Riverine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

“What would you like?” asks my husband.

I think I’d like not to be married.

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

I discover the little marsh by swimming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

“It was not arbitrary,” he says.

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

“There was a reason.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand,” I say flatly.

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

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

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

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

Whatever he expects of me is unfair.

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

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

“You wouldn’t have known if you did.”

“Did I?”

He says nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

The door that used to be mine buzzes and opens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course he knows,” I say.

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

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

“Does he treat you well?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You know him much better than me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he what?”

“Who made the offer?”

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

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

“But did he ask for me?” I ask again.

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

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

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

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

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

His battle of wits was haggling a price.

“Have you offended him?” he asks.

“No.” A pitiful lie.

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

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

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

I don’t stay in town long.

#

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

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

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

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

“Do you remember my father?”

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

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

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

“I didn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I clearly have some purpose.”

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

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

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

“It’s between us.”

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

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

#

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

Drops of him trickle down my shins.

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

“What for?”

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

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

“You did nothing.”

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

All those years.

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

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

“I don’t believe that.”

“And you’re so small.”

“That’s no excuse.”

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

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

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

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

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

“It could change for the worse.”

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

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

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

“I accept your terms,” I say.

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

#

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

He chose me, and now I choose him.

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

Owl Prowl

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

We wear ice cleats. New family, new ways,

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

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

as the ring on my finger, but my love

puts on earmuffs and glows in the full moon.

I pull up my hood. We stand in a circle

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

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

no owls come. Stillness. I hear the highway

and people shifting their weight, the ice cracking.

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

I won’t ruin this pristine moment, not with

my love standing eager in the pale light.

I brace myself for a long and frozen watch.

 

But the wind dies down and the quiet trees

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

I stamp up and downhill, crushing crystals,

making the path safe. The night dilates our eyes.

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

standing next to each other, facing out.

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

On the Destruction and Restoration of Habitats

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

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

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

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

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

But none of these thrive in the presence of invaders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may have heard of this one.

It’s called glyphosate.

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

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

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

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

You’re invited.

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

maybe ground is meant to ripple

and sag like skin showing

 

her age. the wisdom

of roots aching to surface

 

maybe we’re meant to stumble

and break blades made for vain

 

manicuring to steep amazement

in unpredictable growth

 

you downed nana cottonwood onto

teenaged limbs, too young

 

to hold weighted life, a shock

of white, stripped bark and sodden

 

leaves. the birds stand on it all, ever

resilient, flexible. these will be new

 

nests. there is no pride here, only

adjustment, as there always is

 

when the flightless impose

their ground on the sky

The Wild Inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazelnuts had always been my favorite.

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

Real hazelnuts, though? They were dangerous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damndest thing,” he said.

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

“We should’ve had kids.”

That stopped me in mid-chew.

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

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

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

I huffed and took another bite of my pickles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe they thought we wouldn’t follow them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside. They’d gone inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside, I looked around and almost lost my balance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the kids—?”

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

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

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

No More Creepy Crawlies

There are no creepy crawlies hiding in my garden. I know, because I’ve checked.

The compost, under-turned and full of fresh scraps, should have attracted all manner of bugs and buzzers. The tree hanging overhead should be bowing down with orb weavers, feasting on the to-and-fro flitting parade. The bushes should be moving, rustling, going bump in the night as our insectivore friends come out to play.

There should be corpses. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and nothing lives forever. There should be bits, unglamorous chunks, remnants of private, unseen disputes as the hierarchy of predator and prey is reinforced. A feather, a tuft, a tail. There should be beetles and millipedes and worms, seething and swarming, biting and gnawing, beginning the process of making dirt from flesh.

Should be.

#

It’s amazing what you see when you pay attention. Keep your head up, they say, as if the world below isn’t stuffed to the brim with detail. In the great documentary of life, all the trailer snapshots might be happening in the trees and tall grass, but the meat-and-bones production work happens beneath our feet. The detail work, the foundations—the catering.

As a kid in the ‘Lucky Country’ of Australia, that was all I did: look down. Oh, sure, I looked up sometimes—birds and possums and spiderwebs all demand at least a little attention—but down below, things crawled. Spiders and hoppers scattered from leaf litter, careening off to safety from clumsy hands. The damp spaces under school demountables practically hoarded slugs, snails, frogs, and enough slime and gunk to definitively ruin a school uniform. Multicoloured ants swarmed the playground boundaries. The yellow-arsed ones taste like honey—honest! Go on, give it a try!

The trail up past my local golf course held so many lizards I ran out of memory on my tiny brick cellphone capturing them all in an afternoon. Christmas beetles invaded the damn living room every single summer, no matter what.

And always, always, there was the possibility of the unfiltered joy of a fistfull of dirt and the unearthing of something small, wriggling, and absolutely unsanitary.

