by Toti O’Brien
I always recognize them—my fellows, my species—when I see them hanging over a grave. Kneeling, bent, standing. Busy with flowers and vases, cutting stems, fixing pictures, or instead praying, meditating. Someone weeping, someone distractedly chattering or laughing. And still there, still part of the ritual: this utter nonsense —so familiar.
Quite an absurd behavior: what would travelers from outer space think, upon noticing how much we care for the extinct? We spend time remembering, visiting, attempting to communicate (for what aliens know, even succeeding, for we look convinced and convincing), fretting for the dead’s comfort—whatever it means.
If the same observers caught a random snapshot through a bus window, inside a post office, even at a family dinner, they’d detect the very wave of indifference: individuals sealed in their bubbles, each absorbed into a private sphere. But we chat with the dead, we always have: there are traces and documents. We provide for their housing, while we leave breathing folks exposed to the weather, if needed.
I am not an alien. I’m not shocked. I recognize my own species in the act of grieving. For example, at funerals. Even those overdressed for the occasion feel cozy. Their mask crumbles, in front of the mask of death.
Death strips down all kind of emperor’s clothes (both embroidered brocades and beggar’s disguises). In the face of it we are stark naked—or worse, we are in diapers: toddlers playing with buckets and shovels on wet sand. Death—in front of us—is the ocean: the sound of the waves overpowers us.
When the preacher recites the usual litany (how good the defunct was… they all are…) we don’t feel the bite of hypocrisy: not too much. For the occasion we forgive rhetoric. Even if the dead was a jerk, someone grieves her, right now. Someone misses her. If an asshole is gone, he had a mother at least. Anyway, it’s not the passed that makes this gathering human. It’s the passing.
When the eulogist praises the deceased, she is praising life—any life, and we agree. We feel humbled—for life is portentous, but we clearly can’t handle it. As the present ceremony proves, it comes and goes at its wish.
All memorials foster moments of sheer solidarity. We instantaneously verify our basic kinship. Instantaneously doesn’t only mean suddenly (though it does, for the awareness has a shocking quality): it means briefly, as well. Very briefly—a flash preceded and followed by complete obscurity… blank… denial.
For a minute we get to the essence of what human means, and we take proper note of it. We try hanging to the note, for it summarizes it all, and doesn’t need comments. Here’s what we write down: two dates—a beginning and an end. It’s humanity’s unique brand. Angels do not wear those tags. Gods don’t. We do.
Isn’t it fascinating? Such talk of immortality—whatever creed colors it—the eulogist and other inspired folks pour, for the occasion… We (the audience), we (the bereaved) sip it in like soothing placebo. We earnestly believe our dead will never die. We promise them perpetuity, while we build our castle on sand, tracing with a simple stick those two marks.
Two dates—the bookends keeping memory from disintegration, pages from blowing in the wind, ink from fading, beads from rolling away… Keeping memory at stake, notwithstanding the past’s gravitational pull (everything sinking deeper and deeper), and the future’s arrogant thirst (sweep it all, make room for the new, rebuild, reconstruct). So, we print these bookends on paper, we etch them in stone, in our brains, in the earth’s very texture (hoping the planet itself will preserve them).
Do we know that all will be washed? We might, but it doesn’t matter.
A name matches the dates, of course. How important does it become, at the time of bereavement. If we only could keep it (the name, framed by these numbers as if by quotation marks), we believe the rest wouldn’t vanish. The rest: this unlabeled mess our neurons are spilling, trying to match other neurons, now echoing instead of responding. This mess, indescribable: aching neurons afraid of their own dissolution, their own disappearing. Grotesque Sabbath of ghost-limbs: I mean ghost-dendrites, amputated synapsis, vacating receptors.
A name will be able to wrap, contain, placate the turmoil. Just a cipher—easy to recall, while memory already muddles the features, the facts. A name, magically, fits an entire identity: that thing strenuously built during a lifetime, then puffed away in a split second. That thing that only when punctured appears to be invaluable. Why do we feel robbed of what we couldn’t see, just a minute ago? How does the whole picture come alive, so to speak, when the original is ultimately gone?
