I didn’t realize that some folks thought my momma was crazy until after
she was dead. My small family had just finished our last family meal of ham hock
and beans on that grey early December afternoon along with the last of momma’s
fried squash she had put up that summer before she passed.
Memaw Maggy had taken over the cooking in our house when momma
started confusing the sugar with the flour. “I remember telling your momma Nell
that a good meal does things for good people. No matter her troubles, she always
had enough sense to keep you fed the way a growing boy should be.” She said as
she sat down beside me in her pastel hummingbird apron.
Before that day I had never wondered if momma might not have been right
in the head. To my naive eyes we seemed to make out alright on our own. She
saw me through school all the way up until I had started junior high just a year
earlier. Around that same time all the walk had finally gone out of her legs, and
she could no longer get out of bed to go to the county engineering job she loved
so much. She only had a few months left by then.
Of all the times I had felt like I didn’t belong at our family gatherings, this
was the one to beat ‘em all. Mostly what I remember is an empty house, nothing
left except for the tattered furniture. The years since momma’s passing have
blurred the memory of those that were present at that final family meal. I sunk
low into the egg yolk colored couch as they spoke. Strands of momma’s light
crimson hair had weaved itself into the upholstery.
“Yes sir, that sure was some mighty fine eatin’.” My grandad Fletch said as
he untucked the napkin from his denim shirt.
“Say Lloyd, you really oughta go on out to Potter’s garage and see about
that clerking job.” He said to my uncle. “I hear it pays pretty good and there ain’t
a lot of getting up and down that needs done.”
Fletch, memaw Maggy’s second husband, but just the same as any
grandfather to me, had always been the kind to be more comfortable in the seat
of his Farm All tractor than an easy chair. He was scraping out his pipe into the
ashtray on the cherrywood end table as he marveled over the meal we had just
finished. His Lowry feed and grain hat was already back on his head covering thin
patches of his dull silver hair.
“Yeah, I oughta.” Said uncle Lloyd as he stared out through the picture
window that framed the barren plains stretching toward the blue lit horizon.
Lloyd had lost his job down at the auto parts factory a decade earlier when
a rotating turbine took a chunk of important muscle out of his left leg. Worker’s
compensation had taken care of everything except getting him back to a
productive way of life. He still wore his khaki work shirt with the torn pocket most
days of the week. As I had grown taller through my early teenage years his broken
body seemed to grow smaller under the weight of not being useful.
“That was one thing about your momma, boy, she couldn’t abide sitting
around for too long. She was always after me to make more of myself when we
was younger too. I guess I’ll never understand how she managed to do so well at
that engineering job all them years. Job like that one’s enough to drive anybody
to their sickbed.” He could hardly look in my direction.
A rainbow of soft blue and yellow threads from momma’s unfinished
sewing streamed over the edge of a basket at the end of the couch. I only realized
later that there were a lot of loose threads in the town where I grew up. In the
end all it would take was the scandalous talk of our neighbors to unravel a mind
“She had her own rough start just like anybody else, Lloyd. Thought for a
while there she might not get going in any direction.” Memaw Maggy said. “She
only made it into that county transportation job ‘cause no other man in town had
the education for it like she did. No woman ever could get along working a job like
that before her.”
She shook her head in disapproval. “The things she told me some of those
dirty old men said out on the job site, enough to make the preacher beat the devil
out of all of ‘em with the good book.”
“Well, the way she took it is a lot more than I can say for most of the ladies
in this town, that’s for sure. You can be proud of that boy.” Lloyd said.
“She just had more gumption before her sick spells took hold then you did
Lloyd, that’s all.” Memaw raised her chin as she spoke.
“Was that the same gumption that led her down to the riverbank on so
many occasions?” Lloyd asked “Seems to me that sort of gumption’s the sort a
woman can do without.”
“Naw, it was her smarts that made her feel like she had to keep looking for
people that felt the way she did about things around here. If she hadn’t felt so
obliged to find the ones with hopes beyond this town, she might have been able to see how close she was to the edge. Sayin’ she had an easy time of it ain’t no
better than them chatterboxes at the beauty parlor sayin’ her troubles was
The edges of the room seemed to blur as the front door opened. Uncle
Lloyd stood up silently and walked out into the luminous space beyond.
My Aunt Sue Ann had always felt it her duty to defend the more decent
womenfolk around town. “Now Maggy them ladies was just concerned, that’s all.
If it was just a body sickness well that’s one thing but ailing in the mind scares
people.” She said.
“Concerned hell, all them petty gossipers was worried about was catching it
themselves.” Memaw said.
“Well, what’s a body supposed to think when they see a lady they’ve
known since she was a little girl wandering around town at all hours going on
about radios in cars and women flying planes?” Sue said.
Maggy replied, “Lot worse places she could have ended up. Them women
wagging their tongues about my Nell’s walking spells is what got people to saying
she couldn’t control her impulses at night. What’s a slander like that got to do
with folks’ concern, Sue?”
“Now Maggy, you can’t expect to keep a thing like that from people. You
expect folks to not be worried about what might be going around?”
“But it wasn’t catching Sue, the clinic was sure of that. It just got to where
she couldn’t stay still. She said it felt like trying to escape the whole world falling
in on her. Imagine having thoughts that heavy pushing down on you. The
therapies they gave her started to work. She wasn’t crazy, she just couldn’t help
but go to walking when it got so bad.” Memaw said.
“That clinic didn’t know nothing.” Sue Ann shook her head. “Them shakes she was
having didn’t get much better after the treatments they gave her. Always did
wonder if that place didn’t make the poor dears worse off than they started.”
