Wash’ashore Plastics Museum

From the dock, the sandbar across the bay looked awash with shipwreck survivors dragging themselves from the surf. It was low tide. The bay was a mirror of sky reflecting off the green Atlantic. Corin guided his Boston Whaler through the shallows, hoping to ferry the stranded back to shore. He already called 911 and the Coast Guard. Their nearest boat was an hour out.

It was mid-May. Salt spray kicked up from the boat’s prow. As Corin approached, he noticed the bleached white bodies were fixed in odd poses, hands on hips, rigid, fingers extended towards the sky. Some were inhumanly thin. Others were muscled like bodybuilders. Corin throttled down with the realization. They were mannequins, the same as any other debris ferried down the coast on the Gulf Stream.

Cutting the engine, he nosed into shore.

Corin gathered the mannequins like kindling, stacking each in the boat’s bow. He returned for five trips. It was impossible to fit them all in one go. He couldn’t leave any behind for someone else to mistake for disaster.

#

“What will you do with them?” the EMT asked, his ambulance parked on the overgrown lawn in front of the museum. The man had already radioed in to cancel the approaching rescue boats.

“Add them to the collection,” Corin said, arranging mannequins outside the back door. “Not sure where they came from. They’ve got manufacturer’s engravings on their heels, but I don’t recognize the country, or city, or wherever it is.”

“That’s weird,” the EMT replied. Every local knew what Corin did for work. “What’s it say?”

“Made in Binnsend. Could be European or some place they colonized. That doesn’t narrow it down much.”

“Could you let me know when you figure it out?”

“Sure,” Corin said, positioning the last mannequin in the sprawling crowd. There were over thirty. Corin couldn’t fit them all in the showroom. The renovated cottage serving as Corin’s Wash’ashore Plastics Museum was already cramped, the original pine flooring buckling under displays and dioramas. Every wall hung heavy with debris sifted from the surf.

Once the ambulance pulled away, Corin selected the least worn mannequin and hefted it through the back door. Inside the museum, the air was cool. The cottage was built in the 1800s by his great-great-great grandfather and always felt damp.

With the mannequin cradled under his arm, Corin moved through the display section, past objects that ran aground on nearby beaches. There were yellow rubber ducks and children’s pastel-blue swimming pools, Halloween masks and comic book action figures, life vests, lipstick tubes, and an entire jar of plastic tampon applicators.

The more common detritus was heaped together in aesthetically arranged piles, color coordinated in a rainbow spectrum. The countless straws and plastic soda bottles, the jellyfish-like plastic bags and cigarette filters. He had constructed a Christmas tree out of buoys and fishing line, had built a human skeleton from discarded running shoes. People came for the oddities, but the everyday objects, paired with statistics, were the real educators. The back wall was painted with a mural of the globe. Red and blue arrows traced coastlines, marking major and minor currents. Beneath he listed which carried the most plastic, which deposited the most on the ocean floor.

With his free hand, Corin opened the door to his work space. A dim computer screen cast a glow around itself. The rest of the room was left in darkness. He stood the mannequin beside his crowded desk and flipped on the overheads. The room was nothing but metal shelves of organized plastic, all labeled and cataloged. A single desk stood at its center.

Corin typed the name Binnsend into the search bar. No accurate results appeared. Pieces on raising reptiles and reconnecting with lost friends filled the screen. He altered the search, adding country names and continents, plastic plants and manufacturing hubs. Still nothing. As he pulled a world atlas from his overflowing bookcases, his door flung open.

“Can I have one?” Beth asked.

“Not yet. I need to do research first,” Corin replied, dropping the atlas.

“On all of them?”

“Well, yeah. Who knows if one’s different from the rest.”

Beth, Corin’s wife, operated an art gallery on the far edge of the property. While Corin displayed statistics and educational warnings, Beth made plastic debris into art, mostly sculptures and mosaics constructed from single-use items and bottle caps. Occasionally she carved portraits into disposable cooler foam or Styrofoam take-out containers. Her jewelry sold well. She wore a pair of crescent moon earrings cut from an old flip phone. Her blonde hair was held back by a black bandana.

“Why? Are you afraid I’ll get all the foot traffic?” Beth asked, leaning against the doorframe. It was their usual joke of feigned rivalry.

Nearly three times the number of visitors passed through the art gallery’s doors each summer as they did Wash’ashore Plastic. Both had door counters in their entrance ways. There was no arguing attendance. Corin didn’t debate reasons one was favored over the other. He knew people liked beauty, the clean aesthetic art brought to trash. His raw, almost unfathomable data, turned viewers off. People didn’t like to confront the problem they added to. People did like to buy bottle cap portraits and jellyfish statues. It funded the majority of the couples’ joint venture.

“No. That’s not it. If I break them up, who knows what I’ll miss. The process should be easy. They’ve got manufacturer’s marks. If you go and grind one down to make beer coasters, I could lose something,” Corin said, flipping through the atlas. He ran his finger down the index at the back, searching for Binnsend. It wasn’t listed amongst the B’s.

“You really think one’s going to be that important?” Beth asked. “I’ll keep it intact and use it as a display.”

“Please, just leave them where they are. I’ll figure this out in a week. Two tops. After that you can take as many as you want.”

“Good. There’s no way you’d fit them all in here anyway,” Beth said, waving a hand towards the showroom.

“You never know, people might pay to look through the windows of a cabin stuffed with mannequins.”

“Very voyeuristic.”

“If it gets people talking, I’d be willing to show more than just mannequins,” Corin joked.

“I don’t think that would further the message you’re going for, Corin.”

“Hey, you never know,” Corin said. “People love a good spectacle for the sake of distraction.”

#

Corin was wrong. In a week, he uncovered little information on Binnsend. After two weeks, his notes were mostly blank, the few lines scribbled down crossed out in black pen. He spent his mornings researching the mannequins. Years ago, he would have been shellfishing at such an hour, but a slipped disk in his lower back forced early retirement. In the afternoon he acted as a docent in the museum, leading tourists through his displays, lingering before the current map, explaining how plastic affects the habitats of seahorses, turtles, and other marine life.

Corin traced his finger along the line for the Gulf Stream running up the Eastern seaboard.

“The Gulf Stream deposits most of the plastic I scoop up, but the Labrador current coming down from Greenland also plays a part,” Corin said.

A little kid, tucked beneath his mother’s arm, raised his hand.

“What can I do for you?” Corin asked with a smile.

“What about the other arrows?” the kid asked. “Where does their trash go?”

The map had over thirty currents outlined.

“Well, the simple answer is everywhere. Even though most of our plastic is carried by two currents, you also have the South Equatorial flowing into the Caribbean, then up around Florida. But it’s possible for something to be dropped into the California Current and make its way here,” Corin said, indicating several arrows moving along Antarctica and up the coast of Africa.

“So this stuff could come from anywhere?” the boy asked, pointing to the discarded shoe skeleton.

“Basically, yes. Every year eight million tons of plastic makes its way into the ocean. It comes from every continent. Most are single-use items only used for a few minutes before being thrown away,” Corin said, reciting his environmental pitch. “That’s why it’s important we move away from using things like plastic forks or disposable coffee cups. We use them for a minute, then they clog our waters forever. Doesn’t seem worth it.”

The young boy nodded enthusiastically as his mother tucked a ninety-nine cent coffee behind her back.

The group of tourists thanked Corin after he answered a question about a giant plastic squid that floundered ashore from Japan, then moved off on their own, inspecting other plastic oddities. While Corin stood next to the entrance, waiting for a hoped-for follow-up, the door opened, nearly catching his shoulder. Beth burst in, dirty blond hair flowing behind her. An outrageous necklace made of braided fishing line and dulled fishing hooks clinked against one another around her neck.

“You need to look at this,” she said, lassoing an arm around Corin’s waist, dragging him towards the door.

“I’ve got visitors,” he said, gesturing to the tourists.

“They’re not going to steal anything,” Beth replied, pulling harder.

“What if they have questions?”

Beth looked over the people standing around the glass display cases. “Does anyone have any final questions?”

