Skull Cathedral

by Melissa Wiley

A few months before my sister became pregnant, our dad walked up wooden stairs we never varnished. Years ago, he overlaid them with rubber carpet instead. In this way, he softened his own footsteps as he left our basement, as he approached an anteroom that led inside our kitchen. While we sat warmed by the nearness of the oven, he opened the door and stood beside the sink, his day of farming finished. He washed his hands and cast a tall shadow across the floor as wild cats crept among ferns lining our house’s foundation, as the sun sank behind our rhubarb patches. Although this was likely never his intention, the stairs’ rubber skin made his presence less expected than it should have been. It made a house whose quiet was always holy yet more sacred.

He had been dead for a couple of years, buried level with and several miles from our basement, when he started walking up these stairs again. He was heard, I was told, in the evenings most often. He was heard leaving a place of circuit breakers and cobwebs for a kitchen smelling of soap and butter and bread. For months, he shook the house with his movements. He made some small thunder in the basement with the heft that clung to him even in death, yet he never came back inside the kitchen. He never saw any more green tomatoes ripening on the window ledge, never noticed how we moved the refrigerator closer to the pie cabinet. I suppose he tried to twist the doorknob open. Without a hand, though, he could never manage.

At the time, my sister and I were leasing our farmhouse to Mia, one of my sister’s closest childhood friends. Only a few years before this, the house's collapsing white trellises were weighted with still whiter clematis. Not long after Mia moved in, the porch’s foundation began to split. Forks of black lightning sprouted with weeds, though I doubt she ever noticed. Weekdays, she taught art to young children, while in the evenings, sitting cross-legged on her bed or our living room carpet, she felt pockets of energy around her shift and knew them to be human. A vegan who braided her own hemp bracelets, she looked unnaturally thin among southern Indiana’s carnivorous and corn fed. She had moved back to the Midwest from Arizona, where she had gone to college, a couple years after graduation.

From spending the night at our house for so many years on end, Mia remembered several of my dad’s habits. She knew how in the early evenings he opened the wooden latch to a door opposite a pole attached to clotheslines strung across an herb garden. She knew from there he descended to the basement. Encased within its darkness, he walked past a wardrobe inherited from his parents and undid his boot laces. He scraped dirt from his soles with a pocketknife as he sat on the stairs beside the furnace. From a floor above him, we often heard a soft scratching sounding like a bat wanting in—the quicksilver of his broom against cement.

When Mia signed her lease, I was working for a magazine in Chicago, five hours north of where my dad was growing restive in the basement. The magazine advocated for the rescue of shelter pets and was under constant threat of going out of business. Our small staff was frequently issued late paychecks. When someone was fired or quit, no one replaced them. Most days, I wrote about puppy mills and campaigns to neuter feral kittens. I worked from a desk so near Chicago’s L tracks that passing trains shook our office. When Mia told us that my dad was stirring, trying to reach the kitchen, for me this changed nothing. She offered me no solace, as she likely intended. Writing in the voice of animals in need of adoption, doubting Mia’s contact with another dimension, I found myself wondering instead if our kitchen wallpaper had begun to peel yet, if the faded cornucopia baskets spilling their apples at last had fallen.

It was early spring when Mia moved in. Once the Indiana summer came around again, she went without air conditioning. More than likely, she could not afford it. Yet she also kept most of the windows closed in the heat, my sister reported from her many visits. It was as if she were trying to recreate the Arizona climate in a place where the heat was never arid. In her thinness, surviving on little more than those few plants she grew in our garden, Mia didn’t seem to feel the same discomfort others would have while sweating beneath the shade of my mom’s curtains. My sister said the house had begun to smell by early August. She suspected mold, asked me if I thought this could be it. I stayed silent, leaving her to answer her own question as I imagined the humidity ungluing the apples on the wallpaper further from their horn-shaped baskets.

At work, I left the fates of dogs and cats no one wanted unstated. After listing their ages and sexes, I said nothing as to their coming deaths should no one adopt them to make the ads persuasive. Seeing little reason for delaying their next incarnation, seeing less for spending much time with friends outside the office, in our apartment I read lengthy passages from The Tibetan Book of the Dead aloud to my husband. I read that dreams of having your head wrapped in a red silk turban, of eating feces, of wearing clothes sewn from the hides of yaks, all prognosticated an imminent death, among other omens. Yet the bardo remained its focus: the liminal dimension hovering between incarnations.

