‘It’s on the edge of a canyon,’ the realtor said, raising his eyebrows when I offered to buy the home without having looked at it first.
‘Fine,’ I said, though I wasn’t sure exactly what the realtor meant. Then I didn’t say anything for a long time because I was thinking of Fra Keeler’s death. And it seemed the realtor wanted to repeat what he had just said, his eyebrows even more tense. ‘Some things aren’t worth looking into,’ I said, and the realtor’s eyebrows slackened a bit. Then I asked, ‘Where are the papers?’ ‘Here they are,’ he said. ‘I’d like to sign them,’ I said, and he pushed them across the table with his middle finger. What an ugly finger, I remember thinking while I signed the papers, and then I got up and I left.
We are said to die of one thing on paper, but it is entirely of something different that we die, I thought as I left the realtor’s office. And it is dangerous to take the discrepancy between the two for granted, what one actually dies of and what one is said to have died of on paper; there is hardly ever a correspondence. And I’m thinking now that some people’s deaths need to be thoroughly investigated. I’m more than certain that I thought this then too, as I left the realtor’s office, but the thought wasn’t as highly illuminated in my head. I’m thinking now, it isn’t every day one comes across a death that is especially timely and magnificent, for example Fra Keeler’s death. And then, one really has to wonder, one has to begin to think, to retrace the mental footsteps of the deceased person, e.g. Fra Keeler, since the chance that such a timely death would remain unexplained on paper is that much more significant.
* * *
And it is true that certain events of the unfriendliest category are now unfolding. I cannot put my finger on these events, I cannot pinpoint the exact dimensions of their effect. The truth is, I haven’t been the same since Fra Keeler’s death. Some deaths are more than just a death, I keep thinking, and Fra Keeler’s was exemplary in this sense. And it is the same thought since I left the realtor’s office: some people’s deaths need to be thoroughly investigated, and Yes, I think then, Yes: I bought this home in order to fully investigate Fra Keeler’s death. And now that I own it, the home Fra Keeler used to own, I’m beginning to witness certain events. And I can’t help but think, he died just in time, Fra Keeler, he must have known certain things to have known to die just in time. Some deaths can only be understood in relation to the events that proceed them. People pretend it is the affairs that lead up to a person’s death that are most important. That life accumulates up to a point, the point at which one does one’s dying, and that nothing after that is relevant to the life one leads. But no, I think. And the word No moves across my mind the way the realtor’s finger inched its way across the desk. Things are illuminated retrospectively, I keep saying to myself. And it is these unfriendly events that will tell me the most about Fra Keeler’s death. Only, they are still forming, they are still taking shape. I am only beginning to put my finger on them, as directly as the realtor put his finger on the papers when he slid them across the desk.
It is not for nothing that the reels in our minds start revolving at a speed we might find difficult to bear. And timely as it was, Fra Keeler’s death raises questions unanswered by hospital records, or any other death-related paper there is. Hospital records do not reflect the whole truth, nothing close to it. How is one to make sense of the facts that are listed when the deceased person’s place of birth and death are so distant from one another; how is one to know how the person got from one end of the earth to another? And more odd things are listed in the margins. Occupation at time of death—surgeon, butcher, logger, office clerk, etc.—listed on the one hand, and burial, cremation, removal, etc., on the other. It is not as if the person died in the midst of performing their job, or perhaps they did, perhaps they had a cardiac arrest while harvesting trees in the forest, and they looked up and thought, I am a logger, and then dropped dead. What an absurd list of facts. There are no complete sentences; how is one to conclude anything from a death certificate? And the reasons given for Fra Keeler’s death are nothing short of nonsense, and if they do make sense, their sense is limited. Everything is listed as plainly as a chicken lays its eggs. All the death-related records indicate the same thing, they all point to the same condition. I have leafed through them all, traced Time and Place of Death with my finger—but who, I keep thinking, who would undertake such massive coordination, who would want to hide Fra Keeler’s connection to the unfriendly events? Sheet after sheet the same thing is written, which means the same thing must be read: Fra Keeler died of lung cancer, cancer of the lungs, pulmonary cancer. And the handwriting is always the same, a low squiggly line resembling rolling hills with a dark horse or two traversing them. Cancer. Fra Keeler died of pulmonary cancer. And it’s a squiggle, a line. Nothing else.