#

I’ve lived just north of Sydney pretty much my entire life. I never moved away, and I never stopped digging. I think everything else might have moved, though.

When I dig into the ground now, I find more plastic debris than worms. Hell, I don’t find any worms at all. We’ve got a few crawlers like the ever-dependable pillbug, but not much else. The joy I find in dirt is very much filtered.

I’m not really supposed to dig, of course—the strata and homeowners associations don’t want to disrupt the neat, even, conformist rectangles of yellow-brown dying vegetation. I dig, though, keeping all the plastic I find in an unmarked bag in my tool cupboard. Couldn’t really tell you why I keep it. The worry, maybe, that if I throw it all out it’ll just end up in someone else’s dirt.

We have rules and expectations, and they must be stuck to. No leaf litter. Dead grass, wilting in the summer heat as the dirt dries and roots burn, unshaded and unnourished by its blades cropped too short, far too short. No “untidy” native lawn, no “weeds”, and absolutely no food crops. These are the rules and expectations. A system, designed from the ground up to sabotage itself across months and years.

Council-managed strips wilt, full of water-hungry non-natives. Succulents, everyone’s favourite low-maintenance plant, creep like an invasive carpet, providing no shelter at all, barely holding the dry and cracking dirt in place. I plant what I can in places I’m not allowed, but I can’t always plant food. We have a whole website and mail-in service that tells you whether your soil, the damn ground beneath your feet, is too contaminated with metals to safely grow food in. This is normal, of course. The kids play and the jacaranda trees bloom, and I wonder what little joys they simply never see.

I bite my tongue and keep my head down, keep looking. There’s definitely evidence of death. Corpses, the byproducts of a suburbia red in bloody cats and cars. Lying by the side of the road, deposited by feline indifference or automobile impacts, the possums, bats, and rats come to rest. Always whole, sometimes flat. They don’t rot or get eaten; just mummify, slowly, in the beating sun. Ignored by pedestrians. I make a point of taking them away and burying them. Feeding the soil. Sometimes, there are flies and maggots. Sometimes.

Our local council cares, though. Cares about the environment! About the animals! These pests might hurt our cats, so we poison them, bait them, trap them. Gas them. Hunt them down and ferret them out. A petition saved a den of people-shy foxes from being gassed, but for every indignant act of suburban outrage, there are dozens of systematic plagues against nature.

Suburbia. So damn sterile you grow to miss the cockroaches—yeah, even the ones as long as your thumb. The ones that fly. Can hardly believe it, but I miss them.

#

I used to dream of escaping up north to tropical Queensland, but when I visit there are always fewer clouds and more bones, more cane toads and dust. Farmers north and west don’t seem to be doing much better—parched by the drought, then flooded by storms that the dead ground can’t absorb. We shrug. Our supermarkets raise their prices to help farmers, but somewhere along the line forget to pass on the money. Everyone shrugs.

It goes without saying that our reefs are bleached and dying. That’s not news anymore. We know this. We’ve accepted it. Internalised it. We don’t even shrug.

I used to look with hope to the mountains and the coast, surely untouched by the creeping rot of suburban sprawl; no coddled cat vanguard, no lead in the soil, no strata rules. I looked to the same mountains and coast whose rivers are now clogged with algae and dead fish. The same mountains and coast that have burned, cloaking Sydney in hazy orange, hungrily devouring millions of acres of bushland in a single sweep. Thousands of homes, dozens of people. We shrug.

It’s been more than a month, and not a single day goes by without the smell of smoke hanging thick in the air. Ash drifts from the sky. The sun rises and sets a vile, neon red, so shrouded by smoke that it’s dull enough to look directly at, dull enough to be mistaken for the moon. Mood lighting, if I’ve ever seen it.

“Oh, it’s all theoretical. It doesn’t affect us! I’ll believe it when I see it,” they say, as the sky fills with smoke and the earth shrivels dry. “We have to think about jobs and growth. We’re a nation of innovators,” they say, as our livelihoods crumble and we repeat our mistakes over and over and over and—

I don’t understand how we’re not all furious. Look down. Look down, you fuckers. Look down, beneath your feet, under your fingernails, at the debris in your lungs, and into the silent night. Dig your hands into the dust, watch as it slips through your fingers—any damn metaphor it takes to get you to realise this country is dying around us.

Please. Look down.

#

These recollections were written on Gadigal land; land we have sorely mistreated. The Gadigal peoples are one of 29 clans that comprise the Eora Nation—traditional custodians of land we now call Sydney. Their sovereignty was never ceded.

From Melismas

and

Translated from Filipino by Kristine Ong Muslim

Aside from water, aside from sailing, killings

and results of counting steps,

in pursuit of danger as well as familiarity

of gestures shielded from view by dayandang trees.

