Hecatomb

Latest in our 'Outbreak' series of reflections on the current pandemic, Harvye Hodja's modern meditation on mortality.
is based in Wisconsin in the United States. He gathers things at Iron River Review.
Death is coming through the floorboards, crawling across the counters, spilling down the winds, coating us in its familiarity, but we wish not to see it. We are looking away. We will not look.  

We call upon machines. We call upon routines. We call upon fear. We call upon denial.

You are here.

‘You are a fucking moron,’ you may well yell at me, like the man in the red pick up with the nice thick beard and the sunglasses when I stepped in front of his rumbling truck to cross the street the other day, secure that he wouldn’t run me over after all. ‘Oh, you’re probably right,’ I wanted to reply. But in my heart I also felt privately aggrieved. He is probably right: I may be a fucking moron. But in my heart I’m not sure we’ve chosen the right sorrows, made the right trades of suffering. I don’t know that I have any better ideas. I’m just not sure all this is doing much good – death is clever, and waits to spring, no matter how long we wait. 

I’m carrying around this cruelty, this apparent madness. I keep being tempted to tell people this is all for naught – but then they scorn me for stupid. And maybe I am. But, like death itself, this impulse will not be denied. What I read in the stewed pangolin guts smeared on our stoop is that death cannot be avoided, is here for many of us, now. Right now, yes. Right now it beats its pale face with its withered hands and shrieks, and we have more trouble looking away. We decide we will keep six feet away. But death moves, lives, has feet. It walks up, wants to shake our clammy hand, hold it and stroke the back of it. Once we knew each other so well, it says.

We don’t want to give anything.  Not an inch. Not a millimetre. Not a single life! – though, in the end, each of our lives are given, taken, gone.  

I heard on the radio a sombre and serious man who said we are woefully underprepared, and should have bought more ventilators. There are thousands of him, experts: earnest, true, right – all of them, I am sure. Yet I could not agree: no, I thought, no, you cannot prepare for every case. The man’s impassioned, eminently sensible, kind comments amount to a massive and futile denial of death.  We cannot buy enough machines to save us all. We cannot plan for every catastrophe, foresee other crises, know which machines to buy. We could fill millions of warehouses with billions of machines, and still pick the wrong device. When the contagion of this year or that year comes, our only words will once again be, ‘we did not buy enough machines!’  

No, we did not. There are never enough machines.  

We die, by the ones, twos, twenty-sevens, sixty-eight thousands, and, eventually, digit-and-point billions, with no thought or action on our own. With no saving, no killing – though we will add these to the counts, mix them in. With no trying, no surrendering, it will happen. No machine will save us when our last instance comes – though one may save us the first, second, and third times, and oh, for many years.  

As my graduate advisor – good man – once mildly remarked when I let the cruel tides of history sweep me along to stupid statements, generalising about the impact of historic death patterns, ‘yes, but small things make a big difference in people’s lives.’ He was, of course, right. He would no doubt shrug his narrow shoulders now in his soft-mannered way, ask me how I think families in northern Italy might feel about my ideas about death.

I would feel embarrassed. I would tell him, ‘oh, I suppose you’re right.’ But in my heart I would quote Joyce: ‘Nes. Yo.’ My inner difficultator would protest, ask, ‘What is early? What is late? Which other losses are there? If we let death be the only thing that matters, do we make of it a god? Do we live for death? Do we shutter life?’ I don’t say these things because everyone tells me they are wrong. Maybe they are right. I struggle. I must be quiet.

Sometimes the wasp lays its eggs in the spider. Yes, this makes a big difference in the spider’s life, and is unimaginably cruel. But no imagining will wish it away. I am haunted by this wasp. We are trying to kill it.

Whether the wasp lives or not, we must create a space for sorrow, and recognition.  

I am not sure we are not acting rational, or human, but I feel sure we have lost touch with death.

We discussed coronavirus at work, on break, the mild plaster walls hemming us round. ‘I don’t know about this,’ I said, voicing general unease, tiptoeing around my cruelty, not wanting to bandwagon onto the consensus of ‘we must do every last thing we can,’ but made tired by the thought of offending everybody as I so often manage to do. I must be quiet. No, I didn’t want to say what I really thought; it isn’t found polite. Everybody thinks, ‘you are a fucking moron.’  

‘Fate is fate,’ I told a colleague later. He laughed about this, and I smiled. I meant it, but… Later, he told it to another group of colleagues as an anecdote, entertaining us all: ‘today Harvye said “fate is fate!”’ – hearty laughter all around, me too, oh the folly, oh the silliness.  

Sure. Let it be funny, in gallows times. But it is still happening.

Small things make a big difference in people’s lives… but not in the way that we think. My grandfather died in his 80s, of prostate cancer. My aunt said to me he was taken too soon. I smiled, nodded – internally disagreeing. I’d helped take care of him during some of the last few weeks; while on his pain medication, he had described to me the angels floating about in the room, tried to point them out to me: ‘an angel… there!’ he would say, his trembling, liver-spotted arms sticking thinly out of his pajamas, waving to and fro in the solid daylight of his bedroom, trying to show me a miracle. I gave these angels to my aunt, a gift, told her about them plainly: she took them, believed they were real. After he was cremated, we sifted out his dust under a tree across the street from his house, on the grounds of the place where he worked. It was a windy day. The breeze stirred him into the air, and I breathed him in. Each of us had sprinkled some of him under the tree; when we returned to his home, I washed him off my hands, down his sink.

Our attacker swirls through the air. We wash our hands. People die. It is cruel.

