I told her not to marry him, but always the romantic, my baby sister didn’t listen. An elopement, and we all expected the worst, but they waited a respectable two years before producing one son, and then another year before the second. Still — that house they bought, out at the end of a dirt road, with those fields. For horses, Jewel had said, clasping her hands. I’ve always wanted horses. And Philip gave in to her, probably even encouraged her.
Well, now we saw where that got her. Massive cerebral hemorrhage leading to a heart attack, from being thrown from one of those damned animals. She fell onto a stone wall. Early morning, an accident no one saw. Across the aisle in this dreadful funeral chapel, Philip sat straight-backed between the boys, Robert and Randall, all of them looking like they hadn’t worn suits anytime in the past dozen years. Philip, blinking as though he might cry, as though Jewel’s death meant something to him. As though he wasn’t happy she’s dead. My youngest sister.
“Come sit with me and your aunts,” I had suggested before the service, putting a consoling hand on Robert’s — or Randall’s? I could never tell them apart — elbow. Just to guide him. Oh, I saw the wince, saw the way he looked to his sleeve wrinkling under my fingers, the glance he threw to his father. Sure, he was polite enough in his refusal — “Thanks, but I think Dad needs me” — at least Philip had schooled him that much. I could only fume as I slid into a chair next to Janet and Janelle.
But the casket. The open casket. The pancake makeup couldn’t disguise the swelling on the left side of Jewel’s face.
“Why?” I had hissed to my sisters.
My middle sister’s eyes were locked on her hands, folded in her lap. “He said the boys wanted it.”
“No sense of dignity.” I couldn’t keep my own eyes off Jewel’s distorted profile. Couldn’t look away when the older brother approached the casket to fasten a locket around my dead sister’s neck. I saw the dull glow of gold in his hands, the glint of some stone — probably a scrap of cut glass. When he returned, Philip reached for him with a shaking hand, put his arm around the boy as he sat. If I had been Philip, I certainly wouldn’t have flaunted Jewel’s injuries like that; if I had been Philip, I would have let as few people see them as possible. My face grew hot as I thought about this. My hands were shaking; Janelle put her own over them. “Stop, Jerri,” she said.
“I told her not to marry him, didn’t I?” I whispered. “All those years ago.”
“Not the time.”
The service progressed. Quickly, surprisingly so, as though everyone had somewhere else to be. The minister, though: a woman. Again I pressed my lips together tightly. He should have left the arrangements to us, because obviously Philip had no idea how we did things. I shot another glance across the aisle. He had an arm around each of those boys, his face a mask of grief. A mask.
“Amazing Grace” was printed on the back of the thin sheet of paper we’d been handed at the door. We sang to a recorded organ, and that was it. I looked around, and found the funeral director and his flunkies were directing the mourners up from the back, but then realized people were being sent to condole with Philip and the boys, and back down the center aisle. Shrugging aside Janelle’s restraint, I stood at the end of the row and held out a hand to some people I didn’t recognize — friends of Philip’s, no doubt. “Thank you for coming,” I said. “I’m Jewel’s sister. These are her other sisters, Janet and Janelle.” Several people looked back at Philip, but shook my hand and moved on.
The chapel empty, Philip looked over at me. “Will you ride to the cemetery with us in the limousine?” he asked. His voice sounded strangled, as though he couldn’t bear to speak to me.
“No,” I said.
“We’ll meet you there,” Janelle broke in quickly. I glared at her. “I’ll get the car.”
I watched Philip take the boys’ hands — holding their hands, and they twelve and eleven years old — and move down the aisle. He stumbled slightly, and one of the boys steadied him: I wondered if he’d been drinking. My two sisters fell in behind them, and I was left alone.
With my youngest sister, and her ruined profile. Slowly I approached the open coffin, and looked down at Jewel’s reconstructed face. My dead sister. You never should have married him. You’d still be alive. My hands gripped the wood. Against her dark blue dress, the boy’s locket was stark and dull, the tiny fake diamond glinting like a single eye. I reached out and prodded it with a finger. The cheap lock sprung open, and I saw the pictures, one on each side, of the boys. The children she’d had with Philip.
A quick look over my shoulder — I was still alone — and I bent down, undid the clasp, and pulled the cheap thing away from her neck. As I shoved it into my pocket, I saw the rings on the finger of her left hand. I had to work them a bit, but they came off, too, the gold band and the solitaire diamond. Just in time, for there was a noise from the hallway. I thrust the rings into my pocket as well and hurried toward the door, nodding once to the funeral director as he stood aside to let me pass.
Anne Britting Oleson has been published widely in North America, Europe and Asia. She earned her MFA at the Stonecoast program of USM. She has published two chapbooks, The Church of St. Materiana (2007) and The Beauty of It (2010).