Helen (A Short Story)

The mood is sombre.

The sky is grey and dull. To the east, where she remembers many a sunrise, Helen sees only whispers of light. Like the sun itself doesn’t want to get out from under the covers. She carefully sips from a cup of scalding hot porridge.

Around her, she hears the sounds of busyness. From where she sits, huddled up in her black shawl, she can see the kitchen hut with its roof spewing forth heavy gray smoke that added to the dreariness of the already dreary morning sky. On the other side of the homestead, she hears the muffled voices of women – mostly old women – singing sad songs. The kind of songs she only heard on days like this. She takes another sip. The cold air has made a skin on the top layer of her cup. Her lips get burned slightly. She curses under her breath and contemplates emptying her cup onto the earthen floor. But that would be rude, she tells herself. At least the heat from the cup is keeping her hands warm.

Her mother emerges from the corner of her eye. She is also bundled up in a black shawl. The joy in her eyes has been dimmed and now only sadness remains. She also has a porridge-filled mug, steam lifts off it heavily. She takes a seat next to Helen and they talk for a little while about nothing in particular. Her mother muses over the weather and Helen says something about the smoke from the kitchen. But they both take comfort in that they would not be taking part in the food preparations today. That was always the part she dreaded in these kinds of occasions, her mother said.

Soon both their cups were empty. Helen rushes to brush her teeth before she, her mother and two of her aunts get into her car. She drives slowly on the lengthy uneven road before she turns into the much more pleasant tarmac. Here she picks up speed while the other women in the car caution her to slow down. She was only doing seventy kilometers per hour. She drops it to sixty-five. They make time either way. It’s a Saturday. There isn’t much traffic. Soon they arrive.

They park and make their way to the coordinator. He tells them to wait a while as the arrangements are finalized. At exactly thirty minutes past eight, the body is brought out.

By now, other people have arrived and a wail of horror raises up into the air. The dirge singing women are here also. Helen’s mother takes hold of her hand and squeezes tightly. She is speaking rapidly in vernacular. Probably praying and hoping that it was all a dream. Helen knows that it isn’t. She keeps her gaze on the casket. It was made of dark oak and emblazoned with gold fittings at the corners. It was a beautiful box. He deserved a beautiful box.

The mourners converge on the casket. It is open and people start to cry and weep and wail even louder as they view the body. Helen is strong. She walks up and glances down. He looks the same, she thinks to herself. Same color, same hair, same permanent smile. She breaks down. She falls to her knees and cries. Her face is contorted as she lets the tears fall. Unintelligible words flow out of her mouth. She is raised to her feet by her cousin Fred. He leads her to an alcove where he lets her cry out until her eyes feel dry. Fred stays by her side not saying a word but comforting her nonetheless.

A prayer is said and the body is taken into a hearse. Fred asks her if she is strong enough to drive. She says she is and goes to her car with one more person than she came with. She keeps a close distance between her and the hearse. In the case that she loses sight of it, she knows where she is going anyway.

The eulogy is long. Almost too long. Helen wonders if he had done all those things in life. It seemed impossible but the crowd of people gathered there just for him makes it believable. She is sitting under a white tent with her mother and Fred on one side and her friend, June on the other. Somewhere in-between the mortuary and the funeral she had arrived dressed in black from head to toe. Her gloved hand holds Helen’s as the speakers give their speeches. Before then, that same gloved hand had fought off an incessant photographer – the ones who are never invited but yet take unsolicited pictures of the guests gathered. June had hit him and given him a bruise on his forehead. The memory makes Helen smile.

As the body is lowered into the ground, the dirges start up again. Fresh tears fill Helen’s eyes as she tosses a lump of red soil into the hole. The sound it makes as it hits the dark oak casket is almost deafening. She is sure she would be hearing that sound often in her dreams. He is buried now. Helen, her mother and June place flowers on the fresh moist-smelling mound under which his body has been laid to rest.

The visitors then move on to the food that has been prepared. Helen sits with her mother and aunts out of obligation rather than anything else. She desperately wants to leave. She wants to go home and see her daughter, Emily. That’s the name Luke and she had chosen. Glancing to her right, she sees June and Fred share a laugh. It seems that they have taken a liking to each other. Good for them, Helen thinks.

After an hour, June leaves. Fred had left before. She would learn that they had exchanged contact information much later. Helen bids farewell to her mother and everyone else she can before getting into her car and driving off.

Before long she is at her house. It is almost seven. The lights are off but she can hear the sound of the television. She puts her key into the door, turns it slowly and walks in. As she switches on the light she sees the most beautiful thing she could imagine. On the couch is baby Emily snuggled atop her father’s chest. Luke’s eyes are shut but one of his strong arms is wrapped around the baby. On the TV is a scene from a Teletubbies DVD they had bought a week ago. It calmed the baby down when they had exhausted all other options and so they decided that that would be their first option from now on when the baby was restless.

Emily stirs. She must have sensed the light. She lets out a cry. Luke sighs and opens his eyes. They land on Helen.

“Hi,” he says.

“Hi,” she says back as she picks Emily up. She calms down in her arms.

“How was the ceremony?” Luke sits up and asks.

“It was nice. Dad had a lot of friends,” she says.

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