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Short Story

THE DAY OF THE FUNERAL could not be called unseasonably warm, as Florida had only the two seasons, summer and not quite summer, but certainly the unrelenting sun was unfit for mid-December mourning. Katherine had been home a week already, the sudden death reaching up the coast and plucking her from her academic hermitage, depositing her in the middle of the unreal reality of a life ended. It had taken a while for the family to sort out the details of death: a full ten days elapsed between her grandfather’s passing and the service. “I admire those Arab countries,” her father had said, “for putting their dead in the ground so quickly.”

Katherine was dressed first. Unsure of what to wear, as all black seemed to have fallen out of favor, she donned a knee-length tartan skirt, a white silk-blend button-down, and an old dress riding coat, a nod to her grandfather’s fondness of the horses. There was a nobility in the supple leather of an English saddle, the curve of muscle in a school horse’s neck, a nobility that her grandfather had always exuded, even after his confinement to the wheelchair and the swelling in his feet that made it impossible to wear his beloved boots. Nobility was, really, the only thing she believed in that could not be quantified. It was not a measure of wealth; on the contrary, if her time at school had taught her anything, it was that wealth often encouraged a moral laziness. No, nobility was an essence, a rarity, a virtue.

How much she looked like him, she was told, as her round cheeks gave way to a square jaw, her eyes lightening from brown to hazel. On early July mornings, before the midday heat became unbearable, they’d go together to feed and water the horses. He spoke Spanish to one, a half Andalusian who he believed must have ancestors from the Imperial Spanish Riding School. “Royal stock,” he said, as they hustled Charm and Noni, Lance and Reggie into stalls, the lush summer bahia a danger. Left out, the horses would graze the seed heads from the tops of the tall grass until they foundered. The horses would eat with abandon, taking in so much that their bodies could no longer process the nutrients. In a cruel twist, plenty would become death, the grass inflaming the laminae tissue, leaving the animals to walk right out of their hooves. As a boy, her grandfather had hated locking the horses away in little boxes. They’d run to the far corners of the fields as he came, halter in hand, to move them to the stalls. He imagined them hungry, bored, sweating in the still air, unable to see each other through the slats of the stalls. He was especially fond of Monty, a stubborn gray Connemara who was no good for riding but pulled a little wooden cart for children too young to be put on horseback alone. One day he left Monty out in the grass, a reward for his hard work in the summer heat. At week’s end, the vet was called; Monty was buried beneath a sycamore.

You couldn’t spoil the horses. Katherine remembered this always. Little indulgences added up until you were left to stump around on the ends of your ankles. The temptation always was to run out into the woods without a compass, to eat the jar of jam in one sitting, to fall blindly into a love affair. With time, though, the danger of tangled vines would become clear, sugar would taste too sweet, and the rush of new love would give way to a numbing mundanity. And those nasty little feelings—joy, melancholy, fury—they muddled her thoughts. She’d imagine herself stamping them out like a dying campfire. Sometimes they’d come roaring back, a stray ember catching lighter pine. The less she indulged, though, the less she craved indulgence; she would be rational, not feed those desires, and eventually they would disappear, no longer luring her to founder. She wouldn’t be tempted, either, to lavish the same poisons on someone else. There was safety, practicality, in the asceticism of her morning oatmeal, the methodic study of ideas, the small, sparsely furnished room she seldom left.

She brushed her hair back into a tight bun that let her grandfather’s features show more prominently than ever. Bare legs felt wrong, and so she rolled on a pair of thin black tights beneath the skirt.

As she drove to the church, she could feel the backs of her knees sweat. In the first days after his death, her grandfather was hardly mentioned, except in conjunction with planning his funeral. Katherine made breakfasts of tea and oatmeal and rescued vases from the attic for the flowers that flooded in. Notes of condolence were read and answered, well-meaning casseroles were foil-wrapped and frozen. Katherine cried once, alone, though for the loss of her grandfather or something else entirely she was not sure. But she would not remember him aloud, not cry aloud, not let her sadness be an excuse for the others to fall into the same pit. She would protect all of them.

That morning, her mother had been consumed with the problem of the casseroles. Katherine had an aversion to anything with cream sauce or frozen peas; she would not eat them. “But they wanted to help,” her mother said. “And they’re not so bad. This one has some ham in it. You like ham, don’t you?” Katherine thought that they would not know whether or not she ate the casseroles. And why casseroles? The family had lost someone. No, not lost. Someone had died. If anything, they were down a mouth to feed. “People want to feel useful,” her mother continued. “They want to be supportive. It’s not fair to begrudge them that.” Katherine did not begrudge the impulse, merely the output. She began to wish that her grandfather had been a bit more ordinary. Perhaps less good, less beloved. “I think this one is a potato gratin,” her mother said.

