“The Dead Do Not Come Back At Night” by Hannah Lackoff


Uncle says the dead do not come back at night.
Uncle is wrong.

Uncle says the voices that I hear each night
are not real.
They are just my mind
Playing tricks
or my dreams
coming early.
They are not the dead.
Not at all.
Definitely not.

But in the basement, Uncle
has a shrine,
to Aunt, who I never met,
who died
with Mother
and Father
in the boating accident when I was just a baby.

has long blond hair that’s all in one braid.
She has lots of straight teeth
and she looks tall, although it’s hard to tell in just a photograph.
Uncle put potpourri in a little glass jar next to the photo.
In front of them are:
a strand of yellowy pearls,
a metal statue of a pony,
a music box that plays Yankee Doodle Dandy,
and five candies that look like peppermints
but are actually cinnamon.
(there used to be six)

doesn’t know that I used to visit Aunt
almost every single night.
He thinks I stopped when he told me too,
after I ate that cinnamon candy
and he yelled at me
and almost cried.
But she is nice to talk to
when Uncle isn’t there,
and besides,
there are no shrines for my
Mother and Father,
so who else will listen to me?

But I have seen her.
Her hair is very pale
and she likes to sing.

My Mother,
so they say,
was not as pretty as my Aunt.
Her teeth were not as straight,
and her hair was not as blond.
She was the Ugly Twin,
my Grandma used to say
even though
they were not twins at all.

They used to sing in a choir,
and Grandma would make them do duets
even though they hated it;
back to back in front
of all those people and dressed exactly alike.
Warbling like little birds in a cage
everyone in the choir behind them
jealous but scornful.

Aunt sang the national anthem at a ball game once.
Mother was sick and stayed home.
They didn’t even bring her funnel cake.

does not like to talk about my Father.
They did not get along.
My Father was too quiet
and he made Uncle nervous.
They would sit together
in Uncle’s two puffy chairs
and not say anything
for hours.

I do not tell anyone that Aunt is dead.
If anyone asks
I tell them that I live with both Uncle and Aunt.
They do not ask if Aunt lives
so I do not have to tell them.

She comes to me at night
and she sings.
Sometimes it is lullabies
but mostly
it is the National Anthem.
Her voice is whispery and feathery,
and I do not see why she and Mother sang so many duets
but maybe it was better when she was alive.
But right now
she sounds like me when I have a cold.

Uncle heard her once, although he will not admit it.
He heard her and he banged on my wall
and told me
to Stop All That Racket and
Go To Sleep God Damn It.
When I told him it was Aunt
he wouldn’t speak to me for days,
only to say
Pass The Milk
Time For School.
But I bet he recognized her.
I bet he did.
I bet he misses her
even more than I miss my Mother
and Father
because he knew Aunt for a lot longer
than I knew either of them.
But that is no excuse for ignoring someone.

In school we make drawings of our families.
Mom, Dad, Dog, Cat, House.
I draw Uncle and Aunt,
a house and a basement,
no pets because Uncle is allergic and says I am too
Even though I have not sneezed even once
in my whole life and maybe longer.

The teachers say
Is That Your Mommy and Daddy?
and I have to start all over again.

The counselor asks me what my favorite subject is
and tell her Recess,
and she tells me that is not really a subject and try again.
So I think really hard
and finally I say
And she nods and smiles and gives me some paper to draw on.
But I really just like Art because I like it when we do clay.
I like to smash it down really flat
and then put the flat piece over my face and try to blow a bubble.
That must be what it is like for Aunt
dead down at the bottom of that lake
water pressing all around her face.

I ask for clay, but the counselor says
Next Time, Let’s Draw,
so I draw Aunt
down there
having a tea party with Mother and Father.
They are all blue.

Counselor says
Who Are They?
and I tell her how
Aunt is taking a visit to Mother and Father in the lake,
but she will be home by bedtime
to sing to me.

Counselor says

None of the other drawings on her walls are like mine.
They are all Mom Dad Brother Cat
and Mom Dad Sister Dog Doghouse
like the other kids in my class.
I tell her she can keep mine
to add to her collections.
And she says
Back To Class Now
See You Again Next Week.

So I go back to class
and I skip on my right foot
but my left foot won’t do it.

Next week, Counselor has brought clay
but it’s not the gray stuff that smells like dirt that we use in class,
it’s little kid stuff that smells like plastic.
There is bright green and bright pink
and bright blue
and I choose blue
and I pound it out flat on Counselor’s desk
while she asks me questions she already knows the answers too,
How Old Were You When They Died
Do You Have Bad Dreams
Are The Other Kids Nice To You.

When the clay is all flat
I show her my bubble trick.
I put the clay over my face
and for a second the world is cool and dark
but when I take a breath to try to blow out a bubble
I accidentally get some clay in my mouth
and the taste is chemically and all wrong
not like the mud at the bottom of the lake.
It makes me gag
and I know I shouldn’t
but I spit and spit
and there is blue all over the bottom of her trashcan.

That’s Okay
she tells me
It’s Part Of The Process.
I Think We’re Having A Real Breakthrough Here.

That night, I try to get my Aunt to sing
My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean
but she won’t say anything.
I don’t even see her.
I think she is visiting Mother and Father
or maybe Uncle is down at her shrine
and she wants to have some alone time with him.

So I have to sing it myself.
I start off really quiet,
just laying there and humming.
thinking maybe I can make myself fall asleep.
Then I get excited because I remember
you can replace the word Bonny with Body
and then the song is funny
instead of sad.

So then I am singing louder and louder
and jumping on the bed
singing in my best loud choir opera singer voice
that my Body Lies Over The Ocean
My Body Lies Over The Sea
and right when I am at the best part,
Bring BACK Bring BACK
Uncle comes in
my door flies open
he turns on the light and it’s too bright
he yells,
and his yells are louder than my BACKs.
He slams the door and I am so startled
I stop jumping
and lie down
my heart pounding
harder than 100 dead people dying.
But I can’t hold back a little giggle.
And he hears it
and he says
in his warning voice, and thumps on the wall
just once
to remind me

And I wish he would come jump with me
Just once
But he can’t.

Counselor says
Let’s Feed The Fish
Before I Send You Back to Class
and she shows me
how to grab just a pinch of brown and yellow fish flakes
that smell like salt and animal poo
and sprinkle it into the tank.
The fish come up
with their mouths like funnels
and O it into themselves.
They don’t even chew.

Did the fish eat Mother and Father and Aunt
after they died?
Were there lake fish
and snails
and bugs
that snacked on them the same way
I eat my yogurt and my Triscuits
every day at 10:30?
Did it hurt them?
Can they feel it still?

I ask Uncle
about the fish
but he doesn’t answer.
He grunts a little
and gets up from the table
before his plate is cleared.
I tried that once
and he made me sit a whole hour
maybe two
all alone at the table
until I ate it all.
It wasn’t even that I don’t like carrots.
I was just full.

After dinner
I sneak down to the shrine
while Uncle is watching the news.
I pick up some of the potpourri between my fingers
just like Counselor showed me
and I squish it up really small
and sprinkle it on the photo of Aunt.

my fingertips smell like roses.

Counselor has the idea
that Uncle should take me to the graveyard.
I say that I don’t want to go.
I tell them both.
But no one listens.

Actually, Counselor told Uncle
that he and Aunt
should both take me.
I was listening.
Uncle told Counselor
that Aunt was Dead
and Counselor was all quiet
for a very long time.
I thought maybe Aunt
had zipped down the phone lines to find her
but it turns out that Counselor was just surprised.
She had thought Aunt was alive.
When I tried to explain it to her later,
how Aunt lived with us but was not alive,
she ignored me
and told me to draw a new picture.
So I drew gravestones at night
in a tornado.
Everything was black.
It was very scary.

The night before we go to the graveyard
I dream about seaweed
wrapping around me
while Mother and Aunt sing the Star Spangled Banner.
It is much scarier than my drawing
(which I also gave Counselor to hang up on her wall)
But in my dream
Uncle is there
and he tells them to
just like he tells me all the time.
And that makes it better somehow.
And when I wake up
I am not covered in seaweed
but the rain is coming in through my window screen
and my blanket is wet.

I ask Uncle if I can take some paper and some crayons
and do a grave rubbing.
He says Okay
even though I can see in his eyes
that he does not know what a grave rubbing is.

