Barren, fertile, virgin, dry – we speak of our land like a biblical woman. And it’s no mistake. We come from a grand tradition. Gaia, Demeter, Pele and Eve. Primordial women who knew about cycles and passages. Birthing and deathing and intricate dancing between. Myrle Daniels Kilen Salsbury, who took on the name of each man she married and forgot her own when the last one died. Who tripped headlong into Alzheimer’s and emerged an oracle.
Like any good oracle, she speaks in riddles. Mumbles like a toothless temple virgin. Watches a PBS documentary on dinosaurs and remembers what they were like. “Those were bad days. You had to be tough.” Yes, Myrle. Tell me more. “Used to lose sheep to them. Wasn’t a fence could keep them out.” Good thing they all died. “I still see them some.” She calls my mom Carol, who’s my grandma and who’s dead, but that’s fine. We’re all nesting dolls, anyway. Pop me open and find my dad. Tip him over and pour grandpa out. “Did you ever take that trip to the ocean, Carol?” I died on that trip, Myrle. “Well, I’m glad you made it back, at least.” She mumbles and we shout, like in a fever dream, and on bad days she doesn’t make words at all. “Eeyak uhoong ahmm.” I’m doing good, Myrle. Dad finally bought that horse he’s been looking at. “Gheeaan o’poh.” And you have to listen to the music and translate it. Mi Re Fa. How are you.
“She’s having mini-strokes,” the doctor says. Fuck that. She’s having visions. “Lloyd visits sometimes, just to check the cows.” Lloyd’s her last husband, dead longer than Grandma Carol, but I don’t doubt her. “He saw that new oil well on Zoanni’s. He doesn’t like it. Says it don’t make a lick of sense.”
I asked her how Lloyd died. She told me about rabbits, and how the doe will absorb her litter back into her body if there won’t be enough food for them once they’re born. Is that true? “Absolutely. I’ve done it a couple times.” And that’s her answer, mumble mumble. So Lloyd was absorbed back into his mother? Sol Mi Fa Ti.
Myrle doesn’t wear a bra.
Myrle still has fiery red hair.
Myrle doesn’t have an old-lady perm.
Myrle has creeks and coulees in her skin that collect the earth when she collapses in her garden.
Where are you, Myrle? “I’m hiding in my shadow.” She’s having visions.
She has a son Marvin. Marvin couldn’t use the scale in the doctor’s office for his physical. They took him to the grain elevator and put him on the truck scale there. Four twenty-seven. He has a son Kenny who has a daughter Tyla who is ten and talks just like Myrle. “Ackie pooga dihn.” Don’t talk baby talk, girl, Marvin says. “Shut up, Papaw.” He owns a backhoe. Makes his living digging big fucking holes and filling them in again. “That don’t make a lick of sense.”
I told Myrle how, when my grandpa died, I touched his lips and put my fingers to my forehead. How it felt right, and how grandpa probably thought it was too stupid to notice. “Well, you men need a way to make sense of it all.” Like totems and taboos. Like how grandpa’s ashes were buried in the field behind the house – the first field he owned. My uncle penetrated the earth with a hydraulic posthole digger and dropped him into the six-foot emptiness. Like how grandma’s ashes were rained from the sky. Mixed with water and fertilizer and sprayed over the farm with a crop-dusting plane. “Yeah. I mean, Marvin digs big fucking holes.” She’s crass like that. The guy who flew the crop duster, Wayne, was a good friend of grandma’s. He committed suicide. I’m not saying the two are connected.
Digging holes – that’s a dumb way to make sense of things. But grandma, she died at the ocean, and grandpa, he died in the bathtub, and that means something, right? “So, what, you’re going to stop taking baths?”
Myrle takes baths and doesn’t die. Because I could not stop for Death, yes, she’s heard, thank you. He stops by once in a while, and she plunks him down at the kitchen table, stuffs him full of pie and cookies, and gives him directions to the nursing home. “Adieu, adieu.”
A myth from the Solomon Islands says that women and snakes can slough their skins and be reborn. Women just stopped doing it, because it bothered the men. One day, an old grandmother went down to the river to change her skin, and when she came back, her husband went bug-eyed. She wasn’t his wife anymore. How could he live with an immortal? She got so pissed that she went back and slipped into her old skin again. Take that. You had your chance, buster.
The whole rabbit thing throws me off. Does the doe absorb her litter so they won’t compete with her for resources? Or is it so they won’t suffer in a harsh world? She seems capable of both. She is to be loved and feared. Exists to be loved and feared. That’s a lot of power for one woman.
In and out, in and out, reborn and redead. “Marvin digs my grave every day.” He digs sewer lines, Myrle. “That’s my point. This place is just one big open grave. And what are we? Undead. Undead running around, doing undead deeds.” I write it on a napkin because I don’t get it, and it’s important to her. You can tell when it matters because her focus is remarkable. She sits, hunches around her navel and pushes forth a full paragraph. Intense. It yowls, and she smacks it on its bottom. Post-menopausal, she births dialogues. Her mouth is lined, surrounded with stretch marks from conversations. Miscarried sentences.
“Jesus had a whore.” I almost flushed it.
But she fished it back out and cradled it, nursed it, gave it to me. A baby girl.
And now I want to know why the blueprint of the Magdalene was not passed down. Why all we have is the whore that wiped Jesus’ feet. We skipped the whole phase of the woman – having passion, wisdom, lust. Being a creative force. Being an equal to Christ.
It’s connected, somehow, in a way the Homemakers Club understands and I don’t. They elected her as historian, even though a camera is beyond her. A compact, arcane bit of witchery with one small button for shooting that looks exactly like the one small button for rewinding, for zooming, for turning the whole damn thing into a gerbil. Ah, Jesus, Myrle. You’ve exposed the film again. You’ve put it in backwards. You’ve fed it to Pug as a doggie treat.
But her memory is Diluvian. She knows everything that has ever been. She has re-membered our community. Examined it, absorbed it, nurtured the beautiful and the hideous.
Barren, fertile, virgin dry – but never passive. You can’t
just toss your seed into a warm hole and think the work is done.
You have to sacrifice it. Only when you give up your illusion of
control can she begin her miracle. Oracles step forward, creation
occurs. It’s a goddess thing to do.