She adjusted her violet-shaded shirtwaist as she spoke.
“Seems like the best thing to do for ‘em would be to make sure they get
their home life in order. A right and proper home life is the remedy for any
“And what was wrong with my Nell’s home life Sue? She was doing just fine
with her important job and raising the boy here on her own.” Maggy said.
“Plenty wrong if it made her sick in the head. There’s more to keeping a
home than having a roof and a job. A woman can’t do it proper like all by herself
without something coming unraveled eventually.”
“What’s proper Sue? Staying in the house from dusk ‘til dawn only going
out to get the washin’ and go to the market? She might not a done the right and
proper thing for a woman as far as you’re concerned but don’t go to thinking she
got to ailing just because she worked a hard job and didn’t get married.” Maggy
almost stood up as she gripped the knobby wooden arm rests of the rocker.
“Well, I guess a woman with all the smarts Nell had could see her way to
doing more than taking care of her family. Not me, the space inside my four walls
was always plenty for me to manage.” The ring on her left hand shone silvery
white where the gold had worn off.
Aunt Sue’s husband had passed on back in ’43 just before I was born. I had
overheard momma say one time that Sue had taken on the habit of speaking into
the air at any moment as if he was still there. A lot of people she passed by in Falls
Creek had a way of knowing what it felt like to not be heard so they just let her
“You remember them sewing patterns she used to do Maggy? She used to
make some of the prettiest place mats and embroidered napkins. It’s a wonder
she had the time to do anything like that with working.” said Sue Ann.
“Well, she only had time for those things once the medication made her sit
still for a while. She never could be kept inside for very long while she was still
working.” Maggy said impatiently.
“But she was so good at it, Maggy. What a shame she didn’t have more
time for that talent. Might have done her some good and kept her away from
some of them folks that got a hold on her thoughts.” Sue said.
“Your momma’s thoughts were just too big for this town.” She patted my
leg as she spoke. “If it hadn’t been for her there wouldn’t no more businesses
opening up out along the highway.”
“My teaching her to sew real young didn’t do near as much for her as her
book learning did later on. I guess some of my lessons did take after all. She
started out making those little half-moons and suns out of my blanket scraps.
Lord knows she was all thumbs and no patience when I would try to help her. And
it’s a wonder she ever made it out of the house dressed proper on account she
couldn’t match colors to please a blind man.” Memaw said.
She ran her fingers over her apron as her voice struggled to recall the times
before momma could no longer be left alone in the house. As I saw the heavy
expression on her face, I began to fidget with the buttons on my shirt.
We all looked around the room from one remembrance of momma to
another. I felt like no one else could see the faint limestone streaks tattooed into
the dark brown carpet by the soles of momma’s work boots. The old upright
piano with a songbook of her favorite forties jazz tunes waited to be picked up by
the movers. The threadbare burgundy throw rug was still in front of the kitchen
sink where she had stood and washed the dishes on Saturday mornings as she
told me all about how the rest of the world was so much bigger than our little
town. She was she still present in so many ways.
The door opened again. Aunt Sue pushed her tired body up from the couch
and took more color from the room as she passed through to the outside.
“Your momma sure was good help on the farm too, boy.” Grandpa Fletch
remarked. “Yes sir, I remember when she was coming up we always had more
chicken and tomatoes than anybody could ever eat thanks to her. Your momma
plucked every one of them chickens herself too. She always saw to it that some
poor soul in need would get our extra crop. We didn’t run out on anybody that was hurting like they do nowadays that’s for sure.” I saw the pride displayed on
his face as he adjusted in his chair.
Fletch had left his first wife in the next county over one steamy august
night to marry my Memaw Maggy. He never did say exactly why he left, only that
she had made him the happiest man this side of Dixie.
“Now Fletch, you know Nell never had no talent at plucking chickens. Quit
trying to make her out to be the farm hand she wasn’t. She never could learn to
milk the goats right either.”
Fletch threw up his hands. “She tried is all. More than I can say for a lot of
folks her age.”
Memaw continued, “A girl as smart as Nell wasn’t meant for no farming
labor. I’m afraid she learned to hate the life it took to live off this land. Besides,
being on the farm with the chickens and the pigs kept her off the dance floor with
the young men.”
Maggy dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her bawled up tissue. Her
hands held together as if they were threading a needle in supplication to a spirit
only she could discern.
“I hated that for her. No mother wants to see her only daughter grow up to
“She sure didn’t end up celibate on account of us.” Fletch said.
“Well, we didn’t help none either, Fletch. You’re forgetting about the
decent young man she brought home from college that one time. I thought he
was nice enough, but he was just too big city for you.”
“Now I liked him fine Maggy, but she had plenty of opportunity with the
boys around town here if she just hadn’t been so worried about what they would
think because of her troubles. Poor thing lost all her self-confidence when she
started gettin’ sick.” The corners of Fletch’s mouth turned down.
“I hate that it took her the way it did but them nervous spells just got too
strong for us to go chasing after her every time she ran off. We just couldn’t do
nothing more for her Maggy.” Fletch had taken out his handkerchief.
The thick aroma of the after-supper custard pie still hung in the air. Fletch
got up, and when the door opened, he departed.
Memaw Maggy looked at me. I saw momma’s sparkling reflection carried in
her eyes as she stood up.
“You were the one she needed.” She folded the grass green afghan and
place it gently back on the rocking chair. The door held open as she stepped out
into the open space. The colors all faded then as yellow dots of light swallowed up
the edges of all that was left.
