Let me tell you, little Ginkgo, about how your father’s people bury their dead.
We live on the sea and we return our dead to the sea. Ordinarily, we begin by burning the body. You came into your mother’s people, and they carried your body into the forest for the spirits to take, according to their own custom. The spirits picked your bones clean, as well as the bones of your mother, and your mother’s people would have buried your bones in the soil alongside hers had I not taken you north.
You see, I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t let them lay your bones in that poisoned soil. It had killed you and your mother. That land had birthed her and fed her; she had never known any other. But you? I decided to take you to my home on the waters. So we could bury you — and your sister and I could live — in a land that did not kill so wantonly.
I carried your bones a long way. First south to the center of Pittsburgh, where the gates of the underworld stand open. Then west to the coast. Then north and north and farther north still.
When your sister and I came to this place, I showed the family your bones and announced my intention to bury you here, in the traditional Nares way. I led a small group in a boat to the cliffs of Tatlurutit’s western coast, where the white stripes of calcified limestone glitter in the sun. I made a longer journey than most to gather the limestone. I wanted only the best for your funeral, from only the grandest place. We climbed up the cliffs and chipped off the limestone we needed. Back down on the beach, we broke the limestone into tiny pieces and cooked it between burning logs for a good long time, until it crumbled at the poke of a stick. Then we knew it had become quicklime. All the while, I told your sister the story of limestone — as I will tell you now.
Long, long ago, there lived many little sea creatures that built hard armor around themselves, to protect their delicate bodies from the dangers of the world. And they lived and they lived, and they died and they died, and their armor broke down and fused together, and waters receded and hills rose up, and layer upon layer of ancient armor stacked itself within mountains. We call this limestone. Only this remains of that noble, futile attempt to shield oneself from life’s cruelty. An attempt that failed spectacularly when the seas turned acid and dissolved the armor of the last shelled sea creatures.
Some still live in scattered places, in fresh waters far inland. They remain so soft on the inside, so delicate. They try so hard to survive. Now we find the remains of their ancient ancestors only on land, and we mix them with the remains of our own dead and drop them back into the unforgiving sea.
But we needed more than just limestone for the funeral. So we got back in our boat and paddled southeast, and southeast, and farther southeast still, until we reached the island of Fireland. There molten lava flows like rivers. There we gathered rocks and volcanic ash. Yes, we could have traded for those things, but I felt I needed to collect it myself, from the source. And so we gathered the volcanic ash and rock from Fireland, and sailed back to the Nares, hugging the coast of Kalaallit Nunaat.
When we returned, we found that your great-aunt Orca had finished weaving your funeral net. But I didn’t like the job she had done. It didn’t seem strong enough. So I wove the net myself, though it took many more days, because I wanted only the best and strongest net for your funeral.
At last, the day of your funeral came. We mixed together the quicklime, the ash and rocks, and a small amount of saltwater, to make concrete. I removed your bones from your bag and gently spread them out on a fine elkskin blanket.
In an ordinary Nares funeral, we would mix the ash from the cremated body in with the concrete. But first we would all — very carefully — pick up the burnt bones, one by one, with chopsticks, and drop them into the concrete. When all the ash and bones were mixed in, we would pound the damp concrete over a mold shaped like a great ball with many holes, like the skeleton of a ball. We call this a reef-seed. We would then have cradled the reef-seed in the funeral net and lowered it into the sea. The seawater would harden the concrete, making it stronger and stronger, year by year — so they say.
We do this in honor of another dead thing. Long ago, colorful forests lived in the sea. All manner of creatures, moving and unmoving, swimming and swaying, lived together in greens and pinks and yellows. And then the colors went away. The undersea forests turned white and died, and all the creatures that had lived in them died.
Our ancestors did this — killed them — and our ancestors hated that they had done this. They knew as well as we do that all life comes from the oceans. And so they began the tradition that we still follow today: they made reef-seeds of concrete, mixed with the remains of their dead, to drop into the ocean, in the hope that the forests would grow on them and one day return. They continued doing this even as they sailed farther and farther north, and settled on waters that had never had such forests beneath them.
The forests never came back, of course. The reef-seeds instead became homes for the octopi and squid and cuttlefish. And we continue to feed them, because now their bodies feed us.
We had the concrete ready. We had your little bones laid out on the blanket. Your relatives — aunts and uncles and grandparents you never met — crouched all around you, chopsticks at the ready. They all waited for me to pick up the first bone and drop it into the concrete.
I don’t know why. I can only say that when I poured your bones out of your bag, my throat seized up, my stomach lurched, my entire body rebelled against the clear and visceral wrongness of it. Our family watched as I sat paralyzed over you. Finally, I lay down my chopsticks, and I scooped your little bones back into their bag, and I cinched the bag shut, and I took you back into our house, tying the doorflap tight behind me.
Now the concrete sits out there, drying out in its pot, a useless rock. And I sit in here, crying in my house, a useless rock. I sit in the dark, my back to the tied doorflap, alone but for my bag of bones. Alone but for you, my little Ginkgo.
I cannot bury you.
Your grandfather has a famous name. All throughout the north, they tell tales of his grand adventures. “Granite the World-Serpent,” they call him, because in his youth, he circled the globe. He braved the vicious storms off the coast of Antarctica to meet the people who lived there. He crossed the vast Saharan grasslands. He trekked across the Himalayas, the tallest mountains in the world. We people of the Nares have a reputation as travelers, but even among us, Granite stands apart.
He met your grandmother on one of these journeys. Her people lived on the coast of the Black Sea, far to the south and east of here. I once heard that story told around a fire, like a fable, a week’s journey from here.
Let me tell you one story in particular about your grandfather. They call this one “Granite and the Big Man.”
Once, on one of his grand adventures, Granite came to a family that, naturally, welcomed him with open arms. They feasted him and offered him a cool and shady house to lay in, and a soft bedroll on which to sleep. He planned to stay there only one night and then move on in the morning.
But something about this family felt wrong to Granite, and he decided to stay a little longer to investigate. He spent a few weeks with this family, squidding and helping with the upkeep of their camp, all while quietly poking around to see where the problem lay. As it turned out, whomever he talked to in this family, he could not avoid the topic of this one particular elder. This man gave many gifts and threw many feasts and performed many favors and showered everyone with flattery. In turn, everyone felt in his debt. And he called on those debts frequently. He had a subtle sort of power. He didn’t bark orders or command people like the bosses of old. But people deferred to him, and he always seemed to get what he wanted. And others rarely seemed to get what they wanted.
Granite, young himself then, noted how everyone seemed older than him. (Here, a storyteller will typically specify the lack of young women, with a wink that implies that Granite noticed their absence before he noticed the lack of young people of any other gender.) He learned that most of the young people in the family had left, and the few that remained thought often about leaving.
Before Granite planned to leave, the big man threw another feast in his honor, and asked Granite to make a speech. So Granite did just that. He stood up in front of everyone and said to this big man that in a family, no one person means more than any other. All the members of a family work together, each contributing in hen’s own way. But this man had set himself up as more important than everyone else in his family. He threw his weight around and gathered power and prestige for himself. A person couldn’t do that and still have a family, Granite said, because families take root in love. And where one person gains power over another, love cannot exist. Any outsider could see how the love had curdled into resentment by the way the young people left. And when all the young people had gone, the family would die.
Granite turned to look the big man directly in the eye and told him that his family would die, and soon, because of his thirst for power.
All the people in the family sat in shock as Granite spoke. Not because they disagreed, but because no one had ever said it aloud. They all harbored secret resentments against the big man, but none of them had the courage to stand up to him. Each thought henself alone. Now, emboldened by this outsider speaking the truth, they began to step forward, one by one, saying they would no longer give him things so he may throw feasts to cement his glory. They said that, no matter what he claimed about what they owed him for the feasting, the power they had handed to him meant more than any feast. And therefore they owed him nothing.
And so the big man fell. The people of the family thanked Granite profusely for helping them, and the last two young men who remained in the family decided to stay. And with that, Granite hopped back in his boat and continued on his way.
There the story ends. There the story always ends. None of us ever found out what happened to the family after Granite left — if the young people who’d left came back, if the big man’s behavior changed at all, if another big man simply rose to take his place. Granite left and never looked back, and neither do we.
Now the World-Serpent muscles his way into our house. I feel him first in the rippling of the whale skin walls as he tugs the doorflap open. I see a flood of light from outside and his darker shadow projected on the back wall. I feel the woosh of air that he pulls in with him.
