A cavalcade of mourners stood along the shoreline of a wide and still river; shrouded in fog and mist as they looked somberly over the water - the air was bitter and cold and they packed close together to shield each other from the remorseless conditions. To a distant onlooker peering through the clouded haze, this gave the impression that they were a singular entity… a mass of grief made manifest and unified in their sorrow, heads bowed, each lost in deep contemplation over the chaotic and entropic nature of being. Entertaining profound and existential notions of the ‘whys’ of existence and the suddenness and brazen nature in which it ceases.
A dark and cold wind blew in off of the water and chilled the procession out of their silent ruminations and brought them back to the here and now. Bare and skeletal trees rustled in the coils of wind above their heads and a murder of crows called in unison from the branches and brambles, chanting an unrequested dirge on behalf of the bereaved.
Tethered to a nearby stump and floating several feet off shore was a sturdy raft made of bound oak logs. Atop the raft was built a high pyre and atop the pyre lay in state the wretched carcass of the deceased — clad in a custom-tailored suit and finely polished Oxford shoes. In his right hand was placed a leather-bound copy of the prophesies of John the Revelator and on each eye was placed a genuine silver dollar.
A makeshift pulpit fashioned of coarse, unfinished wood had been placed in the sand and smooth stones of the shore and stood unoccupied for a time. The whispers of the mourners intermingled with the rustling of the trees and the lapping of the current at water’s edge. The very air around them inhaled and exhaled tensely and arhythmically and from the back a woman suddenly wailed incoherently to the heavens and collapsed to the earth in grief.
Her spell coincided with the arrival of the preacher-man, who emerged on foot from the tree-line. He handed his copy of the Good Book to a bystander and whispered a blessing in the ear of the woman as he helped her to her feet while she regained her faculties.
The preacher-man wore a black wide-brimmed hat and was clad all in black as well, save for a square of white tucked into his collar. He was a tall, gaunt man with a weathered and wrinkled face — a result of a lifetime of peddling faith to the faithless; eyes sunken in by the never-ending stream of malfeasance and hypocrisy that passed before his gaze day in and day out. His tome was handed back to him and he cradled it gingerly, placing his palm on the cross embossed on the cover and running his fingers over the gold-leaf edges of the pages. He looked up and past the onlookers and walked toward the pulpit. Once standing before the procession, he stood in silence for a few moments, making a point to meet the eyes of all of the onlookers as the pyre behind him bobbed in the wake of a passing coal barge.
Once satisfied that an appropriate level of reverence had been firmly established, the preacher-man reached in to his jacket’s inside pocket to pull out, at the same time, a pair of gold-rimmed reading glasses and a folded copy of his notes. He did so in a manner so fluid as to suggest that this was far from the first time he made this motion and his expression stated that it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
His spectacles rested securely on the bridge of his nose and he looked upon his scribbling in a pontificate manner, clearing his throat as a signal that he would now begin the proceedings.
“The deceased lay before us like so many before and after him, taken before his time, a testament to man’s futile and hopeless struggle to cling eternally to the mortal coil.
“Despite having died from injuries sustained in the collapse of a poorly maintained amusement park ride, the deceased had insisted in his last will and testament that this message he prepared be read to the mourners who gathered to pay their respects. It is as follows:
‘I told you sons of bitches that this is how I’d go! Struck dead by lightning at the exact moment the Almighty deemed my work on this planet to be finished. On a chariot of white-hot electricity my soul was carried to the hereafter. And now my body will be returned to the earth through cleansing flame! A legacy borne from ashes!’”
The preacher paused and looked up, so as to indicate that he was no longer speaking as an avatar of the dead. The crowd looked back in anticipation, awaiting his offering of comfort in the form of abstract spiritualism. The hooded, brooding eyes of the preacher twitched slightly as he searched for the right words, but found nothing. He defaulted to an old standard and spoke with practiced efficiency:
“May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
The words hung in air for a few moments; lingering at the ears of the mourners, who were awaiting a follow-up proclamation or highly personal eulogy that would release the procession from it’s grief. Words that would defy the howling wind and silence the dreadful baying of the crows.
The preacher let out a sigh and stammered the only words that he believed held any sincerity when mourning the dead:
“So it goes…”
At this the mourners caterwauled and lamented; tearing at their clothes and wailing and gnashing their teeth. The preacher-man stepped down and signaled to the bagpipe band that was waiting silently under the boughs of an old and gnarled tree. Then to the pallbearers who loosed the tether of the pyre and waded alongside of it, guiding it into the current. The deceased’s brother lit the kindling at the base; the tinder had been treated with exotic spices and as delicate fingers of smoke began to waft toward the shore, it carried a breathtaking bouquet to the senses of the mourners. The band, dressed in full regalia with percussion to complement, played a stirring rendition of AC/DC’s It’s a Long Way to the Top If You Want to Rock and Roll; which had the immediate and intended effect of striking every attendant in a profoundly visceral way… each experiencing emotions so nuanced and complex that none would ever be able to put to words how they felt at that moment on that particular day.
As the song played and the pyre drifted out and away from the shore, the widow stepped forward — all in black and veiled the same; tucked under her right arm was a double-barreled shotgun. She looked to the sky and hoped to see the sun peer through the thick grey pall of clouds that hung over the procession, but to no avail. Without lowering her gaze, she cracked the breech of the gun and fed a 12 gauge shell into each barrel.
As she raised the stock to her shoulder, she tuned out all distraction and all sound. The music, the wailing of the mourners, the preacher-man’s reading of the Lord’s Prayer all carried on, but she paid no heed to anything but the sound of her breathing and her fixation down the gun-sights on the half-dozen propane tanks that lay at the base of the pyre that was slowly drifting further and further away from her.
She inhaled slowly and exhaled accordingly; when all but the slightest bit of air left her lungs, a single tear fell from her eye and she whispered “We loved with a love that was more than love…” just before pulling the trigger and expertly unleashing the fury of both barrels at the base of the pyre.
The report from the shotgun was immediately followed by the concussive clap that resulted from the exploding fuel tanks embedded in the pyre. The surface of the water erupted in a ball of orange flame and blazing detritus rocketed into the horizon. The mourner’s lamentations abruptly shifted to a frenzy of celebration, panic, fear, and loathing. Amidst the din and chaos of the frantic crowd, the band played on, the preacher-man finished the last utterances of his blessing, and the widow stood apart, stoically. The fire that drifted over the water reflected hot in her eyes and she vowed that she would never love again.
She stood unmoved as flame and black smoke billowed from the pyre, the mourners scattered as charred debris fell from the sky landing here and there while the preacher-man lifted his hands to the heavens shouting “Smoke and ruin! Smoke and ruin! All is naught but smoke and ruin!”