Death at the Doorway

Posted in honor of El Dia de los Muertos.

Death came in the glassy eyes and prickled matte of tongues suspended from the mouths of bucks hanging upside down in the arctic entries of houses as we knocked on doors, holding out our plastic jack-o-lantern buckets and saying in unison, “Trick or Treat!” The musty scent from tufts of fur, wet from the grass in which the deer last bed, lingered in the doorways long after the deer were aged, butchered, wrapped in freezer paper, labeled, and stacked in the freezer.

My dad and stepdad at Blue Fox off Afognak Island. 

My dad and stepdad at Blue Fox off Afognak Island. 

Death came in the constant sighting of killed magpies and crows on the side of Mission Road and within the saucer of sand over which the tire swing circled at the park by my family’s house. Magpie was my Native name, Uguusik. Such a squawker I was. Magpie--- my own name was a personal omen for death, just around the bend.

Death came over the phone. The spiral cord twisted as my mom gasped to hear of a friend who was missing after a halibut opener or shot through the door of a cabin.

Death did not come in hospitals, where my siblings were born and where I would bring buttermilk to my dad’s bedside as he pulled me to the chest of his white hospital gown. He was admitted again for overconsumption of something-or-other, or the fights and car crashes that resulted from that consumption. Dad was impermeable to death, until he wasn’t.

Death came every night as zombies and vampires stalked me, aliens dissected me, ghosts possessed me and diabolical men chased me through cavernous, cold houses.  Night terrors were the only dreams I knew.

But life- life came from my mother, who smelled of the dental office in which she worked mixed with a dash of Camel Straits. Life came from holding her hand, the way she described good things as “just loverly,” her effervescent laugh, her alto voice as she sang Jimmy Cliff or Johnny Horton. But death was still so close, always so close, that at 5 PM I would watch the cars on the road from the dining room window of our trailer, waiting for the Chevy Astro to appear, certain that with each car that passed that was not hers, she was surely dead.

My mother was life, but throughout my childhood, I intuited that her death was just a moment away.