Ghost Marriage by Sinéad McCabe (Lucent Dreaming Issue 10)

“Dead!” Mama is wailing at Papa, “Dead, dead at twenty-seven! And -” a great indrawn breath which thrusts out her formidable chin, “not married!”
“Is that all you can -” Papa stops, turns away, and puts his face in his hands. I’d like to think it was grief that stopped his speech, but I know better. He was just scared of Mama. We all are. I mean, I was. I’m not now, because I’m dead, so really, what worse can she do?
“The shame of it! What the hell am I supposed to tell my grandparents now? My only son!”
“What are you talking about? Your grandparents are dead too!” The expression of mingled exasperation, bewilderment and fear on Papa’s face is the first thing I remember seeing in this life. In fact, it’s the only expression I ever remember seeing him wear. I’m dead and I can’t ever remember seeing my Papa smile. Isn’t that sad? I am looking at my own body laid out in a suit with a ghastly blue checked bow tie. That’s also very sad.
Mama is beginning to shriek and flail now. It’s very clear, under the weary twenty-watt light bulb, that her hair has almost given up the ghost; I can see her oily scalp gleaming, but her ferocity is undimmed by time, by men, by anything on this earth.
“Exactly! They are dead and he is dead and how will he face them? When I die, oh, any day now and you’ll be rid of me and you’ll like that, how will I face them? How shall I tell them that I allowed the bloodline to die and that our family will have no stake on the living earth! We’ll be a ghost family! How shall I tell them? You decide!”
Papa is still staring at the wall, but a tiny spark flares somewhere deep in the black of his eye. I think he is having an idea. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have an idea before. So many new experiences for me today. Falling into the machinery at the factory, that was new experience number one. I admit, my concentration slipped, but I wasn’t expecting an outcome like this. My body has no right arm, no left eye and my lovely skin has been shredded like a salad. But my Mama has put that bow tie on me, the one that she gave me for my twentieth birthday and I had always refused to wear. Thank you, Mama.
“You are not to blame for the accident. You didn’t know it was coming. How could you? And you always tried your best to get him to marry. All of us, all the family, we know that. You tried every day.” Papa is speaking slowly, with the unaccustomed effort of independent thought. Mama is stroking what remains of my hair.
It is true that she tried every day to get me married. She proposed to twelve different brides for me, paying the marriage broker a small fortune even after six of the families refused to see me. She continued even after she burst into my basement bedroom one night without knocking and found me there on my knees, servicing a brawny barman with all my considerable energy.
She never spoke of it, at the time, or ever again.
There is a possibility that she is thinking about it now, because her stroking hand tightens on a clump of my poor ragged hair and becomes a fist.
“Now that my son is gone and all my future on this earth gone with him,” her voice has sunk to her most dangerous growl, “I may as well just jump in the river and join him in hell.”
Now you would think that a dead man is as cold as it’s possible to be, but you would be wrong. There is an ice in the disembodied belly which with only the spirits of the dead can be familiar, and I am frozen stiff at the thought of my mother joining me, wherever I might end up.
“Wife,” says my Papa, turning slowly around, “don’t talk so.”
She screams and snatches up a brass mourning candlestick to brain him with. He catches her wrist without malice, scarcely seeming to notice her violence, and says, “I think…. I have heard of something that we can do.”
She is blowing snot and tears and rage all over him, like a dragon with the flu, but he is absorbed in his first original thought, and he concentrates only on the difficult birth. “Our neighbour told me,” he continues, “that when a man has found no wife in life, a wife may sometimes be found for him in death. That is… another stif – another corp – another woman who is also not alive. Can be found and proposed to, and they can be sent to the next world together.”
Mama is flabbergasted. So am I.
“What…? What rubbish is this? How can one propose to a dead woman?”
“One sends to the family. Just the same. Just the same,” Papa’s voice is now so slow and low, he’s almost ground to a halt. “One sends to the family of a woman who died single and asks for the marriage to take place. Then, if they are agreeable, one digs… and then we bury them together. And then our son has a wife, a woman to go with him and take care of him in the next world. Who knows? Perhaps they can even have children together, up in heaven.”
This is the longest I’ve ever seen Mama silent, her tiny fierce eyes ruminating, and though I long above all for her to denounce the scheme as crazed, humiliating, absurd, I know there’ll be no such luck for me.
“A ghost marriage, eh?”
She purses her lips and almost smiles – almost – before clapping her hands together and rapping out her orders like the machine-gun she is. Papa sits back in his chair, exhausted with his effort, relaxing into his accustomed place in life, silent and obedient. He’s so relieved to be back there that he smiles too.
He’s not smiling when he comes back. Neither is Mama.
“They refused! The parents of a dead suicide and they refused? Cocksuckers! Whorespankers!”
My father winces and closes the window. Little flecks of spittle fly from my mother’s mouth as she rages in circles. “Well, we’ll see about this. We’ll see. My son doesn’t need that ugly dead fool anyway, he requires only the best. The daughter of… the daughter of… of the General!”
“Are you completely mad?” Papa’s patience hits its limit, just before his head hits the wall. Mama pauses to rub feeling back into her hand, then hits him again.
“It will be easy,” she says. “All you have to do is to dig up the coffin.”

