A trap consisting of a heavy weight positioned to fall on an animal.
A tangled mass of fallen trees and brush.
When I was in middle school, my mom went back to school to study
mortuary science. I did not know what drew her to dead bodies, but I
bragged to my friends about her cool, unconventional job.
“My mom is a mortician.”
“So, she has to touch dead bodies?”
“Yeah, she makes sure they look nice for their families.”
Crazy became my special. I would see her off to night classes and wait
up past my bedtime to hear her come home. I would rush to the stairs
when I saw her headlights fly across my wall. I hadn’t ever realized
adults could still go to school. My mom must have sensed my interest, so
she asked me to help her study (and would high five me when she passed a
test). She would hand me her bulky green medical dictionary and flash
cards, and I would read her the words. Mom would think a moment. Then
she would parrot a definition and point to a part of the body.
“The hyoid bone,” she said, pointing the tip of her finger to the
underside of her chin, as if holding a gun to her head, “is the only
bone in your body not connected to another bone.”
I mimicked the gesture, touching the smooth skin of my throat. “So, what
keeps it from floating around?” I asked. The thought of a bone migrating
around in my body, not hooked to anything, made me queasy.
“Muscle and connective tissue keep it in place,” she reassured me.
The next day I went to school to share the fact with everyone I knew.
When the time came for my mother to graduate, I stood under the massive
tent waiting to hear someone say my last name over the microphone. My
mom looked lovely walking across the stage. She wore eyeliner, and her
smooth hair had been blow-dried that morning. She accepted the fake
associate’s degree wrapped with a bow, radiating pride. I rushed to her
after the ceremony and hugged her, secretly hoping the accomplishment
would rub off into my skin. So I could glow too. The degree sits on the
wall edge, framed and dusty now in our basement. It rests, facing me at
eye-level, watching me run on the treadmill.
I have always relished my alone time. When I was young and had no real
way to get out of the house, I would charge my mp3 player and tromp
through the neighborhood, through backyards and woods, taking the
shortcuts to my friends’ homes and the park. One such path crossed over
a stream that I date in my memories based on the presence or absence of
a bridge. By the time I was in middle school, there was no old wooden
bridge, and I would hop from rock to rock to pass, trying my hardest to
keep my old Converse from getting wet. This stream, though no more than
one foot deep at parts, had been the deathbed of several mp3 players.
Once across, I would pass through a section of woods. It was very small
but felt dense and deep, surrounded by deadfalls, and covered by a
canopy that shielded you from neighbors’ yards and the street. It was
different to me, who had only known the paved roads of suburbs, who had
never entered the woods and not emerged in some other, similar looking,
neighborhood. From this vantage point I could peer around and scan the
park to make sure no kids were there. I would pick an old rusty swing
and listen to music while propelling myself higher and higher into the
air. The whoosh of air as I swung down and up towards an open sky felt
Once on a late summer afternoon I took my usual path. Before stepping
out into the sun, I saw a fox lying on the ground. He did not stir as I
approached, just looked up at me, and I knew something was wrong. His
leg had been mangled and he was taking slow breaths and blinking long. I
instinctively moved toward him and reached out to touch him gently on
his head. I called my mom and asked if there was someone we could call
to help. She said vets didn’t take wild animals. My heart broke. Then
where do they go? I thought. She told me she would call animal services
and I should come home.
I did not tell her how I had gently petted the fox’s head. I worried I
had committed a crime touching a wild animal, but the fox was no Cujo.
When I finally rose to walk home, my boxy cargo pants had grass stains
on the knees. I crossed the stream without care, letting the water flood
into my shoes, constantly looking back, hoping the fox would get up and
An image of the serene fox burned in my mind. I hoped that animal
services had helped him. I wished I had taken a picture, his vibrant red
coat against the emerald summer grass. I did not take that path again.
Summer was ending, and I didn’t have another lonely Sunday to spend at
the park. It wasn’t until the following spring that I took my familiar
route. As I emerged from the foliage, the sight of a small bright
skeleton made my heart sink. I stood there, so still, feeling I hadn’t
done enough, not knowing what I could have done. The skeleton would
remain on that path for the rest of the year, sometimes changing
position after a rough rain. It was eventually swept off the path
farther into the woods, where other bones lay beyond the deadfalls. Wind
and rain were curators of a bone museum, putting certain bones on
display, then taking them off to showcase a dead bird, or the skeleton
of a squirrel caught by a hawk.
