One day out of seven she leaves me. Walks softly from our bedroom, where I lie beneath her framed pictures of Blake’s etchings. Cain flees above me, guilt stamps his face and a kind of mute terror, Newton makes his eternal and certain measurements, body and mind fixed upon the universe’s verities.
She quietly – not even the fabric of her dress makes a sound - unlocks the door, goes to the elevator, sinks with it to the ground floor, walks onto Albert Street and, from there, to the river. I know this for I am not asleep. I have never slept that night, the night before she fulfils her contract. But then nothing seems right that evening, everything is stilted, cut short and empty; our conversation; our kisses, her lips are chill and hard; our lovemaking; and, most of all, our sleep.
When the door shuts, I get up and walk to the window and wait until I see her come out of the shadow of our building, then watch until she’s gone. It is unspoken, but I’m sure she knows I’m there. She never looks back, no matter how much I will it. That she might just turn her head towards me, try to glance up at the eleventh storey window where I stand and watch her.
She is so strong, and in the grace of her steps, and the direction of her gaze -- so much commitment -- I see everything that is frail within me. She turns down Mary St and is gone. I make a strong coffee and wait and always there is that odd tumble of memories.
I do not remember the phone call, or the drive to the hospital. Just her face pale, bloodless. And the moment of realisation, the bleak and pitiless epiphany.
The doctor was a compassionate soul.
“So unfair,” he said. “So very unfair. Newly married?”
I nodded and he tisked, his face twisted with some inner conflict. At last he smiled painfully and pressed two silver coins in my palm and led me to the elevator door. “Press, the basement button twice.”
The elevator fell a lot further than I could have imagined; though the lights stopped at the basement. In the mirrored ceiling I stared at my grief-streaked face -- remembering how she had done that, loved to look at her face in the mirror when she was crying -- two silver coins burning in my palm, and wondered what in God’s name was I doing.
Finally, when the elevator stopped and the doors slid open, Death was waiting for me with a somewhat bemused expression on his pale and rubbery face. His eyes cruel and mocking, yet unfocused. His breath a miasma of medicinal strength alcohol and rot, of things preserved yet shoddily.
“I’ll never understand it.”
He took my hand in his huge and clammy grip, then pocketed the coins. “Love of your life, eh? Hell is crowded these days, so I’m quite happy to deal.”
When the papers were signed. Hades drove me to her.
The streets in that city beneath the sea were quiet, no traffic to talk of but Death’s black sedan.
“She’s staying at one of the new apartments. Quite nice. Must say though, the buildings lack character. Even hell has succumbed to post-modern utilitarianism – whatever that is.”
I barely heard him.
“I can’t wait to see her. I can’t wait to talk to her.”
“Can’t do that I’m afraid. Dead can’t talk to the living, one of those Rules That Must Not Be Broken. You’ll have to save all that chattering until you get back.”
She seemed a little odd towards me, but understandable in the circumstances. Still, we kissed passionately. Her lips were cold, but just as soft as I remembered them. I held her hand and led her to the car.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Death’s eyes were wide with surprise.
“You obviously didn’t read the small print. It might be easy to get here, but it’s a heck of a lot harder to get out." Death lifted an arm and pointed down the street, index finger extended, pale skin, nail black with tomb-mud. “Yon lies the exit.”
“Oh, and there is another thing. You cannot look back. A single glance and she will never leave.”
“Tough rules,” I said, lighting a cigarette and offering him one, which he took.
Death nodded and lit up, the cigarette held in long pale fingers.
He blew half a dozen smoke rings in my face. “I have never been fair, comes with the territory.”
“You know what I just realised,” I said to her. Not sure if she was listening, but speaking none-the-less. “Hell is those ill-conceived dollops of land development, you get on the Gold Coast. You know, brick veneered, nice lawns, but no garden to speak of, every place the same.”
I could not even feel her there. The dead make no sound. There is no small talk in hell. Just silence at once profound and meaningless. My voice, chattering on nervously, echoed back at me, but I could not stop. Talk was all I possessed.
How I wanted to turn to gain some sense of her presence, but I kept my gaze straight ahead. She was an itch at the back of my neck that grew in intensity, became an ache, and then a burn. Was she behind me at all? A single inch, a dozen feet or a mile. There were no footfalls but mine, no breath to wash against my neck. No response to my chatter.
She made no sound, the dead walk silently, the dead do not breathe.
Hell sprawled endlessly. Street after street. In hell it is always three o’clock in the afternoon. Fat bellied men stood on their driveways, with their dogs and watered their immaculate yards.
Finally we came to a fence.
“I guess this is it,” I said, and hefted myself up, to jump over the other side. I waited there a moment, staring left and right.
Beyond lay a rough stretch of grass and an elevator.
I walked towards it, pressed the button to open the doors and walked inside. The walls were mirrored. I kept the doors open for quite a while, facing forward. We weren’t out of hell yet. But I did not see her.
Did I press the button now? Was she in?
And all the while the back of my neck raged. My hair was prickling all up and down my spine.
At last, the waiting too much, I turned around and-
Her eyes met mine, and there was such disappointment in them. And I knew, at once, another truth. The dead do not forget.
Then she was gone.
“Sorry, but that’s it. You signed the papers.”
“Lawyers, these days can find a hole in every contract.”
“He has a point there,” Persephone, raven-haired, dressed in black latex, eyes shadow-rimmed but lit with fire nodded. “Do we really want to tie up half our funds in legal costs.”
Let him have her. You’ve got that deal with my old man. Try something like that on for size.”
Death’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re lucky we just had that earthquake in LA. Damn place, is crowded.”
So we returned to the living and one day out of seven, she leaves me. We don’t talk about it much. We don’t talk about anything much. Orpheus tamed Cerberus with his music. I took an elevator down. I wasn’t exactly the classical hero, but then Hades isn’t what it used to be.
From my window I watch her walk towards the Brisbane River and the point where it meets the Styx -- as all rivers do -- just a little past the Botanic Gardens. We don’t talk about that either. All I know is that her kisses seem so cold when she returns. And we say I love you so damn often that I can’t help thinking of those characters from Player Piano.
I asked her once if she could ever forgive me for looking back. She smiled and laughed. Forgive you? Of course. I love you, Darling.
She didn’t look me in the eye though. I wonder what she would have done in my place. And I know that she would not have failed.
Sometimes, I think that I should follow her, just open the balcony door, step through and clamber up over the rail and then...
I do not of course. Six days out of seven isn’t bad. And she would not notice. My wife never has, nor ever will, look back.
This story originally appeared in Fables and Reflections.