An Incident at the Funeral – Part Eight

She came to in the air as it were, floating, hovering somehow weightlessly, there above her own body, staring down at it — that mere human form which she had once encompassed and contained and commanded, now small and wasted and immobile there upon its slate. All about it the doctors and the nurses were rushing to and fro helplessly, attempting to entice animation back into those slackened limbs, their movement a complex symbol of human futility in the face of our final doom. She felt a calm perplexity: how could she be both there and here? She watched with a kind of vague wonder as they applied their mechanisms to her voided flesh, seeking to stir within it the same life that now gazed immaterially upon it from high above. The will to call out to them all, to explain to them that she had not gone, that she was very much still there, rose in her, and she even made an effort to do so — but there were no lungs in her to press the air, no vocal cords to form it, no way for her to touch even softly upon that hard world of matter in which these gross beings were agitating. She suddenly felt a kind of disturbing dissassociation draw round her her, as if she had been cut off, as if she were lost or mislaid or somehow dissected in her very being and some part of her forgotten. As if her entire body had been one of those tingling, distantly painful “ghost limbs” she had heard talk of. At the same time, she was suddenly aware of other presences about her — not those below her, not those merely human forms, but something else — and she saw that she had been surrounded there at the cieling by others — she saw them, and some she recognized, and many not, and among those she knew was her grandfather, kindly and quiet and smiling at her so consolingly, and near him her aunt Moira, that dour old avaricious woman who had been hated and feared by all, glowering at her furiously and seeming somehow in great suffering. Something so troubling in this sight — she turned back longingly to her grandfather, but he was already gone. She felt a slight tugging as if to return, down, to descend, to re-enter that abandoned cadaver lying slack on its gurney — but she turned.

“It was like a dream in this, Uncle, that there are parts I can’t recall… It was long, very, very long… It seemed to last hours, maybe even days. I know much more happened than what I’m telling you now, but I can’t for the life of me remember. It’s like I’ve stitched up the parts I can recall to make them seem like just one thing, when they’re only pieces and patchwork… Oh, how I wish I could remember it all! How much might depend on my remembering! But I can’t… And yet, I think I’ve been given what I need. I think I remember what I am supposed to remember, even though I still understand so little of it… And maybe the rest of it is still in me, still working in me. Do you ever have that sense? It’s like there’s something deep in you that you can’t even see, but it’s there, and it’s changing you somehow, and helping you, and shaping you… I think the rest of what I saw is still there in me, maybe even guiding me somehow. And I’ll remember it all one day, Uncle, I know that. The day that I die again, surely all of this will be revealed.”

It was as if a light opened upon her, a great brilliant window. She went through it, and before her opened a countryside of astounding beauty, a vast lawn of vivid green and a sun in its rise upon the low horizon that filled this world with a soft and downy haze of gold. The lawn was filled with lavish trees and flowers like a garden, a beautiful and scentless paradise, and all about her she saw blooms like jewels hanging from the plants. And suddenly a being of light was bearing down upon her over the countryside, a magnificent white glow that almost blinded her, so that she turned from it to the long deep gash-like shadows it cast; and as it came upon her, a kind of ecstatic and uncontrollable jubilation filled her, a madness almost, and this being of light was filled itself somehow with an urgent sense of love and welcome, as if it were reaching out to her — Why then did she resist? It spoke to her — what did it say? What did she respond? — But she did not go with it, and she saw then coming across the lawn two young men of extraordinary beauty, clothed in candid white, unobscured by the fulgorous shining before her, and the being of light seemed to waver and wane before them and at last to remove itself to some distant place, and they without regarding it walked to her smiling radiantly, and set themselves beside her with words of peace, and accompanying her rose into the air with her, swiftly leaving behind the countryside, which seemed, the further they rose, to grow not only smaller but tawdrier somehow, as if all its qualities were seeping into the earth, or as if somehow distance would reveal its imperfections and its inherent degradation. “Do you know when you look really closely at some beautiful object and you can suddenly see all its flaws, all the things you couldn’t see when you were standing far away from it?” Victoria asked her uncle. “Or when you’re looking at a painting, and it seems just so perfect, so convincing, but then you walk up to it and suddenly you can see all the little imperfections and the brush-strokes, and the illusion disappears… Well, it was like that, only in reverse… The farther I got from it, the more I could see how petty and stupid it was.”

