Mr. and Mrs. Roderick Funn, proprietors of Funn Funerals, were taken ill together and died within hours of each other. When Mrs. Funn, who hung on a little longer, had finally breathed her last, Dr. John Woodbridge (still seven years away from passing in his sleep in his armchair with a glass of port at his elbow and being replaced by the, at that time, still young, fresh-faced, and idealistic Dr. Henry Edgeware) set down his stethoscope on the bedside table, stood up, and shook his head.
They had died in their own bedroom at home, of course, as most people in the village of Piffling Vale died, considering that they hadn’t yet built a hospital and all medical care took place in the form of house calls. The Assistant Mayor, or rather Mayor now, after the most recent election, kept assuring everyone that a hospital was on the way, and that he had big plans for Piffling Vale. But at any rate, the hospital hadn’t been built yet, so when Dr. Woodbridge left the bedroom of the former proprietors, it was to find the new proprietor watching the door wordlessly, his mouth set in a thin line and his fingers nervously tap-tap-tapping against his crossed arms.
The new proprietor was the late Mr. and Mrs. Funn’s nineteen-year-old son, a short, scrawny boy with large brown eyes in a pallid face and his black hair neatly parted down the middle. He’d been learning the business, these past few years, hovering like a shadow beside his father at the funerals, his black suit a smaller, slightly newer version of the older Funn’s. He was, unfortunately, an extremely unpleasant boy, much given to silent, resentful-looking scowls.
He was not wearing a scowl, though, when Dr. Woodbridge met his gaze. His eyes were wide in a face gone terribly blank. He looked very small, and very lost.
Dr. Woodbridge had never been particularly fond of Rudyard Funn, nor had he ever been particularly good with comforting grieving young people (he found he could no longer quite remember what it had been like to be young, but he assumed he had not been quite as foolish as the young people of today; he preferred to talk to people his own age), but he still put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and said, gruffly, “It’s done. They passed peacefully, son. They’re in a better place now.”
The boy looked up at him, and for a moment Dr. Woodbridge thought he was going to say something sincere, something about his feelings. That would be awkward, but Dr. Woodbridge could handle it. He was used to it, it was part of the job.
Instead, the boy cleared his throat and said, “Thank you, Doctor. I… I need to go. I need to plan the funeral.”
There was only one funeral home in Piffling Vale. Well, of course, that was how it had been for centuries, since the Middle Ages. There was one funeral home, there always had been one funeral home, and there always would be one funeral home. That was just the way it was.
And it was a family business. That was a respectable thing, a good thing. Everyone knew you could trust family businesses. That was what the late Roderick Funn had always said.
It was a good thing, that there was one funeral home. It was a good thing, that it was a family business. But Antigone Funn had to admit that, at that moment, those did not seem like good things.
Because there was no one else to embalm her parents. Antigone Funn had to do it herself.
“You’re being foolish,” she muttered to herself as she straightened her row of scalpels. “It’s just another body. Another two bodies. You’ve embalmed people you know, er, knew, before.”
That was inevitable, really. In a town as small as Piffling Vale, every body was going to be someone she knew. And she had learned at her mother’s side, as her mother had told her, “Respect is the thing, dear. You must show respect to these people, just as you would have when they were your living neighbors. But it’s important not to let the feelings in. Because they aren’t your living neighbor, not anymore. This is the last bit of respect you can show them, but the feelings must be over now.”
The feelings must be over now. It was what Antigone tried to repeat to herself, over and over, as she prepared them, one beside the other on their separate tables, her mother and her father. The feelings must be over now.
Easier said than done.
She prepared her tools. They hadn’t always been perfect, they hadn’t been the closest family. But… They had been warm when she had been frightened, they had been solid when she had needed comfort.
She turned to the bodies and ran through all the steps in her head, just in case. They had been hers, they had belonged to her.
They belonged to no one now, except the slab, and after that, the ground.
She got to work.
When she was done, she carefully cleaned everything, double and triple checked the bodies to ensure she’d done everything right (they were her first and second solo embalmings, after all), then went into the little storeroom off the main room of the mortuary, sat down on the floor against the wall, put her head in her hands, and stared hard at the ground.
She wished, oh she wished so terribly much, for silence, for peace and quiet and no responsibilities, just for a moment, so she could get her whirling, half-coherent thoughts in order.
She was sure that was all she’d need, just a little while of quiet and she would be back on track. She’d be just as she was before…
Before she’d lost them.
