The night his first wife, dead sixteen years, three days and fourteen hours, knocked on the door of the security wall surrounding Cornelius’ compound was a disturbing one. The time elapsed since her death had included his fifty-fourth into his seventieth year. The watchman who answered the door, a distant cousin of his second wife, didn’t recognize her for he had never seen her in the land of the living. But as the dead woman was dressed well and spoke her request to have Cornelius summoned in a clear, educated diction, he let her into the warm watchman’s shed while he went off to the main house to talk to the boss. It was raining, a cold, steady rain coming down in a medium drone for so many days now that it seemed to Raoul, the watchman, that it had always been raining and sunny days, or even cloudy rainless days, were a distant dream.
Cornelius was in his bedroom and just about to disrobe and climb into bed when the knock came on the door.
“What kind of woman?” he asked.
“About thirty. Black hair, hazel eyes. She’s wearing a heavy cloak and over that a slicker like fishermen wear. The slicker is even blacker than her hair.”
“Pretty. Pale. In fact, when I think of it, exceptionally pale.”
A description general enough to include any of a thousand women in the city surrounding.
“She refused to give one. Said it would be indelicate.”
This was not a word Raoul would ordinarily use. It’s vagueness, the lack of a concrete object to hang its hat on, so to speak, would normally have aroused in him a mild disgust. Cornelius decided that the woman must be more than pretty; she must be beautiful. For Raoul, who had an eye for women, her beauty would make the word real for him.
“Very well. Show her into the first parlor.”
Raoul smiled a thin smile that was very close to being a smirk. Perhaps he thought it amusing that such a beautiful young woman would come to visit such an old man late at night. If so Cornelius found the smile deplorable and was about to say something but Raoul, realizing that his expression had let slip an emotion he should be concealing, assumed his usual passionless mask, did an about turn and marched quickly through the door. Five minutes later, after washing his face and hands and combing his hair in the adjoining bathroom, Cornelius followed.
The first parlor was left off the entrance vestibule, a smallish room with two sofas pulled up to a wood burning fireplace. In addition to the entrance off the vestibule there was a door at the rear off a corridor leading to the stair descending to the kitchen and the servants’ quarters. Cornelius entered through this door, first clearing his throat for he thought it proper to announce himself before entering a room where a guest awaits, especially if it is a woman.
Wood and paper were always laid and Raoul must have lit it for she was sitting on the nearest sofa gazing into the fire. She did not turn towards him though it was clear from the tilt of her head, the line of her shoulders that she heard him but deliberately decided to slow her response. She didn’t turn full toward him until he reached the sofa. Always one to milk a dramatic situation, Sophia. After all it is seldom that a wife, dead sixteen years, returns to confront her husband.
“Good evening, Cornelius.”
“Good evening, my dear.” Cornelius replied as if she had just returned, perhaps, from a visit to her sister’s, a day’s ride north. Cornelius was a polite man and thought it appropriate in such a bizarre situation to let the dead party set the tone.
“You have a new watchman I see.”
“A dull witted, phlegmatic type.”
Cornelius thought about this for a moment and then replied, “Raoul could be described as comfortable in his groove but I wouldn’t call him dull witted. The opposite, I’m afraid – very clever.”
“I believe he thinks me a lady of the night.”
“And indeed you are, Sophia, though a different from the kind Raoul is thinking.”
“So you still entertain ladies of the night, Cornelius?”
“On occasion but not here. I go there.”
“And your present wife?”
“Dead to me as you are Sophia. She lives in the guest wing and we see each other once a week for dinner.”
“She was too young, Cornelius. Such a thing was inevitable. Does she have a lover?”
“I believe Raoul is her lover.”
“Not much of an improvement.”
“Although he looks older, Raoul is only forty.”
“And you, Cornelius, how old are you?”
“An old man.”
“Do you feel as if you are an old man?”
“Sometimes, but mostly no.”
“In the mornings, for instance, when I first get out of bed.”
“Come sit by me,” she said, patting the sofa seat beside her.
“I’ll sit, but not there,” Cornelius said. He walked behind her and sat on the other sofa at the end closest to her.
“Shy, are we?”
“You are dead, Sophia. It’s only natural I prefer to keep a certain distance between us.”
“There was a certain distance between us when I was alive, Cornelius.”
“Yes. But isn’t there always a certain distance between two living beings even if they are lovers or husband and wife?”
“Always the philosophical one, Cornelius.”
“I’m afraid I don’t see the philosophy, Sophia. What I said was merely a commonplace observation.”
Sophia took this mild rebuke without offence, smiling into the fire. After examining it for a moment, studying the play of blue and yellow flames licking up from the growing char, she said. “You are forgetting your manners, Cornelius. You should offer me tea and a bite to eat.”
“The dead eat?”
