After ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This is a re-post.)
Upon awaking and finding herself in an unfamiliar place, Ottilie Oglesby sat up and looked around in alarm. It was a confining place and she could barely see anything at all because it was so dark. She called out “Hello! Hello!” but nobody answered. “Hello! Hello!” she said again, this time a little more frantic. It was a lonely, very quiet place, in addition to everything else it was.
An old woman appeared, seemingly out of the wall. Ottilie had never seen her before but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that the old woman carried a small glow in her chest. Ottilie realized at that moment, to her astonishment, that she also carried a glow radiating from her own middle.
Questions came out of her in a torrent: “Why am I glowing? What is this place? Who are you? Where is my mother?”
“You are a busybody, aren’t you?” the old woman said.
“Can you tell me how to get out of this place, whatever it is, so I can go home?”
“Please! Lower your voice! You’ll wake the others!”
“All your questions will be answered in time!”
“Is this a dream?”
“Not the kind of dream you’re used to.”
“Is this a cave of some sort?”
“Goodness, no!” the old woman said with a laugh
“Have I been kidnapped? I want to go home right now! My mother and father must be looking for me!”
“No, they’re not. They know where you are.”
“How do they know? Where are they? Are they here?”
“Why would they be here?”
“Well, where are they?”
“They’re at home. Where do you think?”
“Can you please get word to my mother that I’m all right?”
“She knows you’re all right.”
“Who are you, anyway?”
“I’m here to try to help you, if I can. If you’ll let me.”
“So far you haven’t told me anything!”
“I know it’s difficult for you. It’s difficult for everybody, especially the young. The younger you are, the more difficult it is.”
“Could you please tell me what you’re talking about?”
“It’s very simple, my dear. You’ve done what every living soul does, except that you’ve done it earlier than expected.”
“What have I done?”
“You’ve passed from one plane of existence to another.”
“What does ‘plane of existence’ mean?”
“You’re no longer in the physical world. Now you occupy the spiritual.”
“Physical and spiritual,” Ottilie said dreamily. “Do you mean like in church?”
“So is this heaven? Am I in heaven?”
“We’re not even sure what heaven is. We’re not even sure if there is a place beyond this one. Heaven is an abstract idea.”
“So, who are you? An angel?”
“Far from it, I’m afraid!”
“Well, who are you, then?”
“I’m someone you might have known if you had been given the chance.”
“What does that mean?”
“I was already here when you were born.”
“Where is here?”
“Didn’t your father and mother ever take you to the big cemetery outside the city and show you the family crypt?”
“I suppose so. What does that have to do with it?”
“Well, that’s where we are now. We’re in the family crypt.”
“Isn’t that where they put dead people?”
“Are you saying I’m…”
“I know it’s a shock, young as you are.”
“So, I’m dead,” Ottilie said matter-of-factly, as if saying I’m tired or I’m ready for dinner.
“Well, we don’t use the word dead here. As you see, dying just means going from one place to another.”
“Is it the same with everybody?”
“I suppose so, although I really can’t say for sure. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be, unless you’ve been very wicked.”
“I don’t think I’ve been wicked, have I?”
“It’s not for me to say.”
“I don’t remember dying. I didn’t feel anything.”
“No, you wouldn’t remember.”
“Was I sick?”
“All I know is that it happened fast.”
“Do my mother and father know what happened to me?”
“Of course they know!”
“Will I see them again?”
“Do you want to?”
“Then you will.”
“Are you telling me I have to stay here forever?”
“It’s where you belong now.”
“Can’t I go back home, just for a little while? I didn’t get a chance to tell everybody goodbye.”
“Everybody who knew you wished you a fond farewell. You just didn’t know about it at the time.”
Ottilie began to cry, despite her resolve not to. “I don’t like it here,” she said. “I want to go back home.”
“It won’t seem so bad after a while, I assure you, after you get used to the way we do things here.”
“I’m worried about my cats. If I’m not there to look after them, they’ll die.”
“No, they won’t. Don’t you think your brother Boyd will take care of them? They’re his cats now.”
