The Post That Took The Longest
March 7, 2011
This is the first in a series of several (probably) posts about death. I’m letting you know in case now isn’t a good time for you to read about it.
The night before my grandmother died at Christmastime, Der Mann and I came back late from the hospital. I hadn’t been sleeping, so I burrowed through my bag for a book. I’d stopped short–just–of packing Safe Area Gorzade, but I had not known my grandmother was dying when I’d shoveled a stack of books off the shelf for our sudden trip. A random selection from my usual library check-outs: Japanese teenaged murders and suicides, a monstrous psychedelic incarnation of Dionysius in the early 1970’s, ghosts. What kind of a freak am I? I couldn’t help asking, settling down with the least death-y book in the bag.
This was Kage Baker’s Bird of the River, a swashbuckling fantasy. In the first pages I met teenaged Eliss, her little half-Yendri brother Alder, and their mother Falena, who is an out-of-work salvage diver and drug addict. Eliss finds work for her mother and a temporary home for the three of them on a huge riverboat with a mysterious captain. It was a reassuring beginning for a fantasy, and although I didn’t read much more than a few pages that night, I appreciated it. I half-slept for an hour or so, stared into the dark for a lot longer, got up, and went back to the hospital.
The next night, after my grandmother had died, I was grateful not to have to figure out what to do with myself. My only fear as I reopened The Bird of the River was that the story might be too light to hold my attention. Lying on a cold lumpy couch, having flashbacks, with sore eyes and no sleep ahead, I really, really wanted something to take my mind off death.
I read on for a few pages, and Falena unexpectedly dies.
“The cruelest thing was that, however much Eliss tried to feel relief, however hard she tried to remember all the things Falena had done wrong in her life, the bad memories wouldn’t come just then.”
The Bird of the River was published posthumously. I had put off reading it because I was afraid the writing would be bad, and then I would be sad not only for Kage Baker’s being gone, but sad for her stillborn work-in-progress. This sort of thing bothers me more than it should. What kind of a freak am I? I can tell you, actually: I am the kind of freak who awards family positions to her favorite authors. I have several honorary imaginary grandmothers, numerous aunts and uncles. Kage Baker was my best imaginary aunt. She was one of the very funniest writers of fantasy, and the kindest, and the wisest–and it turns out I did right to keep reading about Eliss and her dead mother that night.
“Mama, I’m sorry your life was so hard.” thinks Eliss at Falena’s funeral, and, “Why mama? You could have done anything else with your life?”
Set in the same fantasy universe as The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, The Bird of the River is a different sort of book. It has plenty of the light fantasy elements I’d expected, and when these come forward the writing can be a bit rumpled in a way I’m sure Baker–consummate craftswoman that she was–would have wanted to smooth out. But that’s okay. Eliss’s slow-growing responses to the loss of her mother and her own coming of age are twined through the whole book. The writing is sure in these parts, and when you read Bird of the River, they are the ones that will stick.
Soon after Falena’s death, Eliss is found to have an unusual talent for masthead spotting, or “reading the river.”
“What’s that?” Eliss pointed to a curious pattern she had noticed in the water. It foamed and ran up the way the water did around the snag markers, but there was no buoy in sight.
“What?” said Salpin, and went pale when he noticed it too. He leaned forward and, in the loudest Calling Voice Eliss had heard so far, shouted: “Snag! Unmarked snag to larboard!” and in a normal voice to Eliss: “Excuse me. Stay there.” . . .
. . . “And that’s why we’re not supposed to sit up here in pairs, usually,” he said. “Because if you start chattering away and not noticing things, then we could have a disaster. But you noticed. Good for you.”
“I’m good at noticing,” said Eliss. She had spent her whole life watching faces for the signs that meant a shift of mood, the signs of of anger or other things. The river seemed easy by comparison.
It’s been hard to know what to say to people when I’m forced to mention my grandmother’s death. The electric empathy-storms that blow in my direction are not only tiring but awkwardly misaligned. From the way these good-hearted empathizers speak of their own grandmothers, I can tell their relationships were way less complicated; for most of them the biggest shake-up came in simply realizing that their grandma was no longer there, not in actually watching her die, and the whole experience was cushioned by the presence of other family members who shared memories of her in better times. It’s rare for a grandchild to be the only “man on the ground” trying to negotiate the terrain of hospital horribleness, of unrelieved suffering-unto-death. I suppose my experience has more in common with that of someone who watches over the deathbed of an elderly parent that way–only it wasn’t like that either. I had two grandmothers. The one who died was the one who, when I mentioned her to friends, I would distinguish with a careful euphemism: “my non-favorite grandmother,” while the other, just plain “Granny,” is still alive and is dearer to me than anyone in the world.
