You There In This, Our Last Compound
I remember when it began, but you wouldn’t have known then how it would change or what it would become. Everything seemed just slightly diminished, not destroyed; not catastrophic. I would not have imagined they would need my help, but as I was a ghost by the time it came to that, I had time to spare and it was easier to get around.
I was older than you. Not by much, but enough that I got out before it got so bad; before you were left to sift seeds from the sandy soil and huddle together in the shed we’d built to store cans of food and stuff we scavenged when the gangs come through. The place looks pretty deserted when everyone’s in there. Someday they’ll look closer, and then the jig will be up. For now, there’s still food in there, and you’ve been smart about foraging for more, rummaging through deserted houses and rationing it amongst yourselves, but the younger of you are beginning to think about why they don’t get more. They do more of the hard labor, the lifting and moving and hauling things around. They are realizing they should have more to eat, and maybe they should.
Generally, there’s just not quite enough to go around. There is still some to gather now and then, and the stores are still open when there’s cash, which comes in now and again from the odd government agency or bottle returns, or some such sources, but you’ve never really formed a strong collective. Like many groups of people, we were formed somewhat haphazardly, and are not all conscientious or of sound integrity. Not everyone has a collective spirit, so some just take what they think they need. It’s too easy to justify. It’s hard to consider everyone when need feels great. Heroic spirits are uncommon, especially with so much needed, and so little that is reliable, let alone safe. Safety’s an outmoded idea now.
Your place by the marsh has started to flood sometimes. Frankly, I thought it would happen sooner. It’s fine when the power’s on. We were smart about hoarding those sump pumps, and they still work pretty well in the houses with some basement floors. One has a hole in the basement floor that some ambitious homeowner had dug there decades ago, just for that purpose, to grab the flood before it rose to the basement floor surface. But when the power goes out, we still get water in the basements, and no one lives down there anymore. The power has been tenacious, but hard to say what’s keeping it on. There are centralized services that keep grinding out the basics. It’s not yet to the point where everyone running them takes to the road to scratch out their own survival. That’s when it’ll all go to the dogs. But you’re not there yet.
Be kind to the ones who still come around to fix things. Throw them a bone, a cup of coffee, a snack. They are among the fragile tendrils binding you to endurance. This is also a part of the healing; your recognition of the remains of community, of service, of interdependent beings, sharing and caring. Was it ever really like that? Am I dreaming? Maybe I am. Maybe I am dreaming of the future. Keep the appreciation alive and there’s still a chance. There will be more after this.
There are four houses you share, you there in this, our last compound. The rest on the street have other people who more or less ignore us for now. They are younger but not doing so well either. One day they may decide we are taking up too much space and take over our places, but for now they have their hands full. Everything is hard to operate now, even for them. The bigger house across to the left is almost entirely full of youngish men and a few women who come and go. They are vaguely threatening, anonymous, and move from their vehicles into the house and back out without expression. They ignore our beaten down places, at least for now. They have gas sometimes too and ride down into our dead end street way too fast.
So, in summary, you have flooded homes with some dry space still inhabitable on the upper levels, some food still in storage; cans, dried things, and whatnot. There are some greens that keep coming up in the yards; tenacious kale planted long ago that has somehow become perennial, like the parsley and the arugula. There are dandelions in the springtime. Some of you have been clever about saving seeds, but a lot of them came from hybrid plants and won’t sprout. It’s always worth a try though, and a few have done pretty well. You have time on your hands, even if the energy to make these projects happen is limited and precious. Planting them haphazardly, so it looks like weeds, not like a garden, makes it all look less appealing to outsiders; your clandestine reserves, hidden in plain sight. We were smart about these things.
Planning is a challenge. It was hard to wrap our heads around it back then when we had so many years ahead of us. It seemed like we were just living, not preparing for this. Who knew it would get like this? Well, maybe some did, or at least suspected, but we really didn’t take them very seriously. I guess we all thought of it from time to time. Old age is such an abstract idea when you are middle aged and still strong and busy. I stayed with you as long as I could. I know it wasn’t necessarily helpful towards the end there, but I was accustomed to feeling useful. Being a burden was unfamiliar and I never really did get used to it. I kept thinking it was temporary.
