Jean Francois Bonhomme, from Jacques Derrida’s Athens, Still Remains, 1966
Jean Francois Bonhomme, from Jacques Derrida’s Athens, Still Remains, 1966

Alexis wanted to know if his father had loved her, and he responded with a shrug that everyone comes to mourn people they didn’t love. He was referring to himself; quite sure that Alexis didn’t love him. Costas kept dosed up on stoicism, veins heavy and sluggish with indifference and the quiet uncontested certainty that whatever else the universe might be, it was rotten somewhere in its core.

Now it had taken his mother, and the two were going to Athens to bury her. Costas rubbed his five o’clock shadow and thought about the unreasonable heat and the relentless sun; let Alexis ask all the questions he wanted. His voice had the cadence of a sleep-talker—the call had forced them both from their beds and only Costas, used to denying himself sleep, was any sort of prepared.

No one spoke. Both knew it would only have come out sounding stilted and formal.

Death demands a monument, Costas thought. Alone in his office, surrounded by acid-treated paperbacks, Costas had already offered a bottle down the sink’s drain while he thought of his mother. None of the fond memories arose, just the ones where she smelled like lavender (the soap the hospice slathered on its patients) and where she looked emaciated and burdened.

For a while, this had made him angry. He had betrayed his mother, forgetting all of the memories he wanted to keep and clutching those he didn’t want to exist. In the end, the stoic in him won and he stopped being angry: Her illness, long as it was, made it feel vain to complain about anything too much. He went to wake Alexis then, who hadn’t taken the news the way Costas wanted. Alexis couldn’t remember her as anything but a sufferer, and held his father’s gaze with a steady unruffled look. That broke Costas more than anything else; the idea that someone could think “Well, of course you’re mother’s dead now, what else should she be?” because he knew that reaction was only reasonable, bitter though it was. (Of course Alexis hadn’t said that. But he knew that’s what the look had meant.)

“Aren’t you tired too?” Alexis had asked, eventually, eyelids settled far too firmly to move.

“No.” Sapped of energy, but untired. Death may be an endless night to the dead, but to the mourners it is endless afternoon. There is no cheerful morning or splendid evening, no serene midnight.

After they stopped for gas and bought a coffee, Costas saw a boy and Alexis a dog. The boy was sweeping leaves and empty acorns reverently off a narrow front step; the dog was stepping around the boy with ageless eyes.

There was, just off the road, a shrine—a small travelers shrine made up of a white tower with a little glass door, topped with a cross and kept utterly spotless.

The boy asked if Costas would come over and pray. Why here? Because Elijah, who once raised the dead, left a bit of his cloak behind the hinged door. Costas was unsure about people telling him to pray. He preferred to think he was religious enough to pray as much as needed without requiring some child’s recommendation.

He knelt self-consciously, hoping that if he couldn’t make Alexis a philosopher he might make him a priest. He daydreamed about his wife Joanna with his hands folded, whom he had loved at a very young age but only in a shy, abstract way. He daydreamed about how westerners talk of marriage as the end to a fairy tale, and how his Aristotle talked of marriage, as one more trial the good man must face. He thought about their quick divorce and the sort of disappointing, jarring drift. How she moved to America to be with her brother. Even as she packed her bags Costas went about washing dishes and fixing the plumbing like any other day, and Alexis wailed from his crib presciently. He only stopped daydreaming when the wild dog (no: a jackal, he realized) ambled luxuriously into the corner of his eye. She kept going and coming as if she couldn’t decide whether to stay with the boy or not.

“Still praying?” the boy asked, impressed.

“Well…yes,” Costas said, very far away. “Listen, when Elijah raised the dead, do you think anyone wanted it?”

The boy didn’t know.

The jackal arched her neck regally, glancing around as if reviewing options, now coyly running to them, now hanging at the roadside turned sideways. “If they—the family, the friends, anyone, I don’t know—really loved her then they stung, at first, but then they became glad she was dead, at some point, and really I wouldn’t have it any other way. Don’t think I’m being cruel, please,” he raised his voice, mildly irritated in a totally unreasonable way that this stray animal thought she had better things to do in that wasteland than pray with him. So starving you could see every one of her ribs. “It isn’t cruel, it’s very human. I’m no longer grieving, you see? And neither is she. We’re neither happy, both content; and I can’t think of a way to improve on that. Oh, but if Saint Elijah brings her back, she’ll die again some day and I’ll have to go through what I did again, maybe with a decline twice as long.”

The boy had never lost anyone he loved, so he watched Costas with an outsider’s confusion, humoring him because what else could he do?

Alexis slept, the jackal circled and sat down stiffly in a cloud of fleas, and the boy looked on, while Costas tore his heart and alternated in his mind two silent prayers: Raise her, or leave her rest, raise her, or leave her rest, but raise her, Saint Elijah, because I haven’t felt anything and I want to feel grief to make up for everything, all over again.