Do you remember the day it dawned on you that this thing called life would one day end? That all those around you: your father, mother, siblings and friends would one day cease to exist? Expire, never to be held, cried on or played with again. When it occurred to you that unlike Coyote, there was no next episode after that cliff fall. The realization of your impermanence on this earth can be quite a destabilizing experience especially as a child; it tends to leave ripples in your subconscious you feel well into adulthood. It may have been when your favourite grandfather passed away, or when the scruffy girl with the cornrows who always sat at the back of the class unceremoniously stopped coming and your teacher had to keep explaining every day for the rest of the year in cushioned words and a coddling tone that it would never be filled by her again. Even with promises of the afterlife, you can’t quite shake off the fact that you, as you are in this vessel, will one day simply not be. With that realization comes a certain type of awareness, a particular blend of fear, acceptance and caution privy only to those in tune with the ephemeral nature of their existence. Fun times with mortality. How do you accept this finality, complete obliteration from this earth but for memories that, too, will not last the test of time? How do you learn to put this inevitability in the back of your mind and carry on? Mine was a rather rude awakening.
It starts, as most existential realizations of my childhood, in our plant-heavy backyard. There was one particular hedge that ran parallel to the high walls surrounding our compound, lining the inside with its dark green waxy leaves. My siblings and I’s bodies could easily fit between the ledge on the wall and the trees and, on hot afternoons, we could sometimes be found exploring the treacherous terrain of our makeshift jungle. Said hedge was a source of conflicting emotions: it could go from playground to arsenal in split seconds. Our house boy (without our mother’s blessing mind you) would send us down to pick branches from it whenever we misbehaved or caught him watching porn for what seemed to be our semi-regular flogging sessions. There was something remarkably cruel about personally selecting the rod that would become to your body as paint was to canvas. It was the hedge’s hermetic character however that left the deepest wounds: while it was designed to keep people from looking in, it had the unintended consequence of not letting us look out.
It was here that I first tried to kill myself. Very melodramatic considering the circumstances. My mother had once again found her grievous actions towards me fiercely engraved in my seven year old self’s black book, the particulars of which do not matter considering the frequency of such occurrences. While most would threaten to run way, I had the genius idea to off myself in a rather twisted effort to hurt her. I could never quite understand how I came to that conclusion but my money’s on the questionable viewing material courtesy of your standard 0000 DSTV parental code. “See your life” she said as I blasted off threat after threat. I was livid, how could she not take me seriously? I would show her. I stormed to my room and rummaged through my closet for my karate belt. Indignant dead man walking that I was, I made my way to the garden. I would show her I wasn’t to be taken lightly. I don’t think that I truly wanted to die. In retrospect it scares me how far I was willing to go to prove her wrong, how inconsequential and disposable my life suddenly was. The problem wasn’t that I hated my mother, though very much a factor at the time. I simply didn’t understand what it was I wanted to do, the finality of the consequences. Taking my life was on the same level as burning her favourite dress. I knew I was dear to her and at the time it made sense. You take from me, I take from you. Very dangerous child logic. To everyone’s relief – mine especially – my exit from the world of the living was unsuccessful. After tying one end of the belt to my neck and securing the other to a branch I let myself fall from a staggering two feet. The branch snapped as my skinny frame met the ground. My mother made no mention of my outburst at the dinner table.
Death had taken a bite. With blood in the water, it began circling, a predatory spectre looming over me. It would rear its head again during one of my favourite pastimes.
My sister and I had a number of go-to games for those days where the television wasn’t enough to keep us busy and my nose wasn’t buried within the pages of what ever new chapter book I’d discovered that week. Our dolls would always get stranded on desert islands with nothing but their wits and our imaginations to keep them alive. On this fine day they had found some nice plantains and yams they would pound to make foufou. I went to make a round of the hedge trees to find the empty nests birds usually left as my sister readied the pillar and mortar. My search quickly bore fruit and I rushed to her side, put the nest in the mortar and started pounding. One, two, three. I heard the muffled sound of chirping and suddenly, I was frozen. Ever wish you could reject a reality by simply refusing to acknowledge it? For a while I wouldn’t to put words to what was becoming evidently clear: I hadn’t checked the nest. How could I have been so careless? Like a seed taking root, the weight of this death thing began to settle itself in my young mind. I had taken away life for no reason. Every fibre of my body was suddenly consumed in shame. My sister had heard it too. We took the nest from the mortar. A mangled mess of flesh and egg shells. We stared at it. We didn’t know what else to do. We just stared, suspended in time. One of the birds was still alive, a hatchling that had managed to escape the blow of my pillar. We buried the nest under the pine tree in the backyard and tried to find him a new home. He obviously didn’t survive. Left to fend for himself, the tiny bird, no bigger than a finger, didn’t even make it till evening.
That night at the dinner table, I could suddenly hear the pain that had coloured my mother’s voice during our heated exchange on the day of my not so fateful suicide attempt. As a child I had this uncanny ability of replaying conversations surrounding my offences. Her words always stayed the longest, sometimes for weeks, letting me relive the shame, hurt or anger of her scoldings. I passed by the bird tomb many times that week, noting how the birds remained in the ground, the implications of which opened a door of unending questions with such force that till this day I’m not sure I’ve managed to shut.
“We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died — in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life”
Running The Whale’s Back, Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris, 303 pages, Goose Lane editions, http://www.gooselane.com, $19.95
Editors Andrew Atkinson and Mark harris have accomplished a great feat with this anthology. It often is hard to discuss issues of faith without sounding overly preachy or cynical but “Running The Whale’s Back” does just that. This collection of short stories and novel excerpts puts a mirror to Atlantic Canada, reflecting the life of its inhabitants as they navigate – sometimes literally – through their lives.
A common man buries two frozen travellers while a nun refuses to perform funeral rites. A baby is miraculously found by the river banks while another drowns in one. This idea of duality is a running theme in the anthology and reflected in its structure. The sacred seems ever present, perhaps in part due to the almost god like force of nature and the religious legacy left by the early settlers in these small communities.
While most stories are more realistic in nature one stands out in particular. “My husband’s jump”, a ski jumper who takes off never lands. In one of the anthology’s weaker pieces, “Doves”, the narrator’s inner monologue is punctuated with culturally inaccurate images that slightly detracts from the story.
Despite this small hiccup what we have here is a strong body of work whose subject matter is relevant in a society where the role religion is constantly in question. The writers do not shy away from the raw and the gritty. Nothing is black and white and we are invited to explore this greyness through diverse and unique voices.
Every day I am faced with my own mortality
I see it in the dying leaves of fall
The old people I meet in the subway
The young people I work with constantly
Reminding me that my time is imminent.
So every day I kill myself a little
Not with poison
Not with knives and guns
But by walking, talking, breathing
Every breath I take wearing down
My lungs a little
Every move I make Using up my body
Microscopically at first but the older I get
Exponentially the damage grows
Till one day when I’m 96 I will take one
Breath and my lungs will fall asleep.
My heart will pump one. Last. Measly pump
My muscles, already atrophied and exhausted
From a life time of lifting mugs
Overflowing with emptiness and living will
Let out a sigh of relief as they expire till
All that is left is my brain
Consciousness barely clinging to fleeting life
What will become of ME?
Will I ever be I again?