Hella Talks with the Dead

Michael Wenzel
Hella Talks with the Dead
Hella was looked down upon throughout the village for being particularly defiant and crabby, which is arguably the worst way to find a husband.

If a “witch” is a know-it-all and is constantly interrupting, why does she even need a hubby?

This question, often heard, was also an answer and under such circumstances it did not forecast the bliss of marital partnership. And so it was not meant to be between men and Hella.

When she was over 30, with a chest as flat and hard as an oak board, with lips as thin as wire, she put her dowry - finely knit bed sheets and hand towels with an embroidered monogram - in the lowest drawer of her cupboard, shut them up along with many more items and devoted herself from then on to dead people; they seemed more constant.

In them lay her future.

Her aunt on her mother’s side, Hanna Kratzer, an old maid of eighty, had left her a wonderful and wondrous legacy: the angular house in Goldgiesser Lane and the gift of being able to talk with the dead.

The following was known throughout the village: the dead are neither blessedly deceased nor forever passed away; they are spiriting around all over: in cosy parlours, in stables, in bathrooms and in the village pub. Especially there. Sitting or standing around each other, they squeeze past one another silently. They crowd around, but cannot be felt. These countless shadows from the other side of time are remote in spirit from everything that carries blood and warmth or draws breath.

The dead sit next to you at supper, stand in line at the churchyard wall or in the hallway, even when making babies they sit on the edge of your bed - and stare. They let year after year go by and wait. Perhaps for the last judgement or the verdict when it will be proclaimed if one may laugh or is instead condemned to whine and quarrel forever.

Until then, they have time to fill, time that seems like vast emptiness. Some have also said that these poor deceased souls are waiting in vain. But that Father Waibler had condemned to purgatory with harsh words. Such and similar things were talked about in the village and lots of stories circulated of the dead attempting to reach out to the living and touch their hearts about what affects them, what they must free themselves of because it burdens them so bitterly. But the living can never ever understand them, because both worlds are never one. Alone the necromancer can carry a few mumbling words over the dividing abyss, can convey a whisper or two.

If someone wanted to speak with a deceased person, that person went straight to Hella. He asked politely for an appointment, like going to the doctor. Hella would browse through a thick, black book, while asking a question or two, murmuring this or that.
According to her, she had to find a bridge of light from her own soul to the deceased person. They would talk considerably about the honourable, deceased one, and with a sharpened pencil Hella would take notes in the big book. Then the person left with a scheduled appointment and lots of high hopes.

Bring along a picture of the loved one, Hella called after them. Don’t forget.

Later, Hella placed the photograph on the cherrywood table in the parlour and lit the black candle of death. If the flame burned upright and still like a pencil, it meant that the dead still wandered around the village and had to be summoned.

The room in itself was very strange. The heavy curtains were closed, as if to lock the day outside. A scent, like that in church during high mass, hung in the air, but even more heavy upon the chest. Shadows flickered over the walls and weird sounds filled the room.

The name of the dead had to be called loud and clearly in each of the four cardinal directions, only the name. If the yellow flame flickered, it meant that the dead one had heard and was approaching briskly. People believed that the deceased could travel through air as swift as an arrow.

And soon the flame swayed and crackled: the dead had arrived. It levitated along, sat down on the chair of death on which no living being was allowed to sit or else be suddenly cast over into the grey realm beyond. The wood in the room creaked slightly, Hella’s fingers vibrated on the table top, her eyes turning back until only white was visible.

“Yah, Yah,” came a muffled sound from her mouth, one as dull as the big bell of the church tower.

Now was the time when one could ask a question: a single, well considered question, for only that could pass over the narrow and laboriously built bridge in order to be blown back as an answer. And then Hella would stare into the tiny light, as though looking into unknown depths glimpsing lights beyond lights behind it.

She hummed a melody, in very strange tones, rocking her upper body back and forth.

She carried the answer herself over the narrow bridge that separates us from them who can neither laugh nor cry. She tore at her jet black clothing, sunk her pointed nose onto the table top, then let it rise again, her face completely pale like a ghost of the night.

Her lips opened, a thin, golden line in the candlelight, and the longed-for answer resonated:

Yes, I am alright. I am waiting for you my dear, my beloved. Mother should not grieve forever. It is better that the cough got me; it would have tortured me forever. No, no, don’t sell the farm to Trenkler; he is ripping you off that dirty pig.

Yeah, it was just the boozing; the drinking threw me off the wagon and now it’s all over with dancing and singing.

No, I never cheated on you, swear on my gravestone. But don’t go out with Burger; he just wants your money that low down bastard.

Oh, Bertel, please let our daughter marry Josef, he is such a good hearted guy; he really is.

Such loving words and many more the dead offered, relieving the living of heartbreak and deeply-rooted doubts, filling their tight, breathless chests with confidence. That was certain.

Just as certain was that the visitor discretely left a green bill under the light. One didn’t want to appear stingy in front of the dead. A goodbye, a farewell was whispered into the candle flame which afterwards would straighten, like a pencil. The worlds glided apart once again. Hella rose up, dark and scary, like a goddess of the underworld.

The visitor reclaimed jacket and hat, coat and scarf, perhaps even a tiny promise, if the eyes had become too teary: Yes, one could speak again with Toni, with Burga, with Willi ... But for now the dead needed their rest.

And Hella opened the door with a sigh and closed it.

Above it hung, in beautiful hand script within a fine frame:

You can complain, you can beg; the Dead don’t talk.

Nobody really read that sign very closely.
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