The funeral was set for two days after Mr. and Mrs. Funn had died. Most of the town of Piffling Vale turned up, if only to say they had observed that great irony, the funeral of the funeral directors.
Was that irony?
Or… something else?
No one was quite sure, but they were all sure it was something. (No one exactly knew what was irony and what wasn’t, anyway.)
A few of them even remembered to murmur some soft and bland condolences to the lonely figure standing beside the open graves, dressed in that suit that was a smaller, newer image of his father’s. The son had been quiet and calm, staring into the distance like someone who had come home from a war as he ran through all the responsibilities of the funeral director. Each pat of a hand on his shoulder, each “I’m so sorry for your loss,” seemed to rock him back on his heels as if he’d been pushed.
At last, when even Reverend Wavering had offered some words that didn’t seem to land in the boy’s mind and made his way down out of the cemetery, Rudyard Funn was left alone with his thoughts and his parents’ graves.
The plot that the Funn family had staked out for its own use, centuries ago, was not the highest point in the cemetery, nor the most beautiful, but it had a view of the sea and was near a very impressive weeping willow. Stone by stone, they had followed each other into the earth, and now “Roderick” and “Abigail” were the words carved on the newest stones, two people reduced down to a few letters. Rudyard let his eyes wander to the empty space beside those stones. One day there would be other stones there. One of them would be his own.
Suddenly the quiet of the cemetery, which had always been comfortable and peaceful before, seemed oppressive. He couldn’t stay there.
Every word that anyone had spoken to him, these past few days, had tangled in him like a fishhook, and he’d felt like words were about to be dragged up out of him. He’d felt like he had to talk, had to say something, and it was only an iron sense of decorum that had stopped him spilling his guts to these virtual strangers he’d known all his life.
He’d tried so hard not to disturb Antigone at her work. That was what his parents had always told him, don’t disturb Antigone, she’s learning how to do the embalming, she’s the one with the knack for it, I just don’t think you’re cut out for it, Rudyard, so leave it to Antigone and don’t disturb her.
And that’s what he’d done, yesterday and today, knowing that this was the most important funeral either of them had ever done.
But it was over. She wouldn’t be working now, she wouldn’t be busy. He could finally talk to someone, someone he could trust, not like all their ridiculous neighbors who hadn’t even really liked their parents, who had just showed up as if they belonged there.
He thought that, if only he could have someone to talk to, if only he could get all these words unstuck from him and out in the open, that would be all he’d need to put himself right. He’d be just as he was before…
Before he’d lost them.
When he made it back to the house, he was surprised to find Antigone up out of the mortuary and sitting at the kitchen table. She hadn’t been able to come to the funeral, of course; her allergies were so severe that their parents had always said it was better for her to just stay indoors. But he knew she liked the mortuary best of all the places in the house, and had assumed that was where she’d be when he returned.
She was staring at the wall, her face still, her hands clenched tight around a cup of tea on the table in front of her. There was another cup of tea in front of the seat next to her. She gestured awkwardly to it.
“Sorry,” she said, in that quick, muttering way she said things when she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to say. “I thought you’d be back sooner, so I made it too early, but it should still be hot. It hasn’t been…” she trailed off, stared at the wall for a moment, glanced back at him, took a sip of her tea. “It hasn’t been that long,” she finished, in a small voice.
“I…” He finally made himself move, cross the room and sit down at the table. The tea was still hot, not scaldingly hot like he usually liked it, but still giving off a bit of steam. When he took a sip of it, it felt extraordinarily comforting. “Thank you, Antigone.”
They weren’t as close as they once had been, hadn’t been in a few years. Teenage angst had hit both of them hard, turned all their secret games and confidences into quarrels and sullen silences. It had been a long time since they’d waited until their parents were sleeping and snuck out of their rooms and into the mortuary to spook each other in the dark, or sat in the sunny spot in the living room with their colored pencils and sheets of paper, Rudyard drawing and Antigone spinning the stories of the fantastic creatures he came up with. They were long past those days, and they didn’t share those inner spaces of their minds anymore.
But she had made this tea for him. They were sharing this now. He was absurdly touched. It was such a small gesture, but it felt like the world.
“Everything go well?” she said without looking at him.
“Yes,” he answered. He wasn’t quite sure what else to say. It had been a funeral. The bodies had been put into the coffins, and then into the ground. It had all gone according to the schedule.
He wasn’t sure what else to say.
“Good,” Antigone said, and took another sip of her tea.
“And… for you?” he asked.