Even in the cool of the cellar, it’s still the height of summer and my corpse has begun to ooze. It’s six days since I died now, and my body smells. I am aware of the stench, though not in the overpowering way that a live person would be , stomach roiling and heaving. Still, I know that’s it there, and it distresses me. Also, the ooze. I was quite a handsome boy in life, and I don’t enjoy watching what death is doing to my remains. I wonder how she convinced the undertaker not to take me away. I wonder if anyone even knows I’m still here.
At night I wander disconsolately around the village, and the cool breeze and white moonlight comfort me a little. I drift to the edge of the graveyard, trying to see myself lying in quiet dignity under a neat white stone.
What I see instead is my father being caught trying to steal the remains of the General’s daughter. One of the horrified soldiers throws up against the open coffin; the corpse must be quite ripe. I watch in utter humiliation as my father is made to clean it up, before he is taken away in cuffs. Then I go home again. I sit on the bed with my head in my hands, and sigh.
Now that Papa is in prison, I have no way of knowing what’s going on in my mother’s head. I watch her arms jerk and her face twitch, the sweat run down her neck, and listen to her furious little caws and squawks. But the world inside my Mama’s mind is the same dread mystery to me as it always was.
Eventually she quiets and sits up straight. She has decided on something. I wish to God I knew what. She gets up and goes about the business of getting ready for bed, just the same as always. I lie in the garden under the lilac and watch the fireflies. I listen to the dogs howling all night in the distant and miserable dark.
In the morning, I can’t find her. She’s gone all day. This does not bode well. I drift and moan, and try to use the power of my mind to open my favourite book and read it. It doesn’t work. I’m bored out of my gourd.
Then she returns.
“……And how is your nephew? Oh my, I saw him yesterday. He’ll break some hearts one day.”
Her voice drifts down the cellar stairs, carrying clearly in the quiet dusk.
“Oh yes, he’s certainly growing.”
Who the hell is that? A young voice, sweet and clear, but with an awful mincing way to it, the verbal equivalent of sitting with the legs crossed at the ankle and the hands folded in the lap. A two-faced voice. But then I chide myself; talking to my Mama, who could do anything but pretend? I still can’t place the voice though.
“He’s into mischief every minute of the day. I just don’t know how my sister copes with him,” she continues, and there’s a click in my head. I went to school with this girl, we shared a desk in geography class. Aged seventeen, she had been married, by nineteen she was a widow and living with her sister whom she had never liked, probably for the rest of her life. What a waste. Just like my life. What a waste.
I’m curious though, as she and my mother make sickly small talk over tea, as to what exactly she is doing in the house. Mama never invites people to the house, she’s not exactly the congenial type and it’s too shabby for her pride to bear. And she never invited young girls around, until –
It is no exaggeration to say that I flew up those stairs. I had to. I haven’t got feet that function anymore. I fly like a whirlwind around the light fitting, around the chairs, and around the girl, a spectre formed wholly of panic and dread.
“Get out! Get out! Get out!” I scream at a volume loud enough to make the angels wince, but nothing happens. They go right on sitting there, politely nibbling on cherry cake and telling pretty lies about their miserable lives, until whatever drug Mama has slipped into the girl’s tea begins to take effect. Her speech slurs, her body slumps and she chokes in momentary panic before collapsing off her chair.
Mama’s blow to the back of the head with the hammer is efficient and anticlimactic. I expected a fountain of blood, a rain of brains, at the very least a tremendous crunch, but there is only a dull thud and a slow dark trickle onto the neck.
After a minute or two filled with Mama’s rasping breath, comes the slow exhale of the soul from the body. It spirals up like soft white smoke to hang beside me, bewildered in the summer sunshine. “What happened?” is the first thing she says. There is a short pause. “Oh. She’s murdered me.” There is another pause. “Well, she always was a bitch, your mother.”
I am impressed. She’s been dead ten seconds and she’s not the slightest bit bothered by the sight of my mother going through her pockets below.
She looks at me. Her soul is beautiful, with candid eyes and not a trace of that painful refinement she displayed for my mother when she was still alive, a minute ago.
“Why did she kill me?”
The same toe-curling shame I’ve felt all my life over my mother’s behaviour; to think that this is just about the only emotion I’ve managed to take with me into death! “She wanted to ensure descendants. In the afterlife,” is all I can say.
She stares at me for long moments. “A ghost marriage?”
“But – you only liked boys. Everyone knows that.”
If I had a throat, I’d be choking now. Everyone? I turn my miserable eyes to hers, which are clear and bright, and see nothing but truth in them. Except that now, a shimmer of a smile begins to dawn.
“Everyone knew she caught you with that barman,” she adds, and there’s a definite hint of a giggle in her voice. I think it over a little, and then I start laughing too. And I can’t stop. She laughs with me, our translucent forms rocking together. Mama is outside now, frantically stabbing at the dry hard earth of the garden.
Does she really think she’ll be able to dig a six-foot grave in that ground? Can she really think that none of the neighbours will see or hear her, even at night? I watch her face a while, set in a grimace, focused on her own delusion, and giving it, as always, all she’s got.
My mama.
“Well,” says the girl eventually, “it’ll be an adventure, anyway. Whatever it is. And at least we’ve each got a friend now. I mean, we’ll know somebody. On the road.”
“It won’t be so awkward,” I agree. “Socially, I mean.”
She roars this time. We’re going to get on.
We leave, companionably, hand in spectral hand. In the garden, Mama is still trying to dig.

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