She looked up. Up there, beneath a canopy of low, grey clouds, the wind plucked scarlet leaves from the outermost twigs on the trees, and tousled her hair as it descended to the ground with its catch.
Up there, half obscured by the muted roar of the trees, she heard the voice she hadn't heard for nearly seven years. Deliberately, she drew a long, deep breath, and dropped it in a sigh as her eyes dropped down again to the carved stone nestled in faded grass and low cropped weeds near her feet. Seasons change and all things die; this she knew, and the promise of new life in the spring has hitherto never been broken. But that mattered little now.
She could not break the final tie she felt. That is why both she and the stone stood there.
Was memory so much more precious than the present moment? Perhaps it was time to leave. The wind was getting colder and the sun was now painting the undersides of the clouds pale pink and purple from the only place it could pierce them--the horizon. She turned to descend the hill.
As she descended the hill the wind picked up speed, and by the time she reached the foot of the hill it was practically pushing her across the old field toward her car. With difficulty she opened the door of the old, blue Ford, and clambered in as the wind slammed it shut behind her. It was time to go home. But the car would not start. She turned the ignition key again, but the car remained motionless and silent, save for the gentle rocking and whistling caused by the gale outside. She turned the key again.
"Dead battery?", she mused, and frowned. She would have to spend the night there, then. It was twilight, a storm was approaching, and it would take at least five hours to reach the main road on foot. She shrugged, then climbed into the back seat and unfolded a wool blanket she kept there for such occasions. Eyes closed, she listened to the storm bluster without for hours. She was about to fumble for her watch to check the time when there was a horrific crack of thunder. Her whole body tautened and her eyes snapped open. Where was the blanket? She scrambled to upright herself and nearly fell back into the front seat, as the car had tilted so far forward it felt as if it were balanced on its front wheels and fender. Nausea slapped her across the stomach. The stench filling her nose was much too familiar. Another flash of lightening revealed that the car was at rest on a very steep incline, the front end crumpled against the trunk of a huge, old tree, and slumped against the steering wheel was...
"Jeremy!", she cried. She fell into the front seat and excitedly grabbed his right arm. "Jeremy! We have to get out! The tank split and we have to get out! Can you smell it? Wake up! Wake up!!" She shook him. "Come on! We have to leave!" She shook him harder. "Come ON!" She jerked him away from the wheel. And the corpse stared back at her with cold, glazed eyes. She screamed. And lightning struck the tree.
She woke up crying. Sweat trickling down her face, she kicked the blanket away and sat up. Heavy rain continued to drum on the roof and stream down the windows, while lightning continued to crack the black sky. That dream had returned. For months it repeated itself, and then for the past few months she had been free of it, but now it had returned. She would never sleep in peace again. She was sure of it.
It surprised her, then, to open her eyes to a clear, pale blue sky. Not so much as a wisp of cloud could be seen. The field was a sodden mass of scarlet and orange leaves tangled in pale weeds, and a couple of small, broken branches rested on the hood, but otherwise the field was unchanged. And suddenly she noticed the air in the car was unbearably dead and musty.
So she climbed out and stretched, and felt as though a hundred bugs were gnawing her away from the inside. More than anything she wanted eggs for breakfast, but she knew it would be afternoon before she reached the main road and even then the nearest place she could breakfast would be four miles away. Every moment of delay would keep breakfast that much farther away. So she turned to where the field melted into a beaten, dirt path and walked.
She tried to not think of anything as she passed along the path through the woods. She looked up to the sky and bare branches, but her mind slipped back. She concentrated on the air's tang and a faint, persistent, murmuring breeze. But her mind slipped back. She shifted her attention to the fallen leaves, piled so deep on the path that the hem of her trenchcoat grazed them. And she stopped short. Something was wrong. Straining to hear, she looked around, but nothing seemed amiss. Cautiously she stepped forward, and the leaves crackled beneath her foot. But had it not rained last night? Had it not rained *hard*? Wide-eyed she looked up and down the path and realized that she had been wading through bond dry leaves. These were leaves that would burn easily. She pushed forward again, walking faster.
A mile down the path the surrounding trees gave way to another clearing, whose far side bordered a steep valley lined with scarlet topped oaks and verdant evergreens. Facing the valley, a lone figure stood on the precipice. She approached it, and as she came near she saw the clothes were half burnt, the person's blond hair matted and badly singed, and already she could smell the odor of burnt skin.
"Excuse me, but are you alright? What are you doing here?" The figure remained silent. "Can you hear me?" There was no response. Gently she reached out and turned him by the shoulder to face her. The sight of his face made her stomach crawl up into her throat. Then panic cracked its whip.
And Khayyam ran.
She ran wildly through the clearing, but half way across her boot snagged on a root hidden beneath the leaves and she fell face first into them. Struggling to rise, she thrashed through the leaves but could not find the ground to push off of it. A pair of arms swiftly thrust through the leaves and grabbed her just beneath the shoulders, and quickly pulled her up to her feet. Sputtering and shaking she looked up the arms to the neck and to the face. And she fainted.
When she awoke she was lying on a mound of leaves with her head resting in Jeremy's lap as he looked down into her face. He brushed a few leaves from her chest and smiled.
"Ready to chat now?" She shot upright and sat staring at him. The voice was his, as was the face and the pale, sun colored hair. But he was dead. This was another dream.
"I guess not." Jeremy sighed.
Except those eyes. She saw that his eyes had life in them as they watched her. With a hint of impatience he sighed again.
"But you're dead!", she shouted. He laughed. Angrily she reached out and pushed him backward into the leaves, and he laid there, still laughing.
She glared as his laughter decayed to a giggle and then stopped when he turned to look at what she was doing.
"That won't work, you know."
She was pinching and clawing the back of her left hand. This had to end! She clawed harder. Her nails sunk into her skin and tore it as she raked at her hand, but the sensation was more akin to an itch than pain. She stared at her hand. The grooves she tore were deep, but only the faintest itch could be felt. And no blood flowed. When she noticed this, a pale, watery fluid started to ooze from her hand.
Her eyes widened.
"Khayyam, please stop."
She looked up. Jeremy was at her side, and he clasped her right hand and gently kissed it.
She jerked her hand away and jumped to her feet. Tears welled in his eyes as he looked up at her, and she turned on her heels to leave.
"How long can you keep this up?! How long are you going to deny what really happened? Why can't you accept...?"
She started to walk away. His voice rose to nearly a scream. "Do you think I *like* this?? Can't you at least release me?! Why can't you let me go!? If you *must* carry on like this, can't you at least let *ME* go??" She turned to face him and froze.
Jeremy, however, continued to rant. "You don't get it, do you!? We don't belong here, we belong there." He pointed to the valley. "I don't have any problems with that. But you! No, you have to knock around in this world of yours because you can't face up to what really happened, and on top of that you won't even let me explain even though you keep summoning me! You can spend the rest of eternity here if that's what you want, but I want to move on." Here he stopped.
A sound, half gasp and half sob, rose from her. They gazed at each other for a moment, and then rushed together and embraced. She wailed and sobbed while he gently rocked her, and a faint breeze picked up and stirred the leaves in the clearing. He whispered to her.
"Would you like to go home, now?"
She drew back slightly to look at his face. Could she finally go home? For a year after the wreck she had tried to find it, but it had vanished and nobody she met could help her find it again. She thought back; home vanished that day she woke up next to the marker stone on the hill, but could not remember how she had reached it. Since then she had wandered and stayed at hotels and the homes of strangers. She shuddered. How could he now be standing here, years later, nuzzling her hair? It made no sense. Yet if anyone could get her home, to where she really belonged, it was Jeremy. They had shared the same house for nearly a decade. And this was Jeremy. She was sure of it now. She nodded.
He beamed and hugged her tightly. "You'll be happy to be home, believe me. It's nicer than here." With his arm across her back he turned and they slowly walked to the precipice. He shifted his arm off her back and held her hand.
