by Petra Kuppers
She found the book in the small bookstore in the rejuvenated Traverse City State Hospital grounds. In the window, the store had beckoned to her with Stories of the Mental Hospital, old sepia-colored photos on a spread with tiny, barely legible print. An amateur production, crammed full of historical detail garnered with obsession and love. She stared at the open book in the window, and imagined herself holding it. The pages, glossy and quite stiff, turning them slowly, reading with the loupe she had inherited from her grandma. Marcia entered.
Inside, the storekeeper saw her, but stayed behind his small counter. He wasn’t pushy, and she turned this way and that, fondled bindings, even lifted some older books to her nose to smell their breath. There were only two aisles in the small store, and she had come to the end of the first one when it happened. A hairy hand crawled through the gap between two sections (Local History and Lake Seafaring). Marcia jumped a tiny bit inside, before realizing that this was another customer, groping for something in the empty air. She turned the corner, and saw the man in the next aisle. Hairy, still, like his hand. A bear of a man, with soft curly fur escaping from the top buttons of his green and red striped shirt. He hadn’t seen her, and still pawed the air behind the books on his aisle. She stood on tiptoes to see what section the bear was looking through. Another in-between. True Crime and Ghost Stories. Intriguing. Marcia stepped closer to the bear, and turned the other way, to the books on the opposite side. She knew the ways of booksellers, knew how they stacked the stacks when all was full or overflowing. Maybe there was something here, tucked into the open shelf that followed on from Maternal Self Help. Indeed, some books lounged there which didn’t seem part of this label. One could be, she guessed, if the bookseller had a weird sense of humor: Asylum Reared: The True Story of Baby Barbara. Huh. She pulled out the book, and saw that it was the memoir of a woman who lived her first years in Traverse City State Hospital, child of an unwed mother, as likely a reason as many to end up here, in the thick light walls of the institution. She put the book back.
Her hand brushed against its neighbor, its spine broken and unreadable. She pulled it toward her, angled the dark cover to the light. It was more a pamphlet than a book, a little arty publication. On its cover was a grotesque sight: a gravemarker, small, concrete, just a number in a field of grass. Marcia knew what this was, the conventionalized ways that asylum inhabitants were laid to rest in surrounding fields. Anonymous, easily lost, stumbling blocks for later hikers. The gravemarker on the pamphlet was covered in shrill-colored lichen, pinks and greens and whites pulsating against one another. The title of the publication made her shudder. Bones and Pearls. The Botany of Graves.
The bear behind her must have felt the vibration creeping through her body, for he turned now, saw the pamphlet in her hand. He looked up, a stricken cast in his eye.
“Is this what you are looking for?” Marcia reached the book across, innocently.
“Yes! I’ve been looking for this everywhere. Thank you. I thought you were going to get it yourself.”
“No worries, I am just browsing. It’s freaky, though, isn’t it?”
“I guess so. Botany of Graves. But it’s also really useful. It was written by someone in my family.”
“Really?” Marcia entered fluidly into the conversation, her eyes wide, knowing her pull and power. She listened as Bear Man explained an uncle’s obsession, his journeys across the Mid-West, sampling graves in old and new graveyards, his experiments in old closed-down asylums like Eloise and Traverse City.
“The theory was that some mixture of madness, medication and exposure created mineral-rich bones, a special fertilizer for these lichen.”
He had Marcia’s full attention. Yes. Score.
Two days later, Bear (real name Scott Mallard) and her were grave-hunting, like the old days. Camera, scraper, chemicals, plastic baggies, and, for afterward, a weed pipe, were safely stored in her backpack. They had sturdy shoes over thick socks, pant legs stuffed into socks to give no purchase to ticks and the irritating little seedheads that held on tight. It was evening time in September, plants pumped full with the thickness of golden late-summer sun. Not as good as spring burst, maybe, but still an excellent harvesting time. They left the car not far from a Dairy Queen, on the edge of its car park, to blend in better with local crowds. From there, they hiked over the field, following the notes in the old history book, looking for the dwindling and hidden grave markers of Eloise’s unfortunates. The ones that didn’t get away. Not that many did. The ones that lay here, forgotten and un-named, apart from some mileage in local art shows and among history enthusiasts who dared to pierce the madness stigma.
