Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Part That Never Dies

 

 

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is I was made for another world.                            - C.S. Lewis

 

For Jo-Anne

 

I was curious how my pet turtle would look without its shell. The turtle did not survive my curiosity. I cried for my mother to come to my room and fix my broken pet. She came to me, crinkled her face, and told me (in a shaky voice) the turtle could not be fixed. A living animal is not a toy. She then told me to go wash my hands.

I scurried to the bathroom and repeatedly washed my hands with soap and water. My vocabulary was limited but I was adept at reading faces and intonation. I realized what I had done was something very bad. I was trying to cleanse more than my hands. This was not the standard hamster-in-a-shoebox-funeral situation (my mother disposed of my dirty work without my involvement). I suddenly found myself on a new stretch of road, and my troubling thoughts would not wash away. Mom’s combination of the words living and animal was a new one on me. I understood the word animal, but living was a word I associated only with a certain room in our house.

I brought my conundrum to my older brother, who was digging a hole in the backyard. My brother was in the third grade. He could read books.

“Living animal means the animal’s alive,” he said. “Like you and me. We’re alive.”

“Alive?”

“Alive means you can move and breathe and do things. When you’re dead, you don’t move or breathe. They bury you when you’re dead.”

The wheels in my head were turning full speed. “Why do they bury you?” I asked.

He paused, listening to his own wheels. “Because you’re not alive.”

My older brother was my trusted guide: my main source for truthful and coherent explanations. He was the one who proved to me that a pot of water would boil when watched. But his circular reasoning on my existential question left me wanting.

“Why are you digging a hole?”

“I’m reading a book about King Tut. I’m pretending I’m an archeologist. An archeologist is a guy who digs up really old stuff.”

“Who’s King Tut?”

 

*   *   *

 

The next day I asked my parents to buy me a new turtle. I believed I was entitled because I now understood the concept of a living animal.

“Not on your life,” my father snapped. “You’re going to have to learn to be more responsible before you can have another pet.”

I said please multiple times.

“You heard me,” my father said.

I started to cry.

“Someday you’ll be ready for another pet. But not now.”

I again tried the please-please-please routine, but the look on Dad’s face signaled a warning to cut the act.

Anger replaced my tears. I stormed outside, mounted my red scooter, and fled down the sidewalk as fast as the tiny wheels would spin. I was running away from home. Unfortunately, my father had the advantage in an automobile, and my escape was thwarted before I could reach the corner. I received a humiliating spank on the fanny and was sentenced to my bedroom until further notice.

My brother voluntarily joined me in confinement. He read to me from his book about King Tut. “This is what he looked like,” he said, pointing to a photo of the funerary mask. We looked at photos of his furniture, gameboards, mummified pets, toys, statues, boxes, a chariot—everything covered in gold. There were illustrations of the  royal lifestyle and palace, and a section on how Tut was mummified: with Egyptian priests carefully wrapping the dead king’s body in bandages. The priests didn’t look at all like Father Driscoll (our parish priest). Their heads were shaved, they were shirtless and had towels wrapped around their waists.

“Why are they wearing funny clothes?” I asked.

“Because it was a long, long time ago. In a faraway land.”

His answer put me in a fairytale mood. He accommodated the mood by presenting his own take on the ancient Egyptian beliefs concerning the soul’s journey after death.

“What’s a soul?” I asked.

“A soul’s the part of you that never dies.”

He told me about a goddess named Maat, who weighed a dead person’s heart. A heart with good deeds was light; a heavy heart meant the person hadn’t done enough good deeds to get into the afterlife (the afterlife was the Egyptian heaven). If the heart was light, the god Osiris (who wore a funny hat) would allow the soul to get on a boat ferried by another god named Ra. The boat took the soul to the afterlife.

“Is that true?” I asked.

My brother was three weeks away from receiving his First Communion. His catechism was fresh in his thoughts. “Some of it’s true,” he said. “Our souls do live forever, and they go to heaven when we die. But there’s only one God.”

“Where is it?”

“What?”

“The soul.”

“It’s inside you.”

“What does it look like?”

His brain wheels locked. “I don’t know.”

After being paroled, we went to the backyard to play archeologists. I got to dig with the big shovel. Our excavation yielded a rusted gate hinge, a perfectly preserved Rheingold Beer bottle cap, and a cat’s eye marble.

“Wonderful things!” my brother said.

Over the next few weeks my parents softened to my requests for a new pet turtle. But instead of a turtle they offered to buy me two goldfish from Woolworths. I accepted the compromise.

“When can I get the fishes?” I asked.

“Tomorrow,” said Dad.

Three days later Mom backed the car out of the garage and told my brother and me to climb in to go fishing. Our car was a dull-gray, 1940 Dodge 4-door Sedan. It had plenty of leg-room, no seatbelts, a miniscule driveshaft bump, and an interior odor like dust and molasses. My mother would often use the old Dodge to ferry herself and her younger sister on shopping errands, with my older brother and me occupying the cavernous backseat. On this particular excursion, my brother would save my life.

The details are simple. I was leaning against the suicide door, lulled by the motion of snaking curves, when the door swung open and I flew out: dangling like a windsock—my brother having caught me by the right ankle. I remember the enormity of the clear sky, the feel of the wind, the sound of the tires on the road—rushing inches from the back of my head. I was weightless and peaceful and unafraid: the part of me that never dies. Then, in the twinkling of an eye, I was pulled back in, my mortal life saved by an eight-year-old. When my brother yanked the door shut, Mom looked in the rearview mirror.

“You boys are awfully quiet back there.”

We remained quiet. We were afraid of getting in trouble.

 

*  *  *

When we got home, my brother helped me set up the fish bowl. We didn’t talk about the experience with the suicide door. I opened the plastic bag containing the goldfish and gently poured them into their new home. My brother told me not to feed them too much and then changed clothes to go to his Cub Scout meeting.

I pulled up a chair and looked closely at my goldfish. Without the cumbersome burden of a shell (or arms and legs), they moved gracefully in their other world. I was with them. I was outside of time.

 

 

Timothy Reilly had been a professional tubaist (including a stint with the Teatro Regio of Torino, Italy) until around 1980, when a condition called “Embouchure Dystonia” put an end to his music career. He gratefully retired from substitute teaching in 2014. He has published widely, including works in The Citron Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Iron Horse Literary Review, Zone 3, Fictive Dream, Grey Sparrow, and Superstition Review. He has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Timothy Reilly lives in Southern California with his wife, Jo-Anne Cappeluti, a poet and scholar.