The funeral of Victoria Tucker was witnessed by many, and attended by very many tears, as is perhaps no wonder given the youth of the girl and the terrible speed with which she had passed. It was known to all that an “infection” had taken her, but what the nature of this “infection” had been, or how it had seized her, or what its presumed cause might have been, was known only to her nearest kin and jealously guarded by closed lips. Their lack of candor was perhaps sufficient by itself to occasion rumors, though it might well have been supposed by more generous souls that Victoria’s parents were restrained by nothing more than a certain natural modesty concerning delicate questions of health — a modesty that has not perished even in our own day of rife indelicacy and crudeness, in even the most private matters. Yet it is telling indeed that such a supposition did not satisfy the hearts of so much as Victoria’s politer and more ingenuous mourners. For the truth, even when unspoken, is ever suggested in the shadow cast by the lie, and it was felt by many, and quietly commented by a few, that there was something else standing behind these events, something sinister and obscure and thus enticing to wayward curiosities.
The few days aforehand, the family and friends of the Tuckers and the Webbs had paid poor pilgrimage to the household of the girl’s parents, to offer their words of condolence and, as they were able, consolation. They would sit, in a variety of postures and moods, like penitents before some shrine in the living room of the grand old house, on the other side of the pearl-inlaid mahogany coffee table, as Victoria’s mother wept upon the shoulder of Victoria’s father, that solemn plump man, old before his time, whose haggard and haunted eyes would grasp about the room for something to lay on as he tried in vain to comfort his wife’s sorrow with caresses and blandishments. And the guest would thus sit before this scene of helpless grief, liminal to an entirely higher order of human cares and questions, and would, perhaps with brow compressed in pity or beetled in consternation, or profering some useless words of solicitude, or perchance merely revealing that awkwardness of the death-ignorant man who has stumbled unawares into a charnel house, gaze upon this desperate affair, and pine for the swift end to his trying visit.
As if the tragedy had not been acute enough, Victoria had been an only child, cousinless to boot, and both the Tuckers and the Webbs, large families each before this latest generation, now stood teetering upon the brink of extinguishment in that single individual expiry. Had even this been adequate explanation for the multilayered cloak of suffering covering that house, it would not have lain to rest the active tongue of gossip, but it would at least have quieted a certain growing doubt in the hearts of better souls. But there are events in this life, blessed in their way, in which not even so small a consolation as that is to be hoped for. Never as in such moments is this human heart given a strengthier ladder to ascend to its true priorities.
The ceremony itself was “religious,” as is said in our confused times, the girl’s body being borne before the altar of a church and there laid in temporary repose, while the stuttering words of an ancient priest from his cracking pulpit sought vainly to solace the bereaved and to assure them of Victoria’s direct and unintermediared ascent to the pearly streets of heaven. It perchance did not help that he mistook her surname the two times he uttered it; yet the truer cause was buried deeper than this mere irksome detail. In its niches and alcoves, the gaudy statuary intended somehow as props to the worship of God stood in attitudes of deathly immobility, regarding these speeches, which had resounded between those walls so many times and in so stale a spirit that nothing new had been heard therein for decades, in dumb serenity. Light careened in far above their heads through stained-glass windows, casting garish streaks on the wall. Nothing else in that presumed hall of God but the drone of the priest and the sobbing of the mother, and the faint resounding echo, perchance, of so many irresolute doubts. He spoke of Paradise, but it was a hypothetic and oddly cartoonish place which he outlined to their eyes. He spoke of gratitude for the wonder of life, yet it was but a turning away from the awfulness of death. The congregation listened in silence to feeble words riding upon a feeble voice, and more than a single mind guiltily tracked upon the query of the meaning of this fleeting life — a question which that wrinkled and dry old man could hardly set and certainly not dispose of. Already such amorphous doubting was of a dignity superior, however, to the majority business in that once holy place: the many souls who stirred impatiently, not in any reflection on first or last things or the wonder of it all, but worrying after neglected chores and nagging errands, and wishing a speedy close to this too-long ceremony, that they might return to that bland, automatic activity which they strangely called their lives. And to these the sting of ineluctable death itself was less pronounced than the itch of the unchecked cellphones riding muted in their pockets, the call of unlit cigarettes, the poverty of boredom.
