Saturday, October 13, 2012

Abecedarium: Death and Beauty

A Beautiful Death

Aardvark is a Dutch word, descended from early Afrikaans, and it means "earth pig." In possession of a tongue whose glory may reach up to a cubit, this eighteen-toed hunchback is the Assyrian empire of the ant world. Consuming up to fifty-thousand lives in a single night, the three-foot long, magnificently snouted pig-like creature is a walking Holocaust, exuding extermination and trailing genocide like a garment.

Bull sharks infrequently attack humans, but it is not unknown. One boy, Jesse Arbogast, age eight, was swimming in shallow water off the coast of Langdon Beach, Florida, when he was bitten twice by a seven foot bull shark. The first bite severed his right arm between the elbow and the shoulder, the second tore off a large chunk of his upper thigh. His uncle entered the water and pulled the boy ashore, then turned and re-entered the water in pursuit of the shark. Having caught hold of it, he managed to wrestle it to shore where a park ranger shot it three times in the head. The ranger inserted his baton into the shark's mouth and a fireman managed to retrieve the arm from its gullet. The arm was wrapped in damp cloth, packed in ice, and sent off to join the eight year old boy where he was in the hospital in surgery. It was successfully reattached.
The 19 year-old boy now enjoys almost full use of his arm, a magnificent story of survival and the triumph of the human spirit and all that crap. Personally, heck with the kid, I'd like to meet the uncle.

"Caterpillar," I feel, is one of the more infrequently entered words under "cause of death." But one Canadian woman, at least, gave her all to rectify this grave injustice: she went barefoot in the Amazon, and stepped on a poisonous caterpillar. Upon feeling the pain, she assumed that she had sprained her toe, and as icing reduced the swelling, she returned home unconcerned, but felt more and more ill as the week wore on. Unfortunately for her, Amazonian caterpillars weren't exactly high on the Canadian doctor's list of possible causes for her condition, so it wasn't until ten days later that the autopsy discovered the sore between her big toe and the toe next to it.

Don't weep, don't cry, your salt-wet tears won't heal me.
I need to see your smile,
Light up my world with a laugh,
To know that you'll love me forever,
Long after my breath is gone.

A freckled little girl wrote these words to a loved one early one spring. The words were largely forgotten until the slideshow at her funeral that winter.

"Evocative" was her favorite word. Apparently poet types are allowed favorite words. I generally feel that words are like cells, and only when words form a body is there real loveliness, whether almost a surfeit of beauty, as in Victor Hugo, or Dickens, the almost tweakeresque garrulousness, paid by the word and often irrelevant to any point or story but still lovely, or, the minimalists, such as Christopher Wiman, the dying author of such lines as "antic, frantic, penny-ante Ahab stabs of madness," and "there are keener griefs than God, they come in clear daylight, leaving you with nothing and the means to feel it."
But I have since decided that my favorite word is "evanescent," both in meaning and in sound. The slow, fading, death.

"Fire On the Hills," by Robinson Jeffers.

The deer were bounding like blown leaves
Under the smoke in front of the roaring wave of the brush-fire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror
Of the deer was beautiful; and when I returned
Down the back slopes after the fire had gone by, an eagle
Was perched on the jag of a burnt pine,
Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders.
He had come from far off for the good hunting
With fire for his beater to drive the game; the sky was merciless
Blue, and the hills merciless black,
The sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them.
I thought, painfully, but the whole mind,
The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy.

God: what does this word conjure? What unspeakable, unavoidable Presence shall be unveiled when this nature, this anesthetic fog, fades away? Go not near the mountain, do not enter the tomb. Where is Moses? Who shall speak for us? Men shall seek for death but shall not find her, men shall woo death as a lover, but she shall flee from them. Men will cry to the mountains to fall on them, and hide them from His face, but at His face heaven and earth flee away, and we stand naked in the dark, broken parts, remnants of humanity, with nothing left, no illusion here to hide behind. The Truth shall set you free. So will a bullet.
Men say He is an Author. So what play? Sometimes it seems to be Hamlet. But, with Prufrock, I am not the Prince, nor was meant to be, and the other characters suck. And there is not a single daisy chain in Shakespeare while my nieces wear them like diamonds. Lilting laughter, light feet and tickle-able ribs, side-saddle shoulder rides and bedtime stories play too little a role for Shakespeare to be a realist.
So what play? I don't know. But I know stories, and I know characters: the narcissistic fool, the catty girl, the sadistic bastard, the noble hero, the lecherous frat guy, and so many more. I've played so many roles, and so few of them are characters that I like, that I could like, or that anyone could like. What play? Does it matter? Or ought the question be, regardless of the play, what character?
So if there is an Author, I thank Him for my role, full of raging death and quiet glory. If there is an Author, I am humbled to be a character. If there is an Author, I will play the small, faithful bit-part I am given, until my day to quietly slip offstage, and I'll play the kind of character that I would like to actually be. Who knows? I just may wake up and find that I am that character, the decent, quiet character: a faithful husband, loving father, a bit too obsessed with Chesterton and literature perhaps, some odd ideas about AIDS not being sexually transmitted and Edward de Vere writing the works of Shakespeare, but a wife that truly likes being barefoot, a library that smells of a grandfather's pipe tobacco, strong sons, lovely daughters, and the yard covered in flowers and grandchildren. The type of character about whom an author could sit back and say, "Well done. Go die now." For every book on this earth needs a final chapter.

Holly. My brother Dave had spent a summer in love with her while her best friend was in love with him. Holly spent the summer alternating between bemused exasperation and resignation. Dave told me I'd love her, but it turned out I already knew her: she was easily the cutest 16oz soy chai that I'd ever seen. What with her coy grin, tomboy clothes, flaming hair and dusted freckles, I'd always stared like a fool. My eyes were gluttons, and she the feast. Soon I found out that her eyes, the color of clear water over mossy rocks, were always laughing. She had two older sisters and two older brothers, her mom's kidney in her stomach, and the scars on her beautiful, tiny hands were from the cats that found her wherever she went, whether feral, starved, poisoned and smaller than a dying man's hope for a house loan, or well-fed strays with their lazy, boneless yawns, it didn't matter, they all loved her and she loved them.
But then it was ever so: those that loved her always drew blood.

Ichneumon: in medieval literature, this creature was mortal enemy to crocodiles, snakes and in particular dragons. It was famed for its habit of covering itself in mud, letting the mud dry, and repeating until it had four or five coats of mud as a form of armor. Indeed, cats were the only animal that were rumored to be able to kill it. Due to the symbolic nature of its enemies (especially snakes and dragons), the Ichneumon became a symbolic hero to the medieval church.

Jannisaries were the elite corps of the Muslim army. White Europeans kidnapped in their youth, they were raised with but one wish: to kill and die for Allah. When the Crusaders in Jerusalem looked out on those robes, flowing like blood down an altar and white as a martyr's bones; when the ululated "Allahu-akbar" turned the world silver with scimitars and the earth rolled toward them, undulating as the sea, I wonder if any would recognize a single face among the horde as his long-lost son, returned with his sins to slay him.

Knights of St. John of Malta were formerly the Knights Hospitalers of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. One of four militant orders in Jerusalem, they were sworn to poverty, chastity and obedience, and were known to be vehement enemies of Islam. They were also known to fire live enemies out of their cannons. When they were driven out of Jerusalem the Knights were given Malta under the condition that they protect it. The Maltese, who, as the great medievalist Dorothy Dunnet phrases it, possessed nothing but a rock and the language Christ spoke, were not happy to see them, recalling that before the Knights arrived, they hadn't needed protection.
They needed it now. The year was 1565, and the seventy year-old Suleiman raised a nearly fifty-thousand man army and around two hundred warships to reduce the anathematized Knights and the barren Malta with them. The five-hundred Knights sent out for aid, and managed to scrape a force of 5,600 others when they included their galley slaves and servants. They then determined that if Suleiman wanted their death--which he most definitely did--they would extract in blood, drop by intractable, excruciating drop, the steepest price possible.
The Knights, in three-hundred pounds of plate armor, rolled over the landing parties like an avalanche before retiring behind their dual-walled cities. During the four month siege, when the outer walls of St. Elmo were reduced to inclines of rubble and the Janissaries were pouring in and dying like a shallow stream into hell itself, the Knights that were too badly wounded to stand had benches put in the breaches of the walls, and sat there sheathed in steel, a gun in the left hand and a sword in the right, killing as many as they could before they were themselves killed. The famous corsair and heir to Barbarossa, Dragut Rais (also known as Turgut Reis), now eighty and gentle as a wrought iron wrecking ball, was killed here during the siege of the first fort. The besieged at one point told their Grand Master that the citadel could not hold another day. The next reinforcements were all volunteers who had fought for the honor of dying with the fort. It held on--despite the fact that it was more rubble than wall--for another three weeks. There were 9 survivors who were too wounded to manage to get killed.
When, two months later, a mine destroyed a chunk of wall in the capital city of Mdina and the Turks swept the defense back and began pouring into the city, the seventy year old Grand Master cursed his men for cowards and led a charge to the breach, his sword shattering skull after skull, galvanizing the remnant of his men into action, turning back the Sword of Allah once more.
Suleiman never took Malta. He ordered his army to retreat on September 11th (a date Muslims later had even more reason to remember when the Ottomans were turned back from Vienna on September 11, 1683). Suleiman lost around 30,000 men on Malta, including over half of his Janissaries, and his empire never recovered.

Lemmings, I am sorry to report, do not actually lemming. I know. Gary Larsen's "Lemming with a water-tube" is wholly fictional. Lemmings do mass migrate, and if they have water to cross, some often drown.

Melanoma, n. A malignant tumor of melanocytes. The most deadly type of skin cancer.
Stage 0: 99.9% survival rate.
Stage I / II: 85-99% survival rate.
Stage II: 40-85% survival rate.
Stage III: 25-60% survival rate.
Stage IV: 9-15% survival rate.

