The following student narratives were written by three students from my creative writing classes, and were either inspired or enriched by class exercises similar to those in this book.
Use these narratives as guides to your own creative writing as you work through the chapters of this book.
I am careful not to step in the three round shallow depressions that dimple the earth near the southwest point of the island. They lie beneath the huge white pines that stand like sentinels near the cabin. The trunks of these trees stretch skyward before spreading out into a ceiling of limbs. Standing beneath them, I feel the urge to genuflect as if I've entered the hollowed high roofed womb of a cathedral.
Some nights, I fall asleep in the dead quiet of still air to be woken by the roaring of a hard west wind through these trees. The branches whip and flail like the arms of demonic dancers. The tall trunks lean, swaying slowly back and forth, pulling on roots that must go deep to hold them from falling.
The hollows are graves says my husband, graves of the Ojibway Indians who inhabited the island before his grandfather bought it from the state of Minnesota in 1926. That same summer an Indian man called Joe crossed the lake in a canoe to show my husband's grandfather the graves. He asked that the graves never be disturbed. Whether Joe spoke of who was buried there, or if he shared the stories of their lives, I do not know. If he did, the stories have been lost. Island lore is passed on through story, and maybe the chain was broken somewhere. Or maybe Indian Joe felt it was not the business of people whose immediate claim to the place derived from purchase. Or maybe my husband's grandfather failed to ask.
The presence of the graves is subtle. Each grave forms only a slight dip in the earth, and can be crossed with a long stride. They are covered by a thick matt of the fine pine needle duff that collects beneath the pines and gets tracked into the cabin. But their circular form always arrests my eye. And their shape and size makes me wonder: Were the bodies buried sitting up, knees tucked to chest, curled into a fetal position to gestate within the womb of the earth? Were the bones broken apart and piled into the hole? Are these ashes left from a funeral pyre? Are these children, no taller than the circle is wide?
Crazy, flying. Especially at night, when you cannot see a thing. I had never thought about it until we got a late start from Montrose. "How do you see other planes?" I asked as we fueled up in the fading twilight. The airport attendant grinned at me. "Big sky theory," he said. Dave, my friend and pilot, nodded. "You mean," I said, "it's a big sky, so hey, don't worry about it. You probably won't run in to anyone?" "Yeah," Dave said, "that's it." I had laughed, but they hadn't.
I still could not quite believe it. Leaning forward, I peer into the darkness searching for light. Only a thin sheet of plexiglass separates me from the blackness. More than 3,000 feet of space lies between me and the ground. I press my finger against the pane. "Look. Over there. A light. I think it's a plane." "That's on the ground, marks a road," Dave says. <fWhat about that one? It's blinking." "That's the Price coal mine conveyor belt."
Dave shifts in his seat, pulls back the throttle. The plane groans, tilts back, and begins to climb slightly. Gravity presses me back into my seat. I feel like I have suddenly gained 40 pounds.
Presumably we are climbing so we can clear the mountains. But the night is so black that I cannot tell if it is solid earth or thin air straight ahead. You could slam into the mountains flying like this. You could misjudge your altitude and slam into solid rock when you thought you were going to slide through thin air. It happens. You read about it in the papers.
I try to imagine it. Metal smashing into rock, bones crushed, everything splintering apart. Would I know pain? Would I even know what happened? Would I cease to exist?
I haven't really thought about death for twenty years, since high school, when Craig, the first person I ever kissed, was found dead at the foot of Nevada Falls in Yosemite Valley. "Gimme Six." That was the title of his poem in the student journal. It was about fingers, reaching, grasping, feeling. They published it before they expelled him. Actually, before the principal cut a deal with him—we'll let you graduate early if you promise to stay off campus.
I had my parents' car that night, a dusty lavender Thunderbird with beat up leather seats. We drove into the hills, stepped out into the night, kissed, his tongue in my mouth. On the way back, I let the car roll through a stop sign on a deserted intersection. I had never done that before.
Three months later his body was found among logs pushed back by the froth of the falls. He had been hiking with friends, took a detour and never showed up. "Psilocybin," he said that night, staring into the sky, "dissolves the boundaries. I'm going back to the mountains." Craig was 18 then. I am 35 now. I still love his poem.
What is death? What happens when you die? If I knew what death held or when it was near would it change my life? I should think about it, I really should.
The darkness around me remains absolute. We are still climbing. The engines drone loudly, making conversation impossible. Beside me Dave is relaxed, attentive to the controls. I wonder if my brother Jesse knows about the big sky theory. Although only 22, he has learned to fly. And to sky dive. He drove up last Christmas in a red Corvette, sped away on a Ninja motorbike, returned in a white econo-van he sometimes calls home. My mother fills me in on his life. "His friends are losers," she says, "He's always bailing them out of trouble." She shakes her head, frowns. "It worries me," she says. "He takes care of their kids when they're not around. He's living with this girl Stacey, and every morning he takes her seven year old son to school on the back of his motorbike."
Seven years old. That is the age of Jesse's own daughter, Emma. "The birthday card he sent her came back," she says. "He came out of his room and he was crying. He said 'I don't want her to think I abandoned her. I want her to know I cared about her. I want her to know who I am.'" My mother's eyes fill with tears. "Seven years," she says, "and her adoptive parents only sent Jesse her picture once."
The last time I was home I caught Jesse going out the door. I hadn't seen him for six months, but two months earlier my husband had helped to pop him from jail. Jesse had stolen a skill saw from the back of a pickup truck. Jesse said the guy owed it to him. He said the cops were out for him. His license had been suspended because he had so many speeding tickets, but he said he had so many tickets because the cops stalked him, especially Dennis Murphy.
I knew Dennis Murphy. He grew up around the block and was always picking fights on the edge of the school playground. Jesse said Dennis Murphy parked his car behind the big pine tree at the end of our street and waited for him to run the stop sign. So one day Jesse quietly ditched his motorcycle at the corner and walked—on his hands—past the stop sign, and Murphy's cop car window. Dennis wanted to get back at him.
My three sisters and I agreed. Regardless of his guilt, Jesse would get in more trouble in jail than out of it. I convinced my husband to call an old lawyer friend in Palo Alto and they did what lawyers do, found a technicality and bullied the cops into releasing Jesse. "Jesse, I know what you are doing and you've got to get out of this business," I said at the door. "It's too dangerous." He did not ask me how I knew what I knew. How else did an unemployed high school dropout from a working class family come to own a red tow truck with a cellular phone, a speedboat, a van, and at the same time afford flying lessons and trips to Florida and Los Angeles. I knew he wasn't a drug user, at least not in any serious way. I could tell by his eyes and what little I knew about his lifestyle. But I knew that the money it took to live his life could only be coming from one place. And I knew he had no idea about the danger he was in.
"I know," he said. "Don't worry." His eyes met mine. He smiled. "Gotta go," he said, and sped off on his motor bike. The truth is I worried all the time, but speaking had brought me to the edge of something too intimate, too painful to approach again.
I will send him a postcard I thought as the airplane leveled out in the pitch dark night. I will cover one side black except for a quarter size hole in the center where
I will draw an airplane, flying alone, through the night. "I survived the big sky theory" it will say. "How about you?"
Where was she? And how was he going to tell her? Just tell her that's all. She would walk in the door. He would hear her coming. Those metal grate steps always boinged like some out-of-tune instrument when anyone except the neighborhood cat laid a foot on them. They had joked about it. No burglar would dare try to break in. Or at least you would hear them coming, and, and do what? Thai's where the joke ended. Ended. You never knew when an end was coming. That amazed him,. It. had amazed him about birth and now it amazed him about death. There you were, doing what you do throughout the day, the usual crush of work and chores. Return phone calls. Teach a class at 11. Grab some lunch. Seminar at 2. Don't forget to pick up oranges and bread and while you 're at it return the overdue book. Worry about his son and when he was going to get a job. Realize he had to write a preface for that law review article. And then someone calls and says, "Your wife's brother is dead." And you realize, someone was dying. Someone was dying while you picked out oranges.
"Your brother Jesse is dead," my husband said. "Killed. A man out walking found his body on the side of the road near your parents' house. His skull was smashed in."