It turns out that I may be more helpful from where I am now. I know you don’t see me. It’s not that simple. But, before, how could I have drifted through your rooms like a breeze, lifting your spirits and cooling your tempers, the way I can now, the way I do now. Now I am with you and it is so much simpler than I imagined it would be.
I am watching you struggle through each day, seeing the difficulties now in an entirely new light, now that I am not amongst you, there with you, battling alongside each other, against the elements and the scarcity and with each and every moment; trying, without certainty or clear purpose, to only get to the next. Now I do not feel the pain of the body, and can only empathize with yours. I am your memory, and I tell you this; it’s essential that you be able to believe in your future, even if it is only that you join me here. That, as it turns out, is also a future.
Pulling the water from the marsh for washing, hoarding the clean water that still comes from the taps intermittently, unpredictably. There were rumors it would stop, since it does sometimes. So far it still comes, sometimes brownish, but these are the chances we take. What else can you do but use the water there is? But the marsh is for washing. All those big bottle we scavenged a few here, a few there, before it was dire. If the water stops running, that could be it for you. You’d still have the rainwater, caught in those once charming vessels we bought decades ago at the giant hardware store. It was so advanced of us. We used green cleaners, and organic soil, so of course we stepped up to the trend of collecting rainwater. Now it helps; that plastic seems to be indestructible. But if it wasn’t enough, how could you travel to find clean water and then carry it back?
There’s irony in the most essential substance for preserving life being so damned heavy. A cup’s a pound the world around. It’s insurance that only the young and the strong will survive. When that happens, it will mark the return to nomadic life for all creatures, once again hunting for water and prey, wild things to chase and consume. For now you have the bits and pieces remaining for food, what you scavenge, the dribs and drabs, and for water the drips and flows from the old pipes we never replaced, and the rains that still come down through the murky sky.
So here are your days, and your days to come; you gather as you can, walking some distance as best you can, carrying the many bags you have from the days of stylish totes and practical backpacks we took to work because we were hip and liked to have our hands free. We have all that stuff and use it now. Well, you do. I did. Now I watch and you haul the tinder from the yard and the occasional harvest when the season is right of dandelions and burdock, hard dug and pulled form the rocky dirt. There are woods and other things to forage also, and as we once aspired to take on the attributes of tribes and healers of long ago, the women, the witches, the crafty ones; now we are become them, and are genuine in that work. Necessity invented us in this way.
And how am I helping you now? What healing can I bestow from the other side of the veil where I find myself now? What can I offer that will lighten your burdens and soften your anguish? Aside from the pointlessness you feel, the purpose only to go a little longer, see another sunrise, taste another green leaf, even when they have become so tiresome, and the rich flavors you remember of chocolate and butter are so poignant in your mind, as rare as they have become. Even so, it is the nature of our sort to continue, to be tenacious. Anyway, here you are, and it is what it is. What else can there be, given how things have gone, and the world is drying up, and you are old and dry.
What can I do but be the wind in your thin hair, and whisper reminders of love, so you feel those breezes of the beauty of all nature, even the dying parts. For nothing dies forever, and all matter is converted. I can help you remember that, as I now know who helped me remember then, when I was with you, walking together. I felt those soft airy reminders then too. We didn’t speak of them as what they are, because I didn’t know then, as you do not now. It didn’t matter. It still doesn’t matter. The purpose was met, as it is now. Whether I am a memory or an incorporate spirit is inconsequential. It is your sensation of receiving that heals you. I am the donor, whether ghostly or illusory is irrelevant. I heal you from where I am. Reality is inconsequential, a trivial detail.
Go out back now to the shed, and sort through the cans and the dry goods. Find a snack and sit on the small stone step there and use the can opener you still have and the old spoon that, almost miraculously, you remember from your grandmother’s house. That old stuff does hold up well. Scoop and swallow, now peas, then peaches; it’s a glorious meal if you’re of a mind to let it be. Sharing it amongst yourselves, with my aura around you, you can laugh, you can enjoy a moment. Why not?
