Robert James Russell
Accompanying music: “Turning into Tiny Particles...Floating Through Empty Space” by Hammock
I once dated a woman whose parents had, when she was a child, bought her a Stradivarius violin. My knowledge of those violins, back then, was minimal—what they cost, their rarity—but I did know they were luxury items, that she’d been musically spoiled and would laugh playing any other instrument. They would, of course, all be inferior.
After we’d have sex in her over-stuffed, typical college-ramshackle house, she’d wrap the bedsheet around her waist, go to the corner of the room and pull out the Strat, as she idly called it, from its scratched-up case and play from memory. I’d lie there in bed letting the raw honey music placate me, slowing my heart rate. She’d play furiously, prancing while the bedsheet dangled and bounced around her ankles like some traditional festive garb, eyes closed and face scrunched and red as if she was taken over by a muse.
Downstairs, her roommates lived in front of the Xbox, stoned, listening to hard metal. You could only just hear the thump of the bass from her room. It added a wraithy timbre to her music as if the heavens were calling back to her while she violently bowed. As if they were answering her dulcet prayers.
Not believing in an afterlife, in a higher power, should terrify me: What happens after you die? is the question we’ve all asked ourselves. Without this afterlife, without something waiting, only a void of nothingness—Gray bones in a grave, I often joke, calling back to a meme featuring a child asked about what happens to us when we die—I should be scared out of my wits.
But I’m not. I’m really, very truthfully, not.
For me, there’s a peace in this inescapability. It doesn’t make me a lawless rebel, moored to no social code, who’s only out for himself. No, I still care deeply for others, for my impact on the world. I try my best to leave this place better than when I found it. But it has allowed me a certain amount of freedom to experience each day to its fullest, lest it be my last, to tell those around me how much I care for them. It has forced me to be wowed and blindsided by natural splendor—the simplest things, too, are what do it, a painted turtle crawling toward a pond, softball sized peonies and their syrupy fragrance, nested starlings coming to and fro with food for their crackling calling chicks.
Of course, this is all relative to my mind when I die, this nothingness. But what about my body?
The luthier known as Antonio Stradivari was—is, yet—unrivaled. Estimates are that only 650 of his instruments still survive today. What makes a Stradivarius violin so élite, so sought after? Experts generally agree it’s the sound they produce, syrupy and calming as if hand-assembled by seraphim, which is due, miraculously enough, to the wood they were carved from.
Stradivari kept the location of the trees he used to make his instruments a secret—and why wouldn’t he? What we’ve come to learn is that the man hiked into the Italian Alps to a strand of spruce known only to himself and his family and hand-picked trees by tapping on their trunks, speaking to them, studying their shape, where the branches started, wondering aloud with a smile if there was an instrument willing to be heaved from their great masses, yearning to be plucked and played.
If placed in the ground without a coffin, my body will take anywhere from eight to twelve years to fully break down. With a coffin—oak, let’s say—it will take considerably longer. With my brain switched off, I will be in a state of nothingness, and my body’s deterioration process will be somewhat retarded, slowly losing itself, its shape and meaning. Trying to catch up.
I considered this often in my twenties when I was perpetually single, perpetually sad and hollowed out. I thought about the state of my body and how quickly, without embalming, my skin would start to become blue. (Spoiler: hours). I wasn’t suicidal, and these weren’t dark thoughts, to me, but when you’re lost and alone in a sea of banality and unsure of your direction, it’s hard not to think about the end itself—especially for someone whose beliefs center around death being the only inevitable truth.
The violin playing would go on for twice as long as the actual sex did.
I never complained—I was getting a private concert on an extraordinarily rare violin. When she was done playing she’d be sweaty, and she’d mock bow and then grin, exhaling loudly. I once asked for an encore and she shot me a deadly squint. She would not play on command, only when inspired.
We weren’t together very long (we both knew it was a fleeting thing, and no part of me longs for that time), so all these years later I remember very little about her—a general shape for her body, a geographical direction she lived in. I don’t even remember the music she played (she waffled between a few songs only, if I recall). But now, wandering the woods behind my house filled with the sound of robins and cardinals and swooping barn swallows, I close my eyes and imagine her somewhere still playing her Stradivarius. I imagine the wood of the violin’s body, almost three-hundred years old, still ringing out after all these years. I imagine Stradivari talking to the trees, like I do when I’m out hiking, telling them what their futures would hold.
During my twenties, I decided I wanted to be cremated, something I still wish for upon death. I’ve heard the arguments for and against it, but what attracted me to the procedure was that, like my consciousness, my body, too, would be gone. At least there would be no trace of me anywhere, then. Like body, like mind.
I’ve recently discovered websites that turn your ashes into various items, pencils and pendants and baubles to be handed out to your loved ones. Now, too, there are biodegradable urns that take your ashes and use them to grow trees. Since I’m obsessed with trees and forests, this idea appeals to me, as a way to give back again.
All I want is to be transformed. When I’m gone, I want to be made anew, to sprout branches, to feel the wind on my leaves, to host colonies of carpenter ants and families of squirrels and songbirds. And then, yes, I want some savant wandering the forest to talk sweetly to me, to determine I am worthy to be made instrument. To harvest my body, to carve it skillfully—here, the scroll, the neck; here, the bouts, the waist—and I want that to be played on a hot summer’s night in some backyard. Maybe there’s a charcoal grill blazing, an unused children’s playset overgrown with grasses, blown seeds stuck clumped in the wooden seams like white fur, children playing and swimming with bright orange foam noodles in a blue above-ground pool. I want to be played in that backyard, a soundtrack for the suburban crepuscular, a nocturne relishing the length of days.
Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don't Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is the managing editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic (co-founder) and CHEAP POP (founder). You can find him online here.