Gingko Biloba

In ten thousand B.C.E., a family of three made shelter beneath my branches. My family watched through the wild winds as they shivered together against the winter fury. I waited for their cooling bodies to nourish my grasping roots.

But with a fallen branch and a magic spell, they brought a shard of summer into the heart of the frozen forest, and I began to wonder if they would survive.

On the first day, they picked the berries from the bushes beneath the snow. In the first week, a child dragged a struggling rabbit from its warren beneath the frost-hard earth. By the time the spring rains came and the ground sang green, the family was four, and there was always something good to eat in the hut around my trunk.

#

In six thousand B.C.E., a village of six hundred made shelter around my family. The breezes and the roots buzzed with our curiosity. My leaves would never stop prickling with the smoke of yams and deer and berries boiling down, and at the heart of every winter, a blazing campfire would blunt nature’s chill fangs.

It warmed me to my core.

Over the years, my leaves grew rich and thick, and ten thousand lovers wrote their faces on my skin. The children explored every inch of me, scaling my trunk, plucking my fruits, lounging in my branches, finding parts of me I never knew I had.

Each spring, a girl would climb as high as she could through my verdant, red-gold canopy, and each spring, she would fail to reach my crown. Her son never made it, and neither did her nine grandchildren. But I remember when a little boy proudly placed his hand on my head, and the echoes of his great-grandmother ran through him.

#

In three thousand B.C.E., the sky spat death upon our home. A shooting star fell to the earth, its heat swallowing us whole. The birds screamed and cried as they fled, and my shadow writhed and scrambled to flee the inferno. The bones of the villagers cracked and melted away, and my brethren tilted drunkenly, celebrating one last party before their fall. The wishes of all the lovers on my skin were torn from my bark, and the fires hollowed me out, leaving me ashen, scarred, empty.

My leaves would never stop prickling with the flesh of the children who had slept in my arms and the smell of the trees I’d grown up with.

#

In one thousand B.C.E., the bees had made their home in my heart, and even the humans stayed away. The fires had split me open, and in the crevice where my flesh once was, a hive was born. New-green seedlings, unmarred by ash, tried to grow around me—but I blotted out the sun with my drooping, swaying leaves, smothering them with my shadow. I was taller than them all, stronger than them all, fortified with the ashes of those who came before.

The little ones were not. They had no right to live on the graves of my family.

A few times, a child—always a child—walked up to me, wide-eyed. They’d run their enraptured gaze along my scars, or gape at my limp, dull branches. But when they got close enough to touch, the furious swarm I’d taken in would awake, and they’d back away—for a thousand stings would kill as surely as a meteor strike.

But children grow, and some remember.

#

In one C.E., a woman brought her family into the shadow of my trunk, and from my fallen limbs she drew a fire to feed her parents and sister. With a spit of roasted venison in one hand and a greenwood torch in the other, she walked towards me. The buzzing, pulsing insects inside me awoke, and venom and pain belched forth from my heart.

But she held her gift of fire out, and the smoke of the same deer that had walked here for millennia danced around my trunk, filling my hollowed body. Gradually, cautiously, she drew closer to my gnarled core, soothing the bees with her smoke.

Shadows lashed at her as the fire flickered, and through the haze the swarm blindly struck, stinging her neck, her arms, her face.

I waited for her body to nourish my roots.

But though the stings assaulted her, she stood immutable, determined, still. Gently blowing the bees from her lips, she whispered, “I’m here. That’s all.”

The torch she bore blazed down to her very fingertips, the bees wobbling in the air, until the fervent, pent-up buzzing quieted to nothing.

She laid a hand on my trunk, and the echoes of her ancestors sang through her.

#

In one thousand C.E., the humans hewed a grand town from the earth. The bees inside me had long since faded, and stray cats slept in the space the fires had carved. Spring graced my leaves with dew, and every slight breeze would send sparkling droplets dancing across my park. Fresh, young trees had arisen alongside me—far away enough that they would grow in their own right, but close enough that the children could laugh and play among our boughs with ease.

I shared my fruits with all who came, and they spread the seeds across the world.

Over the years, brick by brick, plot by plot, the town grew. The buildings quenched the sun, leeching the life from my leaves. The streets ran brown with refuse and offal, and their toxins seeped into the earth. The grass and dirt was paved over and built upon, eroding the hill I stood upon to a dim shadow of what once had been.

But the children still came.

#

In two thousand C.E., the city canceled the night. Neverending light spilled from every window. Rivers of people flowed around me, cloaked in gasoline and steel. The streets hummed and buzzed like the bees that lived inside me so long ago.

I wondered whose smoke could calm them.

I could tell when they were going to swarm. Whether in tree-hearts or city-hearts, bees are the same. Something had enraged the grandest hive in history, and the stingers were about to come out.

And come out they did. Humanity delivered the judgement of the stars.

The blasts were fire and darkness. Windows shattered. Lights vanished. People crisped into ash and shadow.

The city fell silent.

It pared me to my core.

#

In six thousand C.E., the lands had healed. Only crumbling ruins indicated that there had ever been anything but timeless forest here. The same berry-bushes still hid beneath the snow. The same deer still rested at my base. Even the trees around me were indistinguishable from me, for all the more years I held over them.

For a century after the city disappeared, a mournful winter consumed the world, the likes of which I had never seen before, and never would again. It tempered me. I rebuilt, rooting myself into the earth so firmly that it would be easier to move the mountains themselves than uproot me.

I saw the humans, from time to time—what was left of them, that is. They marveled at the single tree on a hill, ancient beyond their measuring, some touched with reverence, others with joy. They would reach out to touch my trunk, or pick the leaves I shed.

But I kept my fruits in the highest branches, and my lower limbs had grown too brittle to support humanity. The birds and the sky were the only visitors to my verdant canopy.

I swallowed my scars, one by one, with a patience that would outlive eternity.

#

In ten thousand C.E., a family of four took shelter beneath my trunk.

The winter had been rough, but I had seen ones a thousandfold worse. The weary family, nearly overwhelmed by nature’s wrath, shuddered in the cold and wondered what they could possibly do to survive.

The mother’s answer was the ancient city, and she left in hope of finding some intact cavern there. The father’s answer was the sticks and branches, and he raced against the winter cold to create a fire. The childrens’ answer was to rest and dream, for whatever time they had left.

Ash and Scar

The last goodbye Simon had to say was to the tree. It had been a while, but he knew where to pull off the mountain road and knew where to walk sure as a dog going home. The old hills rolling without a spot flat enough to set a dinner plate, the twitching sounds of birds and squirrels, the sky the color of old jeans tossed over the June canopy: leaves of maple, basswood, and the ash. When you knew what to look for, the tree was hard to miss: white ash, split down the middle twenty-four years ago and bound back together. Simon set his hand against the scar. Smooth and pale and tall as a seven-year-old child. He felt, as he always did when he came here, a twinge in his legs. A memory not of pain but of absence. The question came to him again, as he traced his fingers up and down the scar, of whether a tree remembers, and what, and how.

Thinking of memory, he thought of Georgie, who had already soaked up half of his goodbyes, and would keep needing them, he was sure, long after Simon was gone. The tree, at least, would have nothing to ask.

His hand crept spiderlike away from the scar, to the rest of the trunk, the deep diamond grooves, and he was struck with the sense that these too were scars, that everything, after all, was a wound healed over.

Simon had said: “Now, Georgie, you take your medicines, you listen to your sister, you’ll be OK. I’ve got your prescriptions at the CVS up in Buckhannon. And you have my number. She has it too. I can talk to the pharmacist if you need, you hear? Any time you’re feeling poorly, you just give me a call.”

And Georgie, filmy-yellow-eyed uncomprehending, Georgie who’d lost one too many and now simply refused another loss, answered, “But you’ll be here, won’t you, Simon?”

“No, Georgie. I told you. Healthways is closing. I’m moving. I’m going back to school.”

“Good for you! What’s your course of study?”

Simon sighed, and told him again. “Nursing.”

Georgie told the same joke. “Ha! Ha! You gonna get one of those white dresses?”

Simon pretended to laugh, again.

As he left for the last time, Georgie said, “See ya next time.” And Simon said nothing at all.

His hands continued to walk the trunk, slipped on something, paused. He bent his head closer. Little holes. Capital D’s, like the multi-mouthed smileys that Jen, the secretary at HealthWays, would send in her text messages—Got another laundry call for you 😀 D D D.

Simon frowned walked around the trunk, looked up and down. They dotted the whole tree, except the smooth skin of the scar. D D D D. As he stared at one of the holes, something moved inside. Then a tiny green jewel emerged, iridescent. The insect slipped out of the little hole and unfolded itself into the world, emerging as Simon had himself emerged, all those years ago, from this very tree.

#

When he was seven, pins and needles in his legs had turned to weakness, then numbness, then nothing. The doctors in Charleston couldn’t figure it. His dad, God bless him, had wanted to take him up to Cleveland and “get it all worked out,” Medicaid reimbursements be damned. His father, born in the woods ’til he knew every tree, the fix-it man, the know-it-all. Yelling at the doctor, the nurses, the Medicaid office, because there was nothing broke that couldn’t be figured and fixed if you just looked into it long enough. But his mother was of the opinion that there were things that just couldn’t be understood or repaired, that the world happens and keeps happening, and you make the path you can. So it was she who made plans to change the house, to get the wheelchair, to call the used car lot every week. And it was these acts, much more than his father’s assurances that they’d “get to the bottom of it,” that made him feel that it would be alright.

But then Aunt Barbara, his mother’s sister, had heard. Crazy Aunt Barbara, who exploded in tears and laughs at every visit and made every sentence a shout or a sermon, so that she would have crowded his early memories even if it hadn’t been for the miracle. Aunt Barbara said that when her husband—God rest his soul—was a boy he’d had the Polio and they’d done what the old-time people did and opened up an ash tree and passed him through it, and then they’d closed the ash tree up and he got better too. The old-time people knew what they were doing, she said, and she was no doctor, but she was just telling them, just saying to them. “There’s always ways,” she said.

His mother had shaken her head and said that they weren’t going to toss Simon through a tree, and Barbara had asked how the hunt for a van was going, and Simon’s mother had retreated to the kitchen.

That night they went out in the woods under the big moon and the haunted trees, looking for the young ash. His father at Barbara’s direction took a sharp saw and carefully split the tree top to bottom. Then he pushed the split sides of the tree apart and pulled him through. Three times, they told him later, for three nights, but it all ran together in his memory: the young tree split and straining, the hands pulling him through, the night sounds, the stars.

When they were done, they tied up the tree with twine and mud plaster, according to Aunt Barbara’s direction, and his father said, “What now?”

Aunt Barbara, serene, confident, answered, “We wait. The Lord provides.”

So they waited. He noticed everyone’s feelings in the house but his own. His father’s anxious pacing. Aunt Barbara taking up residence in their house, like an unruffled cuckoo, and his mother, exhausted and annoyed, saying to him after hanging up on one of her calls with the school board about getting a ramp installed: “Sweetie, it’s not you that needs fixed, it’s the world.”

