When No One’s Left

Lora Rivera

“David.” I roll his name around in my mouth like it is a prayer. David Malouf. He laughs when I use his family name. It means nothing now. But I like it. I like how when I use it, I remember.

In some ways, it would be easier to forget. And then, we’d be back at the beginning of time, just the two of us, as if none of it had happened. Just bodies. No past, no future.

David Malouf. David, my David.

I stand from where I’ve been stooping along the riverbank, gathering wild onions.

We do think about it. I do. Here, holding the weight of the onion heads against my belly, tucked inside my makeshift shirt, pulled up apron-like. I, who never wanted to be married, never cared for children, who could think only of the next track meet or of prom coming up and who scoffed at the idea of college—no one with our kind of money would bother. I, now craving the swell of life inside me, foreign and mysterious, and yet so bound to my genetic coding it’s all I can do to fight the primeval urge that wills to devour me.

It’s there in his eyes, too.

I roll my shoulders to relieve the gelled pinch that sits at the base of my neck. The muscles loosen easily, perfectly. It’s been thirty-eight months (although David swears thirty-nine and has stubbornly fasted accordingly) since we left the capsule, and still I remember the break in my clavicle, the blast of pain deep in my bursting eardrums as the world incinerated itself—when the first of the bombs hit. I remember the bullet in my thigh, how the exploded metal screamed under my skin. I shouldn’t have been alive to take her spot. It was supposed to be her, not me, in the capsule beside David, slumbering through the centuries.

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But she didn’t make it. Her skull cracked open when the earth quaked and she fell. I can still see it, the gore spilled out . . . .

We’ve seen no birds, and so no eggs. We wouldn’t be able to stomach it, cracking them open.

For a long time, we made no decision. We didn’t touch. Even accidentally. There was too much grief.

But survival is a cruel and unfoilable taskmaster.

I look over the small field at him, the one we found several months ago rife with edible tubers. We will have to move soon, because they are mostly gone. Winter is coming again. We will need better shelter. David is turned toward the setting sun. He always knows where west is, day or night. Once, early on and in a rage, I told him his God was gone with his Mecca and why bother? His face became a shadow that took a long time to clear.

His back is covered in what is left of his uniform, now stitched with plant matter to reinforce it. He is strong and tall. Perfect, just like me. We had a half millennium in the amniotic bath to be transformed, re-generated, made into exactly two people robust enough—given vastly elongated lifespans—to reclaim our planet.

We swore we would.

But the people we swore to—the people to whom we paid money and blood—are gone now. It is only me and David. And this broken species of ours should never again have dominion over the earth, now that it’s free. We do not deserve this second chance. I’ve told him this. He agrees.

He turns and looks my way, looks down at the bulge of onions.

It is in his eyes.

Where is the goddamn pill when you need it?

I want to go to him. Drop the onions in a heap and wash our bodies in the river and fuck under the hot, indifferent sun. But—David Malouf, we swore to each other. We wouldn’t. We won’t. We are the last, and we will make the right choice. Now, after so many wrongs, after so much failing.

“Is it life, what we have?” he asked once in his right-to-left kind of way that I’d grown to love. He took my hand, and his touch electrocuted my skin, his fingers like the first rays of sunlight on a dewcold morning. “In childbirth, you would not be weak or die. You are stronger, no? The bath made you this?”

Yes. My body is strong. It isn’t the lack of hospitals I fear, not the absence of cervical blocks or local anesthesia.

But I pulled away, glared at him. We’d discussed this, what I’d have to do.

I won’t die. But when I let our baby die, or if I kill it myself?”

He shuddered, nodded. Shook his head. “No, no.”

“We can’t.”

“No.”

We did not touch again.

But as the months turn, we are both falling.

Now, he stands across the field, and I wonder what he will say if someday after we fall there is more blood between my thighs than the months before. He notices things. He will ask, and I will tell him. We talked about it, true, we agreed, true, but talk is not real. Blood is real. Death is real. It is my body, not his, and so my burden, my responsibility. Will he hate me? Will he understand?

I must be strong.

After all the world has been through and now abandoned—

I do not feel strong.

David approaches. My hands tighten, and then something lets go. The onions tumble. Their scent makes my eyes water, so that he comes to me in a field of molten green and liquid sky.

I don’t know who moves first, but our hands reach out and close the space between us. Blood surges. Ours is the only human touch on the face of the planet.

It is the only thing that matters in the whole world.

What is the right choice anymore? When no one is left?

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Giselle Leeb Interviews Christopher Brown

tropic-of-kansas-cover-435x655Michael: Since Giselle Leeb and Christopher Brown happen to have appeared together in both my editorial efforts in the world thus far, and since they seem to me to share a certain radical sense of humor and outlook on the world, I figured there must be something significant to be learned by all parties in introducing them. 

Read Christopher Brown’s essay, “The Rule of Capture” here, and Giselle’s story “Wholphinia” here. You can find their previous work in LCRW 33.

Giselle: “There is no such thing as an empty lot,” is the first sentence of ‘The Rule of Capture’. You mention that “more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.” What sort of environment do you think will exist in the future? Will it be like the fascinating urban wildernesses you describe?

Christopher: I imagine the near-term future will resemble the urban woodlands where I live, as humans further expand their territorial occupation of the planet and wild animals must learn to adapt to Anthropocene environments, flee, or die. I am no scientist, but over the course of my lifetime, I have seen many species become more prevalent in the urbanized U.S. Raptors, coyotes and foxes have all become prevalent in cities. Urban raccoons and opossums are evolving faster than their country cousins, solving the food-sourcing challenges of our complex environment—like how to open a trash bin secured with bungee cords. And vultures seem to really thrive on all the death we create—cruising over the interstate highways for roadkill, lording over the degraded fields from perches atop cell phone towers.

While the experience of wild predators inside the urban fold is wondrous and uncanny, it is also immensely sad, in its implicit reminder of all that has been overtaken by our sprawl. If we can work harder in our landscape design to think about sharing habitat, I think we can mitigate the damage we cause, and maximize the everyday wonder around us. But I fear the long-term future is one in which nature will have checked human hubris and overdevelopment—which may be a better future for those who survive.

Giselle: You write about a realtor who can only see animals as property, a vision limited by his self-definition of what it means to be a human being. What sort of self-concept would people need to develop to improve the way they interact with the environment and animals?

Christopher: I think it’s more a question of getting past the contemporary obsession with the self, and seeking unmediated connection with the environment in which one lives. But that’s a hard thing to find—it takes a kind of tuning of the senses, and patient exploration. And even when you experience it, it is usually only just for a passing moment. Letting our landscapes go wild, as we have done with our feral roof, is a great way to heighten the everyday experience of sharing the world with other species. That aids an intuitive empathy, one science is catching up with as it comes to better understand animal intelligence and the social networks of plants.

Giselle: “A world in which the fox also had rights would be a very different one than the world we live in. It would probably not be one in which…more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.” There’s an urgency to this. How can the fox’s point of view be taken into account and how does this relate to human stewardship of the natural world?

Christopher: We are a long way from a world in which animals have authentic rights. In the U.S., at least, we are going in the other direction at the moment, with the extractivist philosophy triumphant. The American identity is so tied up with the notion of eternal frontier abundance that we are all plunderers to some degree—though the idea of the commons was far more prevalent in our early history than most appreciate. Even the noble notion of “human stewardship” starts from a proprietary premise. No wonder so much of contemporary conservationism is an expression of property rights—as governments, non-profits, and the super-rich purchase huge parcels of land to protect them from exploitation. I read recently that media mogul Ted Turner is the biggest landowner in the U.S.—perhaps refuge in nature is the ultimate luxury good on an overcrowded planet.

My forthcoming novel Tropic of Kansas deals with these themes—in part by envisioning a kind of green insurrection. That’s a fantasy, of course, though real-world movements like the Standing Rock protests show the potential of civil disobedience in service of ecology. In the end, I expect the only really effective motive force will be the need to survive, as the future scarcity created by our own consumption catches up with the present.

