I suppose that when you dress up the dead and put them in the ground for a living, you must be prepared to answer a great many morbid questions, especially from children. Who chooses the clothes a corpse wears when it is buried? How are the mouth and eyes held shut? What even is the point of embalming if it’s going to crumble into the earth after a few months anyway?
These are the things that we children bombarded our little town’s undertaker with whenever we chanced upon him in the street. Thinking back on it now, he was remarkably patient. We were an inquisitive lot, and he answered us calmly without trying to wrap the truth up to make it prettier, as we had come to expect from the other grown-ups in our lives. He explained to us at various street corners and crossroads, gesturing with his long thin hands, how he stitched the lips of the dead and cleaned their flesh of its blood. He told us how he washed their faces and their hair and how he folded their hands over their hearts before sending them down to be cradled by coffin wood in the dark, warm earth. He explained to us what he did and how he did it, and why, and we admired him greatly for his honesty. But the one question that we could never get him to answer was, what’s in the box.
It was a large black box, rectangular and faintly polished. Some of us called it a casket rather than a box, which I suppose makes sense, but it was much plainer than a normal casket, with no hinges or handles as far as any of us could see. There did not seem to be any sort of seam between the two halves that would suggest where it might open; instead, it looked like one solid sealed-up block of wood. It must have been hollow, though – and many of us thought, empty – because otherwise, I do not think that it could so easily have rested upon the shoulder of the young man who trailed about behind the undertaker wherever he went.
Just as we were fond of the undertaker, we children became rather fond of the young man too. He didn’t speak much, but when he did, he was polite and clear in his words, and we could all see that he had great respect for the undertaker. We asked him once how exactly he had come to know the old man, and he had explained to us simply enough that he been taken in at a young age as an apprentice. Ever since he had been drifting along in the man’s shadow, watching and learning and carrying the big black box, which he explained the undertaker was too old to carry about by himself anymore. Having heard him explain the nature of his employment, we children had rather gleefully – and only once he was out of earshot – wondered aloud whether a person need only to look a certain way to become an undertaker in this town. The two men had the very same soft-stepping gait and the same pallid skin, the same thick dark hair – although the undertaker’s had turned more grey than black – and the same slate-brown eyes like rusty silver coins.. They spoke in almost the same voice and they smiled the same soft, serious smile, and when they rubbed their aching backs and shoulders, they did so with the same mannerisms, the same muted groans.
The undertaker’s austere kindness and his patience in putting up with our morbid questions were not the only things that made him popular among us children. While all of us liked him, some of us – especially the little ones – had such a reverence that we began to see him as something far greater than just the old man who looks after people when they die.
I’m not entirely sure how it started, but there was a sort of trick, or rather a game, that the undertaker was willing to play with us. If one of us brought him something – anything, really – he would take it very gently into his long, sallow, wrinkled hands, and he would turn it about so that his skin seemed scarcely to touch the surface at all. Then, after these silent moments of consideration, he would hand it back and tell you in a soft yet sure voice exactly what it was worth. He never spoke in terms of money. We were still too young then to have begun measuring worth in that way, anyhow. Rather, the undertaker had the uncanny gift of being able to equate the worth of things, sometimes abstract or even non-existent things, with each other. Sometimes, if we pestered him for long enough, he could even be convinced to trade.
One of us, a little girl, scratched an old dry chicken bone out from her family’s rubbish bin. She wandered the streets until she caught a glimpse of the undertaker, a tall dark shadow drifting between the buildings. I suppose, in her innocent childish ignorance, she thought the bone was a suitable gift for somebody of his profession. He took it from her, held it between his long creased fingers, and although he had been rushing from one side of the town to the other, he now stood very still for a long moment to examine the offering. Then he nodded and turned back the way he had come, vanishing with a billow of his black coat. He took the bone with him along with his apprentice, who walked on briskly and straight-backed under the weight of the long black box. He returned soon enough, and when he did, the chicken bone was gone. He was carrying between his fingers a broken eggshell. The little girl took it before she could say or ask him anything, and by the time she looked up again, he was gone. She kept the eggshell for a few months hidden somewhere in her bedroom until it became too brittle in the sun and the edges started to crumble.