I found out how useful stock phrases are around death. I still wish I could fall back on “we weren’t close.” That would at least calm the storms of empathy, but I can’t make myself say it. There can be all kinds of distances between two people, some so crowded and dense with meaning that they press on those who share it–especially when they are related–and connect them so awe-fully, the word “love” simply doesn’t come near.
My grandmother was a sad woman. I made her sadder than anyone. When my grandmother saw me she saw her dead son–the only child of her only child. Making her sad made me sad, but I knew I was supposed to pretend I didn’t know this and to act happy around her. Lively. Alive. Thanks to my precocious river-reading skills, honed on my mother as Eliss’ were on hers, there was never a time I didn’t know all this. My grandmother and I each made the other sad, and we both pretended otherwise. The difference? I knew I made her sad, but she didn’t know I knew, because I was better at pretending than she was. The other difference: while I couldn’t help living a life without my father in it–it was the only one I had–my grandmother more or less refused to live a life that didn’t contain her son. She died more than 30 years after he did. That made for more than 30 years–all the years I knew her–of ongoing refusal, a hollowed-out existence where there could have been . . . who knows?
The most striking thread in the Eliss/Falena storyline is introduced a little less than halfway through the book. There’s an evening of dancing and music on board the Bird, and one of the ship’s musician’s performs the tragic story of a beautiful diver he’s been preparing for the occasion: The Ballad of Falena. Although the crew had only known Eliss’ drug-ruined mother for a few days before she died–
People were weeping when the music droned to its close. Eliss sat there, uncertain what she ought to feel. She looked over at Alder and saw him watching her, blank-faced. It was the most beautiful song she had ever heard and it was all in honor of her mother, but . . . it wasn’t true. It left out all the bitter ugly parts of Falena’s life. It was all about a brave and strong Falena, who had loved one man so deeply she had been faithful beyond death. Eliss’s real mother had loved a dozen men.
But people were weeping. People were applauding. The other musicians were crowding around Salpin, asking him to write down the words, asking him to show them the chords. Even the Yendri were asking him. A strange excitement hung in the air, and Eliss somehow couldn’t share it. All she felt was embarrassment.
The Ballad of Falena becomes ubiquitous. Its popularity precedes the Bird upriver, it’s sung everywhere Eliss goes ashore, it hounds her.
Eliss sighed and stared stared into the fire as the musicians played. Her mother had become a beautiful melody, a sentimental story, and Falena would have been pleased by that. Alder had been right. It was just the sort of thing she would have enjoyed listening to herself.
So why does it still make me angry? Eliss wondered. It’s not just because it isn’t true. It’s because it feels as though she got away with living her life the way she did. All the stupid mistakes she made. All the lies and broken promises, and she gets to become a pretty legend in the end.
Mrs. Crucible, noticing her expression, nudged her gently. “I hope the song doesn’t make you sad,” she said.
“No. It’s all right.”
“It’s just that it’s so beautiful. And it’s our song, after all. Nobody ever wrote a song about divers before.”
“He’s got it right. We do run the risk of leaving our souls down there, every time we go into the water,” said Mrs. Firedrake. The other divers nodded. Eliss looked uncertainly from face to face. It hadn’t occurred to her that the song was about more than her mother.
And the adult Eliss voice in her mind murmured, Maybe Mama’s life was about more than Mama too.
Eliss’ talents as a spotter assure her place on the Bird. Its slow yearly progress up the river and back down, passing through the cities and holy places of the bustling, gadget-minded Children of the Sun who also form its crew, make it not only a boat, but a metaphor for the cycling of history and human lives: together in their apartness. The Bird’s rhythms of port calls and travel, commerce and encounters with the mystical Yendri, are also the rhythms of individual existence. Eliss’ own particular upriver journey runs parallel to the one that takes her into adulthood. The Bird is always traveling both to a source and an ending.
I only read half of The Bird of the River the night my grandmother died. I could have read the rest in a single sitting. Instead I read it over the next week, in short bursts, in-between-times devouring whole novels I hardly knew I was reading and couldn’t tell you much about. I finished it the day after we got home from the funeral. This wasn’t intentional, but now I think I was relying on its companionship through the final ordeal, wanting to give it the power of the last word.