Apocalypse is literally about revelation. Those that have lived through an apocalypse may become haunted. They live in a kind of dream of the past. The shapes and shadows that cling to the wall when your world is blown to ash.
We all live in apocalyptic times, and we are all struggling to reclaim who we were before the last revelation stripped us of our most beloved lies. Someone who has lived through the disappointment of a successful revolution knows this well. Gran never let me forget.
Before she passed, she taught me nourish my dream selves with metaphor and symbol. “That way you won’t grow hard and brittle,” she said. I thought she looked pretty brittle herself, and worried about her health, though I’m not sure she noticed. She always seemed surprised at the gradual betrayal of her body. I wonder if her dream self was still seventeen, virile and taciturn. Pissed off at the world like all the rest. Mothers told their daughter of the wild woman who entered those woods and never returned. They say she lived with bears, born a second birth amongst their bones in the warm womb of their burrow. They said so many things, it is hard to know which has any truth to it. But I can say that many nights I have awakened in the middle of the night from the low rasping of breath, from the musty scent of the forest.
When I was a girl, gran told us that birds are the carriers of dead souls. How many friends, how much of her family had been carried away by those fluttering shadows?
Nadja had odd stories, always for everything, but when you’re a kid you listen to these things, and she had such a glow to her back in those days when she would spin a tale and had an audience. She also lived through the holocausts in Ukraine, she would shriek in her sleep and chomp her teeth blood red, and this—well it’s not nice to say but the other children called her a wicked witch. Because I had been named after her, then, I was by some child-logic also a witch, and like much older witches, I spent much of my time alone.
She wasn’t wicked, but otherwise, I think they were right about us both. Children see more than we give them credit for, they just don’t know very much. (By the time adults have filled their heads with nonsense, they often have neither sight nor knowledge.)
When Gran Nadja told stories of birds carrying people’s souls, I took this very literally, as children are prone to do. I tried to imagine how this might work exactly. I drew contraptions on napkins, and Nadja would cackle when I would ask her questions — how big was a soul? — how many could a single pigeon carry? —
And, most concerning of all: what kind of world these “souls” might be taken off to.
It should come as little surprise that my first life encounter with death was with Nadja herself. (She of the dried flowers and mysterious note.) So she had tried, in some way, to prepare me for her passing, and because I was so young and she so old, it’s like the two ends of the ouroborus. We can almost understand one another, and while much is lost in translation, it is between the very young and the very old that a certain kind of myth can perpetuate itself, whereas between the mouths of two individuals in the midst of life, very different stories prevail. Timing, like I said, is everything.
I cried for hours at the funeral. It was the first time I can remember crying, and the last time for many years. My young life had really been an echo of hers. I thought I was crying because I had been left alone. I didn’t yet know the real reason for those tears.
(Draft for “Tales From When I Had A Face.”)