“Ascendency” by Quinn Lui


Maybe it’s sacrilegious, but I’ve never been devout, and with a corpse at the front of the room, I can only think that humans never look closer to apes than when they’re dead. Skull sloping back, mouth pushed out — the resemblance is striking. Or perhaps the poor soul responsible for making him look presentable was just having an off day.

My mother returns to her pew in the front row, smiling. It’s not a rictus smile like you’d think; she’s smiling and her father is lying in a coffin and I wonder if this is how it’s supposed to go. If putting your parents into a box and then into the ground is something to look forward to. If there’s something wrong with her. Or something wrong with me, for not having any of the answers.

The yarn-flower pinned in my hair slips another inch down and I wish it would fall out entirely. Get it over with. Funerals are terrible in the sense of terribly boring. Marcus and I play chopsticks from across the aisle, hands flicking out from our laps when our parents look away, every finger’s tap over-exaggerated in deference to the distance between us.

“Let us bow our heads for a moment of prayer,” says the pastor. One of them. Five total are scattered around the room; grandfather had more friends than anyone knew. Hopefully there was a catfight over who would lead the ceremony — no. Hopefully not. I would hate to have missed it.

I duck my head, wait a second for the pastor’s voice to slide through dear heavenly Father and whichever other titles are the flavour of the mouth. When I lift my eyes to scan the room, Marcus returns the gaze like a challenge: I won’t say a thing if you don’t. I let a smile curve the right side of my mouth, soulless as winter: but of course, cousin.

The pastor’s voice is a muted cicada hum, rough on the eardrums but steady enough to ignore, his words rounded. All the better for ceaseless droning, lazy as the aimless drift of the snowflakes outside. And then, finally — “Amen,” he says.

“Amen,” intones the audience: the relatives, the friends, the acquaintances looking to score a free buffet lunch. I keep my mouth buttoned shut and avoid my mother’s pointed gaze. There isn’t a good enough reason to pray, today.


♦ ♦ ♦


There isn’t enough room at the church’s cemetery to fit another grave. There hasn’t been for years, and so grandmother, too, was buried on the side of a hill half an hour north of here.

“I think I would’ve liked to be a gravedigger, once upon a time,” I tell Marcus.

He raises an eyebrow. I’m thinking of a small-town lifestyle, not more than a death a week, the work quiet but for bird cries and the dirt, tumbling. I know he’s thinking that I’ve got about as much upper body strength as his four-year-old brother. No matter. I’m lying, anyway; he always knows.

The hushed breath of the wind is the only kind of silence in the hills, broken again and again as the mechanical claw digs deep, backs up, beeps and beeps. It retreats one last time and I watch the coffin sink into the soil, watch where its sharp edge grinds against the ropes lowering it down. What if the lid isn’t on securely or the ropes snap? Ignore that I haven’t seen a single fray, yet — just consider it. Perhaps it would shock something more than a pleasant smile from my mother’s face. Perhaps grandfather’s body would settle below the coffin rather than above it. Perhaps there would be nothing inside at all.

Grandmother’s headstone had her husband’s name and birth-date carved on it for years. When we visited, I would slide my fingers over the blank space left for grandfather’s date of death, to see if stone has a memory that runs in reverse. It doesn’t. Unless my hands were too insensitive to tell.

Her headstone — their headstone, now — is nowhere in sight. I suppose they moved it somewhere so that the new grave could be dug. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. And then the box is in the ground and I’m looking at the places where the remnants of my mother’s parents are to rot until they diminish into nothing, and trying to feel something, anything, and finding nothing at all. My mother believes they’ve found each other in heaven, and of course who am I to argue with that smile, but if I agree I’m thinking I should be happy too.

In a scattered drove, we step up to the maw in the ground, wind whipping soil grains out in streams like tear-tracks. The earth is salted with flower petals. I slip a stray one into my pocket. I hope no one sees. I hope if anyone does, they don’t mark it as sentimentality.

When the stragglers go up to pay their last respects, I hang back with Marcus on the other side of the road through the cemetery. It’s as far as we can go without our parents finding us outright rude, a perfect middle distance found through a decade’s worth of visiting grandmother here.

“Do you believe in heaven?” I ask him.

“You know I’m getting baptized next month,” he says.

I do know. But I also know that sometimes that means less than what it could.

“If heaven’s real,” I say, “then they’re not here to hear us say anything anyway.”

He hums in response. What I don’t say: if heaven’s not real, either they’re here and I can give my last message to them from the far side of the road if I want to, or they’re nowhere and there’s no way they’ll receive it anyway. What I don’t add: I have nothing to say to them.  

Quinn Lui is a Chinese-Canadian student and writer attending the University of Toronto. At this very moment, they are probably loitering in a bookstore, spending too much money on bubble tea, or listening to their plants converse with the moon. Their work has been published or is forthcoming in L’Éphémère Review, Synaesthesia Magazine, Occulum, and others. You can find them @flowercryptid on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr. 

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