As I gathered up the loose strands from the sewing basket on the floor and
placed it back on the table, I didn’t understand why they all had to leave that day,
but momma’s memory remained.
When they brought me in it was the night of Marty’s funeral. Whether the overdose was accidental, no one knew and no one talked about it. I’d been drinking since at least dusk with all of these guys I had gone to high school with in Adam’s dad’s backyard and I’ve spent years trying to remember when I would have understood that I was too drunk to drive. But at that time there didn’t seem to be such a thing as too drunk. It was always not enough.
With everything in the news about cops nowadays, I also try to remember the demeanor of the officer that arrested me. The gravel in his voice made him seem curious if he could get away with some rough stuff, but that could have been my adrenaline talking. What I can remember is my limp body shaking in the nocturnal summer wind under the pressure of the field sobriety test, claiming dyslexia when asked to recite the alphabet backwards, and the gauntlet-like clench of the handcuffs around my wrists. The pain stiffened my spine to a level of attention no drunkenness could overcome.
Not believing in God or angels then, I was fumbling with the idea of Marty’s ghost sitting beside me on the ride downtown. The face was in profile, pensive, without dimension. All I could conjure was a death mask. Back in school we would sniff glue and make faces at each other. He had this signature face where he would stick his index fingers in his eye sockets and his thumbs in his cheeks, pulling them apart to create this exaggerated Chelsea grin that would either tickle or frighten you. That would depend on the high.
This ghost I’d conjured wouldn’t respond to me when I told it to make the face.
The city lights were flickering as if the grid were unstable. The cuffs, I thought, were choking my airflow. I only wanted to sleep and to wake up unaware of how I’d gotten home just one more time. I’d admit to my Claire I’d been drinking behind her back again, delete the numbers of women I’d been texting on the sly, and start clean again. If only this could be a dream.
The officer ordered me to smile and the great flash overtook me. He yanked me to a chair where he loosened the cuffs and another officer, a woman, took my fingerprints. She tried to make small talk, asking me how my night was going.
“Smile, you’re alive,” she said.
Then the officer took me to the cell. I’ve still never seen my mugshot.
There was a clock on our row, but it was beyond my window and I couldn’t make it out. My right eye was dry and I rubbed it to the point where my contact lens fell out. My cellmate was a thin, short Black man who slept comfortably on the iron bench he’d claimed. He slept with his palms open—saintly, airing these large scrapes out, as if he’d fallen, or had been knocked down. Later when he awoke he told me they picked him up for unpaid tickets and his girlfriend was coming for him. It was then I noticed the cuts on his knees within the tears of his jeans. He told me they’d just let me go once I’d dried out. That didn’t end up happening.
The judge wouldn’t be in until ten that morning. Once I’d accepted I couldn’t conjure Marty without the cover of darkness, that light shone on everything in a jail cell, I was able to lay down.
The judge did come in the next morning. My cellmate was gone when I woke up. A guard brought me a mostly thawed burrito from the vending machine and watched me eat it. He answered my attempts at small talk with monosyllables and eyed my cell like a pit of booby traps. Then came the phone call to Claire, who had to call her friend Zibba for the bail money. The end was near.
“Don’t come back,” the lady at the desk told me as I walked out into a stabbing afternoon light. I came back twice.
Mornings are different now. When I have a headache, it’s because of bad air circulation, a change in the weather, or I slept in a crooked position. My dog—a drooling, handsy Saint Bernard— barks in my face demanding that I take her out. I let my wife sleep and do as the dog tells me. I remember going to sleep in this room. I remember my dreams.
Christmas was two weeks ago and I met Adam at the VFW. He was drunk. I met him coming fresh from a meeting. The Highway Group is mostly old timers whose musings on going “back out there” make it sound almost fun. With the pool drained, all the old veterans and their grandkids—those old enough to drive them home—were hanging around in the cool air. A hard freeze was predicted for the weekend.
Adam sat in a beach chair in a stained thrift store fedora, smoking a cigarette and sipping a jack and coke. We talked over the usual annual things: how our parents were doing, marriages come and gone, how old was too old for fatherhood, what year music stopped sounding good.
Whenever Marty comes up, a pregnant silence sets in, which Adam always initiates. He never wants to talk about it. This time I had to know why.
“Call it survivor’s guilt,” he said. “You don’t ever feel that?”
“Not so much anymore,” I said. “When I quit drinking I guess I had to find a way past it.”
I don’t know why I lied.
Adam looked at the spot he’d indicated with a drip of snot forming in his nostril. He pressed his nose with his finger and shot it out. He has tried a lot of different lives out. He went to film school in Portland. He got in with some avant garde circle up there, bottoming out during a shoot in some coastal Oregon village. He made his way to Aberdeen and lived somewhere near Kurt Cobain’s mom’s house. He sent me a postcard one autumn. Then he eventually settled in Austin, doing research for a docudrama on Blaze Foley and playing open mics while gigging as a bouncer on Sixth Street.
If it weren’t for his natural muscularity and thin strawberry goatee, he could pass as Blaze.
The cigarette I bummed from him gave me a vague and ghostly thirst for a shot of bourbon and to go have a lost night. My fist gripped the side of the chair.
“My dad’s still on my ass about smoking,” he said. “Guess he’s got nothing to tell me about drinking. Jesus, I don’t remember a night in almost forty years he hasn’t been fucked up.”
I like to think of myself as a good listener, but really I just zone out when I sense someone about to launch into some spill about themselves, especially if I already know the story. This was no different. Adam blames his dad for the way he is, his own genes splashed with the aspergillum of whiskey and philandry. It brings him some kind of brief narcotic relief to let this out once a year when we meet here, so I don’t bother contradicting him. But I don’t know how to listen anymore.
