Janie Le’s unsettling tale of postmortem injustices is, in its way, a seasonal telling for this solstice time of endings and renewal. (Photo: Death mask of unknown 19th century woman.)
I died of fever and left my son when he was still a little boy. I had not wanted to die, but I cannot say that I had ever really cared about living.
I remember that I was tired. My eyes raw as I lay in my bed, throat mangled from coughing. My husband’s hand behind my head, the other pushed against my teeth, trying to get some water down. I locked my jaw and turned away.
His voice, pliant and supplicating, made me even more stubborn. Finally, he left me alone. I went to sleep and did not wake up.
My husband’s house, small and meager, was one of many in our remote village cut off by humpbacked hills that formed a wall, keeping us from the outside. The village stretched out along the shoreline, nestled in the shadows of a bay. Our boats were tendrils in the water, angular noses pointed toward the shining sky.
Sea and sky stretched out in either direction like flat, blue mirrors. My husband did not want to bury me. He found a dark place in his home for my body. I laid hidden there for three days before my family found me.
Funeral dirges echoed between the hills. My funeral was ordinary. Kin and guests gathered to cry out their grief. Gray-robed monks bowed their shorn heads over me, their left hands reaching for a clump of red dirt to spill over its edge. The hands of the guests, shielding their curious faces, whispered about my husband. My son, running alongside my coffin, cried as they carried me up the hill.
Years before my death, I had married and settled quickly into the sagging bones of my life. After my marriage, I lived in my husband’s home. I began in earnest to misplace my reason for living. It hid from me in the strange places of my husband’s falling-apart house. My husband begged me for a son.
“We do not have much,” my husband had said before my son’s birth, “a child will fill our marriage with love.”
A child, I thought. I could not imagine him. In my mind, he had no face, no form. I felt nothing yet for the little son. I felt my husband’s arms around me, like bands. I felt the tightness in my chest. I nodded, but could not speak of feelings I did not understand. My husband kissed my cheek, held me tightly against our marriage bed. I looked at the darkness and did not blink.
My funeral ended after the third day. I felt I had been adequately grieved over and settled down into sleep. But a shadow emerged from the slumbering seas, carried in alongside the hissing fog. My husband fell upon his knees above my grave. His great sobs rolled down towards the village, causing people to peek their heads outdoors. I wanted to scold him but held my tongue, refusing to acknowledge his humiliating display. Day after day, he came to me. Until one day the earth pitched and rolled, and I was pulled roughly along the depths of my husband’s grieving. He tore open my coffin, took my body in his arms, my head rolling along my decaying neck, jaw gaping from broken sinews. The dirt and soil began to call for me, stinging and stuck like needles. He descended the hill to our little hut, laid me down upon my bed of bounded flat-reeds and silk coverings.
I impatiently waited for my husband to speak to me for the first time since my death, to explain himself. He cupped my cheek with the palm of his hand, then fingered the silk of my shirt, his voice keeping rhythm with the movements of his hands upon my body.
“You were always so beautiful,” he said, “your hair gleaming. I could not sleep for days and days imagining you trapped in that place they kept you where you could not breathe.”
Even in life, he loved to praise me. First, about my beauty, then about his luck at having such an accomplished wife. Finally, he would praise my accomplishment in housekeeping. As if keeping that small house clean was a task worthy of praise. He would praise me often, and always in that order.
“How do you let go of someone you loved best? It is not so easy for me as for others.”
How I wished I could turn my head towards him then, to snap my eyes open and bring upon him a curse, give him something to truly whimper about. But the damage was done and I held onto my tongue. Burning anger like indigestion, bubbling and foaming with resentment.
My son came home from school at dusk and my husband went into the outer room to greet him. He walked to school by himself, now that I was no longer there to walk with him. I laid in the darkened room my family never disturbed me in. I was surrounded by the smell of my body like decaying apples, the leftover powders I had worn in life settled like hearth-ash about me. The smell of my family’s dinner of oily fish and rice.
