I am subject to dreams, especially one of a curious type in which I wake on my back, unable to move, my arms pinned to my side, my legs straight. My paralysis is complete, and a thick darkness pervades my bedchamber, a darkness of an almost viscous weight, so that I can feel it pressing upon my face and bearing down against the bedclothes. And there is something else, as well: a sense of obscure doom falls upon me. Something worse than death—I am an undertaker, accustomed to death; we are old friends, death and I—though what it is, I cannot say or guess.
For much of my life, I endured these episodes alone, though I sought help (Dreams are but the product of unconscious desires, one alienist told me; I will not speak of his further explanation except to say that I withdrew in distaste). Yet there came a time, and not so long ago, when I found solace during these attacks of narcoleptic horror: a wife, very beautiful and some years younger. How I met her is of no importance, but her loveliness haunts me to this day: the sonorous fall of her auburn hair, the green eyes set like emeralds in her heart-shaped face, the complexion of almost pellucid clarity. I could speak with eloquence on the shapeliness of her body, as well, but here let us draw the veil of marital decorum that should in all cases govern such matters.
One more element I have yet to mention of these dreams: the waking conviction, for so I seemed awake, that could I but move, that could I so much as twitch a finger, the horror that transfixed me would recede. And my wife—I will not name her here—would often hear the whimper that was the scream locked inside my aching jaws, and gently, gently, she would shake me into awareness. Yet frequently a tearful panic would linger—it is not meet that a man should admit tears, but I have vowed complete honesty here—and my lovely wife would ease me in my distress.
There was talk, of course.
When a man of a certain age and means marries for the first time—especially if he marries a woman still in the springtime of her years—there is bound to be talk. I knew this when I undertook the adventure, of course, but there are things one knows and there are things one knows, if you take my meaning, and in this case what I knew I did not know. I had prepared myself for speculation, so it came as no surprise when it was said that a woman of such youth and beauty could have no real interest in a man so old, so plain, and so bereft of interesting conversation. She had surely attached herself to me in the hope of an inheritance, it was said.
These things I had expected. These things I had steeled myself against. But the other whispers—I will not dignify them with name or description—I had decidedly not expected. I’ve never had anything but the utmost trust in my wife, and to see her virtue so impugned stung me deeply. Yet I would be remiss if I did not admit that there was something humiliating in them all the same. They struck at the very heart of my manhood, and such a wound—a wound to the quick of one’s pride and reputation—is a difficult wound to bear. Yet bear it I did, and with the solemn dignity a man of my profession must ever exhibit.
Suffice to say that in her arms, the dreams no longer so terrified me. Yet still they came, and one morning—after an especially enervating night during which they succeeded one another in a quick succession even my wife’s most devoted attention could not relieve—I woke to find the window of our upstairs chamber open. The weather had cooled by then, and fall had set in, rattling leaves down the gutters of our narrow street. I have always loved the crisp chill of that season. I find it especially conducive to the sleep that so often eludes me, and, though my physician had advised against it in a man of my growing age and infirmity, I not infrequently threw open the windows of my chamber at night. Yet on the previous evening, when chill rains were forecast, my wife had forbidden the practice, so when we woke to find the window agape and the carpet damp, she inveighed against the stubborn nature of my habit. I was almost certain—no, I was absolutely sure—that I had left no window open, but I am not by nature an argumentative man, so I did not respond in kind.
When she left the room to commence her daily ablutions, however, I examined the window more carefully. I could see no way that the locks might have come unfastened, nor could I imagine any wind of sufficient force to blow the window open—or certainly none that would not have awakened us (besides, in such an event, the locks themselves would have been damaged). By this point, standing in my bare feet on the wet carpet had become decidedly uncomfortable, so I was relieved to step away—and surprised when I encountered another damp patch some three feet from the window— and another one— and still another one, the full set leading, as though by a large man’s strides, to the foot of the bed. I went to my knees and, examining one of them carefully, descried the faint imprint of a large boot. I had already summoned the housemaid to blot up the mess by the window, and now, swearing her to an oath of secrecy upon her very employment—for above all things I wished to avoid alarming my wife—I set her to work on the boot prints. By the time my wife finished her morning rituals, the worst of it was cleaned up and—as far as she was concerned anyway—the matter forgotten. We enjoyed a pleasant repast of coffee and eggs in the breakfast nook. Soon after, my wife went off to one of her many charities and I was left alone in the apartment.