“The embalming went perfectly,” she said, a little testily, as if he was questioning her expertise.
But that hadn’t been what he was asking.
Now was the time. He could ask for what he actually wanted.
“Antigone,” he began, and slowed, because when had it become so difficult to start a conversation with his sister? Had this been building for the years of sniping at each other, or was it this one, single, terrible day? “Now, look here, Antigone,” he said, starting again, trying to find his momentum, “I appreciate the tea. Maybe, maybe after we’ve had it, we could go sit, have a glass of something, and…”
“I…” Antigone cut him off, her face twisting in something like panic, the way it used to when he’d threatened to tell one of her secrets to Mother or Father, even though he never actually followed through on those threats. “Sorry, Rudyard, it’s been, it’s been a long day, and I didn’t get much sleep, last night, with… everything. Can we, can we tomorrow? Please?”
Rudyard nodded, reluctantly, and Antigone quickly finished her tea and took her cup to the sink and mumbled something and rushed off to the mortuary stairs.
With a sinking feeling, Rudyard realized that she didn’t want to talk about it. She always got quiet, when something went wrong, when she was unhappy, when she wished things were different. Usually he left her alone until she emerged from wherever she’d been hiding (usually the mortuary) and they carried on as if nothing had happened.
But this was different. This wasn’t a lost toy or a disappointing mark on a test or anything like that. This was their parents, and they were gone. This was different than anything.
She had to want to talk about it. His thoughts were circling a bit desperately now, clinging to that thought: She had to want to talk about it. That was what people did.
She just needed some rest, and she’d see that they should talk about it. She’d see in the morning.
He just needed some rest, and he’d see that they could talk about it later. He’d see in the morning.
Antigone held to that thought, as she obsessively cleaned and re-cleaned the mortuary tools and surfaces. She knew he got this way, when he was upset about something, he didn’t even want someone to talk with, just someone to talk at. She’d bitten the bullet and endured for his sake, every time he had some disappointment in his life, listened and occasionally nodded while he worked himself up and rambled and raged and finally got it out of his system and could carry on as if nothing had happened.
But this wasn’t any ordinary humdrum hurt or frustration, after all. This was so much bigger, so much vaster. This was their parents, and they were gone. This wasn’t something that could be talked away in an afternoon, this was a loss like nothing they’d ever known before. It had wounded them both; her sitting and listening while he ranted wouldn’t fix anything.
He had to realize that, that this was big enough that they should take some time to come back to themselves. They would have time to talk about it, later; they would have their whole lives to talk about it, maybe. They would talk through the grief, and then they’d managed to come back around to the happy memories, and then maybe they would be able to reminisce, here and there, whenever they needed to, forever.
But it couldn’t be now. Not right now. He’d realize that, once he’d had a bit of time. A little peace and quiet would do them both good, probably, not just Antigone.
She finally went up to bed in the small hours of the morning, curling into her covers and letting her exhaustion silence her racing thoughts. She slept so hard that when she woke up, she couldn’t remember any dreams, just a vague, pervasive sense of unease. The sun was coming in through her windows, bright and intrusive; she didn’t usually sleep this late. She must really have been as tired as she’d said.
When she went downstairs, she found that Rudyard was awake before her. It wasn’t too much of a surprise, considering how late she’d slept and the fact that Rudyard was almost as much of an early riser as she was. Nevertheless, when she spied him in the kitchen, fiddling with the kettle, she tensed and frowned.
It was okay. It was only her brother. He’d understand, today.
“Good morning,” she said carefully.
Rudyard jumped a bit, fumbling his grip on the kettle for a moment. She almost wanted to roll her eyes. He never paid attention to what was going on around him, it was why he was so bad at the fiddly work of embalming.
“Good morning,” he said, with a false note of cheer in his voice. “I’m just making some tea. You don’t have anything to do in the mortuary today, do you? We have eggs and bacon, we could have breakfast, and… have breakfast and… talk.”
He looked so hopeful. He wasn’t really a person given to smiling, of course, but he had other ways of looking hopeful, or happy, or content. She felt her heart sinking. Why was he being like this? Why couldn’t he just leave it alone? She was hurting, too.
“Rudyard,” she said, wishing she was better at expressing herself. She never did seem to be able to make people understand her when it mattered. “Rudyard… I can’t. Not right now. Can’t we… later? I just need some time…” she trailed off, helplessly.
