The trailhead’s gravel lot opened onto a meadow shimmering with red clover, primrose, and fireweed, even in early fall. Most mornings, Meg and her pack of spoiled mutts—their owners too busy, or just too rich, to hike their own dogs—had the ridge to themselves, not a human want or word for miles. The promise of whole days spent with creatures who communicated by snuff and snort, whose basic needs she could both identity and accommodate— it was why Meg took this gig. Unlike the cravings of her sister, the cravings of the dogs Meg could both identify and meet. But parked next to the bleached-out USDA Forest Service map was a blue pick-up with an I Break for Hooters sticker pasted to the bumper at an angle, as if slapped on in a hurry. Meg looked from the truck out into the wilderness before them, the dark grid of pines whose tip-tops shook with the wind in unison, almost like a crowd of heads saying, No. She would need to be extra vigilant today, ready to corral any lickers or jumpers en forte. Should anything happen to one of these animals it’d be her job—at least.
They started across the field. Nellie was already out of sight, gone after the grouse that startled them all with its pull-start sound, but that was typical for the frisky sheepdog. She’d been raised on a ranch just outside of town but proved herself too independent and hard-headed to herd livestock. When she was supposed to come, she’d find an extra soft tuft of pasture and settle in, letting the sun warm her shiny coat. When she was supposed to compel the sheep into their pen she’d just sprint them off axis into nervous circles, eyes crazed. It was almost as if she was playing with them. Almost like she enjoyed it. But she was a beautiful dog, and from a pedigree line, and would one day yield her owners’ considerable investment in the form of a pedigree litter of pups. So for now the ranchers kept her busy with Meg, who’d let her disappear into the woods for hours to do as she pleased because when the dog was tired, hungry, or thirsty, she would always come back. At the end of a hike, there Nellie would be, perched beside the bus’s front tire, a huge puppy smile stretched across her heaving, puppy features. Count on it.
What she could count on from her sister, Grace:
Her long, auburn hair.
Her pale, red-streaked arms.
Her talent for circumventing questions.
That she’d take off for days.
That she’d take off for weeks.
That she’s lying. She loves you. She’s dying.
Meg felt the Chihuahua at her ankles, already whining for a ride in her backpack. The flint-colored great Dane pranced proudly ahead with a huge dead branch in his mouth, the jagged end threatening to clothesline anyone in his way. She watched the white standard poodle trip over herself, caught up by the stupid, shearling booties her owner insisted she wear. “Already?” Meg sighed at the wide-hipped golden retriever whose belly was tangled with black mud from rolling in a puddle. But no point in cleaning anyone off until the end. Just let them be. Meg looked behind her for stragglers, said, “come on, buddy” to the old, blind, pit and boxer mix. He kept up by following the smells of sun on fur, turned-up earth, steaming shit, frothing yaps, and piss on trunks as they all began to wind their way into the thickening pines to go up along the jawline of Blue Mountain.
The air was thick with the trees’ vanilla fragrance. Only bits of light showed through the branches, landing on the ground, on the dogs, on Meg’s own hand, like puzzle pieces. She thought of Grace in a rare moment of selflessness, so worried about Meg out there in those woods all alone that she sent her a canister of bear spray all the way from the Ohio town where she still lived. Never mind that no animal in its right mind would come close to these dogs and their incredible commotion. Still, Meg appreciated the gesture. It meant that sometimes Grace remembered she had a sister. But when the gift arrived in its too-big box it was exiled straightaway to the bottom of Meg’s closet where it still lay, along with wrinkled sundresses, and shoes, and the unused black commencement gown that had been once puked upon, twice peed upon, by Jaba the Cat. Just six more measly credits lay between Meg and her undergraduate degree. In a bout of optimism at the beginning of her final semester, she’d purchased the regalia thinking she might actually pull it off. But in the end she just could not complete her work and her professors wearied of vague references to family problems for which no documentation could be provided.
As they walked, Meg’s jeans began to feel thick and constrictive. Trickles of perspiration dripped from her rear onto the backs of her legs. For a while she’d kept up with her running routine from high school, but with this job there never seemed to be enough time; she couldn’t resist stopping at one of the local breweries on her way home which meant mornings were too slow and foggy to go out then. She loved the local IPA’s—burly with hops—and had become friendly with some of the locals, most of whom worked out of nearby ranger districts. By beer number three, she’d have to make a keen effort to avoid her own, clear, image staring back from behind the bar, that woman’s frizzy hair and big, flushed cheeks. The zits she no longer bothered to conceal. Most of all, she wanted to avoid the family resemblance; that crystalized sadness.
The boulder patch, a few miles in, was always a good place to stop. Meg took a big chug of water from her Nalgene then poured some into her palm for the golden retriever, tired now and by her side. “Nerds,” she said to her crew, taking a headcount as the dogs circled about her, “goofballs.” She’d been keeping an eye out for people, but all they’d come across so far was some old bear scat, dry and corrugated with undigested Huckleberries. Now she noticed a bloated raccoon carcass half-way collapsed into the nearby stream. “No!” she scolded the dogs preemptively, having learned the hard way that they love nothing more than to roll in the foulest find. Indeed, it was here, in this same spot last spring, that they’d found a newly-dead fawn with its body buckled into the water, almost as if someone had tried to fold it up the wrong way. The animal’s eyes were fear-frozen and its belly split apart so that its flutter of guts released into the current where they oscillated like tentacles above the palate of river stones—pearly ochres and clarets. In her mouth, Meg had managed to contain the belch of hot vomit as she’d used a stick to unfasten all the entrails caught in the golden retriever’s fur.
The dogs swarmed to the stream. Wafts of their florid perfume. Meg found a rock to perch on out of view of the dead raccoon so she could try to eat something. From her pack she took out a squished PB & J, warmed by her back. She noticed the poodle pulling at her booties instead of romping in with the other dogs and called her over for a bite of crust. The dog scarfed it from Meg’s hand eagerly, leaving her palm coated in a snotty slaver which she dried along the thigh of her jeans. The mess reminded Meg of her twin nephews, their perpetually runny noses. She thought of her sister and her aptitude as a mother—her seemingly innate preparedness. How, until she started with the pills, she seemed ready to deal with anything.