Dressed in a sober black suit, I descended to the main floor of the house, carpeted with fathomless silence, where the various chapels and viewing rooms are located. I exchanged quiet greetings with my employees (whispers prevail on the first floor) and stepped outside. Ours is an old section of the city. The streets are cobbled and narrow, the houses tall and narrower still, and many of them lean precariously over the sidewalks, though they will stand long after I am laid out myself. A quick inspection confirmed what I had already known. Had the window already been open (it had not) there would have been no way to reach it from the street: no trestle climbed the façade, there were no overhanging trees, and the bricks themselves, despite their age, were too tightly mortared to permit even the strongest fingers to obtain a hold.
Nor was that the extent of it. Imagine I had been able to arrive at a satisfactory explanation of how a large man had managed to scale the wall of my home, unlock a locked window, clamber through the resulting aperture without awakening either of us, and cross the bedroom to stand at the foot of the bed—imagine all that, and another question remained: Why? Larceny? Nothing had been stolen. Vandalism? Nothing disturbed. Rape or murder? No one had been harmed. Yet what could I do other than reinforce the windows and replace the locks with a sturdier variety—and I had given orders to have that seen to before breakfast.
Enough, I told myself. You have already allowed this mystery to consume too much of your morning. In this, as in all things, Occam’s Razor applies. No doubt you left the window open by force of habit, the boot prints were merely footprints, and you left them yourself during a slumberous circuit of the house, checking doors and windows, such as you are accustomed to make when you wake from unpleasant dreams. Now get on with your day. You have work to do.
And indeed I did: a service at three, and two bodies awaiting embalming in the basement of the house, which was devoted to the more unsavory aspects of my trade—though in truth (I have promised nothing but honesty), I did not find them unpleasant. Any properly deferential man in a suit can conduct the public side of the funeral service; the real challenge lies in the work behind the scenes, pumping bodies full of embalming fluid, washing the remains, seeing to the eyelids and lips—that peaceful half-smile is most difficult to achieve—and otherwise making the dead look, as you will so often hear during the wake, alive. They do not look alive of course. Death transcends even the best embalmer’s skill. But the artifice of life, the art of the illusion, is the pride of my trade: and on this morning, I thought, I had better put aside pointless speculation and be about my business. I changed clothes yet again and spent the better part of the morning elbows deep in an autopsy reconstruction, packing the rib cage with cavity fill and suturing closed the Y-shaped incision. At noon, I broke for lunch, and then I cleaned up for the service.
That night my wife attended a fund-raising dinner for orphaned children, so I took my evening meal at the club with a friend, Brownlow, another undertaker and technically my competitor, but in reality nothing of the sort, since there is, as Brownlow is fond of saying, “a plentitude of death to go around.” We’d just finished the main course when he made his usual pronouncement, which served as a transition into the discussion of professional matters, including the other body languishing in my basement, an auto-accident victim whose shattered face would require truly heroic reconstructive work in the embalming chamber.
“Perhaps a closed casket would be best,” Brownlow said as the waiter swept our plates away.
“Oh, certainly. I have encouraged them so, but the family insists otherwise.”
In silence, we considered the difficulty families posed.
“The facial expression,” I said, “will present even more problems than usual.”
“Ah yes,” Brownlow said. “The smile will be especially problematic.”
Cases of reconstruction aside, the face usually poses but one challenge. Glue shut the eyelids. Suture the mouth. Compose the features. And—this is the difficult part—arrange the smile. The secret of the smile is to disguise the very fact of death, the natural downward droop of the lips. The objective is to achieve a peaceful expression and the key to a peaceful expression is the smile—neither a grotesque grin nor a frown at the permanent nature of the deceased’s predicament—but an expression of rest, a subtle, a peaceful hint of a smile.
We pondered this difficulty over drinks.
“Perhaps I could assist you,” Brownlow remarked, “this being such a difficult case.”
“It is a matter of professional pride.”
“Of course,” Brownlow said. “Speaking of pride, however, and I hesitate to speak of it at all” —and he did hesitate— “but as a friend I feel I must address it.” He swallowed. “I must speak of your wife. Do you know what people say of her and her charities?”
“I will not hear ill spoken of my wife,” I said.
“You may not hear it, but that will not stop people from saying it.”
“Forbear. Our friendship depends upon it.”
Brownlow shook his head and drank off his scotch. We departed soon after, with strained bonhomie, but Brownlow’s insinuations weighed upon me—had weighed upon for weeks, if I am to be honest (and I have promised nothing less)—and some nights later, in the privacy of our bedchamber, I found myself saying to my wife, “Do you not ever wish that you had chosen a younger man?”
“Oh, my dear,” she said, “I chose you for love and only love.”
“But” —and now I hesitated— “these charities you so often attend, these luncheons and these dinners. How rarely we see one another!”
