The Heart and the Earth Record Their Pain
Kristine Ong Muslim on Personal and Environmental Grief
Kintsugi, an ancient Japanese art form, entails repairing cracked pottery by reattaching the shards with gold lacquer powder mixed with adhesive. This is done so that a warm glow appears to radiate from the jagged tracery made by the fractures between the glued parts, emphasizing the “scars” that define a critical moment in the history of the pottery piece.
I thought at that time the idea of glorifying brokenness as part of taking something to its healed state is particularly cruel. It also bodes malign magic. Using gold lacquer powder to illuminate scars, telltale marks of physical injury, is like making a gilded shrine to appease by fetishizing whatever sadistic, schadenfreude-eating deity may lurk out there. It is only later that I realize the intentional erasure of scars is so much worse.
I don’t know where I am going with this. Jay is still dying, and there is nothing I can do about it. There is no way to keep him alive.
I have to give Jay his pain meds in two hours. I remember how he once told me, “I know the pain is there. I just could not feel it because of the drugs.” My reply to him is something along the lines of how deadening the body’s faculties for feeling pain is like doing a reverse kintsugi. I remember him smiling, and that is everything to me.
The world is part desolation, part hoping that one doesn’t end up in any of the desolate spaces. Sometimes this desolation sits on the surface of things much like a patina does, unsightly yet tolerable. Sometimes, desolation seeps right to the bone, burning flesh on its way down. This is what happened to Kolmannskuppe, a ghost town in southern Namibia.
On December 18th, 1980, Kolmannskuppe was made, as all ghost towns are made and not born the way a community is born. People afflicted with diamond fever, a malady that lasts for 40 years, flocked into the town named after a man who had to abandon his ox wagon during a sandstorm. If you really think about it—which is what I’ve been doing all this time—that naming convention sort of sealed the fate of Kolmannskuppe. Naming a village after someone known for his singular act of abandonment can damn a village into a ghost town.
I saw the two-story house of Kolmannskuppe’s mine manager a long time ago. That was before I met Jay. The house was beautifully decked with brick and smooth stone. It was easy to mythologize that house. Built atop a layer of hand-tooled stones, it used to be a fortress against the sunny blue of the cloudless sky and the muted gray of sand and pebbles.
The house had a terrace—now long buried in sand—that offered a view of the windblown Namib Desert. There’s nothing out there to see from the terrace, no lush palm groves or serene oases. But it must have been human nature to continuously seek out a platform for viewing what lies ahead, what lies outside an otherwise artificial sanctuary—even if there is nothing out there left to see.Here’s a trite idea, yet one that still holds, because there is nothing to disprove it: the natural environment records impressions of past trauma.
Some nights I imagine, and for a short time forget about Jay dying in the other bed, that somewhere in the wastelands of Namib Desert, the red sand dunes are stirring to swallow whole the usurpers of the arid landscape.
When Jay shifts position in his sleep, his bedsprings no longer creak. He has lost a lot of weight.
There is something I have to tell you. The next time you see someone’s face appear a little blurry, like no matter how much you focus on seeing the face you still can’t quite make out the features, you must act quickly. You can save that person’s life. Warn that person that something bad is going to happen to him. I don’t know what separates those who have been saved by this intervention from those beyond saving.
For about a week now, Jay’s facial features have been appearing a bit ill-defined, fuzzy. It is as if they were obscured by smoke. It is not my eyesight. I know that his death is, indeed, inevitable.
Also, if you catch a glimpse of someone appearing headless—even if you only see the disturbing sight momentarily and even if you are sure it is just a trick of light (and I tell you it isn’t)—do not waste your time mentally debating whether or not interfering with that person’s fate is going to make you look crazy. It is going to make you look crazy. Just approach the person close enough so you can ruffle his hair. You can also touch the head. Make up an excuse, a joke, something clever, anything, just anything to account for the gesture that is definitely going to be misconstrued as rude—or, yes, crazy.
Then walk away. It is pointless to say anything to explain your weird behavior. That person will likely live, until maybe the next time he gets called. Called by whom or what—I don’t know. I don’t really want to think about it. It is the one part that scares me a lot. What if there is nothing out there, and what if there is no afterlife. Then I’ll never see Jay again.
Here’s a trite idea, yet one that still holds, because there is nothing to disprove it: the natural environment records impressions of past trauma. Specific material conditions enable a replay of recorded impressions, just like any recording.
In 2013, a mysterious epidemic resulted in a mass die-off of starfishes on the West Coast of North America. The grisly death spiral of the starfishes involved having their legs wither away before detachment from their bodies. Devoid of appendages, the lesion-stricken sea stars turned into sticky gel-like masses. The wasting disease is caused by a type of densovirus with no history of virulence; climate change has transformed it into a pathogen.
These days, you can sometimes see small blobs in clear shallow waters, if you spend time walking along the North American West Coast. If you approach the blobs, which resemble sea stars in the late stages of the wasting disease, they disappear.
“Recorded impressions of past trauma,” I tell Jay. He has no energy to make counterarguments to turn the whole thing into playful banter, something we enjoy—used to enjoy—doing.
I hear the neighbor’s television, as there is no shutting the windows in this infernal dry heat. It is that televangelist doing his weekdays-at-three-in-the-afternoon routine again, that televangelist preaching what I am hoping will turn out to be the methods of his eventual destruction.
One of the things I love about the dark is that I don’t get to see and be reminded of the visible representations of the irretrievably lost and those that have slipped from my grasp, because it is possible I do not deserve them. Mental images, I can block them. One can always reach for memory repression in the same way one resorts to a tourniquet for a gushing wound. As long as it is only short-term stifling. A tourniquet left for too long to do its constriction can result in a gangrened part, necrotic, that must be severed from the body.
Today’s heat wave has killed 16 people; all have been either children or the elderly. Bird attacks are becoming more prevalent too, as another person passing by Avenida’s forest park has suffered terrible damage on one eye and can no longer see through it. Still, more and more people spend time in the vicinity of the forest park, a breezy place of refuge from the suffocating heat of paved surfaces. Toward the end of the news report on the forest-park incident, the TV presenter says something like, “One doesn’t just read history to understand the present and predict the future. One also reads history because it behooves us to change the future.”
It is the word “behooves” that has gotten to me. It sounds pretty archaic, rankling and charming at the same time. I like how it has guilt-tripping to encase its imperative. Behooves.
Behooves. Even at this too late a point.
In the dark, I hear Jay in the other bed shift from his sleeping position. He is breathing evenly, a good sign. It means he is comfortable.
A man on my doorstep talks about relocation. But I am too worried about Jay to pay attention to him. Apparently, a network of underground caves has been detected, and parts of it are underneath four of the modular row houses here, excluding ours but right next to ours. He is offering a 30 percent bonus on top of the present value of the properties within and along the vicinity of the dig. The relocation expenses are covered too. He gives me a list of available units where we can transfer, as well as their locations.
The “30 percent bonus on top of the present value” is all I need to hear; we can really use the money.
“I take it you know what’s underneath,” I tell him.It behooves all ruins, born of another time and place and context, to resist restoration, that soft, seductive brushstroke of empire and global commerce.
He smirks, says nothing. He doesn’t need to. He has a badge with the familiar blue logo of a corporate outfit whose name I can’t quite place in my mind. He smells faintly of mothballs and guava jelly. Has the whiff of self-importance, the hungry look of a careerist. He also sounds exactly like the type to paraphrase a quip from “The Tragedy of the Commons” to justify placing in private hands the sole ownership and control of natural resources. I say yes, because we need the money, plus moving to another unit is not going to be that much of a hassle. Also, I want to get rid of the little lackey fast.
Jay welcomes the news, as expected. “I hope whatever it is they find,” he says, “if it doesn’t serve the world for the better, I hope it is unusable.”
I love our new place. It overlooks the tree-lined edge of the forest park.
The morning TV reporter calls the find from the underground cave network “the biggest archaeological discovery of the decade.” She goes on, “They are intact pieces of pottery made by an early Neolithic tribe unknown in prehistory.” The rest I have not been able to hear as I am scrambling to get Jay his portable oxygen. He is having trouble breathing again. This potentially deadly combination of temperature inversion and smog. Then add to this noxious soup the failing body of the terminally ill.
“I am sorry for the trouble,” he says between gasps. “No, please don’t say sorry. Just hold on for a bit longer.” “That’s what I’ve been doing.”
Sometime midday comes the news of how the rarest of rare pottery has crumbled—literally crumbled—in the temperature-controlled room of the museum where artifacts are restored. I know it hurts Jay to laugh, so it comes out as a low chuckle. I join in on the laughter. It behooves all ruins, born of another time and place and context, to resist restoration, that soft, seductive brushstroke of empire and global commerce.
The last paragraph of the latest news article about the crumbled pottery from the dig contains this sentence: A museum technician said he saw the jars on the table where they had crumbled days ago.
“Recorded impressions of past trauma,” Jay says with the lilt in his voice, a lure for ensuing banter. He is trying to cheer me up.
“Or hallucination. Maybe the technician’s just tired.”
I want Jay to nap. He is growing pale. And his facial features—hazy. It is not my eyesight.
“My time’s running out, you know that,” he says. “I wish I could stay longer.”
“I’ll see you in the next life then.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in that crap.” “These are desperate times.”
Jay is still alive. For now, he is still alive. But he won’t be for long.
I still don’t know where I am going with this. Jay is still dying, and there is nothing I can do about it. There is no way to keep him alive. The next two days have been particularly eventful. News of polar lights and ice fog in several places along the equatorial region. News of a bleach-resistant, ash-colored mold that grows and spreads fast on glass, concrete, and metal surfaces as soon as the surrounding air temperature exceeds 28.4 degrees Celsius. In a rapidly warming planet, most places, even in the shade, have air temperatures beyond 28.4 degrees Celsius.
News of rising columns of black basalt on the coast of Thailand, with the bizarre projections forming an artificial island a few miles from Chaweng Beach. News of turtles suddenly materializing to lay eggs on beaches whose waters have long grown acidic, and then disappearing right after only to reappear, growing in number and frequency with each sighting, an inescapable haunting of a world destroyed.
From Conjunctions: 73 (Earth Elegies). Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2019 by Kristine One Muslim.