We stood on a green hill on a brisk day, two small sisters in coats, singing two-part harmony into a tiny grave. Our preacher dad had asked us to sing the one about children and their heavenly father at the burial of a baby, stillborn to a couple named Story.
But this was a story I couldn’t crack. How could a baby be born with no breath or life, how could a baby be dead, but still, born?
I looked at the mother’s eyes as the two of us sparrowed on about how life and death would never sever—I knew it meant separate—children from God’s strong arms.
It was nice to get paid for singing, but I didn’t want to ever be dead and flourishing in some faraway holy courts. Each night I prayed uneasily that If I died before I woke the Lord would take my soul— God suddenly materializing in the dark room, like a frightful thief in the night, to spirit some unseen part of me up and away.
I liked my real home on the prairie. And I wanted my story: all babies born unstill into their fathers’ arms, everyone mounting green hills unwounded by grave dirt, all of us singing an old, old story and breathing, breathing, grace all around us like fresh air.
I don’t know if it’s Kaqchikel or Tzutujil they speak here. I use my small Spanish to haggle for a woven bracelet. Mark and the girls wander off, so I walk alone past stalls of cheap skirts and plastic shoes, baskets of melons, even a table of carved statues of the local saint, Maximón, with his Stetson hat and big cigar.
In a shop I’m drawn to a crucifix, hanging alone among the clay pots. The carver has nudged the local wood into its graceful form. Shy, he says a price— hardly anything—but my local cash is gone and my watch shows nearly noon, time for the last boat back.
At the dock the rest look impatient, the boatman drumming the motor, but I can think only of the pale wood, the stripe of darker grain in the hanging head.
The boat rides low in the water, and as we reach the lake’s heart— great craters guarding its distant shores— the wind comes suddenly alive. People have warned us of the lake’s treacherous afternoon xocomil— the wind that carries away sin. The pilot turns away. I catch Mark’s eye and look at our daughters in a crush of fear.
As the village shoreline shrinks, I remember that locals plead with their cowboy saint, offering oranges, cigarettes, and soda. The waves rise and we sit stiff, our eyes on our distant beach. I picture the carving, the curve of the corpus, the crossed feet.
Wee Agnes Sawrey widdow & Dorothy Tyson Spinster do severally make oath yt ye Corps of Margaret Tyson of Gryzedale in the Parish above s’d beeing buryed the first of Aprill 1696 was not put in wrapt wound up or buryed in any shirt sheet shift or shroud mad or mingled with Flax Hemp or any Coffin lined wth cloth or any materiall but what is made of sheep wooll only according to a Late Act of Parliamt made for Burying in Woollen. In witness herof wee the saide Agnes Sawrey & Dorothy Tyson have sett our Hands & Seals. Aprilis, Ano Di 1696. —Parish document in St. Michael and All Angels Church, Hawkshead, Cumbria
In Norway when you die, they clothe you in a gown of purest white. Egyptians sucked out organs, layered presoaked linen strips around each desiccated limb. It matters what you wrap a body in.
I am one of the few that walk the footpaths on the fell today who put on wool against the sharp October air. The scattered sheep are unimpressed. Warming these hills with active tongues, they are unaware that Parliament, to buoy the trade, once ruled that only wool could be the spun and woven garment of the dead.
Agnes and Dorothy held to the law, picking softest weave of shift or sheet or shroud to lay against the body of their Margaret— like the Marys in the story, who laid his body out, washed and oiled, and put, wrapt, wound up, and buryèd each limb in swaddling clothes to match the ones his little body wore in Bethlehem—the cloth he wore to meet with life and fight with death— he who newborn slept among the shepherds and their silent, woolly sheep.
Good lost word, succor. As an infant mouth pulls sweet need from the breast. Sucker: that child, or a loser. Or a gull— someone fooled. Gull’s a sea grace too, a diving shelter wing. Sucker: sweet on a stick. Sticky.
Dive and warm me, sweet Grace. Feed me, help me. Don’t fool me, don’t lose me. Be my succor. Stick to me.