Outside of vague poetry I’ve ignored the stroke. I want to pretend it never happened as if, maybe, that will undo the brain damage and emotional trauma that comes with going toe-to-toe with Death. I’ve spent a lot of years flirting with Her and I guess Death finally decided to flirt back.
I traded one form of insulation for another.
“Now I saw in my dream that… they drew near to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain; and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was “Despond.” Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt… because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
The Slough of Despond is a nasty, miserable bog of guilt that sucks people in and is almost impossible to escape. In The Pilgrim’s Progress it’s an allegory for sin but I think it can be more accurately described as Depression. Yes, capital-D, clinically-diagnosable Depression.
Knowing someone stuck in the Slough of Despond can be difficult, draining, and generally lead to depression itself. I know this because I am scandalously intimate with the Slough. It’s my Unhappy Place. I’ve lived with it since I was 8 years old.
Sometimes I write about her directly, sometimes less clearly, but I write about death as often as I pick up a pen it seems. Death is even a major player in the scifi-fantasy epic Moira and I are writing, turning up as two separate characters with two distinct, vital roles. So what gives? Why am I so obsessed by death?
The button at the top of WordPress’s dashboard is always so commanding. “Write”, it says. Demands. Usually, I avoid it by having a goodly stash of pre-written works that I paste into the text box, format, and schedule before pretending I won’t have to look at them ever again but all things must come to an end and here I am having run out of pre-written musings. I think I did pretty well, skating by on somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 original works for the better part of two months.
The trouble is that now I have to find that misty place full of doggindales, sit there in the pine barrens and and write what I can see and hear and bring it all back to the world outside. It’s less that it’s a mysterious place and more a frightening one. Who knows whats out there in the dim?
Our lab supervisor found a girl’s journal in one of the labs of our building and brought it to me assuming that I, being both a girl and the journaling type, would know what to do with it. Naturally, I kept it. Stuck it in the top of my filing rack visible to passersby in case the owner happened to wander into my suite.
I’ve had this book on my desk for the last six months hoping she’ll come pick it up. It grieves me that it’s still in my possession. The journal is a nondescript green book of thin pages slender-ruled filled with uneven cheap black lettering with a blurry picture a kiss in Berlin inside the front cover and a list of boys’ names in the back. One page is cramped full of tiny text commanding a lost lover to leave with “I love you” in two-inch-tall block letters over it all. On another she talks about lividity and love and the famous dead. On another still she complains about how every boy she’s met thinks he’s Charles Bukowski– it’s a beautiful thing. There aren’t more than twelve pages filled in all.
Is it wrong that I’m considering writing in it myself, now? Not removing pages, not removing her words or names, or pictures but adding my own to the collection– after all I do write about my own lost loves more often than I’d like to admit to myself. Maybe the act will summon her. Maybe.
Although… I may have figured out the mystery. No need for arcane attempts at summoning the author after all if I’m right. I hope I am. Not knowing who this belongs to has been driving me crazy.
The Introvert Girl Gang is the first place anyone ever told me that running away is easier if you’re already going somewhere. This was something experience taught me but I’d never heard it said before and I almost cried at how much it explained. This was why I shrank at the thought of vacations. This was why I hadn’t applied to more than one college — because that might mean not leaving but having to return home. Not that that’d made much difference. I went to college anyway. I ran away anyway.
A slow study in pressure. How much travel could I handle, how long could home escalate before I decided no more. It happened slow, bordering on silent, smothering magma-hot and black until I could see no horizon.
The summer I visited Mo is a blur.
Brian had been worse than ever and I had been living in a fog of flashbacks and ash. Nightmares about my teeth splitting apart in my mouth, falling flat against my rotting tongue followed me into the morning. I could always smell him and taste him and hear him breathing. Even at night the house wouldn’t quiet.
I visited Mo. I had nothing to lose.
Her mother was compassionate and rough and waited with me through panic and had no patience for my pretending at spinelessness. Her laugh was a balm for my nerves. She did not flinch at cutting away those dead things that no longer served a purpose. She was kind.
I simply could not leave again. The perfect excuse to carve out a place where I could breathe fresh air and madness and rain and remember that there is nothing quite like volcanic soil and rot for growing things.
It’s easier to run away when you’re already going somewhere. It’s easier to stay gone once you’ve planted something there.
The river is two feet above her banks roaring with heavy white water ever eastward from the mountains.
Yesterday, a man threw himself into her and a helicopter sharing my name spent the afternoon looking for him. She found no trace of him, no corpse, no clothes, nobody gasping for life.
The news reported that he fell.
I can hear her over my headphones, rushing grey, eddies tumbling over each other taller than I stand. She’s overfull and if she’s like this any longer the trees that have grown alongside her since I was an infant will rot away from the roots, going the way of the wild grasses, and be swept toward the mountains in the east until they, too, cause more flooding. There will be still more water for men to drown themselves. No reservoir can relieve her.
The Catholic church across the bridge with its stained glass and polished bronze doors counts out the hour with a bell as old as its presence in the city but try as it might she is still louder; that must count for something.
My best friend Jenna became Queen of the Geese in college.
This was not a nickname either kind or cruel or arbitrarily granted. This was and is her title which she won in single-dance-combat with the King of the Geese one balmy night at Gazebo Isle on the shores of Radio Springs.
This sounds absurd but I assure you every word I’m about to say is the truth. I know because I was there.