* * *
But no: I lied. To be fair, I omitted, I didn’t lie, there is one record that does not match the others. There is one discrepancy. And how could I not have seen it before? The unfriendly events cannot hide forever. I must look for incongruities, I must probe them with my finger. The truth always gives way; I have heard the saying—hovering beneath one’s nose. And it is true. I found the truth in the drawer. I opened the drawer and it was simply there, a sheet of paper like any other sheet of paper. Except a little tarnished on the edges, a little yellowed here and there. The ink smudged in certain places, so that I could tell which keys, while the document was being written, had been held the longest on the typewriter. But the words can still be made out. One never needs all the letters to make out a word—the word is there in the brain, an image of it one can pull into the light, and ah, one says, ah, that is the word that is written there, Death Certificate, and then Palma de Mallorca next to Place of Death.
* * *
And quite suddenly I am confused. Some things, I keep thinking, are unprecedented. And what can a person do? The name, Palma de Mallorca, as if it were a ghost, has taken hold of my tongue. Pal-ma, I keep saying, Pal-ma. The word lingers in my mouth, hums in my brain. I see myself opening the desk drawer as I opened it that day. I must have seen the paper and returned it to the drawer right away. Shut it out of my mind. Why else would it take hold of me this way? Things creep up on us when we deny their existence. And of all the papers, it is the only one that reads, Palma de Mallorca, Place of Death. The words peel off the page to sing brightly before my eyes.
I must retrace.
It was a few days after I had moved into the home, this home I had just bought thinking it belonged to Fra Keeler. Though I am now beginning to suspect that I am wrong, or that there are two Fra Keelers, the right one and the wrong one, and that the death certificate in the drawer belongs to one, and the rest of it to the other, but this is a matter for later. In any case, I had just moved in, I was grinding beans for my morning coffee when I spied from the kitchen window behind some trees a small, circular wooden cabin, a yurt. And from where I was standing in the kitchen, behind the sink, looking through the window, it seemed as if the door to the yurt was slightly unhinged. It was swinging to and fro against the wind. I decided to go and have a look. I crossed the yard and walked through the trees I had seen from the window. Their branches, interweaving, suddenly made a huge tapestry above me, and then, as if from nowhere, it was sky again, the trees were behind me, and I was standing in a clearing, the yurt directly in front of me. It all seemed quite sudden, for when I was standing behind the sink and looking through the kitchen window the yurt seemed to be appearing from another time altogether, it was as though the yurt had traveled through time to make a momentary appearance there and I couldn’t consolidate this feeling with how close the yurt was to the house when I ventured towards it. There it was: right behind the cluster of trees. And the door to the yurt was creaking loudly, since the wind had picked up in the time it had taken me to walk towards it. I pushed the door all the way open and stepped in. It was pitch dark inside. No light from the world was creeping through. I still had a box of matches in my hand, since right before spotting the yurt I had wanted to light the stove to make my coffee. I lit one, the wind blew. I lit another and held it right above my face, where one would hold a portable torch if one had one, and saw rows and rows of shelves on the walls. I wanted to walk towards them, but there was something obstructing my path—it looked like a wooden canoe, and then I saw an oar and the match blew out. I couldn’t confirm anything. I lit another match and looked down at my feet. There was, in fact, a canoe, and I stepped into it and out of it on the other side, the wall side, and came close enough to the shelves that I was able to touch them. They were dusty. I was holding the match in my other hand, and I could only see things in small portions as I held the light of the match up to them. I must get out, I thought. And then the wind slowed and I could hear the leaves shuffle in the low breeze, outside, just beyond the yurt. There is a reason for everything, I said to myself, a reason for having come to the yurt. And then his name formed in my chest: Fra Keeler, I murmured, I hummed, the wind picked up, Fra Keeler, I said, and his name poured from my lips the way water pours from a fountain, in long streams, uninterrupted, and just as I said his name I was standing out in the clearing again.
