content warning: death of a child (off-page)
Rain pounded down and plastered my hair to the back of my neck. My cable knit sweater grew heavy. The flannel I wore underneath it was slowly growing damp. I banged my fist on the door again. I paused and banged on the door again. I would make noise all night until someone answered.
The rain blurred the porch light. I couldn’t see much of the house, but I knew it well enough. I had passed by many times. I would continue to do so, even after that night. Each swing of my arm flung more water back onto my face. I almost lifted a foot to the door but the action was interrupted when she finally answered.
I pushed my way past her, perhaps shoving my shoulder against her more than I needed to. She jumped back at the contact, acting as if my body was cursed, as if I was some vessel of despair.
In a way, she was right.
I was wet, I was cold. The endeavor had not even started and I was already exhausted. I sat down in one of the kitchen chairs. My presence was accompanied by the slow dripping of water. Puddles began to gather at my feet.
“Tea,” I murmured. It was likely the first time she hesitated to fulfill a request for a cuppa. “Tea,” I repeated. “I take it with lots of milk and sugar. Thank you.”
Her brow furrowed for a moment. Then she moved to the kettle. Her shoulders relaxed slightly when she finally began working on the familiar task: filling the electric kettle with water, covering the tea bag until fragrant steam clouded her face, removing the bag and adding milk before the thing could get too bitter. She added the sugar last, so much that it bordered on saccharine. She placed the mug in front of me.
I held it in my hands and let the warmth slowly travel up my arms. I sipped the piping liquid. The heat unfurled in my chest.
“Sarah,” I took several sips and savored the warmth. My body slowly reanimated. “We both know I am here for Sarah. It’s time.”
Maggie stared into the table as if I had not said anything. This is how they were sometimes. They were like the living dead, as if they wanted to join their loved one on the other side. As if life itself could not carry on when the one they cherished died.
I had cut out the obituary neatly prior to my visit. The paper was flimsy and delicate. I placed it gently on the table in front of Maggie. I peeled off my sweater prior to moving forward. Maggie instinctually took it from me and held it close to her face. She ran her hands over every knitted row. She ran the garment across her cheek, her eyes closed to the roughness. I imagined Sarah in such a sweater. All the girls in our village had one.
Maggie took her time with the thing before she draped it over the back of a chair, which she pushed close to the roaring fireplace. It was the only thing that Maggie kept going after she received the news. She never allowed the fire to die.
Maggie returned to her chair at the table and I took my place next to her. I looped my arm around her, held it there. I was her preacher, I was her witness, I was the one true love she had never met, I was the grandchild she would never have. I was always whatever they needed me to be.
Maggie shifted her shoulders towards me. This was my cue. I gently took her hand and placed it on a corner of the obituary. Maggie’s eyes seemed to flicker toward the paper for a moment, but that may have been the light of the fire. I turned my eyes to the paper.
Sarah Ana Greshem born March 3, 1990, passed away on April 2, 2000. Sarah is survived by her mother, Maggie Greshem, and her cat Mickey. Sarah was a shy, sweet girl who enjoyed spending time outdoors.
I continued to read the paper. The young girl’s funeral occurred the day before. Maggie’s body stiffened when I read the date and time aloud. She slowly lowered her head onto my shoulder. Her eyes began to fill with tears. The drops fell down her face and into the palms that sat open on her lap. The obituary had done its job. It helped her fully acknowledge the event, even if she could not speak about it out loud.
The room was quiet save for the soft sound of tears falling on flesh, water falling from my sweater, and the hungry burn of fire. We sat together, the flames playing across our pale skin. My flannel was slowly losing its dampness, although it remained wet on my shoulder where she rested her head. That was ok. It would do.
After a long moment of silence, she spoke. “The wine. The cookies.”
She began to stand up and I followed suit. She looked at me with confusion but I could not leave her alone in these moments, this close to death and ready to leave. Part of my role was being a safe keeper. I was only here to help those to the other side who had been called. It was not Maggie’s time.
