The Funeral of Isabella Bernard
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Bernard.”
A woman’s voice rings through John’s head, yet he does not look at the speaker. He stares instead at the casket in front of him being lowered on a strapped pulley into the ground six feet down until it lays beneath their feet. He does not respond to the woman, instead he tosses a handful of soil into the grave and backs away to wait for the funeral ceremony to begin.
He looks to his left to see who spoke to him, recognizing the stranger as the new Bible study teacher: young Miss Thatcher, the replacement of Mrs. Williams who “took a holiday” weeks ago and has not yet returned. Miss Thatcher only appeared around town within the past week or so, to get acquainted, he supposes. The new teacher feels vibrant with an optimistic glean in her ocean-blue eyes. She stands facing the open grave; her back kept straight in a corseted, dark gray dress tied about her frame, and a black wide-brimmed hat embellished with dark flowers and lace atop her petite, triangular face and yellow-blond hair. He thinks her to be overdressed for the occasion considering corsets are a dying fashion, and her hat is useless because the sun does not shine on this day.
No, the day on which this atypical circumstance commences brought typical spring weather: on-and-off rain with an overcast sky of gray rolling clouds, leaving the mud wet and the air sticky. Not quite the right kind of day to wear a summer sun hat.
With as much politeness as he could muster towards a stranger, he responds, “Yes, thank you. Isabella was our eldest.”
When he catches her eye, she smiles politely. He supposes her condolences are benign; they haven’t formally met other than a glance at the grocer or a passing on the street while John commuted to work. His job as the town’s only medical doctor requires him to get to know everyone’s business, and hers requires to be there—at the funeral hosted by the local community church.
Built at the founding of the town, the church’s structure was erected in 1811 made of gray stone and brick. The church itself has tall, thin arching windows and a steeple to match a subtle Victorian style. And they stand behind the church in is it’s graveyard. Once an empty field, it is now filled with headstones of the dying population of Blackrock, Texas. So far it holds an expanse of three generations of families, from great grandfathers to children born at the turn of the twentieth century.
It is not a large group of people who joined the funeral; outside of John, his wife—Jane—and their two younger boys, they were joined by the obligatory church group, Jane’s widowed sister, Laura, and a few folks of the town who have required John’s assistance within the past years and swore to be “there for him” if ever he need them. Sure enough, they appeared uninvited to his daughter’s funeral.
Leading the ceremony is the church pastor, Francis Connelly. A short man of stature with a stocky build, Connelly is not an intimidating man by sight, but by ear instead. His unlikely voice, ever so deep and powerful, booms through the graveyard, amplified by headstones and silence. He stands in a plain black suit with his arms folded in front of him, tucking a bible in his hands. He begins.
“Good afternoon, friends… family,” he starts, eyes connecting with each and every person that stands around the grave with their solemn, wet faces as he continues, “Our sister, our niece, our daughter, Isabella has gone to her rest in the peace of Christ. May the Lord now welcome her to the table of His children in heaven. With faith and hope in eternal life, let us assist her with our prayers. Let us pray to the Lord also for ourselves. May we who mourn be reunited one day with Isabella; together may we meet Christ Jesus when he who is our life appears in glory.”
Every word that spews from Connelly’s mouth just feels like polished shit. Isabella deserves better than fabricated eulogies given by church-going folk with facades and feigned sadness. One day they raise their pitchforks and torches, and then the next they wish to meet her in heaven.
She would hate this, John thinks. The committals, the eulogies, the poems. The sad, sad faces that look at the casket, wipe their tears, and then look at the ground in front of their feet, staring blankly at the blades of grass—counting them, perhaps, as one would count sheep—as the pastor drones on about eternal life and picnicking with God. It was hard not to imagine, really, what it would be like to picnic with the Lord, sitting by his side in a white flowing gown, hair down, and shoving a ham and cheese sandwich down your throat and toasting with red wine. In that image, John sees the teenage Isabella with her blond locks spilled about her, leaning back onto vibrant green grass as she looks up to God, who she knows for certain does not exist, and laughs with him.