A chorus of Nopes and All sets greeted her.

Corin let Beth escort him out of the room, into the early summer air. The humid season was just beginning. She led him across the grass dividing her gallery from his museum, towards the water. The two buildings sat on a clear-cut hill that dropped down to a rock strewn beach and the dock where Corin’s boat was moored. It was low tide again. The smell of swamp gases and decaying marine life rose on the wind. She refused to tell him what she had seen as they walked.

“Tell me it’s a mermaid,” Corin said.

“Don’t be a perv,” Beth replied, whacking his arm.

As they drew near, Corin could see that it wasn’t a mermaid, or anything else he hoped for. The bleached bodies of another twenty mannequins crowded the same sandbar as before. Their poses were different, less laid back and casual, more aggressive in their gesticulations. As Beth’s sandals flapped against the dock’s damp boards, he noted flexed arms and running strides half submerged in sand. They paused at the end of the dock, squinting into the sunlight reflecting in silver crescents off the waves.

“Since I found them first, I get one,” Beth said.

“Fine. You’re helping me move them though,” Corin replied, descending into his Boston Whaler. The boat rocked under his weight.

“Why didn’t these show up with the first load?” Beth asked, unfastening the mooring lines.

“There’s a million possibilities. Maybe some got snagged somewhere. Maybe they fell into the ocean later. Maybe someone’s messing with me. Take your pick,” Corin said, starting the engine.

“Hopefully it’s not the last one,” Beth called over the motor. She joined him on the boat’s deck, sitting on the bench spanning the middle of the fiberglass hull. Corin brought the boat to full throttle and skipped along the shallows. The water at low tide was no deeper than five feet. It took less than a minute to nose onto the bar’s sandy edge.

Together they filled the boat with mannequins, fighting the muddy suck of sand while loosening their bodies from the ground. The first thing Corin did when he laid a mannequin down was check its heel. On each, he found the engraving Made in Binnsend.

“I want this one,” Beth said, holding up a female mannequin, her hands on her hips, leaning forward as if questioning an audience.

“Works for me,” Corin replied. “She’s all yours.”

With the last of the mannequins loaded onto the boat, Corin helped Beth settle down into a nest of plastic limbs. He pushed them off of the bar, soaking the edge of his shorts, before heading back to the dock. He’d have to add the new arrivals to the pale throng behind the museum. There wasn’t much room left before they spilled around the corner, coming into view from the parking lot. He didn’t want that. Didn’t want questions without answers. Beth’s mannequin lay across her lap. One less I have to store, Corin thought. He contemplated offering up more, but couldn’t stand the idea of handing over a crucial subject.

#

Every morning, before opening Wash’ashore’s doors, Corin went down to the dock to check if more mannequins washed up during the night. He thought of the trips as a way to clear his head before research. A few minutes alone in nature, the lap of waves, the flutter of birds skimming the shallows. Some days he found nothing. On others, he found entire mannequin families beached on the sand bar. Occasionally, a single white hand would emerge from the surf, but the bodies usually arrived in groups. Corin felt he was spending more time retrieving their bodies than researching them. The bulging disc in his back ached. Over the next month, he added fifty-three mannequins to the herd behind the museum. It was impossible to shield them from the public who flocked to the arrangement of barnacle-crusted models. Corin made up a sign. It looked the same as the others posted around the museum. It read Mannequins. Unknown Origin.

The questions he feared came in every day. He gave the same answers.

“Still haven’t found the place,” he’d say to tourists and locals. “Come back next week. Maybe I’ll have a better idea then.”

And they did come back. People visited the museum in record numbers to view the mannequins. Local news channels ran Corin’s story. The papers interviewed other experts on plastics and ocean currents. None of them could offer further answers, which only brought more viewers from neighboring states.

“Maybe I shouldn’t find the answer,” Corin said to Beth over dinner one night.

She laughed. “That would literally annoy you until you d
e.”

“I know. I just can’t believe I haven’t found anything. I’ve emailed college professors and librarians, map makers, and archivists. No one’s heard of the place. I’m starting to think it doesn’t exist.”

“Or maybe they’re from more than one place, you know, Frankensteined together” Beth offered, cutting into her veggie burger.

“Still doesn’t explain the manufacturer’s mark.”

#

“Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Corin asked a professor from Harvard visiting the museum. He asked the same questions of everyone with a remotely scientific background: faculty from UMass, geographers from Syracuse who stepped through the museum’s door, molecular engineers. Ever heard of Binnsend? Have you ever located an unknown territory? Have you seen this mark before?

Corin arranged the mannequins around the museum’s front lawn, some in clusters, others by themselves. They looked deep in conversation, laughing over a shared joke, ranting to the sky, pleading with those around to listen. Some seemed joyous in the tilt of their spine. Others looked pained from the slant of their shoulders. Two lay on the ground, their legs eaten out from beneath them by jetty rocks or the ocean floor. Families moved through the exhibit, examining their bleached pigment. Corin left one laying on a table, heel raised so people could see the markings on the foot. Binnsend.

“Sounds like an old English industrial town,” said a freckled woman from Oxford. “That’s not it, though. Not quite. Binnend. It’s missing the S. It was an old oil town that went under. Lots of refineries, but no production factories. I think it might have fallen into the sea.”

The professor pointed to the region of England where the town once stood on the display map. Of course Corin had heard of the place. It came up in every search result, but the woman was the first to note it. He’d researched the town for weeks, searching for mentions of mannequin factories, or any sort of factory for that matter, inside the town. No matter how much he wanted it to be the place, there was nothing. It hadn’t been misspelled.

“Did she find your town?” Beth asked after the woman and her family left.

“Close but no cigar,” Corin replied.

“Sorry to hear that. How many did you add today?” Beth asked, helping Corin move a pair of muscle-bound mannequins to the edge of the display.

“Fifteen.”

“How’s it possible they keep showing up and no one’s heard of this place?”

“Well, something is manufactured in India, stitched together in Taiwan, sent to Moldova to be dyed, then passed along to Spain for packaging. Maybe Binnsend is somewhere in between like you said, some stop we haven’t heard of.”

Corin imagined the sunken city of Binnend, Atlantis-like beneath the waves. Rows of barnacle-stuck factories churned out endless plastic bodies, the continual grind of cogs and gears unaffected by submergence. Waterlogged houses were plastered with seaweed and six-pack racks alike, families of crabs hunkering in eaves. Their rusting infrastructure was so congested with trash that sank from above, odd aquatic survivors sought revenge, letting their own manufactured junk float to land, to remind everyone of who they had been, the mistakes they made and continued making.

But Corin’s waking dreams were rarely accurate.

Corin knew there were probably books he couldn’t acquire and experts he couldn’t contact on the subject. His resources had been exhausted. He’d traced everything from Nikes to life-size Dracula figurines.

Only the mannequins defied identification. Their bodies arranged along the unkempt lawn mirrored the statistics he taught on tours, their overwhelming presence a visual interpretation of the tons of plastic collecting in ocean gyres.

“It’s like I said. You should never rule out a possibility,” Beth added. “That’s how I make art. Endless possibilities. Otherwise, you’re restricted and everything becomes contrived.”

“You’re right,” Corin replied. “I have no idea where these things come from.”

“What do you think of this?” Beth asked, stepping aside from a pairing of mannequins she manipulated. They were sensually bent together, hips interlocked, pelvises brushing. Next to them, on the lawn nearby, she laid a baby mannequin, one of the more recent additions to the collection.

“Plastic begets plastic?”

“Good title. We can work with that.”

“A little crass though.”

“People like crass,” she replied, stepping away from her work.

#

Corin guided his Boston Whaler on its usual route from dock to sandbar. He could see through the dissipating mist only four mannequins hung up that morning. Thank God, he muttered, rubbing his lower back. The day before it had been forty-three. The largest gathering yet. Some of them had been odd; extra limbs, a third arm, two heads, tails and wings, mythic appendages he could barely fathom. He piled the four relatively normal mannequins in the boat’s bow. One had a stunted arm, but that was tame compared to the previous collection.

He headed the boat upwind, cutting through the surf.

Corin hauled the bodies up the slope towards the museum, which was now completely ringed by the bleached models, naked in the early morning fog. They resembled photographs of galaxies, each body a star orbiting the central hub of the building, the building few people entered anymore. They only came for the mannequins, their own likenesses reflected in the thousands, strewn about, representations of what they didn’t want to acknowledge in themselves, but couldn’t ignore any longer.

The mannequins were only there because people wanted to see them, wanted them to exist. They were like the other garbage people subsisted on, the tenth pair of running shoes, the seven straws to match their seven drinks at the bar, iPhone packaging. Part of Corin wondered if it was their desire that dragged the mannequins out of the ocean. Part of him still hoped there was a place on a forgotten map somewhere called Binnsend, the sunken city ever churning.

He continued to ask visitors if they heard of the country, but their answers never changed.

He was surprised to find an ambulance parked at the top of the grassy incline, idling, the lights mute. The blue uniformed EMT he had met when he first mistook the mannequins for drowning victims moved through the gathered forms. Corin figured another false alarm had brought the paramedic away from the station.

The man stopped here and there, noting arrangements, laughing at the sexual couple, the onlooker turning away from the ranting preacher.

“So did you find an answer?” the EMT asked Corin after he offloaded the newest acquisitions.

“No. I mean, if you pulled out a map, I can’t point to a specific place,” Corin replied.

“That’s surprising.”

“Yeah, I was pretty disappointed at first, but I’ve gotten used to the idea of not knowing.”

“Well, at least they aren’t in the ocean anymore.”

“There’s always that.”

The EMT nodded, checked the radio clipped to his belt, and looked off across the field of mannequins.

“Do you mind if I look around for a bit even though you’re closed?” the EMT asked.

“No worries,” Corin replied. “It’s not like you’re disturbing anyone. Spend the day, or come back tomorrow, or the next day. I’m sure more will show up.”

“Hope you don’t run out of space,” the EMT said, walking off through the naked bodies. He was the only dark shape among the white models, pausing momentarily to admire their design, before moving off across the hill. The edge of the group was still far off beyond the museum, bodies drifting back towards the water and the endless pull of the current and the sandbar beyond, empty for the moment.

Corin doubted that would last long.

when the coral copies our fashion advice

bleach blonde was the look of the summer: 

colorless skeleton of polyps and aging fish spines.

rocks smoothly slate gray as salt water

grinds it down; it had no algal coat to protect and

nourish, no obsidian shelled mussels hanging off

the edges, beating themselves to the rhythm of the tide.

 

the moon rises and so the tide flows, warming waves

crashed, blue hypoxic seafoam gurgled a last 

lament. when the seagull cried out for the last time,

it took the flock with it. once upon a time,

if you cupped blue with spread out fingers, either sky

or sea, you could observe life teeming in between your knuckles.

 

you can’t help but paint old histories in pink watercolors:

take the brush, cover the blemishes, brighten the hues,

you don’t know what parts are real and which parts you wish were.

 

a truth: bleach blonde did not stay after summer. girls found their hair

was too crackly, brittle from constant treatment. we started

thinking maroon silk was better than sulphureous wires stuck

to scalps with elmer’s glue. life breeds life, their hair was already dead

but the reef still clung like a damsel in distress. if it was rapunzel,

it would’ve let down its hair for anyone, if only they’d climb the tower.

 

you replant a polyp, a seedling you nurtured to life, it is its

time to fledge. you lace your fingers together and

cautiously peer into the snowglobe you have shaken back to life:

 

tangs so bright they turn chartreuse

at noon, cinnabar anemones with squirming tentacles,

emerald seagrass plush to the touch. tilt your head, 

and see the terns circling, wide white wings casting shade

as a warning. they are the most polite predators

 

you think you have ever seen; when smog clogged 

city streets and winter air turned tepid, we sent

no heads-up: perhaps this might be your last century;

best prepare your trembling lungs, your hummingbird hearts, bleached

platinum is our new gold. painting the color back into

coral’s white skeleton is our apology. we try so the message we 

never sent will not come 

true.

A Song Born

I.

What do the ravenous settlers know of faith? Praying on their knees under wooden roofs, without the wind on their cheeks and the sky over their heads, away from the roar of the rivers and the whispers of the leaves? How much is their faith worth when they persecute and murder for a metal cross, in the name of someone who never joins them in song nor dance?

No. Water is not to be walked on, just as mountains are not to be swum in.

 

April 1695

Finnmark, Norway

Despite his mother’s orders, Kvive ran out onto the snow-covered lake. The warming weather of April had turned the snow on top of the ice to sludge, and the flat light from the overcast sky of clouds turned the world in front of him to a carpet of whitish-grey, where you couldn’t tell where the lake ended, and the sky began. 

Kvive had snowmelt to his shins as he ran, a spray of water in his wake.

“Eatni!” he yelled to his mother as he ran. “Look, it’s safe! Imagine the time we can sa—” His words turned to a shriek as he fell into a frozen crevice on the lake. The flat light removed all shadows, so he didn’t notice the drop before it was too late.  

He landed on his stomach. Stretched out like a starfish he gasped for breath on the thin and dark sheet of ice, and the right side of his face pounded with pain. Lines like broken glass shot in every direction from his body and the ice groaned beneath his weight, like old limbs stretching.

Web-like circles ruptured in the ice under the weight of his hands and knees as he tried to raise himself up, and with a crack his arms breached through the ice into the freezing water.

“Oh, biru!” he said.

And with another and louder crack, the entire sheet of ice burst and Kvive fell into the dark water.

He gasped for air as the cold weighed down on his chest. Every breath was a fight and he trashed and flailed as he gulped water until his thick clothes of reindeer fur and skin pulled him under.

Through the ice above, he saw dark silhouettes move when people gathered around the crevice. Some—stripped of their clothes—jumped into the water, but he had sunk too deep for anyone to reach him.  

His screams turned to fist-sized bubbles as the light of the crevice got smaller and smaller as he sank towards the bottom. Kvive held his breath, his lungs burning, even though he knew this was it. This was how he died. His body would never be recovered, and his mother would cry each year they moved their herd over the lake, and his body would still rest at the bottom, the flesh picked away from his bones by fish and other creatures.

He looked up towards the light one last time, before he prepared to take a deep breath, to let the lake fill him, and let the depths claim him.  

Then he heard a whisper, and a hum vibrated from the bottom; the faint and intimate sound of someone speaking close to his ear, and tiny bubbles floated past Kvive towards the surface.

Free your soul, the voice said.

The whisper and hum clung to his body even closer than his wet clothes.

Kvive did as the voice said, at least his best attempt at it. He closed his eyes and let his limbs fall loose; his arms and legs trailed behind him as he gave himself to the lake.

Eventually the tiny bubbles from the bottom pushed him from the deep and up towards the light. But whether it was the light the priests would preach about, or the crevice in the ice, Kvive couldn’t tell, and he didn’t care. Both were better than the bottom of the lake.

Free your soul, the voice whispered again, you’re still too heavy.

How? Kvive asked inside his mind.

Let go.

Kvive gave in to his instincts, and his lungs took the deep breath they had been craving. The dark and freezing lake filled his body, and his chest burned with pain as everything turned to black.

#

Kvive fell in and out of consciousness as his lungs emptied themselves of water. His chest burned, and he couldn’t see a thing, but he felt the warm and familiar comfort of being swaddled in thick reindeer furs.

Everything, and everyone around him, were quiet, only the trees rustled as the wind moved through the pine forest.

Then he heard his mother, “Oh, my little—” But a man interrupted her.  

Shh, or you’ll scare away the small sliver of life that remains in his body,” the man whispered.

“Can I at least remove the blindfold?” she whispered back.

“No, his soul is still on a knife-edge between this world and the other. We must warm up his body before we remove it. Get a reindeer, make an incision behind its shoulder blade and let the blood pour into a waterskin. Quickly!”

Kvive had no sense of time as he fell in and out of consciousness, and without the ability to see, he wasn’t sure where he was, or if he was dead or alive.