I noticed the leaves on the trees looked greener, as though the bark had bled into them. I didn’t know how long I had been inside the yurt. The sky was heavier now, a morbid color; I could feel it pressing against the back of my neck, folding me down to the ground. I pressed back against it, and walked as quickly as I could through the trees. The air grew cold, and then quite suddenly everything was wet with rain. It was as though a tap had opened in the sky. Water was dripping off the leaves, pouring in streams, the way his name was pouring from my lips, uncontrollably when I stood in the yurt.
Had I fumbled my way out of it without knowing? I turned around to look beyond the trees. I wanted to see it again, to confirm its existence. I looked hard through the clearing, to where the yurt had been. My boots were caked with mud from the rain. There was a streak of lightning. The yurt flashed before my eyes. I heard the door swing wide open, it blasted hard against something, the canoe, I thought, the hinges on the door must have loosened in the wind. I couldn’t see clearly. I looked again through the trees. I was squinting in the wind. I looked down at my hands, to see if they were still dusty from the shelves, but they had been wiped clean by the rain. Water was pouring, violently coming down through everything. My face was burning now in the cold rain. The yurt flashed again before my eyes, silver and radiant in the lightning. But it was an image of the yurt, an instant, a flash, nothing else. It was I who was reproducing it there, an image of the yurt I kept projecting. Blood was swiveling in my brain. I looked again, but this time nothing appeared, and I ran through the yard, towards the house. I pulled the storm door open. Inside, everything looked the same. Only it was a little dimmer than before, a dull, grey light had settled around the edges of things. And the countertops seemed heavier; all the machinery of the kitchen seemed older in the grey light, and rounder, more anchored into the ground.
Inside, I rested against the sink. I was panting for air. I reached to turn on the tap; water gurgled, then flowed in steady streams. Everything was in order: the coffee grinder, the cup, the sponge with which I had wanted to wipe the counter. I looked again, through the window, to the other side of the trees, into the clearing that lay beyond them, but could see nothing. Only the wind thrashing the branches of the trees. And it was then his name rose again to my lips. Fra Keeler, I said, though this time more exasperated than before; I was wheezing from the wind, and I could hear myself hissing his name under my breath, Fra Keeler, I rasped, Fra Keeler, I said again, until I was hissing like the wind.
I awoke hours later. It was pitch dark and there were papers strewn all around me. I remembered standing by the sink, watching the trees thrash around in the wind. I looked on the floor. My clothes were scattered about, here and there on the tiles. I had undressed myself. I sat up and reached across the floor. My clothes were still damp from the rain. There was a musty smell in the house, like something old had crept in and settled itself in the furniture, on the countertops, in the cabinets, between things. My head was throbbing. Any minute now, I thought to myself, it is going to explode. I couldn’t remember falling asleep or undressing. The last visible point in my mind was the kitchen sink, myself standing over it, searching through the window for the yurt. I couldn’t understand where all the papers had come from. I couldn’t remember carrying anything back from the yurt. In fact, hadn’t I looked down at my hands, weren’t they empty? The papers did a wild dance around me, the room turned and turned. I closed my eyes. I drifted.
I woke up again hours later. It was light now; a very clear day was coming. The sun’s rays were bronze, that early morning orange color, and they were piercing through my window. I lifted my head. I saw the papers again. Certain words were illuminated, from the light creeping through the window, and the rays of the light, firm as needles, were pointing out certain words to me, piercing through the words, and I thought, this is a clue, this is a sign. I lifted my head off the ground a little more, and it was pulsing, as though two hearts were about to leap out of its sides, but it wasn’t throbbing like before. The room was steady. I reached across for my clothes. They were dry now. I put them on and leaned over the pages. Propped up on my elbow, I was halfway off the floor. I looked at the words with the needles going through them: the Netherlands, I read, and I thought: the Netherlands, low lands, lower lands, under something. And in such a handwriting: a low squiggly line resembling rolling hills with a dark horse or two traversing them. I followed the handwriting back and forth across each page. And the word cancer, pulmonary cancer, cancer of the lungs, poured out towards me. And there it was: next to the Netherlands, the words Place of Death. Fra Keeler, I thought: he died of cancer in the Netherlands.
And I had to retrace again.
