Natural Causes by Ruby D. Jones
‘Natural Causes’ deftly narrates two parallel stories: of the narrator’s discovery of a dead blue tit in her garden, and her reflections on the death of a close friend, whose death—of natural causes or by suicide?—is an unresolved presence in her life. ‘“Natural Causes” is a really brilliant piece of writing which doesn’t go where you expect, but moves seamlessly to and fro’, said Chair of Judges Susheila Nasta.
Three years gone and still you’re shapeshifting on me. Some days you shrink until you can hide in my tooth cavity, abseil down my tear duct, curl up in my snuggest pore. Other days you expand until the rivers are your arteries, the trees are your follicles, the ferns are the fractals in your lungs.
I found a dead blue tit in my garden. I can’t figure out how he got there. The garden backs onto woodland but the spot where I found him is barren; he couldn’t have fallen from a tree. It’s been remarkably still, too; no sea-salt wind to transport his lifeless body from elsewhere. A predator could have carried him there but wouldn’t it have eaten, or at least damaged, him? Yet he’s entirely unscathed, so perfect he looks fake; the Platonic ideal of a blue tit.
Apart from his claws, which are rigid, grasping, clinging to a phantom branch.
When people commit suicide by jumping from a bridge or tall building, their injuries often suggest they tried to cling onto something at the last moment. The body, desperate for life, betrays the death drive of the mind. These injuries resonate with the accounts of ‘jumpers’ who survived, who nearly always say they regretted their decision mid-air, if not earlier.
I told you this when you called me in the middle of the night from Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. Every year, four people jump off the bridge and fall 250 feet to their deaths in the River Avon below. There are a few attempts to stop them—CCTV cameras, barriers sufficiently low that tourists can still take a good photo, a couple of plaques advertising a suicide-prevention hotline—all apparently devised by people who’ve never felt the seductive magnetism of nonexistence.
You didn’t jump that night. You—we—had a few more years.
Like many songbirds, blue tits use alarm calls to warn each other of the presence of a predator. Upon hearing the alarm, the birds stay silent to avoid capture. If a predator is actively menacing them and they need more urgent help, they use a mobbing call: short, sharp sounds, equivalent to a mayday distress signal, that rally the troops to protect them.
Their sophisticated alarm system obviously didn’t work for this blue tit, if a predator is what killed him. Maybe his friends weren’t around to warn him. Maybe they were harvesting the caterpillars that make their breasts brighter, or disinfecting their nests with lavender and mint, or some other blue tit task that sounds magical to us but is mundane and daily to them.
Maybe he just needed better friends.
In the months before you died, you became obsessed with a G.K. Chesterton quote: ‘We are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.’ You were considering adding it to the hard-won AA revelations—Surrender to win, Allwn i na allwn (Welsh for I can’t, we can)—that tapestried your body, as though the permanency of ink on flesh would find its corollary in your mind.
Meanwhile, your friends were on suicide watch. We set up group messages to piece together how you were doing, emitted mobbing calls when the voices in your head were at their meanest, patched together late-night crisis interventions. It never felt like enough, and we were desperately ill equipped. Someone was always dropping out temporarily to tend to their own sketchy mental health. We could barely keep ourselves afloat on that stormy sea, let alone save you from falling overboard, and there were never enough life jackets to go around. No one was waving. Everyone was drowning.
Nonetheless, our alarm system worked for a while. But we couldn’t warn you of a predator whose habitat was your mind.
The day I found the blue tit, a fine misty drizzle had drifted in from the Atlantic—the kind that comes from everywhere and nowhere and soaks you to the bone. The sea had merged with the sky and swallowed the clarity of the horizon. The resultant greyness was disorienting, all-encompassing, like being trapped in a smoker’s lung.
I scooped up the sodden bird and laid him to rest on the picnic table, out of the reach of my dogs. I thought a bigger bird might find him there and eat him, making his death a little less pointless, absorbing him back into the natural cycles of life. But this was three days ago and his tiny, beautiful body is still there.