She looked at him quizzically. Rolling his eyes he heaved a deep sigh and pointed down. She looked down into the valley where he pointed and saw an isolated, tall, dead tree that had been shattered and gutted by fire long ago. It rose out of a steep incline and a blackened shell of a car was wedged on the lee side of the trunk. She nearly fainted. But Jeremy held her until her vision cleared and she could stand again. Dazed, she looked at him and then the tree again.
"Do you understand now?"
She pursed her lips and shook her head. He squeezed her hand and smiled. "I know about the troubles you've had, the nightmares that come when you try to sleep...". She shot him a glance. "...But the conflict inside you is never going to go away until you come home. You don't understand because you don't want to. But we can take care of the whole problem on the way home, and by the time you get there you'll forget the whole thing." Khayyam started to look uneasy. He hugged her again.
"I've never lied to you before, and I won't start now. First we jump off here..."
In a panic she pulled away. To jump was unthinkable; she could see it was a very long way down. Nobody could survive a jump like that. Jeremy was about to shout something when he suddenly brightened. "Look at the bottom more closely. See all those leaves? I've been down there before, and I know that pile is deep enough to break the fall. And I'm going to prove it to you."
And he jumped. Horrified, she watched him plummet down into the valley until he was no larger than a matchbox, and then he disappeared in the leaves. About half a minute later he broke the surface of the pile and looked up to her, waving both arms and shouting something that was lost in the wind that was gaining strength and picking up the leaves around her. She wanted to join him but did not want to jump. She paced a moment, and then flung herself into the chasm. Down she went, and the autumn wind whistled in her ears while she hurtled, arms outstretched, to the valley floor.
Carried by the wind, a lone, crimson leaf fell from the top of the valley and finally came to rest on a pile of leaves on the valley's floor.
Something On My Mind
This is the time of year that it all comes bearing down on me. Last month held the 11th anniversary of my mother's death. It was perhaps the most extraordinary Saturday of my life. I was away at grad school, and she was coping as best she could with a metastasized cancer that was being treated with chemo. But chemo being what it is she had to deal with stuff that required almost regular trips to the hospital to correct. So on this Saturday i get the call from my father telling me that she's in the hospital again. And after we finish talking i get this very happy feeling and i know that something is going to happen and everything is going to turn out the way it needs to be. Later that day i get the call to inform me that she had died. And i spent the next several days being a tad confused; grieving, yet also quite happy for her because she had finally been released from a life which she found, to put it mildly, disappointing.
I remember Plotzensee. Summer of '85 i went to Germany, and this included a visit to this memorial. Near the entrance is a huge urn, and the sign next to it explains that it contains earth from Treblinka and all the other concentration camps. It's a very solemn place, but i wasn't prepared for the little, two room building further into the compound. If memory serves, it only covers about 12 meters squared of ground. On one side it has two windows. On the opposite side it has two doors, each leading to a separate room. Without reading anything i entered the left room. I never want to go there again. It was an empty, white room. Empty except for the vase of flowers and whatever else was there that made the air thick with terror and pain. So i went to the other room and the sensation immediately went away. That room was also white, but it had pictures of men and women and a lot of signs. Reading them, i learned that Plotzensee was used in WWII to imprison and execute German dissidents. I also thus learned that that particular building was used to hang and behead them. The pictures were in the room used to hold them before execution; the first room was where they were killed. And so, moving as quickly as i could without breaking into a run, i went out and hid myself and cried, crying because nobody had to tell me which room was used to kill them as the air was so thick with their death it was impossible to not know. Hiding, because i'm expected to never cry.
In a few more weeks it'll be the 3rd anniversary of my mentor's death. He's the one who helped me choose a school when i went away to study traditional medicine. He practiced out of Chicago, but also worked in the blood lab at one of the hospitals there. He figures that it was the needlestick that went clear through his thumb about a decade earlier that gave him the HIV virus. But he never told me; i learned about it later when G phoned me to give me the news.
