By Alana Sullivan
I am thinking back to the day I remember killing it. We were witches more than we were ourselves most summers, and that July witnessed the height of our powers. We traded our too snug school Mary Janes for bare, dirt-caked, pricker-stuck feet and dragged N’s tin pots and wooden spoons into the yard. The stinking, polluted drainage ditch under the willows was our magic spring, and alongside it we turned mud and stones and newly-bloomed lilac blossoms into spells of protection and self-transfiguration and more-summer-less-school. I watched the daddy longlegs bounce on its thin limbs up over the tree’s bumpy knees, heading nearer to those of my youngest sister. To prevent her widening eyes from turning into a scream, I did it for her with a rock without a second thought. I remembered too late that it was bad luck.
“If I thought about it all the time, like, really thought about the fullness and completeness of it and sat in it, I wouldn’t be able to function,” T says. “And that would sort of defeat my whole purpose. So I pretend it’s not there, and that lets me do my work.” She is a climate change scientist. Our friend L then brings up the likely surge of emotional support groups in the near future dedicated to helping alleviate the mental distress specifically prompted by the climate emergency. People trying to cope with the disintegration of their metaphysical selves with worksheets, circled-up chairs, writing prompts, and group process as their futures are gobbled up by acidifying oceans and lakes.
I learned that social psychologists came up with a name for the system of mental defense mechanisms designed to protect our little eggshell minds from the indisputable fact of each of our impending, unpredictable deaths—“Terror Management Theory.” The theory basically posits that to keep ourselves from being utterly immobilized and destroyed by death anxiety, we cling to belief systems and values that permit us the illusion of immortality, whether that immortality be literal (as in belief in heaven/the afterlife) or symbolic (as in familial descendants, or the institutions we identify with that will exist long after we do). The researchers who developed TMT even went a step further to suggest that human societies’ systems of thought, emotions, religions, moralities, and understandings of family and other social bonds are fundamentally and primarily influenced by this: our complete helplessness in the face of our own mortality.
My sister has found a thing that works for her (though it’s gotten to the point where it seems to be the other way around). She used to tap on walls and drum her knuckles on tabletops (sometimes, they’d even be made of wood!) in specific and well-reasoned number sequences and patterns, and that worked for a while. But now she’s had to show them she means business, and so she just scratches and scratches with the long nail of her index finger at this spot on her scalp right next to where her curls part. She scrapes her skin until things feel balanced, the evils counteracted, the cosmic, skittering beetles that tickle across her brain coaxed to slowing, placated and tightly cocooned and swaddled. But this ward is only temporary, and its warm crocheted comfort unravels almost as quickly as she can create it for herself, so she must keep knitting, knitting, knitting.
No, I am not proud of the current ways I stave off the badness. Yes, I know what will happen. No, I don’t know why. Yes, I do feel ashamed.
Some of the earliest documented cases of disordered eating come from medieval accounts of young Western European Catholic women refusing food and water in an attempt to nourish their spiritual lives rather than those of their inherently sinful bodies—an exercise in asceticism and devotion to Christ. Anorexia mirabilis, they call it. “Miraculous lack of appetite.”
Others, like saint, mystic, and theologian Catherine of Siena, claimed their acts of self-deprivation were effective ways of atoning for the past—and future—sins of themselves and those around them. Convinced that this fasting would ensure her soul’s liberation and a true communion with her Father in heaven (her earthly one was preparing her to marry her dead and most beloved sister’s widower) Catherine smiled at the bite of the wooden plank she had placed underneath her head in place of a pillow, and had visions of Christ’s love consuming her whole.
In school I only remember them teaching us that Catherine was what they call a Doctor of the Church, and that she was the 25th child born to her mother. Now, I can only imagine Catherine’s dead body, which was likely jaundiced, frail-boned and fractured when it finally gave out after a lifetime of malnourishment. Her face and stomach were probably covered with a fuzzy layer of brown fur (lanugo, they call it) while the little hair she hadn’t already cut off her scalp was dull, thinning, and brittle. I’m not sure “miraculous” is quite the word I’d use.
M’s skin is stained red-purple and is rough to the touch. I’m not sure why I thought this burn would be different just because it came from a machine instead of the sun. I begin to spread the cream over her shoulders and upper chest, but it is thick, and the soothing it’s supposed to bring seems to be negated by the pressure needed to spread it. She is crying and telling me to keep going, and I am swallowing and trying to look in her eyes and not her port or her bandaged chest or the indentations and depressions on her scalp that should not be visible to me. We have to stop because she is vomiting now, and I just say over and over to us both that I know, I know, but what do I know? I can tell you from experience that things come into existence whether or not you guard your lips against proclaiming their names. You must find a new method.
The ones I’ve known:
If a black cat crosses your path.
If you see a white owl.
If you walk under a ladder.
If you open an umbrella indoors.
If you step on a crack.
If you knock over a salt shaker and send the grains across the tabletop.
If you break a mirror (even on accident).
If it is a Friday the 13th.
If a magpie hits your window and falls, dead, to the ground.
If you attempt to contact the dead.
The ones I’ve believed:
If I say I am fine, you will actually know that I am not and say come here and hold me.
If I take my glasses off and can’t see you, then I’m also not actually there and can slip up sidewalks and trip down steep hills and flights of stairs with uneven steps and it won’t matter if I fall.
If I make there be less of my body, what I lose in fat, muscle, organ tissue, and cellular integrity, I will gain proportionately in love from others and from myself.
If I can acquire betterness and moreness, then suddenly you will begin to love me the way I’ve been quietly and frantically waiting for you to.
If we say the word over and over again together its meaning will rust and crumble to greasy brown bits in my palm until all that remains are loosely bolted syllables, which I will gather together and fling to the side; the allophones will clump, melt, rise, swirl, and puff into sweet peach and plum clouds; and you will be safe.
We are debating the workings of our universe, S, Z, and me. As I am tucking her in, Z says, “Tell me the scariest thing in the world,” but I know what she actually wants, and so I say in my most dramatically low and ominous and suspenseful voice, “The scariest thing in the world is . . . grapes!” And the three of us burst out laughing. “No, tell me the scariest thing in the universe,” Z says in a lisping whisper with her small sticky hands on my shoulders, a small glob of glitter-glue clumping together some of the hair that has escaped her braid. S is still red and shaking and tears are mixing in with the cracker crumbs at the corner of her open mouth. She says that with so many missing teeth it is difficult to keep everything inside, but that she does her best. “The scariest thing in the universe is . . . toilet paper!” I say, and we are all in a fit of giggles again. Even the golden lamp joins us, shaking from the vibrations we send across the nicked wooden floor planks and making the shadow on their bedroom wall jitter back and forth over glossy posters of the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth. The three of us don’t know what will be the scariest things in our universes, or the most effective ways of keeping them away. For now, laughing seems to be a good one.