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CREMATORIUM / Richard Seher FOR EACH MAN or woman there are those buUdings of chUdhood the mere thought of which years later is enough to reawaken the whole of the buried past. For me, there is the Troy Public Library where I sat by the hour bewitched by the novels of Rafael Sabatini: Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and, best of aU, Scaramouche, that lovable scamp who "was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." Later, there is that house on Jacob Street where, at long last, I shucked my hated virginity. Most emblematic of all is the Gardner Earl Crematorium. Begun in' 1887 and opened for use in 1902, the buUding stands on a ridge overlooking the city of Troy and, beyond that, the Hudson VaUey through which the great river pushes on its way from the Adirondacks to Manhattan. I first saw the crematorium in the company of my father. The year was 1937. We had just left St. Mary's Hospital where Father had been making his daily patient rounds. He had taken me along that day. Instead of turning left to go down the Hoosick Street hiU toward home, Father aimed the old blue Hudson north on Oakwood Avenue. It was October, and we would go to see the foUage. "The cemetery is the best place for leaves," he said. "What with aU those maples and oaks, the gravestones wUl be strewn with them." It is from Father that I inherited what Mother caUed my "morbid strain." Just before the entrance to the cemetery, and set back from the road, was a stone building with a high tower at one end, and at the other a taU chimney. The exterior of the buUding was of rough-hewn gray granite. The silhouette of the roof was broken by pinnacles and turrets. No garden surrounded it; no foundation splashed nearby; no flags stirred. Only a single ancient oak, a Cerberus of a tree, that brooked no companions. "What's that place?" I wanted to know. It could not have been buUt. It must have fallen to earth with a terrible thud and squatted there ever since. Father explained. "It's the crematorium, where the people who don't want to be buried are burned up in an oven. That ..." he pointed, "is the chimney." 288 ยท The Missouri Review "That's got to hurt a whole lot." "No it doesn't. The dead don't feel pain. They are numb." "But how do you know it doesn't hurt?" "It just makes sense, that's aU." "But you can't prove it, can you?" "(With a weary sigh) No, I can't prove it as I have never actuaUy been dead. Only half." Oh, but they did feel it, I knew they did. "Just because we can't hear them hoUering---- " "It looks Uke a dragon," said my big brother BUIy. And so it did, what with its low squat body, the high tower topped by a narrow head, and that rigid taU of a chimney. Even as he spoke, I imagined its horrid feasting, the belching of smoke. AU afternoon BiUy and I prowled around the buUding, waiting for something to happen. There was no sign of Ufe, either inside or out. StiU, we had the feeling that we were being watched. It was the dragon itself keeping us in view. All the windows save the two nearest the chimney were of stained glass. You couldn't see through them. Ever since, I have thought the real purpose of stained glass is not decoration but to keep you from seeing what's on the other side. Through the clear windows at the back, by jumping up and down, we could just see the corner of a pale green metal box with a row of rivets along the edge. "The oven!" we exclaimed with a blend of dread and ecstasy. Hours passed whUe BUIy and I scared ourselves to death with eerie moans and shrieks of demonic laughter, every now and then casting an over-the-shoulder glance to see if the dragon had lashed its tail. There came a day, weeks later...


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