Saffron glared at her black-suited sister across their father’s grave in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery. It was nearly empty for their father’s funeral, only Elinor, this small bunch of stylish Italians also wearing black, and herself in lavender. Was it worth coming all the way from Berkeley, with her domineering sister, for this ritual? Ellie had written a sol- emn ceremony, as if Dad would have enjoyed the pomp. Okay, maybe he was enjoying it, but Saffron knew he was hating being dead.
She could tell by the purple glimmers that swarmed over his casket that Dad was disturbed by his situation, but he’d soon grow calm.
Her superior sister, with her perfect pageboy and dark suit, looked embarrassed tossing red rose petals onto the casket. Good, she should. The cheesy petal-tossing idea had been Ellie’s. She was always planning and calculating. She could never do anything spontaneously. It was as if all the energy in Ellie’s body flowed up and gathered in her brain, where it pulsed in constant, bossy motion.
But then Saffron remembered she didn’t want to be crit- ical, especially not with her sister, who had invited her to come. She tried to put on a hopeful expression, to please Ellie—and then she remembered Ellie wouldn’t like to see her smiling at the funeral.
The judgmental vibes were probably flowing from Ellie, who was always embarrassed by something. Often it was by Saffron and her spontaneity, which was, yes, a little messy. And what Elinor dismissively called imagi- native. To Ellie, the mix-up with the plane reservations had proved yet again why Saffron wasn’t competent. After Saffron booked the wrong dates, Elinor took over with a
flourish. Her sister loved to take charge. Ever since child- hood, Ellie had honed her management skills by running Saffron’s life.
Yes, it was true, Saffron needed help. Of course, she wasn’t perfect. Okay, she was about to turn thirty and hadn’t yet begun adulting. But at this moment, she was proud of herself for coming along and trying to mend fences with Ellie—as proud as you could feel with drizzle plastering your hair onto your face, your boot heels sink- ing into the spongey ground, and your sister frowning at your smile.
Suddenly, her confidence dripped away. Saffron saw all her mistakes shatteringly close in the rearview mirror. On this trip to Italy to claim their inheritance from Dad, could she show Elinor she was able to take care of herself? True, Elinor had bailed Saffron out when her recent business failed. And she had picked up the pieces when Saffron was evicted over a silly misunderstanding with the landlord.
But Elinor never gave Saffron the benefit of her many doubts. It was almost as if she relished Saffron screwing up, so she could swoop in as the rescuer.
Ellie glanced over at her, lips pressed and brown eyes squinting. Saffron felt very alone as she listened to the minister’s gloomy thoughts on Heaven, in this odd coun- try where no one wore lavender.
Saffron knew if she hadn’t come, Ellie would have made this a weekend trip. She’d stay just long enough to pick up the pieces after their father’s fatal heart attack, selling his home on the Italian coast as fast as she could, and missing any possible fun she might have in Italy. Without Saffron to inspire her, Ellie wouldn’t sample Italian delicacies, or explore Dad’s cottage. She’d eat in the hotel dining room in Rome and order nothing more adventurous than Pasta Bolognese and house wine. Life had squashed Ellie. Was there a way to un-squash her?
The trees quivered with a gust of rain. A shower of phosphorescent sparks dazzled up from the open grave as a bird swooped low over their heads. Saffron’s stomach lurched as the sparkling atoms swirled up and twinkled through the leaves.
Hella damn. An Invisible.
Not right now, with her sister watching.
The pyrotechnic was probably Dad. He must feel anx- ious, thinking he was going to stay closed in that box with the polished lid. He must have panicked that his blood was stilled and his body frozen. An active, vibrant man who was always doing, he must be surprised to be dead.
A ripple of fear shot up her spine, probably echoing Dad’s uneasiness with his being in The Room Over There. He’d settle down. They all did. Invisibles often came to Saffron for help finding their way. Dad would realize where he was. She’d nudge him, they’d talk, and then he’d walk calmly away. And if he didn’t walk voluntarily, she’d bully him, the way he had bullied her to improve her grades.
The thought made her smile. She glanced at Ellie, but her sister hadn’t caught her finding something funny. Elinor was the kind of woman who didn’t see anything she didn’t want to.
With a deep sense of irony, Saffron understood Dad’s panic. When he’d sent her away, after her mother died, and she had to go live with Ellie and Mom-Betsy, her fear had made her only want to sleep. But she learned to soothe herself, and then she learned to soothe Invisibles. Each time she helped one, a soft ache of gratitude blos- somed in her heart.
The minister was going on about Heaven—what did he know about the afterlife? The sparkles billowed higher, unnoticed by the others. Dad would have preferred to write his own eulogy, something poetic and perhaps funny. What this funeral needed was a few streamers and some barefoot dancing.
The mass of fiery dots hung in midair, as if commu- nicating by Morse code. These dancing lights could be saying a spectacular Sorry to Saffron. As Dad should for abandoning her.
The phantom twisted itself into eyes, nose, and a mouth. A sad face with large, watery eyes. Not Dad, but his favor- ite poet, his academic specialty, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Was Dad sending the sad poet?
A small figure darted into her peripheral vision. At her feet was a small gray squirrel. He ran across the toe of her boot to grab crumbs of hotel crackers that must have spilled from her pocket. She fished around, trying to find more. He rushed back, to a safe distance. He munched, sitting upright and keeping an eye on her. Obviously, he was used to pilfering from mourners. Well, why not. Invisibles and tame squirrels at Dad’s funeral. Perfect for the eccentric Nathan Greene.
She turned out her pocket, shaking down the last crumbs. She looked up again. Shelley was just vanishing. Had Ellie seen the squirrel? No. Her stoic, prim sister was worriedly looking around. She felt sorry for Elinor, always compelled to assess people and their reactions.
The squirrel edged nearer again. Saffron realized his dilemma. She stepped aside so he could scoop up more crumbs. She loved animals. They followed no rules and made no judgments, except about food.
Past the circle of people in black she saw Invisibles gliding between the headstones and monuments. They all were dressed in contemporary clothes, all in silent motion. Saffron blew a kiss to a young woman dressed in red who had stopped. She looked startled that someone living could see her. Saffron waved, as you do at someone undertaking a long vacation. The woman smiled brightly and waved back, and then she thinned out to nothing. Good. On her way. Saffron wished she knew where they ended up.
If only she could confide in Ellie as she used to. But she couldn’t mention the Invisibles to her sister ever again, not after Ellie had undermined Saffron’s relationship with her boyfriend Jack by telling him about Saffron’s “secret game”. When they were kids, it had been different. Saffron had trusted Ellie and told her about the Invisibles. Ellie accepted it. Even though she couldn’t see them, she believed her sister.
But on this trip, Saffron would forgo the apology she deserved from Ellie, if only they could get back to some kind of harmony. Saffron missed her sister.
Shelley’s face returned, hovering in the air, smiling but even sadder looking.
I’m waiting for you at my cottage. I’m waiting here for
both you girls.
A tingle raced up the back of Saffron’s neck. Well, triple hella damn. Now they really had to go see Dad’s house, to find out why Shelley had just called it his house.
I want my heart back.
Whaaaat? But then Shelley was gone again.
Saffron found a peanut in her pocket, left over from the plane flight. She tossed it on the ground. The squirrel leapt over to grab it. Ellie was watching too. She must think it was super inappropriate, feeding wildlife while bury- ing your parent. The somber Italians, hunched and hat- ted, clearly agreed. They looked on disapprovingly. Well, why shouldn’t she enjoy the event? Dad was just chang- ing from one form of existence to another. Understanding this, funerals in Berkeley were more like weddings. People wore colors. They chanted and danced. Bells were heard.
Death was a myth, and most people only half-lived anyway. Like her sister, moving through life without fully using her senses. If you could make a spreadsheet of your dreams, Ellie would. As a teenager she had thrown away her pointe shoes and wrapped up her box of poems and stowed it on a high, cobwebbed shelf in the garage. She had traded her youth for a calculator.
Would the minister never come to the end? “Nathan Greene, a man of faith, so important to his community.”
A man of faith? Faith in his own ego, maybe.
Saffron wished she had brought a sweater. And an umbrella. Ellie began jerking her head with vehement little snaps, signaling Saffron: Stand up straighter, look sadder. She felt sorry for Elinor. What had discipline gotten her?
Infertility, being cheated on, a brutal divorce, and coming down from a luxurious home in the hills to a cramped condo. Slaving away in a hospital. Cementing her pact with bottom lines and dollar signs. After the divorce, Ellie had retreated into her need to outperform others. Elinor’s elusive imagination that once roamed nature like a forest sprite was forgotten. But that could change. Elinor needed time away, and Saffron couldn’t go back to Justin and the pizzeria right now. She needed time away too.
The minister gave a final prayer. Hands were shaken, solemn nods given, everyone left. Praise the Goddess—it was over.