Death’s Footsteps



This is the fifth and final installment of Nina MacLaughlin’s Novemberance column, which has run every Wednesday this month. 

Sharon Harper, Germany, mise en scene. 1997. Courtesy the New York Public Library Digital Collections.


Some weeks ago, before the first frost, before the days got dark in the late afternoon, I took a walk in an unfamiliar place. The dirt trail gave way to a narrow planked walkway flanked on both sides by high grass and brambles. It smelled like late fall, that earthy vinegar stink of rotting leaves. To breathe in the damp and leafy woods-floor smell is to breathe in decay. It’s the fertile, fecund smell of compost, of farms, hay, ammonia, manure; there’s the fermenting yeasty tang of beer. It’s the smell of humification: a word that sounds more like the process of making someone. It’s a brown-red smell, deep and dense and fungal.

I walked with someone who knew about plants, who’d tug at branches and look at the underbellies of leaves and show me what he knew. I felt lucky to learn, and tried to pay attention. The boardwalk footpath lead deeper into a boggy place, and the silence seemed to densify around us, and we tread with lighter steps. On the planked path he paused. “Sphagnum moss,” he said, pointing to a mound. I told him I did not like the word sphagnum, that it sounded like something you suffer from. “Feel it though,” he said. It was good advice. I crouched and pressed my palm into the moss. It was cool and damp and feathery, with a cushioned give, welcoming and soft. I wanted to lay my face in it, my whole body, to let the entire weight of me get absorbed into this cooling cloud of plant.

“Women used to use it when they were—” and he hesitated here, just slightly, a tiny hitch in the movement of the sentence, “—menstruating,” he said. What could I do but imagine it then between my legs.

In Old English, the name for November is Blotmonad. Blood month. For the sacrifices, for the slaughter.

I won’t slit the throats of goats out of gratitude for the harvest, or to gain favor from the gods. Instead, I’ll take notice of leaves the color of beef. Here in late November, below the silverskin sky, the trees aren’t wholly bare but getting there. Who knows which breeze will loosen the last leaves for good? Which breeze will drop them without sound onto the surface of a pond, or there on the sidewalk for us to trushle through? Jun Fujita, in a tanka poem called “November” captures the moment of this late stage of the month:

On a pale sandhill
A bare tree stands;
The death-wind
Has snatched the last few leaves.

The death-wind does its snatching in November, and the leaves and berries that remain are both defiant and vulnerable. They are no longer protected by the verdant gown of summer or peak autumn’s showy golden eruption. They seem to say, Take me, wind. Wet me, rain. Soak me up and down. Hold me, cold. Grip me. I am exposed. Bare boned. And I sense the coming snow. One sees the bare and witchy trees against the sky and a hunger arises. It comes from a residual, deep in, leftover place inside of us, from a time when winter was long and cold was dangerous, when you couldn’t have strawberries on your cereal in January. The hunger says, Time is short and getting shorter. And the hunger exists in the guts, and it says eat, and it exists lower, and it says fuck. A heightened hunger in November, for the roasted, simmered things, and also for the heated press of flesh. There’s an energy behind the eyes only present this time of year. So much heat, and so much quiet. Here we face the end of the year, and all the eventual, inevitable ends, and all we can do, all I am ever trying to do, is make friends with time. In November, we feel the hand of death closer at our backs. “Since the day of my birth,” writes Jean Cocteau, “my death began its walk. It is walking towards me without hurrying.”

The planked path ended at a small pond, black and still. No fish rippled the surface, no turtles sunned themselves on logs, no herons stood on stalk legs. We stood at the edge of the planks and looked. And then he who knew about plants lowered himself and leaned to the side of the path. “Look,” he said. “Pitcher plants.” I knelt and looked. It felt like a prize, a treasure unearthed. A cluster of them dangled above some moss. I’d never seen them in the world before. I inhaled so fast it might’ve been a gasp. The shape was one to enter and be entered by. An opening at the top was lipped all around and it led into a conical hollow that curled just so at the end, scabbard and sword at once. Rising from the top was a flayed bit, fanned like a cobra head, a peacock tail, showy and inviting. I pulled a piece of long grass and rubbed it around the opening ring, and then lower in, entering the pitcher part, as though I expected there’d be muscle movement in response, some clench or swell, some chlorophylled flinch and throb. Then I felt shy. But we’d come to a quiet place, and modesty no longer applied.

I was kneeling still when we heard footsteps on the planks, unhurried, a vibration through the wood like a distant train. I felt as if we’d been found, caught up to, that our time—too short!—was up. Around the corner, ducking under a low passage of bramble, a woman appeared, past her middle age. Her hair was white and she wore more clothes than the weather demanded. We all exchanged hellos and she walked to the edge of the planks and stood looking at the pond. She turned. “You have to see this,” she said, palming her phone in our direction.

On the screen, a photograph of the very spot we stood, at the end of the path, except there it was in winter, a landscape altogether iced, the pond glowing a blue-white, the reeds coated and brittle, everything cold, blue-white, and glittering. “Beautiful,” I said, and I meant it. But it was off-putting as well. She was showing us a picture of the past, and she was showing us a picture of the future, too. All at once, we were moved backward and forward in time. This place, its soft moss, its pliant pitcher plants, all the rich wetness all around, would get colder and slow (it had already started happening) and everything would close, dry, hardened and statued in its annual chamber of ice.

We aren’t there yet, I wanted to say. We have a little bit more time. That’s what November makes us know. We have a little bit more time. It’s one of the last days of the month, and the clouds have come and so the rain will come and then the snow will come. The Buddhists and bards and heavy-metal balladeers know: nothing lasts forever. Another season’s closing song. Death has been walking toward us all along, but in November we hear the footsteps.

We hear the footsteps in the glow of the leaves that cling and the bone branches silhouetted against the sky. A euphoria comes from the reminder of our aliveness. Footsteps, quiet, steady, and the breeze—that one—the cold breath from the world lifting the last leaf from the branch, no matter how hard it clings. It will undo the leaf’s grip, detach it from its source, settle it on the earth, return it to its source. And that same cold breath will detach us, return us. So, a sweater. A walk. The heated press of someone else’s thigh. The smell of sweet mulching leaves. Milkweed silk like moonlight. Listen. Quiet. Listen. Footfalls in steady rhythm in the air, the constant beat, unlimping: no vem ber no vem ber no vem ber no vem no vem no vem


Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read earlier installments of Novemberance here.