her weight on the metal bar to lever the cover free.
It pops loose with a zinging of nails. A second later there's an ear-splitting shriek. I involuntarily look around to see if some car is being burglarized.
"Lift her up so we can yank the wires!"
One of the sisters, using mom's feet against the bottom of the coffin as a kind of fulcrum, angles the stiff body up while the alarm sends waves of piercing, high-pitched howls into the driving rain and darkness. Another reaches underneath, grits her teeth and tugs. The pandemonium dies. Mom is gently laid back in her box. Her colorful serape is then pulled over her arm, revealing a hand sporting a big diamond ring. The sister with the hoarsest voice grabs the ring, pulls, but it won't come off the finger that's been its home for so many years. She says something about not wanting to tear up mom's knuckle too bad, then asks if maybe I don't have some WD-40.
Once the digit is liberally doused with the can of aerosol lubricant I bring from my tool box, the ring slips off "slicker than an ace dealt off the bottom of the deck by a card cheat in a game of stud." Having said that, the sister uses the tire iron to hammer the coffin's chipped lid back into place and invites me into the cab of the truck for a snort.
"We were just going to dig a hole in the back yard for her," she tells me, "but the bureaucrats won't let you do anything that simple."
The four of us are crammed door to door on the bench seat in the cab of the pickup, steamy with the wet heat from our bodies. The rain is rattling the roof, the fifth of Southern Comfort making its way from lips to lips.
The sisters checked into the costs for a regular burial and found out that it was prohibitively expensive. The cemetery wanted more for a six by two plot of bare ground than you'd pay for an acre of good farmland. The director of the funeral parlor they visited suggested the less costly alternative of cremation. They reckoned mom would've preferred lying in the ground to being burnt crisp, but hey, beggars can't be choosers.
The problem was that the closest place you could immolate your mother was way down in Santa Rosa, and the funeral parlor's fee for transport to the crematorium was highway robbery. You could deliver the body yourself, after filling out reams of official papers, but you couldn't just wrap mom in some sheets and toss her in the back of the pickup. She had to arrive in a coffin.
Fortunately for the penurious sisters, the funeral parlor had special, bargain knockoffs of real coffins specifically designed with cremation societies in mind. Those pricey, velvet-lined caskets with polished brass handles in which corpses destined for the incinerator are put on view are only temporary homes. Because of the cheesiness of the bargain coffins, they were equipped with burglar alarms to prevent the theft of keepsakes by unscrupulous employees in the funeral industry.
The sisters supposed they could've dug mom's ring out of her urn of ashes afterwards, but then the gold would've all been melted. Besides, they'd heard about mix-ups with ashes at some of those places, just like mix-ups with newborns at hospitals. And how would they have proved their poor mom had a genuine, umpteen-carat diamond wedding ring?
"To mom," says each of them in turn, solemnly, as they belt down a slug of the sweet whiskey, "who art in heaven."
"To mom," I repeat.
I don't know if our Father who art in heaven is a great versifier adept at stately verse forms like villanelles and rhyme royal. But I am certain He can toss off limericks with the best of them.