Very early on a bright, sunny morning, Marie LaRue finds her great-great-grandmother's corpse lying in bed. Marie's walked in on worse, though, and isn't upset like she was the first time. She takes the usual accoutrements of a resurrection from a drawer in the night-stand: two damp cloths to go over Frances's eyes, and a C# tuning fork to sound the life back into her.
These days, it's impossible to bring most people back. It's been hit-and-miss for a while now. When Marie's baby, Timothy, died, they couldn't bring him back. Not with all the money in the world.
But, for some reason, it's never been difficult to bring Frances back. It's so easy a child could do it. Frances doesn't know why this is. Marie doesn't know why this is. No one knows why.
When Timothy had died, Frances brought in choirs and ministers and paid half a fortune to famous resurrectionists, in spite of Marie's complaints. But it hadn't made the slightest difference. Whenever Frances dies, all she ever needs are the ordinary things. She's never even needed good cloth; Marie brought her back once with toilet paper.
Marie lays the rags over Frances's closed eyes and strikes the tuning fork against the palm of her hand. The fork hums and the damp cloths glow dully. A high wind rattles the windows.
Frances coughs and sits up. She reaches onto the nightstand for her glasses and opens her eyes. She smiles broadly up at Marie. Her wrinkled eyes shine.
"Marie!" she exclaims.
Frances looks around herself and sniffs wincingly at the air, in which hangs the faint odor of urine.
"Seems you were gone for a while that time," Marie says.
Frances nods slowly, before laughing. "At least I didn't have a big dinner," she says. "You've got to count your blessings."
"Well," Marie says, "What is it that you always used to tell me? 'The tuning forks are important, and so are the cloths. But the one thing that always gets forgotten is a new pair of underwear. No one ever thinks about that.'"
Frances lifts up the comforter and recoils at the smell. She doesn't even wear a diaper, though she's died at least ten times in the last two years. New pajamas, the oft-forgotten underwear, and bedding comprise a good portion of her current expenditures. You can tell yourself that urine and feces come out in the wash, but believing it is another story entirely.
"Well," Marie says, "You should get yourself cleaned up. I'll see you downstairs."
Frances has a hole out behind her old work shed for the garments and soiled bedding. Marie refuses to go back there, which is why Frances does it at all. Frances told her that it's for composting.
"Farmers do this all the time with horses, and I have a much better diet than a horse," she told Marie in the beginning. "Plus, when you're old, you’re entitled to be a little vile. My great-great-grandfather was vile when he was my age and, damn it, he had a blast. Right up until the very end."
Frances told Marie that she plans to start a garden out there, but she has no intention of doing so. The shed's had power running to it for a few years now, and Frances keeps a deep-freeze back there. She'd used it for meat, at one time.
Now, she uses it for Timothy.
After resurrections first got hard, most people found something else to steady themselves. Frances latched onto Timothy, but Marie latched onto cooking. If there's any food that needs making, Marie won't let anyone else do it.
She'll stand by the stove and listen to the sizzle and pop of frying eggs, the slow simmer of stews and roasts, the soft exhale of hissing pie crusts. She knows the spice cabinet better than the hair on her head and can grab powdered ginger, cardamom, oregano down without even looking.
Marie doesn't eat much, though. After Timothy died, something went wrong in her stomach that hasn't come back yet.
What she likes about cooking is that she understands it. She feels as though, whatever else may happen, she'll never wake up to find that the rules of cooking have changed. This comforts her.
Perhaps it shouldn't. Stranger things have happened.
When Frances comes downstairs, Marie's at the stove, wearing a bright yellow dress. She's frying bacon and boiling oatmeal. The bacon is for Frances. The oatmeal is for herself.
Marie doesn't like the taste of oatmeal, doesn't like the smell of oatmeal, doesn't like the sound of it gurgling while it cooks. But it's one of the only things she can keep down.
Like Frances said, "You have to count your blessings."
Although, if she's honest, Marie doesn't quite know what those blessings are supposed to be. That she can still eat at all, she supposes. That has to be something.
Frances walks up next to her and pulls the cooking bacon out of the pan.
Marie gives her a look and says, "I do not always overcook it, Frances."
Frances shrugs. "Not for a normal person. But who'd ever want to be that?"
"That would go a long way to explaining your 'compost' pile back there." She makes the quotation marks around compost with her fingers.
Frances laughs and puts a piece of bacon into her mouth. "You may be on to something there, Marie."
Marie takes her oatmeal and sits at the table. "You remember that we have the Weintraubs' party today, right? I was always fond of Barry, and I don't want you making a scene."
"I'm old, Marie. But I'm not senile yet. Of course I remembered." Although she didn't. Frances has always had a knack for forgetting things she wants to forget.
"Good," Marie says. "I'm going over after I finish breakfast." She eyes France, who still looks, despite everything, a little dead. "You should get changed first."
Frances tilts her head. "Are you sure you should go over so early, though? It can't be much past seven thirty yet."
"You know how they are. Up at the crack of dawn, down well after midnight. Just so alive." The way Marie says alive is full of understated reproach.
And, of course Marie's right. Much though Frances wishes she weren't.
After she finishes eating, Frances goes back to the shed. She likes to check on Timothy whenever she has a moment alone.
Truth be told, there isn't much in the shed anymore, except for the freezer. It sits low in a corner, quietly humming, surrounded by shelves. Frances lifts the freezer lid and looks inside.
Timothy was only an infant when he died, but the boy in the freezer looks older, around six or seven instead of one.
Frances likes to think it's because he can still come back. She doesn't know, though. He would be around six or seven now, but the whole situation is outside of her vocabulary. It's hard for Frances to wrap her head around things like this. Maybe her mind is starting to fray. Lord knows she's old enough for it.
Timothy had had his mother's brown eyes and father's black hair in life, even though there never was much hair and even though his eyes had burst when Frances first froze him.
She'd felt bad about that, but not worse than she'd felt about digging him up, or then going to such lengths to hide him from Marie, whose attitude toward resurrections had soured by then.
But, once Frances could figure out how to bring Timothy back, a new set of eyes would be an easy fix. She'd once seen a man brought back with a steel pole through his heart. The steel just fizzled away like steam.
Frances takes a tuning fork and two lace cloths from a box on a shelf. She drapes the cloths across the holes where Timothy's eyes had been. She lays a hand on Timothy's forehead and kisses his frozen cheek.
She breathes in deeply and then breathes out. A wind presses in through the open window which makes her think 'maybe.' She strikes the tuning fork against her palm and waits. Nothing happens.
When she gets back into the house, Marie's already gone.
The Weintraubs practice the new world's most popular religion. It teaches that death is an enviable position. Its adherents aren't allowed to be resurrected, aren't allowed to resurrect others, and are generally skittish around the once-dead, as though afraid something might rub off on them.
They always seem more alive, the people who follow it, than those who don't. The jury's out on whether this is due to the general old age of the resurrectionists, or not. When the believers die, they're brought up to the afterlife in shafts of blinding light.
Only the old stick to resurrection, if they can. The young have all seen the truth, and the truth is that resurrections haven't proven much that's truly lasting.
Sure, if you followed the path of resurrection in the old days, you had a certain power over death. But these days? These days, it's like rolling a pair of dice, and if they don't come up snake eyes, well, no elevation on high is in store for you.
Yes, you might come back. But, even if you did, you'd still grow old, feeble, gradually lose your mind. Frances knows she won't have much of one left soon. She's getting to that age.
You never know whether you can come back at all, until you have someone try it on you. And then, even if it does work, it's too late. Frances has heard stories of the otherwise perfectly devout, who'd signed secret pacts to bring themselves back, after. When the resurrections went awry, they didn't get a beam of light descending from on high to bear them away. On top of this, no one knows what happens to the resurrectionists after they stop coming back.
Marie wants that light, desperately. The only reason she keeps bringing Frances back is that Frances doesn't have anyone else. Sure, Marie's worried about having brought Frances back so often. Who wouldn't be? But, when Marie goes, Frances is under special orders to not pull any funny stuff. Marie hopes this will be enough.
For now, Barry Weintraub's dead, and his wife is throwing a party for it.
Marie brings them balloons.
Frances doesn't bring them anything.
When Frances rings their doorbell, Barry's little boy, wearing a rainbow-colored shirt, opens it. He looks Frances up and down, a little wide-eyed, before turning to yell, "Mrs. LaRue's here!" down the hallway. He waits a little longer, looking into the house, then glances at Frances.
"Thank you," Frances says. "I'm sure you can go back now."
He smiles at her and sprints down the hallway. Frances chuckles.
She walks through the house and out to the back yard, where Marie stands, talking with the boy's mother. The boy's mother holds one of Marie's balloons aloft and tugs on it every now and then, playfully. She doesn't stop smiling until Frances approaches. When Frances walks up, she scowls. The believers are often like that, around the resurrected.
She says something fleeting to Marie, and jogs off to an older man a hundred yards away. Frances watches her hand him the balloon, and sees him smile at it.
Marie gives Frances this look, like "Now look what you've done," but Frances doesn't return it.
"What were you two talking about?" she asks Marie.
Marie gives her another look. She doesn't say anything, though. She half smiles to herself.
Marie's wearing the yellow dress. It's bright. She blends in.
Frances is wearing a black shirt. She can't grasp the "excited-over-loss" thing, even if it does practically guarantee an afterlife.
She doesn't understand wanting to leave this world for any other, light or not light. Frances doesn't blend in.
Marie looks into the crowd until a young man in bright blue jogs up to them with a drinks-and-hors d'oeuvres tray expertly balanced on one palm.
"Either of you ladies like a drink?" the young man asks.
