Dust and Water
Once, I ran headlong into the waves and let their salty sheets enfold my body, drench clothes and shoes newly purchased. I did not care, needed to feel the cold shock of being still alive. Despite the all too frequent procession down the aisles of my memory—where pews stood like soldiers guarding against desertion or revolt—towards those open-mouthed lilies, too sweetly smelling, singing dirges below the cross. There with forests of faces, tear-soaked and thirsty, staring back, I mustered every ounce of strength from every bit of muscle and marrow to speak. Neither height nor depth nor anything in all creation, I read, fighting to believe in truth beyond the dark and mournful shadows in that church.
Walking out into the light, we crossed ourselves with holy water, desperate to shake the dust, wash away ash that we were slowly becoming.
“Someone coming or going,” my Irish grandmother used to say about the dust piled below the bookcase, gathered in the corner behind the door. She who was accustomed to living with the smell of death clinging to moist air, buried beneath rocks beside the strangled garden where once sustenance grew. But even then just barely. She who buried her father a child, her mother too soon after. At the death of their friend my grandfather mused, “I wonder what he left,” while on the blaring television stocks drawled on as anemic lullabies beneath his haunted gaze. “Everything,” my grandma said. “He left everything.” Everything but dust.
Everything. Had you asked me what I lost when my brother died, I would have told you, “everything.” Not because he was but because everything about who I was had to change, bend, pound against solid earth until it was reformed–until the land slipped away and allowed a new flow of being and all the meaning we try to make of it. I can’t say how many times I went to call him before my mind crumbled in on itself, gave way like a slip too long lashed by a current it could no longer fight. The way that violent summer storm rerouted the brook behind my grandma’s house, leaving bare soft sediment shores once hidden below water, tree roots like torn arteries, reaching for soil.
As a child I tried to catch a portion of the brook in my hands, watched it seep slowly down my wrists, drip off my elbows into red-brown clay beneath my toes.
The clay I now spray with detergent and scrub like hell out of our children’s clothes. They who dig in dirt with fingers scraping for sacred and cry out Beauty! when they find it. A shiny rock, a bottle cap, a tiny yellow flower. They cannot help themselves, grab greedily when life is offered, ask a thousand times in winter to please run through the sprinkler, lick honey off the floor. Before the sun they wake with wonder in their eyes and marvel at how it follows us to the store, the park, and back again. “Is God dead?” they ask, echoing Nietzsche but in a voice so much more like the chirping of a bird when finally the buds begin to show.
“God cannot die,” I say as we walk beside the cracked concrete retaining wall, where a solitary dandelion stalk pushes its seed head skyward, waits for wind or rain to scatter life.
“Why no we see him?” Oh the thousand times I’ve bled this question through cuts that will not scab.
“At night our world spins and we cannot see the sun, but it’s still there and we know that in the morning it will rise,” I say. Every night, every single night, we wait for dawn. For the thousand flecks of light on frost or dew to signal day.
We wait. As through the night my heart contracts in rhythm with rounded flesh while raindrops count time in tiny sliding streams against the window. Then morning. And in the light the doctor says not enough has happened. So naked I entomb my tired body beneath the swirling water of the hospital tub, waiting as I weightless pray for light to once more breathe being. And in the night, while the world spins dark through shadow, she arrives with screaming, tearing passage, her tiny arms outstretched. Reaching, as first reflex, for life.
“Someone coming or going,” my grandmother used to say, she who laughed as way of being, tiny wrinkled body giving way to trembling, child-like giggles. In the end, consigned to sit in her living room with arthritis swollen knuckles resting on recliner arms, she’d keep watch over the thick marine fog waiting for it to roll back to reveal the sea.
Katie Straight is a writer and stay-at-home mom of three (twin 5yo boys and one 2yo girl) with a professional background in international education policy. She lives in Charlottesville, VA, with her husband and kids.