The Harlot's Epitaph by M Bat

oachim looked out over the vast unbroken fields to where the mountains rose up towards the horizon into the pink twilight sky. Soon, it would be night. Joachim picked out the various night sky stars, stars he had spent last summer renaming. There was the Star of Searing Pain, the Constellation of Oblivion, the Star of Lethe. If the latter star were the first he saw in the evening sky and he wished on it, the week would become more bearable. Or so he had written in his secret notebooks last summer. Lethe had never been the first star he had seen since creating this system, and so life had not yet had a chance to become bearable.

Even for a week.

Joachim had been born under the Constellation of Oblivion on August 13, 1899 to Marta and Ezra Perill in a small village called Foxford. He was the only child of three to survive past infancy. Survival, or the lack thereof, was in fact the family trade. Perills had always served as the village's undertakers since the town's founding, and even before that, specifics of the trade and art had been passed on through the family for longer than anyone could chart. As Ezra Perill's father had before him, Ezra Perill would hand down this legacy to Joachim — who as the only heir and last of his family would follow in his father's footsteps.

The only flaw in this elemental progression of heritage was that Joachim, now just barely fifteen years of age, had developed misgivings about whether or not this line of work appealed to him. On the one unfortunate occasion he broached this subject with his father, he received a barrage of biblical ravings, consisting primarily of "honor thy father" with a few vehement cuffs on the ear. The more his father refused to even question this succession, the more Joachim developed a latent queasiness around the corpses that surrounded him — a queasiness that had never troubled him in childhood. Back then, in fact, wonder and awe had filled him whenever he helped out.  Any of the regular tasks had fascinated him then: embalming, burying, or just reading the poignant sayings on cold marble.

More recently, though, Joachim felt he was beginning to loathe the bodies, so instead he distracted himself making up poignant sayings — usually about himself — to occupy his time. "I am a poet," he said to himself. He never dared to tell his father or anyone else this.

He stank of embalming fluid almost all the time, and the other village children long ago shunned him on account of this and other things. This merely added further to his sense of being poetic.

At fifteen, the boy yearned to leave his meager surroundings and go Somewhere. To Boston. Or Paris. Or somewhere else where he believed poets were waiting to embrace him and take him away from his living death. He had read so few books as there were few books in his environs. He had stayed in school until earlier just this year when at last he had to defer to his father's insistence and leave school to take up his apprenticeship in the family business. But even when he had been in school, the books he'd read had tended towards being more utilitarian than thought-provoking, and the selections of stories and poetry were limited to perhaps one or two by only the most known authors. The few bits of poetry — pieces of Poe, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, and Shakespeare — which he had read and consumed had ignited such a fire in him that he was still afraid to tell anyone. In the village where he lived, there were no poets. Never had been. Probably never would be. And, certainly, if someone were to succumb to such a scurrilous affliction, they would know better than to let on.

These were the facts as Joachim knew them. Born under the Constellation of Oblivion, into the Trade of Death, Joachim sought to make himself not exist. He wanted to disappear into a pinpoint of light and explode somewhere else in the universe, reborn phoenix-like into another existence, another milieu. He tried nightly to wish on the Star of Lethe to help him forget where he was and what he was supposed to become. And, nightly, Lethe would not accommodate him.

Joachim Perill, thusly, could not have been called a well-adjusted child. Nor a happy child. Nor even a particularly stable child. Inevitable, then, that the first time he laid eyes on the cold stiff form of Desirée Esmeralde Mallefille he felt something unusual for her and formed such a bond that bordered on the absurd and the morbid and, possibly (if he had not been so sincerely and chastely poetic), the obscene.

When Ezra Perill had driven up in the mule-drawn black wagon just that very morning, he had shouted for Joachim to come help him unload the body, as he always did. Joachim had skulked out from the mortuary with his now customary reluctance in full grip, but what he saw transformed him more than any whispers to distant stars ever had. Here, lying dead and vulnerable on the wagon was the lovely Miss Desirée, the village's most famous whore.

She was the most vivacious-looking dead person Joachim had ever seen.

If Ezra Perill noticed his son's delight at their new project, he gave no indication. In fact, rather, the arrival of Miss Desirée inspired Ezra Perill to give a long and tedious lecture on the wages of sin, fornication, and other various acts Ezra Perill would only make vague and ominous reference to. He spat on the ground at certain intervals during this speech, and it was to be quite understood by Joachim that Ezra Perill in no way, shape, or form approved in the slightest, the tiniest minutiae, of the person and livelihood of the recently deceased Miss Desirée Esmeralde Mallefille. Joachim duly nodded, as he always did when his father waxed moral, but paid little attention. His thoughts were instead diverted by the hope that he would be able to handle the body in preparation for embalming. He'd never seen a bonafide harlot before, and he was at the age where he could do nothing else but treasure this special moment. His father, though, had never let him prepare the bodies of women under the age of 60 beforedeclaring it as possibly inflammatory to a young boy's character.  And this time, alas, was not to prove an exception. After they had successfully moved Miss Desirée's body to the workroom in back of the mortuary, Ezra Perill assigned his son the task of going to the stonecutter's to sort out the details for the black marble for the woman's tombstone.

"She has a secret benefactor," Ezra Perill said and spat on the ground. "A man I used to hold in high regard. He's contracted with me to pay for this burial and for her headstone."

"That is very kind of him, isn't it?" Joachim said.

"Kind? Nothing kind about it. He's a sinner, clear as day. Same as her. 'Cept he's secret sinning. No one knows, but her and me, and she's dead."

Joachim doubted anyone would be fool enough to trust his father solely with any secret confession, and so he could only assume the unnamed man's liaison with Miss Desirée must be commonly known around the village. Still, he nodded respectfully at his father's assertion, as he always did.

"Don't know what the grand man wants on her stone. He's sending a courier to the stonecutter's with what he wants on it today, and he's even paying them double to have it finished by morning. He clasped my hand in the village and wrung it like there were the four horsemen chasing him, and he said to me in this voice near to breaking that he cared for this woman deeply. Very deeply, he said. And him with a wife of nearly twenty years! I tried to have none of it, none of his words, but his grief was so great that I felt true pity for the man. For his blindnesses. For his weaknesses. And I agreed to let him pay me for my services. Otherhow, she'd be having a pauper's grave and not even in a churchyardnot her, not her kind." Another spit accompanied his words. "Not that I can get her buried in a churchyard, but I can give her a proper real burial in the regular cemetery, and that's a far sight better than some anonymous pauper's grave. Mark me, Joachim, I do not approve of this woman nor of the sin she and this man committed. But. I saw he was a-wash in grief and that he was of the mind that giving her a decent sort of burial would atone for some of his wickedness. I couldn't, in my own good conscience, refuse him an act of atonement now, could I? It wouldn't be right. No, not right at all. But I still want to make it clear that I do not approve of her. No, I do not approve at all."

Of course, the money the unnamed man had offered played no part in his decision, Joachim thought with a sudden lucid cynicism, but he would never had said something like that aloud.  His father's harangue over, Joachim was curtly dismissed and sent to the stonecutter's.

That evening, Joachim returned just in time to look out over the vast unbroken fields to where the mountains rose up on the horizon into the pink twilight sky. Joachim, a wiry boy who looked neither younger nor older than his fifteen years, was of a pale complexion with dark curly hair tied back in a plain black ribbon. Given his occupation, his clothing was dark, somber, and plain, except for the off-white shirt his mother had bought for him two sizes too big so he could grow into it.

His eyes, bright green, he thought of as poetic, and he had written some stories about heroic boys with emerald eyes, the heroes all what he wished he could be.

As he gazed pensively into the twilight sky, he tried to engage in his nightly star-wishing ritual, but his thoughts turned to the body of Miss Desirée Esmeralde Mallefille and the space she currently occupied in the back workroom of his father's mortuary. There would be no wake for this woman, no ceremony. Just an embalming, and then, after being situated into a pine coffin, a lonely burial would follow. Despite the fact there existed someone who cared enough to pay for her burial and a headstone, no one cared enough to be seen at any funeral for this woman. Even the secret benefactor would be too cowardly to come and pay his respects in person. Miss Desirée Esmeralde Mallefille was going to be buried quietly and without fanfare just like Joachim's dog, Keats, had been some months before.

