The Makeup of Things by Chelsea Ardle

two clrows on a branch foggy black and white picture

Crows line up like racecars at the grand prix, one after the other, pushing their way forward. The mist lay heavy on the trees, coating their leaves and branches like a shiny glaze. The air, cool and damp, sat on my arms in droplets. Each breath I took seemed to pool on my skin, a captured moment. Goose prickles covered my bicep. And you, you didn’t notice any of these things. You just stared at the air, taking molecules apart, counting oxygen and hydrogen as if they were M&Ms.

It was a fox the crows were after, dead on the rocks for days. But the crows only noticed today now that the eyes squished and the fur volunteered to leave. The fox’s mouth sat open, its teeth bared in a last shrieking yelp.

* * *

This is not how it happened at all—the funeral.

The crows aren’t real, but crows are scavengers, feasting on the lives of others less fortunate. And so, they belong here. I should be a crow, but memory is funny that way. You see yourself as dirt or put yourself on a pedestal, as if you tried the best you could, as if there were no other path your timeline could have taken. I keep myself human in this daydream, because we are the species that makes mistakes, that fumbles, that forgets and remembers, and tries to forget, but remembers all the same.

The funeral wasn’t outside, but I wanted it to be. So it is. Do you understand? I’m making this all up. It softens the blow. We were summer children. We loved the outdoors and found intrigue in the tiniest of things—like the way the sun glistened off her red hair as if we were living in a movie, and moving in slow motion during a friendly montage that demonstrated how free we were, how young, how unknowing.

* * *

You have moved on to the gravel and grime beneath your feet now. Mineral compounds become simpler with each passing second. They devolve before you; and in your mind, they are limestone and granite crags. They are still the mountains they once were. Before the rain and snow and mud and the feet of hikers constantly trampling, scraping away at the ancient rock. You see these pebbles and grains as they were, as magnificent, independent peaks in the landscape.

I consider the fox’s demise and decide on an eagle. The bird of prey unexpectedly dove from the clouds and fell upon the fox like a feathered cannonball, thudding upon impact, sinking in those talons of doom. The fox never saw it coming. Couldn’t have. She must’ve been distracted—a crow, a mouse, a cake, a cookie. A last hope hurled into the veins of the earth, the cannonball—the eagle, tumbled from the sky and struck her, unknowingly, into the dark.

“Do you think it was an eagle?” I ask you.

You don’t move. Your eyes are fixed forward. I wonder if you are broken, if the air is too thin. Or maybe you have not eaten enough yet today. Maybe you haven’t yet noticed the fox. Maybe you are too concerned with the landscape and the makeup of things.

“What was an eagle?” you say after a few minutes without flinching or recognizing that I am, in fact, a person sitting beside you with a heart and a face, and lungs that are constantly inhaling and exhaling that precious oxygen.

“You know, the fox. I bet it was an eagle.”

“We shouldn’t talk about that here. It wouldn’t be right.”

* * *

The real eagle was heroin. Dope. Smack. The hard shit. That’s why we didn’t talk about it. We wanted to believe it was some insane natural phenomenon. Struck by lightning. Hit by meteor. Blown off a cliff by gale-force winds. Rare genetic disease where you drop dead three days before your 21st birthday.

But this wasn’t the case, and we avoided the real cause like the plague. Avoided looking people in the eye too long. Avoided mentioning the fact that she wore long sleeves in the casket.

* * *

“I want to go over and look.”

“I don’t think I want to see her,” you say. “I don’t think I can.”

I want you to see the fox like you see these rocks—as a piece of a whole. Imagine her greatness. Forget about her paws, limp and dusty, and the patches of fur that have blown away in the breeze. Think about the blazon red coat of her glory days, as a pup bounding through the forest, and her sneer right before she snatched up a songbird or a mouse. Think about the mountain, not the gravel.

Stepping carefully from boulder to rock, I creep across the terrain toward the fox. My heartbeat quickens unexpectedly. I’ve seen dead things, plenty of dead things before—family cats brought in from the roadside, bloated and stiff; and even dissected rodents, touched their meaty hearts with my fingers without balking. But today, my palms are clammy, my neck warm.

