Author, Donia Carey, sadly no longer among us - except for her extraordinary written works. Lucky us. We got to know and care about her, either in person or through her writing.
Donia Carey lived, wrote, sometimes sang, but never fished, on Cape Cod. She was an editor at The Mad Hatters' Review. Her work appeared in a number of online publications. Donia left her body behind on July 11, 2009. She's dearly missed.
Love Is Where You Find It
The soldier arrived at our house on Thursday afternoon the way they usually did, in the big woven basket shaped like a mummy’s coffin. My brother helped our father carry him in. I heard my parents talking.
“Such a shame. So young,” my mother said. “And the war nearly over.”
He was only nineteen, accidentally shot in training camp by one of his buddies. I shivered, and felt a sudden tenderness for this unknown, now dead, soldier. What had he dreamed of doing? Had he been happy? Did he love someone and had he been loved in return? Or could he have been lonely, too?
I was thirteen then--a dangerous age. A fleeting innocence, the false angel wings of the shoulder blades; petty guilts, never quite absolved in confession. I was waiting for my real life to begin.
We were a mother, a father, an uncle, a brother, and I. We lived in the funeral parlor. It was a crenellated castle, a Victorian monstrosity that seemed to have spent its life awaiting this final, perfect metamorphosis.
We had no separate apartment. If we had a death at Christmastime, the angel on top of our tree might poke up over the funeral draperies. The rare times that my father had an extra ‘case’ or two, a ‘body’ (we never said corpse), he had to find a place for them upstairs. One day when I was about eight, I came home from school and entered my room to find all my things gone and a stranger in a coffin where my dollhouse used to be. I was fit to be tied. I wasn’t mad at the well-dressed dead person who happened to be lying in my room with its Bo-Peep wallpaper and dotted-Swiss curtains; he’d had no say-so in the matter. I was mad because nobody had bothered to ask me about it or even to warn me. After all, weren't we all in this together? Weren’t we all soldiers in the same battle, not for hearts and minds, but for bodies and souls?
Business was slow. The whole house came alive when someone died. A great excitement overtook us; we leapt into our roles like actors. Our father did the dirty work. He chewed his cigar, resting it between drags on the rim of the embalming table as he wielded his terrible trochar. My brother, being a boy, was allowed to watch, even the worst ones: the wasted, the crushed, the drowned. Out of morbid curiosity and because I wasn’t supposed to, I was drawn to the place as a tongue to a broken tooth. “Not nice for a lady,” daddy told me. I felt jealous of Andy, my brother, and seethed at the unfairness of being left out, but my jealousy was mixed with relief. I was as repulsed by what went on in that small basement room with the painted windows as I was fascinated by the idea of death at its purest, the final paring down and dissolution--what I saw as the liberation of the immortal soul.
“Who does she think she is? Somebody special?” my Uncle John had asked the night before at the supper table. He'd caught my frown and barely suppressed sigh as I took my seat next to the wall alongside Andy. “How’d she get into this family, anyway?”
As usual, my appetite disappeared. Our suppertime theater had begun. There they sat--my uncle, my mother and father–grabbing at the front page of “The Evening Sentinel.” That’s where they listed the death notices. My father, having lost the battle for the paper to my mother and uncle, was blowing on his soup. “Anybody new today?” he asked.
“Agnes Nowak, she was a Piwinski from up the River Road... .”
“Yeah, I heard she was in the hospital...who got her?”
“Who else but the Vulture!”
“Danny Flaherty? Damn that man! That makes three this week.”
“How does he do it? We’ve buried in that family before. Agnes Nowak should’ve been ours.”
“Oh, there’s some connection there. Wasn’t her sister’s husband a cousin of Flaherty’s wife?”
“Second cousin, now you mention it. Still, I’m surprised. You’d think the Nowak daughter would have had more influence. After all, didn’t Marta sing at her wedding?”
Uncle John threw me a dirty look, as though the loss of business was my fault. It was so unfair. My uncle couldn’t stand me or my singing, and let everyone know it. When I practiced my scales, he’d run up to his room on the third floor and bang the door shut.
I had a high, floaty voice, the kind people describe as “angelic.” Since age ten, I’d been an unwilling part of our funeral package, excused from morning classes at St. Michael's School so I could get to the church next door before the funeral cortege arrived.
