The Gravity of Air
Nonfiction by Claire Polders
We trudge through the cold as if burdened by stones. But not as if burdened. We are burdened for real, just not by stones. It’s the day’s gravity that weighs us down, metaphorically and physically. We are heavy with helplessness. Perhaps this is why they’ve given us balloons, white helium hearts for elevation. But we are not elevated. Plodding through the snowy cold and all it signifies, we barely keep our heads from falling. We trudge as if burdened by stones.
At the grave we stand. It’s where the path ends, literally and symbolically. We stand as if we can better honor our gravity in stillness. No matter the weight, we don’t want to nullify the load on our shoulders. We must feel the pressure of our feet on the earth when that earth will take her body.
So light she is, in her reed basket. Lighter than water, lighter than blood. It will take an incredible effort to keep her buried under the frozen soil. Which is where the balloons come in, I suppose. We will let the balloons fly up into the sky to counterbalance the contradictory gravity of her tiny wrapped silence.
Although she weighs on us like a stone, light as she is, she also hollows us out. It’s her infant grace of bendable limbs, her soft tuft of hair. Should we call it weak or brave to accept nature as it comes? She was minus two days or almost nine months, depending on perspective. Her head fitted neatly inside her mother’s palm.
The basket descends, the basket that can float and could probably fly if we tied our balloons to the rim. But the basket descends, and we descend with it, even though we still stand at the edge like a wall, echoing the void. How did we know to be a wall? It’s winter, but spring is never far. As a wall, we protect her from the life that will continue behind her back, life that doesn’t question the cruelty of being buried without ever having tasted air.
We call the grave a grave. They give their child a name. I want to say niece, but niece is a noun that requires a bond, and all that is present in my hands is the string of a balloon that is tied to her absence.
We stand like a wall, heads up, meeting the need to be there between strength and surrender. At the base of a tree with thick roots is snow. Are they holding shovels? We cannot protect the parents. They are holding shovels. Why is the earth so heavy when there are no stones?
The balloons are helpless; our tears still fall. Gravity doesn’t stop, although time does. As we watch, we fear that our wall will collapse under all this weight and we collectively disallow this to happen. My brother and his wife would vanish in the rubble and dig down instead of up, they would use their shovels to get closer to her instead of returning to us. It seems like a crime that our breath is visible in free-floating clouds.
Hearts are not stones. Hearts are red and can beat fast when excited. Hearts, however, can feel as heavy as stones and can make you slow down. Hearts can be silent when born. Hearts can be replaced by stones, metaphorically, and stones can be replaced by balloons, physically.
There are no words, obviously. There are no words heavy and light enough to do justice to the gravity of a life without air. All we have are symbols that we desperately try to take literally. Earth. Snow. Stones. Basket. The words alone are helpless to sustain us. Only meaning can breathe movement back into what is lost.
How I listened that day for the inaudible voice of your flawless ghost. How I weighed just as much when the shovels were finally dropped and our balloons rose.
© Claire Polders
[This piece was selected by Frances Gapper. Read Claire’s interview]
Claire Polders is the author of four novels in Dutch. A Whale in Paris, her first book in English (co-authored with Daniel Presley) is forthcoming from Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster) in May 2018. Her short stories, flash fictions, and essays have been featured in publications such as TriQuarterly, Denver Quarterly, and Mid-American Review. Most pieces published on the web can be found at clairepolders.com. She also welcomes all readers and writers on Twitter and Facebook.