Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911) - Since I Died (1873)
The main plot of this “ghost” story is the death of a loved one, a wife. As readers, we see the remnants of the people that are left behind. Readers capture the sense of extreme grief and a multitude of memories with the loved one. However, the story is being told from the perspective of the one who has died. The protagonist tries to engage in a conversation with other characters such as the doctor and their mother but never get a reply. As the story progresses readers become aware of the existence of the dead protagonist who announces that “I must be dead!” As the story continues, it can be concluded that this couple belongs to the LGBTQ+ community. This can be concluded when the protagonist comments “I struggled, and you said, “She suffers!” The major character is the bereaved person alongside the person who is dead. The ghost does not simply appear, the story revolves around the ghost and their previous life as well as a few moments of their afterlife. The dead protagonist is trying to console their significant other, their wife from the other side. The story mostly takes place in the protagonist’s room and later the outdoors to their residence.
"Since I Died" holds some resemblance to the text by Wilkie Collins called “Miss Jéromette and the Clergyman.” The resemblance seen is in the relationship between Miss Jéromette and the Clergyman alongside the protagonist and their significant other in Since I died. Several conversations between the couple talk about how the other should continue on “To live, is dying; I will die. To die is life, and you shall live.” In Collins's text, there is a similar conversation where Miss Jéromette comments that “I shall die young, and die miserably.” Death seems to be a prominent conversation both couples tend to have with each other.
Introduction & annotations by Kiran Khan.
How very still you sit!
If the shadow of an eyelash stirred upon your cheek; if that gray line about your mouth should snap its tension at this quivering end; if the pallor of your profile warmed a little; if that tiny muscle on your forehead, just at the left eyebrow’s curve, should start and twitch; if you would but grow a trifle restless, sitting there beneath my steady gaze; if you moved a finger of your folded hands; if you should turn and look behind your chair, or lift your face, half lingering and half longing, half loving and half loth, to ponder on the annoyed and thwarted cry which the wind is making, where I stand between it and yourself, against the half-closed window— Ah, there! You sigh and stir, I think. You lift your head. The little muscle is a captive still; the line about your mouth is tense and hard; the deepening hollow in your cheek has no warmer tint, I see, than the great Doric column which the moonlight builds against the wall. I lean against it; I hold out my arms.
You lift your head and look me in the eye.
If a shudder crept across your figure; if your arms, laid out upon the table, leaped but once above your head; if you named my name; if you held your breath with terror, or sobbed aloud for love, or sprang, or cried—
But you only lift your head and look me in the eye.
If I dared step near, or nearer; if it were Permitted that I should cross the current of your living breath; if it were Willed that I should feel the leap of human blood within your veins; if I should touch your hands, your cheeks, your lips; if I dropped an arm as lightly as a snow- flake round your shoulder—
The fear which no heart has fathomed, the fate which no fancy has faced, the riddle which no soul has read, steps between your substance and my soul.
I drop my arms. I sink into the heart of the pillared light upon the wall. I will not wonder what would happen if my outlines defined upon it to your view. I will not think of that which could be, would be, if I struck across your vision, face to face.
Ah me, how still she sits! With what a fixed, incurious stare she looks me in the eye!
The wind, now that I stand no longer between it and yourself, comes enviously in. It lifts the curtain, and whirls about the room. It bruises the surface of the great pearled pillar where I lean. I am caught within it. Speech and language struggle over me. Mute articulations fill the air. Tears and laughter, and the sounding of soft lips, and the falling of low cries, possess me. Will she listen? Will she bend her head? Will her lips part in recognition? Is there an alphabet between us? Or have the winds of night a vocabulary to lift before her holden eyes?
We sat many times together, and talked of this. Do you remember, dear? You held my hand. Tears that I could not see, fell on it; we sat by the great hall- window up- stairs, where the maple shadow goes to sleep, face down across the floor upon a lighted night; the old green curtain waved its hands upon us like a mesmerist, I thought; like a priest, you said.
“When we are parted, you shall go,” you said; and when I shook my head you smiled— you always smiled when you said that, but you said it always quite the same.
I think I hardly understood you then. Now that I hold your eyes in mine, and you see me not; now when I stretch my hand and you touch me not; now that I cry your name, and you hear it not,— I comprehend you, tender one! A wisdom not of earth was in your words. “To live, is dying; I will die. To die is life, and you shall live.”
Now when the fever turned, I thought of this.
That must have been— ah! how long ago? I miss the conception of that for which how long stands index.
Yet I perfectly remember that I perfectly understood it to be at three o’clock on a rainy Sunday morning that I died. Your little watch stood in its case of olive- wood upon the table, and drops were on the window. I noticed both, though you did not know it. I see the watch now, in your pocket; I cannot tell if the hands move, or only pulsate like a heartthrob, to and fro; they stand and point, mute golden fingers, paralyzed and pleading, forever at the hour of three. At this I wonder.
When first you said I “was sinking fast,” the words sounded as old and familiar as a nursery tale. I heard you in the hall. The doctor had just left, and you went to mother and took her face in your two arms, and laid your hand across her mouth, as if it were she who had spoken. She cried out and threw up her thin old hands; but you stood as still as Eternity. Then I thought again: “It is she who dies; I shall live.”
So often and so anxiously we have talked of this thing called death, that now that it is all over between us, I cannot understand why we found in it such a source of distress. It bewilders me. I am often bewildered here. Things and the fancies of things possess a relation which as yet is new and strange to me. Here is a mystery.
Now, in truth, it seems a simple matter for me to tell you how it has been with me since your lips last touched me, and your arms held me to the vanishing air.
Oh, drawn, pale lips! Nerveless, dropping arms! I told you I would come. Did ever promise fail I spoke to you? “Come and show me Death,” you said. I have come to show you Death. I could show you the fairest sight and sweetest, that ever blessed your eyes. Why, look! Is it not fair? Am I terrible? Do you shrink or shiver? Would you turn from me, or hide your strained, expectant face?
Would she? Does she? Will she?—
Ah, how the room widened! I could tell you that. It grew great and luminous day by day. At night the walls throbbed; lights of rose ran round them, and blue fire, and a tracery as of the shadows of little leaves. As the walls expanded, the air fled. But I tried to tell you how little pain I knew or feared. Your haggard face bent over me. I could not speak; when I would I struggled, and you said “She suffers!” Dear, it was so very little!
Listen, till I tell you how that night came on. The sun fell, and the dew slid down. It seemed to me that it slid into my heart, but still I felt no pain. Where the walls pulsed and receded, the hills came in. Where the old bureau stood, above the glass, I saw a single mountain with a face of fire, and purple hair. I tried to tell you this, but you said: “She wanders.” I laughed in my heart at that, for it was such a blessed wandering! As the night locked the sun below the mountain’s solemn, watching face, the Gates of Space were lifted up before me; the everlasting doors of Matter swung for me upon their rusty hinges, and the King of Glories entered in and out. All the kingdoms of the earth, and the power of them, beckoned to me, across the mist my failing senses made,— ruins and roses, and the brows of Jura and the singing of the Rhine; a shaft of red light on the Sphinx’s smile, and caravans in sandstorms, and an icy wind at sea, and gold in mines that no man knew, and mothers sitting at their doors in valleys singing babes to sleep, and women in dank cellars selling souls for bread, and the whir of wheels in giant factories, and a single prayer somewhere in a den of death,— I could not find it, though I searched,— and the smoke of battle, and broken music, and a sense of lilies alone beside a stream at the rising of the sun— and, at last, your face, dear, all alone.
I discovered then, that the walls and roof of the room had vanished quite. The night- wind blew in. The maple in the yard almost brushed my cheek. Stars were about me, and I thought the rain had stopped, yet seemed to hear it, up on the seeming of a window which I could not find.
One thing only hung between me and immensity. It was your single, awful, haggard face. I looked my last into your eyes. Stronger than death, they held and claimed my soul. I feebly raised my hand to find your own. More cruel than the grave, your wild grasp chained me. Then I struggled, and you cried out, and your face slipped, and I stood free.
I stood upon the floor, beside the bed. That which had been I, lay there at rest, but terrible, before me. You hid your face, and I saw you slide upon your knees. I laid my hand upon your head; you did not stir; I spoke to you: “Dear, look around a minute!” but you knelt quite still. I walked to and fro about the room, and meeting my mother, touched her on the elbow; she only said, “She’s gone!” and sobbed aloud. “I have not gone!” I cried; but she sat sobbing on.
The walls of the room had settled now, and the ceiling stood in its solid place. The window was shut, but the door stood open. Suddenly I was restless, and I ran.
I brushed you in hurrying by, and hit the little light- stand where the tumblers stood; I looked to see if it would fall, but it only shivered as if a breath of wind had struck it once.
But I was restless, and I ran. In the hall I met the Doctor. This amused me, and I stopped to think it over. “Ah, Doctor,” said I, “you need not trouble yourself to go up. I’m quite well to- night, you see.” But he made me no answer; he gave me no glance; he hung up his hat, and laid his hand upon the banister against which I leaned, and went ponderously up.
It was not until he had nearly reached the landing that it occurred to me, still leaning on the banisters, that his heavy arm must have swept against and through me, where I stood against the oaken mouldings which he grasped.
I saw his feet fall on the stairs above me; but they made no sound which reached my ear. “You’ll not disturb me now with your big boots, sir,” said I, nodding; “never fear!”
But he disappeared from sight above me, and still I heard no sound.
Now the doctor had left the front door unlatched.
As I touched it, it blew open wide, and solemnly. I passed out and down the steps. I could see that it was chilly, yet I felt no chill. Frost was on the grass, and in the east a pallid streak, like the cheek of one who had watched all night. The flowers in the little square plots hung their heads and drew their shoulders up; there was a lonely, late lily which I broke and gathered to my heart, where I breathed upon it, and it warmed and looked me kindly in the eye. This, I remember, gave me pleasure. I wandered in and out about the garden in the scattering rain; my feet left no trace upon the dripping grass, and I saw with interest that the garment which I wore, gathered no moisture and no cold. I sat musing for a while upon the piazza, in the garden- chair, not caring to go in. It was so many months since I had felt able to sit upon the piazza in the open air. “By and by,” I thought, I would go in and up- stairs to see you once again. The curtains were drawn from the parlor windows and I passed and repassed, looking in.
All this while the cheek of the east was warming, and the air gathering faint heats and lights about me. I remembered, presently, the old arbor at the garden- foot, where, before I was sick, we sat so much together; and thinking, “She will be surprised to know that I have been down alone,” I was restless, and I ran again.
I meant to come back and see you, dear, once more. I saw the lights in the room where I had lain sick, overhead; and your shadow on the curtain; and I blessed it with all the love of life and death, as I bounded by.
The air was thick with sweetness from the dying flowers. The birds woke, and the zenith lighted, and the leap of health was in my limbs. The old arbor held out its soft arms to me— but I was restless, and I ran.
The field opened before me, and meadows with broad bosoms, and a river flashed before me like a scimitar, and woods interlocked their hands to stay me— but being restless, on I ran.
The house dwindled behind me; and the light in my sick- room, and your shadow on the curtain. But yet I was restless, and I ran.
In the twinkling of an eye I fell into a solitary place. Sand and rocks were in it, and a falling wind. I paused, and knelt upon the sand, and mused a little in this place. I mused of you, and life and death, and love and agony;— but these had departed from me, as dim and distant as the fainting wind. A sense of solemn expectation filled the air. A tremor and a trouble wrapped my soul.
“I must be dead!” I said aloud. I had no sooner spoken than I learned that I was not alone.
The sun had risen, and on a ledge of ancient rock, weather- stained and red, there had fallen over against me the outline of a Presence lifted up against the sky, and turning suddenly, I saw. . . . . .
Lawful to utter, but utterance has fled! Lawful to utter, but a greater than Law restrains me! Am I blotted from your desolate fixed eyes? Lips that my mortal lips have pressed, can you not quiver when I cry? Soul that my eternal soul has loved, can you stand enveloped in my presence, and not spring like a fountain to me? Would you not know how it has been with me since your perishable eyes beheld my perished face? What my eyes have seen, or my ears have heard, or my heart conceived without you? If I have missed or mourned for you? If I have watched or longed for you? Marked your solitary days and sleepless nights, and tearless eyes, and monotonous slow echo of my unanswering name? Would you not know?
Alas! would she? Would she not? My soul misgives me with a matchless, solitary fear. I am called, and I slip from her. I am beckoned, and I lose her.
Her face dims, and her folded, lonely hands fade from my sight.
Time to tell her a guarded thing! Time to whisper a treasured word! A moment to tell her that Death is dumb, for Life is deaf! A moment to tell her—