* * *

Because it was fucking hot. Mid-July, 90 degrees and humid, hot. The line for the viewing wound out the door of the funeral home and we all let out a sigh of relief once we stepped inside because there was air conditioning. But then, we became just as sweaty inside, because anxiety is far worse than the sun could ever be. So, why not a cool, misty forest? We all wanted it.

As with every viewing, there are pictures, posters, poems, and bouquets leading up to our friend. She is five and laughing. She is ten and dressed for little league. She is in her long, black and white prom gown. The big finale—she is dead and in a coffin.

She was an artist. I always forget this. Her paintings were displayed, too. A psychologist would have looked at them and said her misery was obvious. “She was very alone, but surrounded by friends and magic,” they would have said. Her hands painted the fantastical, lonely corners of Wonderland. This one makes you smaller and this one makes you dead.

Nobody really notices things like this anymore.

* * *

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” You are behind me now, the first you’ve moved in an hour. Your eyes shimmer like broken glass in the sun and they are staring straight at me. You are stripping me down—considering the placement of my organs. You measure my intestines, watch my weariness jump across the synapses of my nerves, count how many times my cells divide before they die.

“Well, I’m here already. I can’t just leave now,” I say, but I surprise myself. My body is throttling forward and I can’t turn back. My hips are missiles seeking out the remains of this fox, and I feel there is something wrong.

I find my spot in the line-up between two rather large crows. They mutter something under their breaths—a reserved squawk—but I’m unsure whether the fox or I am the victim. Crows hop in place, waiting to take another chunk out of her. I don’t know what I want from this—a last look before decomposition, to appease the tickle of curiosity in my stomach, or to say goodbye to this stranger. Closure, maybe. But this is just a fox. A fox I never truly knew.

“I don’t think we belong here,” you whisper. As if the crows could understand us, as if the crows knew our past, our relationship with her.

I am inches from her face. She looks different from here. I want to reach out and cup the fox’s cheek. I want to tell her I’m sorry she is this way, no longer emitting the quirky innocence like I remember. A layer of water forms over my eyes, but it doesn’t break, refuses to venture south over the mountain of my cheek. I turn to look at you and you’re doing it again—taking the world apart.

You rip open the sky and let the peach-colored paint show. The ground beneath me is crumbling like cookies in milk. Beaks fall off the crows’ faces and ebony feathers blow away in a quick bluster. Underneath it all, the crows are people like you and me.

* * *

Stop. Stop this right now. This is my memory and I will make it what it should be. Let me forget that these crows were familiar faces from high school. Let me forget about scanning the crowd and wondering which of these faces introduced her to cocaine, aided her addiction all the way to rehab, and then helped her relapse until she ended up here. Let me forget that I am just as bad as them, because I was not present, because I stopped communication.

* * *

The sun explodes, mellow beams of shrapnel flying everywhere, covering this place in a 70 watt soft white glow.

I watch you unveil the fox—peel back her fur and cut away her tail.

* * *

She is unmistakably human and Amanda. Crooked smile. River of hair lay upon her shoulder. Long eyelashes hooked together, latching her eyelids shut.

This is the funeral home near the high school and I am staring at Amanda in her coffin. She is set in padded ivory silk. So soft and shiny. Too perfect.

I want the thick, leathery leaves of boxwood and bayberry framing her body once more. Give me the rocky ridge, shrubs, and open sky. You destroyed it—my guise. What is wrong with stitching memories together? Is there no truth in the reaction to grief and guilt?

Anyway, it was my turn in line to view her, to snatch one last glance, one last memory with her. The July sun was relentless, throwing itself through the windows onto the funeral home’s bland carpet. The sun shouldn’t have been allowed at the viewing; it was trying to cheer us up, to warm us when sometimes we should only be cold.

Her hair is sleek black now, but the girl I remember donned fire red, ruby red, blood red. The Fox, we used to call her.

It’d been almost four years since last I saw her in person. I didn’t recognize her. I couldn’t cry, only focus on the extra puff of her cheeks, the too-thick eyeliner, the not-quite-invisible tape on her eyelids, the blotchy cover-up. She never wore makeup when I knew her. She was effortless—a chill, autumn breeze personified.