Marcia and Bear got lucky quickly. A straggly row of concrete nobs appeared in the weeds, and yes, there were lichen on some of them. Not Technicolor, quite, but quite lovely in their own right, blooming across the grey grainy surfaces in their botanical lace. When they righted themselves after scraping, they heard a familiar sound: a few rows away, someone else seemed engaged in the same activity. A dark shadow, thin and long, a young man, it seemed, held something on a straight razor, held it up to the dying light. Bear and Marcia averted their eyes. All kinds of folks were looking for a high, and it would not do to become too familiar. Their own meeting had been fortuitous, allowing them to find a companion without the direct involvement of botanical hallucigenics. You never know what someone will see in you.
An hour later, and a few phials and plastic baggies filled, they sat in the car park of a diner, a few blocks away from their original spot at the Dairy Queen. This was going to be their first time together, their maiden journey of weed whacking. They had read Bear-ancestor’s slim booklet a few times, and Bear had filled in lacking details. He had lost the book in a house fire a few years back, but remembered his eccentric uncle and his strange experiments.
Bear worked methodically, quite fast for such a big man. He cut the scraped lichen with a razor blade, hatch, cross-hatch, sifting and winnowing. Any lumps were carefully crushed: if they were lichen, they stayed, foreign matter ejected. Cut, cut, cut, sift, sift, sift. Now the matter was powder, greenish in the sodium light of the diner’s evening illumination. Probably greenish in daylight, too: the medium color of the pale crust on the concrete markers. Marcia swallowed spittle, feeling a lump of apprehension behind her chestbone. Bear mixed the powder with an acid from a small glass bottle, carefully drenching, shaking, scraping, turning the paste. It began to bubble. Quick quick onto a metal foil square, lighter, roasting the liquid away. The crust that remained was lighter in color, nearly pure white. Bear turned.
“Finished. Have a go with me?”
“Should we both go at the same time? What if it hurts us?”
“Some lichen? It’ll be fine.” Bear laughed, but with a note behind his bark that made Marcia look up. It might be better to go along. He was beginning to get a hint that she wasn’t quite your average meth head/dope fiend/inhaler. No need to go there now.
“Ok.” He scraped the light-colored fresh powder into the opening of a small glass pipe. A pretty thing, Murano glass, dots of primary colors smearing around the translucent stem. It was only lightly used: Marcia could see a little bit of dope tar in the inner working. Bear, a good boy. Why was he doing this?
Finished. He looked at her, wordless. She took the pipe and the lighter from his hands, put the pipe to her mouth, the flame to the top hole, and inhaled.
A plain in the dusk. Wide open, empty tideland, mud and water till the horizon. There, a thin strip of ocean. She could hear the distant roar of the ocean, and the shallow slushing of water here in the tidal flats. Salt ions in her nose, prickling the top of her ears, the exhilaration of wind. Marcia’s naked feet stepped into the mud, squelching sand exploding geysers between her toes. Then, she heard them coming up behind her, up the gentle rise in her back. Thud, thud, thud. Two runners crested the dune hill, then slapped their feet into the mud. Saw her. Slowed a tiny bit, a hesitation as a question mark.
Marcia looked at the two runners, skeletons in the evening light. They ran shirtless, and she wasn’t sure if they were men or women. Folds of skin draped over bone, as if all flesh had abandoned them. Hairless, too. Heads like bowling balls, round and unmarked, with four holes in the front, one each at the side. Eyes, nose, mouth and ears as hollow openings into stretched hide over bone. She knew she would see them again, but didn’t know what to do. So she stood, nodded to them, a casual greeting on a sea plain, as if it were ok. They nodded back, picked up their speed again, and continued their sprint over the land.
They had been just the advance troops. Marcia knew that. It would be better to have a game plan. She thought about it, and walked back up the gentle rise, landward, found a dry spot to rest and wait. It didn’t take long.
He came out of the gathering dusk, melted lilac and blue into the dunescape. A tall, thin man, fully dressed, but also hairless, features in flux. She didn’t look yet, gave him a chance to assemble. He set up station next to her. A box appeared from beneath his jacket. He unscrewed something, and wooden legs spidered out. More screws, some folding, and he had an easel up, a small watercolor paper clipped to the flat surface. A field palette followed, and he dipped his brush in a small water tin, mixed pigments, and stroked bars of light onto the paper. She watched, mesmerized. And every time her head canted toward him, he had taken on more shape. The round head ball had become featured, a strong chin, tall forehead. The skin was pigmented now, a rich chocolate with darker streaks at the temple. The next time she looked, hair had emerged, curly and resilient pepper-and-salt springs. The nose had grown, too, and beautiful, sensuous lips that moved as he laid down color. She looked back at the paper, and the dunes had taken on shape there, too: heather and small twisted trees created by little runs of black water. A seagull, a white streak, angled into the wind.