Giselle: Your non-fiction has a fascinating way of going from the immediate to the general and then looping back through history and ideas to the particular, with a wry and insightful humour. Near the beginning of ‘The Rule of Capture’ you say, “if this were a fairy tale, I would tell you how the fox appreciated that,” and the ending includes a fantastical element. How do you find writing non-fiction compares to writing fiction in the way that you tell a story?

Christopher: Well, I find that the trick is to violate the boundary between the two. Putatively factual prose is more interesting infused with the lyric intuition of fiction, and imaginative literature is more compelling when powered by observed truth. These pieces I have written for Michael DeLuca’s Reckoning and LCRW 33 try to obliterate the boundary completely. Exploring that territory is a lot of fun.

Giselle: How has your relationship with the environment changed over your life?

Christopher: As children we are trained to objectify nature. We learn the names of animals, we experience them as toys and as pets and screen images, we see them in zoos, or as objects of backyard experiments. We come to understand nature as something other than the place where we live. Over the course of my life I have tried to break that mediated alienation, with some success. I have always gravitated toward wild remnants hidden in the fabric of the city— empty lots, rights of way along roads and railroad tracks, bits of forest not yet tamed as park—practicing a kind of eco-psychogeography. “Sous les pavés, le fôret,” you might say. When you do that daily over the course of years, you sometimes experience the natural world around you without names or taxonomies, almost without active thought, and there I think lies the path to the everyday transcendent, where you momentarily and authentically feel your connection to all the wild around you, and see that the environment in which we live is our true home.

Michael: Thank you very much, Giselle and Christopher. This was fascinating.

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The End of Occidentalism

Robin Wyatt Dunn

Not man in a metal hat aboard a floating city, not carpetbagger walking jauntily from the train. All colonies begin, after all, in the mind: longing for that hub, the warm fire of London, Paris, Berlin, Lisbon, Rome, Jerusalem. Only there can the gravity of this life achieve its divinity; there, past the horizon, wisdom is won on streets of gold.

Next to this mental promise is always and forever the sword, the mighty brittle sword, cutting straight to the native’s throat.

You who long for the pure identity, for the aboriginal truth, for the phantom heart we left behind when we accepted the alphabet or the railroad, you who know that language conquers all including dream, you who have sunk under the meniscus of Reason into the midnight shadow of what anxious scholars call the subaltern, which only means servant, but no less scary for being quotidian, you bold believers in revolution, remember:

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My father showed me his Social Security Card. A small rectangle of time-worn paper printed with dark and light blue ink, with a simple string of nine numbers typed across the middle below his name. Paper.

“Boy,” he had told me, “this card meant I was part of the eternal vigil for the General Welfare intended by our Founding Fathers, as they wrote in the Preamble to our Constitution.”

It was another vigil that took my father away, the hunt for talkative men, opinionated men who spoke about what they thought.

Our Holy Office is eight hundred miles to the east, the Route 66 Building in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My father is interred there in an unmarked grave. Our corporate charter is unusual in that we do not lay claim to particular territories; we build and maintain roads, and as such subcontract with a variety of governments.

Even so, movement is discouraged. The roads are seldom used. Taxation provides Our Holy Office with the majority of its income.

I am a customs agent. I supervise the scanning of many of the shipments that pass this way, here outside Elk City, Oklahoma. Elk City, a city founded by railroad men, for railroad men.

It is such a slow slip into the river of time, is it not, the tight and eternal bonds of blood between nation and merchant-tyrant, the business of both Americas, O Coolidge, is business, the business of your short-statured smile, of your diesel appetite, of your divine love.

Oklahoma did not fight long for the Constitution. Religion and jobs were easy replacements for the people of Elk City; after all, it was how they had been raised.

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Not man in metal hat or traveler with carpet bag, no more, the colony extends within, always and forever within, seeking markets in our soul and trading posts in the medulla. The logic of trade is tragic in its immensity, having no innate moral valence: it is like the physics of asteroid fields, marking transits of orbit to orbit, collision to collision. The only end is movement; wheat, fetuses, gold or slaves. Movement, forever on the move, old son, old daughter of my eye.

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“Run!”

She is under the train and the jackboots are scanning her from above but I don’t think they have X-rays for some ridiculous reason, probably a copyright dispute. Remote monitored but not directly controlled; they hover at one hundred feet as I crouch under a lip in the railroad embankment, my daughter only 25 meters away, under the old steel train, attaching her mapping pod.

Maps are treasure for us. Reliable data.

I have my rifle but it would be slow suicide to fire on the drones; I am not wearing my ID. In this, again, I am unusual man: to facilitate my movements I have been only partially biometrically scanned. Though I have not visited the neighboring corporations, being only imperfectly databased is an advantage when it comes to such official travel: you can still talk fast and make impressions before executive summaries are sent to buyers’ hands.

I close my eyes and wait for the hum to diminish: a statistical forty seconds elapse between stimulus and response for this model drone. I can hear my daughter’s breathing.

Brother, this is my testimony to you. Do you remember that old flag? Have you seen it? Do you remember the state birds and trees? For my father it was mockingbird and pecan. What was it for your father? I wish I could sing with you some old song we both might know.

The hum is fading away, fading west.

“Rebecca!” I hiss.“Strap it on already.”

“I’ve got it,” she whispers back. And we are running back home, running, running in our night.

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Every night I see the debates on the inter-county screens: the thousand comparative sufferings that are the legacy of a complicated continent. I know my father felt as I do, old unreconstructed Marxist that he was, that this obsession ultimately slowed revolution, slowed the mobilization of angry populations to war.

Our Holy Corporate Office does not care what color my skin is except insofar as its melanin concentration marks a biometric datapoint. My native language is interesting demographically but not politically. No, no, it is my access that counts in the end, a number on the screen, a codeword coded down into a variety of linked mountaintops, satellites, and nuclear submarines, an invite list for oligarchy. Which house, which train, which river and which orbital flight belongs to me and mine? None for me, brother, and none for you either.

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The Chattanooga Choo-Choo will leave Elk City at 23:00 hours tomorrow night: the mapping pod will record its route and transmit this data in a final burst when it reaches the Pacific, some two days later. By then I hope to be in Texas.

“Jamila isn’t coming,” Rebecca says, watching me, watching the sky.

“We can still trust her,” I say.

“What will they do if they catch us?” my daughter asks.

“They won’t.”

“But what if they do?”

“They won’t.”

Texas, my father’s state, is already almost mythical to me. Original and aboriginal.

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I told my daughter we were lighting out for the territory. The territory, child, always and forever thirsty, which is what a territory is by root: a thirsty patch of ground. I who thirst for the ways of my ancestors am lost, and lost again, because I no longer know what it means to be a man.

I am not a tree or a bird, I am not a national or a tribalist. I believe only in the community of Man, and yes, our manifest destiny of the stars. Is an absence of boundaries a boundary? It is what Che Guevara longed for, that old madman.

I watch my daughter walk ahead of me and admire her strong legs: we will make it to New Mexico on foot, I know it.

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The Rule of Capture

Christopher Brown

1.

There is no such thing as an empty lot.

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2.

I knew foxes were living back in there in the woods behind the door factory, but the first time I saw one was when it was running away from a realtor.

It is curious how we can identify so many animals that we have never seen. We are taught to do it as children. Especially the animals dangerous enough to eat us, or wily enough to live at the edges of our encampments and steal our food.

The realtor did not see the fox, and I did not call it to his attention. If this were a fairy tale, I would tell you how the fox appreciated that.

We entered the lot through my back gate, and then walked through the tall grass toward the old roadbed that once led to the ferry across the river. That’s where I saw the fox. It ran right down one of the tracks of the human path, then into the dense brush of cactus, scrub trees and mustang vine grown up around the drainage pipe that empties behind the construction supply warehouse. I suspect the den is back in there, and have seen trailsign, but have never found the hole.

