A Most Dismal Prospect
The worst part was not being allowed to scream.
If I’d had it my way, everyone from the hunch-backed pallbearers, to the long-faced priest, to the undertaker with his black hat and long coat would have gotten a scream in the face, just so they’d know exactly how I felt about the whole affair. Unfortunately, the proper bearing for funerals is non-negotiable: you are to shed tears (but not bawl), be respectful (but not dour), and stand up straight and tall throughout the long-winded preaching (all without being too stiff). Considering that, screaming is not generally considered appropriate, even when you think it should be.
Even when it’s a better option than breaking things.
Even when it’s your dad who’s died.
The undertaker had brought him into the house the previous evening, all readied for the Resting. So, while Mother and William dressed upstairs, I sneaked down to our black-curtained parlour to spend one last morning with my father.
The first thing I noticed were the Deathmarks. It was the first time I’d actually seen Deathmarks, but they weren’t difficult to recognize. Lines and circles covered Dad’s face and hands in a dizzying pattern of ash, drawn on his skin by the undertaker to make sure his spirit didn’t end up haunting our attic, to protect all of us from stray magic, and to keep Dad intact for the Resting. The sight of them made my skin crawl. The Marks weren’t anything like magicians’ spells, but they still held power. And more than anything else, the Marks were a certain sign that the mourning drapes, the coffin, the silence left behind in his absence – all of it was real. He was gone. And there was nothing any of us could do about it.
I didn’t even notice when William came downstairs – our creaky old steps never made so much as a single complaint for him: my brother was too small and sneaky. I only noticed when he stepped up next to me, lifting himself onto tiptoes to see into the casket. With a sigh, he fell back onto his heels and said:
‘It doesn’t look right, Abby.’
I gave him a look – the look, if you know what I mean. ‘Of course it doesn’t,’ I said. ‘He’s dead.’
Still, I turned back to Dad, lying there in the middle of our parlour, and I had to admit that William was right: despite the arrangements (and even ignoring the Deathmarks) there was something off about it – something that didn’t quite make sense. Dad’s hands lay folded across his chest: he looked more like a doll or some sort of waxwork than my father. Even sleeping, Dad was never so still.
Yet, somehow, we’d mistaken it for sleep at first. The morning he died had been traitorously bright and blue and beautiful, and waking late, I wondered why Dad wasn’t already up. He was usually up before the rest of us – examining plants in his study, or tending to the overgrown patch of yard out back that he insisted on calling the garden. But the house lay silent: he was nowhere to be found, and so at last, I knocked on his half-open door to find him pale and still and sleeping – or so I thought.
It wasn’t until Mother came by with a kiss to wake him that we knew.
The doctor was called, and the coroner, and a pair of pale-faced lawyers came by to talk to Mother about ‘necessary considerations’ – which I guess is what lawyers call all the paperwork they need to do when someone dies. All the while, I sat with William in our parlour, going over my Defences and helping him with his smoke bombs and watching the bustle of strangers pass through our house. And all the while, I wondered, how could any of this be real?
But finally, at the end of the day, after the coroner had satisfied himself with his poking and probing and Mother had talked to a priest about the funeral arrangements (she had needed to sell her favourite pearl earrings to pay for all of it), after the sun had set and the house had darkened, after even William had gone upstairs, I was left in our empty parlour to stare at the dying fire and wonder about a different question, the most obvious question, the one question that no one else seemed bothered about asking:
How did he die?
At least the Resting service gave Dad a chance to answer that question himself. At the Resting, Dad’s spirit would rise – ‘like light,’ Mother had told us – and Dad would be able to talk to us just once more before passing on. It was small comfort. After that, Dad would truly be gone – wiped away with the black ash on his forehead.
But it would still be a couple hours before then, and right now, William was fidgeting next to me, rocking onto his toes to look into the coffin once more. And then – before I could think to stop him, he reached in with one hand–
I kicked him in the shin.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
He glared at me sideways. ‘I was just removing his glasses!’