“Will they come to me here when they die? My cats, I mean?”
“It doesn’t hurt to hope, does it?”
“I don’t know about all this,” Ottilie sobbed. “I think my poor old heart is going to break in two!”
“We all go through a period of adjustment,” the old woman said. “You’ll be fine after a while, as we all are.”
“I don’t think so! I find my own death very, very sad, indeed!”
“Later you’ll meet the others and then you’ll feel better.”
“You didn’t think you and I were the only ones in the family crypt, did you?” the old woman asked.
“I didn’t think at all! I’m not able to think! Whenever I think, I think my head will burst right open!”
“Time now to rest,” the old woman said, and then she was gone as effortlessly as she had arrived.
There was a lapse then, a cessation, as of a heavy curtain being drawn. When this nothingness ended (and who knows how long it lasted because in this place there is no time?) the same old woman was leading Ottilie by the hand to meet the rest of the family.
She felt shy when she saw a group of strangers looking at her. Not surprisingly, they all carried the glow inside them. (Without the glow, she wouldn’t have known they were there.)
Cousins Parry and Lomax, twins, were ten at the time they entered the spirit world. (They went over a waterfall in a rowboat and drowned on a flawless June day.) They looked at Ottilie with wide-eyed wonder and then ran off as if they had important business to attend to.
Great-grandfather was tall and broad, wearing a dress suit, sporting the elaborate mustache and side whiskers for which he was known. (He had a lot of money when he was alive. It was he who built the family crypt in the first place so he could have all his family together.) He smiled at Ottilie and patted her on the head and then his interest seemed to drift elsewhere.
The old woman who had first met Ottilie was great-grandmother, wife of great-grandfather. She was first in the family crypt and since then had acted as hostess to all the others. She took Ottilie by the hand and twirled her around as at a dance so everybody could get a look at her.
Uncle Evan, great-grandfather’s son, was handsome in his military uniform. (He came to the spirit world in Cuba when a bullet struck him in the neck during the Spanish-American War. He carried himself stiffly because he was a little vain of his wound.) He smiled at Ottilie and shook her hand politely and then receded into the background.
Aunt Katherine was a sad-faced woman carrying her baby, Augustus. He had been in the spirit world for three decades when aunt Katherine arrived. Since being reunited, aunt Katherine held Augustus in her arms and refused to part with him. Now the two of them would be together forever without end.
A formidable woman was Aunt Zel, great-grandfather’s sister. She had an elaborate coiffure piled high and a stunning array of jewelry on neck, fingers, ears and wrists. By her side always was her husband, Little Louie. (People called him Little Louie to distinguish him from his father, Big Louie.) He was eight inches shorter than aunt Zel, with only his right arm. (His left arm had been lost not on the field of battle but from the bite of a skunk.)
Uncle Jordan wore a dress suit with a diamond stickpin and silk cravat. He kissed Ottilie on each cheek and then he was gone. He avoided being around the other family members for very long because none of them approved of him. In life, he had enjoyed himself a little too much, spent money freely that wasn’t his, and died, deeply in debt, in young middle age of alcoholism.
Cousin Phillip’s appendix burst when he was only thirty-two. Immediately after he entered the spirit world, his young wife, Odette, married a man she hardly knew by the name of Milt Clausen. Odette was not in the family crypt and never would be. Cousin Phillip had renounced all women, bitter that his lovely young Odette had not honored his memory by staying a widow.
Cousin Gilbert was sixteen when he entered the spirit world as the result of a crushed larynx that he sustained in an impromptu game of keep-it-away with some of his friends. Ottilie immediately saw cousin Gilbert as a kindred spirit. The glow in his chest was a little brighter than anybody else’s. When he touched her hand, she felt a connection she hadn’t felt with any of the others.
“How do you like being a ghost?” he asked her.
She shook her head and looked down, not knowing what to say.
“It was the same for me when I first came here,” he said. “I didn’t know why God would have me die so young. We learn not to ask why but just to accept things as they are.”