We can’t perceive identity when it breathes and moves… we see function, only, and that’s what we grieve—except for a brief epiphany, at the funeral, or whenever we realize death per se. Such vertigo—when we understand lives are singular, yet constantly replaced.
I do recognize my fellows, my species, when I drive up the hills of the mortuary and I see toy-sized figures, grouped or lonely, punctuating the greenery—like birds or flowers. I understand their feeling, their attempt at holding something intangible, undefined, borderless, just like this ambiguous landscape, both licked up and desolate. They are bustling by their sand castles, my toddler friends, trying to shelter, pad, insulate what is left: a string of letters and numbers. I understand how risibly small they are feeling, if the loss is fresh. If it is unhealed, or unhealable.
I have felt that small, and I resume such state whenever I witness it. Or I lose, instead, a chronic delusion of grandeur. Maybe I simply regain my proper size.
When I hear the word Bronte, those British girls come to mind. Women writers and heather, windy hills, northern romance.
By the way, Bronte is not an English name in the least, but one born South, under the volcano. It means “rumble,” referring to the moaning guts of our mother earth, when she’s discontent, about to erupt lava on her kids.
Bronte is a verdant feud the Spanish gave to the British (uncaring of the fact the folks who lived there weren’t Spanish or British). The land was handed down like a precious stone, green with olives and grapes, starred with the gold of citrus trees.
It’s a shame, yes, that due to misspelled words of revolution, and promises unkept, riots flared beyond control and some well-off people were killed. Do I feel for them? Yes. The slaughtering of civilians is called a massacre.
I ask myself if their living a quite leisurely life, prior to their untimely death, is a mitigating factor. I guess not. Is it normal to be born to privilege and deeming it right? It must be: I don’t know of many exceptions to the rule.
What about those five peasants shot against a wall the day after? None of them, to later inquiry, was proved guilty of anything. All bore the same first name, matched with an assortment of local patronymics. Was it by chance?
They were all named Nunzio—that signifies ‘angel’. Is there meaning behind the coincidence? Does history still itself, for a second, if we dare repeating these names out loud – calmly articulating these five letters five times? Or does it keep going?
What about the fifth Nunzio, whom none of the soldiers dared to shoot? He was the village fool, and a boy. Yes, even feuds the Spanish donated to the English have fools… neither Spanish nor English, of course.
No one could fire at the fool, but he didn’t realize it.
When, after the rumpus, he found himself alive—was he?—he fell on his knees and wept, arms thrust towards the sky. He cried tears of joy, muttering thanks to the Virgin who—knowing him innocent—apparently had graced him. Knowing him sinless, pure, incapable of evil, Mary-Mother-of-God had shielded him from the bullets. She had kept him unscathed.
On his knees, he sung praises to Heaven – in the dusty plaza Goya could have painted, if he were around – under the unforgiving sun, when the General-of-Our-Resurgence came, and personally took things in his hands. He hovered above the kid, and cold-bloodedly shot him in the head.
Is it what makes a hero, I wonder? For I have honored the man as such, since early childhood. His name etched in stone, all over, a pride of the nation. Is it what true heroism demands?
What about the lawyer who wasn’t called Angel, but—being Bronte’s most literate native—was charged with riotous intentions, then jailed, waiting for execution? He was still alive when news came of his complete uninvolvement. Friends begged him to leave, but he didn’t. He remained for justice to take its course. He was shot for good measure.
I never saw his name on a street plaque, not even an alley.
I was born poor, I want to die poor, father said. The older he grew, the more he said it.
Poor he was born. When, in school, I learned about lumpenproletariat, I pictured dad as a kid. The whole family wandering through South America, in the twenties and thirties. Grandpa, selling his copperware at the market fair. Mending kettles and pans. Grandma, bearing child after child.