It was the middle of spring. The best time to be in northern Missouri when the nights are just starting to get warm and muggy but not too buggy and magnolias blooming with flowers the size of your face and honeysuckle bushes full of bees from sunup to sunset when, if you were lucky, you might catch a lightning bug or three if the weather was warm enough.
Right at sunset, when the sun was low over the corn and highway, if you watched closely enough you could see spiders making their webs in the tops of the hedges. Spiders with bellies bigger than grapes floating through the air. They would never quite touch the founder of our college; a hundred-twenty years dead and she still did her rounds in the evenings making sure we weren’t out and about up to no good in the twilight. Half-corporeal she was fond of long skirts and stationary — more than once I woke up in short shorts with scratches down my legs from fingernails headed the wrong direction from my hands, had sticky notes come flying at my head from across the room if I put off homework too long.
Our founder minded us well. Taught us the important lessons. The spiders wouldn’t touch her.
Jenna and I didn’t go out right after sunset. Rather, we waited, wished for red wine where we had none, courted nervous breakdowns chasing the promise of final exams. That liminal week before commencement where the halls smelled of cardboard and lilacs, girl sweat and the bitter tang of packing ourselves into the basement for another summer at home. We were, succinctly, a hot mess.
We walked in flip flops and short cotton pajamas down to the lake in the close dark talking about our mothers. They were alike as Jenna and I were alike. Women who did not know how to love themselves and could not fathom why their daughters did not fill the void in their chests for them. Jenna and I grew a little crooked. Complementary. Strong. Strange. The crickets sang and in the dark up the hills bracketing the road leading ever downward toward the lake the deer hummed their quiet music to accompany our conversation. It was always a little like that late at night. None of the wildlife had the sense to sound atonal.
One o’clock in the morning saw us sitting on the low wall that marked the edge of Gazebo Island. Lit orange by a lonely street lamp, grass bridging toward cold with dew that shouldn’t have settled until dawn.
Jenna and I talked about lovers, and the geese began to gather. To listen. We talked about girls and boys. How they betrayed us, how we missed them anyway, how our hearts were eldritch things we did not quite understand but oh how there was so much we could give from them.
I don’t know when it got quiet. When the night insects ceased their music and the deer wandered off to sweeter grass. But I know when we decided it was too late to stay awake any longer, too late to justify the cost of the night spent out of bed at the expense of daylight hours in classes, socializing with those daywalking friends of ours– when we decided that, a goose sat between us and our only route of exit.
He was big. The size of my torso and worth slow roasting for Christmas dinner if you had to have a goose for Christmas dinner. We approached. He stood, feathers puffed in indignation, and gave a single warning flap.
I glanced to my left. Jenna had a look in her eye I couldn’t quite place– it wasn’t befuddlement, it wasn’t discomfort– it was intense and it worried me. She took half a step back.
“Do you want me to scare it off?” The goose was big but, I reasoned, running toward it shouting with my arms outstretched would be sufficient to frighten it off.
Jenna broke eye contact with the goose for just a moment. Shook her head. Declared in the most solemn tone: “Nah, I got this.”
Her posture shifted in a way that I can neither describe nor mimic bodily except to say that it was positively avian. The goose followed suit, bobbing his head in insult, summoning from the water hissing, feathered minions. We were outnumbered. Jenna had no patience for this– she doubled down, returning the insult with gusto, and advanced on the King of Geese.
With undulating, articulated steps in time to a wardrum only she could hear Jenna walked forth and with a mighty honk sent the King of Geese and all his court fleeing across the lake.
We stared after them in silence for no less than half a minute then burst into laughter.
“Does this mean you’re their queen now?”
We were troubled by geese no more on our nighttime adventures to the lake or anywhere else in town. In the act of crowning herself Jenna became known as the Queen of the Geese throughout the county. Geese on campus will nod and bow their respects when she passes to this very day.
The most brilliant woman to walk through the halls of my podunk women’s college was A– , a member of the Laguna Pueblo and Blackfeet tribes, if my memory serves. From the start she would proclaim this with the pride it deserved and from the start no fewer than half of us who heard it would look down on her as if she had taken from us something we should have had. The entitlement is strong among southern white girlchildren.
She was courage incarnate. Unafraid to attempt to expel nearly a dozen girls in one fell swoop for their racist parody script in Theater– they didn’t walk at graduation and their absence was marked by even the filthy rich donors, their sins made known through the almighty internet grapevine– while stubbornly double-majoring in English and Psychology and to top things off she had a baby her junior year, finished her degrees with a newborn on her hip.
“Grace” is too fragile a descriptor for this woman, let me tell you what.
Her family came together to bouey her. At least that’s how it appeared from the outside, from a distance, from my limited perspective hardly knowing her. They were on campus with hot food, with gifts, with affections. As guest speakers working to educate our sorry asses and as friends to those who were kind to their daughter. Even her boyfriend stayed at her side– I think in the end he married her. Oh how we lonely, unloved Others burned with envy, with jealousy, for what we thought we should have had. As if our wanting somehow warranted another’s deprivation. As if there should be a limit placed on the love in the world.
Last time I checked Facebook she was leaving Standing Rock– likely with her small human and family in tow. And to my classmates who sniffed in irritation every time we heard this woman proclaim her ancestry I have to ask, “What have we done since graduation?”