The After-Sea

Death is not personal.

She wonders, after the line flattens, and she’s on her way: How many others have featured this thought as their finale?

Minna’s death begins with a voyage. The sea on which she sails is a mirror, still and unwrinkled by wind, and she knows without touching it that it’s cold. Enough to ice over, though it does not. There is no pulse of life, and no warmth; only stagnancy. She’s uncertain for what length of time she’s been adrift. Mortal pangs of hunger and thirst no longer reach her, and she has no need of sleep in this place. Perhaps it is patience that death grants, at the very least. Indeed, those who have long since settled into its thin embrace have long to wait.

But for what? It’s unfair that one must be patient without knowing that for which one has patience. She thinks of her child brother, who understood little in his time alive, and had little patience. How cruel the world must have seemed to him.

The ship alights upon a shore of ice, which is disturbed every few strides by tall, sparsely leaved trees (birch, she thinks). They protrude like spines from the ice. The blue is too thick and too dark to determine whether or not they have roots, but Minna assumes not. It’s another peculiar example of the ineffability of this particular, deeply personal afterlife. Where are the others?

Most fitting in this place are the pale, unclothed figures which move soundlessly through the impossible forest. They are reminiscent of humans, but don’t quite reach a flesh-and-blood existence, and their eyes shine like sunlight through honey. They are familiar, in their ambiguity if not in their countenance. They remind her of moments. One approaches as Minna steps over the gunwale and onto the ice. It speaks.

You were barely conscious when your mother arrived at the hospital. She didn’t bring Maxwell because she didn’t want to cause him sorrow over a mother he did not know to love. This she said to you, as you sank deeper into the black. But she held your hand and cried when you were just on the tilt of your final thought. In her other hand was your old baton, sent in the mail to the mother-less child on his seventh birthday. The one in your possession before you died lies, still unfound, at the bottom of the ravine, beneath a hubcap. It’s coated in a mess of thick oil, and your own blood.

Your mother took the old one away with her after the funeral. It will not be given again to Maxwell, and instead collects dust on her bookshelf. Of this you are certain.

The ice is as smooth as the sea, but the dead woman doesn’t lose her footing as she moves past the figure. She lifts a hand against its words, and the other one rises to her temple as if to prevent the image from entering her mind’s eye. The figure continues to speak as she moves away, and its soft voice becomes no lower in volume as the distance between them widens.

They all came to the funeral, but only twenty-two of them played at the reception. Seven violins, two violas, four cellos, five flutes, two trombones, a clarinet, and a single alto saxophone. The show will not go on, and most are angry. They are thinking of all the wasted time, and the performance hall, which now sits silent and empty.

Minna leans away from its subsequent sigh, and watches it walk listlessly into the trees. Has the ice become thinner? The hand against her temple may as well be the air itself, and when she removes it, she’s only faintly aware that she still has limbs, at all.

Another figure stands next to her, a little older than the first. It seems stale, as if it has been here for a very long time. She waits, feeling this is what is done. In a manner not at all different from the first, it speaks.

You would have fallen into a sea of fire, had mother refused to open the door that morning. Do you remember the boy’s weight in your arms? It doubled when you passed over your mother’s threshold. She looked at him for a long time, and never once met your gaze. It’s been four years. That’s all she said, and then she took Maxwell in her arms and shut the door. He was named for her grandfather, though you had no say in it. You had abandoned that right the moment you decided to abandon him. That could have been it. Ties severed; out of body, out of life, out of mind. But you were caught between two baby boys, separated by thirteen years, and the first lingered still, impatient as ever.

“Mikko,” Minna whispers, and the ice beneath her shifts. Another figure, barely even a silhouette, joins the second. They speak together.

Heavy flakes fell from the sky, but you took him for a walk anyway. It was the most active winter your eyes had seen at that point in your life. That was back when you lived by the lake. That winter it froze over, and you wanted to walk on it. You were nine. Mikko was three. The ice was too young to be walked upon, but how could you know that?

You stepped on first, and everything was fine.

Mother wanted you out of the house that day. She had a work call to make, she said, but you knew it was your faceless father. Perhaps she would have allowed you to stay — after all, it was cold out, and you didn’t have clothing appropriate for a walk in the snow — were it not for the child’s ceaseless crying and the dog’s howling and the overflowing pot on the stove…

It was soft outside, so you were able to shrug off the cold. Mikko was wrapped in all the outer layers you had. When he slipped on the ice, he was unharmed, for all the cushioning. You opened your mouth and laughed. Your eyes were shut against the white falling from dark clouds. Several strides made up the distance between you and your brother.

The documentary you watched the night before had a similar scene. A polar bear walked with difficulty on ice made thin by the sun, and after a minute of suspense and sorrowful narration, it disappeared into the water beneath. There was no struggle, no clawing desperately through the air.

He was under the ice before you had even stopped laughing. Surely the final thing he heard was your glee as he became acquainted with his last living minutes. Even after, you could only stare. You thought of the polar bear.

She reaches a clearing just as the two voices which speak as one fade. Thoughts cannot dip beneath the surface because she is snagged by that moment. Minna’s arms are tight against her chest, and she lets out a wail as she grieves for the boy. For both of them, and for the life that followed. She remembers the baton. The world pulses.

Everything she’d lost in life stares up at her through the ice, and it begins to crack.

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