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It's Nelly's World

Wrong with This Picture

alec vanderboom

Ah, how lovely they are, rot and degradation.

All that we have built, all that we are, will ultimately melt back into earth. Far from maudlin, I find this happy-making in the extreme, as it is a reminder that all is as it should be. Scarier than this indeed is the reversal contained in the post-apocalyptic vision (now afoot in several "children's" movies, as if the young alone are still impressionable enough to heed the message that we should think before we act) of the technological un-dead--our creative acts turned against us, animated metal with gleaming diode eyes who cannot be killed, though they can kill us.

This thought occurs during a reconnoitering in the woods nearby: I may live on a claustrophobic postage stamp of a lawn, but there are opportunities aplenty to trespass on city-owned expanses just up the street. As I scrambled over the rock walls that to me are eerie reminders of sweat and pain expended by men long forgotten, but who had loves and cares and woes that now rise like vaporous mists from the forest floor when they are imagined into being, I suddenly found myself looking down into what had been one of their houses. The house of one of these stone-wall-building ghosts I keep meeting, for our strange unmentionable rendezvous, in the untraveled woods.

This was the foundation, still neatly laid up and square, looking like it would never change, hidden as it was by its rocky camouflage even though it lies just beside the road, one I'd walked a dozen times before. But everything else was gone. Doors, sills, windows, floors, all vanished into the immortal earth, done in by microbes too small to see.

A satisfaction, to me at least.

What was in no way satisfying, however, was an event the next day marking the kind of loss that represents the opposite of Everything As It Should Be. This--this was nothing like what it should be, because it was about a child's death.

The rest of us were going around persisting in living, at least for a little while, as yet unspecified. Under the picnic pavilion of the local town park, hundreds upon hundreds of origami paper cranes hung from the ceiling, were heaped in their myriad colors and sizes on the tops of tables. Photos, blown up and exquisite, for the boy's father is a photographer, of the family and the child that he used to be, adorned the columns. I could not look at them; the happiness that shone from them felt too brutal. Food was piled high everywhere, for if we have no idea what to do with ourselves, we eat. Different musicians played all afternoon and evening on a little stage in the corner; the boy had been in love with music, the guitar, the ukulele. Children ran and played, a game of softball ongoing on the diamond. The adults walked around shell-shocked, for we could not change speed that quickly back toward life, as the children did; we could not forget what we were here for. And it was godawful, and not comprehensible, and no one could deal. You kept stepping onto landmines, and the shrapnel of "what if it were my . . . " kept lacerating your skin. You'd haul yourself back from this brink, whipped with guilt for knowing you did not have to go all the way there, like the boy's parents did. But then you'd start toeing that line again, because you were helpless not to. The sirens lured you toward the rocks. You'd think what it might be like to be that mother, radiant in her grief, smiling and then sobbing and then smiling again, as if only she knew they were really all the same emotion, a slippery continuum.

This is not the way it should be, but it is really not given to us to know how it should be. Unless, perchance, that is what you are meant to learn in the final moment when it is all taken back into the breast of the earth, in order to someday be born again, into something else.