Sunday, March 15, 2009

THE ETIQUETTE OF MOURNING by Rachel S. Thomas-Medwid

The body arrives unblemished. Beneath its surface, he senses an undefined entity. He tries to put on finger on it, reaching past the adornment, the prim efficiency of her tight pearl gloves that look like they belong to another era. He feels the swift bind of them, but it is another moment before the sensation reaches him. It is when the ramble of the air conditioning slows down that it comes to him.

There, running the river of the corpse, is a thread of sensuality. In all of his postmortem makeovers — the object of everyday life adhered to the body in an effort to sweeten death — he has never felt this. It brings a welling of liquid beneath his tongue, a small pulse to the glands in his neck. Ashamed, he pulls himself back into the narrow line of his profession. Swiftly covering the body, he tries to make it smell, at least, like the others. When the injections are complete he locks the funeral home and goes home to his wife.

Inside the sedate shadows of their house, he sees her office door closed; she is with a patient. Above the ledge of the door sit a wooden plaque, the etching of distant hills. They had gotten it on their honeymoon, in California, when their wine hunger had boosted them and their lips had chattered at the sight of the fertile green slopes. They had taken in each other with a tight-breathed urgency, the days giddy with not only the future, but the immediate past of themselves.

He feels, impulsively, the need to place his palms on his wife’s lower back. Instead he moves into the kitchen, the weight of what he has to tell her slowing him down. Then he sits, stalled and silent, on the floor of the kitchen, waiting for her to emerge.


Behind her desk she listens as the patient lays himself out piece by piece. Sometimes she knows what to do with these fragments, which ones to mold and hand back. Others she does not. These patients are the ones she can hear at night, their voices slipping through the air vent of her office. From there, they travel through the internal paths of their house, reaching her in the sleepless hours. She had asked her husband once, whispering close to the thick band of his neck, if he heard them. His eyes had collapsed ever so slightly at his answer, but she had seen and chose not to ask again.

When her patient departs, she finds her husband in this kitchen, mouth resting on the rim of his blue mug. She notices there is nothing in it.

“Do you want me to make a pot?” She nods at the coffee machine.

He shakes his head.

“What’s the matter?”

“A body today.”

She pauses, waiting as she is trained, for more.

He continues, finally, when the wait has slipped close to her lungs. “You know her.”

“Who is it?”

“A patient of yours. Susan McKinley.”

She is not surprised, but stops her movement anyway. She knows of the double mastectomy, the chemotherapy, the desire to live and then let it go. She heard directly from Susan herself. But something in Susan’s voice their last session had lingered with her, confusing the direction of her thoughts.

“The memorial service is tomorrow, if you want to go.”

She declines with a short shake of her head.

“I’d like it if you went.”

She is surprised at the request.

“I didn’t know her that well, is all.” She responds.

“You were her psychiatrist. How could you not know her? If you didn’t know who she was, who did?”

“Maybe no one.”

She continues with the coffee preparation as the silence creeps between them. She knows she has just shut the door but cannot reach for the handle. Instead she inhales the scent of freshly ground beans. When she turns around he is gone and she can feel that he has abandoned the whole house. He will go back to the funeral home, she knows, unable to resist the tide that draws him there.

She leaves the coffee untouched and walks up the back stairwell to their bedroom. In front of the closet she plucks through a line of clothes. The sapphire silk shirt she chooses hardens her skin, the black pants cutting against her knees. They feel honest against her body, tight enough to confine the pulse in her belly without erasing its presence. After running her fingers through her hair she leaves without turning toward the mirror.

Outside the air holds the first breath of late fall, murmurs of cold letting themselves loose prematurely. As she turns the bend of their street, the funeral home comes into sight. Sitting at an angle against its brick neighbors, she notices immediately what her husband refuses to see; the decaying paint like a worn summer tan, the neon sign at odds with the building’s structural dignity. It had belonged originally to a doctor in the time of unanesthetized patients and experimental medicine; a house born into linear progressions of a life.

Inside, the air quickly transforms. It is always this way here, as if the home itself has learned the art of respect. Schooled in the etiquette of mourning, her husband had colored the walls and floors in tones appropriate for grief. Halfway down the hall to his office, she turns toward the light emerging from the slumber room. Inside is Susan.

From the doorway, the body appears to be shrouded in red, floating in a liquid uterus. Stepping inside, she realizes it is only an illusion of the coffin’s interior. Susan lies inside, the buttons of her shirt gripped to the tip of her neck, two spots of rouge on her cheeks. She wonders if her husband did Susan’s makeup, the rest subtly acceptable yet not capturing the correct essence.

She reaches toward the face to fix it, but finds her hand on Susan’s shirt instead. Her fingers slide the pearls through the slits, the release an indulgent breath.

On automation, she is unable to stop them from an instinctive descent to the bottom. When there are no more buttons to let loose, she opens the flaps of the shirt. Someone has put a bra on Susan, flesh-colored and sagging like aged skin. Snapping the front hook, the sound echoes through the room.

The scars are a baby-skin pinkness, not the polished blaze she had imagined. Running the lines of Susan’s chest, she searches for the loss her patient had feverishly voiced.

“War,” Susan used to say. ‘I am at war with my body.” On softer days, days of respite where the pain was muted, Susan would look head on and say “All’s fair in love and war, they say.”

Unable to feel Susan’s destruction directly, there is instead the defeat of Susan’s husband, Mark. The way, maybe, his tongue had run the lengths of her scars to express that she was still whole to him. And then on her naval, a moment of jealousy so black she has to lift her hand away, away from the center of Susan’s life; Mark and her two baby boys, digging through the abyss she has left them in.

