I tested the ripeness of Mr. Skelly’s soul more than thirty times this evening, all at the insistence of his wife, Tamara, who never left my side for an instant. I tried to explain to her that this was a delicate process that could not be rushed, but my words never reached her, as if her ears were made of cloth. Mr. Skelly’s ash gray body was laid out on the dining room table like a flesh centerpiece, table decorated with the finest cloth and place settings that she could afford.
This wasn’t uncommon. Most people were ignorant of the proper protocol in matters such as this. They would set out red wine and wafers, or specially baked breads and cakes, and some even brewed their own ales. Those trappings weren’t necessary, born mostly of superstition and old wives’ tales, but had they been presented, I would have tasted the offering. If for no other reason than to be polite.
Her husband had come to see me some six months earlier. He was skeptical, as most people are when seeking my services, but I never believed in hard selling my skills. It was a matter of faith. Either you believed that I could do what I claimed I could do, or you couldn’t. In the end, Mr. Steven Skelly did believe. He told me he had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and wasn’t expected to survive the year. And the diagnosis proved to be accurate.
When I first arrived at her door, Tamara debated whether or not to let me in. Not with me. She debated with herself. A loud conversation, as if both halves of her brain, the logical and the emotional sides, succeeded in separating themselves from one another and exercised shared control over the body. A conversation only the bereaved could have and still seem sane.
This was nothing new to me, in fact, Tamara’s discourse with herself counted amongst the tamer exchanges I had been witness to over the past ten years. I remained silent, taking no side in the argument, and was prepared to comply with her decision, either way. If she declined my services, I would quietly tip my hat and walk away.
When she quieted down, we stood there, me on her porch, unmoving, and she wedged in between the narrow crack of her door, unspeaking. Then, she shifted aside slightly, which I took as an invitation to enter, and squeezed past her as politely as I could manage in the limited space provided.
As I stated earlier, Mr. Skelly was laid out on the table in the dining room, dressed in his Sunday best, a bible laid on his chest with his hands folded upon it.
“Mrs. Skelly, I wish you hadn’t gone through all this trouble—“
“Tamara, please, and it was no trouble at all.” she smiled kindly as she touched her dead husband’s face.
“No, what I mean is, we’ll have to remove your husband’s clothes. I can’t perform my job this way.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I thought—“
“It’s all right, you didn’t know. How could you know?”
Mr. Skelly was a tall man, a sturdy man, and even the cancer couldn’t rob him of that, but it made his dead weight all the more difficult to manage. How Tamara succeeded in dressing him all by herself in the first place was remarkable. Where there’s a will, I suppose. In silence and in tandem, we stripped the corpse, being as respectful to the man who was no longer with us as we could manage.
“How long?” Tamara asked.
“How long will it take for you to do your—thing?”
“There isn’t a set timeframe for this sort of thing, Tamara.” I took one of her hands in mine, and she let me. “Most people believe that life and the soul are one and the same thing. This simply isn’t the case. Life ends when the human body shuts down completely. The soul is eternal. The soul doesn’t power the body. If that were the case, we’d all live forever.”
Tamara looked at her husband, hopeful. “So, you mean Steven’s soul is still here, with us?”
“His soul hasn’t released itself from the flesh yet, so yes, in some way, it is still with us.”
Tamara pulled her hand free of my grasp and rushed over to the table and caressed Steven’s face gently. “Honey? Steven? Are you still in there? Can you hear me? Give me a sign if you can hear me!”
I moved behind Tamara, placed my hands on her shoulders and whispered into her ear, “It doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t.”
She turned on her heels and was in my face suddenly, like an attack dog. Delicate hands balled into fists and pounded into my chest. “Then why are you just standing here? Why aren’t you doing what we paid you to do? Why aren’t you helping my Steven? I can’t bear to think of him trapped in there like that, helpless!”
Her energy spent, she folded herself into my chest and I held her.
“He isn’t trapped, Tamara. He’s in a transitional stage, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. If you can imagine a spiritual chrysalis, enveloping his soul, molding and shaping his essence into what it needs to become in order to move on, that’s what’s happening now.”
Tamara looked up at me, concerned. “Then shouldn’t you be getting to work now? Before it’s too late?”
“His soul isn’t ready.”
“But how do you know?”
I couldn’t stifle a slight chuckle. “I’ve been doing this for over ten years now. I just know.”
“And you’ve never been wrong? Never made a mistake? Not once?” Her concern was understandable, but unjustified.
“Not once. When his soul is ready, when it reaches the stage just before it emerges in it’s new form, I’ll do what I’ve been paid to do.”
“You’ll eat his sin?” That question was the one thing that never varied in deliverance, from person to person, job to job, regardless of who said it. It always came out sounding the same. Part skepticism, part hope.
“Every drop of it.”
“And there’ll be no retribution?” she looked up at the ceiling but I understood her meaning.
“No retribution. He’ll move on to a better place and none of his sins will transfer to you.”
“And what about you? You take this– all of this on yourself. What happens to you?”
“With all do respect, that’s none of your concern.” I was expecting an argument. None came.
“Well then,” Tamara straightened up and composed herself. “Can I interest you in a cup of tea?”
“Tea would be nice.”
She stared at me a long moment, no doubt trying to decipher what made me do what I did. Trying to puzzle out how I came into this profession. But she never asked. I think she knew I wouldn’t be very forthcoming anyway, so she simply shook her head slightly and moved to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
Text and audio ©2013 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys