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Everything is a choice
Francis stared at the corpse in the coffin. Wisps of hair orbited the body's visible scalp in a globe of kinky gray. Makeup and setting spray caked its face and hands, masking the bloodless skin beneath. Rose-colored lips tugged against the sutures, binding them shut. A cloud of blush clung to each cheek with unnatural saliency.
Oh, Ruth. What have they done to you?
He reached into the casket and took the carcass by the hand. It felt like a refrigerated ham.
He released the hand, stepped back, and nodded to the funeral director.
"She looks peaceful, doesn't she?" the man asked, closing the lid on the husk.
Francis stuck his hand into his chestnut wool pants pocket and pulled out a crumpled handkerchief.
"She appears . . . dead," he said, lifting his browline frames and dabbing his eyes. "There one second and gone the next."
He turned his back to the bronze box and shuffled across the sunburned carpet towards the viewing room door.
"We have everything ready for tomorrow, Mr. Wolfe," the director said, tugging at his tie. "No need to worry about a thing."
Francis rambled through the doorway and into the hall without a word.
I'm not worried. I'm alone.
Francis unlocked his Ford F-250. Rust bubbled through the banana-colored paint along the bottom edge, making it appear overripe. The door creaked and popped as he tugged it open.
He reached over the threadbare fabric and hauled a small wooden stepping stool with a rope tied around one leg off the passenger seat. He stooped down, placed the footstool on the ground, held onto the loose end of the line, and stepped into the truck.
Francis drew the step into the vehicle with the cord, sat it on the bench beside him, and closed the whiny door.
What am I going to do?
He grabbed the wheel at the midnight position and rested his forehead on his knuckles.
I can't do this.
He leaned back with his head against the rear window and slid his fingers into his white, unkempt hair, thinking.
"Well, Ruth. I never reckoned the Old Chief would outlast you," he said, lowering his arms and caressing the cracked, tri-spoked steering wheel.
He gazed at the backs of his spotted hands, icy veins pushing through the skin.
"Sixty years. Just the three of us."
He thrust his hips forward, dug his key out of his pocket, and twisted it in the ignition. The truck's engine cranked a few times and roared to life, passing a puff of oil into the long hedge framing the mortuary's property line.
"Then, in a flash, you just blinked away," he said, putting the truck in gear and driving out of the parking lot.
Traffic raced past him as he clung to the right lane, going ten miles under the speed limit. A murdered-out Honda Civic with a performance muffler buzzed by, making much less headway than its racket implied. Stop lights came and went and disappeared altogether as he made his way out of the city and into the mountains east of the valley.
Francis bounced up the narrow, zig-zag trail cut into the side of the mountain. The tires drummed a steady beat of small rocks against the floor of his truck. He didn't pass any other cars, and nobody passed him. The canyon appeared as empty as his heart.
He pulled to the left shoulder of the dirt road, parallel with a steep drop, and braked to a stop. Dust from the roadway billowed up through the air vents, filling the cabin with the earthy flavor of nature.
"I don't know if there's anything out there, Ruthy," Francis said, staring down the slope, "but we can find out together."
He wanted to turn the wheel and stomp on the gas, but something held him.
The word came as a feeling more than a sound, a touch on the heart from some distant hand.
"Wait? Why would I want to survive alone?"
The impression bit into his soul, shaking it and refusing to let go. He banged his head on the steering wheel and wailed. His raspy lamentation bounced off the windows and back into his ears. Tears dropped from his eyes, making splatter marks in the dust coating the horn.
He fished in his pants pockets for his handkerchief but couldn't find it.
Did I drop it at the funeral home?
He checked his shirt pocket and touched the edge of a business card. He pulled it out and flipped it around to read the front.
Jaelle: A spiritual medium for troubles large and small.
"Where'd this come from?" he asked, wiping his nose on his cuff.
Francis dropped his hand into his lap and leaned his head against the window. He gazed through the clumps of trees peppering the bluff at the roiling river a couple of hundred feet below. The thought of turning to crystal balls and tarot cards made him cringe. He knew down in his bones he couldn't drive to his doom, though, at least not today.
“Ruth doesn’t want this,” he said, turning his truck away from the edge.
