WHAT REMAINS

By John Thomas Tuft

Crazy Henry worked for the blackmaster of the village. Whenever someone died, the deceased human body, a human being in flesh only, was brought into the upholder’s parlor. When the human heart stops beating, everything about the body becomes remains; leftovers, if you will. Crazy Henry had the job of bathing that body, cleaning the remains of the dearly departed. He filled a bucket with warm water, selected a gentle sponge and even gentler soap, peeled off bandages and removed tubes and any other impediments before tenderly washing each and every body that came into the parlor of the death-hunter. When the body was clean and dry, Crazy Henry helped the undertaker to dress it in carefully chosen attire. Then Henry would bend over and kiss the cold skin of the forehead of the body. Each and every one. It did not matter who they were, what they did in life, or how they died, Crazy Henry graced each one with a kiss.

Henry led a generally solitary life. People in the town generally avoided him because they considered him to be the Holloweg of heaven and hell, the man who kissed death.  He took long walks in the woods, kept to himself in town, while watching the others live and love and learn about each other. Because of his position as the bather of what remains, Henry was tolerated but not welcomed. There is a big difference. Henry’s one undying hope was to some day fall in love. He wanted to find that one woman who would see him for who he was, not judge him for what he was, and welcome him into her life. But when you are tagged as Crazy Henry, such hopes are dreams that threaten to become real nightmares. His job did not pay well, and Crazy Henry scraped by, living simply, having what he needed but no more.

One evening, the body of a young girl was brought to Crazy Henry, the death kisser. The child had been sick for a long time and the disease and the treatments had ravaged her body. What remains upon the death of a child is pain. Pure unadulterated punishing pain. The grief hung in the air of the room where Henry bathed the body of this girl, like the overwhelming pungency of incense mixed with the black smoke and acrid stench of burning tar.  Henry filled the bucket with warm water, selected the gentlest of soaps, while listening to the anguished cries of grief and loss coming from the family overhead, as they conferred with the undertaker. He carefully dried the skin and covered her with a sheet. As he looked upon her face, he realized that this was his calling in life, something he needed to do. To be. And he leaned over the child’s face and left a kiss upon her forehead.

The next morning Henry went for one of his walks in the woods. Beside the stream he came upon a woman weeping as though her heart had broken. He sat down beside her and waited quietly. After a while the woman began to talk to Henry. She had been spending her days and nights tending to her sick child. It consumed her, challenged her, left her drained. The child died. Now she was alone and empty. Henry sat and listened, not daring to speak a word about who he was. After a time, she told him her name was Clarice and thanked him for listening. They parted, but the next day Henry returned to that spot and there she was again. They sat together and talked about many things. Henry listened again to her tale of struggle and loss, the pain of grief. After a time, they parted, each wondering if hope is what remains.

So it went. As often as he could, Henry walked in the woods, watching for Clarice. He thought of stories to tell her, poems to recite, dreams to dare, yet never telling her who he was, what he did for a living. Wonder of all wonders, they fell in love. Crazy Henry rejoiced. He found his person. The thing he most desired in his life had happened. He swept Clarice into his arms and confessed his love. Then he told her what he did. That he was the death kisser. That what remains is love.

Clarice looked down, crestfallen. “I do love you, Henry. I don’t ever call you Crazy Henry. But I cannot be with you if you are the death kisser. I have been near suffering and struggle. I have watched death. I love you but I cannot be with you. Please understand.” Henry’s heart broke. He felt like he might die. With tears in his eyes, he told Clarice, “I love you. You are my person. But…Because I love you, I want what is best for you. If that is what is best for you, then I understand. What remains always is love.” And Henry went back to his life of warm water, gentle soap, tender care, and a kiss on the forehead. Of all that remains…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.