There was a moment, where her words hung in the air and the kitchen was full of the potential of their interaction. They could make any choice, have any outcome. Then Rudyard’s hopeful look vanished off his face, and he set his jaw and furrowed his brow in what she privately referred to as his “I’m practicing to be a disapproving old man” look. And all the possibilities collapsed down to one, and it was a disastrous one.
“Well, really, Antigone,” he said sternly, and the only reason she didn’t immediately cross the room and smack him in the face was because his voice cracked a little bit, on the end of her name. “This isn’t any old thing. This is our parents we’re talking about.”
And just like that, any goodwill or understanding she had for him vanished. How dare he. “And, what, you think I don’t care about them? That I don’t miss them? Just because I don’t want to uselessly blather on about them for hours on end like you do about everything?”
He had hunched his shoulders as she spoke, curling in on himself and leaning away from her. She realized that she was doing the same thing, both of them moving like magnets trying to get away from each other, but it was too late for her to do anything with that knowledge now. The whole thing had a momentum, it was spinning out of control.
“What, and you think you’re so dignified for acting like nothing happened? You’re just being the same creepy loner you always are, it’s no wonder everyone in town thinks you’re mad.”
“I’m not pretending nothing happened, and I’d rather be mad than be you, everyone in town thinks you’re a pompous bore, it’s why,” oh, no, she was about to cut much too deep with this one, “it’s why no one wants to spend time around you, everyone’s just glad to see the back of you!”
Ouch. Even Antigone winced. But silence had barely descended before Rudyard was riposting, “Oh, and you’re so much better, you’re like a human Halloween decoration, no one wants you around for anything but the novelty of how disturbing you are…”
And so it went, on and on, and Antigone thought that her brother must be feeling the same thing she was, deep, deep down, buried under the anger and grief, that same regret that it was happening at all, the same desperation to put a stop to it before…
“And if they could see you wandering the house like them dying meant nothing to you…”
“And if they could see you prattling on about them like you owned them…”
Too close. Too close. They were getting too close to it…
“You know they were the only ones who cared about you, and now they’re gone!”
“You know they were disappointed in you, until the day they died!”
Oh. There it was.
That’s the problem with having a twin, someone so close to you that you used to be pressed together in the womb, someone who felt sometimes like your only ally, someone who was occasionally all you had.
They always ended up with the things you hid in the deepest, darkest parts of your heart, even if you never meant to give those things to them. How could anyone hurt you worse? How could anyone even know how?
Once, when Rudyard had been thirteen, his physical education teacher had gotten fed up with not being taken seriously by his students, and had delivered an ultimatum. He would set a fitness test, to be passed within the next month. At the end of the month, the class would have lunch in the gym, and everyone who had passed the test would get ice cream. Everyone who didn’t would have to sit on the other side of the gym and eat their lunch with no ice cream at all.
This would have been bad enough, but it got steadily worse and worse as the month went on, as even the kids who didn’t really like physical education started to think that maybe they wanted that ice cream, started to put in the work and pass the fitness test.
As the date set for the ice cream lunch got closer and closer, it became more and more clear that the only one to fail to pass the test, the only one to sit alone and eat their lunch in shame, would be Rudyard.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t trying. He was trying desperately. It was just the way he was made. He couldn’t help that he found it almost impossible to build muscle, or to put on any weight at all, really. He couldn’t help that he couldn’t concentrate on what his body was doing, that he always tripped over his feet or even ran into walls if he was thinking about something, that trying to control what his arms were doing would mean that he immediately lost control of what his legs were doing. He couldn’t help any of that. But it wasn’t going to matter at the end of the month. He was still going to be all alone, all eyes on him, the one single person who couldn’t do this most basic thing.
The longer the month went on, the more miserable he became. His parents didn’t notice him moping about the house, they were far too busy, but Antigone did, and finally badgered him into telling her everything.
The Funn family had a special arrangement with the school for Antigone, given her allergies, that she only went to school when she felt up to it, when the weather and the plant activity was just right, and did most of her school work by correspondence, with Rudyard bringing her home the assignments and taking her completed work in to give to the teachers. Antigone was technically enrolled in all the same classes as Rudyard, but rarely attended any of them in person. So she missed out on a lot of the delightful miseries that Rudyard endured. But she listened to him talk, for perhaps an hour, and didn’t point out when he teared up a little bit.
She hadn’t had any answers for him, any way out of the situation, but she had listened. And then, on the day of the ice cream lunch, she had insisted to her parents at breakfast that she felt well enough, that the day looked good, that she would be fine going to school.
