The morning after I died is clear and blue and gathering warmth to itself, another Texas scorcher in the making. High, pointless clouds. A sun. Treetops awaiting any perfunctory breeze. I know it is cool up there, somewhere. At some point, probably when the oxygen vanishes, the blue sky turns dim and freezing, the stars re-emerge, and the vast nothing cozies up and says hello to you. Maybe from the top of Everest? Maybe if one stands on the roof of an airplane, leaning forward into the wind, clutching one’s hat while one’s skirts flap madly behind? Who is that figure on the airplane? Is that me?
No, I am here, on the side of a grassy hill, thinking about my death or trying to but my brain keeps drifting upward like a grocery store balloon. It happened last night. Or was it late afternoon? Something violent? I feel intact. Maybe a subtle thing, like a poison. No, don’t be so dramatic. I probably had a stroke or a heart attack or … was I hit by a car? Oh. Oh, no. Did I hit someone with my car?
Death has no memory, it seems. Or — I have a base level of knowledge. I know who I am and what things are. I remember how the world works in general. I’m just rapidly losing specifics, like yesterday and the day before and the names of everyone I loved including myself. The world I perceive is in the broadest of broad strokes. A vulture circles in the sky, joined then by another. Are they coming for me? Did I die here?
I try to move, and I can, of course. I sit up and feel a dull headache. My shoulders are sore from having slept on this hard hummock of grass for what must have been a long time. I’m in some sort of pasture, though no animals graze. There are fences. There is a dirt road, devoid of cars. I have some mosquito bites on my ankles, but otherwise I feel unharmed. I check my pulse. Wait. I attempt to check my pulse. I never checked my own pulse when I was alive. I press fingers against my wrist and neck and close my eyes trying to feel the pump of blood. There it is! Or was it? Is that just the universe throbbing? It’s not even noon, and already the heat is unbearable.
I place my hand over my heart, as if to recite the pledge of allegiance. There, deep under the breast tissue, I feel it, the faint drumbeat. Maybe I’m not dead after all. I’m wearing capri jeans and a soft white top with lace trim that looks great but feels uncomfortable and is honestly just a little small on me. My lower back is constantly exposed in it when I’m sitting. I feel sweat there, now. I am alive. I have to be. But what happened?
“You died,” said nobody.
I look around. There are a few hardy trees hundred of yards away, and those fences, and that empty road. When I look up, the strengthening sun causes me to squint but I see that the shadows of the vultures have vanished. Hello?
“You are dead,” nobody repeated.
How? Where? I stand, painfully, my knees creaking under my weight. Gravity feels as oppressive as the heat this morning. I decide to walk to the nearest tree for shade. I am thirsty. Can anybody hear me? I ask. Then I shout it: Hello?
The walk is lumpy, in the way of fields not meant for seeds or feet. Numerous tiny divots and sudden rocks make each step tricky. By the time I reach the tree, I am breathing heavily, and my face is covered in a sheen of sweat. I can feel the crust of yesterday’s eyeliner and mascara turning to pebbles in my lashes. What am I supposed to do? I ask of the tree. The tree does not speak. In the great tradition of all trees ever, it remains silent and patient.
So I am dead. I sit against the trunk, trying to make myself comfortable. I spend some time deciding whether to cross my legs or leave them straight out. Neither feels good. My muscles are tense. The headache is getting worse.
What happened last night? So many days I have awakened with this thought, but never has it felt more urgent, more unknowable. I have no purse, no phone, no wallet, no keys, no sunglasses, no spare packet of wet wipes, no cigarettes, no ID, no hair ties, no lip balm, no companionship, no escape. (I’m going to die if I just sit here), I think. But then I realize I am already dead, according to nobody. Can somebody die twice?
Help, I say. There are no birds in the tree. It is noon. No, wait, the sun is not that high overhead. But then it might not climb that far, depending on what time of year it is. What’s today’s date? What’s my name? Help.
An ant crawls on my hand. Tiny, tawny, an explorer zipping around the beads of my sweat. On my other hand there are two more. I have sat in an ant pile. I’m too fatigued to move. My muscles are pulsing. I am dehydrated. I wish for a Nalgene bottle full of cool water, to see if wishes have power.
It’s so hot. I try to cry, but can’t. I’m in too much discomfort. I can sense that panic is causing me to focus on the negative, to lock up on my problems instead of looking for solutions. I feel suicidal, in a sense. More a lethargy, an apathy. If I’m dead, I should be able to just sit here until I stop existing. Why should I exist? What happened to me?
I feel an ant on my back, and another on my ankle.
What did I do wrong?
Then why am I being punished?
I feel the air take a pause, take a moment to consider my question.
“You aren’t being punished. This is just how it is.”
Who are you?
“I am nobody,” said nobody. “Like you.”
Where are you?
“Where are you?”
Under this tree.
“Then that is where I am.”
Can I have some water?
I hear the first buzz of a field insect, accompanied by millions more, a chorus of zipping, static-like noises that fade and recede through the landscape as insects communicate in their hive-like way. It is the only thing I can hear. I close my eyes, but the sun is so bright, I still see a dull bloody orange color, the rays penetrating the thick folds of my eyelids. I put my hands over my eyes. It is darker now, but also closer, sweatier, warmer, warmer, hotter.
And no help comes.
So that was the first day after I died. When I still had words and thoughts that followed in order. When I still had a modicum of sanity. When I still remembered enough to know what I had forgotten. The things that followed only came at sunset, when the night began its parade of fleshes and voids, parchments and succulents, enemies and their many microphones, nettles in my armpits, nettles in my hair, nettles in my shit; never to dawn; never to speak; never to live.