Eventually someone raised his head and pushed a waterskin against his lips, and a thick and warm liquid was poured into his mouth. Kvive choked on the blood, and the waterskin was taken away. This process happened several times until he must have emptied the waterskin.

Beside him his mother mumbled a prayer.

“Eatni,” Kvive said weakly, “am I alive?”

“Yes, my dumb and reckless little boy,” his mother answered. “He says you’re going to live. Thank God for that.”

“I . . . I just wanted to help . . . we’d save so much time crossing the lake.” Kvive fell asleep, but his chest didn’t burn, and he no longer felt cold.

#

The second thing a Sami learns was that the siida—a nomadic community of families—moves only as fast as its slowest member, and it is up to the stronger and healthier members to help the weaker ones keep up the pace. That said, it wasn’t unusual that the elders that were too old and fragile to keep up with the ráidu—the line of people and gelded reindeers and wooden sleds—were left behind to die alone in the snow.   

Because the first thing a Sami learns is that the reindeer herd always comes first—even though you almost drowned in a lake the day before.

Kvive had known thirteen of these migrations, six completely on foot and skis, and they didn’t get any less backbreaking as he grew, nor did the blisters on his feet and hands—or the frostnip on his cheeks—stop emerging, even as his skin got thicker. He was always wet and cold and tired.

One day had passed since his miraculous swim back to the surface, and Kvive already drudged in the deep snow on his skis. Above him, greenfinches teased him from the sky as they flew and sang. He wished he were one of them; their migration seemed so easy.

The siida rushed towards the snow-free calving grounds for their reindeer herd near the coast; they had to be there before the middle of May before the reindeer cows started giving birth.

But at least he had Sara to share the long and tiring way with.

“Don’t you sometimes wish you knew how to fly?” Kvive asked Sara.

She was a girl the same age as him, and they had lived together their entire lives.

“Fly?” Sara asked. “Where’s the fun in that? How would our parents torture us then if we could just fly away? Besides, a dumb boy like yourself would probably get himself killed against the trunk of a tree if given wings.”

“Now, hold on—” Kvive started.

“Running across a lake in the middle of April, without even a pole to test the ice with.” She shook her head.

“I just wanted to help. I am a man now, and I should be with the other men and the herd. Instead, I’m stuck here with the mossbacks and you women and those damned sleds.”

“What do you mean, you women?”

“Don’t twist my words like you always do.”

“I can tell you one thing,” she said and poked Kvive with her wooden ski pole. “No woman would ever run out on the ice like a bull in heat and almost drown herself.”

“Quit fooling around both of you,” Sara’s mother snapped, “go help your mother at the back. It’s getting dark and we still have a way to go.”

Due to Kvive’s attempt at crossing the ice, the siida had wasted a day beside the lake. The April air was getting warmer, but a thick carpet of white still covered the ground, only punctured by tall pine trees stretching to the sky. They raced the weather, and they moved from sunrise to sunset trying to outrace spring.

The past years they would have crossed the lake, but in the past years they would have arrived at the lake much earlier. The siida moved slower because the church had arrested every Sami they suspected of blasphemy. Every siida had lost people, but probably none more than Kvive’s. It didn’t make any sense of course. What other religions were there? It seemed more like another attempt to punish the Sami, for being Sami. 

“Eatni, can’t I ride in the sled, just for a little while?” Kvive asked his mother after he had helped her get one of the sleds free from the deep snow. He had after all almost drowned the day before.

“And tire the animal that’s pulling what we need to survive?” Around his mother’s neck, tucked into the gietkka—a hollowed-out cradle of wood, lined with moss and pelts—his little brother cried. “Just be glad you’re not behind with the herd, watching for wolves like your father.” She rocked the gietkka. “Or lying in your own piss like your brother.”

“I wish I was behind with the herd,” Kvive said.

“Hah, you think you do. You should thank God me and your father have not been blessed with more children, or you’d be there, and your younger sibling would be helping me here. You think this is hard work? Hah!”

“But do we have to hurry so much, the weather is getting warmer anyways . . . .”

His mother sighed. “What happens when the snow is warm, like it is now, and then the weather gets cold?”

“It gets hard.”

“Exactly, it turns to cuoŋu. The kind of snow that will cut your hand if you fall, the kind of snow that will hinder the reindeer from reaching the lichen they eat, the kind of snow that makes it easier for wolves and wolverines to stalk our herd.”

Kvive’s mother looked up at the darkening sky. “Not to mention how dark the nights are. Your father and the other men are already struggling to keep the herd safe without being able to see their own feet in front of them.”

Kvive didn’t respond; he always knew when a conversation with his mother was over.

A man snickered from behind.

“What are you laughing—” Kvive started. It was the old man that had been travelling with their siida. He had been with them since they started moving the herd from the permanent winter pasture inland, but Kvive had never talked with him; especially not after he had learned he was the one who poured fresh reindeer blood in his mouth and tied a blindfold around his eyes.

He had a dark-tanned and coarse face, from half a life inside the smoky lavvu, and the other half outside in the sun and snow, with deep furrows whipped forth by wind and hail and piss-freezing cold. A reindeer trotted beside the old man. It didn’t pull anything, and all it carried was an oval leather bag. It was the only animal he owned; an ungelded bull older than seven years, a nammaláhppu. His coat was white as snow, except for his brown beard and black hooves. They never used a nammaláhppu as a draft animal because they were impossible to tame, but the old man seemed to have complete control of the animal.

The old man laughed again.

“Lost your words, boy? It’s your voice that loses a language first, but I hope you still have it in your mind,” he said, tapping his temple.

Kvive ignored the old man and his reindeer, which seemed to be amused as well.

#

Three days later, the warning of Kvive’s mother came true. Winter had its last freezing breath of life before giving in to spring, and the soft snow turned to cuoŋu—the kind that will cut you if you fall.

It forced the siida to quicken its pace even more, and they moved long after the sun had set. And worst of all, it hindered Kvive from seeing Sara. She thought of him as just a boy, and he wanted to prove to her that he was a man, but that’s hard when you are stuck behind in the ráidu, taking care of your little brother and helping your mother.

Instead, walking behind Kvive was the old man, who must be dim-witted. Apart from his blindfold and blood nonsense, the old man had been whispering in his reindeer’s ear and laughing, frowning, or nodding, as if it answered, the entire day.

“Why are you talking with it for?” Kvive finally asked, unable to ignore the old man any longer. “They are too stupid to understand human language, you know.”

The old man smiled at Kvive, like he had been waiting for him to say something.

“First of all,” he said, “he’s not an ‘it’. His name is Gappas.” The reindeer nuzzled his hairy snout in the old man’s neck at the sound of his name.

“That’s forbidden, you know,” Kvive said, “using Sami names. And an unoriginal one as well, naming it after the colour of its coat.”

They were not allowed to take Sami names, not that there were any Sami names for humans.

“Oh,” the old man laughed. “I didn’t name him.”

Before Kvive could respond, the old man spoke again. “Do you know how the first reindeer came to this earth, Guivi?” Again, he didn’t wait for a response.

“Before Beaivi—the father of everything that lives and grows—shone on this earth, it was a world without light or living things. Just a barren rock enveloped in darkness, like a pebble inside your fist. And as he blessed us with his light, the lichen our herd are dependent on grew, the pine and birch trees that surround us reached for the skies, and the places we fish from filled up with water. But there was nothing there to graze on what he grew, nothing to take cover beneath the trees from the snow and rain, and nothing to drink from the waters and rivers. So, on his rays of sunshine, the first herd of reindeer migrated to this world.”

“But as the herd grew, all the lichen disappeared, so he sent down other animals to keep the balance. Wolves, bears, eagles, and wolverines. And when the scales tipped to the other side again, he sent us, the Sami. To control and protect the herds and thus, restoring the balance.”

If the old man wasn’t dim-witted, he at least was a lunatic. Kvive knew his religion as well as any other boy his age, and it was God, the father of Jesus, who had made everything, and made man—even the Sami—after his own image. Despite no paintings of Jesus looking like any Sami he knew. In fact, there’s no mention of any reindeer in the Bible to the best of his knowledge, but he knew all animals boarded Noah’s ark.

