Jason Schwartz

The bed recurs as a figure in certain burnings—the torches fixed to boards, for skeletons, and the boiling oil in pots, in urns, in bowls.
      But I am comporting myself poorly.
      To begin again.
      Camastro, a Spanish word, meant wretched bed in those days. As distinct from camastro, or wicked bed, given the facts of dialect. But then—the bodies lay east to west, didn’t they? And you can see how she clutched at her throat.
      The Gothic style, in most tragic accounts, dispenses with mischief of this variety. Though it tends to retain arrangements of birds, for what that is worth—crows and so forth. Its posts, especially, may remind you of tombs of the period. Or of, more remotely, those relations, the very sad ones, who once came for the day.
      The parable of the bed—I imagine the Bible contains no such item. What delicate phrases we must, therefore, do without. Tin knives and burnt blankets, a plague gate. Buried nightdresses, whether diseased or in pieces, find considerable favor in chronicles of a more Teutonic sort. While the parable of the gown ends, once again, without evidence of my wife.
      My mother’s will—it was innocent of various provisions. As distinct from common Colonial wills, for instance, whose clauses divide bed from body. So to say. Headboards, for the children, and linens, for the stove, and that canopy—which can only ruin your room, my dear. Some include codicils that explain the placement of mutes around the graves. And portraits of mourning scenes, the names—or a description of the illness, as the case may be—written out in place of the faces. I see, here, two girls who sit as my daughters do. And a fragment of glass that carries us entirely too far from our topic.
      Jewish beds, in the New World, were often stuffed with cloth. Though black straw, of the type you might find in an effigy, was the custom in certain towns. Older practices required ash. The skinner marked the carcass. Slaughter boys, so-called, crossed the boards and burned the offal. The family tore the cord. The marriage bed, in this brown house, was a prettier affair—the latch adorned with short spikes, on the husband’s side, and short hooks, on the wife’s. The hinge was neither gold nor silver, alas. Whereas the pock—sometimes this was bronze. Sometimes the posts and slats were mistaken for bones. As distinct from skeletons, which function quite differently in marital narratives. Early embalming tables, it turns out, had been modeled upon early cradles. In Northern cities, during the war—the base and legs adorned with dagger-and-dart forms. True, the jars of arsenic were always kept apart from the tunic. Be gracious, please, and leave a place for the grave goods. Rings, for instance—which soldiers often wore pinned to their skin. There were other formalities for a family in a house.

If the morning is cold: Begin with the scars at the bottom. Rot might follow the stains. For cubits, consider measuring endwise, pulling smartly at the wool. Subtract the width of one digit for every flaw. An insect might well be our culprit, given such handsome conditions. When facing south: The house appears to drown. Now the hour is happier but dim. For shaftments, measure the posts only, halving the rust at the bolt. Display the span with both hands, as though to signify fright or defeat. This is palmo in Spanish. In the dark: It speaks ill of the windows. For inches, count seams by threes, board to board, quietly. Exclude the shadows at the near side. The wool will shift above you.

Camastro, or wretched bed, described a wooden contraption. Though the pikes were overtaken, in their way, by chains. The cell might merit fuller treatment in this respect, despite the steel collar. Despite the harrow sticks, which, like the bodies, lay east to west. Most translations still favor clutch over seize or hold. But now we all think of our brother’s hands, don’t we? The cushions contained bees on these occasions, wasps on others. In plague cases the hair turned first.
      Wedding beds, in Pennsylvania, were stuffed with horsehair and pig bristle. Or, under the oddest of circumstances, girls’ hair and poisoned soil. Bridal beds, in Maryland, used plain straw. Of the madder family—like Quaker-ladies or this blotch of red in the distance. Or like dying nightdress with a very low throat. Early weeds were evidently better than late ones, whose forms, anyway, sometimes recalled split tongues. Fur, for its part, was shorn according to rather primitive rules—peculiar knives, say, in the manner of things—and piled with the skins. These burned especially well. Matrimonial beds, in New York, were cut open and emptied of feathers. Or they were wheeled to a gate and taken away in the rain. In Virginia, it stopped.
      The Colonial four-poster style—notice how poorly it conforms to the walls, to the crude themes of my room. One morning in a childhood home—with mother and all, for what that is worth. The frame, painted gray, and the body, face down, and the sheet—whose seam is a shame, prominent as it is. Now fold the blanket like so. Find the scorch mark at the neck, as you always do. Watch the child show sorrow. Does one speak anymore of having inherited such an item? The stories of torturers—they appear to avoid these matters. While the inventories, in common Tory wills, were thought bad form. Headboard, in any case, once meant flay, as in a burr mattock or a beggar’s cup, the handle shaped like a blade. According to certain hornbooks at least—north of the slaughter and south of it. This one includes a drawing of boys, who stagger elaborately—or so it seems to me—outside a burning house. A diagram explains the demolition of a bed.
      Beds of the dead, in Biblical custom, were buried, yes—usually at night, by the father. Though my father, perhaps like yours, died first. The garment is rent, in Jewish funeral law, which also requires that the eldest son fall to his knees. Well, if not this, quite, then certainly that the shomer, or watcher, display the holes. The family cleaned the bones with lye. They marked the ground. The reeds were brought to a wall. Morgue drawers, or stalls, were named and then dismantled. Rings were excised from the soldiers’ skin—on the green, before the mourners. Mauled horses were sometimes found in the road, I am afraid. Is it true that little girls once had rooms like these? I will try, next time, to save the nuns and lanterns on the stairs, and to describe the tombs with more aplomb. Oak caskets, in classical custom, were used on the most gruesome occasions. In the event of contagion, too, and poison. The arrangement of hands might remind you of knives—of the period or otherwise. Or of rats atop the sheets. Blankets, in many Colonial towns, were detailed with figures of husband and wife, the limbs spotted red or cut off—as the case may be—and the faces stuck with plain pins. Crying houses, so-called, killed blind children in the night.