Keats had (after a fatal encounter under the wheels of a carriage) one morning been buried in the backyard by Ezra Perill before Joachim returned from school that day.  The dog had died and been buried before Joachim had even learned of the accident.  Afterwards, Joachim tried to say some words over the dog's grave, but it had not been the same. He decided then that it was terrible to withhold ceremonies from anyone, and so he thought he should do something for Miss Desirée Esmeralde Mallefille to make up for her lack of public ceremony. He knew he'd have to be secretive about anything he did for her.  Mourning over his dog would be tolerated better than mourning over this woman.

The injustice of this lamentably predictable situation could only serve to make Joachim feel even more poetic.

After he was called into supper from his stargazing, Joachim suffered through a lingering meal with his mother and father in silence, a supper during which his father further lectured about various morals ills and shortcomings while justifying his involvement in the unsanctioned burial as being somehow for the good of another man's — the unnamed man's — soul. Joachim nodded at appropriate times in the litany; and Marta Perill, had she had any particular opinion on the matter, kept it to herself and spooned out extra helpings of cabbage in an especially extra-nurturing and yet vacant gesture. Soon after supper, Joachim went to bed in his attic room. As he had no siblings, he was fortunate to get an entire room to himself — a room with a window and a ladder that he made sure was always left under it. Joachim, on occasion, availed himself of that ladder when he was supposed to be asleep, and he chose this night as one of those occasions to do so. A stealthy climb down the ladder and he made an easy escape from the house, running to the mortuary where he wanted to sit with the body of Miss Desirée Esmeralde Mallefille. He had decided to keep a vigil over her body since no one else would. No one had to pay him to invoke his compassion, he thought. But even he knew that his motives were not really altruistic, and he wanted to sit by the body for other reasons he couldn't entirely articulate.

The mortuary was a little building, the largest room inside being the workroom, which was, as its name implied, where the work of the mortuary was performed. Various bottles with foul-smelling contents lined the shelves on one wall. A tray of tools sparkled grotesquely from their perch on one counter. Discolored tubes were strung like garlands throughout, intersecting at the main embalming table in the middle of the room. Although in other circumstances, the body would usually be transferred to the more hospitable chapel-like room in the other part of the mortuary set up for vigils and wakes, Miss Desirée Esmeralde Mallefille was not having any visitors that night — and so Ezra Perill had left her on the embalming slab. After she'd been embalmed, she'd been dressed in a sedate high-necked blue dress of a cut and style that Joachim doubted she'd ever worn in her lifetime. In fact, on closer inspection, he recognized it as one of his mother's old dresses. Her face had been scrubbed clean of any make-up, such as she had worn when he had first seen her earlier in the day. It occurred to him he had never asked how she had died. He was fairly sure it had been neither by an accident nor malfeasance, as such things would have been evidenced on her body, and so he assumed it had been some illness. He could only have admiration for a woman who still had the determination to powder up and rouge her face while fatally ill.

He had lit four small white candles for illumination and pulled up a stool to the table where he would begin his own vigil. He wanted to re-apply her make-up the way she might have worn it, but he knew little of recreational cosmetic use, and the cosmetics he had on hand were used solely to mask a corpse from its tendency to look so terribly dead. She still, even scrubbed clean, did not look as dead as she was.

"I attribute that," he said out loud to her, "to you living like you weren't supposed to. A free spirit. You were kind of like a poet."

He liked his analogy. He nodded to himself. "Yes, like a poet. I'm a poet of words. You were a poet of—" his voice dropped to a whisper, "flesh."

He pulled his secret notebook from beneath his shirt. He often smuggled his notebooks around in his clothes. His notebooks were nothing more than sheaves of paper bound together by his own careful hand-sewing at the side. He made his own notebooks from blank paper wherever he could find it and on the rare occasions he spent his own sporadic funds on new paper.

He opened his current notebook and removed his prized fountain pen from his pants pocket. His mother had given him the pen last Christmas when she had known he was going to have to leave school soon. Although she'd never said anything of the kind, he always supposed it was her way of apologizing for what he was going to have to do in life. He liked to think she secretly knew about and approved of his being a poet — that the pen had more significant meaning than just something the General Goods store clerk suggested a young man might appreciate. But he would never know for sure. Marta Perill was a woman who kept her opinions to herself. Still, outwardly, he did, too. It was impossible not to when Ezra Perill had more outspoken opinions than one family could ever be entitled to. And so Joachim supposed and hoped that his mother's silence was only outward, too.

