Family

One Last Choice

                They say death is a dark tunnel, where at the end glows glorious light. That a comforting voice, soft like summer wind, beckons you forward. That you know, when you get there, all your lost loved ones will be waiting for you. And that is close to the truth. What they fail to mention, as they are living, and could not know, is the path forks. One leads towards light, a holy chorus, the afterlife of your choosing. The other to a pool of water, still and cool and inviting.

                You walk up the path to the pool, curious, and as you approach the water begins to ripple. Looking closer, in those tiny waves… you see…

                Loved ones, dressed in black, looking up—or down, from their perspective—into the pool back at you. They cannot see you, they hold each other and weep. You see they are at a cemetery, at a grave, at *your*grave. It is a gray day, the grass is damp as if earlier it was drizzling but now is only dreary. The air is still and heavy with rain yet to come. You see your mother and father, bent double with age’s burdens that you will never know, their faces ravaged with a toll they never expected to suffer: the loss of a child.

                “My son…” One whispers, sentence cut short by pain. The other only sobs, all words stolen by tears.

                You see your lover, whose cheeks are dry. All his strength focused on remaining stolid for your children, who themselves are silent. They surround him, like pillars holding up a leaning tower. If they separated, even for a moment, they would all collapse. Something is missing, and it takes a moment to realize that thing is you. You wish you could go to them, hold them one last time.

                And a voice speaks… Choose.

                In your mind’s eye, you approach the pool, submerge yourself in its waters. You drown, and open your eyes back on Earth, a translucent shade. A shocked voice speaks your name, disbelieving. Looking up, you see your family can see you. They surround you, hands passing through you. Saying your name, first uncertainly. Then louder and louder, with joy that you have returned, with sorrow that you are not fully there. You luxuriate a moment in the love of a life well lived, but eventually, sensing a force calling you back across the waves, your time drawing to an end, you cough to catch their attention.

                “I don’t have long, I- I- do not know where I am going, but… I couldn’t go there. Not without saying good-bye. I wish, I wish I had more time. All this love in my heart, for all of you, feels wasted. I should have told you every day…”

                Your lover approaches. “We knew. We know. Do you have to go? Can’t you… won’t you try to-?”

                Stay with me. With our family. The look in his eyes pleads. And you would. You would. If only it were your choice to make.

                He understands. This is only temporary. And for a moment he and the kids just exist in the space you inhabit and try to feel close to you one last time. You lean forward, to kiss him on the lips and, just for a moment, you feel each other, echoing a familiar, electric touch. The fire your lips once felt for each other that burned over and through you both, a passion like none other.

Then the feeling is gone, you are remote and dead once more. You speak the names of each of your children, smiling, telling the oldest to be brave, and the youngest to remember your love, always. You tell your parents thank you, thank you, you say that you were a good man, all because of a path they set for you. The greatest gift a parent can give a child is a map to righteousness, a demonstration of empathy. It is up to each person to walk that trail on their own.

                “But thank you-thank you for guiding me to it.” You finish. They collapse against each other, too tired and sad to even weep.

                And you begin to fade. You expect to return to the pool, and enter the light. But you just feel colder and colder and more and more distant from everything. You realize, this is it. The price for good-bye is you sacrifice the hereafter. Your last thought, as on Earth it again begins to rain, both from the clouds and from your family’s eyes:

                Maybe it was worth it…

                Your eyes flutter open back at the pool, looking up/down at your family. So… that was just a fantasy. A preview of what will happen if this death is the one you choose. You wander down the black halls, and back up the other hallway toward the light.

                Choose…

                As you approach, the brightness fades, and you see…

                A lush land of wonders. A resplendent field of impossible green, flowers—of colors and designs foreign to Earth—grow to incredible heights. These plants cast shadows on the men and women who wandered among them, some engaged in intense conversation, some laughing, some just gazing in joy and disbelief at the world around them. You close your eyes, and the wind tousles your hair. You smell the scents of enormous flowers, your head dizzied by their pollen. The air is a confection. You open your eyes, and are walking down a path accompanied by strangers who understand your greatest passions. For they are their passions too. You dance through the afterlife with unparalleled intellectual partners. But they are unknowns, and all the people you meet in this vast lands are unknowns. No friends, no family that preceded you into the vale ever cross your path. And you know, somehow, that none ever will. Your soul endures, but endures alone.

