I’ve never been lost in the woods, so of course I didn’t think I was lost now. I’d simply misplaced the trail. Eventually, I’d find it, because it was around here someplace. It wasn’t until I had stomped around for about an hour that I began to get the creeps, and not because I was lost. It was the sun.
It hadn’t moved; it just hung there in the sky at about twenty degrees above the western horizon. I sat down and lined it up with a cedar branch and watched it through the needles. I watched it until my ass was numb and it stayed there as if the tip of the cedar was holding it in place.
A wind moved though the woods, making the cedar and the tamarack next to it sway. The tamarack had begun to change, and a few of its soft yellow needles drifted to the forest floor. A single, red maple leaf landed on the back of my hand. I started and picked it up, twirling the stem between my fingers. Time was passing, the leaves were falling, and I realized that I had to pee. It wasn’t like time had stopped. Just the sun.
I stood, swaying a little bit until feeling came back to my glutes. A red squirrel was surprised by my sudden appearance and chattered at me from the maple. I popped my jeans open, slid them and my undies down and squatted to pee. The smell of urine and the dusty dead leaves swirled around my face and I hung my head down and then rolled it across my shoulders, thinking.
I picked a direction, but after walking for an hour, stumbled over the same butt-flattened spot I’d started from. I rested and went out again. And again. No matter where I began, I came back to my spot and the sun still balanced on the tip of that cedar.
There was a little spring around somewhere. I’d seen it last time I was out this way. Grimacing at the sun, I licked my lips and turned in a circle, my feet carrying the circle into a wide spiral, and found the spring just west of my spot.
The ground rose and a wall of black rock thrust up a hundred feet, an ancient mountaintop buried in forest leaves, small cedars growing in the cracks of its shoulders and red mountain ash scattered across its crown. Water seeped down the face of the rock and pooled at its base. I knelt and touched my lips to the pool, sucking in a long, cool drink.
Drinking down that water was like drinking down the world. I could taste the rock, iron and deep and dark, and the earth, moist and rich. Lightheaded, I leaned my shoulder to the rock. A dribble of water dripped down my chin, landed on my chest, and slid cool between my breasts.
It was dim in the shadow of the rock. A dozen staggering steps from the spring, a pile of freshly fallen autumn leaves had collected in a hollow. This wasn’t the first time I’d spent a night in the woods. I pushed down the panicked voice that was urging me to run and burrowed down into the leaves. Piling the leaves over me, I slept, coming awake once or twice in the shadowed late afternoon light, but drifting off again to the sound of wind in the pines or the buzz of a bee, and always the soft, warm crackling of fallen leaves.
Sleep flowed across me, warm current of contentment and a strong feeling of place that held me safe. I knew where I was and it was all right. I dreamt of sunlight falling softly across a pale blue autumn sky and the last falling petals of late summer flowers. Sleek bears rooted under logs, and bucks in rut blew steamy breaths at each other across evening meadows. I dreamt of a girl picking frost-touched choke cherries on the lee of the ridge.
Until I startled awake and it was night. I blinked in my leafy bed, eyes wide in the darkness, listening to what had woken me.
It was night. The sun had set.
Something moved in the darkness and I felt the hair lift up on the back of my neck. I slid out of the leaves and the whisper that they made was no louder than the wind in the trees. My jeans and shirt hung on me in ribbons of flannel and denim, and autumn leaves tangled my hair. I crouched there, my mind skipping from the leaves to the water to the earth beneath my bare feet. This was all that my mind could hold. A breeze pushed against my face and I turned into it. The air was crisp with a hint of coming frost but there was a fetid stench that came in wisps; a rotting smell, like old garbage or road kill, like brutality and grief. I turned toward it and breathed it in so I would know it.
A full moon hung low in the west, about twenty degrees above the horizon. I grinned at the moon and then turned my eyes back to the smell, finding it in an inky spot, black upon black, a thing that shouldn’t be there, didn’t belong here in my place. I didn’t know what it was, but that didn’t matter. I had no words, no thoughts. Looking at it, I knew what I had to do.
It stilled as it sensed me, but latent violence tingled against my skin. With a crazy shiver, it launched itself, black limbs wide and a dark gaping mouth. I screamed as I met it and we came together in a flurry of claws and teeth. I gagged, the smell of its fur like rancid grease on the back of my throat. Its teeth snapped in front of my eyes and I squeezed where I held it and then threw myself forward, using my own teeth.
It was nasty, but I ate it. I ate it right down.
I staggered away from the place of blood and torn ground and collapsed into the pool, the water clearing the taste from my head. I came to half lying in the pool, shivering with cold. A late day sun sent a shaft of golden light through the trees and across my legs and I pushed away from the spring and into the sunlight. Without thinking much, I stood and began to wander around my wood, picking a few late blueberries, running my hands over the trunk of a massive beech, and pulling up a bunch of purple loosestrife. I walked for hours and finally fetched up near the swamp and sat in a patch of rose mallow, combing my fingers through my hair.
I stopped and looked at my hands. My skin had taken on the pattern of the leaves, bronze, brown and yellow, and my nails were sharp. They were strong looking hands, good hands, but not the hands that had driven my truck. I squinted down at them, trying to remember.
Only small things came to me. My truck? I remembered the feel of the shift knob as I put my truck in gear. Coffee, bitter and rich, I missed with a sudden physical ache. Did anyone remember me? Almost, I could hear the sound of my lover’s voice.
My chest felt tight, sadness welled up, and tears ran down my face. I sat in the swamp grass and watched the rose mallow sway in the breeze. Rose mallow is a beautiful flower. I cupped one in my hand. The petals were soft and cool. A yawn cracked my face and I shook my head, bleary with tears and sunlight. With another yawn, I rolled over in the grass, curled between the flower stems, and fell asleep.
I woke to the sound of singing.
Grass had grown up through my hair, and the rose mallows grew around me like a circle of pretty girls. High and sweet, someone sang a wordless aria. I looked up and over the flower tops. Some feet away, a light sparkled in the air. It hung above the ground, dancing to and fro, shining now gold, now yellow, now new-leaf green. As it bent to a flower, it became infused with the delicate pink of the mallow.
The light pushed forward into the circle where I lay. It was an odd sight; as the light moved toward me, a face came toward me as if someone were pressing into a sheet of color-swirled plastic. First a nose, then forehead and cheekbones and a small, delicate chin. The sunken eyes glowed pastel blue and the eyelashes fluttered. The light skipped back and the face disappeared, but it came again, pressing against the barrier, the eyebrows raised.
I pushed myself up, hugging my knees with my arms, pulling them to my chest. With a sigh, I propped my chin on my knees and considered her. One of her hands pressed in next to her face, fingers spread wide.
Words came through the music. “Hello? Can you hear me?”
I was never a person who liked much company. I mean, some people are fine, but I can only take them like potent liquor, in small sips. Looking at the face with its outspread hand, I realized that I did not want this face, hand, or any other part to come into my world. The song and the light were lovely, but I did not want them to join me.
With studied care, I unfolded my arms and legs and rocked forward onto my feet, crouching now, with my fingertips just brushing the ground and my head tipped back to look up into the face. I thought of the black thing, with its smell and its bones crunching and how it never had the chance to scream. My lips lifted and I licked my tongue over my teeth, meeting the wide blue eyes, staring into them and letting them stare into me.
I blinked, and the face was gone.
The song faltered, then rose again with upward slides of curiosity. The light danced back and forward but not to the edge. Was it her edge or my edge? If I looked very closely, I could see the shape of a girl there within the light. Shaking my head so that my hair flew, I stepped over the rose mallow and away, back to the wood, leaving the light and the song behind.
I slept and woke and slept and woke. When the black things came, I ate them; they never got away. I could sit for hours watching the birds flutter from ground to branch or squirrels building their leafy winter nests. Once, a bear sow wintered on the south lee of the black rock and birthed two cubs. I helped her raise them and they come to me still.
The sun or the moon were always in their place, round and full, about twenty degrees over the western horizon.
Of course, she came back. She. Sometimes I could see her shape, wreathed with light. Or she would again press against the barrier that separated us. A girl, a woman, and then a strong-faced elder, white hair in simple braids pinned across her crown. She would sing and I would growl and when she came too close I would lift my lips into something that was not a smile.
Once when she came, her song was dim. I don’t know if she was sick in body or spirit, but I could see a blackness, a place of nothingness, pulsing at her center. I didn’t think; I snatched it out and gulped it down. Her song faltered and for a moment I thought I had extinguished it. But I guided the song and the light, guided her, with little pushes and pinches and waving of hands, to the black rock with its seeping water and the pool. She drank and the water swirled into her, deep green and fecund brown and hot red iron. I could see her clearly then, flaming beside the pool, a woman in her prime with work-roughened hands and smile lines at the corner of her eyes.
“What are you?” her song asked.
“A woman,” I said. “Just a woman.”
Her smile was soft. “No.”
I visited the pool later and found a pendant of agate, worked and polished, and wrapped all around with a fantasy of silver wire. It glinted up at me from the bottom of the pool, an offering or just a gift of thanks. It is there still, shining in the sunlight and the moonlight.
When I saw her again, her face was creased with years and her back was bent. She pressed tight against what stood between us so that I growled a warning at her, teeth bare. She lifted her own lips to me and showed me her teeth and I blinked and nodded with respect. At that, she laughed so hard that she clasped her knees, rocking back and forth. I laughed with her and leapt up and danced for a moment to her song.
I slept next high in the branches of the beech and I woke to the moon and something wicked moving in my woods. It smelled ugly and mean, of shame and willfulness and the desire to hurt. I slipped from my leafy bed and slithered down one branch to another until I crouched over a darkness so profound that my eyes slid past it, unwilling to linger. I noticed that my shoulders were up around my ears, my head tucked down.
I shook my head, impatient with myself. I was awake and it was night; there was a blackness in my wood and my mouth at least, dripping with heat and saliva, knew what to do. The black thing moved closer to the beech, drawn toward me, I think. I stood on the branch, stretched out my arms and fell upon it. It whirled, mouth wide, and scored me with hatred, a poisonous, acrid bile that it spat like fire. It scars me still, but who has not been scarred by hatred?
It thought that I wanted to win and that was its mistake.
After I consumed it, I staggered through the wood. Half of my face was eaten away and my left arm hung down uselessly. I collapsed amongst the blueberries near the black spruce. With my good eye, I blinked up at the moon, the moon that hung just twenty degrees over the western horizon. It is never about winning or losing. It is about risk and joy, leaps of faith and wonder. I closed my eye and all of reality ceased.
The taste of the pool seeping past my lips startled me awake. Something touched my face, a cool, wet cloth. One edge lay across my eyes, softening the gore that was caked there while the other edge trailed across my lips, leaking soothing moisture onto my tongue. After a moment the cloth went away. I heard movement in the grass, time passed, and then more movement and the cloth was back. I sucked at it, rock and earth, towering trees and delicate flowers, buck and bear and buzzing bees. It went away and came back again, three times, maybe four.
I could hear singing now, beautiful, more beautiful than I had ever heard. Tears came to my one good eye and the cloth brushed them away. I sat up and took the cloth in my own hand and carefully worked over my face. The wounds had closed up but the left eye was gone. I opened my right eye and looked into the face that peered at me from the light. She was very old, toothless and thin.
“I had to hear your song once more,” she said.
I shook my head. “I have no song.”
She laughed, shining so bright that it hurt to look upon her. I stood and made my way limping to the pool and she followed, the two of us staggering and weaving through the ferns and small brush. I slumped down on the pool’s edge, the ground soft and cool, and touched my lips to the water. When I could take no more, I rolled away and sought the hollow with its bed of new autumn leaves.
I woke, blinking up from the leaves. There is a cedar across from the pool, and the sun balanced there on the tip of a branch. I lifted my hand and it trembled. Light-headed, I rolled out of the leaves toward the seeping rock. And stopped.
There against the blackness of the rock was a damp pile of bones. I could see a femur and several vertebra. The skull rested on its side, a few feet away. There were finger bones in the pool next to the blue agate pendant.
I gathered her all up and carried her across the woods to lay her in the ring of rose mallow. I go to her on spring evenings when the sun has not set and we listen to the forest sing. I go to her on lazy summer evenings and watch the bees as they buzz around the mallow. In the autumn, I bring her red maple leaves. I bring her water from the pool, cupped in my hands, and when I drip it upon her, her bones melt into the earth. Together, we sleep the winter away.
Sometimes her light comes and I dance to her song but mostly it is just me and the bones. I don’t know where the light goes. It tried to get me to follow it once, but this is my place. I know that I am not what I once was, though I cannot guess at what I am. I just am. The one in the wood, the one who keeps this place, the one who watches. I am mineral water and blueberries and the full moon and a quiet spring gloaming. I am the one with teeth that the blackness fears. If you come to the place of the rose mallow, or the frost-touched choke cherries, or the weeping black rock, maybe you will see me. I am here. Listen to the wind and the crackling autumn leaves. That is my song.
I have never been lost in the woods and I am not lost now.
Protocosmo found me as it finds all its inhabitants: the lost, the lonely, and the wayward. I was stranded for twenty-three hours in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Round about hour seventeen and in the wee hours of the night I took to pacing the long empty hallways past their inert coffee and fusion cuisine franchises. An attendant found me sleeping on one of those airport couches built to maximize subtle discomfort. He told me there was space available on the flight to Protocosmo, and possibly I could make my connection from there. I said, “Yes” and that was that. I was ready and on my way.
Little did I suspect where I was headed, nor can I relate exactly how I “flew” there, for Protocosmo sits within the Earth’s core, but there I landed.
The “sun”, as the Earth’s core is termed locally, never sets but simply smolders down to a cinder once every twenty-four hours. There are cities there in Protocosmo connected by mine-train and falling-bicycle. Its atmosphere has an unpleasant but refreshing spice that turns bitter things sweet. But these are all minor attractions. Protocosmo’s true attraction is that it is home to the terrible worm, the infeci, as they’re termed.
As is common with all recently arrived visitors to Protocosmo, I spent my first days in bed with fever. Natives name these endemic illnesses as if each were a fondly remembered melody. The Wilting Shivers, for instance, is accompanied by the scent of oranges and the sensation of the world sliding suddenly to the left. My first fever was called Conquistador, a type reminiscent of a failed jungle expedition while encumbered by a full suit of plate armor.
Outside my windows at counterpoint to my illness, a festive atmosphere prevailed. It was a kite-flying holiday. The air beneath the smoldering sun fluttered and glittered with kites of wormhide and multi-colored streamers. Every now and then a spark would set a kite aflame, a sight welcomed by an eager cheer. The trick was to pilot the burning craft through the pockets of noxious vapor about the core and set the chemicals alight, so that they burned with brief multicolored radiance.
Despite the attentiveness my landlady showed in administering to my health, I could hardly summon the enthusiasm necessary to enjoy the spectacle.
She was a native born Protocosmotic and wore on this occasion a brown blazer atop a green hooded djellaba with a blue hand-knit scarf about her head. Her shelves overflowed with Agatha Christie novels and she had a tic about her eyes that made her irises vibrate, as if the simple act of focusing on anything held the entire reservoir of her attention.
She brought me a lemon ice and listened to the recitation of my symptoms.
“It’s time you tried the worm,” she said and motioned me to follow. She bade me sit in the kitchen while she prepared her tincture. The rattle of the spoon played ten-pins upon my occipitals, and I swore I heard the drums of cannibals in the distance. Finally, she returned from the cupboard with the glass.
“Drink it down,” she said. “No complaints.”
Sick and weary and wishing I was far and away from there, I did as commanded.
The drink proved temperate, flavored with lemon juice and coffee. I expected to retch, but the opposite happened. My thirst slackened while my fever slipped away. When the glass stood empty upon the table, I could hardly keep myself from staring at it.
The taste no longer solely resided upon my tongue but suffused my entire body, pungent yet clarifying. The very air about me seemed stripped of all impurities.
“That’s infeci?” I said in disbelief.
My landlady, that radiant angel in tattered djellaba, smiled and shook her head. “That’s only infeci powder. When you get well you should find the real thing.”
Just then another shout came from outside. The two of us went to the window and saw a kite trailing green and yellow sparks across the sky. Overcome with a calm I can only describe as beatific, I ushered my savior from the apartment. Together we followed the music uphill, my fever falling further into memory with each step, my landlady’s hand pressed in mine.
Beneath the cinder of the smoldering sun, we must have danced ninety-nine times.
Upon recovering my health, I decided to explore Protocosmo and hired a falling-bicycle. Such a journey must be undertaken at night, lest the canopy of the craft catch fire as we passed the smoldering sun. Yet still we tumbled so close to the core I might have reached out and lit a cigarillo. My pedaler, a lean man covered with wiry yellow hair scorched down in places to pink freckled flesh, focused on the beacons ahead of us.
