Thursday, January 15, 2015

Goodbye, Goodbye (A Short Story)

I don’t know if I expected it to be raining. Maybe I thought that it should have been, that everyone should have been standing around in their black knee-coats with their towering umbrellas. That was how it should have looked, I thought. That is how I felt.
There was something about the sunniness that I couldn’t stand. It was nonchalant. As though it didn’t care, either way. As though today was just like all of the others, when clearly it couldn’t be. Rain would have been respectful, I thought, and they deserved that. But the sky kept smiling, melting me like a candy bar in my black suit.
The preacher was still talking, and I still felt as though he was speaking in some foreign language. Latin, no doubt. But everyone else kept nodding, as though they could understand just fine.
I don’t know which was heavier; the weight of that sun, that anchor of a necktie, or the hand that Uncle Lenny kept thumping on my shoulder. His hands were not good at comforting. But I didn’t feel the need for comfort; I just wanted the sun to stop shining, and to be home.
July was my other distraction. She was standing next to my aunt, Delaney, who was keeping her hands to herself, and was crying unhelpfully. But there were no tears on July’s face, as she looked at the preacher but couldn’t hear him. There was a spot on her dress; I don’t know what it was from. She scrubbed at it with her hand, subtly at first.
The preacher kept talking, and there were more people crying now. I couldn’t stand the thought of crying, myself. Uncle Len already was behind me, but he was trying to hide it. I could hear him sniffing through his mustache.
July was scrubbing at the spot on her dress. She looked down at it, to see if she was making any progress, but if anything she had made it bigger. She licked her fingers and kept trying.
I wasn’t sure how she could care about one spot that much, with this in front of us. But she kept scrubbing, and I could see a sort of determination in her face. She wanted the spot gone. Aunt Delaney put a hand on her elbow, then, and she stopped, and started wringing her hands. There was that nervous business in her again that made my stomach twist. I hadn’t seen her like that in a long time.
The preacher had moved on from Bible verses, by then, and he folded his hands in front of him. He was looking at the hole in front of us, and now, so was I. Then he looked up, and squinted at the sun. So did I. Clouds should have hidden it. There shouldn’t have been so much sunlight; I didn’t want to have to blink. Today should have been different. Today was different. And yet it was as if the whole world couldn’t care less. This was just another day. Just another human tangle.
“Heavenly Father,” I recognized the tone of prayer and bowed my head. But bowing pointed my head at the hole, and I could hardly stand that. I pinched my eyes closed and aimed them at the ground between my feet.
“We have lost a dear brother and sister this day, a beloved mother and father. Their loss is one that affects us, as we share in this sorrow. But we know that they are in your courts now, that they have gained the reward for which we strive, here below. We thank you, Lord, for the speed and mercy in your calling of them.
“We pray for your comfort to find us, here, to find the families of these dearly departed, especially their precious children, July and August…”
I stopped listening again, here. The hand was on my shoulder again, and it was heavier than ever. I wish he hadn’t said our names, but he had. And now there was another hand on me, and I’m not sure who’s it was, from my left. There were people all around, and I felt smothered in them, in their comfort.
When I could not bear to keep my eyes closed any longer, I looked up. July was scrubbing at the spot on her dress with her eyes closed and her forehead knotted into bunches. Her eyelashes were wet and plastered to her cheeks. Aunt Delaney was stifling her sobs with her hand.
The preacher concluded. I don’t remember what happened next, really. I was one moment buried in a mound of hugs and condolences and warm words and handshakes and touching, the next climbing into Uncle Len’s SUV. He had already taken off his tie when I buckled myself in, and I followed his lead, as we slid off down the streets.
The sun was in my eyes, almost like a taunt. “People die all the time,” it seemed to say.
Yes. But not my people.
I knew we were going home, and didn’t watch the road. I didn’t even turn on the radio. The silence should have driven me mad, like every other day. But at least, this way, there was some distinction. There was some respect. Today was not like other days. Today was different. There shouldn’t be any noise.
 “Can I get you anything?” Uncle Len asked. “We could get drive-thru. You hungry?”
I didn’t want anything. I’m not even sure that I answered.
“Maybe later, then,” he said quietly.
The grass was green, when we pulled up to the house. Maybe I thought that it should have been discolored. But the sun had not even wilted it, for the occasion. There were birds chirping. Aunt Delaney had already arrived, and she was standing in the kitchen wordlessly when I entered. Uncle Len stayed on the porch with the cigarette and solitude I knew he had been dying for.