And you understand the choice before you: See your family once more and give way to the void. Or linger forever in the vast pastures of faith, exploring the universe’s mysteries that one life is nowhere near enough time to unlock.

You open your eyes back in the black, torn between two impulses. That of the past, your family, everything you have ever known, the desperate need for one more goodbye. That of the future, the unknown, the possibility for great discovery, the very human fear of non-existence. We all want to go on. We all wish we could go back.

Choose. The voice whispers again in your mind.

And so, despite the weight of the options before you, despite the impossibility of this choice and its implications, you head, resolved, toward the-

               

Bearskin

A visit to Father’s house always recalls bad memories. By day, it looks just like any other old house, imposing, if not truly frightening in its forestalled decay. But the cleanly-kept lawn, well-appointed rooms and jaunty white fence merely paper over the past. It loomed far more perilously back then; when I was clothed in poverty and prisoner to Father’s vices. Even now, when walking the gaily lit halls or drifting through the midst of Father’s boozy parties and celebrations, I can still see it for what it once was: ceilings crumbling under the weight of age, the constant drip-drip of leaks sprung anew, walls curdling with old moisture, the damp scent of mildew plugging my nose.

At night, sleeping in my childhood bed—the site of many horrors—the fear returns with the dark. My eldest sister Bertha hangs lifeless in my dreams, empty eyes searching the distance; her legs stutter slightly as her choking brain futilely seeks ground for some solid purchase. The middle child Maria, pockets filled with rocks, disappears beneath the mercilessly roiling river waves. She stops and turns at my call, teary eyes reproaching me for my part—however slight—in her suffering, before she turns and continues towards her desolation, submerging completely, never to be seen again. When I awaken, again and again, each night shivering, sweaty and weeping, I scarcely stifle the screams engendered by my nightmares. I see him sleeping peacefully next to me, my love, that foul object of my misery.

Who is this man I married?

            Watching him sleep, unharried by the hoary ghosts of our past, I recall—through the haze of sorrow that haunts me daily—the first day we met. My future husband seemed barely human when I saw him then. On my father’s step he stood, a filthy wanderer. Swathed in unwashed, matted furs, he looked, and smelled, more like a wild animal than a man. His skin, dark and grainy, was caked in a patina of soot and muck dragged from whatever hellhole he crawled from. Hair sprouted wildly from his head, an unkempt mop smeared in something I dared not to identify. I remember my father beaming as he paraded this husk before us, his daughters, more happily than the glower that typically accompanied his omnipresent drunkenness.

“Girls,” he managed to speak for once without slurring, “Meet our guardian angel… the answer to all our prayers.”

Leading this gross, grinning thing by the hand, Father told of how they met: in a local pub while he guzzled our family’s last dimes. This bedraggled stranger—after overhearing Father bemoaning his financial troubles (the man loved to gamble almost as much as he loved to drink)—produced unimaginable riches from the depths of a rancid coat—emeralds and rubies and the purest gold—one he still wore when in our home. It may once have been a verdant green. Such an odd garment, the coat was clearly once luscious and rich, but now looked barely more than a rag. How did such a thing produce such beguiling wealth? Father asked no such questions, not with a path out of his self-imposed misfortune dangling before him. This stranger, introducing himself simply as “Bearskin”, asked for nothing but prayers in return.

            My father, who, despite his failings, took receiving something for nothing as a great shame, then suggested the deal which sealed all our fates: “I told him, ‘Nonsense! For reasons beyond my reckoning, you’ve helped save me and my family from the poorhouse. In return, you must make one of my daughters your bride.’”

At the suggestion that Father would offer us up like so much cattle, my sisters recoiled in horror. Accepting such a creature into their home and bed was more than their dignity could countenance.

“Me? I’d rather marry an actual bear!” exclaimed Bertha.

“The Devil himself can take me first!” Maria chorused.

