Midnight Service

John Skarl

John Skarl earned an MFA from the Northeastern Ohio Masters of Fine Arts consortium where he was recognized as a Coulter Emerging Poet and Writer, and won the Marian Smith Short Story Prize.  He has published work in The University of Chester’s Flash magazine.  John is married with two sons; he plays bass in a local science-fiction rock band.  He teaches high school dual credit courses and maintains a literacy blog at http://www.valuablesandcuriosities.blogspot.com.

 “Choose a profession that will always be in demand,” was the advice I was given, though the profession has chosen me.  Dispel notions of a burly, noble bodied worker clutching a rosined shovelhandle and lantern staff.  The digging has been given over to machines, relatively simple to operate, leaving the mind free to wander.  Fossarius have been dealt an uneven hand in literature, considering the clowns of Hamlet, though if we were to have a single incarnation we could do worse considering humor’s gallows source, the subtle distinction between laughter and weeping.  No executioner prince overhears my musing wit save the black calling crow whose presence among these winter branches is as stark as Yorick’s mouldering skull against the black earth.  I once considered a career as a garbageman. The wastes involved in living pile higher each year. Today I dug four graves.

I’m charged with groundskeeping: to make sure the mausoleum is locked and unlocked during the hours specified, care for the koi, and to clear grave décor—flowers, flags, the occasional child’s toy.  Once I found an unopened bottle of wine.  Had some midnight mourner been called away?

I waited and the bottle remained.  The label peeled with the rain and the sun, my elongated body reflected in the dark glass.  Oddly, I could not bring myself to dispose of it and considered drinking it but thought I may incur the mourner’s sorrow.  It was a strangely superstitious thought, of which I’m not prone, but it’s been years since I’ve cried, or laughed for that matter, so I carried the bottle home and lay it lengthwise in the top kitchen cupboard.

I was not always this way.  At one time I could have been considered sentimental and was moved by mourners.  I bathed in their sorrow the way the moon is bathed nightly in the sun’s rays.  Concealed behind a tree I often watched a widow express her grief.  In those days I may have even shared their tears.  Rarely have I been the sun, stoicism has made me the moon.

Early in life I was taught sentiment brought pain.  I was married once.  I often contemplated taking my own life after Maria had taken hers and believed she left a hole so great and a mystery so unexplainable to offer no recourse.  Before she ended her life, Maria developed a rare form of psychosis.  I feel odd writing the words here with such impassivity.  Suicide, a word I could scarcely think let alone write years ago, moves no passion within my breast.

Before I met Elmer, Maria was the most charitable person I had ever known.  She worked with the mentally ill and I wondered if perhaps her psychosis was brought on by being so emptied in nurturing these broken intellects.  She would arrive home exhausted but always managed a smile and to show love when I thought she had none left to give.  She even managed to keep a small vegetable garden, watered those buds with a blue ceramic pitcher.  Nurtured them into life-giving fruits.  I was plagued with guilt after her death.  Most haunting, though, was the thought that I was unable to pour enough of myself into her, and I watched holding my own empty pitcher while her mind and soul desiccated.

Symptoms surfaced when I could not wake her.  Her pulse and breathing were regular.  Doctors suggested she might have been gripped in a light coma.  “Had she experienced recent trauma?”  The doctors suggested I move her to a hospital.  She came out of it later that night. Something in her expression scorned my joy, and her face, framed by dark hair, was paler than I had remembered.  When she asked for something to drink in a low voice, I put on water for her black tea and added a bit of crushed ginger root for her throat.  I handed her the steaming cup, and slurps accented short sips until the cup was empty.  I attributed the behavior to thirst until I smelled the burning tobacco.  I had left my pack of cigarettes next to the bed.  Maria had been adamant that I quit, and there she was, smoking in frequent, clipped drags.  She stayed in bed for nearly a week and refused to rise, even for the lavatory.  She insisted on keeping a bowl under the bed for such purposes.  After nearly a week her voice did not lose its gravel quality.  A few nurses from work came to visit—one brought a vase of lilacs.  “They smell like the lungs of a dying animal,” was Maria’s thanks and soon the psychiatrists were coming to visit.

