Wynne Hungerford 

A Jackal in the Woods 

​My grandfather died and everything went to shit. He drowned on lung fluid in a Spartanburg County hospice house that overlooked a field dotted with black cows. The sunrise wasn’t anything special over there, just a smudge of yellow clouds, and the roads were full of bread and ice cream trucks running deliveries to the little failing grocery stores. Sometimes dogs chased the sweet smells of Bunny Bread and push-pops, then ended up run-over and whimpering on the shoulder, wet eyes shining from a distance until life faded and they didn’t shine anymore. Vultures picked what they wanted. So did insects, coyotes. An act as simple as a young boy cutting the grass would make the world smell fresh and new again, but before that, a stink would ride the wind for days, a stink attracting the most cunning and ugly creatures of the land. My grandfather loved ice cream.

His body was driven to Greenville, a thirty-minute ride, where it was incinerated and poured into a small brass canister. At the funeral service, I sweated through my bra, underwear, and black dress in that hundred-year-old Episcopal church, which creaked and moaned in the July heat. It seemed indecent for anyone to see my bra straps, so I wore a thin sweater that only furthered my discomfort. Beads formed at my hairline. All of the tissues allotted for tears were used on sweating foreheads. Nobody cried. One of my aunts was present, while another refused attendance due to “grievances,” and the third was long dead from a childhood boating accident. We flipped through brittle hymnals and sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” a quiet and unenthusiastic crowd at best. The priest spoke of my grandfather’s rocky personal relationships, his quarreling children, and a banking career that had garnered many enemies. “Nicholas,” the priest said, “lived a full and complicated life. He will answer to God.”

My dad tensed.

At the wake, I organized food over the counters and kitchen table. Spiced rum cake, cubed ham, deviled eggs, sugar cookies, ambrosia salad, fried chicken. I sliced lemons for the sweet tea and found an extra reserve of napkins in the pantry. Nobody directly acknowledged the horrible service, especially not to a family member, but when I passed my father’s study with a vodka tonic in hand, I saw two old ladies slumped like rag dolls in the oversized leather chairs, gossiping with hushed voices and wide eyes. The bookshelves were full of binders that organized the entirety of my dad’s construction company. The building codes were endless: fire code, plumbing code, mechanical code, electrical code, energy conservation code, and so on. I wished a couple of those binders would fall on top of the ladies’ heads. They had picked junk mail from a pile of letters on the desk, flyers pinched between bony thumb and forefinger, and were leisurely fanning themselves. The smell of rosewater perfume drifted into the hallway.

The fatter of the two said, “What an embarrassment.”

The waif leaned in, as if to expose a dark secret, and added, “The priest might as well have mentioned the infidelities.”

“Don’t forget the bankruptcy.”

“The way he harped on Nick…”

“Harped, he did.”

“Poor thing.”

“He was living in squalor, you know.”

“Outside the city limits.”

“With the rednecks.”

I polished off my drink and shook the ice cubes, unsure if I was subduing my anger or encouraging it. I stepped into the doorway and with a prize-winning smile, said, “You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” which shut them up.

Of course, later that evening, when guests finally left and the heat subsided and a single bat looped through the backyard, there was plenty of bad-mouthing. My dad and his sister, only two years apart, sat on the patio with a dish of salted peanuts and a jar of whiskey that my dad bought from