When fire arrives in those old towns: It is mistaken for flower carts or hospital wagons. And then the flames have their way with the drapes. An object ignites, it was thought, according to the form of its name. A rail—granted—before a rope, and paper—such as this—before a person. The way a body burns: This will embarrass us somewhat less. Brass makes little claim upon the shapes. Batting travels about the room. The sound of light, it was thought, recalls the breathing of priests. The manner of embers: This attracts horseflies and black ants. Burnt sackcloth appears to prefer hornets. All the mornings now are cold enough for wool.

Camastro, by some accounts, was pronounced with rocks in the mouth. It took the shape of a cage. In Spain, a bit later—the hinge, like the skin, painted yellow or gray. As distinct from camastro, or wicked bed, which faced west and was composed of bones.
      Jewish beds, in the New World, often faced east. But the patterns of blood were read in terms of ordinary law. Spots a hand’s-breadth apart, for instance, once meant hatchets. Crosses meant wolves, just as you would guess. Or the throats, I suppose, of bride and groom. Though logic might oblige mention of my son.
      The Gothic style, at tragic moments, stands on ceremony. I regret this. Sometimes it omits box ornament and singe holes, however, as well as more ungainly traits. While this example seems to resemble a pile of knives. Leave it there, in any event, until it dies. The legs, from the orphanage, and the slats, from the hospital, and the canopy—which is not the color, quite, of the walls in my daughters’ room.
      My mother’s will—it was silent on the subject. Rather like—you might indulge me—my father’s will. If not the column, lying on its side, here outside the house. Now watch the bees atop the cinders. Decorum asks that I ignore the grass, burning gracefully from back to front. Or from door to gate, as across other American lawns. True, widows’ wills of the period may be more amply despairing. This one includes a preamble that explains the frame as the shape of a man. And portraits of the sickroom, a gas lamp—or just a hat and a rope—evident in the mirror.
      The parable of the bed—were we to have it, that is. A carcass, in this case, would be a great success for us. Much in the manner of tongues nailed to a town. To corrupt an old phrase. The parable of the gown—a nightdress, in point of fact—presents various tales of failure. A wife dyed a nightshirt white. She wound a cord about the sticks. A length of wool, rent or not, fell to the floor. The litter, or scroll, so-called—they used mule hides in those days, didn’t they? The brown could account for the cracking sounds. Some funerary discourse favors kidskin, which may deprive the narratives of decapitation, among other insults. Bed etiquette, in such documents, forbids the kind of cloth I hold before you now. Whereas sheets and blankets and garments sewn of limbs—these seem commonplace figures in Northern hornbooks. Were your sister’s things quiet and fine? Well, perhaps not, but the carts were—far from the towns, rolling over the hill. The spires always found the family behind the trees, tiny as they were. But what a pity it was about the soldiers’ rings. Bits of their skin, charred, or imprinted with round patterns, were pinned to the walls. The burning bed, in this blue house, was a simpler affair—the cross-stitch lost, on the husband’s side, and the cuff flat at the rail, on the wife’s. The bodies lay east to west. The latch was black, at last.