Every night his father would go out to the ash tree, try to see it healing, try to see some sign. Sometimes he would take Simon on his back, the chair no good in the woods. No good in the mountains, really, Simon thought, even now: the steep-grade gravel driveways, the double-wides with four stairs up to the front door, the narrow doors, nothing built to fit.

#

Now he knelt by the ash tree that had given them the miracle his father had wanted, that had knitted itself back together, healed over the seasons until only the scar remained, while little by little feeling and then motion and then control returned to his legs. He saw that the bark had come away in patches, and beneath, on the flesh of the tree, there were traceries like flung spaghetti, the wrinkles of a brain.

And with the thought of a brain came Georgie again. One of his first patients for Healthways when he came back from college. College, where he’d shot himself like a rocket fueled by rage after hearing a teacher grumbling about wasting all this time on a ramp they didn’t need anymore. And then, instead of nursing school, he came back here, that same rocket fuel burning itself out inside him. Simon drove people to appointments, did laundry, made meals, checked blood pressure, made sure they took their medicine. Georgie was a big guy, the kind of guy about whom everyone’s first statement was, “he’s a worker.” His kidneys had gone bad when Simon first met him, and he hadn’t been quite able to understand what it was to have a chronic condition. “How long ’til I’m back on my feet again?” he’d asked. And Simon, fresh on the job, trying to explain, feeling embarrassed because after all, he’d gotten away with something, thanks to tree magic or whatever it was. “It’s about management,” he said. “No cure. It’s just not giving up.”

And that, Georgie understood. Even as the Alzheimer’s started and then became the very fact of his existence, he understood persistence, stubbornness, just getting along. That’s the one thing people like Georgie had.

Then they pull the rug out from under you anyway.

#

He went back to the road where he’d left his car and paced a bit until he had some cell reception. He waited minutes for a couple ages to load, then placed a call.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m calling about a tree.”

“Yes?” said the woman at the tree management company. “How can I help you?”

“It’s an ash tree. There’s some kind of holes in it. Looks like the leaves are dying too.”

“Oh, ash borer.”

“What’s that?”

“You said little holes in the trunk?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“So that’ll be emerald ash borer. You want removal?”

“No, I was wanting to see if I could save it.”

“Sometimes that’s possible. How much of the leaf cover is gone?”

“He tried to remember. “There’s still leaves.”

“Is it a mature tree?”

“Um, I don’t know. It’s uh, at least 30 or so.”

“OK. So that could be a candidate for injection treatment.”

His hands made the motions of insulin jabs, allergy shots, Narcan. He’d tried to make sure his patients would be taken care of. Done his best. Done what he could. What was he supposed to do?

The voice on the other end of the line was asking: “Is it a high-value tree?”

“High-value?”

“We usually only recommend treatment for high-value trees. Where on your property is it?”

“Oh, it’s not . . . it’s not on my property.”

There was a pause.

“If it’s on a city street, you could call your city council. Where are you located?”

“No, it’s not on a city street.”

“OK. Are you worried about spread to your property? We could still talk about removal. Are there other infected trees in the area?”

Simon looked around. He hadn’t really looked at trees since he’d walked in the woods with his dad. For his dad they’d been were companionship, compass, calendar. For Simon, mostly, they’d become background. But just then he felt like they were holding up the sky. The little blossoms on the basswood, the light coming through the maples.

The voice was saying, “What you’re going to want to look for is those little holes, missing bark, leaves brown when they should be green.”

He started walking as the cell service faded, and he saw what he hadn’t noticed before. Exactly as the woman had said: trees stripped of bark in patches, dotted with holes like those on his. Like these woods had seen some battle that no one had noticed. He went back to the road, called back.

“Yeah, looks like a lot of infected trees.”

“OK. So do I understand right that you have a healthy ash on your property you want protected?”

“What? No.”

“Sir, what do you want the ash tree removed for, then?”

“I don’t want it removed. I wanted to see if you can help me save it.”

“It’s on public property?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“So the usual treatment is an annual injection by own of our arborists, but I have to tell you it’s not cheap, and you have to keep doing it indefinitely. If it’s on public property I’d suggest you talk to your extension service or . . . .”

Again, Simon’s mind drifted to Georgie, to all his patients: the injections, the dialysis, the physical therapy, the stained clothes, the pills heaped in their boxes organized by day. Management, mitigation, indefinitely. There’s no making things right. Some things you can’t fix.

The woman was still talking, blinking in and out of the spotty reception, talking about money he didn’t have. Simon hung up, got in the car, and began to drive, looking back once or twice through the pack of boxes and laundry, everything he owned in the back of the old Corolla. His foot got heavy on the gas, the mountain curves coming fast, and he felt pins and needles in his legs. He saw Georgie’s number flash up on his phone for a minute before service went out.

He braked hard, turned around, and went back to his pull off. No service there now. He walked back to the ash tree. He felt the scar again, saw another of the borers climbing out of its hole. He pulled it off and crushed it between his fingers. There’d have to be someone to take care of it, but he didn’t have a job anymore. The clinic was closed. He had a scholarship to nursing school. He was getting out.

His phone rang, and he saw, miraculously, two bars. He picked it up.

“Simon,” said Georgie. “Where are you? There’s someone calling me, saying I’m supposed to take my medicines, and I said, Simon gives them to me.”

Simon started to say again that he was leaving, that Georgie’s sister would get his medicines, that his neighbor would check in on him, that that was who was calling, that he and everyone were just going to have to figure it out by themselves, that he wished it were different, but it was what it was.

He plucked another borer off the tree, and said, “Alright, Georgie. Alright. I’ll be there.”

Facing Medusas

One thousand apologies to my great-grandfather and the generations of fishermen I come from. I want to be an astronaut.

#

In the summer of 2019, a box jellyfish, known colloquially as the seawasp, stung the girl’s left ankle. She had just resurfaced after a night dive and was stargazing, lying on her back and imagining the worlds miles above and below her. She’d turned the light attached to her gear off, remembering that all sorts of bioluminescent organisms fall for flashlights, when she heard another diver shout. She swam over, suddenly overcome by a weighty fear in the bottom of her abdomen. Something’s gonna eat me tonight.

#

The largest of the cubozoans, the seawasp can grow up to two meters long, from the tip of its bell to the end of its longest tentacle. It possesses no brain, but rather a decentralized network of nerves, with a ring connecting its internal functions to the stimuli of the outside world.

In short, the deadliest animal in the ocean is a freeform bag of nematocysts and water. The Kraken and Moby Dick and Leviathan quiver next to this brain-less, poison-filled sack of jelly. Our minds, inclined to hyperbole and fable fabrication, could not make this thing up.

#

Most nights, when the rain is hot on my hands and I can feel a storm forming, I wish I could talk to Captain Zip. My great-grandfather passed a few weeks before I was born, after falling and hitting his head on the side of a cast-iron tub. The only person in my family who could tell better stories than me.

I want to ask him about the sharks he escaped and the seahorses he saved from his nets. About the billions of phytoplankton that danced beneath the Miss Andrinna and full moons. About how easy it is to lose yourself at sea.

I want to ask him why I wasn’t born in the open ocean, scales and gills and tentacles more familiar to me than our neighbors and their mailboxes. My favorite songs are the gales made from hurricane wind and octopus breath. I know my amniotic fluid was all Gulf water.

I want Captain Zip to tell me about the barometric pressures and the sandbars and the schools of menhaden he loved, but most of all, I want him to tell me about the monsters.

#

It felt like kicking a bolt of lightning. One freestyle stroke and the girl had run into the deadliest creature in the ocean. Her leg seized up, and she shouted that she’d been stung. She was hauled onto the boat, her dive gear stripped, an entire bottle of vinegar poured on her leg. And then, her limbs began to seismically shimmy, the neurotoxins kicking in. The girl convulsed for six hours that night, falling in and out of a dream-state, imagining all the little harpoons digging through the skin in her leg and shooting up her bloodstream, into her heart.

She asked the woman she was with if she was going to die, without much animation. It felt like the proper, cinematic thing to do as they leafed through marine life guidebooks and tried to understand why her body was having such a bad reaction. Through the haze, it was determined that if she went into anaphylactic shock, she’d need to be airlifted. If she didn’t, they’d let her body “ride out the poisons.”

That night and into the morning, the girl wrote down all the people she loved in a bulleted list in her head. She imagined the different ways they might tell her story.

#

Unlike many of its cousins, Alatina alata has four eye-clusters with a total of twenty-four eyespots. Although scientists are unsure as to the connection between the nervous system and these eyes, they have concluded that the species reacts to dark shapes in its environment.

It’s been documented that these sea wasps achieve up to four knots while stalking their prey, contradictory to the normal planktonic methods of most jellyfish. This is to say—the thing hunts. It is a predator. It belongs amongst our daydreams and our nightmares of the ocean.

This is to say—it was not a passive sting.

#

On those nights of cyclones, I think about how Captain Zip, shrimper and fisherman and father, turned down hundreds of mermaids for my great-grandmother. He believed in them the same way I believe in aliens.

If there are no mermaids, I wonder what pearly, iridescent eyes he actually saw beneath those waves. What monsters clung to the bottom of his boat, painful barnacles too calcified to scrape off. I wonder what spell he fell under. If it’s hereditary.

He fled to the ocean again and again and again. He passed before he could recount his monsters to me, before he could paint pictures on the insides of my eyelids before I slept.

On those nights I can’t fall asleep, I want him to tell me the genesis story of his fear.

#

If she could do it again, the girl would drape herself in pantyhose and stay far away from the flashlights. She would swim with her legs parallel to the surface instead of straight down. She would keep her mask glued to the water, not the stars.

But even now, she knows she would ignore the tiny voice in her gut, the one whispering of her trespass in a world she doesn’t belong in. The one silently screaming danger.

#

Since humanity first began telling stories, we’ve been fascinated by the predators that remind us of our place. The mountain lions and tiger sharks and sea snakes and grizzly bears that have prowled the shadows of our cave drawings have also been the evils of our oral histories, and despite the growing separation between man and nature, we are still, today, fascinated by the creatures that could kill us.

These beings dictate a story we are not familiar with, one in which we are no longer the center of everything. With them, we are a cog, a part of a chain, reminded of the dirt within our blood. We revere their power and fear their potential. We give these creatures more legs and spikes and slime and poison until we have something that makes our hearts pound at the mention of its name. We mix their stories with our own.

They become the monsters of our God.

#

Most days, she thinks about Irukandji syndrome, the long-term effects of envenomation by box jellyfish. About cardiac arrest and hypertension and she convinces herself she has an enlarged heart for more than just emotional reasons. She thinks about her favorite Irukandji symptom, a feeling of impending doom. She wonders if that’s truly just reserved for people on the verge of death, or whether we all feel those effects. Impending doom. Our fear of the end.

A brief glance at the final pages of the narrative.

#

Despite the seven-inch constellation on the back of my leg and the phantom shakes I get when my nerves set in, this girl returns to the ocean again and again and again. She stares for hours into the salt water and prays for the universe to open up to her, to let her explore the infinite blue-tinted spaces she needs to be a part of. She retells the fish fables that run through the estuaries of her family.