After the body lies still and lifeless, after the heart has beat its last, the luminous splendor of the colorless light of emptiness reveals itself only briefly to the emerging consciousness. Within the first moments of death, every one of us encounters its salvation. Only the light’s concentration causes most to turn away and face the relief of the darkness, to miss transcendence. We find ourselves forced into another round of birth and death, another incarnation. Yet before this happens, our consciousness alone begins to wander a world catering only to the senses in what are said to be the bardo’s final stages. Considerable pain ensues in this.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead likens our last moments in this dimension to walking the desert with a terrible thirst and no water to slake it. All the flesh’s pleasures become manifest, yet consciousness alone cannot enjoy them. Baskets overspill with apples, yet you have no tongue to taste, no stomach to digest them. Both animals and humans begin to fill the space where the colorless light of emptiness has now vanished. They appear from every vantage, and all are having sex. All are reaching orgasm. They thicken the air with desire you begin to throb with even while bodiless. Walking too near them—trying to insert yourself between two locked in coitus—only makes you become one of their children.

Even here, though, there are options. The longer you resist the urge to slip between a pair of hips, the more control you exercise over your next incarnation. The more suffering you sustain between lifetimes, watching sex without having it, the less suffering you are likely to face when reborn in another body, according to Tibetan Buddhists. Making peace with emptiness while still living prepares you for this challenge. Hours spent sitting cross-legged on the floor, doing nothing, help you withstand the coming agony, to choose better parents even if you do turn away from the light again. The bardo, however, comes to some of us early. Those whose lives are flush with sweetness, whose evenings teem with fruit filling cornucopia baskets, know of emptiness only in theory.

When I visited Mia with my sister around Christmas, she made us green tea sweetened with honey. I noticed she had overhung the living room chandelier with pine branches whose needles were falling in sparse, brown rain that pricked the carpet. Tungsten inside bulbs shaped into tulips had long frayed into nothing, and Mia lit the room with beeswax candles instead. Autumn leaves still blanketed our yard’s expanses. They had compacted into mulch where my sister and I once played badminton. They swelled into cysts beneath the magnolia tree that once held the Easter Bunny’s purple eggs my mom had hidden. The grass wouldn’t grow until next spring, however, even if we raked them.

We finished the pot of tea and switched to a bottle of Tuscan red. After a few glasses, sitting on the floor in the lotus position, Mia said she considered my dad a companion, here in a house more than ten miles from the nearest grocery or post office. He was stirring more now, though, than he had been. He still thought he had a body, she added. He was acting on its memories, though even these seemed to sense his work day had ended. He was ready to walk back inside the kitchen, to rest from his exertions. This was not, she said, a stage that lasted.

As winter deepened, the footsteps dissolved into silence. They never started again. My dad stopped trying to walk back inside our kitchen. Spring came earlier than expected, and torrents flooded our driveway, keeping Mia stranded. Newborn lakes and rivers overspreading our pastures’ grasses forced her to call off work for three days while eating more of next to nothing than she normally did. The waters also rose in my sister’s basement. She walked down her stairs carrying a mop and vomited. Her husband began to notice her labored movements.

For a time, before the flooding, the mold receded. It was absorbed by ice that clung onto drainpipes and window frames that in summer were never opened. For a few months, the mold seemed to vanish only to surge again once Mia moved back to Arizona. She said she missed the red rock formations, the climate, and her old boyfriend, with whom she was going to try to make things work again.

The mold’s metastasis forced us to take up the carpet before we could rent the house to another tenant. My dad had lived here all his life except for four years in college—his parents had given him the house upon his marriage—and the mold’s sudden spread must have bothered him. It must have been as much a catalyst in his surrender to a pair of thrusting hips as the agony of watching bodies climax in the basement, where the bardo had temporarily been. He would have wanted us to take better care of the home he had left as our inheritance, the home where neither my sister nor I could stand to live because our memories clung as tightly to its walls as cornucopia baskets with only paper fruit inside them.