“O Lord,” Connelly continues, “because God has chosen to call our sister Isabella from this life to Himself, we commit her body to the earth, for we are dust and unto dust we shall return.”
Ashes to ashes. The Great Giver of Life takes what he pleases, doesn’t he? John scoffs at the thought. He didn’t mean to. It came up out of him like a cough would, unsuppressed and untethered to etiquette and delicacy of the environment. It cost him a couple glances from others around the grave, and one smirk from Miss Thatcher, but he otherwise does not care what these people may think of him or his daughter. The idea that these folk’s opinions mattered was lost on him the very day they threw their stones without patience or understanding; the very same day they decided to shove their noses to the sky and turn their backs on him and Isabella. John shakes his head, pushing away the venomous thoughts that crept into his mind. They’re simple, John, remember that. They’ll cast their stones ever which way their shepherd demands.
“God of holiness and power, accept our prayers on behalf of your servant Isabella; do not count her deeds against her, for in her heart she desired to do your will. As her faith united her to your people on Earth, so may your mercy join her to the angels in heaven. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
A surge of “amen” spreads through the crowd as Pastor Connelly ends his prayer. One of the “amens” stood out, loud and tearful, and John looks across the grave, locking eyes with Jane who gave her golden honey-brown eyes to their daughter. Jane is wearing a plain black dress with buttons up the front and a long black veil sewn into a bowler. The veil does nothing to hide her furrowed brows, and accentuates her forlorn look so that one would assume she was in grief over the loss of their daughter, but John knows better. She’s angry with him and with the Lord. She’s angry at Pastor Connelly for never being able to truly cure their daughter of her sickness. John does not blame her for being angry, but he does blame her for everything else.
At Jane’s side, stands his two boys, Josiah and Silas. They both took after their mother with golden eyes and fawn-brown hair. Freckles speckle their cheeks and foreheads, running down their neck and arms. She had them dressed in black tweed suits and newsboy caps and black dress shoes. Seeing them like such little gentlemen pulls at John. He misses them so much. They look so tall now, being seven and ten. He almost doesn’t recognize them since his last memory they were toddlers yet, running naked through the house. He wonders what they like. Do they play sports at school? Or are they artists like their mother? These are things you should know about your children. Christ, John, what else have you missed. God, they grow up so fast. He wants to go over to them, to hug them and bring them back home. Everything he didn’t get to do the first several years of their lives because he was so caught up in everything else.
John looks back to Jane, but then she looks away from him, tears in her eyes. She takes the hands of their two boys and pulls them away from the grave, walking off as the burial of Isabella is concluded.
The gathering begins to clear, people departing in groups to seek out others around the graveyard and perhaps to sneak back into the church to indulge in the lunch reception the church offered. John looks to Miss Thatcher who continues to stand next to him, and returns a soft politeness, “Thank you for your help with the funeral arrangements. I was told you put together the bouquets.”
Miss Thatcher smiled, a pinkness rising to her cheeks, “Oh, you’re very welcome. I saw her portrait and thought the golden mums would look lovely next to it. She was an awfully beautiful girl. I’m so sorry she passed so young.”
“Yes, we all are,” John says, looking away for a moment to let a darkness pass over his face—one he felt and knew he was not going to be able to stop—before he looks back to her with a modest smile.
“Despite today,” he decides it’s best to change the subject, “are you enjoying your time in town?”
Miss Thatcher smiles and nods, “Oh, yes, very much so. Everyone has been so nice and helpful.”
“That’s good to hear. It’s one of the benefits of small towns. I heard you were transferred here from Charleston? Why the change?”
“Well, it’s a long story, but I have family here that took me in. I used to work as a bible study teacher there, and so I just transferred. The children have been lovely; much kinder than the city children.”
What an odd tale, John thinks. She’s so young and bright, he can’t imagine she truly comes from a city so far away. Other than her fashion, she fit into town quite well—already making friends and impressions on the folk from what he’s heard. She seems a little too nice for it all.
“Do you have children?” John asks, a devilish curiosity peeking.
She blushes, “Oh, goodness, no. That would be improper because I am not married.”
John nods, “Right. I suppose you don’t know what it’s like to lose a child then. You not being married and all.”
