map What Happens Before We Are Born

by James Boeckmann

Published in Issue No. 240 ~ May, 2017


There’s a myth recalling an old man with dark skin and thin, white hair, who was good and wise in his day and only got wiser, got so wise he started having visions in his dreams. One night he dreamt chaos, dreamt the birth and death of every great creation of the universe, dreamt the night that Earth met and made the moon its own, dreamt the Great Storm and the eye of every hurricane, the splish-splashing of falling rocks and pebbles throwing chaos into the unmoved pond—cracking through the yellow-green biofilm—and rattling the tadpoles free from their eggs. He dreamt every failed attempt at fire until Man got it right, dreamt every joyful solstice meal and every soldier’s funeral, every time the hungry hawk mother carried food for miles back to her children, dreamt all the deaths of all those mother hawks, all the lifes and deaths of all their beautiful children, and the dreams of every dying star in the universe. He dreamt the communion of all the hydrogen in Saturn’s rings, dreamt the rise and fall of every tiger’s empire, every saguaro’s rising from dirt to approach the Sun, the thickening of every rainforest canopy, the migration of every salmon through the rapids and bears—down the waterfalls.

He dreamt the overnight death of every lullaby campfire, dreamt all this until time came to his own birth, when he walked his old self out of a cave and into the light and found himself in his shanty, all cleaned up and the blankets laid out, with a bottle of Cajun moonshine sitting in the corner of the room and an E flat getting bent out of a familiar old guitar from somewhere in his head, when some of his already-dead friends and family came walking into the room. And some of the still-living people in his life came walking in as the note slid with ease into an F, and each of them told a small story to the man from their time together, starting with his grandmother holding him for the first time and thinking he looked like an old man—said she ain’t ever seen a little black boy look so damn old and she seen a lot of little black boys look plenty damn old—followed by every other great friend telling him stories, taking him back through the powerful moments of his life, including his wife telling him about the first time they made love just as the note became a G flat, how she never forgot the way he looked at her, how he was saying everything you could never say about love, how she heard it all just looking in his eyes, and ending with the man’s closest living friend recalling the two of them pushing their best friend into a humble stone crypt just days after she died in her bed with the two of them beside her, recalling them pushing her into the crypt and him knowing that the three of them had something stronger than brain tumors or police batons or the smell of formaldehyde, something strong like Uncle G’s craw gumbo out on the street in the late summer heat, strong like all the smiles of all the Aunties, strong like will keep you alive even as you drift out of consciousness, keep you alive as long as you need. And the dreaming man finally asked what was going on—as the guitar played a G—said that he never felt anything so special—as the note moved quicker to a B flat and a held C—all these people coming to him and them all telling him he had been good, and then the man’s uncle, the wisest man they’d ever known—with the C still ringing and growing louder—his uncle’s voice a lyric to the most patient anthem the man had ever heard said, you was good, and held the dreaming man’s shoulder with a warm, leathery hand, and the guitar traveled quickly back down through each note and past the original E flat to a lower C, and the man realized that the sound was his father playing a blues scale on his beat up old acoustic like those sunsets when he was still young and they still waited for the dreaming man’s mother to come back from the sky, and then everyone left, and the man went deaf, and his eyes closed and never opened again, and they never needed to.