“What do you know of the infeci?” I asked him.
“Had a touch of fever, did you?” he said, his face aglow with the light of our lamps. “Was it Clora’s Drift or The Dewy Ague? Did it have spiders, snakes, and creepy-crawlies?” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “I can tell you about the infeci. I worked the tiles for a bit, saw them up close, worked a hook, and pushed them into the glass pits.”
We tumbled into a valley and steadied into a glide. The mesas in the distance sat upon the curved horizon like tilted pyramids. Patches of shadow covered the ground beneath us, dense in spots amid the ashen gloom. He eased back on the pedal, and our craft tilted. The maneuver afforded me a view of one of these shadows. Our lights barely penetrated the darkness. I saw nothing.
“Those are cracks in the Earth’s crust,” my pilot said. “All the rot from the surface collects in them. Infeci eat the stuff and grow. Might take a metamorphosis or two. (Months in Protocosmo were termed metamorphoses, as years were called resurrections). Pretty soon there’s no room in the cracks, only the infeci. When they reach the crack’s lip they pour out, full of poison and madness.”
“How then do they become such a boon and healing mechanism?”
“That’s a trade secret.”
“But there must be some way to stop them,” I said. “If they grow that way, they would take over all of Protocosmo.”
“You have to starve them. Lure them to a hole lined with fused sand. A glass pit. They can find no sustenance there, and they starve. It’s tough work, but we all take a turn doing it.”
Our vehicle righted. My driver nodded at the fissures below. “These are dormant,” he said. “Cleaned out. Won’t be a swarm out of these holes for some time. The most recent outpours have been in the East, where you’re headed. Take a cart down to the floor, and you should find some tile-work.”
In a city square somewhere under the Alps I bought lunch from a leaking refrigerated cart. I wrote postcards home explaining my disappearance (a task only slightly more difficult than explaining the decision that had led me here: pursuing a prestigious degree from a nonaccredited university), after that I sipped my coffee while reading a pamphlet on infeci put out by the Protocosmo Office of Tourism:
“The adult infeci is a large, segmented worm as tall as a single volume of the 1923 edition of the Encyclopedia Britanca and as long as at least three adult golden retrievers tied nose-tip to tail. Their skin consists of twenty to thirty interlocking keratin plates behind a smooth dome-shaped head. Legless, the creature winds itself forward via vigorous undulating movements that manage to propel its bulk through the dirt and leave a furrow behind it that smells faintly of rotten broccoli.
There are neither male nor female infeci, simply a single androgynous gender that reproduces through violence.
The infeci diet consists wholly of poison—filth that seeps down to Protocosmo from the surface world. In this way, as the poison is refined within the terrible worm, the infeci serves a beneficial function in our planet’s ecosystem.”
A voice called my name. It was my pilot, eating his lunch at a café tent. I joined him.
“I bumped into an old friend,” he said. “A fellow I knew back when I was a tileman. He stuck with it. Told me there will be an outpour flowing past. Get down to the floor tomorrow morning and volunteer. They can always use spare legs for tile work, and you’ll get a chance to see the worms up close.”
He pointed at the pamphlet and formed a skeptical expression with his singed-pink features. “Words can’t describe it.”
Well, I would see, I said, and asked about this friend.
“Esteban’s a strange fellow, writes operas in his off moments. Heartbreak case, he gave up life on the surface and came down here. Said he wanted to retire. Strange way to retire: going toe-to-toe with infeci. But to each their own.” He shrugged. “As Cain said, I’m not my brother’s keeper.”
By the following morning, the cafes were all a-chatter with news about the approaching worms. Men and women lined up to volunteer, most of them only a resurrection or two out of school. I joined a line and was told by a civil-servant to appear the next day at a mine-train station.
The morning was clear, with light flakes of ash falling from the sky. Carts were running down to the valley floor in stages. I waited my turn while a winch squealed rhythmically. Every face about me was soot-streaked. We were a nation of the besmirched. The people around me conversed, and I heard talk of “eggs”, “dust”, and “bulls”: common terms invested with unfamiliar weight.
Soon we were on our way down the mesa, our train zig-zagging until the broad plain of the valley came into view. Far in the distance, a white and red river stretched from mesa to mesa: the infeci. And facing this river, the tiles.
One need only view the paintings of Paulo Ucello or read about the tactics of the Roman testudo to gain some concept of the tile. Armored men and women form square formations often thirty persons thick. Each carries a tower-shield that might become ceiling or wall, depending on the direction of the flow. Hooks and spears are used to prod the infeci towards the waiting pits. The professional Tileman, or Tileteer, since all genders may take up the occupation, maintains the “edge”, while the bulk of volunteers staff the middle and use their muscle as a brace against the brunt of the attack. In this way they form an island that serves to direct the flow and course of the crawling river. From the center of each, a captain peers through a periscope and shouts directions. From a distance, the maneuvering of the tiles displays a stark, formal quality, like the squares of a chessboard come to life and attacking the pieces.
Our cart came to a stop at the foot of the mesa, and I asked the attendant where I could find the pilot’s former companion.
“Esteban?” she said. “He’s still in his tent, but his tile is preparing their formation. Follow this group here.”
I fell in line again and marched where I was bidden. There was a cloud of dust on the horizon. Already some tiles had stepped into action.
We stopped at a supply cart where a plump woman handed out spears and sealed suits with tall boots and visors. Maneuverability was key, but also cleanliness. It was dangerous to come into contact with infeci in their squirming form.
Once we’d dressed and formed up, professional Tileteers moved among us, straightening our posture and adjusting our grip upon our spears.
“Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all,” one said, pushing my shoulders back. “Step closer to your left. Your shoulders should almost be touching.”
I bumped against the young woman at my side. She had a shaven head, a merry spark in her eyes, and she displayed a marked skill with the spear that made my own improficient efforts seem a newborn’s fumblings.
A tileteer barked us to attention and marched us through maneuvers, teaching us the commands required.
Bull—the massed push made with interlocking shoulders.
Egg—closing ranks shield to shield so we formed an island.
Dust—spears out and stab.
Eventually I caught on to the intricacies of the movements. By then, Esteban had emerged from his tent. A wide man with a deep, melodious voice and long hair, he cradled a daschund in one brown hand. He passed her on a waiting attendant and without a word donned his captain’s gear, armor similar to our own except for a bent contrivance hooked to his chest: the periscope from which he could look out over our island.
We parted solemnly to afford him passage to the tile’s center and marched as a square, spears balanced horizontally upon each other’s shoulders.
Tiles covered the valley floor. They bristled hooks and spears and made walls of themselves. The infeci collided with them, their mad twisting and flailing sounding like thunder in the air.
We were positioned near the edge of a pit, a sinkhole of fused sand. Our task would be to push the stream into the hole. Esteban ordered the shields mounted. Our spears formed a support that held up this ceiling. All was darkness. Chinks of light illuminated profiles and tufts of hair as the dank smell of human sweat filled the crowded space.
“Bull,” Esteban shouted, and down we marched, the weight of our numbers providing us with momentum.
I had no concept of where I was going and bumped clumsily against my fellows. It was insufferably hot, quite like a fever of a kind. I thought of Conquistador. The scent of so many confined bodies and stale breath closed upon me. I could little but trust to inertia and the experience of others.
“Easy, now. Steady.”
We came to a crashing halt, the recoil of which brought me into the back of the fellow before me.
Groans and cries came from the edges. I leaned forward, each step taken against a weight as insurmountable as gravity.
We strained to get our shields up. A cry escaped my lips. The woman beside me grunted. A great terrible wet flailing echoed in the darkness like we were being flogged by fouled laundry. Flickering shadows cut the light, and the air stank of rot and vegetation.
“Bull right,” Esteban ordered. He must have been close by me, because I heard his chanted whisper of: “Position. Position.”
The press of our opponents was constant. Each muscle stretched only to remain frozen as a steady rain of impacts and blows beat against the shields. Voices groaned in the dark. The ground shook, and my body vibrated as taut as a rubber band.
From within our square, hooks and spears sprouted. Vibrations coursed down the length of each. Once or twice a snap and cry pierced the gloom. My grip held firmly to the cross braces. Dust roiled in the shafts of flickering light as a black, pitch-like substance dripped through the gaps.
“Careful,” my fellow tileteer said, “that’s poison.”