“Do not go into your mother’s room, my son. I am preparing a gift for you. It will be a great surprise.”
My son obeyed his father. He was a good son. I always thought his eyes were so much like mine. They looked, but all light would be absorbed into them, like two pinpricks that did not reflect anything back at the world. The words he spoke were soft, but strongly formed. In the morning my son left for the little blue school I hated walking him to each day. My husband brought home buckets of steel that clanged and scraped as he set them about the room. He sat beside me, beginning firstly to caress the sticky silk of my burial clothes. Then, there were soft sounds of churning as he kneaded what were in the buckets. He spoke and chattered to me, endlessly.
“I thought I was specifically blessed, that the gods had chosen for me such a beautiful wife. But they took you from me. Such a simple mistake and you were buried where I could not see your face. Gods make mistakes sometimes. I believe that it can be possible.”
He had begun work on a tomb for me, a prison molded into the shape of my body, molding wet plaster into my delicate skin, trying not to peel it apart. I did not know from where he could possibly acquire the plaster. He never gave me any indication in life of skills outside of his dull work. He had always been a weak man, more like the hidden, slippery fish he caught each day, than the man who catches them. I spent many weeks unmoving, undying, overwhelmed by the sensations of life. The plaster, made of a lime and sand mixture used to cover the walls, now hardened over me. I could not bear the feeling of plaster squeezing, pulling the deep layers of my skin from its moorings of muscle and bone.
“Stop!” I demanded.
He paused in his work, but then began again as if he couldn’t hear me. I bristled with anger.
“Stop ignoring me.”
My husband heaved his face close to my own for a moment and then pulled back, mumbling into his hands as he went about his work.
“They took you from me.”
“You’ve disobeyed our traditions by keeping me where I should not be kept.” I said.
“My sweet wife. You are dead. Gone from me,” he mused aloud to himself.
Again he refused to respond to my anger. When he tired, he brushed my hair until it gleamed to his liking. Each night he slept the deep, laborious sleep of a peasant as my new tomb hardened over me. Some days, when he was feeling more melancholic, he would rummage through all of my clothes that had been folded into bags once I had died, and laid them out. He lingered over the ones he liked seeing me wear best or ones he had given to me as gifts, describing them in detail.
“Our son misses you,” my husband said. “He was a quiet child before, but now he rarely speaks.”
“I am dead. I have no more tears for him.”
My husband began to cry.
“Take care of our son,” I cooed, trying to soothe. “You are the only one left. Bury me. Forget about me.”
“I’ve made you a gift.”
Gently, he laid a mask of ceramic plaster over my face.
“I’ve painted dark eyes. The lids curve like birds’ wings and your lips, I’ve painted into budding blossoms.”
He pushed the mask down, my head sank deeper into the silk bedding. I could not move and my husband could choose to hear my words or not. I could not show my displeasure. He worked like a water-buffalo, doggedly ignoring my protests in favor of his own suffering, pleading with me to be joyful of where I am now. His ears seemed to have solidified into wood, sound unable to penetrate his thick, water-buffalo’s skull. At long last, the tomb was finished and he slept beside me.
Evenings were cold and misty. In the night, I found solace when the rain chased up the mustiness of the dirt so that I could almost feel it, through the impenetrability of my tomb. Boats on the water rocked, lanterns clanging against the wind. My bedroom door opened and my husband spoke.
“Son, look in and see who is lying on that bed. Your mother has come back to us.”
“It doesn’t look like mother,” my son said.
“She is just different now. She has to sleep in her special place, but she won’t ever leave us again.”
There were the sounds of soft footsteps. My son approached me, gently wrapped his arms around me, and laid his head upon my breast. I felt the squeeze, my tomb pressing down on my skin from his weight. He trembled and began to cry. I listened and did not speak. Eventually he quieted and hugged my tomb to sleep, his small thin legs dangled over it, his hand curled over my plaster heart.
