Winter 2019 Fiction

Darci Schummer

The Veil

—for OCM 

 

As soon as I held the petite pewter urn, I knew I would open it.

“He always held you in such high regard,” his mother said as she gave it to me. When I closed my hands around it, she wrapped her hands around mine. “You know, Marie, we always hoped you two would get married.”

I nodded though I could not speak. I had expected emotion but not quite that. My stomach went cold, sour. Before the funeral, I had taken Klonopin, which made me feel like a character in someone else’s dream. I hugged his mother and left quickly, holding the urn like a divining rod until I put it in the passenger seat beside me. I fastened the belt around it, patted it gently. “There, there,” I said. “You’re safe with me.” It was late winter. I drove into the white hills of Eau Claire County, where morning doves perched along the high power lines, and then along the Chippewa River before I could bear to go home, where my husband waited, where my husband smiled sadly and said, “Was it okay? I would have gone with you, you know.” I could not explain to him why I did not want him to go, and he did not ask.

 

A week after the funeral, my grief grew and bloated. It took the space around me, and I avoided my husband. There wasn’t enough room for him. I told him I had to concentrate on my work. I told him I loved him. I told him I was sorry, and I lived upstairs in my office, which had a narrow, rusting terrace. The terrace overlooked a small house. I frequently saw its occupants, a husband and wife, beneath me. They were in their yard often—too often—and it irritated me that I could not be on the terrace at all hours without garnering looks from them. Their nosiness impugned on how I felt.

“Haven’t you ever been sad?” I wanted to scream when I was up late at night facing their scrutiny.

But I held my tongue, and they went inside and switched off their lights.

           

In the largest drawer of my desk, I created a small altar for the urn. I flanked it with relics—dried flowers from a date we had, a note, a drawing. I drew sketches of it. Some of them were funny. He liked things that were funny, and I wanted to feel close to him. I gave the urn a moustache, a giant phallus, clown shoes. I wrote captions for it:

TINY HOME FOR RENT. LIVING NEED NOT APPLY.

YOU’LL DIE WHEN YOU SEE THE INSIDE OF THIS COZY STUDIO.

Sometimes I drew him magically floating above the urn like a genie. Other times, he sank into it, only the tips of his fingers visible on the rim.

I put the sketches in the closet amongst my other artwork, commissions for businesses and individual clients. It was hard to keep up with the work I had in the queue. The death had come at an inconvenient time. Summer would have been easier. I was always less busy. The weather was better.

To make my commissions tolerable, I drew the urn into my work. I hid it in the reproductive organs of a large red hibiscus, an ad for a travel agent specializing in trips to Hawaii. I drew it into an oversized men’s belt buckle, a commission for a store that sold cowboy boots and western wear. In a piece of which I was especially proud, I hid it twice: once in each iris of a woman’s eye. It was a self-portrait. The eyes were my eyes. The college I graduated from, UW-___, had asked for it before the death. They wanted proof of worth. I was the perfect example of a working artist.

I soon found that the word urn became a song I hummed as I worked.

 

Our two pit bulls visited me occasionally. They whined outside the door until I opened it to let them nuzzle and lick my hands, to flank me and rest in the sunlight that bathed the room. At night, I released them and then locked the door. At night, my husband heard me humming and working, and he paced in the hallway outside. As soon as I felt his hand rise to knock, I hummed louder. I ran a pencil sharpener. The muscles in my neck clenched. My teeth set against each other as though the top set were trying to push straight through the bottom of my jaw. Eventually, he went away. I dropped the pencil and sat quietly in my chair. It was too cold to have the window open, but I kept it open anyway. I wrapped myself in heavy blankets and let the breeze turn the tendrils of my hair into small tornadoes that spun across my face, occasionally blocking my view of the urn.

When I tired of drawing, when I knew my husband was asleep, I drank a lot because I liked drinking and because I was so sad. One night, I begin telling stories to the urn, calls that had once elicited a response from the first few words.

“Do you remember the time we grabbed that lost tiny dog, Teddy Bear? Remember how we couldn’t wait to get our hands on it? Remember how disappointed we were when that kid on a bike was looking for it?” My voice echoed off the walls. I laughed like an idiot.

