Mystery.

By Tom Sweterlitsch

Always unseemly, middle-aged men whispering together, what perversions they’re plotting, what secrets exchanging in the sable downpour in the stony light, a graveyard no less, a quartet of slickers and bat-winged umbrellas, top hats, their huddled faces a cadaverous pallor.  They are dressed for mourning but they don’t remember the dead.  Thunder and tango, eight lean legs and skinny shoes disperse like ink spilt on waxy paper, a soundless rush revealing an urn the size of a child.  MOBIL CORPORATION, Victorian gothic, drapery carved from granite, everything dour and harkening to Rome in this ancient charcoal rain.  From ashes rises the wyvern, the urn a devil’s gate, a rain-piercing raptor’s scream and frantic flapping, leathery.  A nightmare, a shadowy body tinged crimson, a blush of blood, lifting from the urn into the gloomy sky, a passing thought, a dream, something unpleasant that screams before it disappears.  (And where was I?  A child before lasting memory, and some memories are false, I’m certain.  A dimmer switch in the dining room, a green carpet.  Windows with ice on the inside, in the winter.  Fighting cats that shrieked like women being murdered.  My mother young, my father younger than I am now.  I can almost see them in their loungers, can almost see them, but parents recede…are older in memory but so much younger haunting dreams).  A widow with a veil like Libra’s scales, pale, pale, in glamorous mourning, she will remember the dead like a snare that’s been overcome, she will remember the dead with her kerchief, will remember the dead with her wine.  Beside the tomb beside the tree with clutching hands, beside the black tulip growing from soil enriched by death, she will remember the dead like a lazily lounging child of bones, or will think of death like a kindness, spirits reverting to children, the grinning death’s head as the widow sips her crimson drink and glances toward the mystery of the dead.  And the gravestone cracks.  Along the stone wall, (the twilight hours of sleep and waking, the twilight hours of life and afterlife, the twilight hours of memory and non-memory), an escape along the borderland, a man’s white hands, an invalid in a wheelchair, rickety squeals and the invalid draped, spotted by the golden glow of triple beams, flashlights of the mustachioed gendarmes.  Tiptoe.  Tiptoe.  Tip, toe.  A desperate sigh, a white arm frail, a white kerchief draped over the eyes, (and here the terror, nothing to wake me with a cry or cause me to hide beneath blankets, but lingering like a deadening chill, bone-seeping, she might have been a ghost), the woman in white bound, (I see her differently, now), her ankles bound by silk, her struggling ankles, her gown rising to her knees, her white slender legs, wailing, moaning, pleading, virginal, bridal, (but I know better now).  She has been captured across the stone along the spiked gate, even her wrists whimper.  Predatory clouds, skeletal branches, an eye hanging moonlike, staring in the voyeur night as the woman melts, expiring.  (The long yard, the forsythia bush, and beyond the borderland of shrubs to an expanse of grass we called the Middle of Nowhere, this is where I will return when I’m lost in shade fields calling hopelessly for faces I might recognize) but will lose myself in the murmur of cocktail conversations that sound like brooks, fur-clad men holding court, tuxedos and jazz-age gowns, sipping from porcelain cups while others smoke from cigarette-holders, cloche hats, eyes ringed black, the slinky woman with a feather in her cowl.  They speak, they speak as gunshots clap louder than the thunder, the tango, and the victim succumbs sliding pondwise, his trousers and leather shoes sticking up from the surface.  (Memories confused with premonitions, the transit of death confused, I do not believe that death is kindness, that spirits revert to childhood and stalk remembered places like wayward faces haunting dreams).  A single urn the color of coal, the grass the color of stone, the tree growing from the fetid water dead, all things dead, the gurgling bog that swallows the corpse whole, foul water, foul air.  There is an observer.  Someone has seen this all, a witness behind the trunk of a dead tree, look at him, the fool, clutching senseless at sense, look at him, the fool, with his raincoat to guard against the rain.  He licks his pen before he marks his notebook.  Look at him, seeing nothing, an alarm in the realm of sleep that will be incorporated into the narrative of sleep.  Black urns and the urn-studded field, the detective licks his pen and writes.  Only the maid may clean the urn in the field, the graveyard.  Only the sweeping black tomb carries a dead man’s shoes. (I do not believe in the spirits of the dead, or the permeable hours of death and life, of dream and sleep, but nevertheless I am here, a child again and afraid.  I believe I will call out but no one will answer).  A single light glows in the mansion on the estate as the town car pulls away.

Tom Sweterlitsch is the author of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and the forthcoming novel, The Gone World.  He lives in Pittsburgh.

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