Chaos isn’t found in death. Death releases us from the eternal chaos of our mortal coil. Little to do or think about, other than debate the quality of the soil one is interred in or converse with the worms. No, chaos is left for the living in the wake of death. With its dark cloak, Death may cover lands swiftly. It’s the living, the great unfortunates of the earth, who are left to trail behind it, picking up the pieces as if Death was a child, throwing all its toys out the pram. We are left as some morbid magpie, garbed in black and white, holding these remains, treasures of an icy nature rather than the gleam of the magpie’s hoard.
Papers piled up like corpses on the battlefield, on the desk facing the open French doors; the scent of wisteria sweet yet heavy in the air as these thoughts passed through Emily Murray’s head. For so refined and socially elevated a lady, her hair stuck out at odd ends like a ruffled bird. Her clothes were scarce, neglecting wearing any most days, and her pearls at odd angles, the noose of a fool. Emily had fallen from her high seat, just as her father had fallen from the top of the stairs.
Wrapped around her body, not un-shroud like, Emily’s robe felt close to her skin as even the mental mention of her father’s passing twisted her stomach.
‘Why do they even call it a passing? Where on earth are they passing to?’ Emily thought before realising she had answered her own musings. The earth, that’s exactly where they pass to. And the smell of wisteria became her father’s aftershave.
‘Enough’, she affirmed to herself. ‘I have years to muse and mourn’. Stubbing out her cigarette, Emily turned to the papers. It’d been three days of labour to sort the documents of death, and only a mole hill’s worth of a mountain had been seen to. The whole process thus far had been chaotic. As soon as one set had been done, Sara would uncover another box, squeezed between heirlooms and baby clothes in the attic, throwing Emily’s order out of balance.
Some were fairly new, a light covering of dust obscuring the scrawling script of a label. Others were years old, hidden under dunes of dirt. Emily was reminded of the tales her uncle would come back with from his digs, the discovery of some relic, buried in its own grave. She was less careful with these artefacts, mostly old bills rather than priceless gold. How long would it take for these to become valuable, she thought. 10 years? 100 years? Uncle Artie had shown her old tablets, etched tallies, a dead culture billing, he had joked. But it had transcended beyond what it was in the material, an anchor of the past, a history that lives in echoes and whispers, but fog horned by academia.
The final box was brushed off and Emily considered her father’s- her late father’s- legacy. How many years ’til his name became a valuable object like the latrine seat of William the Conqueror? First, it’ll be a memorial service, an anniversary plaque, a hospital wing, a portrait in the Professor’s Hall. Until, one day, his name will be half mentioned on a tour of the university. Such chaotic existential thoughts made her shudder, body to name to nothing, when she felt a metallic coolness.
It was a tin, a commemorative tin, the bust of George VI marked out. This was new to Emily who had spent years trying to get permission to clean out the attic, her father always refusing: ‘an attic is supposed to be messy as a garden is supposed to be dirty’, he’d pontificate. Every now and again, she’d rummage around, the bills on the top of this box appealed to some memory but this tin…
Inside was a stack of letters, bound by a scarlet ribbon, knotted tightly like a corset. It didn’t take long for Emily to divine the pile as love letters, a typical feminine hand, curved and looped, crossed each page. But it wasn’t a type that she recognised. Her mother’s- her late mother’s- was always slightly diagonal. Many an empty afternoon was spent watching balls of refused ‘thank you’ notes thrown across the room because of this typographical fault, sending her mother into a near fit.
The first letter seemed to be the most recent correspondence of this secret woman, perhaps life that Emily’s father had kept at the bottom of a box for nearly thirty years. ’24th September 1988′, she read aloud. There was no shaking tear choking voice, no hereditary curiosity, just facts, another bill, another academic book just to check a date. ‘Dearest Connor’, Emily already hated this woman, this female shade of ink and paper, with her faux Austen voice, and her siren demeanour.
‘No, there’s no point getting emotional, what help would that do?’ Each word Emily spoke shed light until there was no more shadow. The secret had been unearthed, a profane reliquary containing now flesh and blood, not words. Every letter was slightly reflective, like the mirrors you view yourself in when at the fair; sometimes you’re smaller, sometimes taller, thinner, or larger.
‘I love you’, ‘Why are you so far’, ‘They keep coming between us’, and the pinnacle of every affair correspondence, ‘When will we be together?’
Having read five in quick succession, Emily stopped, she couldn’t read anymore. No tears had been shed for her father’s death, the chaos stormed around her had preoccupied head and heart, but now this, these letters, she wept for. This was the real loss, the man and father she had known lay in ribbons. What the obituary had created and cemented, augmenting all goodness, as obituaries tend to do, the letters had torn apart and built over the remains like a church over a pagan temple: decimated and deconsecrated and desecrated. All had been thrown into chaos, a flurry of doubt and deception. And as is the prerogative of chaos, as is destroyed so is created. What stood now in her father’s place was a figure Emily did not recognise, a dark man the colour of ink and dressed in lettered paper. A husband who thought of another woman when he kissed his wife; a professor who claimed academic seminar but meant lecherous rendezvous.