There are others, but i won't spew an entire catalog of people you've never heard of before and have no real reason to care about. But these are the people i think about this time of year, moreso than any other. I think about what i knew of their lives and the way their lives ended. Some of those i don't elaborate on here died by suicide. The pain of losing them is no different from that of losing the others. I only hope that they found what they were looking for.
Given a choice of dying by my own volition and having the event imposed on me by disease, accident, or murder, i would prefer to punch my own ticket, thank you. I will die someday, willing or no, and it seems to me that a sensible person would take some time to contemplate what is inevitable and to plan how to deal with it. So i see no contradiction between planning to be the author of my own demise and the fact that i'm still breathing and will probably continue to do so for some time. Nor do i see the time and resources i use exploring the various options as being poorly spent. It is really an investment in my future, since i don't have the option of not dying. Like learning CPR, the best time to study is before the technique is actually needed.
This fulfills my promise to HoSF, who keeps asking me questions that start with the word "why". Thank you for listening.
What Phil Told Me
Phil probably wasn't sober as I could smell liquor in the air. He was a Caucasian man with a wart on the apex of his right ear and short brown hair somewhat thinned on top, though that's only apparent when he takes off his baseball cap. His shirt collar was a little frayed but his clothes were clean, and his reading glasses hung from a cord.
He talked about baseball, but it seemed to me he was really talking about life. It was important, he said, to play to win. You had to play your very best to win. And if you didn't win, at least you knew in your heart that you had tried. His voice nearly broke when he said this.
He hates the righteous and the ministers. He hates the people with attitudes and would bury them all if he could. He hates them all because they don't know anything. But Phil knows he is going to hell. He's 57 now and isn't afraid of anyone, and he really doesn't believe there's a place like the brimstone and fire hell, but if there was a place like that he knows he'd go there when he died. He knows because he killed a boy.
It was war and the boy moved at the wrong time. The Viet Cong had already left the village, but Phil didn't know that and neither did his squad. And they were all easily spooked. The boy in the bush moved and Phil turned and shot him in the forehead. Phil hadn't known he was a boy. The sergeant told Phil he couldn't have known, and if he hadn't shot he could have been killed himself. But it wasn't like that. The fact was it was only a boy and he had shot him in the forehead. Phil was only 19 at the time, and he held the boy's body and he knew right then that he was going to hell. Two or three times while he was telling me this he recreated the motion of drawing and firing a pistol with his right hand. Tears ran down his cheeks when he told me this. He almost sobbed when he lamented this boy; this boy would never grow up, have a girlfriend, get married, or have children of his own. He'd never go to college. It seemed unlikely to me that a Vietnamese boy growing up in a village during that time would have much chance of going to college anyway, but that wasn't the point.
When he had started talking to me he was sitting on the bench and I was standing about fifteen feet away, but the noise of passing trains made him difficult to hear so I moved closer. He wanted me to sit but I refused; I sit nearly all day. So he stood. This truly tested my self-discipline because my personal space extends in a radius of about three feet around me, but he very plainly wanted to stand closer than that. So I centered myself and we compromised at two feet.
And he told me of his job as a writer for a local newspaper. He told me of a number of things. He talked about his girlfriend and he remarked how odd it was that I didn't look away from him. I had my reasons for that. First of all, I was listening to him. Secondly, he was in my space.
In the course of meandering from topic to topic he told me that he really didn't have a girlfriend, that the woman he earlier referred to was just a good friend and not the same thing. And he touched my shoulder. He said if he were twenty years younger he would snatch me and take me away to Mexico. I found myself wondering if I should tell him that I've been ordained.
My train arrived and I left Phil at the station. And as I headed south it occurred to me that he had, in the course of talking about nearly everything else, told me that he craved to connect with somebody and be close to that person. And that he had also told me that he was in hell.
One Bird Singing
Cassandra awoke before dawn one morning, and as usual she didn't know why. The routine was familiar; she could either lie in bed and stare into the darkness for an hour or she could get up. With a groan she rose.
