Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Only The Terrapins Did Not Die (Sri)

The Child had an early familiarity with death. She kept a small menagerie of animals collected from the wild places inside the town limits or bought in the market. She had a tank of terrapins, several tanks of river fish. She had an ant farm sandwiched between two plates of glass. She collected several species of stick insect from the forest, and bought a baby sloth from a mestizo boy in the market, but it died because she couldn’t figure out how to wean it. Most of her animals died, sooner or later. One day her fish would be all alive-o in their tanks; the next they’d be floating belly up. The ants deserted their maze. One by one, the stick insects dropped to the bottoms of their wire-mesh cages, as stiff and dry in death as the twigs they had emulated in life. Only the terrapins did not die, no matter how often she forgot to feed them, or how fetid the green soup of their little pond became.

And because she made herself useful around the hospital, working in the lab, running errands for the nurses and doctors, fetching water and food for patients, and so on, the Child was also familiar with the deep and powerful mystery of human death. One day she’d be chatting with an old woman; the next, the woman’s bed would be empty and stripped to its mattress. Late one sultry night, the Child delivered a bite of supper to her mother as she kept watch on a dying patient in a little room off one of the wards. She saw the man start in his solitary bed and try to rise on his elbows, toothless mouth snapping at the air, his eyes wide and fixed on something far beyond the limits of the room, the hospital, the town, the world. She saw her mother ease him down and talk to him soothingly and fold his hands around a rosary, saw him try to take a breath and fail, and try and fail again, and that was that. Her mother called the Child to her side and they said a prayer over the body. Then her mother rose, her shadow wheeling hugely across the wall and ceiling, and flung open the shutters of the window as if setting something free.

From In The Mouth of the Whale


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