The Bewailing

by | Jan 10, 2023 | Short stories | 0 comments

No place or thing can last in such a way that violates the first law of thermodynamics. Energy, it coldly states, can only be transferred from one form to another, and neither created nor destroyed. To all who felt its presence, the Warwick House was a place of ceaseless transfer. It hunched toward the street as it had for one hundred and thirty years, pushing aside the old oaks crowding it until their roots ruptured the sidewalk. Its brown shingles were warped and speckled with green, and generations of paint peeled across one another, making its true color unknowable. Neighbors could feel its soul prickling the backs of their legs as they passed it. The Warwick House alone knew what happened to the souls of its former occupants. Because what is a soul, after all, if not its owner’s consciousness? And what is consciousness if not an electrical pattern generated by the brain? And electricity, as we know, cannot be destroyed. 

But the name on the house’s once bronze-colored mailbox and the weathered floormat at its doorstep no longer read Warwick. Some time ago, but still in living memory, that name was changed to Gray, one of whom was now dead. The body of Helen Gray laid still but not at rest in a simple, unremarkable casket in a formal living room bordered by a veranda porch that wrapped around the house. Helen had a straight, narrow frame and flowing, ash-brown hair she hadn’t cut in the three years she’d been ill. Grown past her elbows, her hair neatly hugged the thin line of her body. Her birch white face was plain and gentle, though a slight scrunch of her brow her husband Allan had been unable to smooth suggested a subtle, unfulfilled emotion had followed her into death. Polaroid photographs, pieces of jewelry, an antique doll, and a well-worn children’s novel coming apart at the spine surrounded her in the casket. She had turned forty the month before. 

Six-year-old Caleb Gray sat down on the front steps, under the awning of the wraparound porch, out of the afternoon sun. He was small for his age with the downturned face of a burgeoning introvert. His perpetually running nose leaked over his upper lip and a light crust clung to his cheeks below his pale eyes. His left hand was cold from holding his mother’s arm, itself cold from the bags of ice her body had been supported on for the past two days. In his left hand, he held a lightweight, white cane with a strap strung loosely around his wrist. Caleb used the cane to trace shapes in the dirt—circles, squares, and triangles he could feel but had never seen because Caleb was blind. Behind him, he heard his father’s and sister’s voices carry from inside. He’d rather not be in there. It was easier being alone.

“Have you decided what you want to put in her casket?” Allan Gray sat down and asked, searching his daughter’s numb face.

Emma Gray looked past him to the casket. She was a focused, sociable girl of fourteen, striking in a way her mother wasn’t, yet suddenly uncomfortable in her own skin, afraid the maturity she had always possessed was no longer enough. She stared at the woodgrain. The casket itself was homemade; cut and sanded by hand, then stained dark cherry and lacquered to give it a smooth finish. It was thinly built and did not possess a look or feel of permanence, which is just what Helen and Allan intended. Arrangements of lilies and pots with live orchids bookended it and four rows of dark, wooden chairs from a rental service faced it on one side where Emma and Allan now sat.

“I don’t know,” she said flatly.

“Have you thought about it at all?” 

“No.”

Allan leaned back and ran a hand through his thinning, side-parted hair. He undid the top button on his deep charcoal suit jacket. At a sedentary forty-four, it fit tighter than he remembered. “We’ve known this day was coming for a long time.”

“I’m just—I thought I’d be okay with it . . . but I don’t think I am.”

“I know. Trust me, I do. But everyone will be here soon.”

“I changed my mind. We should bury her.”

“Sweetie, we talked about this.”

Emma clenched her lip. She hadn’t liked being called that for years. This time, though, it was comforting, but she didn’t want him to know. “Maybe I want to be able to visit her.”

“You know we can’t. The embalmers would have had to take her yesterday.”

“And it saves you eight thousand dollars at the funeral home . . . “

He paused stiffly, then let it go. “We all agreed on this. We agreed to bury a casket with her favorite things and each of us would put in something we shared with her. Even Grandma and—”

“—Why though?” Her voice peaked and she gestured adamantly.

“Because she’s donating her body to science.”

She took a slow breath, water pooling at her eyelids. “But why does it have to be her?”

“Because her body makes rare antibodies that attack the connections between nerves and tissue.”

Emma looked down, her eyes caught in the brown and green swirls in an old rug. She sniffled and a pair of tears ran down her cheeks despite her efforts to stifle them. Allan moved to the seat beside her and put his arm around her, where they stayed for the next few minutes. 

“I should check on your brother,” Allan said. “Please try to think of something to put in the casket.”

Allan went outside and sat down on the step next to Caleb. “You doing alright, buddy?”

