A Household Guide to Mourning Etiquette for Widows – Sharon Telfer

Artwork - Janice Leagra

Funeral

Hill’s fingers tap her spine like a ghost at the window. She shivers. No one touches her now but the maid and the baby, tugging at her breast. No hand traces the swell of her belly, the curve of her hip.

Hill tightens the laces. Her ribs curl, her heart displaces, her breath shallows. It feels like an embrace. If there is nothing to hold her in, she will fall apart.

The dress blots the floor, a black pool. She steps in, raises her arms like a drowning woman dragged down by weeds as Hill lifts the stiff bombazine about her.

At the front door, she drops the veil. The world darkens as if it is she who is lowered into the grave.

Full mourning – to be worn for one year

She may neither visit nor receive visitors. She circles the garden, while Hill walks out with the baby. Her sheenless skirts deaden the winter light. Seedheads hang in the frost. When she tries the side door to the orchard she finds it locked.

Each night, she staggers as Hill unhooks the whalebone stays.

On honeymoon, unlacing her, he had whispered how the great whales sang in the southern seas. Such swooning, such swooping could only be the call of love across the deep.

She rolls to the cold side of the bed, his side. Her hand falls to the ache between her thighs but she hears only the whistle of her own thinned blood.

Second mourning – to be worn for nine months

Hill unpicks the crepe ribbons from her dress. The baby, crawling now, sucks a strand to softness like kelp.

Certain jewellery becomes permissible. She pins jet to her throat. As she enters church, black-bead eyes speculate her worth, calculate how long before she becomes available.

She takes down the drapes covering the mirrors, yearning to find him trapped within the dimpled glass. Her face alone stares back, unfamiliar. Empty rooms unfold behind her.

Half mourning – to be worn for three months

She sits by the fire in her ash-grey dress, reading to her shadow husband in his vacant chair. She can no longer summon the pitch of his voice. In the hallway, Hill shushes the child’s staggering giggle.

Out

The boy – no longer a baby – runs ahead and waits by the orchard door. The breeze ruffles his dandelion hair. His face is opening like a rose, his father’s eyes, that tilt of his chin.

Hill hands her the heavy key. It snubs in the lock. She works it into place, gives a firm twist, presses her hand to the creaking wood. The boy, copying, leans and adds his newfound weight to hers. The door gives. She gathers her forget-me-not skirts and takes his sticky hand. Together they step through the opening into the blossoming, snow-white spring.

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