She opened a door by the fireplace and flicked on a switch. The basement lit up with the dimness of a single naked bulb. She met my eyes and I nodded. It was time. We descended the rickety staircase together. I followed her through the basement, past shelves of home-canned fruits and holiday decorations. I noticed that she had gained speed and her gait was now steady. She was better when she had a task to complete.
She led me straight to a chest in the back corner of the room, a dark place the light did not fully reach. Her hands ran against the wood in the dark, seeking the latch, which she had to ease open. The metal creaked loudly and violently.
She propped the lid of the chest back against the wall. She murmured the traditional prayer as her eyes focused on the contents. I sensed her passion, the pleading nature of her words, from several feet away. She loved Sarah as any mother loves a child, diligently and blindly and with everything in her body. Maggie began to sob but she carried on, repeating the words over and over until her gut told her to stop.
She took the black, lacy cloth that hung on a nearby hook and used it to pick up the first item in the chest. She presented it to me, a red that had been bottled in the year of Sarah’s birth. I nodded my head to indicate that it would do.
I followed her back up the stairs as she cradled the wine. She took every step slowly, carefully, as if she was cradling her newborn and feared dropping it. She had one remaining task as Sarah’s mother and she was intent on carrying it out to the best of her ability. First, the wine. Then, the cookies.
She placed the wine on the kitchen table before turning to the counter. I took in the row of baking ingredient—the new sacks of flour and sugar, the butter left out to soften. Maggie had been adrift after the loss, but she had still been able to purchase the necessary ingredients. She met my eyes briefly, before looking at the ground and taking several steps towards the counter. She took out a stepping stool and placed it in front of a cabinet, reaching for a series of bowls and measuring cups towards the back. While others were more accessible, these were the special tools she had purchased ten years ago, when her child was born, should she ever have to perform this task.
We got to work. I measured out everything and Maggie stirred and prayed, stirred and prayed. Her energy began to flow into the dough, an infusion of everlasting motherly love and sorrow. This was the last meal she would ever make for her daughter. She began to weep into the dough, but that is why the recipe called for unsalted butter. Something extra always found its way in. Once the ball had formed she rolled it out and cut out the crescent shaped cookies, placed them on the tray, and slid them into the hot oven. The almondy perfume filled the kitchen and intermingled with the smell of burning wood.
When I encountered Maggie Greshem at the farmer’s market or the library after that night, she would avert her eyes and shift her body away from me. She would not acknowledge me again—her house would be empty, save for herself and the roaring fire which she would never let die down. She would have no need for me. There were no loved ones left to die.
She had to take the next steps of the journey on her own. I would finish the mission as I always did, alone.
I walked down to the graveyard so there was enough time to get there for sunset. I counted my steps, I greeted the trees and their inhabitants. It was a familiar route and a familiar dance.
When I arrived, I paused at the open iron gate. The graveyard was generally closed at sunset but tonight it would remain open. Only one person would be entering tonight. When I was done, three would be leaving. I paused at the gate and recited my prayers, explaining my mission and asking permission to enter. The place seemed to grow quiet and my soul settled into my body. All things became still. A gentle breeze picked up and rifled through my hair, pushing the gate open further. It was my sign. I crossed over the threshold.
The recognizable round face hung in the booth. Alden tipped his head so steeply that it felt like a bow. We both knew that is what it was. I always felt so beautiful in the graveyard under the mild moonlight, the breeze, and Alden’s gaze. Even when he stepped out of the booth and his diminutive figure was revealed, even when his clothes looked a little ragged up close. He extended an arm to me to lead me to the grave. Always the gentleman.
I reviewed the scene. The headstone shone in the bright moonlight. A realistic cat was engraved next to her name. Mickey, I thought. The breeze picked up again. Sarah was restless in her grave and her spirit stirred.
Mickey is ok, I thought. I pictured Maggie’s warm kitchen and thought of the black cat that watched us while we spoke that rainy night, that curled around Maggie’s feet while she faced the obituary and her daughter’s death. Mickey is taking care of your mom. The wind whipped up when Maggie was mentioned, carrying dead leaves and acorns. The objects pelted my arms. I pulled my wool coat tighter around me, hoping to take away some of the sting.