Like walking through a plate glass window, I thought. You think your way is clear, nothing between you and there, and so step forward, reaching perhaps, your arm arcing outwards, your hand opening, fingers spreading slightly to receive something given. Maybe you are beginning to speak, the words rising in your mouth, your voice slipping into the air. And then you slam into an invisible wall and it shatters, shards of glass, like knife blades cutting the air, falling all around you like spears. In a moment, what you failed to see, assuming there was nothing to see, is gone. And in the instant after you realize what has happened, you realize that you cannot go back, cannot ever step back to the other side. "Jesse is dead?" I said as if it were a question.
As if he were speaking to a child, my husband told me what he knew. A few days ago Jesse had flown to Los Angeles in a small plane. The next morning he called his girlfriend on his cellular phone from a parking lot. "This business is getting too dangerous," he said. "I'm getting out." Three days later his body was found 400 miles north near my parents' house. He had been hit over the head with a blunt object so hard it cracked his skull open.
These pieces of information flashed before me like images in a slide show, each fact or supposition a separate picture which when strung together composed the story of his death. If I listened to the text and looked at the pictures, it made a sort of sense. But there were missing frames and in those frames all the unanswered questions. There was only one thing I knew for sure. My brother Jesse, whose body lay crushed and broken on the side of the road two states away, had found me in a small plane flying in the dark over centred Utah and given me a warning: I better start thinking about death and what it meant because it could change my life.
Two months later I traveled to the island. I carried my brother's death and the questions it raised like a weight that hung from my limbs and pulled me toward the earth. I yearned to lie down beneath the pines on the west end of the island and sink into the ground.
We arrived near sundown and as was the custom, crossed the rocky path to the main cabin to give our greetings to my husband's father, William. We found him sitting on the couch next to his sister, Kate. They were both in their 80s. Kate's husband had died in the preceding year and she was complaining about how hard it was to get up in the morning, cook dinner, clean the house, go on living day to day. "Let me rub your back," said William. Sighing, Kate leaned into the pillows beside her. Her body looked like a sack of potatoes, all lumpy and bulging in strange places. William rested his cane against the edge of the couch and began to knead her back with his gnarled hands.
Light filled the room. I looked out the window. The sun was setting, casting horizontal rays through the trees, through the paned glass, filling the forest and the room with golden light. I let my mind drift to the three hollows on the far side of the island. On the long flight to northern Minnesota, I had read that in American Indian culture one's life is seen as a circle which becomes complete at puberty and continues to expand outward. Once the "hoop" has formed, any time one dies, one dies in wholeness. Wholeness is not seen as the duration one has lived but rather the fullness with which one enters each complete moment.
Six months before my brother Jesse was killed, he said something I had never heard said in my family. It was Christmas and seven of us eight kids sat in a circle on the floor opening presents. Amid the clutter of torn paper and empty boxes Jesse suddenly spoke. "Dad," he said, "I have something for you." Jesse rose to his feet and turned to my father. "I love you," he said. Silence dropped over the room as if someone had snapped a blanket over us and let it fall. Everyone looked at Jesse and then away. He might as well have taken off his clothes. My father half rose from the couch, his lips pulling back into an uncertain grin like you see on the face of young school children told to smile for the class picture. Jesse took the three steps toward him that separated them and opening his arms, hugged my father around the shoulders.
As my father struggled with his grief and guilt in the days following Jesse's death, I reminded him of what Jesse had said. My father raised his hands as if to ward off a blow. "I know, I know," he said. "And I should have said it back. But... but god damn it," his hands clenched, "he kept parking his car on the wrong side of the driveway."
I look back at the two old bodies leaning together on the couch across the room from me and wonder what the hoop of my life will embrace. Will I sit in this room in forty years? Who will sit beside me? Who will set aside their cane to rub my back?
I sit on the edge of the hospital bed rubbing my sister's back. Her husband sits on a chair watching her. She lies on her side, curled into a closed position, head tucked down to chest and knees pulled as close to her body as her big belly will allow. Her hair is splayed across her face and her eyes are closed. She has gone inward and away from me and Mark and even herself. Her body is doing what it must do, knows how to do, a thing her mind cannot comprehend and her heart cannot hold.
In the room the lights are dimmed and the blinds drawn across the solitary window. It is morning but it feels like the middle of the night. I spent the day before flying from Salt Lake City to Detroit. A friend of my sister and her husband picked me up at the airport at 11:00 p.m. and drove me the 45 minutes to their house. "How are they?" I asked. "Hanging in there," he said. I slept in their basement, burying myself beneath the old quilt my mother had given them, bracing myself against the next day. In the morning my sister seemed almost serene. She wore a deep periwinkle blue and black pin striped cotton jersey dress that clung to her belly and fell in folds to her calves. "It's already gotten smaller," she said looking down at the round mound protruding beneath her breasts. Mark helped her on with her coat and we stepped out into a light snowfall that would continue all day.
Allison and Mark had tried to conceive a baby for seven years. First on their own and then with fertility drugs. Seven years of shots and probes and wild hormones racing through Allison's body. Seven years of Mark jerking off into a cup so his sperm can be sent through a tiny tube past unfriendly cervical mucus to its hopeful encounter with those hormone induced crop of eggs. The doctors could never say where the problem lie; they just prescribed another round of drugs, another insemination. "Don't give up hope." they said. "We'll keep working with you."
My sister's elation at becoming pregnant was immeasurable. "We call her Estralita," she said. "It means our little star." She sent me photos weekly across the country. I watched her belly grow. Her breasts bulged and her belly ballooned out. Her smile deepened. "I'll come for the birth," I told her. A month before her due date my sister woke up and wondered why Estralita wasn't kicking her under the ribs. She called her doctor, "I don't feel her moving," she said. "Meet me in my office for an ultrasound," he told her. When Estralita's image came up on the screen she was immobile. "Does this mean we've lost her?" Mark asked. "I think so," my sister said.
Like watching an old black and white television with poor reception, the image ghostly, fading in and out. Only five months ago we sat in this same room and watched our little star at fourteen weeks flip and flap in her amniotic sea. Allison could feel her, but for me, this was the first time she was real. All those cycles, you get so that it's just what you do, like a job, month after month. So when life appears, you almost wonder where it came from. Was she really mine? Mine to hold. What was it like to have a life grow within you? To have your blood run through the body of another'? Did you still feel alone? A woman cannot know what it is to be a man and have life grow up outside him. You must grasp it all the more.
I am sinking. My body dense, dark, and weighted like a stone. Water closes in around me, crushing my head to my knees, my knees to my chest, pressing me down into darkness. Where did she go ? She is far away, floating far above me in an orb of light. I never got to see her. I never got to touch her. I cannot reach her, I cannot reach.
My sister groans. The medicine they have given her is supposed to induce labor so she will abort Estralita's dead body. They don't know how long it will take. Maybe four or five hours. We've been here for two. My hands ache from rubbing her back.
When I was eleven I came home from school to find my mother pushing the vacuum cleaner back and forth across the rug of my bedroom and sobbing. The roar of the vacuum drowned out the sound of her crying, but her eyes were red and swollen and tears ran down her cheeks. I shrunk back at the sight of her, stared at the floor, suddenly aware of every piece of lint. Her pain went through me like the roar of the vacuum and I had no idea what to do with it. "I'm pregnant again," she said, her face crumpling. "I cannot even take care of six kids. What am I going to do with seven?"
My mother's pain was huge, bigger than me, bigger than her. And I had no idea and neither did she about how to become big enough to hold it. So I shrank down, wishing I could disappear into the black dark bag of the vacuum cleaner like a piece of lint.
That seventh baby was my brother Jesse. "He's sneaky," my mother said of Jesse as a boy. "I turn around and he pokes or jabs the kid beside him." She scrunches up her shoulders, tucks her head, darts her eyes and pokes an imaginary person with her finger. "But I never see him," she says releasing this pose and just looking pissed. I only nod. Not long before my mother had lashed out at me. "I know what you are," she said glaring at me. "You're a sneak."
For a moment, I froze like an animal blasted with headlights. She was right; she had pinned me. But what choice did I have? It wasn't safe to be anything but invisible in our house. I had watched my older sister get her head pounded against the door for "talking back." I had seen my brother kicked across the floor for "being an idiot." When the three of us came home late with mud on our shoes from playing in the orchard at the end of the street, we were sent to sit in separate corners until my father came home. Then we lined up along the edge of the lawn where it met the flat white cement that circled the clothes line and one by one got whipped with his belt. I remember waiting, head hanging down, staring at the edge of the hard white cement.
My siblings and I grew up like animals in a pack who hang together for safety and turn as one to face down danger. What my mother called sneaky I considered crafty, resourceful, wily. It was something I admired in Jesse. It was something I thought would make him, and me, a survivor.
"Jesse and I were home alone," said my younger sister Elise. "We were playing in the sand box in the backyard and accidentally spilled this huge bucket of water all over the sand. We were terrified that Mom would get mad." She paused. The absurdity of this statement hung in the air like a knife.
It is three days after Jesse's body has been found. My sisters and brothers have come home to my parent's house, and we have gathered at the local park to share memories of his life. It is a bright cloudless day in mid June, and we sit in a circle on blankets amid picnic baskets. My sister's one year old toddles between us, chewing an apple and laughing. Against the light, we wear dark sunglasses and long billed baseball caps pulled low over our brows.
"Then Jesse had this idea how we could hide the wet sand," Elise continues. "We took these roofing shingles that were stacked up against the back fence and laid them out like tiles all over the lawn. Then we took the sand bucket, scooped up the wet sand, and spread it on the shingles. When it dried, we sprinkled it back over the wet sand that was still in the sand box. We worked for hours, and Mom never knew."
Why do some of us survive and some of us die? I wonder. Where is it safe? Or is it safe anywhere?
"I remember when Jesse and Elise came to visit me at Point Reyes National Seashore," I say. "They were maybe 11 and 12 years old. We spent the day hiking the coastal ridge, beating our way through tall grass, manzanita, bay laurel and bishop pine. Later we drove out to the coast as the sun set. By the time we arrived at the beach, it was pitch black and I had forgotten to bring flashlights.
" 'Well,' I told them, 'We could build a fire if we had matches. But we'd also need a knife to whittle kindling because the driftwood is wet. And I don't have either.' Jesse dug down into his jeans pocket and promptly produced both. So we dropped to our hands and knees, and crawling across the sand, searched the beach for pieces of wood like blind people with outstretched hands. I tried not to think about what else my groping fingers might encounter. Jesse used his knife to shave dry kindling from the damp wood we did find and we lit a small fire that burned hot and bright. We sat there into the night, the three of us close knit and tribal, the sound of the surf rolling in behind us, a small orb of light inscribing our circle."
My sister suddenly sits bolt upright in bed. "The baby's coming," she cries. She looks like an apparition. It's too soon. The medicine has only been at work for two hours. I run into the hallway. "Nurse, quick! She says the baby is coming."
Ten minutes later they have moved us into a small room. The nurse has wrapped Estralita's body in a cotton flannel blanket and she lies in my sister's arms. We huddle around her, looking at her, touching her hands. "Take our picture," says Allison. She strokes Estralita's cheek. Mark sits at her side. "Why don't we feel sad?" Allison asks.
It is true. The room is not filled with sadness. It is filled with something else. I look at Estralita. She is tiny, completely formed, pretty. She is dead. Is this a birth, I wonder, or a death? I look around the room. There are off-white painted metal cabinets, a stainless steel waste basket, two black metal chairs, a speckled beige linoleum floor. But the room is filled with light, an intangible energy, almost a vibration. I realize that I am trembling.
I don't know if this is a birth or a death, but I know something is present. "Whatever darkness you may feel later," I say, my voice a whisper. "You must remember this." I then say the words I don't know how to believe. "It is Estralita's spirit."
I hold the ashes in the palm of my hand, tentatively touch them with a fingertip, then sift them between my thumb and finger. Their texture surprises me.