“Okay . . . old man,” Kvive said, “can you ask your sun-god to help us make the night less dark and the snow less cold?”  

The old man looked at Kvive with pity.

“Don’t be sad about the moonless nights, or the sharp snow, Guivi. They are all there to keep the balance. If you want to blame someone, blame the ravenous settlers. It is them who killed our gods by forcing us to forget, and it is them who forced a new god on us that doesn’t know our land or our people. And it is them who have stolen our best pastures and taxed us to beggars. Again, the scales are unbalanced, and I’m afraid there is little Beaivi, or any of our other gods can do. No, in the end, this will be our fight.”

Kvive couldn’t challenge the old man’s point about the settlers. Despite his young years, the frustration from his parents around the fire in the lavvu at night was unmistakable.

“Who are you?” Kvive asked. “Who are you really? They say you told everyone to shut up when I was unconscious, and then you talked about another world and poured blood in my mouth.”

The old man’s face fell.

“I have said too much. Run back to your mother now before she starts yelling at me as well,” he said.

Kvive started humming the song he had heard under the ice, under his breath, so only the old man could hear him.

The old man grasped his shoulders. “Are you trying to get us killed?” When the old man spoke, there was a shift in his voice; it resonated around him, like an echo bouncing off surrounding hills.

The sudden shift in manner made Kvive scamper back on his skis.

“Never do that again!” the old man said.

“But—” Kvive started.

“Never!”

#

Later that night there was a swift change in the weather. A warm wind from the south caught up with the siida, and in a day or two spring would be on its way proper, and the hard snow gone with it.  

But that’s not what woke Kvive up. A green light seeped through the smoke-hole of the lavvu, permeating the entire tent with its shine. Apart from the fading embers of the fire, it was the only light in the lavvu.

Kvive’s mother and little brother still slept, and his father would be sleeping with the herd and the other men. Kvive threw a couple of logs on the fire to keep it alive until the morning, then he cleaned the smoke of the lavvu from his eyes and sneaked outside.

The entire sky was awake. Large rivers of green and purple moved in the night sky like ribbons in the wind. You aren’t supposed to stare at the aurora—that’s how kids get lost—but Kvive couldn’t take his eyes off the spectacle.  

You could see as far as you could hear a dog bark. Every lavvu, even Sara’s at the other end, in the siida was visible; silver trails of smoke escaped towards the sky from the cone-like shelters dug into the snow.

The men watching the herd would have an easy time looking for predators and making sure parts of the herd wouldn’t get lost in the night.

Kvive had known the aurora for as long as he could remember, but never of this intensity in colour, extent in size, and animation in its movement.

Then he heard it. A rhythmic drumming, and the faint sound of a hum, like the one he heard under the ice. It came from the outskirts of the siida. From the old man’s lavvu.

Kvive walked towards the sounds.

Outside the lavvu—untethered—Gappas watched the sky, his normally black eyes now a vivid green.

“Hello?” Kvive whispered, but no one answered.

Kvive had to find out what was going on. The whisper and the hum he heard underneath the ice had never left his mind, and even though he didn’t remember how he got to the surface, the sounds he had heard felt as real to him as the ground beneath his feet.

He took a deep breath and pushed aside the flaps of canvas made from reindeer-skin and entered. On the inside it looked like any other lavvu, with its fire—now just embers—in the middle, with reindeer pelts circled around it.

The old man sat at the far end—where the father would sit if this were a family lavvu—cross-legged with a big and oval drum in his lap. The drum had red drawings of Samis fishing and hunting, reindeer grazing, and wolves, bears and wolverines. At the edges it had symbols depicting snow, rivers, mountains, and in the middle a big circle with rays around it, which had to be the sun.

The old man’s eyes were rolled back in his skull, and he gnashed his teeth as he moved his jaw back and forth. He hit his drum with a t-formed reindeer antler, and there was clanking from inside the drum. It sounded like pieces of metal.

Kvive turned to leave, hoping the old man hadn’t noticed him. This seemed like devilry, and a young and innocent soul like his was valuable to the devil.

“Stay,” the old man commanded. He stopped gnashing his teeth and his eyes rolled back to their normal brown, but he kept on drumming.

Then his hum transformed into singing. But not like any singing Kvive had ever heard; wordless sounds reverberated from the tip of his tongue, to the back of his mouth, and down to his chest.

Children of Beaivi, the old man sang.

Kvive looked up, and instead of the ceiling, the wide night sky stretched itself in every direction towards the horizon.

In the sky the aurora fluttered and danced to the sound of the old man’s voice and the beating of his drum. Kvive didn’t understand the sounds, but they grew in his chest, they danced inside his head, left a taste in his mouth, and they spoke in his ears.

Come,” a voice whispered. “Dance with us.” It wasn’t the same voice he had heard underneath the ice, but it felt the same, as if it came from both outside and within him.

“How?” Kvive asked.

Free your soul.

Kvive took a deep breath and closed his eyes, but nothing happened.

How? Kvive asked the voice.

Let go.

He took another deep breath, but he didn’t close his eyes this time. He arched backwards and his eyes rolled back like the old man’s as he gave in to his mind; which craved to leave, and like jumping in a lake, he left his body in the lavvu, and entered the sky.

From the sky the entire siida was visible, and its surrounding rivers, lakes, and mountains.

The old man wasn’t singing about the aurora—he sang the aurora itself. With his voice he made it dance and move, and he brought Kvive with him.

For the first time in weeks Kvive felt rested. He felt comfortable and safe, like sleeping in the gietkka tied to his mother’s shoulders and waist.  

The song grew in his chest, and it made him feel whole, like the song was a piece that had been missing; like filling your stomach when you are famished or drinking from a river when you are parched. Except, until now he had always had an aching hole in his chest, a drought in his throat, and a wanting in his soul.

Kvive’s body in the lavvu shook, and tears poured down his cheeks.

The old man stopped his drumming, and his song faded out. And like resurfacing from the lake, he was back to shivering in his own body, despite the warmth of the lavvu.

“What was that?” Kvive wept, his tears trailing in light streaks down his smoke-stained face.

“That was the aurora,” the old man answered. “They only show themselves in the night sky when the sun is strong. And today I asked Beaivi if he would be strong for your siida, and let his children dance for us. But I would have never imagined they’d let you dance with them . . . most peculiar.”

“Also,” the old man said and pointed a finger at Kvive, “you are incapable of doing what you’re told, aren’t you? But I suppose this was inevitable . . . .”

“What do you mean?” Kvive asked.

“You heard it once under the ice, and now your body and mind will never stop looking for it. That’s what brought only you here tonight, and no one else. Since you are bent on killing us, I suppose I have no other choice than to teach you before you do something really stupid.”  

Kvive nodded and brushed away his tears.

“What you heard was a joik. No Sami is whole without the joik in their life, just as no Sami is whole without the wind on their face, or their herd in front of them.”

“I want to learn,” Kvive said, “and how to use the drum.”

“The drum is a rune drum. But you are not ready to travel to the spirit world, nor talk with the gods. One does not call on the gods on a whim.”

Kvive’s face fell.

“But,” the old man said, holding up a finger. “I can teach you how to joik.”

Kvive nodded again, but his face wouldn’t smile even though he wanted to.

“But you must remember, Guivi,” the old man said, and his face darkened again, like it did the night before. “The joik is forbidden, and just being seen with a rune drum is punishable by death. Perhaps a few of the elders in your siida will have heard of the joik¸ but they will not speak of it. If the ravenous priests and settlers knew what happened here tonight, they’d burn the entire siida down, your parents and all.”

“Why do you call me Guivi?” Kvive asked. The old man had used that name many times now, and it had been nagging at him.

“Because Kvive is the bastardized and norwegianized version of your true name. Our true names are stolen, forbidden, and soon forgotten. And if the day comes when you reclaim your heritage and Sami soul, you will never want to go by the name given to you by your suppressors.”