The season’s too cold for leaping

to conclusions on whether constellations are drifting farther

away from us. Doomsday cultists are coming out of the woodwork

these days, crowing about supposed signs

of the Second Coming. Do we now synchronize

our positions, are the children’s hearts

getting healthier, are the horses

trotting faster than before? Suppose I imagine

birds, will that conjure birds?

If I visualize paradise,

will that render visible the wind’s unseen machinery,

will that produce names for all kinds

of wounds to make plain the level of damage wrought

to the environment, to explain the water rise

going beyond the expected limits

assuming we can still consider as limits

the coiled ropes and upright pickets of my unease?

Mula sa Melismas

Bukod sa tubig, bukod sa paglalayag, mga pagpatay

at mga resulta ng pagbibilang ng hakbang,

pagsunod sa kapahamakan gayundin ang pagkilala

sa mga galaw na itinatago ng mga dayandang.

Malamig ang panahon para sa paglukso

sa mga konklusyon kung dumidistansiya

ba ang mga konstelasyon. Parang nauuso

na naman ang pagmimiron sa mga signos

ng pagbabalik ng Panginoon. Sabay-sabay

na naman ba ang pagposisyon, naglulusugan

ba ang mga puso ng mga bata, bumibilis

ba ang mga kabayo? Kung mag-iisip ba ako

ng mga ibon, lalabas ba ang mga ibon?

Kung mag-iisip ba ako ng kaluwalhatian,

lalabas ba ang mga mekanismo ng hangin,

papangalanan ba ang lahat ng klase

ng sugat upang ipaliwanag ang mga pinsala

sa paligid, upang linawin ang paglampas

ng tubig sa mga naitakdang hangganan

kung hangganan bang maituturing

ang mga lubid at tulos ng aking ligalig?

Green Papayas on a Sunday Evening

TIDINGS

 

A harried wind has come

bearing in his arms

ill tidings.

 

Ratt-a-tatting timidly

on my door,

head hanging low,

hat in hand, my rain-drenched wind

pleads to be let in.

 

But I do not want him

in. I quickly shut my windows, and

stuff all the nooks and crannies.

I even cotton up my ears,

because I know.

 

Oh! I know. Don’t I know what my wind

has come to say?

 

He’s come to say the world is in utter disarray.

And, that I am weak and powerless. That I

can do nothing! Dear God! I can do nothing

but watch the horror unfold.

 

Perhaps I was being prescient when I wrote this poem before the world changed. I don’t know. All I know is that there is an odd stillness in my heart now. And the face of that woman selling green papayas is haunting me.

That Sunday evening seems like a distant dream today. We left the city of Hyderabad a few Sundays ago, and are still settling down in our own home, even as I write this piece. The shadow of the virus dims our sun. The numbers have climbed up so high, India now practically leads the global pandemic. Covid 19 has swept out from the cities into the hinterlands, where basic healthcare is negligent, forget Covid care. The virus has even entered our tiny community of seventy-two homes. An eerie silence wheels around the children’s play area. And that mainstay of Indian homes, the daily help, is missing. The sharp edges of people have softened since the early days of Covid. Neighbours are no longer discriminatory towards those in quarantine. Our face masks have created a fraternity which wasn’t there before. There is little difference between our lives in Hyderabad and Chennai. Except that here, in lieu of a large balcony, I have a terrace I can run up to, and stand beneath a vast rolling sky. It provides a respite from the walls. In Hyderabad, we needed to rush out of our homes just to get some fresh air.

That Sunday was no different. My husband and I drove towards Hyderabad’s older parts, where people live cheek by jowl, and the shops are open-to-the-sky carts and wooden platforms. Hyderabad’s historical monuments, the Golkonda fort, Kutab Shahi tombs and further down, the Charminar and Falak Nama Palace, are located there. I wanted to see them as we drove past. So, we went, armed with face masks, hand sanitisers, a large bottle of water, and a shopping bag, in case we found something to buy!

We cruised around, safe inside our mobile egg (that is what Arvind Adiga called cars in his Booker award winning book ‘The White Tiger’). The evening sky had turned into a violet velvet cape, pinned up by the brightest Jupiter of the year. The narrow roads were chock-a-block with people. It was in fact a scene straight out of a village fair, a mela. There were men selling shocking pink cotton candy on sticks, balloons, cheap plastic toys, spicy crispy fried snacks in newspaper cones, corn on the cobs roasting on charcoal stoves on trolleys. People sat with their wares laid out on plastic sheets on the dirt tracks beside the narrow road. Second-hand clothes, rubber footwear, folding umbrellas, fruits and vegetables.

Nobody seemed to care about safety. Most of them did not have masks on. They were obviously not practising social distancing, but were laughing, talking, backslapping and hugging each other with abandon. Some women and children crowded around a handpump, gossiping or playing as they waited their turn to draw water. The scene was a far cry from the other India of glass and concrete towers, air-conditioned homes and malls, and all the necessities and luxuries available in all developed countries. A world we too are privy to.