She wants to go to her husband now, but cannot make herself move. Lowering her face toward the two quarter-moons she tries to match her eyes against them. Before she can, her lips have reached the coolness of Susan’s skin, the smell of formaldehyde potent. The skin is slick, unfriendly, but she does not lift her head, instead turning it in an underwater slowness until her ear fades into Susan’s chest. It is only in the wait, when she is aware of its silence, that she can uncouple from the corpse.

Her husband is in the doorway.

“I don’t want to try anymore. I can’t," she says, not meeting his eyes.


She feels a piece of anger roll toward him. What else have they been trying for, if not this? The war with her own body to conceive lost repeatedly.

“For a baby. A baby.”


“I don’t want it anymore. That’s it.”

That’s it? his eyes question. He moves past her to the coffin. She expects to see his fingers tremble, shake like leaves falling in their last moment, but they remain steady.

“Are you coming tomorrow?” Is all he asks after replacing the last button.

All she can do is nod, able, at least, to give him this.


With her agreement hanging between them she departs. He stands over the body, staring into Susan’s eyes. He is not surprised at the depth of them, the consistency that remains alive, for he sees it often; the way they bind to the last moments of the world. But he is taken still with the carnal sense of the body and how the image of his wife’s lips on it has not erased his own urgency. When he saw her fingers sing along Susan’s skin the compulsion that swept through him had again been shameful. He had managed to shed the quick and painful desire before she turned toward him.

Before leaving, he brushes his knuckles against Susan’ cheeks. It is only when he wipes the rouge off that he feels it can be right, that tomorrow might bring him a separate story.

Back in the shadows of their house, he cannot take his eyes from the objects of their collective past. In their possessions he can only see the five years they have been trying. I don’t want to try anymore, she said, and he knows he has to shape that into something that can fit into the palm of his hand. He needs to take from his wife her knowledge of how to veer a mind from the path it has been traveling.

But when he arrives in the bedroom, back-lit by bathroom light, he sees that the shut in her eyes is deliberate. The rigidity in her limbs is not against him, he understands, but for him.


In the morning the space between them settles into a low turbulence, a jostling she finds comforting as she digs through the closet. This time she chooses a dejected navy dress, the timeline of it instantly apparent. Four years it has lived in there untouched, bought one year after the trying began.

All of this time passed and they had not gone for help. She knew early on her inability to face the machines, the doctor’s dense fingers; she does not want them, above everything, to feel what she does not have. They had argued about it, thick words that temporarily choked the halls of their home. And then he had conceded, falling into a posture of polite resignation.

They walk together to the funeral home, crushing an occasional leaf of early demise against the sidewalk. The home is empty when they arrive and he begins the choreography of his work. In the ritual of preparation, the wheeling of Susan’s body to the receiving room, the setting of chairs and arranging of flowers, she finds distraction. Watching, distant, she places herself in a chair and waits.

Mark is the first to arrive, the two boys in their baby suits towed like caught fish. Their little bodies muscled into clothes designed for men makes her want to set them free. She remains isolated as the mourners arrive, with bloated eyes and spotty cheeks, huddling in small groups. When Mark approaches the coffin, his legs stutter before he reaches Susan. Before she knows what she is doing, she is by his side.

She touches his arm and feels not the flexibility, which Susan had described, but an unforgiving severity. Whatever she had meant to say slips away in the depth of his loss. Mark’s eyes on her are lucid; they do not ask who she is, only why.

Then her husband enters, dismissing the air of anticipation with his expertise. Mark stays by the coffin as one by one people speak. She can feel the grief around her, inching onto the carefully chosen carpet, but there is nothing in her but dryness. When the service is complete, Mark pulls the boys away from the coffin and looks directly at her. In his eyes she sees a flash of what he will in time become without his wife. Then he is gone, the mourners trailing out behind him.

In the emptiness of the room she is able again to look at Susan. The body is blanched, unchanged from the night before save the absence of blush. She turns to her husband then, burrowing her eyes into him for an answer. It is only when his hand reaches for the coffin lid that she feels it.

It isn’t in her chest as she craved, but near her naval, fluttering like the wingtips of a moth. Her hand, unconsciously, quickly, follows it to catch the movement.

Her husband does not see, but rather feels the change in her. The sensation to him is as shallow as hers; the underwater instinct a bottom feeder might feel in the immeasurable ocean when day is swept by night. When she takes her hand from her belly and gives it to him, they walk together out to the hall.

Outside, the words seems to enter her body like a cone of chilled air, momentarily rushing her blood before dying.

“All’s fair in love and war, they say.”

The words that run through her are so fertile, so immediate, that she is unaware if they have left her body. But she hears them nonetheless, dropping to the pavement, at mercy, like the fragmented leaves of the fall, to the full weight of her departure.


THE ETIQUETTE OF MOURNING earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.


Rachel S. Thomas-Medwid’s fiction has been published in Farmhouse Magazine, In Posse, Literal Latte, and A & U Magazine. Along with receiving the Alice Brandt Deeds Prize for Excellence in Creative Writing, a few of her writing honors include placing in the 2008 The Movie Deal Screenplay Competition, the Writer’s Digest Competition, and the National John Steinbeck Competition.

As news editor of the American Meteorological Society’s monthly magazine, Rachel both edits and writes about the hot topic of global warming. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and three young children, all of whom provide great inspiration for her fiction.