They suggested she be moved to the ward for further diagnosis and I refused.  We settled on one day for brain scans.  That day she fought when the doctors came and I moved to subdue her.  I held her down easily—as a man might hold back a child.  Or an old woman.  Indeed her posture was hunched though I told myself it may have been bedsores.

Over the course of the two years Maria was haunted by the “aberrants” (the word the doctors gave me) and I noticed five or six reoccurring personalities.  The old woman was the first.  Another was childlike and imaginative, prone to night terrors full of writhing images—tendrils, serpents, intestine.  Once I found her at the side of our shack staring at cracked and peeling paint, the dark decaying siding underneath.  “Bugs crawl out of that,” she said and insisted I scrape the area clean.

The personalities shifted frequently and without warning.  Another possessed a voracious sexual appetite, posed as my charitable wife, and lured me into exploits, though I admit, I was more than willing.  Often I was plagued with guilt and scratches from those odd passionate nights.

I was always looking for signs of my wife, but Maria was as unlikely as any of the other potential incarnations.  One personality rivaled the charitability of my late wife.  Possessed of a dialect I could not place and have not heard since, she offered a sympathetic ear to my confusion and regret, like a mother listening to her child’s nightmares, often with my head on her lap.

Maria’s aberrants had surfaced for two calendar years after our marriage, had threatened my life on occasion, and I was so utterly frustrated, frightened and disgusted by their behaviors I had her committed to the ward in which she used to work.  Medication seemed to stay the flow of these personalities, but in exchange, offered up a barely conscious, corporeal ghost.  By the time she committed suicide, I was glad to be released from the aberrants, but her death brought with it grief I could not command.  For years I was manacled.  I couldn’t hold a job.  My personality became nearly as inconstant as my young wife’s in the throes of her illness.

During Maria’s funeral my mind was reeling with wine.  I barely remember the service.  Afterwards I became obsessed with the death ceremony.  I felt at home among the bereaved and occasionally met a woman.  On a few occasions I woke, head throbbing, on the carpeted floor of a mausoleum.  On mornings such as these I may have caught a glimpse of myself in the marble or the still koi pond.  I grew to loathe the weak posture, the lines of my face—the release of the razor was always close to my mind.  I owe my life to a man named Elmer.

It had been a large evening service and blending in was a pleasure.  The deceased had been important I gathered, due to the number of bereaved and the genuine grief I read in their faces.  I imagined the man in the casket was my father.  His coping wisdom was “get a dog.”  I pretended the deceased at these services were those in my life unable to help me bear Maria’s passing—my family, my friends.  The service moved into the mausoleum at dusk and I moved outside for a cigarette.

“Como tu siento?”  The man rest near a tombstone, his face a pale moving shape in the dark.  “Sleeping in the mausoleum tonight?”  He motioned to come near and handed me his flask.  Secrets rarely exist between two men and whiskey. “If you’re going to sleep over, at least earn your lodgings,” he said and gestured to the pickaxe.  I had been to so many services even the groundsman recognized me?  That night we battled the frozen ground warmed by whiskey.  By the end of our labour I was so tired I slept soundly for the first time since Maria’s death.  Work became my meditation, exhaustion my manna.

The shack Maria and I shared held too many memories. I had been living with a few different women, and on some nights wherever I could find a comfortable place to lie down.  Elmer was impressed with how quickly I learned to use the machinery, my work ethic, and he offered me a room in the groundskeeper’s quarters.  I imagine the first few months tried his patience but he said nothing about my drinking, drugging, or the odd women I brought home.

In the evenings, Elmer played Spanish accordion.  The women invariably loved the music.  They would sit at the corner of the bed or, when they believed I was asleep, at the kitchen table while Elmer played and sang melancholiques in Spanish.  Some evenings he invited a friend—a horn player or guitarist, and I would listen, paging through one of Elmer’s books (Marcus Aurelius or Ovid) comforted by the tobacco smoke from under the door, the dark wallpaper of my room, the frosted, four-paned glass.

I began weekly jaunts to the library.  In those days I avoided casual contact—objects held no mystery.  The printed word alone, I mistakenly believed, held power only in a sum of meaning.  Even the sun, moon and stars may well have been painted canvas.  In my naivety, I searched for answers to the mystery of my experience the way a dying man may search for faith, and in opening volume after volume, I suppose I nurtured this kind of hopefulness.  No understanding without faith.  No faith without interest.  Opening a book requires interest and is an act of faith.  On some level I believed I would find answers, but they shimmered and shifted like the orange and white koi at the bottom of our pond—when an answer hovered magnified by the moment, I often found it just out of reach—if I looked for answers in the same place twice, I was disappointed.

***

One night we were to bury a man weighing at least four hundred pounds and could not lower the oversized casket into the ground ourselves.  “Let’s just use the backhoe,” I had said.

“Would you disrespect this death?” Elmer said.  We waited until some of his musicians could arrive.  It took five of us.  We lowered the man in.

It’s been nearly ten years since Elmer saved me from myself, and in that time I have grown to embrace an ascetic life.  I have learned to wash a dish with the same tenderness Elmer had taught me to lower a person into the ground.  However, I was acutely aware of the fact I was nearly done in by sentimentality.  With every shovelful of dirt I buried longings for a different life.  I once shared this thought with Elmer, and it was upon a spring evening that he told his story.

“I lived in Segovia, near the great aqueduct,” Elmer said.  “As a boy I walked miles to fill adobe pitchers with water.  The Plaza de Diaz Sanz was alive with women from the village—they would tousle my hair, praise me for being such a strong Chico, offer me a few pesetas.  Gypsies played guitars and fiddles in the streets.  In those days I revered the gypsies almost as much as I longed to become strong like the vaquero.  Those were days for dreaming!   I often wondered where the water from the aqueduct came from.  I imagined village women idling in the spring, bathing their dark-golden skin, wringing ropes of their lovely black hair.

“My curiosity became too much to bear.  The stone arches of the aqueduct led me out of town.  The sun was low and elongated the shadows.  A hanging lantern under a wagon spun bars across the stucco houses.  The great brick structure grew high from the road.  In my fascination, I was reminded of the legend of the aqueduct.  A woman, tired of walking to the mountain springs, had bargained her soul to the devil in exchange for delivery of fresh water before the morning cock could crow.  As the story goes, the cock crowed just before the devil could set the final brick into place and the woman kept her soul.  I had overheard the women from the village discussing another who filled her pitchers at night—they claimed she had made a bargain with the devil.  Their voices often hushed when I came near and I never heard what they believed she had exchanged.  I had heard many such legends from the gypsy guitarists, and as that evening wore on, I was certain I was going to meet the devil at the aqueduct’s source.

“Given the opportunity, what would I be willing to trade for my soul?  To learn the guitar?  To bathe in the waters of the spring at the aqueduct’s source with the beautiful women of the village?  I unclasped my folding navaja.  I decided if I ran into the devil beneath the mountain pass I would kill him with my knife and steal his powers to grant the women of the village what they most desired.  What would I demand in exchange?  Perhaps a kiss.

“This fantasy brought the distant coyote’s call, almost a challenge, so I gripped my blade and headed up the pass.  I could nearly see where the aqueduct joined the mountain and my fantasies became increasingly vivid under a white moon that distorted the cragged rocks and ragged shrubs.  As I neared the spring I noticed shadows and movement.  Men’s high voices.  Though I could not interpret their words I sensed some exchange.  I wondered which one was the devil, gripped my navaja and moved closer to listen to the terms of their bargain.

“I had heard guns fired during holidays, but these blasts, followed by shouts of celebration, always held joy.  The three shots I heard near the aqueduct’s source sent my stomach sinking.  The reports echoed off the clay bricks and returned to my ears and out against the mountain passes.  There were no shouts of joy—only the hurried clop of horsestride.

