Tag Archives: Death

A tap on the rostrum

 

I’m working on patience, while D reads and adds some edits to this nearly-nearly finished draft of Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts. To help me, I’ve struck on hunting for an epigraph (and possibly a change in title, something which better reflects the energy of the novel).

 

It is hard, and I think I have one from Anne Carson, but along the way I found a poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, which in its entirety works as an epigraph, with its imagery of nature, death, motherhood and childhood. Though no one has read the novel in its entirety, here is a little of the poem, which is a terrible beauty:

 

Dead Doe

for Huck

 

The doe lay dead on her back in a field of asters: no.

The doe lay dead on her back beside the school bus: yes.

 

Where we waited.

Her belly white as a cut pear. Where we waited: no: off

from where we waited: yes

 

at a distance: making a distance

we kept,

as we kept her dead run in sight, that we might see if she chose to go skyward;

that we might run, too, turn tail

if she came near

and troubled our fear with presence: with ghostly blossoming: with          the fountain’s

unstoppable blossoming

and the black stain the algae makes when the water

stays near.

 

[…]

The doe lay dead: she lent

her deadness to the morning, that the morning might have weight, that

our waiting might matter: be upheld by significance: by light

on the rhododendron, by the ribbons the sucked mint

loosed on the air,

 

by the treasonous gold-leafed passage of season, and you

from me/child/from me

from…not mother: no:

but the weather that would hold you: yes:

hothoused you to fattest blooms: keep you in mild unceasing rain, and

the fixed

stations of heat: like a pedaled note: or the held

breath sucked in, and stay: yes:

stay

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Thresholds – Winning by Michelle Bailat-Jones

 

 

A bright morning in the third week of May. Here is our Lia in the garage below the small condominium where she and Evan now live. She is yelling, her hand in the box she has dragged to the foot of the stairs and opened, certain that although he is pretending not to, Evan can hear her.

“Where is it?” she yells one last time. Silence from the upstairs.

Lia is not to be outdone by a Christmas ornament.

To understand her, we must go back to breakfast and a small dispute. A detail needing clarification.

“It was like those awful hair angels you used to put on the Christmas tree.” Evan was talking about a doll one of their grandchildren had selected at the store on a recent trip. “Why would any child want something so ugly? And let’s not discuss that it’s Ben who wanted the doll.”

“Hair angels?”

Evan dismissed her outrage with a flick of his spoon. “Yes, the ones you bought from that hippie store. Made of human hair. The girls were little. They loved them.”

“You’re insane, Evan. We’ve been living different lives. I’ve never purchased hair angels.”

He returned to reading his newspaper and Lia descended immediately to the storage shelves in the garage below. She has kept every single Christmas ornament ever acquired.

She rifles through the box at her feet. “Unless you threw it…” She begins but she gulps the sentence, not willing to give him a way out of their disagreement. She has kept her ornaments safe from every single one of Evan’s “spring-cleanings”.

At seventy-six and seventy-three, Lia and Evan are now like the two moons of Mars. They have found their orbit around the planet called their Life and they stick closely to it. Surveying it, watching it. Discussing its topography from a perfect height as they circle gently above.

There is a thump on the ceiling above Lia’s head. She smiles and shakes her fist. “Don’t stamp your feet, dear one, you can’t rattle me. I’m going to prove you wrong.”

Of course he does not answer. This is an established game. One of many the moons have discovered, useful ways to keep a careful watch on Life. Because Life has a way of shifting suddenly, turning into the darkness for a moment of obscurity. Blurred details.

Fifteen minutes later, maybe more, she emerges from the garage, a cobweb on her sleeve, dusty fingers clasped triumphantly around a delicate angel. It is not made of hair, but gold silk cords. She admits it has a certain 1970s handicraft look to it, but it is not gaudy. Or kitsch. Well, it’s certainly kitsch, Lia knows this; but Christmas cannot be otherwise.

“See,” she says, “I win. I always win. When will you…”

But Evan is no longer in his chair at the breakfast table. He is on the floor. His piece of toast has fallen with him and there is jam on his collar and in his thick white hair. Raspberry jam that looks like blood.

There is no blood. This has been the most peaceful of deaths. For Evan.

For Lia this is chaos. At first she does not understand the scene before her. She is sharp for someone of her age, but the impossibility of Evan joking with her a moment ago and now lying still on the kitchen floor creates a disconnect too broad for Lia to cross in a few easy seconds. This is an ordinary morning. Nothing extraordinary must happen on an otherwise ordinary day.

“This isn’t funny, dear.” But she knows this is not a joke. His stillness is the kind of stillness they have been warned about for the last few years. They are nearly elderly, many people—doctors, friends, their daughters especially—tell them this. So what has happened is not extraordinary at all.

Lia does not touch him right away. How can she? This is no longer Evan, and although her mind does not yet accept this, her body already understands.

But she needs to be sure. She takes his hand. There is something too taut about the muscles in the palm of his hand. She presses on them, bullying them, raging at them. She passes a gentle hand across his forehead. Evan.

No longer Evan.

How long was she in the basement? Why does she always have to win?

Back down the stairs she must go, slowly now, slowly, hold the hand rail. You have suffered a shock, Lia, take it carefully. Find the garage door opener, open the garage. Greet the angry sunlight, cross the untidy garden, find a neighbor.

Lia has left a medical alert device back inside the house, in the kitchen drawer, between a roll of masking tape and an expired coupon for hot chocolate, but she did not think to push it. This is not a medical emergency. This is her Life. There is no button.

Halfway across the street, she realizes she has left Evan alone. On the floor. She remembers her oldest daughter insisting on the medical alert. How she did not want to ‘impose’ on her parents, but she wanted them to be safe. Just in case, she said.

In case I win, Lia thinks.

She swivels to return to Evan and trips, twisting her ankle. Several minutes later, Mr. Dougherty comes out of his house because there is so much noise in the street. He wonders how this old woman still has such a voice. Lia is sitting on the curb, holding her ankle.

“He’s inside!” she says when she sees him.

“What’s that?” Mr. Dougherty is deaf.

“Evan!” she yells, and this time Mr. Dougherty understands. He has been orbiting his Life alone for some time now.

An ambulance arrives. Lia insists someone help her back inside her house. People in uniforms with careful voices and steady gazes take charge of the situation. A man walks into her home and comes out again much too quickly.

“Are you even trying? He needs your help!”

But the rush and panic are for her. She is injured. They want to take her to the hospital.

“You’ll need x-rays, ma’am.”

She fights them. She wants to stay with her husband. She tries to walk back inside the house but they hold her in the front yard, they make her sit down again, run their thick fingers along her swollen ankle and wrap it tightly. All these minutes, fussing over her, while Evan lies alone in the kitchen. When she cries, finally, one of the men, the younger one, takes pity on her and helps her back to Evan.

They’ve put him on some kind of a board, strapped his body for easy carrying. She kneels beside him and fumbles for a hand. What have they done with his hands? Someone is helping her to her feet again. Someone hands her a cell phone and gently tells her to call a family member.

But she cannot dial a single number, because which of her twin daughters should hear the news first? The kitchen stills, waiting for her. She presses buttons at random on the phone. She pictures her daughters—one at work in the city, the other in a university office—she closes the phone and returns it to the first outstretched hand. Someone will do this for her, someone who doesn’t know Evan, someone who feels nothing at the extraordinary event of this morning in May. But not Lia. Our Lia’s Life has cracked this morning and she does not have enough love for either of her daughters at this moment to give them the news.

 

‘Winning’ is an excerpt from Michelle Bailat-Jones’ novella-in-progress, Hush. Michelle is a reviews editor for Necessary Fiction and can also be found engaging with books at Pieces.

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Thresholds – The Morning After The Night Before, by Bethany Anderson

 

Sound filtered beneath the bedroom door; a teaspoon rattling inside a ceramic mug, the fridge door sticking shut, naked feet padding across laminate flooring. Stretching beneath the duvet she couldn’t delay morning any longer. Grudgingly the covers were pushed away and somehow she got out of bed. A voice from Homes Under the Hammer bewailed non standard construction as she collapsed again at the end of the sofa. Nervous about confronting her friend she busied herself with tying up her tousled hair, ‘Busy night last night…?’

 

Her flatmate sipped tentatively at her tea while pulling that oh-ha-ha-you’re-a-funny-one-Amy look.

 

Tugging at split-ends Amy threw back a sleepy incredulous look, ‘What? You think I didn’t hear you all night?’

 

‘Hold the bus,’ the accused placed the cup on the coffee table, mopping up the spillage with her fingers, ‘don’t go blaming me – I couldn’t sleep for your antics.’

 

Amy glanced through the open living room door and lowered her voice, ‘You mean, you didn’t bring someone back last night?’

 

‘Eh, no. Did you see the state of the guys at that place? And anyway, I won’t be bringing anyone back for at least another week.’ Her eyes rolled and she placed a hand over where she guessed her womb was hiding.

 

‘Oh…true.’ Amy couldn’t help but look down at her own stomach, knowing fine well what Jen was going through. She’d always laugh at the questions of curious male friends: did they have naked pillow fights? Were their periods in sync? As for the former, it was a definite no, though sometimes she’d answer otherwise for a laugh; guys were too ridiculous sometimes. The latter she thought was just some kind of strange myth but after a year living with Jen it was turning out to be too true.

 

‘So what the fuck was that noise then? Cause it was really weird. Honestly, I had no idea what you were supposed to be getting up to.’ In recalling her bizarre hypothesises  Jen laughed into her tea, clutching tightly round the sides to avoid losing any more.

 

‘God knows, but I was trying really hard not to think about it. Oh my God that carpet is hideous.’

 

‘I know. It so looked better before they changed it. I really like those retro tile things.’

 

‘Think it was next door’s cat?’ Amy reached for the purple bottle on the table, stretching further to grab the cotton wool pads.