“Sarah,” I whispered. “Do you know who I am? Why I am here?” The wind began to escalate, a flurry of leaves and sticks began to fly around.
The young were often confused, afraid, enraged. They had pictured so much life in front of them. Sarah’s visions flooded my mind. She had dreamed of learning to sail, of spending her summers on the water. She had dreamed of traveling, of seeing America and China. She had begun to dream of how a boy’s lips may taste. All of it, stolen from her! The wind howled and I felt hard drops of rain starting to hit my head. I started to get a little grumpy myself. If this case had taught me anything, it was that I really needed to buy a raincoat.
Movement out of the corner of my eye made me turn. Alden was shining a light out into the dark in the agreed upon pattern that our families had used for centuries. He wanted to ensure that I was alright, that I could weather the storm. And I could. So I pulled the dense metal flashlight from my own pocket and signaled back. He quieted down.
“Sarah, you’re scaring Alden, that poor old man. We both know that isn’t like you.” The wind and rain didn’t stop, but they didn’t increase, either. I was pretty sure I was getting hit with feweracorns and sticks, too.
“Thank you, Sarah. I can take it, but sometimes I’m afraid Alden can’t.” Although we had both been bred and raised for our role in this production, Alden was getting older. But then I thought of what happened with the Enfield case and knew if he could handle that, he could handle this little girl. Or anything, really. Despite his reassuring presence and the fact we had both walked away from that case alive, I began to shiver. It was cold, I was getting wet yet again, and I was remembering the fact that pure evil can live long after human flesh has died.
After several moments, the weather really had started to calm down. Sarah was always a kind girl at heart. Afraid, yes. Unkind, no.
“Sarah, I know I’m a little older than you, so I didn’t know you well. Your mother told me that all of your loved ones were at the services—even the neighbor girls you played with. The twins.” I had learned not to use the word funeral, at least not with spirits like this—spirits who were not at peace with their death, spirits who were not ready to move on. They were still upset and knew what I was talking about, but the language seemed softer. Gentler. It was easier to swallow.
“It sounded like everyone had such kind things to say.” And it was true. After the girl died there had been no whispers or murmurs, no clues unearthed that proved a bad temperament. She was considered to be a shy but well-behaved girl. The breeze lifted some leaves off the ground, gently moved them in a circle.
“I remember seeing you in the park often. You seemed to love playing outside, no matter the weather. I’m sure if I was younger, I would have loved to join you. We were pretty similar, you and I—loners. But sometimes you need a friend. That’s why I’m here now.”
“Sarah, do you know why I am here? Did your mother ever explain my purpose to you? Did she ever talk about my family, the Reeds?” The answering silence seemed to answer with its own questions. “I’m sure she didn’t explain that nice gentleman’s family, either—the Drydens.” There was no response.
I shook my head slightly. Maggie had protected her daughter, who had already lived through so much—a father leaving his family with no explanation, no goodbye. In other parts of the world, “the talk” consisted of sex education. In our part of the world, “the talk” consisted of death education. Or, death how it worked here—how it works in small villages in England, a place that had not loosened its grip on all of the old ways.
Sarah did not seem to like these topics because the wind picked up again and sticks began to pelt gravestones around me.
“Now, Sarah, that is just rude. You were raised better than that.” The wind died down. “You can think of me as your friend, as your big sister. I will explain everything to you now.”
I explained that the Reeds and the Drydens were two of the founding families of our village. We had been here for hundreds of years, and we would be here for hundreds more. Some family members had the luxury of choice. Some were able to leave whenever they wanted. Then there were those of us—the first born of either lineage—who could not. We stayed in the village, in the role, whether we wanted to or not. There were first-borns from either line that tried to leave, but they were always stopped, one way or another. I had always embraced my role, as did Alden—or so it seemed. We did not discuss the work at length. There were no after-work drinks for us. There were no midnight rendezvouses in graveyards. There were waves and smiles if we bumped into each other, as we gave anyone else in the village. That was it.
