With my grandfather’s death just two weeks ago, the increasing demands of my doctoral studies, and my family’s attempts to move (they’ve been foiled for the moment by buyers that decided to back out at the last minute), I haven’t been able to give the final post in my series the time it needs. So I’m posting a narrative essay/autobiographical short story to tide myself over until I can get part five of “The Tragic Tell” written.
I haven’t written much in this genre, so this attempt may seem a bit amateurish; I’m open to any comments or suggestions you heavy hitting storytellers might have to make it better.
Anyway, here goes.
This Side of Lazarus
And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
Come with me
and we will be buried in water,
fire, nomenclature, earth.
-Javen Tanner, “Eden”
I’ve been manipulating the story for years. It usually begins in the present tense at a Village Inn somewhere in Northern Utah. Several characters hover in the haze: my parents and siblings, my father’s mother, maybe some family friends. But Grandpa always confronts me clearly from across the table. Watching me roll a cherry tomato along the edge of my salad plate, he rolls onto his forearms and asks, “Why don’t you just eat it?”
“I don’t want to,” I say. “Tomatoes are gross.”
“Have you ever tried one?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “When I was little. I hated it. They’re gross.”
“Go on. Try it,” he says, halving one with his teeth. A seed sticks to his bottom lip as he chews.
Looking around, I sink into my chair and let the tomato drop onto my napkin. He grabs a sugar packet and tosses it across the table. “Put that on it,” he says. “That’ll make it taste better.”
I pick up the fruit, turn it my fingers. Swallowing, I look at him. “Just one?” I ask.
“Just one,” he says.
Hoping he’ll leave me alone if I eat, I mutilate the flesh, red as viscera, with a butter knife and pour the sugar half on the fruit, half on my hand.
At least that’s where it usually begins. Today it starts here:
Standing over his casket, I stare at his body—the yellow skin beneath the undertaker’s cosmetics pulled tight across his face, the frame of his once tabernacle pressing back against its covering, against the bearing down of gravity, the rigor of death—and wait for his eyes to open behind the thick pane of his glasses, to magnify with tears the procession of family and friends come through the autumn pall to witness the light of his life gone down. I wait for his lips to crack, his chest to rise with the thickening breath of the parlor’s gloom, for his chords to vibrate with, Nevermind: this sickness is not unto death, or even a self-conscious, In this lifetime, nevermore. I reach to rouse him, to grip him surely through this veil of sleep, but check my hand at the cuff of his starched, white sleeve and watch his hands, left on top of right over his loins, tracing the fingers that had massaged the earth for the better part of eighty-six years until they’d eventually grown thick with Parkinson’s, the soil beneath his nails and embedded in the grain of his skin now gone, scrubbed clean with the biting antiseptic of his final, bed-ridden eternity in the far corner room of a retirement home.
Refused return to his earth, to the gardens sprung from the sweat of his brow; pulled by the roots as by some child that mistakes the perennial for a patch of weeds and tosses it aside, he’d slipped in and out of perpetual wilt, his bed clothes changed and the particles of rot washed free of his flesh by the cherubim condemned to serve those trapped at the labyrinthine threshold to Paradise.
Perhaps if you had been there, I tell myself. Perhaps if you had kept his plants when he was away.
But I’m no gardener. And maybe his body had to find its end for my story to begin.
“How’s Grandpa?” I’d asked a few months from his end, seeking release from the weight of not visiting enough. “Any change?”
“They’re giving him liquid morphine now,” Dad had said, his kitchen grown dim through the cover of low clouds. “They’ve upped his pain patch to the maximum dose and cut off the rest of his meds because the morphine makes him regurgitate.”
No sense medicating if his body refuses relief, I’d thought.
“He just lays there, wordless,” Dad continued, looking out into the storm’s gathering mist, watching an oak thrash against the wind. “He’s lost control of his bladder and bowels and can’t feed himself anymore. Hasn’t been able to for a while.”
