Between Life and Death

by Bethy Wernert

I am four when she first appears to me.

Trembling and afraid, I lie in ICU, other children dying around me. My parents sob silently. A mournful priest murmurs the last rites to someone in the room next to us, separated only by a thin curtain.

My seizures have brought me here, to this place between life and death, and I feel my soul lingering in the hazy realm between worlds.

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As I lie in the hospital bed, the mattress firm and cold, a shadow dances across the curtains. I feel a hand—a caressing breeze—stroke my hair. I can’t see her, but I feel her. Ancient, like trees rooted in centuries. She smells of earth after rain, and birds outside raise their choral hymn in honor of her. She whispers, her voice, maternally soothing, “Everything is okay. This is who you are, and you always will be.” She then disappears as a brush of wind trickles through the window.

The doctors come in with the verdict. “Epilepsy,” they tell me, “a seizure disorder. Idiopathic—no one knows how it’s caused.”

My parents leave the hospital, wondering why I was “cursed to have this disorder, this—this disease.” I leave the hospital feeling blessed. As tired and scared as I was, I now feel at peace.

Over time, I discover that I’m not alone, that epilepsy has long been associated with spirituality, wiring our brains to the belief in the mystical. [1] Our brains become conduits, neurons sparking our sensations to perceive the otherworldly amidst the mundane. Believing in magic, my mother raised me on myths of fairies and ghosts, shadowy nature spirits that drift between worlds. I’ve always believed in these spirits, but epilepsy allows me to sense them.

Eventually, my seizures are controlled with heavy doses of anti-epileptic medication, pentagonal, powder-white pills labeled Lamictal. And through the passing years, the epileptic sparks in my brain cease to light.

“You no longer have seizures,” my neurologist proclaims.

I feel a loss of identity at his words, my sense of self, melting into nothingness. What am I without my seizures? Without everything I’ve experienced? Without everything I’ve seen?

Yet, my soul remembers that realm, that place between life and death, and she still visits me, wandering through the shadows when the air is damp with rain, when the creosote breathes its gentle perfume, and when the mist clings to the crevices of the mountains. She comes when the sky is darkened with magic and storms, and she whispers, “This is who you are, and you always will be.”


[1] Coles, Alasdair. “Temporal lobe epilepsy and Dostoyevsky seizures: Neuropathology and Spirituality.” Royal College of Psychiatrists (2013): 1-7. Web. 7 June 2016.


Bethy Wernert lives and works in Tucson, Arizona after graduating with a BA in English from Northern Arizona University. Her nonfiction has previously appeared in Communion. When not working and writing, she likes to sit in nature and drink tea.

Editor’s Note: Golden

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The Dodge Ram scrambles over rocks and rain-hewn ditches; water gallons and bean cans jostle  in the truck bed. I gaze out the window, stretch my pointer fingers and thumbs then hold my hands catty-corner to pretend I’m making postcards. Snap!—everything gold, gilded.

The sinking-sun landscape looks like one of those photo essays from Arizona Highways I leaf through in the library. The Altar Valley is amber with cholla and prickly pear, acacia and mesquite trees. The dusk casts miniature, scattered mountain ranges in vermilions and mauves. Baboquivari’s cuspate peak stands sentinel above it all, so backlit that it looks like its cut out of black construction paper.

Golden hour is seductive enough to lure me towards forgetting. I pull myself back, remind myself that the recent history of this desert is a catalogue of predacious desire for aurum, Au, the metal that shines like the sun:

1540: Coronado (arrogant, silver-plated) searches the Southwest for Cíbola, the legendary city of gold. He finds no such city but still plunders towns and villages, leaving death and destruction in his Spanish wake.

Pima County, 1774: Manuel Lopez, a Spanish holy man, forces a group of Tohono O’odham to extract gold from the Quijotoa Mountains. Thus begins gold mining in Arizona.

1877: White settlers open the Montana Mine in Ruby, Arizona. Until 1940, when it’s abandoned, residents extract gold, silver, lead, zinc, and copper from the mine.

(Ruby is now one of the two best-preserved mining ghost towns in Arizona according to Wikipedia, twenty-five-odd buildings scattered on a hillside below the gaping mine mouth. The mine is home to thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats that swirl into the darkening summer sky, going north-south-east-west in search of bugs, disregarding the nearby cattle fence that splits two countries like a wound.)

Then there’s my own white, middle-class childhood. 1994: I’m five, in a pink-painted bedroom just north of New York City, thousands of miles from this dusty border. My father reads to me from My First Book of Fairy Tales. The illustrations are full of golden objects–the giant’s eggs in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” Cinderella’s pumpkin coach. After he finishes a story, my father asks, “What’s the golden rule?” and I respond, well taught, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” It’s his favorite punchline. We laugh, oblivious to how it implicates us.

The princesses in the volume have locks so burnished they seem incendiary–like they might, at any moment, burst into flame.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Founding Editor Wren Awry. Photograph by Margaret KIlljoy.