–by Heather Murphy
Suddenly, stories are surrounding me, invisibly reproducing and hatching in the dark, fecund places of my mind, unceremoniously swarming my days and nights like the termites that overtook that rental I lived in on 3rd Street in Jacksonville that time, when they were suddenly everywhere–flying, walking, dying in teacups in the kitchen sink, mating in a frenzy of orgiastic desperation on my very pillow. The stories are coming back to me like that, and the only way to fight them, is with a laptop.
But there could never be enough time and the memories are coming fast like monsoon rains, and the deluge leaves me with so many impressions, the ideas left scattered on the beach of my hard drive like flotsam washed ashore—that I become overwhelmed with the task at hand.
The stories of those who have passed through me and through this world are coming home to roost, and my own stories, piled up like goodwill bags on the floor of a closet, call out for me to find them and reclaim them, accessorize them with the flourishes that might give them form, and I bring them out to play amongst the old stories of people I used to know as I drive the winding mountain roads of my little valley, with the radio off, and suddenly I understand that our stories are now inexorably tied. When I tell you their story, I will be there. My own story will unfold.
Like the time I drove up that road in the middle of nowhere in Montana when it was getting dark, in that old Mustang of Robbie’s and it started to snow. I should write about that someday. I remember I was wearing clogs and I was embarrassed because when the friendly hunter and his sons had to help me get the Mustang pointed back the right way on the icy, snow-packed dirt road, I slipped and they stared down at my shoes, the final proof that I was insane. And in a sense I was.
I don’t have time to tell you the whole story because all time and thought are being siphoned away now by other stories half-told in Word documents, but I want to tell you quickly, about where I was going, about what I found. I was going to see Jim and Sondra and the girls on the mining claim they were living on in their old school bus, so I could tell them about the car accident I’d had while trying to go see M in Pennsylvania and how I’d almost died and how my heart was truly broken beyond repair, and how I wished we were still travelling together to the hot springs in Idaho so I could soak and heal under the jeweled night sky then sit around all day reading The Wind in the Willows to the girls, but when I got there they were so busy butchering a moose they’d shot, I couldn’t tell them anything. I finally realized it and stopped talking. There was just the sound of meat being separated from bone, and the important beating of my heart, nothing else. And the universe was still for a tiny moment.
The dog whined piteously and strained at its rope and the family huddled over the moose, speaking to each other in low, elated voices. I stared down at my clogs in the firelight. My hands, folded into the pockets of my coat were suddenly, not my hands. They were idle workers, sleeping under a tree while others toiled.
I want to tell that story and tell you how I had an epiphany then, as I watched them hacking at the carcass by lanterns and firelight( how the warmth of the split open moose mixed with their labored breath to form a fog around them), an epiphany about the self and death, and how you can never truly understand another person, or be truly understood because the timing is always wrong and everyone has something important happening, not just you, but there are too many other stories right now, they just keep coming and never enough time, and it gnaws at me to think of me then and how it was–me so self-absorbed around people who knew actual hunger, and wearing those stupid clogs in the wilds of those unforgiving mountains, thinking someone would confirm the extreme importance of my existence if I just got in a car and drove somewhere, regardless of the weather or the fact that I was just another person stumbling around in a beautiful torture chamber called life and not that important after all, not really.
You have to understand, they had to get the meat in or the mountain lions and the bears would get it. No time for hanging it and no way to do so. I took the kettle from the woodstove on the bus and poured hot water into the basin, where cold water waited, and washed my hands and wrists methodically, like a surgeon before an operation, then lit another lantern, took up a knife, and joined them, spattering moose blood on my favorite jacket, and those Bass leather clogs. They were ruined.
Of course I spent the night–in the guesthouse; Jim had turned their old Econoline van into a sleeping nook with a bookshelf and a tiny cast iron stove, and I laid there for hours, watching its flame cast flickers on the metal roof, thinking about the stories they’d told after the work of butchering, stories I damaged my wrist frantically trying to get to paper while I laughed with them, incredulous, thinking, “I have to get this crazy stuff down!” I wondered about the lives of the wild creatures that would come to sniff the bloody blanket of snow and Jim’s meat locker, just feet from where I nestled under heavy blankets. I thought of the people I had met, out on the road like me, people who told me things I know they never told another living soul. I knew I had to write their stories and the ones I heard that night, after the moose. I felt over-excited at the prospect of getting them all down.
I still do.
Time collects the dead but does not tell their story. That is left to the people. I go from feeling like an intrepid archaeologist, gripping my maps and photographs, my journals, eager to begin the work–to a somber miner, wearily clutching a tiny pick in a dark and deep place, where somewhere before him deep in the earth treasure hides, but there is no help in finding it, nor extracting it from the impenetrable stone.
One word at a time, I’m chipping away.