I must admit that my gulf swims are a little more hesitant now. I wade out into the water with my eyes on the surface, shuddering at the shreds of plastic bags and Sargassum seaweed that climb up my legs. I think about the slippery things that rule the waves, about how easily I could be taken under.

Once ashore, I grapple with my strange fondness of this unknown, my odd comfort in the places that speak of everything but safety. About my need to fill the empty, terrifying spaces with story.

#

Tonight, with my fingertips dipping into waves, I imagine what I’ll tell my children when I get back from space.

The unbreathable air. The deep, unblinking abysses. The edges of matter that expand and contract like tides. Alien creatures that stalk our shadows, beings that look at us the way we look at them.

I decide that when typhoons touch the edges of our town and my children climb into bed with me, I will tell them that they have inherited the best parts of storytelling from Captain Zip. I will promise them that they will grow into their craving for danger, just like their mama.

With their warm fingers wrapped around mine, I’ll tell them the story of a girl who almost died at sea, just looking for a place to be weightless.

You Cannot Return to the Burning Glade

Trail Diary, Day 377

Birds: Barred owl, still and silent at the top of the old oak. Chickadee on her buckthorn branch at the edge of the clearing. Waiting for me and my pocket of seeds.

Animals: None to be seen in the trailcam frame, but hoofprints in the mud by the creek. Deer. A big buck by the depth of the imprint.

Notes: I couldn’t walk the trail today, not after the call from the hospital, and later with the funeral director. I stood at the door for a long time, breathing in what scents the wind sent me—sticky pine resin, leaf mould, and somewhere not far off, the black tar of roadwork. I couldn’t move past the front porch. Couldn’t bear even a quick jaunt, the trail so close to home. Feeling too much like I might miss an important phone call—might miss news of you. But those days are over. So I watched the trailcam, curled up with my laptop on your side of the bed. With my head on your pillow. It still smells like you.

#

Trail Diary, Day 379

Birds: A crow, worrying something on the chickadee’s tree. Some small bit of a scavenged kill, lodged between branches. Kept the camera trained on it for a long time, remembering those videos we used to watch of crows using tools, how delighted we were by each quizzical cock of the avian head. Like they would figure out this whole messed up world given enough food pellets. Remember how we tried to lure them to the yard with peanuts, hoping they would leave something in return? Today the chickadee is nowhere to be seen.

Animals: A grey squirrel crossed the frame, but stayed on the far side of the creek. Skirting the bank as if avoiding something. Maybe a snake’s hole. New deer tracks in the mud.

Notes: Still in bed. Still with the trailcam. I will make myself get up tomorrow. Eat something. Cross the front porch and stand in the sunshine, no matter how it burns. Remember when we would stay in bed all day? We’d lie so close, nearly every part of us touching—toes, knees, bellies, noses. We breathed each other like our lungs were connected. Ate only because we thought we had to. Because somewhere beneath feeling we knew that love could not sustain us forever. It was one of those times you looked me in the face—inches away, I could taste your breath. You said, “I’ll come back for you, Dee. I’ll give you a sign. Believe me.” And I did. I do.

#

Trail Diary, Day 383

Birds: Chickadee was there on her branch, and came to my hand. The weight of her on my finger was almost too much. Her little claws too piercing. Feathers too delicate, brushing my open palm. Watched her eat seeds, tears streaming. Crow-calls a mile off.

Animals: None. No fresh prints on the bank. But there was a deer leg—lower-half, burnished fur to the ankle, gleaming bone and red muscle intact—wedged into the Y of the tree. Probably eagle-dropped. Should have included this in the bird list above.

Notes: My lungs burn with exertion, fresh air. Feels like it did during the fires last year, when we could barely breathe outside at all. Maybe it isn’t the air now; maybe I will never be able to breathe again. Maybe this is how you felt?

#

Trail Diary, Day 385

Birds: The shadow of a host of sparrows crossed my bedroom window.

Animals: Trailcam is open on the desktop, sound on. Red squirrel scolding, marking some disturbance. I can’t look.

Notes: In bed again. Since being out on the trail yesterday, every shift of light, every breath of pine or juniper carried on the wind, every sound seems to trigger some remembrance. Something I swore I’d forgotten comes to me through the chatter of a squirrel’s teeth. The shape of the light through a clutch of maple keys. We tried to tap a few of those trees out past the glade in our second season, but in the drought the previous summer the trees drew the sap deep, keeping it for themselves. We didn’t know the state of things. Thought we’d just done it wrong. We laughed about it in bed later. Laughed so hard we cried, a bit drunk on that sour elderberry wine the neighbour brought. And on possibility.

I kissed the tears from the corners of your eyes and I meant it.

But is this what you meant for me when you threw the rope up over the branch of the biggest maple? When you threw yourself back down to earth? Or did you intend, instead, a warning? Let not your step grace this patch of grass. Lest you remember . . . . But you didn’t die, love. Not right away. Not for weeks.

#

Trail Diary, Day 386

Birds: Turkey vulture overhead the whole way from the house to the chickadee’s glade. Not yet, not yet. No chickadee, but bluejays were screaming from the pine grove up the hill.

Animals: Three days ago I recorded that some bird had dropped a deer leg in the tree but now I’m second-guessing. It’s a whole leg, nearly to the flank. How could I have missed that? A whole deer leg in a tree is not something easily missed. But I missed it. I must have. I must have missed it like I missed the ways the land was changing—the months of drought, insects I’d never seen before. I must have missed it like I missed the signs of your illness—your breakdown—because I didn’t want to see? A deer leg needs a damned big eagle to carry it away. Or a cougar? I don’t see mention of cougar prints or scat in the diary. I would remember that.

Notes: The diary reminds me it’s almost time to do the back-burn again. How I will do that without you, I don’t know. That first year, when we didn’t do it—we didn’t know—how could we have known?—the fire came so close we had to turn the hose on the porch rails. Stay up all night to keep the wood wet. You fell asleep in your chair, hose running. Woke up screaming at me to get into the pond. To save myself. Wide awake but still dreaming, you couldn’t fathom—couldn’t see—that the pond was bone dry. Was that the first season I noticed a change in you? When we lived in the city it was easier to put these things aside. But when we found that doe caught in the fence, her head seared to the skull by some quick-burn wind, you weren’t ever the same after that. After we walked the woods with your gun looking for all the half-burned souls. After that you mapped the fires. Tracked temperatures. Expanded your recording to the entire country. The continent. The world. The numbers were too much, too heavy. It was hard to breathe.

#

Trail Diary, Day 388

Birds: No chickadee on the trailcam today.

Animals: No.

Notes: Maybe it’s the angle of the thing. Maybe I’m just going fucking crazy. But the deer leg’s past flank now. Can I see shoulders? Black singe marks on the fur. It’s moving. Back legs kicking. Trying to get free.

#

Trail Diary, Day 389

Birds: The chickadee is nearby. Calling and calling, but I haven’t seen her.

Animals: Something is screaming in the forest. I can hear it with all the doors and windows closed. With our bedroom door closed.

Notes: I know what I’ll see on the trail. I’ve seen it before. The tangle of stiff limbs. The singed fur. The skeletal mouth in a rictus of agony. The grid of teeth barring all mercy. Antlers like a lightning burn. Just like you said you would, you’ve come back to me, love. But you haven’t left your pain behind. You’ve brought it back to life. You’ve given it new strength. And you leverage that strength between me and the world I live in now without you. The world I love. Even without you.

You cannot return to the burning glade. The burning world.

Tomorrow I’ll walk the trail. Tomorrow I’ll go out with your gun in my pocket. I’ll bring extra bullets. But in the other pocket, I’ll have the chickadee’s seeds.

From the Embassy of Leaks to the Court of Cracks

We are sorry for the way this will arrive,

damp and damagesome. No doubt

the peculiar constitutions of our nations,

catastrophically susceptible to each other,

account for the long gap in correspondence

though here we find no record of any sort

to suggest a former, well-established channel.

That is, however, the way of our state;

we operate, as you can see, impromptu,

with agents very liable to defect.

Many have lived for a long time among you,

on a favorite shirt or as a way of thought

that landed on you suddenly and stayed.

 

Staying, as we hear, is something rare

within your fissured borders. Much tips out,

much topples. Much is built and clutches up

from treble-bound foundations, tenoned, splitting.

In your case, pride defers, takes second place

to the almighty fall. And how you love it!

The moment brickwork tears like rotten curtains;

the sound of earth exhaling after thunder

as brightness rushes back over downed walls.

For generations we’ve exploited this,

have learned both how to enter and to cling

to what you’re always opening. We stuck

and slurred your symmetries. It was enough.

 

But recent changes, so oppressive for

both you and us, have forced this Embassy

to use newfangledness. To be overt.

We’ll spell it in black mold, with feeling: PLEASE,

please tell us what would tempt you. Gasoline?

Redcurrant jam? A shattered whisky fifth,

muddled with builder’s earth? Take them. Take these.

Make it official; all we have, we’ll share.

Unerring knowledge of the passage through

is given us, which we will give to you

for love, and just one fractured future sight

of years to come. Friends, what we’re saying is,

please tell us everything we shouldn’t know.

Riverine

The house was wide open, all the windows lit with yellow light of a warmer shade than he’d ever seen in the city, and the table was laid for one. That was the way my father always told it. It was a strange tale to tell a child at bedtime, but I loved him to recount every detail—each dish set out for him, every floral pattern on every serving spoon. I marvelled at the exacting strength of his memory. As children we know our parents cannot lie to us whom they love so well.

He told me with relish as great as his story-self’s hunger about the owner of the house. A man, sometimes, with a heron’s neck or an otter’s smile or the glittering eyes of a damselfly, the rippling sheen of flowing water on his skin. The river man. My father made him sound beautiful, a creature of unknowable thoughts and unimaginable power, so when he got to the part where he promised this unearthly man to me in marriage, my heart fluttered with desire and excitement, my eyes wide. That was the part I made him repeat the most.

Walking out of the city, I am no longer sure whether I ever believed it was true.

The road to the river becomes greener than all the other roads, like a tributary bleeding slyly up into the city. At first you notice only skinny grass verges mowed to stubble, yellow as hay, and then low-growing daisies begin to gleam through, vying for your eye with litter thrown from car windows. You imagine the council men in fluorescent jackets wandering away with their strimmers, bemused, one by one, as the river man turns them away.

Under the bridge you must cross to get there flows an endless stream of cars instead of water. I hike up my wedding clothes to climb the steps. I’ll just be a flash of white to the people in their cars, a curiosity they’ll forget in a minute.

By the time I get to the river the vegetation is wild, a tangle of plaited sticks and old leaves, scrapes and burrows among the roots. My gloves and damp skirt keep catching my eye, winking like sunlight on snow. He was promised to me like a gift, but I’m the one who’s wrapped up and presentable.

I’m excited for this. But maybe part of all excitement is terror.

The grassy track leads to a garden without walls and a house I know from a lifetime of stories.