They are not at all like the ashes from my wood stove, lacy and light, lifting into the air like smoke and settling on my floor, my furniture, my face, when I scoop them out into a bucket. Nor are they like the smudge of soot smeared onto my forehead in the form of a cross every Ash Wednesday when I was growing up in a Catholic school. These ashes are coarse, heavy, substantial, and flecked with small shards of bone.
I never held my brother's ashes. When he died, my parents arranged for the cremation of his body, but did not want the ashes in their house. "It's OK," the undertaker said. "I'll take care of him until the funeral." So Jesse's ashes sat on his mantelpiece for six months until the family gathered in December to bury him.
The day was wet and overcast and though we huddled together loneliness wrapped around us like the cold. My brother Michael missed the directions to the cemetery and arrived late. I watched his tall lanky body walk through the rain between rows of tombstones which lay like granite stones in a vast field of green. Behind him the hills rose into the mist, covered in a tangle of oak and bay and manzanita.
A priest who had never met Jesse spoke of my brother's life. I thought about Jesse as an altar boy sneaking the wine from the vestibule before mass. My sister's husband, Mark, scuffed his foot against the tombstone my mother had ordered and started to laugh. "I'd rather by flying," he said reading the inscription on the tombstone. "I'd rather by flying? I'd rather be sitting on the can!"
Two years later, Mark would hold Estralita's ashes in his hand. "They were so small," said my sister Allison, "that they fit in the hollow of his palm."
The ashes in my hand are the remains of my husband's father. My husband and his sister and his children have walked the perimeter of the island, scattering a handful here, a handful there, marking places of memory. They talk and sometimes laugh as they scoop the ashes from a wooden box and sift them through their fingers on to the earth.
"Grandpa and Dad pitched the canvas wall tent here that first summer in 1926 while they started work on the initial cabin." "Remember how he fell off the ladder with that bucket of orange paint in his hand?" "We always worked on that old wooden row boat here on this beach, sanding it down, varnishing it every year. It was a beauty. He never should have burned it." "He asked my mother to marry him on this rock. She put flowers out here every summer." "He once told me this birch was a sentinel to him in the dark. It's bark reflected the moonlight, and marked the way to his cabin."
I watched him die. I watched him draw his final breaths. In and out. In and out. The breath seeming to scrape against his skin like a rasp over wood.
That morning a nurse had called my husband. "You should come soon," she said. My husband called his children. "You need to go to the hospital now." Ten minutes later his daughter called back. "What's the rush?" she asked. "I'm here and he's eating breakfast."
Josh and I agreed. He would leave now to be with his father. I would bring our daughter, Zoey, up to say goodbye and then drop her back home with the sitter. I stopped him going out the door. "Touch him," I said. "Hold his hand. Let him know you are there."
Zoey was only three but she knew her grandfather. I wanted her to have a chance to say goodbye. I wanted her to see that death was part of life. I did not want her to be afraid. "Grandpa is dying," I told her on the way to the hospital. Then I paused. What did I really want to tell her? We had mourned the death of bugs and worms together, but never a person. I started over. "Grandpa's body is dying," I said. "No one knows what will happen to his spirit. Some people think that spirits become part of the universe. Other people think they are born again into the body of a new baby."
When we entered the room, William was lying back on the half reclined hospital bed. His eyes were closed. His breath was loud and ragged. Josh sat at his side, holding his father's hand. William's wife sat on the other side of the bed, her hands folded in her lap. At his feet, sat two of his grownup grandchildren. Holding Zoey in my arms, I stepped to the edge of the bed and leaned close to William's ear. "William, this is Sara and Zoey," I said. "I want to thank you for all the love you have given us." And then I did something I had never done before. I kissed him on the cheek.
He stirred as if to speak, his head jerking slightly to the side. But whatever words he had to say were reduced to a groan. And then he returned to breath, laboring to suck in air, like a man struggling to lifl a heavy weight.
