The mortician had spent the night before alone with the body, perfecting its features in the basement hall of the funeral home. He had sent all of his assistants and staff home early, after they had finished the embalming and dressing. With a collage of photographs taped to the inside of the casket, the mortician sculpted Henry’s face with extreme delicacy and care. The man was so focused that he could not truly see the dead face of Henry Sawyer, only the small parts of the face that made it unique. The centimeter stretch of stubble under Henry’s left jaw that he always missed while shaving. The scar hidden under Henry’s right eyebrow that few people knew existed.
With only one lamp bulb illuminating the dead man’s face, the mortician made shadows across Henry’s neck with each miniscule adjustment of expression. The lanky mortician spent more time and care on the perfect reanimation of this one face than he had spent sculpting the faces of every departed body that had come through his funeral home in the last year. He had taped Henry’s photographs above the body, but he didn’t consult them. The mortician’s fingers teased the face of Henry Sawyer into a natural expression through muscle memory. Once he was done, the mortician stepped away from the body without looking at the full face he’d sculpted. This is probably why he failed to notice the constricting tie around the deceased’s neck.
When guests passed the dark wood grain of the casket the next day, they stared in, expecting to see a shadow of Henry, some blank remnant they couldn’t quite match up to the man they knew in life. Instead, they found Henry lying as if he’d wandered into the chapel and decided to take a nap in a box, an action that most people who knew the man could expect of him. This vision made the mourning guests uneasy. “A dead body shouldn’t look that alive,” one man whispered to his neighbor.
Henry’s widowed wife, Miriam, was most surprised by the semblance of the lifeless form in the coffin to her husband. She saw in his face details that she knew she’d observed in his life, but had never fully recognized as unique to Henry. Only someone who knew Henry’s face and expressions intimately would have appreciated and acknowledged the expression the mortician had given the man in death. It was an expression of love.
Henry’s Adam’s-apple strained against the white shirt collar and tie just like it had in life. Resisting the constraints of formality, Henry had loathed any event to which he was forced to wear a tie, no matter the joy of the occasion. Even in death, Henry had requested the absence of what he referred to as “the modern noose,” but his wife only supplied one suit to the thin and lanky mortician. So, at his funeral, while he looked as if he was holding a secret behind his empty eyelids, Henry’s throat seemed to strain with protest against the necktie. Miriam recognized that even the subtle smell of formaldehyde seemed natural. When she stood looking at her husband, after everyone but the mortician had left, she smelled the formaldehyde, and the pungent odor reminded her of the lingering scent around Henry’s collar when he would climb into bed late at night.
Miriam had only consciously recognized the scent the first time Henry had come home late. Eleven years into their marriage he had crawled into their bed, softly and stealthily, like a leopard with padded feet, thinking Miriam was asleep. She hadn’t been asleep though, and as soon as Henry was settled and comfortable she’d asked, “How was work dear?” emphasizing each syllable.
“Oh, fine,” he had answered hurriedly, with a sour stench of alcohol spilling from his mouth. “A few of the fellas went out for drinks afterward and I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“No, I don’t mind,” she’d said as she’d rolled to face the blank wall. Miriam had battled inside her head about whether or not to ask him directly why he was lying to her, but a great part of her body did not want to know the answer. So the couple had reclined in silence, Henry’s accelerated heart, the only sound. Miriam had stared though the black at the blank wall on her side of the bed and used every other sense to collect information about Henry’s claim. She’d heard his heavy breathing, and felt the immobility of his drunken body sag into the bed. She’d felt his warm and wet breath tangle itself into her hair the way fog weaves its way through a dense forest. Closing her eyes she had heard Henry’s heart slow to the consistent and plodding beat of a sleeping man. His tongue had clicked twice against the roof of his mouth, the way it always did just as he fell into sleep. Then, in the instant before she herself had turned her mind toward dreaming, Miriam caught a slight scent mingled with and overpowered by the tang of alcohol. She hadn’t identified the syrupy smell at the time, and had completely forgotten it until the moment she leaned in to kiss her dead husband’s forehead. In this moment she recognized that the faint odor Henry had carried on his neck nearly every night since that night, thirty-two years ago, was the smell of formaldehyde.