“I approached a man laying against the stone—breath vapor growing in the still night air—and I crouched next to his open hat.  The man wore vaquero boots and a pistol in his belt.  Dark blossoms spread across his chest and he looked at my face.  I clearly remember saying the word ‘Diablo.’  He did not respond, and I did not touch him because the growing darkness of his eyes awakened something within me.  Such peace!  I was used to the clenched jawbones and knotted brows of men’s faces.  Here was death.  Here was the peace I sought.  I took one last look at the steam rising from the spring at the aqueduct’s source and returned to the village.

“The next day I approached the caretaker of the village graveyard, a man my father had told me to avoid, but I wanted to tell him of my discovery.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the source of the aqueduct has attracted many of the devil’s own.  This man is not the first, nor, I imagine, the last victim.  The coyotes will pick his bones clean.’

‘We must retrieve the body,’ I told him.

‘Was this man a relative of yours?  A friend?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘To ride there and back in a wagon would waste a full day—for a job that promises no payment!’

“The old yard-keeper was steadfast so I walked home, wrapped tortillas, filled a water-skin and set out—a shovel across my shoulders, my father’s rifle slung across my back.  By the time I made it to the vaquero, the coyotes had pulled him into a sprawl, were at his hands, his arms, his face.  I raised rifle fire and scattered them.  I searched for a plot.  The rock would not yield to my shovel.  I struck soil at the base of the mountain and dug all day and into the night, occasionally firing warnings to the coyote.  I didn’t think while I dug, the movement satisfied my mind for hours, though the skin of my hands wore raw against the shovel handle.

“By dusk I had finished, though I experienced great difficulty dragging the vaquero down the mountain pass.  I pushed him onto his back with my foot and his arms fell wide.  I tried to lift his body into a sitting position, and finally had to settle for rolling him downhill.  I said a prayer and set to work.  Halfway down the side of the mountain the pistol worked free from his belt and lay in the rising dust.  I lifted the weapon, felt its weight, looked through its worn, uneven sights.  I jammed the gun back into the vaquero’s belt and pushed him the rest of the way with my legs from a sitting position.  I was able to roll him into the grave.

“I cut the sleeves from my shirt and wrapped my bleeding hands.  The moon brought an irregular clop of hooves, and some riders came upon me—my shoulders and arms burned with fatigue as I continued piling dirt on the vaquero.  The men spoke and laughed.  My rifle was leaned against a tree though I had no strength to lift it.

‘Who is going to dig a plot for you Chico?’ ‘The coyotes will make short work of him,’ another man said, laughing.  ‘Why do you work so hard, Chico?  Did you know this dog?’

‘No,’ I said and dumped a small shovelful of dirt onto the vaquero’s boots at the bottom of his grave.

‘Why do you take such pains?’

I said nothing.

They laughed.  ‘You are stupid, no?’  One of them dismounted, cocked his pistol and approached me.  I continued digging.  He placed the cold barrel at my temple.  I let the shovel fall, turned and looked into the gun barrel.

‘Bury me with this vaquero, leave me for the coyote, or just leave me be, Diablo.’

‘Let the bastard dig himself to death,’ one of the other men approached.  He handed the gunman a bottle.  The gunman raised it to his lips and I watched the golden liquid swirl sediment in the moonlight.  The man swung at me with the heel of his gun and I did not flinch.

“I believed I was dead—there was a puzzling darkness and the white half-moon hung like a slim, divine fruit.  I sat, head throbbing atop the vaquero’s body at the bottom of the grave.  I saw my face reflected in his wide dark eyes…and another pair of eyes.  Two coyote sniffed the air.  One panting pink tongue.  One staring.  They thought they’d found a feast.

“The idea came to me instantly.  I pulled the vaquero’s gun from his belt, thumbed the hammer and spun the cylinder.  The panting coyote’s ears perked.  I looked through the crooked sights into the stoic coyote’s yellow stare.  I fired at the half-moon.  The panting coyote was gone.  The stoic coyote waited and watched.  ‘Don’t make me kill you,’ I said.

