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Three short stories about death

Exclusive, dead good short short stories by Rome-born, LA-raised writer Chiara Barzini

Chiara Barzini is a young Italian writer on the up, whose stories - written in English while she was living in New York City - have attracted fulsome praise from fairly big deal American writer types like Jonathan Ames (who penned the sitcom Bored to Death) and Gary Shteyngart (author of prescient futuristic novel Super Sad True Love Story). Back in Rome now, she writes screenplays and fiction and tells us nice buoyant things about the thriving literary community over there. Chiara also specializes in one of our favourite forms: the particularly short short story, of which her debut collection Sister Stop Breathing is made up (some are only three lines long: weeeeee!). So; cheerfully carrying on with the necronautical theme that this column is developing, here are three of her dead weird, dead short, dead good little tales about the dead.  

Dead Prime Minister

The news arrives: “The Prime Minister is dead.” We scramble to mourn him. As a public figure, his corpse is on display for all to say goodbye. The casket is on a stage in the chapel. Benches placed asymmetrically in front of the altar accommodate a disordered crowd. The people are puzzled by the empty casket.

            Instead of resting in peace, the Prime Minister sits on the steps beneath the altar slumped over like a limp puppet. Journalists whisper about how he got caught with a transsexual prostitute, how his sweet wife had no idea he had such preferences.

            He is brownish and flaccid. A trace of his stoutness remains in between the folds of his skin. Though he is dead he can still speak and move in small measures. His arm lurches forward as he raises his index finger begging to be heard.

“I am here!”

Nobody else in the room takes notice that, though he is dead, he is also partly alive.

“Excuse me,” I say to the Prime Minister, “please understand we don’t quite know how to look at you. You’re a corpse but you’re moving.”

The Prime Minister is impressed, “That’s correct! Thanks for noticing”

            I rejoice over my accurate assertion, and shake him.

“Hey! I’m dead," he says. "If you shake me I’ll be deader and will have no more words to speak.”

His voice is barely audible and he has stopped all movement except for a slight nodding of the head. His skull bares a long scar.

I hold his hand. “What happened with the transsexual prostitute?”

“I like chicks with dicks,” he admits.

The journalists in the chapel note his statement. “Finally, a real piece of news!”

“And what about your wife? There are rumors of spicy trysts with an underage girl!” someone else blurts out.

“None of that matters anymore. When you’re dead you don’t even know you’re married.”

His mother, slightly ashamed, steps forward and leads him back to his casket. The crowd sitting on the benches is ready for the ceremony to begin. The Prime Minister lies down, but his arm keeps creeping back up out of the coffin.

“Don’t worry,” says the mother. “These are the last little bursts. It’ll take years before he can move again.”

Youth Hostel

In the youth hostel, young women from all over the world take spirituality courses, Spanish lessons and the theory and history of salsa dancing. They sit in a common room eating nuts and seeds. On a blackboard, a group leader illustrates how to dance and when to pray.

The man in charge of the hostel gives tours: “Rooms are only four dollars if you enroll in the courses. Try out our grave-digging workshop: you dig your own grave and experience the feeling of burial. Coffins are not included.” I refuse to sleep in their dormitory but partake in the grave-digging workshop the following day.

Behind the hostel, a vast green cemetery expands over rolling hills. I go there with Katherine, the course leader. She is a bodybuilder from Canada who has been a permanent resident of the hostel for the last ten years. She encourages a do-it-yourself approach to the workshop. She hands me a shovel and a pair of gloves, then stands at the far end of the hole while I begin to dig. “Keep going!” she screams as if she was still in Montreal training hormonally enhanced bodybuilders. Soon enough I am deep into the earth. When I look up, Katherine’s masculine voice is muffled, “Are you dead yet?” I suppose this is the part of the workshop when one really learns something.

            I stand in a perfect rectangle and put my hands on the soil around me. It is damp and covered with fragments of roots. I touch the walls looking for something, but it is earth over and over. It is the coldest place I’ve been to and the air is thick. Katherine’s voice is no longer audible. She waves a white flag that reads “Almost a corpse!” I shout back at her, “I’ll pay the full hostel price! No more workshop!” But my voice has nowhere to travel to. The sound stays trapped in my ears as if I were shutting them closed. I wonder how long it will take for me to turn into dirt or be eaten by worms, and what I could do until then. When I look up again Katherine is gone. The sun, a dot in the sky. Is this how it is for everyone who dies? Being in the earth with nothing to do? 

Practice Items 

The wife’s husband is dying because he has cancer. To get used to the idea, the wife collects his personal belongings and scatters them on the floor while he sleeps. How strange it will be when he is dead and she will have to dispose of his braided brown wig, or other things that are part of him—a pack of cigarettes, the purple corduroy trousers, the hat, the watch, the flute. She scatters them across the floor and leaves the house.

            When she comes back an hour later, alone, and sees the objects spread out on the floor, she pretends to be surprised. If the wig is here, where is my husband? If the flute is on the floor why isn’t he playing it? If his watch is here, how will he tell the time?

It is perfect practice, she thinks. This is how it’s going to be when he’s gone. The objects on the floor conjure the death of her grandmother—the first death she can remember. She walks down the path of every single loss she’s lived through. This way when it’s his turn the pain won’t come as a surprise.