He sits down beside me on my sleeping mat and gingerly taps me on the shoulder, as though I couldn’t have noticed him come in and might startle. He’s left my doorflap hanging open to the village, an open wound. I squeeze my eyes shut and sigh heavily before turning to face him, and as soon as I do, I regret it.
He signs my old childhood name — Pebble — and accuses me of irrationality, tells me that I must come back to the funeral at once. He speaks slowly, his thick fingers cutting the air without subtlety. He can’t entirely remember the vocabulary or grammar of our family’s sign language. These past few months, I’ve seen it slowly coming back to him, but his fingers still seem creaky with disuse. Narluga helped, when hen remained here. But hen left to become a wizard some time ago, leaving my father and me to figure out how to talk to each other all on our own. Without Narluga as translator, ambassador, and occasional comic relief to ease the tension, we flail and fail.
I resent the slowness of his hands, this conceit that he acts with reason and I act like a child, even as he’s long since forgotten how to talk to me. I see his jaw clenching, his nostrils flaring, a redness rising in his cheeks: for all he feigns calm and good sense, he clearly struggles to keep his anger under control.
He completes his rant with a clumsy flourish and smugly awaits my response. I throw his words back at him — emphasizing the words I assume he meant to say but mangled in his forgetfulness — my teeth gritted, my movements sharp. He calls me irrational? He has no business trying to position himself as some kind of wise elder trying to preserve our family traditions when his own self-aggrandisement has torn our family to shreds. He must see how the young people leave —- me and Narluga, but also so many of our cousins. I returned to a much older village than the one I left. I fled his overbearing ways; so, too, I suspect, did so many of my cousins. For years he’s thrown his weight around, building resentment, making the young people want to leave. He should know better than anyone how a big man destroys a family.
The words “big man” hit him with exactly the force I’d intended. He jumps to his feet, his head tenting the low-slung skin of the ceiling, towering over me in my own house. As always, if he can’t make himself emotionally bigger than me, he’ll use his physical presence to intimidate. He looms over me, as he always did in my childhood, his stature turning the coziness of my home into a predator’s trap.
And he asks me — or I think he asks me — how I could possibly know what has gone on or why in a family I haven’t spoken to in almost twenty years.
I stand up as well, leaning in close. He still stands taller than me, but he no longer looms quite so large. The harsh glare from outside brings out the weatheredness in his face, darkness pooling in every wrinkle and pockmark. I tell him anyone could see it. As soon as I set foot on the docks of the village, I could see it. And I confirmed my suspicions on the boat trips to Tatlurutit and Fireland, talking to Orca and Night Rain and Seafoam. But mostly, I remembered. He acted a big man even in my childhood. Why did he think I didn’t speak to him for twenty years? And I name the others who left — Clear Sky and Orion and Eeler and Halfmoon — all the ones I knew in the old village, whom I found missing from the new, because they could find no air to breathe around him.
He laughs at the notion that he drove them away. He says I must not have paid very close attention since I got back, because my mother now gathers power and influence, and has ever since the divorce.
I say I did notice that — that they have split the family in two. He has less power than he did, but he still holds sway over half the village.
He defends himself. People like him, he says. He certainly can’t help that.
I strike back that he dominates others. Just look at how he pushed his way in here, calling me by my childhood name, acting like my failure to complete the funeral insulted him. Because everything always circles around him.
He calls it rich that I would call him self-absorbed. He says that a funeral serves the entire community, giving us all a chance to grieve. I’ve held it up, he says, because I only care about my own grief.
I point out that only I ever knew you for the one day you lived. Everyone else here has known only a bag of bones. They have nothing to grieve.
My father asks who we should blame for that. I left home and made a new home somewhere else, a new family, and not once did I come back to visit — or even send a message along when I met up with Narluga. In almost twenty years. His granddaughter became a woman before he met her. Did I never think my distance might hurt him, or my mother, or the rest of the family?
I ask if he wanted to see me so badly, why didn’t he ever come south to Beaver Valley? Imagine: the great adventurer, the World-Serpent, unwilling to venture as far south as Pittsburgh to see the son he supposedly missed so much!
He bellows his anger with his mouth alone, forgetting his hands entirely. I can read a little of his meaning on his lips, and I feel the heat of his breath on my face, and I feel the vibrations through the skin of the ceiling. I think he means to say that he knew I didn’t want to see him, so he gave me space, waiting for me to come to him if I so chose. And he thought I had, finally. But now he knows I only came back because I had no other choice, because Beaver Valley had become a deadly place. Should he feel honored, then, that I chose my father over my death?
I look up into my father’s eyes. They bulge with anger. Above them, a vein in his forehead also bulges. I tell him I didn’t come back to honor him. And I doubt he meant to give me space. More likely, he felt grateful for my leaving, because had I stayed, my dissatisfaction would have undermined his self-satisfied mythology.
Somewhat predictably, he responds with more anger. I have no right to this, I have no right to that. To tell him what I find wrong with him, to talk about a family I haven’t seen in twenty years, to ruin a funeral — even my own child’s funeral. Back to that again.
He says — I think he says, he keeps periodically forgetting to sign — that if I see a problem with the family, the fault lies at least in part with me (or maybe even entirely with me) for leaving and never visiting. I broke my mother’s heart, he says. Of course, he only seems to care about her feelings in moments like this, when he sees an advantage in it.
I snap back that he does this all the time — blaming others for his own mistakes. His behavior drove his children away, and threatens to destroy his family. How can he blame me for not putting up with any more of his bullshit?
He asks — his face dripping with sarcasm — if I consider myself completely blameless, then. If I feel so sure that he and no one else bears the blame. He says I think him terrible for things he said and did, but my silence and distance hurt as much as any word or action.
I defend myself, reminding him of my youth then, and his age and experience. He should have known better, and I reacted the only way I knew how at the time. He can’t blame me for that.
He demands to know what he ever did that hurt so badly that it warranted running away. He says I had become jealous of his popularity, scared that I couldn’t compete with my storied father, and that explains why I ran — far enough south that tales of him hadn’t yet reached there.
I laugh in his face. Bullshit.
Suddenly calmer now that he feels he has the upper hand, he challenges me. I ran away from the Nares then. I’ve run away from the funeral now. I always run away and sulk. I never confronted him head-on with these resentments.
My neck grows hot. I tell him I confront him right now.
Only because he forced the issue, he tells me. He looks me up and down with disgust. He calls me a coward.
I will not punch my father.
I will not punch my father.
I will not punch my father.
He says he sees now what has happened: my mother has turned me against him, just as she turns everyone against him. It must have started long before the divorce. Her resentment of him spread to me in my youth and chased me away.
I say I didn’t need my mother to speak ill of him — not that she did, not back then. All children can read a person’s character. I tell him Robin will soon turn against him as well, because she too can see how he acts: like a puffed-up fraud.
And he yells, and he forgets to sign, and I’ve lost the last shred of patience I had for piecing together his meaning from what I can read off his lips. With harsh, cutting gestures, I shout at him to sign! Sign! Sign! How could he keep forgetting that I can’t hear when he himself made it so?
He stops, his face suddenly slack with bafflement. He asks me, in careful sign, what I could possibly mean by that.
I remind him that he took me journeying among the dirt-diggers — the only people who still live in large enough groups, in close enough quarters, to spread the old diseases. Like the disease I caught from them. “Mumps,” I think they called it. And when I fell ill, he brought in a dirt-digger wizard who could not do anything to help me.
I found out later, in my travels, that few lose hearing even in one ear after they recover from that disease. Almost no one loses hearing in both. Granite the World-Serpent gave me that disease, and then brought in a terrible wizard who made the hearing loss permanent.
He looks as shocked and confused as he did before I said anything, but now he’s added indignation to the expression. He says he took me on an adventure. I wanted so badly to join him, and he made that happen. And adventures sometimes carry risks. Like the time he —
I cut him off there. I never wanted to join him.
He insists that I did in my youth, that I idolized him as a child. And he brought in a dirt-digger wizard because only dirt-digger wizards know how to heal dirt-digger diseases. And I survived, didn’t I?
I shoot back: he can’t find a better defense than that? That he didn’t accidentally kill me?
He keeps insisting that I can’t blame him for my deafness. Everyone gets sick sometimes, everyone loses something eventually. He’d wanted to toughen me up by taking me on that trip, and maybe he shouldn’t have let my deafness stop him from taking me on more trips. If he hadn’t, maybe I wouldn’t have become such a coward. Maybe I’d have the courage to tell him what I really thought of him without running away. Maybe I’d have the strength to handle a funeral without breaking down. Maybe he can blame himself, in a way.
