by Justin Williams
The funeral fell on a Saturday and the casket felt much too small. The perfume of lilies and daisies filled the sanctuary, ghost-white blooms balanced on every stem. Virginia lingered near the casket, waiting for her family to arrive.
She tucked a chestnut curl behind her ear and studied the floral arrangements, caressing the elegant lilies resting peacefully in their displays. It was the daisies she admired most, though, their brave faces opened wide to the world. She wished she were still so brave.
Virginia had never seen so many flowers in the church at once, and as she drifted away from her casket, she couldn’t resist pulling a handful of daisies from the spray beside it. They shone even brighter in her hand.
Several flowers wilted in the display behind her; she hoped nobody would notice.
Virginia began to braid a few daisies the way her mother once taught her. The flowers felt stronger in each other’s embrace. She slipped the others into the deep pocket of her cloud-white gown and looked out over the empty sanctuary. On any other day, she would have felt quite comfortable lingering at the front of the church.
Today felt different. It was still April, she was sure, but the light through the stained-glass windows shone too dim for spring, and the room had the chill of late autumn.
And Virginia had never felt so alone.
She began to braid another daisy into the chain.
A steady clip-clop of hooves beat just beyond the church doors. Virginia listened for her mother among the rustle of mourners descending their horses and carriages. Then the church doors pushed open, and the black-clad crowd began its slow march inside. Behind them, the sky hung with a thick darkness. There must be a storm blowing in, she thought.
Virginia’s great-aunt slid onto the organ bench, and a soothing melody began to float from the pipes. The gathering separated to find their seats, and Virginia finally found her parents among them. Her mother collapsed into the front pew, draped in a bombazine dress the color of smudged mascara, a matching scarf hung around her neck. Virginia’s father sat beside, wearing a black suit and a cravat as dark as the circles beneath his eyes, and took his wife’s black-gloved hand in his.
Virginia wished she could cheer them up. She wanted to tell them she was trying to be brave, that they didn’t need to worry. She wanted to tell them she was safe, even if she wasn’t so sure herself. She would have said anything to see a smile on her mother’s face.
Grandma Nell dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief as she settled in next to her son on the bench. “Feels like your father passed just yesterday,” she said, tucking her handkerchief into her purse. She smoothed her dress and the matching black shawl she wore over it. “It’s too soon for another funeral. Far too soon for this one.” She reached again for her handkerchief.
Virginia had begged and pleaded to say goodbye when her grandfather died, but wasn’t allowed at the funeral. She wondered if she would’ve been allowed this time, if there had been a choice.
Tears traced her mother’s face, and Virginia, for a moment forgetting she was dead, went to her and kissed her cheek. The slight stick of her mother’s makeup was gone, though, and there was no saltiness to her tears. There was only loss.
Her mother shivered.
Virginia sat in the aisle next to her family, hugging her legs. Her usual place, nestled between her mother and father, was gone. Her parents now clung to each other, for life. She was afraid to drift too far away, though, and so stayed close beside them. Her uncle, the preacher, began to speak from behind the lectern.
“I struggle to find the words today,” he said in his exaggerated drawl. “Our dear Virginia Rose has passed on to God’s care, and though we know it’s to a better place she goes, saying goodbye remains a difficult task.”
For Virginia, his familiar voice was like a warm blanket in winter, a comfort for the strangely cold spring day.
“The psalm tells us to be unafraid,” he said, beginning to recite the verses, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
So many shadows, Virginia thought. When she was alive, she was old enough not to fear the shadows in her bedroom. But now, shadows walked freely. Shadows chased her. Darkness followed her, and it seemed to be everywhere, engulfing everything she once knew. The world had become like the negative of a photograph. Only her house and the church had held their color. That was all the evidence she needed to know these shadows were evil.
Virginia crouched closer to the pew and pulled another daisy from her pocket as her uncle continued.
“I will fear no evil,” said her uncle. “That’s easy for a mighty king to say, but I will be first to admit that sometimes fear is hard to keep at bay. Sometimes it feels impossible.”
Several among the mourners nodded their agreement. Others simply pulled out handkerchiefs and dabbed at their eyes.
“But I tell you now,” her uncle continued, “it is only through fear that the light of your courage can shine through. Lean on your Lord, brothers and sisters, and it will shine like the sun.”
A scattered chorus of amen came from the congregation, but nobody put away their handkerchiefs.
Virginia had felt quite clever avoiding the shadows as she followed her body to the church, or was it as it pulled her? She wanted to have courage, to be brave, but there was still so much she didn’t understand. So much to fear. What would happen when that body left the church? She couldn’t be blamed for being a little scared.
More than a little, if she was being honest.
When her uncle finished the psalm, her father rose to take his turn speaking, and Virginia shifted quickly into his place on the pew. She felt safer there, shielded between her mother and grandmother, and soon she forgot to be afraid. Her grandmother pulled tighter her shawl.
