The Smiling Dead
Mr. Donetz stares at me with that vacuous look all father’s
have. He does not
really notice me, and I wonder
what he sees. Perhaps I don't want to know. I don't
want to know what he sees, what he thinks, or even where he is. I have not
entered father’s practice out of my free will, but rather to bring him some
urgently needed towels. Otherwise I would not think of bothering him while he
is working. I’m in no need of nightmares, thank you very much.
I hastily deposit
the towels on the chest of drawers against the far wall, and turn around so I
don’t have to look at Mr. Donetz’s face. Too bad really, since he’s always been
nice to me. He had a shop selling tobacco, newspapers, books, magazines, lotto forms, paper
and pencils. I went there regularly: a magazine, a book. He also sold candy.
Always a kind word for the
children, and for me as well. A man all alone, never married.
want to question him. Dad isn't too happy about that. It's his job, waking the
dead, but when there's a criminal investigation involved, he thinks it's all
awful. Sometimes he fears that the killer will break into our home to prevent the deceased from
informing the authorities of his identity. By burning the body, for example. My father can’t do anything with burnt bodies. He can’t bring them back to life if they’re
too badly damaged, not even for a few minutes. He
succeeds only with people whose
brains are still intact. A couple of hours. Enough to offer relatives one last
conversation, or the police a testimony.
Donetz was murdered. Steel
rod through the heart. He may have seen his attacker, that’s what
on. Chief Inspector Massart, who is leading the investigation, is the one
doing the counting.
gloomy man, square jaw, dark hair, maybe forty. I do not like him. The feeling probably is mutual. He is accompanied
young woman whom he introduces as Hamblin. No rank or anything. She must be a cadet, and he behaves like she is.
Just orders her around, and lets her do the chores and jot
things down and stuff. They were here
yesterday, but Mr. Donetz didn't have much to say about
For the dead, I
mean. They realize that they are dead, and that their return is only temporary.
Most of them are upset, which is quite understandable. One moment you're alive, the next they wake
you up with the message that you're actually dead but you can still play the
game of the living, at least for a short while. It's really cruel, when you think about it. I think
hey, it's what my dad does,
and it's what other people pay him for. A final goodbye, an
interrogation. Sometimes a dead person is requested to address a meeting or see some friends one last time,
is rare. Some are awakened with the request to sign some documents, which is illegal. I'm not saying it doesn't
happen, but if discovered,
there will be severe penalties. Insurance companies are not happy about it, and
neither are the tax authorities. My father keeps himself at a distance
from such practices.
Chief Inspector Massart and
the young woman arrive, Mr. Donetz is sitting at the table in father's workspace. In principle,
a dead person cannot leave the room. There are a few exceptions. However, no one wants the dead to
roam the streets. People are
sensitive about that. Some say you don’t
notice, them being dead and all, but I’m sure you can.
The policeman asks my father and me to leave them alone with the victim. That's
the term he uses. Victim . They lack imagination, those civil servants. Father lays his hand on my shoulder,
and we retreat to the kitchen. We drink
coffee, eat a pastry. He doesn't talk much about his job. He talks even
feelings. He already knows I won’t succeed him. He doesn't really want that to happen
He wants me to
do something meaningful with my life. Something creative. He doesn't want me to
deal with death.
two policemen reappear after
twenty minutes. Hamblin stashes her booklet in her purse. Massart looks gloomy. “Thank you,” he
says. “He can sleep permanently now, if
nobody wants him.” And that's it. Result or not —
they won’t inform us. It is part of
the secret of the investigation. But they certainly have no further questions,
otherwise they would ask to keep Mr. Donetz alive.
lets them out. “Now you go upstairs again,” he tells
me. “I'll finish things here." It means he will be
occupied part of the night preparing Mr. Donetz for the last trip. No idea
what that involves, and he won’t tell me. It’s partially a matter of
confidentiality, and he does not want me around handling the dead body.
Whenever he retires, machines and manuals will go straight back to the Guild,
as they are very strict about guarding their professional secrets.