Most of us are better at the taxonomy of human variants than the naming of animals, even though we have no zoos to show us the former in simulated habitats, unless you count television. The realtor was typical of his breed, an affluent white guy in his twenties, tall and business casual, looking lost the minute he stepped out of his polished black SUV and tried to interpret the spot where the road ended at a run-down chainlink gate overgrown with uninvited vines, like Boromir pondering the hidden door to Khazad-dûm.

As with most realtors, this one was kind of a hunter, but not the kind with eyes trained to see movement in woods. He was hunting for human value locked up in undeveloped land, a percentage of which value he could capture as numbers on paper by finding someone who would “improve” the land. The lot was ten acres of woods above and along the river, land that had once been owned by the ferry company as its north landing, and then been a place where men would dredge river rock to make concrete to pave the city.

Capital abhors unimproved land, especially when it is in the fastest growing city in America. And capital does not see wild animals. They do not appear on its register, unless they have been captured and turned into property. And that is probably why realtors cannot see wild animals, even in Texas, where all the realtors who are real Texans are also real hunters, the kind that have nice guns and coolers full of very cold beer.

Realtors are how capital captures the wild instincts of human hunters and uses them to eliminate wildness from the world, by partitioning every spot of earth and sometimes the air above it, overlaying the surface of the entire planet with a grid that allocates dominion among the naked apes. A system which has very little to say about the things capital does not register, like all the other living beings with whom the land and air and water is shared.

 

3.

The first case you read if you go to law school is about a fox running from a real estate investor across an empty lot.

The exact date is hard to find, but around 1805 (the year the ensuing lawsuit was finally adjudicated) a rich dude in the Hamptons named Lodowick Post, on horseback and aided by hounds, pursued a fox across “waste and uninhabited land” (aka the commons, which was more plentiful in the early days of this country)—only to be stymied when, just as Post was about to strike, another local named Jesse Pierson killed the animal first. Post sued, asserting that by initiating the chase he acquired ownership of the animal. The trial court agreed, but the New York Supreme Court reversed1, citing ancient precedents to find that “occupancy” is essential to turn a wild animal into your personal property—and that occupancy can only be achieved through kill or capture, or mortally wounding the animal such that it will inevitably come under your control.

This case is used as a laboratory for hypothetical theorizing about property rights, and learning to think about the natural world in the way lawyers do, as a realm overlaid with infinitely divisible chains of human right. Rarely does anyone ask about the rights of the fox, and if they do, there’s a good chance they will get publicly shamed by the professor.

The fresh social contract under which Pierson and Post and their fellow citizens of the brand new United States lived derived its notions of property from the English philosopher John Locke, who theorized the justification for individual ownership of things found in nature by an invented counterfactual, the imaginary “state of nature” in which no prior property rights or other forms of “occupancy” exist. If you own your own body, said Locke, you own your own labor. And when you apply your labor to nature, by carving a piece of wood, or capturing and skinning a fox, you obtain ownership of the object because your labor is now embodied within it.

The rule of capture comes in very handy for people who make their fortunes off the things we find in the ground.

A world in which the fox also had rights would be a very different one than the world we live in. It would probably not be one in which, as the World Wildlife Fund recently reported, more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.2

4.

On Highway 81 in north central Oklahoma, which travels the path of the old Chisholm Trail, there is a town called Bison. The only bison you will see there is a faded painting on the side of the old grain elevator.

Images of buffalo are all over the human landscape of the Great Plains. You can buy them on ball caps and refrigerator magnets in the service areas of the Kansas Turnpike, much of which follows the route of the Santa Fe Trail. In the Visitors Center they have brochures for places where there are actual living buffalo. Like petting zoos, without the petting, you imagine.

The ecology of the continent is there in the country you drive through. Sometimes you can perceive it through your windshield, in place names and long view topographies. There are remnants, real remnants, but they are not easy to find.

North of Bison, Oklahoma, southwest of the Wichita Vortex, near a town called Jet, one of the forks of the Arkansas River flows through an exposed plain of salt. You can see it on your computer map right now, the Great Salt Plains, where there is a national wildlife refuge and a state park. In the time of the free ranging buffalo this was an oasis for all manner of migratory wildlife, a place where the megafauna would gather from far away and the humans would come to hunt them. It still is a sanctuary for the waterfowl, who flock there in huge numbers. When you leave the refuge and head south through Jet, you realize where the town got its name, from the United States Air Force landing strip along the lake, and you understand why there are all those warning signs around the salt flats.

Boom.

You see it in Leavenworth, Kansas, from the scenic overlook where they let you take pictures of the very scary-looking old federal prison that looms beyond the main road. That riverfront northwest of Kansas City is a military outpost, strategically placed as a launching point for expeditions into the Missouri River basin all the way to the edge of the Rockies. As you drive south from there along the edge of the plains, you pass through other forts, and while the Indians are largely gone and subjugated, you see how the whole landscape is a captive. You see it in the brutalist grain elevators that tattoo themselves with the memory of the animals they displaced, in the grid of mechanized land uses traced on the road map, in the oil derricks pumping by the road, in the microwave transmission towers, even in the giant wind farms that now grace the flats along the interstate. The yeoman farmer that is the lodestone of American identity is a rapist who cut the trees and plowed the prairie to plant grain to feed livestock to feed white people so they can repeat the process. The Air Force bases of Kansas and Oklahoma, at the heart of the American continent, are the grandsons of the cavalry forts that were there before soldiers learned how to fly, taking the exercise of dominion into the sky. We have applied our labor to the rich wilderness we found across the water, and made it into a cyborg.

5.

A real estate broker, a fox, and a manitou walk into a bar.

6.

“Dogs are hereby declared to be personal property,” says Oregon law. There are caveats, and limits. Oregon law also declares it a crime to own, possess, keep, breed, train, buy, sell or offer to sell a fighting dog, to keep an exotic animal without a permit, to use a dog in the commission of a crime, or to carry a dog on certain parts of a vehicle operated on a highway without specified protective measures. Most importantly, it makes it a crime to cruelly kill or injure, or fail to provide minimum care for, an animal in your custody and control. On that basis the Oregon Supreme Court recently concluded that dogs are not mere property, but “sentient beings capable of experiencing pain, stress and fear” that may not be treated in all the ways humans are free to treat other forms of property, even if they may be treated in ways humans may not treat other humans.3

The Chippewa people of the Great Lakes, or so we are told by the Europeans who first encountered them, believed the bounty of their environment came from the union of man and dog. The story was told that woman, who was the first human being, had a nocturnal dream that she was sleeping with a handsome youth, who in reality was her pet dog transformed. Then one day a giant appeared, shaped the land into lakes and rivers and mountains, then grabbed the dog, ripped it to pieces, and cast its guts into the waters to make the fish and dispersed its flesh over the land to make the animals.4

The Chippewa, Ojibwe and Cree lived by an ecology grounded in a kind of contract—a relationship between the people and the animals that surrounded them based on duties of mutual obligation and courtesy. When the Algonquinian populations were ravaged by European disease that may have taken as much as ninety percent of their population, disease the indigenous healers could not combat, some Indians took it to be a conspiracy of the animals against them, and undertook a war of retaliation, aiding the Europeans in the harvest of most of the fur-bearing animals of the North Woods to clothe urban Europeans.5

Our cosmology may articulate similar obligations on our part in its notions of stewardship, but only trace echoes of those notions appear in our jurisprudence and political economy, which know only rights of possession and consumption grounded in the valorization of the human self and its physical expressions, countermanded only by such duties as our worst behavior compels the law to encode. Imagine if the opposite were true—that we were governed by obligations to protect the natural world in the way our contemporary religious traditions tell us is our duty, and that our rights to take from nature were confined by their concordance with ecological balance.

That is a dream, even sillier than a dream about the original woman making love to a dog disguised as a hot boy.

7.

That is why, every winter, we sacrifice a realtor to a remnant of the American woods. It would be an overstatement to call the supplicant a volunteer. Baited by the carefully dressed lure of a gorgeous woodland acreage in the heart of the city waiting to be sold to a corporate developer, he (it is always a he) comes to enslave the land to industrial capital. But this quest is closer to the search for the existential heart of the land than you might imagine.