As Miriam came to this realization the scent grew stronger and completely wrapped around her. She turned to step away from the casket, but bumped into the lanky mortician. Startled, she let out a small yelp.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Sawyer. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“Oh, no. I just didn’t know you were there Mr. Colter,” Miriam said as she collected her nerves. “Do I have to leave now?”
“No. You can stay as long as you wish. Would you like some company?” the mortician asked, his eyes fixed on Henry.
Miriam followed the mortician’s eyes to the face of her husband and took a step back, slightly overwhelmed by the preservative smell that came from Mr. Colter’s skin. “Did you know my husband?” she asked.
The mortician’s eyes turned away from the dead man’s face, but did not meet Mrs. Sawyer’s. “No Mrs. Sawyer, I never had the pleasure. I only knew him by name and reputation. I offer my sincere condolences though. For I know, the loss of a love is the greatest loss one can endure.”
Miriam looked at the perfectly preserved face of her husband. “Yes. But I look at him now and I think he’s going to open his eyes and tell me this has all been a joke. I mean that look on his face. I remember that look. That was his damn look.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well every time Henry had a surprise or a secret or was hiding some sort of lie, he’d get that damn look on his face,” Mrs. Sawyer said with watery eyes.
“Do you think Henry was keeping something from you Mrs. Sawyer?” the mortician asked, his wrinkled mouth stretched tight.
“Oh, no.” She paused. “I just don’t know what he’s taking with him. I don’t think I could have asked either. It’s too late now. I— I just don’t know.” As she said this the dam of her tear ducts cracked and her green watery eyes became dripping pools. The mortician watched, then seemed to remember his job and reached his long-fingered hand to rest on the widow’s shoulder. “Oh no. Don’t bother with me Mr. Colter,” she said collecting herself, “just an old woman swallowing the questions she never had the courage to ask.” She turned and gave the mortician a weak smile.
“We all have those regrets, do we not? Well, I can only hope that you find peace and comfort Mrs. Sawyer.”
“Thank you. You’ve been so kind through all of this,” she replied, wiping the tears from her cheek and leaning in to hug the thin mortician. She kissed his cheek and he hesitated, but then caught himself and kissed hers as well. When he pulled away the widow was overcome by the embalmed smell of the man’s skin, and could only think of the subtle smell on her husband’s neck. The mortician didn’t look at the widow, but focused his eyes on Henry’s closed lids. Then his gaze fastened on the tie around the body’s neck for the first time.
“Take as much time as you need Mrs. Sawyer. Excuse me.” As he said this, the mortician stepped across Miriam’s body, reached into the padded casket and loosened Henry’s tie. “I’m sorry to interrupt your grief. If you need anything, I’ll be in my office,” the mortician said quickly, turning away from Miriam. Miriam thought she heard a slight catch in the lanky man’s throat.
As the mortician stepped down the center aisle of the chapel, Miriam could almost see the musky preservative scent drifting from her husband’s body, past the rows of hard wooden pews, and into the hallway. Then Miriam noticed that her clothes smelt of formaldehyde as well. Every place the Mortician had touched her, his scent lingered. She thought of the tiny kiss on her cheek and the faint and inexplicable odor on Henry’s neck. Her eyes shot wide as she connected both scents to the mortician’s lips.
She spun her head and looked once again at her husband’s face, noticing that in the slackening of his tie, his expression had changed. Henry’s Adam’s-apple had sunk, and with the morticians soft loosening of the knot, the devious look had vanished and transformed into a lax and comfortable smile that Miriam had never seen on her husband’s face. Now the man looked like a corpse, and the shallow pools in Miriam’s eyes spilled once again onto her soft, wrinkled cheeks. Henry had no more secrets to keep, and Miriam stood alone in the funeral hall, silent, and staring at the face of a man she no longer recognized.
James Buscher was born in Casper, Wyoming and raised in Kalispell, Montana. He studied English Writing, Literature and Education at Carroll College and has since made Helena his home. James writes poetry and short fiction, often inspired by his time as a mountain guide in British Columbia and his constant wrestling with the Biblical text.