Today, I will give him a proper burial. Just as soon as the sun comes up.
In 1885, Sarah Ann Henley, a twenty-two-year-old barmaid from East Bristol, threw herself off Clifton Suspension Bridge following an argument with her boyfriend—and lived to tell the tale. Local legend claims she survived because her billowing Victorian skirts acted as a parachute, but it was probably just because the tide was out: she landed in the thick mud banks flanking the tidal River Avon, and some passers-by pulled her out of the sludge.
After her suicide attempt, Henley lived a long life, eventually dying in her eighties. It seems unfair that she, who actually jumped, got to live half a century longer than you, who didn’t.
My therapist—the one I started seeing after you died, towards the end of The Year When Everyone Died, a year littered with the corpses of friends in their thirties—thinks it’s a positive sign that, after all that’s happened, I can still think of life in terms of ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’. I don’t know what to do with this information.
I take the dogs to the woods. The bird is still lying on the picnic table, jewelled with raindrops, feathers dishevelled. Something has pecked his eyes out.
On our walk, I think maybe I won’t bury him after all. The ground is a mud bath. I don’t have gloves to handle him with. I’m being overly sentimental. He’ll probably disintegrate just fine where he is, eventually, without my intervention.
I’m still talking myself out of it when a bird of prey swoops between the trees and, after a brief tousle in the undergrowth, takes off with a vole in its claws. I’ve never seen a bird of prey in these woods in the three years I’ve lived here. The idea of the blue tit being ripped apart and gulped back down into the food chain suddenly seems abhorrent. The burial might not be pleasant, but there are worse things than getting your hands dirty.
When we found out you’d died, we all assumed suicide. We’d been waiting for the news for years, dreading every call from an unknown number, even every call from each other. We told each other stories about how brave you were to take matters into your own hands. We told each other your suicide was your final act of rebellion, of agency, of courage. We told each other that, paradoxically, you had no choice.
Months later, your family told us that the coroner’s report said you’d died of ‘natural causes’.
I suppose we all ultimately die of heart failure—a ‘natural cause’—whether we’re murdered at eighteen, die of cancer at fifty, or slip off in our sleep at 102. But don’t fucking tell me there’s anything ‘natural’ about dying at the age of thirty-three.
What the coroner’s report—or your family—didn’t mention:
Years of sexual abuse.
Years of self-medication.
Years of state institutions.
Years of side effects from the antipsychotics they’d fed you since you were a kid—drugs they no longer give to kids because of their harrowing, long-term, irreversible side effects:
Cause of death: Your body was collateral in a triptych of wars:
1. the war men wage on women and girls;
2. the war psychiatry waged on your mind and body; and
3. the war your mind waged on you.
I pick up the bird using one of the plastic dog-poo bags shoved in my coat pocket. An adult blue tit weighs ten grams; he is feather-light, insubstantial, barely grazing my palm. I find a spot at the foot of a few holm oak saplings in the garden to bury him. Blue tits love woodland. It seems fitting.
‘Where’s the mole, Butch?’ I say to our not-very-butch-at-all border collie, kicking at the sodden soil to get her going. ‘Go on, Butch—where’s the mole?’
Delighted to have a job, Butch sets to work digging a hole. Her shoulder muscles, overdeveloped from four years of fruitless mole searches, piston beneath her damp-curled fur. Earth cascades behind her. She hits a gnarled root, throws herself on the ground, and manically chews it, as though I’d buried a stick just for her.
I call her off and drop to my knees in the mud. Cold wetness seeps through my jeans, numbs my kneecaps. I gently place the bird into the guts of the earth and smooth down his feathers. I want to close his eyes but I don’t want to rummage around his tiny, empty eye sockets, and I’m not even sure whether birds have eyelids. I cover him with the discarded soil and top his grave with a layer of wet leaves. When I stand back it looks like nothing ever happened. Only I and the dogs know, and they’re not telling.