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The ceremony takes place in a riverine grove of cottonwood, hackberry and mustang vine. The realtor is stripped and secured with flotsam cabling to the throne of the Texas Druid king, a wooden yard chair deposited in this spot by a Halloween flood some years ago. Adorned with a crown of chile pequin harvested nearby, gagged with the green brain fruit of the Bois d’Arc tree, the broker is “dressed” in a suit of honey made by a colony of Africanized bees in a half-buried truck tire. As night comes, a song is improvised on instruments made from the things the city leaves in the woods, a song of summoning and loss.

They say that many of the animals of the American woods only became nocturnal when the European trappers arrived. This is easy to believe, even if it is not true. Ask a beaver.

Sometimes the realtor manages to eat his way through the gag, and you can hear his cries echo along river corridor. But even then, language seems to be lost, as man becomes mere food and finds the involuntary path to authentic oneness with the woods.

The remains that cannot be eaten are mostly taken by the wet earth of the floodplain, eventually devoured by the bugs who provide food for the armadillos that forage the subsurface at night. Once in a while a bone is found in daylight by a human wanderer, but they rarely know what it is.


1 Pierson v. Post, 3 Cai. R. 175, 2 Am. Dec. 264 (N.Y. 1805)

2 World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report 2016, http://www.wwf.org.uk

3 Oregon v. Newcomb, 359 Or 756 (2016).

4 See Calvin Martin, Keepers of the Game (1978), pp. 69-70.

5 Ibid.

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Wine and Wisteria

Diego Reymondez

“I try to put myself in people. See them, at least. I think it helps. Even though I can’t remember her, I see vines of wisteria and grape, and when they get mixed in with the few other things I know about her, I get a pretty clear picture of my grandma.

“I imagine that last little pat on the ground when she finished planting them. How she straightened up, supported her back at her hips and made this stern face. She was always stern-faced, I think. Yeah. Maybe she looks kind of upset. She can’t relax and watch it grow even for a minute.

“You should probably know that the main word my aunts use to describe her is, ‘Trabajadora. Muy, pero que muy, trabajadora.’ Which means—‘A hard worker. But a very, very hard worker.’ Except I think I’ve got emotional memories that urge me to disagree. When I was two, and she spent that year with me in Yonkers, I understood in my own way that she was a loving woman who regretted never quite learning how to express it.

“So. She was upset that she couldn’t take that minute to appreciate what she’d planted, which was, more than anything, shade for me all these forty years later. What she did instead was breathe her relief that she’d finished another thing and move on. I can’t see her as a hard worker. I see a victim of the setting sun.

“Then there’s the moment before that. Where she had to step out, feel the sun, look up, and decide that there needed to be something. It was a chain of thought that could have arrived at any vine on Earth. Or tree. And she went with two: the pretty one they planted in the city, and the one she drank daily with lunch.

“You haven’t seen it yet, but if you walk two or three minutes that way, we’ve got about an acre of grape. The same land she overwhelmed herself for a quarter of her life to save and buy. And I genuinely can’t process why. I know the thinking was that if they had more wine, they could sell more, but they only needed to sell more to make enough to buy more land. If your surplus is always tied up in savings, then isn’t that effectively the same as not having surplus?

“I’m overwhelmed when I consider the dissonance in how she felt about adding probably an extra twenty percent to her work load, with no extra time to do it in, and no extra cash. “And making wine is hard. It was weeks of walking up and down hill, pruning, years of weeding by hand until they bought the tractor, and even the tractor wouldn’t go directly under the vines, so she still had to do it by hand.

Then there’s upkeep on the barrels. You take them out in summer, wash them, one by one, that’s two days by itself. Then you have to seal them up and roll and maneuver them back inside. Then there’s the harvest. Which is thousands of individual . . . things of grapes. In Spanish they’re called racimos. I never needed to learn that word in English, so I don’t know it. Although now that I think about it, it’s probably something simple, like bunches. Or . . . groups?

“Anyway, so the grapes won’t spoil, you have to physically make the wine. That’s another, like, two days of actual nonstop hard work right after the harvest. You’ve got to lift and dump all the buckets into the lagar, which is the place where we start the fermenting. Then you step on them, press them, move them into open barrels to ferment more. Then, the next week, you’ve got to move those thousands of liters into closed barrels so they can finish fermenting. And not long after, you have to prune, and you get the point.

“And this is something they’d do even if they didn’t sell a drop. Mostly so everyone could have their daily glass or two of wine with lunch.

“Now it’s me taking care of the vines. And it just seems she could have done less and lived just as well. I mean, I make a bit less than she did. But I do way less. Like, if you weed under grapes you have a basic misunderstanding of how roots work. It’s work without purpose. I give the vines their scattered week of my time each year, and it’s already too much. I’d really just rather let the vines grow wild and occasionally reach up some long stick and knock them down to watch my ducks run up, mwap mwap mwap mwap mwap, lean over, and scarf them down. Then they just start dancing. It’s fantastic. They do this thing where one of them trills and shakes their butt feathers, and circles their neck, and always stops when their head’s far out from their body. Then they all start dancing. And—if you ever get a chance, look up Muscovy duck dance on youtube. It’s fun. They enjoy the sugar way more than I do a daily cup of wine.

“But the wisteria I like. You know, it blooms for that week or two, or whatever, but I look forward to it. You see them, and you know winter won’t stifle growth anymore. You can start to really plant out the nursery.

“Thanks for letting me vent, by the way. I try to have these conversations with my parents, and they just tune it out. They want something else out of me. I gave them a similar kind of rant once. About the wine and the wisteria. I didn’t have it this well thought out, but.

“Every time they visit I end up, like—we end up battling. I just end up trying to prove, with shouting, that they have to enjoy losing time. Or they’ll get locked into that same rundown their parents had. Where they spend their lives stressed out because they work so much, but need to work to be able to buy all the things they need. And I tell them they need to need less, but I’m trying to educate my parents. I’ve got the dynamic backwards.

“We could argue all day. They have each other to reinforce their position. So, inevitably, I have to be the one to step away and accept I won’t change them, knowing they tell each other the same thing about me. And that’s not something I’m very good at.

“After we argue, sometimes, I climb up to the attic where I can concentrate, and I stare at nothing. And before each surge of anger rises, I remind myself that in their hearts they’re just doing right by their culture.

“Out of hundreds of stories the Celts and pagans had, only the santa compaña, the magic cauldron and the lavandeira survive. The santa compaña lets us be afraid of the dark. The magic cauldron became the Holy Grail. And for the lavandeira, well, there’s even a little bird flitting about keeping its namesake.

“And it goes like this.

“When most people tell it, lavandeiras are spirits who died in childbirth, or had a child die without baptism. If you go out past a riverbank when the moon’s full, you might find her. The lavandeira will be dressed all in black, washing sheets with blood that won’t scrub out. She’ll plead for help. ‘Help. Please. Please. Can you wash it out, friend?’

“At this point, now, you have two options.

“You can just keep on walking. Just, ignore her completely. Just—‘Doo-doo-da-doo—there’s nothing going on.’

“Or you can help her clean the blood out of her sheets.

“Obviously, you know, if you walk by as if nothing’s happening, nothing terrible happens to you. So the moral goes that if you see some terrible, terrible thing, it’s best to walk on.

“But if you choose to help, it divides into two more options. When you wring out the sheets, if you wring the same way as the Lavandeira, you die. Right there. Dead. If you wring the sheets the opposite way, you survive, but with bad luck for the rest of your life.

“And something about not ignoring the terrible soothes me. I head in, look at the terrible, and wring different. But the myth must be true, ‘cause it’s unbelievable how many of my conversations become arguments. I must be unlucky.

“By the end of the night, I can climb downstairs composed. With a little help from a myth, I know that the same way that they ignore the terrible, all I have to do is take note and then change things. I can accept that they’ll work hard to make sure there’s enough to drink, but that there needs to be enough to drink because they work hard.”

