God wanted to give a gift to every child on the earth. At first, he wanted to create each child a raindrop. But rain was too unpredictable. He then wanted to create each child a cloud. But with so many children, no one would ever see the sun. Instead, he had the angels cut a snowflake for each child. Every winter a snowflake that was made just for you falls, just for you.
She wakes up in a long white hallway, her back on the ground. When she stands, a fast stream of images flushes past her on both sides, a movie reel set fast and unfocused. She puts her hand to the back of her head. Blood.
“Where am I?” she says to no one.
A letter appears at her feet. Her name is on the white envelope.
You’re in a hall.
She looks around for someone else but sees no one. The images look familiar. They almost look like faces.
“What happened? How did I get here?”
A new letter.
You are dead. This is where you are reborn.
What a waste of paper, she thinks. She glances at the images streaming past her right side. Is that her mom? It looks like her mom. Not her mom now but the one she saw in photographs. The one she wass too young to remember.
She walked down the hall. Her footsteps do not make an echo even though they should. There is no sound at all, only images flying past, a river of washed out and unfocused faces. They almost look like her memories. They go too fast to be certain.
A new envelope. This one is navy blue.
You are dead. This is where you are reborn. You will awake in a new place. You can bring five memories with you from your most recent life. All of your memories are streaming to your sides. Please reach and pull five. These will help make your new life easier. You have ten minutes. Happy death day and happy new birthday.
This can’t be heaven. This can’t be what happens to everyone.
A clock with navy numbers appears on the wall in front of her.
The memories are streaming so quickly, she can’t make them out. How will she know which one’s to reach for? How will she know she is grabbing the hand of her mother or good friend or childhood dog and not salvaging an abusive boyfriend, those 25 pounds she lost in college, or the neighbor boy who used too much tongue?
She gets on her knees and starts banging her head on the ground.
Maybe it’s not real. Maybe she will actually die and go to real heaven or real hell and not where this place is.
When she smacks her head against the floor, nothing happens. No sound. No pain. Nothing.
The clock reads 8:54
“How will I know what I am grabbing?”
“How will I grab only the good things!?”
She screams. A wasted scream. A scream no one will hear. A scream that does nothing. It doesn’t even make her feel better.
“Are the two stream different? Why are there two?”
On your left are your authentic memories as you remembered them. On your right are memories that others have told you about. Both loop in chronological order.
She walks to her left. Her childhood dog. A stick horse her grandfather made. The time her teacher emptied her desk in front of class. She sticks her arm deep into the stream and she can feel them, feel all of her memories. Her long hair that she chopped in eighth grade weaves through her fingers. Her palm brushes a horse she rode at camp; a kick ball bounces off her elbow; a summer rain dips on her shoulder. She wraps her fingers around something that does not want to be contained and pulls it into the hall.
A small silver fish wriggles for breath at her feet. She remembers it. She caught it when her and her father went fishing. The first time that just the two of them went. She had to go to the bathroom and wouldn’t go over the edge of the boat so they had to go in early.
“So I’ll go fishing with my father again?” She is relieved that he will be in her new life.
A new white letter.
You will catch that particular fish.
What is even the point of this? How does this make her new life easier?
She walks back to her memories and catches a glimpse of a friend from high school. The memories are getting more recent. She pushes her arm into the stream and feels around for a friend, a teacher, a person to hold on to. Her hand starts to feel cold and she wraps her fingers around a chilling elbow, shaking to keep itself warm.
It’s a tree branch. She pulls out the student lawn from her college. All of it. A large oak tree, a fountain, sidewalks that meet in a ‘Y’, splitting a frosted lawn. Each branch, each blade of grass, each petal of flowers that opened too early are covered in a small case of ice. A spring frost. She remembers sitting on the steps of her dorm in the cold and staring at the lawn until her fingers turned blue.
She walks to her right. Memories that she was told of. She reaches in and pulls a toddler version of herself, spitting up mashed carrots. Her first food. She reaches again. A letter an old friend wrote but that got lost in the mail. I can’t stand another day without your laugh. Is that silly of me? Remember going to the park? You jumped in the lake with all your clothes on and I said you were crazy but you were beautiful. I should have jumped in too but all I did was shove my hands in my pockets and hope you wouldn’t remember me being afraid of your joy.
She grabs at her chest. Why did she never call him back? Why didn’t she visit that May like she said she would.
Four memories. Two minutes left.
“What happens if I don’t choose a fifth?”
One will be chosen for you.
She walks to the frosted lawn and sits on a cold bench. Which of her memories did she bring into her current life? Ones that weren’t created but put there to be found. Did that make them more special? Probably not. Her memories rush past her the same way they were created. Even now, dead for only a few minutes, most of what she remembers seems foggy and unfocused. Not like they are slipping away, like they are being erased.
54 seconds left.
She reaches into the stream on the left and pulls out herself. She is sitting in her bed reading a book. She was never able to finish it because she died. Her memory laughs. Was the book really that funny? She can’t remember. It was only a few days ago but she can’t remember. Such a small, insignificant moment. This is what she gets to take with her.
She goes back to the bench and, as she is about to sit, it all disappears. The fish, the lawn, the letter, the baby spitting carrots, the girl reading the book all vanish. In their place is a small navy box with a powder blue ribbon.
A door appears at the end of of the hall.
She walks, her box of memories under arm. They bounce and laugh and vibrate, excited to be recycled, excited to be more than images splashed on the walls of a hallway.
She got pushed into the lake and she just kept sinking.
She kicked, she cupped her hands and pulled her arms in an arc, pushing water past her waist, but she sank. She sank like lead, like brick, like treasure. Until her feet hit the bottom.
She pushed off the rocks but she went nowhere. Unable to hold her breath any longer, her mouth opened in an involuntary gasp. Water rushed past her tongue and into her lungs but she didn’t drown. She took a step and was able to walk. Past an old tire, a boulder, a pile of concrete bricks, she saw people. People just like her.
“You found us!” a man said.
How was she supposed to answer? She shrugged her shoulders.
“Use your words, miss!”
“Wha… what?” It was just like on the surface. “Was I supposed to find you?”
“Well it would have been lonely down here all on your own!” the man bellowed.
He took her into a town that looked just like every other town. He introduced her to people that were just like everyone else she met. Everything was the same.
She carried on like she did before. She went to store, read the same books, took walks, and met a man. She cooked the same and ate the same. It was all the same.
Except the haze.
It must have been the water reflecting light, she thought. Maybe it was pollution or sand or rocks or a million other excuses. But it wasn’t. It was the haze of something different.
She could do and achieve and talk and work just like before. But it wasn’t like before. There were different people. There were different buildings. And the sun was much less bright.
She looked around at a life that wasn’t hers. A life that happened with a push. A life she could not swim out of.
She pushed off the bottom harder than before but nothing happened. She kicked and swam and tried climbing up the tallest rocks but she just sank back down.
And then she went back to her house. And she worked each day like she did before. And she cooked as she did before. And she bathed and talked and danced and loved as she did before.
Many years later she was dieing.
“Are you happy?” her daughter asked?
The woman looked up at her daughter, surrounded by the same haze that followed her her whole time in her underwater life.
“No, honey. Not at all.”
I sat next to him at a bar at the edge of the reservation.
“Why don’t you leave?” I ask.
He twist in his stool, the toes of this bulky sneakers wrap around the legs.
“Have you seen an Indian off a reservation?”
“I’m sure I have.”
“But have you seen an Indian off a reservation and said ‘that is an Indian’?”
“No. But it’s not like all Indians live on reservation.”
“I know. But what happens when an Indian moves off the reservation?”
“He lives like every other 25 year old in America.”
“Exactly,” he says. He talks a long drink of his beer and starts blowing air into the mouth of the bottle.
“Come on. So you don’t want to be like everyone else? Thats why you won’t move?”
“What happens if I move off the reservation and I stop being Indian.”
“That makes no sense. It’s not like you can scrub the brown and the ancestry out of you.”
“But I won’t visit. I’ll call my mom but it’s not like I’m gonna stop by on my way home from work or whatever.”
“But visiting doesn’t have anything to do with being Indian.”
“Well what are you? American.”
“No. I’m Mexican and Polish”
“You don’t live in Mexico or Poland. You speak broken Spanish to order tamales but so does my high school spanish teacher and she was Irish.”
“But my parents are from those countries. We do, like, traditions and stuff.”
“But you’re the melting pot.”
“So. Inside the pot is Mexico and Poland. You call your lunch ‘soup’, not ‘cooking pot’. It’s the contents not the container that matter.”
“But what do you do that makes you Mexican and Polish?”
