In the event of my death

I’ve written this letter many times in my life, in one way or another. This will be my last. There are holes in my story, sudden sweeps of time just missing. I still remember the lunch back home and all the bottles sweating and clinking together, swimming in a pool of ice, how everyone was laughing, and how lunch was laid out on time and the weather was perfect, and there wasn’t a pause in all the chatter and joy. And then sometimes I’m right there, that age and season, and I think maybe we should organise another one of those lunches, and then I remember that everyone is dead and I’m so far away, and have been for so long that I’ve turned white. I would crawl on the shards of those bottles to get back to that time when we belonged together and the sun shone on our faces.

It all began so quickly. We were promised the world our fathers had fought for, and yet we were called up to take arms again, we’d gathered on the precipice of a myth, of a port, of a trench, with papers in hand. We’d had the energy crossing those thresholds, of a heated union meeting, except we were unwittingly baying, not for our liberty, but the destruction of our smooth-skinned bodies, withstanding that, our naive minds. I have run through the storm in my head and the gunpowdered air. My father did it too. The end comes in tides – I’ll have died a lifetime of dark moons before the event of my death.

Perhaps the reason I left the war was the reason I joined it in the first place. A decision without reason, only circumstance. I think we often act on the good faith of one foot following another rather than the guesswork of the rights and wrongs of that unknown path that lies in a time we cannot foresee. Life has been like that for me, only now I can look back and try to attribute some reason to everything that has happened. And yet in the moment all those years ago, there was only instinct coursing in my veins, only the desire for an answer to a question I could not yet mouth. That my father couldn’t bear to mouth either.

Maybe the reason is love. He was the only good boy who was spared. The Egyptian terrier Horrie got it three years later. I guess what had happened to my father prepared me. I think I knew all along Shadow and I would have to run. I once called, many years ago, when the five of them still set the table for six. But I never did come back. I thought I wasn’t there anymore. Not here either. You could look through all the records and you wouldn’t find my name. There remains only the incident that led to my disappearance. Not my portrait, nor my title, not even the coordinates – those details aren’t important anymore – only that we once were.

During my life I’ve met many people, though I never needed any of them, and they never asked me to stay. Only Shadow needed and stayed. All the men loved him, and he loved all the men, but he stood only at my feet, and slept only at my charge, and was guard to only my nights. He had the most miraculous mug the continent had seen. I can’t say what he was, but each person we’d encountered had seen in him the dog of their dreams, they’d say, as sure as a gun that he’s this breed or that, they saw in him the different gods of their mother’s worship. Shadow and I were both mutts, and people, if they ever gave me a thought, saw me much the same – the exotic destination of their love or hate.

I may still die naturally or perhaps by the hand of the state too, I don’t know. Some say that someone of my abilities or lack thereof shouldn’t be sent to death. They say I cannot possibly understand the value of life from my lack of intellect, and from my lack of worldly possessions, and my lack of words, and my lack of history. And yet, there are others that say despite everything I lack I am full of rage and horror. When I was captured, so many years had passed. The wheel of fortune had spun, red on black, and for so long I was like that opal stone from far away back home, I had assumed the invisibility cloak. Until the wheel stopped, and everyone at the table turned and saw it was me. There was no wager. I had no chips.

The trial was long. I’ll spare the details, but some kindly people full of a benevolent spirit tried to prove that I was not fit for death by rope on scheduled time, and they sought to bring in all proof of the burden. They scoured the country for animals that outshone my abilities. They had a sow who scored goals, snout to ball to net, three times in a row, a chicken who played tick-tack-toe, and a crow who stacked stones into a vessel of shallow water until the water rose, in order for it to drink. They never did bring a dog in front of the jury. They brought the animals to show that even with the most complex of abilities they could not understand the concept of life and death. I understood all that and more, but they never did ask.

Bombs fell from the sky, but that isn’t right at all, it doesn’t happen like that unless you’re seeing it from some safe vantage. What happens is much more akin to music or magic – it’s a sudden twist of the horizon, a distortion of the senses, mercury on the gums, suddenly some sleight of hand has been performed and then a permanent orchestra of bells and chimes enters the canals of your ears that hum around the sockets of your eyes, suddenly a limb is missing after the poof of dust has cleared, suddenly the skin has peeled back and revealed all the workings of the body, a scientific diagram explained, torn from the classroom wall. I say bombs fell, but it is entirely different – the world instead comes to its knees, the ground enfolds itself, the air spits out the tiniest nettle’s thorns, the elements collude – fire and rock and earth. Carbon upon carbon upon carbon. What we realised in that moment is that we only wished for peace: that the ground stayed still, that the breeze was just enough, just right, in accordance with the tides, and that the birds sang instead of screaming.

I wanted to tell you something important, but the world is full of important things that we don’t seem to grasp or pay attention to. When we look too closely at the hungry and the thirsty and the ill and wounded – then it becomes more confusing than before – we are further from meaning. That’s why it is hard to look. Life, it seems, is not pushing a rock up an eternal hill, but allowing the rock to crush us. The feeling came over me – that in the chaos of the universe, when we were faced with our own annihilation, our response is itself chaos. And perhaps violence. And so I came to understand that human nature is to fight or turn away. After I killed the first man I turned away, just as others have turned away from me.

I wanted to tell you about love. But I’d forgotten and began to tell you about the time of hate, and you know that story already, my apologies. I just think a child should know that they were born out of love and I knew I was born out of love. My mother swept the crumbs from the table at lunch, I can see her hands like that, sweeping us kids into her arms too, for too long, as long as she could. She lifted us into the air and against her chest. In the end my father said I should run, that it was okay, that I was still there in any case, that I was always there. Shadow is gone now, life was short after all, remembering it was so long. Since I was a child, I’ve been born every morning in love, so much so that I’ve stopped worrying about death.

I just wanted you to know that I will wake up on that final day as a singer without a song, on an island without an ocean, and my mother will open her hands, and the heat will sweat the glass bottles, and my father is back from the war, and he’ll be there, with the good boys panting in the midday sun, and we’ll let the crumbs fall from the table to our feet.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "In the event of my death".

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