If anything, Covid 19 has outlined the thousand-headed social divide in India with thick black indelible lines. The have-nots out-number the haves by far despite the strides India has made in the past decade. Online classes are a privilege the majority of Indian school children cannot afford. What the world knows about India is always a few notches off the mark, whether it is the good, the bad or the ugly. This subject is so complex and convoluted that it cannot be explained away in a few lines or even chapters! But if I were to draw a quick sketch, I’d say that those who are subjugated and deprived in India face it from so many angles that they have no fear left. They leave it all to fate. In their world, they have only each other. This was the spirit I observed all around me from behind my rolled-up car window, as we negotiated our way past the human throngs, stray goats and cows, and unruly traffic. And, we also saw the papayas!

“Want to pick up a few?” said my husband in all seriousness.

The woman selling the fruit understood from long experience that she had a potential customer. Her body shifted, almost imperceptibly. I knew if I gestured, she would bring a few over for me to choose.

Raw-green papayas are nutritious and delicious. Their most famous avatar may be the Thai salad, but their buttery texture when boiled and mashed makes them a great substitute for mashed potatoes with roast pork or beef. A pat of butter, salt and pepper is all you need. Bengalis, like us, love them grated and steamed with whole aromatic spices like bay leaves, green cardamoms, cloves and cinnamon, and topped with shredded coconut and clarified butter. My mouth watered. It had been a while since we had eaten them. Even from a distance, and in the fading light, I could tell how fresh these were. Glossy jade green, with their cut stems still oozing the milky sap.
“You think it’s worth the risk?” I said, even as my fingers itched to touch them. “I mean, nobody’s following any safety rules here.”

My husband swerved just then, taking most of the car out of the road and onto the dirt track. A gleaming Range Rover Autobiography muscled its way forward. A man in his late thirties or early forties was at the wheel. He barely noticed our much smaller vehicle. Irritated, I looked away. At that instant the eyes of the woman with the perfect green papayas met mine. She smiled with compassion at this privileged woman, fearful of the poor and angry at the uber rich. Her eyes seemed to fling questions at me: Would I recoil if my hands involuntarily touched hers? Would I rush home to disinfect myself?

We drove back home without the coveted papayas. Some weeks later we relocated. The young men from the packers and movers kept their masks on in our presence. But took them off blithely during their lunch break. To them we were delicate creatures, not of robust flesh and blood like themselves. Yet we are all brethren under the Indian sky. And, if the little poem I wrote was prescient, my sentiments were wrong. One can always do something, no matter how insignificant. That small something may be a thought in the mind or a feeling, but it is still a shift towards change.

Gratitude for what we have. Frugal and mindful living. Respect for this world and all in it. And outrage at what we have knowingly and unknowingly done. These may sound like platitudes mouthed by a woman living a sheltered life, but to quote Benjamin Franklin, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

Salvage Song

So, here we are

at the end.

We have pulled down the sails to make patches for the ocean, come

we will patch those patches with paisley scraps,

with blue and white checks like

Dorothy’s dress, we will save scraps of paper

to cover half-written books; come we will grab

one last plank from the ship to patch

somewhere out past the epilogue. Come,

there is so much farther to go.

 

Let go of the ship’s rope ladder, and we’ll talk

about walking lightly on the world. Not

that we shouldn’t have built the ship or made

the voyage, that the less anyone

could feel your wake, the better; not

some correspondence between the weight

of each step and the storm befalling us—but follow, step light,

if only because the raft is so easily tipped.

Step light down to the raft:

apply your whole self to the push and pull,

to the tumbling forward, the pause, and we will hop

from salvaging to salvaging.

 

Here at the end

you will feel you are doing nothing, and

you won’t: when you think

about the space between

water droplets, a shortness of breath

will lodge in your chest the pain of knowing

there is so much to salvage, a folding

like reaching to tuck even the voyage

back into the pattern.

 

If you have no hope, you’ve come

to the right place to be hopeful

without it. And if you’re worried

this is escape, I will assure

you: there is no escape.

We will drift

in the mess of an oceanic canal flush with pink

rhinestones from prom dates

that never happened and as we go

we will sew up the waves. When the raft sinks,

plug your nose, look up, and hold your breath

a little longer than comfortable. Your heartbeat

will pulse diamond in the water around you.

Take just enough with you

to swim back to the world.

 

So here at the end this song

is for drifting, this song

is for knowing your drifting goes somewhere, this song

is for pulling with all your might

against dead air. Out here,

you will have so much desire you will forget

how to have desires,

but that’s okay, because this

is the end of the world

and we don’t have new things.

 

And I don’t mean to say

this couldn’t be a love story.

Only that we’ll have to salvage

from the love stories already written, here

at the end of the world.