The body was alive and then it wasn’t
The body was alive and then it wasn’t. It was tucked into a mahogany box like it belonged there, left by hands who didn’t need it anymore. The body had no time for friends or family. It had spores and moulds, fungus from the caving in roof of its new home. The skin of the body had shrunk, formed close to the teeth, the gum lines receding inside the mouth like a quarter of the moon on a dark night.
The body had a daughter who cried at its funeral. She had travelled eight hours to the reserve to say goodbye. A year ago, the body lay in its box in the community hall, left for twenty-four hours for its loved ones to feast around it. The body didn’t need to eat the moose or bannock, the country food that demarcated that this was a special time, a time when the body stopped being a person, when the person started becoming an ancestor. The daughter had kissed the body on its forehead. She swept its hair to the side where it was out of place because the daughter couldn’t stand for anything to be imperfect on this perfect body. The daughter knew that this body was not her mother but she couldn’t separate the ancestor from the person she knew. The body knew this too.
In its box, it lay and rotted. Slow at first, locked airtight, then faster as the box rotted too. When the body was a person, she laughed at her kitchen table, beading moccasins that would be too small for her granddaughter by the time she finished them. She figured she could sell them instead. Her hands were slow and steady, keeping time by the needle as it went in and out of the hide. When the body was a person, she beaded flowers. Red roses and purple violets and white daisies bloomed slowly on the yellow hide. The body who was a person drank Red Rose tea with too much milk and too much Splenda and hummed Hank Williams songs, the radio on low but unheard in her distraction. She only had the memory of music. Now the body’s daughter plants flowers on its grave, and the kitchen table her mother loved so much, the one with needle points daggered into the finish, is in the dump outside the reserve. The daughter didn’t have room for it in her small apartment in Winnipeg and she had no truck to transport it. The ancestor who is not the body knows this. The ancestor who lives in an unknowable world, a world that the body, organic and alone, is so far away from.
Before the body died, the person who lived inside it had a dream that her death would come before another grandchild was born into her family. She would have to become an ancestor, usher a child from the unknowable world into this one, the one where bodies are born and die. She called her daughter on the phone.
“My girl, I got a message from the spirit world,” she said.
“What does that mean?” her daughter asked.
“The ancestors told me I need to die before you’ll have another child. I’m proud to die if it means you bring another little one into the world.”
“Those are just dreams. They don’t mean anything, Mom. Why would you tell me something like this? You know I’m trying for another kid.”
The body who was a person sighed. She had tried to teach her daughter what dreams meant, that they were messages from the ancestors, that they came and went like wild animals on a path in the bush. But her daughter was a modern woman. She didn’t have time for her mother’s teachings and never had. As soon as the daughter could, she went to university in the big city, studying English Literature, reading books by people so unlike her, their skin not brown but white, their teachings taught in schools, necessary to seem normal. To her, dreams were just random electrical signals in the brain, sorting information from the day into digestible pieces.
“I’ve told you, my girl, pay attention to your dreams. They will guide you.”
“Mom, I don’t have time for this. You scare me when you tell me these things. Can’t you understand that?”
“There’s nothing you need to be afraid of. This is just the way it is, the way the ancestors want it to be.”
“Mom, you’re not going to die before I get pregnant. You’re going to be here for my kids. I need you to be.”
“We’ll see what the spirit world decides. I love you, my girl.”
Her daughter laughed. It was a dark sound, ringing like it hurt. “You’re not going to die, Mom. Don’t be ridiculous. I love you too. Take care of yourself.”
Her daughter hung up the phone and the body who was a person went back to her beading, her calloused thumb raw and painful.
In the ground, the body rotted. It was silent and still. Still as a clear lake, the current running underneath, not disturbing the surface. Insects fed on the body’s flesh and the ancestor watched the body get smaller and smaller as the year went by. Initially, the body bloated. Thick with fluids, it seemed as though it were holding its breath, chest pushed out. Then one day it sunk, as if exhaling, letting out a sigh it was still holding on to from life.
The body who was once a person knew she had to die before her daughter would have another baby. She meditated on this. Before she went to sleep, she would pray to the spirit world to ask for dreams to show her what she was supposed to do now. She received nothing, only dreams of old memories, children she didn’t recognize running in the fields where she grew up. She had a dream of her little house lit up from the inside, herself standing far away, watching it with a cigarette in her hand though she hadn’t smoked in decades.
She woke and took up smoking again. Bought a pack of king-sized Canadian Classics from the convenience store near her house. The first drag made her cough, turned her stomach, but she persisted, eventually smoking the entire pack within the day. Suddenly she was a pack a day smoker again, eating up her meager pension, but she didn’t mind.
