The Second Life of Umberto Burn
The funeral, like many others, had been a sad affair. Until the apparition appeared, that is. For Umberto Burn had not been a serious man in life, and he could hardly be expected to become more so in death, after having slipped his mortal coil.
The attendance was more than fair at the wake of the great magician, which was of course held in his own house, and his wife and two grown sons felt proud that so many had come to pay tribute to the man that they had so loved. The jeweler was there, his wife’s claw-like hand sparkling with rings. The doctor had come with her fair daughter, whose blush rose up her comely neck when Umberto’s older son smiled and thanked her for coming. And honor of honors, the town mayor appeared, strolling into the small, white-walled sitting room, midnight-blue waistcoat struggling to contain his not inconsiderable stomach.
Umberto’s remarkably lifelike remains were of course the focal point of the room, and his coffin was positioned against the south wall, the chairs arranged to face it. His skin was unlined in spite of his white hair, and his pencil mustache was as perfectly waxed as ever. The red bowtie he had only ever worn while performing persuaded some of the younger children that the magician was about to sit up and tell them all that his sudden and unexplained death had been yet another trick. Of course, however, this did not happen.
But Umberto’s ghost did make an appearance. Two old biddies were sitting in his plush red chairs, frizzy gray heads pushed together, talking about his body over their demitasses of punch.
“Odd to see him so quiet,” the one on his left said. “I don’t think I ever saw his mouth closed.” He stuck his head between theirs and with his famous wide smile, spoke.
“Why thank you,” he grinned, “I would consider myself a weak performer indeed if I did not always keep your attention.” The ladies jumped back, howling. The one who had spoken fell over in a dead faint, her companion moving with surprising alacrity until she was out of the house altogether, still howling.
“Ah, father,” his younger son spoke, “I was wondering if we should see you.” His wife stepped toward him.
“It is good to see you again, Umberto. I hope everything on the other side is to your liking?”
“Indeed, Marguerite, when your time comes we shall be very comfortable here. But I hear it is time for my burial. I have come to see it performed. When one gets the chance to attend one’s funeral, one does not miss it!”
The rest of the party stared at Umberto in various states of surprise. If there was a way to come back from the dead, they were not surprised that the renowned magician had discovered one. The butcher’s young son spoke up timidly.
“Mr. Burn, how did you do it? Come back, I mean?”
“Ah, young Jeremiah, you know I would never reveal my secrets!”
They made their way to the graveyard with aplomb, Umberto’s coffin carried solemnly by his chosen pallbearers and Umberto himself leading a conga line behind it. His wife’s hands kept sinking through his shoulders when she forgot that he was no longer solid, but he hardly minded. Through the cemetery, its white tombstones glowing pink in the vivid sunset, they wound their merry way. They lowered his coffin into the ground and the priest intoned over it, Umberto making faces behind his back with every mention of “resting in peace.” And when his body was safely in the ground, Umberto Burn went home with his family.
The next morning, a pounding on his front door woke Umberto. When his wife opened it, the postman stumbled in, sweat pouring down his red face.
“You –have to –come quick. Cemetery. Not good!”
With his wife, his sons, and the postman, Umberto rushed back to the graveyard, where he stopped dead in his tracks. For a moment, he thought there was a mirror leaning against the stone wall of the graveyard. It was then that he realized he was staring at his own body, propped against the wall, mouth lolling open.
“Well,” Umberto said, “the widows were right about my never closing my mouth.”
His sons hoisted his body between them, and they followed after him into the graveyard, his wife beside him and the forgotten postman forming the caboose of their little train. They tracked their way back through the graveyard, dew sparkling in the morning light. When they reached the oak tree beside which his grave stood, they paused. For there stood the coffin, on the grass beside the gigantic hole they had just seen the night before.
With Umberto’s instruction, his sons repositioned his body in the coffin and reclosed the lid. They would see the caretaker on the way out and have the coffin resealed and reburied. No one was very troubled. It was not unexpected that the body of such an excellent magician would still be playing tricks after death.
They were not worried until the process was repeated the next day. And the next. And the next. Every day, his body was found farther from its grave. Until finally, when his body was found two towns away exactly one week after his original burial, Umberto reached a conclusion. When he told his wife, she was unsurprisingly unhappy.
“Of course you can’t go back! Whyever would you go back when you can be here? With me?” As tears ran down her beautiful face, he remembered the first time he had ever seen her. She had been an orphan, seventeen to his twenty-four, when she had come to him and begged to be his assistant. And though he had had no money himself, he had known that he could not say no. Indeed, he could never deny her anything. Until now. He cradled her beloved face in his hands, though she could not feel them.
“My Marguerite. My pearl. I cannot stay here. I should never have come back. Indeed, I told Saint Peter I would be gone only for an hour, and it has been seven days. It was a mistake, my flower. We have had our time –more than our time. And one day, it will be our time again.”
“Then that day shall be tomorrow. I shall end myself the moment you leave!” He stepped away from her, horrified.
“You will do no such thing! For that would make a hell of my heaven! Besides,” he said more gently, “our sons need their mother.” She nodded sorrowfully. She had spoken in haste, and she knew he was right.
“I will be with you, though you will no longer see me. I never really left. You will see one day how you can exist in two worlds at once. I have been straddling a line, which I can no longer do. But,” he winked at her, “I will stick my head over every once in a while.”
After saying his final goodbyes (again), Umberto Burn walked out of his house. He made his way to the graveyard. And this time, he, too, got into his coffin before it was lowered into the ground one final time.
Marguerite Burn was the most joyous widow the town had ever known. She cradled her grandchildren and laughed with her sons. She adored the wife of her elder son, who had once been the blushing girl at his father’s funeral, and the husband of her younger son, whose circus brought as much joy to the town as Umberto himself once had.
When Marguerite died twenty years after her husband, the town was somewhat disappointed that she did not reappear as he had. But on quiet evenings during particularly spectacular sunsets, the Burn grandchildren stared out at the graveyard and marveled. For sometimes, they would swear that they could see two figures dancing in a conga line, waiting for others to join them.