On another occasion, while we were playing at the edge of the woods that skirted the town, one boy among us slipped while climbing an oak and snagged one of his cardigan buttons, ripping it off and tearing a huge gash in the cloth. We searched all through the long grass and the fallen leaves for the missing button, but it was lost. The little boy started to cry; his mother had spent months knitting him that cardigan. It was made of dark blue wool, soft and warm as the summer night sky, against which golden buttons had gleamed like stars. Now it was all beginning to unravel in wild, wiry strands around the jagged hole. I remember feeling almost sick as I stood there watching the swiftness and ease with which all that work could be undone. I think it had been my idea to find the undertaker and see if he could help. The little boy, whose face was blotchy red and tear-stained, borrowed some other jumper from someone else, and wiped his eyes on the oversized sleeves as we wandered through the streets. We checked every corner and alleyway for the sight of two shadows.
Eventually we found him waiting at a crossroads where we had chanced upon him many times before. We offered him the beautiful torn garment, which we had folded up as neatly as we could considering that it was all crumbling into frayed threads. He would not even look at it, though, until it had been confirmed and reconfirmed that the boy himself had not been hurt. Then he took the ragged cardigan and unfolded it without ripping one more unravelling loop from another. He examined it, admiring the handiwork and the damage alike. Then he nodded and turned back the way he’d come.. And that was the last that any of us ever saw of that cardigan.
We found him at the same place a few days later, by which time most of us had already forgotten about the whole thing; at least until he beckoned to the little boy in the ill-fitting jumper to come forward. He put into the boy’s outstretched hands a skein of midnight wool, the same in every way to that which had been torn to pieces in the woods, along with one golden button, glistening like a fallen star. Finally, he gave the boy a wide-eyed silver needle, fine but incredibly sharp. We speculated when he had gone, half-joking, whether it was the same sort of needle that he used for stitching the mouths of the dead.
The beautiful blue cardigan itself was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it is still sitting, neatly folded and slowly disintegrating, in the corner of some hidden embalming room. How could the old man mend it now that he had given away his needle and thread? We all knew that we could not ask for it back. A week on, we were climbing trees just as carelessly as before, and after a month, most had forgotten that it had even happened. The little boy kept wearing the borrowed jumper, which hung too loose around his shoulders; at least for a few winters more, until he outgrew it, and then he forgot about that as well.
I remember how a handful of us came up with a plan one spring while we were sitting around in the long grass with nothing to do. I cannot remember whose idea it was – I can scarcely recall who was there – but one way or another, we agreed that we should catch something, something living, and take it to the undertaker and find out what it was worth. I suppose we hoped to impress that old man whom we so much admired. Or perhaps we were trying to test the limits of what he was willing to take and to give. I remember that we argued for a long time over what our offering should be. Some of us wanted to dig under the dead leaves for worms, others to hook a fish from the creek and put it in his hands before it could stop gasping at the unwelcome air. One way or another, we ended up settling for a little brown sparrow that kept flitting in and out from the blossomed branches above our heads. It was small and delicate and its song was simple but sweet – the perfect gift. The perfect offering.
We spent a long time devising a finicky trap of sticks and string. The hours flitted by, drawing us toward the dusk as we toiled. The sparrow kept dipping and chirping above our heads, unaware. At last the snare was set, carefully baited with a fat white grub we had pried from its bed between rotting folds of bark. We hid behind the bushes and we waited. We did not feel pity nor shame, much less guilt, at least not then as we sat quivering amid the dark leaves, watching our prey hop closer toward the snare.
Our plan worked. Can I say that it worked? I do not remember the sticks toppling nor the beak snapping shut and I do not remember a cry. But I remember the long silence after. I remember pushing my way into a crowded ring with the others, sensing their heartbeats and their breath, trying to see what they were seeing. I remember looking among the scattered sticks and seeing the dark, almost black blood spotting the grass. I remember shoving forward and fumbling amid the broken things, trying to salvage what remained. The splinters of bone ground against each other under the skin, which I remember felt so soft and thin that my shaking fingers seemed to pose the danger of unwittingly pulling it apart.