My sister began sewing soft, woolen blankets. She painted her nursery green for either sex of baby as my husband and I packed all our possessions into boxes. Our lease was ending, and we decided to move to a smaller, less expensive apartment. My husband had taken a job that earned less money, and my boss still made late payments. As Mia left the mold to wreak its damage, as my sister negotiated with contractors about its removal with her swelling belly, my husband and I vacated a high rise for a garden unit without a garden. The windows of our new living room were half filled with dirt in which no trees or flowers were rooted. Before the movers came to our old unit, I gave away several small tables and lamps, bags of clothing. I kept only a few shoeboxes of keepsakes from my parents—an old watch, birthday cards, and hospital bracelets—so our space would seem less crowded. Our new lives would be lived half within a basement.

From inside our new living room, we looked out onto a street flush with legs and feet. There were far too many for me not to want to see their faces, not to want to take long and longer walks without my husband to see whether our eyes would meet. Our building was wedged between a dry cleaners and a shoe repair shop with an awning I suspected of molding. We faced a palm reader across the street. I often tried looking away from the neon sign with an eye at hand’s center but couldn’t because it was always watching. All three places of business were also housed within garden units. The earth had claimed us all too early, though no one else likely noticed. It made us walk the bardo while we were still living. Perhaps the dry cleaner, shoe repairman, and palm reader didn’t share this same sense. Only I needed the illusion of sympathy, someone else who understood what it was to practice dying.

Both the shoe repairman and dry cleaner were men looking in their later forties, both with hair graying on the sides in patches. Early evenings, I smiled and waved near their entryways as my shadow lengthened, as they sat behind their counters for a few more hours while I read or watched TV. Both filled their windowsills with small cacti and succulents. In milder weather, they kept their doors open, when I heard classical music streaming from their storefronts. In the mornings once I left our kitchen and walked up a few steps to stand level with the street, I could see their radios sitting sentient, their hands working nimbly with thread. From inside our apartment, my husband could see only the lower half of my body; I always left for work earlier than he did.

I never walked inside either place of business, never gave either man my money. I cleaned all my clothes in a washing machine and wore only shoes not worth repairing. Still, both struck me as quiet, almost sacred places. Had I only a sweater with a stain on its sleeve and enough extra money to pay for dry cleaning—had I a shoe with a heel broken—they could have done something. As it was, they seemed holier to me for repairing nothing real, only shoes and clothing.

Sometimes I imagined them stroking my hair in rhythm with their classical music when I was trying to fall asleep. They would braid it then serve me the tea I often saw them sipping. Yet I also knew we would all be flooded if a large enough storm came. We would be the first to be washed away into the ocean. The eye at hand’s center outside the palm reader would loom over us all as we started drowning, as we were buried by water and met the colorless light of emptiness together, as we felt ourselves healed by its terrible splendor. We lay closer to the truth of things than all those swinging their arms and legs above us. This was our advantage. We were half dead, half buried, already. Their glowing, expressionless faces behind their glass doors were necessary for me. Their softly parted lips, their succulents kept in clear, round vases. Though I thought myself at peace with my own emptiness, I also wanted someone to see me waving.

My sister’s water broke, and my nephew came into the world a couple pounds smaller than expected. In utero, the umbilical cord had wrapped itself around his neck, something that would have presented more problems had he been born only a few days later, she said. What had fed him for nine months also slowly strangled him without even the doctor knowing. Because I had made no attempt to be present at the birth, my sister told me this over the phone rather than in person. Standing there alone beside the hospital bed, I imagined I could do nothing for either one of them. From Arizona, Mia texted her congratulations.

I came home one evening and noticed time had reversed itself to the 1930s. A movie was being filmed near our apartment. Beneath the floodlights, with its owner paid to leave his building, the shoe repair shop looked older than I had ever seen it as women slender as Mia wearing waistless dresses walked past, smiling and indifferent. With their heels sounding like nails being pounded into pavement, they spoke to each other more naturally for speaking from a script. The nearby movie theater and pharmacy were given wider windows and curtains. A trolley stood in the center of the street, which was closed for days to traffic. Leaving for work one morning, I caught my best glimpse of the starring actor and actress, both with smooth skin and eyes wide as fish, both looking much smaller than they do on screen.

