Our grandparents and their grandparents said that if you walked deep enough into the forest, it was a dreaming, shifting place. They said there was a beast there, the one who devoured our dead. They said it would someday eat up the town, the smog, and the sun. And then, the world would again belong to the beasts. It was a natural cycle, they said, of day and night, of life and death.
Our town had a cemetery like every other town. Some gravestones were small and some were large. Some were simple flat rocks in the earth and some towered up to the sky. But they all had one thing in common. If you dug up the graves and opened the coffins, they'd all be empty.
As the air drew cooler it settled down with the fog. I could feel it sink into my lungs, and I took another drag of my last cigarette. The bench was cold and the cigarette was dying. I sighed.
The streetlights in the outskirts of town were flickering, dim, a few tired ones burned out. I walked past the house. I walked past it again. My lungs hurt for another cigarette and I reached into my bag, but my fingers grasped nothing but empty gum wrappers. I stood with my shadow on the front porch, the heavy wooden door in front of me.
My heart pounded like my fist against the door.
The young man in the doorway stared for a second. "Your shoes are untied," he said softly. His voice was deeper than I remembered.
I looked down at my shoes. Both were perfectly tied.
"Made you look," he said, smiling.
"You bastard!" I laughed and hugged him, hard. "You grew up way too fast."
He pulled away and shrugged. "You were gone awhile."
I couldn't argue with that, so I shrugged back.
"Come in, Holly."
Devon led me down the hallway into Mom's bedroom. Except it was no longer a bedroom.
It smelled of antiseptic, of medicine and tubes and plastic plants. It smelled like someone covered the dusty scents of death with flower petals and hand sanitizer. This was not a bedroom, I realized. It was a dying room.
My mother's eyes were closed as if she was asleep. But it wasn't peaceful. Her limp body gasped every inhale like the breathing was torture and the tubes made her do it.
It seemed like a stupid question. "Uhh – is... Is she going to wake up?"
Devon didn't answer. "Mom," he said quietly. "Holly's here. Your daughter is here."
The woman I grew up with. The woman who raised me. The only woman I loved and kissed and hit and hated. She was dying in her bed and although we were there, she was alone. I tried to find some words, any words, to comfort Devon, to comfort myself. But all I knew was that she was dying and we were all dying and everything else was dying, too.
I stood there in the doorway for a moment, suspended and weak. Devon stood next to her bed, waiting for me to follow. I took a step forward.
"Do you want to hold her hand?" he asked.
I moved slowly to the bed. I placed her small, pale hand in mine. I watched her face and so did Devon. And we said nothing, as we watched our mother, dying.
I didn't really sleep that first night. In my old room in my old bed in my old life, I sweated and I listened to my nervous beating heart.
Now that I was here, all I could remember were the things I didn't want to. When I was a teenager, I stayed out and drank all night and listened to angry music. I staggered home in the early hours of the morning to screaming matches with my mother. She would pull me by my hair and lock me in the closet with our Bible and a flashlight. I hated the way the book smelled, like rust and rot and death. I hated the way it felt in my hands; leathery and thick, like snakeskin. I hated the suffocating words on the pages. They said that you cannot choose where you are from and you cannot choose where you go when you die. Not to heaven, not to hell. Not in the ground, but somewhere else.
I spent hours burying my anger in its thick, dry pages. And when I was seventeen, I took that Bible and I burned it up in the driveway.
I have never before or since tasted so much blood in my mouth.
I packed up everything I could into a blue backpack and bought a bus ticket to northwest nowhere, to mystical Aunt Kara, whom I'd never met and barely heard of.
Somehow, I found her and I didn't bother looking back. For a while.
The dying bed was busy. Liquids went in with tubes, and it came back out with tubes. Breath came in with shallow, desperate gasps. Death is supposed to be smelly, messy, gruesome. But on the dying bed, it was schedules and antiseptic wipes. Morning meds. Afternoon meds. Evening meds. 50mg dose of this, 400mg dose of that. Look at the charts if you get confused. Don't forget to wipe. Don't forget to clean.
Sometimes her eyes blinked open, shining and weary. But by the time a few of my heartbeats had tripped over the others, her eyelids fluttered closed. I tried to tell her I was sorry that I couldn't be the daughter she wanted me to be. I tried to tell her that I wished we could have gotten along better, because she wasn't always so bad. I told her I remembered the orange kitten she'd brought home on my ninth birthday, the one who waited for me back in my apartment a hundred miles from here.