All of this enveloped Emily’s mind, her tears quickly run their course. And she was alone. Matthew was on a plane homeward bound. She had no sibling to pull down to view the remains of what her father had been.
The letters were still in her hands. She didn’t know what to do with them. The fire before her was tempting. Burn the letters to ash, join her father in mutual cremation, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But for some reason, a divine yet sadistic hand would not allow her to do so. She could throw them in the rubbish bin. Inevitably, she pondered, it would keep her up ‘til the early morning when the same driving force would force her to wipe away leftovers to salvage them.
It’d been hours since Emily had finished with the boxes, she was too entranced by the letters to notice time slipping past her. The more she thought about it, the further her father fell into disgrace, the memory of him tarred and feathered like a war time coward. It wasn’t anger that she felt, she couldn’t rouse herself to the heat under her collar and the clenched whitening fists that accompanied her rare moments of fury. It would be wrong to be angry now; her rage usually lasted a couple days, whatever the irritation, and she wouldn’t be seen as such in church. She couldn’t do much now, her mind couldn’t focus on sorting, her mind was too chaotic. Wiping her dusted hands on herself, Emily fell into bed, the clean feel of the sheets was a welcome relief. A few deep breaths with her eyes closed to clear her mind and her consciousness melted away, studded with the day’s revelations.
It wasn’t long before Emily began to dream, everything she’d found today filtered down, resting on her mind like dark silt on the river bed. She dreamt of her father like all those recently bereaved. He stood, arms outstretched, her mother coming to embrace him. As they hugged, locked tight, Emily fell at peace. Previously, Emily had been removed from religion, too many rules and too many contradictions to move her soul as religion should. But nigh on two years as a mythology and folklore professor, some myth had rubbed off of on her. Wherever she was dreaming of, it wasn’t Heaven, but some otherworldly afterlife or Elysium. Her dream parents drew away and Emily saw it was only her father there, the woman someone other. She stood a head shy of her father, dark hair mildly greying stroked by her father’s hand. Rested on her waist and held her close was her father’s other hand. It was the woman from the letters, the other woman he’d loved. Her name escaped Emily, it had blurred in her mind like ink in the wake of spilled water, the word hardly visible, its essence drained away.
They turned away from Emily, walking away from her. She felt nothing but the ache of unsuccessful movement, her futility the boiling point of her interwoven wrath and grief. A light woke her; Matthew stood in the doorway of their bedroom. Seeing Emily, he sighed, with relief she knew, relieved that she was finally crying. His arms were warm and comforting, something solid to anchor herself. They fell asleep like that, Matthew’s free hand stroking Emily’s hair, soothing her. Their own dialogue in movements and shifts of bodies.
‘Don’t worry I’m here for you,’ said Matthew’s hand as it squeezed her shoulder.
‘Thank you,’ was felt from Emily’s kiss on his hand, soft with lips and wet with tears.
Emily slept dreamless for the remainder of the night, her crying a long awaited exorcism of pain. The shower purged her of what was left of it. Despite her weeping being over, a tick next to a list of conventions her mother would’ve truly passed, Emily was haunted by a reality born from loss and harshly rewarded curiosity and the fragility of all that surrounded her. Not the crystal glasses her parents had presented her as a wedding gift or the mirror the held her reflection as she brushed her teeth. It was the fragility of life, of marriage that occupied her mind.
From the corner of her eye, she watched Matthew shave. Too much pressure in the wrong place, a murderous or suicidal intent, and blood would pour from his open throat. Emily reached for her vitamins; a wrong prescription, a bad reaction and she would join her husband in the earth. All in a matter of seconds and she would be the same as her father, her existence reduced to an urn of ashes and piles of paper to be sorted through. But no child would find clandestine correspondence tucked away; the university building in her name would stand, no chance of crumbling under a tarnished reputation.
‘Here, let me.’ Matthew finished her zip and placed his hands on Emily’s shoulders, watching her in the mirror. ‘Are you okay?’
She nodded. Her feelings were cluttered and chaotic like her dressing table. The sparkle of a diamond full of grief stood out; tears emptied like overturned perfume, and the rest frustratingly knotted like her grandmother’s pearls.
‘When we get back, remind me to phone the bank to check the money has been transferred to the funeral home.’
‘Are you sure you want to do that today Em? I’m sure you can wait…’
‘No! It has to be today! I want it done today!’ Stupid fucking clasp, she thought, slamming the bracelet down. Her reflection was drawn to Matthew’s hand rummaging in his pocket and depositing the contents in the bin. Receipts, she could see, from seedy motels? Emily deluded herself with marital cracks.