It was a brand new day; a clean slate that was waiting to realize the potential of all her hopes and dreams, if not for the outline of responsibilities, obligations, and the consequences of previous decisions that her life had already written on the slate.
By the time she dressed and ate breakfast, though, there was a peculiar sense of expectancy. Maybe the bacterial cultures she was growing in the lab would finally do what she wanted them to do. Maybe when she got to the campus she'd find a big, gaping hole where the biology labs normally were.
And then the phone rang. It was her father, and he called to let her know that her mother was in the hospital again. They talked awhile, and then they both hung up and Cassandra was filled with a sense of excitement. She was certain that everything was going to turn out the way it needed to be, and so she went to the lab and for the next several hours was very happy.
When she got back home there was a message that her father had called again and so she phoned. Her mother had died that afternoon. Cassandra felt confused; she was both pleased and grieved and couldn't decide which emotion should be given preference. To avoid thinking about it at all she chain smoked three cigarettes, and then called an airline to buy a ticket and she packed a suitcase. She also phoned her research advisor to let him know she needed to leave town for the funeral and she put her culture flasks in cold storage.
The flight was several hours of numb monotony punctuated by outbursts of tears. The drive from the airport to her parents' house was a solid block of numbness. Even though she had visited just three months ago for Christmas, she was struck by the endless piles of clutter and by the dirt. She knew from ancient memory that the lace curtains in the kitchen used to be white, but now they were a mottled yellow and brown. The kitchen walls looked like they hadn't been washed in over a decade. And that was in fact the case. The partially caved in door to the kitchen closet was familiar; her father had pounded his fist there in one of his explosions of rage several years earlier.
And her father was venting his rage even now, screaming at God for taking his wife away. Stoically she sat there and listened and watched as he shook his fist at the ceiling. She knew better than to try to say anything at that point. When he had for the moment spent his rage, she quietly made tea.
And then she went to work. Her brother was due to arrive from California later that afternoon, so the first thing to do was to make the bedrooms usable. She moved piles of clutter off beds, changed the sheets, and otherwise made the rooms habitable. Her mother had accumulated pile after pile of books, magazine clippings, catalogs, and seemed to have a mania for keeping notes on nearly everything, so there was a lot to move and sort through. The latter task particularly interested Cassandra because, now that her mother was dead, she realized that reading her mother's papers was the only chance she had of getting a straight answer to certain questions she had.
And she was not disappointed. One of the changes she had noticed when she visited last Christmas was that the bathroom door upstairs was gouged. For one reason or other the toilet seat had broken and her mother had flung the pieces out at her father. Her father had forcefully pitched them back at her, though she had by that time closed the door. Cassandra tittered as she realized the full extent to which her father would miss her mother in the future.
And then she moved to another stack of papers sitting next to a typewriter that still had a paper with carbon paper and onionskin in it. It was a later version of what was sitting next to the typewriter. It was a letter addressed to her, telling her at great length but in no particular detail what a rotten daughter she was.
Cassandra considered this. She had known for many years that her mother was displeased with their relationship. She had also considered her mother nearly unbearable, relentlessly domineering, and indifferent to her needs. And so she paused to consider what it might be that was so unacceptable in herself. There were so many things she could be at her age, which she was not. She did not, for instance, get pregnant and drop out of high school, as one of her classmates had done, probably going on to be a burger flipper if she found any job at all. She was not a whore, drug addict, drug pusher, idle bar hopper, or even an arsonist. She had been groomed and trained for the past decade to be a scientist, and that was primarily her mother's idea. She had earned enough college credit in high school to be able to complete the work for two and a half bachelor degrees in only five years at college, and she was now working on her Ph.D. So it was doubtful that her fault was that she was slothful, old accusations notwithstanding.
If anything, her fault seemed to be that she was not willing to be another of her mother's dolls. When she came home from college during the breaks, she at first resigned herself to, and then later resisted, being driven all over town so that her mother could show Cassandra off to her mother's friends. The bus ride from college to her hometown was over 8 hours of breathing air that smelt like exhaust fumes, and by the time she had finished that journey she was thoroughly car sick and sick of travel. This was interpreted by her mother as spite. Perhaps at a certain level it was. But if it was, it was a spite that was born of resentment of attempts to control Cassandra's life to such a degree that she wasn't even allowed to choose the pattern of trim on the plates and dishes set that was given to her when she went to college, though her mother went through the formality of asking her to choose.
Cassandra looked up with a start. Her brother had come home while she had been musing over the letter, and either he or their father had slammed the house door shut downstairs. She grabbed the half dozen copies of the letter, crumpled them into a ball, threw it in the trash, and went downstairs.
After eating a light snack they all went to the funeral home to finalize arrangements with the director. Cassandra's mother had clearly indicated that she wished to be cremated, but Cassandra's father could not bear the thought. So the details of embalming for an open casket service, selection of the casket, and other aspects of the funeral were settled on and all that remained was for the family to provide clothes for dressing the corpse. So the three of them returned home and Cassandra was given the bag to put the clothes into.
Cassandra's two aunts arrived that evening. This relieved her greatly, as one cooked while the other helped her with decluttering the rooms upstairs. The funeral took place the day after Easter and Cassandra looked at the lawn decorations depicting giant eggs and bunnies while the limousine slowly threaded through the town roads and into the suburb where the cemetery was located. Afterwards, her aunts stayed a week while they helped to pack up her mother's old clothes to give to charity and to take her extensive collection of self-help books and books on psychology and the occult to a book buyer who specialized in estate liquidation. At Cassandra's insistence, the books on astronomy and the field guides were kept.
There was much trash to be discarded. The following week when it was time to take trash out to be collected by the garbage men, Cassandra carried about two dozen of those large, black bags to the curb. And that didn't count the personal papers which she collected and burned a few days later.
She was glad to have certain matters clarified by what she read in those papers, though she was annoyed that most of the references to her brother boasted of his accomplishments while most of the references to herself portrayed a sullen, stubborn child. Her mother's old rants would have been more bearable, Cassandra thought, if her mother had made any real effort to listen to her own problems. But her mother had so little regard for Cassandra that she wouldn't even listen to the answer given when she asked her a question.
"Cassie?", her mother had asked one day. "Your grandmother had glaucoma. Do you know what glaucoma is?"
"It's an eye disease.", she replied.
"No, it's a problem with the eye where an increase of pressure in the eye leads to loss of vision."
Judging from her papers, Cassandra's mother never did figure out why Cassandra lost all interest in talking to her by the time she was in high school. And she resented her daughter's withdrawal.
She discovered among the papers a set of horoscopes her mother had cast. The one she had cast for her declared that Cassandra would likely either by a scientist or a physician, but not likely to be a writer. She shrugged and added it to the trash. There was another paper, though, that caught her eye, and for days she regretted reading it.
It was almost a confession, except the tone was too defiant. Her parents had not been able to agree on how many children to have. While growing up, she had been told more than once that she had "come at a bad time", but to read plainly that she was brought into existence solely because one parent willfully disregarded the wishes of the other was a shock. The whole reason she existed was to further her mother's ambition.
Two weeks later, when most of the personal effects had been sorted through
and either stored or discarded, Cassandra decided it was time to return to
graduate school. During the drive to the airport, her father said he was proud
of her and wished she could stay. She didn't know how to reply; she now knew
that if he had had his way she wouldn't even exist, and she had seen too much
not to realize that much of his interest in her staying rested on her cooking
and cleaning for him. She reminded him of her need to return to school.
"By the way," he added, trying to sound casual. "There were some of your
mother's papers in the lower left drawer of her desk that aren't there anymore.
I'd read them but put them back with the intention of throwing them out later.
Did you do anything with them?" He was referring to the papers that revealed
that she owed her life to somebody's defiance of his wishes.
"I burned them."
"Well...I...want to let you know that things have changed. That I don't feel that way anymore."
She started to silently recite a mantra.
