I stood alone as an island while the crowd weaved in and out around me. Sweat pooled in my underarms and crept down my skin, tickling and making me shiver. I longed to laugh out loud, but I knew it would not be proper under the circumstances. Instead, I fidgeted with my hair—anything to keep my mind from the suit, my only black one. The one Marina had ordered for me and made me wear everywhere. Well, not everywhere. Just all those places where her useless friends were to be found.
“You would look dapper in it, just like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. All the girls will be swooning over you,” She had whispered the words as she draped the jacket across my shoulders that first time. She had followed the words with a kiss, long and wet, the kind that made me go weak in the knees. She had left me with no choice but to follow her wish. I never told her, in so many words, that it was snug under the arms and made me feel constricted.
It was no use telling her anything. What she wanted, she got; through looks and smiles, words or kisses.
I wore the same suit today. Even though the sleeves pinched me, and the prickly collar made my neck itch. The homburg I purchased for this occasion, the one with the black satin ribbon all around in a nice little circle just like a noose, sat on the sideboard next to where I stood with a suitably proper look on my face. The suit impressed Marina’s friends. And today, they had collected in droves.
The little parlor was crowded, with people milling around, looking for seats. Those who had found one refused to meet anyone’s eyes, scared they might have to relinquish the hold on their own. More people than I expected had turned up, and the number of chairs had fallen short. Marina would have liked that. Not the chaos…, but the fact that so many people had turned out for her funeral. She was like that. Glad of the company, always.
I had put up a photograph of her so that she could have a look at the assembled mourners. Dozens of candles of various hues and heights shimmered near the base of the photo like offerings before a deity. Every available surface was overflowing with bouquets of all kinds–peonies, roses, gardenias, zinnias, but lilies dominated the lot. I had asked everyone to bring lilies. They were her favorite.
The sickly sweet smell of wilting blooms permeated the room. The atmosphere felt weighed down with the fragrance of decay, candle smoke, and grief. The casket stood at one side, its open lid an invitation for everyone to take a last look at the deceased.
I was tired of running my hands through my hair and fumbling with the solid black tie. People were murmuring, whispering to each other. What were they carrying about, this lot? My lack of tears? I murmured an apology to the person standing next to me and proceeded to the casket as if drawn by invisible strings.
Marina lay in the casket, her hands folded on her chest, a faint smile adorning her inanimate features. Her pale complexion was set off well by the red velvet lining of the casket, the dark mahogany polished to a shine. I had spared no expenses. Only the best for her. Dressed in her favorite dress, she looked like a princess in repose, waiting for her prince to kiss her and wake her from sleep.
The undertaker had done a commendable job. No one could make out the once gaping wound on her unbroken skin, or the stains of the blood that had oozed out as I had pulled out the axe from her convulsing body. I had a flashback of the thick sticky liquid running down my fingers, leaving scarlet trails on my palm, and I shuddered.
Someone sniffed at my side.
I was glad of the interruption and turned towards the sound. It was one of those young men who followed her around like a sick puppy. His nose was as red as that of Rudolph the Reindeer, and his valiant but vain efforts to keep his fat tears hidden were a joke.
“She was an angel, a beautiful soul,” the poor thing mumbled, his words barely a step away from sobs.
I smiled at him, less smile and more of a grimace, and murmured in acquiescence. “Yes, Marina was an angel. She is gone and has taken the light from my life. Now there is nothing but darkness left for me.”
I choked at the words I uttered, but anything to get the man to stop talking. The man would have collapsed on my shoulders if I had given him further encouragement.
Angel, was she? Maybe to the sniveling dimwit. No one knew Marina as I did. These people, her so-called friends, only saw what she wanted them to see. A cheerful woman, always ready with a kind word and a helping hand. No one saw the selfish controlling bitch she was at her core.
Did they have to suffer through their dinners alone like I did when she was out gallivanting late into the night with her quilting circle? Or to miss entire meals because she was needed by one of her damn friends? Oh, the endless notes –
The casserole is in the fridge. Heat it up. Sorry for going out on such short notice.
I’m just popping over to Trudy’s. Be back in a flash.
She always placed everyone’s needs above mine. Couldn’t she ask me even one time before stepping out? Those stupid hearts and kisses at the end of each note! As if a few imaginary kisses could make up for her wilful behavior. I was the man of the house. She needed to take my permission. But no, she did as she wanted, the she-devil. And boy, did she crave attention! How she flaunted that red-sequined dress that hugged her like a second skin, for all the Christmas crowd to watch? I had told her not to wear that one to any party. But was she ever one to listen to what she was told? Batting her eyelashes and flashing her smiles at all those besotted fools, right in front of my eyes. Did she think I was blind and could not see what she was up to? Or maybe she thought those pills she forced on me numbed me enough to carry on with impunity?
Always going on –
Did you take your pills, Ricky darling? You know you are not allowed to miss them.
Are you sure you popped those pills, dear? We don’t want you to pop out like a zit.
I hated that one. And I hated the pills. But Marina would be there with the blasted medication like clockwork. One after each meal. Ha! I knew how to hoodwink her. She never knew the tricks I learned over at rehab.
The evening dragged on with eulogies and speeches. Soon it was time to move the body for burial. A few of our neighbors, and her friends, stepped up to carry the casket to the hearse. As they mournfully shuffled with their load, with bowed heads and the sound of dirges urging them on, I wondered which of these men she had been cheating on me with.
For the past fortnight, there had been a suppressed excitement about her. She had become secretive, and more than once, I had caught her sneaking out of the farm late at night when she thought I was conked out in my bed with those infernal pills. I waited for her to come back. She would be back in just half an hour, but thirty minutes are enough for a roll in the hay, aren’t they? Never saw her with another man, but I could tell she was planning something. I knew it in my bones.
She had changed my medicines too. Their weight was different from the ones she used to bring me earlier. She never told me about any new pills. Who had given them to her? What plans was she cooking up? Was she poisoning me? My birthday was just around the corner. Must have been planning to carry out her scheme under cover of the festivities. But I was smarter than her. I could see right through her blasted plots. She wanted to get me out of the picture so she could enjoy her life with whoever she was getting close with. But I wasn’t going to let her. She was mistaken if she imagined she could get rid of me so easily. I knew how to take care of myself.
The train of my thoughts was derailed when someone cleared her throat at my side delicately to command my attention. It was Trudy. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and she held a casserole that she pressed into my hands.
“I am so sorry for your loss. I have no words that can provide comfort. It is a huge loss to me. Marina was like a sister, always there with a smile to lift me whenever I needed it.”
I bowed my head and nodded. Trudy loved the sound of her voice and could go on and on at even the slightest provocation. It was better to keep quiet and not fuel her loquacity.
She took a moment from her commiserations and leaning toward me, whispered,
“Did they find out who did it?”
I morphed my facial expression into that of a grieving husband, as pained and baffled as she pretended to be. She was a mean little harpy. Who searches for thrills at a funeral?
“The police are still looking into it. They are afraid it might be one of the vagabonds Marina was so fond of helping. She took pains not to make her work look like charity. She would make those tramps do some work around the farm and then offer them a hot meal and some warm clothes, hand-me-downs but clean and whole. We had a pile of freshly chopped firewood in the barn. I can’t even imagine someone taking the same axe to her.” I stifled a sob.
Trudy tutted and took my hands in hers.
“Now, you hold strong. It was Marina’s time, and God saw it fit to call her back. We are all there for you. Just come over when you need anything.”
I nodded at her invitation but had no intention of going over. I’m sure she was the one who had filled Marina’s head with ideas, considering the amount of time she spent with Trudy.
Why did she want me there? To finish what Marina couldn’t? Were they in on it together?
My mind was shocked by the enormity of that thought, and I could do nothing but stare after her as she turned and left. I followed her out, mulling over the idea in my head. The skies opened up, keeping in with the spirit of the funeral. The smell of lilies followed, keeping me company.
I hadn’t been to the cemetery since the day Marina had been consigned to the ground, forever. It was hard to decide whether I enjoyed her absence or rued the difficulties her death caused, more. The casseroles, the neighbors were kind enough to leave with me, finished with alarming alacrity. The house was a mess and it was hard to rustle up three meals a day. It was shocking to discover one couldn’t survive on beer alone.
I was lost in a beer-induced haze when the telephone broke my trance. It was the funeral director.
“Mr. Marsh, the granite headstone you had requested for Mrs. Marsh’s grave has been put up. Would you like to check if the job has been carried out as per your specifications?”
I groaned. I knew the neighbors had been talking. Not keeping me in an infinite supply of casseroles, were they? They had their doubts. I could not afford to not go anymore.
I put on the black suit once again and stepped out into the sun after a month. A woman sat by the cemetery gates selling flowers, and I bought a bouquet of white lilies. They were Marina’s favorite, after all.
The newly polished granite headstone gleamed in the sun. The simple epitaph I had selected was carved on the surface. ‘Till you rise again’. I placed the lilies on the stone and stood with my head bowed.
“Are these for me?” A familiar voice called out.
But this couldn’t be. It was impossible. I turned and almost choked on my saliva. There she stood, my errant dead wife, as radiant as the sunshine, her smile mocking me with its sauciness.
“How can you be here? Standing before me? You died,” I sputtered in disbelief.
She smiled even more broadly and picked up the lilies from the grave. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the soft fragrance, and replied, “I died. But now I am back. You love me so much that I cannot bear to stay away. Thanks for the lilies. So very thoughtful of you.”
“I don’t understand,” I moaned. “I killed you.”
She made a mock angry face.
“Tch Tch… That you did. But I have forgiven you for that. And I must say you were very clever. Asking the poor beggar to chop wood without my knowledge and then putting the same axe on me. That poor bugger would be hanged as it would be his fingerprints all over the murder weapon. If the police find him.”
I grinned at this acknowledgment of my deviousness. Marina continued as if she hadn’t paused at all.
“I must applaud the fact, that you are getting cleverer in devising ways to kill me.”
Her sentence was like a punch in the gut. I could sense a headache bearing down on me like an oncoming express, fast and brutal. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that you’re not as smart as you think, Rick. You are only a sad specimen of a human, betrayed by your own brain. Sitting in a cell for the last ten years and dreaming up scenarios where you kill me, again and again, and again. I am just a figment of your imagination, love. The real me is out there in the world, living a life with someone she loves, not tied to a controlling freak like you. My leaving broke you, darling.”
“I liked this version of my death though. At least you had the courtesy to bring me lilies in this one. See, you love me, even though you pretend to hate me. Love me, or hate me, you just can’t stop thinking of me.”
She took a couple of steps closer and pressed her lips to mine. Nothing stirred inside me. The headache had reached a fever pitch, and I felt my skull was cleaving in two. The kiss that would have earlier brought me to my knees was forgotten. I hated that vixen! She had left me and made me a laughing stock in the town and among all my friends. I put my hands on her neck and began to squeeze. She whimpered, but her sounds were drowned out by my ear-splitting screams.
Stan, his nose swollen red with the cold, was just sitting down to finish his book when the alarms began wailing. He ran with Jason, the other attendant, to the cell with the blaring alarms and flashing lights. On entering the room, they found the patient, a young man in his late thirties, in a panicked state. He was trying to squeeze the doctor’s neck. She had somehow managed to push the emergency button but was now almost unconscious. It took the two of them all they had to pry her away from his manic fingers. He was subdued only after they put him in a straight jacket.
They made the doctor sit in one of the chairs, bolted to the floor, and handed her a glass of water. She held it in both hands, her fingers shaking like an autumn leaf. Her name tag read Dr. Trudy Mason, Resident Psychiatrist.
A book lay splayed on the floor. It was one of those cheap romances, clear from the title, ‘The Tramp Who Loved Me.’ Once she had composed herself somewhat, she asked the attendant,
“There are clear instructions that this patient is not to be given any external stimuli. How did this book come into his possession?”
They both looked at one another and shrugged. It belonged to one of the attendants. Maybe the patient had swiped it, but they weren’t going to confess to the mistake.
Meanwhile, the young man lay squirming on the floor. The doctor called for a nurse who injected the patient with a sedative. The attendants stayed in the room until the patient calmed down and fell asleep. They kept an eye on him while they talked of their plans for the summer. It mostly involved beaches and unlimited quantities of chilled beer.
I stood at a beach, the sand tickling my bare toes. It was a beautiful summer day. The waves played along the shore while further in, the sea was calm as a wise old man. I ran my fingers through my hair as I gazed at my wife. Marina lay on a towel soaking up the sun in the skimpiest of suits that she could find. She loved the attention and could attract men to her like a bitch in heat. I had told her not to wear that swimsuit, but did she ever listen to me? Not if she could help it.
Pic credit : Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com