How to Talk to the Dying
A minute note on my lengthy absence: I have been gone for a while doing life-y things, making a small human, relishing the real, as they say. But here I am, back in the world of fiction where I belong.
This short story is an excerpt from a longer work that I tried very hard for a very long time to bring to life. Alas, I was unsuccessful, partially because the complexity of the work required far greater skill than I possessed at the time (I was 19 and still very inexperienced). I know one day I will attempt it again in a vastly different medium, and this piece, undoubtedly, will be cut. However, since I love it so much for its own independent virtues, I thought I would put it here both for your reading pleasure and to vindicate my soul for cutting such a touching moment out of existence.
Pearl could hardly look at her dear friend. Tally lay weakened in her bed, barely able to lift herself as Pearl walked into the room. As Tally’s eyes peered over to greet her visitor, Pearl put on what she hoped was a cheerful face; she tried to be her ordinary, careless self, but strength failed her and she felt like Tally looked—tired. Pearl greeted Mother Anne with a smile and a gentle squeeze of her hand and the Mother nodded in understanding before taking her leave from the room. Pearl, the great storyteller, now realized that all her tales of death and betrayal could never compare to meeting true death here before her.
“How are you, Tally?” The question seemed irrelevant.
“Oh, you know…” she trailed off. Then a dim light flashed in her eyes, as if she had recalled something exciting. “Hey, Pearl,” she said, half smiling. “Tell me more of your parents, eh?” The energy it took even to say that drained her and her waxen face paled more than ever.
Pearl looked with compassion and sorrow on her friend. Her heart could not bear this. “Tally,” she started, not knowing how to say this. “Those stories, they’re…they’re not real. I made them up. I’m just like the rest of you, you know? I’m an orphan just like you.” Tears streaked down her cheeks. She had never spoken those words out loud, and somehow saying them had made them painfully true. An ache that had been growing in Pearl’s heart burst forth in that moment.
Tally frowned at this. Then, as if she had barely registered Pearl’s words, went on, “Oh yes. Of course. But tell me how your mother bargained with that witch woman in India for her soul. I…I love the part when…when…” but she was overcome by a coughing fit and could not continue.
Pearl did not know what to say to Tally. How did you talk to the dying? What words were appropriate? Suddenly, Tally reached out and touched Pearl’s hand. Their eyes met. The pleading in Tally’s eyes made Pearl stop short mid breath. “Then tell me where I came from, Pearl,” she said in a quivering voice.
Pearl gathered her strength, closed her eyes, breathed in deep the salty night air. “Well, Tally, you are different from most people. You came from the very hands of God.” Tally let out a faint giggle.
“One day, just before the sun rose, as the mists of the morning crept along the coastline,” Pearl moved her arm along in front of her, imitating the movement of the fog, “God stepped out of Heaven and down into the crashing waves. He walked through the surf—you remember, Tally, like we like to do when it’s very cool out and we make believe that we are the only ones living in a beautiful paradise? So God wet His feet in the waves and smiled at the beauty of His creation. But He felt alone in it that very morning, wishing that someone could share that beauty with Him.
“So, God went to the villages, walked even as far as Verona, searching for someone who would come and share the beauty of the sea with Him. But none would come. First He asked the old woman in St. Jude—you remember the one—who sat on her porch all day, rocking and rocking, moving only to sell her wares in her store.
“‘Would you come and walk with me, dear woman, for I am lonely and there is much beauty I would show you,’ God said.
“‘Alas, kind gentleman,’ made the woman in reply, ‘I have my shop to tend to. And besides, I have seen much beauty already and I have grown very weary. Can you not see how it pains me even to move?’
“So God went away sad. He came next to a young lord, parading around Verona in jewels and fine furs. The young man barely glanced at God for his feet were bare feet and clothes dirty and torn. All the same, God caught his arm and pleaded with Him.
“‘Will you not come to the shore with me and walk? I can show you much beauty.’
“But the young lord spat and cried, ‘what can you know of beauty? I have a house in the country and an apartment here in the city. I go to grand parties and dress myself in the finest of cloths. I know beauty!’
“Again God went away saddened. He then walked to the port, to those who He knew loved the sea like a mother. Surely, He thought, I can find one here who would come with me. He went up to an old sailor, skin like dark leather, hardened by years at sea.
“‘My son!’ called God, ‘Please, would you come with me to the shore and walk along in the waves with me. Let me show you how beautiful the sea can be.’
“But the sailor glared back at him in contempt. ‘Argh! You dare to tell me about the sea? Who are you to speak of her, then? You know nothing. Be gone from me. I’ll not be walking ‘nywares with the likes of yous!’ And he turned at once and walked away.
“So, God returned to the shore feeling lonelier than ever. The sea spread out before Him, ever undulating in harmony with the wind. He thought of those who would come and sighed.
“‘If not them,” He said, “then I will create one that will.’
“So God bent down and filled His hands with sand. He breathed one soft, low breath into it as it fell, and like a miracle it began to swirl and take shape. And when the thing was done, the soft, faint cry of a baby girl filled the cold morning air. God stooped down and lifted the child into His arms. Immediately she calmed and looked happily into His eyes.
“‘Oh, my dear little girl,’ God whispered, ‘I shall show you the world, you know. All of my creation you shall see and be amazed. And everywhere you go, I shall go too. Do you believe me, little child?’
“The girl in his arms laughed in answer. God looked upon her face and smiled and poured out tears of love upon her.
“You traveled the world together, Tally, you and God!” said Pearl. “Until one day He brought you here, to be with me, so that I would not be so lonely. But He is with you even now, of course, in this very room!” Pearl gazed down upon Tally who was lost in her imagination. She let a tear fall onto her friend’s nightgown.
“I see Him, Pearl! I really do! Of course He has never left me!” Tally whispered hoarsely. With much effort, she smiled. And for the first time, Pearl saw the face death staring out of the now empty eyes of her friend. She stood, brushed the tears from her cheeks, and walked out of the room, nodding to the Mother as she did so.