Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Day of the Dead

For Alvin, happy anniversary dude.
I died yesterday.


I was in my own room, in my own bed. I was alone, it was noon of the third Sunday of the month. I was sick for a long, long time. I was sick for half my life. I remember feeling very hot, not uncommon with our tropical summer. But I was breathing very fast, like I was running and like I was chasing something unseen. I did not think I could breathe any faster. And then, not quite so suddenly, I felt a change come over me, my breathing slowed and I felt better. It slowed and it slowed until I was cured, and I needed no doctor.

The maid came in an hour later to bring chilled water. I watched her approach with boredom at first, then noticing that my chest neither rose nor fell, she was curious. Then aghast. Then she ran out of the room to fetch my father. I did not follow her, but I imagine that my father ran up the stairs, two steps at a time. He sat on the side of my bed and he wept. I have never seen my father weep—except the day the golden-haired foreigners left our country for good, and it had been joyful weeping then. I have never seen my father weep, and then I feared that I would have to watch him weep for a long time to come. But now I know that I feared for naught.

My funeral was no different from anyone else’s in our town. I had a polished coffin, made from wood of the asana tree. It was lined on the inside with clean white silk and cotton. The dress they buried me in was not something I would have chosen myself. There were flowers— a flood of white chrysanthemums, bright red anthuriums, and a shower of baby’s breath.

Wakes are not held in our town.

As soon as the undertaker was finished with me; as soon as I was dressed; as soon as the mourners were ready and my Guard chosen—as soon as all of these were done, they loaded my coffin onto a horse-drawn cart. My father, my friends, some townsfolk and the gravediggers walked behind it. The silent procession went past the town gate. There was no music.

Wakes are not held in our town. The dead are taken to the sacred place, the burial grounds near the old fort. It was where the holy man from the Vatican sprinkled blessed water on a large plot of land. The holy man left with the foreigners—I think he was the only one of their kind that my father missed.

The men of the town dug a hole in the ground, next to my mother’s tombstone. I thought that I’d see her somewhere, but perhaps she has moved on. 

I watched them drive their shovels into the dirt, again and again. It was hard work, and I felt grateful that they would do this for me. When they were finished, they lowered my coffin into the ground. The flowers, they placed around the opening of the hole. Then they said a prayer together—

Merciful Father, grant this child a night of peace.
May You grant her entrance to Your kingdom;
May You grant her the Joy that would never cease;
May You grant her the Eternity of true freedom.

And then they left. First the gravediggers, then the townsfolk I did not know, then the friends of my childhood, and finally my broken-hearted father. I blew them a kiss, and I wished a happy life for them all, and prayed that they not be too afraid of dying when their turn came.

The young man they chose to be my Guard was the only one who remained. He stood next to the open grave and gave a long sigh. A Guard’s duty is to keep the dead company on the first night of their death, a vigil of sorts.

He sat on the ground next to my open grave.

“Are you alright?” he asked me. Or he asked my coffin. Or the girl inside the coffin that has been lifeless for half a day.

“I’m uncertain.” I said.

“I wonder where you are right now.” he said.

“Right next to you.”

“I wonder if you know where to go?”

“I was hoping to stay here for a little while longer. I am uncertain if I am allowed. But I don’t know where to go, so I'll stay here with you.”

Then my Guard was silent, then he started to whistle.

Evening came upon us like a veil of pitch black. A Guard is allowed a small fire, and this he built from dried wood and grass that the townspeople left him. Then he came back to his place beside my open grave. He stretched out and lay on his back.

“Isn't that the most beautiful sky you've seen?” he asked as he stared up at the dome of stars. “That’s a proper summer night sky, that is.”

I took a long deep breath and confessed “It’s the only night sky I've really looked at.” In all my nineteen years, I have never gone outside after sunset, one of the doctor’s many orders. All I had to look up to at night was the bedroom ceiling.

But it really was beautiful. How can something so breathtaking not tire to exist night after night? Why was I not allowed to see this when I was alive to praise it?