Father glared at them angrily, but even with the unspoken threat in his gaze, they met his stare unbowed. This was one filial burden too far. We were always more commodities to him, to be used like beasts of burden, abused and then married off, than daughters. Countless times, after many a long and expensive bender, he came to my room shrouded in black shadows and an even blacker mood, darkly cursing us and our mother for how we tested him (our mother fled this world soon after I was born, leaving us behind to suffer Father’s unjust anger). He never touched me, nor my sisters, with anything but anger, but his words scarred all the same. His slurred accusations, always blaming us for his money problems. He promised one day we would pay him back… now it was time to make do.

And so I, the one young enough to still fear Father’s drunken displeasure, meekly nodded my head in quiet acceptance, and extended a fair hand to my new fiancée. Fixing me with his eyes, deep pools of gray, he seized my fingers roughly, and pulled them towards chapped, bleeding lips, wreathed by the unkempt growths of a man allergic to razors. His palm was greasy, slick with dirt, sweat and God knows what else. This “Bearskin” kissed my hand, leaving a scent I’ve yet to forget to this day… rotten like diseased gums, half chewed food and cheap wine. His teeth were yellowed and moved in his mouth when pushed up against my hand. They felt like my hand pressed upon damp piano keys. Pulling away, he smiled, a gap-toothed, rictal grin, forcing me to tamp down unceasing waves of revulsion.

“What is your name, dear child?” Speaking for the first time, his voice was softer, gentler than one might have expected, air cushioned in silk. Had his breath not reeked worse than his kiss, I might have found this comforting. In his excitement, my father, still staring daggers at my elder, prouder sisters (their refusal to submit to his will was a transgression that wouldn’t soon be forgotten), had forgotten to introduce us by name to this “Bearskin”.

“Iv-Ivanka,” I whispered, eyes downcast, afraid that if I met his face again, sickness would overcome me. My silent inner rebel screamed at me to flee my father’s yoke once and for all, pleading that this was one expectation too far. But I feared a wrathful reprisal too much to vocalize my misgivings.

“Ivanka,” He whispered, smiling, his breath like death in my nostrils. “A beautiful name, for a beautiful girl. I thank you for your kindness. Such a gift is not soon forgotten.”

He departed soon after, leaving me with half a ring and a promise to return. Time passed, and with a brand new fortune to blow through, Father largely left us in peace (though he never fully forgave my sisters for their insolence). My sisters reproached and pitied me in equal measure. Bertha who often bemoaned my docile acceptance of Father’s abusive persecution, scowled, “Fool, now look at the mess you’ve gotten yourself into. Say no to the old lush! When the time comes tell him you won’t go through with it!”

I knew she feared for me, imagining that a life married to some crusty vagrant, no matter his riches, might well be even worse than the hell we’d already endured.

Maria held me, crying, and tried to comfort me: “Perhaps he’ll never return! Father’s off skirt-chasing with his limitless fortune. We’re saved. We’re finally saved! Maybe things will be better now.” The years passed by. Eventually Bearskin, and the odious promise I made to him, were all but forgotten.

And so life continued until three years later. A stranger visited our home—this one, young, strong and smelling of roses. He introduced himself with a grand flourish of his velvet top-hat as Baron Fellmutze. Dressed richly in an emerald green waistcoat, bedecked with expensive rings adorned with rubies and diamonds from far-off lands, bearing a smile bright enough to blind the sun, this Baron also offered to marry one of Father’s daughters.

“I’ve heard great things about your family, and its sudden wealth, flourishing in the Rhine. Here I am, at the end of a long journey, and in my travels, I’ve not found one worth marrying, worth loving. Perhaps my search is finally at an end.”

My sisters swooned at his beauty, but his eyes, familiar and grey, they never left my own.

My sisters, now eclipsing marrying age, ran off to preen, hoping to look their finest for this eligible young bachelor. After they left, this mysterious houseguest kept his eyes on me, piercing through me with a loose grin and offered me a glass of wine. I drank hesitantly. Why did I know this man? But something solid in the glass clinked against my teeth.

In it was the other half of a wedding ring… here was the creature I promised to marry, far less loathsome in appearance than all those years ago. What could I do but fulfill the promise I had made? How could I have known how I helped to engineer the damnation of my beloved sisters?

Soon after we were married, and after the wedding my Father cast Bertha and Maria from his home, proclaiming triumphantly, “I only have one daughter now, the others died years ago when they defied their father.”

