A small quote from Robert Frost’s “Two Witches” questions whether the dead have souls and says that “there’s something the dead are keeping back.” At supper in Cairo with Mr. Ibis, Shadow learns about the funeral parlor business. America usually values nationwide brand names, but people still want their funeral parlors to feel local, so large companies buy up the smaller funeral homes but keep the management the same to maintain the illusion.
The question of whether the dead have souls will come up again once Shadow meets Mr. Jacquel, Mr. Ibis’s partner. The thing that the dead are “keeping back” is left vague, possibly referring to the things that Laura says she understands now that she is dead. While the funeral business has changed over time in America, Mr. Ibis explains that it has changed less than other industries, as death is one of the few things that makes Americans crave consistency and tradition, which they feel in smaller “family owned” funeral parlors. Yet even this can be faked in many places, as large corporations deceive people into thinking that their funeral parlor really is locally owned.
Ibis and Jacquel’s parlor is one of the few that is still completely independently owned. Jacquel has dominion over the dead, while Ibis has skill with words and writes accounts of lives. Together, they give continuity to this funeral parlor that has been here for almost two hundred years, since even before people with skin like Mr. Ibis’s dark caramel were considered black.
Jacquel, as the modern incarnation of the Egyptian god Anubis, who had dominion over the underworld, naturally helps people reach that place in this life. Meanwhile, Mr. Ibis is the disguise for the Egyptian god Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing. He reveals that he is the one who has been writing the “coming to America” accounts interspersed in the book (as stated in Essie Tregowan’s story). Mr. Ibis also explains the ways that America has changed with regards to racial categorization and stratification.
Mr. Ibis explains that the region “Little Egypt” actually gets its name because it was an Egyptian trading post three thousand years ago. Columbus was certainly not the first to come to America, as Mr. Ibis’s accounts attest. Mr. Ibis clucks that most American historians don’t want to believe this. He and Shadow leave the restaurant and return to the funeral parlor, where Mr. Jacquel (now in human form) is doing an autopsy of a young girl who died after she told her boyfriend she was pregnant and her boyfriend stabbed her.
Mr. Ibis claims to know all the “real” stories of how people came to America, rejecting the fiction about Little Egypt being named for a famine as the gas attendant said in the previous chapter. This trading group would have been the ones to bring Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel to America, through their belief in Thoth and Anubis. This discussion of the other “first arrivals” that preceded Columbus recalls the opening to Essie Tregowan’s story, where Mr. Ibis again exposed that many of the ways we think about American history are false.
Shadow watches as Mr. Jacquel methodically opens the girl’s body cavity and catalogues the state of her organs. He notices that Mr. Jacquel takes a small slice from each organ, placing it in a small jar. Mr. Jacquel takes an extra slice from the heart, liver, and kidneys, and chews on the small pieces. Mr. Jacquel tells Shadow that he is welcome to stay here as long as he is comfortable with and respectful of the dead. Thinking of Laura, Shadow responds that he is fine as long as they stay dead. Mr. Ibis comments that it is much harder to bring people back to life these days.
Mr. Jacquel’s careful autopsy recalls the embalming processes of the Ancient Egyptians, in which all the organs would have been preserved separately in special jars. Mr. Jacquel seems to take the slices from these organs as sacrifices, using them to sustain his power as he would have in Ancient Egypt. However, Jacquel has updated these practices somewhat, as the Ancient Egyptians would have left the heart in the body as the center of intelligence and the soul of a person, while Jacquel leaves the brain, possibly in deference to the American belief that the brain is the center of intelligence and emotion in the human body. Mr. Ibis’s comment about bringing people back doesn’t say it’s impossible, leaving open the possibility that Shadow will find some way to help revive Laura here.
Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis go into the kitchen and pour a glass of beer for Shadow. They brew it themselves, saying that they do a lot of things for themselves now that Set has left them and Horus has gone wild. Mr. Jacquel adds that he still sees Horus sometimes, flying around in his hawk form. Shadow offers to pitch in with whatever help they need. The small brown cat from the street rubs against Shadow’s foot in appreciation.
Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel seem to be doing better than many of the other Old Gods, as death is still an area where Americans feel they need something to believe in. After discussing the other gods of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon and their animal forms, the small brown cat is obviously Bast (sometimes written Bastet), an ancient Egyptian warrior goddess who was represented in a cat form.
Mr. Ibis shows Shadow to his bedroom, then the bathroom where Shadow showers, shaves, and takes stock of his layers of bruises from the past week. Shadow finds himself holding his razor to his throat, thinking how easy it would be to take this way out. The cat (later revealed as Bast) comes in before Shadow can do more than nick his skin, and Shadow leaves the bathroom.
