Late afternoon sun through the trees, dusty lot and birds singing, the stillness of a temple. I slide off my shoes and the tiles are hot on my feet as I walk slowly around the pagoda, a tower of skulls.
And it isn’t the skulls that get me—sorted by age and gender, piles that are missing jaws and teeth, holes where the smashing happened, the jagged line were the cranium stitched itself together—lines that were hidden, kept under hair and skin, kept a secret from them, themselves for as long as they lived—and laid bare here now, with nothing to disguise it anymore: This is how you were sewn together, and this is where the wound occurred, and this is what is left.
But the skulls aren’t what gets me, because the skulls don’t seem real. It’s the piles of clothes on the bottom shelf. Shirts and shorts, dusty and tattered and vacant now, a limp pile—this is what is left.
We walk through the field, where the earth dips down into ditches (it’s not rain or erosion that made these), trees that stand stoicly, silently by. We come to stand beside an exhumed grave (but “grave” is too good a word—there’s no word for what this was). A sign says that teeth and bits of bones and scraps of clothes continue to come up, out of the earth, after it rains or floods.
Sometimes the earth write the metaphors for you, I think. Sometimes the ground itself is a poem—this place a poem you couldn’t possibly ever write, no one could write, just walk through—the stillness; the birds; the smell of incense and smoke; someone burning off wild grasses somewhere, behind the fence; schoolkids singing somewhere in the wind. Two monks walking, orange robes, reading the signs with impassive faces, round faces, young young faces.
There’s scraps of clothes everywhere. “Are these…?” we begin to ask each other, but don’t finish the question. (There is no question for what this was.) Surely someone would have gathered these scraps, dusted them off, “deordorized” them as the sign said, added them to the pile of All That Is Left.
But we keep walking and I realize there’s too many, too much—scraps of clothes existing like ghosts, or souls that haven’t quite made it up out of the earth, out of what there aren’t words for, poems for—this.
The trees all saw this, I think. These same trees, noble and twisted and standing here still. Some were forced to take part, and I imagine something in them weeping, their trunks dulled and bloodied. These same trees, bearing witness, the same way they bear witness now—silent, petrified in their places, the way parts of our brains are, the way parts of our brains bear witness (secret stitching, secret from ourselves)—roots tangling and rising out of the earth, with the teeth and bones and scraps of clothing and all the things there aren’t metaphors for: a dusty field in the afternoon sun.