Morrison was never very much convinced by the idea, taught to him in Sunday school, that forgiveness comes from God; he could never see why God needed to forgive us our trespasses, when He was the one who made us how we are. Even as a boy, however, he had believed in the forgiveness of the dead. When he was little, his mother would take him on Sunday walks to the cemetery on the West Side of the Innertown, not far from where the better-off people lived. James Morrison wouldn't come, he'd always be too busy, but his wife would lead young John and his little sister out to the Innertown cemetery, and all three would sit down on one of the benches dressed in their Sunday best to enjoy a picnic lunch by their grandmother's headstone. It would be a quiet meal, solemn, though not at all morbid. Afterward, out of respect for the dead, Morrison would pick up every spilled eggshell, every curl of orange peel. The dead fascinated him by the way they lived on, alone in their names, each one separate from the others, and he wanted to erase any trace that he, or his family, might leave in their solitary domain. Once, when he was fifteen, he had gone for a walk in the cemetery with his first girlfriend, a slightly plain but funny, generous-hearted girl called Gwen. He'd intended it to be nothing more than a walk, but almost as soon as they passed through the cemetery gates she had grabbed hold of his arm and kissed him, right there, among the gravestones and the rhododendrons. That kiss hadn't quite worked because they hadn't tried this before, both of them shy and Morrison not sure if he liked Gwen as much for her looks as he did for her personality. That was why he had hesitated, probably; but the truth was that, at first, he hadn't wanted to go on, with the dead all around him, watching from their separate resting places across the cemetery. He'd tried again, though, for the girl's sake, and this time they did it right, Gwen tilting her head like they did in the movies, so their noses didn't get in the way. After that, they kissed for a long time, maybe a minute, not quite knowing how to stop once they had got started.

As soon as he and Gwen parted, however, that kiss began to worry him. He didn't want to upset or insult the dead, because they were alone in some silent otherness—and that, he had realized, was why they could forgive us. He'd never had any doubt that the dead were better for being dead: they were beyond all the petty concerns and trivial disputes and anxieties that trouble the living. They breathed with God. That was how Morrison had imagined them as a child: breathing God's air, but never seeing Him, always alone. It was up to them to watch us, dispassionately, from a distance, and they forgave us the more easily for that. It wasn't God's job to forgive, it was theirs. They saw, and they understood, but God couldn't understand because God's standards were so high, and because He always got so bloody wrathful, smiting and striking down here, there, and everywhere. So, being perfect, He gave the job of forgiveness to the dead. It was logical, when you thought about it. Morrison liked to think of it as a form of delegation.

Excerpted from The Glister by John Burnside Copyright © 2009 by John Burnside. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Beach read This book is one of the 25 Books of Summer
Get the list


Next Story