Lady Corpse in Red
4. The Lady Corpse in Red
"I do so love Sundays!" Winnie remarked to her husband as they walked over the little stone bridge on their way to church. "The whole village seems brighter, don't you think? And it's always so nice to see everyone out and about, dressed in their best!"
"Yes, it's quite nice, dear," Herbert replied. "Though perhaps keep your voice down just a little? People are staring."
Were they? Winnie, chastened, glanced about at the other villagers on their way to services. Old Widow Wadleigh was nearest to them, and she appeared to be more focused on managing her new walker than anything else. Sir Robert from the sawmill might have been looking, but when she made eye contact he just touched his hat politely and kept walking. Behind them came the Wearys, all much too focused on their new baby to pay any mind to her.
"I don't think anyone is staring," Winnie said by way of an almost-apology, her voice humble and meek. Herbert didn't answer. Maybe he hadn't heard her. She took a deep breath to ease the tightening in her chest. Getting too upset over something so small would only make her condition worse, she knew. So it paid to keep cheerful.
Winnie did love to go to church. Not so much for the religion, but for the sense of community. She loved to see everyone together like this. Villagers mostly kept themselves to themselves. Sundays were special.
If only they did a bit more singing. At cousin Olivia's church in the city there was a pipe organ, so her letters said. It would brighten everything so to have a bit of a sing. Or to have congregants read from time to time. Winnie would love that so. She didn't have Olivia's flair or beautiful voice, but she liked oratory just as much as her talented cousin. Why, Winnie had even been to the conservatory to study singing, before she'd left to marry Herbert. To use her humble talents in service to the church would be a joyful thing indeed.
One Sunday years ago she'd mentioned her ideas to Pastor Galswells after services. How Olivia's pastor, Pastor Vandervelt, began his services in the city with hymns on the organ. How members of the community were invited to read relevant Bible passages after the sermon. How sometimes they even sang! How lovely it would be to have a town choir! His frown had grown deeper and his stare more penetrating as she'd talked.
"And I suppose if Pastor Vandervelt were to leap from a bridge, I should do the same as well," Pastor Galswells had said after she'd mentioned a choir, deflating her entirely. As he'd turned to leave, he'd added over his shoulder, "It's too much, Mrs. Hughes."
Winnie never brought up her ideas about church or singing again, not even to Herbert.
Just after they'd taken their seats in their usual pew, she felt a little flutter in her chest. Winnie dug through her drawstring bag and pulled out her china pillbox. She sat quite still, letting the little pill dissolve under her tongue. She liked to imagine the magical medicine snaking through her blood until it reached her heart, flowing and soothing until it could beat normally again. When she saw the worried sideways look Herbert was giving her, she smiled and discreetly patted his hand. Satisfied, he turned to nod hello to Mr. Mayhew and Mr. Visser, his colleagues from the cannery. Winnie smiled at them as well, though the bitter taste her pill left behind made her want to grimace.
The silence in the church was broken only by the occasional murmured hello, thud of a Bible, or scrape of a shoe. Winnie couldn't help thinking the atmosphere would be greatly improved with some music, but of course now she knew better than to say anything. Instead she enjoyed watching everyone arrive.
Every Sunday it was the same, but every Sunday Winnie felt anew a sort of unspoken kinship with her fellow villagers. Indeed, this village was so small most everyone was kin of one kind or another, but Sunday was the only day of the week anyone ever came close to behaving as if they were.
How much happier this place might be if everyone always behaved as if it were a church day.
"Dear, face the front, would you?" Herbert said in a low voice. "You're twisting about so, you're calling attention to yourself."
"Oh," said Winnie. Was she? True, she'd been turning her head just a little so that she could see into the aisle, and she had turned around completely to watch Mrs. Van Dort arrive (she liked to admire Mrs. Van Dort's hats, a new one every Sunday), but Winnie thought she'd been discreet.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, meaning it. She never liked disappointing her Herbert, though she seemed to do it with alarming regularity. At least in public. Herbert didn't have time to reply before Pastor Galswells began the day's sermon, but he did touch her knee. That made her feel better.
Today's sermon was about obedience, one of Pastor Galswells' favorite topics. He read at length from Isaiah, and then thundered on in his deep, commanding voice about how disobedience derives from rebellion. Ah, rebellion and the crushing of it, another of Galswells' favorite themes. She blushed to recall that he'd given a similar sermon the week after she'd made her suggestions about music in services. Winnie had been shocked and ashamed to realize she could ever be considered rebellious.
Winnie couldn't help her eyes sliding over the congregants, wondering who might have inspired today's sermon. No one seemed likely. At least, no one looked as if they felt singled out. That was comforting. Winnie hated to think of anyone feeling badly about themselves in church.
