Still Life by Brenda Miller and Lee Gulyas
When my cat was alive, and even days before her death, she brought in dead or half-dead creatures for my perusal. She lay them at my feet—their animal bodies so wrong, yet gorgeous, against the wood-grained floor—then rubbed sinuously against me, proud of her composition. Once it was a baby blue jay, recently evicted from the nest (so little a span between the twin abysses of birth and death). I couldn’t help but stroke her tiny feathers into place, touch her sharp and perfect beak. Her neck, it seemed, had been broken; her head canted to the side and lolled when I picked her up to take her outside. She weighed nothing at all.
When my cat died, she put up a fight. She wasn’t supposed to: the vet had given her the sedation syringe, then left me alone with her to say my goodbyes. Instead of drifting quietly to sleep, Madrona rose up in a panic as the medication hit her. I stroked her back down, said it’s okay, it’s okay, though I didn’t mean it. When the vet gave her the second injection, she was gone in just a few seconds. Her body on the examination table made its own still life: she lay on her side, surrouded by white, frozen in her last exhalation.
The birds my father brought home were always so beautiful on their string, doves or pheasant or quail—small birds we would have to bite and chew carefully, tenderly feeling for the tiny rounds of buckshot so we wouldn’t chip our teeth. I grew up in a suburban household just one generation removed from people who raised and butchered and hunted their food. Fileting a trout or plucking feathers wasn’t an everyday occurrence, but we knew how. We knew that everything dies, and were taught to respect the work and sacrifice necessary to make a meal.
When my husband and our daughter Sofia lived in Yemen, we would buy a chicken from the vendor, who would kill it and pull the skin and feathers off right there, put it in a plastic for us to take home to cook. The first time we went to buy groceries back in the U.S., Sofia pushed a child-size cart and collected the items from our list. When we approached the register, she panicked, said we forgot the chicken. I explained that here we buy our chickens already butchered and wrapped up. I pointed to the packaged bird carcass in the cart. She seemed confused and asked: Is it any good?
I guess that story is also a momento mori, a reminder that death is always close, no matter how far we go to push it away. We are animals first.
Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016). She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University, and associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop.
Lee Gulyas’s work has appeared in journals such as The Common, Prime Number, Barn Owl Review, Event, The Malahat Review, Kahini Magazine, Tinderbox, Literary Mama, and Full Grown People. She received a 2014 Washington State Artist Trust Grant, teaches at WWU in Bellingham, and has twice participated as faculty in WWU’s Service-Learning Study Abroad Program to Rwanda.
Brenda and Lee’s collaborative work has appeared in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Los Angeles Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and ReDivider.