DAY OF THE DEAD
Oh those bones, oh those bones,
Oh those skeleton bones.
Oh those bones, oh those bones,
Oh those skeleton bones.
Oh those bones, oh those bones,
Oh those skeleton bones.
Oh mercy, how they scare!
The skeleton woman whispered her name to me when I was thirteen, the night I first began to bleed. “I am Necahual, The One Who Was Left Behind,” she said, “and I have lost my people.”
The human skeleton consists of 206 bones. Humans are actually born with almost 300 bones, but they fuse together as a person grows. Where do the bones go? And once a bone is absorbed by another bigger, stronger bone, what is left of what used to be?
Necahual, The One Who Was Left Behind
The moment between being alive and being dead moved too quickly for me to catch. Men arrived that morning wearing shiny steel armor. They rode black horses that sweltered under the weight of the silver metal. The men set fires, poked people with swords until they bled from thousands of tiny holes. I didn’t see the whole of the slaughter until I was dead; one swift solid stroke from behind severed my head and before I could miss it, it was gone, lifted up on the point of the spear that claimed it. It was the twenty-fourth of June, 1520. San Juan de Junio, St. John’s Day. It was in Tenochtitlan, in the Valley of Mexico.
It was the last day I wore flesh.
Last night, eighteen years later, I wrote:
The hungry ghost sits at the edge of my awareness. The stale bread crumbs I toss her are not enough. I add butter to the bread. She asks for more. I sprinkle cinnamon and garlic pepper. She falls silent and I think she sleeps. She waits. Belly fatter, but not full. I find a piece of salted ham to give her. She licks her widening lips. I become slippery in her saliva; satiated by my need to be needed. Soon, I give her my hip bone. My femur. My shin. Finally, it is I who removes my own rib and offers it willingly. The hungry ghost divides it into fourths and opens her mouth for more. I reach inside for liver, spleen, kidney. I use my fingernail to open my blue vein and give her suck. Her lips drip red. She sits. I sit. She sits. I sleep. She sits. I break my heart into four chambers and offer it to her. She still sits. But I am gone.
When I was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, on October 15, 1974, the twentieth anniversary of Hurricane Hazel, the worst storm North Carolina had ever seen, my grandmother dunked me in ocean water seasoned with rosemary and brandywine, uttered syllables handed down to her from her grandmother, placed me in a wooden cradle pointed north and said, “What is done is done.” My grandfather put his arms around my grandmother, watched my new-born sleep, my first and only unhaunted slumber. My father, Bob, was at the Lazy T bar, celebrating, forgetting. My mother, Colette, slept in the front room on a futon, covered by a stained green cotton sheet.
“Don’t take my grandbaby too,” my grandmother whispered to the air.
My grandfather’s gaze took in my new life, her ancient life, the futility of reconciliation. He heard the rattle from the corner, but for the moment, allowed himself to believe it came from my cradle, only his granddaughter delighting in the fleeting beauty of her new world.
I first heard the story of my birth when I was four, screaming from a nightmare filled with bones and crimson and men wearing silver. The story didn’t comfort me, as I’d imagined other children’s mothers and grandmothers comforted them with stories of gingerbread and candy canes. Brandywine, rosemary, a bone woman, and a drunk father did not wrap arms of comfort around me. Instead, the story hovered over me, a blue light of truth too bright to send me back to sleep.
Grandmother told me October 15 was a powerful Birth Day because of Hurricane Hazel. She had a special relationship with storms and admired them for their ability to do what humans can’t seem to do for themselves – get rid of excess. She was one of those people who never leaves when the state issues evacuation orders. She would stand in the storms, Gloria, Charley, Arthur, Bertha, Fran, her hair slapped stuck to her skin, dancing. Fran was the last storm she saw, and even, fragile as she was from whatever illness was eating her bones, she still stood on the porch letting the rain fall in her eyes. Grandfather had boarded the windows and moved everything out of the yard, but Grandmother tied herself to the porch post so she wouldn’t blow away. Grandfather was sure the post was going to rip right out of the ground and carry her to Roanoke, but she insisted. She didn’t live to see the storms of 2005, but I’m not sure she’d have done anything different.
1974 was full of chaos. The 18-minute gap was found on the Watergate tapes. The Bundy killings began. Patty Hearst was kidnapped. The World Trade Center opened, and Philippe Petit walked a tightrope strung between them. Garrison Keillor broadcast the first “A Prairie Home Companion.” Scientists warned that continued use of aerosol sprays would cause ozone depletion and climate changes. Intel produced the 8080 microprocessor. Martin Luther King’s mother was killed. But in 1974, no hurricanes at all hit coastal North Carolina.
