Sleep Now, Child ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(I posted a different version of this short story earlier with a different title.)
Ottilie Oglesby, upon awaking and finding herself in an unfamiliar place, took a deep, choking breath as she sat up and looked around in alarm. She began to panic but then calmed herself with the knowledge that there had to be a perfectly logical explanation for where she was and what she was doing there, and in just a moment everything would become clear. A little shakily, she called out Hello! Hello! When nobody answered, she said it again, a little louder this time.
An old woman appeared, as if she had vaporized out of the wall. Ottilie had never seen the woman before, but it didn’t matter because she was happy to see that, at the very least, somebody else was there besides her. Astonishingly, the old woman had a glow emanating from inside her, in the area of her lower chest and upper abdomen. Ottilie stared at it, unable to take her eyes off it.
“What in the world?” she said. “You’re glowing! I’ve never seen a person glow before.”
“You’re glowing, too,” the old woman said.
Ottilie looked down and, indeed, she glowed from inside her own chest as if she had a small light inside her body and she was made of some transparent material.
“What is this?” she said. “Where am I?”
“Do you know what year it is?” the old woman asked.
“It’s 1912, I think.”
“For you it will always be 1912.”
“What do you mean?”
“Time has stopped for you. There is no more time.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You must at least have given some thought in your life to what happens to us after we die.”
“Die? Do you mean…” She was unable to finish the sentence.
“It’s always a shock, especially for the young who had no thought of dying.”
“But I can’t be dead,” Ottilie said. “I have things to do. I promised mother I’d clean out my closet. I have to go to school. I have to take care of my cats. I have a Sunday school picnic on Saturday.”
“The picnic will go on without you. That’s what happens when we die.”
“I don’t believe you. I think I’m just having a bad dream. In a little while I’ll wake up and everything will be fine.”
“No, my dear. This may be a dream, but it’s not the kind of dream you’re used to or one you wake up from.”
“Who are you, anyway?”
“I’m your father’s grandmama. That makes me your great-grandmama.”
“I thought you looked a little familiar. I’ve seen pictures of you.”
“I died long before you were born.”
“What happened to you? How did you die?”
“I have no recollection of my death and it doesn’t matter anyway. I believe I died peacefully in my own bed.”
“Did I die peacefully in my own bed?” Ottilie asked.
“No, you didn’t, but it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you’re here now.”
“I’ve got to go home now. My mother and father will be worried about me. They’ll think I was kidnapped and sold into slavery.”
“They know where you are. They know what happened.”
“How do they know?”
“They were there when it happened.”
“When what happened?”
“When you died.”
“How did I die?”
“You were run over by a pie wagon in Philadelphia. How should I know? It doesn’t matter how you died. The only thing that matters is that you died and you’re here now.”
“Can you tell me how to get out of here and go home?”
“Even if I could tell you, you wouldn’t want to do it because you’re here now and here is where you belong.”
Ottilie looked around her at the confining walls that she could see only because of the glow inside her chest, and she began to cry. “Do you mean I can’t go home. Ever? I have to stay here now? Always?”
“You’ll get used to it as all the others have.”
“What others? Just what is this place, anyway? Is it heaven?”
“It might be. We don’t know for sure. It might be the only thing we’ll ever know of heaven.”
“I’m awfully confused,” Ottilie said.
“I’ll bet your father used to take you and your brother and your mother for Sunday drives, didn’t he?”
“He was the first one on our street to own an automobile and he always wanted to show it off for the neighbors.”
“Did he ever take you to the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost outside the city limits and show you the family vault?”
“The family vault? Yes, I remembering seeing it. I thought it was scary and forbidding. It had a big heavy door that wouldn’t open.”
“That’s where you are now.”
“What? Are you sure?”
“It’s where all the deceased members of our family go. First all the others and now you.”
Ottilie began crying again. “Can’t I go back home, just for a little while? I want to see my cats and make sure they’re all right.”
“Your brother is taking care of them now.”
“I didn’t get a chance to tell everybody goodbye.”
“Everybody you knew came to bid you a fond farewell. You weren’t aware of it at the time.”
Ottilie cried some more, even louder than before. “I find my own death very heartbreaking, indeed,” she sobbed.
“Sleep now, child. You’ll meet the others later.”
There was a lapse then, a cessation, as of a heavy velvet curtain being drawn. When this nothingness ended (and who knows how long it lasted because in this place there is no time?) great-grandmama was leading Ottilie by the hand to meet the rest of the family.