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Aozora Brockman Interview: “Kill or Be Killed”

Read “Kill or Be Killed” in Reckoning 1.

aozora-brockmanMichael: I have been waiting to ask you and talk to you about the tension that is at the core of “Kill or Be Killed” pretty much since I read it. I’ve thought a lot about what constitutes civilization, how the way we negotiate killing in order to live has changed as what it means to be human has changed. I’ve been thinking about it for most of my life–this satirical bit by the comedian Bill Hicks sticks in my head, I heard it first as part of a Tool song in high school–where he mocks militant vegetarians, asking why nobody is lamenting the pain we cause to carrots. The point being (at least, so I have interpreted) that we have to eat to live, that what we eat is something that was once alive, death is universal, pain is universal, and it’s forgetting to acknowledge it that’s the problem.

I love “Kill or Be Killed” for the intense, personal clarity with which it renders that moment, killing these little alien things that would otherwise be taking your food. I couldn’t help but be riveted by it. You’re writing about something you’ve actually experienced, I think? In other words, for you and your family, keeping pests from eating the food in your garden was a matter of livelihood–not such a common experience anymore for human beings. Too many people I know no longer need to think about where food comes from, so they don’t.

The poem, I think, invites us to contemplate those questions without feeding us an answer. Maybe it’s taking unfair advantage of my editorial position, but I’d love to know what your answers are, if you have any. How do we decide what lives and what doesn’t so we can eat? Is it okay to kill an ant, but not a chicken? How does empathy play into that decision? Do you ever look at it from the ants’ point of view, or the potato’s? Has your experience working with the land, growing food, taught you anything about how to negotiate those complexities?

 

Aozora: Thank you so much for these wonderful questions, Michael! To be clear, I do not—at all—have the answers to what/who we should kill to eat and what/who we should not kill. But I do think that you are right that the point is not to make a list of living things we can kill and those we shouldn’t, but to always question, empathize, and think deeply about the lives you are taking into your body when you eat.

In Japanese, there is a phrase you say before you eat a meal, “itadakimasu,” which literally translates to “I am receiving your life”. My Japanese mother loves this phrase, and she explains it as a way to thank the living things that gave up their lives and became your food. I love it, too, because “itadaku” is a highly polite form of the verb “to receive,” and signals the deep respect the speaker feels for the living beings (now dead) before them. The phrase has Shinto origins and has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, but the real meaning behind the words are mostly lost to Japanese people today.

Which brings me to my point: we live in a society today in which we are wholly unfamiliar not only with who grows our food and how it is produced, but with the very fact that what we eat was once alive, and that the boundary between us and the animals and plants we eat is not as rigid as we’d like to believe.

People often assume I’m a vegetarian, but, like most of my family, I am not. But my parents always made it a point to make me and my brothers think deeply about the food—especially the meat—we were eating. All of the meat we eat is from our farm, and when we eat meat (which is not that often), I feel in my heart an immense appreciation and love for the animal who gave up their life. I’ve taken part in many chicken butcherings on our farm, and I think it takes great courage on the part of my dad to raise his ax to the neck of a hen. There is a holiness to that moment, of making sure death is quick and as painless as possible, and with the enormity of the deed washing over us all.

I believe that when I eat an animal or plant or insect, I am taking in their precious life and rebirthing them into my blood and bones. And when death comes for me, all of those lives consumed into my body will be returned into the earth to feed new life. The most important thing, for me, is to always recognize that I am not apart or above the cycle of life, and that I must try my hardest to give back all that I’ve taken.

 

Michael: What’s in the cocoon at the end of the poem? I don’t know enough about the life cycle of the tomato cutworm to be sure.

 

Aozora: I still have no idea what was in the cocoon! It was definitely not a tomato worm, though—based on my research, a tomato hornworm’s cocoon is red in color and smaller than the white cocoon I discovered in the poem. I actually found (and smashed) some tomato hornworm cocoons while I was digging in the soil to plant artichokes a couple days ago. I haven’t seen that white cocoon in a long while, and odds are that they are from a worm that doesn’t do much damage on our farm. (So I still feel guilty for murdering it.)

This goes back to your previous question, but as farmers, and especially as farmers who use no pesticides or herbicides to grow our vegetables, we are trained to find and kill certain insects when they are damaging a crop. We squish small, fat red potato worms, smash squash bugs, stomp on tomato worms, squeeze Japanese beetles and cabbage worms…the list goes on. In bad years, we have to look through row after row of plants and fill cups of soap water with potato worms or Japanese beetles until the water is fizzing with drowning bugs. The experience always gives my stomach a lurch, but I think it is an important one to have, because it makes you aware of what it means to consume food, and how much destruction you must wage against certain insects in order to eat. On industrial farms, all of the killing is left to chemicals, and the killing is not targeted: instead of bucket-fulls of Japanese beetles painstakingly drowned after hours of work, whole insect and microbiome ecosystems are wiped out with one sweeping spray of poison. That means that they are not only killing the pests, but are murdering the spiders, earthworms, ladybugs and bacteria that help make a healthy and nutrient-rich soil. All of this (unnecessary) murder is heartbreaking, and it’s all the more enraging that we all conveniently forget about all of this killing because we aren’t the ones doing it with our own hands.

What farming teaches me is that it is necessary to kill certain insects because they are eating up our beautiful broccoli or burrowing in our green tomatoes, but that it is not necessary to kill them all, or to kill insects that are doing no harm. We must only kill when it is truly necessary, and when we kill, we must feel in our hearts a deep gratitude and humility.

 

Michael: I’d like to ask a process question–about how you write. How true is this this poem? Another way of putting which might be, “Did you in fact squash a big gross cocoon with sticky white insides and get inspired to write poetry about it?”

 

Aozora: Yes, I did! One summer I was digging potatoes out in our bottomland field and had this exact experience. It was during a period of drought, so the soil was extremely dry and painful to kneel on and work with, and I was exhausted from running out irrigation drip-tapes day after day, night after night. In this kind of haze and daze, I was harvesting potatoes and killing ants and then all of the sudden, staring at this cocoon I’d squeezed, its insides all over my fingers.

I didn’t know, at the time, why that moment felt significant and strange, and I probably forgot all about it for a while. But when I was back at school and tasked with writing a poem (in the style of Robert Frost) for my poetry class, the experience came flooding back. What was beautiful about writing this poem (and writing most of my poems) was that I had no plan of what I was going to write about while I was writing it, and all of these emotions and thoughts and questions emerged naturally while I was exploring the memory through language.

Some of the questions that emerged in the poem probably weren’t concretely in my head when I was digging the potatoes that summer, but came to me later, through the classes I was taking then. For example, the biggest question I see now in the poem is one not just about the literal killing of insects, but the philosophical and moral questions of war and violence. The ants, in this case, are easier to kill because they are attacking me, and they are warrior ants—they know they are putting their lives on the line. But the sleeping cocoon, all of the sudden exposed to the sun—a mere baby, curled and innocent, in the dirt—killing it, that feels very wrong. And I think those feelings of guilt and non-guilt raise important questions: why is it easier to kill someone or something that is attacking you, versus someone or something that seems innocent and passive? Why do some feel so justified in killing our “enemies” abroad and yet rail against abortions? To me, those are the central questions of the poem.

But I love that each reader brings their own perspective to the poem, and it can spark different questions for different readers. When I shared the poem in my class, I remember that one student told me she thought the poem was about losing sexual innocence, and her reading surprised me because I did not think of that at all while writing the poem. But I can definitely see that theme in the poem, and I love that poetry can open up spaces and possibilities in this way. My memory becomes your memory, my experience yours, and we are all pondering on the same plane of thought.

 

 Michael: Thank you very much!

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Emily Houk Interview: “Plague Winter”

emily-houkRead “Plague Winter” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: The more of these interviews I do, the more clearly I perceive common threads that recur through many of the pieces in Reckoning 1. It seems they ought to be telling me something–about myself, about all of us writing and thinking along these lines. “Plague Winter” touches on so many of these threads I don’t know where to begin.

