She says, “If I leave before you, darling
Don’t you waste me in the ground.”
—Iron & Wine
If I were to walk outside and turn west onto Silver Star Road, the day’s traffic passing by in a blur of metal as my arms hang useless at my sides and I walk for miles and miles into the sunset—I’d reach the crematorium where you were transformed, my love, beyond all recognition, a plume of ash rising into the sky, my own body standing numb and empty and glowing in the last of the light shining from the edge of the world.
But I don’t want to walk there now. Can’t we just stay in these sheets, instead? The ones you bought for our anniversary. Let’s roll in the Egyptian cotton until the sun turns black. Even if it’s only possible in a dream, or in the half-light of in-between, our eyes heavy and drugged with the crossing from one state of being into another, half here, half there, your warm breath on my skin as our bodies form a sweet interrogative.
...My body keeps sinking into the coils of the mattress. Down and down and down again. The years drawing on. The weight I bring to our bed pressing down as I dream or stare into the half-dark. No one ever tells the ones who keep living that at some point they’ll have to buy a new mattress. How is that even possible? How can I replace the last bed you ever slept on? The bed we dreamed in and made love in and were sad and blue in, the bed we cried and mourned the future in, where we wrote our poems and read novels and watched late-night movies and smoked pot and spooned sugar from bowls of cereal, that place of afternoon naps and quiet moments spent petting the cats until their purring filled the room, the mattress that held us floating in the darkness of 3 am just as it held us on our Lazy Sundays, as we called them, when I’d tickle your sides and blow on your stomach as you squealed with laughter, your legs cycling the empty air above, the two of us giggling like children suspended in the amber of time, the arpeggios of an acoustic guitar ascending in the air around us the way sunshine sometimes climbs through the sky on a ladder of light...
But our mattress. The coiling springs that held us. Some essential quality seems to be fading within them. It’s a slow undoing of the covalent bond, I think, as if the steel itself were returning to the furnace that burned it liquid bright at temperatures approaching 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. That steel has begun its slow journey back to an elemental state of iron, carbon, manganese. Just imagine. That manganese traveled in a massive container ship before being forged into spirals of steel and winding up here in our bedroom. It crossed the Atlantic to do this, from the port of Owendo in Gabon, where the bright lights of Libreville shine in the world’s 4th most expensive city. And before that, it was shipped overland via the Trans-Gabon Railway through a green blur of amazique and kevazingo, through forests of okoumé, mohagony, movingui, through cities and villages and marshlands where sitatunga ground leaf and stem to a pulpy cud with their molars while elephants paused in the shadows of the forest canopy to watch the trains roll by—from as far as the outskirts of Franceville, there in the small mining town of Moanda which sits on the banks of the Miosso River—just east of the Bagombe Plateau, where miners work their way deeper into the earth in search of manganese...
Of course, it’s the geology of our lives I’m thinking of now, the deep history of it, and the way our tiny fraction of time rests on the peninsula of Florida, a landmass that has risen and fallen and merged with other landmasses over the ages, at once part of Africa half a billion years ago, and then part of Gondwanaland 200 million years after, and this before merging into the supercontinent Pangaea during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras—which broke apart roughly 175 million years ago. The oceans have washed over Florida and then receded back again so that our home rests on the runoff erosion of sand and clay from the Appalachian mountain range, and below that, a porous layer of limestone comprised of shellfish and coral and the skeletons of dead fish—so much death it forms an entire substrate, though it functions like a giant sponge, with channels and pockets working to store and sieve freshwater in subterranean rivers and pools.
Our home is situated on the ancestral land of the Timucua people, a civilization stretching back 5,000 years. Along with the Calusa, Ais, and Miami nations, the Timucua were wiped out and driven into extinction. Only fragments remain from over 12,000 years of human habitation on the peninsula. And so we’ve lived our lives on the bones of these generations. The same earth that gives us trumpet flowers and bayonet palms once housed generations of these lovers, whole families whispering their history over cooking fires or while simply sitting on the beach together to witness an ocean sunrise. And these people, in turn, lived atop the bones of mastodon and saber-tooth tigers, and an entire catalogue of life that didn’t survive the Pleistocene.
For most of my life, I’ve thought of the earth beneath my feet as the kingdom of sand and stone—that the further one digs down, the more one enters a place of silence and pressure and crushing inevitability. But among the dead, there is life. Multicellular lifeforms. Tubular, wormlike insects: nematodes. Belgian scientist Gaetan Borgonie discovered nematodes as deep as 2.2 miles below the surface, and they were discovered in water carbon-dated at 3,000 to 12,000 years old. These creatures feed on a biofilm of bacteria—and bacteria itself has been documented at 12 miles belowground. Since Borgonie’s discovery, more lifeforms have been discovered thriving in the Earth’s crust.
So many lives within lives, my love. Layer upon layer. The ash we give to the sky, the bony skeleton we bury in the grave—they transform into leaf and feather and shell. And I can see it now. So clearly. The way our ashes and bones will pour from an urn among the flowers and into a rivulet of water in Yosemite’s wildflower valley, Tuolumne Meadows. Our bone fragments will be broken down through the seasons so that calcium might enter into the plasma of plants. It is a crucial element in the construction of cell walls, a kind of messenger within the plant that also aids in the growth of roots and pollen tubes. Here we rise from the soil to flower into larkspur and poppy, lavender and gold, to feed bees and hummingbirds. And when the fires come, as they will, you and I will drift across the atmosphere as we study the turning blue Earth below. We will seed the continents with the fine powder of our bodies, the smallest remnants of us landing as mere dust on the eyelashes of cattle in the Sudan, the hazel-colored shoots of black bamboo in Thailand, the ancient surface of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. We will rise and fall with mountains and valleys, swamplands and oceans, just as everything before us has done and everything after us will do, the continents tracking our movements as the life that follows us must learn how best to house love and sorrow and joy and pain within the temporary vessel of the self, that transient structure made of the Ordovician and the Precambrian and the Anthropocene and so much more that—if any one of us could fully comprehend the gift of it—we would surely fall to our knees and weep.
Brian Turner is a writer and musician; author of My Life as a Foreign Country, two poetry collections (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise), and a debut album with The Interplanetary Acoustic Team. His most recent work is The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers (W.W. Norton & Company). He directs the MFA at Sierra Nevada University.