There is fiction in the space between
You and reality
You will do and say anything
To make your everyday life
Seem less mundane
- – Tracy Chapman,
In mid-September, a friend called to tell me that a woman writer in one of the outer circles of my life went into the hospital in June, thinking she had a stomach problem, to learn that she had massive colon cancer. They operated on her, sepsis set in, and she was in the ICU for five weeks.
September 25, my friend had gone to see if L. wanted to join her to take their pups on a walk in the forest. She knocked on the door and heard a strange voice. “Come in. Just come in.” When my friend stepped into the living room, she saw L., a near-skeleton, sitting in a wheelchair with oxygen tubes in her nose.
Some of us began to visit, some to stay with her overnight. I saw her only four or five times. Memories stood between her door and my actions. The bones pushing up through her skin, her huge eyes, the faint smell of deep trouble in the room — all of it was so like the dozen times my mother had tried to kill herself. And to see L., the woman who had solo hiked Cedar Mesa canyons, rowed the Colorado River, and counted any hour in the Ponderosa forests with her dogs a good hour, to see her trapped in her bed was not just cruel — it was an unwanted reminder and, perhaps, harbinger of what her steadfast Buddhist practice taught. And I so steadfastly avoided facing.
L. said, “This is so very strange. This isn’t how I thought things would go.” I brought wildberry popsicles. She managed to eat one of them, 1/2 one visit, 1/2 the next. I read her a few pieces I’d written about her in the mid-’90s, disguising her real name.
1997: My friend Lottie and I had taken her two dogs for a Sunday walk. We headed for the little valley the locals called The Meadow. We slogged across wet duff to the greening berm of a little tank, where the old dog took a drink and the young one panted happily in the sun, his fur the pure gold of fire agate.
We four walked the fence line. For the first time in months, I felt a little peaceful. I thought about the sanctuary of trees, and of silence. I was grateful that The Meadow was broad, rocky and free from anything human except broken arrowheads, shards and old rusted nails. Three, maybe four big old Ponderosa lived there. Limestone outcroppings glittered on the long slopes that poured, easy as breath, down from the ridgelines, where more Ponderosa grew, and gambel oak, and dwarf wildflowers. I hoped the snow-melt stream that snaked across the meadow would still be running.
Lottie stopped dead. “No,” she whispered. She raised her arm and pointed. I looked out.
The survey stakes were tagged day-glo pink. They glowed against the dark trees, and on a forest floor starred with wild geranium and patches of late snow. The tags seemed alien and foreboding as splotches on a mammogram.
“I knew it,” my friend said, “I have a gene for finding survey stakes.”
May 1997: Lottie calls me. Her voice is shaking. She tells me she found a pile of beer cans in the forest near her home and then — she cannot believe this — four porn photos tacked to a pine. The shots are of women, and they have been doubly shot, once by the photographer, the second time by whoever tossed the beer cans and pulled the trigger of a 22. I believe this. I remember Dead Bill telling me how the grunts just loved to shoot out the breasts on the Raquel Welch posters.
“I can’t stand it,” she says. “Those holes in the women’s bodies, like those survey tags in The Meadow. I couldn’t not look at them. They consumed my attention, they consumed everything.”
She drives over. We sit on my back porch. We are silent, and then we tie bracelets on each other’s wrists. I have made the bracelets from red and black thread and one skull bead. We tie four knots, one for each direction: “North,” I say, “for the guidance of the Old Ones. East, for the Light. South, for the consuming fires of summer. West, to Our Lady Who Eats That Which Destroys Balance.”
My friend moves more slowly than I. She is younger, perhaps less in shock, perhaps more in pain.
“East,” she says, “for clear vision. North, for crystal clear vision. West for Death and Night Vision. South, for razor vision.”
We are quiet.
She shakes her head. “I don’t know what that means.”
“I remember those times,” L. whispered. “I wrote about them in one of my journals.” She had often written some of the most elegant words I’d ever read about our home country, the Colorado Plateau.
From her last quarter of the blue moon:
It is three-o-clock in the morning of the Winter Solstice. I close the door and leave the warmth behind me. An opal moon takes my hand and leads me in the direction of the singing river…Ice flows down the San Juan like a whispered secret. Perhaps I have forgotten that to place my hands into the river is to feel the currents that bind me and this place together. I sing for raven and heron. I whisper into the burrows of mouse, woodrat and beaver….
…Walking under ebony sky that moonlight night reminded me that the Earth is breathing. That I am part of a sacred trust woven from the stories from the canyons, songs from Moon House and the call of the raven towards tomorrow. I will not forget.
“Can you write?”
She shook her head. “Do you want to?”
“Of course.” Her voice was vapor.
“What if I bring a tape recorder all set to go.”
“I can try,” she said. Then she told me that the cancer had metastasized to her liver. “Oh shit,” I said. She nodded. We were quiet for the rest of the visit, her cool hand resting in mind.
Two weeks after I learned of her illness, my road buddy Michael and I went to visit. I pulled over at the cluster of seven trees that is the heart of a forest temple. I’ve raged and wept and prayed in gratitude in the circle of trees for 25 years. “Go easy on her,” I said. “Go easy.”
As we drove up the dirt road to L.’s tiny home, a woman in a white car waved us over. “Were you visiting Leslie?” I asked. The woman’s face went still. “Don’t you know?”
“Is she dead?”
“Yes, about 20 minutes ago.”
“Yes!” I said. “Thank you.”
I walked into the death room. Leslie lay still, her face calm. I thought I saw her eye move under its lid. There was a faint smile on her lips. The woman who stayed with her the night before said that even hourly morphine doses hadn’t touched the pain. The tape recorder lay in the basket near her left hand. I looped a prayer mala of copal beads between L.’s thumb and fingers, and said, “I’m so fuckin’ sorry.”
I took the tape recorder. Later, when I pushed PLAY, the only voice on it was mine, greeting her and inviting her to tell the story.
The memorial service was a few weeks ago. Leslie was a single woman living most of the time in poverty. She had made no plans for her beloved books, the little bronze Kali, journals, prayer scarves, handmade bowls, pots and pans, altar rocks and feathers. My friend put the objects out for a giveaway. I watched as her friends and a few acquaintances swept through the possessions like locusts. As each person took something or many things, the object went dead.
I was not close enough to Leslie to feel grief. What I feel is horror. What I’m doing is beginning to go through my journals and cull what matters. Down the road — I hope long down the road — I’ll give away the San Juan River pebbles, the Great Blue Heron feather, the photographs of sunrise in the Mojave. Because, you see, everyday life insists on not being mundane.