The Conservation of Matter
by Suanne Schafer
Three months ago, my mother died. Her death tempered my joy at the birth of my son, Isaiah, two days later. I came home to fulfill her last request: the scattering of her ashes. Though I dreaded the trip, at least I didn’t have to face our old house alone. Daijha and the baby came with me. We flew from Ithaca to San Antonio and rented a car for the drive to the Texas Hill Country.
Down the road a bit, I paused, looking toward the house through a double row of Italian stone pines, a windbreak planted by my great-grandparents.
“If it’s too hard, we can stay in a hotel, Kaleb.” Daijha reached over the console and caressed my hand.
I shook my head and followed the winding caliche road at a crawl. At last I glimpsed the creamy cut-limestone house with gingerbread trim, its image fragmented by branches of live oaks, a jigsaw puzzle unfinished until we got out of the car. The temperature seemed too warm for spring. My blood must have thickened from years of living up north. With the humidity, I was sweating before I reached the front steps.
On the blue-ceilinged front porch, the skeleton key remained hidden in the second gingerbread curlicue. The stiff lock took some jiggling to open. With the creak of the front door hinges, struck by the enormity of my loss, I whispered, “Mom, I’m home!”
Daijha rested her hand on my back, pressing my damp shirt against my backbone, a reminder I was still in the present.
Since Mom was a physician, we were well off, yet she never imposed that wealth on our home. The old farmhouse remained shabbily comfortable with the German gothic furniture my great-grandfather had built, the worn wooden floor, burnished to a glow, and, of course, the pottery she created once I went to college. Her doctor bag still sat by the front door.
I sniffed. Musty. Damp. I flipped on the kitchen light and immediately glanced up at the fixture. No burnt-out bulbs. Plenty of wattage. Yet the room seemed dark. Without Mom’s smile and polka-dot yellow apron, a perpetual gloom settled over the once-warm space.
Baby in arms, Daijha followed me as I climbed the stairs, my hesitant footsteps echoing through the quiet. In the master bedroom, Mom’s bed wore the quilt it had worn through my childhood, the once-brilliant colors faded to soft pastels. The room held no sense of a woman. Like the kitchen, the sparkle had deserted the room when Mom did.
In the bathroom, cold northern light painted watery stripes on river-green tiles. Its iridescence leaked into the hallway, illuminating ghostly images of my ancestors, trapped in boxes on the wall to keep them from floating away.
In my room, the bulletin board retained blue ribbons, term papers, and baseball cards, all blessed by a poster of Obi Wan Kenobi. Trophies from 4H and FFA, and a model of the Millennium Falcon stood at attention on my dresser, layered with a fine coating of dust. I fingered each, remembering when I built them. Slumped on my bed, holding the Death Star in my hand, I looked up at Daijha. “Think you could live here, babe? It’s nothing like Ithaca, but it’s a great place to raise a family.”
The baby stirred, his little mouth sucking a phantom breast. He woke slowly then let out a lusty yell, breaking the spell of the past. I replaced the Death Star and reached for him. After a few bounces, he wouldn’t settle down.
“He’s hungry.” Daijha took him. From her eagerness, I knew her milk was letting down.
After the sweet scent of baby powder, the mustiness of the house overcame me. I had to escape. “I’ll open the windows and unload the car while you feed him.” Stretching over our son, I gave her quick kiss. “Afterwards, we’ll check out the rest of the property.”
At the creek behind my childhood home, Daijha and I found refuge from the closeness of the house. Above, a semicircle of oaks softened the sun. Dragonflies darted among the ferns, sunbeams skating across their gossamer wings. A mockingbird trilled complex variations on his theme. Hummingbirds buzzed wild flowers. Spring scented the air, yet a profound sense of loss filled me.
For years, Mom and I walked to this pristine glen every evening to say goodbye to the day and hello to the night. My boyhood was filled with fishing, swimming, stargazing, camping, and picnicking here. Though located not fifty yards from the back porch, the creek traversed time and space, becoming a jungle where Tarzan and I fought off lions and a galaxy far, far away where the Force was with me—and where I lost my virginity to the white girl next door.
I sat on the quilt, hands wrapped around my shins, rocking slightly, the stubble of my beard poking holes into my knees. Beside me, Daijha slept, worn out by traveling. She held our infant cradled in her arms. On her side of the quilt sat a diaper bag. On mine, a backpack with Mother’s ashes. With a glance at my wife, I decided not to wake her. This last part I needed to do alone.
Earlier, standing on the back porch, with a box of Ziploc baggies on the picnic table, I envisioned returning Mom to the elements in some arcane neo-Druidic ceremony. Earth. Air. Water. Fire. I withdrew four bags. Realizing she’d already been through flames, I divvied her ashes into thirds, replacing the fourth sack in the carton.
Now, I pulled out the baggies and, leaving two on the backpack, climbed the rocky bank of the creek. With the wind at my back, I stood on tiptoes and raised the first bag high above my head, slowly releasing the grey and white dust. The breeze seized the particles. As the remnants of my mother sailed away, they caught the sunlight, as if she waved goodbye, then became lost against the heat of the sky.
I sniffed, swiped my cuff across my nose, shoved the plastic into my pocket, and returned to the quilt for the second baggie. Squatting by the bank, I dribbled the bits of bone and cinder into the water. Some sank. Some bobbled until snatched by minnows and tadpoles. Others joined the twinkling ripples and drifted south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Returning to the quilt, I picked up the last plastic baggie, now hot from lying in the sun. I bounced it in my hand, wondering what to do with this final part of my mother. I turned in a slow revolution, committing this day, this time, this place to memory, before arriving at the perfect solution. A sacred circle, an apotropaic ward, a magical spell, to protect this glen from modern malevolence: pollution, urban sprawl, species extinction, fracking, and global warming.
Sprinkling pinches of ashes like fairy dust, I duck-walked in a wide ring beneath the oaks. Certain an incomplete arc would ordain doom and destruction, I looked back frequently, making sure I wouldn’t run out of cinders before I encircled the glen. Beneath the tallest oak, as I drizzled Mom’s remains through a clump of ferns, I discovered a statuette so moss-covered it blended completely into its surroundings.
“We can call him a putto castrato,” my mother’s disembodied voice whispered in my ear.
Startled, I rocked backwards, landing on my bottom. How could I have forgotten Gretel and the summer I turned twelve?
“We have a bird problem.” I shook Mom awake from her nap.
After making hospital rounds early that morning, she read the newspaper and puttered in the yard before curling up for a nap.
She moaned and dozed off again.
I jerked open the curtains. The sudden brilliance of the July sun penetrated her eyelids.
All blinky and groggy-eyed, she sat up. “Already time to get up?”
“We have a bird problem.” I shook her again. An ADHD kid, I wanted her attention ASAP.
“What’s going on?” she said, still not fully alert.
Mom snapped awake and slipped her feet into worn-out loafers. “What happened?”
“I was staring out the window, watching her. She tried to perch on a tomato cage and—wham!—crashed to the ground.” With my hand, I demonstrated the graceless nosedive the hummingbird had taken.
When I was little, my Mom-the-doctor read somewhere kids can identify a thousand corporate logos, but less than ten native plants and animals. She decided her son would not grow up that ignorant. So we became birders, feeding and sheltering some sixty species in the backyard. Many resided with us year-round. Our hummingbirds migrated south in October and returned a few days before Saint Patrick’s Day.
Sitting at the kitchen table, staring out the window, avoiding doing homework, I was usually the first to notice them. “Mom, they’re back!”
Our hummers announced their return by zipping back and forth in front of our kitchen window, eager for food after their long migration across the Gulf. “Where’s the nectar?” they demanded if we were late putting out sugar water.
Over the years, these mini-birds grew so habituated they buzzed us while we changed the feeders. Once, one whizzed so near my head his wings fluttered my hair. Mom trained another to sip from blossoms she held between her lips. They approached close enough we identified and named them. My favorite was Grunt, a ruby-throat. He owned the yard, defending three nectar feeders so aggressively he reminded me of a miniature prehistoric terror bird. The female with one white eyebrow we called Gretel. Crook had a malformed beak but still managed to feed.
Hummingbirds swarmed our yard by the dozens. A typical boy, I was fascinated by war stuff, so I categorized their activity in military terms. In “fights” only a few hummers squabbled over the six feeders. With more birds, the skirmishes escalated into “battles.” In “wars” sixty or more skirmished around us, in birdie dog-fights, performing aerial acrobatics like Snoopy and the Red Baron, as they flew from feeder to feeder.
Superheroes to the rescue, my mother and I raced outside. I knew exactly where Gretel had fallen and led Mom there. “You’re a doctor. Fix her.”
Gently, she picked up the minuscule bird. “I’m not a vet.” She shook her head but still tried to diagnose the animal. “Her vital signs are too rapid to count. Six hundred heartbeats a minute? Two hundred breaths? What’s normal for these little guys?”
She carried Gretel to the back porch and transferred the tiny body to my right hand. My hand was nearly as big as hers now, my skin dark, hers fair, but our palms the same pink. Mom gathered sugar water and a flower, while I held a black-chinned hummingbird, the weight of a dime, in my hand. Bronze feathers as small as a grain of sand speckled her buff-colored throat. Gretel gasped for air, her neck jerked with spasms, and her tiny feet clenched into a tight ball.