This surprised Cornelius but then he supposed if she could walk and speak she very well may eat as well so he left the room by the back door and descended the stair into the empty kitchen. He made tea and assembled a tray of bread and butter, cold chicken, cookies and an apple. When the tea was steeped he set it on the tray and, returning to Sophia, placed it on the coffee table before her. Without a word she set to consuming the contents of the tray with a steady yet unhurried determination until it was all gone. Then she poured herself a cup of tea and, balancing cup and saucer on one knee, leaned back on the sofa.
“Thank you, Cornelius. It’s been a long time since I ate last.”
“Oh, some years I suppose.”
“Do the dead eat in their graves?”
“No but when they rise from them they do.”
“The word as simple description. No religious connotations. Are you still an atheist? They say men become religious when they grow old.”
“Not an atheist. Not even an agnostic. I’m not interested in intellectual speculations anymore.”
“Well if you’ve left the intellect behind then what about feeling, Cornelius? Have you left that behind as well?”
“No. I have come to see that the feelings of the moment which I once looked upon with distain, as our only reality.”
“So no God?”
“One part of me has no argument with God but another sees Him as obviously a projection of the human ego. Filling the universe with projections seems to me a kind of horror show yet, on the whole, it’s what we seem to do.”
“So that we are not alone?”
“I suppose, although for me having relationships with imaginary beings is far worst than being alone. But what about you, Sophia? Do the dead have insights into these matters?”
“Not really. Women, as you know Cornelius, have a connection to the sensate world few men have. That suffices for many of us and I am one of them. Although I can’t claim to speak for the others, death brought me no revelations or mystical insights.”
“And what was it like to lay there for sixteen years, my dear?”
“Four weeks only, Cornelius, and then I left the grave. During those four weeks I had no consciousness of passing time, just a kind of steady hum, so to speak, not at all disagreeable.”
Cornelius did not reply to this. He felt that it would be impolite to ask for the details of her disinterment and inquisitorial to ask what she had been doing since that time. He glanced at the tray thinking he might fill the gap in conversation with a cookie but they were all gone. Even the teapot, a glass one, was empty. In life Sophia, despite her trim figure, her long, lithely muscled body, had been a hearty eater. It seems she was so even in death.
“You will be wondering what I have been doing since I left the grave, Cornelius. And perhaps also how I left the grave. You were always curious, a man hungry for details.”
“Now that you bring it up I must admit that I am curious.”
“Then you will be disappointed. The dead know as little as the living it seems. As far as leaving the grave goes one moment I was in it and then the next I was out, standing on the bank of a river, with heavy twilight coming down. How I got there or by what process, I am truly ignorant.”
“But no one reported a disturbance of the grave. Surely the caretakers would have noticed?”
“Of that I know nothing. I have never returned to the churchyard. Why should I? Perhaps the grave might reopen and swallow me up.”
“But where have you been in the meantime, Sophia?”
“Close by, actually. As you know some ways up the river there is an area of wasteland inhabited by a few impoverished rural people. I have a cottage there at the edge of the moor.”
“But how could you afford a cottage?”
“Jewelry, Cornelius. You seem to have forgotten how much you loved me, dear man. You buried me with all my rings, bracelets, broaches, necklaces, pendants and whatever. A small fortune. Not to one who lives grandly like yourself but to a poor cottager more than enough.”
“You sold them, then?”
“Of course. I hitched a ride on a river barge to the great city and sold them there. You will remember that I knew jewelry very well.” “Yes.”
“And I knew from my previous time in the great city where to go, who to deal with.” “Yes, of course.”
“I was a courtesan, Cornelius.”
“Yes, I know.”
“You know but you were never comfortable with me mentioning it, were you?”
“No, but that’s my upbringing, Sophia. You will have to forgive me. Believe me I have never for a moment judged you or thought lesser of you because of it.” “I know that, Cornelius. And the arts my past brought with me to the marriage were not to be despised, were they dear?”
“Not at all, Sophia. Rather they were to be treasured and applauded. For nine years we were happy together and surely our sexual joy, our satisfaction in our play together was the fundament of our happiness. One sees this even more clearly as we get older.”
“I wouldn’t know Cornelius. After all I’m only thirty.”
“And the sixteen years?”
“Seems not to have had the least effect.”
Cornelius took his eyes from the fire and looked at her closely. For a moment the afterimage of the coloured flames moved across the surface of her face but then vanished to reveal the very pale skin as smooth and perfect as porcelain. Its paleness was accentuated by the frame of black hair drawn up in a chignon secured by a delicate silver comb; accentuated to such a degree that the skin shone with a kind of mild luminescence. She was right. In fact, if anything, Sophia seemed younger than the last time he remembered seeing her in the bloom of healthy young womanhood.
“I suppose the dead, being dead, do not age.”
“I suppose,” she replied.
Cornelius rose and put a log on the fire. With the poker he positioned it in the center of the flames and pressed it down. When he came back to the sofa, Sophia was standing.
“I have to be going now, Cornelius.”
