An Unfinished Death

When the coffin lid shut upon a corpse, it marked the slamming of the door between the worlds of dead and living.  That portal opened only in one direction, and none might learn what lay beyond until their own last day and hour.  But there were always those of inquiring mind who, undeterred by ancient taboo, craved to uncover these secrets.  In northern Italy the tale was told of an old peasant couple, dwelling in a remote hill village, who made a pact to help each other penetrate the mystery.  Sitting one night by the fire, talking of life and death, they swore a solemn vow:  Whoever went first to the land of mists should return to tell the other what waited beyond the grave.

On a gray morning some years later, the husband, gathering chestnuts, fell to the earth with a gentle moan as his heart failed.  Neighbors helped the weeping widow to wash the body, bind the lower jaw, and put on his Sunday jacket and breeches with the carefully folded unworn linen shirt that had been kept in the bottom of the chest against this day.  When all that was proper had been done, friends and relatives gathered to pay their last respects and offer comfort to the bereaved wife.

The widow beseeched her fellow mourners to forgo the traditional wake; she would pass this last night alone with her husband.  She sat in a stiff upright chair and studied the face that she knew better than her own.  Death had sharpened the nose and chin, the mouth was sterner than ever she had known in life.  Where, she wondered, was his spirit wandering?  How, and when, would he return?

A rap at the door made her jump with such sudden alarm that her chair overturned.  A tall stranger stood in the doorway.  He gazed at her with pale but piercing eyes, and requested shelter for the night.  The woman silently indicated the body stretched out on the table of the shadowy kitchen.  Yet the stranger nodded, raised one hand and stepped inside.  He righted the upturned chair and offered it to the woman, then he, too, sat down, on the other side of the corpse.  He bent slightly forward, hands on knees, and started intently into the dead man’s face.  In his hands he held a cane of stripped hazelwood.

Then, as if from very far away, a terrible high-pitched screaming broke the silence.  As it grew louder and shriller, the corpse began to sit up.  Its face was contorted in awful agony, the lips drawn tight over yellowish teeth.

Swiftly the stranger touched the dead man’s forehead with his cane.  The gaping mouth closed and the body prostrated itself.  Stillness was restored.

The stranger resumed his seat.  Minutes ticked by.  The woman, her hands covering her ears, had hidden herself in an alcove.  There she remained, cowering, unable to take her eyes from the cadaver’s face.  The, just as her limbs had ceased to tremble, the howling began again, growing and swelling into a tidal wave of agony that engulfed every corner of the house.  But, for the second time, the body prostrated itself at a touch from the stranger’s cane.

The woman cringed in expectation of yet another wail, and even the distant, familiar chime of the church clock made her start.  As the sound of the bell died on the air, the corpse leaped from the side.  The bloodshot eyes bulged in their sockets.  They so hypnotized the quailing widow that, like a rabbit cornered by hunters, she could not move.  The body came toward her and sank hard, merciless fingers into her neck.  At the same time a cracked, hollow voice cried out:  “I am in hell!  You put me there!  I’ll make you pay!”

But now the stranger leaped across the room, brandishing his staff.  At its touch, the hands relaxed their cruel grip on the woman’s throat.  A look of mortal anguish passed over the dead face, and the flesh began to melt from its forehead.

Like the wax of a burning candle, it trickled from brow to cheek, from cheek to chin.  It carried away with it the look of pain from the eyes, the anguish from the mouth.  Slowly and inexorably, the stark, white bones of an anonymous skull took the place of the once-dear face.  Like rain dripping from autumn trees, flesh fell from every finger and oozed away from the feet.  The garments hung in voluminous folds, too large now for the skeleton beneath.

Then the whistle of a winter wind was heard in the chimney, and from the hearth rushed an evil form, a creature of smoke and fire, with a huge black cloak floating out from its shoulders.  Reaching out with one skeletal arm, it enfolded the husband’s remains in the cloak and bore them away up the chimney.

The fire died in the hearth and the room turned dark and cold.  The woman kneeled on the hard stone floor, crying for mercy.  The stranger heaved a sigh and lifted her to her feet.  “It is not for the living to know the fate of the dead,” he said.  The he opened the door, and the widow watched him walk noiselessly away through the dry leaves and vanish up the misty hillside.

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