“It was not a matter of if but of when” was a comment I saw in half a dozen places on Facebook. And reading these comments I thought, What? Huh?
Oh, clueless friends of Facebook friends, go look in the goddamn mirror. You see a person there? The one that looks somewhat like you? For that clueless person, too, death is not a matter of if but of when! Your reflection and you and me and all of us are sadly mortal, and death could come tap us on the shoulder at any moment.
The question that then faces us all is pretty basic: what should we do in the meantime? How should we spend these few precious remaining hours?
When she looked back on her life, Bonnie Chamberlain could see that she had always lived in a tortured world. Not just tortured through the normal heartbreaks of dying parents and stupid boyfriends and husbands—though, of course, like anyone else she had experienced those minor personal tortures—but tortured by time itself, vast, scary time, a span where mountains rose and eroded, oceans flooded and withdrew, where earthquakes and volcanoes went off, and strange creatures walked and flapped and swam.
She felt the pain of the world most of her life; when she was nine years old, some 45 million years after the last seas finally receded and the land that would become Texas emerged wet and steaming from the gunk, Bonnie found a fossil shark’s tooth in the bed of a dry creek on her grandparent’s farm. Long as her finger, black and gray and still sharp and scary-looking ages after being shed, the tooth was suddenly precious to her, a link to a hidden world—holding it in her hand, even as a child, she could almost feel the power, the mystery, the danger, the delight, the very life of the long-dead shark. Later she remembered looking up into the hills above the creek and being thrilled and scared to know that this had once been the floor of the ocean—and before that, a mountain range—and before that, and that, and that—something had always been there. She could feel the world spinning back, endlessly.
In the story “Reliction,” Bonnie’s response to mortality is to find solace in the physical world. Some people create art. There are other possible responses. Some are more dangerous than others.