| What Remains |
By Sally Mann
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AT OUR HOLIDAY TABLE, HEADS BENT OVER the warmed Wedgwood, we said a peculiar grace. Our father, who intoned it with an air of not quite credible piety, attributed it to Oscar Wilde, but we were pretty sure he composed it himself. It went like this:
O great Pelican of Eternity
that piercest thy breast for our food
we are thy fledglings who cannot know thy woe.
Bless this shadowy food of substance
whose last eater shall be worm
and feed us rather
on the visionary food
of dreams and grace.
This blessing, like the art all around us, reflected the singular aesthetic of our dad, who jokingly claimed that there were three avenues for artistic expression: Sex, Death, and Whimsy. All were abundantly represented, but it was the middle one, and especially the iconography associated with it, that most interested him all his life. Cajoling my mother from cave to cathedral, lavishing his distinctive longhand on reams of yellow paper, for decades he researched how artists from all cultures have portrayed death.
As a physician, he'd seen his share of it. Among his effects I found this picture that he took of a patient's backyard. On the back is inscribed: "Graves of 4 children in one family who died in one year, Timber Ridge, Va, I94?" Death was normal back then. People died at home. Animals eaten by a family were usually killed on the property. Their culture did not have the buffers that ours does protecting us from death's realities. But, even for the time, he was an uncommonly direct man. Not for him the euphemisms of deathit was a dead body, not "remains," nobody "passed," there was no "eternal rest." People died and that was it.
When the time came for him to do it, he was predictably unalarmed. As a family we tried to follow suit, maintaining our irreverent humor as he lay dying on the couch. But we were stunned into silence when the actual moment of his death occurred, for it was a very clearforgive thispassing. He did, in fact, give up the ghost. We saw it happen. Within a minute, his color changed to death's own cyanic gray, the muscles of his face slackened, and he sagged into lifelessness.
His death laid me flat for almost a year. Now, many deaths later, I am as perplexed by the experience as ever. Where did all of that him-ness go? All that knowledge, the accretion of experiences from a remarkable life, the sufferinghis and others'he had borne, the beauty, life's own rapturous visions? It was, as the song says, as if a library burned to the ground.
I am not susceptible to the supernatural, but, still, look at this photograph of us with his ashes: What the hell is that spirit crow alighting my brother's foot?? Crows held a special place in my father's heart, and he insisted with impish anticipation that he would be reincarnated as one. So, really, what's with the white crow??
Our kids chalk lip my "death thing" to genetics, blaming it, along with other things I do, on my father. They note the seeming contradiction: I appear to be at once inured and vulnerable. For example, I wept noisily over the Valentine's Day death of my greyhound Eva, unable to look at her body lying frozen on a plank in the barn. And yet I was still curious about what would finally become of that head I had stroked, oh, ten thousand times, those paws she so delicately crossed as she lay by my desk, rock-hard nails emerging from the finest white hairs.
Was it ghoulish to want to know? Was it maudlin to want to keep her, at least some part of her? Was it disrespcectful to watch her intimate decomposition? I put these questions aside, picked tip the phone, and called a friend who, bless his heart, didn't bat an eye at what I was asking him to do.
When the land subsumes the dead, they become the rich body of earth, the dark matter of creation. As I walk the fields of this farm, beneath my feet shift the bones of incalculable bodies; death is the sculptor of the ravishing landscape, the terrible mother, the damp creator of life, by whom we are one day devoured.
She devoured Eva in much less time than I expected. I undid the metal cage in which I had buried her and found what looked like a stick drawing of a sleeping dog: her bones, punctuated by tufts of indigestible hair and small cubes of adipocere, appeared like a constellation in a rich black sky. After bagging the larger bones, I reverently picked out the tiny pieces that remainedtail bones, teeth, and claws, brushing the fragrant humus as an archaeologist might. Back on the floor in the studio I reassembled her, head to tail; bone by bone.
Excerpted from What Remains , by Sally Mann . Copyright (c) 2003 by Sally Mann . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top