“Are you sure you want this? Remember, not a word of this to anyone, about what we have talked about or what I have shown you. Not even to your mother or that girl you’re always chasing,” the old man said.  

“Yes,” Kvive answered, reaching out his hand. He could never go back to singing hymns under a wooden roof again.

“Then introductions are in order, Guivi,” the old man said, taking Kvive’s hand with both of his. “It is a pleasure to finally greet you, Guivi. I have seen how you act without thinking, I think we’ll become great friends. My name is Huika and I’m the last noaidi.”

II.

Before the ravenous settlers we had our paradise. A paradise we broke our backs for, blistered our hands for, tasted blood for.

It was the ravenous who invented sin in our life; in our joik, in our names, and now in our language. It was them who said paradise is preserved for the afterlife; an afterlife they would give us if we didn’t fight against their theft of our lands, our religion, and our song-filled souls.

We knew what blood tasted like, but it is them who showed us it was an iron cross. 

 

July 1695

Finnmark, Norway

The fickle weather of spring, with its bouts of rain, snow, and hail, had given way to summer, but life this far north was still rough, and getting caught in the harsh weather above the tree line could still mean your death. The days were never-ending, where the sun circled above your head, never setting. It was a trade the Sami did with the sun, because in the deep winter, the sun never rises for two moons.

The summer had been anything but prosperous for the herd. The weather had been unusually warm, and the insects thrived; they produced larvae in the reindeer’s nostrils, ate the fat in their eyes so they went blind, or dug into their backs which would result in their death when autumn came.

With insects like black clouds above them, the herd had fled higher up in the mountains where it was colder and windier, but where there is neither grass nor lichen for them to graze on. The frustration in the siida hung in the air like the smell of rotten meat. The settlers didn’t care how many animals they lost, they would demand the same amount of tax when winter came, nonetheless.

Kvive’s father and the other men were away for days trying to regain control of the herd. The herd, his father had explained him, is not something you can keep safe like a precious stone held in your fist. Herding a big flock is more like having a piece of ice in your palm; only with an open hand can you delay it from melting and pouring out over the sides. 

Huika had spent the summer near the coast showing Kvive how to do small rituals and sacrifices, and where to do them, and why you did them.

“See that?” Huika asked Kvive. They sat on a reindeer pelt laid on the ground, while Gappas grazed on the white lichen that surrounded them.

“Yes,” Kvive said. He watched Sara feed and talk with the gelded reindeers.

Huika sighed. “No, not Sara. Do we have to do this every day?”

Kvive would rather be watching Sara than listen to whatever Huika wanted to talk about today, probably another lecture about the god who lived beneath the fire. Kvive and Sara were like family, but then again not by blood. It wasn’t unusual that people in the same siida got together. That gave him hope.

“I’m talking about that!” Huika pointed to a couple of the elders in the siida who greeted the ground, as they exited the lavvu after waking up.

“Hello, mother ground and lands on which we live,” they said, pouring out the rest of their blood gruel, which they drank to wake up in the mornings.

Kvive nodded. This wasn’t new; it was something the elders did each year in the summer. Except they usually only did it at the beginning of summer, and not long into July. The herd was dependent on a successful summer, where the calves must eat and grow big enough in time for autumn.

“They have forgotten,” Huika said, after another cup of gruel was poured to the ground. “It is the gods they are pouring their blood out for. They are asking them to take care of the herd, to help the calves grow.”

“The gods? Like we’ve been doing?”

“Yes, but they don’t know why. The knowledge of why they do it died generations ago. But this custom survived. Besides, blood gruel won’t accomplish a task as big as helping an entire herd. That would require at least the sacrifice of a white calf at a sieidi.”

Before Kvive could ask, Huika explained. “An altar for offering. A place in nature that’s so beautiful they must have been shaped by the gods themselves. It can be anything. A forest, a boulder, even an entire mountain.”

Kvive knew about a place like that. He had taken Sara there a few times; a waterfall that always made a rainbow from its mist on sunny days.

“But we can help!” Kvive said. Even though they had arrived at summer pasture in time for the calves, he still felt bad for the incident at the lake. Besides, what was the point in learning these things if he couldn’t use it to help those he cared for?

“If only,” Huika answered, smiling sympathetically. “The things I have shown you are as far as I dare take it. Just the joik that we’re practicing is putting all our lives at risk. If the ravenous found out that this siida made an offer of anything, they’d be after our heads for paganism and blasphemy, and they wouldn’t stop chasing us until they executed the one responsible. You must know, Guivi. Me and you are to the best of my knowledge, the last who remember. And if we want to keep on remembering, we must be smart and stay alive, so that we can give away our knowledge, when the time is right.”

Kvive didn’t respond. All he wanted was to help his family and the siida. Autumn would be here soon, and then, the dark and deep winter.

#

Two days later, shouting in Norwegian roused the siida.

“Out from your tents!” a voice shouted. “Out, now!”

Kvive stirred on his reindeer pelt from the noise.

“Kvive!” His mother threw a lump of reindeer cheese at his head. “Kvive!”

“What—what is it?”

“Wash your eyes. I think a priest is here.” She threw a skin of water at him.

Kvive left the dark lavvu still rubbing smoke from his face.

The priest was the tallest man Kvive had ever seen. He wore a black cassock caked with mud, and a white collar. Dark and wavy hair reached him to the shoulders, and around his neck hung a silver cross. It wasn’t unusual that priests visited the siida’s—it was how the church kept the faith with the Sami as they moved their herds.

What was unusual was the armed soldiers behind him.

There were at least 20 of them, tall and pale men wearing black uniforms with silver buttons, with swords fastened to black leather belts. Except for one, who held an axe over his shoulder.

The priest spread his arms, the sleeves hanging like black wings, and he said, “I wish I were visiting you under better circumstances, my children. My name is Bishop Niels, but you might know me as Niels the Righteous.” He had a soft voice, and his words left his mouth with the monotony of a stream.

Everyone knew about Bishop Niels, and he was anything but righteous.

“We are here on an assignment for the church and our king. We are looking for a man, and we hope you will be able to assist us.”

Kvive’s mother spoke, “The men are away trying to gather the herd, higher up.”

“Ah, but the man we are looking for won’t be running after any herd.” The priest examined the crowd. “We are looking for a witch. A pagan. Someone who serves false gods.”

Kvive’s eyes widened, and he barely suppressed a gasp. But no one shouted or pointed fingers at Huika’s lavvu.

Kvive’s mother spoke again, “There are no men here left for you to arrest. That sounds like blasphemy, and we know the laws. Everyone in this siida are devout Christians and loyal subjects of the king. I promise you that.”

The priest smiled at her, his face looked like the grimace a child makes the first time it tastes reindeer marrow sucked from the bone.

Then he nodded at the soldiers. “Look for him and look for anything . . . blasphemous.”

Some of the soldiers worked their way through the siida, questioning the old men and turned every lavvu upside down. The rest inspected the surrounding area.

A scream from outside the siida stopped the search.

Shortly after the soldiers came back with a girl dragged behind them.

It was Sara, and she had blood all over her hands. “I’m sorry! I just checked if it was still alive! I just wanted to watch the rainbow, please!” She wailed and wept in the strong arms of the soldier.

Kvive looked down at his own shaking hands, they were still red from the night before. He had tried washing the blood off in the stream, but blood doesn’t remove easily; and there was blood on the cuffs of his shirt. He hid his hands inside his sleeves away from the scrutinizing eyes of the priest. Sara must have gone to the sieidi alone. Kvive’s mind was blank, and he had no idea what to do. What could he do?

“Sara!” Her mother ran towards the soldier dragging her daughter.

The priest ordered, “Bring the girl to me. And control that woman!”

A different soldier grabbed Sara’s mother. He clamped his arm in front of her face, muting her protests and wails.

The soldier threw Sara to the ground before the priest. The priest put his arm around her shoulder and whispered in her ear. Sara shook her head and nodded at his words, before she pointed to the place she was dragged from.