“What about the aquarium? Do you remember all the fish that swam by? The muskie? All the pictures?”

I paused. I waited for a response. None came. I cried. I snatched the urn to my chest. I held it like a child and lay down on the floor. I waited for something to happen. I thought maybe the electricity would go out. I thought maybe a bird would knuckle its head into the patio door. I thought maybe the wall clock’s hands would stop or spin backwards or run around and around. Nothing happened. And I fell into a dreamless sleep as I had been doing since he died.

But that night I woke intermittently in different states of remembering. At 3:00 a.m., I reconstructed my sister’s thirtieth birthday party, the party at which he had rubbed a rose petal across my neck. “Don’t drink too much wine,” he said. He kept the petal. Later that night, we made love as he trailed it across my body. I had forgotten. The petal was still in my jewelry box. I got out of bed and found it. I rubbed it down my arm. I felt everything I had ever felt, and then I could not breathe. I flung open the door to the terrace. I bent my body over the rail, and pushing on my stomach, I howled, a long, low cry. I was trying to get it out of me, all of it. It hurt in a way I cannot tell you.

Then the light at the neighbors’ switched on. The woman emerged in an outdated, floral nightgown. I did not move fast enough, and I knew she saw me. I slammed the terrace doors and switched off my light. But then I heard the front door to the house open and close.

“Marie?” came my husband’s cry. “Open the door!” He pounded and pounded. I lay perfectly still on the floor. I put my headphones in. I listened to sad music. It created a room within the room. I sang along; I hummed. I tapped my forefinger on my chest until my heart slowed and I could not feel the tapping anymore. Finally, my husband retreated.

I woke later to talking downstairs, my husband’s voice and someone else’s too. The familiar voice of a man. For a second, I thought—I thought, but then there was the urn. My heart pounded. I was always forgetting and then remembering.

I opened the door a crack to see the neighbor downstairs with my husband. The neighbor was fat, bald. His ankles were grossly swollen, the skin dry and flaky. He looked sick.

“...the help she needs,” I heard him say. “Women, you know how they get.”

I blew down the stairs. They stopped speaking when they saw me. They had the nerve to smile.

“What?” I said. Saliva flew out of my mouth. “What are you saying?”

“Nothing, Marie,” my husband said. “He was just asking a question about the yard.”

The man tipped his hat.

“Chivalry is dead,” I said.

“Marie, come on.” My husband was a gentle and kind man, but in that moment, he looked as ugly to me as the neighbor.

I walked away from them, slammed the door to the office. I left the windows open wide. I walked onto the terrace in my nightclothes as I pleased. I blared classical music and drew feverishly, the urn by my side. In the days that followed I only left the room for water, food, and Irish whiskey. I pretended my husband did not exist. He trailed after me like a deflated balloon. I locked the door to the office in his face. I was being cruel. I had married him, but right now I could not remember why.

“You are the only one who would understand,” I said to the urn. “Don’t you see I need you to get over this?”

I picked it up and felt it beat against me. I cried. I was afraid I would die of a broken heart. I knew it was possible. My chest hurt. I called one of the pit bulls in the room to sit with me. I stroked her face; I held her paws. But I did not feel relief; she was sad too. When I closed my eyes, all I saw was a long white plain. There was barely a distinction between the sky and the ground, and it scared me. Outside, birds circled. One landed on the terrace. It wavered in an uncharacteristic show of imbalance, and ruffled its tail. It looked at me, and I looked at it. My chest was a forest of smoldering pines.

The burning told me I could not wait any longer. I put down a white cloth on the desk and unscrewed the top of the urn. I shook a few ashes out. At first they looked unremarkable; then, like a diamond, a chip of bone appeared, and another one besides. I seized the chips in my hand. I imagined bones moving his body, his lope and quiver. I wondered what bones these had cracked from. A hip? A jaw? An ulna? One of the smallest phalanges? The wondering killed me.