Virginia’s father held the podium, as if needing the support to stand, and said, “Ginnie was—“ he breathed deeply, as if searching for air. “I have notes,” he continued, struggling to pull a paper from his pocket. Finally, he had smoothed it out on the lectern. “I’m sorry. Ginnie was our angel. She was bright and curious, clever and beautiful. She’d twirl at a tea party and chase frogs at the creek, all in an afternoon.”
A shadow emerged behind her casket and Virginia’s feeling of comfort disappeared.
A vague and dark shape rose up with bone-white eyes and a ghostly flame dancing upon its head. Virginia covered her mouth.
The negative man hovered at the casket and bent nearer to the child inside, searching. Virginia drew closer to her mother. Her mother pulled her scarf closer to her neck.
Her father continued, “She never backed down from a challenge. Even when she—“ Her father wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. “She kept fighting to the end. There was no stopping—“ He struggled to continue, softly sobbing whenever he tried.
When her grandfather died, that was the first time Virginia had seen her father cry.
This was the second.
And then the shadow snapped straight, and swept up beside her father. It paused there beside him, and for a moment, the shadow hovered above the crimson carpet of the sanctuary. Then it disappeared into the natural shadows of the mourners seated across the aisle.
Virginia rushed to her father and tried to hug him, for his comfort and hers. Her arms passed through his body like a dense fog. She could almost feel him, but not quite, not enough. She felt only helplessness.
Virginia looked to her mother. She wanted to turn everything back to normal, to make everything—everyone—happy again.
The negative man emerged from the shadows.
It slipped right into her place on the pew and sat, waiting. Virginia reached for her father, but she grasped nothing.
The shadow reached for Grandma Nell.
For all she still had to learn, Virginia was certain of one rule in her new world: the dead couldn’t touch the living. She had tried to kiss her mother and couldn’t, tried to hug her father and couldn’t. It could not be done.
But the negative man waved his shadowy hand across her grandmother’s cheek, and with a whisper of movement, brushed her hair aside.
And in that moment, Virginia learned something new about being dead: she didn’t understand it at all.
She fled behind her casket, collapsing to the other side. She had thought the shadow was looking for her. Was it after her grandmother instead? Could she do anything to stop it? She squeezed her eyes shut and braided another daisy to the chain.
Virginia felt a tremor in her chest. She felt a shiver through her spirit, like the ripple of a rock thrown into a pond. Fear.
Behind her, her father continued, “She was afraid, of course. God, we all were. But like my brother pointed out, you have to be afraid before you can be brave.”
Virginia had never been as afraid as she was now, but if she could feel fear in death, she could feel courage, too.
“It’s okay, John,” her uncle said, putting an arm around her father’s shoulders. “It’s okay.”
Virginia’s father nodded and smiled, weakly. He hugged his brother and started toward his seat.
As he stepped away he said, almost to himself, “She was the bravest girl I’d ever known.”
And wasn’t it true? Hadn’t she been brave when the carriage horse kicked her? Even when her blood mixed with her tears and her mother screamed for help? Even when her father carried her to the house and the doctors came so soon after?
And even when she just couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer…
“Don’t be scared,” she told her parents. “I’m not.”
But then she woke up in another place, a world of shadows just out of sight, and of sounds just beyond hearing, and Virginia afraid, suddenly, to find herself among them.
She was brave in life.
Now she must be brave in death.
Virginia shoved her braided daisies into her pocket and steeled all the courage in her soul. She flew into the air above the casket, floating there, crushing fear with courage. “Get away from my grandma!”
Her father turned back toward the casket, pausing for a moment. He wiped his eyes, then continued to his seat.
The shadow rose above the bench, its white hair dancing like fire. It hovered over Virginia’s seated family.
“Go away,” Virginia said. “Leave my family alone.”
The ghost-white eyes of the negative man narrowed, and Virginia was afraid it wouldn’t be going anywhere. Her father took his seat and wrapped his arm around her mother. Neither seemed to see the dark form above them.
Virginia was finished being afraid. “Go!” she shouted, and she lunged forward.
The shadow fled.
She chased it down the aisle of the church until the shadow shot through the closed double doors. Virginia followed, brave and proud as she jumped through the doors as easily as jumping into a creek.
Then she froze.
Outside stretched the landscape of a negative world. Virginia no longer saw the negative man, or rather, she didn’t know which one it was. Skeletal trees reached toward an inky black heaven. Shadowy figures floated above bone-white blades of grass, appearing and disappearing against a mourning sky.
And Virginia remembered the darkness as she first saw it. Her bright world of hope and happiness had, in an instant, become a world of darkness and death. No longer did the sun shine outside her bedroom window. No longer did the robin sing its morning song.