My husband and I ate dinner in a nearby tavern where a bluegrass band was playing the night filming finished. The world surrounding our apartment returned to the present, and three men wearing matching vests strummed guitars on a stage with crepe paper overhanging its edges. At first, I paid little attention. I was tired from the work week, from saving too many animals from deaths that would only come again after they were adopted. I didn’t know until a song called “After Midnight” started how much I had needed for these three men to sing in unison about a married woman sleeping in another man’s bed, how much I had needed to drink a glass of wine while sitting across from my husband, for us to dance a while with our arms wrapped around each other’s hips. When the woman in the song left, she created a cavern in the mattress. She left one place empty so someone else could fill it. The song made something sweet out of emptiness.

The lead singer’s hair was silver and wavy. From a short distance, it became a bed of soap bubbles filling a bath I wanted to be taking. He looked to be ten, fifteen years older than me, and from the stage he asked me to take the tip jar around the tables after the second set was finished. He complimented my dress when I handed the jar back to him. He dedicated the last song to the woman who had helped fill his pockets, saying, with everyone else in the tavern hearing, this was the beginning of a love affair for him. Only since the affair had started in public, it couldn’t be a secret, he whispered into the microphone more loudly. Playing some chords before another song started, he offered his apologies to my husband.

A few weekends later, we saw the same band again. My husband would have rather stayed in, he said before we left, would have rather read or watched a movie. The lead singer’s beauty, the attention he paid me, telling me I looked lovely when I walked in behind my husband, was all an accident, I realized even then. Still I felt myself changed by it. I felt myself ripen like a green tomato set in the sun on a window ledge. I worked too many hours at the pet magazine in silence without caring whether the animals were adopted not to come alive with the attention. A subtle and quiet reincarnation.

My senses were also hungry. Only until I turned my head toward the darkness, until I swayed to sad and tinny music in the shadows of the tavern, I hadn’t known this. I had been looking too long at light that was both empty and colorless. For the first time in many years on end, I became aware of my body again. A handsome man’s gaze fell warm on my shoulders, softening them as well as all the muscles connecting to my coccyx, making my spine into a languid river. Since the death of my dad and my mom not long before him, my husband had seen me as too wounded for much sexual aggression. I read aloud too many lengthy passages from The Tibetan Book of the Dead for him to forget my preoccupation with another dimension. Like the time before this, the lead singer asked me to pass the tip jar after the second set was finished. When I handed it full of bills to him, he said now he could eat again. Without me, he would starve, be famished.

There is a carnality, I realized then, that lies buried deep within the sacred. There is lust that thickens the air filling even holy places. Every cathedral has benches from which to gaze on beautiful men and women, and the hollows inside my head, which the lead singer now haunted, were no different. I became aware of him roaming my skull’s open spaces, my eardrums, my sinuses, those cavities forming the shape of a butterfly for no known reason. Yet consciousness needs a means of escape once the heart stops beating, and the butterfly of my sinuses may be as good a place as any. The skull’s cathedral may be a sacred place to pray for transcendence. It is also a place to leave when you are ready.

At the end of each weekday, after walking a few steps down to my kitchen, I made dinner knowing I was living in the bardo’s final stages. I paid the dry cleaner and shoe repair salesman less attention, stopped smiling and waving as often. In the full light of day, I saw every attractive man more clearly for the one I’d seen only in darkness, because it was always after midnight when the bluegrass band finished playing. I bought myself new clothes, waiting to walk back inside the tavern wearing pants, dresses, and blouses that fit me better. Meanwhile, the eye at hand’s center across the street never blinked but kept watching.

