Itheadair Peacaidh

Submitted into Contest #121 in response to: Write about someone in a thankless job.... view prompt

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Inspirational Speculative Fiction





Reuben rubbed at his left eye as he eased opened the door with the burning bush and stepped through into the small foyer. He did not have to.

Knew that, acknowledged that.

The men in black suits were not guards after all.

Knew that, acknowledged that.

But.

Slunk and held a hand up anyway. Couldn’t help it.

He traced his long, pale fingers over the thick book by the second door. The words, pressed in by heavy hands, were marked down through the pages in layers of grief six fold deep, seven… or eight. He could not interpret them, was not sensitive enough, but felt the intensity of that unspoken message.

Knew that, acknowledged that.

Touched it again.  

It was part of his routine, the book one of the things which never changed, no matter the setting and it steadied him. He was in no way terrified. Reuben did not know what he believed. He did not write his own name. No one would remember that he had been there. They might not know it, or remember it or anything at all, and that was fine... not consciously, but his influence would be felt, might be felt… or perhaps they would know it after, in the other life, whatever that was, the existence which came after this one. Perhaps, they would thank him then. And, well, perhaps not… there was always that.

From somewhere nearby came the sound of a plane taking off, it's great thrusters gathering the needed, straining from the tarmac like a pregnant woman rising from a low sofa, straight backed and clear of purpose, thighs like sycamores. 

The thrum, surprisingly invasive, whisked Reuben back to a time when he, as a young man, very young even, had sat for hours on a hill next to the airport in his hometown, willing those beautiful, preciously laden birds heavenward. It seemed an entire era of his life now, out of place. Their landing gear tucked gently up out of the slipstream, ailerons flattened, he had supported them on their way with contractions of his abdominal muscles. 

The woman at the desk nodded in his direction. She was not austere; that would not have been appropriate. She was solemn and unsmiling, because that was, and Reuben nodded back. It was a play acting of the human connection and neither called the other out on their insincerity. It was a pact, and each had a job to do.

Entering the big room he stepped quietly to the back, his shoulders rounded. Wooden beams curved away overhead, not much, not far, but it was something and he liked that. It was the sort of thing that churches did and funeral parlors did not do, or almost never, and was pleasant. But such things, the soaring of the spirit in architecture, came dear.  

Oversized photographs of the dead man were showing on monitors towards the front of the room in a soft fade rotation. Reuben did not recognize him. Of course he did not; Reuben did not even know the name of the town. 

Apparently, he had been a fisherman; that man on the screens. Not professionally, but then they never did show pictures of what a person had done for a living and if one needed a better argument to just, let it go, to concentrate on the other stuff in life, Reuben was damned if he knew what it might be.  

There would be no pictures of his job either, of course.  

Reuben stiffened as the thought intruded itself, following in line after the others as massively as a train car. But it was not the same. He did not make things; did not clean houses. There was a difference between him and them, between he and... everyone else.  

Knew that, acknowledged that.

The windows were beautiful too, faded stained glass of the type not made anymore. Overall, Reuben decided that he liked this church.

His feet were dusty and he sank down with relief onto a pew at the absolute back, where no one would bother him. The price that had to be paid for the windows and the curved beams rose ponderously from a seat towards the front, as Reuben had known would happen, and ascended the steps to the low pulpit.

‘The head of the table,’ Reuben thought, a wry smile tinging his lips. He did not mind. It was not even his place to mind.  

“My friends…” the man in the cassock began and Reuben closed his ears. He heard nothing, not a single word.  

It was not a passive ability of his, and not a knack either. ‘Abstraction of the self,’ he called it, or would have done, had he been the sort of man in whom introspection took a classifying bent. Reuben didn’t call it anything, and yet, it was a conscious action, and an absolutely necessary one too, a survival technique when one spent as long in the camps as he did. He was forced by the dictums of his calling to subject himself to the loquacity of that, ‘clergy class,’ a group unrivaled by any, even politicians, when a captive body lay to hand.  

Reuben no longer thought about it, not anymore, as his mind soared to heights the minister- or father or pastor or swami or whatever would never attain. Even some funeral parlor directors grew loquacious, when the candy lure of the good book had taken too savage a bite. They would never get where he was though, because it was not a matter of heights, it was a sideways leap; an escape, obviously, but Reuben liked to imagine that god, if there were a god, would prefer his slantwise form of adoration to their slow amassing of over-worn bricks. His mind slipped, he gazed into the flat eyes on the televisions, but as ever could tell nothing about him. If the eyes were the windows to the soul then Reuben did not possess the wisdom to interpret what he saw. He looked for a long time, his mind out the window, out of space and time.

Reuben was with the planes again.

After an hour the sermon grew splotchy and the gathering rose, the cloud of funereal weeds like a murder of crows. Reuben was back. He had never really gone away. His threadbare suit attracted no attention. It had been carefully assembled to blend into any such gathering.

And.  

A line began, filing silently past the dead man as if under his sepulchral review. These were Catholics and that would make his job easier; Catholics liked to touch. Reuben swarmed about in the backwaters until only a lackluster eddy of mourners remained and conversations were swelling among those who had gone before. Gone before… had those who had gone before in truth attended this somber gathering, were there ghosts waiting in the wings, standing at elbows?  

Reuben had no idea.

He did not want to be last and so, slowly, he began making his way up the aisle, passing the now mostly bare pews, nearing the man whom he had not known, lying stretched out in his long bed in a town which he had never been in before, a church he had not seen, passing by a widow who would not weep with the likes of him. There would be sticks and fists and cursings for him, if anything, were he incautious. It had happened before.

He knew, he acknowledged.

Reuben bent himself onto the kneeling bench, strange chemicals rising up on the dry air. His clothes moved over his body. Reaching inside his coat as if for a handkerchief he palmed a small morsel of bread and brought it out. He held his hand over the dead man’s heart, over his face, over his head. He lowered the bread in his palm til it touched the dead man’s cold lips and closed his eyes. There was no contact, no spark. There never had been. 

And.

He knew, he acknowledged that.

And.

‘Let his sins pass over into me,’ Reuben thought, willing it to work, willing something to happen, to have happened, for it all to mean something, to have meant… something.

Reuben rose.  

He was dry of grief but holding his hand before his face as if overcome, placed the small morsel of bread into his dry mouth, mumbling it down into his gullet.

And.

Now that it was done, he turned slowly and looked out over the crowd, none of which had seen him, none of which would remember him, none of which needed to know.

It was, okay.

The priest’s eyes moved slowly over him as well. Shaking hands. Receiving his reward in full.

It was as it must be, he.

Knew that, acknowledged it.

Reuben moved towards the door, in his own time, moving on, slipping through, like oil, like a spirit, the sins of the dead man churning in his stomach.






November 26, 2021 16:04

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