Lady death’s dark coat is long and ragged, dragging in its train the stillborn, accident deaths, junkies, the weak and infirm, victims of famine, disease, and war, dead bones clinking and clanking, the reek of flesh. Souls are not her purview, only death’s physicality, its inevitability, our commonality with animals.
It was in the wild, uncultivated woods beside the Veterans of Foreign War Memorial that a girl went missing one day after high school. The undergrowth, the twisting trunks of oaks, the Spanish moss did not give up their secrets. The girls’ parents appealed fruitlessly to the uncompromising green sameness.
Ms. Myska’s upcoming operation had altered the course of her daily thoughts and interaction with the world. The surgeon told her he would use robotic arms to go into her womb and extract her cancerous uterus. Always before learning of such she had a mousy nervous way, an odd way, that people noticed and remarked upon, albeit through veiled observant glances and uncomfortable laughter. And now, Ms. Myska’s nerves had sent her over the edge. In fact, she had come to believe she could interact with the insensate world, something she kept a secret but something she felt nonetheless.
It started with her fear of death. Mrs. Malvoline, at the weekly Bible study luncheon, had told her when learning of the upcoming procedure: “Well you know Mitzy Bowzer had that done, all fancy Dan, the surgery modern as a toaster, and she lost her bowels from between her legs. Slipped right through.”
This during the chicken salad salad sandwiches at a table mounded with fruit in the center around which the ladies chattered about their families and their diets.
Ms. Myska laid her croissant sandwich down on her plastic plate and held a napkin to her lips.
Greta Malvoline had not known of or could not have guessed Ms. Myska’s feverish sweats in the middle of night, her nightmares of being chased through the town by robotic arms that could move in 360 degree rotation, arms that played with her hair, put things in her grocery basket, made her meals – gourmet style – far superior to her humble culinary efforts. And now, in waking life, arms would take the organ that had once held her baby.
The room where twelve ladies sat around the luncheon table in the church, twelve ladies strong, good as the twelve apostles, was too close for Ms. Myska, the now cloying odor of fresh baked bread and fruit overwhelming. She grabbed her purse and scurried to the door. Outside the church at the memorial garden where the cremated remains of former parishioners sat in jars. She felt sick but she wanted to show respect for the dead.
“Oh earth,” she said, “If I die, will you hold me?”
Even Ms. Myska knew she was being a bit dramatic. The surgeon had reassured her he had performed thousands of robotic surgeries without mishap. And the upside was a quick recovery.
She felt a breeze then, a caress. The leaves rattled “yes.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. She had her answer, then. She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like this was a reassurance.
She must think of something pretty to be buried in, she thought, looking around at the colorful urns where others’ ashes were stored. Were jars standard or could she choose a favorite?
She thought of her great grandmother’s ginger jar. When she was a girl she had brushed against the pie crust table where it was displayed. The jar broke into many pieces. Rather than scold her, her great grandmother had gathered the pieces and glued them back together, teaching her about the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi. “The Japanese believe, my little one, that a repaired vessel is even more beautiful because it is the scars that show uniqueness and beauty. Artists often highlight the cracks in a repaired piece of pottery using gold. It is a lesson in resilience. A repaired vessel is a sign of soul.” And her great grandmother gently brushed her cheek with a crooked and withered finger.
One of the items Ms. Myska procured for herself after her great grandmother’s death was the repaired old ginger jar. Ms. Myska’s mother, a practical woman, was in the process of tossing her odds and ends. The jar was sitting on top of a pile of old books and newspapers. Nula spirited it away. “That’s useless, you know,” said her mother. Nula ignored her. She kept her magic jar in her room beside her pet rock Harry and her matryoshka doll collection.
The afternoon of the earth’s reassurance, she was happy to not return to the ladies who by now were commencing a study and discussion of the Messianic prefigurings of Jesus. It had nothing to do with her. The irrelevance of this arcane type of scholasticism coupled with a stomach heavy with a rich lunch inspired her departure. To stay might have brought about drowsing during the lecture, adding yet another incidence of eccentricity to her reputation.
At home, she retrieved her great grandmother’s blue and white ginger jar from the china cabinet. She kept it in the place where the little interior light of the cabinet could highlight it. If she looked carefully, she could see the places where her grandmother had lovingly glued the pieces back together. She placed it on her dining room table and sat before it.
“Little jar,” she said, “Will you hold the ashes of my bones when I am dead?”
She couldn’t be completely sure, not when she thought of it later, but she could have sworn she heard the lid of the jar rattle lightly against the lip. Maybe it was just her nervous agitation upsetting the table slightly and disturbing the jar, but it seemed perhaps she had her answer.
Ms. Myska buzzed about the kitchen making her dinner of chili beans and cornbread and feeding her dog. It took a great deal of time for the beans to cook and though it was early afternoon she anticipated a late night dinner.
On the porch she sat with her needlework. The sky was busily forming and reforming clouds as she followed the pattern for the large splashy peonies on the printed canvas. It was pleasurable to push the colored yarn through and know that this was her only chore for the afternoon. Years ago she had entertained her husband’s – now ex husband’s – clients with elaborate parties. Years ago she had raised a teenage son. Years ago she had scurried around a library large as a city block looking for patron’s requests. Now all that was required was the simple tent stich. Her tiny white dog sat beside her on the small porch swing.
She had a sudden worry for her. Who would care for the little thing were something to happen?
“Sky,” she said, “Will you watch over my dog Belle when I’m dead? Watch over her to protect her? Protect her as a mother?”
The clouds bowed up then forming a perfect circle like a mother’s arms. Miraculous! Ms. Myska had never felt so close to the sky and she stayed outside on her porch until the summer storm blew her indoors.
That evening, the whole of her house bathed in gold while Ms. Myska ate her supper. It was as if it were a crack in an artisan’s pot that had been repaired with gold. The whole of her life was a history of her scarring and repair and for the first time in weeks Ms. Myska lay in her soft bed with her dog at her feet and slept without nightmares.
Go here to acquire Abigail Moses’ wonderful work of art above “Kintsugi.”
We are what is left when everything from the accident is carried away – the driver, the smashed car, the branches from the bush that crumpled thin metal. We are the detritus, the pieces, the bits – the piece of reflector, the broken glass of the windshield, the broken cross dangling from the rearview. The bush the car crashed into was as crushed as the frame. The conclusion of the police was that the young man was drunk. But we know it was a deer. He swerved to avoid a deer. But he died. The deer lived.
The mother who came to collect pieces of us the day after had it right. This is what she told the police, that her son had swerved to hit an animal, but his intoxication level had been a more solid forensic indicator. It was a deer, or a cat, or a squirrel. The boy loved animals, she said. She told it to the ground, she told it to the bits of debris.
We are a reflection of stars and lost dreams and yet should we be able to tell the story of that lonely boy riding through the night in the city of lakes at Christmas we would tell the truth only a mother’s heart knows: The purity of her son’s heart, that, drunk though he was, was responsive to the natural world even in a city like ours where people careen around lakes without their licenses because of last year’s DUI, believing they can save the world despite themselves. The law does not allow for the best of what someone could possibly be but more often what is the worst.
A mother’s heart is not law. We are testament.
For my brother
The body is in a bag. The body is on a cart. The body rolls out of the bedroom. The body rolls out of the living room. The body rolls by the family pictures. The body rolls through the kitchen. The body bumps over the threshold to the garage. The body rolls past the family cars. The body rolls past the hedge trimmed just last week. The body rolls by the neighborhood children. The body stops so a child might tie a red balloon to the cart. The body bumps down the sidewalk. A girl showers it with flowers. The body sits next to a homeless man for a while. The man unzips the bag and relieves the body of its wedding band. The body leaves the man behind and zooms through the traffic. The body runs a red light. Cars careen around the body. There is screeching, smashing, crunching, grinding, someone screaming, metal and glass flying.
The body goes to a museum. It rolls past the canvases thick with paint, heavy with fevered dreams. The body visits animals at the zoo. It is shat upon by a monkey who tries to feed it peanuts where a mouth should be. The body rolls past a river where it races a barge filled with coal. At the dock, the body is saluted by a soldier. At the church, it is hurriedly blessed by a Father who sprinkles holy water on the shitty body bag. Downtown, a whore straddles the body and gets off. A dope dealer smuggles his stash under the torso.
At the hospital, nurses shake their heads knowingly as the body rolls through the halls and out the exit. At the bank, the teller willingly gives over all of the money to the body she’s so frightened. The money flies out of the surrendered bag as the body flies down the street. Men and women and children take what they can. The children buy candy. The men and women go to bars, take their spouses out, plan parties.
The body crushes a wife beater. The body rolls over a rapist. The body cuts a politician off at the knees. The body goes to a concert. He rolls through a mosh pit. He helps carry a crowd surfer. The concert goers find the dope and are grateful. The body gets arrested. The body gets put in jail. The body busts out and goes on the lamb.
The body finds a family who needs a body, a family who isn’t upset by a body but who just wants some other body to hang out with somewhere on the outskirts of town where a body can be a somebody and not the nobody which many would have him believe he is.
