He stood in the doorway. Out of the dank tree-lined culvert where it was just starting to drizzle outside. Beads of water ran in rivulets down his jacket – an equally expensive accompaniment to the slightly more faded trousers he shook as he stepped out of brown horse-leather shoes. He toed the shoes to the corner of the doormat and spoke, “Is she ready?”
The undertaker was worried for the man. The things he had asked for on his first visit, they made no sense. But they did make sense. The more the undertaker had dwelt on them over the last week; the demands had become easier to understand.
The man did not want his wife buried. He had said so in a quiet voice when the hearse had dropped the corpse off a week ago. He had repeated the demand after the undertaker asked him what he had just said.
“But sir, this is most unusual,” the undertaker had said.
“There must be something you can do, undertaker. There must be some chemical or machine or something.”
“I don’t know . . .” The undertaker had felt uncomfortable under the glare of the man’s eyes. They were big and doe-like. The earnest stare irresistible.
The man mistook the undertaker’s shiftiness for an imminent refusal, “See, mister. Her people will not know. She died four days ago and I have already insisted on a small ceremony. I don’t care what they say about burying their own in the village . . . So you see nothing can go wrong. This casket will be buried in a private mausoleum in my compound.”
If it wasn’t so sad it would have been funny. Both men had circled each other around the coffin that first visit a week ago. As though the man wanted to touch the undertaker and as though the undertaker didn’t want to be touched. But watching their eyes you knew they were doing something different. They both stared at the figure in the open coffin. Only God knew what was going on in the man’s mind but on the undertaker’s was how beautiful she looked in repose. How her fair complexion made her look pale in death and not grey like . . . How much she reminded him of . . .
“I will help you,” the undertaker said.
The earnestness on the man’s face slowly cleared and morphed into, first, thankfulness, and then, incredulity. He looked up from his wife, the light reflected off her white lace dress making his big eyes look like they had disappeared into mammoth-sized sockets. “But how?” he asked. “You must know that what I want will not be easy to accomplish. I do not want my house stinking like in here . . .”
While the man spoke, the undertaker allowed himself a moment of self-pride. About what he had achieved, about what he could do for the man. He interrupted the man in a slow and even voice that became more and more excited as he dove deeper into his exposition: “You do not understand, sir. I can help you. Everything you need, I can help you.”
They slowly resumed their dance around the coffin, this time with their eyes never leaving the other.
“You see, I have invented this chemical. It’s nothing new, just a new mix of the same old constituents. You might think the reason for this new mix is that it preserves better, no? Ah, but that’s not the reason. My new mix is slightly less efficient than the old one. You stare at me like I’ve gone mad. I’ll tell you, sir, the reason for this. The problems with keeping a body looking alive and fresh are not with the chemicals. It’s with getting the chemicals deep within the body. For that I have constructed a machine. A new machine that will make your wife forever young. Just like she looks now. That’s the reason why my new mix is so light. I do not need it concentrated.”
He searched the man’s eyes for understanding that day, but only saw the big eyes unblinking under the glare of the overhead, dangling, swinging light bulb, the shadows of both cheekbones lit up from below by the sheen-like reflection off the wife’s dress.
Is she ready?
He searched the man’s eyes for understanding today and still came up blank. The honk-o-tonk of the raindrops on the roof’s corrugated sheets increased in tempo and became a blur, a constant drone that, intriguingly, receded into background silence like that of office air-conditioning. He wanted to tell the man not to bother taking his shoes off but instead replied the question, “Yes, she’s ready.”
On the man’s second visit the undertaker had shown him the machine. It sat in his basement, a not-so-secret subterranean extension he had dug up when his wife, God rest her soul, complained that his business was making the neighbours uncomfortable. That just the other day Mrs. Ogbomo had smirked at her, asking what her husband prayed for during church service; whether they prayed for business to be good. He had to admit he had found it incredibly funny. On that visit he led the man down the short flight of steps, unconsciously sweeping at the now absent cobwebs he had swept soon after the man’s first visit.
“There it is.”
The man took a step forward and leaned into the upright, redlined box of gleaming masonia wood. “How does it work?”