The bell rang.
‘That’ll be Pauline.’
‘I’ll get it and meet you downstairs.’ Matthew laid a kiss on her forehead and went to attend to Emily’s cousin.
On the edge of the bed, Emily sat, giving herself a final meditative minute before facing the ensuing madness of the funeral. Retrieving her diary, she did a once over of the day: church, flowers paid for, extra cutlery for the caterers, clean towels for overnight guests. All was in order, yet the mere sight of the stack of letters was enough to throw her off. They felt the same in her hand as the others had, the folders, the papers, the lecture notes, yet it dragged deep on her heart. What she was to do with the letters still eluded her, wanting to do anything but keep them. But it would sting, to lose another bit of her father.
With the cars arriving, thinking herself in a rush, the letters were jammed into her inside pocket, joining the others and mystified by her actions. The hearse rolled away. To herself she secretly smiled, wearing the letters as a badge of bizarre honour, binding her and her father in a voiceless covenant, breached not by death,
No comfort was found in the cold stone church. White lilies decorated the place, even on the already sealed coffin, prepared for its fiery end.
‘Who put flowers on the coffin?’ Emily tugged on Matthew’s sleeve to pull him into earshot. ‘We said no flowers on the coffin. Who…’
The acoustics of the church answered Emily as a cacophony of wailing. Edna strode down the aisle like some tardy banshee, to lay her head upon the coffin.
Such spectacle drew all away from their grieving, looking up from tissues, becoming ardent spectators instead of mourners.
‘For Pete’s sake,’ Emily heard Pauline race from behind, trying to be discreet which was difficult at the best of times in a church; even more so when one’s mother decides her brother’s funeral is the appropriate time for her primadonna audition.
‘Come away Mum. Come on, let’s find you a seat.’ Pauline mouthed a silent apology to Emily as she escorted her mother from her stage.
‘Always a flair for the theatrics.’ Matt spoke in her ear. ‘Remember that Christmas your dad burned the turkey and she locked herself in the bathroom for hours?’
She remembered and she wanted to laugh, but it wasn’t the time or the place.
The service began and Emily took her seat. Her father’s letters crumbled against her breast and she felt them on her skin. She saw Matt’s open hand rest on his thigh, awaiting her need to clutch something living in this place of death. Instead, she held the wooden railing before her, her knuckles whitening.
Hypnotised by her own memories, Emily was woken by the returned wailing of her aunt, wailing in response to the call of the priest. Emily moved further away from her grief. Since he had died, she had been lost in a chaotic mass of emotions, her own sadness a teardrop in her heart. Even now, a temple hallowed by the idea of death, and consecrated by tears and holy water, Emily’s grief would not show itself. Each wave was anger towards her aunt, taking the lion’s share of tears.
‘May God be with you.’
‘And also with…’
‘Ahhhhh,’ Edna cried.
It was almost an hour before Emily left the church, her hand ached from shaking, her jaw tense from frowning. Still she was far from her grief. Each kiss she received held the taste of a love letter’s stamp that made her cringe in silent disgust. The returning hearse was quieter than the church, each passenger absorbed in their own reflections. Edna, without so grand a stage, was resigned to the odd silent sniffle. Through streets they passed, Emily watching the world continue. Every grey haired man was followed by her gaze until they fell from view. Seeing a resemblance of her father’s face out of the window began to draw Emily to her mourning.
The house was crammed with the morning’s congregation, many wanting to repeat their condolences. Emily made sure her glass was never empty, the vodka and ice tart in her mouth. The more she drank, the more her vision swam. Following her seventh glass, Emily had the good nature to excuse herself to bed, before she pinned every older woman to the wall to scream, ‘did you fuck my father?’
With only one shoe off, Emily fell face first into her pillow. She neither dreamt nor felt as she slumbered.
It was morning when she woke, but still dark, the dying fire giving the room a warm glow. She sat before it, looking deep into its flames. Soon her cheeks were wet. She desperately wanted to blame the pricking light and heat of the fire; as the tears ran, she could no longer deny it. Her sleep had sailed her to her grief, through all the chaos. Emily had found her buoy, clung to it like a new born, desiring it and protecting it. Her whole body sobbed.
The letters were withdrawn from her pocket, slightly dog-eared, but still the same. Nothing could change that, just as nothing could bring her father back to explain himself. She wanted it all gone, having no desire to reread them, to berate his spectre and flog his memory. She would not induce any more chaos, not out of empathy but her own selfish desire for release. Release from the letters that held back Emily’s grieving: how could she mourn for such a man?
She threw the letters into the fire, instantly catching alight. Burnt and gone, her father could be mourned and missed and honoured like all fathers. Her tears were sad yet welcome. The letters were ash and so was her father.