He tucked the strange card back into his pocket, wiped his eyes on his sleeve again, and drove home to make an appointment.
"I used to think of death as an event."
Francis let his words evaporate into the sandalwood haze that softened Jaelle's parlor without elaborating. He drummed his fingers against the dark velvet cloth draped over the round table between him and the wizened medium.
Dot, dot, dot, dot . . . dot, dot, dot, dot...
Jaelle stopped dueling with the drawstrings of a small weathered pouch, letting them fall slack in her knotted hands.
"Isn't it?" she asked, the weight of her thick, age-frosted bun pulling the pile of hair back on her head as she looked up at him.
"What, death?" he said, meeting her gaze. "No. It's a process."
He peered into her dark eyes. Her irises and pupils appeared as two black pools in the candlelight. Ghosts of past joys and sorrows lined her eyes and mouth. Candlelight glinted off the ornate silver scarab set with a radiant emerald that pinned her bun in place.
It's funny how age becomes more beautiful as we mature.
He caught himself staring and dropped his eyes to her hands instead. He had come here twice a week since the day of Ruth's funeral. On his first visit, he expected floating tables and ghostly moans. So far, they just talked while she fiddled with her hide bag, though. The lack of theatrics in these sessions disappointed him, but at least seeing Jaelle gave him someone to talk to.
Dot, dot, dot, dot…
She smiled, studying Francis over the rims of her round spectacles for another moment.
"Explain," she said, looking down and entangling her fingers into the strings of the tiny leather sack again.
"Well, when my… When Ruth died, it didn't happen in an instant," he said, breathing more incense than air. "Her passing took months. She withered as a cut rose in water. Her petals faded and fell. Her stem wilted. Her life dissipated for almost a year until, one day, she left. The processes is still going on."
Stop bringing up your wife, you dolt!
Francis looked around the room, bouncing his leg and drumming his fingers, hunting for something to say. The soft fabric muffled each tap, attempting to hush his nerves like a warm blanket might calm a fussy child.
But isn't that why you're here?
The black cloth grew like moss across the table, up the walls, and climbed in folds to a peak in the center of the ceiling. The dense pile swallowed most of the light and sound in the room, creating a cozy, tent-shaped womb.
"It stinks, you know, being alone?" he said. "It's worse than finding a bird dropping in your lemonade or pulling on somebody else's sweaty underpants at the gym by mistake."
Smooth save, Francis.
The hope of a spiritual connection to his spouse drove him here months ago. He still wanted that, but he also discovered parts of the old him resurrecting themselves when he visited Jaelle, bits he thought had perished with his wife.
Dot, dot, dot, dot . . . dot, dot, dot, dot...
"What's with all the tapping?"
"I'm anxious, I guess," he said, silencing his fingers. "Or maybe it's Morse code for the letter H."
As in, how about dinner?
A torrent of emotions flooded through him. Joy at the thought of sharing an intimate conversation over untouched food with Jaelle and trembling over Ruth punching him square in the essence if he did. No, he couldn't pursue these new feelings.
'Til death do you part.
"How Navy of you," she said. "Do you have to do it?"
"Yes, but only because I like how your eyebrows bristle and scratch at each other when I do."
He leaned forward and picked up a blue-speckled cup resembling a hollowed-out cowbird egg. Butterflies bubbled in his chest as he blew on the amber tea Jaelle had given him. A warm plume of steam curled into his nostrils as he sipped. The flavor ran across his tongue like a boiled nest.
What about the mysterious business card and the voice in the canyon? Could those be signs? Permission?
"What's in the pouch?" he asked, trying to stanch his inner conversation.
"How long are you planning to fondle the bag before we get at it?"
She shot him a look, raising an eyebrow.
"No . . . no! I didn't mean… I . . . I meant the medium stuff!" he said, heat crawling from his collar and up his face. "The medium stuff!"
"We'll get there, Francis," Jaelle said, smirking. "I promise."
He dabbed his embarrassment from his forehead with his shirtsleeve.
She plucked the silver pin from her bun and shook her head. Hair spilled down her shoulders and back, framing her face in soft waves. She nudged the end of the hairpin into the knot. The beetle bobbed, reflecting candlelight as she worked to loosen the drawstrings.
