That night, he woke up, barely twelve hours after he’d died.
The logs of wood, turned to charcoal underneath him, still simmered gently. They couldn’t touch him anymore. He sat up, yawned and stretched his limbs and found the action unnecessary since they weren’t the least bit stiff.
He knew he was dead. He had figured that out almost immediately after he’d recovered consciousness, aided by his final living memory – his daughter nestling his hands in hers, various people standing between him and the two lovely French windows in his hospital room, looking at him, teary eyed and smiling, while he lay in bed, his own eyes moist and feeling claustrophobic. He shrugged and let himself smile. Although he’d much rather still be alive, now that he wasn’t, no point making a big deal out of it, he figured. He’d never been one for melodrama.
He wondered if he could recollect anything that had happened to him in these twelve hours. He felt he had been dreaming. He vaguely remembered visions of his daughter, on her haunches, sniffing softly in her room, curtains drawn, an untouched cup of tea by her bedside and a book, open and inverted, forming a tent on her bed. He thought this last detail important somehow, although he had no idea why. Her lips kept moving; what she said was inaudible, but there was another voice in his head that sounded just like hers, asking him to come back.
Well then, back he was. He dusted the ash off him and swung himself off the pyre, landing noiselessly on his feet. He stretched again, out of habit. The night was pitch dark; he estimated the time to be somewhere around 3 AM. There wasn’t anyone in sight. He took a few steps and turned to look at the pyre. He had of course seen several while he’d been alive and it pained him briefly to find his own not look very different from all the others. He shrugged again.
He knew his way around the crematory fairly well. After all, he’d worked there for over thirty years. He remembered the day, nine years ago, when he’d finally decided he was too old to be cremating other people. The two men who had worked with him for most of those thirty odd years, wordlessly going about their businesses through the day and sharing a few cheap drinks in the evenings, equally wordlessly, had offered him a warm send-off, even finding it in themselves to shed a tear or two. “Feels weird to be bid farewell like this when I am on my way out of a cemetery” he’d quipped. They had asked him to visit them sometimes when he felt like it. “The only time I am coming back now is when its my turn” he had said. Those two men still worked there. On his way out and on his way in, they had bid him farewell both times.
The small office building, where he’d spent so many days surrounded by stacks of files with records of dead people, stood silently in the night, bathed in the spectral luminescence of the full moon. The outstretched tentacles from the shadows of palm trees slithered and swayed gracefully on the walls, as if trying to rub the whiteness off them. He tried walking in through one of the walls and found he could not. He tried smashing his fist into the wall; the wall didn’t budge. His hand didn’t hurt either. He walked around to the front door and let himself in, thankful that they never locked the place. This wasn’t a place thieves were likely to favour.
His face in the bathroom mirror looked ordinary. He’d expected something a little more dramatic. He had walked up to the mirror with his eyes closed, stood for a while and exhaled deeply, before opening them. The face, of course, looked a little ashen, but that was because it had a lot of ash on it. He rinsed his face with water from the tap and found it easily wash away. He looked almost normal; even a little younger, he thought. Next, he washed his entire body, then dried and sniffed himself. He still smelt of burnt wood. He contemplated using some soap but decided against it. He wanted to feel a little dead.
The streets were, expectedly, empty at this hour. His, was a small town. He had walked back home after late night cremations several times over the years. It was something he enjoyed doing, especially in such moonlit nights as these, by the shuttered shops and houses with thatched roofs, the only sounds, that of chirping crickets, the gentle hum of the sea or a stray bark of a dog. A gentle breeze blew over the city, whistling lazily through the narrow alleys, bringing with it the whiff of the ocean.
By now, he had decided he would go back to see his daughter. He had brought the girl up since she was eleven, which was over fifteen years ago, after his wife had died of an unexpected heart attack. She had been burnt in that same cemetery. He had spent the rest of his life raising her as best as he could, which wasn’t very well. She had grown up unintelligent and unattractive. He had found her work as an assistant in one of the town’s grocery stores. He knew her marriage prospects were, therefore, never very promising. Besides, she was his daughter – the man who worked at the cemetery. Nevertheless, when she miraculously found a willing lover in a neighbouring town, he personally travelled there with his two friends and beat the daylights out of the boy.
The daughter had shown no real resistance. She had accepted things as they were and continued working at the grocery store and tending to her aging father.
At the sight of his modest two storey house, inconspicuous as ever, he slackened his pace. He spotted the dark silhouette of his daughter, sitting on the wide parapet of the balcony on the first floor with her back towards him, her head leaning against the wall at one end, staring into the distance. He crept through the shadows and found his way to the front door. There, he stood and gathered his thoughts.
Would she be able to see him? Or hear him even? What would he say to her? What would she say to him? Would she be scared of him? Would she even accept him as her father, come back from the dead? He had decided to propose to her that he continue being in that house forever and take care of her, now that he was not going away after all. But how would he broach the subject?
Like most houses in the town, the staircase leading to the upper storey was built outside, in the compound, grazing one side of the structure, allowing the space inside on both levels to be utilized better. He climbed up these stairs and pushed the door. It opened. He noticed his heart, which was was supposed to have been beating fast, was not.
Disturbed by the creak of the opening door, his daughter was already looking in his direction when he entered. At his sight, she gasped, half screamed, lost her balance and fell.
He raced to the balcony and looked down onto the fallen body of his daughter, the glisten of moonlight on spilt blood slowly spreading over the ground beneath her. He tried to scream and found he had no voice and jumped after her. He landed without sound, unharmed and ran back upstairs, screaming silently, and jumped again, landing, uninjured.