 

At the church, Katherine, her mother, and her grandmother were escorted to the first row to join her father and brother. Cousins filled in the seats behind them. There were the ones she thought of as the truly southern cousins, adherents to an Anglicanism that struck her as nearly Baptist in its fervor, who had kept the family farm alive through generations. She had never seen the women with uncoiffed hair or smeared mascara; they wore soft-looking fabrics with just the right drape and knew how to use jewelry. (Katherine only ever wore earrings. Bracelets distracted her, and the clasp of a necklace would inevitably catch at her shirt or the fine hairs on the nape of her neck.) They appeared immaculate and spoke with Fairhope accents, the ideal drawl. Behind them sat the Virginia cousins, the children of a university professor, avowed atheists. Secretly, both Katherine and her brother had given up on God somewhere around their confirmations; the Bible was a load of rot, and she didn’t trust anything she couldn’t reason out, but she liked to refer to herself as a cultural Episcopalian.

“I’m so sorry for your loss. Your grandfather was truly a great man.” Father Jim was walking along the front pew, clasping hands, nodding into his chest. He had just finished with Katherine’s brother and was turning to her.

“Katherine. I’m so sorry. Your grandfather was so very proud of you; every Sunday he’d tell me about the great things you’re doing. And he mentioned you’d joined a church up north. So few young people stay the faith anymore when they leave home.” Katherine nodded and looked at her hands. Father Jim, assuming she was overcome with emotion, patted her on the head, twice, and moved on to the cousin sitting beside her.

The service moved in its accustomed way, and other than during the psalm-specific call and response, Katherine could let her mind wander, reciting prayers and creeds without thought, until it was time for communion. After the priest and the deacon, a serious, stringy, gray sort of man who seemed responsible only for playing chimes and sitting in a special seat, communion was given to Katherine’s grandmother. The row stood and processed before Father Jim, taking the wafer and the sip from the chalice. Katherine was never sure if she was allowed to chew the wafer or not. Someone had told her to let it dissolve and then sip the wine, but sometimes her mouth was so dry that the wafer would stick to her tongue. She tried to chew it secretly, like a contraband cracker in high-school algebra. Tasting the watered-down port, she felt, for the first time, a pang of guilt. It was a charade, wasn’t it? No, worse: it was an abuse of something held dear by those she loved. But she had done it to save them, hadn’t she? Sitting back down, she watched the other rows stand and receive. Those who were not a part of the church crossed their arms and received blessings. The atheists from Virginia remained seated through it all.

Katherine both admired and disapproved of these cousins. Surely this was not the time to take a stand, to indulge in such a selfish display; she and her brother had not. But perhaps this made her a coward. Her grandfather had loved those cousins indiscriminately; their atheism was simply a reason for pity. He had once lamented that in death they could not find the same solace in the promise of heaven that he could. Had she lied so that he would not worry for her, or simply because a lie of omission was so easy? The Episcopal Church made it easy to follow along: the absolution she had just received, prior to communion, had been general and communal. Not that she would have known what to say had she been pressed for details of sin. Jealousy she was guilty of. Sloth, on occasion. She’d steadfastly refused to be gluttonous, of course, and it wasn’t as if she had ever murdered or stolen. (Except maybe at age five, but that might also have been a dream. Katherine had long had difficulty separating dreams from reality. Usually, she could untangle the visions within a few minutes of waking, but she had once lost money on a bet with her brother because she believed that she had visited Paris.) She wasn’t a virgin anymore, but she didn’t think that that was something she ought apologize for anyhow. She didn’t put another god before her God, but she didn’t really believe in her God in the first place. Why had she taken the body and blood? Because she was, in simplest terms, a liar. She felt the sweat at the back of her knees again.

 

The body had been cremated and given to them in a simple wood box, about the size of an encyclopedia volume, and so there was no need for a formal burial. Instead, people gathered in the parish hall to eat deli sandwiches and cubed cheese with frilled toothpicks. Why this pairing of death and food, Katherine wondered? Maybe it was something Darwin could explain. Maybe it was all just an excuse to get together and indulge in a good cry.