“Something in its yellow stare challenged.  ‘You won’t,’ it seemed to say.  ‘And when you climb from this grave I’ll tear out your throat.’   I fired twice again—this time closer to the coyote’s head.  Nothing.  I had three bullets left.  Had the devil come to me in this cunning form?

‘You have nothing I want,’ I said.  ‘I only want to finish this job I’ve started.’

It actually seemed to understand this last statement, my work, and loped off.  I finished the job just before dawn and staggered most of the way back under the rising sun.  I collapsed on the outskirts of the village and was awoken by one of the townswomen.  She lifted my shovel, slung my rife across her back and helped me home.

“I continued my studies, never mentioned the event—nor did I ever return to the aqueduct’s source.  That year, during la Dia de los Muertos, I watched the old grave-keeper celebrate with the other villagers and grew sick.  The paper lanterns hung obscene from their wires that night.  The cartoonish skeletons dangled absurdly on chains.  The cookies and sweets tasted like grave dirt.”

“So you never got your wish?  To bathe with the women from the village?” the guitarist asked.

“Ah, another story for another time,” Elmer said grinning.

“What about the woman from your village that bargained her soul to the devil?” I asked.

“Do you believe people have a soul to bargain?” Elmer said.

I thought for a while.  “I don’t know.”

“Fair enough,” he smiled.  “The woman who filled her pitchers at night was said to be both man and woman.”

“Some mysteries I will never understand,” the guitarist said.

I thought of the two years I spent with Maria’s aberrants.  “Elmer, do you still believe in the devil?”

“I once thought it possible for a person to capture the devil’s soul!  These days I barely care to squeeze that old accordion.”

“The best thing about this place,” the guitarist said.

I was inspired.  “Do you think, Elmer, that a person’s soul is like the aqueduct?  Do you think a person’s soul channels personality from some source… like the hot spring?”

Elmer smiled.  “It may be, friend.  I certainly don’t know.  I was hoping to catch a glimpse of bathing women!  Maybe life’s mysteries can be dissolved in a nice, warm bath.”

“Or a friendly woman,” the guitarist said, smiling.

“It has been a long time, but a woman may be the answer, friend,” Elmer said.

The guitarist replied, “A woman would love a man with your gifts Elmer, but you cloister yourself like a monk, always searching for answers.”

“I have given up searching for answers,” Elmer said.

***

That night, pleased with my observations, I moved outside to stargaze.  I found the constellation Perseus who I had come to envy, if not resent.  I found Andromeda’s mother, the Vain Queen Cassiopeia.  How easily Perseus saved his bride to be—and there they hung beside one another in the sky.  I realized I might once have given my soul to save Maria.

The next evening, I arrived home, batted my mud-caked boots on the stairs and sat at the kitchen table over which Elmer had told his story.  I listened to the sounds of his shower and looked at my own hands—the skin rough and chapped.  I had scraped the first knuckle on my right hand—blood had stained my shirt cuff.  I wanted to remember my hands the way they were at that moment.  I wanted to carve them out of wood.  It had been years since I wished to hold onto a memory.  Was this progress?

I stood and pulled my belt from its loops, walked to my room.  On my bed lay a long wrapped package.  I lifted it, peeled the brown paper and slid out a telescope.  It was not nearly the length of my arm, though it was powerful.  Spots of stars resolved in my vision until I could see their life’s trembling.  Elmer refused to answer any of my questions regarding the gift.

For months afterward I woke before sunrise and observed the sky.  I identified bright planets, the curving grains of the Andromeda galaxy and I grew to understand many things.  For instance, once I dropped the scope against a headstone.  I was sure the glass had cracked, was relieved to find it intact, however, when I lifted the lens to my eye, the stars were veiled in an odd blue.  I tried refocusing to no avail—the same effect painted the pale moon in prismatic color.

I reddened when I asked Elmer if I had ruined it.  “No, not ruined, friend.  The lenses have shifted slightly.  You’re seeing an aberration of light.”  The word startled me.

“This is…  undesirable, no?”

“Apparently,” Elmer laughed and began unscrewing the lens.