We had a funeral the next morning: an old man, a veteran of World War I, "the war to end all wars." As I waited in the choir loft for Professor Karski, the organist, my stomach growled and gurgled nervously. I hoped today the Professor would be nice to me. His daughter used to sing the funerals; she wore showy black picture hats and had a loud voice that went flat. Now I, a mere child, supplanted her, and her father resented it.
The Professor coughed his way up the stairs, ignored me, walked straight up to the organ bench and pulled out some music. The sexton came and began to swing on the ropes, the clanging bells so raucous that all the cells of my body vibrated and I had to put my hands over my ears.
I peered through the stained glass to watch the procession. The stone steps were long and steep, the coffin heavy, and the pallbearers spindly. They strained under their burden and the group wobbled forward under the direction of my father. He wore his funeral outfit: derby hat, striped pants, and the coat with the beetle’s-wing tail. His mouth looked naked and vulnerable without its cigar, and he seemed to be someone I didn’t know.
Professor Karski revved the organ and it whooshed like a deflating cushion. He cleared his throat, spat into his handkerchief, pulled out the tremolo stop, thrust out his jaw and launched right into a Polish dirge, “In the Dark Tomb You Will Sleep Forever.” He embellished his playing with rolling diminished sevenths and sour notes that enhanced the awfulness of the music. His Adam's apple bobbed in time as he whinnied the lyrics; they told of a dreadful judgment and left us with this cold comfort: "After a short time you and I won't be around, either."
With the final chord came the altar boy, recklessly swinging a censer as he led the pastor up the aisle to meet the flag-draped catafalque. Incense rose up. Its acrid scent settled in clouds around the organ console. I bent my head and slipped a Smith Brothers cough drop into my mouth; both the incense and the thought of my oncoming Ave Maria were making my throat dry.
Down by the altar, Uncle John fussed with a flower stand. He glanced up at me and scowled, the mole on his cheek in high relief, and my stomach gurgled again. He was right, my uncle. I’d been born into the wrong family. I was squeamish and sentimental. I was too sensitive. It took all my restraint to keep singing and not burst into tears with the mourners. Maybe I was switched as an infant; how could I fit in so badly otherwise? Even though I knew I'd been born at home and not in a hospital, I held onto this fantasy.
During Communion, I surveyed the people below. It was not a big crowd; the old man had outlived most of his peers, and nobody was crying. When the Mass ended, actions happened in reverse, with even more incense. The pallbearers, seasoned veterans by now, lurched down the church steps, and soon the sparse cortege shoved off toward the cemetery, a pretty place on a hill outside of town. I wished I could have gone along too, but I had to return to class.
When I got home from school that afternoon, my father was in the wake room setting up the soldier’s coffin. Cigar smoke wafted through the closed double doors. After he completed the finishing touches, daddy called us in to admire his work.
It was always like a dress rehearsal, with us as audience and critics. “How does she look? ” he’d ask, and we gave suggestions, such as “Too much rouge.” My mother was a nurse, and she couldn't stop herself from plumping up the pillows behind their heads, saying, "There! That's more comfortable, isn't it?" She arranged their stiff hands around prayer books or rosary beads in a mimicry of life. We'd agree that now everything looked natural.
But this afternoon I went into the wake room where the soldier lay ready and couldn’t speak. The breath died in me, and I wanted to back out the door. My father had done too good a job. The soldier really did look as though he were asleep, just taking a little nap. Mostly they didn’t. Mostly they looked as though they’d already been sleeping forever.
He was even handsomer and more glorious than the statue of St. Michael in our church, except that he had a buzz cut. It had been growing out and you could see his hair had been beautiful, dark and thick. He was so different from the silly pimply boys at school, the ones who chased me and called me Morticia and asked, “What does your old man do with the blood?”
Finally he was here, the person of my dreams: the one who would understand me, the one I had been expecting all my life. From the moment I saw him lying in that casket, I knew it. Just as I knew that his eyes were brown. To stay in that room as my whole family watched was sickening; it was a desecration of our love.
That night, after everyone had gone to bed, I crept past my parents’ room and down the stairs. In the wake room a few dim torchieres illuminated the maroon velvet drapes and the mahogany coffin open like a big lacy candy box. Someone had placed a small heart of carnations in its open lid, a heart bandaged with a white ribbon on which “Uncle Stephen” was spelled out in letters red as blood.
