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
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
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 before
declaring 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 churchyard
not 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
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,
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
"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 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
"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.
they said she was beautiful.
they said she was vain.
but her greatest gift
was that she always listened