It’s good to walk the edge of the marsh at twilight, or at dawn, when the light is low and the most raucous of the ravagers are passed out in their hovels and havens. They come out bold in daylights brightest hours and then sometimes also can be heard in riotous parties up on the cliff where fires burn that you watch from your shadows. If they ever decide to light up torches and come down in hordes…well, that worry is for another night, not this one that breathes warmly and is hushed. That is how you hear me, in the muffled blowing and brushing of the reeds. It’s me, it’s me; breathe for a few minutes and remember that nature remains glorious.
You are tired and worn, of course; you are old now, and that is just par for the course. Even in prosperous times the elderly have always had aches and sorrows. Remember the bags of herbs and leaves we gathered and shoved into the cupboards. That comfrey might be good, soak it like I showed you when you had those colds, as I was shown before, and pack it onto your chest, or on your sisters’ chests, when your breathing gets harsh. Remember. Use the mint in the side yard when your tummy is restless; use the echinacea we grew to make tea if you feel sickish. Too bad we never figured out to do the belladonna. When my fever spiked it might have helped and I might not be where I am now. But I would’ve gotten here sooner or later. Remember. Roll up the sage into sticks with string and let the smoke comfort you. Eat the arugula that comes up, and the dandelion greens. Remember.
Remember all the things we learned and all the things we did; my name, or some sense of me, drifts through your mind and sets off sparks of ideas; how to fix and nurse the things that are broken or injured amongst you. Repairs that occur to you as I drift through your reminiscence, and small cures you’d almost forgotten that light down in the center of your idea factories, dropped off from the sky as I fly by. I am your memory, I am your past.
Finally, I am healing you, lighting and lightening your way by becoming your memory, by sharing my spectral self, your mirror, your pleasant thoughts, your awe of beauty that fills you amidst the devastation. Merging with your musings, I am woven into all that comforts you, and allows you to continue. When you see the tide continue to drift out and leave the curving, curling, beautiful trails in the mud on the marsh where the small creatures still leave air holes, I am there reminding you. There are still large cranes down there. Sporadically, they still rise up and soar over the distant grasses that wave in the wet winds above the intermittent floods. I am there when the tide rises and the gusts make the rushes dance. The blackbirds still come in the springtime, and dart down and across to protect their nests. There don’t seem to be as many of them, but it’s hard to be sure. Do you still sing to them?
Treasure each other when you can. It’s not as hard as it seems. I watch you now, and I see you more truly; so frightened and fragile so much of the time. I am wishing you to feel as mighty as your hearts that pound so hard, as gentle as you are fierce in your resolve to live, as wise as you can be, as you can summon. Fear will weaken you and make you petty if you let it.
Be not only individual fingers but a form a fist together in your determination not only to exist, but to survive in your essences, your spirits, your chis, your nature, your hearts, your guts, your impulses and habits. Remain large on that front. The material world you may tend for a while, but it is not entirely under your jurisdiction. Your own selves; that is entirely yours, and what manner you endorse and act on from that angle is all on you. I am your memory of your better selves, chosen, fixed, resolute. Hear me in your inner radar, listen to that tingle of integrity, and let it escort and guide you. Let it comfort you and lend you pride in your way; in your way of being and doing.
There are still plenty of splendors to behold. Beauty does not end, it only transforms from smooth to wrinkled, from green to brown, from wood to ash; all stunning in their own way. I am the voice that reminds you, I am your own mind awakened by passing, the vehicle of your reminiscence of our commitments to healing, generosity, and service; to the appreciation of art and the exquisiteness of nature. I am you. I remain, as you will. I am the leaf, among all the leaves, transforming from tiny curled bright green newborns into broad, thick, dark foliage.
Rustle against me, and I will whisper again; “Do not be troubled, do not be hopeless; this is only the end of a fragment, the tail of your travels and travails, but the start of so many others. When you join me, we will watch how they do, how they go. We will whisper in their ears as I do now in yours and as before was done for me. There will be new healers. I am not the last, and neither will you be. We were not all there is or all there will be.
That is the greatest healing; the knowing that all things endure, that form does not devolve but only and forever transforms.”
© Judith Anne Sprague, December 2015