“No wonder she couldn’t grasp the tomato cage,” Mom said. “West Nile virus is attacking birds and humans. I wonder if that caused Gretel’s neurological changes?”
“Call the vet,” I pleaded.
“Our vet keeps bankers’ hours these days, Kaleb. We better call the emergency office.” Mom dribbled some sugar water into a honeysuckle blossom and handed it to me. She put her cell phone on speaker and dialed the veterinarian.
I held the flower before Gretel’s face. Her threadlike tongue zipped in and out. “She’s eating!” I was overjoyed, certain she would recover.
“Ma’am, we don’t treat wild birds,” the receptionist replied after Mom described our problem. “You’ll have to go to the Wildlife Sanctuary.”
As we listened to the directions to the refuge, Mom groaned. “Our poor little birdie will never survive a ninety-mile drive.”
With a sudden Herculean effort, the little bird flapped her wings, desperately trying to take off.
“She’s trying to fly.” Again, I was ecstatic.
Then Gretel collapsed in my hand, suddenly, completely, utterly still.
“Never mind,” Mom said into the phone.
“Is she—” I said.
Mom nodded. “Yes, dear. I’m sorry.” She put an arm around my shoulders.
We sat on the porch, stunned, staring at Gretel’s tiny form, still in my hand. Before our eyes, the golden-green iridescence of her feathers bleached in seconds. Surely her soul took flight with her final breath because the dull, lifeless object in my hand was not Gretel. Never had death felt so real. Tears filled my eyes. My hand had seemed the literal fulcrum in the balance scales of her life and death. “You couldn’t save her?”
Mom shook her head. She was crying, too.
I was disappointed, not only in the death of the bird, but in learning my doctor-mother was fallible.
“You’ve seen people die, haven’t you, Mom?”
“Yes. Not often. Mostly, my patients pass away tended by hospital nurses. After they’re dead, I pronounce them and write a death certificate. They’re old, in poor health, ready to die. Gretel was different—wild and free.”
We held a funeral for Gretel at the stream. After wrapping her in gauze from the first-aid kit, we encased her like a jewel in a cardboard box, one of those tiny ones cushioned with cotton from Mom’s jewelry chest.
Mom hauled the bottom half of a broken statue of a cherub out to the creek. “Here, this can be her gravestone.”
“Once upon a time, it was a putto, Italian for a cherub. For years, this little guy watched over the yard.”
“But he’s missing his, uh, parts.”
She laughed. “When he fell from grace off the garden wall, his penis was cropped along with his torso. I guess we can call him a putto castrato.”
“Not funny, Mother!”
Gretel was my first experience with death. Saddened by the passing of an almost household pet, I couldn’t let the topic die. Every night, I drove Mom crazy with questions about death, scattered like buckshot into dinner conversation about the swim team, what movie we should see next, and my current obsessions with zombies, Halo, and Star Wars.
“Mom, what’s it like to die?”
“Do you think Gretel knew she was going to die?”
“Will the dogs go to heaven if they kick the bucket?” I understood the general concept of death yet couldn’t bring myself to utter the word “die” in the same sentence as my beloved pups.
Mom stalled, trying to think of answers.
“Is dog really God spelled backwards?” I said, an easy question to get her off the hook.
She breathed in relief. “Yes, but it’s a coincidence. It doesn’t have any religious implications.”
“They’re yes or no questions, Mom. Just answer yes or no.”
“Not everything in life is yes or no, son.”
“I know. There are possibles, probables, impossibles, and improbables. Sometimes there is no definitive answer.” I parroted her usual response to my endless questions. “Can I dig up Gretel?”
“No!” After a second, intrigued, she said, “Why?”
“To see if she’s rotted yet.”
She blinked then sighed, clearly thinking there were disadvantages to my having inherited her scientific bent.
“Would you like someone to dig up your body?”
“Guess not.” I thought a moment. “Well, can I dig her up or not?”
“Let her rest in peace.” Pleased at my intellectual curiosity, if not the direction it was going, she added, “If you’re curious about the science behind death and rotting, you need to design an experiment.”
“You learned the scientific method in school. Develop your hypothesis. For accuracy, you’d have to bury a bunch of birds—though tomatoes might be easier to work with—in identical boxes, unearth them at specified times, collect and graph the data, and write a paper to present your findings.”
My ADHD kicked in. The whole project grew less enticing with collecting and graphing data involved.
“Let Gretel do her job. We buried her in organic materials that will decompose with her. She’ll return to the earth and fertilize the oak trees.”
“That’s just her body. Do you think animals have souls?”
“I made a tactical error raising you as a free-range agnostic instead of sending you to vacation bible school.” Mom laughed. “I’d hate to be in heaven if my favorite birds were missing.” For her, paradise was a cup of coffee and a croissant on the back porch, the Sunday New York Times and bird-watching between articles.
Over the next few weeks, I’d place an occasional floret on Gretel’s grave. Looking back, that gesture retained a childlike logic. Obviously a tiny bird required a tiny bud. A big blossom, one of Mom’s grandiflora roses, would be too heavy. A single honeysuckle or trumpet vine flower would provide nectar for Gretel in hummingbird heaven but wouldn’t weigh her down.
Later that summer, Mom woke me before dawn. In the dark, our flashlights danced across the ground like fireflies. We tiptoed over the creek, tossed a quilt in the meadow and stretched out, letting our gaze wander the sky.
“Look!” Mom indicated to a shooting star in the Perseid meteor shower.
“Do you think Gretel’s rotted yet?” I sat up and looked back across the creek.
Her head spun at my sudden change of subject. “Kaleb, I’ve always found comfort in the law of conservation of matter.”
“Mass can neither be created nor destroyed.”
“What do you mean?”
“In simple terms, Gretel’s body was made up of molecules recycled from the past. As she rots, she’ll be recycled in turn and become part of the present and then future. We’re breathing the same oxygen every animal on earth since the beginning of time has breathed.” She pointed overhead. “Every time a meteor strikes earth, it brings part of our solar system here to be recycled. Thus all life on earth is connected, and we are connected to our universe.”
“How do you know, Mom?”
Her shoulders shook. “I just do.” She burst into tears.
“Don’t cry, Mommy.” I moved next to her and leaned my head on her breast like when I was little. “Don’t be sad.” I patted her hand.
“I’m not sad. It’s the enormity of the emotion…” her voice trailed off. She took a few deep breaths. “Back when you were first born, something strange and wonderful happened to me.”
“You and Dad decided to adopt me?” I wriggled closer.
“Yes, that. But something else, something I can’t explain rationally. Something so huge, I still cry remembering it.” She scrubbed her wet cheek on my nappy hair. “Once the adoption papers were signed and I could leave Tanzania with my new son—”
“Yes, you, goosey. I hired a driver to take us to Olduvai Gorge on the way to Kilimanjaro Airport.”
“I’d always wanted to go, and I figured, with a new baby to raise, it might be years before I got back to Africa.” She took a deep breath. “Olduvai is the birth place of humanity, the most important human archeological site in the world, with the bones of hominid species dating back nearly two million years. Homo habilis, Paranthropus boisei, Homo erectus. Our own species—Homo sapiens—arrived there only seventeen thousand years ago.
“You’d think a place so important would have a big museum, but the site is in the middle of nowhere, marked by two tiny stone buildings and a few picnic tables. When I looked out across the Great Rift Valley, I felt so connected. Like my soul could see from one end of the space-time continuum to the other. Tendrils from my feet reached through my boots in search of our ancestors. Every fiber of my being sought oneness with the rest of mankind, every strand of my DNA sought its mate in ancient bones. The past, the history of all humanity, lay beneath my feet, and I held the future, the next generation, in my arms. I lifted you above my head, offered both our lives to the universe, and prayed I was worthy of being your mother.”
Mom sniffed a few times and took a minute to collect herself. “I tried to tell your Dad about it, but he chalked it up to ‘new-mother syndrome,’ saying I was overwhelmed by caring for an infant. It was way more than that. A religious experience—that’s the only way I can describe it.”
My sobs woke Daijha. After laying the baby on the quilt, she sat behind me. Her arms and legs encapsulated me. Her forehead rested between my shoulder blades. “Don’t be sad, babe.”
“I’m not sad. It’s the enormity of the emotion…” I told her Mom’s story.
Daijha stood, picked up our son, and walked to the edge of the creek. With a backward look over her shoulder, she said, “You coming?”
I followed her. My arms joined hers as we lifted our son to the sky, offering his life and ours to the universe.
Suanne Schafer was born in West Texas in the midst of the Cold War. Her family moved constantly across the United States, mostly in Tornado Alley. The frequent changes of scenery precluded a stable childhood, yet provided fodder for writing. She’s had a checkered series of careers: cotton-picker, roofer, artist, travel photographer, kindergarten teacher in northern Italy, and medical photographer. Currently she is a family practice physician in San Antonio, Texas, and enrolled in the Stanford University Creative Writing certificate program. Her short story, “Morrigan,” was recently published in Bete Noire Magazine. Her current major work-in-progress is a novel exploring the life of a 19th-century bisexual artist living in West Texas.