That week at the library I found a book on light physics.  I read about light travel—how a star’s place, as I saw it from my telescope’s perspective on earth, was aberrant of its true place in the cosmos.  How should I adjust the lens of my own eye?  Is all I witness veiled with aberrant judgment?  Perhaps it was aberrant vision that caused me to commit Maria, to consider her mad.  I realized I was no more rid of my guilt than the day of her death.  Was I the mad one for committing her?  Am I mad still?  Elmer had taught me to bury harmful memories with the dead, but that week had been a time of reminiscence for us both.

I vividly remember sleep that night offering the prismatic patterns of magnified starlight in a grand vision and I gradually became aware of moving formlessly through the vacuum of finite space.  I became aware of the millions of pulsing personalities within my own breast and was aware for a moment as only each could be aware—the vaquero, the stoic, the clown, the musician, the murderer, the ascetic.  I observed the star grains of the Andromeda galaxy, the old woman, the charitable wife, the imaginative child, the mother, and I saw within each personality the potentiality for all personalities.  Upon waking, I wondered if I had glimpsed the aqueduct’s source.

***

One evening, arriving home after digging a fresh grave, I heard Elmer laugh as I removed my coat and noticed a red scarf and woman’s jacket hanging by the door.  It was an unfamiliar sound, Elmer’s laughter, so touched with joy, and he hailed me from the kitchen.  “It is cold, no, friend?  Come warm yourself at the table.  We’re taking a break from mourning.”

“I have not been mourning,” I said.

“She has,” he returned, “and it’s a cold night.”  A slight, pale woman sat across Elmer, between them a plate of cheese and I recognized the dusty mourner’s wine bottle from the top cupboard uncorked—two glasses filled.  Elmer raised his, “Come warm yourself,” he repeated.  I stared at the woman, mumbled an excuse and retired to my room.  That night I heard Elmer’s accordion from behind my door coupled with laughter and I struggled to sleep.

The next morning, on my way to prepare for the day’s service, I noticed the empty wine bottle and the woman’s hanging red scarf.

The funeral was large.  When the time came, Elmer and I parted the throng and bent to our task—the lowering of the casket.  The coffin was smooth black with cold, silver rails.  I noticed a splash of wetness against the black polished lid.  Not a cloud hung above and it wasn’t until I saw Elmer’s shoulders shake that I knew the wetness had come from his eyes.

That evening Elmer began packing.  “I’ve met someone who brings me joy, friend.”

“A woman will bring you sorrow as well,” I warned.

“I’m prepared to embrace both.”

***

Elmer disappeared.  There was no formal goodbye just as there had been no hello.  With a little help I have managed to keep up with the work, of which there is no short supply.  I want to finish with my most recent trip to the library.

Imagine a man sitting alone slowly turning the pages of a large volume.  As you approach an empty spot at the table, arms full, he turns to look with crossed eyes.  You spread your own books and begin to feign interest.  You wonder what kind of story a man with crossed eyes would read.  You notice the glossy pages catch light from a nearby window and, after moving closer, see his book is full of photographs.  Stars against the night darkness amplified across the page doubles your curiosity like the man’s vision.  Uninterested in those tediously printed volumes, you’re content to cross your own eyes, to watch the words pass across and under one another on the page.  You are able to focus the space immediately before your nose and your eyes begin to ache; you close them and rub your fists into them, with time observing the blossoming red giants, glittering green galaxies and purple supernova explosions.  When your vision returns, the man is gone, but his book remains open.  You sit in his chair, still warm, and begin pacing through the pages.

Tonight the orange and white koi appear to hang just below the water’s surface, though I reach into the pond past the elbow to stroke the carp’s slick skin.  As I feed them, the water is pleasant, my arm and the fish magnified.  Sit down.  It is warm here and there are pages to read.  I hope these words, easy projections, grow in the moment like the magnified koi, and the letter “o” of now.  The koi’s groping mouth.  This floating oat.  Their projections ordinary miracles, like the patterns of pre-sleep consciousness.  Miracles my story may demand.

“Choose a profession that will always be in demand,” was the advice I was given, though the profession has chosen me…

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