The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Ladies Lazarus

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Mother’s eyes are different colors, one brown, one green: heterochromia iridum. It is rumored that with such eyes, a person is able to simultaneously perceive two separate planes of being. I moved two thousand miles away from the town where I was born, but return each time Mother goes missing.

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What I learned from Mother—the world is full of secret haunts. Places where people go to hide and, in the process, become hidden things. One such place is City 40, a closed city constructed around Mayak, the birthplace of the Soviet Union’s foremost thermonuclear warhead plant. When those recruited to Mayak moved to City 40 with their families, the border was sealed for eight years, leaving those on the outside to believe their loved ones were dead or disappeared.

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On nights Mother goes missing, Father, Sister, and I part the marsh, or else move like dull blades through the woods’ terrifying sameness. I leave secret notes in the limbs of sugar maples and evergreens. Please Mother, make yourself known to me. With Mother, love’s an animal trap. Catch and release.

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The dream of City 40 was that of living wages, low crime-rates, and occasional luxuries. A place where children could fish, swim, and play unaccompanied late into the evening. If the price of that dream was a kind of sectioning off from the world, so be it. The trouble, in the end, was not the isolation of City 40. It was the toxicity of the place itself and, once that toxicity was known, the expectation of silence.

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Nights without stars, I walk barefoot across the street and down the hill, along the lake’s perimeter. Through the smacking of cattails and itching of Queen Anne’s Lace, in this place where plumes of crack smoke are known to curl over the water, I smell her. In the dark, her eyes shine as lakes named for the drowned might. We know what Mother’s doing, but don’t dare speak it aloud. Rather, we evolve as necessary. A reluctant teleology emerges wherein night vision, telepathy, and thick skin become extrinsic. There is pain there, but we’re not allowed to name it.

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When a place is by its very definition secret, misinformation is inevitable. Even the Soviet Union’s most ingenious atom-splitters scooped plutonium from the floor with bare hands. Carelessly, the chemical byproducts of Mayak were discharged into City 40’s scenic rivers, and once the radioactivity made its way North to the Arctic Ocean, and was traced back to a single point of origin, their secret was out. The central water supply of City 40 was permanently poisoned, its lakes and rivers known as “graveyards of the earth.”

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Mother and Father planted roots in a town where no one leaves. The kind of place that makes you feel as though you are fated to it. In such towns, one must become creative if one is to escape. For Mother, two worlds—earth we inhabit together, then the hot, heavenly body of euphoria and speed. Often, Mother exists in the tear between these worlds, belonging nowhere, to no one. We see clearly what she cannot, that her sickness and relief are cyclical now.

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It wasn’t until 1994 that the closed status of City 40 was lifted, and those who’d been dreaming of rising from Mayak’s ashes were permitted to do so, though at great personal cost. The fact that nearly everyone remained in City 40 behind that border of razor wire had less to do with civic pride, safety, or luxury, and more to do with the fact that City 40 was all they’d ever known.

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There are places in the city only I will go to look for her. Singed brick, dogs on choke chains, weedy lots. At some point, every woman in town has overdosed, come back from the dead. Ladies Lazarus in a sunless subdivision. The only cure is not to take the medicine. Mother’s eyes are different colors, and I am the inheritor of the dark eye, the brown-eyed daughter.

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When I moved away, Mother mailed me a slender manila envelope each week. Inside were seven clippings—our horoscopes, as we are the same sign. These horoscopes, lifted from the National Enquirer, were always strangely specific: Beware a woman in a green sweater on a red bicycle.  A bearded man in a fedora will reveal a path to great wealth.  Initially, I watched with vigilance for the people described. As time went by, I imagined them as residents of a closed city where everyone’s whereabouts are known, a city that could belong only to Mother and me. I should live in salt, a song on the radio says, for leaving you.

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I quit smoking. Start again. Lose myself in a heroin summer, then for years remain clean, ascetic.  In this family and this town, addiction is inherited, toxicity’s a birthright, so I test the limits, seeking proof that no matter how close I come to failing, I’ll be able to navigate earth and heaven, never catching in the space between.

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When thinking of Lazarus, we recall the miracle. A man who rose from the dead into waking life. What we forget about the story is how it began. How Jesus was aware of Lazarus’s illness, but waited until he’d been entombed for four days before doing anything about it. When before a throng of people, Jesus wept, declaring, “Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die,” and when He ordered the stone rolled away from the tomb, and Lazarus stepped into the sunlight still wrapped in his grave-cloths, that had nothing to do with Lazarus, with healing or miracles. That was Jesus showing the people of Bethany His power, nothing more. There are over 80,000 people who remain in City 40, now known as Ozersk. 80,000 closely guarded secrets. This morning in Ozersk, cattle will come to drink from the river bed. They will stir up the radionuclide sediment at the bottom that everyone wants to forget, until it mixes with the clear water at theriver’s surface. Radioactivity will seep into the milk, and that milk will be made for raw consumption.

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I am facing the fact that Mother is unknowable, that the parts of her which rocked shut will never be open to me again. I lie on my back in the hollows of what I know of her and try to soak it in. But there is little floating room between rock bottom and bone. When the sun is closest to the horizon, I will comb the marsh for her shadow, remembering how when I was small, I’d walk at a pace that allowed my shadow to be absorbed within hers. As though through this small action I might somehow be reabsorbed. As though through such synthesized darkness, we might somehow become indistinguishable from one another. Some nights, I’m certain I see bright hair among the lily pads. *** Collage by Elizabeth J. Colen.


Piper J. Daniels is a Midwestern native who holds a BA from Columbia College Chicago and an MFA from the University of Washington. She is a frequent contributor to the Monarch Review, where she curates an anti-street harassment column. She lives in Seattle and in Phoenix with her dog, Omar Little. More from this author →