Caleb nodded. “Are my cousins coming soon?”

“Yeah, they won’t be long. Have you thought of a thing for your mom yet?”

Caleb stopped tracing shapes, giving it his full attention. “The little metal turtle on her desk because she likes turtles. Or her violin stick.”

“The bow. I think either of those are great choices. You understand why we aren’t burying her, right?”

“To help other people like her?”

“That’s right. You know, you’re pretty smart, bud.”

Caleb pondered, moving dirt with his guide cane again. “Why is Emma mad and I’m just sad?”

Now Allan was left to ponder. “Well, I guess there’s a funny thing about grief for adults, which your sister is becoming. When they’re hurting, sometimes it’s easier to get mad at whatever caused it because a part of you inside still hopes you can change it if only you can show whatever it is how much it hurt you. But after a while, the angry part of you gets smaller and smaller. Then you think more about what you’ve lost, and those things are usually happy. Then it feels okay to be sad.”

“Dad, I think I’m mad too.”

“You don’t have to be, but it’s okay if you are.” Allan got a text and checked his phone. “Hey, your cousins are almost here. Let’s go inside and get you dressed up.”

Helen’s funeral went on without incident. Caleb played with his cousins and Emma distracted herself by chatting with her aunts and grandparents. She still could not think of an item to place in the casket. But all was not as it seemed in the Warwick House. Allan noticed it first. When dusk descended, the interior lights seemed especially bright, even on their lowest settings. Whenever he stopped to take a moment alone, he swore he could hear the air buzzing. And when he said goodbye to their family and friends, he thought he saw the hairs on their wrists and on the backs of their necks standing taller than normal. And though no one spoke of it for fear of being distasteful, even the guests thought the soul of the old Warwick House felt especially alert that night.

With the lights finally turned off, Allan spent a moment with his wife’s casket. Workers from the state would arrive to take her body in the morning. The summer air was still warm after dark and he decided to place some ice bags with her as they had done for the past two days. He placed one under her head and neck like a pillow and put two more on either side of her waist. Then he gently shut the lid. He went upstairs to check on his children before turning in for the night. If they could sleep, then perhaps he could too. He looked in on Emma first, then on Caleb. When neither made a sound, he walked the length of the upstairs hall to his bedroom, where he disappeared with a soft click of the closing door. The second story of the Warwick House was split by a long hallway that stretched from one end to the other, jogging to the side halfway down to clear a staircase. A tall lattice window capped the hall on either end, one showing the bright gibbous moon to the east and the other the largest of the property’s many oaks to the west. Where moonlight shined in on the door to the master bedroom, the door to a walk-in closet across from it was open. When Allan turned in for the night, that door had been closed. The space behind the doorframe was several degrees darker than anywhere else in the house, cut off from the moon’s rays by a matter of angles. Yet within it materialized a tiny glint of light—a single pinprick in the abyss—and then another beside it, set apart exactly enough to be a set of eyes. 

In Caleb’s room, the doorknob twisted, then snapped back into place, the noise prompting him to turn over in his sleep. The knob twisted again, turning farther this time until the door silently eased open. A subtle, repetitious sound permeated, distinct from the steady flow of cold from the air conditioning vent. Had he been awake, Caleb’s sensitive ears would have picked up the rising and falling notes of breathing in his open doorway. But he was not awake, and the breathing, heavier now, was coming from directly over his bed. Caleb’s own breaths fell in sync with that of the unseen presence. Then his hair suddenly moved, as if threaded by an invisible hand. 

Caleb stirred. “Dad?” He sat up, wiped his nose, and grabbed for his cane resting against the wall. Looping the strap around his wrist, Caleb probed the darkness in front of his bed. He felt nothing, as there seemed to be nothing there, though the very audible breathing told him otherwise. But somehow, for reasons his young mind couldn’t process, the slow rise and fall of the disembodied chest didn’t frighten him. He was startled at first, but when he was unable to locate it with his cane, the effect was not worrying but calming. Others would be afraid of something they could not see, but to Caleb, that was the world he knew. Maybe it was his almost dream-like state, half-in, half-out of consciousness, but being unable to perceive something with one or more of his senses was not cause for alarm. And before long, he drifted back to sleep.

Caleb awoke more suddenly a short while later, and the presence was gone. He remained in bed for several minutes, and convinced he couldn’t sleep, grabbed the cane, and scooted off the mattress to the floor. He felt his way to the door, instinctively reached for the knob, and paused when it wasn’t there. He turned around in the open doorway, listening. Hearing nothing, he proceeded into the hall, unconcerned. Caleb’s thoughts and emotions were elsewhere. There was something he had to do, and he didn’t want anyone to see.

