Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Our Books of the Dead

Last night I put the finishing polishes on a story that I wrote a year ago.  I sent it off to Glimmer Train.  I think it's one of the best stories I've ever written--but I know that Glimmer Train gets bushels of short stories every day.

This morning, I thought about how perfect it would be if Glimmer Train accepted this particular story out of all the ones I've sent to them.  I wouldn't have had this story without my friend Shannon telling me about her mother's mental decline, and I wouldn't know about Glimmer Train if Shannon hadn't brought a copy to work in 1996.

The story covers some of the emotional terrain I covered in a poem of the same title.  In the story, I flesh out the story with additional family members, with scenes from work, with a bit of hopefulness at the end.

I took the story to a writer's lunch when I first wrote it.  Here's the part that spoke to my friends who read the first draft:

"In the early stages of her mother’s disease, Kay thought of all the ways she hoped her mother would return to her. She missed her mother’s cooking, her needlepoint projects, her decorating for Christmas. She even missed her mother’s sharp tongue, all the ways she criticized."

Or was it this part?:

"At some point, Kay hoped her children would move out and start families of their own. Kay hoped that she wouldn’t have to crash-land in her children’s later lives the way her mother had. But for now, she savored the evenings when they all gathered around the piano to sing together. She saw them as building a language that they might or might not need for the future."
And here's the ending, which tries to redeem the bleakness of parts of the story:

"At some point, they would all be names in the book of the dead. But for now, they had voices and they could end the day with singing and a bedtime prayer. At some point, they would be nothing more but bone and ash. But for now, they could be together."
And here's the original poem, which was published at the gorgeous online journal, Escape Into Life. My poems are paired with intriguing fabric art; go here to read it and the other poems chosen and to enjoy the art.

Book of the Dead

Even though her mother lives,
she writes her mother’s name
in the monks’ book of the dead.

She writes her mother’s name
in this giant book and steps
away before her tears
can blur the ink.

She walks to the bank
of the river and watches
the mist dance its last
movements. A runaway
slave or a Native American
soon to be slaughtered
would not be a surprise.

She drives back to the hospital
and slices the fruitcake
bought in the gift shop, baked
by monks in a far away monastery.

Her mother, who used to mock
fruitcake, who used to count
each calorie, this stranger gobbles
every last crumb. On the window sill,
seabirds eye the scene. She tries
to remember the smell of salt.

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