I carry the stories of my grandfather deep in my heart. I remember them when the bone woman visits me in my sleep. I remember them when I notice, not without a snap of sadness, that I carry her stories with me too, and their words burn in my throat. They burn from the smoke of campfires. They burn with the smoke of those who conquered the desert and called it white, not brown. They burn with the itch of inactivity. The letters long to stretch their limbs into words, into images, into lessons no one has held still long enough to hear. The vowels begin to open, prepare to bloom a garden of violets and tulips, but fold in upon themselves too soon, unable to fully dip their fragrance on to my life. I stop the letters, every time, from forming the words that will save me from what I have long perceived as predestination, but what I know is really fear, that dark blue velvet blanket of fear that is heavy as wet dirt, fragile as mud under my fingernails and toenails.
I love this fear, though. I play with its fire, hoping it will consume me, obliterate me, burn away the layers of sediment and show me, at last, who I am, naked, brilliant, a child of chaos, a child with a knotted white thread and a nightly visitor of bones.
If a woman could unravel her life and find her original knot, she would find it was attached to nothing, only turned inward on itself, devouring, swallowing its own tail, destined to regurgitate the same colors, textures, types of thread, until it releases its jaws and surrenders.
This story is the thread.
It begins with the first thing we don’t let go of and multiplies, manna from the heavens, into the stuff of our lives.
My first holding, my first secret, was the day I saw her in my room at five years old. She sat in the west corner, on top of a white dresser with pink fixtures. She was the biggest creature I had ever seen. She had no skin, but she had tangled dark hair caked with what I thought was sweat, but when I got closer to her, I saw that it was blood, hardened into geometric shapes – triangles, quadrangles, squares. No circles.
My second holding came much later.
I had thought she was replacing mama. I know I saw her before mama left, but maybe she always knew I’d be left an orphan. Actually, in the very beginning of things, I thought she was mama. It was easy to believe mama was dead. Easier than thinking she just walked away, though I think I always knew in my heart that’s what she did. I guess I wanted to think that she, the bone woman, was sent by mama to look out for me. It didn’t take too long for me to remember that first conversation with Grandfather, but still, I hoped that there would be another reason for her being. Some reason other than the one that drove daddy mad and made mama go away. I tried sleeping with my back pressed against the wall to keep her from sneaking up on me. I tried lining my bed with stuffed animals, bears, tigers, cats, to make a fence to keep her away from me. Still, she came. I hadn’t seen her again as clearly as I had when I was five. But I knew when she was there because the air smelled of mesquite smoke and venison. When I exhaled on those nights I felt like I was underwater, every small move contributing to a rippling that ended in the center of a foreign sea. I was scared, plain and simple.
“Everyone’s life begins and ends with a thread,” Grandfather had said that afternoon in my seventh year. “It comes from the center of your heart.” The earthy smell of his pipe tobacco nestled around his shoulders like a flannel blanket. “Everyone has a color. Some people have a black thread, and it is very coarse and rough. Some people have pink threads or light blue threads.”
“Blue like the color of the sky?” I stretched my legs out in front of me, my small toes wiggling like minnows.
He tapped his feet on the cement porch. The red clay on his work boots fell off in clumps. “Just like our Carolina sky.” He pointed to the cloudless sky. “No place else on earth has sky that color blue. You remember that blue, Zöe. Carry it with you and whenever you see it you’ll know you are home.”
“What color thread do I have, Grandfather?”
He put his hand on my chest. His fingers were so long they wrapped slightly around my side. His fingers were thinner than his son’s, my father’s, and the knuckles were red and puffy. He closed his eyes and breathed, chewing on the end of his pipe. He pulled his hand away and sat silent for a long time. It was one of those North Carolina summer days where the air didn’t move. That day, even the mosquitoes, which normally ate my arms and ankles, were not moving. I watched the brown water in the creek and pretended I could see the alligator my father always said lived there.
“Tell me about what you see,” he said.
“I see the car in the yard. I see corn. The pier.”
“Not those things.” He took his pipe from between his lips and set it on the plastic table already cluttered with my father’s cigarette butts and my sweaty lemon water glass. “Tell me about the other things.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” But I did.
“Zöe,” he spoke my name slowly, as if pronouncing it for the first time. “You have the first knot in your thread.”
I waved my hand at an invisible mosquito. “Will I die?”
“No. You will live – but to have a knot so young – you will –” It was as if he had forgotten I was only seven. He smiled. “You will live a life.”