Frances takes one, but Marie excuses herself with a small frown at the food, as though thinking she could have made it better, and walks off. Frances stands, sipping the drink and watching the crowd. The man jogs away, and Barry's little boy takes his place.
"I'm sorry for being rude, before," the boy says. "Mom says that I shouldn't be rude to people, even if . . ."
Frances takes another sip. She always knows what's coming with believers. The boy digs a toe into the dirt.
"I was wondering," he says, "why you keep coming back?"
Frances sighs, but the boy's looking at his feet and doesn't hear her.
"I mean," he continues, still looking at the ground, "Mom doesn't trust that stuff. But you do. But now dad's gone. But mom says he'll go up to heaven in a beam of light. She's read me stories about how it happens. She's showed me pictures of it. Do you like light, Mrs. LaRue?"
The boy looks up and Frances raises her eyebrows at him. She shrugs.
She lifts the drink to her lips. "I like it well enough. But don't you think that it can be too bright sometimes?" she says.
The boy smiles.
Frances stays for another drink, and to watch the Weintraubs joke and laugh with one another. Their smiles are too broad to not be true.
Barry's little boy isn't jubilant. He's normal, like Frances is normal. She doesn't know whether to feel good or bad about that.
But, regardless of what she should feel, she's hopeful. And that, in turn, makes her feel weird. The weird feeling is a combination of guilt and realization.
She'd never thought of herself as being old, but she is. Her whole life, the world had been one way.
Now, well . . .
When she was a girl, maybe seven or eight, all the young people had moved on from horses to cars. No one bothered with horses except for her own great-great-grandfather, who'd been nearing the end of his time as well. Maybe what Frances feels now is the same thing that he'd felt when she asked him to teach her how to ride.
Maybe she feels that, although the world moves quickly, it does not forget, nor really change. Or, at least not as much as you might think.
Maybe she feels that the way the world was is still the way the world is, if people would just look around and notice.
Frances finishes the drink and leaves. No one comments on it. Not even the little boy. But she knows they see her go. Their smiles fade and their eyes dart past, as though they're afraid to be caught looking.
When she gets back home, she goes out to the shed and opens the freezer. Little Timothy stares up, eyelessly, at her. She wonders what world he sees from those sockets. She's never seen the afterlife, but that doesn't mean it won't exist for her, necessarily. That doesn't mean it won't exist for Timothy.
Frances is struck, in that moment, by how uncertain the world has become in her lifetime. How could it be that not bringing a child back would ever be considered the right choice? Timothy'd never loved, never mourned, never had a chance to bring much of anything to them all.
How was letting all that go justified?
She takes the cloths and the tuning fork down again and she lays the cloths over Timothy's eye-sockets. She draws a deep breath and says a little prayer.
"Please," she says, "I know that this may not be right, and I know that, whoever you are, you might prefer I just left him be, so that he can come up to you. But I can't just leave him be. It makes no sense to me, these new things. I can't understand them. Please. I'm only trying to be good as I know it."
Frances waits like that, letting the prayer hang around her lips, listening for a sound, a whisper, any noise that will tell her what to do. But the shed is silent and still.
She strikes the tuning fork against her palm. Its sound is like the only sound in the world. It hangs, suspended in the air, slowly dimming into nothing.
Frances walks back to the house through the silence.
Marie returns much later, well after the sun's set, with so much more energy than she should have at that hour. It makes Frances wonder. She bounces into the house and fully pirouettes over to where Frances sits, watching her.
"Frances!" she laughs, "you have to come outside and see this! Barry's ascending!"
And he is. High in the night sky, next to the slivered moon, Barry floats. He's wreathed in white and glows so brightly that the moon beside him is like little more than light under a doorframe, the slightest hint that someone is on the other side, waiting for him. He looks out at the whole world, his smile so full that his very eyes shine.
He spreads his hands and a high wind blows his hair around. He laughs as it tugs at his arms, and his eyes alight on Frances and Marie, standing there on the ground. He looks long at Marie, and he looks long at Frances. His gaze shifts to the shed, where it lingers.
The light wreathing him wavers, and Barry looks up at some unseen thing far above him. He listens to something that only he can hear and he nods up at whatever is up there. He laughs, a mirth-filled laugh, as though some obvious secret has just been revealed to him.
Barry turns to look down at Frances and Marie. He seems like he wants to speak, but he can't stop laughing.
Finally, he says, "Hello down there, girls! You look so small from all the way up here!" His words are sparked with joy. "It's not too late! I'm supposed to tell you! It's not too late!"
A funnel of light descends from some unseen point in the sky and envelops him. The light draws the laughing Barry up and up, past the moon, past the stars, into the pressing night, and away.
Marie hugs her mother, crying. "He's right," she says. "It's not too late. It's not too late."
And maybe it isn't.
As Frances goes to sleep that night, one thought comforts her. The world is not, cannot be, changed. It only slides more into, and out of, focus. Even now, it is as it always was. And someday soon, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, we’ll all wake up and see it.