Bertha hung herself with the shame. She was always one of a fragile ego and volatile emotions. Maria, grief-stricken by her death fled quickly down Bertha’s path. I can still remember her eyes angrily fixed on mine; I can still remember how she blamed me for Bertha’s death. Even now, when I close my eyes, I hear her guttural cry when she found Bertha blue and dead; I see her turning from me in contempt and disappearing forever beneath the roiling, storming seas.

After their funerals, where I buried my sisters alone, my father too disgusted to attend, I turned to my husband, bereaved, lamenting my part in their death, he just smiled—his perfect white teeth flashed menacingly. “Fear not, dear Ivanka, the Devil has already claimed them. They will take my place in his unholy legion, those poor tormented souls.”

At this thought, he laughed, a deep-throated chuckle that blanched me to the core. Here is when I realized that once more, I was caged, just with a new jailor—my nose pressed hopelessly against the bars of holy matrimony.

And so here I lie, in my old bed, beside my new husband, under the roof of my father. Here I wonder what sort of monster I agreed to marry, and am now bound to. In my dreams they laugh together my drunk father, my satanic love. In my dreams they dance on the graves of my sisters: sacrifices at the altar of their cloven-footed Lord. In my dreams, I am bound to the stake, they dance around me, their faces demented by glee as they set my pyre alight. And when I wake, I know it is only a matter of time, before I chase my beloved Bertha and Maria into oblivion, recompense for the unforgiveable sin of acceptance. Retribution for allowing this creature into our lives.

And I know: It is no less than I deserve.

Forgetting the Dead

                Every world deals differently with loss. There are those who mourn death, those who celebrate it as a homecoming. Those who find some happy medium in between. But by far the most interesting of worlds are those who do not acknowledge death at all…

                Grandma, sitting at the kitchen table, has a massive coronary during breakfast. It only causes her to spill her coffee briefly, before bringing it back to her lips. Her heart has stopped, but it’s the only part of her that does.

                “Ma, did you just…?” Her son, washing dishes, calls over his shoulder.

                She checks her own pulse. “I reckon so, no heartbeat. I can’t feel the coffee burning my tongue.”

                “That’s a shame. How long?”

                “I guess we’ll see.”

                “I guess so.”

                Life continues around her like nothing has changed, her family still recognizes her presence as if she still belongs among them. And, for a while, she can convince herself she does. But death, accepted or not, has a way of claiming its own. More slowly in some worlds than in others, but it creeps upon us all the same. Undefeated to the last.

                Grandma notices the color drain from the world. The sunset, once a rich tableau of orange-reds and burning yellows, turns dim gray. The leaves mush brown like autumn is upon her, even though the country still falls under spring’s thrall. Everyone speaks either too quietly or too loudly, always whispering, always shouting, and never quite at a level she can understand. Blood doesn’t flow so her wounds won’t heal, small scratches and unbruised blemishes mark her apart from the rest of her kind. As her nerves die, everything becomes a pain, even holding her beloved grandchildren, even a gentle hand resting on her shoulder. She knows, she can’t put it off any longer.

                She turns to her son, her beloved daughter in law, and their three kids one night. Or perhaps it is day. All is dark to her know, all food tastes like dust or ash.

                “It’s time,” She sighs, “I put it off for as long as I could… but it’s time.”

                Her son’s eyes glisten, but he will not cry. “I had a feeling this day was near. We’ll miss you.”

                If she could still feel, she’d mourn. But instead she is empty. The howling void creeps near, step by step it envelopes her. She feels her extremities crumble back to Earth.

                “No… you won’t.”

                The family blinks. Father, Mother and children stand around a floor covered in debris. They stare at the detritus, memories of the lost themselves already a distant memory.

                “What were we-” The mother begins.

                “I-I…” The father stops, the sadness at the tip of his tongue fading away, “…can’t remember. Grab me a broom, will you hun?”

                There are some worlds where death is a rest-stop, a brief respite on the journey to oblivion. Those on these worlds remember, if not the truth of it, its essence. They know their time together is short, and after it’s over, all memories recede with it. These are worlds without mourning, without history, where the past and future exist on the same Möbius strip. Where they are shrouded by the same forgetting and never-knowing, a candle that burns on both ends.