He removed the wire-rimmed spectacles from where they’d been set on our father’s nose, and folded them up, tucking them into the pocket of Dad’s jacket instead. ‘There,’ said William. ‘Now it doesn’t look so strange. He could be sleeping, if – ’
‘If we didn’t already know he was dead,’ I finished for him.
There was a knock at the door, and William stepped back from the coffin, hands disappearing into his pockets as Mother appeared at the top of the stair. She was wearing a veil of black lace to hide her face, which, as far as I can tell, is either supposed to make you feel less ashamed of crying your eyes out or make it easier for other people to ignore the fact that you’re crying your eyes out – not that Mother had let anyone catch her crying at all. Her red hair was pinned neatly under her hat, and as she caught sight of us at the casket, she tsked – though with the mourning veil, I couldn’t tell whether it was at William’s untucked shirt or my hair, which, unlike hers, was escaping its pins to stick up in all directions.
She descended the stair to open the door. The undertaker and his pallbearers trooped into the house, exchanging a few short words with Mother. In less than a minute, Dad was closed into his casket, and the pallbearers carried him out of the house to the waiting carriage.
The world outside was withering and grey. We followed the black horses through our tiny town, the November wind tugging at our skirts and trousers and coats and doing nothing to improve my hair. Before too long, we were standing at the gate to the cemetery, engraved Wardmarks looming over us.
Like my father’s ashen Deathmarks, the cemetery Wardmarks traced an unreadable pattern of intertwined lines and shapes along the stones of the cemetery wall, meant to keep people from trespassing and disturbing the dead. Their power prickled against my skin even before we entered. Anyone crossing the Graveward without a good reason was certain to be caught – quickly, if they were lucky. If not, a night trapped in a Graveward had been known to drive people mad.
In any case, I’d never stepped foot in this cemetery before, as no one in our family had ever been buried in it – until now. Yet, even with the undertaker driving Dad’s coffin under the gate ahead of us, I wasn’t taking any chances – I twisted my silver ring in my fingers, Dad’s words on the Spiritual Defences echoing in my mind:
The First Defence is always with you, but this ring will help you remember it.
Immediately, warmth coiled through all my limbs, making the rainy air and the cold wind less harsh, as if I were feeling them through another layer of skin. If I did it right, the Defence would make my spirit a little dimmer, a little less obvious, blocking magicians from reading my mind and letting me avoid any unwanted attention from people or spells… or Wards.
Still, I needn’t have bothered. As we passed beneath the stone arch of the gate, the eerie prickling of the Graveward washed over me in a wave of goose bumps – like a twinge of magic. But it wasn’t magic of course, and within another moment, we were on the other side, the Ward’s power fading with a sigh. We weren’t trespassing, it had decided.
No, we were burying my father. It was yet another sign that this was all real.
The carriage pulled up next to a freshly dug grave. The priest was already waiting, and Mother ushered us to the other side, pressing bouquets of white flowers into our hands. The pallbearers pulled out the casket, the priest pulled out his Book, and the service began.
‘Today,’ wheezed the priest in a voice as old and cracked as his Book, ‘We mourn the passing of Lewis Crowe. He was a beloved husband and father and his death is truly a loss…’
The flowers grew heavy in my hands. As far as I knew, the priest in front of us had never met Father. How could he possibly know how much we’d lost?
‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live…’
He might as well have been speaking ancient Aegyptian for all I could understand. But I had to get through it for Dad’s Resting. That was all that mattered: the last chance I would ever have to speak to him, to say goodbye properly… if only the priest would get his sermon over with.
Finally, he set aside his Book. ‘While the body rests in the earth, the spirit rests in heaven,’ he said, pulling open the casket lid once more. I clutched the flowers. This was it. ‘Let the shackles of this world be unbound.’ He poured holy water onto Dad’s forehead and hands. The ashen Marks melted away into nothingness. For a moment, the world held its breath.
I waited for something, anything, but there was no sign of Dad’s spirit rising from his body, no prickle of magic or Marks, no light. Nothing but a choked silence, and the sickening clutch of disappointment in my chest.
I threw down the flowers and walked away.
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