Okay: invasive species. I got to talk to Travis MacDonald a little about their history, their progression, the line between invasive and naturalized and native and how it blurs over time. But in “Plague Winter” you come at all that from the other side, from the individual, the personal. Robin cares about the hemlocks in a way I understand at a visceral level. It doesn’t matter to her that those hemlocks aren’t so very old in the age of the world, that they came in only after the Northeast was deforested by a different plague of invasives of which we’re reminded by Robin’s grandmother who comes from the Mohawk and grew up isolated and displaced. And it maybe doesn’t matter to Robin that the beetles designed to defeat the adelgid that’s killing the hemlocks may bring about some other plague yet unforeseen. It’s irrational, but that’s how people work, and the natural world changes because of it–so drastically as to be unrecognizable in just a few generations. I love the way you layer all this. It’s subtle. I don’t know if you’re for setting those beetles free or not, and–as I said talking to Aozora Brockman last week–I don’t really know if it’s fair to ask. Do I have to let the work stand on its own? Do I have to come to my own conclusion?

I’ll tell you my answer: I’d set the beetles free. I think. I suppose it would be hard to say until the moment came. And I suspect I’d have given a different answer a few months ago. I’m feeling rather radicalized of late.

How about you?

Emily: I wanted “Plague Winter” to raise questions without necessarily providing answers. Because that’s real life, right? Stumbling around, trying to find answers. Like you say, the lines between native and naturalized and invasive can be blurry. I wanted the story to illuminate that blurriness, to provoke readers to consider what belonging is. Which parts of “nature” do we feel belong?

When I first started drafting this story, which was actually several years ago, I was more on the fence about my own beetle-release philosophy than I am now. Coming back to the story, I found I came down much more on the side of beetle release. Partly this has come from hanging out with scientists and learning more about biological control, which has changed dramatically since the disastrous early attempts, when invasive species were introduced and threw entire ecosystems into chaos. While I don’t trust human schemes and strategies to be infallible, biocontrol efforts go through a lot more testing now. There’s an attitude of caution around them. And then there’s the fact that hemlocks are widespread, and losing them would have devastating consequences for plants, animals, and humans. So yeah: Release the beetles.

“Plague Winter” reads like science fiction, but the story is actually historical. Based on the progress of the adelgid and the use of biocontrol to manage it, the story takes place in 2009. That’s the year that the predatory beetle Laricobius nigrinus was introduced as a biocontrol for the hemlock wooly adelgid in upstate New York, where “Plague Winter” is set. So while the story feels speculative, it’s actually fictionalizing a real moment in the past. The idea of using predatory beetles to manage the adelgid seems like this weird, out-there idea, when in fact it’s been happening for almost a decade. Ripe for a story!

Michael: Then there’s the question of what to do, as an individual, how each of us makes that judgment call, where our personal effort and emotional investment will do the most good. Most of us aren’t given the chance to steal beetles and set them free, even if we wanted to. A question I asked a lot of your fellow-contributors for awhile and got away from, and maybe should get back to: do you think writing fiction about it does any good? Does it make you feel better, at least?

Emily: These are some rough times for the planet and us who live on it. For myself, it’s been a matter of figuring out how to stay active and engaged without becoming overwhelmed and shutting down entirely. When I say “stay active and engaged” I mean a variety of things. There are traditional ideas of calling senators, sending postcards, going to a protest or rally or local meeting. Then there’s contacting corporations to urge them to join Business Backs Low-Carbon USA and follow the standards of the Paris Climate Agreement. There’s supporting my local library, donating household items to refugee resettlement efforts, turning the compost, working in the garden. Sharing skills with people in my community. And then there’s writing a story.

Does writing fiction make me feel better? Maybe a little. I feel better because it gives me an opportunity to explore the realities we face. It is important to deal in realities, now and then, and fiction is a great tool for doing that. This is the world we have. It may not be the world we want, but it is the world we have. To deny what’s happening would be a disservice to the world, to ourselves, and to each other.

Do I think writing fiction does any good? Reading fiction does me good, and it always has. So I hope that the things I write will have some sort of positive impact, even if, in this case, it’s just to encourage readers to notice and appreciate hemlock trees a little more. Telling stories is important. Language is important. We have to tell our stories. There is a strength in doing so.

Speaking of language and stories, in “Plague Winter,” we’ve got Eddie, who was kidnapped and forced to live at a boarding school where she was forbidden to speak her native language and follow the traditions of her Mohawk family and community. That was a real, calculated effort by the U.S. government to destroy the native population of the country. There were boarding schools like that all over North America. It’s a horrifying part of our history, and it’s important to acknowledge what was done to those kids. This didn’t happen all that long ago. Many of those schools existed into the 60s and 70s. As you mention, another invasive was behind that act of aggression. Again, facing the world we have. Not the one we’d choose.

Michael: Aside from plague beetles, aside from fiction, where do you choose to focus your efforts? I feel privileged to already know some of the answer to this, but would you please indulge me and tell me a little something more about the ways you’ve found to resist the metaphorical and literal plagues of this world?

Emily: When I was in college I studied human ecology and environmental design. I used to say that I went to school to study the end of the world. That was over a decade ago. I stumbled onto that path sort of accidentally, but once I was on it I couldn’t imagine a more important thing to learn about. I ended up working at a transfer station for awhile. Nothing like waste disposal to make you think about how things could be done differently!

I live with a whole bunch of artists and writers and musicians. That in itself feels like a bit of rebellion. Lately I’ve been focusing on how I can be of use to my community. In the last year I’ve taken classes in herbal medicine-making and wilderness first aid. I’m thinking of taking a chainsaw skills class. With the current global instability, I feel compelled to acquire as many useful skills as I can.

I try to fight despair by thinking creatively. I run Ninepin Press with my partner. We’re a very small press that creates literary objects in unusual shapes. We recently published a collection of poems by Travis Smith based on forgotten constellations. At a certain point in the 1920s, a group of astronomers got together and had a meeting where they decided which constellations would be recognized as “official.” So a bunch of constellations got the axe, like The Hot Air Balloon, The Printing Press, and The Sundial. Most people don’t know they ever existed. I wouldn’t have known, either, but for Travis’s poems in Zodiac B. While our work as writers and publishers might seem tangential or even unrelated to the way we think about the environment, that work can give us an opportunity to illuminate and question the stories we tell ourselves about our environment. To see the world in unexpected ways.

Michael: Finally—I want to ask about the feeling of marginalization, of operating way out at the periphery of a society, that I get from Robin’s position in the world. She’s scrabbling for a living, and to do what she can for her brother and grandmother, and to do what she can for the hemlocks, with minimal support. She operates brilliantly under the radar, on a shoestring, and I admire her for that. Can you tell me how you came to that aspect of her character? I’m curious if it was…an interpretation of ye archetypal heroism…or whether this is an interpretation in fiction how you, Emily Houk, operate in the world, or something in between? Or something else entirely.

Emily: I love the way you describe Robin’s situation. I knew from the moment I started writing that Robin was going to be a community college student. I went to community college myself, and it was an important part of my development as a human. It was so much less insular than a four year school. Everyone had jobs. Many of us had a bunch of different weird jobs. There was a lot of scrabbling. My classmates were anywhere from sixteen to eighty years old. Everyone was just trying to get their work done, to do what they needed to do. Some were caring for elders, others had kids. Some had stable places to live and others didn’t. Robin was someone I could have known back then.

I think Robin is a fun subversion of the idea of a hero. I mean, she doesn’t have much going for her. But that’s what makes her great. Looking back on the first draft, I think I gave her the name Robin so that I would feel her story more personally (Robin was what my parents were planning to name me before I was born). I’ve always lived kind of marginally. I grew up in a fairly remote area surrounded by hemlock forest. When I was a kid we grew a lot of our own food. I didn’t go to school until I went to college, and I didn’t attend college until I was in my twenties. But my parents weren’t much like Robin’s. They aren’t hermits, and they’ve been very present in my life. Like Robin, I tend to find myself in care-taking roles. But beyond that, I don’t know how similar she is to me. She’s more stoic than I am. Laconic. More like my own grandmother.

