These people are fools. They bury their dead face-up, looking for heaven amongst the feckless stars. In my land, we are buried face down. We look to the worms, to the grubs, to the legions of the soil.
We know where God lives.
‘I appreciate you’re new here,’ said the undertaker, ‘so let me give it to you straight. No matter how funny you think you are, we never ventriloquise with the deceased.’
His 90th birthday. Generations of his fawning brood, packing the house, pawing at his shoulders, counting down the days till their inheritance. Look at them now, clamouring for attention around his birthday cake. And I bet, thought Alfred, they’ve counted out every shitting candle.
Afterwards, the walls of the villa leaned away from them, as though the stones themselves couldn’t bear to be near. The flies buzzed a fury, a demented mariachi band. Holebas was first to move. He ambled out of the shadows and onto the veranda, where he launched a wad of phlegm over the balcony. He flicked the polystyrene lid of the icebox onto the tiles and rummaged in the meltwater for a beer. He found two and opened them both, waiting for the American.
A minute or two later, Daniel followed. He leaned against the door, dizzy with light. Considering the patterns on the tiles, he thought: life should run in lines.
Holebas offered him one of the dripping beers. Daniel took a drink then gestured with the bottle.
‘Do you have limes?’
‘For the beer?’ Holebas understood. ‘Ha! You know why they have the lime?’
‘For the taste.’
‘Ha! No señor. Is to keep away the flies. The flies! You pop it in and out like this, see?’
He plugged his finger into the neck of the bottle, and Daniel looked away. Holebas sniggered about the flies and gazed out at the desert. The horizon shivered with heat, the land and the sky melted like a wax. The sky curved upwards and leaned across them, too heavy to hold. A porcelain bowl, balanced on edge, ready to fracture and fall.
Smithereens, thought Daniel.
He breathed out hard enough to hurt. ‘That’s my first time. Can I tell you that?’
Holebas grinned, then, all teeth and no humour. ‘Ah, señor! A part of me might envy you the first one. Is a special moment. You become a man, si? Daniel, the man! Is no going back from this now.’
‘No,’ said Daniel. ‘No, I guess not.’
He’d never looked more like a small boy. He wasn’t drinking anymore, and didn’t notice the flies that skirted the neck of his beer. He tried not to think about what waited in the villa, though they still had to tidy it up.
Everything would be so simple, if life ran in lines.
‘It was very peaceful, in the end,’ I said. ‘He was ready for it. I think he almost wanted it to happen, to go out with a little dignity. There was so much love in the room. He was surrounded by his… well. You know — by his family.’
There was a pause on the other end of the phone.
‘Don’t call here again,’ she said.
Things were getting heated, down at the club. Broadstairs and I were engaged in a ferocious battle of wits over the twin theories of the day. He’d published his nonsensical pamphlets, and I’d given my talk at the Royal Society. And now it came to this; the two great intellectuals of our time, exchanging arguments over brandy as skilled swordsmen might battle with sabres — feint and counter-feint, parry and strike. Broadstairs listened with scorn to my postulations, then drew himself up in riposte.
‘Don’t be an ass, Carruthers,’ he snorted.
I bristled, but kept my cool. ‘Your face is an ass, Broadstairs,’ I said.
The creature unfolded, expanding, snarling, rearing upwards, dripping venom, claws flexing, feathers scattered to the ground.
It had walked like a duck and talked like a duck.
But it was not a duck.