The priest said to two of his men, “That way, find a white calf with its throat slit near a waterfall. Bring it to me.”

A while later the soldiers came back with the dead calf in their hands. They laid it down before the priest.

The priest whispered one more question in Sara’s ear. She shook her head. Then he nodded at the soldier with the axe. Sara got picked up from the ground like she was a stick doll and forced down on a tree stub used for chopping wood by her neck.

Kvive had to do something. Anything. “Wait!” Kvive screamed. “It wasn’t her, she only checked if it was still alive. It was me!”

At the same time Sara’s mother broke free from the soldier holding her and ran towards her daughter, screaming, “Sara! Sara!”

The priest looked at Kvive with lazy eyes and nodded at the soldier with the axe again. The axe fell and cut Sara’s head off in one sweep.

Bewildered, and not knowing what to do, Sara’s mother kneeled in the blood of her daughter that pooled a dark red on the ground. She grabbed Sara’s shoulders and lined her body up with her severed head; she stroked her daughters back and heaved voiceless cries.

Some of the mothers started screaming and shouting, others picked up their babies from the ground or grasped the shoulders of their elder kids to turn them around. A few of the mothers and older men ran at Sara’s killer with their fists raised, but with little effort from the soldiers, the men and women were thrown, beaten, or kicked to the ground.

Kvive fell to his knees and hands. He tried to force out a why, but his voice failed him. His vision swam, and his body swayed, bile surged up in his throat and he felt like throwing up.

“Order!” the priest said. “There will be order!” Apart from the babies crying, the sobbing of the elder kids, and the people on the ground moaning in pain, it became quiet.

“You,” the priest said, pointing at Kvive who still shook on the ground on his hands and knees. “You said it wasn’t her.”

Kvive looked over at his mother. Around her neck his brother cried in the gietkka. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she shook her head. Kvive didn’t answer the priest.

“He wanted to save her!” his mother pleaded.

“We will continue taking lives,” the priest said, “until someone points us in the direction of the witch. The last siida we visited saw three of their own die. Please, be smarter than them. That white calf is all the proof I need to execute everyone here, with the support of the church and our king.”

“He doesn’t know anything, please, he’s just a boy!” Kvive’s mother said.

“Bring him to me,” the priest said.

Kvive’s mother—with his little brother still in the gietkka—moved in front of Kvive to shield him, but with the hilt of a sword she got knocked to the ground.

“Eatni!” Kvive said as his mother fell to the ground unconscious, and his little brother cried, still tied across her chest.

A soldier grabbed and dragged Kvive along the ground, just like they had done with Sara, only minutes ago.

The priest laid both of his hands on Kvive’s shoulders and stared into his eyes, as if looking for something in Kvive’s brown eyes with his unnatural bright blue ones.

Kvive’s bottom lip quivered, and tears streamed down his face. What had he done? Sara was dead because of him. And now he either gave up Huika, or he would die as well. Maybe the entire siida would be burned down, like Huika had warned.

“Have you seen that poor calf before?” The priest nodded towards the dead animal.

Kvive didn’t answer.

The priest made a show of looking at Kvive’s hands and shirt, and his eyes narrowed. “Do you know the punishment for paganism?”

“Death,” Kvive said, swallowing a cry.

“And what about the witch, do you know him?”

Kvive shook his head, fearing his words would fail him.

Again, the priest nodded at the soldier with the axe.

Kvive kicked and punched around himself in a frenzy when the soldier grabbed him and carried him to the tree stub. “I hope you burn in hell, you bastards! In hell! Eatni! Áhčči!” he yelled at the soldier, and after his parents.

An elbow to his face silenced him; Kvive gasped for breath as blood filled his mouth. The soldier tore off his shirt, exposing his neck. Then he forced Kvive down on the tree stub. Sara’s blood was warm and sticky against his throat, and the pungent smell of iron invaded his nose.

Why was no one running to his rescue? His mother was still on the ground unconscious, but everyone else just stood there, paralyzed. Some cried, others had their face turned away, and some watched with dead eyes; people Kvive had known his entire life.

“I’ll give you this last chance, boy, that’s more than I gave the girl,” the priest said. “What do you know about the—”

A lightning strike in the distance interrupted the priest, and the westward wind that had been blowing all day stopped. And for a few seconds, everyone, including the weather, got quiet.

As abruptly as it had stopped, a wind blew in from the east; it grew fast in strength, taking every pelt laid outside, and clothes that were hung to dry, with it. Following the wind, black clouds roiled in over the mountains against the siida, like smoke from a fire that has been extinguished with water. The sound from the thunder and the flashes from lightning caught up with each other fast as the storm charged at them.

The priest raised his hand at the executioner. He lowered his axe to the ground but kept his foot on Kvive’s back.

“Finally,” the priest said, “we found him.”

The wind roared in Kvive’s skull and the rain whipped his face. Echoing around him he heard a drum and the clanking of metal.

Riding with the storm Huika and Gappas descended the sloped mountainside that overlooked the siida. With wide sweeps of his arm Huika beat at his drum with his t-formed antler. Like a cacophony of different songs, there were several joiks in different tones at the same time from the sky.

Children of Ipmil and Beaivi, the voice in the storm roared.

The song clung to Kvive’s body with the wind and it roared in his head.

Unleash like a spring river, the voice continued in the sky.

The priest clutched his silver cross with both hands and said, “God will punish you!” He bent his head and mumbled a prayer, while making the cross on his chest. Raising his head again, he ordered the soldiers, “Seize him you cowards! Seize him!”

The soldiers exchanged looks, fear painted on their faces.

“Kill him! Kill the witch!” the priest ordered. “For your king and God!”

At that, every soldier ran towards Huika and Gappas, with their weapons raised, screaming like they were possessed.

Huika raised his arm and struck his drum with his antler.

Biegga! The sky roared. Gusts of wind slammed the soldiers to the ground.

Huika struck again.

Arvi! And the rain turned to fist-sized hail clobbering the soldiers huddling on the ground.

And again.

Álddagas! And a single bolt of lightning struck the executioner in the head. His head blazed like a fire, and fiery lines split in his face like cracked ice before he fell.

Gappas trotted towards the priest, not acknowledging the soldiers scattered before him and Huika.

A couple of meters away from the priest who still clutched his cross, Huika’s eyes rolled back and regained their colour, and the storm and the wind died down.

“Leave,” Huika said in Norwegian. “Leave now, and I will spare you the humiliation of reaching your afterlife because of what you call false gods. Leave now, and I will let your men live.”

That was a fake threat. Huika had talked with Kvive about balance. The gods would only help take a life responsible for the theft of another.

The priest didn’t respond. He turned on his heel and ran in the same direction they came from, his wavy hair and black clothes flailing in the remnants of the dying storm.

“I’m sorry,” Kvive sobbed. He ran to his mother and little brother and buried his face in her arms.

“I didn’t . . . I didn’t know, what . . . oh, Sara. It’s all my fault,” Kvive cried to Huika.

Huika didn’t respond, he just walked over to Kvive and stroked his back as he cried.

III.

The ravenous built prisons on our lands and called them churches. They filled them with our voiceless faces stripped of all colours of home and squelched the song in our souls. There, the rattan cane clapped over coarse hands, for not speaking their language.

We knew what it was like to hurt, but not the word for help.

 

September 1695

Finnmark, Norway

Cloudberries had coloured the ground orange, and the warm winds of summer had given way to the freezing wind of autumn. The gelded reindeers pulled the sleds on the bare ground over rocks and pouring rivers, as the siida moved inland towards the permanent winter pastures again.

Kvive had let the ráidu move ahead in advance. He sat on a boulder overlooking a river trying to joik Sara, as birds flew from tree to tree around him, and he drummed his fingers against his lap pretending it was a rune drum. Huika said that the best way to remember someone was through joik.

He waited for Huika to catch up with him. After the priest and the soldiers had run back to town, Huika had left the siida before he was chased away, but he still followed, knowing it was only a matter of time before the settlers came back for him. And the first place they would look was Kvive’s siida.