So it is work to die as well as to be born I thought. The mind abdicating to the body, the body yielding to something ancient and unknowable to the mind. I had stood bare feet planted wide apart on the floor of the birth center and met each contraction which gripped my belly with a wail which rose like the wind and roared out my throat. The pain was huge and I became huge. Then, my body opening like a gate, I knelt on the floor and pressed my daughter out into the world. Later, as I stood in the shower staring at my feet I thought, something has changed in me, my body. I felt spacious, expansive, unburdened, but not from pregnancy. And then it came to me. For the first time in my life, I was absent of fear, as if the labor of birth had pressed fear, as well as new life, out of my body.
His father's hand is thin but strong. And amazingly, still familiar to his touch. The bones skinny and long. The skin mottled and rough. The veins large, protruding and green. Green. He used to marvel at this. Wasn 7 blood supposed to be red or purple or at least blue? But his father's veins were green.
Does he remember? Does his father remember the secret signal that passed between them ?
He had brought his toy Indian men to church and carefully stood them in a circle on the wooden pew. But his father had frowned, made him put them in his pocket where they poked his leg whenever he moved. His grandfather was at the pulpit preaching, his voice loud then soft. Iiis grandfather had said that real Indians once lived on the island. That they had gathered blueberries too, not in buckets but in baskets made from the reeds that grew along the lake shore. His grandfather said they were buried beneath the hollows on the west end of the island. He thought he had seen their footprints on the path and heard them singing at night. They sat in a circle on the ground beneath the tall pines on the west end of the island and beat drums made from moose hide and sang. At night, he was a little afraid of them.
His father whispered "Sit still son " and taking his hand had squeezed it. He had squeezed back, his hand small in his father's palm. And his father, smiling, had squeezed back again. And so it began and continued every Sunday morning, the silent pulse passing back and forth, back and forth, a secret signal between them.
On the way home Zoey hugged her teddy bear, Ollie, to her chest. "Mom," she said, her voice small and wavering. "Ollie's grandfather has died. But guess what?" She looked at me as if amazed. "Ollie has thirteen babies in his belly," she said and smiled.
Before returning to the hospital, I ruffled through a box of old letters until I found the one my sister's friend Micala sent her in the weeks following Pat's death. I turned to the last page. "I have come to believe in reincarnation," she writes. "Pat as you knew him in this life is gone. But the seeming waste and mean-inglessness of it does change if his death becomes an experience. Just imagine the force of such an experience when it shows up in the future metamorphosed into his "unconscious" intentions in a new life. It is not easy or painless, but there is always hope. We are surrounded by mysteries that our thinking cannot easily penetrate, let alone explain. Why should birth or death be any simpler or more transparent than a tiny seed that becomes a redwood, than a cicada that comes to life a few short weeks after 17 years?"
The blanket of clouds covering the sky suddenly splits and sunlight pours over the ground, waking me from my reverie. Holding the ashes in my hand, I turn around and walk back down the path towards the tall trees and the graves on the west end of the island. That morning my husband's sister, Greta, sat beneath these trees and read a story to my daughter about the life of her father. She had written the story and illustrated it with old photographs and hand-rendered sketches and watercolors. On the final page she had written:
When he was 88 Grandpa William moved to Utah to be close to his family and he died with them close to him, holding his hands. On August 3, 1996, Grandpa's ashes were spread on the island he loved. He first wife Mary's ashes are there too, and his sister Kate's ashes and his brother-in-law Henry's ashes. And some Ojibways were buried here a long time ago near our cabin, so you see, Grandpa's spirit, won't be lonely at all.
When I reach the graves, I stop, kneel down on the earth and listen. I hear only the wind brushing through the tops of the trees and the passage of my breath, in and out, in and out. After a moment, I rise and cross beneath the pines to a shelf of rock that forms the edge of the island. The lake is shallow here and sun light pierces the surface of the water and shines golden to the sandy bottom. I stretch out my arm, and drawing an arc with my hand through the air, let the ashes fall through my fingers. They drop quickly, hit the surface of the lake with a whoosh, and then cradled by the water, suddenly slow to a languorous descent. I stand and watch, amazed, as the flecks of ash turn from bits of black and grey to glints of gold and silver. Flashing back the light, they sink slowly down, spinning and spi-raling, round and round, an expanding luminescence, resplendent with light.
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