I knelt at the prie-dieux and looked at Stephen. He smiled at me; I saw it out of the corner of my eye. Maybe he wasn’t dead. Maybe it was one of those terrible mistakes, some kind of suspended animation, and if I prayed he would wake up. So I began to pray really hard, screwing up my eyes. Through the shimmer of my tears I thought I saw him move a little.” Oh please, God,” I begged, “wake him up!” I stared at Stephen, watchful for another movement. None came. I touched his sleeve. Even through the wool of his uniform tunic, I felt the cold stiffness.
I was not an ignorant girl. I had more than an inkling of what happened in that embalming room. Didn’t I filch my father’s morticians’ magazines, shock myself with “The Case of the Month,” laugh at the humor column, “Grave and Gay,” and then smuggle them into school to gain what I realized was a spurious popularity with my classmates? Yet those physical facts were less real to me than the underlying reality of dreams. So I denied the material world and cast my lot with miracles that transcended physical laws.
It was late. I was cold and the muscles in my whole body had grown stiff from the strain of praying so hard. I murmured goodnight to Stephen and went back to bed. I felt I had made a good start. It was Friday night and the funeral was not until Monday morning, so we still had some time.
The rest of my sleep was full of dreams. I was in a cave flooded with golden light. I tried to find where the light was coming from, but saw no source and no openings in the walls. I felt hungry and thirsty, and immediately food and drink appeared: great jars of golden liquid and enormous loaves of golden bread. I bit into the bread and spat it out; it had no real substance, just the taste of a cloying perfume. I tipped the jar to my mouth so I could wash it out. The liquid instantly evaporated, leaving me with the taste of incense and decaying flowers.
Morning arrived. I felt exhausted and queasy, but my mother insisted that I eat something. With trepidation, I bit into a hard roll, and its familiar taste reassured me. I yearned to look in on Stephen but my mother enlisted me in Saturday chores. By the time I was finished it was 3 p.m., and Stephen’s family had arrived for the initial viewing.
I looked down over the upstairs railing and watched as they came through the door. His parents clung to each other for support. They tried to look brave, but I could see that they might keel over if one of them were to let go of the other. A young woman who must have been Stephen’s sister walked behind them, leaning on her husband's arm. He held the hand of a small, dark-haired child, and I felt a pang for him, the little nephew whose heart of flowers now lay in Stephen’s casket.
A blonde in a black-veiled hat walked importantly behind the family. She was weeping aloud and mascara was oozing down her face. She began to moan Stephen’s name, and his sister put an arm around her. Who was she? She probably thought of herself as Stephen’s girl friend, but she couldn’t have been. She was all wrong for him, her black dress too tight and her lipstick too bright. I knew she couldn’t understand him the way I did.
I was impatient to be with Stephen again, and there was no chance until late that night. It was ironic that I could not be with him now. I told myself that it didn’t matter, he and I transcended time and space.
Again, after my parents went to bed, I made my way downstairs. I felt happy as I entered the wake room. I walked over to the coffin and crossed myself. A spray of orchids lay next to the little red heart. I thought they were vulgar and had no illusions as to who had sent them. I would have sent violets.
I knelt down, buried my face in my hands to pray, and peeped through the tent of my fingers to watch Stephen. He looked so handsome in his uniform. His hair seemed longer. This night he did not move. Was it my imagination, or did he look a little tired? I remained kneeling for a while, but heard a noise. Someone was coming down the stairs, probably my father. “I’ll be back tomorrow, my darling,” I whispered in a voice like a woman in a movie, Bette Davis perhaps. Then I tiptoed out the side door and waited until the coast was clear to go back up to bed. I meant to pray some more in bed, but fell asleep during the first Hail Mary. That night I did not dream.
Sunday in church I tried to pray but it was hard to concentrate, surrounded by coughing, fidgeting people, and the strictures of the Mass with the constant jumping up and down, the guilt-provoking sermon, the collection basket coming round twice–not to mention the background music, if you could call it that, raining down from the choir loft. I felt my prayers were of an inferior variety, certainly not strong enough to provoke miracles.
The rest of Sunday was unbearable for me. People arrived all afternoon, many from out-of-state. Cigarette smoke inundated our kitchen, scrubbed pristine after our noon dinner, and spiraled upstairs to invade our bedrooms. The initial hush of the afternoon had expanded to lively talk and laughter, as the men retreated to the smoking room where, from the sound of it, someone had produced a bottle. I felt outraged. There were still stragglers downstairs until after ten, even though the wake was officially over at nine.