Unlike their own mother, not once had Meg seen Grace grab a floor sock or even use her own t-shirt to blow a nose or wipe pizza sauce from a ducking smirk. She was always equipped—be it with a silly song, animal fact, Band-Aid, wet wipe, wholesome snack, soothing tone, or Kleenex. When Meg would come to visit the boys, they’d congregate in the kitchen to fry up three-cheese quesadillas and turn on Prince and Madonna at full volume, the sisters belting the memorized lyrics into spatulas. Sometimes, Grace’s husband would come home early and join in, spinning his wife using the salsa moves learned in their weekly lesson and Meg and the kids would circle round them until they all collapsed into a heap of silliness on the tile floor. This was before Grace began to get the headaches—the same ones their mother had suffered—so severe there was nothing she could do but retreat into her dark bedroom for days on end, an ice pack nestled onto her forehead. “Meggie,” she’d whispered over the phone after one episode, “Meggie, now I know why mom…” but she couldn’t quite find the words to finish the thought.
The bottles of Meperidine and Oxycodone left over from her husband’s shoulder surgery. They helped. What glorious relief. They really seemed to help.
Meg finished the rest of her sandwich. The dogs, having romped themselves into exhaustion, lay scattered around, panting. From a hole through the trees Meg could see the Mission range, its queue of jagged peaks lengthening from the horizon. She told everyone at home she was moving the 1,500 miles to Montana for school, for this one particular botany program offered at UM and this one particular professor who discovered a new species of fern in the Marquesas Islands whose fronds appeared fire-dipped. But really, Meg wanted to travel west for this landscape, in all its clichéd majesty. They called it Big Sky country. The term suggested a kind of openness—that one should to be able to see what was coming from any direction.
School had not exactly worked out, but for now she liked this gig. She even liked driving the yellow short bus with the hokey name, Dog Gone Hikes, painted on its side and the huge papier-mâché tail fastened to the back that wagged side-to-side as she drove through town collecting and delivering her canine passengers, like schoolchildren. Their barks and yelps made a hilarious ruckus, and delighted kids, co-eds, and tourists would often stop and wave, as if it was a parade float going by. Most of all, Meg liked Nellie riding shotgun beside her, the happy slobber collecting on the sides of her black lips like sea foam.
A sudden crack.
Meg knelt to tighten her boots, ready to start on the second leg of the hike and then heard the sound a second time. A fallen limb? A squirrel? No. The dogs bounced to their feet as ahead two figures came into view beneath a thick patch of Aspen, shards of gold leaflight flashing across them.
“Dogs over here!” Meg called out, in her thickest sing-song voice, “They’re friendly!”
A cloud of downy vape smoke appeared, and the strangers walked through it as if emerging from some other world. Meg noted their thin, angular bodies and the cephalopod quality of their limbs, which seemed unable to quite catch up to their torsos. They were younger than she—teenagers. The girl wore an oversized off-the-shoulder t-shirt and cut-offs so astonishingly short she appeared to be wearing no pants at all. As they approached, Meg could see that the shirt read: Not Now, I’m Busy. A mass of bleached hair sat atop the girl’s head in a messy, leaf-adorned, knot, and her cheeks were acne flared and crusted up with orangey concealer. Thumbprints of deep purple pressed beneath her eyes. The boy was outfit in vague athletic attire—mesh shorts, sleeveless mesh jersey, and a backwards-turned Griz cap. He was doughy, sweaty, and as they walked closer gave off a vinegar man stink, laced with soured liquor. Meg smelled the booze on the girl, too—even girls drank whisky out west.
It was more Bacardi Silvers and Mike’s Hard Lemonades that had characterized Meg’s youth. She’d spent one whole night puking in the bathroom she shared with her sister after drinking an entire bottle of Boones Farm Strawberry Hill. Grace had been so beautiful, so fresh, so resplendent in her white cotton nightgown, as she stood in the door shaking her head at her younger sister offering up the scrunchie from her ponytail and a glass of bubbling Alka Seltzer.
“Here, dumb-dumb,” she said, bringing the glass to Meg’s lips.
“I am,” Meg said when even the bile was gone. “I am dumb.”
And all the bubbles kept going, Shushhhhhhh… Shushhhhhhh… Shushhhhhhh…
The teenagers were most likely on their way down from what was simply known as, The Rock—a deep overhang where local kids would meet to drink and smoke and fuck. The place was trafficked mostly in the summer months, when teens had hours to spare and new drivers’ licenses, thus the means to access the area by some make-shift paths off the highway. Meg usually only encountered the detritus they left behind—a splay of empty Rainers or a used condom paused its wormy skulk across the trail. The cans she’d crush and carry out— sometimes there were so many, the Chihuahua lost his special spot in her pack.
“Oh my god! Like from the Taco Bell commercials!” the girl exclaimed zeroing in on the smallest of the dogs who started to run figure eights through the girl’s pale, mosquito-bitten legs. Her dilated eyes were cartoon-wide as she lunged for the pooch who promptly nipped her, hard, on the back of the hand. She looked at the red mark as the tiny dog bared his tiny teeth. “Shit!” she said, recoiling, “bad dog!” Meg noticed a sparkly piercing above the girl’s lip where a mole could be.
“Sorry,” Meg said, “they’re kind of jacked up.”
His interest peaked by the commotion, the great Dane loped on over, his long tail wagging in slow motion. When he got to the girl he paused for moment, as if considering some sort of canine etiquette? Then he crammed his nose, like a shot torpedo, directly into the girl’s barely-concealed crotch. Repulsed, she stepped back. But the enormous dog, undeterred, just pushed harder into her groin. Some of the other dogs seemed to think this was a good idea, too, and before long she had three or four upon her. The boy had been quietly watching the scene unravel, sucking on his Box Mod, but now he starting to snicker. The snicker turned to shaky giggles. Then he began to make the strangest in-between noise—two-toned and mean—like a duck call issued from the underworld.
“Alright, that’s enough buddy,” Meg said, chuckling, pulling the great Dane off the girl. “He’s still working on his manners,” she apologized a shrug.
The boy’s pleasure amplified.
“Girl, I told you” he began, addressing his companion through something like uncontrollable cackles. “I told you,” he tried again and trailed off with a wheeze. Then finally, spewing huge clots of mist he shouted, “I told you your pussy stinks!” His face switched between red and blue as he doubled over, revealing spiked and frosted hair like a crown of bared claws as his cap fell off. Scabs and scratches across his scalp, similar welts along his forehead and cheeks. As he brought his torso upright, Meg saw the familiar red, pocked marks along the insides of both arms.