We pushed at Esteban’s command. The balls of my feet dug into the earth. Each foot lifted to take a step would hang frozen in the air, and then the weight against it would lessen. The step would land. Another step forward, and another, and another, as if we were wrestling a river into changing its course. With a shout, Esteban ordered the spears set to construct a shield-wall. A cheer rose up as the weight against us turned fluid and drained away. Our task was done, the flood detained, and the worm tide averted into the glass pit, where it squirmed and seethed.
A festive mood reigned in the camp. I found myself milling from group to group, a stranger made kin for a time by our shared ordeal. A hand grasped my shoulder, and I turned to find myself face to face with Esteban. Once more his faithful dachshund was with him. He asked if I was a Russian. I told him no. He sighed and gave a toss of his head so that his curls danced lightly upon his shoulders. He motioned me to follow and led me back to an open-air kitchen.
Fires crackled beneath great steaming cauldrons. Smaller infeci had been corralled to one side, guarded by hook-wielding handlers. One at a time the beasts were taken and hefted into the pots, where the air beneath their contracting carapaces escaped in a screaming hiss.
“Would you like a taste?” he asked.
“But aren’t they poisonous?”
“Only if left to their own devices,” he said, passing me a plate. “It’s our labor that purifies them.”
Infeci flesh was succulent, similar to lobster but also unquantifiable. An aspect of the taste lay just beyond recognition, like a word dangling on the tip of one’s tongue. It recalled an unformed idea, and with each swallow I believed I came closer to its source.
“It’s the poison that gives them their healing power,” he said. His hand scratched the dog’s chin, and the creature gazed lovingly up at him. “We gain strength and a deeper appreciation of goodness by ingesting it.”
Nearby someone laughed. Esteban paused and let out a thunderous sigh before walking away. His stare matched his dog’s: downtrodden but free of despair. I realized he was a profoundly religious man, although what creed he might profess if any I could not imagine.
Another laugh drew my attention. I saw the woman who had stood beside me in the tile. She was with the falling-bicycle pilot who had flown me so far. She smiled, pointing to the empty glass in my hand, and the pilot waved me over. I took another bite of infeci. Words I couldn’t remember haunted my lips. The ashen sun cooled. Behind it lay my passage home. I doubted I would ever think of it again.
Across the flat horizon: only blue, no sign of other boats, of anything at all.
“Row row your boat, row—”
“—this goddamn thing.”
The line and anchor had become entangled with something below.
“Pull like this,” Oliver said.
“Nope,” his father said. “Tricksy widget. Snake charmer. Battle slug.”
His father yanked back and forth on the line with an older-man’s violence, unsteady on his feet. His father’s dog, Crappy, yipped encouragement at his heels.
“Sit down, I’ll do it.” But he could not free it either. He looked again for sign of police, or sign they weren’t so alone.
“Nobody’s out there,” his father said. “Trust me. Here, have a nip.”
“I’m going to have to dive for it.”
“Of course you are, you fappy hucker. It’s got my goddamn logo on it.”
“You think someone’s going to find it?”
“Weirder things happen.”
“And if they did—”
“Certain jail time. I don’t make the rules, I just break them.”
“You are a cliché machine.”
“Don’t bother with that ugly face nozzle, it’ll take you thirty seconds, down and back. I can see it right there.”
“You can’t see it. You see the rope, it goes into nothingness.”
“Over the side with you, lout fish.”
“Just need my fins. Stay above me, right? I don’t trust you with an oar.”
“I was born to oar. I’m ad-oar-able. I will oar-rate to you while you fish that thing out.”
“Just stay seated.”
The plunge over felt like entering a planet’s atmosphere. The bubbles floated past like little stars, sparks and ash, aswarm with insects. And the sound—ten million molecules all sung together with a concussive white noise.
When the bubbles cleared he made his way down, his snorkel gripped tightly between his teeth, his breath tight in his lungs. The reef swam about him, brilliant and colored—displaying more colors than the cone-cells in his own eyes could detect. He was a stranger here; an alien creature, not biologically well-equipped. Unlike his father.
He scanned about. On dry land, they lived in two dimensions. But in the reef, danger came from any angle, above or below.
It was his father’s growing incompetence that had ensnared the anchor. Drunk and sudden and impulsive. He had studied his father for signs of dementia; a hobbling thing for a man so ruthlessly independent. As he finned further down he glanced back to see the otherworldly silhouette of their small boat’s hull above, where inside, like the meat of a nut, his father hummed some dirty ditty to himself.
At fifteen feet down he held his nose and blew, to clear the pressure in his ears. At twenty five feet they ached again, but he was still not close enough.
At thirty feet he could see the anchor in the foggy blue light of the bottom, nestled into an indentation between patches of coral, but the pain seared in his head and he was out of breath.
“Oh hey, it’s Oliver,” his father said. He had settled down into the bottom of the boat, his dog Crappy curled in the crook of his arm.
“Thanks for your help, you sonofabitch.”
He clung to the edge to get his breath back.
“What help could I give?—I was staring into the sky, you were diving into the ocean. Here, have another drink.”
“I couldn’t make it. It’s fallen into a hole.”
“The hole at the bottom of the sea, dee-deee-de.” The song ended in a deep cough, like wet sand sloshed about the bottom of a tin can.
“What should I do?”
“What do you mean what should I do? Go get it. Get back down there. Without it we will be forever adrift. Like wee bits of pollen floating on the ocean, colonizing undiscovered lands, et cetera.” The ‘et cetera’ ending in a wet cough that continued for several moments.
“OK, old man.”
“Have another nip. Fortitude.”
“Nah, I’m good.”
“All right—but watch. In case I get to drowning I don’t want you falling asleep up here.”
“What would I do?”
“Dive in and pull me out, I suppose. Aren’t you the master at all this?”
“I’m half blind. I don’t know struggle from hello. It’s the sharks I’d worry about.”
“These ones just bite you and spit you out. Taste test. Nobody gets eaten.”
“Like I said.”
He lowered his snorkel back to his mouth and then tore the thing off his face; it was useless if he only dived straight down.
“Maybe don’t lower your goddamn anchor into the reef again?”
His father shrugged.
Sometimes it felt like gliding through a child’s crayon drawing in which turquoise had been over-wielded. He was here to spend some time with his father, the master diver, the expat. But instead found him as drunk and as belligerent as always. If not for the anchor, they would be on their way back, taquería-bound.
He scanned a moment too long for the movement of sharks. Tiburónes. He knew how their gray skin merged with the deeper blue of ocean distance, so that it appeared a shadow pursued you, a blue ghost. His father was afraid of no shark.
By the time he made to the bottom of the reef canyon— one reef wall a collage of vibrant oranges, pinks, maroons, the othera deadened white—and within view of the anchor—his air was finished. The anchor rested on a circular shape, three-four feet in diameter, tangled with some other bit of metal there. It was not part of the reef, and his first thought was: Some old ship has sunk here.
He turned and fled, kicking hard through the dim blue into the bright.
As he raced toward the surface he saw clearly that something was being poured out of the boat, its watery contents making a queer snowflake from below as they hit the water. He wondered if in the interval his father had had second thoughts about a life of drinking.
But as he came closer he saw instead that his father stood at the edge of the boat, pissing over the side.
“You’re such a prick. I’m in here!”
“Hey, don’t rock the boat!” His father produced a low chuckle. “It’s all fluid. You think they don’t shit in this water too?” His father pointed at the sea.
He maneuvered to the far end of the boat. “Anyway.”
“Let’s pretend you got the anchor.”
“It’s tangled with something.”
“We will put it in the boat and make our way home, under the glorious sunset.”
“There’s something else down there. Like a ship or something.”
His father zipped and sat. “There’s no wrecks under the reef. It’s another anchor. Pull that up too.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can.”
“They ask: How do you dive so deep? You dive deep. That’s how,” his father said.
“You goddamn do it then.”
“You’re already wet.” His father stood again to look over the side, then took another draught. “You need to learn it.”
“It’s not my life calling, you know? I’m not ever going to be as good as you.”
“Learn it anyway.”
“If we just cut it, they’ll see both anchors, think a storm took them or something. I’ll buy you a new one.”
“Too late for that. I want to see what other son-bitch is anchoring up on my reef.”
