Visitors from Claude
Heather Fowler

It was the tenth day Celie stood by Claude’s grave when the first human visitor arrived. His funeral a month earlier, she had only begun to visit the cemetery to see him once the vestiges of his life were cleared from their former apartment. Dave, Jake, and Emmy came to take his things.

“She can’t handle it,” she heard Emmy whisper.

“Well could you?” This was Dave.

“Of course not,” Emmy said. “They were supposed to get married, jackass. This summer, come July, four days after her twenty-fifth birthday—and then the crash. Do you think that’s easy? What would you do if the love of your life was stolen? If all the plans had already been made?”

Celie walked away from the kitchen where they stood. Her eyes had been swollen for weeks. It was hard most days to get out of bed and the days she did bother to shower seemed weekly rather than daily anymore.

She reached for a candle from the mantle, one she lit just to watch the fire burn, just to find herself somewhere other than here. She approached her friends holding it, almost embracing it to her heart, like it protected her somehow. Her quiet approach noticeably shocked them.

“You have everything you need for today?” she asked.

“I think we’ve got everything,” Emmy said.

“Good,” Celie replied. “Now I want to go out.”  

Her first day at the grave had been hard. Claude’s plot was centered between larger mausoleums and an area for unnamed soldiers, in the family areas.

“I miss you,” she said when she reached his stone. In her fingers were two of his neckties she kept in her pocket. She took them out and pressed them to her face. There were no other visitors and a light breeze blew. The air was full of spring. Lily blooms graced flowerbeds at the graves’ periphery. She stared at Claude’s stone and asked it, as if it were her new point of focus or the locus of Claude’s spirit, “Will I ever get over you?”  Seven years they’d spent together, which could seem lucky or unlucky, and after she spoke to him, this is when the strange visits began.

That day, a raven approached Claude’s grave with a white piece of chiffon cloth in his beak. He flew to land on her shoulder after nudging her ankle with his feathered face as if to say, “I will not harm you.”  On her shoulder, he did not claw her. Celie, in the depth of her misery, did not scream. She did not shout. She stared in the raven’s eyes and had the sense of sameness she saw in her own mirrors. “I’m your other half,” she said. “Your second.”  He dropped the white chiffon on her head like a veil, this fluttering down to land in her hair, and flew away. It was only when he left her view that she noticed the chiffon had been embellished with lace.

Every day after that, she approached Claude’s grave. “I’ve been given a sign,” she told Emmy on the phone. “Claude’s there. He had the bird bring a veil.”  

“The bird did not bring a veil,” Emmy said. “Might you need counseling?  I know his passing has been hard on you.”

“I’m fine,” Celie said. Yet, the next day, a squirrel was her sign. She wasn’t reading into things because what were the odds, otherwise, that a squirrel would appear at Claude’s exact grave, while she visited, and leave acorns?  Four acorns. Like that time they went on a weekend trip and Claude brought four acorns to their cabin, left them for her, this after the night they’d made love until sunrise. This, while she slept. This, too coincidental for the squirrel to be an accident.

At home, Celie lit the candle that night and told the flickering flame. “Claude is still here. I know it. Bring him to our home.”

But after a few days without signs that followed, she thought for sure the phenomenon of his death presence was passing. She called the hospital, not for psychiatric intake but to see if they might have counsellors available or grieving people group sessions. She promised herself she would go and went to one such group, but hearing the pain others suffered did nothing to lighten her own. Too, she could not get over the giddy impulse to tell them all Claude had sent signs, which she strongly suspected she should not do—so she feared her attending those groups was dangerous for her freedom, that she’d be snitched on, institutionalized.

She returned to his grave and on the fifth day, Claude took over a stray cat that sat on the grass over his coffin, and the cat came up to her purring, jumped into her lap and laid its black head on her arm. She sat with it for hours.

After anyone’s sudden loss, she knew it might be easy for a mourner to believe the very strange, almost prophetic gestures of the mundane world were meaningful, but these events seemed concentrated, undeniable. “Thank you for coming back to me, Claude,” she said. “I am so lost without you.”

After a two week leave, she’d be returning to work. It was not that this leave changed or deadened her pain but that she could not yet go in without subjecting colleagues to the blue waves of grief that went from quiet trickles to full-bodied sobs faster than she could control. For now, at his gravesite was the only place she felt happy, reunited almost. Claude got bolder.

On the tenth day of the sojourn at his stone, an old woman approached Celie, someone grieving, too. Initially, Celie thought she’d be asked where the officers’ graves were, that the woman must be colonel’s wife or something similar because the woman wore a light periwinkle suit and a cream hat, heels, and hose, but the woman did not ask after others.

“Celie,” the woman said. And then she put her hands on Celie’s waist and leaned in to kiss her, just as Claude used to. Nothing about this kiss was familiar other than the pace and the placement of the hands, but Celie found she stood there, French kissing an old woman, and she could not pull away.

A moment later, when Celie’s embrace grew more aggressive, the woman stepped back as if Claude’s spirit had left her, and she appeared confused. “Young lady,” she said. “Do you know how I got here?”

An attractive man in a suit then stepped into the range of where they stood, a wife beside him, and shouted, “Grandma!”  

The young man’s wife said, “Whatever happened to your lipstick, Lorena?” Reunited, they strolled off together.

Celie focused on Claude’s headstone. “Don’t do that, Claude,” she said. “Come as someone else next time. Come as a man I might pretend is you. Come as someone with your stamina. With your passion.”

She waited that night in her apartment, hoping any moment for a knock at the door. No one came. She came to understand Claude could only impact lives in his graveyard, so a week later she brought a sleeping bag and a lantern to his grave.

He brought her first a homeless man, the call of his siren abilities only so strong. She took what he offered.

“Claude,” she said, when this one came and they touched each other’s bodies. “Claude,” she said, each time a new hand traveled under her shirt to caress her nipples or under her skirt to fondle lower—called his name each time a new man arrived—for this went on for months. For months she took lovers there, and every man he possessed gave a subtle sign. Sometimes this was a lift of a hat. Other times, it was a tight hug with a light kiss on the place where her shoulder met her neck. Always, it was something she could identify.

Twenty years later she would try to tell the story of how all this happened but had lost the pieces to most of it. The only thing for recovering them was to light a candle for memory, to dig deep, to light another, until it all came back like the image of that first  raven and the white veil, non-veil he had slipped atop her head, until every visitor like Claude had come, come into her, and gone.

Heather Fowler is the author of the novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby and the story collection People with Holes, among other things. Please visit her website here.