“What color is my thread?”
He put his pipe back in his mouth. “It’s white. White as bone.”
“She had bones,” I whispered, remembering the unsteady stacking of ribs.
“What else did she have?”
“Blood. On her neck. In her hair.”
“Did she move toward you?”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing. Her throat was cut.”
“Have you told anyone?”
“Mommy.” I looked at my fingers, pushed in the cuticles, then returned my gaze to him. “Who is she?”
“She is yours.”
I was frustrated. That didn’t tell me anything. “What does the knot mean?”
My father’s car, a 1972 dark brown Buick, turned down the dirt road leading towards the house. Grandfather stood, put on his straw hat. His ‘gard-nin’ hat’ he always called it. My father got out of the car. “Why don’t you go on out to the pier and see if you can’t find a crab or two for dinner,” said Grandfather. “Ask your grandmother for the nets.”
Grandfather held the white porch post with his right hand as he stepped down the two cinderblock steps to the grass. My father waved at him. I didn’t need to ask Grandmother for the nets. I knew where they were. Grandmother made me nervous much of the time. Her red lipstick always covered her teeth, and her flesh sagged around her neck, making me think of the necks of the chickens she killed every spring with the indifference of God. She stood in the center of the yard sometimes, holding her right index finger in the air, searching for storms. I was worried about my knot, and about the bones, and I wondered why white was such a scary color to have. I tried to reach down my throat and find my thread, but I only threw up some of the eggs and white toast from breakfast. No thread at all.
When my mama left when I was eleven, I started to draw the bone woman. I wanted to bring her back. I wanted to see if I could figure out my knot – where it came from, and how I was supposed to get rid of it. I drew myself surrounded by knots – sailor knots, square knots, slip knots – and I drew her making knots, her skeleton fingers threading in out in out, while I remained captive to her designs. I tried to talk to her when she would appear. I would act like I wasn’t afraid, and I think, after a few visits, I really wasn’t afraid. More curious. More full of wonder at this creature made of bones who had taken up residence in my room. She didn’t talk to me, though, so I guess I got bored and stopped paying attention.
Until now, when the last thing I need is something else to drag with me into tomorrow, she shows up and no amount of turning my back on her seems to work.
Now, thousands of miles from Wrightsville Beach, my mother, my father and my grandfather, I am studying the dead. At least I was until a few days ago when I decided to withdraw from my PhD program at the University of Arizona in Tucson and move to Santa Fe to teach at a new arts high school. I am (was) trying to understand the dead through literature. My proposal is on the role of the dead in Carole Maso’s work. I am attempting to argue the relativity of the real and the unreal in postfeminist narrative, but even I am not sure what that means anymore. The hallowed halls of academia, where I have always felt at home and always believed I’d have a home, have stopped speaking to me. Or maybe I’ve begun speaking a different language. Dr. Kelley, my committee chair, reluctantly approved my hiatus from the program. He told me I’d lost focus, become too enamored with my concept, my voice – too in love with the conclusion I wanted to find. I’m not sure I know what that means either.
It was Maso’s line from The Art Lover that grabbed me: “They keep me near, and at the same time bid me farewell. That’s what real love is.” These words fueled my dissertation. They haunted me from the first time I picked up the book in undergraduate school. If I could figure out Maso, I was sure I could figure out my family.
Dr. Kelley really thinks I’m moving because of David. He won’t say it, but I know he’s thinking it. I know he’s thinking that one of the problems of letting women into education is that they fall fickle when their hearts are involved. Thirty years ago he could just come out and say that. Today, he has to tell me I’ve lost focus. Whatever. I just know I have to go, and whether he believes me or not, I know that Maso’s words are pulling me somewhere. I’m just no longer sure that the answer to my question lies with the dead.
Maybe I can only study the dead through the living. Maybe the relativity of warm flesh and cold bone is needed to answer any questions that matter at all.
Grandfather had a story:
The Inuit talk about Skeleton Woman. She drowned long ago and her bones are scattered in the sea. She cries for the Bone Gatherer to find her bones and put them back together. The Bone Gatherer finds the bones and assembles the skeleton, bone by bone, until it is complete. Finally, the Bone Gatherer sleeps. Skeleton Woman warms by the fire and awakens. She notices the Bone Gatherer. A tear has formed in the Bone Gatherer’s eye. Skeleton Woman is thirsty, so she drinks the tear and comes to life.
Causes Laraine Herring Supports
Amnesty, Planned Parenthood, Women for Women International, The Humane Society