Everything was ready for tonight. I’d put my hair up in rags and spirited my mother’s black lace mantilla from her cedar chest. I didn’t think we’d need a suitcase but had put my birthday and Christmas money into my straw pocketbook, along with the mother-of-pearl rosary beads and lace handkerchief. We had no violets, though earlier that day I’d gone out back and picked some lily-of-the-valley, tied them with a hair-ribbon and wrapped them in some wet tissue paper. I lay in my bed, nerves jumping, whispering frantic prayers.
To calm myself, I imagined exactly how it would happen. Stephen would awaken slowly, stretch and yawn. Then he’d open his eyes. He’d look at me and smile. We wouldn’t need to speak–our eyes would meet and say everything. Then I’d take his hand and help him out of his coffin, like helping him out of a boat. We would run away together, I would be free of this depressing house, these tiresome people, this life.
At last I heard my father lock the front door. I waited for everyone to go to bed, hoping my mother’s nightly game of solitaire would be over by midnight. By the time the lights were dimmed and quiet settled on the house, it was a quarter to one.
When I removed the rags from my hair, it bounced out in corkscrew curls that I tried to smooth out with my hairbrush. I took some bobby pins and created an updo, leaving a Veronica Lake effect over one eye. The only dress I had that was remotely sophisticated was getting too short, but it would have to do. I put a dab of apple-blossom cologne behind my ears and looked at myself in the mirror. I draped the mantilla around my shoulders. I was ready.
Stephen was waiting for me. A flower petal had settled in his hair and I brushed it off. His buzz cut felt spiky and stiff under my hand. “Don’t worry, dearest,” I whispered, “it will soon grow out.”
The orchids were wilting, and I threw them under the coffin, behind the velvet, and replaced them with my sweet-smelling bouquet. I began to pray in earnest, with all my heart and being, eyes closed, opening them occasionally to see if there was any progress. Hours seemed to pass. Still nothing. I was getting sleepy and my head began to droop. Something murmured and revived my hope, until it happened again and I realized it was my own stomach.
“Oh, God,” I prayed,“ please, please wake him up. If you do this one thing, I promise I’ll never ask you for anything ever again...”Stephen,” I pleaded,” you must help, too. I don’t think you’re really trying.”
It was getting chilly. I spread the mantilla over Stephen’s chest; maybe it would warm him up. The night was passing slowly and yet too quickly–I could see the sky lightening. I was so tired that I began to drift off mid-prayer. But I mustn’t give in to sleep. If I couldn’t even manage to stay awake at such a crucial time, how could God take me seriously?
I stood up and staggered around the room, bumping into a folding chair and almost knocking over a flower stand. All quiet upstairs, no one had heard. Returning to Stephen, I knelt down, but my knees began to hurt so I pulled one of the chairs up to the coffin and thought I’d sit for a while. When the miracle happened, I’d be ready.
Settling into the chair, I closed my eyes just for a moment. Stephen was stirring. He flexed his arms, unclasped his hands and spread his fingers, closing them into fists. I knew Stephen too well, knew this couldn’t be happening. It was a dream, I knew I was dreaming, and I had to stop. I scrabbled to crawl back into reality, and yet the dream progressed. Now Stephen’s eyes popped open, bloodshot brown eyes that looked angry. In one sudden movement he had climbed out of his coffin and was looking menacingly at me. “What are you doing here?” he shouted, waving the lily-of-the-valley bouquet in my face. “What are these? What have you done with my orchids?”
I shook myself out of the nightmare. Why were my prayers rewarded with such ugliness? The sun was up and dust motes were dancing in the window. My dress was wrinkled and there was a scratch on my leg where I had barked my shin on the flower stand. The pins had fallen out of my hair.
Upstairs an alarm was ringing, and there were sounds of people getting up. With shaking hands I reached down and retrieved the orchids. They were barely crumpled. I brushed them off and put them back inside the coffin.
Stephen was still wrapped in the mantilla. My tears dropped down onto the black lace as I gently pulled it away from his shoulders. Through blurred eyes I saw a shimmering on his breast, something like a luminous flower. The image lasted a moment and faded, leaving behind the faint scent of violets. He lay as still as before, his face gentle and good. I felt his spirit around me. How could I doubt him, even in dreams? I bent and kissed his forehead. It was cold.
I left the room without looking back. It was getting late and I had to be on time for the singing.
:: top ::