In some ways I see Robin as a cowboy in a western, or some sort of rogue knight in Arthurian legend. The system isn’t out to get her because it has anything against her; the system doesn’t even know she exists. And yet she finds a way to fight it, to get what she wants out of it.

Though Robin is scrambling to support herself, in some ways her story is one of wish fulfillment. Because she succeeds, at least temporarily. Eldercare in our society is so troubled and dehumanizing. This young woman was able to eat enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sleep on enough couches to get her grandmother a place to live. I guess it’s weird to go for such a small, brutal sort of wish fulfillment, but I’ve watched people I love get older and I wish there was a more humanizing structure in which that could happen. (My one remaining grandparent, my grandmother Justine, will turn one hundred next month.)

I didn’t know I was writing a story about grief until I finished it. I have to fall sideways into these things.

I think that if Robin were around to look at 2017 and give me advice, she would say this: Do what you can to avoid despair. Despair immobilizes. And right now the world needs us to be our best and brightest selves.

Michael: Thank you very much! This interview has in fact done a bit to help me hold away despair.

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Insanitary

Danika Dinsmore

Tourists blocked the entrance to the caves. I’d known they would come, eventually. You can’t keep a thing like this silent in the information age. Downdee, population 1,320, home of the Singing Caves™.

They were told ghosts of mermaids and embraced that tale. Course we of Downdee know the truth: mermaids are horrible singers. No, it’s the caves themselves that sing. It’s a matter of the earth and wind and sea and little holes no wider than a pinkie. But sure, mermaid ghosts.

We’d been kept to ourselves on the edge of the world. No one had ever stopped by on the way anywhere other than to throw themselves into the sea. But thanks to that young turd that thinks it’s a pop star . . . well, he’d come back and “sampled” the caves and put it to music. Called it his hometown mermaid backup. Rolling Stone labelled the music “haunting,” feeding the scheme.

Above the beach, vendors sell t-shirts and key chains and miniature wind up caves. The sound isn’t at all the same. It doesn’t soak up through the bottom of your feet into your bones. Of course, we can’t feel it like that any more because it’s too “unsanitary” to visit the caves in bare feet. Now we need proper shoes and a tour guide to navigate us through the territory of our childhood dreams.

The red and white sign on the Singing Caves™ kiosk reads: Open 9 am to 6 pm daily. Apparently even dead mermaids need their sleep.

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Plague Winter

Emily Houk

The year the plague doctor came to town, winter came early and held on into spring.

Up on the mountain this described almost every winter, yet somehow this year was worse. The road to the house was impassable and had been since the beginning of October. Robin’s parents were glad for the isolation, but for her and Bret it meant long snowmobile rides if they wanted to get home. Bret got his own place, near the garage where he worked. Robin was at the community college, and spent many nights sleeping on couches, or sometimes in her grandmother’s hospital room, to avoid the long commute.

The plague was a plague of trees. Hemlocks made up most of the tree cover in the mountains, and pretty much everywhere else, too. The conifers grew faster than the hardwoods, and had become easily dominant, but that was before Robin was alive. That was before her parents were alive, even. Robin had driven far enough south to see the creeping progress of the woolly adelgid, row after row of sickened or dead trees skirting the highway. The creatures sucked the moisture out of the hemlocks. Robin looked at their dry, dead branches and couldn’t help imagining the rest of the state as the wasteland it would be without them. The vision made her feel sick, and that was as good a reason as any to take forest ecology classes.

She went to talks in Albany and New Paltz. She learned about forest succession, in an effort to imagine what would come next. Every swamp full of dead snags made her angry, and she turned the radio up loud when she drove by them.

The plague doctor was an entomologist who came to work at the school. He was breeding predatory beetles that he hoped would eat the woolly adelgid. He had a hawkish nose that made Robin think of the venetian masks worn by plague doctors in the seventeenth century. She’d done an arts elective in high school on mask theater, and the image of those masks had stuck with her, until it stuck to Dr. Elvers.

Good, Robin had thought as they shook hands. Maybe now I can stop thinking about them.

Robin ended up volunteering in the lab. It was dead winter by then, and on her way to school she stopped to gather clippings of infested hemlock. The plague doctor’s beetles laid eggs on them, in the woolly substance the adelgids swaddled themselves in. When the beetles hatched, they’d eat the adelgid eggs. At the lab Robin put the hemlock twigs into jars, placing several mature beetles onto each clipping, the exact sex and number of which depended on the instructions Elvers left for her. She counted larvae, watched the older beetles crawl around their enclosures, noted what they ate. She monitored their progress, though beetle progress was hard to define.

“You stick it out,” said Eddie, Robin’s grandmother. “Eventually they’re gonna have to start paying you.”

And it was true. Elvers did hire Robin as a lab assistant, which meant she might really have to go through with her plan.

 

Visiting hours were supposed to be limited, but everyone at the hospital knew Robin, and they let her sleep on the couch in the waiting room while they chased infections around her grandmother’s body. In the morning Robin and Eddie drank coffee together, hot from the vending machine.

“You’ve got to do something useful. I don’t so much care what,” Eddie kept telling Robin and Bret. She had just turned ninety-six. She’d been telling them that for two years, now, since she first got sick.

Bret was a mechanic. It was very, very useful.

 

Up on the mountain, their parents’ house was surrounded by hemlocks. It was on the shack end of what could be called a house, so the trees themselves felt like an outer layer of walls. Winter was another world up there. It was a fairy tale world. Each time Robin saw a fox, she expected it to speak to her. But winter is best when you’ve got no place to go. Robin’s parents had no place to go, but she had school, and work, and so she had to come down out of the enchanted wood for the winter. Even on days when she took the snowmobile up there, it was like she was viewing it all at a distance. The drab reality of a long winter in the civilized world had taken over.

Eddie shook her head. “Don’t be so dramatic. You live where you live, you work where you work. It is what it is.” But her voice was bitter. Eddie had been taken from her parents when she was six years old. They were Mohawk, living up on the Canadian border, and Eddie had been taken as far west as you could get and still be in New York. She was placed in a boarding school, one of those places where they sent kids to make them assimilate. Eddie didn’t speak of it much, but Robin knew that she had tried to run away several times, and eventually she succeeded.

Eddie always wanted to run away from the hospital, too. “When the weather warms up, I’ll spring you,” Robin told her. And so they both waited.

 

That wasn’t the only thing she was planning. During November and December, Robin thought endlessly about her heist. She knew about biocontrol schemes gone horribly wrong—she’d seen that episode of The Simpsons where invasive bullfrogs devour all the food crops—but it was becoming hard to care. She considered how she could carry out her plan in one fell swoop and then vanish, but there was no vanishing in a small town, and some crimes are best committed as aggregates.

Most mornings, she filled a rubber hot water bottle and nestled it into a heap of wool sweaters on the tiny back seat of her truck. A couple of evenings a week, she was the one to close up the lab. She doubted they actually used the security cameras, but in case they did, she stood with her back to the lens as she did her final check, and herded a beetle or two into the little wire cage she kept in her metal lunch box. The lunch box hid the cage until she could make it to the car, and bury it in the warm sweater pile. The cage was a very fine mesh.

It was a difficult scheme to pull off with no place to live. She had to keep the accumulating beetles at Bret’s house. He gave her a lower shelf in his room. She took care of them, just like the ones in the lab.

Beetle fatalities were not uncommon. She marked the disappeared down along with the dead. If Dr. Elvers noticed, he didn’t say anything.

In January, he sent her over to Cornell to pick up some new stock. She saw dead trees everywhere now, dried out monuments to a lost landscape. The truck was making a new clicking sound. She didn’t like it, and she longed for the fairy tale woods. The radio was broken, so the trip passed in long silence.

