Those Little Trees

A lovely lady of my acquaintance once asked me how many of those little pine trees you’d have to hang in the cellar to hide the scent of a corpse.  Since I was visiting without a chaperone at the time, that question got me to thinking, and once I’d finished my slice of apple pie I thanked her cordially for a fine meal and made my excuses without tasting her mince.  I’m mostly sure she was just making conversation, but I didn’t reach my present advanced age by taking needless risks.

Those pine trees are some powerful, it’s true, but my experience is they just cover things up, burying them in the olfactory noise (if there is such a thing).  They hide the lesser sins, but anything beyond a good bean fart is going to break through, and the smell of a body a few days past it’s sell-by date… well, anyone who’s been near one will tell you:  That there is a scent with personality.  Those pine trees would be completely outclassed even if you hung a dozen.

On the other hand, you know those little packets of silica gel you get in things, the stuff that says “Do Not Eat”?  It might be a good idea to save the used ones up in ziploc baggies until needed for corpse-preservation; that’s good Yankee thrift.  Or you can follow the example of a famed ship’s captain, one Rufus King by name.  Not the one you know; different King entirely.  I got this third-hand from Marshall Dodge, so it’s got to be true.

In the old Downeast tradition, Captain King took to trading, and the further he was from his wife the more he liked it, on the theory that water helps the voice to carry and when the wind off the point was from the north she could be heard halfway to Jamaica. As a result, he spent several years going between various Oriental ports and became exceeding wealthy dealing in spices, chiefly peppercorns.

In the fullness of time, as they say, the good captain died on the way home from his last trip, and the crew knew his sincere wish was to be buried next to his wife so he could experience what her being silent was like. Contrary to custom (because he was a popular captain indeed), the ship’s carpenter knocked up a cedar box from packing crates, and they placed the departed within. To keep him from going off through the tropics, they covered him aloft and alow with green peppercorns, and to keep it from shifting (for sailors rightly have a horror of loose cargo) they nailed the box firmly shut and then battened ‘er down with tarred and oiled sailcloth.

Well, once the ship made port and the formalities were over, the widow took his trading fortune (now hers), sold the cargo, the ship, and that fine house on the hill with every last stick in it, and proceeded to find another man up Bangor way to make miserable. She left previous to the funeral, which bore out Captain King’s view of her character.  In fact, she left so quickly that the new owner of the vessel was greeted by the sight of the coffin when he came aboard, which left him looking a little blank.  What with one thing and another, the town ended up paying for a pauper’s funeral, and he was buried without inspection in the old graveyard down along the river.

As too often happens, some fifty years passed before anyone gave old Captain King another thought.  But the great flood that spring brought him back to mind. The sea ice was backed up both sides of Verona Island clear up to Winterport, and a south wind kept it there for over a week while the rains just kept coming. The resulting flood was bad enough that afterward they had to shift the state road back ten paces and meanwhile the whole town was up to their noses in icewater for a week.  Some summer people that had wintered over for the first time chose then and there not to repeat their error and headed south, and even a few of the old-timers were heard to remark that it was getting a dight chilly.

Well, of course the river washed out that graveyard, and most of those old bones went back to sea and were never found. But Captain Rufus King was buried in cedar, and the tarred sailcloth had kept both box and him safe from the wet. Well, they couldn’t leave him aboveground where he’d fetched up (down in Islesboro from what I hear, but some say he didn’t touch land again ’til Monhegan), but before the reburial they had to open it up and check to make sure who was in residence. Well, there was Captain King his own self, all nice and dry, looking just like he did the day he was laid out — covered head to toe in dried peppercorns. They say he was so well-preserved his watch was still going, but that I know to be untrue, for if it was in the box when he made port that wife of his would have had it out and sold.

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