Joachim, looking over Miss Desirée's body, felt somewhat disconcerted that her feet were bare. Once he noticed that, he couldn't help staring at her toes. "You were an outcast of society. Like me. I am, too. I mean, I am an outcast because of what I am supposed to do in life and also because of what I want to do. Did you want to do what you did? Were you forced into it by unlucky circumstances like me and my undertaker self? Or did you choose it to get away from what someone else wanted you to do like my poet self?" He scribbled down some of these questions in his notebook and nodded sagely to himself. "I wish I had known you, Miss Desirée. I bet you could have told me a lot of things."

As he contemplated the great variety of things this woman might have been able to tell him, he found he needed to shift uncomfortably in his seat. He wondered, idly, how much a whore cost to have. He remembered, back when he was in school, the rumors that a certain boy had a whore bought for him by his father as a birthday present so he could be initiated into the mysteries of manhood properly and practically, but although he had heard those rumors, he was barely a speaking acquaintance of the boy in question nor the boy's friends and so he had no way of telling whether this could be true or not. He did remember thinking how fortunate that boy was to have such a practical-minded and free-spirited father. His own father would never dream of doing anything of the kind. In fact, as far as any information or advice on the great mysteries of sexual intercourse were concerned, Ezra Perill's pronouncement on the subject was an emphatic "Don't you ever" until marriage, presumably, and even then, it seemed questionable that it was permissible much.

As Joachim remembered those rumors, he couldn't help also wondering that if the rumors were true then had it been Miss Desirée who was the one bought? There were not all that many professional harlots in Foxford, and so it would actually be likely. The thought both excited and repulsed him, as he thought the boy in question was not worthy of this enchanting free spirited woman.

"I could tell when I saw you that you were a free spirit. People like you get a sort of respect even while everyone's pretending not to respect you at all. That's something I know about a lot. It's like my father. Everyone has this enormous respect for him — his morals and all that — but there's a lot of folk who won't have anything to do with us as if we have some hand in the deaths of all those we bury. I think sometimes that's why he's so careful about his morals. He wants to prove he's not dirty by this job. It's really unfair. I mean, death is just a natural part of life. It's no less respectable than if he were a farmer or something." Joachim paused and gave a little laugh. "Or a whore. That's a natural part of life. Sexual congress, I mean." He stumbled over the words "sexual congress" and said them out loud again, enunciating them loftily.

"Well, there's all that bit about morality that says it isn't. But it is. It's how life starts. Funny, isn't it? You were doing the job representing the start of life, and here I am, doing the job that represents the end of it. And people are always going around thinking we're both dirty."

He recorded some of this. He drew a stick figure of a baby and then a long arrow down the page, under which he drew a headstone on which he penned "R.I.P."

"It's Latin," he explained to Miss Desirée. "My father told me the words once, but I don't remember it in the Latin, but it translates to just 'rest in peace,' which is what everyone who talks English thinks it means in the first place. It's easier to remember, anyway, in your own language. I sometimes wish I knew how to talk other languages. It would make it easier to go somewhere else. But I don't. There isn't much use for talking those languages here. That's what my teachers said, but I think it's really awful how they just assume that everyone who was born here is going to stay here forever and not go anywhere else. It's like by their thinking like that, they make it happen that way. They don't teach anyone anything they need to know if they go somewhere else. Were you born here in this town? Did you come from somewhere else and end up here? Why would someone come here? You must have been born here. I think it'll be on your epitaph. Things like that sometimes are, but your 'benefactor,' as my father called him, is saying what goes on yours. Sometimes, I've gotten to chisel in the letters on the stones. When we get the less expensive stones, we generally do it ourselves. But yours is black marble. Your 'benefactor' is spending a lot on your stone. I think that shows something about people's respect. You have his quiet respect, even if he has to pretend he doesn't know you. That is what choosing the black marble says to me. I want to see what he says about you, if it is just your name and when you were born and died, or if he adds something more personal. I like epitaphs when they're more personal. It's important, I think, to have words marking you like that. I always take very special care when I am chiseling the epitaphs. Even if it's not on black marble, everyone deserves something decent. I've gotten really good with the chisel, and I can make the letters look all fancy and nice. People generally compliment me on my work that way. Mrs. White told me a few months ago how she really liked how I did her husband's headstone, and she said I had real artistic talent. I liked that. But my father said I shouldn't make the letters so flourishy and stick more to the boxy way of lettering, that that kind of curly writing cheapens the headstone if it's done too much. Would you want curly writing? Or just boxy letters? I don't think it cheapens it. My father — well, you know, just look at the dress he put you in — he is pretty much unwilling to do anything that isn't — well — boxy."

