Photo: Alena Gan/Shutterstock

Notes on Whuppin' Death

by Mary Sojourner Oct 19, 2011
How elegant it is to be a carving of one’s own words. ~ Shamis Tabrizi, Sufi Wanderer

IT WAS 1954. The girl was 14. She came home from high school to what seemed to be an empty house. The blinds were drawn. The television, for once, was off. Her mother was not on the living-room couch, a post she had been taking with alarming frequency. The girl felt her heart clench. She slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor and stopped. There was silence. She walked to the door of her parent’s bedroom and stopped. She wondered if she should go back downstairs, call her father and wait outside on the porch.

The silence drew her forward into her parent’s bedroom. The double bed was empty. It was neatly made. Her mother lay on the single day-bed against the wall. Her mouth was open. Her skin was gray. An empty pill bottle lay on the bright rag rug next to the day-bed. The girl did not move. “Die,” she hissed. “Why don’t you just finally die?” And then, the girl turned and raced down the stairs.

It was the first time she had said the curse. It was the sixth time her mother had swallowed far too many pills.

She flung open the door, ran north toward the highschool where her father was staying late working with slow students. She ran and ran, till she pounded up the stairs to his second-floor room. “Fuck you,” she whispered each time her foot hit the treads. “Fuck you.” It was the first time she had said the curse. It was the sixth time her mother had swallowed far too many pills.

45 years later, the woman walked into the local library. The place was even more hushed than usual. A sad-eyed woman said that her co-worker — a comrade to so many — had killed himself. He had been a tax resister, a steady presence in weekly peace demonstrations, a quiet man who worked at his quiet job. And, as it was finally made common knowledge, he had been a schizophrenic, a man tortured by inner voices that urged him to do dreadful things. His medication had stopped working. The man secured a plastic bag around his head, but not before he had left a note on the door of his tiny apartment. “Suicide Inside.” And, in that last warning for his community, he died a fully honorable death.

Seven years ago, the woman stood at a memorial service for a wife and husband. The man had shot his wife, then himself. They left behind two teen-aged children. Soft-voiced Christian women read hand-written prayers; a man in an old suit sang a hymn. A girl with purple-black hair wore a black leather vest and a pale green chiffon skirt over purple tights. She read an Ani DiFranco song. The mother of the dead man walked to the front of the crowd. “Thank you,” she said, “your love is carrying me.” She paused. “But, somebody needs to tell the truth here. My son killed his wife. He killed himself. He made those choices because he was hooked on methamphetamine. He had gotten clean, but he went back on the drug. He made those choices.”

Death fought back. Its scythe was no match for the skater’s moves and fierce intention.

A few weeks later, the woman sat in a darkened museum auditorium. She had come to the Southwest Native American Film and Video Festival to see one movie: Marble Gangsta. The movie began to roll. Shelby Ray*, a 14-year-old Native American activist and screen-writer, unfolded from her sleeping bag, stuffed her skateboard and baseball bat into a backpack, pulled on a cammie jacket and skated out into the morning. She crashed into a mattress that had been laid on the sidewalk. As she got to her feet, a shadowy figure stepped out of an alley. Death grinned at her. It was robed in black, it’s skeleton face blazing white in the morning sun. Shelby picked up her baseball bat and whupped him. Death fought back. Its scythe was no match for the skater’s moves and fierce intention. She brought Death down.

When Shelby went to retrieve her skateboard, Death (as Death often does) rose grinning to its feet and moved in on her. She jumped on her skateboard and took off. Death was on her ass. The girl turned her head, tossed something toward her pursuer. Death stumbled. The camera panned in on marbles glittering on the pavement. Death went down. This time for good. Shelby skated up the road, zigging and zagging, carving the shape of Life. The lights came back up. The audience roared. The woman came to her feet with the others. She considered that it was no small coincidence that “carve” was a skateboarding term. It means to skate in a long curving arc. That is the trajectory of the artist, the writer, the stubborn activist. That is the trajectory that whups Death. *Shelby Ray carves on. She is an integral part of Outta Your Backpack Media, based in Flagstaff, Az.

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