I moved on. The next part of the presentation generally consisted of an explanation of my role and how it was conducted. But the fresh dead were still people. They were often intensely emotional people at that. Even those that were familiar with my role often stopped to ask questions, complain, beg for an exemption. It was difficult for many to understand that despite my seeming powerful, I truly did not have much capacity. I was just an actor in a natural cycle that had gone on for centuries and would go on long after my body decayed in its own grave plot.
They seemed to think I had a choice in the matter, that I did not have to carry out my tasks. There were stories that have gone down through my family and the village at large. Stories of those who refused the task for whatever reason. Stories of what happened to them and the dead after the fact. These were stories no one wanted to hear, let alone star in. These stories scared even me, someone who commingled with the dead.
My comments about rudeness ultimately quieted Sarah, but there was a lingering silence that seemed to act as inquiry. The dead were still unique and each had their own questions. She came to understand my role quickly without doubting it. She seemed to understand that her time to cross over was coming. Instead of bemoaning her inability to visit Boston or Shenzhen, she merely wanted to know what was next.
I asked Sarah if she had sensed Alden leading me to her grave and a breeze shook autumn leaves down into my hair. I interpreted this as an affirmation. I explained that my role was similar to Alden’s; my role was to walk Sarah to the next place. That it was like walking someone to the porch of a darkened house. I could not see past the curtained windows and was not permitted entrance. I was merely a guide on a small part of her journey.
Rain began falling again. It was heavier this time. It began to collect on my eyelashes and the night blurred. My body grew more and more tense and I tried flexing my muscles. I was still antsy with Sarah’s anxiety and felt myself doing a small dance on her grave, fidgeting, shaking out my limbs.
“Sarah, as your friend, I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t know what comes next. But part of my role is taking some of the bad things from you and carrying them so you don’t have to. Sarah, my people are called sin eaters. Now don’t freak out, I know it sounds weird. And if it’s your first time hearing about it, it is. Your mom made you one last batch of cookies and left out a bottle of wine for you. You aren’t really meant to eat the cookies, and I know for sure she did not let you taste the wine, so you won’t be drinking it, either.” I paused. “I’m sorry you could not taste wine in this life, that you could not experience the sensation of a boy’s lips.”
My own lover flashed in my mind briefly and some of the tension drained from my body. “Cute, huh?”
It seemed Sarah agreed that the man’s dark brown eyes were quite entrancing.
“Your mom did everything right. She made every cookie with her love. She walked down to the graveyard and placed them on the freshly turned earth so they could sit under the moon for a night. They soaked up the moon and they soaked up you. All of the wrongs you have done in this life—no matter what they are—all that has caused you shame or embarrassment, is in the cookies now.” My body grew tense again and I cracked each knuckle individually, despite my doctor’s warnings.
“Now Sarah, you are a sweet, young girl. And I have done this for longer than you could imagine. I was even younger than you when I first started…” I trailed off, caught in the memory of guiding over a farmer who had been kicked in the head by his cow. My first time.
“I do not know your secrets now, but I will when I eat. I am sure I have seen far worse in my brief career—murder and other unspeakable things—than what these cookies contain. Think of me as your big sister, listening to your secrets and taking your burdens for you. Then we will walk to the other side, and you will feel lighter than you ever have—lighter than playing on the swings, lighter than running in the summer sun.”
I sat down in the soil, which was slowly turning to mud with the rain of her tears. I didn’t care, I was used to my wardrobe being encrusted with graveyard dirt, and I was getting used to being perpetually damp.
How my lover could stand it, I didn’t know. I let my last thoughts of him linger, how his rough lips felt against mine, how he smelled of pine and his own type of earth. I wanted Sarah to experience it before she went. She was so young, and I would come to find she carried so little shame. She had done such little living.