An empty chair was with us at the table, its back facing the pool. I’d have brought up some memory of us and Marty raising hell one of many evenings years ago. But that would have gone nowhere, and even if it would have shut Adam up about the crushing misery of thirty-six winters, all that time still would have passed. And we’d still be checking in once a year, if not with our current set of losses, then some other.
When Adam’s dad called me this morning to tell me Adam had killed himself on New Year’s Day, it was clear that he felt the same weariness with the same conversations over and over. He hadn’t survived. There was nothing to feel guilty about.
Mom died of a mix of pinot grigio and hydrocodone seven months before I went to detox. I was sober and shaking at the funeral. It was now October and dad drove me out while I finished his bottle of American Honey.
We drove past unkempt farms where skeletal cows laid and stared at the rare passing truck. The pale sun was too weak to break through the fog and I was grateful to be drunk enough to find the landscape beautiful. Leaves launched from beneath the tires, rockets petering out before they could leave the atmosphere.
I looked over at my dad and noticed he was thin. All my life he’d sworn to get some weight off and now he had. He would let himself weep after he dropped me off, I knew.
Dad and my brother got drunk the night of mom’s funeral. I snuck vodka into my club soda as they sat on the porch and talked of vague good times. Then they talked about what went wrong and why. My feigned thirst and the humidity gave me an excuse to keep getting up for refills.
I have been told I have a natural scowl that makes it look like I’m always listening to something with indivisible attention. But I don’t listen much. Words just come and go. I’m daydreaming, losing life but not missing it.
“It was the doctor,” my dad said. “That son of a bitch doctor.”
My brother and I said nothing back. He went on.
“It was them that gave her the pills whenever she wanted them. They were a goddamn depository. By god, I should sue.”
Dad breathed and closed his eyes.
“I don’t remember the last time she and I sat out here together. She’d come out here high all the time. Alone.”
Across the pond a gaggle of geese slept under a spring moon. Sprinkles of light gathered on their backs in an unguarded moment. My brother hadn’t said a word all day.
On nights when winter was over, nights like this one, Marty drive us out into the country. One night he drove us to a fenced-in field where horses were banded together, ever watchful for coyotes. Christine, his girlfriend, was in a benzo sleep in the backseat, her snores a whistled transcription of a nightmare. I walked with him up to the fence and he gave me a handful of poppers he’d saved from last year’s Independence Day. He strangled the barbed wire, shook it and laughed.
“So fucking sharp, dude,” he said. He’d show me the puncture in his palm later, laughing as he did another whippet.
Then he went running along the fence. There was a crack and the rainbow glare of a roman candle shot across the field. Marty’s cackle formed a counterpoint to the whistle of the firework, his shadow coming and going in the flashes like a ghost. He laughed all the way back to the suburbs.
Dad helped me sign in when we got to the detox. Drunk as I was, my hands still shook and I gripped my forearms like siderails. Our eyes didn’t meet as he was leaving. He patted me on the back and walked out the door.
It was all voices and no bodies for at least three days. When I emerged from the Valium coma I had to ask the nurse what my name was.
“John,” she said with a sad, welcoming grin. “The beloved one.”
The summer before I met my wife I drove to the desert. Checking into a small motel in an unincorporated town, I slept late into the next day. The curtains were thick and the room was dark. The sound of a car passing only came once an hour. I’d been dry for a year.
The mountains had a painterly quality, such that I could not really believe they were of natural hands. The air was so clean it hurt my lungs and the lines along the clefts had the appearance of order. Time was something deeper than memory here. In the afternoon I drove until I found a gate leading into what looked like worthy hiking land. In the distance two curved hills formed a semicircle, inviting me to walk through the middle.
In the same backpack I’d carried since high school I’d packed water, beef jerky, and peanuts. Maybe I can kill something and cook it, I thought, though I had never done it before. For uncounted hours I walked between the canyons as the world darkened. A few times I looked back to the flatness I was leaving and thought about how there was nothing for me. Soon there was very little to see and a cold wind came in from the valley. As the chill overtook me I said a Hail Mary, almost earnest.
I laid under an overhanging crevice and ate some of the peanuts. Everything visible was blue under the moon. Though I was sure I was alone, a glimmer in the deep distance arrested my vision as I was about to close my eyes. Whatever it was out there, it could just as well have been a cowboy laying down, his fire the lone spark in all that emptiness, dozing beneath a sky unpolluted by light. Perhaps he hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks, maybe months. Years. Someone lost, locked away from touch and speech. Something unspeakable had called him out there, away from the cities where nothing can be said or heard.
Marty, Adam, Mom.
Who’s out there?
Once upon a time there was a world of great beauty here in the High Arctic. I was part of that world.
Let me describe it for you, though you’ll likely not believe me. For what’s been lost is unimaginable. And sheer description? Oh, how does one describe the indescribable? The hues of the last glacier? Epic blues—turquoise, cerulean, cobalt, sapphire, indigo—striating the brilliant white folds of snow-covered ice, itself so much like the weathered skin of a wizened human face? Nests of needle ice so clear they disappear against the pellucid cover of pristine snow? The scale—your insignificance against time itself, eternity? The language of a sudden calving—the thunder of ice dissevering into water . . . the whisper of crystalline powder rising, pluming, cascading . . . the consequent shush and huff of a great wave enveloping the sea?
What called to you in the glaciers’ disintegration and you didn’t hear, didn’t listen?
Now it’s too late for anything but conjuring a lost world.
So, like the embryonic wave forming in a calving’s aftermath, I begin again: Once upon a time there was a world of great beauty here in the High Arctic.
From a cave in my belly an iceberg shears, cartwheels, bursts up from the black water into a mist of ice vapor and snow cloud. Kittiwakes, unsettled from their bergs by the tumult of sea and sky, whirl and glide, their collective cries like those of a chorus of newborn babies. As the ice-smoke clears, these opportunistic birds hover, dive underwater into the cloud of rust-colored plankton stirred up in the turbulent echo of my loss.
For millennia past, I was a massive ice mesa, polar desert hiding ridges of basalt rock and fossils millions of years old. Patterned with meltwater channels, I stretched from Arctic Ocean to Barents Sea. In summer, those straits wound south until they tumbled in waterfalls weeping over my stolid face. Joined to me north and south, east and west were valley glaciers hugged by jagged rock—Bråsvellbreen and Etonbreen, Duvebreen and Leighbreen, Worsleybreen, Fonndalsbreen, Schweigaardenbreen. I carved their valleys, poured parts of myself into their clefts. I thought of these glaciers as my arms and legs. They were long ago swept into the sea.
What holds me here, tenuously, is bedrock. Yet still I slide forward, thrust bit by bit into dark waters . . .
. . . but slowly, too slowly to catch my lost child.
All that’s in my power is to watch that broken piece of me, my daughter, drift away as the kittiwakes resettle on her, migrant berg. The last of her is a speck on the horizon, then she’s vanished forever, at the mercy of currents that stream south and west. Shedding as she moves. Spinning as her center of gravity shifts with her inevitable thawing in warmer southern oceans. She will, someday soon, become one with the water into which she was born. How strange to know I’ll outlive her as I’ve outlived all my children!
When I was young, I relished the snaking riverlets coursing across my plain, spilling over my face in ribbons that froze into a tapestry of delicate, inverted spires that chimed in unison whenever the wind played across their spines. I cherished the hidden streams that flowed below me, lifting me up and carrying me forward into the bay. Floating almost weightless, I envisioned being released at last from bedrock’s grip and launched into the boundless waters that lay before me. I thought of myself—monstrous and free—a ship of ice scouring the seas.
Yes, I was young, my thoughts naïve, not yet formed by bearing witness to geological epochs. I can almost forgive what’s happened when I think of you humans, in eternity’s time mere fledglings grasping at the worms of infantile convictions regarding your own permanence against Earth’s immortality. As you fade from the planet, fresh life emerges, a new and truer Eden . . . enough!
Learning to be alone, as I have, requires a certain detachment. Perhaps that’s affected my sympathies toward you.
Epochs passed. I began to see my error. Summer meltponds absorbed too much sunlight, grew to dark lakes and soaked up more. Moulins opened, sucked the water from my surface in ever-expanding whirlpools. And those once-cherished waterfalls? They lashed my face, catacombed my body, slashed deep abysses. I was dying. Caverns enclosed the nothing I was becoming.
As I aged, I welcomed the howling gales, storms that tiered snow or sleet over me to momentarily salve my wounds. I welcomed the days of endless winter night, the full moon irradiating my blue-white terrain with avenues of light, stars winking on and off as cirrus clouds scrolled the sky. I welcomed the aurora borealis, that wavery kaleidoscoping, torches held aloft by your dead blazing across the heavens. I welcomed the cold light of star-born objects.
I welcomed the cold itself that arrested, for a time at least, my diminishment.
I was at peace.
Truth is, now I’m weary. Now I dream of giving birth to myself all at once, a colossal shearing sending me once and for all south to join my children. Instead, I calve and dissolve little by little into the sea. Toward my own ending.
We had names. A litany of the dead I sing to myself:
Thwaites, Pine, Haynes,
I could go on. Forgive me. The rhythm is off. My voice is out of tune.
Though pinned to these mountains, this bedrock, I’ve seen extraordinary things.
I’ve seen marvels at sea. Long ago, a Viking longship with an ornate dragon carved into its prow stalled in the bay as the wind died and the fearsome, blood-red sail slackened. No doubt that dragonship had lost its way for it was the first and last of its kind I observed in my long life. The pilot and his crew readied the oars, first to starboard then to port. The oarsmen lined up, sitting tight one to another. At the pilot’s signal, “Allr róa,” the men drew their oars once in unison. Again the pilot called out, “Æn róa,” and another prodigious heave of the oars followed. Silence ensued as the crew—as if contained in one great body—plied their oars with no more direction from the pilot. Picking up speed, the longship sailed past, moving almost soundlessly but for the susurrus of paddles pulled in unison.
Much later, a whaling ship suddenly beset by ice was caught and crushed to driftwood but for its mast, which impaled itself in the mud and stones beneath the water. For hundreds of years, that mast, like a hand signaling to no one save me, jutted from the sea. It’s there still, though only the stub of its finger rises above the water. The rest lies buried deep in sludge and scree.
I’ve seen marvels in the air as well. A hot-air balloon once skimmed the waters to the north of me, distant and dangerously low. Aboard, three men leaned over the basket that carried them, threw down a metal buoy. The ocean swallowed it as fire breathed up inside the balloon’s great bubble. The three men rose, raised their fists in the air, sailed beyond the horizon. What became of them? I once overheard two hunters claim that their bodies were discovered decades later, frozen on Kvitøya, an island to the east, not far from here.
