I'm still searching for a home for this one. Inspiration struck when I researched mourning customs online one day and Victorian mourning jewelry. I discovered there's an entire profession dedicated to recording a loved one's likeness, as they are ill and crossing over into The Beyond (whatever that may be for you.) I wondered, "What would happen if I wrote story about this profession?" And Into the White came forth from the sea of my imagination.
Into the White
by Nora B. Peevy
“Death doesn’t scare me. Pain scares me. I wanted it to be quick -- a flash of lightning in the dark. I didn’t want to be a piece of fruit rotting on a vine.”
I nodded to Sean, quiet. My name’s Demetrius. I’m a memorial portraitist. It’s my job to record the likeness of the dying, to give them companionship and their families some closure. People often ask me where they go when they die, and my reply is always the same, “Where do you want to go? Because that’s where you’ll end up.”
Truthfully, I don’t know what lies beyond death’s door, but I do know what lies before it, people who are suffering. What harm is there in easing their pain before they go? Most of them, like Sean, just want someone to listen. I squinted, erasing a line here, smoothing a line there, and shading in another shadow with my charcoal, the soft whisper of my pencil recording life passing on paper. Sean is dying of cancer, something I am trying not to focus on because of my own scare right now.
“I used to do what you do.” Sean’s lips, cracked with sores, bled. The nurses gave him some medicine, but it didn’t help much. Of course, that is not the way I drew him. He hired me, not his family. And he wanted his portrait done, minus the physical imperfections Death bestowed on him.
I sat up in my hospital chair; it’s one of those supposedly comfortable recliners, inevitably always broken and more uncomfortable than the nights I spent as a kid, camping on the hard ground in my backyard. It isn’t often I meet someone in my profession. It’s sad; a fellow artist lies before me, underneath a piece of generic hospital art with a plastic-lined pillow and a bland beige blanket tucked in around his shrinking frame. I wonder if I will have the same courage as Sean does when I go; I don’t know. I won’t sleep well on crunchy pillows, though.
I tried imagining Sean in his youth, picturing him as a grand character from The Great Gatsby with a quiet, regal aura about him. I find a sense of calm in his eyes, misty with cataracts, but once a bright blue. He’s suffering from dementia or so the nurses say. Frankly, I have no idea what they are talking about, but maybe, he’s having one of his good moments. Still, it is sobering to think it will be me lying in a similar bed one day. I shift in my chair, imagining the quiet tumor growing in my groin. I want to scream and run away and rip myself from my own skin.
Sean reached a shaking hand for the glass of water beside his bed and I noticed he wore a wedding band.
“What did your wife think of your profession?” I worked on perfecting his hands as he spoke.
“Oh, she didn’t mind it. She likened me to a spiritual counselor for the dying. She always loved my work -- said I had the eye of an eagle and the hand of a gentle shepherd. I drew her portrait for our first wedding anniversary.”
“Do you see them leave?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand -- see who leave?”
“The people whose portraits you draw. Do you see them pass over?”
“No. I’m usually not there when that happens.”
“But you’re one of her helpers.”
“One of whose helpers?”
“Why, Death’s. You’re one of Death’s helpers, aren’t you?”
“I wasn’t aware that Death needed any helpers. I thought it was a one-person job.”
End of excerpt