She continued living. Fell asleep with a lit cigarette on her lips a few times but the ash always collected on her kitchen table, burning holes into it, but nothing further than that. She wasn’t worried.
She had more dreams. Dreams about doctors’ offices in Winnipeg, a checkup where, instead of pills, the doctor gave her balloon animals. She called her daughter and asked if she could stay the weekend so she could see her doctor.
“Of course, Mom. You’re always welcome here,” the daughter said.
So the body who was a person booked an appointment in Winnipeg. Her doctor was young, a new graduate, someone she hardly trusted but she knew her dreams were telling her she needed to be here.
“What can I do for you today?” he asked.
“I’m here because of a dream,” the body who was a person said.
She noticed that caught the doctor off guard and she smiled. The doctor quickly regained his composure, back to his serene yet quietly concerned demeanor.
“Is that so? I guess dreams can tell us all sorts of things. Getting a checkup is important regardless. I’m told you’ve taken up smoking again?”
“Yes, a dream told me to do that as well.”
“Well, as I’m sure you know, smoking, especially at your age, can have terrible consequences. I’ll have the receptionist give you some pamphlets on smoking cessation and hopefully you can quit again soon. Your bloodwork is are great. Your diabetes is well controlled and so is your hypertension. That can all change should you continue smoking but we’ll keep your medications the same for now. I want you to come back in three months to check up on your A1C, okay?”
“Yes, I’ll be back. Thank you, doctor.”
She left with a three-month supply of medications and an idea in her mind. She said goodbye to her daughter, hugged her tight, a heaviness in her heart like the whole of creation lay there sleeping in her chest. She never filled her prescriptions.
The body who was a person didn’t notice a difference in how she felt for weeks. She walked steady, had dreamless sleep, and smoked at her kitchen table. It wasn’t until one day she woke with a headache that lasted for three days and three nights that she knew she made the right decision.
When the headache broke, she had a dream about the lake near her house. It was spring, the ice mostly broken and melted as if it were never there at all. In the dream, no seasons passed. It was a single moment in time, her feet on the edge of the water walking slowly into the cold. She woke as she took a breath, ready to plunge into the lake. She knew what she needed to do.
Outside, the sun hadn’t risen, still early, the sky dark as her daughter’s eyes. The body who was a person undressed inside. She took off and folded her night gown to place it on the bed and put a robe on her naked body. For modesty, though she knew her nearest neighbour would be asleep at this hour. She left her door unlocked and walked to the lake, just steps down a small hill. The water was still and looked so calmly back at her. The reflection of the body who was a person was laid bare, robe on the ground, barely disturbed by the ripples in the water. Her long grey hair blew in the wind as if pushing her forward.
She took one step and then another. The water came to her ankles and she started shivering, wondering if she could get much more of her old body into the lake. She took a breath and remembered the dream. Clenching her jaw, she walked faster, the water to her hips. She let her hands fall and grasp, trying to draw strength from them. She found it as the water fell from her hands and plunged the rest of her body into the lake. The cold took her breath away and she gasped in a mouthful of water. Choking, she stood up and cursed herself and tried again. By now, her body was shaking as if it were trying to get away from itself and she slowly made her way out of the lake.
She put on her robe and walked back to her porch. Sitting in her rocking chair, she decided she’d stay outside for as long as she possibly could. Her dreams confused her. What did the water mean? Was she supposed to catch a cold, the flu? Was this all for nothing? It had been almost a year and she hadn’t died yet. She hadn’t even gotten close to it.
She didn’t get sick. The body who was a person lived her life, put extra sugar in her tea, hummed Marty Robbins songs and beaded at her kitchen table. She went to bed at nine and woke up at six and began again.
Until one night she didn’t.
It wasn’t a special night. It had been five months since she’d stopped taking her medication, two months since she’d gone into the lake. She finished her last cup of Red Rose tea, saw she needed to buy milk tomorrow, and turned off NCI FM on the radio. She had all but given up on her dreams, which felt far away and inscrutable as tea leaves in the bottom of a cup. In her bed, she prayed once more to the spirit world to guide her and fell asleep for the last time.
The body who was a person became just a body that night. The person, now an ancestor, went to the unknowable world and greeted the other ancestors there. They were the ones who had guided her home even after she had almost lost hope.
The body rotted in the ground. Flowers grew on the grass above it and the daughter tended to its grave. It didn’t matter to the body now how its home looked, but the ancestor appreciated the gesture.
Brandi Bird is a Two-Spirit Saulteaux, Cree and Metis writer and editor from Treaty 1 territory currently living and learning on Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh & Musqueam land. Their work has been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Puritan, Poetry is Dead, Room Magazine, Brick Magazine, Prism International and The Fiddlehead.