I closed my eyes and placed my hands in the soil of the young girl’s grave. Sarah’s presence grew stronger. I never saw the spirits beyond briefly glimpsing their memories. But I could sense them in other ways. Some spoke through the weather, like Sarah had. Some spoke through animals. Alden had even been used once or twice. Some used my body, causing pain or tension to express themselves as if I was some physical instrument. Whatever it was, it always got stronger as I grounded myself in the grass above their tomb.
I allowed my breathing to come long and slow until the feeling of leaves and dirt faded; until the heaviness of wet denim was no longer present. My human sounds died down, my soul settled in the bowl of my hips. I asked the universe for its guidance, for strength, for patience, for grace, as I always did. The things I would need to succeed. I sensed Sarah’s spirit rising from the grave, pushing through the earth, and hanging around the stone. If I was allowed to talk to Maggie again, I would have reassured her that her daughter loved the image of Mickey on the stone. But the woman would never want to see me again.
“It is time, Sarah.”
I opened the royal blue tin to find the cookies packed in loving rows. The powdered sugar became damp with the rain. Wet cookies were not pleasant but they were something I had come to endure. My job was a soggy mess. I pulled the wine opener out of my pocket and removed the cork from the bottle. It would be left on the grave as a final offering, a sign of completion.
I placed the first cookie on my tongue and was hit with the sweetness of sugar. The flavor was something I associated so strongly with my job that I no longer enjoyed sweets of any kind. Sweets were for the dead. The cookie disintegrated in my mouth. The almond flavor was cloying.
The images began as soon as the cookie hit my tongue. I saw many things. Childish things, childish sins. I could have laughed at Sarah’s innocence if it would not have been disrespectful. I saw a 6-year-old Sarah stealing a fistful of chocolate cake; she would blame it on the family dog. Once, when her mother told her she could not have a chocolate bar, the child decided to steal it. I smiled and acknowledged that she loved desserts. The sugar burned brighter on my tongue. I took a swig of the red, a nice merlot. I held it in my mouth although it too had become something I disliked, something I associated with death. I wanted Sarah to partake in this, if only once. My body began to shiver, and my throat began to close in an attempt to evacuate the liquid. I quickly swallowed and laughed, wiping drops away on the back of my hand. I hadn’t liked it either when I first drank it, a gulp I swiped at a party long before I set foot in the graveyard. She wouldn’t have the chance to acquire the taste.
Another cookie. More memories. A boy that constantly made fun of her, that pinched her, that snapped the straps of her training bra. A boy who cornered her when they were alone, who made himself big and scary. He was big and scary until Sarah pulled back and slapped him. As I swallowed I let Sarah know that the act was ok, it was just self-defense. That she didn’t need to feel guilty, she hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone. With each bite I took, Sarah’s soul became lighter. The cookies had soaked up all of her pain and shame. I was here to consume it before she left. It only took three cookies. Most took a dozen. I had met those who required more, who I had to sit with for days and days to cleanse.
Sarah had a good moral compass. Her life was short and she had not yet felt the intensity of love or wine or any of the strong things that make us lose it. Her ritual was short. When I swallowed the last crumb with more wine—I let it flow down the back of my throat so neither of us would have to taste it, as she preferred—she struggled to stay by her gravestone. I sensed that her spirit was now hanging several feet above me.
She was the one dancing now. Free of pain, free of sadness.
Let’s go, let’s go! She cried with the energy of a young child who wanted to explore the world. She was free of the fear that had been holding her back.
I asked the universe once again for guidance on our journey. I reverently placed the remainder of the cookies on the base of her headstone. They would be gone by morning. The earth soaked up the remainder of the wine as I slowly poured it out. I gently placed the container and bottle in my bag, ready to be disposed of once the work was done.
“Ok, ok,” I responded to the antsy dead girl. “Let’s go.”
Callie S. Blackstone writes both poetry and prose. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Plainsongs, Lily Poetry Review, Prime Number Magazine, and others. Callie is lucky enough to wake up to the smell of saltwater and the call of seagulls everyday. You can find her online home at callieblackstone.wordpress.com.
photo by Scott Rodgerson and Daniel van den Berg (via unsplash)