Your first day of third grade. The leaves crisped on the trees, curling orange, red, yellow. They crunched like brittle paper beneath our feet as we walked down our lane. The closer we drew to the school, the slower you moved. We spied other kids galloping toward the schoolhouse, their mothers in tow, juggling book bags, purses, and mandatory first-day gifts for the new teacher: yellow apples, embroidered handkerchiefs, chocolates. You had no book bag. I had no gifts. This was our third attempt in as many years to get through the dreaded first day. I had a pair of extra-large aviator muffs and these I slipped over your extra-large ears. As much to protect the tender cartilage as to dampen the colossal noise of the school yard.
Outside the wooden school doors, you grabbed my sleeve, turned to me. “I know I am peculiar,” you said. “But am I too peculiar?”
The verbal torment at the hands of schoolmates, the pain inflicted by well-intentioned neighbors. That’s what I heard in your voice. What I said, my hand on each of your narrow shoulders, “Maris, you are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
It’s a verse from Psalms, one of my favorites. I said it because I know the power words have. I’ve read Genesis. I’ve read how God spoke every blade of grass into being with the three little words let there be. The words: all potential, all possibility. Speaking a story makes it happen, and so I told you a story, told you it was yours.
A long time ago, so long ago no one remembers when, Bear-Slayer Boy rose out of the river’s mud. His ears, enormous. Trimmed with fur and as large as meat pies. With those ears he could hear the stirrings of field mice three countries away. His gifts of discernment were unparalleled. Bear Slayer could hear how the heartbeat changes, how the voice tightens when someone tells a lie. He could hear the sweet caroling of the songbirds and knew what the fish in the river were thinking. Smart and wise, Bear Slayer, though a boy, was also strong and courageous. Once, when he was walking in the woods, a bear ambushed him. Without hesitation Bear Slayer, using only his hands, slew that bear, ripping it apart at the jaws.
This story is a door opening. A door closing. The words are hinges, self-oiling through the act of repeated recitation. Repetition being a form of love, I told you the story every night during those magical, swift years of your childhood. How big were those ears? you often asked, your voice small in the growing darkness. Bigger than mine? You needed to know you were not alone in your oddity, that your outsize ears were not a mistake but a marvel. I leaned over you, turning chant to parable. These words being like the interlocking teeth of a zipper, you unzipped the teeth of the story, crawled inside its dark, capacious interior and made it your own.
Lymphoma. What a funny word! It sounds like a musical instrument, something that emits warm round tones when struck with a soft mallet. Anyway, Dr. Netsulis showed you how to administer the morphine, left several vials in a waxy white paper bag. He has changed so little through the years: the white lab coat, his snow-white hair, long beard, thick glasses, absentminded cheer. He said to me, Safe journeys and many white days! And six weeks left to live if you’re lucky.
You asked me yesterday if cancer hurts, really hurts. Yes and yes. You say you don’t remember the time we rushed you to the clinic in Madona. You say you don’t remember telling the doctor that hornets had built a nest with knitting needles inside your ears, that our voices rattled like matches in a matchbox. What you felt in your ears I feel in my lungs, a sharp rattling. Every breath is a short, hard swipe of matches on the striking surface’s rough swath. Thank God for morphine.
More like a liquid weight than anything else, I’d say. It pulls me under and I happily let it drag me to the depths. The weight is like that of the radiologist’s bib. Remember how during that visit the technician sat you on a stack of thick dictionaries and draped the lead apron over your small body?
The color of doom, that apron. And so heavy! It took all of your strength to keep your five-year-old body still so that he could take the pictures. More about that visit I could tell you: the immediate circuslike sensation your ears provoked among the technicians, the many questions the doctor asked as she trailed her finger along the tawny fur of your earlobes, but it’s that weight I’m thinking of. Morphine feels like a soft metal melting in my stomach, pulsing through my chest, hips, thighs, pushing all feeling toward my hands and feet, which are, incidentally, burning hot. I know I told you earlier not to fuss over me, not to bring the pans of ice water for my feet, but I think now I’ll take you up on that offer.
You’ve come to sit beside me. A sheen of perspiration stands on your brow and above your lip. The fading light makes your ears look larger. You’ve lit the candle. Some people will think it a waste that at eighteen years of age you’ve devoted yourself to tuning pianos, studying speculative physics, and publishing poetry in the temperance newspaper. But I’ll tell you this: I couldn’t be prouder of you.
From the open blisters on your hands, I can see that the ground is giving you some troubles. You are digging near Uncle Maris’s grave. It is a particularly unyielding patch of the cemetery, the ground buckling, his stone lashed with many black marks and tipped to one side. The earth pushes back what it doesn’t want. The fact is, something of your namesake has always lingered with us and I don’t mean in the sentimental way that people hoard memories and imagine that a memory is the man. I mean the man was with us. Palpably, tangibly, and long after he passed. We were marked, branded.
I understand now that you’ve known this all along. From the time you were four, your ears were as large as soup bowls. You could barely lift your head for the weight of them, for all the chatter and noise they collected. As you grew older, you kept notes. The ground spoke to you and you couldn’t help but hear the soil’s slow heave of stones. You heard the triumph of each slender blade of grass spearing up through the mud and the restless dreams of the dead. Buttons and zippers. Needles and thread, things that fasten and bind. At night, that’s what the dead dream of, you wrote. They are unhinging bone from joint, word from thought. Oh, that the needles of the trees would pierce them, would dart and pin body to soul. The unraveling, you wrote, is their greatest source of confusion. What are we without our bodies? This, you wrote, is the question that grinds at the dead like steel wool on a rusted washboard, like gravel splintering the planed pine boards of a coffin.
You wrote that when people die they leave an empty sack they fill with words, murmurs, questions, gossip, complaints. Some empty sacks are bigger than others. Uncle Maris, you wrote, wanted a new pair of leather shoes — nice Italian ones with ornamental fobs — because the walk to heaven was longer than he had figured. He’s been gone fifteen years. And still he has so much to