First, to super-oxygenate his lungs, he hyperventilated, then he took an enormous breath and dove. He was stronger this time, and on the way down his ears hurt less. He’d gotten the lecture before. How he lacked inner fortitude, the ability to withstand pain. You’re as soft as a goddamn jelly fish. You’ve got no grit. Instead of following his father’s renegade path further into the remote and the wilds, he’d become a magazine writer and lived in a city. He married, had children (his father declined to visit); all of whom remained at home while he visited his father deep along the Central American coastline. By every normal measure—if you did not count his father’s opinion of him—he was successful. But it was hard to remember this, in his presence.
An enormous gunwale-gray fish passed across his vision, taking its muscular time, blotting out color, so that his descent experienced a hiccup of forward motion.
Within reach of the anchor, his feet dangling toward the surface,his head seeking further down, he grabbed the other metal first, which turned out to be something other than metal. Stone, or bone, or he wasn’t sure; it was covered in a slippery film of algae, which when scraped away revealed white. It was not an anchor, but a large looping handle that curved into the sea floor. He pulled hard and dust rose around the circular area where it lay. Like a plastic ring you might acquire at a carnival, he thought, only enormous. Its face sat against the sea floor, the girth of the stone handle that of his wrist. He gave another pull with all his strength and felt it give the slightest budge. The monstrous fish swam above him now, casting him into shadow. He thrashed away at an angle and shot for the surface, where he could see the shimmery image of his father leaning over the side of the boat. His lungs began to crush inward and then he breached into sunlight.
“You came back. Started to worry about you.”
“No, not really. I started to worry about my anchor. And that I might have to get out of this goddamn boat.”
“I saw a huge fish.”
“He won’t hurt you.”
“And there was a handle. It’s attached to a circular thing, like a big portal fallen off a ship.”
For a moment, his father’s eye caught on the horizon, but he himself could see nothing in the direction he looked.
“I said there was a sort of handle.”
“I heard you. Neverthelesset, is there or is there not an anchor.”
“I’ll get your anchor.”
His father nodded and sat heavily in the boat.
Oliver grabbed hold of the edge and pulled himself halfway up the side, so that he could dangle and rest his legs. The bottle was empty in the bottom of the boat. His father leaned slowly backwards, but then he swung forward and began to shout what may have been a song, if his father had anything to his voice but pea gravel:
“The hole at the bottom of the sea!
You’ll find it and that’s all there’ll be!
You’ll find it when you’re old and cannot see!
No one knows!
What’s inside the hole
in the bottom of the sea!”
His father leaned all the way back in his seat now, so that his back lay across their gear and his head wedged in an uncomfortable position at bow.
“What the hell was that.”
“What you were talking about. The ocean’s plug. I heard tell it’s around here somewhere.”
“That makes no sense.”
His father closed his eyes. “El agujero en el fondo del mar.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
As he kicked downward with his flippers, his body felt eleven years old, to match the age his mind became in the presence of his father. His adolescent muscles frantically flailed with defeated inefficiency. But as he got deeper, his adulthood slowly returned, and his strokes downward became stronger and more self-assured.
The enormous fish made tight, sentry-like turns along the bottom of the sea floor, between the coral canyons.
The fish would not hurt him, his father had said. Still, they were two there in the space near the anchor, two consciousnesses, two planetary entities. The fish clearly the larger of them by several factors. When it swam in his direction, he did his best to acknowledge it by looking it in the eye and giving it a grim smile. A single bubble escaped from the corner of his mouth. The fish’s eye tracked its rise, and then it resumed its sea-floor pacing.
The idea of a plug for the ocean was preposterous. A ship’s hatch, a chucked-overboard he-didn’t-know-what. Did his father think it let the ocean out or let it in? If the ocean drained out, where did it go? Into the center of the Earth? And who put such a thing there?
This time he wrestled with the anchor, whose rope had tangled with the handle of the thing. The old man did not have many years left, and he worried that the plug was more evidence of his father’s slipping grasp of reality. You should go see him, his wife had said. He wondered if any of this mattered to his father; if they were closer for it.
The fish brushed too close for him, and the anchor would not come: between the rope and the anchor, it had looped about the handle a few times, as if someone had wanted them there. Around the anchor were the remains of the coral it had broken off as it descended and scraped. The dead coral peppered the sea floor, the ocean’s gravemarkers. His chest began to throb and pull for oxygen. He pushed off with his feet and shot like an arrow for the surface.
As he came alongside the boat he heard the sound of his father’s snore.
“Old man,” he said. In sleep his facial muscles were slack. He looked terribly old. His face wrecked by sun and sea. He looked away so as not to see his father’s face any more, nor to be caught looking while he slept. “Hey, I’m working here.”
His father awoke into song: “Working nine-to-five. What a way to make a livin’.”
“I can’t get your goddamn anchor.”
“Of course you can’t.
“City boys can’t dive.”
“Lay off, man.”
“Going to have to row back in the dark. You know how to navigate?”
“Case and point.”
“It’s caught on that thing, tied around it.”
“I ought to sink this boat, make you swim in.”
“OK,” Oliver said. “Seems like you might have a little more to lose than me there, but go for it.”
“I’m tired of waiting here!” His father stood unsteadily in the boat and glared down at him. “I’m drunk and I’m bored.”
Oliver snorted, and in the process inhaled seawater, so that he spent a moment self-consciously coughing.
“You get back in the boat, I’ll go down.” His father put his diving goggles on, so that he looked like a mad aviator.
“I’ll go with you.”
“Whatever you want, jelly fish.”
His father leapt from the boat’s bench seat and arced into a dive, all of the rotting muscles and slack skin finding sleek purpose in the sudden transition to water. Once under, his father did not surface for air.
Crappy barked at his master’s disappearance and ran between sides of the boat.
Oliver took a breath and followed him down, feeling the exhaustion of the previous dives in him.
He swam through the turquoise, glistening with the slivers of exotic fish, and down into the dim world below, where the enormous fish continued its lonely swim near their anchor. His father’s feet, gnarled and calloused, receded into the distance, and he wondered how the old man swam so fast without fins, as drunk as he was.
By the time he caught up, his father stood on the sea floor, the strange handle in his hands. In the current his father’s thin hair stood loose and undulated like a groping bit of seaweed.
His wife had said: The reason you go see an estranged parent is to not be like them, and he understood what she meant. His job was to reacquaint himself with the peculiarities of his father, to check those against his own, to figure out which had been blooming unbeknownst within him, passed down silently from generation to generation; a sly violence, a desire to be left alone, a way of poisoning conversation, every compliment loaded with barbs.
His father ran his hands along the handle, clearing the slick of sea sludge from it, which revealed the bone-white underneath. Then he looked up at Oliver and grinned.
Oliver’s air had begun to run out, and his father pointed them back to the surface, and then passed him on the way up as well, his body half-seal, carving between the molecules of water.
That they had not fetched the anchor meant more deliberation, and at least one more dive down to discover whatever it was that lay below. He wished only to be rowing home.
With one arm gripping the side of the boat Oliver leaned his head against the side and let the ocean’s movements jostle him for a moment. He was exhausted.
His father’s face was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Oliver thought: this will be the moment he has a heart attack.
“Ho! It’s the goddamn plug. It’s the hole in the ocean.”
“You didn’t get the anchor.”
“Other fish to fry, peckerwood!”
His father hoisted himself halfway up and rummaged around in the boat. “You drink the rest?”
“You drank the rest.”
“Son of a bitch,” he turned to wink, ever-enjoying the curse’s claim upon his ex-wife.
“Listen—it’s too dark to be doing this. Let’s mark the spot. We’ll row home.”
“You don’t understand what I’m saying.” His lifted his goggles up, baring the red pressure rings around his eyes. He gripped Oliver’s bicep with one hand, his other hand held the boat. His eyes bulged wide: “It is the hole in the ocean.” A sputtering of sea-salt spittle followed.
“What does that even—?”
“I don’t know yet, boy!” he released Oliver’s arm and tapped his own temple. “How will we know until we open it?”
His father’s head disappeared below the water, leaving Oliver alone for a moment to sigh and cuss. Then he dived after him. But his father was not ahead; there was no sign of him. He glanced toward the surface and saw his father’s legs on the other side of the boat. Oliver doubled back.
His father rummaged about in the thick layer of detritus at the bottom of the boat—”I’d chuck this shit overboard if you weren’t along.”—Socks, fishing line, beer cans, old plastic bags from long-eaten snacks, and the fish they’d speared, having breathed their last breaths. From it emerged a half-drunk bottle of Rosé.
“You sure that’s still good?”
With the cork off his father took a healthy pull off the bottle, and followed it with an uneven expression.
“It’s gone bad, hasn’t it.”
His father scowled at him. “Wine doesn’t go bad.”
“Pretty sure it does. That one started bad. Can’t have improved much in the bottom of the boat.”
“It’s a little bit bad.”
“Can I just talk some sense into you for a moment.”
“Here—” His father re-corked the wine, and then disappeared below the surface again, and reappeared next to him. “Have a drink.”
Oliver measured the partial drunk his body already worked, alcohol and exhaustion and sun all laying their claims upon him. The sun sat just above the horizon now. The turquoise below him had dimmed. He took a drink anyway.
“A fine vintage. Sparkling nail polish remover.”
His father laughed and slapped him on the back. “Snob!” He was clearly having a good time now, and Oliver was loath to interrupt it. The two of them companionable in the golden light, each with an arm on the boat, smiling at each other as they floated above some strange new discovery in the waters below.
“That is the largest goddamn Grouper I’ve ever seen.”
“— that fish?”
“That sonofabitch knows something. Where’s my diving light?”
After his father disappeared below the water, Oliver dipped his head below the surface to watch him descend, until he could see him no more. Crappy ran from edge to edge of the boat, as he did every time the old man went below.
“Hey Crappy,” he said. “That’s enough.”
To his surprise the dog calmed and stared down at him in the water. Perhaps the dog did not worry, with his small frantic mind, but only performed the duty he’d been taught, and having been excused of it he was free to ponder other things. It was hard not to apply the analogy to himself. In an unsettling moment of introspection he wondered how many of his own habits were simply his replaying back the chords he’d been taught.
He very much doubted there existed such a thing as a hole in the ocean. To ponder it was to upend reality. Did humans put it there? He could not imagine why or how they could. The hole’s existence implied some other’s intention. Amidst all of the slow, wild processes, here was something that was a fabrication. It suggested he lived in a playground, a test bed, a Petri dish. Where the light of the lab might be turned off at the end of the work day.
What was a hole in the Ocean for? It seemed more akin to
The knot in a balloon
The cork in a bottle of wine
The pin in the grenade
It was no finishing touch on some design, it was the kill switch. A terror crept into him. He felt incredibly small, a tiny, insignificant dot, treading water above the opening, in a wide, open sea. At the moment, he did not know in which direction land lay. The sun lay half in the ocean, half out. He lowered his face into the water to search out his father and saw a glow deep down.
Lifting his head up he said: “Crappy?”, and the dog perked up. “When given a choice, I have only ever known him to take the worst one.”
The dog barked his agreement.
He turned and swam hard for the light. The water’s turquoise hue had gone, leaving a murkiness with hints of large creatures at the edges of his vision.
Following the anchor rope he passed the coral canyon walls, now ominous objects in his periphery. Further down, the dark form of the grouper paced in the narrow box over the portal, and he swam hard to miss its trajectory. The diving light sat at the hatch’s edge, the anchor remained tangled with the handle. There was no sign of his father.
His air dwindled and Oliver flipped and swam hard for the surface, bursting into the air as the last tip of the sun hovered at the water’s horizon. He called out and the dog answered, but his father did not.
He gulped another, insubstantial breath of air and then dived again, wishing he’d not left the diving light on the sea floor. The panicked breath did not hold. He floundered mid-way between the sea floor and the surface, scanning frantically, and then returned to the dwindling light. Without the iron will of his father there, the sea felt endless. It was not only his father’s safety that crossed his mind.
This was how his father would go, he thought. This was the only way. His father brought him down here specifically to disappear into the wild, down some hole, to lose himself even further. And Oliver was here to clean up whatever mess he left behind.
He held onto the boat’s edge and panted. As the sea darkened, the diving light below shone more brightly. He knew then he would have to open the ocean’s plug and peek inside.
“Crappy,” he said.
The dog whined in answer.
“Fuck knuckle,” he said, hoping to divine some part of his father, “shit nozzle. Crutch sucker.” Then he took the proper breath and dived again, using the anchor rope to hand-over-hand his way into the depths and toward the light.
He retrieved the light and trained it on the grouper above him, who continued its relentless pacing across the space. The fear was burning all his oxygen; his breath was finished and so he rose.
At the surface his exhaustion pummeled him. He tried to strap the diving light to his wrist while he treaded water and could scarcely keep his head above the surface.
“Dad!” He yelled out into the dusk, and the old man’s dog answered with a reciprocal yelp.
There was no time to waste. With the diving light on, he dove again, pushing his worn muscles hard to reach the bottom. He knew what he must do.
He gripped the bone-white handle and pulled. The hatch was heavy and did not move. He braced his feet and pulled harder. Stubbornly it swung toward him until it was fully open.
But what lay below it was only sea floor. A shellfish skittered away; something retreated further down a small, rough hole. His chest had begun to convulse but he ignored it as he searched the circular indentation left by the hatch at the bottom of the sea, hoping somehow his father might manifest where there was no space to do so. He swung his light in an arc, but no body floated unconscious at its periphery.
Then with deft, brute force he freed the anchor and swam hard for the top.
He clutched the edge of the boat and heaved. He’d swallowed some water, and it came out of him along with the Rosé and Tequila and whatever other crap he’d put down there over the course of the day: Central American convenience store fare, packaged in small neon-colored bags, which his father had purchased for their outing. With the diving light he continued to strobe the water, below and above, but there was no sign of the man.
“Crappy,” he said, but the boat was quiet.
He wearily pulled himself up the side and there found his father passed out at the bottom of the boat, his small dog asleep next to him.
“You sonofabitch,” he said. He pulled himself the rest of the way in, vaguely aware he emitted a low groan, the sound of an exhaustion. Once in, he began to haul in the freed anchor.
“You selfish drunk bastard,” he said. “You selfish sonofabitch.”
His father made no response, other than the buzz of his snore.
After the anchor was onboard he sat and stared down into the water. The night was still.
He realized suddenly he could not leave it there.
His reasoning was difficult to parse out. It would make his father angry, to see the thing that had so stalled them in his boat, and there was some impetus there. But his desire to remove it contained elements of their lifelong petty war, over what you keep and what you throw away, what you guard and what you leave to wreak havoc. He himself was a sort of throwaway. He vowed that thirty-five years hence, when his two small offspring were grown and thought of him, their own father, there wouldn’t be a hollowed, rotted acorn in place of their hearts, their real ones having been left abandoned at the bottom of some ocean.
But he also just wanted it, a massive souvenir from the ocean’s floor.
He untied the anchor from its rope, lowered his goggles, and turned the diving light back on. Then he slipped over the side into the water, trailing the rope down into the darkness with him.
His arms ached with every stroke.
This time the grouper seemed to stop and observe him, its enormous black eyes reflecting the glow of the light, its behemoth undulating body paused.
He had all the breath in the world now. Or perhaps time had stopped without his knowing, the universe paused to observe this unexpected act, to see what would happen next. He heard little in the dark movements of the reef, the sea calm above, the boats all gone home but one. He looped the anchor rope around the handle of the fallen hatch and tied it fast. Then he swam for the dark surface, following his own bubbles in the diving light for cues to direction.
“You got something on the line?”
“Your ocean plug. Hauling it out.”
“But what if—anyway, what you want that for.”
His father sat up and lent a hand. They both strained against the line until the object surfaced, heavy and metallic. The weight of it pulled the edge of the boat lower.
“Cut it,” his father snarled. “Let’s get out of here.”
“It’s coming with us.”
“What the hell are you going to do with it?”
“It’s my business.”
“It’s my business,” his father mocked.
They heaved and pulled the heavy disk into the boat. Crappy barked and ran to the far end. After the exertion, they panted and did nothing for a moment.
“Don’t anchor your fucking boat on the reef again,” Oliver said, “or I’ll cut your balls off.”
His father did not reply, and the comment stayed over-harsh in the night, a bit of venom from the younger snake, taking cues from the older. Instead his father lay back in his seat, and a few minutes later he heard his snore again.
“Please,” he whispered much later, too late for his father to hear it, uncomfortable still with the harshness of his request.
Crappy came to sniff what they’d pulled from the sea, and then returned to sleep next to his master.
“At least he loves you,” Oliver said, not sure whether he referred to the animal or the man. But the bitterness of it instantly faded. He would fly back tomorrow to his own family, where the subject of love was not a question. He put the oars in the oar locks and began to maneuver the boat in the direction he believed to be land, caring less about getting there by night’s end than he expected.