Katherine strained to match names to faces as mourners streamed by. The man was an inspiration, a legend. Oh how they loved him, oh how they missed him, oh it was a tragedy for them all, oh, oh, oh! They sobbed, they sniffled, they stared stonily straight ahead. (Katherine’s back began to ache; she crossed her ankles. She’d love a drink, just a sip of wine, water, anything at all. Couldn’t someone bring her something?) “He knew you loved him.” They smiled. “He always appreciated your conversations.” How sweet of her to say! They just knew she’d carry on her grandfather’s legacy when she moved back after school. Pick up his teaching. Had anyone told her she had his eyes? They were such handsome eyes. Oh, about the remains. They weren’t in the building, were they? Proximity to human ash was liable to bring on a nervous reaction, might even lead to full-blown hives.

Hours or days or minutes had shuffled past when a glass of wine was pressed into her hand. “I thought you might need this,” the voice said, one she didn’t recognize. It came from a young man, mid-twenties, she thought, slight and round-faced, sitting in a wheelchair.

“Thank you,” she said, taking a sip. The mourners were leaving, the cousins packing up the leftover sandwiches (to go where, she wondered, who would eat them?) and stacking folding chairs.

“I’m Stuart. I was one of your grandfather’s students a few years back. I saw you’d been swarmed, so…. I hope you don’t mind red?”

“No, it’s lovely, thanks.” She took another sip. “Oh, I feel I could just collapse in a heap. It’s exhausting, all this funeral stuff—is that very bad of me to say?”

“I think it’s very honest. He said I’d like you. He was right.” Stuart smiled at her, a dimpled, toothy smile that seemed best suited to a young corn farmer, face tanned, cheeks ruddy with fresh air. Wholesome was the word that came to mind.

“I haven’t even told you who I am.”

“You’re Katherine, of course. Who else could you be?”

 

It was a relatively short drive from the church to Stuart’s home. He had aroused in her a curiosity that she felt bound to investigate. Besides, she reasoned, it would be kind to offer him a lift. The van was still equipped for her grandfather’s chair, and the cousins wouldn’t let her help with clearing away the last remnants of the funeral.

Stuart had thick hair with a stubborn cowlick and the rough palms of a farmhand, a consequence of the near-constant friction of the chair’s wheels against his skin, she later realized, but they reminded her of her grandfather. They passed the open fields that surrounded the city proper, herds of black and red and gray cows clumped in little groups along the fence lines and spots of shade. In one field, a patch of dead-looking trees drew the eye away from the gentle roll of the pasture. Cattle egret roosted in them, three or four to a branch, a bright winter white against the dull gray mosses that covered the bark. The thicket was stunted-looking, each tree hidden under a patchwork of growth. They might have been old pecan or pear, oak or sycamore—now only a stage for the strange birds.

They spoke easily on the drive, in the way that sometimes happens when one person is occupied, when eye contact is limited by attention to the road. He was twenty-five, finishing a master’s in education at the university. He’d always lived in the city, she just outside. Did she remember the hurricane in ’04? Even after the rain had stopped, water ran in little trickles down the sidewalks for a full day, the ground so full of moisture. Did she want to know why he used the chair?

“Yes,” she said. “If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable.”

“I find it’s best to get it out of the way. I don’t begrudge curiosity. It’s only natural. We have such a funny relation to disaster. I don’t know if we bring it closer or keep it distant by trying to understand it. If picking apart death or disease will make them easier to absorb.” His mouth twitched. “It was an accident, when I was eighteen. Nothing spectacular. I dove into a shallow pool—haven’t walked since.”

Stuart’s building was spectacularly ugly, orange brick and black vinyl mid-century Florida institutional, specially equipped for students with accessibility issues. It was like the nursing home across the street from her old elementary school, where the children would perform an annual concert of holiday music, their young voices straining as they stumbled through ambitious choreography. The room had been filled with softly empty faces and the smell of bleach and, between songs, the whistling sighs of emphysema. Katherine stomped on the sensation rising in her chest; she’d been doing this for so long that she’d begun to lose her ability to pick apart and name each feeling. She suspected that each refused experience did not dissipate, but instead settled inside her, attaching to all the other sensations that she had suppressed, like a fused mass of feed and hair and sand in a horse’s gut, the sort of obstruction that caused colic. She had seen horses die this way, their bodies not equipped to vomit or expel, kicking at their distended stomachs, rolling wildly to shift the mass. Unbidden, images of a tangled lump would appear in her mind, twisted twine and wire and fine blue embroidery thread, resting just below the ribs on her left side. Someday, she feared, it would come loose, leaving her to punch and kick uselessly as the wire tore through her. But that wasn’t very rational, and so she once more pushed down.