After the closing prayer, Pastor Galswells dismissed them. Row by row the villagers rose, more relaxed and even chatting here and there in low voices. Winnie had to take her time standing. Her ankles and feet were tingly. They were most likely swollen again. When she glanced down at her hands she saw her fingers were a bit puffy, too. She decided to take a little nap, and perhaps another pill, when she got home. If she could make it on these feet of hers.
"May we wait a little while before we walk home?" Winnie asked Herbert after a painful trip down the church steps. "My feet."
"Certainly," Herbert replied.
So they stood by the steps, Winnie moving from foot to foot as much as she could, trying to ease the discomfort without looking as though she was doing a jig. Villagers passed them by, some nodding, others not. When the Van Dorts went by Herbert stood up a little straighter, a deferential expression on his sweet round face. Winnie tried to match his stance. Always a good idea to impress one's husband's employers.
Mrs. Van Dort sailed past in her magnificent hat without so much as a glance, but Mr. Van Dort nodded to Herbert and wished him a good day. Winnie couldn't help smiling with pride. Young Victor Van Dort trailed along behind his parents. The poor thing hunched as if he had rickets, and never quite looked anyone in the eye. Winnie thought of her own son, Timothy, who was off at school. He'd been just the same at thirteen. Winnie sent up a silent prayer that Victor's skin would clear up soon. Perhaps that would aid his self-confidence.
The pain in her feet was easing, but only because they had apparently gone numb. Winnie's heart fluttered again. She wasn't at all sure she'd be able to walk home. But she didn't want to call attention to herself unless absolutely necessary.
"A wonderful sermon today indeed, Pastor Galswells," said Lady Everglot as she came through the church doors, her husband and daughter behind her.
"Instructive, yes," Lord Everglot agreed. "Thank you."
"Quite instructive, wouldn't you agree, Victoria?" Lady Everglot said in an entirely different tone to her daughter. Victoria, Winnie noticed, had her hair up this week. And a beautiful long dress. Why, she was turning into a young lady already.
Victoria, cheeks pink, nodded and looked at her feet. Winnie tried to exchange a look with Herbert, but he wasn't paying attention. Winnie wondered what quiet little Miss Everglot could have possibly done to inspire such a lecture. Knowing Lady Everglot, even by reputation, it could have been anything. Looking at Miss Everglot's face, Winnie felt her whole Sunday had been spoiled. Why, church was supposed to bring everyone together. Thinking back to the sermon, Winnie felt a bit of solidarity with the girl.
Rebellious, the both of them. What an idea. The Everglots went past, Lady Everglot steering her daughter by the shoulder. The crowd was dispersing, Pastor Galswells had disappeared back inside the church, and Winnie felt worse than ever. As if she were going to faint. Needing a bit of comfort, she reached out her arms and gathered her husband into a hug. Herbert was quite a bit shorter than she, and pulling him to her like this, her cheek on his head, always made her feel protective and intimate. She liked having him that close.
But Herbert didn't relax into her as he did at home. Instead he stiffened. Gently but firmly he pushed her away. The look he gave her said it all: We're in public. That's too much.
Hurt but understanding, Winnie backed off another step and fiddled with her handbag. Her heart was racing again. Embarrassment, probably. She'd take a pill and be all right.
"You understand, Winnifred," Herbert said in a low voice. She appreciated the note of apology. "I work with a lot of these men. Why, Mr. Van Dort had just gone by!"
Winnie nodded, still trying to open her bag. Her fingers were trembling. A drop of sweat itched at the tip of her nose, and she wiped it away. She didn't really understand, but she wasn't thinking all that clearly. Her bag dropped to the ground, and the fall seemed to take a very long time.
"Winnie?" asked Herbert, alarmed now. Oh, the look on his face! Her heart felt as if it was on fire. When she tried to breathe it felt like drowning. She put a hand on Herbert's shoulder to steady herself. It was no use. Her legs gave out anyway.
As Winnie collapsed against her husband, she felt grateful to feel his arms go around her. She'd been half-afraid he'd let her fall, for fear of too much contact in public. Even through the sudden fog and lethargy, she felt terrible for making such a scene.
On a Sunday, no less.
Winnie's eyes snapped open at the words. She didn't know who had spoken. Her head was clear, she was standing up. But something was wrong. All around her was noise and color, laughter and light. Someone was clanging a bell in a way that reminded her of the town crier. Where on earth was she? Indoors, somewhere. The place was suggestive of the Tavern before it had closed. Winnie had only ever peeked in the window.
