He turned the phonograph record round and round in his hands, trying to read the words under the grooves.
“No news. Except the aunt’s funeral candles catch the curtains, sparks fly, and the dog goes west. In our lives, just the opposite. No news for years. Good livers, healthy hearts, good times. So-what’s it all about?”
Roger Bentley glanced at Rodney, who was checking his wristwatch.
“Someday we must die, also.” Roger Bentley hurried on. “Hard to believe. We’re spoiled. But Susan was right. Dog died to tell us this, gently, and we must believe. And at the same time celebrate. What? The fact that we’re the start of an amazing, dumbfounding history of survival that will only get better as the centuries pass. You may argue that the next war will take us all. Maybe.
“I can only say I think you will grow to be old, very old people. Ninety years from now, most people will have cured hearts, stopped cancers, and jumped life cycles. A lot of sadness will have gone out of the world, thank God. Will this be easy to do? No. Will we do it? Yes. Not in all countries, right off. But, finally, in most.
“As I said yesterday, fifty years ago, if you wanted to visit your aunts, uncles, grandparents, brothers, sisters, the graveyard was it. Death was all the talk. You had to talk it. Time’s up, Rodney?”
Rodney signaled his father he had one last minute.
Roger Bentley wound it down:
“Sure, kids still die. But not millions. Old folks? Wind up in Sun City instead of marble Orchard.”
The father surveyed his family, bright-eyed, in the pews.
“God, look at you! Then look back. A thousand centuries of absolute terror, absolute grief. How parents stayed sane to raise their kids when half of them died, damned if I know. Yet with broken hearts, they did. While millions died of flu or the Plague.
“So here we are in a new time that we can’t see because we stand in the eye of the hurricane, where everything’s calm.
“I’ll shut up now, with a last word for Dog. Because we loved him, we’ve done this almost silly thing, this service, but now suddenly we’re not ashamed or sorry we bought him a plot or had me speak. We may never come visit him, who can say? But he has a place. Dog, old boy, bless you. Now, everyone, blow your nose.”
Everyone blew his nose.
“Dad,” said Rodney suddenly, “could-we hear the record again?”
Everyone looked at Rodney, surprised.
“Just,” said Roger Bentley, “what I was going to suggest.”
He put the needle on the record. It hissed.
About a minute in, when the sparks from the house flew over to burn the barn and torch the horseflesh and kill the dog, there was a sound at the back doorway to the small parlor.
A strange man stood in the door holding a small wicker basket from which came familiar, small yapping sounds.
And even as the flames from the candles around the coffin caught the curtains and the last sparks blew on the wind
The whole family, drawn out into the sunlight, gathered around the stranger with the wicker basket, waiting for Father to arrive to throw back the coverlet on the small carrier so they could all dip their hands in.
That moment, as Susan said later, was like reading the telephone book one more time.
THE WITCH DOOR
It was a pounding on a door, a furious, frantic, insistent pounding, born of hysteria and fear and a great desire to be heard, to be freed, to be let loose, to escape. It was a wrenching at hidden paneling, it was a hollow knocking, a rapping, a testing, a clawing! It was a scratching at hollow boards, a ripping at bedded nails; it was a muffled closet shouting and demanding, far away, and a call to be noticed, followed by a silence.
The silence was the most empty and terrible of all. Robert and Martha Webb sat up in bed.
“Did you hear it?”
Now whoever it was who had pounded and rapped and made his fingers raw, drawn blood with his fever and quest to be free, had drawn into silence, listening himself to see if his terror and drumming had summoned any help.