He asked a few more questions, trying to figure out if she had read the papers without his giving any real indication as to their contents, and she deftly stonewalled him. Eventually deciding that she either had not read the papers or that she forgave him, the rest of the drive was spent with him silently grinning and with her silently trying to ignore the world. The past was past, but she could not forgive his present cowardice.
Back at school, Cassandra took increasingly less interest in her studies. Benjamin, at least, understood her frustration with her research. Benjamin was a fellow student who worked in a lab down the corridor from the one she used. His thesis research involved analysis of the protein of the HIV virus. For years he had thought he was making progress, but had recently discovered that he had spent the past few years essentially chasing a ghost; the protein he was so carefully examining was one of the enzymes he was using in his protocols.
But then came the day when Benjamin died. Four weeks after Cassandra had returned from her mother's funeral, she learned that he had died in a car crash. It was a head-on collision with a van that had crossed the yellow line. All the grad students in her department were touched; as a group they sent flowers to his parents and several attended the funeral. Cassandra, though, spent that day at home, staring numbly at the walls of her room and smoking.
She still dutifully ran her experiments, and they still failed more often than not, and she was feeling trapped. She felt obliged to follow this course she had set out on; it was the "sensible" thing to do with one's life and to put it aside after so many years of effort and sacrifice was unthinkable.
Often on sunny afternoons she would take walks along the outskirts of the campus. One afternoon a redwing blackbird sang, and she filled with the pang of nostalgia. Yet she couldn't articulate the basis for this longing; there was precious little of her past she would relive if given the chance, and what few moments she would have any interest to relive were marred by the knowledge of what followed. One bird of the marshlands singing represented everything she wanted and she didn't know why. She hung her head and cried.
The death of Peter, by itself, would have caused Cassandra to silently, briefly grieve, but that would have been the whole of her reaction. In the face of the previous two deaths that year and her failing research, though, Peter's suicide was like salt on gaping wounds. She never got to know him very well; he always seemed too nervous and kept to himself. When the initial shock wore off she inwardly screamed. She knew next to nothing about him and yet she understood him and what he had done quite well as she had considered doing the same thing herself numerous times. But what was even more painful was how everyone else reacted. Every single photo on the lab's bulletin board that included Peter was taken down. Some of the students still talked about Benjamin and how tragic it was for him to have died, but there was no talk of sending Peter's relatives flowers; nobody would so much as mention Peter's name. Everything that made any reference to him was banished and within a week it was as if he had never existed. And this left Cassandra feeling even more isolated and forsaken.
"We are only valued for what we produce", she whispered to herself as she walked away from the mailbox. Into the box she had slipped a card of condolence addressed to Peter's parents. She has horrified to later learn that she had misspelled his name; she had only heard his name and had never seen it written down before.
The second year review of her academic progress was less traumatic than she had feared, but the evaluation that was added to her records nearly made her panic. The professors acknowledged that she did very well in her classes and that the circumstances were very trying between her advisor being away on sabbatical and her recent, personal loss, but they were disappointed by her lack of progress on her research. She didn't know what to do that would change that. She practically lived in the lab and she followed the experimental protocols that had worked for the other research associates, and still the experiments failed. At night she would brood over this. She was trapped, she would be disgraced no matter what she did, and nothing she did to try to change things worked. She took to playing with a long bladed knife from the kitchen, letting the light dance on the clean, flat sides and listening to the metallic tang as she rapped it on the objects that surrounded her. How would this all end? She didn't know.
"You must be Cassandra.", said the minister as he approached the woman standing off to the side of the room. She was dressed in a simple, black dress and smoking a cigarette. Cassandra nodded and smiled slightly.
"Tell me about your mother. What was she like?" The smile abruptly vanished and Cassandra stared at him with more than a little wonder. This was the latest minister of the church her mother had belonged to for the past 20 years, and he had been at this post for the past 5 of them.
"What do you remember about your mother that was special and unique about her?"
She suddenly understood why she was being asked such strange questions; he was fishing for things to say during the eulogy he'd been hired to deliver. If she had been prepared beforehand, she could have thought of something more along the lines of what he wanted to hear, but at that time none of the images of maternal warmth or greatness that he wanted would materialize.