“You look good, little one. I hadn’t expected you to be back.” His voice was as dark as she had remembered it, rolling in his chest like big bells. “What are you doing back here?”
“I want to find them, Lucius. Can’t you help me again?”
He looked down at her, eyes kind but angled up now, measuring. “I don’t know, now. It’s good to let them rest. There are new people.”
He nodded to the east, and she could make out new land features. Yes, she knew where she was. Duin en Boosch in the Netherlands, the grounds of a large psychiatric institution, in the beach space, the edges of land and sea. She had researched this place, like so many others, had looked at the treatments, the staff, the philosophy of healing. And there were new people there, populating her vision; where the dunes shifted into scrub of limit forest, she could see hazy shapes, inmates walking slowly.
He was whispering now. “They are long gone, Cherie. Into the line. Over the edge. Let them go.”
She bowed over his painting, saw the horizon line on the paper, small filigree patterns of color eating into the white paper as water found its way past dykes and polders. She leaned closer. The line opened. She fell in, his laughter at her back.
The line is violet, feathering into red and pink at its outer edges. She is deep in the violet soup, waist deep, sinking. Round objects bob around her, and she reaches to them, tries to hold on. Her hands find one, slimy. It turns. A bowling ball skull. Teeth open wide, wide, her hand slides in, murky and shadowed, and the water turns the skull and the teeth fall.
She shrugged up. The pipe was no longer in her hand, and her head rested against the passenger window, damp cold against her pressed cheek. Bear was still out. She could see a sliver of white beneath his closed eyelids, the pipe drooping from his right hand, the lichen remnants now black as the night outside their car.
“How was it?” Bear had woken, and they had some black coffee from the diner. He had struggled to wake, but had come to with a choking sound, tears leaking from his eyes. Marcia had averted her eyes, had granted him privacy to get himself together. Now, coffee fumes between them, he is ready to chat. What can she say?
“Intense. Just colors, and spaces, and drifting.” A very noncommittal answer, good for any drug experience, really. Bear didn’t look happy. The truth creaked between them, the hunger, the need for connection. But none of them spoke up, let the other in. Marcia hovered on the threshold of telling him what she was searching for. But no. Too private, too painful, too weird. And she had no sense of Bear’s agenda yet, either. So they let it go, over coffee, just junk-heads cruising. Till next time.
The next time. They were a team now, hooking up every three days or so, driving out to old institutions all over Michigan, scraping and grinding grave lichen into smoke. What they were doing was bizarre, probably dangerous, likely toxic. They knew it, and they each cursed their knotted tongues, tried so hard to speak, but by now, their rhythms had settled into unspoken action. It was even harder to break open.
They were in a small graveyard, near Canton, in the Detroit suburbs. The psych unit here had been small, more a private sanatorium than a large state-run institution. But they still had their own graveyard, lists of dead inmates carefully delineated in a crumbly ledger book Marcia had found in a local going-out-of-business pawn-broker’s shop. It had been one lucky find: she had traced the sanatorium’s safe to the broker, and it had stood, unopened, for decades. In the auction of the final sale, she had acquired the safe, about the size of an ancient transistor radio, but heavy. Bear had shown new talents as a safe-cracker, and had listened to the old-fashioned tumblers fall in the cylinder, till the door swung open. The ledger book and a map had been on the top-most shelf, above ancient jewelry and long-silent men’s watches, the spoils of the sanatorium.
So here they were, fingering crusty plant lace on top of metal markers.
They were not alone. In each abandoned graveyard, they had found other searchers. Marcia remembered the young man with the straight razor, from their first joint search with Bear. He had appeared a few times more. Bear had never reacted to him, and she wasn’t quite sure if that was a threshold, too, a private moment, or if that young guy was real. This time, though, Bear acknowledged his presence.
“Oi. How did you find this place?”
He sounded indignant, given all they had gone through to find this site. The slim young man turned slightly toward them, straightened up from stooping over his own set of markers. For the first time, they could see his face. It was pale, and haggard. The side Marcia hadn’t seen before looked sunken even deeper, it looked half-vanished, eaten, as if the bones in his cheek had crumpled like waxed paper, leaving little lines like cuts on the inside of this skin. Bear took a small step back, pulled his shoulders up a little. He nodded to the guy, who kept his silence.
“Never mind,” Bear grumbled half to himself, not looking up again, instead going down to scrape a fat blob of orange lichen into an envelope. “Live and let live, right, girl?”