“I breath…? Look, the fact that I’m half and half, the fact that I’m first generation, that’s important to me.You don’t think it was hard? I wasn’t Mexican enough for the latinas at school or Polish enough for my classmates that walked off the boat and into my neighborhood. I have this background, these cultures, that I was never enough for. I was just a voyeur into my history. But now I understand. I read books and asked relatives questions and stuff.”
“So now that you read those books and asked those questions, you are now officially Mexican and Polish. Like, you can proclaim it without shame”
“Why does it matter?”
“Because once I leave, I’m a relic or a ‘new man’ and I don’t want to be either.”
“And you want to be…”
“Whatever it is that I am now.”
“I get it. I envy you. You know how many times I am asked what I am? People think it’s funny to guess my race. And I guess it was. Sometimes it still is. But it just makes me realize that I am this woman just floating in between identities.”
“But you don’t have to identify with your race.” He orders another beer, grabs the edge of the bar, and rocks the stool on it’s back legs.
“Then why are you worried that you’ll stop being Indian if you move?”
“Because thats, like, my history.”
“And my race is my history too. I like to know where I’m from. Just as you being Indian tells people a little bit about you, my being half and half does the same.”
“I like being around it.”
“Just around the, I don’t know, Indian-ness of it all.”
“This place looks like a million mountain towns. It’s not like people walk around in headdresses.”
“Exactly. They are just ordinary. People are going to project those characters on me. What happens if I believe them?”
“Look, I’m not going to sit here and press it any more. I get it. You don’t want to move. That’s fine. But it’s not because you’re afraid you’ll lose all the Indian in you.”
“I don’t know. Stop lying to yourself and figure it out.”
He stares at me in silence. I stare at his hands wringing the neck of the beer bottle.
“That’s really the reason.”
“Okay, fine. Whatever. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I got up and he sat at the edge of the stool.
“I’m sorry you’re not surrounded by people like you. I mean, people that have the same background as you. I guess it’s nice sometimes.”
I give him a hug and walk to my car. The radio comes on and I turn it to the Spanish station. I pick up a word or two but I can’t follow the conversation. I’m not Mexican, I’m not Polish. I am nothing. My history is the highway through the rearview mirror: pale grass that covers the whole region, trees in perfect rows on a tree farm, the same yellow dandelions that sprout in the midwest, the southwest, and the plain old west.
The old man placed his walker and took a step. Dirt gathered around the edges of the metal and, with the strength left from living for 87 years, he lifted the walker and took another step. He swung his body around and fell into the wooden chair. It sat low enough to the ground that he could grab the ends of the grass, running his hands across the top of the green, the tips of the blades playing in his fingerprints.
The chair was under a maple tree and a leaf with orange tips fell onto his lap. Summer keeps ending earlier and earlier, he thought. Wasn’t it only July? It might be August. It doesn’t really matter.
He looked up to the tree, trying to pick the sky out through the branches. The leaves were moving but he didn’t feel any wind. He realized the grass, that his fingertips could barely touch, was now skimming the edges of his wrist. He went to pull up his arms but grass latched on, refusing to return the pale arms, the pressure of the pulling making his waxy skin the color of a moon jelly.
He went to sit up but the fibers of his flannel shirt pooled into the pores of the wood.
Roots slowly creeped out of the dirt and intertwined with his leather boot laces, peaked into the cuff of his jeans, and weaved through the hairs on his legs as the roots creep up his calves then knees then thighs.
He looked up and the leaves moved faster. The branches trembled as they reached closer to him. The leaves brushed against his head, his shoulder, his waist feeling the grooves on his cheeks, the creases in his shirt, like a blind man getting to know his companion. The branches loop under his armpits, twirled around his arms and met up with the ends of the grass. The latched together like holding hands.
And the grass overtook him and the branches overtook him and the roots and the dirt and the earth overtook him.
Under the pressure of nature his breath quickened and his pupils darted to the edges of his eyes as he search for his walker. He went to scream, to ask for help but he didn’t He unclenched his fists and slowed his breathing and relaxed into the embrace of the earth.
He couldn’t feel his legs or the pains in his knees. He couldn’t feel his torso or the rolling in his stomach. He couldn’t see a thing but the darkness could never be blurry if he wasn’t wearing his glasses.
Thank you, he said. And he took a breath and his lungs filled with soil.