She felt shy when brought before a gallery of strangers. She was not at all surprised, however, to see that they all carried the mysterious and arresting glow inside them, the same glow that great-grandmama had and now she herself had.
Cousins Parry and Lomax, twins, were ten at the time they entered the spirit world, having gone over a roaring waterfall in a rowboat on a flawless June day. They looked at Ottilie with wide-eyed wonder; each of them gave her a quick, unsmiling bow from the waist and then they were gone.
Great-grandpapa was tall and broad, wearing a dress suit, sporting the elaborate mustache and side whiskers for which he was known. He was the millionaire of the family. He financed the family crypt and selected the spot in the capacious cemetery where it would be built. He was not the first member of the family to be interred in the crypt, however. That honor fell to grandmama.
When confronted with Ottilie, great-grandpapa put his pince-nez to his eye and looked at her as though seeing a bug or an interesting specimen.
“How are you, my dear?” he asked.
“I’m dead, thank you, sir,” she said. “How are you?”
Uncle Evan, great-grandpapa’s son, was handsome in military uniform. He was only twenty-five when he came to the spirit world during the Spanish-American War. He carried himself a little stiffly because he had been shot in the neck and his wound still bothered him. He shook Ottilie’s hand politely, gave her a grim smile, and receded into the background as his military training dictated.
Aunt Katherine was a sad-faced woman carrying her baby. The baby was Augustus, in the spirit world forty years before aunt Katherine. Since being reunited, aunt Katherine and Augustus were inseparable; she wouldn’t let him out of her sight and wouldn’t let anybody else tend to him. She carried him with her night and day, wherever she went, vowing they would never be separated again, since they were now both on the same side of the Great Divide.
A formidable woman was aunt Zel, great-grandpapa’s sister. She had an elaborate coiffure piled high on her head and a stunning array of jewelry on her neck, fingers, ears and wrists. By her side always was her diminutive husband, Little Louie. He weighed a hundred and twenty pounds when he was alive and was eight inches shorter than aunt Zel. He had only his right arm, having lost the left one at the age of eight from the bite of a skunk.
“So happy to make your acquaintance, my dear,” aunt Zel said to Ottilie. “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.”
Little Louie, in aunt Zel’s wake, shook Ottilie’s fingers and gave her an aggrieved smile.
Uncle Jordan wore a dress suit with a diamond stickpin and silk cravat. He kissed Ottilie on each cheek and then he was gone as if he had a pressing engagement elsewhere. The truth was that he avoided being around the other family members for long because none of them approved of him. In life, he had enjoyed himself a little too much, spent money freely that didn’t belong to him and died, deeply in debt, in young middle age of alcoholism.
Cousin Phillip’s appendix burst when he was 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; she could rot on a garbage heap for all cousin Phillip cared. He had renounced all women for all eternity, bitter that his lovely young Odette had not honored his memory by staying a widow.
“If you were a boy instead of a girl, I’d advise you to never get married,” cousin Phillip said to Ottilie.
“I don’t think it would make much difference now, anyway,” Ottilie said.
Cousin Gilbert was sixteen when he entered the spirit world as a result of a crushed larynx sustained in an impromptu game of tackle football 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 and, indeed, extended upwards to his neck, face and head. His smile was infectious and he seemed all the time to be about to burst into laughter. When he touched Ottilie’s 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 and I want to go home,” 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 lovely.”
There were others after cousin Gilbert, but the truth was they blended together into a blur and Odette wasn’t able to remember them all.
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 the bravery involved with 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 once ran for president but fell short; 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 massive 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.
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 anything you want, now,” 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 for dinner 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 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 headed toward home.
She held on easily enough until father pulled 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, but they were now adult cats. She cried when they meowed and purred and recognized her and begged to be picked up.
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 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 to begin a life of his own. 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 the time that was no time, mother also died. The house was sold and all the furniture moved out. Another family took up residence. They had 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-grandmama was right, that the family crypt was where she belonged, but Ottilie had to find it out for herself.
Cousin Gilbert and great-grandmama 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-grandmama had a surprise for Ottilie. Mother and father were there with their own glows, which meant they were now all on the same side of the Great Divide between Life and Death, and there would be no more leave-taking for any of them.
After the joyous reunion with mother and father, Ottilie learned another surprise awaited her. All the cats she ever had in her life were only as far away as the length of her arm. She might pet and play with them and snuggle them any time the spirit moved her. Now she really was in heaven, she believed, and she could settle down to a life of eternity. Maybe one day they would all move on to a place that looked more like heaven, with floating clouds, celestial music and occasional glimpses of the saints, but for now they would just have to do with what they had.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp