Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un
“I don’t want to give a bad impression about myself, that I am a death worshiper, or that any inquiries made into my writings or philosophies might lead someone astray. I am absolutely and unequivocally pro-body. Look at me, I’ve built my body well through the discourse of healthful living and fitness. But you cannot criticize me for my work. Nor any other houses of death for that matter, where people readily don’t accept the realities of bodily mortality,” said Mr. Latombe.
The interview evolved into a danse macabre of two voices. Tony felt the jitters of coffee on an empty stomach. What a place to interview such a decrepit old man, he wondered. He felt the anger of corrupted association, the once upon a time purity of a child’s past being desecrated by freshly formed memories. I played soccer in this church yard, but Latombe wouldn’t have it any other way, he thought to himself.
“Why do you think that mausoleums are preferable to a plot of dirt?” Tony asked. “If you look right behind us there’s a graveyard by the church. As a religious man you must admit your essays against burial are radically unorthodox.”
“I find that people are very disconnected from history, especially that which is most recent. Let me tell you a story from my days as a student. When I was young I was extremely romantic, something I find today to be so critically lacking. At the tender age of 22 I was studying journalism just like you. Except near the tail end of college, I received a study abroad scholarship to visit France. It was all expenses paid too, beginning in Paris, traveling westwards down through Nantes, and then to southern Marseille. Two weeks mostly to myself. I was enthralled at the idea of meeting likeminded poets, to stumble through streets chaste only to my words. They were marvelous times indeed. Here, this is a poem that I published in an old expat journal ages ago.”
He handed Tony an original copy out of his briefcase. Handling the amber vellum with careful palms Mr. Latombe placed heavy emphasis in caution. “Please, read it out loud,” speaking to Tony with the frail tone of an old artist. And so Tony read: “’Long were the women’s garbs, the kaleidoscopic streams of silken liquid, shapelessly pouring out of shops down a road’s cascading bends. Bright peacocks walking riverside to lunch, emblazoned vermillion bolts, bold demonstrations of violet, collared paisleys of Persian gold, emeralds unfair to nature basked amidst a flood of the beautifully dressed people reeking of perfume.’”
Continuing on his own Latombe read, “’Carriages wet with pangs of gaudy lacquer, women ornate, men decorum clad, brazenly chieftain eyed, a French avenue, watching and being watched on this very long stage.’”
“I’m sorry but what does any of this have to do with your mausoleum company?”
“Fine. I’ll cut to the chase.” The old man sighed. “That year I had my first real encounter with Death. And it was not adjacent to the spires of Notre Dame, nor in the famed catacombs of morbid curiosity, not even in the abstract tomes of stoic literature. But it was in the summer of 1926, near the end of my trip, I had to conceal the real purpose of my visit. I needed to find my brother trapped deeply below the poppies of the Somme. Always proud of his homeland by birth, my older brother Charles Latombe enlisted as a foreign combatant of French blood into the armed ranks of his countrymen. He sadly perished on July 1st, 1916. To speak honestly, my brother was beyond burial and had been totally dissolved by the bizarre implements of war. There was truly nothing left of him but a letter sent to me the night before… Would you like to read the letter?”
As an uninvited echo, the voice of the deceased was embalmed eternally in the surviving brother’s mind.
Tony listened. “’Lonesome, a petal skinned cloud blossomed wearily on Earth’s nightside where the gaslike vapors of prayers curdle out of heads through sleeping ears and condense into the atmosphere.’” He spoke his brother’s last written words, “’Tomorrow the cloud will come and drift over my head and it will rain hard on me.’”
The interview slowed to a confession. “When the sun came up after two days of digging tooth and nail I found only wet dust. And that morning light I suddenly became strangely ill. It became unbearable to watch that river lining the Somme, or the scarlet poppies being born out of the marrow-rich soil. I had read that the Ancient Greeks and Hindus had the good sense to at least burn their dead. In my hotel dining room built upon catacombs I drank in the rainfragrant truth of morbidity. As above, so below. It had all made sense. I realized in an epiphany the truth that the dead crowd the living. They lie thick in the cities. They throng the valleys in which we walk. They mingle with the flowing streams and the running rivers. And we drink the dead.”
Latombe’s eyes glazed over as Tony’s nervous jitters replaced tone deafness. The pair was mute, and Tony’s eye jutted upwards at a silver airplane tearing overhead through the blue slit sky.
“Thankfully for me the mausoleum business will always be in vogue. Even for those bright peacocks walking out to lunch.”
Based on the story of Vance Thompson and his essay
Millions of Dead Poison the Living, Reading, Pennsylvania 1915.