Burnt Leaves

by Skeeter Cornwall

I sat in the backroom balancing the books when it struck me that I couldn’t remember Mena’s voice. Whenever I closed my eyes, each line of her face, each freckle and eyelash, remained with me so vividly I could almost touch her, the rosy and happy Mena I’d known, a tad plump in winter, the Mena before cancer, before she wasted away to bones and breathed her last in our bed. But her voice was lost.

In the showroom, the front door jangled. I could’ve sworn it’d been locked. I set down my pen and rose and made my way through the cluttered backroom, annoyed by whoever couldn’t read the word “Closed.” I navigated through my tightly-arranged Metaphysical Furniture displays, the birth-control cushions, fall-in-loveseats, death-by-recliners. You see, I’m a purveyor of furniture that changes people, for better or worse.

“We’re closed,” I said. A man stood studying one of my death-by-recliners that brings sweet release to its purchasers. As he turned toward me, the dim after-hours lighting caught the far side of his face. I took a step back. He was horribly burned, a snarl of keloid scars marring his skin.

“I’m not here to shop,” he said, limping toward me. My hand ached for the baseball bat I kept tucked behind the register. “You don’t remember me do you?”

I shook my head, though I knew I’d never laid eyes on the man; his was not a face one could forget.

“I bought one of your suicide recliners, years ago. It malfunctioned.”

I swallowed hard. The death-by-recliners had been one of my most popular items as crime and poverty had soared. A painless electrical jolt while lying in plush comfort and the buyer could leave this cruel world. Staring at the disfigured victim of a faulty one, I wished I hadn’t fired my security guard.

“Don’t worry, sir,” the burned man said, “I’m not here for petty revenge. Your chair didn’t give me the release of death, but it did set me free.”

“How do you mean?”

“I’ve discovered a means for bridging the gap between this world and the one beyond.”

I thought of Mena.

“I’m here to thank you, and to offer you a new product I think you’ll find very lucrative for us both.”

The burned man hoisted a large suitcase onto the glass counter by the register. I made my way behind the counter, running a finger along the baseball bat for comfort, though the man — despite his charred skin — now appeared to pose no threat. He snapped open the case and produced an enormous pillow, with ornate golden embroidery the likes of which I’d never seen.

“This pillow, of my own design, allows the user to communicate with the dead.”

“How does it work?” I asked, my reflexive skepticism already giving way to a rabid desire for the voice of my Mena. The burned man leaned in close; he smelled of burnt leaves.

“Sleep on it and the pillow does the rest. Keep it. Try it.” What remained of his lips curled into what I took for an attempted smile. “After some time, I will return for your decision.”

The burned man gathered up his empty suitcase and hobbled from my showroom. I locked the door, switched off the rest of the lights, and climbed the stairs to my upstairs flat, pillow in hand.

*

That night, my mind was a tilt-a-whirl and sleep wouldn’t come. I tossed and turned, desperate to hear Mena. So soft — as if my head weighed nothing at all — the pillow gave off an intoxicating scent, like sliced fruit, berries. I pinched my eyes tight and demanded sleep of myself, the berry aroma growing stronger. And that’s when I heard it, a voice singing from the backyard, pouring forth like liquid gold, the voice of what could’ve been an angel, but what I recognized immediately as my Mena. I rose and walked over the creaky hardwood to the window, peering out into the backyard lot where Mena once kept a garden, before the radiation treatments left her too weak to stand.

The small, fenced-in plot glowed blue in the moonlight, and the aroma of berries swelled until I could taste them in my throat. And that’s when something moved in the garden. A shadow, I thought, no, a figure squatting in the dirt.

When I turned to gather my shoes, I saw something I can’t explain. I saw myself, asleep on that giant pillow. My hands trembled as I reached down and touched my own face, my fingers passing through the skin as if I was made of water.

And like a vapor I passed through the window, out into chilly dark, floating downward to the garden below like a dead leaf tumbling in the breeze. The grass licked at my toes as I walked toward the garden where Mena still crouched, collecting berries in the lap of her dress, singing. I reached down to her, and my fingertips pressed firm against her neck, her skin so soft and warm it made me cry.

When she turned to me, her face was of my memories, soft swell in her cheeks, eyes like crystal lakes, but with a half-smile I’d never seen her make.

“Try a strawberry, Hank,” she said and I could have swum in that voice. I bent down to her. So close I could feel her heat. “Eat the fruit. And stay here with me. Forever.”

She pressed the berry to my lips and I bit into its tender flesh and the juices stung as they trickled down my tongue.

“You’re mine forevermore,” she said, and as she drew her hand away, her fingers smelled of burnt leaves.

#

Skeeter Cornwall once lost an eye while fishing for carp. One of these days he’s going to dive down there and get it back.
%d bloggers like this: