- Global #ClimateStrike, everywhere, September 20th. We’re observing the strike by shutting down that day, no submissions reading, website will go offline.
- Reckoning 4 closes for submissions the autumn equinox, September 23rd.
- Reckoning 5 opens for submissions September 24th.
- Reckoning group reading! The New York Review of Science Fiction Readings at The Brooklyn Commons, 388 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Monday, October 14th, 6:45pm. Emily Houk, Krista Hoeppner Leahy, Marissa Lingen, Brian Francis Slattery, Emery Robin. Admission by donation, but no one turned away due to lack of funds. Download the flyer.
Welcome back to the Reckoning Press podcast! Reckoning is a nonprofit, annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. I’m Michael J. DeLuca, publisher. Tomorrow, September 1st, we raise our rates for prose to 8 cents a word! Thank you profusely if you’re among those who helped us accomplish that–and if you’re interested, there’s still time; go to reckoning.press/support-us to find out how.
For our fifth episode we have for you the story with the best title Reckoning has and I daresay will ever have published, universally applicable both for freelancers such as myself and the systemically environmentally disadvantaged: “Fuck You Pay Me”, read by the author, Francis Bass.
Francis Bass is a recent graduate from the University of Iowa, and a native of Tallahassee, Florida. His work has appeared in the 2014 Thespian Playworks anthology and Kzine, and he has self-published several short stories and plays. You can find him online at francisbass.com.
“Fuck You Pay Me” appeared in print in Reckoning 3, and is also available to read on our website, reckoning.press. I hope you get as much fist-pumping catharsis out of it as I did.
This podcast is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Content and audio recording are copyright by the author.
test prints of eyes for bodypolitic, anarchy bike borrowed from Internet, and the Symbol which I went onto start using on activist outfits ,,,, crossover period
I made this block kinda by mistake, then it kinda became a #prototype, then I was like we need to print thousands so I started the #silkscreen thing : : : Making a block kinda crystallizes things
August 9, 2018
I have paper! I have a pencil! I’m in jail! The world is sharply divided. There is a here and a not here, a yes and a no. Mostly the women in green, like me, are broken and hurt, of course. The women in uniforms are thoughtful and gentle, at least to me, at least for now. All is well. I sleep, eat, wonder, try to phone out, but can’t make things work, so I settle and I wait.
Yesterday was like a strange dream.
“Guilty,” said the judge, and then it all happened quickly, and then just as quickly stopped. Handcuffs, and down and away. Steve looks a glance of firmness and love as they take him away first. I get a glance of Patti and the others.
Cal and Gil seem sorry to do this. They can barely look at me. My organic blueberries go into the garbage. My wedding ring, so recently acquired, goes into a little safe baggie. My jacket goes—it has an attached strap that could be used in harmful ways. And then the waiting begins. The holding cell is in the bottom floor of the beautiful Arthur Erikson courthouse.
I sleep on the hard plastic bench, a sideways toilet roll is my pillow. I shake with cold. Gil checks on me, brings me an old red sweatshirt. It smells foul, but I take it with thanks. The yellow, shining cement bricks become Rosary markers and I pray: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. Holy Mary, mother of God, Our Father, old way, new way. If I close my eyes and drift it goes to the old way, but I like the new one: Save me from the time of trial.
This is no trial, uncomfortable, inconvenient, but not that hard. Cold, clear, everything taken away, nothing to do. Pray, sing, sleep. My mind moves, slips into the border between dream and vision. A Holy Place of the great invisible. An Anarchic Vacation from the Law.
There is no clock or time, but the men come and go and peer into the window. I am cold even with the sweatshirt, so I get up and pace. That seems to be what one should do in jail. I try some of the salsa moves that Michael taught us before the wedding, but no. Not only do I have two left feet, I can’t remember a single thing . . . but then joy! I remember the Swedish dancing from the winter! Step, lift, step, step. Step, step, step, step, turn, turn step, step. I figure out how to time the twirl so it misses the semi-wall that shields the smelly toilet, and the dip. I dance, sing, pray. The hours slide down into one another. Muffled, unrecognizable voices, distress, keys shaking. Time is measured by Gil’s 15-minute footsteps, peering into the porthole, smiling, thumbs up, disappearing. He brings me lunch—a McDonald’s chicken salad—and he’s gone.
I dance and sing, I pace, I lie down again, I adjust my arms inside the jacket sweater, leaving the sleeves dangling. Desperation begins to settle, boredom, apprehension, loneliness, fear—but not really.
Maria Choc is on trial this day in Guatemala.
Edwin Espinal is in jail in Honduras.
How many thousands of Guatemalans were kidnapped, held, tortured, disappeared, murdered, mutilated? Was Beatriz even ever held in a jail? I sing a lament.
The expected graffiti is scratched into the door. True love and R.I.P. and a few foul declarations: Fxck thee cops. There all goofs. Girl Thugs. A couple of East Van Rules, and maybe my favourite: Tracy and Joseph . . . Best Friends Alwayz. These markings say: Here I am, here I was, I loved, I lost, I mattered. Into the days and years to come, forgotten, dead maybe, in jail, slivers of staying, remnants of saying I am. I pray for Tanya and Joseph, for Shorty, for Bubs.
At last Gil comes. He takes away the sweatshirt, and we’re moving. Handcuffs and shackles this time, which cuff and rub and hurt my sockless feet. Into a van. All in our own hot boxes. Gleeful defiant men a few slots down. They yell, “Are you really a pastor, or is that a costume?” I forgot I was wearing my black shirt with a collar. “Ha! Ha! Hallelujah!” one man yells. I try and look around but can’t see Steve anywhere. My ankles ache. And then we’re off through the downtown streets, so strange through a little caged window, to the Main Street courthouse.
I shuffle awkwardly into the building, off come the cuffs. I stand hands against a wall, lift one foot, and another, off come the shackles, and into another cold holding cell where I see D., my first fellow prisoner. I am about to hear the first of many, many stories. These are not my stories to retell, but what I can say is that with everyone who shares with me, and many, many do—there is a common thread. Violence, sexual violence particularly, substance use, addictions, layered upon layer, from the very beginning of life, or at least memory. Beautiful girls, lovely women, every one.
D. paces a true jail pace, pounds on the door, anxious to leave. She got bail today and wants to get back to Alouette, maybe the people from the recovery house will wait for her and take her out. We have to get there before seven. Chains and shackles again and out to the van. D. and I share a tight bench in a cage. There’s a woman with black hair sitting on the narrow slit of floor in the next cage over. “What’s your name?” yells D. The other woman looks up, but shakes her head and looks down quickly. After 6pm now, we head out along Cordova. Hi St. James, hello Commercial Drive, Victoria, hello 1900 block, hello my darling, my house-family, Fritz, garden, bread, cheese, coffee, chocolate, figs and tomatoes and blackberries and the last raspberries and pillows and stuffies and books and clothes and photos of boys and Oscar, flowers and birds and spiderwebs strung across everything.
It is stinking hot and the woman in the cage beside us in distressed. She gets up, crouching, no one could stand. Highway One inches along. At last we stop and wait forever in a hot parking lot, waiting for another van, collecting prisoners to take home for the night. Our neighbour is ever more agitated until she is pounding and kicking at the door and walls. “I am dying! Help! I can’t breathe!” D. tells her to shut up, but then somehow I am helping D. take off her green sweatshirt, separate from her green tee, it hangs over her cuffed hands. Our neighbour takes off her sweater too, but she can’t undo the t-shirt, so it comes off too. She kicks again at the door, slumps, and is quiet.
I lean my head against the caged window between the two of us and shut my eyes, until I open them and look over. She’s done the same thing at exactly the same time and suddenly we are looking into each other’s eyes, both frozen, about four inches apart. We both start, surprised at such strange closeness, almost nakedness, human and woman and sad.
Who knows her great sadness. And mine? Wondering if we’ll win or lose. The Judge, the Prosecutor, the Company, the Government, the Law. When is the law the foundation of our humanity and when does it serve only those most powerful, those rich enough to make the power work for them alone? How can we stop this destruction, this peril that seems so far away from this very moment, but is why I am here? Global warming and pipelines and bitumen. And me.
Suddenly the van jerks and moves and D. cheers. I am relieved too, longing for the what-ifs and unknowns to end, and to rest somewhere. Then—what? Wait? Where are we turning? D. peers through the narrow thick window, and now she’s yelling and swearing, pounding in frustration. We turn to go over the big bridge, and down, down into Surrey. We’ll never make it “home” before seven. We pull into another driveway, another jail, and inside, and wait. We are moved to another van, and getting in beside us come four young women, recently convicted, like me, exhausted, still high, dirty, worn and done. They stare and stare at me.
One young woman is fierce-eyed, shorn head, tattoos on her face and barefoot. D. says to me, “She’s cursing us. Don’t look at her.” Obedient, I look down, but then we’re driving back up through Surrey, and she throws herself at the window, head up to a small filtered screen up top. “My grandpa would want me to do this,” she yells. “Are you a priest? Will you hear my confession?”
I’m too astonished to reply, and she starts to list things. I can’t really hear her, the screen is too small, and the traffic too loud, but I hear some. Dear Lord, what to say, what to do? I know nothing about this young woman, not even her name, but I know she is reaching for that truth-star and I say what I’ve said many times before, though never in these circumstances:
“I don’t know you. I know nothing about you, but this I know: No matter what you have done, no matter what has been done to you, you are a beloved daughter of God. You are loved. God holds you in the palm of his hand, and God treasures your heart.” I yell through the grate that I can’t say more. We sit in silence. Silence all around, or rather the steady roar of the van. It is less hot. The sun is setting and we are arriving home: The Alouette Correctional Centre for Women.
The shackles are rubbing a small sore on my shin, and the handcuffs are heavy. We are brought into yet another bright room to be processed yet again. The young women are spent and throw themselves on the hard bench as we are called out one by one. I go through the final process, am stripped of my own clothes and get green prison sweats. Everyone attending shakes their head. Who are they to say so to the judge, but this, to them is ridiculous. I have more allies, more friends.
I hear I am going to Alpha: the special secure unit. I shuffle down the long, nightmare hall with heavy locked doors on either side, and into the tiered unit. I am inside now.
Alpha in the secure zone is maximum but for the least troublesome—the immigration cases are here, they say. My ears perk up. But I’m too tired to notice much—an open area, and clanging stairs. I’m up to the second floor, a small cell, a bag of sheets and a towel, the door closes and locks and I sit and plan the night. I don’t have a toothbrush or soap, so I make my bed and arrange a shirt over my face. The lights never turn out here. And the day is done. Two thin slits show the outside, a patch of yellow grass under the glare of blazing light, and the dark forest beyond.
The days stretch out down the way, but first there’s the first night. Now everything is obviously gone. Industrial silence. And so, I turn in and examine myself.
My heart is pierced through with love, none of it earned by my goodness. It just is: Patti, my beloved boys, their girls, Oscar, the new little one coming, my family and my family-in-law, and my house family, my church, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my co-land defenders everywhere, especially in Latin America, and especially Guatemala, my doggie, the forest, the great sea, the looming mountains, and the wee sparrows. All these are my nest of prayer. And so, I weave them all around me, and sleep comes gently and carries me into the heart of God, where I spend the night free.
August 10, 2018
I wake up stiff on the board-hard mattress, and I stretch before opening my eyes. Outside it is that thin light that waits as dawn approaches over the trees. I no longer decide most things, so the things I do I cherish. Mostly what I have is me, and how I can be with everyone I meet.
I am so absolutely conscious of my privilege. I will be here for a few days, loved and carried by all that I have. I have no life to reconstruct from scratch when I leave, my traumas are not deep and lasting. So how can I mirror compassion without curiosity? Can I be open and vulnerable, reaching out with a measure of concern and confidence, in the flash moment of time that I will have here? No problem. I have done this before. I say a quick prayer and sing a little bit to warm up my heart. And I wait.
At seven the doors click unlocked, and a guard, H., comes by and turns a key, and I step out to the balcony, seeing for the first time others in green now stepping out. Two women are busy in the common area below, setting up plastic trays, and a breakfast is served: raisin bran with watery milk, a muffin, sweet, and two pieces of wonderbread. Coffee, a powdered creamer, four packs of sugar, a portion each of margarine, jam and peanut butter—oh and an apple. I’m eating quietly, politely, and slowly I say a few words and it happens. T.L. and J. start talking, I have delivered to me a story, and another. T.L. tells me some things, and her eyes narrow, and she asks me to pray with her, I think not quite believing I will. “Of course I will,” I say. “We’ll find a place and a time. I’m not going anywhere, at least for a few days.”
J., in the meantime, is telling me how things work. Fill in this form for this, that form for that.
I’m looking at the soggy bread on my tray, and over by the phones I spy a toaster. Toasted is so better.
“Can I just go over and toast this?” I ask J. “Oh no,” she says. “You have to fill in a form first!”
I look horrified, then she grins at me. We laugh. My first jail joke!
I give T.L. my muffin. “Really?” she asks. “You don’t want it later?” “I’m good,” I say.
E. comes by. I give her my sugar and whitener. “Jail candy!” she says. “Mix sugar, whitener, jam and p.b. Microwave for 30 seconds. Let harden. Eat.”
Before we’re shooed back to our cells, I find the book cart—and a book on dogs! Oh no, it’s sentimental and inspirational. I slide it back. Next, I find a Bible—Yay! And then Atonement by Ian McEwen. Back in my cell I get lost in a world of child writers and big houses and real from another place—not here. Then I hear a call—Yoga! And we’re clattering down the steps and through the door to the only outdoor space, a weird stuffy courtyard with a screen ceiling two floors above. But I can see that the sky is blue, and incongruously I’m lying on my back looking up, and then doing downward dog.
We have a jail meeting. I nod to everyone. I make a few more friends, there’s some drama, some quiet, some promises, some pain.
The drama of me-not-being-able-to-phone begins. Deposit money in jail account. Done on arrival. Set up special phone voice recognition ID. Done. Try and call, no go. Oh. Must fill in form to transfer money from jail account to phone money. Do this. Must wait now until later. Okay. Sigh. Notice while rifling bored through the request forms that we have to ask specially for a visitor. Fill in a request for a visitor. Wait. Get a small plastic toothbrush and a cheap slip of hotel soap. Celebrate.
The regular rhythm of the day plods along. Now it is lunch, and then we are locked in for the afternoon. Atonement is seamless and transporting. Read, read, read. So desperately quiet and alone.
Then the guard, S., comes in—we’re moving you. Right now. Hurry! Pack, sort, clothes/bed clothes. Wait, I’m leaving T.L. and we never got to pray. Can I say goodbye, guards? No. Okay. Rats. Out. Long hall, nightmare doors. Strip off the green clothes, switching to grey. I’ve been moved from secure Alpha to medium Cedar B.
Cedar B. The Canine Unit. You’ve got to be kidding me? Arf. Six dogs here, with 23 women. The ‘girls’ have finished their workday and they’re lounging about—laughing. It is LOUD—jarring after the quiet of Alpha. Booming voices and roaring laughter. The small bungalow shakes. It is three in the afternoon. Still hot and sunny. August air—for the first time in almost two days I breathe, and there are birdies, and ants and dragon flies. And trees for 360 degrees, beautiful cedars and firs.
There are gardens, a memory area, with painted stones for the dead, and a labyrinth—no actually—a spiral. I come back after dinner and hop its painted tiles. And I stay out until almost 10.
Some of the girls call this Camp Cupcake, but it is a prison, of course. We can see the forest, but not go into its cool shade. And this day and the next, and the next, the stories spill out. I hear them and I brace: Mothers have died, and brothers, and boyfriends are in jail too, and children have been taken away, who knows where they are and worst of all, a child, a daughter who died. Drugs stab in and out of most stories. There is talk of lawyers and trials to come, and days and months and years to wait. And there is drama, and exhaustion and frustration, and lots of swearing. I am uncomfortable with some women—there are more than 40, on both sides of the Cedar bungalow—and there are the don’t-give-a-shit ones, loud and sarcastic.
Pretty soon they know why I’m here—there’s some amazement—that someone would more-or-less do this voluntarily, but then some nods of interest, and good job, and that A-Hole of a judge, and I look for a way to be still, show interest, compassion, welcome, with no prying, and I balance with escapes to quiet—relatively—and green.
Phone drama—I filled the request form, but it was done incorrectly in pencil—they wouldn’t give me a pen—and that doesn’t count. Damn it. I borrow a pen and fill in the form again. It should work tomorrow. Okay, I say.
In the meantime a guard, A., takes me to the library—looking for a replacement for Atonement which they wouldn’t let me take from one side to another, and while I’m there she whispers “You did fill in the visitor request form? You have to fill it out and request it, before they can schedule a visit.” “I have indeed,” I reply. A. says under her breath, “I talked with her.” A flash of sympathy, and then a sliver of her own story. She talks, and I nod and we smile furtively. Then she goes out. I follow. The flowers are singing: Patti is coming! Maybe, not sure, but when? Tomorrow is Friday.
I take my new book outside. The sun has set into the trees to the west. The raucous girls laugh on the steps. One women ignores everything and waters the lawns and the flowers and the flower pots with a rough determination. I write with my new glorious pen at a table, now shaded for the night. On the tops of the eastern trees the sun still lights up the branches. A hawk, a fat one, flies straight over, from east to west.
There was morning, and there was evening. The first day.
August 11, 2018
Friday morning, a work day. I’m on Hort. After breakfast I get new clothes and work boots. I follow my new roomie, B., out to the spiral. Together with two other women we weed, for hours in an ever-tightening path towards the centre. On my knees I pull weeds from the stepping tiles, leaving the hens and chicks, which bubble up, thick, prickle-less succulents that spread and grow everywhere. The two women I don’t know are talking, loudly, well, one woman is talking, the other is listening, nodding, saying uh-uhum, and a few words of comfort and solace. Pluck, pluck, dig, and I can’t help but hear another tale of horror. My heart contracts. It actually aches. The speaker leaves, and I say to the woman left, “Your voice sounds so nice as you listen.” She nods, and ping! We see each other.
After break we move to the lavender patch. I sit harvesting in the shade, surrounded by purple, breathing in calm, peace. The bees and I take turns reaching for the flowers. I watch one take its time, and I wait for it to finish. Lavender saturates everything, my lap, my hands, my clothes, my hair, the scent stays for a while. We stack them, tray by tray in the greenhouse. B. warns me: “Don’t even take one flower. You could get punished.” Oh dear. I’ve already taken one small sprig and tucked it into my rib-squashing, chest-flattening bra. The contraband lavender pricks my skin guiltily. I don’t have any intention of following this rule.
After lunch it’s too hot to be outside, so I’m allowed into the empty library. I sort and stack and arrange in cool silence—the Dog books and the God books are all jumbled up on two long, low shelves—until it’s time to rush back to Cedar and stand with B. outside our door. We are counted at 7am, 11am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm and 10pm, standing like sentinels guarding our own cells.
I don’t feel like going back to the library now, so I lay down for a while. But now there’s nothing to do. I let a little bit of Patti-sad into my heart, just a small sliver of longing. I remember her singing—of course I do—and waving her hands, and holding me, and wondering why I do what I do, and loving me right through it. My boys too, Abel at the demo with his sign. Oscar. His wispy red-gold curls more precious than a million mountains of gold, die-for-him precious, give-the-whole-world-for-him precious. And the women here, and their children, and their love, and their longing. It makes me furious. I cry two tears, that’s all for now, in frustration. Maybe Patti’s coming today, this afternoon. Two extra tears for hope.
After a while I spring up and go to the pay phone—maybe it will work at last now. I follow the commands, punch in several series of numbers, say my name three times. The voice recognition ID fails. I go to a guard, can you check this out? “Oh, your voice ID has become invalid. Fill out a form (in pen) to request a reset. It should work by 3pm tomorrow.”
The afternoon is hot and maybe will never end. I go outside and sit by the roses for a while. The roses surround the closed-up Eagle Hut. The women tell me that the elders used to come and smudge and drum, and mysteriously they no longer have these healing circles. But, why? It’s impossible to get any clear news of any sort here but surely Indigenous spiritual care here should be a priority. S. finds me on the bench by the hut. “I always come here to pray,” she says. “I wish the elders would still come. It used to help so much, you can feel it healing.” There is a sad carved eagle outside guarding the way into the round building.
I head back inside, and coming around the corner of the bungalow I find a large group of women including A., the loudest-laughiest of them all. “Hey,” she says. “Tell us more about why you are here.” Deep breath.
“Well,” I start, “the pipeline would bring really dirty oil from Alberta to a place in Burnaby where they plan to ship it over the ocean. There would be seven times as many oil tankers going through the water out to the sea. There could be an oil spill—and that would be the end of the orcas and the sea animals and fish and life along the coast. And the First Nations people there, the Tsleil-Waututh—they never gave their land away in the first place. There was no treaty or anything for their land, and they don’t want the pipeline at all.”
We enter into a robust talk about climate change and indigenous rights and reconciliation—many of the women I’ve met along this jail journey are First Nations. There are lots of nods and more right-ons, until one woman stands up and says, “I’m all for the pipeline.”
“Hmmm,” I say. “Tell me more.”
“I’m from Alberta, and we need jobs,” she says, looking defiant, if a bit nervous.
“I totally agree with you,” I say. “About the jobs. Of course people need jobs.” Her eyes are interested.
“My son’s a carpenter,” I go on. “He’s been to the protests with a sign that says Carpenter for Sustainable Energy Projects. There’s lots of jobs in making clean energy. More jobs for a long period of time. This pipeline will make some jobs, but mostly it is about a small group of people making a pile of money, and wrecking the earth.”
The vigorous discussion continues until A. says, “Teach us to protest!” Uh-oh.
“Hmmm,” I say again. “Well, what would you like to protest?”
“The awful food and the expensive extras we have to buy from the canteen.”
“What do you think you could do?”
“Write letters.” “Protest at the admin building.” “Blockade the kitchen.” “Go on a hunger strike!”
I smile and leave them to it, retiring again to read for a while before dinner. After about ten minutes I look out the window, and I see a huge crowd, shouting and gesticulating in front of the main building. Uh oh. Now I’ve done it. I sink down behind my book again.
D. comes into our room.
“What’s happening out there?” I ask timidly.
“Oh, nothing,” she says. “We’re just getting our meds.”
“Oh”, I say, ever so slightly disappointed.
Dinnertime comes, and is gone in ten minutes. My roomie is watching crime shows on tv, so I go outside and read, and then wander and wander. I’m tamping down a circle in the grass. Up to ten feet from the fence allowed, and then around and back. I remember the circling polar bear, disgracefully held in a cramped and crumbling enclosure at the Stanley Park zoo. Thank heavens it’s gone. Poor bear. Pace, pace, turn around, pace, pace went the creature, twenty-five feet where a thousand were required.
In the north, the sea ice is melting; further south the forests are burning. Over the thick green trees here to the west of the prison, Venus pops out shining.
August 12, 2018
Saturday morning. There is a thin haze over the pale sky. No work today, no lavender, no weeding, no hours in the cool library. And no breakfast! “Brunch” is at 10. One hard-boiled egg, one slice of bacon, wonderbread. The gals invite me to coffee—real coffee, strong, made from their canteen stash. The morning is long and drawn out. D. and I go to the gym for a bit. Huff, puff, step, pull. The minutes go slow.
And then I hear there’s a Catholic Mass. Well, I’ve always been ecumenical, and I hope the priest is too, because of course I’m going. G. and I head over. G. is older, like me, and from a community up the Fraser River. She’s hoping her brothers will put up some salmon for her for the winter. Some others hear we’re going to Mass and come along. Father M. and the three volunteers who come with him look up in surprise. So many people. The small circle is full. And so we pray.
How could I, how could anyone come as a Christian to prison but as a penitent? Any wrongs by the women in grey were first wrongs done to them. In what way did the State, the Church fuck up first? Grabbing the land, out-lawing the Potlach, Indian Residential Schools, smallpox by intent or by accident, poisoning the waters, ripping down the trees, killing the buffalo, the caribou, the salmon, alcohol, poverty, derision, soul-crushing, body-crushing violence of every kind. And then to try to reform these women? These lovely, precious, fierce women—once girls, born perfect. T.L. back in Alpha said, “I’m so angry, so fucking angry at everyone.”
Father M. is kind and encouraging, and we sing loudly, though I’m not sure that much we say and sing really makes sense here. But the beauty of the Christian Mass is that it doesn’t matter at all who says the words. And the words themselves carry our faith, through the distortions and confusions and the sins, the horrendous sins, of a fallen church.
“This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble.” Jesus came for those abandoned, crushed, forgotten, expelled. To restore those who had been crucified by a greedy, violent world. Love embodied for you, and for you, and for me.
Fr. M. tugs a bit at his collar, the earnest women with him smile helpfully. The vessels of his communion set shine brilliantly and clean.
And somehow we take and taste and see that the Lord is good. I sit down in silence.
I’m burning angry, too. Ready still to stand with land defenders everywhere, to turn over every table of the truly guilty. Carving and crapping all over this holy earth. They must be stopped.
G. and I and the others trip out again into the blasting sunshine. It’s lunchtime and then wait time. Will Patti come, did she even get the message?
I go to the phone one last time to see if I can make the damn thing work. Nope. I check with the guard yet again. She looks on the computer. “Oh, no. You are getting out tomorrow. Your phone money has been transferred back into your trust fund.” Sigh. Then the guard whispers to me, “Don’t go far. She’s coming at 2:45.”
One hour from now! The longest hour of my life begins. Sixty seconds times 60 minutes. That’s 3600 seconds. I count slowly. My stomach hurts. I don’t believe anything. I’ve forgotten everything anyway. I give up. Who cares?
I lie on my bed and feel guilty. Not many visits happen for these women, and I’ve been here for just a flash of time. I’m going home tomorrow. Who am I to silently whine? I try to kill every emotion. And at last the guard comes for me. We walk over to the main building, down the nightmare hall of doors.
I wait outside the door of visiting room number one. Will I be able to hug her at least, a small kiss? Will we sit at a table, in a lounge? I go up the narrow stairs, open the door . . . shock. We are in real prison mode. A chair in a small, enclosed glass box, with a desk, facing an identical box with the same. A small circle-screen between us.
But never mind—there she is. My love. And I can’t believe my eyes: she’s wearing her wedding jacket. Nothing could have been better. Patti in that jacket, with her ring still on, and everything is restored in me. Jail is meant to kill the spirit, and in a small way mine had been suffering, until now.
We have the strangest conversation of our lives. Small talk, a few stories. How is the dog?
“I’m getting out tomorrow, 8:30 am,” I say!
“Tomorrow! Damn, I’m working. I’ll figure it out.”
She brought chocolate (can’t have it) and a printout of all the messages she’d been receiving. Can’t have that either.
“Should I read them?”
“No, I can’t stand it.”
“Well, I’m bringing a U-Haul of love, support and prayers.”
“I know you are.” All I can think of is T.L. and S. and D. and G. and everyone.
And before we can end the awful, precious visit, the guard comes. Patti goes first. I’m left standing in the echo chamber of the stairwell. And what else should I do, but sing?
Back in the yard, I wander again. Everything is weird. Calm. Until A. and R. get into a water fight. A phalanx of guards swoops down, and I walk around the side to look at the lavender that’s left to be clipped on Monday. Not by me.
My last ten-minute supper. Then it’s Saturday night bingo! We wander over to the gym. There’s lots of rules, but we settle in at last. We have time for nine rounds, and I win the eighth! I hand my winnings ($2) over to the elder, G. We hurry through the ninth game to be back and ready for the 7 pm count. I’m finally starting to get the hang of this.
What to do now? I feel like there’s nothing I can say that will heal or help anything at this point. I hang around and admire beautiful beading and lovely crochet blankets. If I were only here longer. “I like the rainbow unicorn one,” I say, to the woman beading Snoopy.
We talk a bit more about the people making a stand up on Burnaby Mountain.
“There will be more women coming,” I tell them. “I’ll tell them how nice you all are.”
I decide to make the rounds of the grounds one last time, and say goodbye to the plants and the dragonflies. I stop to smell the smallest rose outside the boarded-up Eagle Hut. I sit on the grass.
S. finds me here, and I don’t really want to talk much more, but I can listen. “I used to cry right here a whole lot,” she says. “After my son was murdered. He was four years old.” I sit and hold that pain in my lap for a while. She’s so used to telling the story. I know it must still hurt, but she smiles at me. Generous and gracious and beautiful.
Others come around the Hut. One woman cuts the tiny rose and hands it to S. who puts it in her golden hair. I’m sure that’s against the rules, but I’m sure they know that too. Later on, as we walk together, all of us, back to the bungalow, the rose is invisible.
In bed by 9:30, I say goodnight to sweet D. And I sleep like a log until 6 the next morning. We’re allowed out to go to the bathroom, but I quickly search for some coloured pencil crayons and markers I saw yesterday. All put away, except a green highlighter. I go back into the room and in the penumbra of the early morning in cell 25, Cedar B, I write out a prayer in blue ink and green highlighter to the women:
To My New Friends On Cedar
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make His face to shine upon you.
May the Lord be gracious to you, and grant you peace.
And by 8:30 on the dot, after a pile of paperwork, and getting my phone money back plus $2.00 for working one day, I stand at the great metal gate, while the guard shouts: “Smith for release!”
Outside I see Lini, my dearest sister-in-law. She has brought tea and granola and yogurt and fruit. Of all the people on earth, I think she’s the one I am happiest to see right then. I flail and dig until I find it—the little plastic bag with my wedding ring. Deep breath. I put it back on.
We slowly make our way back home, but first drive up that Holy Mountain, to greet the sacred fire, to say a prayer with those still standing there.
I hear the drum beating.
What is it saying in the heartbeat of the world
other than look at the earth?
And the earth is there,
and the earth is always there.
I was conceived in Cades Cove
in the Smoky Mountains. In a tent.
Aren’t we always in a tent?
The red tent, the biblical tent,
the tent from other books I was never taught
that are also holy. I was conceived
in a tent and God came down
where the deer graze and the cars move
slowly over the long roads where people graze
on McDonald’s and peanuts and Coca Colas
and slowly roll through the park.
My parents rolled in the dark,
and I was conceived. My twin and I.
In Cades Cove. Perhaps this is why
I look at the earth and make a muddle of myself
wondering why people toss garbage
instead of making love and making children through love
and making children through the Bible
(or whatever holy book or unbook
or unBible or anything else, for I believe
in everything, including the Bible).
in my hair under my hat, for I am strong,
and weak, and do not understand how
to accept the ways of men
who toss and leave muddle on the ground.
Where will we go when we don’t conceive
ourselves properly? Where will we go
when everything is overrun with the wrong
kind of strength?
I would like to find the place of my conception
and sit there and feel God
and draw power from that spot
and perhaps bless the earth that way
or at least teach how to bless the earth that way
by finding our place of being
and being there and showing others
our being there.
And thus sing. And thus beat two sticks
together. The way God is always beating
us together at the very beginning
when sperm meets egg, beating sticks
together and making dry dead things sing
to do what’s needed on this dry earth
that is so in need of our blood’s water.
2 From a quote by Babatunde Olatunji
Uncle Jessie crushed Vivian into the snow. The coldness seeped under the flaps of her hunting jacket—at her wrists where her gloves didn’t meet her sleeves, at her back as her shirt rode up over her belt. Blood trickled over her lips from the cut left by Jessie’s pinky ring. Her vision was murky under his clouded breath.
She flailed, wrenched an arm free from Jessie’s grasp, and frantically felt around until she found the pulleys of her compound bow. She ripped the bow from the snow and smashed it against Jessie’s head, and he collapsed.
She got to her feet as fast as she could. The tree line was about ninety feet from her. The trees would provide cover if Jessie pulled his .45. Vivian could make it to the trees, just like stealing second base.
Will sat hump in the pickup, sandwiched between her dad and Rick, a fellow sales rep. Her left leg crooked away from the gearshift and Dad’s belly pressed against her right side. Even with the stark, white mountains and the blue vaulted sky, the trip here had been uncomfortable at best. First, her dad had only spoken a few words to her the whole flight out from Philly. And then there was Dad’s business partner “Uncle” Jessie, and his son, and the nephew. Will was sure Jessie knew about her. But Dad never did anything about Uncle Jessie’s teasing. Like a brother, Dad called him. Will saw him more as Dad’s master.
Every November, Will put on her best butch one leg at a time. She read the newspaper’s sports page the week before they made the trek from Philly to Uncle Jessie’s ranch outside of Coeur D’Alene. She cut her hair short and tight. She packed flannel shirts, duck canvas overpants from Orvis, and her Barbour winter hunting jacket. The jacket was one of the benefits of guilting Dad about how she was a good son on these business trips, that this should be a business expense, and since it was a business trip she should look professional.
When she got the jacket, her sister, Peg, said, “Big whoop, it’s a jacket,” and she said, “But it’s a Barbour hunting jacket. Now I look like Papa Hemingway,” and her sister said, “What? You gonna draw the beard on?” And she would practice her hunting walk—slow movements, careful not to stumble, one move every thirty breaths. She was skilled at developing camouflage.
All the way up, Dad and Rick talked about work. They talked about crossbow sales versus compound sales versus recurve sales. They talked about the 1994 “Get Your Kid Outdoors” campaign.
“Where you going to high school next year?” Rick asked.
“Third generation McAddams,” Dad beamed.
“Playing ball there?”
“He’ll try out.” Dad gently shouldered Will.
She winced as a cascading sharpness traveled down her spine. “Yeah. I guess.” Her camouflage was fading.
“Will had the highest batting average this past season,” Dad said. Her Dad put as much effort into butching her up as she did.
“Really,” said Rick. “What was your average, Will?”
“625.” She squirmed a bit at being praised for hitting a ball with a bat.
“625?” Rick paused for patronizing effect. “That’s phenomenal. You have another Babe Ruth on your hands here, Mike.”
“I know. I know,” Dad boasted. “It was like every time he was up, you knew he was going to crack that bat. Now if I could only get him interested in golf.”
“Golf’s boring, Dad.”
“You better not let Jessie hear you say that,” Rick quipped. “You’ll break his heart.”
“As long as you play something. Maybe you can get a scholarship to college for playing ball. God knows how I’m going to afford it.”
Will closed her eyes and prayed for college to come soon and end these trips.
Ahead, the wire and wood-post gate, adorned with a red and white caution triangle, emerged from the soft snowdrifts.
At night, Will would float up the Wissahickon River, along the bluffs. Among the twisted curtains of wisteria, Novo, the Eastern Elk, the last of his kind, would wait for her. She’d throw her arms around his neck, bury her face in his reddish coat. She’d feel the softness of his fur, smell soil and lilacs, and hear distant rain. They’d travel into the deep, dark woods, Novo’s antlers glowing silver in the moonlight. They’d move through brambles past warm, shiny houses dotting the borders of the Wissahickon Valley. Peering in the windows, watching people moving inside, Novo would say, “Time will come. You will be the person you are to be. I will be there.”
Will hoped if she prayed long enough, at some point she’d wake up and be correct. Be the daughter her mom wanted. Be able to show her dad who she really was and say to him, “See. God did make me this way.”
Her sister Peg never had a problem with her being who she was, though she didn’t see the point in becoming a woman.
“You’ve never had a period. It’s not something to envy, in fact it can be cruel sometimes.”
“It means you get to have a child.”
“If you want kids, you can meet a nice guy and adopt mine. God knows I don’t want them.”
“I may not want to be with a guy.”
“Wait, so you’re a lesbian?”
“It’s about who I am.”
“Big words for the little man.”
“I’m not a man.” She turned away from Peg.
Peg sidled up to her and said, “Whatever you want to be is okay with me, but stop being such a girl about it.”
Will’s head sank. Her chin plowed into her chest. Peg lifted her face in her hands.
“I’m kidding, Will. You’ll always be my little sister.”
Uncle Jessie told his son Travis and his nephew Kyle that they were old enough to do the fire themselves. Will sat still, tucked away in the overstuffed wingback chair in the far corner, reading Uncle Jessie’s copy of The Archer’s Bible. Hiding in a tree waiting for the bears to pass.
Travis and Kyle poked at the newspaper ash under the logs, making sparks jump. They added more newspaper, but the fire didn’t take hold.
“Fer Chrissakes, you pansies, can’t you even start a fire,” said Uncle Jessie.
Kyle rolled his eyes. “I dunno. Maybe, the logs are wet. You do it.”
Uncle Jessie bellowed, “I told you to do it.”
Travis flinched. “We’re trying.”
“You sound like your fucking mother, Travis.” Uncle Jessie grabbed another beer from the refrigerator. He leaned the bottle cap on the counter and slammed his palm down on the bottle. “Ow. Fuck.” Uncle Jessie shook his hand in the air. Kyle and Travis guffawed.
“The bottle opener is on the counter right there, retard,” said Will’s Dad.
“Some help you are, Mike. You could have told me before.”
“Looked like you had it under control.”
“When does he have anything under control?” asked Rick.
Uncle Jessie grabbed his crotch. “Bite this, smart ass. Where’s that fire, boys? Hey, Will, what you doing? You staring like a queer or something? Go help those numb nuts.”
Will’s tree was shaken. She smacked her book closed, hoping her father would dissuade Jessie from making her come down. But Dad said, “You heard the man, son. Help those two get a fire going.”
“We don’t need his help, we can do it. He doesn’t know how to start a fire,” said Travis.
“Where is it then?” asked Uncle Jessie.
Will sauntered across the room, making sure to show that this was no big deal, as if she was always fixing the numb nuts’ messes. If she stopped, she would be shaking. If she tripped, she would cry. She paid attention to the folds in the threadbare Persian rug.
When she got close, Travis said, “Nice John Wayne, Willy.”
She repressed a wince. Will guessed that if she started giving orders, the boys would follow. She reached into the woodpile and pulled out a wedge of birch with peeling bark. She handed it to Kyle. “Get your knife and peel this.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
“We need kindling.” She grabbed a fire tong, pulled the pieces from the fireplace and placed them in front of Travis. “Split these. They’re too big.”
Uncle Jessie barked, “You heard the man. Get going, boys.”
She separated out twigs and small branches from the half-cord and stacked them as a triangle in the middle of the ash pile. She shredded newspaper, mixed that with the bark shavings, and gently placed them in the triangle. She took one of the pieces Travis had split, placed it in the iron cradle and lit the pile underneath. The wood caught fire, and she added more. Setting the fire would be her task for the rest of the trip, which wouldn’t be so bad. She could focus on this and not have to deal with them.
Travis knelt down next to her and whispered, “Willy, you know what they call bundles of wood used to start fires? Faggots.”
When Will was five, her mom took her to the Academy of Natural Sciences to see a dinosaur exhibit. In the end it wasn’t the giant Tyrannosaurus skeleton or the dino dioramas that interested her, but a small exhibit about recently extinct animals. She became fixated on one animal, the Eastern Elk. It used to range all over Pennsylvania. And it had been alive when her great, great grandfather was alive. That was only two greats, so it wasn’t that long ago. Also, it was huge, one thousand pounds, and its antlers were six feet across. The exhibit didn’t have any skeletons, but they had a cartoon of the large reddish elk standing next to a picture of a white-tailed deer for comparison. Her mom said that the last one was killed a long time ago. Why would we want to kill them all? Mom didn’t know. Underneath the picture was the word Novo. Mom said that was its name. Novo the Elk. Maybe if Will prayed enough, Novo would come back, she’d see him in the forest, and they’d be friends.
When Will was four, Peg would play dress-up with her. Parade her around in their mother’s clothing and high heels.
Mom would tell Dad, “It’s normal. Just a way for him to play with his big sis.”
But occasionally, Mom would see her in a dress with a string of costume jewelry, and she could tell that Mom saw her as a girl. Except for the short hair, Mom and Will looked so much alike in pictures— tall, thin, with delicate features.
When she was six, she and Peg were in the same ballet class, but Will was the better dancer. She’d flit and float about the room, lifting the girls into the air. Her mom was proud of her at recital—one of only four other boys.
Mom would tell Dad, “He’s good. Maybe he’ll be the next Baryshnikov.”
When she was eight, Peg and Will would play ballet Barbies in the foyer for hours.
Mom would tell Dad, “Some boys play with dolls. He’ll be a nurturer. Maybe a doctor, or a therapist, or something.”
When Will was eight and a half, Mom asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to grow up and be a beautiful prima ballerina.”
That was when Mom made it all stop. Dance lessons, over. Baseball. No touching the dresses. Slacks and Oxford shirts. The dolls donated to Goodwill. Will got balls and bats instead. Mom schooled her in performance. Don’t cross your legs. Relax. You don’t have to look like you’re at attention. Don’t shake someone’s hand like that. Let me show you. Don’t do that. That, don’t!
Each change became a sticky, stinging layer of new, uncomfortable skin. But in her room Will had secret stashes. When she was alone she would lock the door and retrieve makeup and bits of clothing from secret spaces. She’d dress herself out, paint herself into existence.
Up ahead of Vivian, the thicket gave way to a grove, and beyond the grove was a clearing. The flat sky was turning a darker, metallic gray. Maybe an hour more of daylight. If she could get back to the snowmobiles, maybe someone would be there, then Jessie wouldn’t touch her. The worst thing that could happen was that Dad would blame her for ruining the trip. But then she wouldn’t have to come back.
Despite Rick’s size, Will was thankful when she’d get paired up with Rick. He didn’t want much of anything from Will but to be quiet when needed. The frigid air and snowy forest made it easy to be silent.
The tree stand was crowded with the two of them.
“Did you say something, Will?”
“It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s been by. I think we got a stinker spot today.” Rick paused. “How’s school?”
“Good, I guess.” Rick talking with her wasn’t part of their script. She wondered how she would get down.
“Will, I want to tell you something. I watch you try and stay out of sight. You don’t try to mix with us, which is perfectly fine.”
Throwing herself out of the tree stand seemed a good option. It was only fifteen feet to the bottom.
“But you know,” continued Rick, “a couple years off, when you get to college, do whatever the hell you want. Do whatever makes you happy.”
“Okay.” Will shifted in her seat, moving toward the ladder.
“No, listen. I say this because, while you’re a good partner up here, sitting so still, I can tell you don’t want to be here. That’s okay. When I was a young kid, I didn’t look forward to my father’s hunting trips, either. It wasn’t until I was older that I appreciated it and took it up again. I’m not saying that’s what you have to do. I’m just saying that for a while I didn’t do this. Couldn’t even think of sitting in a tree stand for hours on end waiting for some deer to wander by. Part of that was because I didn’t want to do it anymore, but most of it was because my father made me. Ya get me?”
“And choose a college far from your parents. Somewhere you can find out who you are without them, ya know. Somewhere your friends become family. I did that at least. But most importantly, do what you want to do when you get there. You want to do theater, you act your ass off. You want to major in English, write a fucking book. You want to do music, out-compose Mozart. Do what you want. Do who you want. Don’t listen to us. The world changes as you grow older, and the things you did to please your parents don’t really matter. They just make you neurotic. Don’t listen to us old men. We haven’t a fucking clue. We’re all posing at being the men our fathers wanted us to be, and it ain’t cracked up for shit. The secret is, if you’re happy, your parents will, most likely, be happy. And if not, fuck ‘em.”
Rick made Will feel uncomfortable, but also instantaneously became the coolest man she knew.
Will curled up on Novo’s back as they climbed up the mountain. The wind whipped stinging shards of ice and snow at them, but with Novo’s breath, the snow and ice turned to gold and silver dust and glittered through the air. At the top of the mountain, through the blizzard, Will could see the Winter Palace. The bright red crest of the palace crowned through the silvery clouds. The light from the gate cut a path through the storm, showing them the way. As they ascended, Will could hear a choir of children singing. The choral voices soared over the din of the wind and rang out, “Be not afraid. Change is at hand.”
The gas station attendant didn’t look like he belonged out here in Idaho or Washington, wherever they were. His hair was long. He wore a black leather jacket, a royal blue gas station uniform shirt with the collar popped, and a bright shiny red scarf. His fingernails were painted a lush, deep purple. Small chrome hoop earrings dangled from each ear. Will, hiding in the candy aisle, couldn’t help but gawk at him. Here was this gas station boy out in the middle of nowhere, where it was dangerous to be someone like them, at least according to what Peg told her. Before she went on these trips Peg would tell her stories of boys and girls beaten to death for being queer, for being different. She told her of Brandon Teena. But here was this boy in a gas station where lots of people saw him.
Gas Station Boy’s lips were thin and probably cold. With a nice shade of pink to compliment the scarf, a bit of pencil, and some lip gloss to finish, Will could make his lips seem fuller, softer, warmer.
Kyle shoved Will into the Charleston Chews. “Wake up.”
Travis cackled. “It’s past his beddy-bye.”
“Hey, Willy, check this out.” Kyle reached under his jacket and pulled out a copy of Penthouse opened to a scene where a girl was kneeling in front of a guy, his gooey, gloppy emission all over her face.
Will averted her gaze.
“He totally spooged on her. And she loved it. You like spooge, Willy?” Travis said.
“Hey,” the Gas Station Boy shouted. “Put the porn down.”
Kyle ripped at Will’s jacket and stuffed the magazine down her collar. “He’s the one doing it.” Cackling, Travis and Kyle ran out the door, leaving Will with Gas Station Boy and a dirty magazine in her jacket.
“You going to pay for that?”
Will walked up to Gas Station Boy, placed the crumpled Penthouse on the counter, and tried to smooth it out. The edges were stubborn. She tried to smile. “I got to go.”
As she stepped away, Gas Station Boy grabbed her wrist. With the world crashing inside of her, all Will could do was manage a squeaky, “Please.”
Will had lots of friends at four, five, six, seven and even when she was eight. But after eight was nine, and by then she knew all the ways she was different. She would try and talk with other kids, but it was like they could tell she was this mannequin wearing the right clothes, walking, talking, standing, sitting in the right ways. For her tenth birthday, Mom asked her to start making the list of people she wanted to invite to her party, but the last two people she was on regular speaking terms with, Jenny and Gabby, had moved up the social ladder and stopped talking to her. Will wasn’t even on the social ladder. That was when she thought of the zoo.
And that was what they’d done every birthday for the past four years. Mom didn’t want to deal with the extra kids and Will didn’t want to let Mom know that there weren’t any kids to deal with. The zoo was her, Mom, and sometimes Peg. Dad would figure out something else to do.
At the zoo, most animals were grouped, and isolated, according to their differences. Some were allowed to be together, like chickens and goats in the petting zoo, or birds in the aviary, though they were still all birds. And the monkeys and apes were all sad and despondent. They’d shuffle around their enclosure, then when they remembered that they were a monkey they’d burst across, swinging from ropes, and screech at the people staring. One moment still and distant, then angry, wanting to shout, “This is not who I am! This is not where I belong! Look at me!”
At the zoo, people watched the animals and not her. No one really looked at each other.
On her twelfth birthday, she noticed a chimp in the far corner of the chimpanzee enclosure. The other chimps were hanging out together, and this one was huddled in the corner banging its head against a wall, over and over, each time with greater force. Then, with one particularly hard whack that made a small resound in the enclosure, the chimp stopped. No one noticed what had happened. People were moving on. Mom stood by the exit and beckoned. She looked back at the chimp, and on its forehead was a spot of blood, and in its eyes a distance so secret, so familiar.
That night Mom made homemade mac and cheese, and tomato soup. Dad asked, “How was the zoo?”
Will explained the event with the chimp and asked, knowing the answer, “Why do you think she did that?”
Dad said, “It’s sick or something.”
Peg said, “Probably had a fight with her parents.”
Mom said, “I don’t think that happened.”
“I saw it.”
“You only think you saw that. Monkeys don’t get like that, they’re animals.”
“I was there and I saw that happen.”
“I was there too and I didn’t see it. You are misremembering it.”
“Why? Why do you think that?” asked Will.
“Because if I saw that I would have said something to someone and you are only bringing it up now,” said Mom.
Dad asked, “Is there cake tonight?”
Later, she went back to her room, took out her cutting kit, laid out her supplies, freed the blade from the plastic, and went to that old, secret, familiar place.
She tried to hide her glances at the satin pearl gown with the delicate bead trim and the matching heels. She stood at a blouse rack shuffling shirts, catching glimpses of it between each hanger. It beamed moonlight. When Peg walked up to her and whispered, “It’s too expensive,” she wasn’t that surprised her sister had noticed. They were at the store for Peg’s homecoming dress, for a homecoming she didn’t even want to go to. She said it really wasn’t that big a deal, and she didn’t have a date. Mom had convinced her to get some of her friends to go stag.
“It’s your senior year and it’ll be one of those things you’ll remember for the rest of your life,” Mom said.
“You said that of my perm in fourth grade.”
“You still remember it.”
Will pleaded with her sister repeatedly to go, but Peg avoided answering or said no. But then one day after school, Peg said, “It’s all worked out. I’m going, little sis. But you have to promise to go to the pre-dance event with me.”
So a deal was struck. Will would go to the pre-dance event and be social. Peg would go to the dance and afterward give her the dress.
Their mom stood with an armful of dresses, each one more ruffled and garish than the last.
Will was mortified when Peg asked, “Can’t I get a suit?” But admittedly every party dress was a pooper. “Then find me a dress, Coco.”
“We’re looking for a dress. It doesn’t have to be a party dress.” And off she went into the business suit section and found a casual romper-style dress, with a black felt finish and a Madeline collar. She paired it with red tights. Definitely Peg. “You can wear your Doc Martins with this and it’d still look cute.”
Their mom was happy they found something, even though it wasn’t what she would have chosen.
Vivian’s heart was pounding, deafening. She couldn’t hear Uncle Jessie, but it didn’t matter. The swath of snow, grass, and branches she’d left behind her gave him a clear path to follow. In the clearing, footprints plodded down a slight slope, surrounded by a tunnel of denuded aspen. Only a few more steps to home base. Someone would be there; it was almost time to go home.
As they passed through the gates of the Winter Palace and entered the courtyard, Will felt a rapid, growing wave deep in her chest. Around the courtyard stood people with smooth skin and gentle features, people who were neither young or old, male nor female. People of many colors all dressed in gowns of moonlight. Novo knelt, and Will climbed off his back.
Novo nuzzled her hand and spoke. “You are home, beloved. Do not be afraid. I will be with you.”
And out of the heavens appeared a blinding brilliance, bathing Novo and Will. A thousand feathers brushed against her skin, and when they dissipated, only Will was left. And she shone with the brilliance of ten thousand moons.
On every hunting trip Will would plan out her movements before they all settled into the cabin. The fact that everyone was habitual made things easy. Last year had been different. Last year she screwed up.
The schedule was the same. The boys all were sent to bed before ten and the men would stay up another hour or so. If the men were really drunk, everyone retired at the same time. At the beginning of each trip Travis had trouble sleeping and was up and down all night. Uncle Jessie was the first awake, sometime around three. Will’s dad pooped after coffee around five, and he was in the bathroom for at least twenty minutes, sometimes thirty. There was only one bathroom, which was disgusting, but the door closed and locked.
Will determined that she had between twelve and two in the morning to do what she had to. Last year, she’d overslept the last night of the trip, waking up just before two. She grabbed her kit from where it was stashed behind the headboard and crept through the cabin, fast, but quiet. It was never safe, but she needed the release. All trip Uncle Jessie had called her a pussy, or a fag, or a fairy, because Will still didn’t want to learn how to field dress the deer. Her dad was disappointed, because his shoulders rose each time Uncle Jessie said it. Dad would tell Jessie that Will wasn’t ready yet, maybe next year. That was the extent of the defense.
Will folded her pajama pants neatly and placed them on the sink counter. She opened her kit, laying out her cutting pieces. She pressed the tip of the blade into her left calf. A small cut and the bite from the alcohol was enough tonight. The pain first, then the wash of bliss as the inside trickled out. Then someone knocked on the door.
“I’ll be done in a second.”
Will panicked. She threw everything in her kit, grabbed a wad of toilet paper and pressed it against her wound. She grabbed another handful of tissue and wet it under the faucet to wipe down the blood on the floor and tub. When she turned back to shut off the faucet, she knocked her pj pants into the sink. They were soaked.
“Come on, Will. I got to shit,” said Uncle Jessie.
She forgot that she was wearing her pink briefs. She had begged Mom for pink underwear when she was eight and they were boy’s underwear. She still tried to fit into them, though they were faded, becoming threadbare, the elastic wearing out. She was so careful to keep these things hidden about herself. She took care. She planned. She gathered her things. She shut off the light. She unlocked the door. There stood Uncle Jessie.
“You take longer than my wife.” Uncle Jessie turned on the light. “What happened to you?”
“I got my pants wet.”
“Did you piss yourself?”
“No. I. It was in here.”
Uncle Jessie closed his hand in a loose circle and moved it up and down in the air. “Were you jerking off?” he whispered.
“Are those pink underwear?” Uncle Jessie grabbed Will’s shoulder and pressed her against the door frame. “You shouldn’t wear those around here.” He leaned down and said in a low, grumbling wheeze, “Someone may mistake you for a girl, and you wouldn’t want that.”
Uncle Jessie’s heavy hand pushed against her shoulder. Will heard footsteps in the living room and Jessie looked away. Will slithered out from his grasp and headed down the hallway.
“Nice ass, Sally.”
This year, she hadn’t snuck off to cut herself. She watched Jessie watch her. Her dad never mentioned anything to her, so Jessie must never have told him. Will kept her distance and tried to avoid being alone with him.
Peg pulled up to a large, colonial-style house. There were several other cars in the driveway and high schoolers milling about outside, smoking.
“I thought we were going to school for the pre-event,” asked Will.
“Stop it, nosy. Be patient,” said Peg. “We’re here.”
“This is the homecoming pre-event?”
She touched Will’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’ll be fun.”
The house was teeming with people. On the stairs, two boys were kissing. In the living room, girls were slow-dancing together. Will tugged her tie.
Peg took her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t be worried. These are our people.” She called out, “Claire. Claire.”
A tall woman pushed through the hallway full of partiers. With her red stilettos, she towered over the both of them. Her hair was long, jet black, with blunt, straight bangs. Her long gown and lipstick matched her heels. She had a sparkly black choker around her neck with matching earrings and bracelet. She was beautiful.
“Hi, Peg. Who is the starlet with you?”
“This is Will.”
“I’ve heard so much about you,” Claire said.
“Is it ready?” asked Peg.
“Of course. I have four Boy Scout badges for preparedness. Are you ready, Will?”
“Ready for what?”
“It’s a surprise,” said Peg.
Claire led them upstairs past the kissing boys, past the people with mohawks, past kids sitting on the floor waiting for the bathroom, and into a large bedroom. Across the bedroom, hanging on the wardrobe, was the satin pearl gown with the matching shoes.
“What did you do, Peg?” asked Will.
“Claire works at the store and she got me a discount. I used my money from working at the deli this summer, and with the discount it was enough.”
“I can’t do this. What about Mom and Dad?”
“Fuck ’em. They’re not here. Besides, I really want to see my little sister.”
Claire handed Will the gown. “Hon, it’s not about the clothes. It’s how you feel inside. But if you want to wear this dress, you have to lose the school picture suit.”
They sent Will into the en suite bathroom. She took off her clothes and slipped into the gown. In the mirror she looked like a boy in a dress. At the store, she’d pictured herself magically turning into her real self. She wanted to hide, to rip off her dead skin. She wanted to scream. Peg heard her, came in and hugged her.
Claire stood at the door. “Don’t be sad, starlet. We’re not done yet.”
“What happened to your arms, Will?” Peg pointed at the marks on her inner arms.
Claire interrupted, “Not to worry. Okay, Peg?” She led Peg away to the door. “Let’s bring your sister into the world. Wait out here.”
After Peg was outside, Claire motioned to the vanity and told Will, “Have a seat.”
The vanity was right out of some famous theatre, with wigs and makeup displayed for an actress preparing for a big role. But the role Will had prepared for was being Will.
“What’s your real name? Do you know it?”
Will had always known her name. Though she’d never met her grandmother, it was her name, too. “Vivian.”
“Vivian? That’s a fantastic name. What color is your hair, Vivian?”
Will chose a short, bobbed, blonde wig. Peg’s hair was short and blonde. They’d look like sisters now.
She began to pin Will’s hair back. “It’s a brave thing you are doing. I know being yourself, your true self, can be dangerous.”
Claire fitted the wig onto Will’s head. Though the change was small, for the first time since she was little, she could almost see herself.
“But you need to stay brave. Other people depend on that brave heart. But most of all, Vivian, you must be brave for you.” Claire touched Will’s chest, but then moved her hand to the inside of Will’s arm. She traced a scar, a scar Will had made when she was ten. One of the first.
“The world doesn’t need another dead girl. We need a bright, shining light; your light. You’ve got to fight for yourself, Vivian. That means recognizing who you are, even when everyone else wants you to forget. I know that fear and loneliness seem endless, but you have to reach out, find help, find others like us.”
She spun Will around, then dipped a small applicator into a concealer cream and began to apply it. “You’re lucky. You’re not alone. Your sister loves you. I had five brothers, no sisters. I would have liked one of them to be as loving and supportive as Peg. I have my Aunt Theresa, though, which is lucky for me because she let me move in here after high school. She’s helped me with becoming the woman I am.”
“And that’s what Peg is doing?”
“Right. When I was starting, Aunt Theresa told me to do this—when someone puts you down for being the girl you are, say ‘I am she. I am Vivian.’ Try it.”
“I am she. I am Vivian,” said Will.
“That’s a good first go, but ya got to reach deep down inside.”
Will thought back to when she’d never worried about he or she, to the time when she was Vivian, to a time when she didn’t have to be reminded. Dancing was where she found herself. Dancing in ballet class, twirling and whirling, pirouettes and pliés.
“I am she. I am Vivian.” Her voice bounced off the ceiling.
“Whenever you need strength, remember who you are, and say that.”
Claire finished with a light pink lip gloss. “Vivian, you have a long, wonderful future ahead of you. Difficult maybe, but wonderful.” She turned the chair around and in the mirror was Vivian, radiant. She looked so much like Mom. She started to tremble.
“Oh, honey. Why don’t we call your big sis in, okay?”
Claire pulled Vivian behind her and called to Peg. Peg opened the door and came into the room and tried to peek behind Claire. “Hold on, you’re going to ruin the reveal. Peg, I present your sister, Vivian.”
This was who she’d always been. She knew Peg could see that, because Peg couldn’t stop crying. She knew Peg could feel that, because Peg had never held her that close before.
But with each mile home, Will reappeared layer by layer and Vivian disappeared bit by bit. Peg said they could sneak in, and Will could stay Vivian for a while more. But they should have left Vivian at the party.
Their parents were waiting on the couch.
“Take that off,” Dad said so loud the windows rattled.
Peg tried to explain while Will pulled out the bobby pins. Mom pleaded with Dad not to be so hard on “him.”
Dad ripped the wig from her head. “It’s not coming off fast enough.”
“Stop, Mike. Stop.”
“Listen, Will. You can’t embarrass your mother and me by doing this shit while you’re under our roof. You want to make a fucking fool of yourself when you are older? Fine. You’re on your own then. But while you are here, Goddamnit, you will follow our rules.”
At five they assembled in the living area. Will dreaded this every morning, but especially this morning. She’d been paired up with Dad and Rick for most of the week, and the previous night Uncle Jessie had smacked her on the shoulder and said, “We gonna get ourselves a deer tomorrow, dude?” It was his turn.
Outside, Rick raced off into the black on his snowmobile with Kyle chasing after. Their headlights lit up the mountainside with each dip and dart, each drift and ditch.
Dad walked up to her, gently placed his hand on Will’s back, and asked more than stated, “You guys will be okay.”
“We’re going to be great, Mike. Don’t you worry, we’ll come back with two bucks,” said Uncle Jessie.
Will turned the key on her snowmobile and heard a series of clicks.
“Damn boy, whatcha do?” shouted Uncle Jessie.
“Way to go, Will,” said Travis. “Now we’re going to miss everything.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
Jessie and Dad started inspecting the vehicle. Gas in the tank, lights turned on, battery okay.
Dad said, “Throw your kit on mine and ride with me.”
“He can ride with me,” said Jessie. “I don’t mind.”
“No offense, Jessie, but you’d never make it up the trail with the two of you on your sled.”
Travis snickered and Uncle Jessie shot him a scowl.
She put her gear on top of her dad’s and tied it down. Jessie and Travis took off. She climbed on behind her dad and held onto the rails.
“Put your arms around me. It’ll be safer.”
Will seldom ever hugged her father. She moved her arms around her dad’s waist. “You can hold on tighter than that. I won’t break.” As they went into the mountains, Will squeezed her dad. The snow glittered in the headlights.
At the top of the trail, over her dad’s shoulder, the massive silhouette of Uncle Jessie stood waiting. She was hoping that Jessie had left with Travis.
“Get your stuff, Will. Let’s go. We’re burning daylight,” said Uncle Jessie.
She grabbed her pack, quiver and bow.
“We’ll see you back here in the afternoon,” said Dad.
“I’ll take care of him, Mike.” Jessie turned and headed down the trail lined with bare aspen to the clearing. Will made sure to hang back some, enough to keep him at a safe distance, but trying not to seem bothersome. They traipsed down the trail through the snow. Her dad stood at the top framed by the tunnel of trees, his face lit by the first rays of sunlight.
Will didn’t recognize where they were headed. Jessie had spotted a small group of deer, and they stalked them the first thing out. Will kept mental notes of things they passed—a grove, a stand of trees, a small mountain creek—in case they couldn’t find their way back.
They broke for a lunch: nuts, water, and jerky. Jessie produced a flask from under his jacket and took a swig.
“We’ll get close enough to them. It’s a matter of time.”
In the clear cold air, the sharp alcohol smell stung her nose. “Yeah. Okay.”
Jessie put the flask away, and the black-checkered handle of a .45 peeked out from inside his snow pants. “Why don’t you take the lead this time? You ever stalk?” asked Uncle Jessie.
“Well, you’re going to do it today.”
Will soon picked up the trail again. The snow was matted down from their hoofprints, but she couldn’t really tell the direction. She guessed they were headed up the mountainside, where there was less cover and they could see who might be coming for them. Will tried to pick up the pace and maintain her physical separation from Jessie. She could hear Jessie panting as they headed higher.
The sun was getting shallow in the sky, and the shadows of the trees were getting longer along the snowbanks. Will spotted the herd, dotting the landscape like little marzipan deer on icing. She blindly waved at Uncle Jessie to stop, but kept hearing the crunching of snow. She turned back and Jessie loomed over her.
“What is it?”
Jessie punched her square in the mouth and Will hit the ground.
“You’re teasing me and it’s got to stop.”
Will’s world was wobbly and watery.
“I know you want to,” Jessie panted.
She tried to push off the ground, but Jessie descended on her, suffocating her. Color started to drain from the sky, and her vision filled with a swarm of static. Jessie clawed at her jacket and she tried to push him away.
If she died, no one would miss her. Maybe Peg. Peg would. But her Mom and Dad would probably be relieved. They would welcome not having to worry about her embarrassing them. They wouldn’t need to explain her to family or friends. Dad could go on these hunting trips all the time if he wanted. Will had no friends, she had done nothing with her life yet. Maybe this was what was supposed to happen to her. Maybe it was better to let it happen.
Jessie’s shadow moved, and sunlight warmed her face. Then she remembered what Novo had said: she was not who she was to be, yet. She remembered her name, and remembered that brief moment when she could see Vivian’s future ahead of her.
“I am she.”
Vivian reached out for her bow.
No one was at the rendezvous point. Vivian was winded and weak. She clambered around the snowmobiles looking for keys, but none were there. She heard a rustling in a clump of evergreen bushes a few yards from where she stood. She took an arrow from her quiver, strung it in front of the release loop, clicked in her trigger to the loop, and pulled back the bowstring. Her arms trembled. She tried to line up the peep sight with the twenty-yard pin, but she couldn’t get the pin centered. She only had one shot before he’d get off a round.
The bush moved and she let the arrow fly. A piercing wail of pain sounded, and a young bull elk crashed through the thicket. The arrow had landed squarely in his neck, almost invisible except for the orange fletching. The elk bolted into the clearing, stopped and locked eyes with Vivian. Clumps of snow spotted his forehead and muzzle. He blinked, and flakes fell from his eyes and sparkled in the last bit of sun. The young elk shivered, crumpled, and fell. He lay on the ground, heaving, steam curling from his nose and mouth. The snowy footprints started to turn red where he lay.
She knelt next to him. She could smell the soil, lilac, and the promise of spring rain. She lifted the mounds of red wetness, pressing it against his wound, stuffing the blood back in.
“I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to.” Under her hand, his heartbeat slowed. The snow crunched behind her.
“You got one,” said Dad. “Look, Travis, Will got an elk! What’s that? A six point!”
Will, that name was so distant.
“We’ve been out all along the ridge and didn’t get near anything, and here you are back at camp and there’s an elk,” said Dad.
“This isn’t me. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Dad touched Vivian’s face. “What happened? Your lip is all busted up.”
Vivian buried herself in his chest and sobbed.
“Okay. Okay.” He held her tight. “Hey, Jessie, what happened to Will?”
“Nothing. He fell.”
Jessie tucked his gun under his belt.
“Why do you have your gun out,” asked Dad.
“What does it matter?”
“Did he hit you, Will?”
Jessie said, “Fucking . . . .” and Dad punched him in the jaw. Jessie stumbled, and her dad grabbed his coat and pulled Jessie back into another punch. Jessie threw his arms around him and they crashed to the ground. Dad landed on top and pounded Jessie’s head on the ground.
“Travis,” Jessie called out.
Travis stuttered a step, then stood still. “Dad, come on.”
Dad dropped his guard and shouted, “Stay out of this, Travis.”
Jessie punched him in the gut and the face. He pushed her dad off and got to his feet. He drew his gun. Then she heard a whistling overhead, followed by the thwack of an arrow hitting the ground.
Jessie jumped back and swung his barrel toward her. “Fuck, Rick!”
Rick nocked an arrow and drew a bead on Jessie. “You can stop now. It’s all over.”
“Over, huh? What’s over?” shouted Jessie. “You think you can shoot me before I shoot you?”
She heard the whine of a compound pulley, as Kyle aimed at Rick.
“Good boy, Kyle!” Jessie pointed his .45 back at her dad.
“Dad, come on. Stop, please,” wailed Travis. He swayed in the snow, hugged himself across his upper chest, eyes squeezed shut.
“Such a fucking disappointment. You’re a limp-wristed pussy like Will there,” said Jessie.
Travis buried his face in the crook of his arms. Vivian noticed that he was starting to shake.
“You’re a fucking weak monster,” said Vivian. “Gotta rape a girl out in the woods to feel strong. Huh?”
Jessie huffed. “I didn’t rape a girl in the woods.”
“You tried to rape me.”
“Shut up, you faggot.”
“Don’t call my son that,” Dad yelled as he scrambled to his feet.
“Whoa there, cowboy.” Jessie took a step back toward the body of the elk. The blood wasn’t visible on the ground, though the arrow was still buried in the elk’s neck.
“Don’t do anything you’d regret,” said Jessie.
There was breath steaming from the elk’s nostrils.
“Jessie, no one is going to kill anyone,” shouted Rick. “Put the gun down.”
“I didn’t rape no one. Tell ’em, Travis.”
Travis didn’t move, didn’t look up.
“Travis, tell them!”
Vivian had never noticed how afraid Travis was of his dad. Of course he was afraid. Vivian wasn’t the first person Jessie had done this to. The weight of all their eyes burned against her, except Dad’s. Dad was watching the elk.
The ground stirred as the elk rose to his feet.
“I’ll kill all of you fuckers if I have to.” Spit flew from Jessie’s lips. “In fact, it might be best if you killed your son first, Mike. Save you from the shame of him.”
Dad lunged at Jessie.
A piercing, inhuman scream filled the clearing. Jessie flew up into the air, impaled on the horns of the young bull elk. His body thrashed, casting a red mist over the white snow. The crack of the .45 thundered over them. The elk whipped its head and tossed Jessie across the clearing. His body folded into a ball. The bull reared up and came down in front of her, bowing, blood dripping at Vivian’s feet. She reached out and touched his muzzle. He chuffed, turned away, and headed down the mountain path into a twilight fog.
In the ranger station, she sat sipping poorly mixed hot cocoa and listened to the men lie.
They claimed that they’d thought the elk was dead and that Jessie was showing off. “It was an accident,” Rick said. The rangers said there’d be an investigation, and they may have more questions. Vivian had answers, but doubted that anyone would ask, or if they did, whether they would listen.
Travis, wrapped in a blanket, was sitting across from Kyle at a ranger’s desk. He hadn’t said a word since they left the clearing and he wouldn’t look at anyone. He still shook.
When the rangers were finished with the men, Dad sat down next to her. She offered him the remaining cocoa. It was no longer hot, but he cupped it in his hands and stared into the opaque liquid.
“I’m sorry,” he said with his eyes closed. “I’m so, so, sorry, Will. I am so sorry. I just.” He slumped over the cup.
She hugged him. He leaned into her and let go. She pulled him tighter and he was so small. She didn’t know what to say other than, “It’s okay.” And even though that wasn’t really right, it felt like a very small promise that it would be, one day.
It was the year the lake turned to glass. It was as though the water wasn’t even there, the shore simply extending further and further into a barren landscape. The lakes had been cleaned in recent years, some meager effort to beautify the city, but that made it all the worse. Every discarded bottle, every useless tire rolled into the surf, they petulantly stared back at you when you walked along the water. It wasn’t just the trash, either. The lake itself turned malevolent.
I was part of the team trying to figure out how to save the lake. Or maybe what had happened to it. Or, more specific to my actual job description, how to get the public to accept the lake as it now was—as a blessing rather than a curse, a sign of the times which no one wanted to read, but everyone already knew said EXIT HERE.
We had a set-up on the unpopulated side of the lake in an area which had been poisoned long ago by a paper mill but the city swore wasn’t toxic anymore. Nobody believed the city, not even those of us who worked for them. It wasn’t just that the grassy slopes of the hills around us looked like mange, patches of dry dirt resistant to grass, the soil powdery to the touch. The air had an oily feel. It settled in the lungs like a conscience. And the animals. I had trouble looking at them, even the malformed rabbit Talia took in and designated the project pet. Talia was a biologist, but not a very good one. To be honest, none of us were very good at our jobs, which is why we had this job. City finances being what they were, people left if they had any other option, and only came for work when the rest of the world failed to appreciate their virtues.
And, to be fair, the rabbit fit right in. It had one eye permanently half-closed, while the other eye’s pupil was blown out. Its teeth were too short and its limbs were too long and seemingly all different sizes, so it moved with an awkward hop where it was never quite clear what direction it was heading. Talia had named the rabbit Thumper.
We lived and worked in a concrete warehouse. It had been built as a boathouse right before the lake began to die in earnest and had never been used. But instead of being fresh and new, a few years of abandonment had rubbed the concrete raw, smooth and discolored. Pink. Concrete shouldn’t be pink, should it? Like skin trying its damnedest to heal? But we made the best of our new home. Yiannis, the chemist, hung tarps as tapestries and painted them with correction fluid and agar, abstracted images of the landscape and the lake. His hills were filled with mold. The bottom of the lake seeped rust.
Out at the lake’s edge, I took pictures. This was more time-consuming than it should have been, since the water only shone at the right angle, and if the lake wasn’t visible, then how could I convince people the lake was worth saving?
Klarissa followed behind me as I snapped pictures, deliberately scrunching her feet through the crackling, pristine sand. The sand had been imported years before, back when the city was a tourist destination. Enough sand to bury a small town.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said.
“Still. Despite that. Just look at it. Could you paint something as perfect?”
We all had little quirks, strangenesses we had to get used to in hope the others would endure ours. Klarissa was simply blind to the world, seeing everything as separate from her. As if life was a casual stroll through a museum and one day you died lonely and forgotten in a niche the docents hadn’t even been to in years, surrounded by minor Renaissance still lifes.
But she was right. The lake looked like a painting by someone who couldn’t paint anything living, and so just cut animals and people out of the equation entirely. The water glowed. The sky was feathered with clouds. Far in the distance was an island with a few brown sticks of trees which looked like telephone poles waiting for harvest. And closer by, a yacht rested on the lake floor without any obvious damage. The red hull was as lurid as a fresh scab.
Klarissa was an urban planning specialist; her job focused on how to get the water to be drinkable, sustainable, and unpollutable. Inside our warehouse, she flashprinted miniature dioramas of her plans, all of the pipes and water pumps and filtration systems working at that tiny scale. It didn’t matter how much she planned, though, if the lake refused to live again.
We had a time limit. The city wouldn’t tell us what the time limit was, but we were instructed to hurry. Lack of sleep was encouraged, as was generous use of the stimulant provided to us. The time limit was tied into the vegetation death encroaching on the city’s shores. That was one thing. Another was the diminishing population. Not through death. Well, not that we were told, anyway. Houses were being abandoned at an alarming rate. Put up for sale and then evacuated. Eviscerated. Every last appliance. Every built-in shelf. As if the owners knew the house was never going to sell and they were never coming back.
Harold was the project leader and also a philosopher. Not just in temperament, but in occupation. He’d headed a philosophy program at a sub-Ivy League East Coast school before being driven out by some scandal he refused to discuss and I refused to look up. Not out of respect for privacy, but for fear of what I’d find. It was easier to live not knowing.
“We can’t live in ignorance!” Harold said at almost every weekly meeting. “What happened to the lake is our fault, and we can only atone for what we’ve done when we’ve fully admitted what we’ve done.”
“This isn’t a religion, Harry,” Yiannis said. Talia nodded, petting Thumper.
“Isn’t it?” Harold pressed.
I expected Nadia, our geneticist, to argue with him, but she refused to look up from the table. Her hands were splayed on the surface like she was going to push herself up and away from this entire conversation, this entire place. But her fingers only twitched impotently.
She hadn’t realized before arriving that all of this was our fault. Or, more specifically, her fault. The fault of geneticists like her who believed in the power of their newly strengthened science. The Yellowgills invaded the lake due to people dumping the troublesome, custom-engineered pets they no longer wanted into the freshwater because they didn’t want to kill them; eventually the Yellowgill population grew so thick schools of them were chopped up by powerboats, so the geneticists created Razortooth Gar. The Razortooth Gar decimated the Yellowgills, as well as every other fish in the lake. A disease named Red Rot was introduced to the Razortooth Gar and ruined their gills so they suffocated, which resulted in a thick scum of dead fish on the lake’s surface. Worse, the disease bacteria mutated so it separated from the fish entirely and turned the lake maroon, clouding the water and staining the flesh of anyone who swam in the lake. And so modified Gullet Mussels were seeded to filter the water clean. That last was a success. They filtered the lake clean of everything.
We each did our jobs, such as they were. Harold took everything we did and combined it into reports, which he sent off to the city. He never told us the results of those reports, just patted us on the back whenever he saw us, smiling beneath his thin moustache in a way that was meant to be comforting but always came off as the smile a priest gives a person about to be executed.
It sounds dark. It was dark. Even during the clear, fine days of spring and in the height of summer, sunlight skipped over us. It shunted off to the city itself, that distant line of buildings that glittered in the light like frosting on a cake in a display window. None of us had been back there since our jobs began. Regularly, automated ferries crossed the lake bringing supplies. We were cut off.
But there was still beauty to be had. Playing with Thumper. Walking through Yiannis’ garden, laying bets on what each seed would look like after growing up through the poisoned soil. Celebrating each newly launched experiment of Nadia’s, drinking champagne as the spider-legged frog skittered into the water or a jar full of net-winged insects twirled and dove over the surface, chitinous bodies already crisping in the lake’s vaporous glare. Sitting at the end of the long dock, staring down through the water to the perfectly clear lake floor, imagining it as a long drop through the air, as though I were on a cliff rather than just a few feet away from what would hold me up, what wouldn’t let me sink.
We made no progress. The land refused us. Nadia’s various animals, slowly or quickly, all died. The chemical composition of the lake and the soil fluctuated, but from poison to poison. My record of events was one of failure, and no one read it. Maybe after the city was dead, the city and all its surroundings a shell, someone would come and find the diary of our efforts and understand the obvious thing that eluded us.
“We can’t give up,” Klarissa told me. She’d caught me at the end of the dock dangling my camera over the water’s edge.
“I’m not giving up. I’m admitting defeat.” I firmed my grip on the camera strap, but still held it over the water. “Let’s just go somewhere else. Somewhere living.”
She nodded across at the city. “They’re counting on us.”
“You don’t care about them.”
It was true. Her voice was flat. It was just a talking point, what we were supposed to repeat in our heads when depression came calling. But what I was feeling wasn’t depression, but elation. Excitement. To leave. To get the hell out of that hell.
“Maybe.” She wouldn’t admit it. It was hard, I knew, because that’s what I’d been wrestling with for weeks. “But there’s no point in running, because there’s nowhere to run. What happened here, we’ll take it with us. The poison is in us.”
I argued. I tried to convince her to come with me to the coast, that we could start a new life, the city and the lake and everything here be damned. The lake didn’t want us here. Nothing wanted us here. Everything we’d tried, I rehashed it right then and demolished every one of her objections, but she didn’t budge.
“I don’t need to convince you,” I said finally, pissed off, and threw the camera into the lake, except Klarissa caught the strap.
I was done with words. I yanked the camera back, but she wouldn’t let go. The dock rocked beneath us, and we didn’t care. We grunted and pulled and pushed. She was stronger than me, and she tugged so hard I fell into her. We tumbled onto the sun-worn wood, the camera between us. It broke with a snap, and we stopped struggling.
Klarissa rolled off me and sat up, pointedly looking away from me, out at the lake and the city’s ghostly skyline. “You got what you wanted.”
The body of the camera looked undamaged, but the lens had shattered, lacerating my fingers. The cuts were shallow but bled freely. Exhausted emotionally, physically, mentally, I stretched out on the dock, head and arms over the side, and lowered the camera into the water. None of this was what I wanted.
The dock shuddered as Klarissa rose to her feet and walked back toward the warehouse. Blood from my cuts dripped into the water, each drop spreading like cream into coffee. The breezeless air settled around me like a second skin.
I didn’t realize it at first, but my blood was changing something in the water. The red didn’t just spread out and disappear, it drifted away in fractal swirls, as though something was sucking it up. Where my blood dripped, the water turned from glass into, well, simply water.
“Klarissa!” I called out, and she ran back at the excitement in my voice. Seconds later, she was stretched out next to me, watching my blood slowly drip with the same fascination. She was there when the silt below us popped with a dozen tiny cloudbursts and the most miniscule fish I’d ever seen swam up to us, so transparent they were just bones with peppercorns for eyes.
I unstrapped my utility knife from my belt and flicked the blade open. The first cut was hard to do, a thick jag across the meat of my thumb, but the others came easier. I wasn’t killing myself. I didn’t want to die. But the pain, oh, it felt good, if only because with every slurry of my blood into the lake, more happened in the water, the blood setting an entire cascade of consequences into action. It was hypnotizing. I only heard the tail end of Klarissa calling the others on her phone, saying they needed to come down to the dock quick.
Then she held out her hand for the knife.
The world ended in ice
as scientists predicted
lab coat Noahs
as they counted the animals
two by two
into their ark
and lifted off
We who are left
in the cold
in the dark
in our ignorance and greed
with no dove
to fly from Ararat
Walking through the forest under the lights of the setting sun, I asked, “Is this all true?”
Pervu said, “Nobody here lies about the Sunset Hill, but the city-people rarely believe what we say, Sir.” The way he spoke made it clear that he didn’t have much respect for the city-people. An awkward silence fell as we walked, crushing the fallen yellow leaves under our feet.
When I questioned his ability to serve me as a guide, Pervu had admitted he was seventy-three. But he had been walking with me for almost two hours in this hilly forest area without a sign of tiredness. The old man was thin, but his bones had more strength than mine.
The sad light of the afternoon rested on the top of the towering trees. Cold had started to rise from the dark reddish earth. The crickets had already begun to sing. Rabbits crossed our path several times; once I spotted an iguana behind a bush. The forest seemed full of animals.
I noticed a spotted deer through the long Sal trees. It seemed to have no fear of us as we stopped to look closely at its beautiful hide.
None of the animals had run away seeing us. That seemed strange to me.
Pervu had spent his whole life in the forests of the Belpahari region. Breaking the silence, I prompted, “It’s good to see so many animals here.”
Pervu’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why, Sir?”
“Just saying,” I said.
His face had suddenly changed color, but he didn’t say anything more. I saw that he was lost in thought, walking like a robot along his familiar forest path.
We saw three more deer in the next five minutes.
Pervu warned me, “Not that way, Sir. Follow me; this is one of the shortcuts.”
The way he led me was hardly a way. Through the gaps between the huge trees were only more trees. The sun had leaned more to the west. Flocks of birds were returning to their nests and we could hear their cries overhead.
Suddenly Pervu asked, “Do you like hunting, Sir?” There was something strange in his voice.
“Hunting? No, Pervu. I don’t enjoy taking innocent lives. Why do you ask?”
He must have sensed my curiosity. He said, “It’s a long story. Would you like to hear it?”
“Why not?” I said. “But tell me, first, is this really a shortcut? We’ve been walking for hours. How much further to the ashram, Pervu?”
Pervu said, “Not much. One branch of this shortcut leads directly to the foot of the Sunset Hill. Hundreds of wild beasts roam freely at that part of the forest. That’s why it was once the poachers’ favourite part of the forest. But you know, Sir, now even they don’t want to go there.”
I hazarded a guess at his strange demeanor. “Don’t be afraid if something dangerous happens to cross our path. I have a revolver with me.”
Pervu said, “I know. It’s under your shirt, left side. Am I correct, Sir?”
I was so astonished that for a moment I couldn’t speak.
He said, “You don’t like hunting; then why are you carrying the gun with you, Sir? Don’t you want a rabbit, or at least a wild turkey?”