It seems but a moment in time after those jubilant, doomed men sailed above me that a stricken airship drifted southwestward across the bay. Its envelope was intact, but there was a gaping hole in the keel where the gondola had torn away. A man clung to one of the metal ribs protruding from the open wound, his legs paddling back and forth as if he were swimming through sky. Then he slipped (or perhaps he let go), plummeted through the air and plunged into the water, the last of him consumed by pancake ice and sea.
And even on my barren plateau, where dead things outnumber the living, where no human ever settled, I’ve seen marvels. One spring, two men drove a team of huskies over my ragged plain. They were cartographers, here to map each crevice and crevasse, each fjord, bay, island. I heard them speak of an underground lake that lay deep inside me, rimmed by a curtain of icicles glinting in shades of green and blue. They’d marked it, though today it’s merged with the waters that run beneath me.
I admired those men for their courage, their respect for the land. But more remarkable was how they cared for their huskies, sometimes at their own peril. Here’s what I witnessed one evening after the men had spent the day mapping a cluster of small islands dotting the bay. They’d sledged over to those islands and back, across broken floes and ice hummocks. Both men and dogs were exhausted, hungry. But, as if providence shined down upon them, a seal lay sleeping on a floe near shore. The men stalked, shot, and flayed the seal. Distracted by their labor, they didn’t notice that the floe had broken, and four of the dogs were trapped as it drifted away. One of the men—tethered to a rope held fast by the other—dove into the frigid water. Alas, the rope was too short, and the dogs floated out of sight.
That night, the men mourned the huskies even as they realized their own survival was threatened by that loss.
But providence again intervened. In the night, the floe crashed into my cliff-face, and the huskies clambered up the slope. Their howling woke the men. The one who’d braved the water the previous evening climbed up the steep incline to rescue the dogs.
I try to recall their courage when my thoughts of you—lost like those huskies—run dark. These were explorers who thought nature was greater than man, who lived in a time when it was so.
Wooly mammoths and polar bears, right whales and narwhals—indulge me in another litany.
Once upon a time, herds of long-haired mammoths lumbered across my vast white plain, so numerous they eclipsed the landscape. Their feet weighed heavily upon my spine, but I bore them well. Likewise the polar bears. Mothers cavorting with their cubs, tobogganing down my slopes, tossing ice into the air as toys for their children. The bears were patient predators, waiting at a floe’s edge for a seal to appear, bloodying the ice with one swift swipe of their paws. But, unlike you, they killed only to survive.
I won’t describe the slaughter of right whales whose bones still line the beaches of this archipelago. I choose to remember those leviathans as they breached, arced into sunlight, paused in midair . . . and then their flukes rising high above the water as they dove back into the sea. I prefer to remember the bulls bellowing lustily to their prospective mates, the cows singing back, their calves swimming round them, clicking tongues and clapping flippers in play.
More heartbreaking—the narwhal. Some thought narwhals the stuff of fairy tales, ephemeral as unicorns. Today they are, but then . . .
There was a time when narwhals littered the sea. I watched men kill them simply for their tusks. They’d saw and wrench those beautiful, helical masterpieces from the narwhals’ snouts, cut away a strip or two of blubber, leave the mutilated bodies to sink in the bay. I understood humans’ covetous longing to possess those tusks. Who’s to say whether I, animated by blood and bone, might have risked my life to possess such an extraordinary prize?
Voices carried over water, and laughter pierced the foggy gloom of that senseless harvest—the conversations now of ghosts. The bounty, as I discerned over years of listening, was to give these tusks to royalty as a well-rewarded trophy to be displayed behind glass in a “cabinet of curiosities.” No doubt these tusks yet gather dust in those cabinets far away from here, reminders of what’s left of this noble species. All I have is a vivid memory of one mother narwhal who took refuge in the keel of an ice cave at my base, gave birth to a son. Expelled in a rush of blood, the calf found purchase and suckled, the cow’s pink-white milk clouding the water. Then the mother whistled, the baby followed, leapt up on her back, and rode her away as far as I could see. That memory is stored in my own cabinet of curiosities.
The mountain faces—scabrous with guano, bearded with pale green moss—remind me of the trunks and forepaws of the ancient mammoths. Those shaggy beasts have been extinct for a very long time. I can’t tell you why they vanished. The earth changes, yes, who knows? Sometimes not only through the fault of humans.
It was the same with the polar bears. Didn’t you notice their wasting as the ice they depended on dissipated into water? The bears, too, are gone, and the explorers seeking glory and finding only death, and the cartographers mapping this icescape, and the Vikings plundering new worlds, everything that breathed life into this godforsaken place . . . all figments of the figments of your imagination.
I told you what was happening.
Didn’t my warnings make sense? The thunder caused by huge fissures within me? The crash of ice boulders as they smashed onto jumbled hummocks and zigzag crevasses below? The gurgle of liquescing landscape that gave up, one by one, the quiet bodies of your fearless dead, those intrepid souls who charted this once-pristine Eden?
You watched me from your cruise ships, your three-masted barquentines, your rubber Zodiacs. You were careful. Your guides raised three fingers against my towering cliffs. Three fingers to keep you far enough away so that your puny boats wouldn’t be swamped by the waves my calvings rendered. I’d seen it happen on the stony beaches flanking my edges. The scoundrel wave unleashed. Unwary beachcombers, outrun by a silent swell, swept away and drowned. I can’t say I mourned their loss.
I was naked ice, and you were the voyeurs.
All you wanted, waited for, was that one gloriously plump polar bear, that one blue whale breaching. that one immense ice-shatter—caught in photos you could take home to your friends. Your two-dimensional representations that always, always failed to capture what was truly important. You couldn’t contain your excitement at framing each photo to prove that, yes, you’d seen that bear, that whale, that calving. After all, wasn’t that the reason you’d come to the Arctic? To prove you’d been this close to those elusive wonders?