Mom is what some might call an empath.
She famously swerved the car to avoid hitting butterflies, stopped
traffic to save turtles, cried when you cried. She texted me once saying
that “God has a special place for those that look out for the little
creatures.” She isn’t religious, but she heard it on the radio and it
brightened her day. Her parents were alcoholics, and her childhood was
lonely. When I was a child, I loved to do crafts with her, like
scrapbooking and drawing. I learned only recently that she abused
alcohol until she found out she was pregnant with me. Even then, as soon
as I was born, she turned back to beer.
Throughout high school, I grew especially close with Mom. I had a hard
time working through all the highs and lows of teenage-dom on my own and
found myself turning to her for anything and everything. We loved to
sing Blinded by the Light. I sang the backups, she sang the wordy
nonsensical lyrics, and we both mimicked the guitar. Mom helped mend my
first broken heart after I was dumped. I cried and laughed with her.
She always shared her macabre interests. By the time she gave me a copy
of Stephen King’s Night Shift, I was old enough to not be too freaked
out. Horror became my favorite genre (though I couldn’t have told you
why at the time, besides, ‘My mom loves it’). I read every King, Barker,
Matheson, and watched every scary DVD I could find in the house: 1408,
Identity, The Devil’s Backbone, The Ring, The Grudge, The
Exorcist. By the time I got to high school, I was desensitized to it
all. We watched every horror movie that came out and laughed at them
together. We sang along to “People Are Strange” during the credits of
The Lost Boys and agreed that most of the new horror movies were bad,
but still enjoyable if we watched them together.
Pet Sematary was one of our favorites. The movie was the right amount
of late-80s cheese and eeriness, hammy acting and quick cuts melded
together by a somber discussion about death. Pet Sematary’s
protagonist, Dr. Creed, has a young daughter, Ellie. She is first
introduced to death when she visits the Pet Sematary, a tender memorial
where locals bury their pets. “She has to learn about death sometime,”
Dr. Creed says to his wife. Ellie is perfectly annoying and genuine, as
if she were my own little sister, Lilly. Always asking questions,
wielding an attitude, quick to fight back.
A neighbor’s wife dies from a heart attack, and Ellie’s parents have a
huge fight about whether they should discuss death with their daughter.
Is it morbid, says the traumatized mother, or natural, says her doctor
father? On rereads and rewatches, I switch sides. I usually agree with
Dr. Creed. I believe in being honest with children. Other times the
thought of honesty makes me feel hysterical with panic, just like
Ellie’s mother by the time the argument ends.
During high school, Mom was working for a crematorium. She was on call
all the time, and when we were out and about on a fine Saturday
afternoon, she got called for a body removal.
“Are you okay riding along while I do this? It will take too long to
drop you off first,” she said.
“Sure,” I said enthusiastically.
Riding in a hearse was more exciting in my head. It looked like a normal
car when you were in the passenger seat. It was still a fun and morbid
fact I could tell my friends on Monday.
We pulled up to the nursing home. Mom said I didn’t have to come in, but
I wanted to tag along like I was on some strange, unplanned
bring-your-kid-to-work day. I am not sure if this broke any rules,
letting your 16-year-old daughter tag along on a morbid trip through the
nursing home and watch as you load an old man’s body on to a gurney,
letting her push it and feel the immense weight of an empty body.
In college my relationship with Mom strained. I went away, though not
far. Towson University was about 45 minutes from home and allowed me to
live on campus and get a taste of being on my own. I really enjoyed my
time in college, but while I was away, I grew more distant from her. I
came back as a visitor, and I began to see things that troubled me.
The first time she went to rehab, I rode along to drop her off, and
there were teary eyes as she was escorted in. Visitation days were for
an hour every Sunday, and somehow every single time I visited it rained.
Post-rehab, I went to grab something I left in her car. It was
nighttime, and I was digging around the passenger seat when I found her
notebook she kept while she was away. I knew I shouldn’t have read it,
but I couldn’t help myself. Parked in my dark driveway, by the interior
light of the car, I read about her life. Only four pages had been
filled, a bulleted list of my Mom’s ‘Drinking History.’ I kept the
notebook and never told her. She would be in rehab three more times
before giving up.