Joachim brightened and took up his pen. "Yes, that's exactly it. My father lives in boxes." He scribbled this down.

"My father buries the dead, but he does not respect them. He only respects the living. No, that's not even right. He's afraid of the living and what they'll say about him. The dead don't threaten him, so he doesn't respect them. He'd bury everyone in the same old coffin with no headstones, if it were up to him. He's always talking about the importance of the family business and how it's something to be proud of. But he's not. When I take over," Joachim sighed, "if I end up having to take over, that is. I don't really want to, but I have to. When I take over, though, it's going to be different. I'm going to find a way to make everyone's grave unique and give them the respect they deserve. People deserve respect for who they are, and not just because they're good at following commandments and rules. Like you. Like me. I didn't even know you, Miss Desirée, but I just know you were a good person. You were just doing what you had to, and all those people who try to make it sound like you were born bad and broken and that's what made you do the job you did, well, they're wrong. It's not a sin to be who you are or to do a job you have to. It's a sin, I think, to make other people think badly of themselves, though. My father put you in my mother's dress as if to say my mother's good and you're bad. But he doesn't think much of my mother either. He just talks at her and tells her what to do. She never says anything real. I think she's in there, but he won't let her come out. He has her in a box. Box. Coffins are boxes. My father puts everyone in coffins, even when they're not dead yet."

Joachim picked up the dead woman's hand and held it, even though it felt cold and rigid. It was a gesture he felt he needed to make.

"I want to be a poet. Even if I stay here and do what I'm supposed to do. I'm going to be a poet of the mortuary. There's really a lot that is poetic here. I've written lots of poems in here. I can't show them to anyone. I showed one of my poems to a teacher at school two years ago, and she made me stay after class and told me that writing about dead things like I did was disgusting and immoral and she made me write out from Proverbs: 'A wholesome tongue is a tree of life; but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit' a hundred times to clean out my filthy mind. I was going to argue with her — because there isn't anything immoral about death and I did not write anything disgusting — but I knew it was hopeless. Every time I speak what's in my heart, I know that it's hopeless. They just say what's in my heart is disgusting. But they don't see that what I'm trying to say really is that death makes life so much more important. I figured it out a long time ago that most people are afraid of death. And life. I figured it out that because of what I have already done, being born into this job, that I have seen things from a different view. I used to want to be normal like the other kids. They would not be friends with me. Well, not much anyway. Sometimes, just a little. Especially when they wanted to come see what a dead person looked like. Anyway, I am not like them, and I figured out why that was. It's because I'm a poet. So, that makes me able to say things about my feelings, and that is normal for a poet. It's not normal for just everyday folk, although I'm not sure why that is. I would listen to people if they wanted to tell me how they were thinking about things. But they don't. Unless they're real upset, and in this trade, I have seen a lot of people who are real upset, and sometimes they've said things to me I don't think they'd say if everything was normal and nice. I like that, when they say these real things they seem to have hidden inside of themselves all of their life. But they are scared later when they remember what they said and they act even more closed off around me the next time. I figure it's because I'm just fifteen, and they aren't supposed to be telling these things to a boy. I asked my father if they told him secrets too, sometimes, and he told me not to talk like that. My father probably does have them saying secrets to him, but it's safe with him, because he's in a box.

