Death consumes us, ultimately. What is it but the snapping shut of jaws, the final big swallow, us down the gullet to the Great Beyond. Of course, there is nothing original about this metaphor. Plenty of precedents abound for the conceptualization of death-as-mouth, in literature and art, many of which served as sources of inspiration for my story ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow.’ How death makes a meal of us, how we all wind up worm food, these were the ideas I was thinking about when first developing this tall tale. A man consumed by shark, his son consumed by grief, how even as we breathe, by our thoughts does death consume us. We eat and we are eaten. We process, digest, absorb. What is life anyway but an acidic trip through some very twisted intestines?
There is in the Bible, for example, the Last Supper. The last gathering round the table before Jesus dies. How utterly dreadful that dinner party must have been. The man of the hour, the host right there, he is on his way out. As a writer imagining this scene, knowing full well the gravity of the situation, that here is a meal that is kind of a big deal, that here is really the dinner party to end all dinner parties, I can’t help but wonder: What was the chit-chat like? Did the men, because they were men, talk sports? Did anyone, say once the wine got to flowing, burst into tears, push back his chair, say, excuse me, this is all just a little too much? Did anyone, in an act of solidarity, follow his brother out onto the porch, join him for a smoke, offer him a light? Did Jesus, debriefed by Dad well in advance, possessing in his robe pocket a folded photocopy of next day’s schedule, did Jesus have anything close to, even remotely resembling, an appetite? No seconds for me, thank you, big day tomorrow.
A farewell meal of blood and body – sort of gets us to the point, doesn’t it?
On tonight’s menu: Death.
Medieval art is rife with depictions of the Hellmouth, the flaming-mouthed beast with teeth long and sharp, hot maw of fangs your exclusive entrance to Hades. Found in painted illustrations and carved reliefs of the Last Judgment, typically with the Christ figure above and the Hellmouth below, this terrifying image is meant to serve as a warning: Be good or else. For visual reference, a nice example is the Last Judgment panel in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an illuminated manuscript from the early 15th century. There it is at the bottom, for all to behold: A monster mouth gorging on oodles of sinners, their helpless bodies charbroiled, pathetic flesh thoroughly masticated. Go ahead and scream. Au fond, ad infinitum, you are now a hamburger. And no, you do not get fries with that.
Fear of danger, fear of pain, it’s quite the effective deterrent. Or it should be. In “Yesterday’s Tomorrow,” the narrator discovers that for his Pops, at least, it might not have been effective enough. Pops defies the natural order; rather than fear the Hellmouth, he dives straight into it. Aims squarely for the jaws of death. That phrase, “jaws of death”, was coined by, who else, Shakespeare. It is an image that sticks. Death as a trap to be at-all-costs avoided, a snare in the woods dodged by quick-thinking animals. The advice is pretty simple: Whatever you do, do not get caught. For as long as you can, live. Unless you want to get caught, do not want to live, do not mind making of yourself an early dinner – well then what? Skip the main course, head straight for dessert? After all, in a fair number of countries, sweets come first.
Why the drudgery, the heavy sense of burden?
After a funeral, why not stop for ice cream?
On the topic of death and meals, or death-as-meals, what better remark to be found than in Hamlet: ‘A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and cat of the fish that hath fed of that worm’ (Act IV, Sc. III). Such is the revelation of a brooding son lamenting his father’s death/murder, Hamlet trapped in the echo chamber of his own thoughts. In a way, these words provide comfort, cast death as the great leveller, the truest arbiter of fairness. Even kings turn to chum. Whether Hamlet is certifiably mad or not, to me, is not the issue. He is hurting. Misses his dad. Wants some answers.
The relationship between a father and son, a dead father and a living son, is what ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’ is ultimately about. How a son wants nothing more than to make his father proud. How a son wants it so badly, he is willing to die for it. How his deepest fear is that it may be too late. How thoughts and feelings such as these, regret and redemption and heartbreak, how these are the things that make us survivors. Make us the living. How what is true about us is always true about us. How basically, doesn’t it figure, there is nothing new under the sun.
Jessica Bonder is an American fiction writer and actor. She has previously published works in STORGY Magazine, The Bohemyth, Vending Machine Press, The Fiction Pool, Split Lip Magazine and Unbroken Journal. Her short story ‘Not Today’ won first place in STORGY’s 2015 Short Story Contest, judged by author Paul McVeigh. She holds a BA in English and Art History from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in New Jersey. www.jessicabonder.com. Tweet her @jessbonder.
© Jessica Bonder, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.