Meg last visited her sister alone at the fusty apartment she was renting a few towns away from her children and husband. On the couch, Grace lay horizontal before the spell of daytime television, her un-brushed hair half-way hashed into a fountain on the side of her head and her body cocooned into the multi-colored afghan their grandmother knit for them when they were children. She’d barely looked at Meg. Likewise, Meg avoided her sister’s gaze, choosing, instead, to solve with her eyes the pirate maze on the back of the open Frosted Flakes box which reclined, likewise parallel, upon the coffee table.
As long as Meg kept dead-ending into the maze’s crossbones she could ignore the stratums of Grace’s stare; how beneath its vacancy buzzed a flatline of simple—but, sure—pleasure.
The poodle was a metronome, yelping in high, even beats.
The rest of the dogs were silent, waiting for what would come next.
“Fuck off!” the girl yelled as tears took clumps of mascara down her cheeks. Without make-up the girl was remarkably plain. Plainly pretty. Plainly much younger than the eighteen or nineteen she looked to be at first.
Plainly in trouble.
Be careful out there out there in those woods, Grace had warned.
“Dude,” Meg said to the boy, before she gathered enough sense not to, “What the fuck is your problem?”
“What?” The boy snarled, “What the fuck is my what?”
“Your problem,” Meg said, “leave her alone.” Disbelief took over boy’s face as she added, “She’s coming with me, son.”
The boy showed his yellow his teeth. “Bitch, she ain’t goin’ nowhere!”
Just as the girl was younger than she seemed at first, the boy was clearly older. Mid-twenties, even. His startlingly huge ears cocked forward, as if trying to hear Meg correctly when she calmly announced, “Yes. We are.”
They had done all the things they were supposed to do. Every last bit of preparation had been made. The intervention was scheduled smack in the middle of the semester and Meg would have to reschedule two midterms, but she still made the long flight home, charged with grave optimism. Breathing in air recycled from all the other breathing bodies, she scanned the in-flight magazine inspired by the idea that every problem has a solution. Grace’s situation was serious—dire, even—but it still seemed like nothing that couldn’t be fixed with the right tools, the right attention. Take, for example, the solar-powered mole repellent, the Bug Vac with appendages to reach any corner, the Ice Ball Press that could make a perfectly translucent sphere of ice. On the back of an air sickness bag and using the pen she’d kept after writing the receipt for her gin and tonic, Meg began her version of the letter they were all supposed to write, the letter that would edge her sister one step closer to sobriety.
Outside the tiny plane window all the clouds held their breath.
A reflex, Meg reached for the girl. A sharp cry shot through the sky and they all looked up to see the silhouette of a single Mountain Jay as she went to defend her nest against an eagle flying at it, talons first. The shadow the birds made kept their dark spot in Meg’s vision as she found the girl’s arm, gripped it, commanding, “Come on!”
“Get off!” the girl hollered as Meg tightened her grasp, “Let go!”
But Meg was not going to let go.
The more the girl struggled, the surer Meg’s grasp became. How familiar, the scent of her fruity shampoo.
Meg’s brother-in-law sent the twins to a friend’s house so they could all gather in the living room to wait for Grace, to whom he’d promised money. Untouched meats and cheeses sat sweating on a platter, as if taking on their share of the room’s nerves. Someone kept blowing his nose. The awfully cheerful ding of a phone followed by the embarrassed rummaging to silence the device. When the intervention therapist finally arrived, he was tall and slim in that way of tall slim men with Adam’s apples that moved along their necks like high strikers. He spoke in a calm, deep, voice as he said to the woman stumbling in the door who only slightly resembled Meg’s sister, “Have a seat, dear.”
Meg had expected her sister to appear stunned, or angry, or ashamed. Desperate? Something. But instead she was simply gone. Disappeared. Perched on the too-short stool they’d pulled in from the kitchen, Grace seemed to connect only with the ivy pattern whirling along the wallpaper she’d so recently chosen, with the blank television not tuned to the twins’ cheery programs, with the broken grandfather clock that no longer ticked. Frozen, she remained in her seat while a neighbor, and then a friend, then a former co-worker, read their carefully composed letters, pausing now and then to cry politely or take a small sip of water.
A leaf-blower started up next door. As if its rumble was some sort of signal, Grace rose from her little stool and walked out of that place into the sun, leaving only the sear of the person she had been—her dark spot—behind.
Meg had her.
They were on the edge of the most dangerous stretch, best traversed by bum. But despite the girl’s cussing and flailing, Meg took her down the rooty shoot at an impressive speed. The dogs continued to wag and bark, as if this was all a really fun game. Meanwhile, the man, who was a lithe and able runner, closed in, closer and closer, until he suddenly leaped onto Meg’s heels from behind, pulling them to the forest floor.
“Get off me!” The girl yelled to Meg, their heads pressed to the dust.
Wild-eyed, wheezing, the man appeared over Meg. She braced herself for the pain of whatever blow—or, worse—she knew must be coming next. As she waited, she felt her body relax into a kind of relief. Perhaps this was what her sister had found—the numb buzz of giving up. Meg would let it happen. She would just go on and let it.
But then, leaping on the scene, came that itinerant dog, Nellie. Unlike the other dogs, she took her place at Meg’s side with hackles up and teeth bared. This was going to go a different way.
“Shit!” The girl shrieked. The man startled, too, taking a huge leap back into the brush where he tripped into a patch of thorns. He did not move, perhaps he didn’t even breathe, as the rest of the dogs circled around, snarling at last, taking their cue from the sheep dog. “Let go!” the girl yelled once more, finally twisting out of Meg’s grip. She ran to the man and pulled him from the weeds. Meg watched as the two clambered back up the slope, holding hands somehow, yelling all kinds of foulness at Meg, the dogs, each other. “Crazy bitch!” echoed through the hills. Then it kept going on past the hills, lodging in the cracks and crags of those white-topped mountains.
Meg felt the strength of her legs return—stretch and push, strong and fast—as they took her closer to the trailhead and the bus waiting for them there. The Chihuahua bounced, poking out of Meg’s backpack where she’d stuffed him between sprints. The exhausted golden retriever scampered along at her side. Nellie yelped, as if with pride, as the rest of the lopsided herd bound through the yellow fluorescence, and coral colors, and red-dappled green. Meg could still smell that girl’s fruity, perfumed hair, but mixed now with the even stronger stench of exquisitely ripe dog excrement. She was not going to save that girl, she was not going to save any person on this earth. Down and down she flew, surrounded by the perfect, brainless joy of animals.
