The guestbook seemed the easier thing to read first, so as we hunched over our bowls of venison stew, I opened to the first page.
It seemed like any normal guestbook; names, city of origin, dates of the visit, and a column for comments. But the comments; those were definitely unique. I read aloud:
Glenna Weis, Syracuse, NY, 5/9/02, How can I thank you, Magda?
The Klein Family, Lancaster, PA, 6/2/02, We owe you. I mean that. Thank you.
Marta Williams, London, England, 6/13/02, I’ll never forget these days together. Never in my life have I felt so loved. My ankle is healing nicely, Magda, you’re a genius!
I flipped through the next few pages, and then all the way to the end of the book, where only one slot was left to fill. “Where did all these people come from? How did they find Magda? There has to be over 500 entries in here!”
“Well,” he answered lazily, “How did you find Magda? Or did she find you?”
“I had fallen and I needed help, and then, there she was.”
“So it was with many. Magda prayed all the time, sometimes I saw it happen, where she’d be praying and then go absolutely silent, like she was listening to someone whisper. Then she’d go bounding off into the woods and come back with a hiker with a snake bite or just someone who was sad. It was crazy. This place was hardly ever vacant.”
“Where was Sue?”
Carl chewed the venison, which was far from tender; Magda hadn’t had time to teach me everything.
“She died when Magda was twenty. Just went in her sleep. Magda came to my house just wild that morning she found her. The whole valley came out for the funeral. The valley ladies got her ready, laying her body out right here on this table.”
He knocked his knuckle against the wood for good measure.
I wasn’t sure how much I liked all this death intersecting casually with life. I’d only been to one funeral, a distant cousin. A professional team had handled it all; drained the body, dressed it, perfumed it, and applied make-up to it, before stuffing it into an unnecessarily plush coffin. We filed past this thing that was sort of like a sleeping mannequin and called that closure. Was that better? Was a corpse right on the kitchen table, bathed and prepared by loved ones better? I didn’t know.
“Carl, what would Magda have wanted for her burial?”
Without hesitation he said, “She’d want to be laid-out like her grandma, cared for here and buried here.”
I thought of the helicopter lifting her away from her native bower to a cold mortuary. Imagined her body being filed away in a refrigerated drawer. I shuddered.
“Can we get her body back?” I asked, astonishing myself.
He raised his eyebrows. Swallowed a lump of venison. He almost smiled. “Yeah, I reckon we could.”
to be continued…