“It’s a pump. It pumps, through those needles you see at the bottom, my special chemical around the body constantly replenishing and changing the fluids. And that bottle of reddish goo, that’s the chemical mix. I’ve coloured it red so that the subject retains his, sorry, her complexion as it was in life.”
“Have you ever tested it?” the man asked.
“This is the second one I have built. The first was for my wife. After her suicide . . .”
In grief it seemed both men understood themselves perfectly. The undertaker saw, or thought he saw, understanding in a slight movement of the man’s shoulders. He saw the man’s eyes turn away from the red inner lining of his brand new eterno-meter (yes, people, that’s the name of the machine) and flicker back at the machine. Yes, the man understood grief.
Yes, she’s ready.
The man came into the light. The centre of the room where they had first met eight days ago. He looked worse. The rivulets of rain slowly sunk into the fabric of his expensive wool jacket. What would have otherwise been his big hazel eyes had taken on an air of death, eyelids halfway down, the irises red-rimmed.
“How was the funeral?” the undertaker asked.
“Like I said, the family had no idea the casket was empty. The funeral went well.”
A moment of silence passed. Both men stared at the unopened six foot long box in front of them.
The man nodded and the undertaker understood. He opened the lid of the coffin.
The man gasped. He leaned forward into the light and said, “She’s so beautiful . . .”
She was. Her pale skin pulsed in time with the small droning pump just on the other side of the red lining. Imperceptible changes in colour that the unconscious human mind registers as signs of life. Her eyes were open and fixed. The whites impossibly white, the irises . . . A deeper shade of brown than they had been in life.
“Did the chemical do that too?” the man asked.
“No. I tried but preserving the eyes is extremely difficult. Those are glass. Actually it’s impossible to preserve the eyes to the standard you wanted. There’s a reason why market women pricing fresh fish always check the eyes for milkiness.” The undertaker had this irritating habit of rambling into trivia whenever he felt nervous. “I hope it is to your satisfaction.”
The man nodded and replied with the question, “Was the money you received to yours?”
“Very much so, sir. Thank you.”
But the undertaker knew the man had stopped listening to him. The undertaker watched as the man leaned into the coffin.
A kiss on warm pulsating lips. The undertaker could hear the man gasp. For joy. It was good that the undertaker used the body as the heat dissipater – the radiator, so to speak – for the machine. The eterno-meter was a wonderful machine.
A blur of motion.
Warm goo splashing on the undertaker face, breaking his thoughts. He refocused his eyes and saw what the man was doing. What the man was saying.
The man had a long suya knife in his right hand. And with each slash and each stab the man spoke.
You think say you smart?
You thought you could take this easy way out!
Bitch. Whore. Twenty years of torment and then you die in you sleep?
No, you’ll suffer every week, every visit, until I die.
For what you did to me. For what you did to her.
The undertaker screamed; for his work, and jumped at the man’s shoulders grabbing his right arm from behind.
The man struck him across the face with the back of his left hand and threw the undertaker to the ground with such force that the poor grey-suited fellow slid across the floor on his wash-and-wear clad bottom and bumped his head against a wall.
He came to exactly four seconds later. The man flashed the blade, dripping goo, across the undertaker face. The man’s eyes were dead now, sunken and dead. His breadth smelt like tobacco and a brothel’s spittoon.
“You are going to fix her? Nod if you understand. Yes, you’re going to fix her every week. A visit a week. You’ll be paid well. Just like this time. Nod if you understand.”
The undertaker felt his head shaking up and down. But he froze when he heard what the man said next.
“You said you built the first machine for your wife. Take me to her, now.”
The undertaker whimpered as he was pulled up and dragged down to the basement. He pointed at a corner to the man and slumped down when the man dropped him. His head hurt. He stared as the man went over to the box that contained his wife, the cream-lined one.
The undertaker’s heart broke when he heard what the man whispered, what he said as he took the undertaker’s wife’s face in his hands, hands that were dripping with the red goo, “You should have waited. You should have waited. Now she’s dead and it’s too late. You should have told me about that phone call. What did she say to you, Martha? That I wouldn’t leave her because you were pregnant? (The man was crying uncontrollably now.) You should have waited, Martha. We would have left both of them together.”