Red earth smells like my daddy when he’s happy. Like he was before, when he used to sit beside me in the cane fields in his dirty work pants, put his arm around me and tell stories about when he was little like me, and believed in fairies and magic dust. Mummy smelt like milk and canned peaches. I still smell her. I tell the others, but they don’t believe me.
In the golden sun after school, I dig my fingers deep into the earth between the sugarcane that rustles and whispers above my head. “Hush, hush,” the leaves say. “Stay still, sit quiet.” Beads of sweat drip from my face and make dark splotches like tears in the red. I snag a fingernail and it hurts, but I keep digging. I don’t want to stop, not ever. I’m going to make a hole deep enough to hide in, to cover myself over. So I never have to go home again.
I lie on my tummy and use both hands to drag out earth in heavy clumps till my elbows are in, then all of my arms, and the front of my school uniform is covered in dirt. I scrape out the hole making it wide as well as deep, sliding my whole arms up the sides, scooping till it’s enormous, the biggest hole I’ve ever dug. Ever. Maybe the biggest in the world.
When I’m done, I lower myself in.
The hole isn’t big enough. My knees are jutting out either side of my elbows and my top three buttons are out, as well as my head and muddy arms. I feel like crying. But then I remember to ask the fairies to help. I help them, so it’s only fair. Daddy used to say, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Then I’d scratch his back and he’d scratch mine and tickle me too, until I couldn’t take it anymore and had to call out, “No Daddy! Stop!”
It’s not really about itches though, it’s about helping. That’s what Mummy said.
Every afternoon I help the fairies by making tiny houses for them to sleep in – little holes in the dirt with grass for bedding and twigs for roofs, flower petals for decoration. I sprinkle crumbs of cake on leaf platters and fill gumnut cups with water for them to drink. Perhaps an army of fairies will come overnight and dig the hole deep enough for me, sprinkle it with glittering fairy dust and make everything alright again.
“Sam! Sammy! Sa- MAN-tha!”
Anna, my big sister, calls for me across the field. I don’t answer though. She only ever calls me Samantha when I’m in trouble. She finds me anyway, sitting in my hole, head tucked between my knees, hiding. I see her knobbly knees when I sneak a peek out half an eye.
I don’t say a word. Hold my breath.
“I can see you, you know. I’m right here.” She pokes me with what feels like a stick, but I don’t budge. “You’re so dirty! Your uniform! Mum would’ve skinned you alive!”
I keep my head down and swallow hard. “Don’t.” She knows that’s not fair.
She rests a hand on my back, but she’ll never say sorry.
I glare up at her. “I’m not going home. Not ever. I’m staying here in my hole.” Then I remember it’s not big enough and change my mind. “I’ll run away!”
Anna jumps up and claps her hands. “Yeah! Run away!” She pulls me to my feet. “Come on, let’s find a good spot for you. Then later I’ll sneak you food and stuff. It’ll be super fun.” Ever since she turned ten, she’s been saying super a lot. She’s so excited I’m beginning to wonder if it’s such a good idea. She doesn’t usually like my games. We always have to play her games where she’s the queen and I’m her servant. I wonder if she just wants to have my toys when I’m gone.
Hand in muddy hand we run to the end of the furrow, the cane stalks clattering behind us. “Rush, rush,” they say, “run further, run fast.” We come out into the light at the tractor trail at the edge of the creek, and clamber down along the riverbank in the shade, past where the old croc lives. We follow the dark river along till we come to the flat place by the rapids where the sun falls in splashes through the leaves. Grinning at each other we collect branches and palm fronds, dragging them through the undergrowth, lying them across the top of the giant tree roots that rise up like fairy-castle walls. It will be the best fairy house ever. Big enough for me.
“I’m never going home,” I tell Anna.
She nods as if she understands and maybe she does. I bet she’s sick of making us toast and putting me to bed. We’re almost out of Vegemite.
“Maybe you can stay here too,” I say, wriggling over to make space. “See? There’s plenty of room.”
Every morning Anna’s eyes are swollen from crying, but she’s the big sister so she has to pretend that it’s just a snotty nose. But I know. I know more than they think. And though I miss Mummy so much it’s like a part of my insides has gone forever, it’s not because of that I don’t want to go home. Because I still hear Mummy whispering to me at night. I still smell her peaches and milk, and in my dreams she still holds me and tells me everything will be alright. She hasn’t really gone far. I wish they’d believe me.
I can’t go home because of Daddy.
He’s there but he’s not there anymore. He doesn’t smell like him. He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t eat. And it hurts my tummy to see him all pale and ghostly without his red dirt. It’s as if someone’s emptied out his insides and filled him back up with something dark and heavy. The air he breathes smells black like poison, so I don’t want to kiss him. But then I feel worse because I know he needs kissing more than anyone. Sometimes I sit on his lap and use my fingers to force the corners of his mouth up into a smile, but as soon as I let go they droop back down again like melting plasticine.
It’s been weeks since the funeral and all the visitors left. We’re down to the last frozen casserole the church ladies made, and all the flowers have gone brown. Daddy doesn’t go to bed at night or get up in the mornings. He just sits in his chair in the loungeroom staring at the wall. Staring at something no one else can see. Something scary and awful and very, very sad. He doesn’t care that I’m going to be a sheep in the school play, or that Anna isn’t winning spelling bees any more. He hasn’t even noticed that other farmers are already harvesting. He hasn’t smelt of earth for a long time. Not since Mummy first got sick and he came home smelling like hospital.
Sometimes Anna and I yell at him and try to drag him out of his chair, tugging his hands like he’s a cow stuck in mud. But Daddy won’t budge and when we let go, his arms fall back limp and soggy. Something inside him is broken. Something so bad even kisses won’t help. We don’t know how to fix him. So Anna puts a casserole in the microwave or makes us toast and we eat tea watching TV around Daddy and pretend that he’s normal. But he’s not. We’re not.
The other night, when we were watching a show with guns we’re never usually allowed to see, out of the corner of my eye I saw Mummy. Looking at us all. I tapped Anna to show her but she just got grouchy and made me go to bed.
Anna and I are down by the river finishing off our hideaway, decorating it with flowers and stones, when we hear it.
A crack like thunder.
We look up, but there isn’t a cloud in the sky.
And we run. We run and we run and we run.
As if our legs are horses, we race towards the house, too scared to breathe.
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
Fireworks go off inside the house. I smell them burning.