Then she had wished to be at church and was. In the light of the church, she thought the darkness was over. Now she knew it had followed her.
And everything had been taken by death along the way.
The church would be next, and her family.
Virginia flew back to her parents, crouching at their feet as her uncle spoke at the lectern as if the world outside hadn’t died. She pulled the daisy chain from her gown. It felt brittle and dry in her hand. She reached for a fresh flower.
And found none.
She looked down at the daisies she’d already braided.
The delicate petals had wilted and began to crumble in her hand. She shoved the chain back into her pocket and squeezed her eyes shut. Virginia held her knees and rocked and tried to forget the negative man, the dead world, everything. She tried even to forget she was dead. She wished more than anything that her mother could hold her.
How did she think she could fight off the shadow? She was a child. She shouldn’t even be here.
Virginia shivered. I’m safe in the church, she thought. I’m safe in the church. She tried to convince herself, but she didn’t believe it.
Her uncle began to pray in his slow drawl. Virginia wasn’t listening. She was trying desperately to not be dead. Then her great-aunt began to play a closing hymn, the haunting notes of the organ echoing through the church. Several of her uncles and cousins gathered around her casket, ready to carry her body to its final resting place.
Virginia reached for her mother, grasping nothing. She reached again, and again. Don’t pull me along this time. Let me stay here. Please.
“I hope she’s ok,” her mother whispered.
“I know she is,” her father whispered back.
Virginia looked again at her daisies, lying dead in her hand. Death followed her, and somehow, she knew it would take everything in its path.
Unless she could stop it.
She was right that she shouldn’t be here, but wrong about where here was.
The dead world surrounded the church and they couldn’t even see it. How long until it was in the church? She wasn’t meant to be there, as much as she wanted to be. She had to face the truth.
Death was coming for her. Just her. And it would all go away if she went with it.
No more fear, she told herself.
Virginia wrapped the daisy chain into a crown, faded flowers or not. She felt a growing confidence swelling in her chest. She had almost hugged her father, and the negative man had moved her grandmother’s hair. If that shadow could do it, the bravest girl could, too. She closed her eyes and focused her strength, and squeezed her mother’s hand. She felt warmth. Her mother looked down as if she felt it, too.
“I’m ok,” Virginia said.
And if her mother heard her or not, she smiled, and that was enough.
The brave soul of Virginia rose above the mourners. She hovered in the aisle, ready to face the darkness waiting beyond the doors.
She was the bravest girl her father ever knew. Even death couldn’t take that away.
Virginia swept down the aisle, clutching her crown of daisies. Her spirit shivered as the fear struggled to keep its hold. Virginia refused to give in, determined to move forward, to keep the darkness from her family.
Even when the negative man slipped back into the church, Virginia refused to stop.
As the shadow stood, Virginia flew forward, prepared to explode right through it with all the strength she had. She would never back down again.
The shadow shimmered.
The shadow lightened.
Like a developing photograph, the negative man slowly pulled into focus.
Virginia hesitated, but still drifted forward.
The hint of a man grew clearer, waving his arms at her. As it solidified, she stopped. She knew him. His eyes shifted from bone-white to glistening light blue; his fiery hair cooled to a warm brown.
“Ginnie? Can you see me?” The distant voice crackled like a dusty record.
“Yes, dear,” he said, smiling. “You can see me. Thank God.”
Virginia leaped into his arms.
Tears fell along her cheeks and around the corners of her smile. She squeezed him as tight as she could. Grandpa spun her around in the aisle. He kissed her forehead and set her down.
“I thought you were chasing me,” said Virginia, “and Grandma, and—“ She fiddled with her daisies. They felt smooth in her hand, but she hardly noticed.
“I was so afraid when I died,” Grandpa said, caressing her cheek. “I wanted to be here for you.” He looked over Virginia’s shoulder and toward her grandmother. Tears glistened in his eyes. “And I just miss her so much.”
Warmth filled Virginia’s soul, pushing away the cold of the shadows, the frozen fear.
She stood back from her grandfather. She looked back at her parents, her grandmother. Her great-aunt still played, but the melody was fading now.
“Will they be okay?”
“With time,” he said. “You and I will be together now, and your other grandparents are excited to see you again.” He looked over her shoulder. “And when it’s their time, they’ll come home to us, too.”
Virginia pulled the daisies from her pocket. They shone like stars in her hand.
She put on her braided crown of daisies and took her grandfather’s hand, nodding to him with a smile.
Outside, the darkness had disappeared.
The renewed world seemed more vibrant than ever. The sky spread like a wash of watercolor, reaching across a lush landscape that stretched on forever. The trees around the church stood proudly, and the air smelled sweeter than a room full of lilies and daisies.
Virginia tucked a curl behind her ear. In the reflected light of the golden sun, her crown of daisies shone like a halo.