So you snapped those pictures, not bothering to take the lens away from your eye for a single moment to contemplate what you were seeing. I’ve noticed that of you humans—the experience of the sublime diminished—no wasted—in a moment of witness once removed.
Now I’m a slip of the tongue and you don’t come here anymore. Or maybe, just maybe, you too are finally gone.
Sometimes I would rest, and my voice would fade to long, soft breaths as tiny avalanches bathed my skin. These were trickles, tickling my face and quickly dying away. Did you hear my feathery laughter?
Yet others, torrents of raging powder, surged over my frozen tongue, raising my voice to thunder.
Thunder—surely you heard that.
This whole world once whistled. Hummed. Whispered. Murmured. Whimpered.
This world once sang.
Summers lengthened as temperatures rose. Miles inland, newly exposed rock baked in the sun, absorbing its rays, sun and heated stone thinning me from above. Ever-warmer gulf currents threaded north, slithered under my belly, pried me away from the bedrock to which I’d clung for thousands of years. More and more frequently, pieces of me shattered and were swallowed by fissures that suddenly opened and closed like mouths of a many-headed sea serpent.
I would not call these shatterings children. So much smaller than those earlier calvings, and yet, I was diminished by deformity.
And I noticed then, as I melted and thinned, I receded ever faster. I was pure motion, like those lost children, like those moulins gyring down to hidden underworlds, like those waves that followed me and swamped everything.
My name, you ask? My name is Austfonna, the weeping lady.
I say farewell for now. But soon, soon, if eons are a guide, we’ll reawaken to new sounds. Murmuring sea. Whip-crack of water freezing. Sigh of ice as it builds layer upon layer.
Glaciers re-forming, rising again, one by one.
And you? You will still be gone.
“Do you see this man? Alexander Luria?”
Professor Dunn pointed to a black and white photograph pinned to her office wall. The photograph curled at the bottom edge, and the curl had gathered dust. It was a portrait of a man dressed in the fashion of another time: trim suit, narrow tie, black-framed glasses, slick hair. His eyes held a steadfast, distant gaze. Fingerprints marred the gloss, which meant Professor Dunn had pointed to it before. The advice Erica Hashimoto was about to receive would be canned, rehearsed for a troublesome girl who did not live in a black and white world.
Erica was hungry. Crossing the campus on her way to office hours, Erica had passed through a cloud of good aromas. Freshly watered flowers, cut grass, a clove cigarette. Erica had wanted to add sunshine to the list. And more: the cafe on the plaza was cooking up something that smelled amazing. Erica had scurried past in heels, late as usual, but oh, she wanted a bite. Quickly she doubled back and bought a Mediterranean pocket-bread sandwich. Now she carried the cafe’s smell with her. In this sealed office, the smell floated from from her book bag. It stuck to her blouse and hair. Roasted chicken, sesame oil, garlic, tahini. Erica could practically taste it. She was starving.
Professor Dunn began. “Luria was a genius. We cannot imagine the forces arrayed against him in the Soviet Union. The weight of the bureaucracy, the political minders who shadowed him and inspected his notes. And how difficult were his test subjects, the illiterate farmers of the Ukrainian steppe? Exasperating. Lastly, of course, to have been so utterly in love. Perhaps, even in the Soviet system, love was untouchable, although it smacked of impropriety, an underling, after all.”
Erica gazed at the stacks of books climbing the wall. “Was he in Patterns of Language Acquisition?”
“Correct. Schema theory. Esoteric as the back side of the moon. You have to wonder who in the Soviet bureaucracy decided this was important work to do. Well, Luria thought it was important. Asking a farmer hypothetical questions about cutting down a tree—he was testing the use of the subjunctive, the mind’s pursuit of speculation—and farmer replies, ‘But why do I want to cut down the tree? We have plenty of firewood already.’ And thus I ask you, Miss Hashimoto: you seek a letter of recommendation, but I need to know something: why did you carve into my classroom desks, so bored, so restless, so capricious? What was your plan?”
“I saw you.”
Professor Dunn was holding Erica hostage. Erica had come for that letter of recommendation. Now she wanted only to eat that pocket-bread sandwich. She felt torn. There was the promise of a good lunch, sesame chicken with tahini in pocket bread, or a letter that could change the trajectory of her life. She weighed the imbalanced factors tugging at her desire. She clutched her book bag tighter in her lap.
“Do you remember Luria, Miss Hashimoto? How the peasants of the Ukrainian steppe thought the question was so bizarre? Luria just wanted an answer. They couldn’t even grasp the question enough to proceed with one.”
Professor Dunn leaned across her desk. “Don’t be dense. You ask me for a recommendation, but instead of accepting or declining, I ask you to tell me why you want this job. Do you know anything about international shipping? Do you know about the Noguchi Concern? You saw the lady at the job fair. Was she wearing white gloves? Did she smile at you? We have talked about context before. Well, this is not a desirable company, Miss Hashimoto, while your Japanese is highly in demand elsewhere. Here is another question for you: Do you even want your fate placed into my hands?”
“What do you mean?”
“You arrived late every day to my class. Don’t you have an alarm clock? A regard for time? Was it a boy? Was it a meal?”
Erica thought about pocket bread.
Professor Dunn’s gaze locked on Erica’s eyes.
Erica said, “I always did the reading. You know that.”
It was a boy.
“You scratched my desks.”