The apartment was small: a kitchenette with linoleum counter, a microwave, and cooktop partially separated from the living room by a cutaway wall; a room with a bed and nightstand; a small bathroom fitted with railings. The walls of the living room were a rough plaster in off-white, bare save for a crucifix beside a bookshelf and a print of Monet’s haystacks. The floor had the same nubby gray carpet that she remembered from grade school, thin and stain-proof glued over concrete. A small couch was pushed up beside the single window, and a folding metal card table with two plastic lawn chairs sat at the opposite end of the room. Stuart excused himself to the bathroom and invited her to help herself to anything from the fridge.

Sitting at the table, Katherine sipped a glass of water. She picked at a ragged cuticle. She felt nervous, as though something might happen, a bit like when she’d first gone off to school and wondered, upon walking into each new class, if this one would hold someone for her to love. Until one day it had. She had moved slowly, cautiously, building up arguments and evidence in columns listing why or why not it would be a greater good to love this person than not to; she decided, consciously, to open herself to him, to it—love. But then she had lost control, had let a fleeting happiness drag her along, and when it began to fade, she could not believe that it had ever existed. That she could ever, definitively, claim to have been in love. And now with her grandfather. Could she claim to be grieving if she could not trace every tear to a void shaped in his image?

“You look like him, you know,” Stuart said, wheeling himself to a space beside the sofa. “Especially now, the way your brow is wrinkled. Like your mind is somewhere else.”

“Just thinking about him.” Not quite true, but not quite a lie.

“He was very good to me, you know. Helped me out when I was in a bad way. He talked about you so often, I feel I already know you. I only wish we hadn’t had to meet like this.” He gave her his wholesome look.

“And yet he never mentioned you to me.” It wasn’t a very nice thing to say, and she knew it, but she was feeling suddenly territorial. He’d been her grandfather.

“No, I don’t suppose he would have. He had so many students over the years. I’m sure I’m not the only one he was close to.” That might have been true, but she wondered. Maybe one or two other students had attended the funeral. And besides, Stuart and her grandfather had this obvious similarity, the wheelchair, to bond them.

“What do you mean by helped you?”

“He, well—I joined his class about a year after the accident. I’d moved past grieving over my legs to being angry about them. Furious, really. I’d swing between wondering what the point of school was and a conviction that with my body useless I had only my mind available to me. I’d taken his course—European history—to fulfill a requirement, but found it consuming my thoughts. I began to meet him at his office hours, monopolizing his time with debates over Locke and Voltaire. When we reached World War I, I asked him how anyone could believe in God after such mindless carnage.” Stuart spoke with his hands, and Katherine was entranced. He was a conductor, his sweeping gestures ordering his thoughts, perhaps ordering hers as well. She nodded along. In all my dreams before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. Wilfred Owen’s poem wandered her mind. How cruel that the good were disfigured, bound. “He was quiet for a while. Then he asked me to leave and come back the next week.”

Stuart paused. He loved a bit of drama, it seemed, and here was a captive audience. Katherine was now leaning forward, waiting for the coming revelation.

“When I returned, I found my peace.”

“How?” she nearly shouted, no longer completely aware of herself, only this promise of the mystery solved, the world ordered at last.

“It was not a matter of God, he said. It was a matter of faith. I had to trust mystery, and the struggle of belief. To realize that I needed these questions upon questions to live.”

Stuart fell silent, and for a time they sat there, still, quiet. Katherine felt cheated. It had been no kind of answer—an evasion, really. It was a sentiment she’d heard before, faith was the answer, but that did nothing for people like her who’d never felt a fire burning. She thanked him for the water, he nodded, and she left.

A murky pond sat behind the building, and Katherine watched as a young boy from a nearby neighborhood tore pieces of bread and threw them toward a lone mallard drifting along the cattails. The mallard, which appeared to be molting, didn’t care for the boy’s charity and sailed straight past the floating crumbs, hopping onto the bank and walking off into the sparse woods that separated the facility from the subdivision next door.

