The shade cast by the temporary altar let the summer heat trickle through, enough to tug at the armpits but not enough to complain about if you practically lived in a tux. Xiyuan had slept in stiffer collars and worse conditions. Disregarding tolerance, if he was able to notice the hairs on the back of his hand prickling in the warmth, it meant he had the presence of mind to do so. And that was progress.
“I’m still not sure what came over me. Thanks again.” If the shock had any benefit, it was that resetting his focus allowed Xiyuan to stabilize after a quick but heartfelt chat. He tried to smile at Bernard. “What happened after I left?”
“Has the mood lightened enough for us to speak candidly?”
“Distract me. Please. I could use a return to normality.”
“In that case, I’m afraid it will be at least another week before we can have him around for cards.”
“Great. I suspect you enjoyed yourself, then.”
“I certainly did! Let’s consider this an opportunity to branch out. It’ll be a nice change of pace for you to lose to someone else.”
“Yes, I can’t miss a single lesson in humility before I revert to my pretentious ways.” Xiyuan touched Bernard’s cheek. On the tailcoat closet’s top shelf was a retractable ruler to solve the recurring problem of one partner accidentally choosing a jacket tailored for the other, though checking the inner-pocket embroidery was usually faster. “And you can be in charge of lunch and hors d’oeuvres. I look forward to an under-seasoned, fibrous, post-spaghetti mass, an unopened box of cereal—also under-seasoned somehow—and a flaming bag of chips, ‘flaming’ referring to de facto combustion rather than metaphorical capsaicin content. Sorry. Crisps.”
“It’ll take more than that to embarrass me. Flambéing is a well-known specialty of mine.”
A sound behind them shocked the couple into detangling. Leaving space for the Social Bunny, as high-school dance chaperones would put it. Kendra dropped into the far seat with enough force for little sheets of grass to pool up behind the legs.
“Hello, Kendra.” Xiyuan’s tone suggested their previous conversation hadn’t been particularly funerary, at least to his blue-blood standards. As if he’d ever had to err on the side of caution around her.
“Are you here to speak with Xiyuan? I can leave you two alone.” Bernard didn’t give Kendra time to respond before rising from his seat to examine the hanging marigolds.
“Actually, I’m here to talk to you.” Moving to the seat Bernard had left brought her slightly closer to the funeral display.
“Alright.” He rejoined the conversation, occupying the far seat. “What is it, then?”
“Bernard, what’s it like to die?”
If Xiyuan had been sitting under a roof, his head would have hit it. “Kendra!”
Bernard shrugged. “I got used to it.”
“But what did the actual moment of death feel like?”
“Kendra!” This is the kind of shit Xiyuan wouldn’t stand for; she knew that perfectly well. “Where is this coming from?”
She put on a show of nonchalance. “Does this really surprise you? We’re at a funeral where one of the attendees has actually died. I can’t believe no one’s talking about it.”
“No one? You walked in on him casually deploying gallows humor.”
“I mean, besides him.” Kendra regretted choosing the seat she did, smack in the middle of a nonverbal exchange. “And in a semi-private conversation. It’s not like he’s stealing the show.”
“Right, but although he has no boundaries around me, it’s different with you here.” She looked at Bernard, who nodded. No doubt Xiyuan was at work behind her making eight facial expressions in three seconds that amounted to a paragraph’s worth of information. If they wanted to make her explain herself again, fine. She’d play her hand. Dead mother trumps decorum.
“Look, you know people mourn in their own ways. I don’t know how to feel, honestly, other than confused. Sad doesn’t begin to cover it. This whole thing came out of nowhere. It’s like, I need to feel close to her to move on, I need to know how she felt. And there’s only one person here who can tell me that.” She let her guard down and her eyes strayed toward the urn. It’s so small, too small. There should be a law against putting someone who days ago was talking about how many birds she saw on vacation into a vessel the size of a soup pot. She jerked back to come face-to-face with Bernard. “Can I borrow you for a moment?”
Xiyuan must have lost the silent argument, because he got up. “Alright, I’m out. I don’t want to hear my husband describing his own violent and untimely death while your mother’s violent and untimely death—I remind you—is fresh in all of our minds.”
“I’ll be right here, love.” Bernard caught Xiyuan before he reached the stage and kissed him on the cheek.
