Martha Cooley

April 25, 2017 
The following is from Martha Cooley’s memoir, Guesswork: A Reckoning With Loss. Martha Cooley is the author of the national bestseller The Archivist and Thirty-­Three Swoons. The Archivist was a New York Times Notable Book and a New and Noteworthy paperback. Cooley is currently a contributing editor at A Public Space. Her co­translations of Italian fiction and poetry include Antonio Tabucchi’s story collection Time Ages in a Hurry. A professor of English at Adelphi University, Cooley divides her time between Queens, New York, and Castiglione del Terziere, Italy. Her American cat, Zora, is named after one of the cities in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and their Italian cat, Tristana, is named after the medieval knight.

This morning, I finally visited il cimitero.

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Before heading out, I scrubbed clean a half-dollar-sized, rust-colored stain I’d found on the bedspread in the guest room. The mark hadn’t been there before breakfast, when I went to the room to retrieve something. While Antonio and I were eating, a cat must have entered the house and left us a sou- venir of its presence. The fluffy-tailed cat, perhaps? Or maybe another, that black-and-white dandy who’d materialized on our terrace the other day, thin and tense. I’d given him a bit of pro- sciutto; he’d gobbled it and fled.

The stain was off the bedspread but not out of mind. Blood: as I rubbed the mark with a wet sponge, its color morphed from rust to red. Perhaps the cat was in heat. Or about to give birth? Meet death? I pulled the dampened cloth over the bed’s foot- board to dry, hearing in my head that darkly comic pair of lines from T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes: Birth, and copulation, and death. / That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks.

After a half hour of restless wandering about the house, I laced my shoes and, on impulse, ventured downhill.

I’d been avoiding il cimitero since our arrival in Castiglione del Terziere at the end of May, five weeks ago.

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Not that there hasn’t been much else to do. Anzi, as Italians say: quite the contrary. My  husband and I have settled, more  or less, into the house we’ve rented for the coming fourteen months, and have met our neighbors, including a few of the non- humans. (Yesterday, a yellow Lab called Pedro found me at the recycling bin and slobbered happily into my hand like an old pal.) We’ve taken several walks to nearby Croce and Pagazzana and explored what remains of the old footpath encircling the village of Castiglione. We’ve oriented ourselves, in other words. Gotten the lay of the land.

Except for the cemetery.

For me the quiet of the main macadam road, like the vacil- lating sun-shade-sun of its vistas, has served as a reassuring constant during our transition. The only sounds are those of crickets and birds; now and then, a low-pitched dance of water in the shallow stream below the goat pasture at the road’s upper end.

As for the lane to il cimitero, I assumed it would be not only dark and solemn but very silent. It branched off the main road and descended swiftly. The sun broke through here and there, however, dappling the ground and revealing myriad spi- derwebs in the undergrowth. And the sound that accompa- nied my footfalls was different from any I’d heard in the village: a low, steady hum. Not like that of a machine; not a radio on the fritz. I couldn’t make out what was causing it until, right before the cemetery’s gates, I saw a long row of wooden boxes, each on four legs. They extended the length of a sun-washed field whose grasses had been parched a dull buttery color by the summer heat.

Bees—an apiary, of all things! Right next to the town dead . . .

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The bees were humming away; indeed, the noise increased as I proceeded. The music of industry, I thought. Of belief in just do it, in getting ahead, in saving for a rainy day. The song of collective labor, sweet production.

I pulled open the gates’ heavy iron bolt, entered the dead’s sanctum, and stared at the rows of headstones.

A half-dozen narrow concrete paths, each neatly edged with grass, separated the rows; by my rough count, there were fewer than fifty souls in the ground. Perhaps another fifty were interred in a high mortuary wall, behind which, out of sight, ranged the bees’ boxes. Names and dates of birth and death were neatly carved on each of the headstones; some also bore photographs. Turning in a slow circle, I saw that the cemetery was full of color. Plastic bouquets of flowers, admirably realistic, stood erect or sprawled languidly across nearly every grave. At the rear, a whitewashed chapel presided over the group.


A cheerful cemetery, it seemed to me. With that hum all around, unremitting. Did the dead contribute to it? Did they spend all day adding their voices to the chorus, get their rest at night, and begin again at daylight?

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Sun, hum, shade: a mix of tranquility and sprightliness. The dead here had a nice deal, with none of the lugubriousness or sententiousness of so many cemeteries. Their simple marble headstones were beautifully carved, unblemished by kitsch. A bit of birdsong provided the sole counterpoint to the bees. Then I heard a quick high wail, and a cat trotted toward me from one shady corner, tail aloft in greeting. It was a small tabby, its coat a mottled gold. As it approached, the cat slowed, then dropped gracefully to the ground and rolled over, exposing a pure-white belly. When it sat up again, whining delicately, I saw an exposed patch of skin behind one ear. Mites, mange, or a cat-fight had given the cat a bit of trouble recently; that circle of flesh wasn’t suppurating, but it looked painfully raw.

I’ll bring you something to eat next time, I told the cat.

Now that I know you’re here.

The cat took this as a benign signal, performed another rollover, and allowed my fingers to graze the very end of its tail as it slipped past me to a nearby patch of shade, which hap- pened to be provided by Amelia Pizzi. Her tombstone was modest in size, unlike that of Liliana di Negro, who slept in a large berth in the wall, and whose name was inscribed in ele- gant cursive.

I wandered a bit, reading names and dates, supplying sto- ries for the residents: this one might’ve died of that awful flu in 1918, this one could’ve been killed in World War II, that one must’ve been a kid in a car accident. Or with cancer. Or malaria. Or meningitis. Or—

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They’re not your dead, I said to myself as the stories, inadvertent and uninvited, began piling up in my head. You don’t have to grieve for them, you don’t know a soul here, it’s not  your job.

The cat atop the grave licked its front paws with serene thoroughness.

I have never been a visitor of cemeteries. Nor do I talk to my own dead. The idea of bringing them flowers has always seemed ludicrous to me. I don’t ask them to intervene with anyone, human or divine, on my behalf.

The people who visit this place, I told myself (while the cat, finished with its ablutions, strolled back to its corner), are bringing flowers for themselves. Same goes for the conversa- tions: when you talk to the dead, you’re talking to yourself. When you cry, it’s for yourself. You stage this whole drama— buying the flowers, dusting off the tombstone, offering the latest news of other family members, saying a fond farewell, stroking the headstone,  promising  to  return  soon—and  you do it all for yourself. You say you’re sad because they’re not here to do it anymore, to live; but actually you’re sad because you’re still here, and there are things you wished you’d been able to ask or tell the dead and now you can’t, and it seems ter- rible that all the unsaid, unasked stuff must back up in you like water in a pipe with no outlet, and you don’t know how much longer—a week, a year, many years?—you’ll have to deal with that clog.

I started back to the main road. Along the lane, the hum was almost tactile, like a swath of velvet brushed lightly across my forehead, or the cat’s fur on my fingertips. Bring a bit of food for that cat, I reminded myself. It’ll be here for sure; you’ll see  it  again.  Assuming  the  injury  behind  its  ear  doesn’t  get infected and kill it. Or it doesn’t die from a bee sting. Or get hit by a car on the road. Or—

As I walked home, I asked myself why I’d been reluctant to visit the cemetery. Why it seemed to require courage to do so, as if I’d be putting myself in some sort of danger.

I knew I wouldn’t be. And in any case, terror of dying wasn’t something I’d ever experienced, at least not consciously. For a long while I’ve cultivated an attitude of fatalism toward death. It would be different, surely, if I were dealing with a child mor- tally sick from the time of birth—or if, say, one of my beloveds were murdered before my eyes. But these aren’t the norm; most of the time, people just get sick at some point, and die. And when people I’ve loved have died in an accident, or at a younger age than seemed right or fair, I’ve suffered but continued to believe death doesn’t warrant agitation in advance. Jiggling an hourglass doesn’t alter the sand’s flow.

So why then my unease?

I realized, as I began panting on the uphill stretch of my walk, that a dream I’d had during my first week here, about Andrea, my closest friend for over thirty years—a woman who died a few weeks after her forty-ninth birthday, of bowel cancer that metastasized to her liver—yes, it was that dream I’d had, unnerving in its perversity and coldness, which had served as the deterrent.