She touched her face and felt nothing. When her heart did not flutter in its usual way despite the fear she felt, Winnie knew what had happened. A closer look at the crowd growing around her confirmed it. Dead. They were dead, all of them. And they were all watching her, some smiling, some hoisting glasses in her direction. Skeletons and half-rotted corpses, bits and pieces missing. Instead of being disgusted or frightened, though, Winnie was just sad. Unbearably, unbearably sad.
"No," she half-moaned, half-sobbed. She sank into a heap on the floor and buried her face in her hands. Hands, she noticed, that had turned blue. Winnie didn't care if this was too much or not. She was dead. She had died. Right there in the churchyard, right in front of her poor husband.
"Herbert!" Winnie moaned again, muffled by her hands. Oh, her dear little husband. And her boy, her Timothy. No no no, this wasn't right. This couldn't be right. Unfeeling as she was, Winnie wasn't sure if she was crying or not. She sat there right in the middle of the floor, sniffling and rocking. She didn't know for how long. She didn't care, either.
Eventually Winnie was able to pull herself together. As she stood up, she noticed that the formerly noisy tavern had gone quiet. Nervously she brushed at her dress. Her nice flounced maroon one, with just the hint of bustle, wasn't Herbert a dear. The thought made her want to cry again.
Everyone was staring at her. Even the ones without eyes. The smiles had turned into looks of concern, and the lifted glasses had lost some of their height. There were so many of them. There were a few dead faces that she recognized, but even more that she didn't. Unsure of what to do, or what they wanted of her, Winnie just stood as primly as she could and tried to look friendly. But not too friendly.
"Um," she said to the room at large, her voice shaky. "I...apologize for my...outburst. I'm new."
Much to her surprise, the whole place burst into laughter. If her blood was still flowing, her cheeks would've gone warm. Winnie wasn't sure if they were laughing at her or not. A skeleton wearing a decades-old red dress and with a few curls of gray hair poking out from beneath her enormous bonnet came out of the crowd and took Winnie's elbow.
"Now that it's out of your system, come have a sit, dear," said the skeleton. Touched, Winnie allowed herself to be led to a table by a piano. The skeleton, who introduced herself as Margaret, took the other seat at the table. The noise rose again, filled with laughter and conversation. A youngish dead fellow in a cook's uniform brought her a pretty blue drink in a dusty sherry glass.
"I am sorry," Winnie said to her companion after she'd tried a sip of her drink. Whatever the beverage was, it made her feel a bit more peaceful. As if her crying jag had been years ago. Yet still the memory lingered. "For making such a scene."
"What, for crying when you found out you were dead?" Margaret asked. She waved a dismissive bony hand. "'Scene' indeed. That was nothing. My own husband tried to dig his way back Upstairs, so I was told. The time for worrying is well past, dear. Forget it all."
Well. What a nice change. Perhaps this wasn't so bad after all. Winnie smiled into her drink, and resolved not to say another word on the matter. Thank goodness Herbert wasn't here to see this. He'd disagree with Margaret. Especially because Winnie was almost positive she'd seen a very old and very dead Mr. Van Dort Senior, Herbert's former boss, over by the billiard table. He'd have seen her entire outburst. And could see her plain as day now, sitting in a tavern having a drink. No one came up to call her rebellious, though.
As they sipped their drinks, Winnie and her new friend discussed the affairs of the dead. Winnie was surprised to find herself very content. Indeed, nearly happy. She'd never had a friend to sit with like this. Margaret told her all about what she kept referring to as "Downstairs"-the square, the shops, the neighbors, the traditions, such as they were. Why, Margaret was a one-corpse welcoming committee. Winnie wondered if she'd been like this in life, too, or if the village hadn't quite appreciated her.
"Ah, look, here comes the band. Do you like music?" asked Margaret, her yellow eyeballs the most alive-looking part of her. Her skeletal grin made her look even friendlier, grotesque as it seemed. Winnie was so unused to smiling, it was refreshing no matter what the source.
"Oh yes!" Winnie replied, clapping her hands. After so much silence for so long, music would be just the thing.
"Well, you are in for a treat," Margaret told her. "This is like nothing you've ever heard before, trust me. You'll love it."
Winnie grinned, no longer caring if the smile was too much. Nothing seemed too much down here. A group of skeletons took the little stage, and assembled instruments of a sort Winnie had never seen before. And the music! It had a quality that melted into your bones, got into your very soul. Margaret was right, Winnie had never heard anything quite like it. But she loved it. Clapping along the moment she caught the beat, Winnie looked around the room of the dead. Friends and neighbors, conviviality and conversation, everyone enjoying drinks and laughter and music together. In the rush of music and togetherness, this lovely sense of community, Winnie felt whole. And more alive than ever.
"This is better than church!" Winnie exclaimed happily. When the laughter of the dead came this time, she was sure they were laughing with her.