Sky Burial

At first, I thought I’d killed you. The Friday before, you texted to tell me that you were going to drown yourself in the Monongahela River. It was late Spring. You were drinking again. 

“Go to the ER,” I told you. “Please don’t give up.” But, I didn’t offer to sit with you or hold your hand till the pain stopped. Instead, I just imagined you wandering along the trail by the river’s edge, staring into the murky rush. 

“I’m okay,” you texted finally, three hours later. 

*

Late Spring is the only window of time for climbers to make a summit attempt on Mount Everest. The weather is too dangerous during the rest of the year. Monsoons come in Early Summer, creating snow and wind that could pummel a person off the face of a cliff. 

*

I asked you to send me your writing sample when you first started the MFA program at WVU. I was a year ahead of you. 

“But it’s no good,” you said. 

Still, I convinced you to send it anyway. It took my breath away when I read it, and I thought I would drown in your sadness. 

*

The Sherpa call Mount Everest “Chomolungma” or “Mother of the World.” For them, summiting the mountain brings one closer to enlightenment. 

*

You never wanted to talk about your father. Instead, I understood your relationship from lines on a page whose meaning we discussed in poetry workshop with words like “dissonance” and “rage.” 

“I don’t talk to him,” you told me later. “I don’t ever want to talk to him again.”

*

The highest part of Mount Everest is known as “the death zone.” It’s the area above 8,000 meters. Here, the air is thin, and climbers have to wear oxygen masks. Movement is slow at this point and breathing labored. 

*

In the beginning, you were always drunk, and I was high. I never told you about the pills I snorted in your bathroom. 

We smoked cigarettes on your porch under the moonlight in late Spring. I clung to you, because I understood the way you needed things. 

*

Many people, upon reaching the death zone, are overcome with a phenomenon known as “summit fever.” The desire to reach the summit becomes so overwhelming that climbers will ignore the physical limitations of the body, paying no mind to dizziness or chest pains. 

*

Three years later, after I got clean, after you got divorced, we taught together as adjunct lecturers. You lived at the parsonage across from the Lutheran Church on campus because you were trying to find your faith and the rent was free. We would drink coffee on your front porch between classes. 

*

When someone collapses in the death zone, they are beyond help. Even though they could recover with medical intervention at sea level, at such a high altitude they are as good as dead. The weight of the human body is so heavy, that another climber cannot carry the person down without risking their own death. All that weight would be too much to handle in the thin air where it’s a struggle to lift one’s own feet. 

*

That Spring you planted flowers outside the church, made arrangements of green and purple and pink. 

“They’re going to fire me,” you told me one day amid that colorful backdrop. Your cheeks were puffy and your face was red. “I’m just so tired of starting my life over.”

*

The bodies of the dead are littered across the face of Mount Everest, mummified in the cold and sun, frozen and bleached white. 

*

I got the call the Friday after classes ended. They said they found you, limbs akimbo in an alley behind the church, bruised, head in a pool of blood. 

*

When the bodies are found, sometimes they’re covered in the flag of their country. Sometimes they’re thrown over the edge. Others serve as trail markers along the way to the top, still in the place they stopped to rest in the snow. 

*

I imagine you that night on the roof of the parsonage. You watch the lights go dark in Colson Hall where we shared an office. The maintenance crew exits out a side door. The cigarette in your hand has burned down to the nub and when you look up, the alcohol in your system makes one star blur into the next. 

 

 -Feagin Jones

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Feagin Jones lives in Morgantown, West Virginia. Her work has appeared in Pank, River Teeth, Hippocampus Magazine, and Banango Street.