"I bet you had a lot of people telling you secrets, too. I don't mean like secrets like dirty stuff like where to touch them and all. But I bet they told you secrets. You didn't have any friends either who you could tell their secrets to. I wish you were still alive so I could have been your friend. Would you have been my friend? Or just thought I was some stupid boy? Maybe I should go find the other whores and see if they'll be my friends. Are they like you? I knew just from your face how good you really were. Sounds stupid, huh? Well. It isn't. I bet you knew it, too, when people came to buy you who wasn't any good and who was. Did you still have to — you know — go with a man if you thought he was no good? Could you say no? Or did you just have to take anyone who came to you? We do here. Have to take anyone who comes to us. But if I don't like them, I just do it all routine-like. I try not to think of them as a person, but like a piece of meat. I know that's bad because I really think everyone deserves respect, but you know, some people are just — well — pieces of meat. I don't do anything mean. But I don't treat them special. Which, I guess, is just about the worst thing you can do to another person.

"I'm going to have to stop that. I'm going to treat everyone special from now on, no matter what. It's important.

"I guess you did have a friend. That 'benefactor' man. He paid my father a lot of money to have you buried decently. That's really nice of him, I think. But maybe he owed you that much if he couldn't be your friend in front of everyone. My father said he was married. And married people aren't supposed to have friends of the opposite gender unless they want to tempt sin. That's what my father says. I don't think I ever want to get married then. I don't have good luck making any friends at all, and I think it'd be worse if I was married and had rules about who I could and could not make friends with. Also, I am not sure I agree about all that sin talk. Seems like if you're married, everything's a sin. Except sexual congress but you can only do that sometimes and only with the person you're married to. But that's not what you did. You did sexual congress with lots of people, didn't you? I like that. Sexual congress and telling secrets — it goes together, doesn't it? I wish I could have sexual congress with you.

"But I don't know how to. You'd probably laugh at me because I don't even know how to kiss. And besides you're dead. So, I don't want to have sexual congress with you because you're dead, but I wish I could have done that with you before you were dead because I bet I could tell you all these secret things. I can tell you were a real easy person to talk to. I haven't told anyone hardly any of this before. And I know you're dead and all — so it's safe — but I've talked to dead people before, and I never said half of this. Oh, no. I'm feeling like I said too much, like those people who tell me things when they're upset. But I shouldn't feel that way. It's okay between us. I can tell. We are so much the same. In our head, that is. Where it's important."

He released her hand and stood up. He stuffed his notebook back inside his shirt. "I have to go. I know a vigil should last all night, but if I stay out all night and my father notices, there'd be hell to pay! So, I hope you liked this vigil. I really did. I wish you weren't dead, but maybe you wouldn't have listened to me if you weren't."

He blew the candles out and put them in a cabinet where his father would not be likely to notice them. He kissed Miss Desirée Esmeralde Mallefille very tentatively on her forehead, which made him shudder inexplicably. Then, he ran back to the house.

Lonely is the existence of a poet. Joachim had learned that from Edgar Allan Poe. He stood still and reverent at the open graveside for Miss Desirée and ran the words "All I lov'd, I lov'd alone" through his mind. That was a line from a poem by Poe called "Alone." Poe was Joachim's all-time favorite poet. When he'd been younger, he'd mistakenly thought the word "poet" had been derived from Poe's name. Now, he knew that wasn't actually so, although he still liked to think it.

He felt the sweat damp under his armpits and around his clavicles from earlier digging the grave. He'd done that while his father fetched Miss Desirée, boxed in her coffin, and her headstone, which had been delivered to the mortuary that morning. Then, without any special words besides "here, you get that end of the box," they lowered the coffin into the earth with ropes.

Now, high noon, the sun was fierce in its duty. Ezra Perill brought out his worn handkerchief and mopped his own sweat from his brow.

"You start covering up the grave now, and I'll fetch the headstone from the wagon," Ezra Perill said.

"Shouldn't we say something?"

"Why? No one's here to hear it."

"We are. She is."

"We aren't her kin nor her friend. Ain't necessary."

"Why not? It's proper."

"Well, you can say what you want. I don't know where you come by this sentimentality, boy. You didn't know her. She ain't the kind of woman whom prayers can save now. That time has passed."