As a sophomore in college, I pursued a Biology degree in the hopes that
I could work with animals, and my summer internship was in an old house
somewhere in Gaithersburg, filled to the brim with wild animals. The
house creaked from volunteers tramping through, feeding, cleaning, and
treating animals every time the hand hit the top of the hour. It was
hard labor, especially when you were the only volunteer in the morning
and had to clean the geese and duck enclosures, the dirtiest of all the
jobs. You would accept your fate and rush out to the hutch with the
hose, hoping to finish before the summer sun rose too high, sometimes
stopping to spray your face.
One day a rehabber and I stood in the stuffy surgical room, no AC,
mid-July, across the hall from the bathtub housing a recovering snapping
turtle. We went through the process of euthanizing a bird, prepping the
gas, and placing a beautiful, small kestrel on the towel. His wing,
broken in a car accident, bent at an unnatural angle, and he could not
be released into the wild. The process was altogether peaceful—the
bird did not fight, bite, or claw. Afterward, my tears were shed in the
bathroom, and then I stepped out and right back into the baby bird
feeding rhythm. Unlike my experience with the fox, I knew that an
attempt was made to help.
My first job out of college was at an emergency animal hospital. It was
a great place to work, with knowledgeable vets and passionate techs.
Work was exhausting but I felt it was valuable. It really did help
animals. But I found myself running to tell a man that we lost his dog
on the table, watching him break down, mourning his sudden and terrible
loss. To share this moment of grief with him and many others who passed
through those doors took a mental toll. My face was grimly polite when I
requested credit cards, payment for our doctors’ efforts, passed over
the counter by shaking hands. I would drive home from late night shifts
with no music and think of Ellie Creed. The defiant young girl crying
out to her father, “He’s my cat! He’s not God’s cat! Let God have his
own cat!” flashed in my head when I told owners their pet would not make
The day after we lost that man’s dog, I rode to Dunkin Donuts with my
boyfriend and pretended not to cry in the passenger seat. He eventually
helped me gather the courage to leave that job, though I felt I was
betraying the resilient staff who had worked there longer than me. In
the end, I left defeated. It didn’t take long for me to notice the
lingering effects of the job. I would look at my family dog with a
sinking feeling, seeing the years she probably had left over her head
and the conditions we would eventually have to face. I still have brief
flashes of cold freezer cats and bloody IVs. This happens involuntarily
when regarding any pet and it makes me feel isolated and morbid.
After I graduated college and my face wasn’t constantly buried in
textbooks and my own notes, I began reading for fun again. Shockingly,
‘reading for fun’ ended up including books like When Breath Becomes
Air by Paul Kalanithi and Stiff by Mary Roach (which reminded me of
my mother). I became fascinated by books where the protagonist spoke
bluntly but also hopefully about death.
I moved through life having been exposed to the concept of mortality at
a young age. But that didn’t make me indestructible. I left the hospital
different, not able to look at lilies the same way. Even though they are
my sister’s favorite flowers and her namesake, I checked the head of
every flower I received, knowing that if a pet in the house ate one it
could mean a sudden end. I did the same with chocolate, raisins, and
grapes. If our sweet tabby, Baby, started acting lethargic or itching a
bit too frequently, I would fixate on it. Was it fleas? A skin disease?
A urinary tract infection? I would habitually watch her. I would wake at
night and feel her warm body nestled beside me, dead asleep, stretched
out. I would pet her until I felt her light pulse or heard her gentle
snoozing. My new fixations started to scare me, and even though I read
lyrical writers wax poetic on the more beautiful facets of mortality, I
couldn’t help but panic at the thought of losing any life around me.
Last year, when my boyfriend’s dad passed away unexpectedly, I called my
mom. She gasped and cried. I also cried on my drive to Baltimore for
class that evening. After I got home, late that night, my mom asked for
news I didn’t have. Did we know what caused it? Did he hear from the
medical examiner? Where was the funeral? Even though my mom hadn’t
worked as a funeral director for almost six years, she knew how to ask
about the funeral. Her voice carried the matter of fact-ness of a dead
body, which only came from years of working with them. When the funeral
flowers were brought home, I searched through them manically removing
all the lilies.
I now live at home with my mother, though each day I avoid her in the
kitchen. She has hurt me before, but my fear and anxiety make me want to
go back to the days when I could sit in her room and cry to feel better.
I think I am scared to do it, to be disappointed again even though I
know my mom is only human. I think back to the solemn Christmas night
when I snuck up the stairs to place gifts under the tree for my parents
and sister. There was my mom looking at the tree with a sad, faraway
expression, and she told me maybe Christmas would be better without her.
I have always known my mom had depression, but this blatant admission of
how little she thought of herself hurt me, and I am often scared that
the things keeping her here each Christmas are dwindling.
Last Christmas, my mom texted me asking for me to come up to her room.
Once I arrived, she directed me to sit down because she wanted to tell
me a story. She was 18 and driving home during the winter when she saw a
small spaniel puppy by the side of the road. Knowing an ice storm was
coming, she took the dog home, even though she knew her parents would
not allow her to bring the dog in. She set him up on the screened-in
porch with some shelter and all that was left in the fridge that night
(leftover mac n’ cheese).
She paused here to tell me that one of her many dickhead boyfriends was
texting her and harassing her to come over that night and she felt
torn—she didn’t want to leave the dog. Hesitantly, she left, keeping
the screen door open in case he wanted to leave. When she returned the
next morning, the dog was gone.
Here she looked at me, teary eyed, as I tried to console her. She
couldn’t have known. She did her best. He might have been okay.
“My parents probably had no idea he was there at all.”
I thought of my fox.
“And do you know what the dog looked like?” she asked. She turned to her
desk where a small angel figurine was watching silently holding a small
puppy. My boyfriend had given it to her a few days earlier as a
Christmas gift. My mom and my dog Mina are inseparable, and though Mina
is a large Leonberger, he thought the sentiment would be sweet. My mom
had opened the gift and smiled secretly, looking at it with a reverent
I went back downstairs and messily recounted the conversation in a
notebook, thinking I may have found some mystical puzzle piece that
linked us more than I wanted to say out loud.
When I looked up ‘deadfall’ on my school’s research database, I found: a
series of thriller novels by the same name, two movies titled ‘Deadfall’
(one a 90s Nicholas Cage flick with a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes—an
impressive feat), guides for effective hunting and trapping techniques
(which led to an interesting Encyclopedia Britannica page about
indigenous tribes in Canada), and, surprisingly, some biology research
papers. I assumed they would be about forests and tree litter, but
instead I found that ‘deadfall’ is a lesser used term to refer to
communities which thrive on the sunken corpses of sharks, an underwater
graveyard. I also saw it referring to a layer of bison bones embedded in
When I ask my boyfriend what he thinks the term means, he says it sounds
like a fatal mistake.
Though everything seems to use deadfall as a term to describe bones or
branches, in Pet Sematary, I suppose it is a fatal mistake. The
deadfall is the barrier between the peaceful cemetery and the hallowed
ground that Dr. Creed must go to, a place where the dead can be brought
back to life—though they come back different. He first resurrects the
family cat, only for it to hiss, scratch, and hunt, giving off an
ominous, decaying odor.
After Dr. Creed’s toddler son dies, he goes mad with grief, taking his
son’s corpse across the deadfall to the burial ground. His journey is
perilous, frenzied, and unstable. The mass of branches, dense but
porous, could give way at any point. As he crosses, laboriously, past
the point of going back, he lingers on the border of his own sanity. He
begins the book with a medical understanding of death, but as he crosses
that deadfall to defy it, he loses his grip on logic. Maybe the deadfall
is a state of mind, knowing the logical truth and the illogical fear and
despair, existing immobile between the two.
I continue to witness my mother’s dance with her own mortality, though
from a slight distance. Today my mom received an intervention from her
doctor. He sat her down and had a long conversation, which my father
summarized to me as: if she doesn’t stop drinking, she will die. Her
eyes were wet when she told me she had thought it was too late. A couple
months earlier she told me, after falling and hitting her head, that she
had decided she wanted to be alive to see me get married. Mom is going
to quit drinking. I want to believe her. I don’t want to live dictated
by my worst fears, the potential of loss at any turn. I continue to
exist midway, on the deadfall between logic and fantasy.
Katie Iser is a project manager and writer living in Maryland. She is pursuing her Masters in writing at Towson University and in her free time enjoys watching birds and petting cats.