When he thought back on it, he remembered above all the impossible scene, the emergence of the girl from her tomb, how she had sat up there in the coffin askance in the grave, gasping amidst the splintered boards that had been shattered by the leverage of shovels and urgent hands; how she had been lifted up onto the surface of the earth again that she was never, never to have trod a single time the more, how she had sunk down there upon it, and stared, wild and absent as a dreamer, in the crumpled gown of her interment, a slight pale hand rising trembling to her golden head. Everyone stood there around her, in shock, dumbfoundment, no one going to her, no one knowing how they might — and her eyes, like her father’s dark eyes, like wells of wondering, as if some vague question tormented her. Not at all the terror they might have imagined from her screaming, from the state into which she had been lowered, but only a sort of aloof and somewhat detached shock. And she, pallid and deathly but so lovely in the unexpected light of day.
There had been investigations, naturally, and blame was apportioned, perhaps inappropriately (for what blame could there be in something so like a miracle?), to the doctor who had certified her death. For his part, he insisted that he had taken his usual extreme care in the certification of death, and that while he regretted tremendously its consequences, he could not hold himself guilty for having done what it was his job to do. Who might have ever imagined that the girl’s heart was only slumbering a moment? Still he lost his license in consequence, matter which brought him to an entire series of changes in his life, and hardly all of them for the worse; for it is tragedy that mends us.
But his story does not concern us, save as it lays a tangent on our own. It was thought by the medical experts that the infection had somehow induced a temporary cardiac arrest, just long enough that her death had been determined — somewhat like those arctic frogs that freeze solid in the winter time, whose very hearts cease beating in their cage of ice, only to reawaken impossibly in the spring, thawing as surely as the living earth itself. It was taken for granted that Victoria’s own heart had begun to beat even immediately after the doctor’s visitation; her brain seemed miraculously untouched by the event, and everything was chalked up to a series of unhappy coincidences. It was allowed by all that she had not died truly, that the certification of her passing had merely been signed in that narrow window between one lagging heart beat and the next. For, as is known, the decomposition of the body begins almost immediately on the cessation of the heart, and irreversible damage can be done to the mere organism even in those first minutes. And as is known, no man arises from the grave.
It was strange, of course, that those who had dressed her had not noticed. For her body must surely not have been so stiff as they were accustomed to, nor so cold; and her breath must surely have been visible, and even the flutter of her heartbeat in her narrow, youthful breast. Even those that had lain her to the pall — had they not noticed the give in her frame? But evidently the mechanic action of the work had covered up its inappropriateness, and they had proceeded all unawares.
It was thought that the lurching near fall of the coffin in the church had awakened her just in time — the horror of the “what if” implied by this was lost on no one in the family, and cost several of them sleepless nights and ill dreams — and indeed the mother of the little boy there announced to everyone that he, her son, had been the first to hear the life stirring in the coffin, had sought to tell everyone, but no one had listened save she herself, the mother, who had wanted to speak, but had not been heard —
So Victoria’s life had recommenced, she returning to her wonted tracks. But how could any of it have been the same? Slight changes, at first, but circumstantially signified the greater metamorphosis within. She was quieter, more intent, less prone to giggling than she had been. She grew serious at a blow — or rather, as that was not quite right, became very much a woman, as though she had overleaped that boundary between childhood and adulthood without so much as touching the adolescence in between. Yet she was not cold, but if anything somehow more present than she had been, warmer and more available, if it could be put that way: it was as if she had learned how to listen, and discovered that she was not a solipsistic being riding atom-like through a brief storm of living. She attended her schoolwork with greater diligence than she had been previously want to do, and no longer complained as she had been used to doing at the obligation to attend church services, and broke up with her boyfriend of some years, without offering any real explanation for this choice to anyone save, perhaps, the boy himself. Yet there was a profounder change, somewhere deep in her life, that her uncle could not seem to lay his hands on, but which he felt was there. And it would indeed only be many years hence that they would fully manifest themselves, for such is the way of our souls, that they are terrain for the sowing, and do not betray the seeds in them until so long after the fact. Yet her character sure showed even immediate signs of alteration, and any number of causes were adduced to the fact, by the usual gossipers: as for instance that she had, in a “near-death experience,” grown somber in the world, or that her parents had for some reason become stricter with her, or that the failure of her heart had stopped the oxygen to her head long enough to damage her brain — the usual explanations a Godless day might give to experiences and matters that lie well beyond its ken.
A strange sense of delicacy, almost shame, prohibited anyone from speaking directly of the incident at the funeral, or of asking Victoria aught of her experience. She, for her part, would never mention it even to her parents, but guarded it as a kind of treasure which it would be unwise to even permit another to glimpse. She would, indeed, reveal these her secrets to but few over the course of her life: to her husband, one day, and to her three children, when they were of an age to understand. Apart from that, it was her uncle alone to learn what had happened to Victoria, before, during, and after her death.
Perhaps it was only that he had been the one man courageous enough, and sympathetic enough, to ask. He was, naturally, in a privileged position to do so, thanks to his intimacy with the girl, and the special relationship they had always shared. Then, his curiosity about the entire affair would not leave him in peace, but seemed to grip onto him like a stubborn limpet that he, for all his efforts, could not pry off. He felt it indecent somehow to inquire, but at the same time he felt called, even welcomed to do so, perhaps by something in the girl, perhaps by some need in his own nature, some readiness of his own soil to receive the seed of her word. Perhaps it was that own ghost hanging so long over him that pushed him to it. Yet his query, even as it escaped his lips, surprised even him.