Hold on, what did she mean by "getting there"?
"There are some fruits and fresh corn in the kitchen if you want to . . . cool off . . . while you wait," Jaelle said, smiling. "The door is behind the drape there."
He stood and poked at the black velour cloaking the room, trying to find an opening. The fuzzy material released its captive dust as he wriggled the curtain in search of ingress. He rushed for his mouth, but his hand arrived too late. The big-bang sneeze birthed a cluster of spit and mucous into the velvet universe surrounding him. He pulled his sleeve down over his thumb and tried obliterating the constellation before she noticed.
"Did you know that phlegm is one of the four bodily humors of medieval physiology?" she said, eyes still on her work.
Another wave of humiliating heat ignited beneath Francis's chin and engulfed his face. He continued rubbing his shirtsleeve against the drape, not looking at Jaelle.
"No, but I'm sure it's at my expense."
"Not that kind of humor. Humors, as in bodily fluids. In Hippocratic medicine, humors correspond with temperaments. Phlegm signifies apathetic behavior in a person."
"Well, I'm not apathetic, but I am sorry about the phlegm brulee."
"Don't dirty your shirt," she said, laughing. "There's a towel in the kitchen if you must clean."
Francis stopped scrubbing and tapped the curtain to find an opening, careful not to punch up any dust. He found a crack in the veil and slipped into the kitchen.
Sunshine blared through the windows and ricocheted off the white walls. He shielded his eyes on his way to the sink, the chocolate hardwood creaking with each step.
He cupped his hands under the running water until it cooled and splashed it against his face.
"You're an idiot, old man," he said, wetting his face again.
He pulled a pale towel from the brass hoop beside the sink's window and dried his face. A bright red rooster with emerald tail feathers stared back at him from the embroidered cloth as he drew it away. He ran his fingers through the terrycloth, staring at the bird.
Ruth owned the same hand-towel.
She loved rooster-themed kitchen items; towels, placemats, and salt and pepper shakers. She believed roosters signified honesty, courage, strength, and watchfulness.
Everything a wife should be.
She lived up to all those things during their sixty years of marriage.
Francis used the towel to wipe the memories from his eyes, then wetted it in the sink.
He pushed his way through the drape again and back into the parlor, where Jaelle still tugged at the drawstrings of the little pouch. He rubbed the remaining sneeze stains from Jaelle's curtain, taking care not to soil the rooster.
"You didn't get any corn."
"Oh, I never eat corn. I don't trust foods that can survive a trip through the intestines. You never know if what you're getting is fresh or just rinsed off and served again."
"That's disgusting, Francis!"
"Precisely my point, my dear," he said, attempting to lighten his maudlin mood.
She unbunched her eyebrows and shook her head, a slight grin turning up the corner of her mouth.
Ruth used to smile the same way whenever I said something absurd.
"You miss her, don't you?"
"Yes, you might say I'm ‘Ruthless.’"
She smiled as he lifted the egg-like cup from the table and gulped down the tepid remains of his tea.
"Does the pouch have something to do with why I'm here?"
"You might say that."
"Oh, well, let me untie it for you."
"It doesn't work that way, Francis."
Aegean veins snaked and roiled beneath her spotted flesh as she pushed and rolled the decorative pin into the stubborn knot.
"I once dreamed I passed away," he said, mesmerized by the sparkling scarab.
"An emptiness trapped me as I left, and I couldn't see anything, no matter which direction I turned. I screamed into the darkness, and a door popped open, filling the space with light. A multitude of people jumped at me and shouted, 'Surprise!'
"I saw my entire family surrounding me, celebrating my return. Ruth, my mom and dad, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and loved ones I never even knew in life joined in. Of course, I stood there, bum naked and confused because that's how dreams are. The familial group roared at the look on my face. Before I could die again of embarrassment, my mother pushed through the crowd and swaddled me in a robe of eternal sunshine.
"I didn't feel mocked but rather a perfect love."
"Love at your expense?" Jaelle said with a smile.
"Perhaps," he said, "but isn't that the best kind?"
