Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos

The following is an excerpt from Sing Them Home (Altantic Monthly Press, 2008) by Stephanie Kallos.


It’s so hard to explain what the dead really want.

Not to be alive again, heavens no, never that: a passenger buckled into that depreciating vehicle of the body, that cramped one-seater with its structural flaws and piss-poor mileage, its failures and betrayals, its worn, nonfunctioning, irreplaceable parts. Even the body’s sensual ecstasies don’t have any allure for the dead, not anymore. Symphonic sex; meadowlark song; the silence that follows a prairie snowfall; the sky  unzipped by lightning; that handful of nineteenth-century Russian wonders but especially Rachmaninoff and most especially Variations on a Theme of Paganini; Doris Day singing “Whatever Will Be Will Be”; eggplants, avocados, asparagus, sweet corn; the smell of warm Crayolas and breast-fed babies’ breath; the exposed, downy nape of a child’s neck; lightning bugs; infants’ feet.
All of this would be pleasant to remember if the dead were capable of looking backward. But they aren’t. When it comes to time, the dead are tetherless. Like very young children in this way, they exist entirely in the now. They are blessed with an ability to be fully entranced by what’s in front of them.
No wonder the living are a constant source of exasperation. The living—pathetically obsessed as most of them are with calendars, deadlines, delivery and expiration dates, estimated hours of departure and arrival; with measurements, quotas, statistics; always casting their eyes toward the room beyond the room in which they’re standing—exude this energy, for lack of a better word, that frustrates the dead to distraction, makes them so nervous that they’d jump out of their skins if they had any.
The living are like spinning tops, powered by a need for atonement, or revenge, or by avoidance, guilt, shame, fear, anger, regret, insecurity, jealousy, whatever, it doesn’t matter because it all derives from the same pop-psyche alphabet soup and oh Lord here comes another best-selling book on the self-help shelf when really if they would just smash all the time-keeping devices excepting sundials, do a crossword puzzle, study the backs of their hands, notice their breath going in and out, drink their food and chew their water, relax, it would be a great step forward in the evolution of the species and the dead would be so grateful.

Here, then, is one thing: They want to be undistracted.

Another point of contention: They don’t want buildings named after them. They don’t want to be part of the school curriculum. They abhor being the subject of biographies, documentaries, sappy made-for-TV movies. They especially hate public-funded art: commemorative portraiture, statuary. For the most part, the dead are shy. Imagine how they feel, seeing themselves cast in bronze and on display for all eternity! And then there’s the theater. The humiliation of learning that one’s tribulations have become the stuff of legend and are erroneously reenacted every summer on the stages of community amphitheaters all over the world by bad actors speaking stilted dialogue! It’s a nightmare.

The dead aren’t always irritated by the living. It is understood that the living mean well, believing that they are honoring the dead when they speak for them, about them. When they memorialize them in these ways. The trouble is, the living are always trying to interpret the dead, but this is entirely unnecessary. The dead aren’t like God. They don’t need go-betweens. The dead can speak for themselves thank you very much, and they do. All the time.

The sad fact is that the dead have never yet come up with a uniformly successful way of getting their message across. Believe it: They’ve tried.

Take the Jones children, for example.

For most of their lives, they have been waiting for their mother to come down. To do otherwise, they believe, would be a betrayal. Other things came down: the ruined Steinway immortalized in a National Geographic photograph; the nibbled #2 pencil thrust improbably into the trunk of an Eastern Red Cedar; the red American Flyer, driven down so hard that half of it went into the earth while the handle and one set of wheels waved helplessly in the afterwinds. All these things returned to earth after being whirled about in an unimaginable dance that surely was so wonderful it might have given objects a consciousness, a power to tell tales, at least to one another. But not to them, these children, who didn’t share the miracle of these objects’ ascension and return.

All these things went up and came down, but their mother never did.

The phrase waiting for the other shoe to drop has a special significance for them; it seems more than anything to constitute their curriculum vitae, their professional résumé, their fate. Other forms of evidence and instruction have appeared in their field of view, but these clues have either gone unnoticed or been misinterpreted.

The gift of bones is a profound comfort to the living—little else satisfies—and these children have done without it.

They have begun to suspect that they are insane, that they were born out of nothing. Mythological beasts. Freaks of nature without maternity. Perhaps they entered the world through other means: deposited as bee pollen on a porch step, by accident, forming bit by bit into something vaguely human, but suspect to any who look closely. Maybe they arose from the ashes and mud ensuing a storm, or from the depths of a drop of rain, a spoonful of cookie dough. Maybe they climbed out of one of the bottles of iodine, mercurochrome, or cough syrup nestled at the bottom of their father’s medical bag. They could have come from any of these places; all of these possibilities seem every bit as plausible as the idea that they were born out of the body of a woman. Their mother.

Like most siblings, they are different in many ways, but idiosyncratically alike in others. All three of them abstain from the use of blowdryers. They spend inordinate amounts of money on shoes. None of them have ever seen The Wizard of Oz. A sense of humor eludes them.

Their mother went up. She never came down.

If only she had a different name, they often think.

The dead just wish they would all stop waiting.


From Sing Them Home © 2008 by Stephanie Kallos, and reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press.