#

There’s a table in the garden barely visible under dishes I’ve spent hours imagining. The only difference between the real table and the story one is that this one is set for two, and my husband is seated there, watching me come into his home with dark animal eyes.

I don’t know how to greet a husband. I don’t know his name, if he has one. I don’t know if he knows mine. He doesn’t look happy to see me. He doesn’t look glad to be mine.

“Sit,” he says, and I almost burst into tears, certain I’ve been tricked somehow. I manage to sit beside him in the wooden chair, perhaps the same chair in which my father sat when he met my husband. The thought calms my shivering a little. “Eat,” says my husband. “This is your home now.”

I have friends with married sisters, who all say a bride can never eat on her wedding day. I thought it was some kind of rule, but now I understand. This whole feast laid out before me, and me in my clean white wedding clothes. It feels like a setup for a photograph, imitation food like the imitation diploma you get photographed with when you graduate so you don’t smudge and crease your real one with your anxious, sweaty hands. A bride doesn’t eat on her wedding day. You wouldn’t remember it anyway.

“What would you like?” asks my husband.

I think I’d like not to be married.

“What is there?” I ask, at a loss. I’m almost too scared to look at the dishes—pies and soups and salads.

He points, my husband, and his fingers are feathered in the black and brown bars and scallops of a female mallard’s plumage. He names every ingredient, many of which I have only heard of from my father’s story, and I choose almost at random. He serves me with a wide wooden spoon. Everything is wood but the knife blades, which are all mismatched in their settings. I’ve never seen so much wood in one place. No plastic or silicon or china, and what metal there is shines strangely, rough-textured.

This is a gift. My father arranged this for me because he loves me and wants me to be happy, and the river man is better than any of the city boys I’ve ever known.

And there’s that feeling again, of being tricked, because if the river man is a gift, then you’d expect I could refuse it, decline it, send it back. But I don’t think I can. And what’s a gift you can’t refuse?

#

Married life is not what I expected it to be. The river man is somehow never around and everywhere all at once. We eat together, always, and though the table is laden with a wide variety of dishes for me—damp, cool salads, roasted goose legs, roots and berries and dried fruits I don’t recognise—he eats only a little, and different every day. His head might be a cormorant’s, and then he’ll skewer fish on his beak and swallow them down whole, or he might have a fish’s bony plated face, in which case he will immerse his head in a bowl of water and nibble at weeds. Once it was something monstrously insectile. I feared a mosquito’s head on my husband’s body and a meal of blood at our table, but he ate nothing at all. Some short-lived flying creature whose adult form has no mouth, its body designed only to breed.

I sat awake in my room that night, wondering if he would be overcome by that other frenetic appetite, but I slept alone (when I slept at last), as I always did.

He speaks little. Sometimes out of necessity, when he is beaked or billed, when his throat has no vocal chords or his fangs get in the way. But even when his head is the head of a man or woman he keeps his words to himself, speaking only to ask me the barest question or tell me what I may or may not do.

“You can roam as you will,” he tells me at breakfast as I’m picking eggshell off the table. “You can swim in any water except the place beneath the alders.”

I know that alders are a kind of tree but not where they grow. “Why?” I ask, of all the questions.

“It doesn’t matter to you why,” he says.

How can he know without asking me? This is my home too. “You’re my husband,” I find myself saying, the lightest emphasis on the possessive.

He quiets me with a look. Today his eyes are amber, the pupils round and sharply delineated. I can’t recognise them. I think he might speak, but he doesn’t. He’s angry, though his eyes only continue to bore into me and his body ripples like an endless flow of water, a river in vaguely human shape. There is no body language there to read. But I know.

Because I questioned him? Because I won’t be denied my freedom? I’m beginning to understand the kind of life I’ve fallen into. There are places I may not go, and this outrages me in a way I can barely give shape to in my own mind.

#

I discover the little marsh by swimming.

I associate swimming with the smell of chlorine, blue-tiled pools, the feel of cold lycra. There’s none of that here. Just me and water.

No; me and water and mud and stones, and soft caressing weed like hair, and floating leaves and skimming insects and tiny darts of fish. There are waterbirds that dive beneath me and bob around my shoulders and kick water in my face when they decide they’ve had enough of me. Sometimes when something touches me I pull away, like a leg under a restaurant table opposite a stranger. Sometimes I reach out with open fingers and touch back, curious, unfurling.

I enjoy being changeable like this. I can be difficult and fickle here in my own private place, in a way I have never been able to do anywhere else.

The city was crammed with other people. You could see them through windows, or walking down the street. You could hear them through the walls. You could smell where they had been in perfume and sweat. And you knew that in all of these ways your own life was laid bare to anyone who wanted to see it.

I can feel the difference in the water as it gets more intimate with the land, the grittiness of it, a murkiness I can feel as well as see. I might be swimming in an entirely different river. The trees are different too, their skeletons spindlier. Woody brown things drift on the surface like petrified flowers. I begin to wade waist-deep, moving slow and dreamlike. The water has left brown tidemarks and stains on my collarbone and arms.

I’ve never seen another footprint by the river. I’ve never heard distant voices beyond the trees. No voice but my husband’s. No print but his mutable feet. The birdsong is mine and the current is mine. The thorns on the branches and the shells in the pebbles and the hard, sticky buds waiting for spring.

I don’t think this is how rivers are supposed to run, so cold and clear over their stones and then spread out luxuriously around a corner into this tree-studded water meadow. All of this is his wedding gift to me, and I think, capriciously, that maybe this could be enough for me to stay and be happy.

Something inside me that I’ve never known was empty is suddenly full. I wade past strange small flowers and wonder have I been so starved of privacy? Have I only wanted to be reassured that there are still places that we haven’t touched? The shape of this new fullness is too complicated; I can’t get it all in my head at once.

There are marks in some of the tree trunks, scrapes and splinters like they were gouged by teeth. Birds flicker at the edges of my vision. Flies skim silently over the water, making ripples like raindrops. Nothing’s ever quiet like this without a reason.

Something splashes and I pause my own splashing. A dark, low shape glides along the blurry bank. The teeth marks on the trees. Beavers. But—

There’s a sound that I wasn’t expecting and can’t parse. It might be vegetable or animal, tearing or growling. Something else moves among the trees. It looks black and heavy, strong. A boar when it turns in just the right way. It looks like it would sink faster than a stone. It snuffles closer so I stand taller and try to project my energy outwards—Go away. Don’t bother me. It takes no interest in me.

The next visitors are dogs, and they are very interested.

I, slightly disappointed, resign myself to the truth: that I’ve waded naked into an ordinary scrap of the woodland the city has allowed to remain, where people can walk and shade out the buildings from their view for an hour or two, and pretend they can’t hear cars anymore. I glance upwards, looking for aeroplane trails.

The dogs come closer, trailing no leads and wearing no collars, followed by no echoing voice calling their human-given names.

I move backwards and they watch me from the bank, mud up their legs, as though asking if I’ve realised what they are. One of them lowers its head, then another, and a couple begin to pace as if weighing up the prospect of me. How could I have mistaken them for anything but wolves? I back away, slow and clumsy, clouds of silt caressing my thighs, some strand of weed tightening across my Achilles tendon and snapping in slow, soft motion. The wolves follow me down at a comfortable pace.

I need to get back to the deep running water where I can swim, though I think of my legs, long and trailing like a fishing line off the back of a boat, waiting to be snapped. I must be getting close to home now. I turn my back on the wolves to see the same trees lining this slow, wide flow, with no sign at all of the riverbank I know. There’s a splash, then another, as my mind’s eye recreates perfectly the wolves coming into the water one by one. I rock and sway and no matter how hard I try I can’t move fast enough against this weight of water. The quiet is shattered with splashing now, the wolves’ and mine. My feet get caught in plants and mud, and the little sharp stones find the soft parts of my soles. I lose my footing, fall and keep on falling. I don’t land; my outstretched arms never touch the silty river bottom. I am being carried by the water in an infinite forward motion. Under now, spluttering uselessly.

I break the surface; my lungs take in air and my eyes take in sky in one quick deep gasp before I right myself again. The current is with me, bearing me up and away.

My husband stands on the bank, his eyes on me, and just as I recognise him he bends over and becomes wolf, and when the pack trots up the bank and away, pausing to shake water from their coats, he goes with them.

I stretch my legs to stand and wade indignantly against the current to demand to know whose side he is on, but the river ushers me away. I look over my shoulder to see only the cold waters I’m used to. Around the bend will be our house. I look back to him but the marsh is gone too, swallowed up by clean blue-grey shades of rock and water.

#

“I told you not to swim under the alders,” says my husband that night.

I don’t waste time being surprised. “I didn’t know those were alders,” I say. “I didn’t know what alders looked like.”

“You could have asked,” says my husband, his eyes like black beads or dark pools. “I would have told you.”

For once my thoughts and words are in harmony. “You can’t just give me all the freedom in the world with one arbitrary restriction.”

“It was not arbitrary,” he says.

“Then you should have told me the reason why when I asked you! I would have understood if there was a reason—”

“There was a reason.”

“—and I would have been more careful!” My voice has got so loud. If he’d answered when I’d asked then I might well have asked what alders look like and where they grow. There’s no way to prove I wouldn’t have.

“Why would your behaviour change?” he asks. “The reason is the same whether you know it or not.”

My feelings are all tangling up inside me now. “If you’d only told me there were wolves—”

“The wolves were not the reason,” he interrupts, because nothing can be easy with him.

And he went with them, not with me. He ran with them, and he left me alone in the mud and cold water. The image of him taking to four legs, waving his tail, sears itself in my mind so I know I’ll see it faint over every other thought I’ll ever have, and this childish jealousy crac
ling beneath it. The words refuse to form. “What was the reason, then?” I force myself to ask.

“The reason does not concern you,” says my husband.

The dam in my mind holds for now. I don’t shout at him the way I want to. I can only look at him and dare him to read all of these unspoken thoughts in my face if he can. Then even looking is too much, and I have to turn away.

“That place was not for you,” he says. I think I can tell the colours of some of his moods. I think he is asking a question of me. I think he is saying different things every time he repeats this thought. He wants me to understand or explain. Well, I can’t.

“I don’t understand,” I say flatly.

“Not everywhere is for everyone,” he says. “No one can have everywhere.”

“Except you.” The words slip past the dam.

“No.” His voice is gentle. I look back up at him, as though I’m looking for something and have almost found it. It isn’t there, whatever it is, in his face. His whiskers twitch a little in the breeze and that’s all. “You know what I am.”

What is it that I think I know? That he’s the river man. That he can’t leave this place any more than I can fly out of my own body. “You know what I am.”

Whatever he expects of me is unfair.

“You won’t cause trouble here,” he says. It isn’t even an order, just a fact.

“I wouldn’t have done anything,” I retort, stung. What does he think I am? What kind of vandal? He’s mine, and he ran with wolves rather than say a word to me, and I’ll never forget that.

“You wouldn’t have known if you did.”

“Did I?”

He says nothing.

