The mourners and their companions were moving, slow forms, some black, some pale, in the cemetery, like risen ghosts. The afternoon was high and the day brilliant in spring. A breeze moved languidly in their midst, like a bored and lazy spirit, redolent with the scent of the season of rebirth. That was, for those souls who had not already wearied of bereavement and numbed to the import of events, a contrast of some painful piquancy, and Victoria’s parents were at their weeping again as they moved to the dark gash in the earth that would shortly swallow the pathetic remains of what had soon been their daughter. Her father clutched her mother with both his arms in a strange kind of sideways and desperate embrace as he walked crookedly forward; she with her head bowed mouselike and fearful in her handkerchief, he with his plump red face bent ahead, his prim mustache trembling, his dark shining eyes fixated monomaniacally at the open grave. Victoria’s uncle moved behind them, a vague hand on the single piece of his sister’s shoulder that projected beyond the fattish form of his brother-in-law. He felt the grief welling up in him again, but somehow could not cry. His eyes were hot and dry in his head. He tried to swallow.
They gathered like egrets about the gap. This space in the earth, torn therefrom by some great machine — no longer human hands to prepare this final bed for the rest of heaven’s child, but a great metal beast disanimate and soulless, ostensibly ruled by some man who had become but the limb and auxiliary of its mechanic purposes. The coffin, itself framed by no human hands, but by a robotic production line in some monstrous factory, was lowered gently down. The body of the girl that rode within it, this lass who had died in a remote hospital room, with no company but her sleeping roommate and the glaring lights of the machine known mockingly as life support — her lifeshorn body dressed by the gruff, careless hands of strangers and prepared for the grave by men inured to the sight of death and long indifferent thereto — this cold cadaver sank to its final repose, its blood to ash, its flesh to dust. And this, the single fleeting moment at which death would touch upon life, save in the ghosts of memory, themselves to be later vigorously expunged, as they might be, by psychiatric visitations and distractions galore and futile tricks for “moving on,” to regain some of that transient complacency which is supposed somehow to make up the shield and armor of life. Death, made obscene to a society entire, peaked out from that crack in the earth, a gross and shameful face behind a curtain, and leered for a moment into the souls of those present; but even here the shutters were well nigh closed in those hearts and the windows almost shut. Victoria’s uncle winced: the coffin jostled as it struck its berth.
The rites of the dead over the bed of the dead; but who was listening? Some lost to grief, others already beside themselves with far more trivial concerns, the small crowd gathered about this lacuna in the ground as if to confer on its threat to the safety of pedestrians. Victoria’s uncle stared down into those infinite six feet and the flat surface of the wood upon its grounded bier. He watched, his heart throbbing numbly, as the first handfuls of dirt were cast down, stains upon the shining surface, and as the spades began their surely ineluctable work of interment. He felt the small group of souls beside him breaking up, and looked away. A lone tree loomed huge and somber on the fringes of the cemetery some distance hence, its branches glowing with a down of green. Gray tombstones rose in neat lines beneath and around it, some garlanded, some empty of all remembrance, their names and dates illegible from such a distance, impossible ever to learn. The shucking sound of the shovels met with birdsong, the thump and hiss of the earth upon the board. The scent of that earth rising blunt and metallic about them. His hand, he realized, was toying unconsciously with a key in his pocket. He withdrew his fingers and put his hands behind his back, but at once felt something inappropriate in this stance, and let his arms fall to his sides. He looked into the skies above, the flawless but eternally and horridly empty skies.
The watchers were draining away, and only a small clutch now remained to drink this burial to its lees. Already a layer of red earth had covered the tiny coffin, the tiny body within, both of which were never to be seen again, but to lie in the dank and wormy soil unto the very consumption of time itself. Again that sense of pressing compassion — he felt a tear rising hot neath his eye — but an impossible sound was in his ears —
There was a moment in which realization was still dawning, and the disjoint between what could and could not be in this world had yet to be bridged, that seemingly unspannable chasm standing between normalcy and horror, normalcy and the miraculous. But Victoria’s uncle’s eyes were already large with wonder and fear, and he watched everything unfold about him with a feeling that could not yet break the borders of merest consternation. When awareness dawned against all probability, then everything happened in great haste. Victoria’s mother shrieked in a single long vivid wail, and would have fainted into the grave itself had her husband not stooped to catch her and drag her back, his ruddy cheeks suffuse with maroon blood and his eyes wild as an animal’s, and she limp in his finally strong arms; and the disbanded many behind turned and rushed to the grave, or stood gaping stupidly at the scene, uncertain how to proceed or why; and the gravediggers at the summary order of their suddenly maddened chief had already leaped precipitously down into the hole, their spades flying, wildly undoing the work they had done, the dirt leaping back in dark arcs out of the tomb, as shrill cries of inhuman terror emerged from within the earth itself —