“I don’t like it here,” she said with tears starting again, but she wasn’t sure if cousin Gilbert heard her.
Before moving on, he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I can show you around if you like. There’s a lot more than just this.” He held out his arms to take in the whole family crypt.
“If you find you have the time,” she managed to say, “I think that would be quite lovely.”
There were others after cousin Gilbert, but the truth was Odette was getting tired and wasn’t able to remember them all, as they all blended together into a blur.
Then the curtain of darkness fell again and there was profound rest and peace, which is what the afterlife is all about.
When next she saw cousin Gilbert, he showed her, much to her delight, that she could leave the family crypt at will (hers and not somebody else’s). All she had to do was press her body against the outer wall. Since the wall was solid and she was not, she could pass through it. He tried to explain the laws of physics involved, but she didn’t understand what he was talking about.
The cemetery was much larger than Ottilie imagined. Gilbert took her to visit some of his spirit friends: a tall, handsome policeman with a handlebar mustache who loved to tell stories about apprehending desperate criminals; a Civil War soldier who shook hands with Abraham Lincoln and spent ten minutes engaged in conversation with him; a victim of the Johnstown Flood (“the water came roaring down the mountain and swept away everything in its path”); a governor of the state who aspired to be president but never was; a group of twenty girls who died in an orphanage fire (all buried in the same grave); a twelve-year-old boy named Jesse who stood just outside his vault until another spirit came along and engaged him in conversation.
“He loves to have somebody to talk to,” cousin Gilbert explained.
On one of their forays outside the crypt, they came upon a funeral on a hillside that resembled, with all the attendees dressed in black, an aggregation of crows.
“This is the fun part,” Gilbert said with a chortle.
He walked among the mourners, pretending to kiss or touch or put his arm around certain of them. He also demonstrated the technique of coming up quickly behind them and making the more sensitive of them turn around to see who—or what—was there.
“They sense I’m there but when they turn around they’re not so sure.”
He made her laugh when he floated over a couple of old ladies in large feathered hats and, assuming a reclining position over them, pretended to pat them on the sides of their heads.
“I, for one, love being a ghost!” he said.
“Can I fly, too?” Ottilie asked.
“We don’t really fly like a duck going south for the winter. What we do is float. We float because we’re lighter than air.”
“Can I try it?” Ottilie asked.
“You can do it if you want,” he said.
He demonstrated his floating technique and they spent the afternoon floating all over the cemetery.
“Maybe there are some good things about being a spirit,” Ottilie said.
“Of course there are!”
“No more head colds, sore throats or stomach cramps. No more trips to the doctor or dentist. No more nightmares or math quizzes. No more being made to play badminton with my little cousins. No more boring church sermons that make everybody cranky, and no more liver and onions or squash ever again!”
Cousin Gilbert laughed, but then Ottilie started thinking about all the good things she had left behind, such as her cats and her beautiful room at home and her mother and father and brother and all her friends, and she started to cry.
“I think it’s time to go back,” cousin Gilbert said.
Ottilie began venturing outside the family crypt often, either with cousin Gilbert or on her own. And then, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, she was very lucky and saw them.
She recognized father’s automobile of which he was so proud (he was the first on his street to own one), and then she saw who was riding inside: father, mother and her brother Boyd. She floated after the car—it wasn’t going very fast—and attached herself to the back of it as it turned out of the cemetery and into traffic.
She held on until father pulled the automobile into the driveway of the old house. She was happy to see that everything looked exactly the same. The first thing she did was to go around back and check on her kittens. They were all there and seemed healthy and happy, halfway on their way to being grown. She cried when she realized they recognized her. She longed to pick them up and nuzzle them against her face and hear their sweet purring.
Her room upstairs was the same. Everything was just as she left it, the books and pencils on her desk, the dolls and stuffed animals on the bed and the chair, the pictures on the wall, the lamp, the rocking chair, the clothes hanging neatly in the closet. Mother hadn’t changed a thing.
While mother, father and Boyd were having dinner in the dining room, Ottilie walked around the table, stopping and putting her hands on the back of each chair, experiencing the odd sensation of being in the same room with those closest to her in life and their not knowing it.
