The World Doesn’t Wait for the Dead


LIES headstoneA Survivor’s Guide was born from trauma. The world broke and what I was able to sweep up dwells in this story: a bunker sheltering the ugly knot of grief and the desperate need for security and knowledge in the presence of horror. When I wrote this story, I had only a memory of trust in the cosmos. One of my husband’s best friends had recently been stabbed multiple times in the chest by strangers. And, in those forgotten hours after midnight, he was left to bleed out on the lawn of a church.

We were not new to tragedy. Our dear friend Blake, a life of light, drowned spelunking in the cold and dark. A young son in our close group of friends was mauled to death by a bear. A brother and sister we knew committed double suicide. And, a family member died from inconclusive results when she bent down to pet her chihuahua. There were others who succumbed to death, naturally or expectantly. But, Mike’s death was different. It was homicide. It was violent. We lived a nightmare for months, and, not yet a year later, it still slithers into our daily life.

I am not sure who the survivor is in A Survivor’s Guide. It is a ceremony of grief. The narrator’s anger and distance is a peculiar blend of my husband’s anger and my go-to dissociative behavior. Elisse’s husband’s denial is a minute blessing, a glint of non-feeling: those brief angels of the surreal. The dark humor makes the story, life, and grief tolerable. Sometimes I think the departed Elisse is the only survivor in this piece.

When a frenzy of young, middle-class, angry men stab a friendly man in the middle of the night – when “it just got out of control so quickly” – there is a part of me like Elisse that seeks the firmer ground, a bunker: an away place. At first, the space is important: dimensions; fortifications. Then it’s no longer just the area I need, but the sustenance to live there. I need the food, the supplies, the guns, and things to make a life there that is warmed by the earth and tucked away from all beasts of nature, not just murderers and rampaging animals, but also the beasts of depression and the too-soon failing body. It is the dream home of solace.

Hellen Keller’s words – “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing” – are often offered as if to spur us into giddiness, strength, and exploration. However, the rest of her quote is always left in shadow: “Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”

In A Survivor’s Guide, no one is safe. No place is secure. We are all – forever and especially right this very now – simply surviving. 


Natanya Ann Pulley is half-Navajo (Kiiyaa’aanii and Tachiinii clans). She has a PhD in Fiction Writing from the University of Utah and is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Dakota. A writer of primarily fiction and non-fiction with outbreaks in poetry, Natanya’s publications include Western Humanities Review, The Florida Review, Drunken Boat, and McSweeney’s Open Letters (among others). Links to publications can be found on her site: Areas of interest include: Disability Studies and Horror Theory, as well as Experimental Literature, Native American Literature, and Graphic Novels.


Natanya Pulley