As he rowed toward his father’s home, the stars filled in the black canvas above.
The moon rose, slivery and delicate, a dark yellow hook at the Ocean’s edge, which he pointed his prow toward. And in the dim light, he watched the cargo of the boat gently rock with each oar-stroke, the old man, the dead fish, the small dog, and the glistening hatch that had covered the hole in the bottom of the sea.
Neon poster boards glowed pink and yellow in the late August sun, like opalescent scales rippling on a monster made of myriad bodies. Each sign bore a slogan, praise for the lake or a condemnation of the corporate befouler, Lennox-Mills; and the protestors shook the signs in unison, so they fluttered in time with the chanting. Drums pounded. The smell of burning sage filled the air. The day was warm and good for anger.
Mizay did her best to get some oomph into her voice—OUR water, our LIFE!—but found herself holding back from full volume, so she could listen to how Taslin chanted. There was such authority in it, as though her friend were chopping thick logs with her words. Taslin had tattoos that Mizay loved: a pair of iguanas on her tanned calves; a dragon with a spear in its talons on her bicep; an octopus crawling up her back, one of its tentacles tracing the line of raised, red tissue that ran down her left shoulder. Tas was a warrior, for real. If Mizay was honest with herself, Tas and her passion for these things was the real reason she’d come to the demonstration—that, and a day outside in the head-clearing breeze off the lake.
Not that she wasn’t angry, too. The facts were shocking: fifteen per cent of the islands gone in the last two years. Since they’d stabilized the bluffs and built out the new pier in the port lands to put up the casino, the natural currents that carried sediment and gave the islands their shape had been reduced to a slow trickle of sand. Mizay knew most of the facts from Tas. But it had been her mother who’d first told her about the problem, and all the others it was creating—the islands eroding, the north shore crowded with plastics washed up in the altered current, ducks and plovers caught in the tangled knots and strands, toxic algae blooms smothering the inlets.
Mizay fingered the leather pouch on her neck and stared at the clouds gliding across the blueness above. Our people’s land, her mother had said.
Your people, she thought.
“Hey, you okay?” Taslin poked her in the arm. “Gotta keep up the chant, or the man will think you quit.”
“I won’t quit.”
“I know.” Taslin looked at her and lowered her electric green sign. Her thin lips were raisin dark, and a few strands of her blue hair lifted and fell with the wind. Against the mosaic of neon, it looked like a halo of water around her pale skin.
“You wanna take a break? Get a bite, a cold drink, maybe?”
“Yeah,” Mizay said, letting go of the leather pouch. She wasn’t at all hungry. “I do.”
Taslin chewed forcefully, a grimace on her face, and pointed to the water. “They throw the plastic in the lake, and use the cardboard to make pizza.” She tossed the remains of a gnawed-on slice onto her greasy tray. Mizay resisted the urge to pick it up and nibble on it. She was already too aware of her sweat-slick weight leaning against the fiberglass snack table, so different from Taslin’s lithe, dry body.
“You’re quieter than I expected,” said Tas.
Mizay laughed. “You calling me loud?”
“That’s a compliment.”
“From you, yeah. I guess it is. You were shouting pretty good back there.”
“They don’t hear otherwise,” Tas said, sucking sauce off her finger. She sighed. “They don’t hear anyway.”
“It’s still early,” Mizay said, though it wasn’t true. The sun was leaning west; the waves lapped away at the cluttered beach across the main path, licking away sand, trading it for crushed water bottles and faded silicon bracelets. For months, Mizay had felt a sense of things tipping, some shift in the energy of the city. The weather swung wildly, from sulky heat to heaving storms to cool, clouded days. People on the street got enraged at random. Nothing was consistent. Except Taslin.
“It’s late and you know it,” said Tas. “And you know I know you, Mizay Taylor.” She took a sip of soda water and raised her eyebrows, eyes goofy and wide, then looked away again. “Thanks for coming today. It means a lot to me.”
They’d known each other for five years, since Mizay had moved downtown from her childhood home in Ajax. Taslin had been one of four housemates sharing the crowded apartment above the store in Regent Park. They’d hit it off over a shared love of old school hip-hop and monster movies, The Toxic Avenger series and The Host, especially. Tas moved out to live with a doomed boyfriend soon after Mizay arrived, but they’d kept in touch and gotten close over the years. When Mizay’s father died, Tas had been there to guide her through the delirium, the sadness and hatred and guilt and relief; and Mizay had seen Tas burn through dozens of men, and was the person Tas had called on the night the worst of them ran a hunting knife along the curve of her shoulder blade after one too many pills. She’d had Taslin’s blood in her hair and her eyes, as she clutched her friend’s hand in the hospital bed while the nurse put forty stitches in her. Tas had refused any anaesthetic, spent the procedure staring into Mizay’s eyes, saying fuckerfuckerfuckerfucker, over and over again.
Mizay looked out at the lake, the haze gathering on the blue horizon. Without thinking, she reached out her hand and put it on Taslin’s. Right away, she realized how sweaty it was.
Tas let it sit for a second, then drew her hand back and smiled.
“Need to hold hands, lovey? I thought we were being civilly disobedient.” She looked back toward the protest and shook her head. “I’m all for moments, Miz, but I can’t help thinking about why we’re here, you know? These islands. The lake . . .” She shook her head. “Whatever it’s whispering to you right now, Miss Mizay, the assholes at Lennox-Mills can’t hear it, even though it’s screaming it at them. Because of them. We have to make the message louder.” She sat back, hoisting her neon sign with its blunt war cry, LENNOX-FUCKING-KILLS. She looked up at the sky.
“It makes me fucking crazy, you know?”
Mizay smiled, but she felt a bloom of heat in her face. She was an amateur, distracted, and afraid her falseness was showing on her cheek like a mole. She couldn’t commit to causes like Taslin. It was all too slippery, too hard to hold onto.
Tas got up and saluted her.
“Permission to visit the head, captain,” she said. “Be right back. Watch this for me, kay?” She let the sign fall on the table and strutted away. Mizay watched her go, all pumping thighs and chunky leather boots. She felt a tickling in her spine, and thought again about her mother, her father—prayers and smoke, both of them, in different ways. Her father of devout Irish stock. Her mother, Ojibwe, steeped in the brutality of the residential schools.
Our people, Mizay.
With her mother, now, it was always stories from the past. Wordsmoke. Everything was some elliptical tale, relayed in the slow, deep voice that had only slowed and deepened since Mizay’s father died. Wanda Taylor, née Littleshell, had enough stories to last a dozen lifetimes; Mizay called her twice a week to receive them. She was bored by her mother, but loved her.
With her father it was something else. Even now.
Mizay stood up, grabbed Tas’s sign and walked toward the shore, noting clusters of willow and wild strawberry huddling close to the water past the strip of beach. Overhead, gulls curved in the sky, shrieking in hunger or warning. A few sailboats dotted the horizon, far out. Mizay closed her eyes, savoured the kiss of the wind on her face, the smells of seaweed, wet muskrat and dry stone. She imagined herself out in the water, swimming with the current, moving like a torpedo, smashing into the concrete pier and sending the casino toppling to the bottom of the lake. This was her home—this island. This city. She was her people. Her, and Taslin.
“Can you put your filth away, please?”
She opened her eyes, disoriented by the dazzle of the sun on the sand. Swooning, she turned, searching for the source of the sharp, angry voice. She saw a man, white, white sneakers and white socks, red polo shirt and tan shorts, standing beside her, scowling.
“There are kids here, in case you didn’t notice.”
His long, white finger pointed at Taslin’s sign. Behind him, a young boy, maybe six, looked at Mizay with terrified eyes.
“You think you’re making a point? It’s embarrassing.”
“Sorry?” Mizay looked down at Tas’s sign. She took in beauty of it, the bravery, black magic marker scrawled in Taslin’s curly hand on the humming green.
“You should be ashamed of yourself.” She followed the man’s eyes as they traveled up and down her body, lingering over her middle. Mizay sucked in her gut out of instinct, to make herself smaller.
The man turned to go with his son. Mizay looked around for Tas. After a few steps the man glanced back at her, hesitating for a suspended moment before intensifying his scowl.
“Goddamn Indian bitch,” he said, the words pitched like sharp stones.
Not your people.
Mizay wanted to shout, lash out at him. Say fuck you and your people. Fuck you and your world, your plastic and your piers, your terrible manners. Fuck you and your old, stupid ways.