“You’re getting better, Guivi,” Huika said as he and Gappas approached Kvive. “But you are still joiking about Sara. Tell me about her, how does she talk?”

Kvive thought for a few seconds before answering. “She talked fast, as if her mind outran her mouth. She would end a sentence before it was over, just to start a new one, and she’d answer her own questions as if she found the answer as she asked them.”

“And how does she sound?” Huika asked.

“Beautiful. Carefree like the song of a bird.”

“And what does she want?”

“What, how should I—”

“Just answer, don’t think about it.”

“She always tries to help those she cares for, even if—”

“Great,” Huika interrupted. “Now, joik her.”

Kvive cleared his throat.

At first his voice was barely audible, like the pitter-patter of a bird on a branch. Then it grew; the sound of his voice leaped, it went high and low and back and forth like a bird in flight. The joik was fast, and just when you thought you could follow it, or thought you knew where it was going, it started in a new direction, with new sounds.

Huika joined Kvive with his drum.

Kvive grinned as he joiked Sara even louder in time with Huika’s drum, and in that moment, he was grateful for knowing her.  

Above, birds joined them, both in song and in flight. They flew like they were one being, in a cloud-like pattern, to the tune and in time with Kvive’s joik.

Kvive stopped when tears trailed down his cheeks. “Why are you teaching me this?” he asked. It was like a gift he had done nothing to deserve.

“Did you see her?”

“Yes.”

“Exactly, I did as well. We remembered her. Not only her face, or her ambitions, but her very soul.”

Kvive smiled at that and wiped his tears away.

“You see, Guivi, there was a time when the Sami were free as the birds above us, chasing the best pastures with our herds. Now we step with care on our own lands, like beggars trying to cross a river without getting wet for a piece of stale bread on the other side. I had given up my calling as a noaidi before you forced me to remember again, by trying to kill yourself under that ice. And then, that night under the aurora, you heard our song, and you joined me in the night sky. You have given me hope again, and I am teaching you so that someone will remember when I am gone.”

“You’re not that old,” Kvive said.

Huika smiled at that, the deep furrows of his face wrinkling around his eyes and mouth.

“I have seen the future,” Huika said after a long silence. “It will become much worse before it gets better. But it will get better. You, and those you help remember will start it. We have already lost our lands, our names, and our gods. All we have left is our language, and that we must fight to keep to the very end. What do you think the ravenous call the snow when it melts and then freezes? We call it cuoŋu, and they call it snow. Or snow that has turned to coarse pebbles? We call it seaŋáš, and they call it snow. They have never led a life where the difference might mean the loss of a livelihood. And if we lose our language, we will lose our understanding of the world that makes us Sami.”

Huika fell silent with a pained expression on his face, as if he weren’t sure if it was smart to tell Kvive what he told him next.

“I saw the future in you, Guivi, that night under the aurora. And when the time comes, you won’t be ready, but you will put your nose to the wind and do your best. And in the wake of your life, a new future for the Sami will start.”

There was another long silence, before Kvive said, “I have to leave. Mother has been watching me like a hawk since we lost Sara.”

“Just promise me you will remember what we talked about,” Huika said solemnly.

“I will.”

Kvive jumped from the boulder and ran after the tracks of the ráidu.

#

Kvive caught up with the ráidu faster than he had thought. Even though the ground was bare, this area was flat, and the sleds should have been moving faster.

In the distance there was shouting and movement.

The cause of the commotion were soldiers between the people in the siida. The same kind of soldiers that had visited them that summer, wearing black uniforms with silver buttons.

Nearly every man and woman in the siida had a blade to their throat. At the helm of the cluster, was the same priest from summer. Still as tall, and still as pale, clutching his silver cross as he talked with his soft voice. “Summon the witch, or we will cut every throat here and claim your herd as property of the church!”

The pleas of mercy, and the explanations that Huika had left them, were ignored.

“Summon the witch, or we will cut every throat here and claim your herd as property of the church!” he said like a chant, over and over again.

“Stop!” Kvive ran straight up to the priest, avoiding the hands of soldiers that grabbed at him. “The old man is gone. We haven’t seen him since summer. Leave us alone!”

“No!” Kvive’s parents protested, but with a fist to their stomach the soldiers silenced them. On the ground, in the gietkka, his little brother slept, oblivious to what was happening.

The priest smiled at Kvive, recognizing him. “Ah, but we got you. I think you will be of immense help.” The priest nodded at one of the soldiers.

A soldier put a blade against Kvive’s throat. The cold steel sent shivers down his back, but this time he didn’t cry.

“You will tell us where the witch is, or we will hurt you in ways you thought unimaginable,” the priest said.

“I don’t know, and that’s the truth. I swear it on the cross around your neck!”

“Your promises mean nothing to me, boy.” The priest pulled out a knife from his wide sleeve. “I think we will start with your fingers. One more chance boy, before you lose a thumb. Where is the witch?”

“There,” Kvive said, as surprised as the priest.

Moving at a slow trot, Huika rode Gappas through the mass of people towards the priest. He held out his arms wide while humming a song. None of the soldiers dared approach him.

“Careful, witch,” the priest said, “one wrong move and my men will start cutting throats.”

“I’m not here to fight,” Huika answered. “I’m here to let it end.”

“Oh, we can end it for you.”

“It’s only me you want. Release these people and I’ll be your prisoner. You don’t want to kill an entire siida. You might consider the Sami as beaten dogs, but hit hard enough, and often enough, and even a beaten dog might bite back. Or do you want repeats of the riots this land is bloodied with?”

Now the earlier conversation made sense. Huika knew this was the only way for this to end, and that was by turning himself in. But how could he do that? Kvive wasn’t ready, what about all he hadn’t learned yet? But knowing Huika, he probably had a plan.

Huika gave the priest a wide smile.

“Besides, I have the ears of many powerful beings, and if you break this agreement, you will know their wrath.”

The priests face twitched. “Fine,” he said. “Hand over your drum and we’ll take you with us.”

Huika dismounted Gappas and unclasped his leather bag. He handed it to the priest and turned his back to him, so they could bind his hands.

The priest whispered in Huika’s ear, “Do you repent your sins, with all of your heart and body?”

“No,” Huika said.

“Will you ask of me, on behalf of God, to forgive your sins?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Then you leave me with no choice.”

With his knife still in his hand, the priest reached around Huika’s neck and slit it. Huika fell to his knees, blood spilling from his throat, before falling face first into the dirt. Seconds later, Gappas stopped breathing, and fell beside Huika.

“No!” Kvive screamed in Sami. “Someone, please help him!”

But none ran to Huika’s rescue, as if no one understood him.

Desperate to save Huika he roared, “Beaivi and Ipmil, take my sacrifice!”

Then he pushed his throat against the sharp blade and threw his neck along the edge of the sword.

Horrified, the soldier pulled away his sword from Kvive’s throat.

Kvive fell to his knees, with blood streaming down his chest.

#

Guivi sat on a reindeer pelt atop a boulder, overlooking the siida. The first snow of winter fell around him like the tiny white feathers of a grouse’s winter coat. He had regained most of his voice, and the wound across his throat had healed, even though it had been only a few days since he had tried to sacrifice himself for Huika.

The elders now called him imašgánda—miracle boy. First because of his miraculous survival in the lake, then his wound across his throat—a certain death—that had healed in a matter of hours. His sacrifice had done nothing, except scare away the priest and the soldiers, and hopefully they thought he was dead and wouldn’t return for him. But his sacrifice must have been refused by the gods, so they gave him his life back.

Guivi started humming, and he drummed on the rune drum the priest had left behind as he fled the siida.  

The sound of his voice resonated around him, like an echo bouncing off surrounding hills. It permeated the entire siida, and soon everyone, including his mother, father, and little brother, listened to him.

Then he joiked Huika.

It didn’t have many words, but it filled the soul of everyone there, like a piece that had been missing; it felt like filling your stomach when you are famished or drinking from a river when you are parched. Except, until now they had always had an aching hole in their chests, a drought in their throats, and a wanting in their souls.

And for the first time in centuries, his people felt whole.

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.