“You do so much good in the world, my love,” she said. “I merely wish to emulate your benevolence.”
“But we have no friends your age.”
“That we have friends suffices,” she remarked. “So many people do not.”
We were silent for a long moment and then she reached out and took my hands in hers. “Your hands are so cold,” she said. “You must rest more. You spend too much time with the dead.”
My hands were cold. My circulation was poor. I will say that much only, and then I will let drop the curtain once again and allow you to draw your own conclusions. I was an old man, and she was still quick and young and beautiful, and for the first time I came to suspect her. What if I alone could not satisfy her needs? What if there were some truth to the rumors? She was right: too long had I trafficked with the dead.
Such were my thoughts as I drifted off to sleep—the long thoughts of an old man, and a tired one who feels the certainty of death upon him—and when I woke, I woke to a tenebrous gloom that lay cold and heavy upon my still-sleeping and immoveable body. It was very late (I heard the clock toll the hour of three) and very cold (my breath frosted in the darkness). I had closed the windows that night, and double-checked the new locks. Now, in the endless silence, I heard them slide open one by one, the stealthy glide of oiled metal against metal. The sound of the window slipping open followed, and in that nightmarish half-conscious thought process, achingly unhurried and incoherent, that is the sole province of such dreams, I recalled the tall narrow house, well mortared, leaning over the street, impossible to scale. And then something—I will call it a man, but it was no man—came through the window. It stood at the foot of the bed, a long shadow in the dark, impossibly long in that tall room. Something glinted in its hand (how I knew this, I cannot say), and that sense of imperishable doom that always accompanied the paralytic dream possessed me once again. I moaned, or tried to moan. I twitched my finger, or tried to twitch my finger. I hurled myself toward wakefulness with every fiber of my being. And then—abruptly—my wife reached out her warm hand to me and I was awake.
“What is it—”
But I did not pause to respond. I hurtled out of bed into the empty hallway, and took two turns around the house, finding it twice empty. Yet when I returned to the bedroom, the window stood open. My young wife’s hair fell in in auburn waves upon her ivory nightgown, and I saw how lovely she was to behold and I wondered again if perhaps the rumors were true.
She clutched the nightgown to her breast. “What is it—”
“A bad dream, nothing more.”
“But the window?”
And I lied merely to allay her distress. “I grew warm and opened it for a breath of air.”
Perhaps it was my own prevarication that imparted the sense of falseness to her response. “You must remember that the doctor has warned you against the evening air.”
I slept undisturbed for the rest of the night and woke later than was my habit. My wife was already gone. She had left a note expressive of her love and concern for me and since there were no funerals scheduled for the day, an all-too-rare lull in the endless procession of the dead, I resolved to spend my day with a book in the upstairs apartment. Soon enough—such is the case with all in my profession—my solitary recreation was interrupted. I was called away to collect a body. A redheaded woman had been struck by a car at a busy intersection. In her face, I could detect a crude shadow of my own wife’s features, and it was with an unusually heavy heart that I commenced the embalmment. I felt weary as I had not felt weary in years. I felt the weight of my maladies upon me, and I nearly cancelled my scheduled dinner with Brownlow at the club.
Some months passed by, during which my infirmities increased. I tired easily and my stomach was not well. My wife’s words echoed in my head—Your hands are cold. You must rest more. You spend too much time with the dead—and I began to think of retirement.
“Retire?” Brownlow said over drinks. “Retire!”
“Retire. I grow weary, Brownlow. I want to spend more time with my wife.”
“Bah,” he said, “can you not see what others so plainly see, my friend? This decision you will live to regret.”
Nonetheless, in the weeks that followed, I resolved myself. My infirmities had worsened. Weariness was my constant companion; my own time (how little time we have!) grew shorter. I began to wind up my affairs, reducing both my professional and domestic staff. The cook took up quarters of her own; the maid came in but once a week, and limited her endeavors to those areas of the house reserved to entertainment. I began to refer cases to Brownlow, and devoted myself to leisure in the apartment whose pleasures I had too long denied myself: the warmth of the morning sun against my face in the breakfast nook, the strains of Bach upon the phonograph, a relaxing glass of wine with a good book in the library. Yet one such pleasure was denied me: the quotidian companionship of my wife. One, two, three nights a week and more, my wife returned late from her charitable enterprises—from dinners and fund-raisers, from fancy-dress balls that ran late into the morning hours. Even her days she often devoted to such affairs—to the management of the financial activities of altruistic enterprises, or the maintenance of soup kitchens and shelters for the homeless that in those years thronged the city. Once again the weight of rumor began to weigh upon my shoulders.
“Perhaps you could reduce your commitments,” I said to her one night in our private chambers. “I long to spend more time with you.”
“And I to spend more time with you, my love,” she responded. “But I hesitate not to share our good fortune.”
“We have plenty of money,” I said. “Surely through increased generosity we could compensate for your attendance to more personal matters.”
“Give me some time,” she said, “and I shall do as you ask. It will but take some weeks to withdraw from the work that involves me.”
Yet weeks passed, and still she spent long hours at her work.
She delayed— “A few more weeks and it shall be done,” she said. “I did not anticipate such difficulties, so central have I become to these affairs”—and though her nighttime attentions intensified (I must be honest here; with great reluctance I once again draw the curtain for a breath aside), poor circulation too often afflicted me, the icy curse of an old man’s blood. She was so young, so beautiful, her need so strong within her. Once again, the burden of suspicion weighed heavy upon my shoulders.
By then it was full winter and heavy drifts of snow clogged the streets of the city. The temperature plunged below zero for weeks at a time, and ice sheathed the windows, which remained securely shut. One night we spoke again of these matters. Our conversation grew heated. Dare I say that for a brief moment we lapsed into discord? Tearful apologies on both sides soon were tendered. She promised again to discontinue the greater bulk of her activities; I acknowledged the difficulty she faced in extricating herself from these affairs; and soon, our customary harmony restored, we fell alike into a sleep restorative and deep. Yet sometime in the small hours of the morning, I awoke once again into the helpless dream, this nightmare terror that has haunted me since youth. Once again the paralytic horror. Once again the glide of smoothly oiled locks. Once again the almost silent slide of the lower window into its upper recess. The darkness grew oppressive, dense and weighty upon my face. I felt the inhuman horror enter the room. Long hours, or so they seemed, drifted by—how dreams distort our sense of time!—as its tall thin shadow lay across me, something glittering in one hand. How I knew they were embalming scissors I cannot say, but I have vowed to be truthful in this brief account. And still that tall shadow loomed. A scream battered itself against my locked jaws. With fruitless effort, I strained to twitch a finger. And then, as helpless tears coursed down my cheeks, I felt the shadow move away. What I could not see, I heard: the swish of the scissors in the black air, the meaty tear as they met her flesh, her scream of agony and surprise, so quickly stifled—
And then, abruptly, I was awake, the shadow gone. I must confess to a scream of my own as I hurled myself upright in the sodden sheets. It was all I could do to turn my head to face my wife, yet turn it I did, and took in gasping the blood already soaking into the mattress. Reaching out one tremulous hand, I touched her still warm flesh—
—and she stirred and smiled up at me and said, “What is it, my love? What is it that so terrifies you?”
The blood resolved itself into moon-cast shadow, the dampness in the sheets into my own terrified perspiration. I sobbed in relief, and regretted with every fiber of my heart the dissension that had so briefly parted us. “I am sorry, my love,” I wept, “I am so very sorry,” and she held me in her arms until the convulsions passed.
In the weeks that followed, spring came. The snow dissolved in the sunlight and for a day or two the gutters chattered with its melt. My wife gave up her work and we took our pleasure in sunlight and in the Goldberg Variations, and reading aloud to one another in the library. So our life continued in harmony for a time. We rarely—indeed we never—were upon the town. I gave up my weekly dinners with Brownlow, and we did not often speak even by telephone, until, growing concerned for my welfare, he betook it upon himself to visit. We sat in the library for an hour, sipping brandy, and turned over the gossip of the club, the latest endeavors of our fellow undertakers, and the pleasures to be had in the craft.
“Do you miss it?” he inquired.
“I do,” I said. My infirmities largely passed, I had lately given thought to returning to the trade. I allowed as I probably would. Few pleasures can surpass that of comforting a grieving family with a near-perfect reproduction of their loved one as he was in life—why he looks almost alive, are the words that every undertaker treasures the most, and I longed to hear them once again. Brownlow congratulated me warmly.
“I hope that we can resume our dinners at the club,” he said.
“I had myself so hoped,” I replied. “Let us begin this very week.”
On that note, he took his leave—but, turning in the doorway, he remarked that the rumors about my wife had abated since she had left off her work to spend her time at home, as a woman properly should. “I must be honest,” he said as the door closed behind him: “I had some fear that she would leave you.”
“Oh, no,” I said, “she is with me to this very hour.”
Indeed, she is. In fact—though there are things so private one does not share them with the closest friend—even the dreams no longer trouble me, she provides me so much comfort in the night.
And her smile is perfect.
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