“If you’d told me,” I begin, but he can’t bear to have it out again, and says, “Your kind can’t be trusted with knowing what isn’t your business. You haven’t changed.”

I swear he doesn’t raise his voice, but it gets louder anyway. The wind, the crash of water, the sound of stones, all of this is behind his words but his voice doesn’t change at all.

Though I know we are of different kinds his words set a fire behind my eyes. “What does my kind have to do with anything? I’m your wife, and if you’re only going to play games with me then why agree to my father’s terms in the first place?”

He doesn’t grow but he is larger all the same; towering, broad and with a kind of dynamic force even though he stands still.

I rise up from my seat, angry but careful. It feels obscene to upset this table, to scuff the chair legs against the ground and make the dishes clatter.

I run into the house, leaving the food to cool on the table. Leave it for the flies, the voles, the riverside foxes. I slam the door of my room and the presence of the walls is a weighted blanket of comfort. I draw the curtains to block out the view of the river, of my husband.

I haven’t thought about my father’s stories for a long time. I’m staring at the door, and it surprises me how safe I feel. He’s never come in here, not once. The table where we eat is outside. The river is outside so he is outside. Not everywhere is for everyone, he said.

I open the door onto the quiet landing, and leave it open all night.

#

For the next few days I stay inside, almost daring him to come in.

The quiet inside the house is too quiet. There are no other people nestled wall to wall and ceiling to floor with me, their lives spilling out into mine. I never thought I’d miss that constant sound.

I sit at our table in the evening, comfortably cool, the silence pressing in on me but at the same time unbreakable. It would only take a word, but I can’t, until my husband appears through the bushes, as though he’s come out from the river itself, stepped up onto those scattered rocks that stand up, green-bearded, from the water, and onto the hard-packed mud. I don’t know if he’s surprised to see me here waiting for him. He turns his head to look at me out of a cormorant eye, his beak daggerlike.

“I’d like to visit my family,” I say. It’s not really a question but it feels like one. How much of the story was ever true?

My husband’s eyes seem to flicker as he blinks. He comes to the table the long way around, away from me. I watch him walk openly, the way the light plays on the tight, sleek feathers down his neck, the way the leaves and slim vines around his arms quiver stiffly with his movements. Eventually he sits beside me, smelling of fish and sap. He won’t speak tonight. “I’ll go tomorrow,” I say. “I don’t know when I’ll come back, but I will.”

His wordlessness softens my heart towards him. It’s easy to take for a kind of powerlessness.

I find myself reaching out, and I touch him timidly on the arm, brushing a green leaf. He doesn’t move, his eye still fixed on me and his beak pointed away. Emboldened by the freedom waiting for me tomorrow, I reach higher, where his shoulder and neck meet and the feathers grow, and touch them so softly I barely disturb them. They give under my fingers, though they look as though they should be sharp.

His feathers lift all at once in a shudder, and I pull my hand away. They settle again into the sleek unbroken surface, and he doesn’t move, only continues to watch me. I don’t know if I’m allowed to touch him again, or if he wants me to. Either way, my courage has finally run out, and I look away.

#

I’ve been missing my old life so badly, but once I’m out of my riverside haven and back on the road, I feel like I’ve come to a place I’ve never been before. I’ve never noticed cars were so loud. Above me the sky is streaked with white furred vapour trails and the planes move too straight and steady, glint in the sun. They’re loud too, hissing and roaring above to drown out my own train of thought.

The ground gives way to tarmac, paving stones, concrete that has dried like dough on a kneading board.

I cross the bridge that will take me back home, my husband all but gone from my mind. I rise above the oppressive smell the cars leave in their wake, strong and somehow new to me though I must have been reared in it. It’s only something familiar seen from a new angle, but it’s all the stranger for that.

The further into the city I get, the easier my steps become. My feet still know the way. I could walk blindfolded and still get home. I’d have a harder time not ending up at my doorstep.

Some of the shops on the row are new, but I can’t remember what they used to be. The sign of what might have been an old launderette has been taken off to reveal letters bleached into the bricks, a family butcher’s which hasn’t been there since before I was born.

I wonder what day it is. What year. How old am I, or am I a ghost in a muddle of eras?

The door that used to be mine buzzes and opens.

As soon as I see my father’s face it’s as though I’ve never been away.

“Ey, flower,” he says, “you come inside.”

The matter of what story I’ll tell him is half-solved because he’s already chosen what he wants to believe. The kettle is already beginning to hiss before the door closes.

“It’s normal to fight,” he says. “Especially in your circumstances, with no time to get used to each other. I should have—”

“We didn’t fight,” I interrupt, and it doesn’t feel like a lie even though it is, and my cheeks are hot and red. “I just thought I’d visit home. It’s been a long time.”

He doesn’t quite believe me, but he approves of my direction nonetheless. I suppose it shows willing. “And he knows you’re here, does he?” His voice is all sympathy, but I wouldn’t blame him for being wary of the river man’s wrath.

“Of course he knows,” I say.

My father nods and pours the water. “I’m sorry if it’s not everything you hoped it would be.”

“There’s no problem,” I say. “I’ll be going back. Everything’s fine.”

“Does he treat you well?”

“Of course he does.” I don’t know why it would feel like a failure to have come back to say I was unhappy, or at least wasn’t ecstatically happy.

Someone has been lying to me. I take a tiny sip of too-hot tea to give myself a moment. I’ve run through it over and over, and can only believe that my father would lie to save my feelings, familiarise me with my fate, if he couldn’t alter it. He didn’t snare the river man for me.

“You don’t think he wouldn’t treat me well, do you?” I ask, genuine and devious in equal measure. My father slips into the old storytelling posture, and I can see the time that has passed and the changes which have taken place since . . . since when? Since he started telling me those bedtime stories? He changed like the river, slow and constant and beside me. The distance now, between this posture and that, with the larger, fuller outline of him visible around his greying edges in my mind, is like the way the city changes, sudden and jarring.

“You don’t want to hear those old stories,” he says, “and you a grown woman.”

“Why wouldn’t I want to hear about the person my husband was before we met?” I ask sweetly.

“You know him much better than me.”

“What did he say when you offered him marriage to me?” I ask. My suspicions are piling like leaves.

It’s his turn to drink his tea. By the way his eyes look over the rim, half-shadowed, he knows I suspect something.

“Was he pleased?” I ask. “Was he grateful? Has he ever thanked you?”

“Flower,” says my father, “just tell me what’s happened.”

I am telling him; he just doesn’t understand. “Did he ask for me?”

“Did he what?”

“Who made the offer?”

My father looks more comfortable at that, and the more at ease he seems, the more sure I am that he’s hiding something. “He thought he did, all right,” says my father. “That’s the only way to handle someone like your husband. And not bad advice for marriage either, if I say so.”

Perhaps not. And it’s tempting even now to fall back into that narrative, when we were on the same winning side, where my clever father outwitted the river man to make a superb match for his beloved daughter.

“But did he ask for me?” I ask again.

“He didn’t know about you to ask,” says my father, an easy enough sidestep. “How could he have?”

“What did you do that he needed to feel he’d got the best of you?” I ask.

He laughs. “What did I do? He’s a strange beast, is your husband. His rules aren’t ours. You must know that.”

Your kind can’t be trusted. My species or my family?

“I see you’ve learned that lesson,” he says.

His battle of wits was haggling a price.

“Have you offended him?” he asks.

“No.” A pitiful lie.

“No shame in it,” he says. “Like I said.” He gives a sort of shrug which encompasses everything he means; the strangeness of my husband, our inability to see his lines before we cross them. Perhaps I’m just reading into the gesture things that make sense to me, adding a sentence or two to some other story I’m not even aware is being told. That’s always been my father’s way, to give you enough narrative control that whatever you fill those gaps with will seem utterly natural to you, common sense.

“He’s good to me,” I say. Is he? “I’m glad to hear it.”

He will never tell me the truth. I know this. He’ll change the subject, squirm out of my questions, simply lie. How do you make someone tell you the truth if they don’t want to?

I don’t stay in town long.

#

Relief again as I get back to the river, where it smells young and full, damp and green after all the smoky smells of the city. Relief tempered with a little disappointment, a little resignation, the same way my relief at being back in the city was mixed with unease. I might never be truly happy in one place again.

My husband’s skin is scaled today, grey-green and black, and I find him spread on the rocks where the sun shines the strongest. Again I feel that urge to touch him though I know I shouldn’t. Not just because he’s a wild thing that doesn’t belong to me, but because of everything else.

His scales shine dry and smooth in the sunshine. I’ve never seen him here before, or scaled this way. Usually his scales are sharp and thin, fish scales. As he matches his meals to all the shapes of his mouths, perhaps his shape brings out other things in him, undertones and highlights of his deep and constant mood.

Unsatisfied with my father’s evasive answers in the city, I do the only thing it makes sense to do. I ask my husband.

“Do you remember my father?”

He looks at me with his snake eyes, slit-pupilled and shiny the way a stone can be shiny. “Yes,” he says.

It’s a bad habit, awful, really, how much of my perception of him is made up of expectations unmet, the things he doesn’t do rather than those he does, the things I’d anticipate from anyone else but him. Anyone other than him, for instance, would have been sure to let me know that they valued the experience of meeting my father particularly, because I’m their wife.

“He didn’t outwit you, did he?” I ask. “You punished him.” And I add, because I can’t expect my inferences to be understood, “Why did you need me?”

“I didn’t.”

“Why did you accept me, then?” There’s no point in being offended by the river.

“He broke my laws,” says my husband. “Over a long period of time, until it was impossible to ignore.”

I’m trying not to show how this unsettles me. “He told me he only met you once.”

My husband nods his agreement slowly. “He only met me once.”

He didn’t realise that every time he saw the river he saw my husband. “What did he do?” I ask, dry-mouthed.

“That is between me and him.” A predictable response.

“So I don’t deserve to know what I’m atoning for?”

“There is no atonement. I didn’t ask for him. I asked for you.”

“I clearly have some purpose.”

“Purpose, atonement, these are your words. I have none for them.” Filmy eyelids slide over my husband’s eyes. “He took more than he needed. He left only damage. I won’t show you the scars. Don’t ask to see them.”

It comes as a surprise to think of there being parts of him I’m not meant to see. He walks naked. I thought that this aspect of him at least I knew. Even after the encounter with the wolves among the alders, when he showed me just how easy it is for him to send me where he wants me to go.

“That’s a crime,” I say quietly. “What he did.”

“It’s between us.”

His actions have put me here, though, haven’t they? I’m the end of a long sequence of other people’s businesses. Duty settles on me, and dread. “What should I do?” I ask.

His mood shifts slowly beneath the surface like currents blowing sand at the bottom of the ocean. I can almost see them. “Nothing,” he says, uncomprehending. As though it has never occurred to him even to expect help.

#

I open my eyes to nothing. There are no lights here to cheat the night. The air is full of the sound of running water downstairs; it takes me a moment to unravel it. Has the house moved while I was sleeping?

Regardless, I’m warm and dry. My bedroom door is closed. The water keeps running, and it doesn’t take much to pull me along with it.

#

In the morning, I step down into a dark gleaming skin of water that covers the floor and laps halfway up the chair legs. There’s no way but through it and my feet grow slow and stiff with cold after just a few steps. Some of the furniture is upended, as though the ocean tide came surging in and sucking out.

The water licks icily up my legs the faster I walk, reaching fingers up my calves and daring pinprick touches up my thighs. It feels like old fairytales and saints’ bliss, the shock of it, the shivers.

When I open the front door the water all drains out in a rush, as though this ordinary house was perfectly watertight. My ankles are drying and my toes still numb as I watch the water seep away, running in narrow, determined streams that branch through the grass rather than sinking immediately into the soil. I follow it a few steps, still a little raw from sleep and all my higher judgements lying discarded on the floor of my bedroom with my clothes.

The streams begin to converge, and only then, knowing I’m close, do I begin to wonder whether this is a good idea. He was unsettled last night. Unquiet. I can’t imagine him as a wave, roaring from wall to wall and tossing chairs on his foaming crests like boats. How quickly did he flee to leave so much of himself behind? There are so many tiny cracks he could have slipped out of had he wanted to. Then why stay? For me? Then why leave?

Drops of him trickle down my shins.

I follow the streams of water to the rocks and watch them run like glass ropes into the river. So this is how he feels today. I find a comfortable place to sit on the stones, close to the water, and lower my hand in. I’m imagining it because I’m only human, but I almost feel the current flinch at my touch. Sound travels well in water, I think. I hope he can hear me through my bones.

“I’m sorry for bringing up a painful memory yesterday,” I say to the river. It feels good to say. Maybe because he isn’t here looking at me, answering, interrupting. So I go on. “I didn’t give my permission for any of this. I suppose no one does.” I let my sleepy lack of boundaries carry me a little further. “You didn’t either.”

Part of me thinks this will do it, that I’ll get to see him coalesce out of the water and take shape before my eyes. But at the same time it’s not much of a surprise when the river just keeps on running past me.

“I want to be what you hoped I’d be,” I say, but the moment’s gone. If I didn’t get him then I won’t now. “I’ll see you at dinner, I hope.”

#

It is, as ever, unsettling to see him wear a woman’s body, but I’m only relieved to see him at all tonight. He sits opposite me, shimmering in the warm evening light like gold on a streambed, and lifts his soup bowl to his lips.

He’s larger than me in every way, built to a different scale, and strong. His arms are thick and his thighs muscled. But he’s a swimmer, so the lines of his body are softened by the fat all water mammals need. It’s hard not to be intimidated by how perfectly made he is, impossible not to compare myself to him. Perhaps the other animals and birds of his river feel the same, lusting after him or spurred to rage by instinctive rivalry.

“I hope I didn’t disturb you this morning,” I say.

“I was only waiting for you to get up.”

“What for?”

“I wanted to see if you minded the mess I made.”

If he was human I’d ask, coyly, why it mattered what I thought. “I was only sorry for upsetting you,” I say instead.

“You did nothing.”

“No,” I say. “I did nothing. I did nothing when I should have done something.”

All those years.

He doesn’t understand, but that’s fine. There are rules about being in relationships with other human beings, sensible ones, about boundaries and responsibility and taking care of yourself first. They don’t apply here. His human shape is no disguise. He doesn’t own this land, he is this land. He can’t take care of himself, but he can take care of us, the warblers and otters and herons and me. And we can take care of him.

“Some things can’t be fixed,” he says.

“I don’t believe that.”

“And you’re so small.”

“That’s no excuse.”

His eyes focus on me. I wonder if this is the first time he has ever looked at me. I certainly feel like it is.

“You don’t have to show me what he did,” I say, “but if you don’t, nothing will change.” I know he doesn’t like the thought of not changing, stagnant water and being stuck in one shape. Time is change and therefore time is life. Change is life. Life is change.

“And if I do?” he asks. His shape changes his voice a little. It’s still him, but the throat from which it issues makes it higher, warmer.

“I can’t promise,” I say, “but I’ll try. Something will change.”

He can’t go on living this way. Neither can I. His borders are already so tight against the encroachment of the city, slipping past the sprawl in optical illusions, his ways hidden behind tree branch angles. How much of him have we stolen already?

“It could change for the worse.”

It could. I don’t want to believe that it could. “Tell me what to do, then.” There must be some ordeal, some ritual, some series of symbolic actions which will help.

“There are rules,” he says. “I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t tell you how your actions will change things.”

He is a river. His human voice is no disguise for that.

“I accept your terms,” I say.

“There is nothing to accept,” he replies, because he still doesn’t understand how humans work.

#

He will open himself to me, every inch of his bank. I will be free to wander and see what is there, try to find what has been done to him. I’ll need all my cleverness, all my knowledge of my own father to try to root out the places he despoiled. I will do something, even if all I can think to do is pick up litter from his banks. Even if all I can do is respect a place I shouldn’t go.

He chose me, and now I choose him.

My bedroom door stands open onto the landing, and with my head on the pillow I hear soft sounds of running water, and then quiet footsteps. My body rolls as the mattress sags beneath him, and I move aside to let him in.

Owl Prowl

My fiancée’s aunt takes us to look for owls.

We wear ice cleats. New family, new ways,

but I’m an indoor cat (cats are another thing

I’ve had to learn). I am new at this, new

as the ring on my finger, but my love

puts on earmuffs and glows in the full moon.

I pull up my hood. We stand in a circle

and strain for owl calls. Who-cooks-for-you?

Who-cooks-for-you? my new aunt calls, but no,

no owls come. Stillness. I hear the highway

and people shifting their weight, the ice cracking.

I’m an indoor cat, bundled up, impatient, but

I won’t ruin this pristine moment, not with

my love standing eager in the pale light.

I brace myself for a long and frozen watch.

 

But the wind dies down and the quiet trees

shield us as best they can. In my borrowed boots,

I stamp up and downhill, crushing crystals,

making the path safe. The night dilates our eyes.

as we wait in the cold, in the bright forest hush,

standing next to each other, facing out.

No owls come. And after all, it’s not so terrible.

On the Destruction and Restoration of Habitats

The forest preserve district wants me to cut down trees. With a saw in one hand and loppers in the other, I oblige.

As a child I got my destructive tendencies out in videogames and martial arts. Beating all of my friends at Street Fighter—and gloating about it—was fine. Plucking flowers was not. Even the ubiquitous dandelions like tiny weak suns in the lawn grass were meant to be seen, and only pulled once transmogrified to puffball form, wanting dispersal.

At the beginning of May this year, I ripped those vivid yellow heads off every single dandelion in my parents’ yard, and then when more had bloomed the next day I did it again.

After I’d dumped the pile of them into the trash, I went to the little patch of trees across the street. The grass here was sparse, a bloom of mushrooms welled from the drying mud. I squatted down and took a minute to admire a single violet plant. Heart shaped leaves framed purple flowers. The flowers are easily recognized even when they aren’t purple. The white ones are indigo-streaked to lead in the pollinators, but my favorite, for the irony and more, are the yellow violets. They are bright, though nestled close to the ground, and not as shiny as the five-petaled swamp buttercups that, as their name suggests, thrive alongside Illinois’ transient and permanent wetlands.

All these native plants and more—the mayapples, trillium, spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, woodland phlox; and those are only the current season’s more common flowers—evolved to thrive in specific conditions. Varying degrees of sunlight and wetness will even introduce variations within a species. The most vivid specimen of spring beauties I have ever seen, with shocking pink anthers that would put Barbie to shame, was about a minute after my sneaker filled with muddy water because of snowmelt on the unpaved trail. But I’ve also seen them growing in flocks in the grass, out in full sun, the characteristic pink lines on their petals faded to a more solemn hue.

But none of these thrive in the presence of invaders.

Garlic mustard pops up in the spring, leaves somewhat reminiscent of violets’, with little clusters of four-petaled white flowers. The roots smell like garlic, which is how it got the name, and it generates chemicals that kill its neighbors. When I see it, I rip it out—it’s not as persistent as dandelion. My family finds this very annoying when we’re out walking, but how can I squander the privilege of this knowledge, this access to the woodlands?

Before I found the local forest preserve, I joined whatever volunteer opportunities in habitat restoration came my way. Some of these included local youth. They came from various backgrounds, but the important thing was they were interested in the program, even when their destructive tendencies were less delicate than mine.

One year we were supposed to take a group of middle schoolers to plant trees in an impoverished neighborhood, which had its nature overwritten in concrete and scraggly grass. Of course, a group of middle schoolers and a few adults can’t dig all the holes needed for oak saplings. So the plan was—if I remember correctly—for the community service workers to dig the holes, leaving the saplings with their root balls for the kids to plop in and cover with dirt. Satisfying, right?

When we got there, there had been a mix up. The holes were not dug and there were only a few saplings.

Unable to do anything, the leader improvised a plan: cleanup. We would walk around picking up trash. Dime bags the kids didn’t understand (and we didn’t explain), thankfully—that time—no condom wrappers, and the litter of any place, even those where everyone has a reusable tote bag. Organic bars come in the same metallic wraps as their cheaper cousins.

We came to a tree, a slim thing caged by its surroundings, spreading thin leaves despite the mound of cigarette butts around it.

I’ll never forget the look on the kids’ faces. Why would people make such a mess, right there? It was a learning opportunity, to see the bar across the street and recall the order banning indoors smoking. Unintended consequences. Easily changed by being mindful of one’s own behavior. They cared, and I hope still care. I hope that when they are adults out on field trips, they don’t have to try to hide, at the end of an otherwise excellent kayak up our manmade lagoons, surrounded by squawking birds and shy turtles and the sinuous movement of water gliders, in the middle of the clear summer sky a blot of a cormorant dangling from a tree by the fishing line stuck in its throat.

My pathetic diversion didn’t work, because these were curious kids with functioning eyes and senses attuned after a solid hour looking for animals. But it didn’t stop them from continuing to participate in learning about and restoring nature. Not everything we do outside has to be a conquest.

Buckthorn, like garlic mustard, is allelopathic. It releases chemicals that kill its neighbors. There was one morning where, I swear, the second the last virulent orange trunk hit the earth, the frogs struck up their song, sunlight warming the newly cleared space. Thankfully buckthorn doesn’t grow amid standing water, but it had been close to the edge.

While it’s incredibly satisfying to yell “Timber!” as the creaking turns into a crash, the buckthorn isn’t actually dead. The thing about invasives is they’re not immigrants or foreigners, they are colonists. Killing their competitors is only the first step: they have to be able to grow and reproduce, too. As long as its roots are alive, buckthorn has the opportunity to send up whippy shoots en masse. When these have the opportunity to grow, they create a whole tangle that’s hard to cut down, tangled trunks and branches, and of course the thorns they’re named after.

The only solution is to destroy even the roots, by painting a herbicide onto the trunks that will leach through.

You may have heard of this one.

It’s called glyphosate.

When it’s not damaging farm workers and bees, glyphosate is saving habitats by killing off the invasives that destroy our habitats, the rare plants and animals which adapted to their niches over the course of millennia, only to be derailed by a succession of introductions both intentional and otherwise.

Paying extra for organic produce, living in a place with enough volunteers and staff to maintain the woods that release crisp, fresh air from their rich green leaves, the carpet of moss and grass and flowers underfoot attracting birds that sit up in the branches and trill away, with no consideration for an amateur photographer—it is easy to not understand why things like glyphosate still exist, are still used.

But until there is another solution, our options are limited. We cannot go back in time to save that biodiversity before it ever became threatened, before the pale furl of a blue flag iris beneath its stiff proud leaves became a rare event. We must move forward.

Until there are better options, I will be in the forest, sawing down trees and pulling weeds, with the other regular volunteers and student groups that still, in the middle of a million other assaults on nature, take the time to try and heal this piece.

You’re invited.

you said, ‘they’re making the ground soft’

maybe ground is meant to ripple

and sag like skin showing

 

her age. the wisdom

of roots aching to surface

 

maybe we’re meant to stumble

and break blades made for vain

 

manicuring to steep amazement

in unpredictable growth

 

you downed nana cottonwood onto

teenaged limbs, too young

 

to hold weighted life, a shock

of white, stripped bark and sodden

 

leaves. the birds stand on it all, ever

resilient, flexible. these will be new

 

nests. there is no pride here, only

adjustment, as there always is

 

when the flightless impose

their ground on the sky

The Wild Inside

We had to close up another building that day—bolt the doors shut, board over the windows, stop up the chimney and all the vents with concrete. Hank Parker came stumbling out of his house, gasping and cussing, dragging his two oldest kids by the arm while his wife huddled on the sidewalk with the three-year-old. As soon as Hank got clear, he was shaking the two kids, Lisa and Mikey, and giving them a dressing down like only a man who’s devastated and angry and shocked and ashamed all at once can manage.

Thin sunlight shone down on the Parkers’ neat one-story house, glinting off the clean-polished windows and making the butter-yellow siding look all warm and inviting. It showed off the perfectly cleaned and swept expanse of concrete that was the front yard, stretching flat and greyish white all around the house to where it butted up against the older sidewalk with its grainier surface and patched cracks. It was a shame to have to abandon such a nice place, but the Parkers should’ve known to keep watch on their kids.

I mixed fresh concrete in a barrow to one side, giving polite pretense to ignoring the verbal thunderstorm going on just a dozen steps away. From the shouting I gathered that Mikey’d been collecting leaves and flowers, pressing them into books—for a school project he said, like we didn’t all know that for a lie so awkward it was embarrassing. And Lisa’d been raising some tadpoles in a jar of water. Where she’d found them I’d like to know; leaves and flowers were scarce enough in these times, much less wild creatures.

The wet concrete went scush, scush back and forth in the barrow. I scooped up a bucket of it and started up a ladder another member of the containment crew had set up for me. I was the youngest member of the team, at thirty-eight, and the hardest labor fell to me. It was the proper way to order things, even if my muscles ached for days after, each time we had to do this.

It was always the kids. Victor and I never wanted children enough to go through the hassle of a surrogate or even adoption—and having watched the play of civilized life dwindling as we all hung on as well as we could, I was just as happy to never have had that responsibility.

Keeping the kids in line—that was the trick of it.

The bam-bam-bam of hammers added percussion to the howling, snarling, whining symphony at the foot of the yard when Ynez and Chris and Peter arrived with the old, reclaimed plywood sheets and nails for the windows, and got to their task. We were running low on plywood; in another year at most, we’d have to talk about completely dismantling some of the sealed buildings for materials.

I was pouring the sixth bucket of concrete down the chimney when the shouting near the sidewalk peaked to a crescendo before cutting off, as though someone had flipped a switch on one of the stereos only those of us over twenty could remember. I looked down at the Parkers and saw that Lisa was shaking her hand at her father, her ponytail bobbing in rhythm.

“It’s food!” she shouted into the aghast silence. “It’s good, it’s fresh, it’s wonderful! It’s right there to take and I don’t see why we can’t—”

Her mother silenced her with a hard slap across the face, then another slap at her hands sent four round, brown nuts bouncing tic-tic-tic-tic down onto the concrete.

I’d like to say I almost fell off my ladder, because it gives a dramatic beat to the story, but that’d be a lie. I stood there, my bucket dangling from one hand and the other hand locked around the top rung, because I’m not stupid.

I was shocked, though. I watched the nuts—hazelnuts, I think they were, although it was hard to tell from this far away—scattered across the yard, their dark, earthy brown like dirty stains on the clean cement.

Hazelnuts were from before. My mom had always bought five pounds of mixed nuts, raw in their shells, every year at Christmas. She’d kept the big bowl on the coffee table full, with nut crackers stuck into the mass and another bowl to one side for shells. We’d sit around, the adults on the couch and kids crosslegged or kneeling on the floor, talking about whatever, or listening to Christmas music, or watching TV with the sound cranked up so we could hear the dialogue around the sound of cracking shells.

Hazelnuts had always been my favorite.

I hadn’t had one in years, and the packages of powdered hazelnut creamer we still found sometimes weren’t the same. Victor made cookies or muffins sometimes, if the foragers came back with unspoiled flour or some kind of mix. The hazelnut powder in cookies or muffins almost reminded me of hazelnuts, more than the baked goods we could make without eggs or leavening reminded me of cookies or muffins, actually.

Real hazelnuts, though? They were dangerous.

Hank was shaking Lisa, with Mikey hanging off one of his arms. Nobody stepped in. Lisa was twelve, more than old enough to know better. Now the concrete yard would have to be scrubbed every day for a while, watched for any hint of cracks. We could lose the whole neighborhood if the wild breached the pavement.

I looked away, climbed up to the roof and poured my bucket of concrete into the chimney.

All the Parkers were screaming by then, their voices bouncing and clashing off the concrete ground, the metal siding, the glass windows, the plastered rock walls that ran all up and down the neighborhood. The discordant clash broke the orderly peace of the place, an aural mess outside to match the physical mess in their house. Their former house; the neighborhood association would have to find another place for them. Sunnyvale had always had mild weather; rain wasn’t likely, so with some clean bedding, they could sleep outside for a few nights. Maybe not comfortable, but it wouldn’t cause them any harm. It’d be a good lesson for the whole family, I thought. Give them a sharp experience of what an uncontrolled environment was like.

The crew and I finished our jobs some time after the dinner hour. Abe Koker was designated cook for the containment crew, in charge of making sure we got fed no matter how late we worked. The red plastic cooler sat open in one corner of his kitchen. It needed restocking; a glance told me there was only enough in it for one more meal, or maybe two if Abe stretched it.

He handed me a plate of spicy pickles stirred up with some spam crumbles and reconstituted raisins, a hunk of dense flatbread to dunk in the liquid laid across one side. I went back out front and settled on a blue plastic yard bench to eat. I’d never liked pickles before, but they kept well if they’d been made and sealed properly, and most of the vegetables we had were pickled, scooped out of dust-coated jars.

Victor came in before I finished my dinner. He sat down on the bench next to me and leaned against my shoulder.

“Damndest thing,” he said.

“Yeah.” I took another bite of pickled cauliflower and chewed. The fiery burn of the dried chile Abe added to most of the food he cooked covered whatever taste of spoilage might be hiding around the edges. Anyone who didn’t have a cast-iron stomach had died long since; those of us left could tough out food that would’ve closed a restaurant down when I was a teenager.

“We should’ve had kids.”

That stopped me in mid-chew.

“No one’s said anything, but people look, you know. Carl Tulliver was chatting to me about how lonely his sister Claire has been since her husband passed. They lost all three of their kids, and he says Claire wants a baby.”

I swallowed and said, “Plenty of men to give her one. Ricky Mendez has been living away from Eleanor for almost eight months now. Doesn’t look like they’re going to patch it up. Carl should toss Claire at Ricky, see what happens.”

“It’s not about specifics,” Victor said, a note of impatience in his voice. “When it started, we all had other things to think about. Once things settled, we thought we had a handle on it. But it’s been twenty years, nearly, and we’re losing kids. Most people were ignoring it—you don’t want to talk about something that hurt so many families—but you can’t pretend it away anymore.”

I huffed and took another bite of my pickles.

Of course I’d noticed. But we were together and I didn’t feel like bringing a woman into it.

“We wouldn’t have to actually be fathers,” Victor said, like he’d pulled the thought out of my mind. “Just . . . you know, donate sperm. If you’re really against actually having a kid. But we should contribute.”

I swallowed and gave Victor a side glance. “It won’t help.”

“No, likely not,” he admitted. “But it’s not about actually fixing the problem. It’s about living in the neighborhood, contributing. We shouldn’t shirk this, or be miserly about it.”

I knew Victor well enough to know he’d sunk his teeth into this. I avoided weeks of quiet arguments by saying, “Fine. You want to be a sperm donor, I don’t mind.”

He leaned over and bumped my shoulder again. “We need to fit in, be accepted,” he said. I knew he was right, but I hated disruption. Our world was built around clean, orderly routine. Anything different made me wince, as viscerally as a sour note.

I finished eating, then Victor and I walked over to the school for band practice.

Seventeen of us in the neighborhood had played instruments before, and managed to keep them working and maintained through the upheaval. We didn’t have enough power for the constant electronic entertainment I’d wallowed in as a kid, even when we could find a music player. If we wanted music, we had to make it the old fashioned way. I didn’t really mind. I’d been a band geek all through school, but finding a group of adults to play with was tough unless you wanted to commit to a city orchestra, or Have A Band and hustle for gigs. There never seemed to be enough time for that back when I was a newbie electrical engineer with a busy life ahead of me.

Fourteen of us made it to the band room that evening. Bodies warmed the room a little, and it’d heat up more when the audience arrived. The matted carpet was a dirty grey-tan under our feet, but it was clean; we scrubbed it with detergent and brooms every other week. The folding metal chairs fought back against our butts, it seemed, but standing was worse. The candle smoke perfumed the air with a hodge-podge of paraffin and ancient perfume—vanilla and rose and jasmine and pine and pumpkin. Candles lasted if you didn’t burn them, and folks were usually sparing of them. Everyone brought candles on band night, though.

We had a great session. We messed around at first, practicing and trading riffs, trying new things. After the first hour, other people filtered in, to stand or sit around the periphery and listen. We moved into playing actual songs then, and went through a couple of sets, with a water break in the middle.

Music lets me focus on something else. It’s something that’s real, but not. You can’t see it or touch it, it’s just vibrations in the air. If you do it right, its effect is way beyond what “vibrations in the air” should be, but there you go. You can follow it into its own world. It’s transformative, and evocative. You can work it the way you’d ration your water, or you can play with it the way we used to mess with video games—vitally important and completely irrelevant, both, depending on what you put into it and what you wanted to take from it.

I needed to play that night. By the light of the hoarded candle ends, I threw myself into my trumpet and let myself just have fun. Victor could jam with his flute, and the two of us swirled around each other, teasing and challenging and practically having aural sex right there in the air above everyone. The other band members followed along and the fun multiplied. The clapping and tapping and singing of the people in our audience took it to another exponent, and we all rocked, defying the wild with our celebration of perfectly timed and ordered notes vibrating through the air.

Afterward, Victor and I volunteered to clean up. Everyone else left while we took our time cleaning our instruments and putting them away. Victor used a long-handled broom to scrub a few smudges of soot that candle smoke had left on the white ceiling. I polished a window that’d had three people sitting on its sill for two hours, making the glass shine clear.

We didn’t hurry. I’ll admit we paused here and there for some making out, because we might’ve been approaching middle age but we weren’t dead.

By the time we left, most folks in the neighborhood were in bed. There wasn’t much you could do in the dark—talking, singing and sex were pretty much it. So when I heard a light, rhythmic crunching over in the dark where the fence was, on the far side of the school playground, I put a hand on Victor’s arm.

Crunch-crunch-crunch, barely audible footsteps in the gravel, low but clear in the crisp night air.

I exchanged a look with Victor and we swerved in the direction of the playground fence, walking as lightly as we could. I steered us toward the deepest darkness; it wasn’t a direct line to the source of the sounds, but I was pretty sure I knew what was out there, and I didn’t want to have to break into an all-out run any sooner than I had to.

We followed whoever it was, timing our footsteps to match theirs, away from the school and between a pair of houses that’d been abandoned years ago, all the paved ground between the buildings open—we’d scavenged every backyard fence within a dozen miles years ago.

We crossed a street, passed through yards of dirty pavement that no one had tended in weeks. One patio was a mass of cracks and fissures, with twisted rows of plants growing through, like crazy hedges a finger-length tall. The houses themselves were sealed with plywood and bolts and concrete, holding off the invasion of the wild, but we didn’t have enough people to keep every bit of it clean and orderly, and this far away from the neighborhood there were cracks in our defenses.

I felt prickling fear run up and down my back as we walked through the living chaos. Anything could be there in the lightless spaces under the eaves and beside the chimney, or the deep shadows between houses where even the moonlight couldn’t penetrate.

Across pitted asphalt and badly patched cement, following the footsteps. The nearest inhabited houses were blocks away now, and every minute or so I heard a shred of voice blow past on the wind. I couldn’t distinguish words, nor recognize the voices, but I knew who was ahead of us.

Victor and I had longer legs, and eventually we could see the moving shadows ahead of us—a taller figure with a ponytail, a shorter figure carrying a long stick. In the twists and turns between buildings, I saw that both shapes had the humpbacked silhouette that meant backpacks.

Running away seemed like an extreme reaction for the Parker kids. Their parents had been mad, sure, but how did two kids expect to be able to su
vive on their own?

Dumb question—they were kids. Ten- and twelve-year-olds might be a lot more capable now than when I was that age, out of necessity, but they were still kids, which meant they didn’t think things through. Didn’t have all the info, didn’t have the judgement, and were likely to just assume things would work out the way they wanted.

The wind brought shreds of stressed voices back to us, along with a quickened patter of sneakers on concrete. I expected them to swerve off the street and duck between houses again, try to lose us, but they just tore straight down the block, heading in the direction of the old mall.

We might have longer legs, but Victor and I were a lot older, and kids’ve always had energy to spare. Their small shapes grew closer at first, gaining detail in the moonlight, but half a minute later they were gaining again, and I could hear Victor gasping for breath next to me.

I pushed on, not willing to lose two more kids for the neighborhood.

The street we ran down spread wide enough for six cars, and up ahead I saw an intersection like a city plaza. The asphalt river ran between islands of concrete, mountains of stucco and steel and siding rising up, square-edged, on either side. There was an older shopping center—a few short blocks of city streets lined with shops—just this side of the larger and slightly newer mall. Rustic and twisty, designed to make it seem bigger than it was, Lisa and Mikey likely thought they could lose us there. They might be right.

The bigger shadow, Lisa, put on some extra speed and dragged her brother into the shopping center. They vanished around a corner; Victor and I got there as fast as we could, but there was no one in sight when we rounded it.

“Keep looking,” I hissed, trying to be quiet while panting hard. “We’ve got to find them.” I waved him on down the main drag while I took the first turn to the right, between what’d been a drug store and a shoe store.

I remembered working with the containment team, sealing up the shops right behind the foragers who were hauling everything out, everything that might conceivably be useful some day.

The decorative wooden pillars that held up the clay tile roof extending out to the edge of the sidewalk from the rows of stores had been engulfed in ivy. Without regular maintenance, wood cracks and weathers. We’d torn it all off when we sealed the structures, but ivy is fierce and voracious, and without constant battle it’ll always regroup and surge forward into any territory it can claim. The ivy on the shop walls, under the awning, got little sun; straggly and thin, it left only a bare garrison to hold its captured walls. I stayed in the street, well away from the wild greenery, but that just meant I could see where it covered the pillars and the roof, dark and thick, mounds of the stuff.

I felt my skin crawl just being near it. Any greenery was creepy, but ivy? It was made to strangle, and it could have anything lurking in it, hidden by the leaves. Bugs? Even wild animals? What were the kids thinking, choosing such a place to hide?

Maybe they thought we wouldn’t follow them?

I was creeped out, yes, but it made me that much more determined to find the kids and get them away.

I stopped and listened. I heard Victor calling. That’d just let Lisa and Mikey know where he was so they could avoid him. Once he was done with his shouting, though, I heard the pet-pet-pet sound of running sneakers on asphalt coming from the south, in the direction of the mall.

That made no sense. The older shopping center was infested with the wild, but kids at that in-between age were often less wary than they should be. I’d expected them to try to lose us here and then dash off to one of the surrounding neighborhoods, either east or west. The mall, though, was surrounded by open expanses of asphalt. Its old parking lots were easily patched, so nothing grew there. They provided no cover. I rushed on south, expecting to see Lisa and Mikey as soon as I got clear of the shopping center.

Sure enough, they were just dashing around the leftmost corner of an old anchor store, dark shadows against the dirty beige stucco, stark in the moonlight.

Footsteps pounded behind me and a glance over my shoulder showed that Victor had figured out where the action was. He was still a block and a half behind, though; the night air carried sound so well I’d hoped he was closer.

I rounded the corner, pivoting with one hand on a lamppost that creaked and left my palm gritty. There, Lisa and Mikey hunched near where the store entrance used to be.

I thought they’d given up—run out of juice, maybe—and I slowed to a fast walk, sucking oxygen in heaving gasps. Then I heard a sharp creak and Lisa vanished. I squinted into the darkness, trying to see whether she’d just moved into a deeper shadow, or maybe crouched down behind her brother, but I couldn’t see any sign of her. Then Mikey ducked down and he was gone too.

Inside. They’d gone inside.

I shouted for Victor and ran up to where the kids had disappeared. The whole side of the building was dark, but when I got within arm’s reach I could see that the plywood nailed over the wide doorway had been pried up. The very bottom looked like it hadn’t been nailed at all, and when I tugged on the lower corner, it pulled a few inches away from the wall. There still wasn’t enough clearance for me to get through; the kids would’ve barely fit.

I started pulling hard, and heard more nails loosening and the wood giving way—crack, crack, crack.

Victor came pounding up, gasping for breath. “What—whadyou—doing?!”

“The kids went inside. We have to get them out. Help me.”

“Crazy!” Victor huffed, but he got his hands on the edge of the plywood and yanked with me.

It was probably less than half a minute before the board gave a final snap and hinged outward, leaving a gaping hole.

Light streamed out. The air that puffed out of the gap was humid and slightly warm. The floor just inside rose up higher than the threshold of the old door, thick with dirt and loam, leaves and twigs, and in the light that seemed to be glowing softly from every direction at once in there, I could see little things with lots of legs moving around, over the twigs and under the leaves.

I could feel adrenaline pumping through my veins and sweat dampening the back of my neck. This was wild, the wild inside, the wild we fought to keep out of our houses with constant maintenance, watchful vigilance, scraping away every blade of grass and sprout and leaf. This . . . this was lost.

I swallowed hard and crawled inside, scrambling to my feet as soon as I could, hopefully before any of the crawling bug-things got on me.

Inside, I looked around and almost lost my balance.

The door was still behind me—I looked around and checked and saw Victor’s head poking in—but it was just a hole in what looked like a cliff face. The ground I was standing on sloped sharply down starting just a step or two away from the hole. Huge trees and dense bushes grew all around, softening the slope and whatever gouges and gaps there might be in the . . . well, the cliff face.

In front of me the land was gashed by a narrow canyon, running farther than I could see right and left. It was only about a hundred or so feet across, but there was no way over, no bridge, nothing at all that looked constructed. Everything I could see was leaves and fronds and blossoms and grass. A bird went swooping out of an overhanging tree and down into the canyon where it vanished beyond the lip. Something with grey fur skittered up the trunk of a tree farther on.

“Do you see the kids?” asked Victor, his voice hushed. “Any sign?”

Right, the kids. I looked down, figuring I could pick up their tracks with the ground all soft. Sure enough, there were two sets of impressions. They weren’t sharp like on dusty concrete, but a long, ovalish depression in the leaf litter that repeated alternately right, left, right. The tracks headed off to the left, around an outcropping that bulged out from the cliff where the door was, then vanished. I took a couple of steps, following the tracks, moving slow and deliberate. The outcrop was patchy with feathered lichens and the occasional tuft of velvet moss. A grey bulge suddenly scuttled away—it was a lizard, but I’d thought it was a piece of the rock, and when it moved I jumped.

Bright green birds with scarlet heads launched themselves up off the rock over my head and dove down at me, the whole flock of them. I hollered in fright and ducked down with my arms curled over my head. From my crouching position I could see a fuzzy worm of some kind crawling up my pants leg with a sickening, undulating sort of movement. I dashed it off with my hand, then scrubbed my hand on the fabric of my pants.

A snake appeared, dangling from a branch, its forked tongue quavering at me, like it was tasting the air, trying to taste me. A shivering wave of terror gripped me and I turned and fled back to the door.

Shoving Victor aside, I crawled through, back out to the clean world where nothing wanted to crawl on my body.

“What is it? What’d you see?” Victor was back on his feet, poised to either run or grapple something.

“It’s lost,” I said, shoving the plywood back into place over the door. It wouldn’t be enough, of course. “It’s completely wild. We need to seal it, and not just plywood.”

“But the kids—?”

“They’re lost,” I said. I felt like I had a rock in my throat, or that snake, something slithering down and down and down into my belly so I couldn’t swallow, couldn’t breathe. I leaned against the broken plywood sheet and tried to catch my breath, slow my slamming heart. “I’ll stay. Go get the team—wood, bolts, concrete, everything. We need to seal this tonight.”

Victor nodded, his face all grim, down-turned angles. He gave me a hard hug, then trotted off.

I stood there with my back against the door. I hoped the kids would come out, that Lisa or Mikey or both would come to their senses and come home with us. I hoped, but I knew it wouldn’t happen. It never did. Still, I waited there, hands spread to feel for knocking, listening for voices, footsteps. I waited and listened until Victor came back with the others, and we started pouring concrete.