The university science building was large, much bigger than the little one she was used to. The wind bit at her as she ran for the door. A woman named Kate showed her around the lab, and gave her a big box of beetles. Robin settled the box on the seat beside her and cranked up the heat. Despite her paid work as a beetle chauffeur, she didn’t feel too useful these days. The sky was darkening when she remembered she’d made herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She pulled over and ate it, staring into the dead snags like they might tell her something. I could let them go, she thought. I could let them go right now, and see what happens.

It was a nice thought, but it was too late for these trees. The beetles would just starve. Not very useful.

A police car cruised by her, slowing as it passed. Her bones felt heavy all of a sudden, like molten metal had replaced her marrow. She got back on her way. Like you do.

 

Along with new beetles, the new year brought a new doctor covering the overnight shift, one who didn’t like Robin sleeping over at the hospital. She spent a couple nights at Bret’s house on the couch, but he had two roommates and she hated to bother them. “Why don’t you get a place of your own?” Bret asked. “Just a room couldn’t set you back too much.”

“Let me know if you hear of anyone who wants to rent out a closet.”

He gave a her a stony look. “Why don’t you pick up a little extra work? Something that pays better than training bugs. You never have any money, ever.”

“I’m not training them. I’m breeding them. And I have another job. It’s unpaid, but someone’s gotta do it.”

It might’ve been cruel to bring Eddie into it like that, but it had the desired effect of stopping Bret from proceeding with that particular line of questioning. Instead he shoved his permanently grease-stained hands into his pockets. Bret wasn’t any better at expressing guilt or gratitude than he was at expressing any other emotion. She wondered if that was how she came across, too. Their father called them Irish Twins. He reveled in being a lapsed Catholic.

“I’ll ask around at school,” she said, just so Bret couldn’t accuse her of being stubborn.

And Robin tried. She stood in front of those big bulletin boards, blinking, writing down impossible-seeming sums in her notebook. Reading descriptions of rooms for rent gave her a panicked feeling. If she was going to drop that much cash, it had better be on a place where Eddie could live, too.

For now, it was easier to wait out the custodial staff and sleep at the lab, in the lounge or the office.

 

That was where the plague doctor found her.

Robin was not one to oversleep. She sat up fast, startled awake by the light, still half caught in dreams. Elvers was looking down at her, at the sleeping bag and pillow, the thermos and backpack beside her. The little mesh cage, empty. He hesitated a moment, then set his briefcase down on the desk. “Bad storm last night.”

Robin wanted to clamber out of the sleeping bag, but doing so would look more awkward than she could bear.

“I don’t blame you for not braving the roads,” he said, pointedly, and turned on the computer.

“You’re early.” The sky was still dark. Robin drew her knees up to her chin, pressing her back against the wall.

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve mapped out the release.”

“Of the beetles?”

He nodded, glasses lit up blue. “It’s hard to believe the time is almost here.”

Robin sat there on the floor, feeling stung. She’d had it all planned out. Everything took so long where bureaucracy was involved. She’d been ready to jump ahead, go vigilante with her stolen beetles.

And now it was time.

Elvers looked at the small cage and then at Robin. He turned to the screen. “We’re structuring the release in a very specific way, so that we’ll be able to test the results. Success rates could vary a lot, based on how many beetles we release and where we deploy them.”

Robin sat frozen, her mind whirling. I’m going to lose my job, she thought. I’m going to lose my paycheck.

“I’ve been working towards this for years,” Elvers said. “Maybe too long.”

Robin wriggled from the sleeping bag. “You had to start somewhere.” She hoped she sounded sympathetic, rather than terrified.

“Speaking of which,” he tapped a few keys emphatically. “You grew up around here, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you’ll recognize the recommended areas for release.” He leaned aside so she could see the screen, but he still didn’t look at her. “I’ve scheduled extra staff to assist me. We should be all set to move forward.”

Extra staff. Robin was willing to bet she wasn’t included in that group. She felt like she was standing on quicksand, the world sliding out from under her. She forced herself to speak. “So you’ve got enough help?”

Elvers hesitated, then looked at the wire cage where it lay on the carpet. “Unless you’d like to add a site.”

Robin was behind him in an instant. “Yeah. I’d like that.”

“Great,” he said. “I’ll make us some coffee.”

Robin was already running her eyes over the familiar swaths of forest, marked out with a grid.

“We’re starting slow,” Elvers told her. “Cautious.”

“Sure,” Robin said, still focused on the screen.

He cleared his throat. “I’ve secured another year of funding for the assistant position, if you want to keep it.”

She paused and looked up at him, fingers hovering over the keys. “Good. I mean, thanks.” Her limbs felt heavy with relief.

They sat in silence for a few minutes.

“Hey,” said Robin at last. “What if it doesn’t work?”

“It’s a relatively small population. It shouldn’t be a threat.”

“I’m not asking what happens if they do too well. What happens if they don’t kill the adelgid?”

Elvers sat back, the wheels of his chair squeaking. “Then we try again with another species of beetle.”

What if it’s too late? Robin wanted to shout at him. But there was no point. For all they knew, it was already too late, and too late was all they had left.

 

Bret was right about one thing: Robin never had any money, ever. That was because she was saving it for a shabby little ground floor apartment with two bedrooms and a small porch. She didn’t know how long she could afford it for. She hoped it would be long enough.

Eddie didn’t say anything as they unpacked her small suitcase. She just kept shaking her head. “All that time,” she said. “You coulda warned me you had a plan.”

“I told you I was gonna spring you when the weather warmed up. It’s not my fault you didn’t believe me.”

Eddie grunted—a pleased sort of grunt—and went out on the porch. She put her gnarled hands on the railing, looking out at the street. “Nice out here,” she said.

Robin followed her, leaning in the doorway. “The screens will keep the mosquitos off in the summer.”

Eddie waved a hand. “That’s a perk for you, then. They never bite me. They’re too busy biting you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Let’s get some chairs out here. Comfortable ones.”

A breeze blew through the porch, warm but with the edge of chill that meant the snow was melting.

“Hey,” Robin said. “How about we go do something useful?”

 

The road was rutted and muddy, but passable. The snow was only a thin crust now, the ground bare around the trunks of trees. The driveway was a mess of mud and snow, so they went on foot up to the fairy tale house, Bret helping Eddie through the worst spots, Robin carefully carrying the box of beetles. Instead of taking the stairs, she walked right by the house and around the back.

“Hey,” said Bret. “Did you come here to see them, or what?”

“We’ve got business to do first,” Robin called over her shoulder. “You coming?”

“Let’s go, then.” Eddie tugged him forward.

Robin had thought she might get her parents in on it, too, but now that they were here, it felt kind of like a private thing. She didn’t want to have to explain. Her parents, hermits that they were, knew all about private things.

She went a little way into the forest, until she reached a giant hemlock, the biggest she’d ever known. Bret’s face lit up when he saw it. They’d spent a lot of time under these branches when they were growing up.

“Well?” Eddie said. “Let’s not waste another moment.”

“OK, then.” Robin inspected a smaller tree, studying the underside of the needles. She set the box down at the base of the trunk and opened it carefully.

“You sure this is a legit thing to do?” Bret asked.

“I hope so,” Robin said. She drew a numbered length of trail marking ribbon from her back pocket and tied it around one of the branches.

“What if it doesn’t work?” Bret asked.

“Then they try another species of beetle,” said Eddie, who knew more of the story.

“But what if beetles don’t work at all?”

“Then the hemlocks die,” Robin said. “And things change.”

Bret looked unnerved.

“Mom!” They heard their mother, calling to Eddie through the trees. Eddie turned and started back towards the house, a spring in her step.

They watched her go.

Bret bumped Robin’s shoulder with his. “I don’t want things to change.”

“I know.” Robin sat down on the damp, needle-covered ground, leaning back against the giant hemlock. After a moment Bret joined her. They gazed up through the branches into the patches of sky, one more time.

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