Mrs. Wolfner turned up her collar with one hand, the day’s parcels nestled firmly in the other. Her boots squished rhythmically as she made her way down the muddy lane. The storm had let up just as she left the shops, so she wouldn’t be drenched on the walk home, but the unseasonably cold wind cut through her coat, tugging at her bones with its frigid fingers. She’d overheard Mr. László complaining about it at the pub when she’d popped in there for a pint, her last stop of the day.
“All this thunder and wind in June,” he’d roared, beer spilling out of his mug. “It isn’t natural!”
“Not much is natural anymore, László,” said Simon the bartender. “Did you see the sunrise this morning? Red as pig’s blood. They’re angry about the war, I tell you.”
According to Simon, small creatures who lived in the sky controlled what happened on Earth—a modern version of the gods on Mt. Olympus, as he’d once explained it to Mrs. Wolfner. It was unfathomable, of course—but, then again, so was this war; they were almost a year into it, and still, no one in the village knew what caused it, so when she lay awake at night unable to sleep, she sometimes wondered why Simon’s ideas couldn’t be true. Every day there was more news and all of it bad. Soon there wouldn’t be a woman left in the whole country who hadn’t lost someone. She’d heard rumors of women who had lost everything and had withered away—the flesh sloughed off their bones, their souls evaporated, their bodies reduced to empty cages—unable to live or die. Mrs. Wolfner had never actually seen one and refused to accept them as anything but rumors—the alternative was just too horrible.
It wasn’t as though she didn’t know what it was like to lose a loved one; her own dear József died three years ago—but he wasn’t mowed down in some faraway field under a useless banner or slaughtered in his sleep in a night raid. They’d lived long, full lives together—perhaps a little less full than they would have liked, as they never had the children they desperately desired, but they’d managed. No, she was one of the lucky ones. She couldn’t blame the other women for losing themselves in their grief.
Mrs. Wolfner shivered. Just a few more minutes and she’d be home, she could see it up ahead. It was an old house with a ramshackle fence that she never seemed to get around to mending, and it was drafty in the winter—and in June, it turned out—but the kitchen had an enormous fireplace and her woodshed was still well-stocked. The sight of the house just ahead conjured images of hot tea and a roaring fire. Mrs. Wolfner picked up her pace when another figure appeared around the bend in the lane: a woman, dressed in a long, mud-splattered dress. Her black fur coat, which looked like it was once elegant but was now in tatters, was open to the cold.
She’ll catch her death like that, Mrs. Wolfner thought. She lifted her head to nod politely, but when she saw the woman’s face, she froze in the middle of the lane. It was not a woman, but a corpse. Its cavernous eye sockets were fixed straight ahead; one gloved hand gripped tightly around a brown umbrella. It gave no indication that it had seen Mrs. Wolfner, though it passed her so closely that it brushed her sleeve.
A chill that had nothing to do with the wind shot up her arm and into her heart. She clutched her chest as she turned to watch the figure continue on its way down the lane. She tried to remember who had lost someone recently, but it was as though the brief encounter had frozen her ability to think. Everything around her—the lane, the village in the distance, the hills, brilliant green from all the rain—disappeared. All that remained was the corpse’s chalky, hollow cheeks, bared teeth, and despair so palpable, Mrs. Wolfner’s left arm felt cold for weeks.
Originally published in The Ekphrastic Review, 5/21/21