Numinibus vota exaudita malignis: the latter part of "enormous prayers, which heaven in vengeance grants." --Juvenal, translated by Johnson. This quote, rather ironically, was used much later to refer to Tithonus. Eternal life was asked for and granted; eternal youth was never mentioned. Over thousands of years, Tithonus lived and aged, and when revisited and asked if he desired anything else, he uttered one nihilistic prayer: "To die."

Overdose: When I was an ambulance driver, I picked up the same woman twice in a night for an overdose. I finished restocking the ambulance after the second time, and heard the other crew get paged out to an overdose. Third time was the charm: she died en route.

Plath: “God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of "parties" with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter - they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship - but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”

Quem di diligunt adulescens moritur: "those whom the gods love die young."

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Seductive wisps of lethal fog, reach out, caress with lies:
the heavy white belies the night, veils dying Siren sighs

and songs to the Sirens, sung by the damned, who, hopeless, still would hope
for death as sweet as mortals meet: with sleepless dreams, elope.

Now languid eternities, elaborate symphonies, a moaning, delirious moon
chaunting over, beneath our winter, of falling, fall, and swoon.

Some primal termite knocked on wood, and tasted it, and found it good.
And that is why your sweet aunt May fell through the parlor floor today.
--Ogden Nash

Underworld, in Greek and Roman mythology, was ruled by Hades and his kidnapped bride Persephone. Hades had become enamored with Persephone and stole her. Zeus brokered the deal that half of each year she would spend with his brother in the underworld, and half on earth. Hence, we have the seasons: every time Persephone goes to the underworld, the overworld dies.

Veronica Mars, the critically acclaimed TV series created by Rob Thomas, premiered on September 22, 2004. It starred Kristin Bell as Veronica Mars, a high-school girl plagued by questions regarding the death of her best friend. The mystery is resolved, however, when it turns out that not only was the best friend's boyfriend recording their sexual escapades, but the best friend was also sleeping with her boyfriend's father, who killed her to protect his reputation.

Weight: not more than 60lbs. Probably not even that. Height: 5' 1 3/4". Age: 22. December 5, 2006, the flaming redhead Holly Beth Broussard, who loved poetry, photography, historical fiction, cats and chai, died of stage IV malignant melanoma. She was survived by two sisters, two brothers, her parents, two nieces, five nephews, and her husband. She had fought off the beast for over two and a half years with next to no immune system, defying the odds again and again and again, and she finally decided to go home: an island in the mouth of the Eel River, Humboldt County, California. Her house was the only house there.
She was born on her mother's bed, married on that lawn, and she died on the couch, her family there each time. I carried her stiff corpse to the sink and held her head while her mother washed her hair. I carried her back to her mother's bed, and picked the clothes that her sisters dressed her in. I lay on the bed next to her and wondered when the merciful shock would submit to the ragged edge of reality. I still wonder. Two days after I put her on her mother's bed, I put her in a coffin, her hair still damp, her skin still marbled white, her hands still scarred. I shut the lid, and my life ended. O mother, hath one grave room for two?
The next thing I remember is an Applebee's. I was alone with thirteen pens, a mechanical pencil and a pitcher of Blue Moon, and it was the end of February. I pondered how God could forgive God. But of course, if I'm right, He didn't. If I'm right, He crucified Him. So I wondered how I could forgive God: bless you, you were blameless; I the net. For you and God forgive and I forget.
Then I stopped wondering about God, and began writing. "I know not why, why lovers, lovers die: the priests and gods, with downcast eye, fail simpler men, who, shattered, lie; while heretics? They curse, we curse the sky." "And since she truly meant so much to me, truly life, earth, sky and sea, and from whose end to mine I'd flee, then what, and who, and why must I now be?" "For your eyes shall not open, my dear, O my Luv, as you wait, entombed in the hill. And what of the eyes I beheld with my own, the hour your flesh betrayed your will? Winter has come, O Despoina, my Luv, for you are gone, Persephone. Hades has come, taken all the dancers under hill, the houses all under the sea."
Her play has been done for nearly six years; she who sweetly smiled while ragged on the rack. For she played her part well: she was the girl that was always in the corner with a book, a cat and a cup of tea, sitting with one leg curled up under her. She was the wife that hid notes for her husband to find, the wife that planned picnics on roofs, fields and a canoe, the one that seemed to have a green thumb unless you knew how many things she actually planted--maybe one in twenty survived. Swimming with dolphins (with a collapsed lung), planning her garden, deciding what to do with my hair, trying on clothes and setting records on rides at the fair, making pies and cookies with her nieces, going swimming at our river, getting our horses half-stuck in quicksand: she was the one that never noticed death's approach because she was too busy with life, with love and with laughter. A full life.

Xenophobia, oddly enough, played no part in the Rwanda genocide, in which the preferred weapon of the massacre was the machete. Initially the Tutsi were defined by anyone owning more than ten cows, and the Hutu anyone not owning more than ten cows. The distinction was socio-economic.

"Youth of the Nation," a song by the Christian rock band POD, was inspired by the school shooting at Santana High School, an imitation of the infamous Columbine massacre.

Ziggurat: A temple of Sumerian origin, built in the form of a pyramidal tower. The Aztecs claim to have sacrificed 84,400 victims in four days upon one ziggurat; historians disagree. But the Aztecs were there.

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