Fiction from Carolyn Fagan
The five friends were buried together. The sixth one couldn’t make it. She needed to be buried with her husband, her children—her family, she said. The five had sensed this long before the planning and planned accordingly when it came time. By the time the sixth friend needed to be buried, there was no question with whom she would be buried. To ask the question, sometimes, is to make the choice.
Three of the friends had significant others close by: a wife, a lifelong boyfriend, a husband. They were cushion, padding, additional joy to lives already full. The significant others were let in on certain secrets. They entered parts of their respective romantic friend with fingers and other appendages that the friends had never tangibly explored between themselves.
They built homes with their friend. They listened as their friend cried or yelled or whispered anger or resentment about the other friends. But they watched, too, at times with jealousy but often with relief, as the friends found and rewound themselves against each other like phone cords around wrists, slinky cats around ankles. They understood that the burden of being everything to someone could be too heavy to bear and they thanked their friend’s friends with lavish wedding, baby shower, Hanukkah, etc.-gifts. They accepted their plots with steady, simmering gratitude that they were loved by someone with so much love in their life already.
Two of the friends had argued at first with the other three. To be buried, they explained, was a waste of precious land. The environment, they explained, was collapsing under our very feet. They didn’t even know if their kids would live the entirety of their lives with clean water, breathable air. They pleaded to burn. We can have our dust sprinkled in all of our favorite places, be together everywhere we’ve loved and where we’ve loved, they said. The three friends looked at one another. They exchanged side calls and emails, leaving the two out, for the next several years, developing their argument. They chipped away at the two with visits to graveyards, beachside and firefly-haunted. The two folded when the three conceded to save up extra for compostable caskets.
One of the friends wondered for a long time: Will the entirety of my life be summarized by these women I’ve loved, yes, but watched make choices I would never make, heard say things I’d never say? Women I’ve had my heart broken by when they did not show up for me at times I needed them most. She loved them. But was all she was, them? Was there any her to her?
She died first. And as she was slipping away, feeling death run warmly through her body to take her like a sweet-breathed friend, she thought finally of how she couldn’t wait to be with them, whether in the unknown halls of an afterlife or in the rain-soaked, mossy nothingness of the graveyard they’d chosen. She breathed out, happy.
They all thought of it in different ways, what it would mean to rot together, forever, side-by-side. Would one of them be bones, while another, newly arrived? Would worms and bugs bite bits of each of them, bring them together, again, in one digestive track? Would they filter through their compostable coffins into each other’s dreamy skulls? They thought of this and more and more and more, and while they wondered what their families and friends would think and say to them while they were alive, they never once considered what would be thought when they were dead. Names piled atop one another, bodies next to each other, years beginning with the same digits, then fanning out to their different conclusions.
They never thought what people would think of five women who couldn’t die without one another. What could it mean? They never thought to ask, but they already knew. Sometimes to not ask the question is what lets trees grow from seed, survive to anciency despite lightning, despite fungus, despite woodpeckers, claws of bears, sugar-powdered dreams of Christmas kids.
The last one lived so long beyond her friends. Her husband died thirty years before and she’d never love someone like that again, but she was okay. When the second to last of the friends died, though, leaving her with nine years to herself, she felt as if she’d deflated—her skin a balloon, now sagging, now purple. Her body translucent, veins slow and swooshing. She hoped for her heart to stop, (felt ungrateful), knew that life was beautiful, propped up pictures of her children, grandchildren, on mantles and counters. She looked forward to their birthday calls, holiday hugs. She watched TV late into the night, pain in her knees and anthology of memories trudging through her mind, holding her sleep hostage. Don’t grow old, she told her grandkids, sometimes with an accidental intensity. Don’t let all your friends die first. The grandchildren called less and less, but she looked at pictures of them and loved them so.
One day, ankles swollen beyond walkability, she crawled to her living room. In the corner, beyond the pictures of her kids, were framed photographs of the five friends.
They had been young, she knew, those memories crystallized inside her, blinding her brilliantly and frequently with the drama, the high stakes of youth. Then they were less young, but so young still. Skin taut when they’d already thought they were old. They’d still had so long to go.
Then, grown, they had held each other through real darkness swallowed into mundanity. Heartbreak that bruised them lifelong, miscarriages and cancers, loss of parents, of dreams, of things they thought they’d be. Her hands, now, were so different from the way they used to look. But she loved their thin stillness, their quiet, papery tolerance. When her heart gave out, she knew that was the last of them. A life, she knew, complete.
Carolyn Fagan lives and writes in Rhode Island. This is her first published story.