Unstill life

Her name is Mary Johnson. Born in 1917, the year the U.S. entered WWI, two years before women in the same country got the right to vote, she died in 1944, not long before the end of WWII. She was buried, unembalmed, in the cemetery of a Chicago church that was later abandoned. Her grave was unmarked. To make room for new commercial development in 2023, the church was razed and occupants of the cemetery were respectfully and quietly disinterred, and moved to a working cemetery elsewhere in town. In the midst, efforts were made by the coroner’s office to discover the identities of the bodies from unmarked graves before they were to be reburied. Mary’s was among them.

The difference with Mary was that her body appeared to be unchanged: a bit dusty under bits of casket lining, with light flecks on her dark skin. Except for that, she looked like she had died yesterday. When they removed her body from the casket in the hospital morgue where she was taken for DNA sampling, she was still flexible. I asked the pathologist what would account for her perfect state of preservation. The pathologist said she had no idea. Even the best embalming jobs age in the ground.

When the pathologist was out of the room, I reached to lift one of Mary’s eyelids. Before my fingers touched, both lids opened, slightly. I called out, “Come here! Come here!” Nobody came. Then both eyes opened. Her body shook as she tried to breathe.

“Code Blue! I yelled.

She was alive. Somehow, alive. After what, eighty years? At the time we didn’t know.

I was ready to do CPR when she started breathing andĀ tried to sit up. “Hang on,” I said. Let me help.” As I did, she was becoming warm. She stood up and looked around.

I looked at my watch. It was 5:15 AM. The dream was too interesting for me to completely awaken, so I dropped back in. As a half-conscious dreamer, I often do that. For the next hour, I followed several different story threads. Each visited what happened in the eighty years of Mary’s suspended life. The Cold War. israel. Civil rights. Rock & Roll. Space travel. Disco. Hip hop. Rap. Digital everything. One of her questions: “What’s television?”

I thought about the backstory of her own short life: a child in the twenties, a teen during the Depression, a young adult during The War. What interesting stuff happened in those years? Was she in love, maybe with a guy who went off to fight? What work did she do?

I thought about the science questions. How was it possible for someone to lay undead for so long? Who else in that cemetery, or any cemetery, might still be alive? Was she a one-of-one, a one-of-some, or a one-of-many? Though not a horror story, it did recall Poe’s The Premeture Burial, in which the protagonist’s undead state was “catalepsy.” I imagined in this thread that the story might be oneĀ Michael Chrichton would like to write, if he was still alive.

Dreams have no more detail than one gives them, and being a white guy from New Jersey, born after Mary went cataleptic, I didn’t have much to furnish any storyline about Mary’s life, past or present. But I could still think of questions to address. What perspective and wisdom could Mary bring to our time? How would she cope with finding nearly all the people and things she knew were now dead and gone? What would she marvel at, and what would appall her? What would she be, or mean, to the rest of us?

No surprise that I would dream of a resurrection on Easter morning, even though that wasn’t in my head at the time. So, might Mary (not hard to guess from what corner of my unconscious that one came from) be a Jesus for our time? Hmm.

At 6:15, I finally had to get up and do my business, and the dream ended there. Still, “This has to be a book,” I told myself. But I have other books to write, ones that have sat half-written for years. And writing fiction isn’t my thing. So I decided I’d blog it instead. And here we are.

She is alive now, on this page, and in your mind. All she needs is for someone to finish her story.

The image above is courtesy of DALL-E, the artificially creative image generator. Took four tries to get this one. Since DALL-E seems to know only how to make grotesque faces, I made sure the woman here is looking away.

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4 Responses to Unstill life

  1. Zoe Ball says:

    Great story, the amazing thing is I do exactly the same with good dreams, re entering them as quickly as possible. Although they are very rarely continued in the same vividness in my dreams.

    Keeping dreams alive is not a bad thing, especially when they are so interesting and often related to events that are current or on your mind.

    Thanks for sharing, I truly enjoyed it.

    • Doc Searls says:

      You’re welcome. And glad to hear you’re able to continue a dream after waking a bit. Doing that only happens for me every few weeks or so. But about half the time I can remember a dream, or a part of it. I can also be aware that I’m dreaming when a dream is going on. I can also force an unpleasant dream to end by forcing myself to read a book. That works because it’s too hard to write what I’m reading, and the strain pops me out of half-sleep. But sometimes I run with a dream even though I know what’s going on.

      Oddly, my mother told me she didn’t dream, even though everyone does, and she knew that.

  2. Alistair says:

    When I started reading it I was convinced this might be true. It will be difficult to get the dream out of my head, as you suggest! Great photo!
    I also just published a new guide to Photography Subjects at https://phototipsgalore.com/photography-subjects/

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