My sister called and told me Mia had broken up with her boyfriend. This time, she wasn’t leaving Arizona again. She had found Indiana too flat, too humid. My sister never told her the mold was a problem. My nephew’s crawling now seemed more important. In his new incarnation, my dad’s brown eyes had lightened to blue. When he slept, his bottom lip slipped sideways. He had begun gurgling, trying to make conversation, trying to tell me how he had wrestled with the bardo’s eroticism far longer than average. I spent hours on my sister’s couch with him, trying to listen, trying to hear him explain through his mewling how he had stayed there long enough to return the only way possible to his family. He had to wait for my sister to have surgery removing polyps from her uterus. Never having wanted children, I provided him no opening. I have been on birth control now for decades.

My husband grew tired of going to the same tavern each weekend. He knew the reason we went so often, complained about hearing the same songs sung again, the tip jar routine the lead singer perfected. He told me to stop buying new clothing. We didn’t have room in our closet unless we moved to another apartment. I did as he wanted but started working from home on a freelance basis. I quit the pet magazine, having grown tired of pretending I wanted to save things that were clearly dying.

For certain ceremonies, Tibetan Buddhists drink from a human skull known as a kapala. They pay homage to deities whom they hope will help them withstand the bardo’s agony, to make wiser choices regarding their next incarnation if not surrender to the colorless light of emptiness entirely. The skull is intricately carved and overlaid with jewelry. In many ancient paintings, beloved deities hold a kapala flush with lapidary beauty. They quaff human blood, according to tradition. Monks, however, often fill their kapalas with cakes instead. They bake them to resemble human eyes, ears, and tongues—all the skull has dispensed with in death, those fragile portals of the senses—then place them at skull’s bottom. They fall asleep waiting for deities to devour these symbols of impermanence so their bodies’ desires cannot in turn devour them.

I have never seen a kapala in person, have never seen a human skull outside a natural history museum. Yet I can easily imagine my own head filled with eyes and ears and tongues, those cut from and belonging to another body, instead of the thoughts that tend to fill it. Normally, the eyes, ears, and tongues taste of dough sweetened with honey, of dough growing harder the longer it lies uneaten. A man I found myself briefly loving more than my husband seemed to make the promise of more sweetness in this life an option. It was only the promise, though, I needed.

By the time we moved apartments again, the band no longer performed at the same tavern. The band no longer existed once we moved to a third-story unit where we sat level with the city’s forest canopy. I received the news from an e-newsletter the lead singer sent to hundreds. There had never been any real temptation for me to resist in the bardo when I was living half within a basement. There had been only suggestions in the song lyrics. Still, I stopped reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead aloud to my husband. I derived too much pleasure from the senses, had bought too much new clothing. In my new neighborhood, where we have remained now for years on end, there are dry cleaners and shoe repair shops, all only a couple stories below me. They sit level with the street. Those men who work their lives away inside them do not seem friendly.

There is more light, as well as noise, in this building. The windows stretch nearly to the ceiling, and the walls are thin. My husband and I often hear our neighbors having sex, rarely with the same people, as I imagine. We are likely the only people here who are married, whose sex is mostly quiet. I still work from home, still on a freelance basis. Many of those living in the units around me are also home on weekdays for unknown reasons. They shake the walls with their lovemaking and their music, which goes quiet only in the evening.

A couple months ago, I went alone to a movie. Walking inside the theater near sunset, I faced a familiar silhouette. It was the bluegrass band’s bassist. He noticed me studying his profile, which always struck me as handsome. He hugged and introduced me to his girlfriend, confessing he hadn’t played music in ages. They were leaving the same movie I was seeing, and he told me it was sadder than all the previews had led him to believe. His girlfriend noticed the dress I was wearing, one I had bought for the lead singer to notice but he had never seen, and she told me it was pretty. I had not bought it for other women, had bought it for nothing.

The lead singer had gotten tired of all the late evenings, the bassist said when I asked him why things ended. His hair’s soap bubbles were bursting. He had wanted more time to spend with his wife on weekends. They wanted to do more traveling, had recently left for a month to see the Northern Lights from the top of Norway, the bassist said, laughing. I realized he must have never really needed the tips I gave him, must have always had plenty of money. He must have only pretended to be hungry.

Melissa Wiley is the author of Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press). Her creative nonfiction has appeared most recently in places like The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, Phoebe, Waxwing, The Offing, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Juked, Noble / Gas Qtrly, and PANK. She lives in Chicago.