"Well, she liked to collect dolls. Especially old, bisque ones."
They stared at each other. The minister's expression vaguely resembled that of a soldier who suddenly realized he had one foot on a landmine while Cassandra's was slightly annoyed. She had spent the past two days dealing with the aftermath of her mother's death, picking out the clothes the corpse would wear and doing all the other chores that the rest of the family was too upset to do. She breathed out a small wreath of smoke which got larger and thinner as it drifted toward his face. He moved on to the next relative before it could reach him.
Cassandra continued to stand off to one side and smoke while the other people in the room talked with each other in somber tones. Everyone, that is, except her father and brother. Her brother was talking with the minister and she could see that he was struggling to keep from sobbing. Her father was in the midst of a handful of people who comforted him as he made no effort to keep from sobbing. She looked inside herself and realized that the reason it was so effortless for her to control her emotions was because they weren't there. She was a stone and felt absolutely nothing. This surprised her; she had cried on the plane when she flew in for the funeral and had cried even harder when she cleared off the top of her mother's bureau. But at the moment there was nothing there. She finished the cigarette and drifted up to the casket at the head of the room.
From the side, it was difficult to recognize the face on the corpse as belonging to anyone she knew. There was no tone to the muscles, the hairstyle of the wig the mortician had used was one her mother had never worn in her lifetime, and the skin color was a shade of peach that would look on a mannequin. She found, though, that if she went to the foot of the casket and leaned over it slightly, she could see the face head-on and recognize it as her mother's.
"I admire your composure."
Cassandra's brother had finished talking with the minister, had come up to stand beside his sister and said this. She turned and gave him a shy smile. She hadn't realized that he found anything in her to admire.
It was time for everyone to sit down and for the funeral service to begin. The minister eulogized, the two men in the deceased's family cried, and the rest listened in respectful silence. Cassandra, though, was starting to feel a smoldering anger rise up in herself. The minister's delivery was maudlin, and it seemed to her that he was trying to make people cry. He made no mention of her hobby.
The minister finished the eulogy and everyone turned and shuffled toward the door to the parking lot as the next thing to do was to have the funeral procession to the cemetery. As everyone filtered past the chairs toward the door, Cassandra noticed that of the two dozen or so people there only a handful had had anything to do with her mother while she was alive. She was there, and her brother, father, and two maternal aunts were there, but of all the people she had supposed to be her mother's friends not one had come. With bitterness she realized that she was seeing a glimpse into her own future. She would die someday, and she knew that nobody in her life would bother to come and say good-bye. She turned to go back to the casket but it was too late; the funeral director had already closed the lid and was screwing it down.
The drive through the streets was slow. It was a late winter day, frigid and grey. Cassandra stared out the window of the limo the entire time, wishing she could have a cigarette but knowing it would have to wait until the graveside service was over. Meanwhile, her father was rubbing her shoulder, over and over and over on the same place until it became a form of torture, and she didn't have the gentle words to make him stop so she endured it while she fought down the urge to scream. She wanted to scream at this man who was blubbering in the wake of the death of someone whom she had heard him call everything from bitch to whore. She wanted to spit on her mother's friends if she ever saw them again. What she ended up actually doing was shooting out of the limo as soon as it stopped in the cemetery.
Everyone got out of the vehicles, but the crowd was only half what it had been at the funeral parlour as the rest had gone home. The casket was placed on a platform beside the grave, the minister said a few brief, choice words, and the funeral was over. On the way back Cassandra stared out the window again. She recalled the sight of the casket as they had driven away; it was so lonely, sitting on a platform two feet above a flat, featureless meadow.
"But she will have a chance to forget.", thought Cassandra. And then she knew why she could not grieve at the funeral. She could not mourn her mother's death at the ritual because death is what had released her from a stormy marriage and a life that brimmed with discontent and regret. Death had set her free.
Last update: Thursday, April 11, 2002 08:47