When the priestly droning had at last like the buzz of some impertinent, moribund insect extinguished from hearing, and the end of the mass was pronounced, then the pallbearers came, neat, dark young men, and spinning about like stiff and lazy dancers knelt penitent-wise beside the wooden frame of the coffin, and took the flower-bedecked box easily upon their shoulders. Victoria’s uncle, a graying, sober man with sad blue eyes and neat lips, who had always, for reasons he himself could never comprehend, been his niece’s favorite, watched the rust-colored casket as it rose swiftly and floated before his vision there at the aisle-side pew. How frail, how small the girl must have been, to be hefted so weightlessly! The thought of her slight body there, slim and prim and light as straw upon her cushions, her beautiful, delicate elfin face in its last repose, filled him with a strange pity that seemed remote and disconnected from the bereavement he had lately felt. A kind of tenderness overwhelmed him for that little form, a kind of avuncular solicitude. As if he should go and open it and relieve little Victoria of her closet darkness. Almost he lifted his hand — Yet his niece was dead, he reminded himself harshly; she was no longer with them. What kind of God — he frowned —
It happened in a moment: it seemed that one of the feet of one of the pallbearers had snagged somehow on the open floor, so that the casket hovered on before the man’s stranded torso like a thing possessing some unexpected inner life all its own; the pallbearer’s small eyes had grown large and he seemed to want to speak, but it was as if the words would not come to his mouth, only a strangled and inarticulate noise, as he saw unfolding before him a series of events he was as it were powerless to obstruct. The coffin slipped beyond his narrow shoulder, twisted crookedly in the unsupported air, past his pale slender hand, and began horribly to fall. Victoria’s mother let out a cry, a pallid trembling hand flying to her lips. But the pallbearer in an unnatural wrenching motion managed to regain his equilibrium in time to repossess himself of the pall with a violent jerk of his arm — but not in time to save the garland that rode upon it, which, at the force of the blow, slid like water off the side of it and came crashing down in a burst of color and earthy smell on the hip of Victoria’s uncle. He clutched at it blindly, gropingly, seeking some solid point in that soft interwork of leaves and flowers, and managed somehow to wrestle it back onto the coffin. The pallbearer, his face flaming, was too embarrassed by his own foible even to thank the man who had helped him out of it, and upon his lips were imprecations all out of place in that house of worship. Murmurs rose up on every side, and the head pallbearer twisted awkwardly to glare over his shoulder at the fumbler.
“We good?” he hissed irritably.
“Watch it, would you?”
And then the procession slowly resumed.
In the distraction of the event, its vague and suppressed aftermath flowing through the congregation, none heard the threefold thump save a boy there, a lad of some six or seven years, standing near the aisle, one hand picking at his lips, the other clutching at his mother’s fingers. He was swaying slowly in place, watching the coffin with a strange earnestness as it passed him. His eyes widened suddenly and his hand fell from his lips — he began to pull urgently at his mother’s hand, looking from her to the coffin and speaking and pointing thence — but she, caught up in whispering something to her neighbor, only half heeded his childish concerns, perhaps did not really comprehend his words at all, and but disentangled her hand from his to pat him on the head in an absent-minded superciliousness, before turning her attention more fully to her interlocutor.
The crowd like some manner of gargantuan jelly mold dissolved then, each member becoming once more a thing its own, presumed governor of its own destiny, which liberty the better part of these atomized beings exploited at once in care for their neglected cell phones. They walked, heedless of their trajectory, vaguely toward the light, staring down in a kind of trance at the glowing objects in their hands. Victoria’s uncle stood for a moment, hands behind his back, staring at the bright open door wherethrough the coffin had passed, a dark shadow swallowed up in the folds of light — so painfully bright in that dark church! He felt a dull ache in his breast. Bereavement? An incipient heart attack? He looked down at his black suit as if to regard the organ it contained, as if to query it. The yellow tongue of the coffin lilies had deposited three stark streaks of pollen upon his jacket; he dusted them off as well as he could with several brusque pats of his hand, but it seemed that a pale ocher shadow remained. He sighed and turned to his sister, away from the light.