E L L E N C L I N E
Stratum. stra·tum (strtm, strtm)
She is turned inward. Self absorbed in the most unselfish of ways: one hand curved over her swollen belly. This look comes over her fairly often now — she has slowed down, moving more cautiously around her wide and light-filled house. This inward expression sets her apart; I am pondering a mystery from afar, with an indwelled sister two steps away.
In the fabric store, and everywhere we go, there is a welcome of woman to woman: is this your first? You don’t know what to expect, do you, honey. Wives lean in and share succulent details of their own deliveries, every drop of blood a gruseome jewel held to the light: evidence they’ve been there, fought, conquered.
Kate stares down the tunnel of her remaining months as they close tight around her, a canal of her own, a gauntlet she too must pass through. She tells the people who ask her that now, she is just praying for deliverance. I realize, at some point, lying under Mama’s quilt in my dark room after a day of waiting tables, that there is no escape now from the impending labor: that there is only one way out from this heavy-hanging work of daily bearing the helpless one jammed between her ribs and her bladder.
All this life comes from death. We are speaking, over bear meat sausage brought from Alaska, about food. Jeremy corrects me: it would be more accurate to say death’s necessary for the continuation of life. No new idea, this: the curse we’re under. Bear meat, with all the sausage spices, tastes much like beef. But someone stalked this bear with knapsack and rifle, pitting life on life. And then animals eat plants to live, and plants, good land: they consume light. . . the most sacred of all. Life living on life, cyclically, a macabre version of Peter Pan and his cronies chasing Hook’s men (who are chasing them) — except in Neverland nobody ends up dead.
Inside my sister’s womb this tangle of forming limbs and life sucks open-mouthed gulps of amniotic fluid with a brand-new tongue: draining my sister’s energy, prodding at her sleep, stealing her young elastic body in the raw impulse to live, live, live. She embraces this as she embraces the baby growing inside of her. If I die, she says (we are still speaking of the bear eating plants eating light), this baby dies.
I wonder about that. The child’s first breath comes at great cost. His life in this world already inhabits spaces vacated by ones gone before him. And the loss that accompanies all these things, the cost of them. No wonder the jaded way we adopt a veteran’s attitude as we walk through our days, masking over new experiences with a look we hope proclaims confidence: this ain’t my first rodeo. But each footstep is a first somehow: a placement into cloud from cloud, the risk of imminent and prevenient death the ground beneath us. Every day we breathe into tired lungs we kiss the warm womb of sleep goodbye and we roll out of sleep’s grip, spend the next hour shaking off its lingering touch.
It’s too vulnerable to live in the first days of every day. We can’t face each consecutive morning’s first breath with the same candor we face that first flight, that first kiss, that first loss of someone close, the first taste of bread and wine.
To live in that kind of tingling awareness of every day’s firstness would kill us faster than it already does, so we sink into mundanity as if we know what every day will hold, as if routine could ever be a reality, that we have control over the days’ events because of scrawl in our planners. As if a day echoing the day before it is, somehow, the same day. My faint mind, too shallow: unable to bear up under the idea that every second knitting me into my life is as real a first as the first breath-gulp of this child jammed into my sister’s body.
Alone on the road somehwere in Iowa, I’m surrounded by open and empty green, swirling past in a blur. I’m entirely alone. The car I’m driving in has become some kind of companion to me: I speak to it, encourage it forward like a horse, while it ensconces me in this in-between place of travelling. I’m insulated by the Suzuki’s glass and steel walls, hurtling forward at 80 miles per hour past earth I’ve not touched and never will, green I’ve never seen, fields that, for all I truly know, could go on forever.
I fly on: turn on the radio as I pass through Ames and scan from strange midwestern accents onto NPR, with its daily recitals of deaths and details packed in against fascinating tidbits of new research: on color theory, on the human brain.
Deaths and details: I cannot hang onto the ones in my own life, much less these from the clean curt voice on the radio. Grant, too, is dead. I found this out yesterday. A rising star of a chef at 28 years old, he seemed unassuming: John said, a bro. His scruffy brown head reminded me of my old friend Rob, the musician: they had the same sheepish smile, a look of deference, as if guessing themselves to be in the wrong somewhere, and poised to make it right. Grant bought coffee from me the day before I heard he’d killed himself. We had laughed about his new moustache. I thought about that, afterward: those little hairs, valiantly thrusting their heads out of his face day after day, being razed down, growing again that particular morning with no comprehension their routine was almost over.
And in the bustle of a busy coffee house, I feel falsely safe enough to wonder about that first, Grant’s first, the moment after he breathed the first last breath. (The amniotic fluid rolls in and out of unborn lungs, vital as air, heavy as water. What must air feel to lungs that have only breathed fluid?) I have no conjecture for it. I wonder if Grant gulped in air like Kate’s baby gulps fluid in the womb; if he had to fight through death as through a threatening gamut bent on his destruction, or if death took him in, warm and gentle. I wonder if his death here broke him into a new, a terrifying, a vibrant first, as vastly bigger than ours here as a world is to a womb.
And, though I only spoke his name maybe five times in my life, I hope so: I hope so: I hope so: