It was a beautiful service. As expected, for I spared no expense. To honor her in death as I did in life, or so I told my father-in-law when we organized it together. Truthfully, a desperate reflex. As though if I spent enough, I could bring her back.
During the somber procession to her grave, I noticed many of the upper-class graves were covered by wrought-iron cages. Not to keep vengeful revenants from escaping, as I’d thought when I was small.
Rather, a precaution against those basest of scoundrels who might dig up the dead to rob them of any jewelry, fine raiments or other valuables they were buried with. It is also a poorly kept secret that many cadavers used by medical schools are obtained this way.
Resurrection men, in the common parlance. Grave robbers. The most audacious of which are why the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, and the pyramids themselves for that matter, are a pale shadow of their former glory. There’s some poetry to it, however. Every breath drawn by the living is in some sense stolen from the dead they’ve replaced.
All graves but those of the poorest also feature an air tube, capped at the top by a small deflector to keep rain out, and a bell. The bell could be rung by someone accidentally buried alive by tugging a string which trails from the bell, down the air pipe and into the coffin.
A non-trivial added cost. Much less than the cages, but today I could understand at last why they are so common. Apart from the alarming frequency with which death is wrongly diagnosed these days on account of the immature state of life sciences, grieving families must cling to any remote hope that their loved one is among those who may yet ring that bell.
I vaguely recall a tale from my youth, told breathlessly to a small group of us by the ringleader of a midnight excursion to the local graveyard. The sort of frivolous, and in retrospect dangerous adventure any proper boy’s childhood is replete with. The tale goes that one evening, a gravekeeper heard one of the small bells ringing and dashed to that grave, that he might calm down the poor soul trapped below while arranging to have them brought up.
Only, when a woman’s voice echoed up the air pipe begging to be exhumed, the gravekeeper rebuked her. “Madame”, he supposedly said, “The papers for this grave say you were buried in January. It is now April. I do not know what you are, but alive you are not, and I shan’t dig you up.” With that, he disconnected the string from the bell, and was done with the matter.
It’s a shame that it took such a tragedy to collect us all in one place. All those assurances that we’d gather for a grand dinner this year, or the next, or the next. Like so many plans put off ’til the morrow, it never occurred. Like the plans I made with Annika.
When the casket was open, I could not bear to look. However I might’ve wanted to savor her perfect, pale skin one last time, I resolved soon after she died never to look upon her remains. So as to remember only the living, ravishing, delicate beauty I met that adventurous Summer after the close of the war.
Having picked up a taste for motoring during my service, I’d purchased a motorbike with which I decided to tour the English countryside. Petrol shortages led the fellow I bought it from to build a great ungainly wood gas mechanism into the sidecar, which I first thought to remove as it was a blemish on an otherwise beautiful machine.
However, petrol stations are still rare, especially so as you get away from cities. Accordingly, I did not tamper with it after all. It soon proved its worth, as I could periodically stop along some wooded region, chop down some saplings, convert them to pellets in the span of an hour, then be back on the road for another hundred miles or so before having to repeat the process.
It was during one of these stops, as I roasted a rabbit I’d shot and skinned over a campfire while reducing yet another sapling to pellets, that I first encountered Annika. Ghostly maiden of the woods, I thought. A tantalizing mirage. She fit so perfectly into the natural beauty surrounding her, I could hardly conceive that she was a real woman, but some feminine manifestation of Summer.
Those who knew her would forgive me. In many ways, I was right. She so loved God’s creatures, and it only enriched my love for her. I recall her first words to me were angry Russian, shouted from a distance as she approached. Soon clarified in English as “You are on private property. By what right do you cut down our trees?”
Her ancestral town had the misfortune to be devastated by the war. Many survived, working the fields outside the town when the bombs fell. There was just nothing to rebuild. So they went their separate ways, seeking their fortunes elsewhere. As fate would have it, Annika’s family resettled in England.
I must’ve made quite a picture. Hair wild from the wind, as I was never one to wear a motorist’s helmet. What’s the point of such a contraption except to feel the wind whipping your hair about as you thunder down the road? Oil stains all up and down my shirt and trousers. Not thinking, I pawed at my face, to wipe some of the sweat away. All I accomplished was to smear it with oil. It was the first time I heard the sublime music of her laughter.
For an unaccompanied young woman to go motoring with a man she’s only just met, sans escort, would be unthinkable. Had she been English. Our courtship was handily expedited by her peasant background, and her family’s discovery that I stood to inherit my father’s industrial empire. That some of his factories make munitions seems to disturb only me.
“Go! Be young!” Her stout, muscular mother urged us. After a long, and at times subtly threatening discussion concerning when I was to return her, and in what condition. So, we went. And we were young. Still the highest point of my life, never more clear than when viewed from the lowest.
The motorbike is not yet commonplace enough that musicians should write songs glorifying the experience of tearing down a country road with a beautiful woman on the back, clinging to you. Hands wandering about your chest and stomach, under the pretext of securing a safer hold. Stops now chosen not just for the preponderance of trees, but picturesque views against which to admire Annika.
I thought I’d exhausted my tears the day I learned of her death. Drowned in a waterway when a bridge collapsed under her motor carriage. Of all the damnable things. She’d never learned to swim, understandably. That set me to agonizing over whether I could have saved her, had I only thought to take her swimming now and again. Or if I’d accompanied her that day.
A bystander was quick to retrieve her, but not quick enough. I met with the man once, only to assure him I placed no blame on his shoulders. I returned to drinking for a time. Not for too long, I am more disciplined than that. But I could scarcely function if sober. My limbs would not answer commands to move me from the bedroom to the kitchen, that I might eat. I did not bathe, nor read mail, nor leave the house.
Death is not felt discretely when that person is dearly beloved. By all who know her, not just myself. Ripples of grief spread out from the event, her poor mother wanting no part of a world without Annika living in it. A sentiment I deeply understand. Every day which passed after that felt wrong. As if I was being carried by the merciless currents of time into a future I refused to inhabit. “Until death do us part”, I once said. Taking for granted that we’d both go at once.
The usual words are spoken by the man of God. That she is with the heavenly father now. That what he gives to us is also his to take, and that it is not ours to understand why. Can this really be meant to comfort? What cosmic plan requires that my wife drown due to a collapsed bridge? My insides writhe for the remainder of his speech, but I remain silent.
The casket is lowered, ever so slowly, into the grave. The cold, wet Earth swallowing up the only source of warmth and beauty in this world, so far as my heart will acknowledge. A young man hops gingerly into the grave, to check the bell mechanism. All present know it is a futile gesture. He lingers, fiddling with some unseen task, then climbs out.
“All great works of literature written in the Queen’s tongue consist of just twenty six letters. Sufficient, even so, to capture the greatest heights of beauty and the darkest depths of human despair. But I defy the masters of that craft to capture the smallest fragment of my sorrow today. For me, the world burned on the day I learned of my darling’s….”
I choked up. Some part of me still refused to say aloud that she was gone. I scanned the faces of those present. All but the children shared in my pain. Blessed, enviable children, who do not yet know what death is. I composed myself, as much as I could in such a state.
Stay Tuned for Part 2!