"I don't know if you remember. You taught me how to take care of her, how much food to give her and how to clean up after her. You said that a cat might not love you as much as you love it, or the way that you wanted it to. But it would give you all the love it was capable of," I said. "Right, Mom?"
She just kept gasping.
Devon went to school. I watched Mom. A few times a week, the hospice nurses watched her and I wandered my old town.
The town was plagued by its admiration and hatred of its traditions. Women adorned their fingers with snakes, their own tails in their jaws. Men mounted plaques of them on their walls. Adolescents cut off the heads of garter snakes and left them at our door, a constant reminder of what was to come.
The streets of the town were cracked and warped at the sides. Those without families wandered the southern ends of the streets at night, wondering who would take them home when it came their turn to die.
I sat on the bench at the park, staring at the sky and smoking cigarette after cigarette. I waited for my mother to die.
One afternoon, Devon came to sit next to me.
"Hey, Holly," he said.
"Oh, hey, Devon," I said.
"Oh, nothing. I'm just sitting around, polluting my lungs."
"I thought you were a singer," he said.
I looked at him, half-smiling. "So?"
"Well, you know. You want your vocal cords to last, don't you?"
"Nah. I'm a vocalist for a punk band. You don't need to sing well, it's mostly about the words and the aggression anyway. You just need to make sounds, like with your throat."
"I guess you're right."
"Uh-huh, you got it," I said, blowing smoke.
He paused for a moment. "It's good to see you back, Holly."
We were silent for a moment, and I was okay with that. I thought about how when we were kids, we were always chasing each other, running in circles and fighting and laughing and crying and doing it all again.
"Listen, Holly," he said. "You know what we need to do after – after she..."
"After she dies." I stabbed out my cigarette.
"Yeah, I know," I said.
He was talking about the pilgrimage. The way people dispose of the dead in this town.
"There's no getting out of it, is there?" I said.
Devon shook his head. "But don't most traditions eventually die?"
"I think so," I said. "But the people in this town believe that when this one dies, the beast will devour us all."
When it happened, it was quiet. Anticlimactic.
Her vitals descended slowly through the weekend and plummeted on Monday night. As her only living relatives, Devon and I decided to take her off of life support the following Tuesday. With the hospice nurses, we watched her take her final breaths.
I felt her exhales escaping into the atmosphere, and I tried to hold them somewhere deep inside me. They would last longer if I could hold them, if I could just hold them in my hands. But they slipped through my fingers and they whispered into the air.
And then, they were gone.
We carried her in a neat little box. I held it at the front and Devon at the back. We hiked into the mountains, walking along the same dirt trail that our ancestors had traveled upon for millennia. We were taking our mother to the beast.
We walked across the pine needles and heard the things that whispered behind the trees. We walked far into the dreaming, shifting part of the forest that our grandparents had told us about. We walked through curtains of fog, blankets of snow, and waves of darkness.
We walked deep into the belly of the forest; the trees thick and green. Devon and I finally stopped at the end of the trail, at the mouth of an enormous cave. We set the neat box down and took our mother's body to the front of the cave's mouth. We heard the sounds of bending metal and scraping rock.
"Should we wait? Or should we just leave?"
"Let's wait a second. I want to see…" Devon said.
I paused. "Okay."
"I've been expecting this for a while. But it wasn't how I expected," he said.
I nodded. I was exhausted and my body had nearly reached its limit. My tired mouth opened and said, "She hated me."
Devon looked at me harshly. "She didn't hate you."
I was quiet. I looked at my brother and I thought of his blood, my blood, our mother's blood, in our veins. I thought about her anger and her confusion. I thought about the kitten she had given me on my ninth birthday and what she had said: that it might not love you in the way that you hoped it would, but it would love you with whatever it was capable of giving.
We heard more scraping from the cave. A million tiny snakes began to slither from its mouth, each no larger than the length of my hand. They started to surround my mother's body, all working together to pick her up and bring her corpse inside.
I stared into the darkness of the cave as they took her away and in a sliver of light I saw the beast. It was impossibly huge, its face with metal jaws and steel eyes staring upward at nothing. The snake had its gigantic jaws fixed on its tail, eternally spinning no faster than the speed of the earth itself.
The snake would keep spinning and the cycle would continue. The day would bring night. The light would bring shadows. And because they were born, all things would die.