May 7, 2021

Winter’s Reanimation (Chapter 1)

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I found his corpse after dinner on Sunday. Slumped over his desk, pen in hand, mid-sentence to some distant friend.  My grandfather might have been considered middle-aged by more modern conventions; might have been except that he was obviously and clearly dead.

I suppose I should have called someone immediately, but as I stood there, face to face with death, urgency fled, the sudden vacancy filled by my morbid curiosity. Instead of panic, I felt a voyeur-like thrill as I realized that, for the first time in my life, I had caught a glimpse of something few ever would: death and decay in all its unadorned, un-sanitized glory. I didn’t know how long he had been dead but it must have been a while, as even the continuous blare of his precious radio couldn’t dispel the disquiet that had enveloped his room and sucked the joy from the air around him.

Up until that moment, the stink of death had always been carefully tucked away from me, masked by rituals, polished, packaged and posed for ceremony. I had seen death only once before when my grandmother had died two years earlier from complications with cancer. No sooner had the news of her death been shared with me than I was being dragged by mother down the aisle towards a cherry red box with my grandmother wedged uncomfortably inside. Gripping my hand, my mother had hissed at me to lean down towards the box and pay my last respects. At the time, I hadn’t a clue what was intended by my mother’s instruction but, with my curiosity piqued, I was hardly going to give up the chance to look death in the eyes. So, with a quick intake of breath, I found myself peering intently into the box, dismayed to find a lifeless replica where my grandmother’s body should have been; a body as real as the wax fruit displayed on the coffee table at my Uncle Vernon’s but not nearly as scary.

Only later did I come to learn that the living preferred oil and wax mock-ups of the dead to the dead themselves. Seeing my grandfather hunched over, however, his skin a canvas of mismatched purple and blue, it seemed to me that the reality of death was far more interesting. After hours of watching crime scene dramas on television, I had come to think that the writers’ lacked inventiveness; their mechanical descriptions of death always seemed contrived or gross overgeneralizations of function. But as I studied my grandfather, I became acutely aware of how accurate the fictional descriptions had been in comparison to the reality before me. And while, at 16 years old, I wouldn’t have characterized myself as being overtly spiritual, it was clear to me that whatever essence I had associated with my grandfather had, by then, been dissipated into the ether, his body, cold and mechanical, the only evidence of his existence.

Tearing my eyes away from his morose features, I moved to the letter he had been writing, keenly aware that I was now intruding on the privacy of a man who, in life, had used every ounce of his energy to shut me out of his personal affairs.

That my grandfather had been writing a letter at all seemed peculiar to me since I hadn’t known him to have received or sent any mail in the 2 years he had been living with us. But more peculiar still was the subject raised by his letter. It was addressed to Frederick Mandryk, a stranger to me but, I presumed, of some familiarity to my grandfather. Each word had been etched faintly in red ink but there was no mistaking my grandfather’s exacting tone:

‘Dear Frederick,

The passage of time has robbed us, I’m afraid, of the chance to bridge the gap left by our last encounter. While I have never regretted my decision, I had hoped for a chance to explain myself. As it stands, all I can do now is pray that you will use the enclosed key to retrieve the package from its safe box and will take the necessary steps to share the profit equally among the group’s survivors. Surely there are some of us left?

I have no doubt that they will still be watching you, but, after all these years, I don’t think they know that I kept the box at the Uni –‘

As I re-read his short script, I realized I had been holding my breath, as the weight of my grandfather’s mysterious revelation settled around me. I re-read the letter once more, this time lingering on each word in an effort to discern the truth of its contents. He hadn’t finished his last sentence or his last word. From the context of the letter, I had to assume he was referring to a safety deposit box but with which bank? And where was the key he was going to enclose with the letter?

Before I could consider the matter further, I heard the fall of my mother’s footsteps on the stairs outside. She wouldn’t be happy to find me lingering over my dead grandfather and even less so were she to learn of my sudden larcenous interest in his secret treasure. Without hesitation, I stuffed the letter into my pocket and moved for the door. Mustering up my best impression of a distraught grandson, I pulled open the door and started towards her, tears welling in my eyes.

“Grandpa,” I said. “He’s…” I didn’t allow myself to finish the words. My mother moved past me on the landing and went inside. I had no doubt that she would work quickly once she found his body, all I could do now was wait and hope for a chance to find the key before anyone else did.

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