Her smile falters and she blinks at him. She gives a little shake of her head and a flustered wave of her hand, “I offer my condolences for your loss, Mr. Bernard. God bless you.” She takes her leave then, gathering her skirts in a hand to maneuver around the wet ground that sopped mud all over her shiny little boots. A sheep and their shepherd, after all.
Her place at his left side is replaced by a looming man in his early 60s whose power is just as mighty as the roundness of his stomach, Mayor Harold Raymond Parker of their little Blackrock. He stands as the latest of a long line of elected officials under the Parker name, and quite the largest, with a squinting face and balding gray hair that slumps around his temples.
“How’s the family, John? Holding up?” His voice rolls through the air, thick and heavy, loud enough for the remaining group to hear his concern in the Bernard family’s wellbeing.
“They're well, Harold,” John says, “Jane and the boys are staying with her sister in Dixon until we can get things in order.” Like the cleaning of Isabella’s room and the rumors about her death.
Harold claps John’s shoulder. “I understand. Good on her for continuing her womanly duties despite this. She’s a strong one. You seem to be doing alright there, too. But, John, I want you to take some time off. Use it to grieve and get your family…uh,” he shrugs his shoulders and rolls his hand around on his wrist, searching for the right word until he lands on “situated.”
Situated. The word hung between them like the elephant in the room, like the baggage John knows is there but refuses to acknowledge.
Harold nods, realizing the end of the conversation and then sets his hand on John’s shoulder again, giving it a squeeze, “I am sorry for your loss, but I hear that Jane is with child! Life goes on, it seems.”
“It does,” John says, then the mayor gives one last smile at John and turns to leave. John wonders how much Harold knows. He wonders how much Miss Thatcher knows that she wasn’t letting on. She has been in the town for over a week. Her job as the community bible study teacher requires her to talk to many people as John’s own job does. News gets around. Rumors spread like sickness. He wonders what contagion spread this time.
Everything starts to feel suddenly overwhelming. The questions hang in his head like a weighted blanket of snow, heavy and wet with ice. The look on Miss Thatcher’s face—she was trying too hard to be polite, tip-toeing around the real questions she wanted to ask him.
How did Isabella die, John? The whole town wants to know. In fact, I heard that—
Life goes on.
John’s chest tightens, burns like acid, leaving a sour bile taste on his breath. He wants to scream at everybody that still buzzes in the graveyard like flies. Eyes of the dead watch him by the grave, waiting for him to do something spontaneous in his solidarity now that no one was talking to him, offering their condolences. Would John sob at Isabella’s graveside now that no one was watching? He does not cry. How stoic. How strong. How strong, indeed? He isn’t going to give them the satisfaction of tears.
He was the last to see Isabella alive, I bet—
“I know you’d rather I didn’t offer condolences,” a voice speaks behind him, thick with a tired drawl. “And so I won’t.”
“Hey, Joseph,” John says.
Joseph Jenkins, a man John has known since childhood, stands next to him now. He does not look at John, nor does John look at him, but together they stare at the freshly covered grave of John’s daughter. And in that moment of silence, while they stand together as people who understand each other’s pain, the clouds part momentarily, opening an opportunity for forgiveness and childhood memories.
“Thank you,” John says, “For letting us bury her next to Tommy’s grave.”
Joseph shrugs, a weightless movement it seems now that seven years have passed since he lost his boy, “He would have wanted it, too.”
Considering all things, John isn’t sure that was true, but he’s not going to voice these thoughts. He wouldn't voice the doubts to anyone except Isabella herself who knew Tommy much more thoroughly than anyone else in town.
“They were good friends,” John says instead, keeping the conversation light and meaningless. Joseph nods. Neither of them were men of many words, and John doubts that anything more would come of the conversation, but he does admit that he is happy Joseph is there. After so many years of their friendship idling in the open, he felt an unusual bond between them now at the loss of both of their children. It sickens him, certainly, but he’s glad to share this bond with no one other than Joseph. A pang of regret strikes him when he looks over to Joseph and sees a contentedness on his face—or a complacency? How long had it been since he really talked to Joseph? Has he been losing people this whole time, he thinks, without even realizing it?