Shadow still has trouble deciding whether he wants to live or not. Bast, the warrior goddess, was also a goddess of protection. As Shadow has agreed to help Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel, Bast seems to reward him by ensuring that Shadow survives.
Shadow drives Mr. Jacquel in their hearse to pick up the body of an old woman who has just died. The woman’s husband babbles to Shadow about his ungrateful children and grandchildren as Shadow packs up the body and carries the old woman tenderly out to the car. As they leave, Jacquel comments that the old man himself will be dead within six months. Shadow asks Jacquel if he believes in the soul. Jacquel agrees somewhat, saying it was more straightforward in the old days when the human soul was weighed against a feather after death.
The poor grieving husband echoes the complaints that the gods have about new generations who do not give them the attention or praise that they feel they deserve. Jacquel’s belief that this man will soon die is a show of his power in the realm of the dead. Jacquel’s answer about the soul is yes on one hand and no on the other—he makes it sound as though the dead have souls if people believe they do, as people believed in the old days that all humans had souls that had a corporeal form and could be weighed, but beliefs about souls are now so complicated and varied in America that it is impossible to give one answer.
It starts to snow as Shadow drives back to the funeral parlor, and Jacquel comments that Jesus will have a white Christmas for his birthday once again. He goes on to say that Jesus does better here than in Afghanistan, as everything depends on where one is. Jacquel sighs that he and Ibis have some savings for the lean years but won’t be able to last much longer in America.
Jesus, though not a character in his own right, is impossible not to include in a book about American gods, as Christianity has such influence in America. Yet Gaiman refocuses on the lesser known gods and religions present in America, just as he highlights the lesser known regions and tourist attractions, relishing things he considers underappreciated.
Shadow carries the old woman’s body into the funeral parlor, counting himself lucky to have an identity as a strong man when he spent so much of his childhood small, lost, and drifting, following his mother around all the various embassies in Europe where they had lived before they moved to the USA. When Shadow was 13, he had grown and caught the attention of the local football coach, and then discovered that he could use his physical size to his advantage as an athlete now that he could no longer disappear into the background. Shadow appreciated that nobody expected more of him than occasionally helping people move furniture, until Laura came along.
Shadow again shows his changeable nature, like a shadow that takes many forms. His childhood in embassies may explain why he feels such sympathy for the Old Gods – in some ways Shadow is also an outsider to American culture, having spent his childhood abroad. Yet Shadow is also quintessentially American, playing the American game of football and disappearing into the persona of an American jock because it was easier than finding his own path in life.
Mr. Ibis has dinner waiting in the dining room: vegetables and rice as well as a bucket of KFC for Shadow. Shadow comments that he had a friend in prison who believed that KFC changed its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken because it was no longer legally allowed to call its food chicken. Shadow thinks that it is more likely that KFC simply wanted to draw attention away from the unhealthy word “fried.” After dinner, Shadow goes up to bed and falls asleep reading old Reader’s Digests.
Gaiman suggests that it is human nature to look for conspiracies and lies, such as KFC hiding the fact that they do not really use chicken. Yet Shadow always looks for the truth, imagining that the development of the KFC brand represents another way that America has changed, becoming more health conscious.
Shadow starts to dream that he is with a woman dressed in a leopard-print skirt (Bast) at a lake. The woman directs Shadow down to her crotch and he can feel his erection even in real life. Shadow, now in his bed, rolls on top of the woman and kisses her, then starts to have sex with her, suddenly back in his old jail cell. The woman purrs and rolls on top of Shadow, scratching his back with her nails. Shadow looks into the woman’s amber eyes and asks who she is, but the woman just kisses him more passionately. Shadow lets go of his question but warns the woman that Laura will come after her. The woman shakes her head and continues to rock against Shadow until he orgasms. Afterwards, Shadow’s sleep is deep and dreamless.
Bast is described with cat-like language, purring and scratching even when she is in human form. As a protector goddess, she also has the ability to heal Shadow of his wounds, both mental and physical. This “dream” suggests that Shadow is able to actually have a healing sexual encounter with someone, unlike the mercenary and selfish relations enjoyed by Wednesday, Bilquis, and others. As this is right after Shadow’s thoughts of suicide, and taking place in a funeral home, the thought of death is directly linked to their life-affirming actions.
Shadow wakes early the next morning and notices that all of his old bruises have vanished, but that there are scratch marks on his back and sides. Shadow realizes that the woman last night was not a dream. Shadow dresses in more clothes left in his room by Mr. Ibis and then walks out into the fresh-fallen snow. As he approaches a bridge, Shadow sees Mad Sweeney, looking scared.
