from the forthcoming novel: Love is Sweeter
by HC Hsu
He lifted the lid up.
She looked so serene. Her eyes closed; her long, white hair, in-mixed with strands of silverfish gray, parted down along her thin, somewhat wrinkled neck, resting on her bosom. She was wearing a long black crape dress, with cap sleeves, that came down to her ankles; her rail-like arms lay crossed atop her stomach, appearing all the more pallid with an almost translucent sheen, even more so than her face, against the textureless umber darkness of the dress. She still was relatively tall, and quite slender, with arching, rarefied brows, almond-shaped eyes, a slightly tapered and upward-curving nose, and lips long and thin like two complementing waxing and waning crescents folded upon each other, all enlarged and accentuated through the narrow, pointed oval frame of her face. Even at this age, or this stage, one could still tell she’d perhaps been something of a beauty some time ago.
There was a subtle hint of a smile across her lips, under the dim incandescence in the closed room, as if she were only in the midst of a very pleasant dream, and the way she was positioned, made it look as if she might awake any moment with the slightest sound, movement or touch. The warm, soft yellow light above reflected on the pearl-tinted satin lining inside the casket, giving it a hazy, iridescent glow, hovering just above the hard black lacquered mahogany surface of the exterior.
He had to be quick.
With white latex gloves he picked up her right hand. Even through a layer of rubber he could feel the coldness, passing from her, through the gloves, through the skin of his palm, and into his inside, the interior of his body. In return, his own body heat, via the one and same channel, flowed into her. The law of entropy. All bodies tend toward equilibrium. The only difference was, in this case, what came from him, what he had to give up, made very little difference in comparison. She was but a pond of water, a wall, or a black hole, absorbing all the heat and energy and vibrations from their source while it lasted, yet dissipating them like ripples without trace as soon as it disappeared, as if it had never existed in the first place. He felt it strange the roles of life and death should become reversed here: he would no longer be able to effect any impression upon her, as she continued to exert an indelible mark and influence over his mind and body.
He could feel the bones of her hand, now rigid and splayed like the spokes of an opened umbrella, or the radiating slats of a small, unfolded fan. He lifted the hand up to his face.
Quickly, he tried to pull the ring off.
Round, brilliant Cullinan, 18.80 carats, on a bead-set band of diamonds. $6 million.
Shining, like Venus in dusk light.
He tried with all his might. He could hear the joint of her finger start to pop, kind of sounding like popcorn that’s beginning to pop. An almost joyous sound, naïve, childlike, promising simple and mundane pleasures to come. Nothing more. Her hand had been ice-cold; now it’s being warmed up by all the friction.
He had heard that people after they died would bloat. He thought she looked the same. Just more rigid. The skin wasn’t as elastic, as if it were filled with wax, or foam rubber, like a couch cushion, that if one were to sit or press on it, a dented outline would appear and remain for a while, eventually, but slowly, restoring itself. Perfectly pliable and passive, and yet at the same time absolutely unyielding and indifferent. That was how she always was; now it’s just more obvious. He wondered, perhaps, to him, she was the world. He hated this world. Ever since he was little, he felt he was completely outside it; no matter how he tried to gain access to it, to get into it, it shot him and spit him back out, even farther than where he was. Eventually—he wasn’t stupid—he stopped trying. The world doesn’t take well to resentment. It was actually much easier than he thought to pretend. He walked amongst the throngs of people. There was a hole in the world—a discontinuity, perfectly transparent, moving amidst its coordinates. This thought never made him happy, but it could somehow content him. Happiness is not a virtue; contentment, however, is.
Pretending. That was his duty in the world. Building a parallel world. He wondered whether everything worked efficiently, because they were parallel, or they became parallel, because they were efficient. He didn’t know whether there were others like him, moving about between these worlds, like notes across different strings, but he did his duty just as fervently as, if not more so than, everyone else.
The world, the real one, became merely another detail.
Then, as if God had finally decided to reward him for his office, he met her.
He entered her, and made her his world. He finally got the key and, with all he had learned, was able to see, to reflect upon, to feel, to bend, to manipulate everything in this world to his own sense and liking.
She was thirty-five years older than he, and the sole heiress of a dynastic, internationally renowned diamantaire. She bought him watches, suits, four cars, box tickets to sold-out opera plays, reservations in the most forbidding and exclusive of clubs and restaurants, weekend trips to Paris, London, Milan, Firenze, Japan, vacations in Kakahi, Cerro Castor, the Tholonet ruins, and Mount Orohena. She even built him a golf course, on one of her lands. Her only stipulation for all this was that he lived with her, in her 10,000-square-foot beach-front house. It was her way of turning him into a pet, and in return he got everything he wanted, including her unconditional love.