Anna and I hover at the door. Hearts beating loud into the quiet. I clutch her hand and we walk in together.
Daddy is standing in the middle of the loungeroom holding his rifle. His chair is tipped over on its side. He’s looking up and when we follow his eyes we see the holes he’s made in the roof, light falling through them in shafts of gold, speckled with smoke and dirt and bits of ceiling.
He drops his gun and looks at us, his face all weird and scrunched. He holds out his arms and Anna runs into them and then he starts laughing, or it could be crying, or both of them mixed together. He lifts his head and calls to me. Stretches out his hand, almost smiling.
But I stay where I am and stare as Daddy and Anna stand together in the streams of light. Dancing and alive with fairy dust.
I’m thrilled to introduce Tara Alavi as our new Payroll and Benefits Administrator. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Accounting from Polytechnic University of Tehran, Iran. In her previous job in Vancouver, she worked as the head of finance for a small start-up. A newcomer to Toronto, Tara enjoys travel, books, movies and singing. A RANDOM FACT about Tara: back in Tehran, she organized a film club that continued to exist long after her immigration to Canada.
Signed by the head of finance, the email is sent to the entire staff. This time, no grinning headshot is attached. So, there’s a slim chance that this Tara Alavi is not the one with whom I came to Canada nine years ago, hand in hand. Just a namesake perhaps. But wait. Two Tara Alavis in Canada with finance backgrounds who both ran a film club back in Tehran?—and let’s not bring up the fact that we started that movie night together. What are the odds? And singing, really? My Tara never even bothered to hum along to anything. This whole thing is a surprise. A chilling one, of the kind that would make Bogart say, Of all the companies in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
I stare at the computer screen until Skype messenger starts flashing. It’s from Pete. He sits across from me, but sometimes prefers the privacy of online chat over yelling. Looks like u r not the only Iranian anymore.
No, I’m not, I type, and punctuate it with a winking emoji, as I’m aiming for the pretense of coolness, which belies my gut-wrenching unease. What if he asks the inevitable: Do you happen to know her?
He doesn’t. Instead, he ambles off towards the kitchen. Coffee time—his first for the day at least. But, hardly does this mean I can evade the question much longer. People tend to think I’m supposed to know all Iranians in town. Hey, we have a new Iranian concierge. You might know him? Oh, what about my Iranian Uber driver?
This time, I can’t say no, and if I say yes, the next question will be a variation of, In what capacity? Which then raises the question of, In what capacity does she want me to know her, if any? And let’s take one step back: did she know I worked here when she applied for this position?
She probably didn’t. After all, she was the one who got the restraining order.
At the time, I had no idea what that meant. I was perspiring on an elliptical when my phone rang. A gruff voice introduced himself as Tara’s lawyer and informed me that I should attend court for a hearing about her restraining order request. Like I said, I didn’t know what it was, but the words lawyer and court sounded serious. It’s not that I was unfamiliar with the concept. I’d seen Cape Fear and knew how Nick Nolte was able to secure something of the sort against the sinister De Niro. I just didn’t know the English term for it. Later, I texted Tara and asked whether she knew what on earth she was doing. Normally, she was always up for our endless squabbles but this time she didn’t respond—following her lawyer’s advice probably. Provoked by her slight, I unleashed a deluge of texts and emails, enlightening her that whatever I did was out of love, a love whose manifestation I showed in every act I’d done which, in this modern world, had been mislabeled as harassment. That was how I, as my friends later told me, willingly left evidence. To Tara’s credit, she never took advantage.
Anyway, I open a browser tab and look her up. It’s been quite a while since I’ve done this, probably the first time since my marriage. A sign that I’m cured, you’d say? Not really. I shouldn’t get much credit for relinquishing this habit, neither should Canada’s justice system. It was simply thanks to Tara’s firm, if sad, decision to put an end to her cyber presence. She never blamed me for that, but if I was her incentive, she owes me big time for all the hours she’s salvaged on the web.
Still no sign of her online, not even on LinkedIn. But, right then, out of the corner of my eye, I notice some movement fifty feet past my monitor. It’s Markus from Finance escorting Tara towards the sales team pod. I recognize her easily from behind. Tall on black heels with the same hunch, as if to compensate. With me, she never wore heels.
This expedition is a highly-regarded ritual in our company, to introduce new people to every individual interspersed in the office, which requires the new person to cram dozens of names into their head. The members of the sales team stand up one by one to shake her hand. She’s in a dark blue blazer and a matching pencil skirt. Tara’s doing it by book, like Tara does, though she seems a bit overdressed for us, even on the first day. Well, she didn’t ask my opinion.
Her posture, her confident gait, the graceful manner with which she extends her hand, they’re all impressive and, to me, refreshing. Even though I can’t hear from this distance, it is apparent that she’s communicating well with the boisterous sales team. They laugh at what she seems to say, and she reciprocates. This makes me remember the early days after we’d first landed. How we faked laughter, surprise or sympathy, guessing at the emotion expected in response to things said in English that we didn’t fully grasp.
Markus leads her forward to the pod next to ours and I slip out of my chair. I can’t confront Tara now, not without knowing if she knows I work here, and not in front of others. Her astonished face might be too much to recover from. And if she knows… if she really knows I’m here, what are her plans? Why didn’t she give me a heads-up? This doesn’t bode well.
Aware of the fact that I’m enacting a familiar slapstick scene, I take shelter in the men’s room on the other side of the office. No one is at the urinals and only one of the two stalls is taken. I occupy the free one, sit on the toilet and cradle my chin in my palm. I’m still getting used to the idea of Tara parading somewhere inside these walls. Too soon to decide if fate brought her here, to Toronto and, of all the thousand enterprises in need of a finance administrator, to this company. But if not pure fate, then what? After court, she didn’t even have the guts to talk to me in person. For three months, I was a criminal roaming Vancouver’s streets, until I received an email from her, in which, she offered an apology, an admission of exaggerating her claim, and notified me that, the next morning, she’d go and request the order be lifted. In the postscript, she left a hint of how much she blamed me for driving her to that point.
In hindsight, I concede I’d gone too far. I might have made a scene by raising my voice in public; I might have “run into her” while she was having coffee with some guy and acted like he was the intruder, not me; I might have said nasty things behind her back. Yes, I might have gone overboard, and then she had raised the bar.
“One of those days, ha?”