I tremble with rage. I say if he wants me to stand up to him, then I’ll stand up to him: I won’t let him speak to me this way in my own home. I march over to the doorflap, still hanging open — the entire family probably heard his half of the exchange and caught glimpses of mine — and pull it the rest of the way open. We stare each other down for an achingly long moment. Finally he puffs himself up as if to say that he intended to leave anyway, and strides out onto the dock.
I tie the doorflap shut behind him with quick, violent strokes.
And I sit in my house, in the dark, my back to the tied doorflap, alone but for my bag of bones. Alone but for you, my little Ginkgo.
I think about the house in which we sit. The house I took from the Nares and carried on my back so far south. It rode on my back when I walked the Appalachians with Pelica. It rode on my back all the way to Beaver Valley. It sat for years on tall Pittsburgh stilts, awkwardly positioned among the grass huts of Pelica’s people. It saw five births and five deaths and one childhood.
Even when I ran away from home, I couldn’t leave it behind. I clung to my skin house even as it alienated me from my new family. I wonder if I have something uniquely wrong inside me, that I can’t truly accept a home among my family: not my own, not my wife’s. I always pull away.
Through the smoke hole of this house, I can see a small piece of the sky. This time of year, the sun shines continuously and we can see no stars.
We only tell stories about the constellations during the light season, because the sun blocks them from seeing us as much as it blocks us from seeing them, so our stories don’t offend them. So let me tell you, now, the story we tell of Sky Bear.
Once, long ago, Sky Bear stalked the top of the world. She circled the North Pole where no other bears dared go, since at that time the wind blew with a terrible, impossible cold. A cold that turned water solid like rock, and white, and Sky Bear, too, wore a coat of pure, white fur.
One day Sky Bear decided she wanted a cub, and so she sculpted one from the water-made-rock, with three pieces of obsidian for hen’s eyes and nose. Hen came to life, and the sight of hen filled her with joy, and for a time the little family lived happily. Sky Bear would wander the north, hunting fat sea-dogs and bringing the meat back to her cub.
But in the south where humans lived, the great fires burned, and the fires got so hot that the water-made-rock turned back into water. The fat sea-dogs began to die. She fed her cub as best she could, but she could never give either of them enough, and they both grew gaunt. No longer fierce and fearsome, Sky Bear and her cub now looked gangly, with long legs and long necks from searching more closely for food. The fat on their bodies melted away like the water beneath them.
At last, the cub starved to death. Overcome with grief, Sky Bear let out a bellow that cracked the last of the great sheets of water-made-rock, and it fell into the sea. Seeing that her home had crumbled, Sky Bear decided to abandon earth and climb up into the sky. But she could not bear to leave her cub’s body behind. So she carried hen with her and laid hen’s body to rest at the very top of the sky, hen’s nose at the North Star. And there she stayed, watching over hen for all eternity.
On clear nights in the dark season, you can still see them. The North Star drags the cub’s bones around the sky, and Sky Bear circles, watching, mourning, forever.
Again the raft tilts and the house ripples, and light wavers in from outside. I turn my head to see my mother tentatively let herself in. She asks if she can come in once she has already entered. I shrug. Can anything I might say really make her turn around and go back outside? She nods and ties the doorflap closed behind her.
I suppose Granite must have talked to her, which seems a small miracle in and of itself. I wonder if she and my father planned this, or if she wants to prove that she can make me come back to the funeral where he couldn’t, or if these two come as just the first few drops of a flood of family members that will soon pour into my house to scold me for my insolence.
She moves like a shadow to the dead center fire and squats there with flint and steel, waking the fire back up. Only once the fire has returned to us, casting a warm glow on both our faces, does she try to speak.
She begs me to come out, to continue the funeral. She remembers most of our sign language, and has worked harder than my father in the time since my return to master it again. It strikes me as a sharp contrast from how she acted just after I lost my hearing. She seemed inconsolable then. Tears would flow the instant she saw my face.
I remember how, even before that, she always needed comforting; as soon as I grew too old for her to hold me, I had to hold her. Even when I became sick, even when I lost my hearing, even as I had to figure out, as a child, how to live without sound. I remember feeling guilty for not hearing, for having gotten sick, for letting her down somehow.
She cried the day I left, too. I held her and told her I’d return after not too long. I just wanted to see the world, I told her. Of course I’d return. And I really had planned to, in the beginning. I just didn’t know how much relief I’d feel to get away from everyone who knew me. I hadn’t counted on meeting Pelica.
A very different mother greeted me upon my return. Narluga had, of course, kept me up-to-date on our family. I’d known for years about the divorce, and my mother’s stubborn refusal to leave the village that had become her home. I knew about each of her two lovers as she moved them into her house. I knew that the divorce had split the family in two, people taking sides between our mother and father. It didn’t sound like our mother, who had always tiptoed so gingerly in our father’s shadow, but of course, everyone changes over time. It sounded to me like she had finally begun to earn the name she’d taken for herself when she first moved to the Nares: Barbeau, after the greatest mountain on Umigmak Nuna.
Indeed, when I first saw her, she carried herself proudly, walking tall, flanked by her two lovers — both handsome men younger than she, one who appeared younger even than me. I had expected her to cry, but she didn’t. She looked me up and down with a stern gaze. She said she hadn’t expected to see me again. But she also said she felt glad for my return, and hugged me. And only then did she cry, a little.
Now she sits across the fire from me, her eyes dry, her face open but calm. She says she understands my pain because she, too, once lost a child.
I flinch at the blow. I tell her she never lost me; I merely left. She can’t possibly compare my moving away to death.
Her expression hardens. She says she didn’t mean me. She had a baby that died long ago, before my birth.
This takes me aback. I’ve never heard this before.
My mother nods. She mentioned it only rarely to anyone. Everyone knew it ached like an old wound. And just when I was getting old enough that she thought she might tell me, I left. But she had lost one child, and during the long weeks of my illness, she feared she would lose another. So she knows. So she says.
I ask her if she found comfort in the Nares funeral traditions, which must have differed from the traditions of her own people.
She hesitates before answering. Finally, she admits she found them somewhat alien at the time. Her people do not practice cremation; in fact, they forbid it. They wait three days after death, then bury the body in the earth. To burn the body, to pick through the bones with chopsticks — like food! — to mix the charred remains with concrete and sculpt it and pound it into a strange shape to toss into the sea — it all felt wrong. Insulting, even, to the dead and to those closest to hen.
Her people would lovingly wash the body, wrap it in white cloth, and cover it with flowers. The body looked like the lost loved one right up until they shoveled the soil over it. Down there, in the web beneath, it would transform — but no one had to see it. No one had to touch it, or make the transformation happen henself.
Despite her discomfort, she let the family bury the baby in the Nares style. But then she went home for a time. She tells me now that the death of a child can hurt you in ways you never knew existed. And she could no longer bear to live in the place her child had died, to live with hen’s father, to see, every day, the people who burned hen’s body and dropped it into the sea.
I ask what made her come back to the Nares.
She says she knew she had to come back when she got to her old home and it no longer felt like home to her.
I shiver. That feels too familiar.
She notices my shivering and inches closer to me. She asks if I have made the Beaver Valley people my people, the way she has made the Nares Strait people hers.
I tell her Beaver Valley never felt like my home, and now the Nares Strait doesn’t, either. And I say that, even if Beaver Valley did feel like home, I couldn’t go back there. The poison there kills, especially men and children. The Strait itself didn’t kill the child my mother lost. Beaver Valley killed you. If I can’t make my home here again, I tell her, I will have no home.
She frowns, and nods, and says that much of her discomfort with the Nares came from her grief. The wrongness she felt didn’t come from the place or the family, but from her loss. No place could feel like home under those conditions. But after spending more time in the Nares, and healing from her grief, it did begin to feel like home. She came to belong to the family, came to see their traditions as her traditions. So much so that after she and Granite broke up, she stayed — even if it made things awkward and split the family in two. She doesn’t say that. Neither of us do. The knowledge of it sits between us, heavy and silent, like a bag of bones.
My mother asks if I shouldn’t wait until the worst of the grieving has passed and see how the Nares looks then? If I shouldn’t try to make the Nares my home again?
I sigh, tilting my head back, watching the sky peek in through the smokehole in the ceiling. I tell her that she muscled her way into a family dominated by the legendary Granite the World Serpent. You have to do that to hold your own in this family, and I just don’t have it in me. I can’t become like him, and I don’t want to. And I don’t want my children to have any part in what this family has become. At the same time, I don’t have it in me to change it, and I have no place else to go.
My mother leans forward, her movements almost frantic as she insists she didn’t muscle her way in; she felt as dominated by Granite as anyone else. She left him for that very reason. She insists she has nothing in common with him.