Perhaps that was the secret: his distance from the world was his most valuable gift. It had given him clarity, so when he met her, he knew exactly what he wanted, and how to get it. Through her, he was finally able to see, and enter, the world.
Then she died. She left him—left him—$50,000. He was cut off again. It was as if his umbilical cord, his breathing tube, his connection to life, had suddenly been severed, and now he had to go back to pretending to survive again.
He was a drowning man who had found a piece of driftwood. There was no way he was just going to give up, to let it go.
He wasn’t going to let that happen.
Fucking cunt, this can’t be happening, he was getting anxious. Shit. He felt around his coat pockets. Nothing. Some lint.
He had to get the ring, no matter what. Then catch the first flight to Cerro, wherever.
A thought suddenly crossed his mind.
Looking at her finger, gaunt and sallow, as if all the skin and muscles had already decayed away, and what was seen was actually the bone itself, against the radiant, almost otherworldly glimmer of the diamond, reflecting, in each of its microscopic, infinitesimal facets, the room, the world, him, from an infinite number of angles, fracturing everything into a million billion bits, then reconstituting them into something in excess of and bigger than the original...it was an eye, like that of a fly, resting on top of a finger bone of the corpse, icily staring back at him—he frowned.
His heart tightened. Looking at the finger, he lunged, and bit it.
With all his might, and pressure, on his incisors. His head started to tremble...
Pop. Penetration. Like the sound of a wilted carrot snapping. Something salty leaked out. Very quickly his teeth came upon something hard.
He stopped biting and pulled his mouth back, feeling her finger slide across his tongue, like a caress. He realized his jaw was trembling, and now sore. There was a bitterness; he swallowed, trying to wash down the bitterness with his own saliva.
The finger, right in front of him, now looked somewhat crooked, and swollen, near a slit where the skin had come loose, and developed a faint, rust-like verdigris hue, with a thin brown fluid leaking out from it.
The ring still twinkled on the finger.
There was an intensifying ammonia smell in the air, quickly burrowing into his nostrils, his eyes, his mind. Shit!
‘Hey! What are you doing here?’
He stared at the finger. Before he could think of the next step, he heard a voice call from behind him:
‘Hey, what are you doing here?’
He turned around. There was a thin, old man standing next to the opened door. In the dim yellow light, he could see he was wearing a black, maybe dark blue, duckbill cap, rubber slosher boots (how did he not hear those?), and a gray jumpsuit, with a sewn, white-bordered name tag that read in large black lettering, 'Adam.' His scrawny stature, small, dark and extremely wrinkled face, and overall dust-colored uniform, gave him the appearance of a rodent, in sharp contrast with the deep, husky throatiness of his voice.
He was speechless for a second. Then he stood up, in front of the casket, fully facing the man. Quickly he slipped his gloves off behind his back, and stuffed them into his back pocket.
'Sir, you can't be here,' the man said.
'This is my wife,' he said softly. 'I just want to see her again, before the service.' He cast a glance back toward the casket.
The man began to walk toward him.
'I'm sorry, sir, but we're closed. You're gonna have to come back tomorrow.'
He backed up more, now all the way up against the front, long side of the coffin.
'Please. Can I just have one more moment?' His voice began to crack a little.
The old man stopped in his tracks, and hesitated, apparently thinking, his small dark bead-like eyes glinting and flickering in the light.
Then he looked up at him.
'I know what you're doing.' The man said.
He was silent.
'My wife died twenty years ago,' he said. 'But sometimes, I can remember it like it was yesterday.'
The man, Adam, after saying this, seemed to try to search his face a little bit, and then continued: 'Sometimes, I feel she's still here. Near me, close to me, watching me.'
For some reason, he felt the room suddenly got colder.
'I still miss her every day. But on some level, you've got to just let go.'
'She's really gone.'
He didn't know what to say to him, to this sudden confession by a complete stranger. He knew he was trying to console him, in the hope of getting him to leave. That was his job, his duty. He couldn't be sure the man wasn't just bullshitting him, giving him, literally, his company line, or actually telling him the truth. Why couldn't it be both? He knew something repeated enough eventually becomes true. He couldn’t be sure, though, if the opposite isn’t the case just as much as well.