I remembered back to a time when my son was newly born. I had often sat at the window of my room, looking out at the rain. I would quiet him this way whenever he cried. But one night, he wouldn’t stop crying no matter how I bounced him, cooing and tsk-tsking. Then I sat unmoving with him sprawled over my lap, his belly kneaded against the bone of my thighs. He squirmed like a molted insect, soft and pink. He squealed until his face was red. He stopped crying when someone came — his father perhaps or an aunt — and took him from me.
I remembered unbearable summers when the children whined. They were constantly bathed to cool down. My son stood in our small bathing room, I sat before him on my haunches, sweat mingling with the dampness, settling between my breasts. I soothed his skin with a tattered, rough towel, pulling downward on his arms like slicing the skin off a carrot. Often he would glance at me unblinking, dark eyes watching me as I bathed him, before directing his attention to some corner of the room. But always those eyes returned their gaze to me.
The rain poured tinny against our roof. The fish trembled in the water and the trees drowned in it. Our village prepared for a storm while I lived on in my crypt. They were used to having me in the house again. Despite my protests and shrill anger, my husband had reshaped our family. At first my son had wanted to be obedient, to sleep beside his mother, but he began to sleep with me less and less each night. The rain inflamed his need to warm his bones and he wandered. He walked further from home until, one night, he did not come back. My husband went out into the thundering rain to search for him. It was not until daylight that I heard him again. My husband made him promise to be discreet.
“They do not know about her,” he said.
“Not yet,” I thought sourly.
“They’ll take her away. They’ll take you away.”
But my son kept wandering, and I could not bring myself to say anything.
At the height of our storm, my son brought me a bowl. It was a small bowl that made a light clack on our tiled floor when he set it beside my head. It was so close to me—the dirt in the bowl, almost at my fingertips. If only I had a little more strength, I could feel myself reaching out, plunging my fingers into its deep richness, pouring it all in my mouth and swallowing. I wanted to thank my son, grateful for this small kindness. A moment of soothing peace.
Then, the unbearable tranquility of my life was disrupted by an angry thudding at our door. Behind my son, I heard voices that towered over the the roiling vortex. I instantly recognized my brother’s voice. His accusatory tone rising above the chorus. The voices barged in, added to the noise of the storm, and descended ruthlessly upon my husband.
— What madness!
— It is sickness
— It will infect everyone
— Bad blood, it will spoil
— Do you hear the heavens howl and scream?
— How do you bury the one you loved best? How?
My husband threw himself upon my body. I felt the weight of him touching whatever part of me he could touch, kneaded and grasped. The wind shook the sides of our house. The lashing rain and whirling wind shifted from one wall of the house to batter the opposite, never allowing itself to stop and rest. We were like captured birds in its path. My husband’s grief rolled amongst the crowd, fragmenting their anger, beat back against it. But, in a mob, the villagers fell upon my husband, spilling the dirt from my bowl at their feet.
— Everything has its place
— Your place is on the water
— Your son’s place is at home
— Not wandering around like an orphan out on those hills and the boats!
— Your wife’s place is buried under that hill
— That’s where she must be…
They roughly detached my plaster cast from my bed, brought me outside into the rain again where I could smell the earth. They made a pyre for me out of wet wood. Ignited a fire as the rain fell and the flames danced to meet it in the air. They gathered like ants around an offering, chanting faster and faster, pleading with the gods to release my spirit, to take me from my mortal body. I thought I must have screamed from the pain but it was my husband wailing — forgive me!
Yes, I sighed, as higher and higher the fire burnt. The release came and freed a vision to come into the purple sky—my son walking a path alone. I thought I had no more tears for him, but now a stillness inside me stirred. I cried out for the little figure, wandering where I could not join him — on cracked concrete and in mud — looking for the sharp warmth of my hand in his, under the open sky.