“So, Vicky,” he began, without any prelude, and using that abbreviation of her name that she so loathed from anyone but himself, “you know I can’t help but ask what it was like to just wake up and walk out of your own coffin. Doesn’t happen to everyone, you know. If you want to speak about it, of course,” he hastened to add, feeling suddenly like an embarrassed intruder discovered in a house to which he had not been invited. Yet he kept still and did not blush, nor attempted even to withdraw the question, but only gazed at the girl, as firmly as he could, across the speckled lawn.
They were alone in the vast back yard of her parents’ house, he sitting on a wooden bench beside a picnic table, she swaying slowly in a swing, her long thin legs dangling slightly in the dust below. She was far too large for that childhood heirloom by now, but she liked to sit there while they talked, as she had done so many times, discussing music (their shared passion), or the events of her life, or his, or her troubles at school, or any of the other manifold vicissitudes of the world at large. Her romantic affairs and their troubles; his ongoing solitude and inability to find a woman who might tolerate him long enough to marry him. At times during their talks she would make some move to swing in it slightly, arcing her long body to and fro girlishly, but seeming in the maturity of her body and the smallness of the swing awkward at it and misplaced. This day they had been discussing a matter of great consequence — her parents’ tiny Pomeranian, an explosion of white and rust-colored fur with two bright dark eyes that was always up to some mischief, generally involving its designing careful diversions to lure the Tuckers away from the table so that it could rush back and steal the pie or bread or meat that had been left thereupon. A trivial, but genial subject of discussion, and worlds apart from the depths to which her uncle had so unceremoniously opened them, despite his attempt at jocularity.
She seemed limp somehow, sitting there, her hands soft and openly placed on the rubber-clad chains that held the worn old oak board of the swing in place, her legs, long beneath her flower-patented summer dress, crooked lifelessly beneath her, her back arched and her face down. She gazed at the earth. It was dappled with the high sunlight of a late spring noon beneath the great locust tree from which the swing was hung, and black ants trucked across it industriously, carrying bits of leaves and the crumbs of the lemoncake they had lately consumed. Birds chattered idly in the glow, and the Tucker’s fountain could be heard glimmering not far distant. The scent of flowers wafted about them through the dry smell of summer. It was an idyllic place for a child, for a girl, for a young woman, her uncle thought for the thousandth time, the thought somehow breaking the tense surface of that other matter now hanging heavily in the bright dry air between them. Her light dress, which left bare her long pale arms and the fine bones of her still-adolescent clavicle, was covered in white chrysanthemums, and her elfin face seemed untroubled, meditative, as she dangled slightly in her airborne seat. A single strand of her straight long blond hair hung before her face, obscuring the view of it to her uncle, who began in the silence to wonder if she had even heard him, if he would have the courage to ask her again had she not…
“What’s it been,” she suddenly queried, in her sweet, still girlish voice, in a tone however that broached no question, “two months now.” She paused again, as though taking stock of the time, as though calculating the days. “It was… weird,” she finally concluded, and her uncle half expected this girlish commonplace to close the entire discourse, to put a final period on the only answer he should ever receive from that outer realm into which she had so briefly but so surely strayed. He changed position slightly, crossing his legs, ready to mention something else; but then she bit her lip. And she began, without looking at him, but as if in a state of trance.
“I wasn’t asleep, though. That is, I was — but I was dreaming. Only it wasn’t a dream… Oh boy. It’s hard to explain. I saw myself, even, my body. Just lying there. It wasn’t a dream. There were angels, Uncle…” Another pause. “At least, that’s what they seemed to be. And also… But I can’t even tell you about this until… No. There’s something else I have to tell you.” Then she looked at him, staring deeply at him, something pained in her lovely dark eyes. Once again, he almost retracted his question, and even lifted a hand into the air as if to dismiss the entire matter, once and for all, but she spoke then with a tone of such deliberation and steadiness that his hand immediately sank back to his lap, and he could but lean forward, tending her his entire being. She was looking at him, but suddenly not looking at him, her gaze turned inward, or perchance looking through him, through the entire garden around them, to some other moment in time, some other aspect and layer of reality. “This is really hard to talk about,” she said. Her eyes suddenly focused on him. “And you have to promise me one thing before I even start. Will you promise?”
“You can’t think any differently of my parents, any less of them, especially Mom, when I’ve told you what happened. Promise? I mean it, Uncle, you have to promise…”
He looked at her intently for a moment, but already was nodding his head. “Alright, of course. I promise. I’m your mother’s brother, after all. I’ve loved her all these years, and I doubt you could tell me anything about her that would surprise me. If you knew what she did to my favorite collection of soldiers when we were children…!”
She did not smile at this flat little jest of his, as she would usually have done, if only to please him. Her face was very serious, that beautiful, still girlish face, full now of an immaterial maturity and an age that was all out of proportion to her scant years. Her fine lips pursed beneath her fine nose. Her high brow knit, the perfect curved lines of her eyebrows drawn in an expression of concern, sadness. “You’ve promised,” she sighed at last, and glanced keenly at him as though she would hold him, then and there, to his word forever. “It’s not her fault,” she said with a sudden intense emphasis.
“Alright, Victoria, alright,” he said, lifting his hands flat in surrender before him and nodding earnestly. “I promise. I really do.”
“Alright.” She sighed again, placated perchance by that use of her full name, unusual from her uncle, and leaned slightly back into the air behind her. “And also, you can’t tell anyone,” she added almost absent-mindedly, but seemed to take his acquiescence to this second request so much for granted that she didn’t even wait for him to answer. “I died… gosh, it’s strange to say that… but it’s true, Uncle, whatever they’re saying about it, it’s true! I did die. I was brought back. But it doesn’t matter what they say, it’s totally unimportant. I died of an infection of the uterus.” She stopped and looked up at him, but despite the great shock he felt at this admission, he controlled himself with his full will, and tried as he could to show no sign of it.
“So, it happened like this,” she said, and commenced to tell him the tale.