He took a quick glance around the room. The glowing crimson 'EXIT' sign directly above the door, closed now. A long black console table to his right, against the wall; a glossy white marble table lamp. A book. The dim recessed overhead light. Another door with a round nickel knob in the wall to the left.
He walked over to the console table, exposing the still open coffin behind him. He grabbed the lamp and swung.
He heard a small cracking noise, a little like the sound of ice melting in water, or the sound, if such a sound existed, of a single snowflake, shattering.
Then. A heavy, dull thud. Muffled.
It could be any number of things. Just a gray, amorphous blob of reverberations, softly gliding through the air.
He looked down. A dark red, somewhat shiny pool of liquid was trickling out of, and gathering around, a roundish concave object that looked like a half-deflated basketball. There were patches and clumps of black hair, as well as some shards of white, mixed with curdles of peeking light, festive, pink, and some fine beige fibers from the carpet. The edge of the puddle was seeping down into the carpet, gradually expanding the stain; the red blood, when it touched the gray fabric of the overall, lost its color, and became simply a darker shade of gray itself. There was a hint of metallic scent in the air, now interlaced with the ammonia.
Next to the body on the floor, the white satin interior of the coffin, as well as she, lying in there so peacefully, appeared even more pristine, like a princess slumbering in an ancient fairytale.
He suddenly realized he was still clutching the neck of the lamp hard in his hand. There was a large smear of brilliant red across the shining alabaster white surface of the lamp base, irregular and amoeba-like, as if it were an organism in and of itself, breathing, wriggling, subtly changing its shape, as it inched itself more and more into the palm of his hand.
He dropped it onto the floor. Another thud.
He quickly walked toward the casket again.
The chocolate brown-colored fluid around the finger had dried. The ring was still there, twinkling, winking. He grabbed her hand with one hand, and tried to pull the ring off, with the other. Some blood had transferred from the palm of his hand onto the surface of the jewel and the band, as well as her hand and fingers.
Suddenly he felt his legs tighten, his calves pushed together, like an involuntary contraction, a spasm, as if someone had thrown a lasso around his ankles and proceeded to tighten it.
Instinctively he looked down. The body on the floor had wrapped its arms around his calves, with its open head, like a big upward-gaping smile, and partially exposed and broken nose bridge and palate bones resting, on the lower part of his shins, through his khaki slacks.
The sight made him fall backward, and he landed on the carpet on his buttocks—his legs kicking free in the process of the grip previously placed upon them.
The man, if one could still call it a man, lay about three feet in front of him, near his eye-level. From this angle his head looked like a broken vase, with flowers, petals, and leaves spilling out of it, strewn about.
He tried to stand up, but felt immediately a sharp pain shoot up his spine from his tailbone, when he tried to move. As soon as he felt it, it began to dull, and spread, as a numbness arboring through his blood vessels, and it grew into a swarm of thousands of ants crawling inside him. Inside his arms, his chest, inside his lungs, his stomach. Inside his thighs, genitals, calves, feet, and toes. His ears, nostrils, eyes, tongue, cheeks, neck. Crawling through his mind. He felt like he was in flames.
He couldn't stand up.
'P...p...pl...eee...s...ki...k...kill...m...mmm...' He heard a voice, coming out from the body before him. It sounded like a distant echo, a call, from an unfathomable abyss. From the lowest, bottom-most level of hell.
Then, he couldn't be sure, but he saw the body shaking, trembling like a leaf, or rather, like an old, threadbare, tattered, dirty wet rag, in the cold wind, perhaps from the residual vibrations of the echo, the inhuman voice.
Perhaps he was the one who was trembling.
He looked at the body in front of him, which was now emitting a somewhat regular, quiet wheezing sound, occasionally interspersed with what sounded like sobs, and he looked up at the casket, with her pale arm now dangling and hanging off to its side, at the brilliant ring, catching the light, at just the right angle.
Something came over him.
All of a sudden, he just felt tired. Really tired.
HC Hsu was born in Taipei. His writings and translations have appeared in PRISM International, Two Lines, Words Without Borders, Renditions, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Far Enough East, Big Bridge, Pif Magazine, nthposition, Memoir, Liternational, Pittsburgh Gazette, 100 Word Story, Horrotica, Romance Flash, Flash Fiction World, and Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, among others. He is currently completing a commissioned translation of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo’s authorized biography. He is a philosophy postdoctoral fellow at the Europäische Universität für Interdisziplinäre Studien, Switzerland. An Excerpt from HC’s forthcoming novel, Love is Sweeter, appears in the January 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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