Being Marie Celeste


Marie Celeste fumbled with the keys on the doorstep of the quaint old house, trying to figure out which one would fit the antique keyhole and feeling kind of awkward as she handled the eerily large key ring like some sort of medieval housekeeper. The thing was ridiculously heavy, and it made Marie Celeste wonder what kind of person found it reasonable to carry around something of that heft all the time. She had trouble fitting it in her purse at home, so she had to throw it on the right seat of her car from which the thing stared at her, taking up a life of its own, all the way to the house. Its presence made her physically uncomfortable, but at an unconscious, gut level way that she couldn’t put into words.

As surreal as her life had been in the past few years, Marie Celeste didn’t find this additional bit of weirdness jarring in the least, this unexpected inheritance from a great-aunt she never knew because her parents never talked about her, and she didn’t even care whether such a person really existed, or this was one more odd occurrence in the series of odd occurrences her life had become. Six years had passed since her “visit to the other side”, as she jokingly liked to call it, and even to this day, despite all of her pondering and rational analysis, she couldn’t figure out how she was still alive. The kiss of the great beyond, the experience of being no more, had left an indelible imprint on her psyche, a turning point whose life altering quality she could neither explain nor deny.

She realized she’d been distracted, turned her attention back to the giant glob of metal in her hand, found the appropriate key and turned it in the lock. The rusty metal responded with an unbearable screech. The air in the house was stale and damp, proof that nobody had been inside it for quite a while, but the dark furniture looked spotless, with no spec of dust on its polished surface. Marie Celeste shrugged, indifferent. Why should she care who and when cleaned this place, really? Why did her superstitious Irish mother name her after a famous ghost ship? Why did she move to this city she had no ties to? Why did every single one of her many neighbors have a passion for classical music, and exercised that passion by turning up the volume until the music reached her through the walls? She had gotten most of her musical education that way, believe it or not, through this unusual teaching method she wasn’t sure whether she should be grateful for or complain about.

The furniture came with the house, the Realtor assured her with a professional smile and an unsettling cheerfulness that seemed entirely out of place given the circumstances. It was so strange though, because the rooms showed no sign of human habitation, none of the useless knick-knacks that make their way in one’s life and one doesn’t know what to do with, the odds and ends that lay about for no reason. The Realtor must have already staged the home for sale, Marie Celeste thought, most of the stuff is probably in storage, and then she wondered where that storage was and realized she really didn’t care, all in the same thought process that left no trace on her brain in its passing.

One large dark oak table with matching chairs, elaborately carved, one old fashioned Normandy armoire, a large cheval mirror with a beveled crystal surface, a gracefully curving sideboard with a marble top. A Louis XV chaise on thin legs that seemed to buckle under the weight if its silk upholstered pillows, a side table upon which sat a Turkish style light fixture, an old and very decorative kerosene lamp which had been adapted to accommodate a real light bulb and wiring. Quality reproductions of classic impressionist paintings on the walls, but no photos, or any other items of personal significance that could have told Marie Celeste anything about the preferences and habits of her departed great-aunt.

The whole house felt wrong somehow, too old, even for an unknown great-aunt allegedly advanced in her years, impersonal, like the decor of a movie set. She stopped in the middle of the squeaky floor not knowing what to do next, and gazed through the spotless windows out into the spotless garden, and thought to herself that if this great-aunt of hers really existed she must have been the tidiest person ever born.

A creaking pipe startled her out of her daydreaming and she proceeded up the stairs in the same somewhat absent state of mind that had defined her existence since the “event”. She didn’t want to call it what it was, despite the countless support group meetings and counseling sessions and friendly pep talks, because the term ‘near death experience’ sounded so clinical, like a machine’s mechanical failure, what did those people know about life and death anyway? They all seemed so keen to offer advice and guidance, which Marie Celeste bitterly cast into categories inside her mind sorting them into unwelcome, marginally useful and simply inept, because she couldn’t describe it to another person, that last minute decision not to walk past the half way point of the passageway that connects life to the other life, connects, not divides, and the absolute knowing that death doesn’t really exist.

Everything in her life felt weird since she had returned to the land of the living, so to speak, and she was sure life didn’t really change at all from the way it was before, just decided to reveal its inherent strangeness to her freshly sharpened sight. Marie Celeste was nel mezzo del camin, that ineffable point in one’s life one can only recognize after one passed it, an experience not unlike her “visit” in fact, she thought amused, and it gave her no bitterness, nor did she feel the need to run a tally of her life, as one is tempted to do under these circumstances, for how do you draw the bottom line under something without end?

Her cell phone rang and startled her out of her existential musings, but she didn’t answer it, just took a mental picture of the four post bed, the bathroom with antique plumbing fixtures, and a couple of walls with built in shelves, filled with books from top to bottom.

Why am I really here, she wondered, surprised that she had maintained the capacity to be amazed by the absurd events life threw at her. Who inherits a house out of the blue? Who stops half way between life and death and doesn’t know which way to go? Sometimes she felt she was still inside that passageway watching her self wade through the events of life, all of which seemed to have the spellbinding appeal of elevator music and the same repetitive nature.

Who inherits a house out of the blue? The obsessive thought washed over her mind as she walked up the rickety stairs leading to the attic, no doubt a relic from the house’s more distant past. She wondered how old the house was, or whether she should worry about mice or rats, and then she remembered the spotless windows and the perfect garden and the total absence of dust on the furniture and realized that would be very unlikely.

The phone rang again, with a ring tone she was sure she didn’t set up because it sounded too much like an alarm clock for her taste. She gazed at the screen, saw the call was made from an unknown number and let it go to voice mail. What a beautiful place, she gasped at the sudden sight of the enormous attic with the open rafters going up twenty, twenty-five feet, and the bright and colorful light filtered through the stained glass of the dormer windows. What a beautiful place, she thought, and had a sudden and undeniable realization that she had in fact walked the passageway all the way to its end, and it had led her here, to this odd house, too old for its age, this house she was certain had been inhabited for close to a century and yet was maintained in pristine condition by means unknown.

The light from the colored glass windows met the gem of the ring on her finger, bounced off its faceted surface and dispersed on the walls in a delicate and sophisticated circular pattern. She didn’t try to figure out the physics of the light’s reflection, she just spent some time admiring the beautiful kinetic art the sunlight had offered her as a gift.

The phone rang again, irritatingly, and she wondered what inconsiderate person needed her so very badly right then, and then some muffled voices rose from downstairs and Marie Celeste was sure the Realtor had brought a potential buyer already and made the decision on the spot that she wasn’t going to sell, but the voices became strangely familiar and louder as they came up the stairs to find her. She felt a hand on her shoulder and the sound of the ringing phone grew in intensity. She jerked, annoyed, and instinctively slammed her hand on top of the alarm clock. The ringing stopped.

Maizie, get up, we’re going to be late! Did you forget about the Kellers’ wedding?” her husband threw an armful of shirts on the bed, trying to decide which one to wear.

Maizie stood up in bed, fully awake and annoyed by the diminutive that had stuck with her from her childhood and always made her feel like she was supposed to go scurrying for cheese. Why can’t people just call me Margaret, she thought. How hard was it to call a person Margaret?

She got up in a crabby mood, slowly adjusted to the nagging pain in her back and started walking towards the bathroom.

Which one?” her husband presented her with two shirt options.

The cream one, of course,” she mumbled, frowning.

Honey, are you OK?” her husband asked. “Did you have that dream again?”

She nodded.

Are you sure you don’t want to talk to somebody about it?” he asked, genuinely concerned. If there was only one certainty in Maizie’s life, that must have been it.

Did you pay the cable bill?” he asked, and continued without waiting for an answer, “where is my green tie?”

You are not going to wear the green tie at the Kellers’ wedding, are you?” Maizie went on the attack immediately.

Why not?” he asked innocently.

Maizie didn’t answer, she just pulled another tie from the rack and handed it to him.

I’m not sure about this dress,” she objected, staring at herself critically in the mirror from the front and from the side.

We’re going to be late again, I don’t want to be late again! You look fine!” her husband protested. “We’re going to sit in the back of the church anyway, given how late we already are, who cares! Nobody’s going to see you!”

Maizie continued getting ready in front of the mirror, she combed her hair and put on earrings, and make-up, and perfume, and picked a scarf to match her outfit, and she couldn’t help the feeling that somewhere in the other life Marie Celeste was looking down on her from her attic, and she felt strangely comforted by the thought that when her time came, that was the place where she would go, and started thinking that she was going to have to decorate the quaint old house on the other side, because in all its charm it still looked a little sparse, all the while smiling at herself in the mirror, lost in thought.

Are you sure you’re OK, sweetheart? You worry me sometimes, you know. It was just a dream!” her husband approached to figure out what was wrong with her, and he looked so distressed it made her heart sink. She worried that between being Marie Celeste up in the attic and the absolute joy of knowing that life has no end she had been a little selfish, so she turned around and flashed him a brilliant smile.

Of course I’m OK, dear! Why wouldn’t I be? Have you seen my purse? Now we’re really late!”