“Do you remember,” Joseph says, breaking John’s thoughts, “the stuff we would get up to when we were kids?”
Oh, boy, did he. John chuckles, “The nonsense we did.”
“Our children were no better than us, were they? The late nights, the antics, and the backtalk! Poor Mrs. Williams! It’s no wonder she didn’t just toss them onto the street every Sunday.”
“Just like she did to us?” John laughs. “That same day is when we went off into the woods…”
“And went to the lake.”
Joseph smiles, glancing over at John for the first time that day. It’s the first smile John has seen on his face in a long time. It falls, momentarily replaced by a devious smirk filled with memory. He says, “Death Island,” letting the weight of those words press into John’s chest.
“You almost died that night,” John says. “When we jumped into the water.”
“I still refuse to swim in lakes. God, I don’t even know how I let you talk me into going out there. But all I really remember is the three of us swimming out there, and then we camped on the island. What were we playing? Pirates?”
John laughs then, remembering parts of that day with a little nudge. “Yes,” he says, “Pirates. I had made a map with Petey, and we went searching for buried treasure. As if any real pirates would have wound up in the middle of Texas.”
They laugh together for a while, remembering as if they were boys again running around on the island with their stick swords and their bags full of snacks, fake pirate maps, and a pair of Petey’s dad’s binoculars snatched from the old man’s study from back home. The island itself wasn’t anything impressive—just a small stretch of dead and dying trees in the middle of Lake Redwater—but when they were kids, it was everything. It was freedom and promise of adventure, just a climb over the hills and then a hike to the lake, and then a swim to the most dangerous, snake-infested, tide-fearing, pirate cove the boys had ever seen.
But then, John stops laughing. He remembers the maps, vaguely playing, and then he remembers it getting dark—so, so dark—and he got scared. He remembers the feeling more than anything of that night. He remembers a weight in his chest, and then a crawling sensation down his neck. It was a suffocating feeling, like when he dove below the water and counted while holding his breath. He wanted to outlast both Joseph and Petey so bad. It would prove to them that he was better, that he was fit to be their leader. But he got to forty-four seconds, then shot up out of the water, coughing, scared and lightheaded. Dizzy and disoriented. It was the same feeling from that night, but he doesn’t remember what caused it. Something happened and then they ran. But what were they running from?
“Wolves,” Joseph says, answering the very question John had.
“Do you remember what happened to Petey?” John asks, looking at Joseph.
Joseph squints, hard against the sunlight. “That’s odd. I… don’t quite recall.”
Odd indeed. He doesn’t understand the feeling, but something began to itch within him, an irritation burrowing under his skin. Something is wrong about that night. Why can’t he remember? John shakes his head in frustration. He can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right about it or about anything, actually. The day feels off, and not just because he is at a funeral, no. Something is wrong.
“What do I do, Joseph?” John says aloud, eyes fixated on the freshly filled grave at his feet. It didn’t feel right knowing that Isabella is laying in front of him below the earth. He buries his head in his hands for the first time that day. He tried so hard to hold himself together, but the weight of it all began to push him down deeper and deeper until he feels that he, too, should be six feet down with his daughter. Nothing makes sense, and he was so tired—too tired to think about it all now and what he needs to do. Isabella’s death wasn’t natural, no matter what the coroner said. He’s dissected bodies and done autopsies. He knows what a natural death looks like, and that wasn’t it.
But pieces to solve this are missing. People are still missing. But this isn’t the time to delve into decades long cold cases that the sheriff decided weren’t worrisome enough to dig into.
Joseph nods, “Best thing to do right now is rest. It’s been a long two weeks. And I will tell you that it doesn’t get easier. Every day I think about Tommy and what I could have done different to make sure he got home safe. But it still happened the way it did, and thinking on it like I’ve been just don’t help nobody. Isabella’s death was not your fault, and you’ll feel better once you accept that. So, you go home. You tell Mr. Parker to call in some other city doctor for a few weeks, and you rest. And John?”
They look at each other.
“Please call me if you need anything.”