A coarse voice breaks the silence. It comes from the man in the next stall—whose shiny shoes I can see through the crack. It must be Bassam from IT, who never misses a chance to poke fun. He’s Syrian, though he tends to hide it. Whenever Syria is on the news—which is most of the time these days—people gather around him to sympathize and he only bobs his head. Every time I run into him, my mind automatically seeks some bad news to share. Today, the bad news is a she.
“For me, it’s probably something I ate.” As if to prove his point, he lets out a high-pitched fart.
The anonymity of the stalls and my growing desperation tempt me to tell him everything, to commiserate, but following through with the comic mood, I only return his fart.
My cautious trip to my desk is uneventful and the area clear. I scurry back, dying to find out what happened when Tara was introduced to our team.
“Man, you missed her,” Pete cries out. The rest of the team raise their heads.
For a second, I misread him, his usage of “to miss sb/sth”. A familiar, distant rage bubbles up. I never missed her, I almost scream. No idiot, the other meaning.
I put on an idiotic face. “Missed who?”
“Oh, the new hire.” I take a breath to find the most neutral follow-up question. “How did you find her?”
“Pretty nice.” He turns towards the others for approval and receives emphatic nods in response. “I told her you’re Iranian.”
“Did you give her my name?”
“Wasn’t necessary.” He points at the sign hanging above my telephone. “She took a good look at that.”
I could spend a whole day analyzing what he said, reconstructing Tara’s face when she saw my name. Her expression would branch out depending on whether she knows I work here or not. I can picture each scenario, simulating what sort of emotions her synapses would pass along, which hormones would explode. This is an unparalleled ability of mine, according to my assigned therapist at the time.
For his next comment, Pete resorts to Skype. “She’s goood!”
The triple o, masquerading as a typo, is all that seeps through the dense strata of Pete’s political correctness. Bland as it sounds, this is his way of saying Tara is hot. She indeed is, and also so comfortable with being hot. Enjoys it even. Slut was the word I used in our fights.
My phone vibrates and shows the happy face of a young, blonde woman drinking a mojito through a straw. She’s pretty and happens to be my wife. We’ve developed this habit of calling each other during the lunch hour, a routine soon to be disrupted, considering she’s in her seventeenth week. We don’t usually have much to say; it’s more like a confirmation that life is hurtling forward as planned. It climaxes in a moment of silence broken by one of us saying, Okey-dokey honey. This time, though, it’s different. I want to share this scoop. I take refuge in a free meeting room to shield myself against the risk of being overheard. I know it is a matter of a delicate nature and my wife is now the last to find out. Besides, unknowns remain to be discovered. But, people say I’m best at making the worst decisions.
A note about my wife: she is the emblem of respect for one’s privacy, the best at not digging into the past. And yet so enviably at peace with her own former life. She still keeps her correspondences with her ex-lovers. All in the open, it was easy. No password or anything. No redacted gaps in the flow of conversations.
As for my life, she knows a bit about Tara and nothing about the restraining order. When I say, “a bit”, I mean, “We came to Canada as a couple and soon drifted apart” with no dwelling on that drifting apart business. Why should I have told my wife at all? Because she has the right to know? Maybe. But what about my right to live decently, the promise of the second chance? Had this been a Hollywood movie, I would’ve gone to Mexico with a new identity and a Tom Selleck mustache after Tara. I did the equivalent within the confines of the real world: I banished myself to a new city; I vanished from my circle of friends. The price I paid to cure myself. If only Tara hadn’t materialized. Toronto with its satellite cities is not big enough for the two of us. And now, we are supposed to cohabit eight hours a day in two thousand square feet of office space. An open-concept office, no less.
The silence preluding the okey-dokey act settles. My tongue turns to say, Guess who my new colleague is, when a loud cohort barge in and kick me out of the room. That’s the Universe’s way of saving the day, which I stubbornly counter by suggesting to my wife that we should go out for dinner tonight. She welcomes the offer. Her doting husband’s way of pampering his pregnant wife, she probably thinks.
It’s around three and Pete is gone for another one of those coffee-related absences. When he scampers backs, the aroma of caffeine reaches me before his voice: “She’s in the kitchen, if you want to meet.” He blows the steam off his cup like he just shot somebody with a gun.
So far, I’ve snuck by the finance area twice, only to find Tara busy with her teammates. The last time, she was squinting into her monitor, following Markus’s finger as he, towering over her, explained something animatedly. Never before had it occurred to me how tall Markus is. With him, Tara would look good in high heels.
I receive Pete’s proposition with a nonchalant shake of head, as if to say if you really want me to. A moment later, I’m in the kitchen.
Tara is finally unaccompanied. She’s examining the array of tea boxes next to the coffeemaker.
“Salaam!” I say, muffling the quiver in my voice.
She turns around. The shock ripples across her face, lingers for some time until it stales. I savor every second, my power over her, the upper hand I’d lost for a long time. I smile at the Marilyn Monroe mole on her left cheek, somehow glad she still has it. She takes a few short steps and offers me her hand, still clutching a box of Moroccan Mint tea with the other. “Salaam! Tara!”
This, I didn’t expect. Afraid that someone might come in and see her stretched hand, I shake it, our first physical contact in seven or so years. I anticipate her signature laughter. Explosive.
“You don’t have to play safe,” I continue in Farsi. “I’m the only Persian speaker here.”
“You must be Nader then? I came to your desk. You weren’t there.”
I’m the one yielding to laughter. “Yes, I am Nader. Still!”
She straightens her back. “Have we met before?”
There are certain moments, scarce in a lifetime, when a slew of contradictory feelings, like a discordant orchestra, take form, each of which twists and turns a few facial muscles, the sum of all yielding to a quizzical expression. My face must look like that confluence now, a battlefield of emotional urges, utter shock versus absolute hilarity versus devastating confusion versus inexplicable rage as she stands there, her mouth o-shaped like she’s about to kiss me any minute. Genuine wonder on her face easily devours the authenticity of her mole, her hunch, her look, and all the memories I have of her.
What I do next is not planned and I surprise myself as I do her when I bring my phone to life and tip its display towards her. “I’m married now. We’re expecting our first child.”
The picture, my phone wallpaper, shows my wife in the foreground with me behind her and my hands bracing her not-yet-protruding belly. Tara bends forward and wrinkles her brows to scrutinize the picture with a seriousness that I take as curiosity.
“Finally, I get to meet you!” This is Bassam, standing at the entrance of the kitchen. “I wasn’t around when you were introduced to my team.” He casts me a conspiratorial glance, and I can’t help inspecting his potbelly.
I shove my phone into my pocket and take one step away from Tara, secretly ashamed of our height difference. Still a bit distracted, Tara musters a smile and goes for a handshake as Bassam draws closer.
He notices the tea box in her hand. “If you’re a tea-drinker, you’ll love this company. What about coffee? We have two machines: the noisy one that creates great coffee and the quiet one that spits out shit.”
He then swerves the discussion into the features that our kitchen has to offer. I’m left out of the conversation and, while observing them with disinterest, I analyze what just happened between me and Tara. I wonder if she would have behaved differently had she been a total stranger. Even the mere thought of her being a different person is ridiculous, verges on impossibility. How could I forget a face that used to be so engraved into my memory that I saw her in the form of all strangers on the streets and even as mannequins in shop windows? And it wasn’t only due to our miserable breakup. Granted, it was, in part, the malady of a forlorn heart. But what exacerbated it was the court order. The fear of running into her. The fury I had to quell.
No, she can’t not be my Tara.
The two of them are looking at me now, but I’m not sure since when. I’m supposed to say something. I excavate a recent image where Bassam pointed at the kitchen TV which is now showing some Trump speech. So, politics must be a safe topic.
“Did you know that Bassam is Syrian?” I ask Tara, avoiding Bassam’s likely glare.
“Oh, it’s really sad what’s going on out there,” she says to the gentle bob of his head.
Still a couple hours before calling it a day. I forbid myself to take another break. Even the path to the washroom is a minefield now. I slouch over my computer screen with uncharacteristic resolve, doing almost nothing. The charade she put on in the kitchen! What was going on in her head was what I once craved to fathom. What murderous thoughts had I nurtured: kidnapping, interrogation, torture, these and more, while my therapist glared at me. All to answer one simple question: Why she left me? And now, her brain is back with new surprises. I hover the cursor over her name, recently added to the company Skype list, tempted to type, what was that show about? Then I push the mouse away, sending the cursor to some corner. Maybe she wanted to start with a blank slate. She knew I worked here and it was her way of saying we’re good. Or maybe it was easier to deny everything. What if I’m wrong though and she’s up to no good? Revenge has no expiration date. But I want my job, she can’t take it from me. The framed certificates I received from Microsoft and Cisco stand on my desk. I rub my sleeve on their surface to clear the dust away.
My date at the restaurant with my wife is approaching. I’m waiting for Tara to leave first, to save both of us the embarrassment of sharing an elevator (“Hey,” “Hey,” “You survived your first day,” “Barely,” “Same here”). Her status on Skype has shifted between available, busy and idle. This kind of stalking is pretty convenient compared to the excruciating pursuit I embarked on when she moved out of our home. All I had of her was her work address at the time and that was how I learned things about her I wasn’t supposed to; that was how her hostility reached a new sky.
Finally, she logs out of Skype. I give it five more minutes and only then do I head out.
The restaurant is four subway stops away. At the station, pressed in the rush-hour crowd, I can’t help but turn my head all the time, afraid I’m being watched. Any activity in the periphery of my vision makes me jerk, seeking the source. Everyone is a stranger on the platform, and later, on the train. Like a fugitive finding my haven, I slip into the restaurant.
My wife is there when I arrive. I excuse myself and use the bathroom. I splash water on my face and then run my hands through my sweaty hair, trying not to remember whatever has happened today and is bound to happen again tomorrow. I pretend I won’t have to walk to a town hall meeting with Tara, that we won’t cross paths, that my paychecks won’t be signed by her pen. I straighten my back, pose a confident look and stride back to my wife like a gladiator.
I kiss my wife and sit across the table. It’s a Greek restaurant, one that boasts of their home kitchen. Her favorite. It does feel homey indeed, at least to us, who are considered loyal patrons. The place is quiet, not even half-filled; a family of four are at the adjacent table, an old couple in a near corner and a woman at the far end all by herself.
My wife asks about work, only casually, and she immediately busies herself dousing bread in vinegar. There are multiple ways to spill the truth, all the various shades of it. I can come clean, but why should I when Tara has decided to rewrite—more like erase—history? Why should I violate the peace of the moment for something that needs to be forgotten? I look at my wife’s belly, half concealed behind the edge of the table, but still displaying the suggestion of a bump, of new life.
“The usual,” I say.
And it’s then my eyes, well trained to find objects of interest, travel farther past my wife, all the way to the other corner of the restaurant and land on the lone woman, hunched over the restaurant’s sleek menu. Her long, shiny hair fans out over her shoulders. I can’t see her face, but I have no doubt she’s wearing her Monroe mole, glistened beneath a film of sweat as she must’ve had a hard time catching up with my pace, like in the past, when she cautioned me it wasn’t proper to walk so fast next to a lady. Though she couldn’t complain now as she was following me, stalking me, curious to see my life and my wife. Yes, it’s her.
ELEGY FOR SABENA
eyes, loud-soft with crying and with smiles.
Sixty-months of a dreamed glare,
away from Manhattan and Columbus,
avenues slick with year-round verse,
way up in back of the Poconos.
Much on which to muse,
much for the notebook,
always some other someone
wasn’t always easy.
January was picturesque:
squirrels threw bark into snow-covered brooks,
cooing daughter, clapping son,
Benjamin & Nina tickled toward warm-day stitches.
Away from Manhattan and Columbus,
amid kitchen-counter TV,
at the tail-end of “Happy Birthday,”
each absence swollen.
AT LE DIPLOMATE
1601 14th St. NW
Washington, DC 20009
for my sister Ruby Denise
Afro & two-strand twists
Post-Classy Curl & high-top fade
Patient & citrus
Front window banquette—
How we sister brother.
Simply because I wonder
I’m not tryna be ‘faux-deep’—
What might sheet music
For “It Be’s That Way Sometimes”
Mean to an ear-trained pianist?
Tonight We won’t crossword repasts.
Instead we menu pinot soup
Holler mignon & mousse.
Birthday & brain surgery & done gone.
Mama, shawl-like frayed & idiomatic,
—Live & let live—
Taught us how to scan the iris for bullshit.
Which man’s neck-thick is worthy of lather.
Taught us that good beef is love.
I want to be worthy of living. I want to be. I keep.
A band. Of horses. Up late at night. Writing poems. Like
these. They are watching me right now. Saying we are resting.
Our eyes. They need very little quality. Rapid-eye. Movement.