Grandmaster Adelbert has already asked my father if I don't want to get into
the trade. But father keeps
that door firmly closed. The Guild
will have to do without me.
The next day Mr. Donetz 's body is collected by a corbillard. Three
taciturn and solemn men handle the body, packed in a black bag, and that concludes this chapter. Mr. Donetz
where all the dead should be.
later a young woman is brought in. Father forbids me to enter his study, not
even to bring towels or his lunch. He holds the door tightly closed. I’ve
learned not to ask questions when he’s clearly not willing to answer them. But
soon enough, and through gossip, I discover who she is: The Lady Landsheer.
She’s not just anyone, as can be deduced from her title. She’s firmly related
to a wealthy family of steel magnates, who own a number of factories in the
southernmost part of the country.
As father is the only
practitioner of his craft in the city, every single case has to pass through
him, for as much as someone wants to resurrect a deceased. No police are
involved this time, it seems, as her death is attributed to natural causes.
Well, in so far as a car accident can be considered natural. Anyway, the police
do not need to question her. The request comes from her parents, who want to
speak to her one last time, a final word. They want closure.
Closure? Creepy, if you
me. Of course you don’t ask me anything, but that’s not the point. The
whole thing about raising the dead and so on always seemed bizarre and
unnatural to me. Our ancestors would have hanged a man like my father, if not
worse. But what he’s doing is considered science now, and so it is all right.
The Lady Landsheer was
twenty, in the prime of her life when she was alive, but now she’s as dead
as all the others, and rather damaged on account of the accident (I read some
details in the paper this morning). So no, I don’t need to see her, thank you
Or do I?
her? Usually father does not forbid me to see the patients, he’s never as
strict as now. Sometimes I just walk in, and he never really chases me away. He
does now. Does he fear I will see too much of myself in this young lady, a
little too much as her fate is concerned, the horror that can befall an
innocent young lady? Is he afraid I might identify myself with her? He
need not fear: I don’t drive an expensive sports car during the night along the
poorly lit roads around the city. You challenge fate, and sometimes fate
decides you’ve gone a tad too far. In her case, the trip ended up against a
And now she’s in
father’s infamous room.
And what do her parents want
ask her, can I?
chance. I wait for the night to fall heavily over the city, father sleeping his
innocent sleep, and I sneak downstairs. His practice isn’t locked, never
locked, he’s counting on my common sense (which I conveniently left in my
room). I have a pathetic electric torch, but that’s all I need to find my way
around the house. And I know the layout of his practice. Won’t bump my toe
She lies on the table in
middle of the room, the altar of father’s magical powers, with a white sheet
draped over her. Need any more clichés? I expect her to sit up when I enter.
But she doesn’t. He
keeps his patients in a sort of artificial sleep until he needs them fully
conscious. Otherwise they would be difficult to handle.
windows are set high against the ceiling, each with milky white glass. They let in some light, which
not contribute anything to the
atmosphere. I think of old movies, a horror cabinet, zombies or mummies.
I pull the sheet away,
and at once I am captivated
by the girl’s beauty. The
accident left her head and shoulders as well as her breasts intact. I leave the
rest covered. What I'm revealing is almost otherworldly. The milky light caresses her skin, her hair.
switch off my torch and bend over her. I'm jealous of the flawless
skin, the shiny hair. She
has long eyelashes. She has full lips, which look red even now. A beauty, even
now. Too bad she disappears underground in a day or two. The worms won't admire
enough, she is
Never seen that on a dead person before. Mr. Donetz
never looked peaceful, but then he was conscious. He knew how the cards had been dealt.
wonder if Miss Landsheer is
dreaming. It seems as if she is dreaming. As if she has a pleasant dream. Can
the dead dream when they are in this state?
For a moment I consider
kiss. For a moment I consider kissing those full, sensual lips, pressing
against them a firm kiss, feeling them yield, feeling as if…
She moves. I should not
surprised: sleeping people move. And like them, the sleeping dead find
themselves in the dark universe of their own thoughts. Anyway, that’s what I
assume. In our dreams, we are all the same.
