The living fixate on the past or the future. They ignore the obvious signs . . .
Elizabeth Stonehenge approached me one day in front of the cafe. “How is my husband, Albert? Has he told you what heaven is like?”
When the dead speak—their voices soft and hushed—birds go silent, the breeze quiets and the cogs of time pause, their grind upon the world suspended. The dead speak of their lives, their loves and losses and, too, their failures. Their stories are packed with an air of regret that tinges the edges of each narrative, sometimes it is even explicit. They are mundane personal chronicles, much as the dead would have told, when alive, over a beer at the pub. I’ve often wondered: Do the dead see reality clearly, or does the mind still bend the past according to its own whims?
I am the only one in this small town who hears the dead when they speak. Most of the townsfolk call it a gift, though having listened to the stories I cannot discern the prize of such an honor. It is more a weight for me. The living look upon me with a form of reverence laced with fear and anger. Quite the opposite of a gift, I think. And the dead are no different than I would have imagined them when alive. The man who was petty in life is the same from beyond the grave.
I do not communicate with them. The conversation is one-way. Often, this is misunderstood. Loved ones I meet on the streets ask me to send messages. They are at times angry when I explain I cannot.
I’ve learned much about the world by listening to the dead, but I suppose any of us could say that if we took the time to understand history. The dead are slaves to their past lives. None ever look at the larger world to provide perspective. Their chronicles are small and immediate and only concern themselves or loved ones.
Elizabeth’s question was common: What is the state of heaven? But in my years of listening to the dead I’ve come to understand that heaven and hell are concerns for the living. None of the dead have ever mentioned them, even the most pious and religious are quiet on this matter. Religion and God are non-entities when the dead speak.
John Simon listened to the dead before me. He was religious and deeply involved in the community. I didn’t know Simon personally—I learned of him later—and it was years after his death before I heard the voices. Before his suicide Simon sat on a bench in the park and told Mango Lilly, who owned the grocery store then, that he didn’t much like the dead, but he hated the living. According to Lilly, he said, When time stops it’s too much to take. Lilly had asked, What’s too much to take? The clarity of it, he told her, and knowing what it means.
Mango Lilly never offered anything more. Perhaps it remained a mystery to her.
I know what Simon meant. I’ve experienced it, the seeds of doubt that have germinated to full bloom. The living fixate on the past or the future. They ignore the obvious signs, that this glorious experiment is the thing worth celebrating. Nothing more. The beauty is in the simplicity. What we have is what we make.
Reality—for the living—is a fragile thing, and those bent toward belief fiercely protect their version of it. It feels wrong of me to intercede. It feels wrong to leave it in a kaleidoscope of shards by speaking the truth. People want to view death as they view life—within their own frameworks. If I were to convey to them something different, I would be attacked.
Albert expressed his views to me one afternoon, regarding Elizabeth and her quirks and habits. In their early years together, he’d cherished them. But when times were hard, they became annoying. Enough hard times soured Albert on Elizabeth’s quirks and he took it out on her. I yelled and acted disgusted by her, but really, I was ashamed, he said. They did annoy me, but I still regret the way I treated her. She deserved better.
This is why I understand Simon and the burden, the weight, of knowledge—and why I couldn’t face Elizabeth in that moment before the cafe. The weight of a partial truth was too much and somehow not enough. I punted and shrugged my shoulders.
“I haven’t heard from Albert.”
in category Fiction