I put the bones in a velvet drawstring bag. That night, I slept with them beneath my pillow. I have to believe that is why he came to me in a dream, the first dream I had since he died. He had the bluest eyes. In the dream, they shown turquoise, some pigment gone. I knew he was a ghost. He did not speak; he stared at me. His lips were pinched in this way he had. “Are you mad at me?” I asked. “Do you hate me for leaving you?” I said. “You know why it was right now, don’t you? You know we would have never stopped fighting.” His eyes were blank and blinking. “Do you forgive me at least?” He shook his head. “You don’t get it,” the gesture seemed to say. Then he walked away. I called after him; he did not come back. I woke in the middle of the night and felt worse. I took the bones from the bag and held them tight until my hand was sweaty, and exhausted, I fell back asleep.

When I woke again in the early morning, I took a shot of whiskey and then poured two fingers in a glass. I flung open the doors to the terrace and stood outside in my underwear. The neighbor and his wife were on their patio smoking thin cigarettes. I blew them kisses and waved. Then I cleared my throat and spit over the side of the railing. I slammed the door shut.

A few minutes later, my husband knocked. I opened the door politely. I smiled.

“What’s going on?” he said.

“Work,” I said.

“I want you to come out today. I need you to. Do you understand? This is not just grief. This is something else.”

He could not see the veil over me, and I could not think of anything to say, so I shut my eyes. I thought of him—not my husband—I thought of the moment his heart stopped. I imagined the sound it made. Like brittle bones shattering. All at once, I felt everything he felt: the stale air of hopelessness, the comfort of addiction, the rattle of delirium tremens. Though I had broken up with him years ago, I had tried to help him. I had tried to help a sick person and I failed. He was dead, and I was alive to keep drinking, to keep tormenting everyone around me. I started sobbing. It was genuine. It was also the way I could get my husband first to feel sorry for me and then to leave me alone.

“You poor baby,” my husband said. He took me in his arms with tenderness, and he held me until my body slowed. “Are you okay?” he asked.

I nodded and wiped my eyes. I took a drink of the whiskey.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He left the room, but I noticed the way he looked at me before he left. It was as though he were looking at a stranger, and I was a stranger. I had reverted to a former version of myself, a person I had been long before he knew me. Isn’t that how it is with the people you love? You become a different version of yourself with each one. When you leave someone, you leave a self behind. But sometimes—and this is rare—you never leave a person altogether. You can’t bear the burden of it. That is why the man who died and I never let those versions of ourselves disappear. We kept them beneath like sleek under coats, seal fur, that shone when we were together.

But now he was gone, and I was lonely in a way I had never been.

I locked the door again. I put a piece of bone under my tongue and sucked it. It tasted white. I spat it out in my hand. I had thought about eating the ashes. People did that; I saw it on TV once, a widow so aggrieved she compulsively ate her husband’s remains. It seemed wrong. What would happen when they were all gone?

On the white cloth, I emptied the urn.

“Tell me I’m going to be okay,” I could hear him saying to me, as he once had while in the throes of disease. The words floated above his ashes like a tiny dry cloud.

“You will be okay,” I said. “You will be with me now. I won’t leave you again. I promise I’ll never leave you.”

I poured India ink into a clear glass bowl and mixed the remains in. I fashioned a sewing needle, a pencil, and thread as an instrument, like I had done years ago with friends at a party. When I was ready, I peeled off my shirt and went onto the terrace. The sun was shining, but it was still cold. My skin pimpled. I rubbed my hands up and down my arms. The shadows of trees made lace on the ground. It was barren and beautiful, a skin over skin. I brought out a chair and spread a blanket across my lap. I set the glass of whiskey next to me, and I held one of the bones under my tongue. Starting at the wrist, I worked up my arm with the needle, tattooing a delicate pattern I invented as I went. Drips of blood dove off the terrace and dotted the ground below.

“Get her husband, Jesus Christ, get her husband,” the neighbor woman yelled.

But I stayed focused, even when the pounding on the door began. I sucked the bone harder and kept working. As my skin stung, I was elated. The gap between my selves, between the sky and the ground, ratcheted shut. My heart beat, then echoed as though two muscles rang inside me.

“I do, I do,” they seemed to say. “I do forgive you.”

 

 

 

 


Darci Schummer is a teacher and writer who splits her time between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota. Among other places, her fiction has appeared in Necessary FictionMidwestern Gothic, and Pithead Chapel and is forthcoming in the next American Fiction anthology from New Rivers Press. She is the author of the story collection Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press) and teaches writing at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, where she also serves as editor for The Thunderbird Review

 

 


 

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