I’d evaded the cemetery because I’d feared reencountering not Andrea but the dream. In it—insofar as I could recall its details, for my psyche had done a good job of burying them— Andrea had insisted, in a tone of detached scorn, that I use my cock (in the dream, I had one) to enter her in her ass. She’d spoken as if she knew I had no idea what to do, no idea what she was talking about.

She was correct about my ignorance, as I didn’t have a cock in real life, and I’d never thought about doing this to her while she was living. Sure, I’d thought about making love with her: what person, straight or gay or whatever, doesn’t at some point think about making love with her best friend? For me, that time of thinking-about-it had occurred many years earlier, when we were on the cusp of thirty and took a trip to Haiti—a trip that was hot and difficult and entailed nights in sweltering rooms where we sat naked, swatting at insects and swilling beer and fanning ourselves, trying to cool down. But we hadn’t had sex, or talked about having it. And that time had passed, and other things had happened in our lives; the eros of that moment had modulated into a different key. There’d been no subsequent moment or need to enact.

Our friendship went through tests over the next couple of decades, and was strengthened. Though we didn’t live in the same city, for years we spoke on the phone several times a week. I saw Andrea regularly when I moved to her Brooklyn neighbor- hood in the late 1990s: we were one another’s closest friends in the physical as well as emotional sense. When she died in 2005, the whole world seemed to go on tilt, and I wondered how it’d ever right itself.

Gradually, I learned to do my life without Andrea’s companion- ship, to accept the things that had been hard about being her friend, to have my conflicts—of self, of memory—without her confirming or dissenting voice in my ear. To live my questions without hers as aid or distortion. To fall in love with someone she’d met once, but never got to know. To build a life in many ways different from the one she’d thought of as mine.

And then I came to Castiglione, and had a disturbing dream about her. And suppressed it. And thus didn’t want to walk to the cemetery—which, as I walked back from it, was evidently meant to be the site of a necessary encounter. Not with Andrea herself (she’s dead, goddamn it!), but with my missing of and longing for her, my relief that she was no longer present so I didn’t have to account for myself with her, my sense that I’d outgrown her, my perplexity that I was older and that I had no idea what her life would’ve become—her marriage, her urge to draw and paint, her crippling self-doubt, her Buddhist practice, her body.

Her body, ravaged at the end yet so lovely at the start. Her feline sensuality. Her body, which never knew mine just as mine never knew hers. In my dream she’d asked of me something I couldn’t give, wouldn’t have wanted to . . . Was this yet another route my mind sought out of the morass of loss: setting her up as an aggressive interlocutor, asking of me something I couldn’t give and wouldn’t want to?

But why wouldn’t I want to?

Well, of course. One day in the winter of 2001 she’d men- tioned, in passing, a complaint, which she’d muttered in a mild tone, no panic—I have blood in my stool . . . The cancer was there, in that portal to her self, which, in the dream, she’d requested I enter. The request had been almost dismissive, as if to say, what do you living know? How can you understand what it’s like to pass from health to death in so short a time? The situation’s get- ting rather dire, she’d said to me near the end of her life, in a tone of gentle irony. Still, speaking about it slantwise is not the same as exploring, like Walt Whitman’s solitary spider, the vacant vast surrounding while keenly aware that one’s own filament will shortly give out. As Andrea knew, I would continue flinging my gossamer thread after her death. She and I were already fol- lowing fundamentally different imperatives, though we hadn’t yet parted.

Do it, said her gaze near the end—do it gladly, musing, ven- turing, throwing, seeking . . . till the bridge you will need be form’d. But do it by yourself now, without me.

A paradox: the words together and alone coexist in speech and feeling, yet logically cancel each other out.

The stain, I realized—that blotch on the bedspread— was the thing that brought all this forth. It was the stain that allowed me to confront my reluctance and visit the graveyard.

A little mark I’d tried to scrub clean, which, mercifully, claimed me nonetheless.

Tomorrow, I told myself, I’ll bring some prosciutto to the tabby in il cimitero.




From Guesswork.  Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2017 by Martha Cooley .

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