The lights were all off, upstairs, and I didn’t bother turning them on as I kicked my shiny shoes off and heard them hit the wall. I tore out of my shirt like a snake shedding its sweat-soaked skin, and threw it after the shoes.
Water was running, and the lights on, in the bathroom when I passed the cracked-open door. I could hear July’s quiet sniffles when I pushed it open.  
She was standing in front of the sink with a sponge in her hand and she was scrubbing for all she was worth at the spot on her dress. I was worried that she might scrub her way through the cloth before she was done. Her face was a glowing sort of red, and here cheeks had the irritated look that only her own hands could have caused. She must have let her hair down about the same time I had taken off my tie, and it was something of a tangle, now.
She looked up at me when I came in, and the ache in her eyes was worse than all of the preacher’s words put together. “It won’t come out,” she sniffled. I stepped into the bathroom, even though it was hardly big enough for two people. “I’m trying,” she said quietly. I knew she wasn’t talking about the dress, then.
Make it small. I knew she was thinking it. When life is overwhelming, focus on the little things, the little struggles and little triumphs. My parents always said it. And now they weren’t here to. She was burying everything in this one little spot, even as the workmen were burying the caskets in their little spots.
I took the sponge from her, as she hid her face against the edge of the sink. I wrapped my arms around her waist, and felt the shiver climb through me and into my throat. Here, at least, in this room, the world did not keep spinning on; the world cared. It cared that we were alone.
“It’s alright,” I said. I’m not sure which of us I meant it for. “It’s alright. Come on; we’ll get that spot out.”  

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Funeral of Ichabod Crane (A Short Story)

Smoke hung so thick in the air that you could almost grab hold of it. The Riders of the Apocalypse could have come through the window and we might not have noticed. Though for all we knew, they may have already been there.
The only lights were pale red or yellow, and they could hardly worm their way through the smoke at all. Their only purpose was to usher in the Ceremonials, who may as well have been part of the smoke, as they slipped in between us. Nobody gave them much mind, but I could see the little shivers they caused; the way that they stirred the air around them, just by standing in it. But even they did not command much attention, here.  
They were making their way up to the pulpit, where the huge painting of a discolored saint was looking down, with cracks on his impressive hat. Less qualified hands had added a Swastika on his bible, after-the-fact. Someone else had added a mustache to the saintly face that could only have been Stalin’s.
Only in Russia, I thought.  
If I had had my way, I would not be on the ground; I’d be up there, in those rafters, or watching from the ruinous balcony. Now, only a few dared to walk those cobwebs of splintered wood and velvet, and I didn’t want anything to do with them. Nobody did; that is, after all, why they were up there.
Of course, if I had had my way, I would not be here at all.
If I had had my way, Ichabod Crane would not be in a coffin in an abandoned Siberian Cathedral. But I never got my way, of course. Neither did Ichabod Crane. And I suppose, he had died to prove that. I had no room to complain. 
“By Mary’s head,” someone shouted at my back, “Elio, is that you?”
I was hesitant to turn. He was not hesitant to come around, in front of me, with that smile tearing his face like a canyon. His elephantine ears were aimed at me as he thrust his hand forward. “How are you, you old sneak-thief?”
Saul Unjoba had always liked me. I don’t know why, exactly, considering I had tried, on more than one occasion, to land him in prison for as many decades as they’d have him. But he had evaded me, and either out of ignorance or some innate good-naturedness that I could not credit him with, he still favored me.
 “I’ve been well, Saul,” I said quietly. “Well…” Looking back up at the altar. “Until I heard about this.”
“Yes, yes,” Saul nodded and scratched his chest. “It’s a shame about Crane.”
I looked around the crowd again, eying all of their jabbering faces and staring eyes. “I doubt everyone feels that way,” I said. “Only a handful are here to mourn him. The rest, I imagine, are here just to make sure that he’s actually dead.” 
He chuckled. “Oh, he’s dead, alright. I was called in as part of the coroner’s tabernacle. Stake—chains—the whole nine yards. They want to make sure he’s dead, and he stays dead. Everything but the last drop; we wanted him to keep his head for the ceremony, open casket and all.” He nudged me. “And we didn’t have any Frenchmen in the collective. That made it easier.”
By then, something was happening. I was saved from having to respond.
Someone had taken to the pulpit, and not one of the ceremonials; they were all standing around in robes. He was standing on the pulpit itself with two cigars in his left hand, and a smile that pierced the smoke where nothing else could. His accent was thick and northern European. 
“Good evening, all of you embittered souls, whether tossing on the throes of mourning or straddling the swell of celebration. We have gathered here tonight to witness the final commemoration of our deceased brethren, our very own, Ichabod Crane.”
Silence fell, though I felt like some people wanted to clap. He reached into his coat and pulled out a dirty piece of paper and flicked his cigars into the crowd. Several people flicked theirs back. He read:
“Ichabod Crane; born to Sir William Crane of The Royal Navy, and the princess Cathawaga of the Forebödn, in the year sixteen-o-two. Those who knew him admired him; those who encountered him feared him; those who angered him…” he looked up and smiled. “Of course, we’ve already witnessed such funerals.”  
There was some laughter, but not much, and none from my side of the room. “Famed pirate and murderer, scarce loved by members of his own Order, but loyal he lived to the sons of The Old. Call him beastliest of beasts, call him the dearest of companions, we must farewell his soul, now.”
He turned, raised his hand toward the mustached saint, and bowed as though this, somehow, represented Ichabod. The mood tightened, and I felt it already. I itched to escape. To fly through a broken window. The nature of his tone became more obvious with every eager word.
“Farewell, child of Cain, slaughterer-of-brothers; you who stole the heads of your enemies, and let their bodies rot without the fire to save them. Farewell, thief and murderer. To the depths of hell may you descend! Down with the headless horseman! Rest in ruin, Ichabod Crane!”
And then he stepped down, and disappeared into the crowd. There was a rattling, in those rafters, everyone bristling but no one speaking.
 It was the Ceremonials turn, and they were all lifting their hands. The chanting started, and it knotted my stomach. I hated those words, but they crawled out of my throat. The ceremonials said them in Latin; the rest of us in whatever language we claimed. The clamor bled together like melting paint.
“Rage, rage, fire and rage, loose the dragons from the cage. Fire, fire, rage and fire, thousands heaped upon the pyre…”
The reek of gasoline reached me even as I crept away. I was among those first people to move toward the door, and I was out like a shadow. Saul was shouting my name behind me, urging me to stay, but I kept moving. I didn’t look back at the cathedral, as I broke to a run and sprinted like mad toward the hills.
Those shadowy creatures in the balcony would be in the streets by now, and everyone else would be following. There were precious few of us who had run, with the city behind us. The cathedral was emptying, and sat like a huge beached ship in the dark.
Ichabod Crane would be in there, staring at the ceiling in an open coffin. They would be dousing him with jet fuel, like the saint with the mustache, like everything else.
I could still hear the Ceremonials, rumbling in my ears; I would have had to run further than the hills to escape them. “As Rome, Carthage, Paris, London, as the Caesars and gods of old, our brothers burn with their ships and their riches, they burn into ashes, and scatter to every corner. Dust to dust, rust to rust, all is rage and all is crushed!”
I couldn’t help but watch, from there; it started sooner than I expected. The fire crawled out of the mouth of the Cathedral and rolled into the streets, bulging like a river, consuming everything in its path. It was everywhere at once.
 “Like Rome,” I muttered quietly. “Like all the rest.” If Ichabod were not dead…if he had gotten out of the coffin, if he had found his sword, opened his furious eyes, they would not be so wild. Their black shapes would not be standing around the city to stop anyone attempting flight.
If he would simply stand up…But I knew he would not, even as I waited for that exact thing. 
Soon, the cathedral collapsed with a thunderous sound. The ceremonials had finished their work. Inside, I knew, there would be no trace of Ichabod Crane ever having existed. But this city, this scorch mark, his inheritance, was his gravestone. His last smudge on the earth, like all the others. But those other smudges had served a purpose, I thought; he had smeared out the filth. He had stolen the lives from monsters like those in the balcony. He had filthied himself with their blood.
And now they buried him. I turned away and started back down the hill, toward the parked car on the other side. They saw me coming, and the headlights flicked on.
Ana was standing shakily. Orange light reflected in her wide eyes, but I knew better than to meet them with mine. “Get inside,” I said. “We have to leave.”
“He’s dead?” She asked. “Really?”
“We’re all dead,” I muttered, as I pushed her into the middle, between the driver and myself. “And I’d rather not be buried here, too.”