The papers, how had they come to me? But then the doorbell rang. It made the sound of a large rock hitting against hollow metal and the sound was violent through my brain, and I had to get up because I couldn’t handle it ringing again. I fumbled across the living room and down the hallway to the front door. It was the mailman. He looked pink and happy, and I could tell that someone had just ironed his clothes, a very loyal wife, I thought, the creases were perfect, straight lines and angles down to his sleeves. I leaned against the door.
‘Hello,’ I said. I was still dizzy; my head was still throbbing a little.
‘Hello,’ he said back. And then he handed me a package. ‘Here you go,’ he said. ‘Good day, sir,’ he said.
I said, ‘Yes,’ more in the form of a question than a statement. And then I took the package from him and saw that he looked slightly confused. And I was forced to say something. So I said, ‘Do you hand deliver the mail every day,’ and felt stupid as soon as I said it.
‘No, that is a special package,’ he said. ‘You have to sign for it.’ And right as he said the word ‘special,’ he placed his hands on his hips, and puffed up his stomach, like it gave him a feeling of buoyancy to say it.
I looked down at the package. It said EXPRESS in big, bold letters. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I see,’ and signed for the package.
He turned to leave, a little less light in his eyes than when he had first announced himself, and I thought, what have I done to make him feel so deflated. And right as I was thinking this, he stopped, not quite facing the post office truck and not quite facing me either. He tilted his head to one side and opened his mouth like a fish to show that he was thinking, and then he sucked in some air and puckered his lips a bit, but nothing came out, only silence. I stood there watching him, a bit stunned and a bit weary, and then he prepared to leave again, placed one foot behind the other and rocked backwards and forwards a bit, not in a cautionary way, just in a way to show he was still thinking, that what he had wanted to say was still on the tip of his tongue, that he was just turning it over in his head. Then he tapped the tip of his shoe on the pavement as though his whole body was an exclamation point and came out with it:
‘Those are some nice plants,’ he said. I was surprised. I thought, if that’s what he had wanted to say why had it taken him so long to say it? Maybe he wanted to say something else, something along the lines of you don’t look so good, Mister, but had regretted it, and shoved the thought and all the words that went along with it back into his head and said the thing about the plants instead.
‘Yeah,’ I said without a pause because I didn’t want him to know I was thinking all those things while I was watching him. ‘Cactus,’ I said, ‘they’re my favorite.’ He walked down the driveway alongside the prickly plants, and inspected them sidelong. I took a step out of the doorway and thought, that is no ordinary mailman, and I watched him some more.
‘They don’t take much,’ I said as though I were speaking from my chin, because I was holding my head up high and looking down at him and it was difficult to move my lips while I was holding my face in that manner. But he didn’t say much in return, so I said, ‘They’re easy to take care of, especially in this weather.’ He just nodded his head yes, like he was still deep in thought, and I couldn’t tell anymore if he was thinking about the plants or about the thing he had wanted to say but had never said. And then he hopped up into his truck, and I caught a glimpse of his hand releasing the brake and his boot pressing on the gas and it looked like a limp foot pressing on the accelerator. I saw his arm go up and I followed the crease of his shirt from his shoulder down to his hand, and saw that he was waving goodbye. What a fat hand, I thought from the doorway now, because I had stepped backwards into it, just as with his limp foot he pressed heavier on the gas and did an about-turn with the truck and left.