It felt good to be home, but she knew things could never be the same again. She could only observe life going on around her and not be a part of it. But still, wasn’t it better than nothing?
Since she dwelt in the spirit world, time, of course, didn’t exist. All time was the same. A minute was the same as an hour, a day the same as a year. In the time that was no time, her brother grew up, got a job in another state and left home. Mother and father grew old and frail. At ninety-one years, father died in his own bed and mother was left alone.
On winter evenings, while mother sat and read or knitted, or sometimes played the piano, Ottilie was nearby.
“I’m here, mother!” she said. “Don’t you see me? I want you to know you’re not alone!”
At times she was certain mother knew she was there but at other times she wasn’t so sure.
In time, mother also died. The house was sold and all the furniture moved out. Another family took up residence in the house, with four children, two dogs and no cats.
Ottilie couldn’t stay in a house that was no longer hers, even if she was just a spirit, so she went back to the family crypt and was glad for it. Great-grandmother was right: it was where she now belonged.
Since time didn’t exist in the spirit world, cousin Gilbert and great-grandmother and the others didn’t realize Ottilie had been gone, although, in the world of the living it would have been decades.
There were additions to the family crypt, of course, in all the time that was no time. Great-grandmother had a surprise for Ottilie: Mother and father were there with their own glows, and the best part of it was that they were all on the same side of the divide between life and death now, and there would be no more leaving-taking for any of them.
After Ottilie greeted mother and father with many tears, profuse outpourings of affection and much joy, they revealed that they had yet another surprise for her: all her cats, every one she had ever owned in her life, were there for her to pet and play with and snuggle any time she felt like it. She had never believed that such happiness existed!
Now that Ottilie had everything she wanted, she could settle down to a life of eternity in the family crypt with her loved ones. Maybe some day they would all move on to heaven, with its floating clouds, celestial music and occasional glimpses of the saints, but for now they would just have to do without those things.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp
Dream Boy ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
The novel Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley is set in rural North Carolina. No time is given when the novel takes place, so we’ll assume it’s in the 1950s since it has a 1950s feel. Nathan and Roy live on neighboring farms. Nathan has just moved to the area with his mother and his creepy, alcoholic father, so he’s new to the local high school. Roy is older than Nathan but still in high school. Roy drives the school bus and when they start out in the morning, Nathan is his first passenger. Nathan seems troubled and withdrawn. Roy reaches out to Nathan and they become friends, despite their obvious differences.
Since they live in an isolated farming community, Nathan and Roy have lots of chances to be alone together. They take long walks in the lonely woods where they discover an old cemetery and, later, an abandoned and long-neglected plantation house. Expectedly or not, surprisingly or not, their friendship develops into a furtive sexual relationship. Later, Roy becomes jealous when Nathan seems to be experienced in the practice of being with another man. Where did he learn it, Roy wonders?
Nathan has a secret. We know it if Roy doesn’t. Since he was a small boy, Nathan has been sexual abused by his own father, a person who has plenty of problems of his own, alcoholism being just one of them. Nathan’s mother just hangs in the background and, doing nothing to help, wallows in her own sorrows.
Afraid that his father will come into his room at night and try to rape him, Nathan begins sleeping in Roy’s barn or in the old cemetery that he and Roy discovered on one of their walks. Roy knows that something is wrong with Nathan but doesn’t suspect what it is. He helps Nathan all he can and tries to protect him. When Nathan and Roy go on a weekend camping trip with two other boys, the other boys learn firsthand the nature of Nathan and Roy’s special friendship, leading to the novel’s tragic conclusion.
Jim Grimsley is a talented, interesting writer. Besides Dream Boy, I’ve read some of his other books, including Boulevard, My Drowning, and Winter Birds. Dream Boy is a slim novel, under 200 pages, with elements of the southern gothic. The ending is a little ambiguous, but I suppose that’s the way it’s meant to be. Nathan’s victimhood is to become Roy’s lifelong sorrow.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp