Murder Ballad Awaiting Sentencing

Traci Brimhall

On the day I bury my mother, the last of my friend’s murderers is found guilty. The jury recommends death. The other two men who participated in the murder have been sentenced to lethal injection. The judge has five weeks until sentencing. The man who killed my friend spent three hours deciding whether or not to kill him, the problem of the robbery-turned-kidnapping solved in three hours in a deserted stretch by the freeway. Though perhaps he never debated it at all. Perhaps he was only waiting for the right stretch of road, a field with grass tall enough to hide a body.

          My son can’t sleep. He rolls and thrashes and wakes himself crying. I worry that he can tell something is wrong, can smell my dead mother on the sheets. In his essay on lullabies, Frederico García Lorca claimed a child “is in an inaccessible poetic world, that neither rhetoric, nor imagination the procuress, nor fantasy can penetrate; a flat plain... where a snow-white horse, half nickel, half smoke, falls, suddenly injured, with a swarm of bees furiously nailed to its eyes.” But my internet searches assure me my son’s fitful rest is not the nightmarish Lorcan bees humming in his skull, but is a common phenomenon in infants called sleep regression. Repeated websites claim he suffers from difficulty adjusting to his sleep cycle. Columnists advise me to wait it out. The only thing that soothes him is when I grab his hands in mine and pin his body to my chest. Immobile, he can sleep. Restrained, he is peaceful.

          His death was not a gentle onethe medical examiner tells the court during my friend’s murder trial. This is when I should have stopped reading the news report. It should have been enough to know that the trial had finally ended. Soon, something resembling justice might be served, or at least it would be over. That knowledge should have sufficed, but I read on, needing to know. Did my imagination come close to the truth? Can the imagination ever accomplish that?
          The medical examiner in my friend’s case came out of retirement to examine what remained, his knowledge specialized, necessary. There’s no rest for someone who knows what he knows. So when the remains were finally found and the police needed someone with more experience telling the end of a story, he looked at a young man’s body in the advanced stages of decomposition to discover what he suffered and where.

          We order an autopsy for my mother. We do not know why she died, the weeks in and out of the ER, the vomiting, the weakness, the tests inconclusive. By then, we’d grown accustomed to the panic. The emergency room became routine. Send flowers. Send a card. Assume the mystery would leave her body again so she could come home. 
          The afternoon she died, nurses told my brother she could probably be released that day. I walked my son through a parking lot and thought, My mom is going to die soonBut the world seemed so indifferent, I couldn’t imagine it was true—that calmness, that assurance, those thoughtless robins, that untortured sky. Then, the seizure. Then, Code Blue. Then, my sister on the phone saying, They lost herand for a second I think the nurses have misplaced her, wheeled her into a hallway they’ve forgotten, and they need us to come down and search.
          We won’t get the autopsy back for a month, but when we do, it contains the weight and color of her organs. Her body eased open, each part examined and replaced, each part perfect except the heart.

          It gets better when I stop blaming myself. I tell myself it’s not my job to get my son to sleep. It’s my job to make sure he knows he is loved, is safe. It does get easier. It’s just time. I whisper, kiss, cradle. I wait and wait for quiet. Lorca, so full of promises, assures me: “the child...understands, more deeply than us, the ineffable key to poetic substance.” I try to imagine the lullaby my son would write if he could. Something bloodless. Something with milk and a mother’s sweet sweat.

          Before the funeral, the pastor we hired says we must not make a spectacle of our grief. We must celebrate her life. We must leave enough time for his sermon on Lazarus. Fuck Lazarus, I think. Fuck this man of GodI think, talking about somebody whose friend pulled him back from the brink of the light, who got to embrace his sisters again. What a terrible choice of material, this man with his second chance. Heaven has never seemed less possible. My mother’s hands too stiff, her face too slack, her hair refusing to curl around her ear no matter how many times I push it there. Her pink sweater hiding the autopsy incisions stitched shut, the embalming fluid soothed through her body. The roses on her grave ache open for days.

          I try everything—lavender baby shampoo, mechanical heartbeats, a plastic turtle with constellations punched into his shell. I sing. I rock. I wait for the nights to pass, for my son’s troubled sleep to turn restful and deep, but my son and I are awake for the new phase of the moon. Lullaby one. Lullaby two, naming the parts of his body to a melody. Two eyes, two ears, two lips, a nose. Two arms, two legs, ten tiny toes. I read him stories featuring a cat, an owl, a runcible spoon, and one about a toadstool circle, a changeling, the woods lacking even the mercy of a wolf.

The catalog of damage to my friend’s body:
Skull fracture
Stab wounds
Broken ribs
Broken forearm
Severed finger

          Does it help to know that after a certain threshold the body doesn’t feel anymore pain? my husband asks. At a certain point, the brain can’t even process it. How could it help? To know that my friend’s body was taken to a point where it could feel no more. What kind of balm is that? Who does that soothe?
          I know nothing of that kind of pain, though when I scroll through headlines looking for solutions to my son’s sleep, I find an article in Psychology Today that says sleep depravation “is less overtly violent than cutting off someone’s finger, but it can be far more damaging and painful if pushed to extremes.” I try and imagine the nights with my son like it was a walk into a dark field and all that could happen there, but it’s is not the same. Pain and pain+fear are a different kind of suffering. Motherhood is pain+joy. My sleeplessness is love+delirium. All of my pains these days are small ones, inconveniences—hangnail, headache, my tender gums bleeding on the white flesh of the apple.

          Cause of death: homicidal violence. Carnation, sleep and dream.
          The verdict: guilty. The horse won’t drink from the stream.
          The judge returns. Everyone rises. Hush, hushThe third and last man who helped murder my friend waits with his head down, looking at his hands. Lullay, lullay. He is given life.