“Yes I do. Most surely in fact.”
“Do you sleep in your grave, Sophia?”
“No, no. I sleep in a stone room completely devoid of light but not in the grave. I built the room onto the cottage with my own hands. I am afraid that although I look quite alive that I am a creature of shadows. I can tolerate mild daylight and can go about for an hour or two on cloudy, rainy days but on most days I sleep in the room.”
“But you eat, Sophia.”
“Yes, dear, I do. But the daylight is not for me and dawn not far away.”
“I could drive you in the car.”
“I have my own car waiting at the gate.”
“But perhaps I could accompany you nonetheless.”
“Why, Cornelius? The dead don’t fear the dark and there is nothing I fear any longer from the living.”
“I was not thinking of that.”
“Then of what?”
“I would like the pleasure of your company.”
They were in the vestibule. Sophia retrieved her cloak and slicker from the closet, settling the cloak loosely about her shoulders. She looked at Cornelius sharply. He hadn’t aged much. He was a bit stooped, yes, but his bony, aquiline face would strangely belie his years for some time to come. He was gazing at her with a steady, expectant patience.
“I am dead, Cornelius.”
“Then why did you come?”
“For old time’s sake I suppose.”
“The old times are the things which are truly dead, Sophia.”
“That may be but so am I.”
“But you walk about; you smile; you speak. How can you be dead?”
“I don’t know. I just know that I am no longer connected to the living.”
“Neither am I, dear Sophia.”
“I inhabit the night, Cornelius. Storms and clouds are my sunshine, bright day my fear and avoidance. I breath, apparently, but only shallowly. Sometimes I wonder what I breath. Particles of dark perhaps. Yet I don’t perceive the dark in the same way the living do. It is my natural milieu, my comfort. I do not age. Surely this cuts me off from the living whose iron law is aging. I eat with relish, yes, but I suspect this is merely habit. I am not a natural creature, Cornelius. I speak to the living in a series of symbols I must consciously remember the meaning of. I spent the first five years in my cottage without seeing or speaking to a soul and felt not the slightest lack. I do not lust after the living like the popular tales say the dead do. I have no desire for blood, either human or animal. Yet I am not a normal living being. If there is blood moving in my veins it does not move in the way it used to do. I still have my beauty but it is the beauty of a stone. I see in your eyes that you see it as a precious stone but a precious stone is still a stone.”
“Still, I would accompany you.”
“To your cottage.”
“And sleep in a cold stone room with a dead woman?”
“No. To talk to a dead woman when she awakes in the evening.”
“Meagre fare, dear man, for one as hot blooded as you used to be.”
“My want of women in that way is dying.”
“But not dead?”
“Well then,” she said and put her hand upon the door handle.
“Perhaps just as far as the moor.”
“I suppose, if you must. You were kind enough to receive me. I can at least give you that.”
So Cornelius left with Sophia but he did not part with her at the moor. He went with her to the cottage and the two of them lived together there not as husband and wife but as brother and sister. His people assumed he was dead. A brooding, eccentric man, no doubt he slipped himself into the waters of the moor to avoid the sufferings of old age. When the legally required time had elapsed he was declared deceased and his wife inherited. A month later she married Raoul.
The cottage has one glass window. Its light can be seen for miles across the flat moor land it inhabits. Lit by two candles and the open fireplace it shines all night long no matter what the weather or the time of year. Sometimes, during the day, a man can be seen in the yard; an old man sawing and splitting wood he gathers from a series of poplar copses a quarter mile distant. He waves if someone waves to him but if approached he makes it quite clear that he is not interested in conversation or human company.
Some say in the heavy twilight they have seen the old man walking with a young beautiful woman. The more bestial among them say she is his incubus which he has called from the infernal regions to satisfy his lust. But most believe this to be a nasty invention arising from their own morbid desires and projected onto a harmless old man who prefers to spend his last few years alone, away from others. He comes to the little village twice a year for supplies. He is polite but distant and leaves immediately once his business is completed.
Occasionally local boys make an excursion to creep toward the window on dark nights, to peer in and discover its mysteries, but as they exit the bushes into the open yard, croaching low to conceal themselves, they become seized by such an awful fear they turn and run the two miles back to the road at breakneck speed. They are too ashamed of their cowardice to make up stories of what they saw, or rather, what they did not see. They make a pact of silence between themselves and honor it.
What they would see, if fear did not prevent them from crossing the yard, is the simplest of all things - a man and woman sitting before a fire at a round table eating bread and cheese and drinking tea. They are companionable, interrupting their meal frequently to speak to one another in a lively manner. The man is old but somehow in their communications age is lifted from his shoulders and tossed into one of the darkened corners. The woman is young, pale and beautiful. Her beauty is the striking beauty men sometimes see from across a room, a beauty which leaves them shattered and reminds them how deep their loneliness is and how impossible the chasm they must cross to relieve it.