First appeared at The New Absurdist and later, Bizarro Central, Flash Fiction Fridays
anna Osu’s “walking on water,” flickr
Shuffle through the silent wood to worship, past loblollies and scrub oak hung with flowering vines, your sick feet, affected by the chemo, the nerve endings numb, barely registering your footfalls. The glittering lake beckons beyond the Bishop’s Walk and the Church of the Incarnation where someone sits at a piano, someone mixes water with wine, someone is blinded by the sun streaming through a window as they think about what they would like for dinner.
Step high over roots, concern yourself not with the sand slipping between your toes, breaking down your best sandals. Enjoy the sand and how it falls out of your shoe in a playful way because you cannot walk because of your numb feet and it is as if you are doing this on purpose, like when you were young and flopped your legs in front of you, flinging sand on your brother, on your sister, and you had more time then, all the time in the world.
It doesn’t matter you are late. You have nothing to contribute. There will always be voices in worship somewhere. There will always be worship. Not even the forest needs you though it will take you. There will always be bodies who, once animate, return to earth and you, no longer a child, see how it begins as you fall off out of time beginning with the feet that can no longer run, the flesh that is no longer thought of or desired by those in time, and you, having once participated in a chorus, live on an edge without recognizable features or breath, where eternity has caught up with you and you had thought yourself not ready and yet here you are, venturing on your own.
Those you thought should join you cannot follow through the divide, they cannot pass. You have tried to carry them but the overwhelming nature of their fears have led you to focus instead on the little white dog who waits for you on the edge of town, the new ferns that must be watered, the meals you will make with the ingredients you just bought at the market, the son who will be home from his father’s next week.
In the twilight worship hour, you must go alone through the loblollies and scrub oak hung with vine, the sparkling lake in the distance, until you reach the lip of it all, where the worshippers’ voices coalesce and become strongest, like a ring of sound around the world. And yet, you only see the glittering eye of the abyss in the distance and it is not in the depths of the earth but suspended and it is not dark but filled with light and fills the skies from the waters it takes from earth and one day you will be taken up from the earth and one day you will return again as rain.
Published in Ginosko Literary Journal #16
photo: Ambiance by Jacques
Katya ran her finger over the round warm ceramic of the coffee mug. She had to admit to herself it was a comfort to have this portion of her life, her life with Nina, finished. Though just as soon, she was horrified. Her friend had died an awful death – sick from cancer, alone except for Katya with whom she split rent, estranged from wealthy parents, divorced, the mother of one selfish daughter who hardly visited. Katya believed herself to be a terrible person for thinking about her own relief.
In a silly moment, Nina had asked Katya to pour a cup of coffee on her grave at least once a week, maybe more, for as long as she was missed, then Katya was to be free of the routine. They drank bottomless coffee at a diner during mornings they worked in the shops on Park Avenue, during the days Nina was well. Nina also asked Katya to burn a letter that she had written out and placed in her jewelry box. This act of the burning seemed a bit more serious than the coffee ritual, and yet both involved performing an act over her friend’s grave. Nina made Katya swear not to look at the letter before the burial.
One day after work, Katya stopped by Nina’s grave. She pulled Nina’s letter from her purse. It was in an envelope, sealed, and written on several sheets of small square pink papers, the stationary she started to use near the end of her life to make out grocery lists and requests for Katya. It read:
You have been my sole confessor in these last few years and on you has fallen a great burden and for that, I’m very sorry. Had I allowed myself to entrust my worries and cares to anyone else, I would have. Maybe it was the illness that stirred up fear in me but in my growing physical weakness, I could not always trust others to be as tender with my heart. People are a bit like animals in this sense, especially when there is a sick person among them. But you, dear Katya, have been more than humane.
I am scared of dying, because of bitterness I have inside, bitterness I fear will keep my spirit wandering. I am scared of my sins. I am scared of the reality of the woman I’ve been, the woman I fear my daughter sees and the woman God has punished with disease. Therefore I have left this one task up to you, to burn this list of the things I have held onto in bitterness along with the sins I have committed. Please leave no corner of these papers intact, but burn them wholly over my grave and let the cinder mix with the soil and be my penance, my last confession. I’m not Orthodox, as you know, I have no priest. Please, dear Katya.
It rained the morning Katya intended to burn the papers. She was so surprised by the fervor of the note and the length of the list. She sat out beside her grave longer than she had anticipated. Her coffee grew cold. She fed the grave what was left of her drink, but it was too wet to burn the papers. After work that night she sliced vegetables and brought water up to a boil in their lonely apartment. She ate dinner and watched TV and went to bed but felt in the moments before sleep a presence watching from the corner of my room. Was it Nina?