As he looked back into the room, his face more opaque through this sentence, he’d folded his arms and, after a few breaths, turned to me with a smile held back by eyes tense with reserve. Moving in the boundary beyond words, I’d looked down, watching the shadows edge me into the wall as he pulled himself from his chair, brushed my shoulder with his hand, and disappeared down the dark hallway to his den.
Standing beside him now as he and his siblings and mother guard the freshly lacquered coffer of his father’s flesh, bracing themselves against a flood of half-formed condolences, I see in his face a reflection of his father’s unnatural peace. Pressing my hand around his arm, I return his touch and turn from the dimly spot lit body to the chapel just beyond. I slide into an empty pew and, lost in the silence amplified by the ceiling’s high vault, lapse into memory.
Pushing back the privacy curtain, I cross into his third floor room and greet a body trimmed with tubes and peaking monitors.
“How are you?” I ask.
He turns from Grandma, who stands at his other side, her hands stroking the sheets, looks up from his ashen bed, and says, through cracking lips, “I’m good.”
I bend to his side and embrace him, my hands tracing the skeleton emerging through his skin. “And how’s your hip?” I ask, straightening myself.
He bares the scar, fresh as viscera beneath his gown.
“And the heart?”
He turns to the window. “Needs surgery.” His monitor wavers. A nurse enters.
I slip into the hall.
Beyond the shadows brushing at the curtain, I imagine a father holding his firstborn son’s first son. The infant cradles between his grandpa’s chest and the crook of his grandpa’s arm. The graying man measures the boy through heavy glasses, anticipating his name, then lays a callused hand on the child’s silence and exhales.
As I walk with my wife to the farthest lane of stalls in the mortuary’s parking lot, our infant sleeping on my chest and our two oldest daughters drifting in the gap between us, a cold wind twists through the maze of scattered cars. Moonlight filtered through a cluster of oak catches on the glaze of rain left on the cracked asphalt, on the empty vehicles. I inhale the darkness, hoping the vacuum will pull currents enough to trouble the silence of God, to reanimate the flesh of my memory, to keep me from forgetting to grieve.
Pulling his flag-draped casket from the hearse, the pall held square by his second generation of sons, we bear him across a field of grass to the covered mouth of his grave and rest him atop the stand erected for the graveside ceremony. Slipping into the crowd beside my wife and kids, I turn to face the casket, its weight now hedged with trimmed flowers. Once silence has curtained the assembly, the honor guard chaplain steps forward to hallow the site until the day of resurrection rends the veil of death. His words lull me into Grandpa’s garden.
“It’s got a broken leg and wing,” I say, handing him a shoebox. “I tried taking care of it, but it’s just not getting any better.” I turn to go inside the house while Mom asks the unbearable. Looking back through the screen door, I see Grandpa nod and walk into the garage, shoebox in tow. I sit at the kitchen counter and flip on the TV.
Over the roar of a World War II air raid and the crunch of Grandma’s cookies, I hear the baby sparrow crying through the screen and reach for the remote. A hammer falls. The crying stops. My hand freezes around the cold plastic. The sweetness of blood rises in my mouth as I bite a reservoir in my tongue for tears.
The side door opens.
“It’s done,” Grandpa says. I slide off of my stool and follow him through the door into the garage. He hands me the shoebox and grabs a shovel and we head to the back of their property.
The tinny strain of taps pressed from the honor guard’s bugle diffuses into the glooming sky, returning me to the site of today’s ritual. Then, the curtain of silence redrawn, I step toward the casket, unpin my corsage, and place it on the coffer’s curved top. A gust throws it from its point of rest, but I snatch it before it drops into the grave’s vaulted crack. The poorly placed pin pierces my hand. As I replace the flower, a drop of blood trims the carnation’s white petals.
That night as I slip beneath the surface of my perforated universe, whispers from the dust call me from sleep. Rising from bed, the dark breeze compels me down a wooded path.
I sense the sun somewhere in the blackness, speaking to me about mourning and death, casting its darkness across the phantom landscape. The earth had long ago joined this ghost dance, writhing as the black heat filtered into the soil’s heavy breath. This pitch penetrates me in waves, its rise and fall tracking me through the undergrowth, making me stumble as I feel my way to the river’s edge.
I’ve always hated the dark, but this blackness knows me well.
And it’s changing me.
The earth convulses again and I stumble into the liquid shallows, submerging my hands up to the wrists. The water parts around my knees and shins, its chill entering my pulse. Regaining myself, I reach for my canteen and fill it with the black water. I’ll need this in this heat, I tell myself. Pulling it out and replacing the cap, I see my reflection staring back from the current. Water streams from my brow into this stranger’s open mouth, disrupting his gaze. I turn to see what he has seen.
Just trees. Fallen trees.
A dark presence rustles the brush behind me. “What are you looking for?” it asks.
Rippling the river as I flip around and land end-first in the stream, I see no one. Just trees and dirt, floundering in blackness.
And a charred fire ring.
Strands of blue smoke spiral from its cinders as the carbon drifts into the river, turning its flow into an asphalt lane that presses through the thickening trees, which transform at its touch into parallel lanes of narrow houses. Their empty windows crowd me.
Shivering, I turn my eyes down the path. Through the mist, a fading body slouches eastward. I shoulder my canteen and follow the bent shadow. As I move, the windows follow.
Faster, I tell myself. You’re losing him.
The path rises and inertia carries me a few more steps, then dies, pulling me earthward. Straining against the gravity of the darkness, I press upward, still reaching for the shadow as the atmosphere loosens and sunlight breaks through the cracks. Dark particles fall around me, singing with their heat. I pause and catch some in my hand. They coagulate into a heavy stone that glows as its heat increases. Burning flesh stings my nostrils.
I drop the rock. It shatters, engulfed by the fallen sky. As I rub my hand, five words write themselves across my palm: I Nga Wa O Mua. Trying to soothe the pain, I blow on the etching; it disappears on my breath, rising from the skin and falling into the black dust at my feet.
The light increases and I turn my gaze through the upward alley. The dust recedes in a breeze coming across the hilltop, uncovering a stone staircase. I follow the steps upward, moving from outdoors to in as the pitch rises.
The houses’ empty eyes crowd my solitude.
At the top of the stairs, I turn a corner and run into a large, circular, air-tight door. As I reach to open it, a word writes itself across the cool metal: Bridge. The door pulls open into a room full of computer hardware and electronic controls. A man rises from his seat and approaches me. As he extends his hand, I realize I’m on an island, moving like a ship, captained by this man.
Unnatural weight presses down on shoulders and I turn, first to one side, then the other. Two men, almost transparent, hedge me in, probing my thoughts.
The end of my road, I think.
But they compel me onward. I turn back to the door and enter. As I cross the threshold, the electronic room melts into a wooden building. The roof slopes upward to a high peak, which is supported by two ornate poles. On the wall before me hang pictures from my life. The words blown from my hand appear at their center.
The dark presence rustles behind me. “What are you doing here?” it asks.
I turn. A shadow moves into the light, revealing an old man, weight set against his cane. His gaunt face penetrates my memory.
“I know you?” I ask.
The man raises his brow.
“These words…” I point.
The old voice clears itself. “I Nga Wa O Mua. From the times of the front.”
I turn to the wall. The faces from my past glare back. I return my gaze to the man, who has seated himself on the bench in the bosom of the room.
Reading my confusion, he rises and limps to the wall. Placing an arm around me, he whispers: “I Nga Wa O Mua. The past.”
Turning back to the photographs, I search the frozen eyes. Fishing thus through my memories, the old man’s gray reflection fuses with the impulse of my brain and the river of language empties itself into the hollow of my soul.
Emerging from reality into the language of dream, I open my eyes on an empty haze. The moistness of earth sweetens the warm stench of rot rising on my breath. Muted footfalls and a crowd of voices throb through the chamber’s close walls. The grate of rock against rock opens a crack of yellow on the haze. I reach to remove the shroud binding my face, but my arms are pinned tight across my chest.
And then through the haze a resonant command: “Lazarus, come forth.”
Dragging my bound feet through the dust, I will my cold body toward the light of these words.