 

Katherine fell asleep early that night, only to wake around two as her curtains shifted. Someone had opened the door that led from her room onto the back porch; she knew she ought to be afraid. Of course she ought. It was something she’d had nightmares about, after double-checking the locks before bed. Yet she felt nothing but a light curiosity, a warmth in her chest dissolving the tightness that wormed its way in even before the death. The curtains drew back, exposing the whole of the sliding-glass doors, the impression of a dogwood tree, a fine mist that fell down to nest among the branches, perching like so many ghostly egrets. A shadow fell across the scuffed pine floors, climbing up the sides of the dresser and spreading across the empty wall. Stuart. He moved from the chair to the bed in one swift movement that she did not comprehend. He was so very beautiful, his warm brown eyes, the useless legs, so slender, like a young child’s, the arms and shoulders sinewy with the effort of carrying himself for years. He seemed to float as he pulled his way up to her, coming to rest beside her. The soft pressure of a body accelerated the warming feeling until her muscles and bones dissolved and came through her skin and she fell away into nothing, just a sound, just breath, just.

When the sun came through the curtains, Katherine got out of bed, still skin, still mass. She had half-expected to find herself soaked into the pillow-top, perhaps looking down from the ceiling, or wherever it was that a soul or an essence floats off to when the body disappears. It had been a dream, she knew, and yet it could not have been. She breathed deeply, easily; the expansion of her lungs was proof of life, so unlike the shrinking of a man into ash, into the strange lumpy powder in the polished pine upon the bookshelf. She felt the impossible memory of dissolving, the truth of becoming nothing. But as the dream crystallized into her world, expelling itself in her breath, hanging in the air, weaving its way between fibers and absorbed by plants, a lump of dread, of guilt, swallowed she could not remember when, caught in her throat.

Dreams made her feel as life did not, emotions sharper, better defined, more easily traced to the source; in her sleep, she couldn’t seize control, could not snuff them out. But how could she dare to trust so in dreams, though never in life, the persistent miracles of love, of death; how could she not when she was plunged so deeply into them? Could she not dissolve into those, let those inside of her? She reflected on the wafer that would not soften, the sip of port that filled her with guilt, the hobbled men who embraced mystery as a necessary brother to, not the undoing of, reason. Perhaps life had been too easy for her—she’d go out and buy a leather strap, or run naked through briars, not to cleanse her soul but to wake it. The persistent miracles inspired nothing, nothing but desperation at the nothingness. But she didn’t believe in dreams, either. She simply believed them; there was no need for faith, no mystery but a random firing of the unconscious brain. Dreams were real to her as they happened, and for the few moments when she could still feel them lingering about her, still feel the anticipation or dread or happiness or sadness or lightness or darkness. Likewise she believed love when she felt it, but as the intensity of feeling faded, in the natural waxing and waning of life, it became difficult to believe that love had ever existed. Love was no more real than dream, the emotions the same trick of the mind, stimuli impossible to discern upon waking.

The lump in her throat seemed to be rising, scratchy and choking; she now recognized it as the mass that she had kept inside her for so many years: nothing new, guilt and dread simply new additions. There had been an opening in the doubts. But rather than tearing, the ball of twine, of yarn, of wire and thread simply unraveled, the years of knots coming apart, releasing nauseating waves of anger and frustration, sadness, despair, even joy. She lost hours as it consumed her, her rational mind forced into hiding as she was slammed with a bewildering onslaught of meaningless sensation, a loss of control so profound that had her mind still been conscious, it might have thought that this was the end of Katherine. And when her body had purged itself completely, she began to cry, howling, ecstatic sobs for the man who was such a part of her, for the life ended, for the pain of her family, a pure, unselfish grief. Her skin itched where the tears had dried and she fell again into sleep. This time, she did not dream.

 

She woke again on Sunday. She was hungry, a burning, painful hunger, a starvation of years. Katherine wanted, with all of her body. She yearned, desired. She cut huge slabs of butter into a pan and browned bread in it so that it came out glistening and crisp. She fried eggs, country ham, then rummaged through the closet until she came upon the last jar of wild plum jelly. It looked like garnet in the cut-glass jar, a pure purple red, tart and sweet. A single teaspoon could fill your mouth and you would want for nothing. For as long as she could remember they’d made a dozen jars every May, but in the last two years the mild winters had brought the trees into flower too early, and they had borne no fruit. For two years Katherine had refused to open the jar, not knowing when they would have plums again, but now she could think only of how good it would taste, how it would melt into the warm toast. Tart, sweet, smooth.

Katherine ate until her stomach ached; the skin on her belly felt taut, stretched to its limit. She licked the jelly from the spoon. And then, still in her pajamas and bare feet, she walked out into the back field, the one bright green with young winter rye, and lay down. She felt the dew, the sun, the tiny yellow butterflies that hovered just above the ground. She gave herself to all of it; into this, she dissolved.


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