We must view her mother next. Her mother is alive, solemn sprinkled with audible sobs.

“What do I say?” I ask you. Remind me why we are here.

 

“Tell her you’re sorry? I don’t know,” you reassure me.

“I’m so sorry for your loss. She was so…” I stop, reach in for the embrace of Amanda’s mother, and know that she’s heard those words a hundred times already, that they mean nothing. When we pull apart, she looks at me, searching her memory for my face, but things are cloudy in there. And it’s been four years since I’ve seen her. I try to procure visions of Amanda from then, as if memories could be exchanged through a glance.

Her mother knows I know. She sees nothing but her daughter, eyes frozen to the ceiling, mouth open in alarm. I flee, as a crow from an enemy—in a flutter, the wap of my wings echoing behind me.

I run down the dirt trail of the forest, dodging uplifted roots and cracked branches. I leave the funeral home behind me—all slate blue shingles and peach siding, floral interior and shining gold fixtures.

They’re not fooling anyone, I think.

I scrape my hand on the rough bark of trees and kick up the wet soil under my feet, hoping for something that feels true to form. I watch the white trail-blazes pass, my eyes pausing a second for each, remembering the path that brought me here.

Lunch together every day of my senior year where we all sat in wonder as she inhaled mounds of spaghetti, extra bread, salad, cookies, and chocolate milk. When she talked about her mother, idolizing the woman for making the most extravagant birthday cakes and shaving her head when she was young. That afternoon she finished a whole pumpkin roll by herself. The look in her eyes when she smiled, like genuinely smiled, as if she were a child and the world was new. Belting out “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in my car. If you’re blue… How she should have come to the Jersey shore with us that week after we graduated; how things might have been different if she did. And you don’t know where to go to… If you and I called her, just once, to try to keep in touch after we went away to college. Why don’t you go… If we had told her she looked better without the tan and the mascara. To keep the red hair. Where fashion sits… How the drugs might never have been in the picture if we had been.

* * *

We sit in the car afterwards for what seems like an hour. We are sad, but cannot express it in any other way than silence. This, I know, makes us terrible friends.

“We shouldn’t have come.”

“I tried to tell you.”

“We don’t deserve to be here.”

“When did she dye her hair black?”

“I don’t know.”

We look at each other and our knees. I study your chin. I watch your feet twitch near the car pedals. We linger because we know this will be our last time spent with her, beating heart or no.

Maybe you go to work on your own memory, erasing her from days and weeks. Maybe you will turn her into an animal—a cat or a fox. Maybe you will cover her in a shiny lacquer and preserve her exactly the way she was. Bottle and cork her and stick her in the cellar, let her age into an elegant red wine down there.

The fabrics of the mind hold our memories together, entangling and unraveling threads as needed. Lucidity is impossible once memories start folding over one another. In daydreams, my thoughts are billowing strands in a wind, snagging on memories passing by, catching on bark, stretching and weaving into something new. Something necessary.

The day I saw her, dead and rotting, was nothing like the morning hike I had in Acadia National Park where I found the dead fox. But if she could not be beautiful, at least the landscape would be, I thought. I hung curtains of sky over the peach-floral wallpaper of the funeral home. I planted seeds and stones that would grow into forest and mountains, and covered them all with a blanket of mist. I lay her body in my memory web and swathe her in veils like a bride. So, on that day, no matter the bloat or hair color or makeup malfunctions, she would look perfect and glow red.

 

Chelsea ArdleChelsea Ardle is a writer, Pennsylvania native, Ohio transplant, and explorer, by all accounts. She received her MFA degree from Chatham University and is the assistant editor of Vagabond City Literary Journal. Her work has been published in matchbook literary magazine, Public Pool and is forthcoming in the Eastern Iowa Review. She enjoys vistas that make her feel small, exploring places in a state of recovery, and perfecting the science of pancakes.

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Bexx Brown-Spinelli

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  • Wow. This is absolutely exquisite. Truly takes my breath away. Congratulations. Fine, fine work.

    • Chelsea Ardle

      Thanks you so much!