That night, they met at his place. Marcia had become accustomed to him now: Bear, Scott, who lived like a poor student and wrote like a fiend. She had never tried to read in the heap of papers that threatened to fall off his desk in his studio, ignoring the mess just as she was ignoring the mess of McDonalds bags and boxes on the kitchen counter. There were no photos anywhere, no hints of family, and she would have been surprised if she had seen any, anyway. Instead of browsing through hints of Bear’s secrets, she sat on his bed, waiting for him to finish the preparation. She had no questions, he didn’t have any demands, and that is why it worked. They just smoked, and slept, and hunted for more.
Tonight, the powder stayed orange for a long time. The blob from the Canton psych unit grave had an aroma all of its own: a minty thing, a blast of freshness that cut through the old burger and onion haze of the studio apartment. She really liked the color, and the smell seemed familiar, unplaceable, but relaxing. She laughed a bit, opened her teeth, and Bear raised an eyebrow. Then they started. A flame. A whoosh. Inhale. First her, then Bear. But the dream wouldn’t come. Instead, Marcia’s mouth opened, and words flowed out.
“Mamma. Daddy. I love you. Don’t leave me. Mamma. Daddy. Mamma. Come back. No. No. No. Mamma. Come back.”
Marcia was astonished at the sounds that emerged from her, old own voice, years and years back, full of pain and sadness. She recognized herself, crying, heard the voice as if she was seven years again, outside the doors of the institution, reaching thin arms through the barred gate. She blinked, embarrassed, tried to shut up, lifted her hands to shut her mouth. But the show wasn’t over. Closing her eyes meant that what she didn’t want to see again played out on her inner eyelids. Her mother, arms reaching back, mouth askew, calling for her little girl. Her mother, dragged backward by orderlies. Her mother, who danced with butterflies and cried with crocodiles. Her mother, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.
Marcia tried to cram her words back into her mouth, to keep from spilling the secrets to Bear, her mother’s incarceration, her dad’s earlier withdrawal, the time when he, too, was locked up in a white monstrosity, a different one. But a glimpse over to Bear showed her that she need not bother with the embarrassment. No one would hold her hostage with intensity, would demand her heart from her.
For Bear was stock still himself, wide-eyed, not really seeing her, not hearing her baby talk, that sadness of longing in her voice. Then his mouth opened, in turn, and spilled over, staccato tones falling into the evening.
“I can look after her. Give her back to me. It will be ok. I just needed a break. Please, release her. She is my fiancé. Yes. Yes. I can take her. No, I do not have her mother’s number. Yes. Yes. I can take her. Please give her to me. Please. Please. Please. Please.”
Marcia saw tears dripping down Bear’s face, loneliness deep in the folds that ran down from his nose to his open mouth, to the words that spilled out, the magic words that did not do their magic. He was left, all alone, in a different way, by the barred gate, by the concrete marker, by the pills and the electric surge. Now she started crying, too, cried for the first time in Bear’s presence. This, he noticed. His gaze was clear again, as if he could see her and the people he’s talking to, at the same time. Their mouths kept speaking, each separate, then unison, then choral.
“Mamma. Please. Mamma. I can take her. Please.”
Their words mingled, overlapped, their words spilled out, one over the other, and they heard them, but couldn’t stop the spillage.
Marcia and Bear sat in his car. Two heads, looking forward, their mouths pinned shut again, eyes pinched at the outer edges. They hadn’t really decided to go back to the Canton graveyard, but both had grabbed their coats as their mouths just wouldn’t shut, had walked to the car as if in accord, had sat, and Bear had turned the ignition, peeling out in that general direction, then slowing immediately to a crawl. Abeyance. Time to talk. None was up for talking.
Then they did. Bear spoke, realizing that the barrier was his to take down, his car, his apartment, his space warm and curly opening into vessel. Marcia nodded, didn’t meet his eye, as he told her about Laura, about their meeting, their love, then the withdrawals, the turns, more and more frequent, her need for solitude, his need for her safety, and the joint decision by Laura, Scott and even Laura’s parents to release her into the white walls and locked corridors, just for a while, just as a raft in the drifting world, a respite for Scott, a retreat for Laura. Locks, and suicide checks every fifteen minutes, the clockwork of survival space. The story bottomed out, it seemed, but it had only been a plateau in Bear’s confession. Down it went.
Laura had turned even further, gone quiet, so quiet, and then the bars had come down for Scott. She hadn’t signed visitation forms for him, no need for that at the time, for her short visit. But then it had looped into months, and the family sent him a letter. They had decided what was best. Which didn’t include Scott. So there. That was thirteen years ago. And that was all he knew. Bear ended, voice gruff, defiant. So there.
Traffic lights reflected on the wet windows of the car. Go. Do not go. They crawled along, toward the graveyard. Marcia didn’t say much.
“Yeah.” She didn’t know how to respond, how to make him feel better. “Yeah. That sucks.” Maybe that was all that was needed. Bear seemed to hear it, and seemed ok. No tears hanging in the beard. But he wasn’t ready to let it go.
“So tell, girl. What is taking you on the search road? Why are you huffing grave weed?”
Marcia didn’t want to spill. She shrugged. It had been a long time since she put a line through it all, laid it out like pearls on a necklace, this follows that, like a reporter from the front lines. She remembered the plaintive sound of her own voice, mixed with Bear’s howl, and she did not want any of it.
Bear pushed. Wheedled, even, which is why she would never sleep with him. But he was her avenue to the weed, at least for now, with car and knowledge, and he knew it. And he had spilled his, and had heard at least the sound of her voice when crying, even if he hadn’t taken in the words. He didn’t own her, but maybe she did owe him. Marcia weighted the ups and downs, and what it would cost her to tell her story. Ok.
Same story, really. She told it quickly, quietly, made him catch her voice from the bottom of the car’s footwell.
Short rest-stops eventually turning into a new home apart from her, first for her mother than her dad. The seduction of seclusion, of dropping everything: that’s how Marcia had made sense of it, for herself, knowing that at least her father had gone willingly, on his own accord. She wasn’t so sure about her mum. Her mum had come back a number of times, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker. She had dropped bits of her memory at the hospital, weeks zapped out of her brain, but she had smiled kindly again at her little girl, and that was all that really mattered. But then, a month on, or three, she would vanish again, drop from their lives, as if the only way to go was out. Eventually, she was gone behind the bars for good. No visits for kids in the ward.
“How long ago?” Bear stayed factual, had not leaned over or touched her. Which earned him points.
“I haven’t seen my mother for twenty-two years. I do not even know if she is alive. I fell out with my other folks.”
“And your dad?”
“Fifteen. He faded out, too, left the world. I could find out more about him, I think, but it was all an aftershock from her. He’s gone. Some come back. Mother had made friends in the hospital, and I still see some of them around when I go and visit the neighborhood.” Marcia kept her other confidantes out of it, her other informers, the ones she only met on the other side of the drug veil, Lucius, others, called up by smack, or, now, much purer and clearer, in the lichen.
“And some do not. I know.”
They drove on, picking up some speed, the car shooting through the sparse raindrops. They arrived, parked, started to climb out. Bear reached over to Marcia, stalled her without touching her. He pulled the pipe from beneath his parka. He had some more, white power shimmering into green, with orange grains here and there. Yes, she nodded.
They stood in the rain, inhaling, a tang like ruby oranges on their tongues. Then they walked into the old graveyard.
They were not alone. Marcia swam through dune sand, ocean’s edge mingling with red clay soils. Grass bent over, looped into the earth, dove away from the concrete markers and their numbers. The round hummocks rustled, stretched upward. Calvarias, skull tops, grew white and grey in the earth. A jaw emerged beneath, stretching open. A left-over dandelion trembled like a tongue in the aperture, then melted into sea weed. Other skulls popped around her, round white mushrooms ready to release their spores. Marcia looked up, at the other figures in the abandoned field.
Row upon row of people stood, looking down, or scanning the horizon. Silhouettes in the evening light. Some raised their arms to the moon, as if drifting. Marcia looked for faces, but all had melted. Clay in the rain. Like Easter Island statues made out of wet sand. Crumbling noses, yawing eye-sockets. She looked away as a woman’s dress shifted back into flax fibers, weeds in the wind.
She could still make out Bear, a row over. His parka had wings now, in the wind that was coming up, stretching his silhouette, opening him up. His form expanded, engulfed some of the other mourners, seekers, and Marcia wasn’t sure anymore where he began and ended. She whispered to him, telling him a last secret about her mother, the secret of love, just a touch of fingers through bars. She doubted he could hear now.
She felt Lucius’s hand on her neck.
“Hello little one. You are back.” His voice rolled with the wind, vibrating behind her collarbone.
“There are so many, Lucius. So many. Take me to her, please. Please.”
Sand fell down her back, then clumps of earth. Smells arose, musty, then sharper, from damp inland seas to the ozone of the ocean. The elongated shadows around her reached upward, thinning into black bars against the grey land. Then they began to slip away, reaching into the open spaces. Marcia let herself fall backward, into Lucius’s painting. Water cracks.
“Grave Weed” (© Petra Kuppers) was published in Issue 6 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.