"What about the pure, unadulterated love of choosing to give everything you are, all you have; heart, mind…" she said, looking up and meeting his eyes, "…soul?"
The conflict raged within him as she poked her toe over the line of vulnerability. She offered him a peek at her yearning, expecting a glint of his in return until desire spilled over the emotional levy in waves.
What about Ruth, though? What about the dream? Could he be with his wife again? What if his marriage vows got things wrong, and they could be together again? Wouldn't that make Jaelle a betrayal? He needed time to think, time to decide.
She's so beautiful, and she's right here, though.
"Do you think people can choose whether to go or stay?" He asked, retreating.
"What do you mean?" she asked, setting the pouch and pin on the table.
"My... Ruth clung to life for months. It seemed the worse she got, the more she hung on. Do you think she chose to do so for my sake?"
"Are you implying life and death are a choice?"
He spun the empty tea cup in his fingers, considering the question.
"Maybe. Everything in life is a choice, so it makes sense if we could choose when to go. Perhaps age and illness coerce us into making that decision."
"Ah, you figured it out," Jaelle said, waving her arms over the leather pouch with a flourish.
Something writhed within the bag, and the drawstrings twisted against each other.
"What in the...? How…?" he said, leaning forward in his chair.
The knot unraveled, and the pull strings flung themselves to either side of the pouch. She picked up the sack and stretched its maw open.
"Are you ready to make a choice, Francis?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you want to see her again?"
"I . . . I don't understand."
"You must know you have a choice before you can make one," she said. "Now you know. So, do you want to be with your wife again?"
He tipped his seat onto its front two legs, almost dumping himself on the floor, his decision made.
Jaelle stood and retrieved a glass pitcher of water and an item resembling a chamberstick from a mahogany chest with bone inlays standing behind her. She set the things on the table to the side of the bag.
Francis eyed the odd chamberstick. Instead of a cylinder to poke a candle in, the device contained a crystal pyramid with the top sliced off. Gray smoke churned inside.
She turned the bag upside down and rattled six wrist bones into her hand, each with a different symbol carved into it. She perched the bones on the blunted tip of the pyramid, with the marks facing up. Next, she grabbed the pin and winced a trickle of blood from her finger. She squeezed against the wound, dripping blood onto the bones and filling the markings.
"Stare into this dark glass, dear man, and you will find the light."
Francis gripped the edges of the table and stared into the smoky chamber.
Jaelle wiped her bloody digit on her dress and reached for the pitcher.
"Blood from bone," she said, pouring liquid over the stack of bones.
The liquid flowed down the sides and disappeared into the pyramid's base. The smoke in the pyramid dissipated as the water washed the sanguine fluid from the bones. Light exploded from the candlestick and pierced the room.
He stood up, knocking over his chair, as rays brighter than the sun flared from the pyramid. Glory burned through the room, blistering the velvet veil like celluloid against a hot bulb. He expected to see the walls of Jaelle's house on fire. But, instead, brilliant perfection appeared through the drapes as they scorched and fell.
Jaelle kept pouring.
The splendor torched his skin. The flesh on his hands tightened, and his face stretched on his skull. The hair on his knuckles turned from gray to black. He covered his eyes as another flash of brilliance erupted from the pyramid, burning away the final remains of the parlor.
Everything went silent except the sound of trickling water.
He opened his eyes. Only the pitcher and chamberstick remained, suspended in midair. Water from the pitcher trickled across the now clean bones.
He reached for the handle of the floating pitcher, but his fingers touched flesh instead of glass. He pulled away as a hand appeared around the handle. Then an arm. Then shoulders and a face. Her face!
"Ruth? Is that you?"
She smiled and set down the vessel.
An eternity away, Jaelle placed the bones back into the pouch and watched it tangle itself shut. She put the bag in the chest behind her, next to the pitcher, chamberstick, and pin. She walked to the other side of the table, kneeled beside Francis's body lying on the floor, and kissed his forehead.
"This gift is all I am, sweet man," she said, cupping his cheek. "Everything I have to offer."
She pulled her business card from his shirt pocket, stood, and held it over one of the candles.
"Wait!!!" she whispered as the card vanished.
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