I stretched out beside him and stared up, too. He just kept on speaking, naming the constellations out loud while pointing them out. I followed as best as I could, but I couldn't see how anyone could think that a patch of stars looked like a bear cub or a pair of scales or a sheep.

“Do you know that I volunteered to be your Guard?”

“No. I thought lots were drawn.” This confused me. To be a Guard of the Dead is a chore, not an honor that one would proudly step up for.

A Guard has to stay with the dead through the night, in the middle of the burial grounds, and fend off any wild animals. Or grave robbers. Or armed rebels. Or other things that hide in the dark. Members of the family were not allowed to be Guards; they held on too tightly.

“This afternoon, when I heard that you passed on, I ran to your father. When he would not have me, I ran to my father, who went to your father, who changed his mind and said yes.”

“Who are you?” I asked. I did not know him. He looked to be older than me, but not by much. He did not seem to be insane, or dangerous. I was praying that he would not violate my corpse.

“Then when my father told me I was to be your Guard, I dressed in my best suit and went to your house. I entered your room for the first time, and it wasn't what I expected it would be.”

“What did you expect it to be?”

“I thought there would be drawings on the walls, or a piano by the corner. Old dolls. A record player. But there were only books and books and paper littered everywhere. It looked more like a library with a bed.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That was better than I expected.”

“Thank you. Who are you?” I asked again.

“This was—is—my only chance to be with you, and ask you the questions that have piled up in my mind.”

Strange. When you are dead, and you know you are dead, you do not ask questions like "Why" any longer. You just understand, as I understood. I did not know him, but I understood him and all he is.

I lay there next to him, and I turned my head to face his. He volunteered to be with me and I did not even know his name.

“What kind of music did you like?” he asked.

“The kind that I could dance to. One with a fast rhythm and a melody I could hum afterwards, for days and days.”

“I like the music that I make with my guitar,” he said, “the kind with a quick beat that will make you jump from your seat.” He chuckled at his own rhyme. I chuckled with him.

“The pages of scribbles all over your room, what were they? They looked like poetry to me.”

“They were. I was a dreamer. When you are locked up in your room, that’s all you tend to do.”

"Tell me a story." he said.

"There was a king and his jester. The king said to the jester...tell me a story. So the jester said 'There was a king and his jester'"

“How did you get sick? Why did you barely come out of your house? Who was that man who took you to the park last summer? Did you see the fire that started across the street during the riot?”

And so it went, one question after another, all through the night.

The sky started to brighten. 

He knew that the sunrise meant the end of his vigil. I knew that it meant the end of my stay.

“Are you still there?” he asked.

“Right beside you.”

“I once dreamt that you died,” he said.

“This was a long time ago, before I knew you were ill. I dreamt that you died, and that everyone mourned for you. In my dream, I was not your Guard. But I stayed beside your tombstone anyway. I sat next to you and that was where I stayed until the end of time.” He was choking on his words, sobbing them out rather than saying them.

The pink glow of the new sun was behind the walls of the old fort, and I got up to leave. I felt heavy and burdened, and I knew that if I wanted to feel better, I would have to walk towards the sun.

He was still lying on the ground, crying. I wanted to stay, if only to watch him weep. But the heaviness was getting worse. It was almost time to go.

“Have you gone?” he asked.

“Still beside you.”

“I wish you could hear me.” he said.

“I wish the same thing. I feel like I met you when we were children” I said. I bent down and kissed him on the mouth. He did not move.

The grass was still wet with dew as I walked towards the old fort’s gate. I could still feel the damp ground, I could still smell the sweet morning, I could still hear his sobs. Then I could hear a spade slashing through loose dirt, I could hear loose dirt falling on the coffin’s lid. Thu-thud. Thu-thud.

His vigil has ended and he was covering my grave, a Guard’s last act. I was gone before he finished.

I died yesterday, and it was the happiest day of my life.

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