It’s cold outside so I wear my black jacket,
which is good for me because it has big pockets
where I can store the crayons.

We park in a dirt lot
with a metal fence around it.
Uncle takes my hand
which he never does
and we walk a really long way
through lots of headstones
and one big statue of a sad looking lady
until we reach three gray graves that all match.

They say their names.
The names of
Uncle picks up some stones and puts them on top of the graves.
He puts the most on Aunt’s.
I want to know if their bodies are in there.
says Uncle.
His voice sounds funny,
like it’s stretched really tight.
So Mother and Father are not down at the bottom of the lake.
says Uncle
They Are Buried Here
Like Normal People Who Die.
I can’t even believe it.
I get really excited.
The fish are not eating them
Their bones are not washing around down there
in the mud and the sand.
They are here
with me
where I can come and visit them
and even stand on top of them if I want to.

I get out my crayons
and my paper
and show Uncle how to do a grave rubbing.
It is really windy
so he has to help me hold the paper while I do it.

Mother’s name
appears like a ghost itself
slowly darkening in purple
which is the color of rich velvet curtains
and sour sweet grapes
and dark bruises.

is a dark green
like the forest
and damp moss
and growing things everywhere.
His name
is longer
and I think I am going to run out of room
but at the last second
I don’t.

And last I do Aunt
in quiet brown
like the photo of her in the frame in the shrine
and what the potpourri has turned too
and what my Uncle’s eyes look like
when they are too sad.

I give that one to Uncle
and he smiles a little
and frowns a little
and turns his back to me
so I can’t see him wipe off his eyes.
When he isn’t looking
I steal one of the stones off the grave.
It is smooth and warm
brown like Aunt
and I can feel it pulling my coat down to the right
when I put it in my pocket.
I can feel her around me
in the air
she wants it
but she can’t touch it
she can’t have it
not yet.
I’ll give it to her tonight
at the shrine.
Maybe she can go to it
curl up inside it like an egg
and someday hatch out again.
Or maybe when he dies
Uncle can join her
and I can carry them around in my pocket forever.

I ask Uncle if we can have a picnic
at the grave.
I saw it once in a movie
and it looked like the right thing to do.
Uncle says he doesn’t have any food
but then he remembers a package of chips
under the driver’s seat.
we go get them
and when I take his hand
he doesn’t take it back again.

And I wonder why Aunt came back
but not my parents.
I want to ask Uncle
but I think I know the answer anyway.

We walk back to the graves
and we open the bag of chips.
It is just a mini one
and it’s a little smashed
but the insides are good and salty.
The grease stays heavy on the back of my tongue.
I kiss the graves
and my mouth leaves a shiny print each time
getting fainter
as I go down the line.
Then I lie in the grass in their shade.

“Can we come back again?”
I ask Uncle.
He thinks for a minute.
He watches me
and he watches Aunt
and he looks up in the sky
where the sun is still shining.
And he doesn’t look so mad anymore.
And he says

Hannah Lackoff has a BA in English with a Creative Writing Concentration from Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She has been published in 34thParallel, The Goose River Anthology, and Rushlight. She lives in Boulder, CO.

To read Hannah Lackoff’s comments on Tomiiko Baker’s “The Softer it Falls, the Longer it Dwells Upon,” click here.

Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
Hannah Lackoff’s deft handling of a subject matter that would prick at even the most abominable critic’s heart in “The Dead Do Not Come Back at Night” is admirable. Her lyrical style glides us easily through, but the purposeful language keeps us grounded, engaged and endeared to a young protagonist who tries making sense of the world around her and beyond. A world so bizarre, so unlikely, that the imaginary becomes her reality, the truest and happiest part of her life.

Comments on this story by Christine Kindberg, author of “Stephen Dreams of Visiting Heaven”
I really admire the way this story uses juxtaposition to heighten the tension. Prose/poetry, dead/alive, what is said/what is unsaid, jumping on the bed/lying down in the shade of gravestones. What starts off sounding like a good ghost story becomes a narrative with unique characters that develop beautifully. I feel like I know the narrator, the counselor, and the uncle. I find fascinating the relationships between the narrator and the counselor and the narrator and the uncle. It’s especially admirable that this story does that without wasting a single word.

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