The Stone Coats? They’re us. They’re our boys and girls in Afghanistan, in Iraq, sheathed in body armor, driving armored personal carriers, tanks, flying A-10 Warthogs, firing shells made of depleted uranium that can penetrate almost anything. Sure, they get attacked, they get blown up. They sustain major damage to what are called the extremities. Many are shipped home in a vegetative state – one of those extremities being, of course, the head. Compared with that, the loss of a few fingers or toes, even an arm or a leg, seems like mere collateral damage.
One day a Seneca, who was out hunting in the woods, saw that a Stone Coat was following him; he was frightened and began to run. When he saw that the Stone Coat was gaining on him, he climbed a tree that had fallen part way and lodged on another tree.
Stone Coat came to the tree and stopped but he couldn’t see the man for he couldn’t look up. Taking a finger from his pocket he placed it on the palm of his hand. The finger raised up and pointed at the man. The man was a swift runner. He slipped down from the tree, snatched the finger and ran off with it.
(Jeremiah Curtin, Seneca Indian Myths)
Whose finger was it originally? The story doesn’t say. The man throws it back, and he and the Stone Coats make peace. In another, similar story, the man keeps the finger – this time liberated from a female Stone Coat – and employs it in hunting, with great success. It has the unerring ability to locate warm bodies. I guess it makes sense that the Stone Coats, the bringers of deadly frost, would each need to carry a heat-seeking device.
It was on a cold night at the end of January eight years ago that my friend Ben died. I remember the last time I saw him, two weeks before his death. He and my friend Chris had stopped out for a visit. I was shocked by Ben’s appearance and behavior. The old ear-splitting grin was still there, but six months of heroin addiction had taken a toll. When he rolled up a sleeve to show me his latest tattoos, his skin was very pale and cold to the touch. I had the uncanny feeling that I was seeing and touching something that should never be exposed, some power object or juju.
Shaking his hand was a weird experience, because he never took off his gloves. They were those fingerless gloves that bikers wear, black leather. Though there was still strength in his grip, the gesture felt curiously passive, like shaking hands with a well-trained dog.
Aside from showing off his latest tats and piercings, I don’t recall that Ben contributed much if anything to the conversation, which was odd, because he always used to enjoy the kind of rude banter that Chris and I specialized in. After a half hour or so, he asked if there were somewhere he could take a nap, and I told him to make himself at home. He disappeared upstairs and didn’t emerge for six hours.
His death from an overdose two weeks later filled me with anger at his pusher, an erstwhile friend of mine. But it was never clear that Ben didn’t intend simply to commit suicide. Heroin dosages are notoriously difficult for users to regulate, especially in the first year of their addiction. The woman who was with him at the time – his other pusher, in a sense – did indicate that Ben’s last words to her seemed, well, like last words: “I just want you to know, S., I love you to death.”
There was no casket at the funeral; Ben had already been cremated and the ashes scattered around his favorite haunts, as requested. Instead, his parents substituted his electric guitar, which was covered with the decals of bands he idolized: Slayer, Anthrax, Sepultura. There were a number of thoughtful eulogies from friends and relatives, some dwelling on the abundant promise he had shown from his birth onward, and how on how much he had always valued his personal freedom. If this were fiction, you’d be justified in considering this detail an unforgivable bit of bathos, but the fact is that Ben was born on the Bicentennial Day – July 4, 1976.
His parents requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations in Ben’s name should go to some foundation for slow learners. That really bothered me. Ben a slow learner? He might have been a high school dropout, but he had always held his own with some of the keenest wits in town. Hell, if he had been a slow learner, he might still be with us. As with their decision a couple years previously to have Ben committed to a mental hospital for a few weeks, his parents showed plenty of concern but little real empathy.
But this is what we do, isn’t it? We look for answers. We assign blame. I have never completely gotten over the feeling that I failed him, that though I registered my strong disapproval of his heroin use, I never gave him the kind of stern, big brotherly lecture that he perhaps wanted. That August, when he first confessed his addiction, he had said something along the lines of, “Go ahead and tell me off. I know I have it coming,” and added, “I just don’t feel I have anything to live for, you know?”
“It sounds like you’re already your own harshest critic,” I had replied. But when he visited in January, why hadn’t I insisted we go for a walk – or at least confronted him about what he was doing upstairs all that time? Chris and I together might have been able to break through his formidable body armor. Who knows.
in the voice of B. D. M.
before his death from heroin at the age of twenty
Let them sting, whichever
words alight–let them bite.
Let their needles inoculate
against further venom. Go ahead,
tell me what I know
I need to hear, even
if it means piercing my ears
or plugging my tongue with shrapnel.
Spell it out: I’m a slow learner,
I don’t know my place.
Let the ink burrow in beneath the scabs.
Let each scar tell its own story–
I can fortify myself.
Let my flesh be a record of my passage.
Why save it for a marble comforter
& the rain’s devouring?
I can mortify myself.
Why restrict prognostication
to the crossroads of the palm?
I make myself my own mojo,
my funhouse mirrors.
Skin is more than a map, it’s
the very country. I wear
my landmarks. May
their power be mine,
spiderweb, serpent, skull,
may they rise from the graves
your clinical words unearth
& tell the world
its buried fortune:
sweet ferment of carrion flies,
spirochetes seething in the farthest
tributaries of the heart.