Kendra moved back to the far seat and leaned toward Bernard as he joined her. “Right, I’ll try to speak quietly.”
“I can still hear you. Wait.” Xiyuan held up a finger and turned over his left shoulder. “Is there someone else?”
Kendra followed his gaze to Shu and Jasper. Impeccable timing; it’s as if he sensed when his father needed a member of the younger generation to keep him occupied. Impeccable but also slightly creepy. He’s good, but not that good. There was a chance Shu had gone searching for his father and just now happened to show up with the child distraction, and she’d have to text him later about how astonishing a coincidence it was.
Bernard scoffed. She leaned in toward him, making sure he noticed her eyes rolling. “Yeah, I’m not making a beeline for the kid either. We’ll just stay in our zone.”
Shu conversing in his father’s native language reminded Kendra of “Flight of the Bumblebee”—but less relentless—and Xiyuan responded just as fluidly and melodically. Jasper took it up an octave. And her only choice was to watch, since Bernard’s attention was also on the exchange. She caught a single ‘Xishu’ and was proud of herself for it. Not much else. After enthusiastic nodding from all parties, Jasper took off down the aisle, leading Shu by the hand. Xiyuan addressed Bernard before following.
Bernard turned to her, likely sensing her bemusement. “He’s going to mentor the child in piano.”
“Figures, for him. But kind of a weird thing to do at a funeral.”
“What’s that you said? People mourn in their own ways. These ceremonies are for the living.”
“Yeah, I suppose you don’t get to go to your own funeral.”
“You don’t feel the pain of your own absence, either. That’s a problem to be dealt with by everyone else.”
“I mean, I guess, but if it’s so traumatic for the living to deal with, why can you crack jokes? I’m not buying that the mourners have it worse than the person who actually died.”
“Would you like me to be candid even if it may scare you?”
“Lay it on me. The more info the better.”
“Yes, it was frightening. What are you expecting me to say?” Though it might have been wishful thinking on her part, his voice cracked momentarily. “It’s not one of those sensations one can readily put into words. Though, come to think of it, I’m sure you’ve had comparable experiences on a smaller scale. Have you ever been overwhelmed by eating something spicy?”
“Of course. Spice Fest curry challenge. I was nine and dumb.” Not that he’d asked for such information, but she still felt compelled to offer it.
“Well, in that case, I’m sure you had some knowledge of what ‘spicy’ meant before, and expected that familiarity to guide you through.” Kendra nodded. “And so the building sensation immediately after the first bite didn’t take you by surprise. But when your sinuses started burning past what you’d thought possible, you had no recourse. Simply knowing what it meant for a dish to be spicy wasn’t enough. Worrying that it might be worse than anything you’ve ever experienced before would not have prepared you. Pain? Burning? Worse? These are nothing but words! And the only words that escape from a tortured throat are pleas. The fire steals until there is nothing left to burn. Years after it has ended, you may feel it; it may only take the mention of the offending food, or a flash of color, or a smell, and the memory corrupts your breath to remind you how little time has passed, despite how long it may seem. But this pain arises from shock, and shock is a luxury you do not have in the moment. It only surfaces after you’ve been granted temporary respite. So you’ll have to forgive me when I claim that the feeling is indescribable, although I hope I’ve been poetic enough in my explanation to impress upon you why this is the case.”
“Yes. It’s worse than I could imagine, and if I try to relate it back to what I’ve been through, I’m always going to miss the mark. If I get what you’re saying, knowing that is the best I can do right now.” The dull sensation rushed Kendra’s tastebuds, flooded her soft palate, and escaped through her nose. “It’s like having survived a traumatic event, but you didn’t actually survive.”
“What were you thinking about? Did your life flash before your eyes?”
Bernard was hunched over, not so much inspecting the marigolds in his field of vision as threatening them with a good old-fashioned telekinetic plucking. “Right, that’s the cliché, isn’t it? But in a burning house, although you suspect you’re going to die any minute, you don’t know which moment is your last. Any time you can buy while pushing away the dread is not spent on reflection, rather, you do anything you can think of to escape. And I unwisely elected to put out the fire until it was too late to run, and I shouldn’t have to explain the outcome of that. By the time you draw your last breath, you realize the time you spent flailing about was wasted, and you have but a moment to decide between reflecting on who you’ve become and not squandering your one last chance to rescue yourself. See, that is, you are unable to reflect on the possibility that you could die, because you are already dying. Worrying about what could happen is something we can do only when there is nothing more pressing to worry about in the moment. I imagine that my mind may have gone there if death were certain and inevitable, but as it happened, I could not convince myself to give up on my own survival.”
“Until you came back.”
“Yes, and it would have been much easier not to! What it feels like as the last moment of life leaves your body, I can only describe as ‘nothing.’ You can see nothing in pitch black, but to not only see nothing, but to feel, experience, think, or be nothing is—it is not peaceful! It cannot be. It is nothing. In sleep, even dreamless sleep, you still experience the passage of time. When you wake up gasping to catch your own last breath, how much later would you expect it to be? Because it could have been seconds, days, or years, and you would have no way of knowing. By then, there’s no point in reflecting on your past self. It’s like waking up to realize what came before was real and you are now the dream. You are your own fading memory and your own last breath. The life you clung to has been corrupted! Even coming back, as I have, the person you were before no longer exists—yes, it would have been much easier to simply fade away!
“And so the moment of death itself is jarring, as is the realization that you’ve been dragged back gasping and violated, but it doesn’t end at that! The next moment you’re awake in your own house and where there were once personal effects scattered about, the entire place seems eerily clean. Not a speck of ash in sight, either; if Mimsy hadn’t resurfaced along with me, I would have doubted my own memory, clear as it was. The only word I can think to describe it is cold. It was as if my pallor had infected the house itself. And yet despite having no living relatives, Mimsy and I were so lucky as to have tourists passing by each year, keeping the house warm, as it were, and our memory alive. I believe that’s why our spirits persisted for so long. I gave the onlookers somewhat of a peace offering: I let up a bit so that the hedge maze was usable again, and focused on painting. Before, I had a habit of giving bad directions and pretending the walls were alive. That, I’ll admit. So we kept the estate bustling with life in a way we could not, but it was a reminder that in truth, we hadn’t belonged there since that day.”
“And what happened when you got over the initial shock?”
“That’s assuming one can get over the initial shock. People who haven’t come back from death tend to focus on the flight and possession aspects of being a spirit—the physical parts—but the most substantial change, by far, is to your mind. You do not feel what it is like to choke into nothingness only once. Oh no! To come back is to relive it without cease or repentance. I’ve been fighting it off the whole service. I’m fighting it off as we speak. When I thought about why I’d come back, and the usual reasons a spirit would be restless, I used to believe undeath itself was vengeance for Mimsy’s and my killer. Think about it! There was a chance to forget my crime and the smoke in my throat and the bubbling away of my own skin and that wretched nothingness, and for whatever reason, I passed up on that chance.”
“Whoa.” The way Kendra’s train of thought was going reminded her of the Hydra: every question she asked caused three more to burst from the amnion covering what should have been an open wound. “So it’s not just that one moment, it’s a permanent change. So when—if—I see my mother again, that’s what she’s going to be dealing with.”
“I believe our experiences will differ, but there is one thing I can say for sure. She will not be the same. No one could die and come back the same on the other end.”
“She can still resurrect herself, like you did.”
“She can! But what strikes me is how the living speak of loss. It’s a loss for you! As for the undead, we gained something we never asked for, the feeling of our own expiration. That split second of nothingness. A dreadful burden! I can build a life to replace what’s been taken away from me, I can recover my joy and my body, but I can never get rid of these memories.”
“So you’re saying it seems like you get cool powers as a ghost, but the memories of death are actually like an unwanted gift from the reaper that you can’t get rid of.”
“That’s as best I can describe it. As you see me today, Kendra, I cannot be said to have lost my life or body. Only my past, and death is hardly the only event that can uproot your life in that manner.”
