Sunday, November 9, 2014

Dead People

Dias de los Muertos skull with ravens

I and some writer friends celebrate los Dias de los Muertos -- the Days of the Dead--with our own tradition:  every year in early November we hold a free public reading of stories and poems about death and dying, grieving or haunting,  Some are eerie, some humorous, some solemn.  My poet husband always reads Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, and author/musician Axel Mundi reads The Cremation of Sam McGee.  

This year I wrote a creepy story especially for the event.  It's called After the Funeral for want of a more interesting title.  Allow me to make the following disclaimer:  the narrator (of unknown gender) is not myself, and the narrator's mother is not my late mother.

After the Funeral

After the Funeral

by Alison Jean Ash

     After the funeral service, everyone came up to console me.  The women enfolded me in scented hugs, cooing like so many mourning doves, “deepest sympathy” and “so sorry for your loss” and “She’s in a better place now.”  The men patted my shoulder and, as if to speak aloud of grief was faintly obscene, muttered inarticulate regrets. 
     A warm cloud of mourners surrounded me as we made our way to my mother’s house, where kindly neighbors had set forth a buffet, including strong drink.  I allowed myself to be fed—“You must eat something”—and plied with whiskey—“It will help you buck up, dear”—and eventually I allowed myself to smile a little, faintly, tremulously.
     In the weeks afterwards, I had the eager assistance of several of Mother’s old friends in sorting out all her clothes.  The old dears spoke understandingly, in hushed tones, of the need for me to move on with my life.  I donated the clothing, with various other personal belongings such as her many ashtrays, to a charity thrift store. 
     Later, alone, I took down her framed reproductions of famous paintings and replaced them with works more to my taste.  I repainted her bedroom—the best in the house, of course—and hired strangers to help me move her furniture out and mine in.  Her fine oak dressers I kept; her bed, despite its magnificence, I donated to charity.
     The kitchen, too, I repainted, and I sorted out her favorite dishes to give away, along with her recipe books and her paperback romance novels.  No one would want to buy them, stained with food and smelling of stale cigarette smoke as they were, but I understand that the charity stores bundle up their unsalable books and send to be pulped for paper.  
     The old house was mine now, and gradually, cautiously, I made it mine.  There were few witnesses to its new lightness of atmosphere, as her friends, once assured that I was functioning on my own—at the age of fifty!—had gradually ceased to visit me with their offers of help and their casseroles.  It was a relief to me to be alone at last, with no need to feign grief or moderate my smiles.  Myself, I had no friends.
     Alone in my house, I smiled, I sang, I laughed aloud as I scrubbed and painted and hung fresh curtains.  Some days it took all the self-discipline I could summon not to shout my joy from the housetops.  But caution was necessary.
     You see, I killed her.
     Oh, she was a wicked woman!  Evil, and treacherous, and so very sly.  For fifty years, that woman, whom everyone had thought so sweet, had made my life a torment.
     Never mind how I killed her.  It would have been easy enough to discover—if anyone had been looking for it.   But no one was.
     So I was free now, and I was safe.  But eventually all the labor of claiming the house for my own was finished; I could find no more tasks to occupy my hands or, more importantly, my mind.  Apart from putting in time at my secure, undemanding and utterly boring job, I was now fully at leisure.           All alone in my clean and delightful house, I discovered, to my infinite surprise, that I was lonely.
All those years, while we inflicted our endless subtle cruelties on each other, she kept the friends of her youth, taking a sardonic pleasure in how skillfully she hid from them her true nature.   But I made no friends myself; it always seemed too much trouble.  Those who praised our mutual devotion, truly, were not so very far wrong.  Bound together as we were in our private hell, she and I, we needed no one else.
     Now I am alone.  I have acquaintances, of course; I have my co-workers and my friends from church.  People invite me to dinner now and then, and to their Christmas parties.  But there is no one left who knows me, no one alive who knows how wicked I am.  It had never occurred to me how bereft in that regard her death would leave me.
     When I realized my loneliness, I began to castigate myself for removing every trace of her existence from the house.  If I only had kept the leavings of her physical being, I thought, her spirit too might have remained to haunt me, to comfort me with familiar torments.  But I have no way of knowing whether that’s true.
     After giving this problem much thought, I have decided to hold a séance.  I will retrieve the framed photo of her from the downstairs closet where I hid it—not having the nerve to give it away or destroy it—and I will light candles beside it.  I will make a little altar, in fact, as Mexican people do for their departed family members, and place all her favorite things on it, to entice her spirit back into the house. 
     Yes, I’ll do it.  I’ll bake some of those horrid scones she always made, reeking of too much baking soda.  I will buy a pack of her brand of cigarettes, and I’ll go to the thrift store and buy an ashtray to burn them in.  Ironically, I’m sure it will be one of hers, since there aren't as many around nowadays as there used to be.  While I’m at it, I should pick up some sleazy romances, the kind that look as though they have a lot of sexual violence in them—her favorite kind.  She was beginning to get hooked on the new types that are popular now, featuring zombies or succubi.  The undead have much more scope for perversity, I gather, than the living, and my mother did love her perversity.  Is it any wonder I chose to keep my body to myself?
     Never mind that.  Yes, as I say, I will set up this altar, and when it’s ready I will light the candles—and the cigarettes—and I will drink some brandy from her bottle on the altar, and then I will say aloud the words I had never thought to speak.
     “Mother, I miss you.  Come back.”

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