What a strange man, I said to myself, and closed the door and the living room darkened. I looked up at the ceiling, a high ceiling with a dusty skylight. I debated for a second whether I should dust the skylight or just let it be what it wanted to be, a magnet for dust to settle on along with other dust particles, a dust town, I thought, and decided it was better off the way it was and let it be. Anything that’s been a certain way for long enough is difficult to alter, and any alterations to it will be interpreted as nothing short of manipulation, either by the thing being altered or by the person doing the alteration, even if all we’re talking about is a skylight, I thought, and went back into the kitchen. The papers were still strewn about on the floor as they had been ten minutes ago when I had gotten up to open the door. I walked over them, one leg then the other, carefully; I didn’t want to step on them. But then the room started to turn again, ever so slightly. Curse of the kitchen, I thought, or these papers, and then the blood rushed out of my brain and returned again, a mere second later. It occurred to me that this time I could have gone dizzy because of the skylight. Or more precisely because of my thoughts about the skylight. It always makes me queasy to think of manipulation as a general category, I thought, and bent over to pick up some of the papers. Maybe if I stack them, I thought, and managed to stack the papers without the blood swiveling again in my brain. And when I bent down to stack the papers I thought the sensation I had had earlier in my brain was the same sensation I had felt once when I shook a pomegranate near my ear, or not exactly a sensation, but a sound. That when I shook the pomegranate it made the same sound as the sound my blood made when it swiveled in my brain, and that both sounds led to the same sensation: that of something having dissolved where it shouldn’t have. And then I went over the memory, from when I picked up the pomegranate to when I shook it near my ear: I squeezed the pomegranate by rolling it and pressing into it with my thumbs, juiced it without cracking it open because it’s the only way to juice a pomegranate without any special machines, and all the juice was swiveling about inside the shell of the pomegranate, channeling its way around the seeds the way river water channels itself around driftwood. After about fifteen minutes of doing this, the shell had gone soft and I remember I held the pomegranate and shook it near my ear and it made the same sound as the blood did when it swiveled in my brain. And when I put the pomegranate down I could still hear the juice working its way around the seeds that were dead without their pulp because I had squeezed the pomegranate till the pulp was dead. And then I thought about inventing a machine to juice pomegranates, but not just pomegranates but persimmons too, some very basic, cheap tool people could use in their homes, and then I imagined a thousand people, all wearing their house slippers, juicing their persimmons for breakfast, and I thought bullshit, and besides someone’s probably already invented it, and I took the stack of papers that I had collected off the floor and placed them on the counter. To one side, I thought, to one side to be done with them.
I decided to open the package the mailman had delivered. I went over to the stove, because that’s where I keep my butter knives, right next to the stove, and I wanted to use one so I wouldn’t have to bother peeling the tape off the box because it always bothers me to watch the skin of the box come off with the tape. It’s a death worse than the pomegranate’s, to be skinned alive. But then again, it’s just a box, I thought, and not a person, and if I wanted to I could go on like that forever, about all the different mechanisms of dying, all its nooks and crannies; I could create some kind of death pyramid, and it would look just like a food pyramid but it would have nothing to do with food or nutrition, and there would be a pyramid for each object, and every kind of person too, and from top to bottom I would figure out the range of deaths each thing or person could suffer, from unlikeliest to likeliest cause of death and be done with it once and for all. And then I told myself either to shut up or drop dead and took a drink of water from the sink and looked out the window.
But my heart stopped because it was a clear day and I could see the trees, very round and close, almost bursting in my retinas, and somewhere in the back of my brain I heard the door of the yurt creak shut. Suddenly there was a faint smell of rust in the air and I could hear the hinges on the door creaking, but I couldn’t see the yurt. Everything dimmed in the peripheries. The way everything dims when the sun gets blocked by clouds, and its rays are cut off, instantly. I looked around. There wasn’t a rusty nail or old hinge anywhere near me and as soon as I thought this the smell faded, retreated back into whatever mystery it had emerged from. I was beginning to grow dizzy again, and thought the oxygen in my brain is being sucked out by whatever is on the other side of that door, and then his name crept up, Fra Keeler, unto my tongue, but I managed to push it down because I remembered the mailman looking at the plants sidelong, and then his name crept up and I managed to push it down, pink and happy as a shrimp that mailman, I thought, and then his name crept up again, sidelong, and I felt compelled to stare at the trees because in addition to oxygen trees are suppose to give you peace and quiet too, and maybe that’s what the mailman was thinking when he was staring at the plants sidelong. And they really do accomplish their objectives, I said to myself, those trees, and his name crept up, because the leaves on the branches are good to look at, bristling in the breeze, shivering—giving a small shudder and then staying still, and his name crept up, and I remembered the butter knife and grabbed it and walked back over to the package and placed the knife to the tape just like I had wanted to and sliced the tape through and the flaps opened and I pushed them down, wings of an underdeveloped bird, I thought, and his name crept up.