I ran toward the town clutching the broken creature to my chest, with the others close behind. My shoes had been left behind in the bushes – we had used the laces, I remember, for the snare – and my hair was tangled with sweat and leaves. My teeth were locked into a twisted grimace, features set. To anybody that saw me, I must have looked like some wild beast, but I did not care. All that mattered was that we find the undertaker. The sun had almost set by the time we caught sight of him. He was standing in the middle of the street, alone but for his young apprentice. Even if there had been people crowded on all sides, I still would have surged toward him, thrust the mutilated thing into his hands, and begged him to do what he could to forgive me, to forgive us all. He looked upon us with those soft, cold eyes as I spoke. While my wild breath escaped me and my words stuck in my throat, he rested his firm thin hand upon my shoulder. In a slow, soft voice that cut through the roar of the blood rushing in my head, he told me that it was not my fault, that it was nobody’s fault, that it never was and never should be our weight to bear nor our loss to mourn. It was only as he said this that I realised I had become hysterical with tears. My eyes had become puffy and creased into my face, my teeth were grinding into each other, and my cheeks were slick. My clothes smelled of earth. Mud and leaves clung to me. In hindsight, it could not have bled more than a thimbleful. But to a child, it seemed more than enough to stain both my hands up to the elbows. I must have looked like a walking nightmare. I suppose nothing much could unnerve the undertaker by that point. He simply nodded and cradled the shattered creature in one soft withered hand and then handed me a handkerchief and told us to wait. He turned back in the street, clasping the bird to his chest, feeling its heart beating against his own, letting its blood invisibly speck his dark coat. His apprentice followed him, in those days still nimble under the weight of his great black box.
It’s hard to remember how long we waited. We waited and we watched, and the spring turned into summer. All of us grew a bit taller and some of us left the little town. Some returned only months or years later with new faces and new voices, and others simply never came back at all. Many of us forgot about the sorry incident with the bird. We had enough to worry about. Those of us who knew about the affair and could still remember could never think of a good enough reason to bring it up with anybody else who had been there. I believe we came very close to putting the whole incident behind us, until the undertaker reappeared toward the last days of that same summer. He stood silently at the edge of the woods behind the school with something in his hand. As we were walking out, tired and ready to go home after a long day, we saw the shape of the thing he held gleaming in the golden afternoon light, scattering sunbeams upon the yellowing leaves. When we came closer and stood there with him at the edge of the forest, we could see that the thing he was carrying was, in fact, a birdcage. It was a beautifully crafted object, so arresting that we could all but stand there and look out from behind each other’s shoulders, watching the light and the shadows rippling over the silver beams and the spaces between them. All that was missing was a door. The cage swung gently from his outstretched fingers, beautiful and bare and wide open without even a hinge to show where a door might once have been. With no way of refusing, we accepted the undertaker’s exchange.
And we kept it. We could think of no reason why we should not keep it. Over that summer, over many more summers, the silver cage travelled from house to house. Sometimes it would find its way into a cupboard and stay there for months on end, or spend a season or two hiding in an attic or under the stairs. But it never properly disappeared. Each of us present that day had a turn eventually. The last time I saw it, the cage was sitting in the windowsill of the boy who had suggested we dig for worms beneath the leaves. For all I know, it is still there today, gleaming in the morning sun and open to the world.
I remember seeing very little of the old undertaker after that. I used to wonder whether we had offended him in some way and that, despite what he had told us that day, we would never really be forgiven and could never really clean what had happened from our clothes or fingernails. But I now see little reason for that to be true. Thinking back on it, I can see that his drifting away from us was really not so sudden a disappearance at all. Just as we ourselves drifted further and further away from the centres of one another’s lives. I do remember one day pedalling past a crossroads and becoming acutely aware that I had not seen his tall grim shadow trailing through the streets for months, perhaps even years. His absence may have had nothing to do with what we did or could have done. He was a very busy man, after all, with more important things to worry about than answering silly questions about death and playing games with a group of children; especially ones who were not going to be able to call themselves children for very much longer.
Who we started seeing more of, though, was the young man we had come to recognise as the undertaker’s apprentice. Now that I think about it, it doesn’t make much sense that we never saw the old man on his own, but that that boy seemed free to wander the streets alone almost at will, abandoning his mentor to whatever grim hidden chamber he dressed the town’s dead in. Some of us scorned him for presumably abandoning his duties only to drift about like a lost ghost. As we had grown older, some of us had begun to pity him. It was not because he looked lonely. These days, when we glimpsed him wandering the crossroads and street corners, there was often somebody following him for a change. I don’t remember ever being there myself to see them pass. I suppose I always just missed them. Some of the others described it to me though. I am told that he walked without a sound despite the weight on his back, bent over, hand outstretched, fingers curled softly around some old, gnarled hand. Always a new follower, never the same one twice – at least, not initially. In order to be as good a guide as possible, he bowed his shoulders and cradled his great black box against his spine under one arm. With the other hand he led whoever’s turn it was to follow him. They crossed the road without stopping and without looking back, I am told, and then they simply vanished among the trees. One of us, a girl – the same girl, I think, who had in her childish ignorance gifted the undertaker a chicken bone all those years ago – once gathered three or four of us together behind the walls of our old school, amid the overgrown weeds and the smell of stale cigarette smoke. She told us with wide eyes that she had seen that boy’s sallow hand fold around the coarse knuckles of her father as he was fixing a bicycle in the family’s front garden. The older man had still been in his overalls, the sweat peaking his thin, soft hair into greyish spikes, when the undertaker’s apprentice had led him away, bent-backed and with sure, silent steps. The girl had seen the two of them walking away and had hurtled toward them, shouting and shouting, until the echo of her father’s name rang through the streets. Neither had looked back. Both men had their eyes fixed somewhere beyond the shadows, hidden by the green-grey cloak of the trees snaking down toward the shallow valley. Her father had looked calm, she said, almost calmer than she had ever seen him before.