Instead, she stood mute, burning, then folded the sign in her hands and fled, walking quickly away from the man, who had turned around to follow his son along the beach, and had probably already forgotten she existed.
She looked around. The man was right: there were kids everywhere, running, kicking balls, eating ice cream. The protest was only a few hundred metres away, but in leaving its safe space, she and Tas had walked into a different world, a world in which innocent children ran among people who did not welcome her here, and could become them. Natives, Mizay, her father said. Indians, Mizay, her mother said, waggling a status card at her.
Flight instinct flooded her like piping steam, spiked into her belly, made her clench up and hunch and stumble forward, unthinking. She walked, ran, blind, going until she was away from the promenade. The words in her head slapped like a lash: Indian bitch, Indian bitch. It was the normalcy of it, the plainness of the man, that got to her. That, and his son, blond with blue eyes that watched and absorbed. Mizay walked, ran, slithered, seeking damp ground, seeking space.
When she finally stopped, she was on a part of the path overhung with the canopies of tall ash, maple and oak. Greenness surrounded her. The buzzing of the crowds and the faint chanting of the protest were swept over by the wind whushing through high branches, and the rattling of brittle leaves lower down, spackling the path in shadows.
She stood, shaking, huffing breaths, not crying. She was not what her father said, not what her mother said; though she was exactly these, both.
Mizay had no idea how long she’d been standing there when the woman rounded the corner and came toward her, walking with intent. Mizay felt the air pulse, like wind pushed by a great flapping wing. The woman wore a denim jacket and high boots and had hair tied back in a long braid. She wore a satchel on her shoulder and held a smartphone in her right hand.
“You look lost,” she said to Mizay.
Mizay felt a foaming in her belly. She stared at her dark, speckled wrists. She thought of her mother, of the yellowed suds gathering in the stilled bays around the island. She looked up and to her right and saw the high concrete tower spearing above the treetops, marking where the city skyline pushed against the edge of the harbour. She thought about her father, who had also looked so normal, who had been respected and admired among his friends and colleagues.
“No,” Mizay said. “I’m home.”
“Yeah. I think . . .” Mizay trailed off. Why should she the one to feel shame? She tested it in her mind: he devalued me. Something inside her said she should be used to the slurs, and the thought filled her with rage and despair.
“I’m Cora,” the woman said. Her eyes were deep, black. Mizay thought how they smiled and howled at once.
“Mizay,” said Mizay. The next part like a confession: “Taylor”.
Cora cocked her head and smiled. “That’s an interesting name,” she said. “Do you know what it means?”
Mizay knew what it meant to be Taylor. Then, other times, she didn’t know—couldn’t process being Taylor, because it was part of her, and that in itself was something she couldn’t understand. She’d never liked the first name her mother had chosen, never cared to know what it meant. It was enough, to know it was an Ojibwe word, one of the only concessions her father had ever made to her mother’s ancestry, one he’d always resented.
She shook her head, no.
Cora turned around and surveyed the trees.
“Your mother knows what your name means,” she said. Mizay twitched. Cora walked to the side of the path and rubbed a bit of tufted grass between her fingers. Suddenly Mizay heard the water, lapping, sighing, just past the trees and down the rocky beach to her left. The leaves became more distinct. The sun burnished the clouds a dusky gold. The woman turned and stared right into Mizay’s eyes, which were still puffy and red. “But I think you should ask the grandmothers and grandfathers.”
Mizay blinked. “They don’t talk to me,” she said.
The woman smiled. “They’re just waiting for the right time.” She took a slow step toward Mizay and slid a reed behind her ear, where it tickled like a fuzzy caterpillar. “They don’t judge anyone.”
Mizay swallowed. Her throat was dry. She thought about Tas, about her fiery, mad heart, and her gut wobbled. Tas would be looking for her. Worried. Maybe frantic. How long had she been gone for? She tried to remember what she’d done with Taslin’s sign, and couldn’t. Suddenly she panicked.
“I have to get back,” she said to the woman.
“I think so,” the woman said. “But wait a minute.” Reaching into her satchel, she pulled out a steel water bottle, unscrewed the lid and offered it to Mizay. Mizay reached out and took it. She tipped it back into her mouth, feeling the cool water course down through her body, and handed the bottle back to Cora.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome. One more thing.” In a single motion, Cora leaned in and wrapped her arm around Mizay, held out her phone, and snapped a selfie against the backdrop of lush green, the lake peeking through the gaps in the leaves. Mizay saw herself on the tiny rectangular screen, and realized she was trembling.
“Why do you want a picture of me?” she asked.
“Because,” Cora said. “You’re beautiful.” Head down, tapping her phone and humming, she walked back the way she’d come, disappearing around the corner.
Mizay stood, unable to move. She needed to find Taslin . . . but she was afraid. Her hand on Taslin’s hand: she hadn’t even known it was happening . . . even though all she’d wanted, all day, was to take her finger and trace the shape of the octopus down the smooth, scarred blade of Tas’s back.
That man and his child: they were just excuses to run.
The woman had asked Mizay her what her name meant, but Mizay was certain she knew the answer. Ojibwe, Mizay. On instinct, drawn by a current that calmed her breath and gave her lightness, Mizay went after her.
Rounding the path, she came to a clearing, where a stone beach sloped down to a full, wide view of the lake across the curve of the islands’ south shore. Halfway to the tip, a gap funneled inward, the water carving a rill between the clustered trees. In the distance, over on the eastern mainland, the casino was a tiny grey box on the jutting pier, studded with electric lights that blazed in the waning sun, baiting the dusk and the early moon. Cora was gone.
Mizay felt a flexing, an undulance, shoot through her back and down her legs.
It breached right in front of her, some thirty metres out. A curving loop of silver, slick and shimmering, muscled and lithe, huge as a subway train, exploding above the polished surface of the lake. Mizay gaped at it, the coils of its snakelike body, its ribbony fin, the feline cast of its head, droplets of foam splashing up as it plunged back into the heaving blue, throwing up plumes of water. As it went under, she felt its presence as a bulging in the sky, a slithering of the sand beneath her feet, a deep rumbling in the wind.
And she knew, in her heart, that what she saw was real. More than that, she knew it was no blasphemy born of pollutants, no scream from the crying lake . . . but a gift, telling how the past would become the future. How destruction and healing would always exist, side by side, in cycles.
She knew that this was the lake returning.
Mizay breathed in, filled with the sun’s warmth, the murmuring sounds of the city and the echoing ripples on the water radiating out from where the eel had surfaced. She heard her mother’s voice. She heard others, too. She would speak with them all, soon.
But first, she would go and find Taslin, and tell her, something new is happening.
I startled you the first time.
You spilled bougainvilleas deep violet
from your lap, bursting all around
us. The whole forest was staring
at me, waiting to see what came next.
You ran before I could finish
calling your name.
I sympathized, you know.
The iron devils had already
moved in, their teeth marking your trees,
splitting rocks with their toes
in search of something more golden-black
than freshwater clear.
I looked like a devil’s-heart, no?
And how could I see you?
But fear makes special senses,
desperation is its own sight.
You never stopped me laying
my head in your heaven— “but
that is what it here for,” you
say. “For rest.”
You’re a charming
king of a more dazzling domain.
I’m as afraid of the outside as you;
look at us, you a god with horns,
me a man who ran and tore the city’s dress off me.
The mimosa pudica closes her doors
with each tremor of modernity drawing close.
You bring mockingbirds to our dinner
tables soon, dare to kiss a boy so
future-scented, tell me I don’t
need to apologize. “The city does
forget easy. The woods can’t.”
I want to live as long as you do,
hand over hand, be a pleasant memory,
‘til the city steps on the very last green.
“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.
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 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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“But what if they do?”
Texas, my father’s state, is already almost mythical to me. Original and aboriginal.
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.
There is no such thing as an empty lot.
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.
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 reversed, 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.
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.
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.
A real estate broker, a fox, and a manitou walk into a bar.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2 World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report 2016,
3 Oregon v. Newcomb, 359 Or 756 (2016).
4 See Calvin Martin, Keepers of the Game (1978), pp. 69-70.
when rainwater becomes our source of bathing
and the rest fills a gallon of semi-clean plastic
humble roofs turn tin & rust
suddenly the word enough
rhymes with barely
the clothes we will sleep in are also living in the daylight
and the days are then measured in loss and love
humble roofs become tin & rust
we will discuss enough
but only find barely