Erica did not say, I ran my fingernail over old scratches, timeworn kanji that translated to For a good time, call… and Just shoot me now.
Dunn looked back at Luria. “Tell me why you want this position.”
“Well, it sounds like a good challenge—”
She held up her hand. “Stock answer.”
“The language is at a high register, in real time, under field conditions, as you say—”
She smacked the desk. “Pandering.”
“There is nuance to negotiation. An art to it. It is—”
“This sounds better. Keep going.”
“—everything I love.”
Pocket bread sandwich.
The professor said nothing.
“My mom said I can make a decent living, like, all these Japanese companies are coming to America and taking over.”
“Your mom actually said that? Christ. Next question: why would you decide on me?”
“Because you’re my advisor?”
Tahini and sesame oil.
“Stock answer again. So let me tell you why you are asking me. You want your current authority figure, me, to approve of your advancement where you’ll work under a different authority figure. Has it occurred to you that I have a stake in this too?”
“What do you mean?”
“If you should fail?” Steeple fingers. Eyes closed. Professor Dunn seemed to be enjoying a private story.
Erica cut off her professor’s enjoyment. “I won’t fail.”
“You always were like a vessel.”
“I won’t fail.”
“What if you fall in love?”
Erica said nothing.
“Listen to me. Akihiko Noguchi’s father owes me a favor. This is how I redeem my favor?”
The professor’s gaze found Erica’s book bag. Could she smell the pocket bread? Did she want what Erica had?
“Young lady, you don’t understand the world, only the words. There is a second meaning to everything. God what have we taught you women, you girls?”
Erica did not feel like playing along. “You should teach us to say exactly what we mean.”
“Excellent. But are you worth my special favor?”
“You’re confusing me!”
“If I recommend you, a passably competent interpreter, to the Noguchi Concern, is his obligation paid? The last girl—”
Erica said, “Is this about me, or is this about you?”
“It is never about you! The interpreter should be invisible in the room.”
“An interpreter is the sina qua non!”
“A paradox! Beautiful!” Professor Dunn smacked her desk. “I’ll write your damn letter. You’ll be perfect for the job. Perfect for him.”
“Thank you.” Erica didn’t even know what she was thankful for. She estimated escaping this office in five minutes. She shifted the loops of her book bag over her shoulder. She would scurry across the plaza in her heels, find a bench beside some flowers, and eat her pocket bread sandwich.
Professor Dunn held up her hand. “Wait. About Luria?”
“What about Luria?”
“Well, there was an issue with his work. Even in Russian, his work wasn’t published until 1974. Sit down. You’re not going anywhere. Luria alludes to the political sensitivity of describing central Asians as having a child-like mentality, being so contented with their simpleton lives as to not even speculate on the hypothetical chopping of a tree. These were satellite republics, mind you, with a testy relationship with Moscow. Well, are you contented, Miss Hashimoto? Does that make you a child? What shall I write in this letter? You certainly had a testy relationship with me.”
“Is this the Soviet Union?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“My parents met in an internment camp, okay?”
“Are you contented, Erica Hashimoto? You’re a Sansei girl becoming a woman, rising to legitimacy, but does that make you content? Let’s zero in on that one.”
Sun and silence tugged at each other, a knotted, motionless tautology in the stale room. Erica’s mind broke free, to the loggia outside, light and shade, brick and stone, her heels echoing across the plaza to the bench beside the flowers where she would devour her meal. White box, pickle on the side. She would eat her sandwich and never come back. How to explain this to her mom. Four years at USC, and she maybe was getting the job? Maybe it would pay this much? She would need new blouses and skirts and shoes. Wear her hair up? No, her hair was so shiny slick, it would only slide loose again.
She really wanted that sandwich. She would gobble it down. Sated, she would wonder what to want anymore.
“Erica, dear, you think you’re supposed to be content, but desire can be swayed. No one is content.”
Erica felt herself loosen at “dear.” An easy word to give away, but the professor seemed to have meant it. The tone in her voice was gentle, not motherly, but gentle, like—
“Of course, there is also the propensity, prominent in Japanese-American culture, to mirror what is presented to you. Your wants and dreams do not come from within. What forms within you derives from without you. Especially true for a young woman.”
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
“Erica, you’ll be interpreting for a man.”
Erica said, “If I was contented, I would not be asking for this letter.”
Student and professor locked eyes for a second. Too long. Erica didn’t care about Alexander Luria anymore.
“I said I’ll write your god-damned letter. But international shipping can get gritty sometimes. You’ll have to manage.”
Erica said, “Kansha.”
“You have no idea.” The professor waved a dismissive hand.
“So now I am the one owing a favor.” Erica stood, shouldering her book bag. She would never return to this room. She wasn’t even hungry anymore.
“That’s very good. Favors exchanged like coins…”
“The obligation owed to you is transferred to me.” Erica bowed.
Professor Dunn spun in her chair, in and out of the light, stirring the stale air. “Keep going with this. I like it. Favors akin to currency, transactional in nature, debts parlayed…”
“Are you saying that I am the favor?”
“Commodification of the woman? That’s going too far. Just don’t disappoint me.”
“It sounds like I already have.”
Professor Dunn stopped. Another student was peeking in. Book bag, skirt, blouse, nylons, heels. Another pocket-bread sandwich in a little white box
Alexander Luria gazed, steadfast, but Erica wasn’t looking in the same direction.
Erica said, “Well, thank you. I really have to go.”
“Of course you do.” The professor resumed spinning her chair. She did not see Erica leave. Did not see Erica brush past the waiting woman just like her. Did not see Erica run.