September 25, 2007

"...The sand gathered around his body and eventually buried him."


by B. Foote

Though not religious, or even spiritual really, my life’s been pock marked with a handful of moments that have perforated the lining of my already anemic head. Lacan says that our true self is shattered in childhood and that we spend our lives trying to put the pieces back together, only to make matters worse. It’s like Jenga, trying to put the blocks back in is just as likely to tip the whole damn thing over as pulling them out.

I clearly remember the first time my reality cracked a little. I spent my early childhood with my grandparents. Good, solid, hardworking people who bought the American dream with a sensible mortgage and believed in Jesus with the same amount of gravitas they believed in the promise of their pensions. Good was God, and Bad was the devil, mischief was a negotiation between the two, and short of a death in the family or the occasional car wreck, there wasn’t much reason to question the divine order of things. By and large you could handle your own with a little good sense and a strong back.

Any kind of misfortune that came our way was blamed on Reagan first, the new neighbors second, and bad luck if the first two somehow dodged the bullet. What I remember from that time was that the stakes were so low. There’s something about childhood that swaths you in understanding. You know the answers before you know the question. Two houses down, Mrs. Woods sat on her porch and talked with all the old ladies who walked by doing their morning laps around the block on doctors orders to keep the weight down and the lungs healthy. We’d sit on her porch and she’d relay information she’d picked up from her morning intelligence reports; we’d learn that Betty had passed away last night, and Arlo’s grandson was going to have to take summer school. Somehow the universe was in order; people died because they grew old, kids lost a summer because they horsed around too much in the fall. The world would continue and we’d make our weekly trip to Montgomery Ward’s to pick up a new pair of jeans for my grandfather since he tore a hole in the old ones.

On one of those easy afternoons, while my Grandmother was taking her nap, my Grandfather and I flipped on PBS. This was a high ritual for us, he’d explain things about Egypt or the dinosaurs that our narrator had failed to mention and the two of us shared a space that was timeless. The handing down of wisdom from a life of experience and learning, a ritual probably millions of years old starting in the Russian Steppes and continuing on down to the two of us, on the couch still covered in plastic that only came off when company was over. The episode that day was about Africa, and how animals lived there. My Grandfather had dozed off, tired from a day in the garden, and I watched as the film followed a pack of hyenas from their birth till their end.

It was the end of one of them in particular that wrecked me. These hyenas had traveled together for some time, hunted together, taken care of their young, and somehow found themselves traveling in the desert. Days passed and they couldn’t find anything to eat. Weary and starved, the pack was swallowed by a sandstorm. They could do little but march on as one by one they began to fall over from exhaustion. Eventually the tribe decided they would all stay together and wait out the sandstorm, so they huddled together and settled into the dunes. But one of the hyenas got up on shaky legs and started out away from his marooned family. The narrator said something to the effect of “…but one of our hyenas knows his death is certain, and chooses to press on…” and the camera followed the apostate as he staggered off into the storm. He walked ten yards or so, the camera trying to keep him in focus through the khaki waves of sand, until suddenly he collapsed. The camera held as the sand gathered around his body and eventually buried him.

By this time I was sitting a foot from the TV, my glassy eyes reflecting the horror. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. They’d done nothing wrong, they weren’t old, they were just lost. I remember looking back at my grandfather, and him being asleep. I wanted to wake him up and talk to him, have him tell me something, anything to make me feel like the world was different for us, but I knew if I woke him he’d be upset. So I turned back around and turned off the television. I don’t remember much else, just running my hand over the static of the television screen and the smell of their house.

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