Published in Pilcrow & Dagger Literary Magazine, Volume 4 Number 4, May-June 2018
Her initial reaction was outrage: That woman daring to show up here, for God’s sake, at this solemn and heart-wrenching moment.
She was tall, a dancer back then, and carried herself even now with a posture that could hardly be missed — despite a black shawl against the November chill and a black veil that no one wore nowadays. She had the decency to stand apart, behind everyone else, but it wasn’t that big a crowd. Up into our seventies, Carol thought, there aren’t so many left to mourn.
Helene. An apt name. Helen of Troy, the legendarily beautiful seductress who brought on the Trojan War, launched a thousand ships. Even after four decades, seeing her was a stab in the heart. At least she hadn’t come to the wake or the memorial service. Be thankful for small favors.
Pastor John was praying, but memories tuned him out.
It was war for a while. Bear your husband three children, your flesh gone soft and stretchmarked carrying his progeny, and then be abandoned for a svelte, sexy younger woman? There were tears. Pleading. Anger. Carol fought, threatened to make a divorce scene that would ruin Hal’s reputation, insisted that he go with her to counseling.
Insisted, too, on seeing the other woman from close enough to size her up, even though agreeing not to confront her. From seats at the ballet, the image of Hal’s paramour was etched into Carol’s brain, surely the reason she recognized her now.
She must force herself to pay attention to Pastor John, who had rehearsed Hal’s life so warmly an hour ago. Now he was inviting friends to come up to join in the praise, speaking the words of faith so convincingly that she could almost imagine Hal in a better place. The pastor tried to paint the bright autumn trees, still-green grass and blue sky into a picture of heavenly bliss.
Where had the woman been, all these years? Had she not found a man of her own? Kept carrying a torch for Hal, hoping he would change his mind, make a break when the kids were out of the house? Or had it gone on, more surreptitious, better hidden, making an outrageous lie of Hal’s promise never to see her again? No! Carol’s unspoken hope was as fervent as the pastor’s prayers.
The woman was joined now by a man who must have dropped her near the gravesite and gone to park. And by a girl young enough to be a college student. A grandchild? She had Helene’s willowy shape, but was as blonde as her grandmother was dark.
Carol found herself momentarily envying the woman. She and Hal had three children, all with her here at graveside, all married or partnered but producing no grandchildren. No, she told herself, set aside envy: she had Hal, and Helene did not. It took months before the reconciliation was complete, the healing done, but then they had a wonderful life together. She nursed Hal through the final days after the stroke with a full and willing heart.
The cemetery attendants were lowering the casket now, trying to make it look solemn and not mechanical. She looked away again, drawn to the threesome back there by the pine tree, wishing the hussy would lift the veil for a moment. Her beauty must have faded, even if her carriage still suggested the lithe body that had aroused Hal to betrayal.
All that remained now were a few more words of religious rote, and she would be invited to throw a trowelful of earth into the grave. An act of closure. The attendants would finish the job after they all left, but she and her family and others would initiate the final separation.
Pastor John was offering her the trowel, bright silver. She pulled herself together, took it, stooping to stab into the pile of soft earth dug out to make that cold rectangular space for Hal. Hesitantly turned her hand over. The clod fell with a muffled thud that made her shudder.
The kids next, then the neighbors, their friends from church, the few of Hal’s business associates still living. Most closed their eyes in prayer before tossing their trowelfuls into a grave that still yawned.
Oh, my God! Pastor John was beckoning to the three by the pine tree. “Will you join us in this final moment?”
Helene hesitated only a moment before leading her family to the graveside. She filled the silver trowel. She too closed her eyes in apparent prayer, and then somehow – a balletic gesture – made the earth scatter up, catching the sunlight in a golden aura before falling noiselessly onto the casket. She handed the trowel to the man, surely her son.
He suddenly seemed familiar, reminiscent of . . . who? No! she told herself. It cannot be! In the next moment, she knew it was true: She was looking at her husband’s son.
Was he being chivalrous for his mother’s sake, or did he know? And did the college girl now taking the trowel know she was burying her grandfather?
Improbably, Carol found herself hoping that the young woman knew she was the only person in the world who could carry Hal’s heritage, his essence, into future generations.
The three stepped back. Pastor John offered one more prayer, and it was over; people came to murmur condolences and drift away.
They must speak now, Carol knew, but could not imagine how to begin.
Helene stepped forward to put a hand on her arm. “You and your husband made sure we did not want. We are grateful. We share your loss. It has been a touching closure.”
Hal supported this woman raising this man? Carol’s outrage somehow faded. As the son and granddaughter offered their hands, she searched their faces. Hal’s son. His only granddaughter.
The mourners were going to lunch at a nearby restaurant. Should she invite them to join? She hesitated. Some graves are hard to close.