She doesn’t see it. I do remember, from my childhood, a quiet woman, content (or so I thought) to prop up her husband’s glory while hiding her own. I did not see that woman when I stepped off the boat and onto the Nares docks. I saw a woman who exerted her own control, albeit through subtler manipulations than my father’s overbearing charm. I saw a family torn between two poles.
I ask her if she really still thinks of herself as that shy woman hiding in her husband’s shadow? She with the two younger lovers from the mainland, whom she so boldly moved into her former husband’s family? Does she really not see the strength she’s gained, the influence she wields?
She sits back on her haunches, her face stony. She tells me that after decades of living here, this has become as much her family as Granite’s. She has every right to tie her raft to these docks. And she never forced anyone to take a side. She has good relations with her family members — nothing more sinister than that.
I didn’t call it sinister, or even ill-intentioned, but regardless of her motivations, she can’t deny the results. Even the physical arrangement of the village has changed. The center of the village feels strangely empty, the houses clustered together in two groups with only a single walkway between them — narrow, fragile, barely a connection at all.
My mother asks if I think our family so weak that it can’t handle two strong-willed people. She says I speak of my family members as helpless.
I cringe. I insist I didn’t mean to insult them. I only know what I’ve seen: two strong-willed people dominating everyone.
My mother shifts uncomfortably in her seat. Her eyes dart to your bones. And what, she asks, does any of this have to do with why I refuse to bury my child?
I take a few moments in my thoughts, then finally say that to bury you in the Nares way would mean initiating you into the family. And I don’t know if I want you in this family. And Beaver Valley’s poison has become the poison in your bones. If I send you down into the depths, won’t you poison the Strait?
My mother asks if I mean to protect you from the Strait, or protect the Strait from you?
I shrug. Both. Neither.
It hurts to tell you, my little Ginkgo, about the poison inside you. Which hurts more: that you have poison in you? Or that I can’t let you go?
Or maybe both: I can’t let go of my poison.
She reminds me that every place in the world has poison in it. No place remains pure. Your little body wouldn’t add so much poison to the Strait.
I only shake my head, my throat tightening.
She tells me I have already begun the process — the concrete made, the net and mold ready — and I must finish it. She assures me that letting you go, going through the rituals of the funeral — however painful it feels now — will do me good. It will help me grieve, she says. It will help bring the family together. All people, all families have traditions meant to serve the same function: to comfort the grieving and unite the family. And if they seem strange, you only need to stay a little longer, and look a little closer, to see the beauty in them.
As she speaks, I tighten my knuckles around your bag. I realize I’ve allowed her to change the subject, to pull the conversation away from her role in the family’s dysfunction and back towards my own dysfunction, to a place where she feels comfortable and I do not. And she steered us smoothly here without my even noticing until now.
I call her attention to that. See! Look! This is how she became Granite’s equal. I only want her to admit she bears some responsibility. But by the way her lips press shut and her jaw tightens, I can already see she won’t.
She tells me we can talk about this later. After the funeral. After we have buried you.
I tell her that won’t happen, so we might as well talk about it now.
She lets out a heavy sigh. She tells me I remained very much a child when I left, and now she sees a child has returned. A child blames his parents for his problems. A child runs away and sulks. A child refuses to participate in rituals because they make hen feel bad.
So she’s resorted to shame. Unfortunately for her, I have so much shame already that she can’t make it worse. She weighs me down so much, I I can hardly stand. To go back out and continue the funeral would do nothing to lessen it, merely put it on display for all to see.
I curse my mother. Her head snaps back as if I’d slapped her, and still I curse her. I curse her for feigning moral superiority to my father, only to turn around and insult me. I curse her for her manipulations, for making me think she wanted to help me, when really she would do anything to get me to come back to the funeral. If she could do it by comforting me, she would comfort me. But as soon as that stopped working, she would hurt me with shame. Whatever it took to have her way — just like Granite.
Now her tears flow, and they have their intended effect. All the righteous fury that flowed through me only moments before evaporates, leaving me in a little dark house with a bag of bones and a crying old woman.
I try to remind myself that in this, too, she has a strategy. But that feels hollow when I see her tears. She looks smaller than she did when in my childhood. I feel the urge to hold her, to apologize, to take it all back. I quash those urges, and feel bad about it, and feel bad for feeling bad, and feel impossibly tired.