And because she hadn’t been to physical education class in upwards of three months, she hadn’t passed the fitness test. It had still been awkward, the two of them with their bagged sandwiches, listening to all the other children across the gym exclaiming over chocolate and vanilla and strawberry. And when they’d gotten home, Antigone’s eyes and nose had been running, her face had been red and she had been obviously miserable, and their parents had scolded Antigone for not being careful enough, and Rudyard for letting it happen. But he hadn’t been alone. That was the key thing. He hadn’t been alone.
That was how he knew that it would be alright. That was how he knew they’d get through this. No matter how much they’d irritated each other, they’d always come through for each other.
They’d both gone too far. He could admit he’d said things he regretted. But Antigone would come through for him again. She would apologize, and then he could apologize, and then everything would be alright.
Once, when Antigone had been twelve, her mother had gone to a funeral with her father and Rudyard. This didn’t usually happen; Abigail Funn was not particularly interested in the funereal process outside of the embalming. She usually stayed behind with Antigone, who of course couldn’t go. Too many trees and grasses and flowers in the cemetery, and usually the grieving families weren’t in the proper state to see a child in a bubbly astronaut suit bouncing around.
Her mother wasn’t usually particularly lively company, but it kept Antigone from feeling lonely.
But that day, because the deceased had been someone the Funns had been moderately social with (as much as the Funns could ever be social), Abigail had decided to accompany her husband, and of course Rudyard had to come, because he was supposed to be learning the business, all the ins and outs of the actual ceremony itself.
And Antigone had been alone in the house.
It shouldn’t have been so bad. She spent a lot of her time alone. But somehow it was different. It wasn’t just being alone. It was being left behind.
She had tried not to let it weigh on her. She had tried to get her homework done, review the battered old copy of Principles of Anatomy that her mother was having her study, anything at all that could be called productive.
She had failed. She had ended up just sitting on the sofa, staring out the window at the world outside, feeling sad without quite knowing why she was.
She was completely shocked when Rudyard had come barreling through the front door, over an hour before her family was due to come back.
“What are you doing here?” she had asked.
He had scuffed his feet in their good shoes against the floor and said, as if he was giving a presentation in front of the class, “I told father I wasn’t feeling well. He told me I could slip away from the funeral and come back here to lie down.”
There was more to it than that, of course, Antigone knew that very well. Rudyard had once stood patiently at their father’s side at a funeral with a 103-degree fever and only let on that he was sick when they’d gotten home. Anything for their father’s approval, that seemed to be Rudyard’s way of life, and their father had probably pursed his lips and shaken his head at Rudyard shirking his duties.
But he had come here anyway. And he didn’t look sick at all. The only thing that had changed between this funeral and all the others was…
She was here alone. And lonely.
“Here,” he said, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out three odd, angular constructions of paper. “There were some extra programs printed.”
He let the papers fall into Antigone’s hands, and she realized that he had carefully folded some of the program sheets into the shapes of flowers. They were a bit clumsy and misshapen, but she thought they looked a bit like daisies, with bits of writing all over their petals. She’d kept them for years, in her bedside table. Their parents had sighed with disapproval when they’d come home and found Rudyard upright and seeming fine, and their disapproval had extended to Antigone, too. But she hadn’t been alone. That was the key thing. She hadn’t been alone.
That was how she knew that it would be alright. That was how she knew they’d get through this. No matter how much they’d irritated each other, they’d always come through for each other.
They’d both gone too far. She could admit she’d said things he regretted. But Rudyard would come through for her again. He would apologize, and then she could apologize, and then everything would be alright.
Antigone was up before Rudyard the next morning, but only just. She started the kettle on, got down two cups for tea, peeked in the refrigerator before realizing they didn’t have anything for breakfast. They hadn’t been thinking about doing the shopping the past few days. So instead she just leaned against the counter and tapped her fingers nervously against her arms until Rudyard came in a few minutes later.
“Kettle’s on for tea,” she said.
“Mmm,” he said. “Thank you.”
And they waited, and they waited, for the kettle to boil, and for the other thing they were both waiting for. But expectant waiting can look a bit too much like cold silence from the outside, and, as they both waited, something started curdling in both of their minds.
Why should I have to apologize first? She was wrong, too.
Why should I have to apologize first? He was wrong, too.
And the kettle boiled, and they prepared their tea, and the expectant waiting really did turn into cold silence, and she went to her mother’s mortuary and he went to his father’s office and that was all.
And the silence stayed, and grew colder and colder, until it seemed to only ever be broken for sniping and sarcasm and anger.
And that was all.