The Mourning Light
We had been in our cell for two days before they came to us. We were famished and wondering when-oh-when would we get out. Would we ever escape the time too-still, gut-heaving, clenching jaw of this sadness?
There were just the two of us. Food on trays had been brought, but we could not eat. Water too; we took small sips, refusing the quench. What right did we have to work to sustain our lives? Life too adjacent to us had been taken. Not in my back yard, people say. So what then? On your front steps, your porch, your dining room with the chandelier sparkling overhead?
“Turn out the light,” I told her.
“Turn off the light,” she said.
“Turn it off. Not out. You said it wrong.”
“People say turn out the light,” I said.
“But it’s wrong. All the people are wrong,” she said. That was true. All the people were wrong.
We were just passing through when our mother was slaughtered by a roving band of criminals. Oh yes. They are terror, the people of the village said and bowed their heads. They too lost loved ones. So we became citizens of this small, mysterious place. They burned her body, her clothes, a rough effigy. They sobbed while drumming and singing throaty chants as if it had been their own blood spilled across the grass. My sister and I were ushered into a cabin. Thin mattresses, beautiful patchwork quilts, a mirror covered in gauzy muslin, a glass-less window in the door.
Now, after two days, an old woman knocked and entered our small room. She held out her hand to help us stand and then bowed.
“I am very sorry,” she said as she set down another tray of food. Removed the ones collecting flies that we had ignored.
She then handed us a lantern. Primitive, a glass encasement open at the top, small metal knob, blue-yellow flame. She pointed to a hook in the middle of the circular room.
“Hang it there.” We did. “It is the bereavement lantern,” she told us. “You can mourn for as long as this light is lit.”
“When does it go out?” I asked.
“It is different for everyone,” she said.
“Who made them?” I asked.
“I do not know,” she said.
“How does it work? I mean, how does it know when we are done?” my sister asked.
“I do not know,” she repeated and left us to the dark and crickets and vanilla scent of orchids and the faint gasoline whiff of our sorrowful light. I watched the flame flicker, eating moths in its effervescence.
I ate a small bread roll. My sister still wanted for no food. The yeasty thickness of it brought to mind so many loaves of bread made growing up. Our mother’s soft hands were permanently powdered with flour. As she ran her hands through our hair and along our legs, she left behind fine white dustings, like she was already a ghost.
I slept. I slept and I hadn’t slept since we found her mangled carnage. Closing my eyes would bring forth her lopped off fingers and begging blue eyes, wet and dark with smeared mascara, the only makeup she wore. This time, when I closed my eyes I saw a kitchen, gingham tablecloth and matching curtains, rooster shaped salt and pepper shakers, savory chicken livers, pulpy orange juice.
And then I fell asleep.
“What is the difference between bereavement and mourning?” my sister asked the next morning. “And sadness?” she added.
“I’m not sure,” I said as I rolled over. I had slept the whole night. Couldn’t remember dreaming. “Maybe levels? Like how sad.”
“Or distance?” she asked. She was folding her quilt. Perfect corner to corner. She didn’t turn to look at me. Just folded and folded and folded. “Time?”
“Yeah, or that,” I agreed.
“I mean, you can be sad forever.”
“Bereavement seems like sitting shiva. Like it’s a set period of time,” my sister said.
“So you think we will be here for seven days?” I asked.
“No one is keeping us here,” my sister motioned to the door. That was true. There was no lock on our cell. No guards. This was not an imprisonment. We had done nothing wrong. My sister kept folding. The square of blanket grew smaller.
“We could go home,” I suggested, knowing this would not be suitable for either of us. It was not what our mother would have wanted and it was not what I wanted.
We didn’t leave. Food trays were delivered and each day the tray grew emptier when the old woman came to take them away. The flame kept up. It occasionally grew sparse, with a strong breeze or an unseen force, but it kept burning. We counted dead moths, but lost count at thirty-three. Who would mourn these insects, the less vibrant country-cousin to the butterfly? If its wings were more vivid, would we cry for them?
We didn’t cry for them. Perhaps we should have. But we emptied ourselves for our mother. The old woman entered once while my sister and I held each other and sobbed into each other’s bodies, filling each other up when the other depleted. Upon the woman’s arrival, we both sat up, dabbed at our teary cheeks, sniffled apologies.
“Do not apologize for love,” she said as she placed another tray down. She walked to the lantern, didn’t touch it, silently assessing it. She carefully took it down and tipped the moth carcasses into her hand. The flame remained lit.
“These moths have to come to the light, you know? It’s part of who they are.” We still sat there, trying to make sense of this woman and the dead not-butterflies and the light and our mother who was also a dead not-butterfly.
“I will take these out,” the old woman said and crushed them into ash in her fist and dispersed the remains on the floor. That night, when my sister had folded her blanket into the smallest square she could, I approached the lantern. The moths were beginning to collect again. I turned the metal knob. With a violet hiss, the light went out. We emerged from the cell. In the darkness, we carried with us a small torch with which to guide the way home.
Item: an oversized postcard, size: 8.5 x 5.5
The prosecutor reads its contents aloud.
It was so weird. I was eating cherry pie – local they said, but it tasted like maraschino – and this guy approaches. Real tall. Forehead you could fry an egg on, maybe two. And an eyebrow – just one — that would never allow sweat to pass his baby doll eyelashes. He looked alien, but familiar. Strange, but beautiful.
He slid right into the booth next to me! Reached over me and grabbed a menu from behind the napkin holder, said he was famished. I just stared at the table, a map with no place names, lines on the linoleum, intersecting and circling around. But I didn’t ask what he was doing. I don’t know why not.
Then the waitress came around, took his order. Never looked up, and left.
The man with the brow pointed his thick but manicured finger at the postcard I was about to write. Postcards, yeah? Not from around here, yeah? I come here all the time. I get the turkey club. Safe bet. He pointed to the sign that declared the cherry pie best in the county was here in this diner. Bullshit, he said. Yeah? Bullshit? Right? My grandmother makes the best and she’s just down the road. If you ever wanted to try it. And here he grew a little shy. Like a date? I asked. Yeah, I mean, sure.
Real cherry pie, that is. None of this Shirley Temple in a frozen pie crust stuff, and then he picked up a bent fork and helped himself to the rest of my pie. Can you believe it?!
You can leave a trace, if you’re worried, he said. Here, write it here. And then this way someone knows who you’re with. Where you’ve gone. Write it, here. I’ve got a stamp. Now who do we send it to?
He filled the bathtub with Tanqueray and a little bit of water. Dropped the bottles in when they emptied. It took forty-one mini bottles – many hotel mini bars pilfered in his former life.
He stripped off his uniform: polyester trousers, starchy white shirt, and vest with the patches. Lucite name tag with his name spelled wrong. The cheap material had chafed his thighs into crimson meaty blocks. He turned away from the mirror. He shed his boxers with the hearts, a gift from the previous Valentine’s Day. The giver now tried in absentia.
He turned off the light so he didn’t have to watch and he poured his pale, crusty body into the astringent pool — baptism by fire. He reached for the little green buoys to save him and could barely hold on.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming with PANK, The Citron Review, Necessary Fiction, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. More can be found on her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com
Three winners. Congrats.
Such vibrancy- with an attractive glance of ambiguity in your stories here, Jennifer. Loved them!