“Fascinating. Seriously. I’m not kidding when I say I can’t believe no one’s talking about this.” Herself included. She imagined some interfamilial conspiracy to keep the girl who, despite her aesthetic, was inarguably a poser when it came to matters of death, from grabbing a coffee with the actual resurrected poltergeist. But on second thought, Bernard had shed his visual indicators of undead-ness, the emotional transparency and all, by the time she’d met him, and her inexperienced teenage self had fallen into the trap of viewing him and Xiyuan as a single unit that under no circumstances was to be removed from the pedestal, having even less exposure than the unhappy adults subject to The Timer, the one where retching was near-inevitable, like how the general public can enjoy a gymnastics performance but it takes effort for the amateur gymnast to tamp down their feelings of fuck you for being better than me. They didn’t hang with the same groups either, though she was beginning to see the appeal. “You’re talking about death as a form of trauma—and now that I say it out loud, it makes sense, given that we can come back—but it’s not something I would have come up with on my own. No, really! This would help a lot of people! It’s already helping me.”
“I’m glad I can be of assistance.”
“No, even, when you think about the number of people who’ve died, or the people who haven’t but are still walking around with different levels of trauma, this would be groundbreaking. You need to write a freaking book or something. Like I’m thinking about it again now, and I can’t believe how many people have died but how few actual resources there are on the emotional part of death and resurrection. How come you never talk about this?” She was already envisioning weekly meetings, Bernard holding a glass of nectar and looking grounded in his ethereal apartment while the two of them planned a poetic revolution. At least he could answer her questions if nothing else. If there was one thing bugging her in particular, Kendra wasn’t clear on the ‘nothing’ part: she recognized that in order to experience that ‘nothing,’ one would still have to have a consciousness, but she wasn’t going to write off the idea entirely.
“Because it’s not something one can communicate, it’s something you have to experience for yourself. I could never do it justice. Kendra, even an attempt to describe it is going to give people misplaced confidence that they understand.”
“I don’t know, Bernard, I think there’s a level between capturing it accurately and trivializing it with these jokes.”
“As if there were a proper way to handle this issue with the living? You understand, there are benefits and drawbacks to whatever I do, and this way our families don’t question the topic further—usually—or trouble themselves needlessly with my well-being. Would you believe me if I said this was for Yuan’s sake? Have you seen how restless he gets when I have a burden he can’t share? I’d rather have him rolling his eyes at me.” He may have smirked while Kendra wasn’t looking. “But with a young lady like yourself with such a curiosity, and at such a time, there’s no use hiding it.”
“Yeah, I’m always down to talk about this kind of stuff. But I have to ask, can you actually recover from something like that? Are you honest-to-god doing okay now?” It was the least direct way she could think of to let him know the indifference came off so, so much more disturbing than he intended.
And as expected, he was still fidgeting and staring at the plants as coolly as if she’d asked about his favorite drink. “You’ll have to remember I’m a century into undeath. While you may be hearing of this for the first time, it’s old hat for me. In the time you’ve known me, have I ever struck you as a man troubled beyond repair? Or do I seem content most days?”
“I mean.” She gestured toward Xiyuan, who was cruelly facepalming at Jasper’s piano inexperience. “You did luck out.”
“And drawing on your observations, how long per day do you think we spend reflecting on my death, and how much do you think my mistakes, relative to other qualities, factored into his decision to pursue me?”
“Uh, not long and not much.”
“So what does it matter how the world sees me? What you have to understand is that the world sees what you put in front of it. I used to think my lot in life was to work hard to offset myself from my lack of talent. And when I spent those years painting, it was making up for lost time, in my eyes. Time that was lost because I was fundamentally broken. At least I thought. What reason would a viewer have for appreciating the work of one who killed his wife and suffered daily for it, as opposed to the work of a healthy, more prolific artist with a spotless record? Then it took but one person to realize I was more than my skill and faults.”
“Yes. We get it. You two are adorable.”
“No, Kendra, I am referring to myself.” He did that on purpose. Jackass. “If I considered myself unworthy of living because of my past mistakes, nothing he could have done could change that. When you hate yourself, it’s easier to live for someone else—it’s true! But that was never his role. Rather, I realized how pointless it is to center your own guilt when what truly matters is the person you’ve harmed. I trained myself to focus on Mimsy’s well-being, my work, the few people who would talk to me. Anyone or anything except myself, really. And the guilt started to quiet down. And I could be alone with my thoughts long before I met any of you. And the memories are still there, but further and further between. And it occurred to me, Kendra, that a restless spirit may not be searching to change the world, for vengeance or other purposes, but may simply be grasping at that desire to recover. And so I had been content, or some form of it, long before we met.”