I wish you’d lived to meet my dogs, Butch and Femme. You’d have loved those names. We used to laugh ourselves into hysterics thinking up funny names for things, including the voices in your head.
But you were a cat person (it was one of very few things you were wrong about). You once adopted a stray cat and called her Ruby the Second, but she ran away before I had the chance to meet her.
After you died, a few of your friends got tattoos to remember you by, craving our own kind of permanency. Waiting in line for the needle, high-pitched with heartbreak and adrenaline and sleepless nights, we decided to set up a riot grrrl band in your honour. We called the band Trigger Warning and the Safe Spaces. You’d have loved that. Only later did we realise its acronym was TWATSS. You’d have loved that, too.
Back in the house, I wash my hands, make a cup of sugary tea and allow myself to get sucked into the Twitter vortex. I end up on your timeline, of course. I scroll through old photos of finds from your beloved junk shops: tacky Catholic iconography, blue candles, creepy-ass dolls. Announcements that you were dancing to Britney Spears in your kitchen and didn’t care what the cooler-than-thou punks thought. Invitations to queer gigs, exhibitions of your art, meetings of a collective you’d founded for artists with mental health problems. Deliberations over whether to cook something vegan and wholesome or microwave a Fray Bentos pie for dinner.
I scroll through more recent tweets. Rants against psychiatry’s obsession with labels, diagnostics, medication. Updates from ‘the nuthouse’, as you called it, where you live-tweeted the nurses’ gossip and tried to politically organise the rape survivors—that is, every single woman in there. Increasingly frequent moments of paranoia, panic, terror. Poems about suicide late at night; apologies the next morning.
No replies. Just you, alone, on the stormy sea. Just you, alone, walking the plank.
I read your whole timeline, its flock of blue birds. It takes two hours. Now the blueness is inside me. My capillaries crack with it.
The term ambiguous loss is used to describe situations like the disappearance of a loved one (they may be alive, but they may not), infertility (they’ll never be alive, but you desperately want them to be) or a family member who develops dementia (they’re alive, but they’re not really them). It’s a loss that occurs without closure or understanding.
Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to heal from ambiguous loss. How do you mourn a missing sister who may still be alive? How do you mourn the child you never had? How do you mourn a friend when you don’t know what killed them?
Experts say the only way to lower the stress of ambiguous loss is to learn to live with two opposing views at the same time: ‘He’s gone; maybe he’ll come back, but maybe he won’t.’ It’s easier for children to learn to live with these opposing views than it is for adults, particularly adults in the West. We like binaries, we love opposites and we hate grey areas. We’re either dead or alive. Either here or there. However much we struggle with it, though, ambiguity is the truer state.
That may be so, but birds don’t just fall out of the sky.
Later today, Butch will bound up to the blue tit’s fresh grave and start digging before I can stop her. When I reach her, her paws and snout will be caked in red-brown soil. She will wag up at me, pleased with herself, and cock a confused ear when I shout and drag her away. I was happy with her earlier for digging up this exact patch of earth; why not now?
I will inspect the torn-up soil. Tiny snails. Rose-bellied earthworms. A blue-and-white shard of china. No bird.
But I won’t look too hard. I don’t want to find a mutilated corpse, a detached wing. I want to preserve the bird’s integrity; for it to remain intact, if only in my memory.
Tonight, I will dream you alive. My subconscious will give you beautiful blue wings. At four a.m. I will creep to my bedroom window as though I might see you flying through the violet sky, swooping and singing and finally free, but I won’t find you; just a full moon silvering an inky sea.
Acres of stars: your freckles.
Ruby D. Jones has been widely published and placed in a number of competitions. She is working on her first book, an essay collection on the body and its unruly desires, for which she was awarded Arts Council funding. Born in the South Wales Valleys during the 1984 Miners’ Strike, Ruby now lives in Cardiff.
Illustration by Alaa Alsaraji