The beings beside her seemed to hold her in an embrace of serenity and simple joy. So different from the wild ravishment that had accompanied the being of light! They had about them too a beautiful fragrance, powerful, overwhelming, that filled her entire soul as it might have once filled her nostrils and pressed upon her that sense of peace, that sense of a soft and unwavering joy. She felt herself ascending there weightlessly in their embrace, far above the earth, with a lofty speed that made her dizzy in her soul. But suddenly the fragrance declined, and it seemed to her that a horrible stench was wafting about her; in a sudden renewal of that old panic, a sudden sense once more of her severance, she turned and she saw them —

Victoria suddenly ceased to speak. She had been pacing restlessly about beneath the tree as she spoke, her body animated and nervous, but now, she ceased altogether even to move, seemed not even to breathe. She just stood, arms at her side, looking, with that faraway glance, through the scene surrounding them, something dreadful in her eyes. “What happened next sounds the craziest of all!” she exclaimed softly, laughing gently; but there was no mirth in her laughter. It hung around them, cold, dire. She shook her head, breaking the paralysis that had seized her. “I don’t know why it should seem stranger than the angels — they were angels, Uncle, I know that! — but it does. It’s like it’s easier for us to believe in the angels than in… And isn’t that his greatest trick? Isn’t that the cleverest thing he’s done? That we don’t believe in him and his minions anymore… That we really just basically don’t think any of that could possibly be real. I mean, I never believed in them, Uncle. I never believed in demons, never in all my life. They were just old wive’s tales, right? Just old superstitions, maybe to scare children into behaving nicely, that’s all. The sort of thing we’ve gotten past in our time, the sort of thing that science has finally put to bed. Even our priest used to tell us not to worry about them, about demons… ‘There is no hell’ — he said that, I remember it like it was yesterday. And I never thought… But you must believe me, Uncle, they are real! You must listen to me… Oh God, oh God…”

Across the groundless and aerial realms they were approaching in a terrible haste, a host of them, hideous to behold and dressed somehow ridiculously as IRS agents. “I don’t even know what an IRS agent would dress like, Uncle, but that’s the thought I had. They were wearing dirty suits and ties, anyway, even the most horrible of them. It sounds stupid, but that’s how it was…” And above their filthy suit collars and ties their awful heads emerged lizard-like or in the manner of deformed and grotesque animals, and they were snarling and gibbering about her, frothing as though in a hot lust. And they began to shout against her in fragmented and incomprehensible abominations, throwing against her monstrous charges and accusations, crying that she was theirs and must go down with them and grabbing at her formless but centered being. And she shrank back from them, into the protective embrace of the angels, and called out that their charges were false, for she felt in her soul that they were lying; and the angels drew around her defensively and authoratatively gestured at these hideous beings to decline and proceeded up against all their furious resistance. The demons seemed weak somehow, and could not for all their trying grip upon her. But one among the horrid host, the worst of them and the largest and the most powerful, a gloating and haughty creature with long filthy verdigris hair and a wicked scar upon its brow, would not let her go, but had her someway in its claw, as though she were wearing some gown that had been snagged irreparably in its ragged hand. And it threw against her the worst of the charges. She wanted to call out again, to cry out that this, too, was a lie, but something choked about her in her soul and she knew she could not speak —

All progress arrested and it seemed as though the fragrance of the angelic beings was thrown down and their embrace slipping from her. And she saw them turn to one another, and speak to one another.

“What shame,” said the first, “that this much is true, and there is nothing that we can do now.”

“Yes,” agreed the other, “it is a great sin. And yet, it was not altogether by her will…”

“But she could have stopped it.”

“Surely, we must consider as well the pressures on her, her family, her world. If only she could repent!”

“It is much to repent of.”

“And she was given so little time.”

“Very well,” replied the first. “Then we must send her back and give her the chance.”

The great demon seemed to wail in a pathetic and infantile howl then, and she saw the angels and demons alike receding from her with dizzying speed, and felt her heart contorting in pain for the distance of the two angels. She knew at once where she was going, as though a tremendous gravity was hauling at her, a resistless power that drew her against all will and wanting into the womb of her own discarded body. And she suddenly felt for that body and its immense magnetism a kind of repulsion and invincible disgust, and was suddenly vividly aware that it must be deteriorating even now. She cried out aloud, and began to thrash about in desperation and beat at the walls of the prison that had closed about her, the prison of her own decomposing cadaver, of the world that cage-like had seized her again and gripped her now in its unbreakable mew. “I do not want to go back, I do not want to go back!” she screamed — and at the very moment these words departed her soul, she felt the air spilling into her nostrils, and she awoke screaming in the dark.

Part Nine of “An Incident at the Funeral” will be published on Tuesday, 1 June 2021. Part Seven can be read here.

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