I recovered with a smile. “I’m a policeman, Pervu. Carrying the service revolver has become a habit even when I’m just out travelling. And I’m not interested in your rabbit or wild turkey, thank you very much. Now please walk faster, and take me to the ashram through your favourite shortcut before it’s too dark in here.”
Pervu smiled and again I had that uncomfortable feeling. Is the old man hiding something from me?
Our path was gradually becoming more prominent. It was evident that Pervu knew this jungle’s alleys well. He said, “Let me tell you the story then, it will help to pass the time.”
A hyena saw us coming and sat down to watch us. The sun moved behind the pillars of the trees.
Pervu met Sardar Harman Singh in this very forest. The forest was younger then; so was Pervu. The mighty Sunset Hill loomed at the northern end of the forest, as it had from the beginning of time. Sardarji beckoned him with his fingers. The fingers held a five hundred rupee note.
Pervu had never touched a five hundred note in his lifetime. He felt an urge to hold it in his own hands. His family was so poor that they used to eat ant-eggs at dinner. Pervu’s little sister was an expert at robbing those delicacies from the ant-holes.
Sardarji said, “This is yours, boy, if you do as I say.”
Pervu’s eyes brightened. “What do you want me to do?”
“I need you to go with me to the forest under that hill. Tonight.”
Pervu retreated at once. Everybody knew that that part of the forest was not to be visited even in the broad daylight. And here’s this man, speaking of going there at night! No amount of money could make him say ‘yes’. “I’m sorry, Sardarji.”
Sardarji’s gigantic figure advanced upon him. When the boot hit his abdomen, Pervu was so surprised at first he felt no pain, only the strange feeling of flying through the air. The pain came when he landed upon the dried leaves.
“Bastard!” Sardarji bellowed. “Nobody survives saying ‘no’ to Sardar Harman Singh, you dirty beggar.”
Shivering in pain and fear, Pervu saw the unshaking muzzle of a revolver pointed at his chest. He tried to remember his little sister’s face for the last time.
Then the muzzle dropped. Sardarji said, “Well, you get to live this time, boy, because I need you.” The five hundred note was replaced by a thousand rupee note. “What do you say now, beggar boy?”
The face of his sister flashed before Pervu’s eyes again. This note could change our lives. But that part of the forest was forbidden after sunset!
Sardarji said, “Let me put it straight for you, boy. Either you take the money and walk with me, or I shoot a hole in your worthless skull and walk alone. I give you thirty seconds. What do you want?”
Pervu said what he had to. “I’m going with you.”
“Good,” Sardarji said. “Now pick up that box and start moving.”
Pervu wanted to run, for he knew that what they were about to do was not only forbidden but wrong. He knew why Sardarji wanted to go to the foot of the Sunset Hill. He tried for the last time. “Sardarji, that place is not good at night.”
Sardarji laughed. “I know, I know. I’ve heard the story of that f***ing Keeper.”
Pervu shivered, hearing the name of the Lord, the Keeper of the Forest, uttered with so much irreverence. He silently prayed, “Forgive me, O Lord! I’ve said nothing bad about you!”
He said again, “Sardarji, those who have gone there to hunt, have never . . . .”
“Returned?” Sardarji snarled and showed him the revolver again. “If I don’t return, you will rot there with me.”
Pervu lifted the large box Sardarji had with him. He didn’t need to open it to know what was inside.
The Keeper of the Forest wouldn’t be happy! Forgive me, Lord.
Pervu wanted to cry. If he didn’t return, his parents would never be able to find a suitor for his beloved sister, for he was the only earning member of the family.
He recalled a saying he had heard from his father, who had taught him to look for the signs the forest gave to those who knew to see them. His eyes fixed upon a Neem tree that was gradually darkening under the twilight.
“One sparrow—no fear.
Two sparrows—dead tear.”
He remembered his father’s voice and prayed with his whole heart for the sight of one sparrow flying away from that tree.
Two sparrows flew from the tree’s leafy crown.
As they approached the part of the forest beneath the Sunset Hill, Sardarji said, “I know there are rare black bucks in this forest. Do you know how much money that animal may earn you, you beggar?”
Pervu said nothing.
“More than you can imagine. So open that box and help me fix the gun.”
They fitted the parts of the rifle together in silence. Finally Sardarji adjusted the scope and said, “Let’s go.”
They came to a juncture where the narrow road went into three different ways. They took the one that went north, and after fifteen more minutes’ walk, came almost under the Sunset Hill in the light of the sunset. To Pervu, it stood like a colossal, dark prohibition. In front of that enormity, Sardarji seemed even less significant that an ant.
Sardarji ordered him to stop at the edge of a rainwater pond. The tall trees seemed to be getting closer to each other in the spreading darkness. The silent air was almost suffocating. Sardarji climbed a tree and ordered him to climb another. As Pervu adjusted himself on the branches of the Jamun tree, Sardarji got ready with the rifle, facing the pond.
The black buck appeared at once.
Pervu remembered another lesson his father had taught him. The animals we see in the forest might not be just what we see.
Sardarji aimed his rifle; the black buck was drinking water at the edge of the pond. Pervu almost forgot to breathe.
He heard the sound of the gun. He was taken aback discovering the buck standing upright beside the pond just as before.
Sardarji has missed!
It was unbelievable. Such little distance and such a steady hand, yet the animal was calmly walking back into the forest, clearly not afraid.
Even Sardarji himself couldn’t believe his own eyes. “How did I miss that f***ing beast?” he murmured. He climbed down from the tree and ordered Pervu to come down, too. “Come on. I’m not going to spare it.”
Sardarji started following the buck. Pervu knew that this was his chance to run away, but he didn’t. A strange attraction lured him behind Sardarji to the Hill. He thought he knew what waited at the end of this drama, but it was as if the Hill wanted him to witness the ‘how’.
Another gunshot, another miss. The long muzzle gave off an uneven trail of smoke.
The black buck waited unaffected a few metres away, as if tempting him to try again.
Sardarji wiped perspiration from his forehead. “What the hell is happening? This time I’m sure I hit it!”
Pervu said, “I told you not to come here, Sardarji. There’s still time; let’s go back, please.”
“You shut up, beggar’s son! You got the money; now do as I tell you.”
Sardarji reloaded the rifle. The black buck retreated through the jungle at the foot of the hill. Once, it turned its head, as if to see whether they were still following.
Pervu knew that black bucks couldn’t smile. It must be an illusion!
The buck ran, and they ran behind it. They ran until they came to the very foot of the great Sunset Hill.
The buck waited for them under a big Shimul tree. Sardarji uttered under his breath, “This time you’ll taste real hotness, my friend!”
But Pervu noticed another thing under the tree. An old, rusty rifle, half-buried in the ground. Must be the property of a hunter who never returned. He remembered the scene of the two sparrows flying away from the tree. He was breathing hard. His heart was pounding dangerously just under his throat.
Sardarji’s gun thundered again.
“Got him!” Sardarji punched the air in excitement.
The black buck was lying on the ground. Sardarji proudly moved to his prey. The forest looked denser than ever in the darkness. Silence prevailed; even the crickets were not singing.
Suddenly Pervu felt that he was sinking in the hard ground, as if he had been standing on quicksand. The earth was swallowing him.
Panic-stricken, he screamed, “Sardarji!”
Sardarji ignored his cry; he was gazing at the buck on the ground.
The black buck was not dead yet. Its legs were still trembling a little. But, Pervu sensed, something more was happening around them.
The earth had captured him; he wasn’t sinking anymore, but he couldn’t move, only watch, and he realised this was his role: to see.
The black buck was transforming. Its hind legs became the paws of a lion; its teeth changed to the fangs of wild dogs, its front legs to human hands and its body to a human torso. Its eyes shone like two burning stars. The figure stood up.
“Oh, Lord!” Pervu whispered.
The rifle dropped from Sardarji’s hand; he stood petrified in front of that terrifying presence. The whole forest was filled with the unearthly red glow radiating from the furious entity. It seemed that the trees were on fire.
Two jackals passed Pervu and went to the place where Sardarji had been standing. Pervu saw hundreds of animals gathering round them to see the final moments of the man who had come to kill them. The red glow made them all red—their fur, their fangs, their paws, their eyes all warmed with the angry hue. They stood motionless, as if they, too, didn’t belong to the realm of the living.
The eyes of the entity were burning like coal, and Sardarji’s eyes were fixed on those glowing fireballs. His mouth was open, his hands were stiff. It came forward and touched Sardarji’s forehead with a burning finger.
Pervu lost consciousness with the explosion. In his dream he saw the dust from Sardarji’s disintegrated body getting mixed with the forest soil.
When he came back to his senses, he found himself lying at the familiar juncture of the three paths, although he couldn’t make out how he had come to this place. But he could recognize the Neem tree from which the two sparrows flew away.
He would have dismissed the whole incident as a dream, but the thousand rupee note inside his shirt-pocket was more than real.
We were still walking on the forest path when Pervu finished his story. He said, “Not only Sardarji, but a lot of poachers tasted that same medicine. No poacher returns after visiting that place.”
Pervu had the gift of making an unbelievable story palatable. I was about to tell him just that when, all of a sudden, he fell to my feet and started crying.
“Hey! Hey! What are you doing, old man?” I was so surprised that for a moment I didn’t know what to do.
I helped him to his feet. Tears were still pouring out of his eyes.
“What is it, Pervu?” I asked. “Why on earth are you crying like this?”
“Forgive me, Sir.” He was still unable to speak properly. His body was convulsing with powerful emotion. “Forgive me. I misjudged you.”
I was more astonished than ever. “What the hell are you talking about? What misjudgement?”
Pervu grabbed my hand and said, “Forgive me, Sir. You talked about the animals in the forest, and I saw your hidden revolver. I thought that you, too, had come to kill them.”
A bit harshly I asked, “What made you realise your mistake, wise man?”
Pervu pointed his fingers to a tree. “Look there.”
I at once saw the black buck looking at me from behind the tree. I couldn’t understand what Pervu meant.
I was going to say something when I noticed the beast’s eyes. They were glowing like two burning stars.
Pervu again fell at my feet. “I’ve lured you with my story under the Sunset Hill. This is no shortcut, Sir. I thought that if you’d come to poach, He’d take care of you.”
I couldn’t decide how angry I should be with him. The black buck was calmly watching us.
“But the Lord, the Keeper of the Forest, has shown me that you’re a good man, Sir,” Pervu said again. “Please forgive me, Sir. Please.”
Black bucks can’t smile. I know that black bucks don’t smile. And their eyes don’t shine like stars. It must be an illusion!
The buck moved away from us, deeper into the forest. The enormous presence of the Sunset Hill hulked behind the darkening trees.
My voice trembled when I spoke. “How do you know that I’m a good man, Pervu?”
“The Keeper of the Forest knows everything of nature; human nature, too. There! Look there!”
From the branches of a tall Neem tree, a little sparrow flew away.
Pervu whispered, “One sparrow—no fear. Let’s go back, Sir.”
Welcome to the Reckoning Press podcast. Reckoning is a nonprofit, annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. I’m Michael J. DeLuca, publisher and sometime editor.
Today I am very pleased to share with you Marie Vibbert’s reading of “The Eater of Dirt”, her flash story from Reckoning 3, the text of which comes out today at reckoning.press.
Besides selling thirty-odd short stories (six to Analog!), twenty-some poems and a few comics, Marie Vibbert has been a medieval (SCA) squire, ridden 17% of the roller coasters in the United States and has played O-line and D-line for the Cleveland Fusion women’s tackle football team. Her college coursework was in Environmental Geology but by day she is a computer programmer.
And as of this spring, she’s a member of Reckoning’s editorial staff!
Let me just offer a friendly warning: Marie’s performance is, how shall I put it, intense. You might want to listen someplace private? I hope you enjoy!
Thanks for listening! In case you haven’t heard, we’re fundraising to increase our pay rate for prose from six to eight cents a word by September. If you like what we do and want to help us help writers like Marie, visit reckoning.press/support-us.
This podcast is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Content and audio recording are copyright by the author.