Death begins before birth. I have always found this an odd notion, but were it not for the death of certain cells during our initial development, humans would be born with webbed toes. Death moulds our physical being from the very start of our existence. It sculpts us, determines how we begin, and where we end. The events in life that define us, that break us and remake us, all stem from death—the death of a place, a time, a relationship, of those we hold most dear, and finally ourselves. Death is the one inescapable aspect of life, the only immutable force, the single thing in this world that cannot and should not be changed.But death is never the end.It is the beginning.
It was a fact that had become the focus of my entire life, a whisper in my heartbeat, a permanent, insidious presence that punctuated my every breath. I couldn’t escape it, that persistent voice, lingering in the blood pulsing through my veins. It said only one thing, over and over, a repetition of inescapable anguish, the knowledge of a thing that could never be undone.James is dead. James is dead. James is dead. James is dead.
Insects crawled across my skin, legs skittering across my flesh, numbed paths of cold left in their wake. They were the creatures that heralded my ghosts, and I knew them well, yet the revulsion they caused in those moments far exceeded anything I’d felt before.
With painstaking rumination, the tips of his fingers grazed over my neck, a deafening silence. I didn't move as his hand paused at the base of my throat. He listened to the arrhythmic beating of my heart, my pulse thumping beneath his fingers. He kissed me along my neckline and throat. I almost burst apart from the longing. My blood burned for him.
In the distance, steel-blue mountains loomed heavy on the horizon, their shoulders burdened with the same accursed snow the gods were currently depositing upon the lowlands. Between us and the mountains, the vast expanse of one of the innumerable caravan sites littering the Welsh shores was dimly visible, and at the far edges of the sands, grey waves tipped a mulch of brown foam up on to the beach, a sudden deposition of wishy-washy creatures that seemed to spider-leg over each other in their haste to reach the shore and see what all the fuss was about.But even these creatures comprised of sea-foam were freaked out by the death-stare, for the little critters swiftly dissipated under the force of a skeletal glower.A skull lay in the sand, its empty sockets staring down the beach at the retreating surge. Their fear wouldn’t last long. Soon they’d realise the skeleton had not engaged in pursuit, their confidence would grow, and they’d encroach, further and further up the bank. Eventually, they’d be close enough to see it was completely inert, and would overrun our position, victoriously sweeping up their fallen foe and dragging it back out with them into the dreary waves.
I imagined her poised, a humerus in one hand, a toothbrush in the other, as she gently brushed away the last remnants of the person who had once used that arm to shake hands, open doors, lift a mug of tea. I wondered if it was so very different from how I myself looked when I sat on the floor of my finds room, perhaps sitting cross-legged, at the centre of a circle of newly cleaned bones, a tibia in one hand, a toothbrush in the other …
I never really wanted to die. But I followed through anyway. The pain in my heart was excruciating, and death was beautiful.
It seemed for a moment as if something was there, loitering between the knurled and towering cherry trees, a flash of a presence as stark as the sight of the snow against their bare branches and cracked, piceous bark. Unblinking, I watched the edge of the lake, waiting for it to reappear, but whatever it had been was gone, vanished under cover of a willow tree, lofty and dense, rearing over the lake, its branches dripping all the way to the ground. The tree’s lament had been transformed into a thing of such beauty I was tempted to go and hide within it.
Joshua had always been able to get away with things—things for which he should never have been forgiven. He was a lot like James in that respect, for while my husband had bought his grace with his brilliance, Joshua did so with his looks. I considered that a moment, before turning away, suddenly finding I could not bear to look at him for fear of what I might forgive next.
The past had already been dealt with, to one end or another, it was certain, fixed, the horror of it was already over.For the living at least. They grieved, yes, but they were not trapped in the terror of the moment.Not so for my poor, elegant wraiths. They were like the old-fashioned zoetropes you find at the seaside: a tiny slice of a world in a box, brief yet somehow also eternal.
I found serenity in the towers, especially the highest, even in the midst of winter. The crows also enjoyed the lofts, and I habitually fed them.Often I held conference with the grotesques lining the summit. The gryphon was perhaps my favourite. I’d regularly sat beside them when feeling pensive, even before James’s death, one leg dangling precariously over the edge
She stood in the snow, effervescent, all pale skin and blonde hair, clad in white and bathed in moonlight. She should have looked angelic, instead she looked like a corpse, freshly raised from the grave, frosted in ice and darkness, swaying precariously in a graveyard.
The reflection was that of a putrefying corpse. By some trick of the light, her face seemed sallow and slipping, the patches of darkness giving the appearance of skin sloughing off in small pockets. I’d almost forgotten the knife in my panic; the woman was far more dangerous than the weapon. Blood drizzled down the blade, obscuring the macabre reflection of Natalya’s face and suddenly I was transfixed by a thought that should have been immediate:Whose blood is that?