 

‘Doing what, exactly? It’s only wee.’ Jen shifted in her seat, wrinkling her nose and creasing her brow as she watched Amy wipe blue from her nails; she just didn’t get that shade anyway.

 

But she only shrugged, scrubbing away at some stubborn sparkles on her thumb.

 

‘Seriously, that stuff is rancid.’ Despite her protestations, Amy only looked half as apologetic as Jen would have liked her to be. ‘It’s like pure ethanol or something.’

 

‘Alright, alright.’ Six out of ten fingers done, the cap was screwed on with impatience and dumped with the cotton wool where she was sitting. ‘I’ll open the windows but I’m not opening the curtains, okay?’ Peeking tentatively between the heavy curtains, Amy couldn’t help but roll her eyes at the looming clouds, ‘Ugh, it’s so minging out.’ But then, she couldn’t expect anything other from a Scottish September. Still, she was impressed with her nails as she examined them against the handles of the windows. Stepping out onto the tiny balcony space she shuddered. Eyeing round the quiet car park she wanted to be sure that no one had caught a glimpse of her pig pyjamas. ‘It. Is. Baltic out-’ Heart, throat, stuck. Stomach, twist, sweat. Throwing herself back through the curtains, she turned to Jen with wild panic.

 

‘Amy…? What’s wrong? What happened?’ Tea was abandoned as she crossed to her friend, frightened by those manic eyes. Following the point of a shaky finger Jen copied Amy’s motions and found what she had found. She vaguely recognised the shape. As a complete, living organism Jen would still only have recognised, rather than known. But as it lay now, broken, disfigured and bloodied, she could only vaguely recognise the woman that lived next door. Her own cracked lips parted and a dry voice spoke, ‘Call an ambulance.’

 

Grabbing her mobile, Amy slid up the screen to reveal the keys. An ambulance? But she was already dead. Definitely dead. Didn’t know the number for the actual police station. 999. ‘Hello? Uhm…I’m not sure if it’s an emergency. Well, I think I need the police and an ambulance but I don’t really know. Em…she’s already dead so you don’t need to hurry so if someone’s really injured or whatever then it can wait. Oh, okay. Yes, Blackburn Terrace. 60. Thanks. Bye.’ Gasping for air she watched Jen reappear from behind the curtain. ‘They’re sending an ambulance. Said it was an emergency.’

 

Jen forgot to wince as blue nails clasped into her bare forearm. Amy forgot to cry when the paramedics scraped the body off the second floor balcony. They watched the tenants two floors down scrubbing at the dark spots left on the tiles. Neither was hysterical when they were questioned at the station. In hindsight they tried to make light of the situation and claimed they were just like bad River City actors. But neither could find any part of the story funny.
In morbid fascination their friends would smile when they dared to recount the tale. ‘Oh my God, Amy. I can’t believe you were giggling away in bed thinking Jen was having the time of her life when some crazy lady was wandering about on the roof thinking about ending hers. Isn’t that so funny?’

 

Bethany Anderson is a writer from Scotland, and can be found blogging about books at Subtlemelodrama.

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Aurora Leigh

Sun Flare, Rio Grande Gorge

I’ve been thinking about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel-length poem since I discovered its existence a few days ago.

One quote, particularly, keeps flashing in my head:

Life, struck sharp on death,
Makes awful lightning.

I’m still only part of the way through book one, but I keep seeing moments in Aurora Leigh that seem like they will stay with me a long time. Perhaps it’s down to the suddenly violent murders of this past week, in a city I have been to – as opposed to the constant bombings and civilian death in further away climes, in war zones and disputed areas, which have become, sad as it seems, too familiar to be shocked by – but I am brought back to the image, so crisp and clear, and yet ambiguous to me. Is death, here, the solid reality – the iceberg, the floor of the valley – into which life strikes? Or is death like a comet, sparking against the surface of a planet as it flies by?

Whichever it is, the effect – the awful lightning – is the result. Bright, intense, precisely located – the immediate effect not lasting, except for the damage it can leave behind.

I think of this quote also in relation to Kilea, which is in part a novel informed by the differing grief of characters – over death, over irrevocable loss.  But perhaps the beauty of the phrasing is that it can be stored and applied to many situations, a quirk of its overlap of specificity (the solid reality of death) and romantic vagueness. Not vagueness perhaps – elusiveness?

I’ve neglected EBB until now. Or it was that I never encountered her name in university, except for ‘How do I love thee…?’, and in randomly reading Flush, a wonderful biography of her pet spaniel by Virginia Woolf. The main criticism of her seems to be that she was a rather pious and worthy woman, not terribly experimental, and therefore somehow less juicy.  But her romance, while an ‘invalid’ confined to her bed, with a younger fan, Mr Robert Browning, sounds ripe for a soppy film adaptation – she was disinherited by her father for it, for running off to Italy after the marriage, and probably also because she was a vocal abolitionist, while the Barrett family fortunes had been made in Jamaica. Anyway, the text speaks for itself.

If you are interested but don’t have the time or inclination to go to the public library Aurora Leigh has been put up (among other places) here: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barrett/aurora/aurora.html

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