A Yizkor for Charlottesville

So, here I am walking around with a skull in my purse. Yeah, that's right, like an absolute creep. And look, I know what you're saying because, if I were in your uncritical—and frankly privileged—unskulled position, I'd say the same thing. I'd say (just like you're saying now), Rachel, get rid of it. Just take it out of your purse and leave it on the tampon box in a Starbuck's bathroom stall or throw it in the dumpster behind Wong's Buffet. Or, even better, give it to the homeless guy who hangs out on the corner of 85th and Walton, the one with the bum leg, his skin the tired no-color of too much wind and sun. He can pawn it for cash. But I can't. I can't just throw it out, because it's my grandmother's skull. Literally. It’s like a whole cultural thing, you know?

            Anyway, my mother would kill me. I mean, metaphorically. She’d kill me and walk around with my skull in her purse if she found out. And I don't like that, the idea of my metaphorical skull all mixed up with used tissues, cough drops, and gummy old tubes of lipstick, but she would do it because we are members of an old and long-suffering people, and it's tradition. Like, approximately 4,000 years of purse skulls walk down the generations behind me, grinning and flinching and jawing their stories, and who am I, Rachel Cohen, to argue with them? To say, this skull is too heavy. Carrying it hurts my shoulder, makes my gait ponderous and prematurely slow. Who am I to put my grandmother's skull down, to leave it and its weight for any stranger to ignore, or kick, or steal for sympathy? The audacity. The shame.

           "But," you say. You with your micro-clutches and your wallets that hold no tragic history but your own.  "That's so morbid." 

           And, look, I know it is. Don’t you think I know it is? Every day, I’m carrying my grandmother’s skull through the blind summer heat. Carrying it past the squat lecture halls of the local university, past the office buildings and tech parks and cafes that sell $5 lattes and wooden chairs reclaimed from old growth junk pine. Past the churches, too, all three of them staggered on the same street and equally spaced, their gleaming white spires cheerful panopticons, ideolocating man and God. I carry my grandmother’s skull to work through all this yawning 9 a.m. innocence and later, when the sun shrugs westward, I carry my grandmother’s skull home through the gathering dark. I carry it back the way we came, past the churches, and the coffee shops, and the office buildings, past the prison and the university, where throngs of people gather on the browning quad and mill restlessly, sometimes chanting, sometimes laughing or shouting. Occasionally, one pauses, arms sweaty from his sunburned face, and sips from a water bottle, his torch bobbing and flickering, tasting the air like a startled copperhead. And as I carry my dead past the copper feet of some traitor’s war hero, past the men who wear skulls like mine as pins on their replika caps, with my head down and my pulse quickening in my throat, one of them steps out onto the sidewalk behind me.

           He’s built like a suspension bridge, slender and bowlegged below and thick in the middle, suspiciously top-heavy. On his collar, two lacquer-bright pins: a Confederate flag and a swastika. In my purse, my grandmother’s skull jostles and shifts. I walk faster.

           “Hey!” he calls. “You dropped your keys.”

           In my peripheral vision, the flame of his torch bobs. I stop and turn, feeling part of me sicken and fail like the soft, inexorable crumpling of a rotten floorboard giving out underfoot

           The marcher holds up my keyring by its black wrist coil. His smile is full of teeth. “Relax, hun, I’m not gonna bite.”

           I take a few steps toward him and then a few more, watching him closely. I’m wary of sudden movements, a glint of recognition in his hazel eyes. The sun is gone, and the night drapes around us, a shared experience staved off by the torch’s flickering yellow light. On the quad, the protesters have coalesced into a knot at the feet of Robert E. Lee, their voices rising and falling in unison, some demanding blood and soil, others bellowing “Jews will not replace us.”

           I reach out and snatch my keys from his hand. The marcher’s grin broadens.

           “That wasn’t so bad, huh? Us decent white folk gotta stick together. They’re trying to eradicate us, you know?”

           “Eradicate?” I echo, not quite seeing him beyond his corona of light, its stray edges falling on my skin, turning it foreign and pale. In my purse, the skull rests uneasily. There is a soft chink as it scrapes against the zipper of an inner pocket, and I imagine the jaw opening, readying itself to speak. To bring the whole roiling, rabid mass of the protest down on me like a frothing white-cap. 

           “Yup. White genocide,” the marcher confirms. “Very subtle. The globalists are trying to destroy our people by opening the borders and flooding the population with non-whites. At the rate things are going, you and I will be in the minority by 2040.” He nods back at the Confederate monument. “They’re trying to remove that. The first step of erasing a people is destroying their heritage. Stealing their history. Then you make them afraid to be what they are.  And if we let them do that…” He shakes his head, sorrowful. “Well, then it’s just a matter of time until they start rounding us up for the camps.”

           From inside my purse, low but distinct, comes the sound of grinding teeth.

           Clutching the bag closer to my body, I will the skull to quiet, and turn away, but as I do, a woman’s voice shrieks out through the leather:

           “Camps? Young man, you know nothing about the goddamn camps!”

           I don’t stick around long enough to see the marcher’s face crumble with hate and comprehension. Instead, I run, sensible heels pounding mercilessly against the pavement. I don’t stop to look back until I’m at my door and fumbling with the key.  

           “But if it makes you so miserable, why don’t you people just bury it and forget like the rest of us!” You say, and I hear your voice rising, the way mine rose the first time I saw my grandmother’s tote bag full of her familial skulls, still smudged and burnt, prized from mass graves and from smokestacks, their weight carried over oceans, over years. But it doesn’t have to be like that, because once and a while I’ll come home and turn all the lamps on. Throw the windows wide and cinch the curtains back. I'll take that skull out. Yeah, actually take it out of the purse, disinterring it the way you might a crease-softened photo from your wallet.

           And so, still out of breath, I take it out and set it on the nightstand. Admire how the polished crown catches the light, how it glows like an old, long-burning yahrzeit. I’ll remember that it has survived and so will we.

Sara McKinney is an Indiana transplant living on the east coast. She has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Kalamazoo College and a foster cat named Virgil. This is her first published piece.