Have faster pulse. & dreams. My horses. Sleep standing. & altering.
Hind legs. On our bed. Dappled with hay & softened. Metal. Burning.
In my hands. A forge. Every night a leg on my knee. Waits for me. To hammer
in. The first nail. I bury. My head. Hold my breath. Against soft mane. I rest. My eyes.
Again. When did it begin. When did love pitch me. Soft. & smoldering. Toward a stake.
When I only. Want to protect. Every one of them. So they can sleep. More. Soundly. I tell
myself. This is not impossible. Like standing watch at night. For eternity. So they’ll dream. Far,
far. More my. Horses my horses will. Be different. Rarely. Will they. Wake they will. Keep. Believing.
I thought we had solved them all, these problems of humanity:
how we die, and why, and who it is we ought to be.
I’ve learned to count to infinity, to touch my toes, to plug
my nose when I jump off diving boards; I know how to exhale
when waxing my body, how much is too much to drink
at parties, and that, when eating from a buffet
I must be first in line. If there is some part of me
I cannot educate, I’ll compensate with technology:
Google translate has gotten me through dates
with a Frenchman in Prague, an Armenian in Italy.
But this morning, when that woman got on the M train
to slap and beat her face, when her low moan carried
throughout the car, as she fell into an empty seat,
when she scratched with thick nails
at her breast, undoing buttons
down the center of her chest—I said nothing. . .
Leaving North Winsloe, Prince Edward Island, July 2015
As for the Japanese maple, we left it to rot
on the porch, its red leaves already streaked
with tar spot. And abandoned the bassoon-shaped,
stunted lemon tree you kept alive for a year
in the wrong climate, the branches forced open
by hard, green half-fruit—illegal
to cross the American border with fauna
or flora or any living thing not us or the cat
or the dog. Such was the debris we left:
watering can, hanging baskets, the plants.
Anything other lives could feed on.
We left them for the bees, the hummingbirds to drink.
No one was waiting for our return from exile,
no insect songs we longed to hear again.
We packed the trailer, abandoned the house.
At dusk we drifted across the Confederation Bridge,
the island receding into its foxhole. Don’t
speak of it now. Some nights you tell me you
don’t believe we were there at all. I know. It’s late—
let’s raise another glass of shattered stars to each other.
There’s nothing the plague dead did that we
didn’t do. We gave our unprotected bodies
to strangers too—before we met & burned
each other’s initials into our arms. Black ink
like ash smudge, foreheads anointed the day
of fasting. Neither of us knows why
he deserved to survive, the virus
hovering like a hummingbird above
the flower’s stamen before gliding off
to another bloom. On Granville Island
I, ghost, took you, ghost, to be my lawful—
my body still craving to be broken into
like a window; yours the rock that smashes.
Cri de Coeur in Red
Admit first you have
brought me here to this island,
this beach of clay and rock outcrop
the ocean soon will swallow
like a lotus flower because
you will not let me forget,
because the powder from the poppy
did not cloud my veins
and pull me into its heavy
painless sleep. Nor did
the elixir distilled from grain
turn so sweet on my tongue
I could not choose between it
and living. This you would not
do for me. Oh god of nothing
who art in nothing, when
I ask to be taken, you anoint
my loved ones and turn them
to cinders. The cured tobacco
you addicted me to quickens
my brain instead of dulling it.
This water you pool
around my feet is full of salt—
I will not drink it, will not
wash my cracking hands
in it. You offer me
only this rock, large enough
to seal a tomb. I roll it
up one hill. It comes back down.
I roll it up every hill and
still it comes back down.
All afternoon the shipyard
burned: black columns of smoke
corroding the October air. Sirens
ricocheted from harbor
to house, gallons
of bay water pumped through
thick, arterial hoses.
I was waiting for the half-built
hulls to crumble and float away.
Instead, water sizzled
and steamed off steel. At dusk,
my father said it was over,
took me down from his shoulders, but
the next day after school
my brother and I went to watch
the investigators pick like stray dogs
through the hissing cinders. Fire
is a taste, acetate on the tongue.
Forty years later, my brother’s heart
stopped. He was in the kitchen
of the house where we grew up,
bending over to light the pilot
on the stove. Would that the fire
had taken him whole. Instead
he lay in the wood casket
with his eyebrows singed. Hair
like burnt paper curling.
Trust that there exists a version of you
who has set her alarm for seven a.m.
and wakes to it who remembers to floss
to sweep tangles from her hair root to tip
with a wide-toothed comb before she leaves
the house that there exists a version
who leaves the house Trust
the sober tidy version who makes her bed
keeps her appointments calls her mother
Trust this version who trusts her therapist
when her therapist says There are better ways
to be Trust her who digs from the closet
a mute-gold bottle plastic walls rattling with the last
of her dull blue pills who lines them up in her palm
and names each one No Thank You
watches them swirl down the kitchen drain
into the throat of a garbage disposal
Believe you will find your way back home
the porch light expectant thrumming through
the night pinging softly with the sound of June
bugs Believe in this version who coos
her cravings to sleep like a sick child
the one who scrubs the dusty residue
of crushed pills from the coffee table
from the kitchen counter from the nightstand
Be this version the one who sees
a mirror and doesn’t turn away
Late morning, one settles down on a leaf afloat,
plying his chain-mail oars, his little raft a fragile boat.
My father would say darner where I saw “dragonfly.”
Who knows any longer what a darner is? Time flies.
Late afternoon, Lake’s hem unraveling, Sun squints
toward dusk—leaning in to finish her day’s stitches.
Evening now, I listen to one upstairs window closing
as I turn to open up another, letting a Luna moth go,
then watch as my father, grown tired, senses the fading
light above the fabric knee patch he’s been sewing.
Handing me his spool and needle, he smiles just to see
how easily I swim his thread through the oh-so-tiny eye.
I acknowledge salt
in my palm, weight
of furnace in my ears.
I signed contracts with
lilacs and marigolds,
of voice, its sound
in my head. I plead
with my body,
ask her to believe
in salt again, exchanges
between tense and subject,
of pelvis and spine—
the best of me, offerings
to the calamity
of present promises: I live
in spaces, majestic and brutal:
vulture’s wings, the sun
that cooks off mites. Spaces
that collude to inject
salt beneath my nails,
to break skin
where creases have
already impaled voices
that rest in them. I
listen for returns,
healing and resin,
pine needles to pry
myself from them.