Shadow is unsure whether this sexual experience with Bast was a dream or not, raising questions of whether Bast simply took what she wanted (like the other gods) while Shadow was asleep. Yet Shadow did consent to their relations in the dream, so it seems that this act was consensual and healthy.
Mad Sweeney jumps when he sees Shadow, nervously starting to explain that he has made a huge mistake while trying to follow Wednesday’s orders, and needs Shadow to give the gold coin back. The coin that Shadow took comes from the treasure of the sun and belongs only to the King of America. Mad Sweeney starts frantically producing coins to replace Shadow’s coin, but Shadow has to tell Mad Sweeney that he gave the original coin away. Mad Sweeney starts to cry, blubbering that he is now damned and doomed. He pulls himself together enough to tell Shadow not to trust Wednesday, and asks Shadow for $20 so he can get out of here. With one last warning that Shadow’s neck is already in a noose, Mad Sweeney walks away.
That Shadow was even able to take the coin meant for the King of America suggests that something about this title actually applies to Shadow. It is unclear exactly why Mad Sweeney needs the coin back so badly, but the coin also seems linked to Mad Sweeney’s life in some way. Without the coin, which has the power to give life, Mad Sweeney will die. Yet Shadow gave it to Laura, granting her its life-giving powers. Mad Sweeney’s reference to a noose is another reminder that Odin is a gallows god, making the warning about Wednesday more sinister – as he could be the one planning Shadow’s hanging.
On the 23rd of December, Jacquel and Ibis receive a call from the police and send Shadow to go get the body discreetly. Shadow drives the hearse, thinking about how hearses are no longer driven in town now that Americans want to pretend that death does not happen. Shadow pulls up behind the police cars and sees Mad Sweeney’s frozen body next to a dumpster, with a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey still in his lap. A police officer, registering Mad Sweeney as a John Doe, writes out the instructions for the autopsy for Shadow to take back to Jacquel, and Shadow loads Mad Sweeney into the hearse. As Shadow drives back to the funeral parlor, Mad Sweeney reanimates his body long enough to ask Shadow to give him a proper wake, as it was Shadow’s theft that caused his death in the first place.
Americans still want to believe something about death, as shown by Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel’s continued presence here, yet there is a taboo on speaking about it out loud. This is part of the reason why Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis’s powers are waning, as they need people to accept death and the underworld in order to survive. Meanwhile, Mad Sweeney has managed to kill himself, drinking his body to death in the freezing cold. Gaiman later hints that Mad Sweeney would have simply been resurrected from this experience if enough people believed in him, but belief in true leprechauns was so faint that Mad Sweeney stayed dead. The careful instructions the policeman writes about the autopsy suggests that the police know that there is something odd about how the coroner does his business.
That evening, Shadow, Ibis, and Jacquel drink Jameson Gold in honor of Mad Sweeney, with Mad Sweeney’s body propped up in a chair. Ibis reads his account of Mad Sweeney’s life and the girl who brought belief of Mad Sweeney to America during the Irish famine. Mad Sweeney begins to add asides to Ibis’s account and tries to explain all about the gods from Ireland, until Ibis gets mad at Sweeney’s changes to what he considers his story. Mad Sweeney then teaches Shadow how to do the gold coin trick one more time.
Ibis shares one of his coming-to-America stories, and the whisper of belief that the story carries is enough to reanimate Mad Sweeney’s spirit long enough for the wake. Story telling is one of the ways that the gods transmit their power, explaining why Mr. Ibis considers his story about Mad Sweeney so sacred, when he himself earlier acknowledged that any history is messy and includes many things. Mad Sweeney’s parting gift is to show Shadow how to do the coin trick again, but there is only one gold coin that belongs to the King of America, so Shadow cannot simply produce another one to bring Mad Sweeney back.
The next morning, Shadow wakes up with a horrible hangover and is relieved to see that Mad Sweeney is still in fact dead. Mr. Wednesday comes into the kitchen and tells Shadow to get ready for a long drive. Shadow asks to say goodbye to Ibis and Jacquel, who are away at a burial, but Wednesday says that goodbyes are overrated. They get in the car and drive north. As they head out of town, Shadow lets go of his time at the House of Rest.
Wednesday cares little for goodbyes, another sign that he has a fundamental insecurity with death and assumes that he will live forever – or at least long enough to see everyone again. Meanwhile, Shadow is comfortable with death, considering the funeral home a house of rest in a positive way, relieving him from the strain and stress of the past days.