With that, Ezra Perill spat on the ground yet again and strode off for the wagon. Joachim felt a horrible thirst in his throat from the heat of the day as he started to shovel the dirt over her grave. He felt an urge to pry open the lid of the coffin and talk to Miss Desirée just one last time, but that was impossible with his father right there. Instead, while his father was out of hearing distance, he uttered a few words of prayer from the Bible, interspersing it with some lines from different Poe poems:

"Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. How shall the burial rite be read? The solemn song be sung? The requiem for the loveliest dead, that ever died so young? All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. An angel throng, bewinged, bedight, in veils, and drowned in tears. Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. Redeeming the time, because the days are evil. And weep! — oh! to dishonor dead beauty with a tear! Redeeming the time, redeeming the time, the loveliest dead."

As he made up the motley prayer, he shoveled the earth in furiously, trying to complete his task and his words before his father returned.

But it took longer to shovel dirt over her grave than it did for his father to lug the headstone from the wagon, and so Joachim fell silent as his father returned, the heavy headstone obviously straining his father's back and probably his patience. Joachim looked up from his work and saw the words on the headstone. As he read them, his shoveling slowed until he fully stopped. He stood then, unmoving, and began to weep — to dishonor dead beauty with a tear.

"What are you doing?" Ezra Perill demanded angrily. He set the tombstone on the ground. "Get a hold of yourself, boy! What is this?"

"It's those words," he sobbed. "It's those words."

"These words? Joachim, these words are no work of beauty. Stop that crying right now. I have no son who weeps over a whore! You did not even know this woman!"

But as Ezra Perill uttered that sentence, a fear seized him that maybe his son had known her. It would account, logically, for the especially strange way his son had been acting about this woman. As this suspicion took hold, his face turned bright red. Marching over to his son's side, he took Joachim by the shoulders and shook him viciously.

"Stop crying or I'll give you something real to cry over, boy! Did you know this woman? Did you? How did you know her? Why are you crying like this? Tell me. Now!"

His father's shaking him stopped his sobs. He gulped in air and felt nothing but the rage in his father's hands.

"No, no, no, no," he protested, the words coming out as gurgles with every shake.

Ezra Perill stopped shaking his son. "Tell me. The God's honest truth now. Did you know this woman?"

"No."

"Then why were you crying like that?"

"Because I wish I had."

The boy's words nearly invoked a harsh slap from his father, but the boy's tone — so wistful, so broken — unnerved Ezra Perill, unnerved him so much so that he stepped away from his son. Ezra Perill found himself suddenly at a loss for words. He scowled.

"Finish what you're doing," he commanded.

He stood guard over the boy, watching him finish shoveling the dirt into the grave as he considered what to do about his son and his obvious corruption. Ah, corruption, that was it, Ezra Perill thought. This whore, even in death, had the power to corrupt young men.

Ezra Perill, satisfied with that as an explanation, pursed his lips and glowered at the hole in the ground.

When Joachim was finished filling up the grave, he stood silently, staring down at the handle of his shovel waiting for his father to speak. He would not look up.

"Go get on the wagon now. I'll set the headstone in the ground," Ezra Perill said. "We'll go straight home for dinner and then you're gonna read your Bible verses afterwards. I don't like that talk of yours. And crying like a girl over a harlot. It's not right."

"Yes, Father," Joachim replied because there really wasn't anything else to say.

He started off to the wagon, and as he walked away, he risked one final glance at the headstone of Miss Desirée Esmeralde Mallefille.

His throat, parched from the heat of the day and sobbing, constricted on him. In his mind, he was far away from this place, exploded into a pinpoint of light somewhere beyond the unbearable sun.

When he was out of hearing, he repeated the doggerel from Miss Desirée's headstone, etching it indelibly onto his memory and meaning to write it later in his notebook. If his father would release him from his Bible study in time for twilight, he knew he was going to search for Lethe tonight harder than he ever had before.

epitaph: they said she was beautiful/they said she was vain/but her greatest gift/was that she always listened/without disdain.

 

they said she was beautiful.

they said she was vain.

but her greatest gift

was that she always listened

without disdain.

 

 

 


 

For more about Mordantia Bat, see the editors' page.

"The Harlot's Epitaph" was originally part of the collection
What I Did This Summer in the Gulag. (Brainchild Stories, vol. II)