Our massive denial of death, our society-wide pell-mell flight to block, avoid, hide from, deny it – this may work for a time, or it may not. But no matter how much we atomise ourselves, it reminds us of a message of unity: our unity of death. We used to think of death differently. It was a normal part of life. How much unnaturalness can we pile on top of this suffering?

We used to think of death differently. It was a normal part of life. How much unnaturalness can we pile on top of this suffering?

We act as if under a spell: an incantation guaranteeing our own immortality.  We talk on the radio about what to watch to ease our ennui, and what to cook when all the flour is bought. We are invited to click on playlists to calm our nerves—as if this were all a bit of a glitch, a funny little bump. We are, we declare in the loudest possible terms: ‘DOING EVERYTHING WE POSSIBLE CAN!’ We are not, however, listening to the rhythm of our endings.  

The colleague who laughed cheerfully with me about ‘fate is fate’ is a good man, and troubled. He described his father, who is ageing and uses an oxygen tank. He described his mother, who has to go to work – who wanted to stay home, but was told if she did, she would lose her job. This, my colleague worries, may be a death sentence for his father. Someone at her workplace will give it to her, she will give it to him, and he will die. The river of contagion runs these paths, and there is no way his father’s damaged lungs would survive it, he says.  

I do not want his father to die.  I am going to die. Tomorrow, a month from now, in twenty years, in forty.  Oh, yes.

Will I remain so nonchalant if it is me who spends six days in the emergency room, or on the floor of a plastic tent, feeling as if my head is being forced under water?

What is early? Who has given me twenty years, thirty years? Did I count death in the acorns my son offered me in the palm of his soft hand, so many years ago by the canal?

From the series ‘Gitterwerk’ at Iron River Review

My father on the phone jokes twice with me that I may inherit the house sooner than he’d like. He is afraid, and to be so is sensible. Finally, I am afraid now too, at times. I privately hope my father is both sensible (quarantine) and lucky (doesn’t get it). Hell, I hope none of us gets it, though I know this cannot be, already is not. And, as we have already cranked it into life, I hope our mass hiding works – in his case, in my case, in my colleague’s father’s case, in every single last wasp-stung case from Lombardy to New York.

I see no contradiction here.  Even if we accept the inevitability of death, and its surges and concentrations, it does not mean we have to love it. Find me the life-giving drug that lets me live three hundred years, the spice mélange, and I will take it.  

Ah, but this drug does not exist – only our weak flesh does. Accepting death does not mean to love it. I am repelled by the wasp that beds its children in the living spider – but I defend its right. I wish it wouldn’t. But it will.

Meanwhile, the electronic overlord is screaming to me that doctors are choosing who lives and who dies, that patients lie on the grimy floor, that hell has broken through the crust of soil and is laying the weal to all that is precious and beautiful. Probably this is so. Yes, it is awful, harrowing, sombre, grim, unbearable.  The wasp has its stinger in our neck.

It rains; the tulips are a bright and fleshy pink, but cupped shut and somewhat crumpled underneath the dampness. Pink and white hyacinths of vixen fat horsetail petals bloom and droop in forgotten spots in my yard; they have pushed aside the dirt. They question the dark, shine in the light. Some of the cherry trees are finished blooming, have gone opaque and unfocused, a musty brown greenness leaching out and smothering their own blossoms, clipping them off and dropping them into the sodden street. Present, ready, fecund. Other cherry trees are in their glory, and in the mist blowing horizontally across the lumpy unkempt lawns in this our untended spring, in the slicing spring breeze, they are regnant and gorgeous, an encapsulation of the precious in the moment. Even so, they are laden and dripping now, weighted, damaged – so beautiful. The daffodils that a previous tenant planted next to the garage come up every spring; every year this assault against the lawn manages to appear a fresh surprise, a radical incursion. They decorate and contrast against the stubborn, weedy grass. Each spring these daffodils seem to come and go many times, mocny, full of the deep colour of a bumblebee’s bands. Or a wasp. Today, in the rain, they are wilted, brown, and deflated. Ragged, rotten looking, straggling back down the green stalks, discomfiting. They’ll be replaced tomorrow – by others, because each spring, each daffodil plant blooms only once.  

The day is cold, wet – ‘ugly and miserable,’ says a colleague during our telemeeting.  

No. I’ve never seen it more beautiful. The onrush of colours: pink, yellow, white, spring green, deep green, dark green, vibrant luminous translucent impossible green, everything damp, falling apart, coming together, cruel, precious, temporary, alive, alive, alive.

 

MAIN IMAGE:

Mari Fallet Mosand
Storm 1
Earth pigments, linseed oil paint, charcoal and ink on canvas

‘Storm’ is part of a series on the ‘life-death-life’ cycle, an attempt at understanding death on different levels – the death of my own mother, but also death in nature. I learned that death is also life; death lies embedded in life itself, and is a prerequisite for further life. Among the rotting leaves of autumn lie the hopeful seeds that will sprout in spring, drawing their nourishment from the decomposing matter.

Mari Fallet Mosand runs the crafts business Krokvokst in Norway, making traditional handicraft and offering courses in woodwork and willow weaving. She also creates art and makes her own paints and inks from earth pigments and other natural materials. Her work often explores the force of life in nature and in us, and how that force has manifested throughout the ages. krokvokst.no

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.

 

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Comments
  1. Good stuff, Harvye. Thank you.
    Someone once said (probably many someones) that the only thing that is actually real is the fact of one’s death.
    Cheers
    Sheri – currently avoiding death in New Zealand

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