Caleb could hear the prickly scraping of the oak branches against the lattice window next to his bedroom door. He slid the tip of his cane delicately along the wooden floor as he felt the subtle bumps in the wall and the edges of a doorframe with the tips of his fingers. He passed a closed guestroom on one side and an open bathroom on the other. He slowed when he came to the bathroom, leaning in and listening before carrying on. Emma’s room came next. Her door was wide open. 

“Sis?” he whispered, waiting in the doorway. There was no answer from her, but Caleb heard something else—two sets of breathing in tandem, just as his had been, one slightly wispier on the inhale and more labored on the exhale than the other. Those weren’t Emma’s. He wondered what might be there if he could see, a part of him thankful he could not. And indeed, there was nothing for him to see. Emma slept soundly on top of her covers, still in her black funeral dress. Then the other source of breathing stopped, leaving only hers. Caleb whispered again. “Emma?” Her legs stretched and she rolled onto her stomach, still asleep. Caleb closed her door without a sound and went back into the hall.

As he made his way past the door to his father’s study and a row of wall-mounted family pictures, something else came his direction from the opposite end—from within the dark walk-in closet. What Caleb could not see was a very old wheelchair rolling towards him, unoccupied, and seemingly under its own power. The wheelchair, with its wicker backrest and badly frayed seat cushion, neared him with a preternatural quietness. He did not hear it and it missed his cane by mere inches. A slight charge in the air that tingled the skin of his forearm was his only inkling of its presence. But once the wheelchair passed Caleb and rolled another few feet, it suddenly halted.

The guide cane tipped the banister column where the staircase interrupted the hallway. Caleb navigated the corner and felt along the rail, passing the entrance to the stairs and another bathroom. He stood in the ray of the great white gibbous shining through the latticework of the window in front of his father’s door. While Allan had closed it, it too was now open. 

“Dad?” Caleb whispered and waited. Something moved inside the bedroom, but it was not his father. Had he been able, Caleb would have seen the silhouette of a tall, long-limbed figure in a wide-brimmed hat rise up from the side of the bed, caught in the moon’s glow through another window. Unaware of it, Caleb hovered in the doorway, listening to make sure his father was indeed asleep. He could not see the tall silhouette gliding across the floor and stretching its arms out in his direction. earing nothing, he closed the door just before it reached him.

Caleb walked back toward the stairs. The warm night air had caused the maple wood boards in the floor to expand, and each one belched a dramatic creak with every step he took, drawn-out longer still by his methodical pace. The old, wicker wheelchair approached once more from down the hall, and this time, it had an occupant. A very old man pushed the wheels forward in increments. His eyes were glazed over with cataracts and his skin, covered in liver spots, sagged from his bones. His thin arms could barely propel the weight of his naked, emaciated body, and every time he nudged the wheelchair forward, the floorboards beneath it creaked in unison with Caleb’s footsteps. As Caleb and the very old man drew nearer, the man tilted his head to the side with a wide, toothless smile, and brought the wheelchair to a halt. Caleb halted too, uncertain if he heard a noise apart from his own steps. Caleb held out his cane, extending his arm as far as he could, the tip inches from the very old man’s face. The man’s mouth gaped, curling at the corners, as Caleb probed the space ahead of him. Caleb withdrew the cane, assuring himself he hadn’t heard anything. But he was nervous. Something about the house felt more than a little off to him now. Creepy tales the neighborhood kids told about the Warwick House wormed into his mind, but there was still something he needed to do, something that mattered to him, and he would not get another chance if he didn’t go through with it now. He felt for the stairs.

Caleb carefully descended the staircase with a solid grip on the wooden banister. A cascading rug quieted his steps while the very old man continued watching him from above. The stairs leveled out halfway down and Caleb navigated a 180-degree turn. Before he could reach the ground floor, the door to a coat closet at the bottom of the stairs swung open and a little girl, completely bald and perhaps a year younger than him, rushed out. Dark circles hung from her eyes and oxygen tubes ran from her nostrils over her ears, connected to nothing, dangling behind her. Caleb paused a few steps from the bottom. He sensed her somehow, even if he could not see or hear her, and she looked back at him, observing him for an interested moment. A flicker of mischief crossed her face and she disappeared around the corner of a ground-floor hallway. 

Caleb continued to the bottom of the stairs and passed the coat closet from which the girl emerged. The door to a garage opened just behind him and Caleb felt another presence blow by him, accompanied by the sound of bare feet hitting the floor. What he didn’t see was an old woman, still a couple of decades younger than the very old man, playfully following the little girl. She stopped before the end of the hall and looked back at Caleb with a kind, but melancholy frown, then continued after the girl. Caleb heard the girl’s young laughter echo from around the corner. If he was nervous before, then now he was frightened, aware of the happenings, and glad he could not see them. Still, a longing and a desire tugged at him, and he followed the path the old woman and little girl had taken.

The hallway led to the formal living room. Caleb’s scalp tingled. The air in the room felt alive like it was its own organism. Yet when he listened, he heard no voices, no laughter, or footsteps. He sniffled as his nose began to run. He set down his cane and felt his way to the casket. He ran his small hands along the smooth woodgrain until he felt the seam where the lid met the side. He opened the lid as far as he could and immediately felt the sharp chill of the ice bags. He carefully lifted out the two by his mother’s sides, and then the one from under her head, gently letting the lid close after each one. He reached out behind him until his fingers grasped a chair, and he dragged it to the casket. Standing on the chair, he could lift the lid all the way up until it stayed put in the open position. Caleb steadied himself, tested the casket’s balance, lifted a foot inside, and then the other. He crouched and stretched his feet out toward the bottom until he rested snuggly in the nook of his mother’s arm. He stroked the contour of her face and closed his moist eyes. The tall, long-limbed silhouette in the wide-brimmed hat from upstairs approached. It stood still at the head of the casket. Had Caleb known to look up, and had his eyes allowed it, he would have seen his mother’s face and her long, ash-brown hair tucked under the wavy frill of a beige-colored sunhat. Helen Gray and the silhouette were indeed one and the same. She gazed down at her son laying tenderly with her deceased body and a tear ran down the crease between her nose and her pale, ghostly cheek. 

On the ledges and surfaces around the room and on end tables between the arrangements of lilies and the pots of live orchids were framed photographs—photos of their family—Caleb with his mother, father, and sister—Caleb and his sister with the sick girl, a cousin perhaps; the tubes over her ears connected to an oxygen tank—and photos of the old woman and the very old man—grandparents, great grandparents and more. All of them were gathered around the casket now. The very old man sat in his wheelchair between the kind, old woman and the bald, sick, young girl. More deceased relatives joined, pouring in from all over the house. The ghost of Helen removed her hat and shared a look with all of them. Then she turned and stared into the hallway behind her.

Emma looked in, clutching a small, tattered stuffed dog, and caught in a fluttering of fear and shock too overwhelming for her to reconcile. The whole room cast an ethereal, emerald glow. What her brother could not see was plain to the eye for her. She couldn’t move at first, but once her body allowed, she darted away and hid, pressed against the wall around a corner. A long, spindly shadow penetrated the hall and Emma cupped her mouth and shut her eyes, already at the point of shaking. When she opened them, the shadow had become her mother, smiling sadly at her daughter. 

Emma clenched her eyes once more. “No, you can’t just leave us and come back,” she said, seeking to quell her pain with denial. But when she opened them again, her mother was still there. Emma dropped the stuffed dog and fled. She ran upstairs and called for their father, as Helen gazed downward, aware of how much strain her absence has caused. 

Emma returned with Allan, but when they entered the formal living room, the spirits were gone. The glow had dissipated and the air was no longer alive. Allan draped his arm over his daughter’s shoulder and kissed the top of her head. Then he noticed Caleb. They walked to the casket and watched their son and brother sleeping with his mother’s body. Any resistance or resentment Emma was harboring instantly broke. She let herself cry, clinging to her father and finally granting herself the freedom to be sad.

Allan gently woke Caleb and lifted him out of the casket. He hugged him tight and set him down beside them. The three of them held each other in a long, cathartic embrace. Allan’s scalp began to tingle, a buzz in the air prickled the hairs on Emma’s arms and legs, and the ethereal, emerald glow returned. Emma spotted an empty, wicker-backed wheelchair to the side. Caleb heard the playful giggle of their sick cousin. And Allan felt a steady breathing rising and falling in unison with his own. The ghost of their caring mother, of his loving wife, had joined their embrace. Allan looked into her sorrowful eyes and his eyes wept as well. Emma left the room, but returned holding the tattered stuffed dog, and placed it in the casket.

One by one, the ghosts of their relatives re-emerged from doorways and hallways, from out of the shadows and the night, until they formed a circle around Caleb’s family. Every one of them could be found in the many old and antique photographs covering the house. Helen’s family had a rich history in their town, dating back well before her great, great, great grandfather built their famous home. And as the scrunch of her brow finally relaxed, Helen Gray could now rest, having left the mortal world in the very place she had entered it. Her name, of course, was not Gray in those days, but Warwick. And as the years went on, like her ancestors who wandered its halls long before her, sometimes seen but usually not, the Warwick House alone knew what happened to the soul of Helen Gray.

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