When she finished her story and could speak no longer, we all stood in silence, staring at her, waiting for somebody, anybody else, to speak.
I suppose the undertaker’s apprentice must somehow have found his way back from that cloak of trees each time. If I can trust the others in what they say they saw, many of the times that he could be seen on the roads, he was with an old woman. Unlike the others, somehow, she kept following her guide back from amid the trees. It was like he couldn’t get rid of her even if he wanted to. Her back was bent almost into a hoop, they say, and she must once have been much taller than the small-boned shuffling shadow that she had become. Her skin was the same pale and almost sickly-sallow as that of the young man and of his employer, but if she had once shared their coarse black hair, we couldn’t tell, for time had bleached her curls as white and brittle as dry bone. Although she walked with slow and steady steps, she never fell behind her young guide, nor did she shuffle a hesitant half-step ahead of him. The two of them walked side by side, hand in hand, in the grey mornings and evenings when the sun seemed to be looking elsewhere. They whispered to each other in a language of soft-edged consonants that crashed gently over each other like fractured birdsong. Those that saw him swore that those were the only times they ever saw him without that great black box on his shoulders. Instead he carried an umbrella in one hand – it always seemed either to be just about to rain or just finished raining when they walked together – which protected her clean white curls from the dripping grey sky. And yet his shoulders still slumped, pressed down by the shape of the load even when only the empty space left by it remained. His spine curved deeper and deeper outward every time they caught a glimpse of him, year by year, until it looked as though he would very soon become as closely bent toward the earth as she was.
I don’t know. Like I said, I wasn’t there to see any of it for myself. You could seek out one of the others who claimed to have seen them, only there aren’t all that many of us left. But those of us who stayed behind saw less and less as the years went by of that old woman and that young man, and of course of the undertaker himself. Soon – and I’m sure I don’t speak only for myself – it started to feel as though the old man were merely a half-forgotten dream or an imaginary playmate conjured up by us one summer at the edge of the forest when we were children.
I remember the last time that I saw the undertaker. It is not all that long ago now. I came across him while I was walking alone early in the morning. The sunbeams were still cold and grey. I cannot remember where I was going or why, but I saw him there, crossing over from the city to the forest’s edge. He was alone, and on his shoulders rested that great black box. He was bent like a wilted candle under the weight of it, his spine slumped, his head bowed, his black boots shuffling silently through the rotting leaves. To see him like that stirred a pain through my bones the likes of which I can scarcely describe. Tears burned in my eyes and I trampled toward him over the black earth, calling, trying to call – but I did not know what name to call, so instead I just wept. He glanced back at me, the lines of his face carved deep and twisted under the strain, but he did not stop. I kept calling. I kept pleading. I pleaded for him to put the box down, for him to leave it there on the border, or otherwise to give it back to his apprentice – who I knew suffered under the weight, but was at least younger and stronger. He did not listen. He stumbled onward, faltering but unstoppable, toward the trees. Drunk with fear, and a twisted and inexplicable anger, I rummaged back through my memories, trying to remember the first time I had met him, but I found nothing. He had always been there and he had always known the worth and the weight of everything. And as I stood there with my face smeared with tears and my clothes stained by mud and grass, I cried through the grey stillness of the morning to the old man: ‘I don’t need to know what’s in the box anymore! Please, just tell me what it’s worth, and I’ll give you anything in the world in exchange!’
He stopped then. I could hear the wood creaking against his shoulders as he turned to look at me. I do not know how his old bones could bear it.
‘There is nothing you could give me that would cover its cost,’ he said in a soft voice that filled the forest’s silence. ‘Even if there were, I would never let you have it. It is not a weight anyone so young should ever have to bear again.’
And he turned again and shuffled away toward the shadows between the trees. They swallowed him up, leaving me alone at the edge of the forest before sunrise, before the birds had begun to sing.
Image © Andrew Foster