So if Kendra was getting this, you have to find peace to find peace—partial peace that accumulates, maybe? A spend-money-to-make-money situation? “Do you think it’s possible for my mother to heal?”
“Do I think it’s possible? Now what way would I have of knowing that?”
“C’mon, can you even just speculate?”
“What I hope I’ve impressed upon you, Kendra, is that while my situation proves it is possible to mentally recover from death to some extent, the approach I take may not work for everyone, and it may not even be the tidiest. That’s why I’m reluctant to give you a clear answer aside from the fact that it is her responsibility alone. But if you want a role, clearly she’ll need you and your brother to keep her connection to the physical world. Were you hoping to say anything to her when she resurfaces?”
“Oh, about that.” She had one toe on the ground, tracing a divot into the grass, and pleasantly noted that the dirt would be harder to spot against her warm-toned black shoe. “Yeah, so I guess what I’m hoping to talk about most is more for my own sake than hers—what you said about intentionality, the meaning of her death totally changes if you know everyone’s intentions. Hers most of all. They’re the hardest for me to get at, and I don’t think anyone else is going to try. But now I’m getting the sense that I should only push that way if it’s going to help her.”
“You’re right; if you hadn’t already said so, I would have advised that you allow her to control the conversation. One other thing. No matter how long you’ve spent waiting, remember that inactive spirits feel no passage of time. Her first appearance will probably be spent in shock.”
“Sounds like the things she needs to change are under her control.”
“Not mine. I’ll accept that.”
Kendra hadn’t noticed the switch, but realized she’d stopped watching Bernard think as he spoke, her eyes resting instead on the urn. She couldn’t hear Bernard’s words in her mother’s voice. The parts of Claudia that Kendra carried with her cried out in sympathy, what she understood as a magnetic yearning, a channel between them blocked by a single sensation. An experience confined to a fraction of a second. The bond had always been there, and she was aware of it now more than ever, the obstruction keeping her in place so that she could look in any direction but not reach any of what she wanted.
“But damn, Bernard, I can’t stop thinking back to that moment of terror. That bit of nothing you’re talking about. It may be one part and yet it seems like the key to the whole thing.”
“That’s our nature, isn’t it? To give our attention to whatever grabs it first. And it bothers us when the matter pushed to the front of our mind is one we don’t understand.”
“True, there’s no tension when you’re focused on the easy bits.” Which Kendra wasn’t entirely against: this kind of conversation takes weeks to process and you may as well look at cats while doing it. “But this is all too much. I need to break it. I need something else.”
“That’s to be expected. If I may, what I said about awareness goes both ways. We’re quite good at ignoring things that don’t beg for our attention. Imagine you’ve cut your finger. Now we know the cut is there because we feel pain at the site, and although it takes but a second for the wound to form, it may hurt for days before it closes fully. And how do we know whether the cut is healing? We do not feel it! We infer from our other senses. Healing is silent. The cut is not.” He re-crossed his legs in the other direction. “Put another way, sometimes pain is fast and contentment is slow, and other times it’s the opposite. My point being that we tend to ignore the slow parts if we’re not looking for them.”
“Huh.” She gave in, allowing herself to be drawn toward her mother’s remains. Bernard stayed put. “I get what you’re saying. If you’re not looking past the obvious, it’s not the details you’re missing, it’s the entire picture.”
It was the closest she’d been so far. Claudia’s urn was three steps away. Three steps and a chasm and a bridge that hadn’t been built. Three steps and a lifetime’s reassurance of love, an unknowable moment; a wish to pacify her mother and the part of herself filled with yearning, but that was only a fantasy; a wish that the sensation would stay a part of her, but the scream would go to a low hum, in a way she hadn’t yet figured out; whatever distance there was and the century it might take for some future generation to look at her and see someone inspiring and unbroken. Time either wasted or invested on a desire she couldn’t tell was selfish or selfless.
And around her, tens if not hundreds of seminal moments passed by unnoticed, while her surroundings’ decaying physicality threatened more still. She’d spent a day idle. Her relationships stagnated. The furniture was wearing down. She was one day older.
“And I’m listening.”
She closed her eyes and let herself drift into the field of marigolds.