Leah’s sister, Angeline, and her husband, Malcolm, both devout Catholics, were furious when they discovered that Leah had been cremated. They were even more incensed when I rejected their plan to have the ashes buried in the town’s cemetery and informed them that I planned to scatter them in Ragged Lake. It fell on deaf ears when I reminded them that Leah had renounced the church when she was just a girl and that her happiest times had been spent on the lake. In order to appease them, however, I reluctantly agreed to a church service followed by a wake at my house.
On the day, I deeply regretted the decision. It was early September and Herring’s Jaw was in the grips of an unseasonable heat wave. The church’s air conditioning had malfunctioned and stepping inside felt like passing through the gates of hell rather than the entrance to a place of worship. Making matters worse, it was packed to capacity, the air aflutter with service programs being used as fans. It immediately irritated me that such a large proportion of the townspeople had turned out. As far as I was concerned, Leah’s handful of close friends belonged but the rest were disingenuous imposters. As the service ground on interminably in the sweltering heat, I noticed Maeve Wheeler sitting across the aisle from me weeping noisily into a frilly handkerchief. She was one of the town’s worst gossips and I had overheard her in the past referring to Leah in such jeering terms as “Doc’s madwoman” and “Loco Leah.” As she sat in her cheap suit, snivelling and dabbing at her fat red eyes, I was filled with an almost irresistible urge to grab her by her poorly dyed hair, drag her outside and take her to the curb. It was probably only for Angeline and Malcolm’s sake that I restrained myself from doing just that.
Strangely enough, though, what distressed me far more than Maeve’s two-facedness was listening to some of the heartfelt things Leah’s family and genuine friends said about her over the course of the day. The torrent of anecdotal memories, to me, seemed like distant echoes of who she had actually been in reality. Daphne Armstrong, a good friend of Leah’s from high school, said “I loved the way her nose used to pinch up when she laughed – she had such a musical laugh.” This was true to the extent that Leah’s nose did pinch up – but only when she was being sarcastic and her laughter was actually quite shrill when she was being sarcastic. It seemed like everyone, from their multiple perspectives, was creating an abstract painting of Leah, the resonance of which left me with the extremely unsettling feeling that she was being autopsied all over again; her personality carved into pieces, examined and weighed, and then arbitrarily thrown back together again into something she never quite was. Frankly, I would have rather been back in the morgue; just me and her body.
Later on that night, after everyone had mercifully left, I sat out on my dock. To one side of me was an urn containing Leah’s ashes and to the other sat Ben, gazing intently out over the lake as crickets droned lazily in the heavy air. Ben had not left my side since Leah had died and I was eternally grateful for his company. As the hour got late, I finally hauled myself out of my chair and read aloud the last paragraph of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Leah’s favorite book, her copy of which was dog-eared and crammed with notes in the margins. I then steeled myself and slowly poured the ashes off the end of the dock. They spread out amorphously across the surface of the water which was as still as glass. Tears began escaping from the corners of my eyes and I was about to turn away when the moon came out from behind some wispy clouds and Ben started to whine. Looking down, I saw that the ashes had begun moving into patterns guided by I do not know what. Ben started to whine more loudly and, despite the heat, I felt a chill. Suddenly, the ashes stopped moving and Ben started to growl and bark at the water. Cold horror gripped me as I stared at the image: it was Claudia’s foetus after it had turned away from the monitor during the amniocentesis. Almost as quickly as it had formed, a breeze came up and an eddy carried the ashes away out of view down the shoreline.
If there had been niggling doubts before, as Ben and I trudged back up the dock to the dark, empty house, I was now quite calmly certain that my own inexorable descent into madness had begun.
To be continued…
Part I is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/06/30/deep-freeze-part-i/
Part II is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/07/11/deep-freeze-part-ii/
Part III is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/07/21/deep-freeze-part-iii/