She was able to burn the list of Nina’s sins the next day and prayed that her soul would be released from the burden of the guilt she felt, from her bitterness. And yet she noticed as she burned the paper, the soil was dry as if from drought, even though it had rained through the night. She bought a watering can and from that time on, watered Nina’s grave every day. To no avail. It drank in every drop of water fed to it and produced nothing. It lay barren as the day she was buried. No grass grew. No flowers that were planted there would thrive. Had she missed some opportunity to make things right for Nina that first morning she sat beside her grave, procrastinating until it rained and it was too wet to burn her letter?
Several years later she met Nina’s daughter. The young woman came to the apartment to find out how things had been for her mother during her illness. Katya revealed the mystery of the gravesite. She was careful with her description of the letter.
“I’m sure my mother was upset I never called or came to visit,” said the young woman.
Katya remained silent.
“I will try to water her grave. Maybe it will work for me.”
The grave did not respond to the daughter’s ministrations.
Again, Katya felt the intensity of a presence in the corner of her room that evening.
She decided to write to Nina’s parents and friends and ask them to visit. Upon their arrival, they knelt beside the grave, tending to the soil, but the plot of land rejected their efforts.
Perhaps there was something perfunctory about how they went about things, Katya considered. Perhaps this was the difficulty. She did not know how to change this since likely there were so few who truly loved tending a grave. And sadly, few truly seemed to love Nina. The cause of this seemed to have nothing to do with Nina herself. It was just her fate. Any grave tending would be perfunctory. Even Katya had not been the friend Nina needed.
One night a man knocked on the door. It was New Year’s Eve. Katya was not going out and had not expected anyone. She did not feel the festive spirit.
The man, she noticed, had skin as white and translucent as parchment. His hair was a soft yellow.
“I have come to pay my respects to Nina.”
When Katya told him the plot number, he watched her with his clear blue eyes, a blue she had rarely seen.
She went back to Nina’s grave before heading to the shop a couple of days later. A profusion of lilies grew there from soil as rich as loam.
The only thing Katya could figure in the weeks following, as flowers continued to bloom there, in the space where an unregenerate woman lay, is that someone loved Nina, someone her friend had not remembered during the torturous months of her illness, or there was someone alive whose love, until then, had remained undeclared.
First appeared in Quail Bell Magazine
It was appropriate she lived on the edge, the edge of town, the outer edge along the woods that will sometime be subsumed by buildings but for now she caught a glimpse of what it was like to look into trees, the dark hollows they created by their limbs. She lived in a small house three stories high and each story faced the pines and scrub oak and the hidden homeless, black bears, and garbage people in the town threw out. The woods sometimes yielded odd things she collected and saved, such as a Merengue CD covered in dirt and filth she washed and played in her CD player, the words foreign but the tune and beat so upbeat she had to move her hips a bit while she sashayed across her small living room, the tune spilling out into the inky darkness.
One morning she found a dollhouse exactly like the dollhouse of her girlhood. It was only soiled a bit, but it was the same basic white frame house, three stories, interestingly, she thought to herself, the same structure as her own house though the rooms were distributed differently. She brought it inside and cleaned it. Her suitor, a Norweigan who liked to fix things, patched the tiny broken furniture inside and the tiny shingles on the roof. He painted each room and the exterior as well. The one requirement, she told him, was that he was to leave the kitchen table legs and dining chair legs as they were: White with brownish red tips. When she was a girl, she had nightmares the table and chair legs were really matches and that if you scraped them the wrong way, the house would go up in flames. She didn’t know why she wanted them the same way. She just did.
I started telling the story by saying it was appropriate the woman of our story lived on the edge of town and maybe that is because in her beige little living room where she lies down and stares at nothing sometimes and wonders whether she will make it she is constantly reminded of another edge: The edge of death, of illness. It is an edge, she knows now, that not everyone has to face, at least not in the middle of their life. It is an empty edge, the edge of oblivion. When you stare at that edge, you stare into your own silence. She is glad for the red pillows that dot the beige sofa, ottoman, chairs. They catch her gaze. They ignite her interest. Each is different and she has selected them carefully. She is glad for the dollhouse that reminds her of her girlhood, the table and chairs in the dollhouse whose tips reminded her of matches. She enjoys the memory even though in her younger years, she was frightened, she was frightened the night of that Christmas day when she saw all she wanted – a beautiful house her parents had constructed for her in secret – whose very existence might be threatened by what’s inside. She hopes the woods will never go away. Even if she finds a bear there, if one should meet her on the doorstop as she is fumbling with the lock or if one day, in her foolhardiness, she should wander out into them with a compass and a sandwich, she hopes she will stay in the place she bought, her own death, chosen and full of danger.