My mother wipes away her tears with the backs of her hands. When she uses her hands to speak, she flicks tears onto the walls, onto my sleeping mat, onto me. She thanks me for confirming what she already suspected: that I hate her. I left because I hated her. I won’t complete the funeral because I hate her. She tried so hard to be a good mother. What did she do wrong that I would punish her like this?
I grind my knuckles into my forehead. I didn’t hate her before, but I start to now. I reassure her as gently as I can with my anger mounting: I don’t hate her. I didn’t leave because of her.
She points out that I called her Granite’s equal, every bit as bad as him. If I hated him, she asks, why would I not hate her?
I try feebly to split hairs: I don’t hate him, I just want him to stop. But her eyes hold too many tears to see what I say, and it doesn’t matter anyway. I play right into her hands.
I tell her I lost my wife and child. Not just this child — several children. I won’t let her manipulate me into comforting her when I, not her, have every reason to cry, to grieve, to sulk. I lost you; she didn’t.
She cries even harder. She windmills about how I don’t understand, couldn’t possibly understand the pain I’ve put her through. How maybe Robin should leave me for twenty years, see how I like that. How if I don’t like the way she uses her pain against people, maybe I should look at myself. I’ve held up the funeral, making everyone wait around and wonder and feel sorry for me. How for all I could say about her, she never pulled a stunt like this.
Her arrows hit true. My heart hurts, a physical pang. I can’t bear to look at her as I tell her to leave me alone and turn my back on her.
My mother taps my shoulder, quick, irritated little taps, and I refuse to respond. After a while, I see the light play on the skin in front of me, see the ripple, feel the rocking of the raft that tells me she has given up and left.
And I sit in my house, in the dark, my back to the tied doorflap, alone but for my bag of bones. Alone but for you, my little Ginkgo.
I apologize that you have to see your father like this. I had more strength, once. But that time passed and I don’t think it will return. I have no place to go, nothing to do. I went far to the south and found no place for me there. I came home to the end of the earth and found no place for me here. In the deep shadows of my mind, I wonder if I should kill myself. If nothing else, I can’t stay in this house forever. I have to leave to squid up something to eat, and if I don’t leave, I won’t eat. And if I won’t eat, I’ll die. And if I mean to die, I might as well end it quickly. But then I think of Robin. And the shame descends again, pinning me in place.
As if my thoughts summoned her there, Robin enters the house. My heart sinks as it fills with the full realization of my own absurdity. I’ve become so stupid that my own daughter must now come in and parent me. It takes all the willpower I have to look at her square, wait, and watch for her lecture. What have her grandparents told her to tell me, to get me to come out? What has sailed through her mind as she waited for me to end my tantrum and release her sibling’s bones so the funeral could resume? And can I see any of it without breaking completely?
But no lecture comes. She brings me a skin of palm wine and some dried cuttlefish, and she lays it down on the floor between us. We eat and we drink, and she says nothing, and I say nothing. Our fingers busy themselves with food alone. I can see in her eyes — big eyes, Pelica’s eyes — that she wants to know why I’ve conducted myself like I have. But she doesn’t ask, and she doesn’t try to talk me into anything.
I remember another time, not so long ago, when she followed me into this same house with this same bag of bones. I had refused to bury you in the soil with your mother, in the land that killed both of you. I told Robin we would meet up with Narluga at Christmas and travel with hen’s caravan to my family’s home, and bury you there. I felt so sure, then, that I could bring myself to bury you at sea when the time came. That the problem lay in the poisoned soil of Beaver Valley. But maybe the problem never lay there — not entirely. I can no longer tell myself that if I move away, I’ll finally find the place where I can let you go. I sit at the top of the world. I have run out of “away.”
You have an extraordinary big sister, Ginkgo. I’d like to take credit for that, but I can’t — only she can. While I looked the other way, she wove herself into a bright and sensitive and empathetic woman.
I will have to figure out a way to explain to her why I have acted in such a selfish and irrational way. I will have to figure out where we’ll go if not here, where we’ll bury you if not in the Strait. I will have to do all this eventually. For now, shame and grief pin me in place, and they overwhelm me, and the world feels too poisonous to live in, and I can’t find it in me to do more than share a simple meal of palm wine and dried cuttlefish with my daughter.
So I sit in my house, in the dark, my back to the tied doorflap. With you, my little Ginkgo.
But we no longer sit alone.