She opens her eyes. The
Landsheer’s eyes open, and she glances around, and then notices me. I am, of course,
shocked, at least for a moment, but she seems to find my presence quite
logical, and certainly acceptable. As if she was expecting me.
I back away a bit. I realize
I might have gone too far in my curiosity, and as a consequence of my presence
my father might lose his license.
She is sitting up. “Are you
his daughter?” she inquires. “Are you the daughter of the man who…?”
I nod. I am the daughter.
asks. “Why did he bring me back?”
father handles these situations. How he reacts when his patients inquire about
the reason for their resurrection. How much does he explain? Or does he keep
them fully in the dark concerning the motivation of those willing them back? Do
they even want to be resurrected? Have they left anything like a will, and
could they have objected to this procedure?
I assume not. I am not
really familiar with the legal aspects of this case, but I seem to remember no
one can take a priori legal action against resurrection, which only official
authorities are allowed to do, at the request of family or a judge. This seems unnecessarily cruel to me, bringing
them back and having them realize their life is over, and that the added time
will be short-lived.
me to judge.
parents,” I tell her.
A disturbing sound
originates deep from her ravaged body (the part I cannot see, and don’t want to
see). I assume laughing is difficult for her, given the accident. Under the
sheet, her body seems to have taken on a strange shape. She notices me looking
and quickly pulls the sheet up again, over her breasts. “I don’t want to see
them,” she says.
want is to say farewell.”
farewell to the living,” she says, “not to the dead. The dead do not fare
Such is true, in a sense,
but that’s not how surviving family members see it. Anyway, hardly anyone knows how
to deal with death, and with the dying. Very few people can do that.
She sounds hurt and bitter.
This obviously is a problem family. I suddenly wonder if the accident was an
accident, but that’s not something I will discuss with her. She’s more
than upset enough as it is.
be forbidden,” she says. “There should be laws against it.”
so many things should be forbidden, but here we are nonetheless, with a
civilization that can’t even leave the dead in peace.
dreamed about death,” she says.
That calls for an
elaboration, but I’m sure I don’t want to hear how the dead dream about
death. As far as she is concerned, the whole situation is not only nonsensical,
but also abhorrent.
Help her? What does she
I know what she means.
has his professional duties,” I tell her. I, cowardly, hide behind my father.
want to do this,” she says. “And you can make all this go away.”
You should have handled your
accident differently, I think, at once realizing this is grossly unfair towards
her. But it is true: she could have made certain not enough of her body would
have been found to allow resuscitation. Then, not even my father could have
helped her parents.
But as things stand…
She lowers the sheet again.
what I sacrificed,” she says. “This is what I left behind. What I ask from you
is merely a small act of pity.”
I realize she is right.
extinguished quickly enough, but father is devastated. The damage is not
substantial however. He will have to buy a new table and replace some
instruments, but the Guild will surely compensate him. The police will want to
know how the fire started, but I’ve been careful. Some of the substances my
father uses are very flammable, under the right circumstances. Even a man as
experienced as my father sometimes proves to be a bit careless.
Chief Inspector Massart has
already visited, with his assistant trailing along, almost like a zombie. They
find no proof a crime has been committed. Not for now, at least. I keep my
Lady Landsheer’s parents
are angry and horrified. They are being denied a last grand gesture, a last
conversation, a last opportunity for catharsis. My feeling is they should have
tried harder when their daughter was alive. But of course I don’t know who’s to
blame for the family problems. Maybe she was an insufferable bitch.
For my part, I now realize I
urgently need to depart from my father’s house. Find a job somewhere,
preferable in another city. Something creative, something that opens doors.
I’ve seen enough of death.
Eekhaut is a prolific writer of crime and suspense novels, fantastic and speculative fiction
and books for young adults. He came to genre literature after discovering the work of Jack
Vance at age fifteen, and that of Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, J.
G. Ballard, Thomas Disch and many others.