March 12th: What happens after death?
Judith
, by R.C. Capasso

She didn’t notice at first when she began to die. She had been tired for so long, finding it increasingly more difficult to go out in the cold yard to see to the birds. She knew they didn’t truly need her scattered seed; didn’t they have acres of field and woods rich in nuts and insects, old berries and broken bits of grains missed in harvest? She only really went out to feed them for her own pleasure; there were a few that had grown so tame out there where she was commonly the only human, where she could represent the human species as mild and giving – there were a few of them that would fly to her and light on her outstretched arm. Her hand, even. She fed them mainly for that touch. Who else came to her like that?

But when the weary day came that she thought: “the birds can wait till later,” she realized that this was no common illness. Her body was asserting its weight, though she was scrawny enough, wasn’t she? Still, her limbs were dictating terms, and she had to listen. “This will pass, if I rest,” she thought, and she lay down on the simple bed she had made in the front room, her only room now, the only one she still heated with the wood stove. Outside that room the house stood silent, rejected like someone she’d pushed away.

The room grew dark around her and gradually colder, too. But she was so tired, and in any case she never started a fire at night. It had to be night now; it was so dark and heavy, the air pressing her eyelids closed. She could make up the fire later. Like the birds, later. She could hear them out in the trees, calling to her with their usual, untroubled, sociable chatter. They told her nothing was wrong. It was a comfort.

At first she did not notice she was dead. She just felt better. The weight was gone from her chest and head, and there was sunlight in the windows again. She rose, relieved, lightened, eager to go out. There were things she wanted to clear away.

And she stepped out, so delighted to see the deep snow lying over the fields, hiding all but the few random scraggly weeds that would not even fall before the wind. The pines were beautiful, like a sparkling Christmas card with their loads of bright, clean snow. She felt the cold, crisp and welcome, though she was still in her old flannel shirt, her frayed jeans, and her feet unshod in warm men’s socks. It was funny to be wearing these old things when she felt so much younger than yesterday.

It was the sight of her feet that finally caught her attention. It was odd to be so comfortable, here by the drift of snow that always streaked between the house and the barn, piling up near the pump, so that she usually had to shovel it away. She should want a coat at least. She should go in the house for a coat, at least.

Still, she thought that this could wait till later. There was no hurry now, though there should have been. And the house held no attraction; she had been there alone long enough, surely.

She found herself moving through the fields. It was strange how she had worried over them so much in the past. And when Len had been there – oh, the fields were always a problem for him! Would the crop be good enough? Would they make any money? Could they sell the place and get out from under? The land had always been a weight on top of Len; no wonder he finally ran away. Of course, that other woman had offered him reasons, too. What had been her name? Something pretty. But now she couldn’t see what the fuss had been about. The land was full of life; you could see it. It wanted nothing more than to blossom and ripen and grow. It was odd how they had fallen out of harmony, she, Len and the land.

And her children, both grown and moved away to cities now. Well, bless their hearts. She didn’t blame them; she didn’t mind their going any more. But what air they were missing, what light and pure, waiting snow! She hoped at least they were warm.

The sky began to darken, and she watched the sun set. Again she thought she should go in the house and get a coat; she must be cold by now. But the house was all in shadows, and for the first time living alone she felt that there was something in there she did not want to see.

She began to make herself move a step forward, then pause, then step away, edging toward the house in a reluctant dance, like an animal sensing a trap. Then an owl gave a sudden cry, and she twirled to it, light as a breeze, and laughed. It was calling her to the woods in moonlight; how could she resist?

The hours came and went, slipping into daylight and darkness again and again. Always she moved, easy, happy, astonished not to feel cold or hunger or thirst. The birds were her companions; they led her through the fields and perched, so lightly balanced, on the old wood rail fence at the edge of her land. They dipped down by the stream, now frozen over, and showed her the stand of still pine trees, fragrant and hushed.

Then one day she followed the dipping flight of a cardinal back toward the house and, stopping at the edge of the farm yard, saw a neighbor pounding on the door. Something kept her from moving forward. Instead, she sat on a bench by the barn and watched as the neighbor left, his old truck sliding down the snow-drifted drive. It was quiet again for a while, and she studied the high thin streaks of cloud, till the sheriff’s car rumbled in. Sheriff and neighbor got out and broke the door down.

That was when she knew that it was over. At least, something was over. The woman that the coroner brought out, all bundled and carted away, was now gone. She didn’t mind that; it was nice of them to take such care, poor things. But while they dealt with their stretcher and the truck, the door of the house stood open, dark, and she felt herself horribly drawn to it. Did she have to go back? What if she could never leave? Whirling so that she sent a spray of snow over the men in the yard, she fled.

Each day she grew lighter and more at peace. Her memories began to fade; she did not remember being sad or angry or alone. It was happiness to be among the birds and animals: deer and possums, raccoons, and sometimes a fox. She loved how they let her near, indifferent. The simple beauty of the world consumed her.

But if, careless and happy, she wandered by the house, a darkness clutched at her. Memories lurked there. For so many years she had loved that house, hated that house, dreamed desperately of leaving, and hid inside it solitary and fierce. Once, filling an oil lamp, she had thought of spreading the oil like a magic ring around her in the empty front room and setting it on fire. The thought had frightened her so much that she had run out into the woods, down to the little stream, crouching there until she had come to her senses.

The house still brought her to fear. What if she stepped inside, and it had the power to make her what she had been? Heavy-souled again and old, in a dark wooden box that blocked the light. Enigmatic, the house lured her, with glints of the red sun on the windows and smells of old happiness, old lives.

Occasionally as the seasons changed, people came to look at over the property. Some figures she almost remembered; some meant nothing to her. They moved through the house, and she crept up to the windows, afraid of what that dark, closed place might do to them. Like a bird she tried to tap at the wood, warning them away. And always they went, shuddering, pulling away in their roaring cars down the drive that was slowly disappearing under weeds.

She was so glad when they finally took the house down. They came with clattering machines, and she scattered with the birds and mice, up to a safe spot near the old fence. She watched them dismantle the trap, pulling at its sides, its glinting eyes, its boards that held old haunting smells. They ripped up the foundation, and she thought maybe a tree would grow there soon.

But that didn’t have to matter anymore. She felt so light, so completely safe now, and the warm sweet light of the open field beckoned her kindly.

*

R.C. Capasso loves classic horror (The Turn of the Screw, Maupassant’s Le Horla, The Haunting of Hill House) and believes in many unseen things. So far, despite visits to promising sites, no first-hand encounters, unless you count the times a cat stares fixedly into a corner for no apparent reason. But there is always hope. R. C. enjoys writing any kind of fiction or nonfiction; recent publications appeared here at Black Heart Magazine and here at INfective INk.


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