Fiction · 02/24/2016

Corpseless Shrouds

The first time I almost died, I thought that what attacked me — what entranced me — had been something else, other than Death. And a strange something else at that. There I was, lying in bed, normal as always, and suddenly someone was pressing my chest, and I was carrying the world in my abdomen, my thoracic cavity was about to burst and I was about to implode with it, my lungs, airless, I thought, I thought, my time, my time, my time has come.

And then. And then I was breathing again. I stayed in bed for what seemed like an eternity (but of course, Death actually has an eternity to spare, I could wait forever for him), until finally dawn broke upon my unprepared eyes through the window glass and woke me from a slight, rather rigid slumber, until I finally got up to go to the balcony and smoke my first Gauloise of the day while I gazed at the Latin Quarter as it was slowly, gradually coming to life.

The baker saw me from my second-floor balcony and shouted his usual “Bonjour, Victoire,” a little ritual we had, a little ditty between two strangers, us, recognizing each other’s existence, reaffirming it, and… And somehow, that day I didn’t find the usual comfort that this greeting usually gave me. This recognition killed the little pleasant thoughts that, like mockingbirds, were twittering away in my head. No, I was not dead. No, I was not a ghost or a spectre or a spirit or whatever you like to call those non-corporeal beings we all fear. My soul wasn’t in that in-between stage between life and Death, just hanging in limbo with her nightgown and her daily Gauloise. I was me, myself. I was Victoire Dupont, glaringly, surprisingly, painfully alive.

I am too young to die yet, I thought half an hour later, the thought a feeble attempt at sanity. I am not suicidal, I thought while I sipped my bitter black coffee, the only breakfast I had in the mornings. I leafed carelessly through the well-worn pages of my daily planner, a written representation of my daily calamities, wondering in which day of 2014 darling Death would finally come and claim me. Perhaps I shouldn’t discard the annex in my planner, the one that contained January 2015, I thought. Those days are as good as any to die. At no point did it cross my mind that I was being overly cavalier about Death. The events of last night had planted the seed of my impending (or so I thought) doom in my head, and it only seemed logical that my Death was about to come any time now.

But dying, as I was about to discover, was no easy feat.

I was twenty-three years old. I was completely healthy — not even my eyesight was bad. I could see that tiny spot of coffee in my mug, smaller than an ant, and scrub, scrub, scrub until it was gone, dead. My mug was clean as new, as if my morning hadn’t existed at all, as if the owner was gone, as if she had passed to the other side.

To my chagrin, when I was closing the glass door of the florist’s at exactly nine thirty (for I always keep fresh flowers in the living room,) the emptiness inside me that had become blatant last night became greater, ever increasing and ubiquitous like greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Why hadn’t I died? Why? At one time, I was absolutely certain my life would be claimed in seconds. I had gotten used to the idea so easily — so completely — so quickly — I had even begun to like it — enjoy it — and then I was back to life, to an ease of mind that didn’t fear my imminent Death. Alive, so alive in my apartment in the Latin Quarter, small like a shoebox and filled with the bitter smell of coffee and Gauloises, filled with the sweet aroma of fresh flowers silently wilting, dying in the vase, so awake to my two morning cigarettes and the three framed university degrees that hung on my wall, the undergraduate in Math always slightly tilted to the side because of the faulty foundation of my apartment complex.

It hurt, it stung to breathe, to sleep, to eat, to anything to preserve my life, and yet I couldn’t stop surviving, it was a disease.

I was not usually that bitter.

But then again, I had never felt suicidal. Maybe it’s an off day, I thought. Maybe it’ll pass, I thought.

Or maybe not, that also crossed my mind.

Maybe I was forever cursed to have this empty sensation in the pit of my stomach, this lacking, as long as I remained alive. Maybe only Death could fill it.

+

The second time I almost died I was twenty-seven years old and Jean Pierre had just left me. To tell you the truth, I would have left myself. I was unbearable; my behavior was nothing but continuously reproachable.

Every man that kissed a woman on the street was Jean Pierre — my Jean Pierre, cheating on me in the cold light of day. Every phone call he received while he was with me was from his lover, the one he loved better than he loved me, if he loved me at all. Every night, hysteria and tears, every waking moment, trying to fill my emptiness with his and only encountering the irrevocable brick wall that is to be found when trying to make the impossible possible, when you try to get from a man what you can’t, you won’t, give yourself: a reason to stay alive.

The second time I almost died I had spent hours drafting and redrafting my suicide note, which finally lay on the table guarded by a thick pale pink envelope, right beside the fresh flowers (orchids, this time, and plenty of them, the last thing I was about to buy, I figured the occasion was worth the expense). I liked to think it looked like a wedding invitation, promising nuptials and eternal happiness but instead being a bitter farewell to those who knew me.

I had decided to adopt the preferred method of my favorite poet, Sylvia Plath, and stick my head right into the oven, but I breathed in the gas as if it were no more than regular, everyday Parisienne air. I cannot do justice here to the unending hour I spent there, inhaling like a madwoman, exhaling as little as I could. At one time I even tried to bake my head at maximum heat, but, alas, the heat was no more than the tongue of a kitten softly licking my face — it was even pleasant, but not deadly.

Like the first time I almost died, I ended up in the balcony after my bitter coffee, bitterly about to smoke my first Gauloise of the day: strike a match, place the tiny flame right on the tip of the cigarette, play with the short-lived fire that remained, burn my fingers and actually feel pain, because I wasn’t trying to kill myself with this benign damage, so, naturally, I had recovered all senses. The baker passed by, and, with our usual salute, my existence and my failure were validated.

I was alive, alive, alive, like Lady Lazarus, and I wondered if I would finally die after exhausting a certain number of lives.

But, for the time being, my suicide attempt had been like an exorcism, and I was clear from all suicidal tendencies.

+

The third time I almost died I was on drugs. I don’t remember whether it was LSD or mushrooms. I was around thirty, thirty-one years old. To tell you the truth, my memory is hazy when it comes to this particular experience. I was the hostess of a party, and all of my colleagues and old university classmates were there, in my apartment in the Latin Quarter. We were celebrating my birthday, or my starting or leaving a job, I honestly can’t remember.

Nobody saw my freefall. And it’s a shame, because I am not exaggerating when I say it was beautiful. True, I only lived on the second floor, but the fall was enough to break some bones, and even though I was stoned out of my mind, I had the good sense to fall on my head. But I didn’t feel the crack of my skull when I reached the pavement, in a street strangely deserted. I wasn’t hurt, only disoriented, and then that might have been the drugs. I stood up without difficulty, went to a nearby bookstore and picked up the first book that I saw (it turned out to be The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño).

I discovered myself hours later in a café sipping espresso after espresso, leafing through the book and sometimes glancing at an old newspaper.

I didn’t come back to my own party. I wandered around the city for almost an entire day, and when I finally returned to my apartment, it was empty and clean — half-heartedly so, but clean anyway.

+

Fifty years passed before the fourth time I almost died finally came.

I was eighty and my desire to die was just a weak sensation in the back of my brain that I sometimes examined, like an old toy, a memento of my past, but at some point I started thinking that I was finally old enough to die.

I started knitting shrouds that were to cover my own corpse as a way to spend my time. By the time Death almost claimed me, I had already finished four. One was black, minimalist and practical. Another was navy blue and I had attempted unsuccessfully some crochet. The third was the most refined: It was dark green and I had finally figured out how to crochet. The one between my knitting needles was fuchsia and I was crocheting a pattern of big, multi-petalled flowers on it.

On that day, there was an explosion. A gas leak, I found out later. There were four casualties and many wounded, but I was not on either list.

I felt the force of the debris falling over my head, briefly suffocating me; it was the arms of darling Death trapping me in its embrace. The air completely deserted my lungs, there were stones suffocating me, slowly killing me. I was ecstatic. The only grey cloud in the firmament of my utmost felicity was that I had not been able to finish the hot pink shroud.

But, against my own will, I kept breathing. Eventually, the paramedics found me. Off came the debris, as easily as if they were breadcrumbs. I was examined and declared at low risk of dying, but I still had to wait to be taken to the hospital. There, the tests came out clean: no injury, no wound, no damage whatsoever, but the debris had been real, and so had the suffocation…

I was promptly cleared. “You are lucky,” they said. “Not a single scratch.”

+

I am two hundred and fifty years old today. I still pass for an eighty year old since there has been no bodily deterioration for years. They say we age well, us Parisienne girls. It has been a long time since Death has flirted with me, although every night I sit for an hour and wait for his visit with homemade, freshly baked dark chocolate cookies (in the morning, I take them to the local homeless shelter). I have accumulated so many shrouds that I have begun to take them to the shelter when I go with the cookies and, at this rate, all of the homeless in Paris will have a nice long blanket for the winter in just a couple of months or so.

Every now and then I get a new name. I don’t want a Guinness record. I don’t want the world to know about my age and making a big fuss about it. I am friends with the people in the dodgiest part of town that do forgery. When you are as old as me, you lose all scruples.

I don’t have children or grandchildren, and I never married or been in a serious relationship — well, not since Jean Pierre, and that seems like a century ago, probably because it was actually two centuries and a half ago. Every morning I salute the new baker, a young boy, not much older than forty. The great grandchild of the old baker is now a successful litigator. It’s one of my hobbies, keeping tabs on everyone’s great grandchildren. They are all extremely interesting, from the unemployed to the renowned scientists.

Sometimes I get so bored I just want to die already. But, apparently, I don’t know how to die.

How do you do it anyway?

+++

Virginia Castiglione is an Argentinian university student majoring in English Literature and Translation. She is a short story writer and playwright who writes her work in Spanish and then translates it into English. You can contact her through Twitter at @WithLoveVir.