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magic water

February 17, 2011

Excerpt from War Dances by Sherman Alexie, chapter titled Salt:

“I wrote the obituary for the obituaries editor. Her name was Lois Andrews. Breast cancer. She was only forty-five. One in eight women get breast cancer, an epidemic. Lois’s parents had died years earlier. Dad’s cigarettes kept their promises. Mom’s Parkinson’s shook her into the ground. Lois had no siblings and had never been married. No kids. No significant other at present. No significant others in recent memory. Nobody remembered meeting one of her others. Some wondered if there had been any others. Perhaps Lois had been that rarest of holy people, the secular and chaste nun. So, yes, her sexuality was a mystery often discussed but never solved. She had many friends. All of them worked at the paper.

I wasn’t her friend, not really. I was only eighteen, a summer intern at the newspaper, moving from department to department as need and boredom required, and had only spent a few days working with Lois. But she’d left a note, a handwritten will and testament, with the editor in chief, and she’d named me as the person she wanted to write her obituary.

…I was young and frightened and craved respect and its ugly cousin, approval, so I did as I was told. And that’s why, five days after Lois’s death and a few minutes after the editor in chief had told me I would be writing obituaries until they found “someone official,” I found myself sitting at her desk.

I kept my peace, opened the file, and read the handwritten letter inside. A woman had lost her husband. Heart attack. And she wanted to write the obituary and run his picture. She included her phone number. I figured it was okay to call her. So I did.

I followed her inside into the living room. She slowly, painfully, sat on a wooden chair. She was too weak and frail to lower herself into a soft chair, I guess. I sat on her couch. I looked around the room and realized that every piece of furniture, every painting, every knickknack and candlestick, was older than me. Most of the stuff was probably older than my parents. I saw photographs of Mona, a man I assumed was her husband, and five or six children, and a few dozen grandchildren. Her children and grandchildren, I guess. Damn, her children were older than my parents. Her grandchildren were older than me.

“I’m really sorry, ma’am,” I said. “I really am. But I have to get back to the newspaper with these.”

“Is that my husband’s photograph?” she asked.


“And is that his obituary?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the one you wrote.”

“I remember, I remember.”

She studied the artifacts in my hands.

“Can I have them back?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

“The photo, and my letter, that’s all I have to remember my husband. He died, you know?”

“Yes, I know,” I said.

“He was at D-Day.”

“If I give these back,” I said. “I won’t be able to run them in the newspaper.”

“Oh, I don’t want them in the newspaper,” she said. “My husband was a very private man.”

Ah, Lois, I thought, you never told me about this kind of death.

“I have to go now,” I said. I wanted to crash through the door and run away from this house fire.

So I left her on the porch. She was still waving when I turned the corner. Ah, Lois, I thought, are you with me, are you with me? I drove the newspaper’s car out of the city and onto the freeway. I drove for three hours to the shore of Soap Lake, an island sea heavy with iron, calcium, and salt. For thousands of years, my indigenous ancestors had traveled here to be healed. They’re all gone now, dead by disease and self-destruction. Why had they all believed so strongly in this magic water when it never protected them for long? When it might not have protected them at all? But you, Lois, you were never afraid of death, were you? You laughed and played. And you honored the dead with your brief and serious prayers.

Standing on the shore, I prayed for my dead. I praised them. I stupidly hoped the lake would heal my small wounds. Then I stripped off my clothes and waded naked into the water.

Jesus, I don’t want to die today or tomorrow, but I don’t want to live forever.


In life we are led to take certain steps, we have an idea of the outcome of these actions, given past experience and what we’ve been told or witnessed. Often, however, the events we think will or should take place never do- it is the incidents that do occur which make up our life. The choices we think lead us one way, lead us to the places we’re actually meant to be. It’s a funny thing, this life-never letting us figure it all out. I am learning, it is those who come to peace with that, that are the happiest.

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