They made no fortune, of course (the Great Depression had struck, ricocheting on neighbor economies). Still, the experience must have harvested some good. Dad—the kid who came back to the motherland and only spoke Spanish, soon becoming the target of local teasing—was bound to break the mold. At a young age, he fell in love with philosophy. First, with poetry—the most accessible form of it… Some verse—recited out loud by a priest, a schoolteacher—opened the imagination to other worlds, fields, realities.
But in father’s mind there were already other worlds. Oceans. Continents. Rio’s carnivals, Argentinian pampas, Andean cordilleras. I believe this set him apart from everyone, in the village, when the immigrant venture failed and the family returned. Daddy sweated his way through school, college, and up. It wasn’t an easy road. Later, he defined it “the jump.” A big leap from a social status to another. His metaphor meant both elevation, and a break. A chasm, as it happened to be.
We grew up with limitations, though the word dad so cherished, ‘poor’ no more applied. We inhabited a flat in the capital town: it was decent, and it acquired value in time. It gave dad great happiness, after the instability of his youth.
Our place had an antique look, bourgeois style, though mother—who had a bourgeois upbringing—constantly pointed at the cracks, under the superficial varnish. All was cheap, unfit, almost shameful, in her eyes: she never ceased complaining. She had a job, of which she complained as well, for it wasn’t what she had wished for: still she was contrived to it by our economical needs. We were four children: while dad slowly climbed the philosophical ladder, mom’s employment was vital.
Besides fatigue and long hours, mom resented our chronic lack of funds. Her moan took the gloomiest shades when a child asked for anything fancy, or just normal. A box of colored pencils, other than the six short sticks in primary colors, courtesy of the Sunday paper. A bottle of Coke for a party. The bus fare to the party itself. A school field trip, requiring a small subscription: God forbid.
Gloomy tones darkened towards the end of the month, when our credit at the grocery stores (they were many, for various categories of food) was due. The store owners knew mom: she stopped by daily before work. She really acted like a lady: classy and beautiful, she could smile her way through. Still, when the bill was due and I was old enough for errands, she urged me to avoid this or that shop for the next couple of weeks, until she concocted alternative routes to school, strategically skipping this or that window.
Her worries seeped through.
We weren’t allowed bananas, too expensive. Only grandma, who couldn’t chew, ate one with every meal. We had apples and pears in all seasons. Strawberries, peaches, apricots, flashed by when their price dropped. They were coveted and cheered. I remember a Christmas, when the gift for each kid was a satchel of grapes. They looked precious.
Still the sight of bananas, slowly tapering on grandma’s plate, could be overwhelming. One of my siblings occasionally stole the forbidden fruit, betrayed—later—by mummified peels mother found in closets. He never admitted the crime.
Ham also belonged to the lot of too expensive items. The catalog was imposing.
But we weren’t poor, by any means. Besides the apartment we rented, then bought, dad acquired a country cottage. Tiny, it sat on a scorched mound of land. Not a tree was in view. There was no water either: a well had to be dug. We enjoyed the pioneer life, with great gusto, during mom’s fleeting summer break. In the long months when children were free, and mother in the office, we experienced homebound pleasures: soothing twilight from lowered shades, fancy cotton spreads instead of dull army blankets, naps on cool wooden floors. The occasional bowl of cherries, the exceptional ice cream.
I did not grow up poor. Still a nervous frugality, a monastic mood—enforced by financial worries—remained with me. I was never able to abandon the slightly cramped ways I experienced in childhood.
Actually, my standards precipitated in time. Because money felt controversial and menacing, I never learned how to make it. The only way I could handle it was holding – dearly – to the little I had. More refined interactions appalled me.
Maybe, something else was at stake: a compulsion not to break the loop, stronger than the lure of easier lifestyles. Daddy’s mantra resonated in the back of my mind, like a verse from some desert prophet. In rags.
I guess I was less attracted by affluence than I was terrified by further leaps. The one father performed was enough. Thinking of it still gives me vertigo, and a permanent longing for the ground.
For dirt. Dust. Humility.
Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Conclave, Icarus Down, Intrinsick and Alebrijes, among other journals and anthologies.