Young walruses, we all must adapt! For example,
some of your ancestors gouged the world
with four tusks, but you can grow only two.
It’s hard to say what evolution plans for your kind,
but if given a choice,
you should put in a request for thumbs.
Anyway, congratulations! You’re entering
a world that’s increasingly hostile and cruel
and full of people who’ll never take you seriously
though that will be a mistake on their end.
You are more tenacious than they know.
You’ll be a fierce and loyal defender
of those you love. You will fight polar bears
when they attack your friends and sometimes you’ll win.
Of course, odds always favor the polar bear,
but that’s not the point. The point is courage.
The point is bravery. The point is you are all fighters
even when the fight in which you find yourself
ensures unpleasant things will happen to you.
For example, the bear will gnaw apart your skull
or neck until you stop that persistent twitching;
it will eat your skin, all of it, then blubber, then muscle,
then the tears of your loved ones, in that order;
it will savor every bite, and you will just
suffer and suffer until the emptiness can wash over you.
The good news is: things change!
For example: the environment.
Climate change, indeed, is bad for you,
but it’s worse for polar bears whose conservation status
is now listed as “vulnerable” which is one step removed
from “endangered” which is one step removed
from “extinct” which is a synonym
for Hooray! None of you get eaten!
I suppose this will make some people sad.
Even now, they’re posting pictures
of disconsolate polar bears on melting ice floes
drifting toward a well-deserved oblivion.
They say, We need to stop this!
They say, We need to do something, now!
These people are not your friends.
One cannot be on both Team Walrus and Team Polar Bear
at the same time. I’m not saying these people are evil;
I’m saying, it’s time to choose a side.
I’m saying sharpen your tusks, young calves;
your enemies are devious. You need to train
yourself to do what they won’t expect.
For example: use computers, invest
in renewable energies, read Zbigniew Herbert.
Unrelatedly: your whiskers make you appear
to have mustaches, which, seeing as you’re
not even toddlers, is remarkably unsettling.
Babies that look like grown men freak me out.
Like those medieval paintings by so-called masters
where they’d make the face of little baby Jesus
look like an ancient constipated banker.
If that’s what God really looks like,
it’s no wonder we’ve done what we’ve done to the Earth.
Maybe you can repair what we spent lifetimes taking apart.
Replace some screws. Oil some hinges.
This might sound impossible, but have you ever
looked at yourselves? Seriously—take a quick look
and tell me how a walrus face is possible;
everything about it defies the laws of physics.
You will exist beyond the reach of nature.
You will learn to slow your own heartbeat to preserve oxygen
while diving to depths of over 900 feet.
You will stay awake for up to three consecutive days
while swimming on the open sea.
And when the ocean is too rough—
so terrible with longing, so ruptured with heartache—
you’ll find a small island of stone or ice offering refuge.
It will be difficult to climb from the water,
but because there’s hope for us all,
you will hoist yourself up,
using only your front teeth to drag your body
onto the shore.
Renaud com richchande thurgh a roghe greve
And alle the rabel in a res, ryght at his heles.
— “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” by anonymous
but what is the fox to think, duck-tumbling through green with all the dogs baying at his heels, of the scene unfolding across a hill inside stone walls much higher than the fences the fox can leap, inside the curtains and sheets sweetened with lavender, sweetened with words and hands touching: a man and a woman and the frightful truth that what you give is what you get but only if you’re one of the people in the story, only if that’s how you’re seen. a fox isn’t a person, a fox isn’t given, a fox has to get all on its own: a rabbit, a den, a mouthful of feathers because hunger is a gag in the throat, an acid turn in the belly; hunger is wanting and wanting and when someone does give a fox, it is not the soft part of a bird, not the thing the fox wants but some lines in a poem: a fox is gotten, a fox is given to someone else but only after the fox is dead and only to remind the man in the bed of the wager he made against the fishbone sliver of his life, and no one kisses the fox three times because a fox doesn’t know about kisses—
but a fox knows about fucking, a fox knows about a pull, a pull, an arch and bite and everyone in the fox’s poem knows about that, too—
but the fox isn’t a person no matter the name that’s offered; what good are names if the ink’s half-flayed and no one is who they’re supposed to be, not even the knight? were it otherwise, a fox might turn and fight, a fox might have some kind of agreement, like the man in the bed with another man’s wife (though they’re not fucking, only kissing and that only a little too), but this is not that version. the man in the bed is going to give those kisses right back to the man who is chasing the fox and trying to give a gift of a redbrush tail that no longer hides gold eyes, that no longer follows four fast feet, and it would be a handsome gift—all this soft amber of running, living, warming—but it’s not a gift, it’s a threat, like the horses chasing the fox, too, there behind the dogs, and the fox has tasted horse once. the fox found a dead one and all over its sleek hide the smudge of men and metal, but the bones broke easily enough and the sun-sour meat tasted like life and monsieur reynard doesn’t know what a promise between men has to do with foxes—just the same as a boar doesn’t know, just the same as the hart, both already hunted, both already still and spitted, and no one has to know, do they, to end up dead for it, to end up caught, to end up peeled bare, to end up in someone else’s mouth? and the fox doesn’t know this isn’t to do with food or fur because for the fox it is, and for the man in the bed it’s about keeping clean, which is also about keeping uncaught, keeping unbloodied, and for the woman taking his hand, it’s about finding out where the nail catches the skin and can peel it back—how much comes free in one piece? and for the man on the horse (all these men on all these horses) it’s a game to be played. the man on the horse lost his head to the game and picked it up and walked away, and a fox doesn’t know such a thing is possible because such a thing is not possible in this poem—at least for foxes in this poem—which is old, old, old enough that the pigments have scraped themselves thin. all the blood and the robes that were once real stones, once real things—
it’s the green that lasts least, all this green so lush and growing and false, though there is nothing truer than some shoot’s first twining and nothing truer than the ease of it crushing underfoot; it is not the province of a fox to follow these stems and roots. a fox follows low cuts between leaf and branch and the twisting trails toward warmth and blood. a fox only runs and pants against the pack’s closing howl and lunge—
inside the room the lady has a gift to save a man’s life if only he accepts and he’ll accept because if he doesn’t—
no one brings such a gift to a fox, to a body so desperate, no one brings water for the tongue dry and lolling, no one brings a soft green cloth to dab away fear’s white foam and bind up the soft underbelly, and no one asks as the strength fails in one limb and another and no one opens a door, breaks a fence, moves a stone—but what bargain wouldn’t this fox make right now right now, what wouldn’t he exchange—
what wouldn’t the boar, what wouldn’t the doe, what wouldn’t anyone trade to keep feeling the drum under the feet, that feeling of beating alive alive just the same as the heart?
I ducked down a side street when I saw the red and blue lights coming from the police cruisers blocking the Burnside Bridge. My big brother, Joel, trailed after me and asked, What’re you doing? I told him I’d never seen so many cops before; the only policeman I’d encountered was the one who visited our middle school to talk about the dangers of illegal drugs. They aren’t interested in us, Joel said. He took me by the wrist, led me out of the alley, and told me, We just have to make it past them to the river. Then all we have to do is swim.
The streets were wet and slick from rain and reflected the light of the moon. Ahead of us, the Burnside Bridge was drawn, halting passage across the Willamette River to the west side of the city. Officers milled around the cruisers, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, sipping from Styrofoam cups. We were close enough to hear the chirp of the walkie-talkies. A crackled voice said, Please be advised. An officer responded, Ten-four.
It all started a couple months earlier, with a single pothole on Ankeny Avenue. Then there was one on Morrison Street and another in Old Town. Every weekend, our dad picked us up and we crossed the river to stay at his apartment in the west side of the city, and each time we went there—whether we were going to the nickel arcade or on our way to browse books at Powell’s—we spotted more cavities in the streets.
Joel said, Every week it’s worse. But nobody made a big deal about it. In an interview on the evening news, a city council member said, This is just the routine erosion of infrastructure.
Crews were dispatched to make repairs. They came in white-paneled trucks and shoveled fresh asphalt, but for each pothole they patched, more appeared.
The last time we were with our dad, we got frozen yogurt from This Is Culture. We were walking up the street, cones in hand, when a Loomis Fargo truck hummed by. I doubt we’d even remember that truck if it weren’t for what happened next. One of its wheels sank. The truck slumped and came to a stop. The driver punched the gas, and the wheel spun, climbing just a little before the asphalt crumbled and the wheel slid back into the rut. The driver hit the gas again. The engine whined. Black smoke rose, stinking of burned rubber. The tire blew and the naked wheel dropped into the pothole. Then the ground gave way and the front half of the armored truck sank into a growing opening in the street. The driver clambered out the rear door and fled to solid ground.
Let’s get you home to your mom, our dad said.
We crossed the bridge back to the east side of the city. As soon as we walked into the house, we told our mom what had happened. She said she knew we were worried, and that Dad could stay with us for a while if he wanted. In that moment, I imagined all of us back together, like whatever had come between them could be forgiven and forgotten, but our dad shook his head. He assured us the whole thing was just a freak accident. It’ll be okay, he said.
We’d never heard of the Shanghai Tunnels, but once the Loomis Fargo trunk sank into the street, they were on the news all the time. Reporters opened trapdoors and pried open manholes. Beneath the west side of the city was a vast maze, pathways that led to openings along the Willamette River.
Some thought that the tunnels were just an outdated means of transporting goods to and from docked ships, but rumor had it that young men had once been dragged through the tunnels and sold as slaves to ships bound for Shanghai. Whatever the tunnels had been used for didn’t matter much now. The streets were sinking into them either way.
Even so, people carried on as if what was happening wasn’t happening. The city tried to reinforce the tunnels with lumber buttresses, but the streets just crumbled around them, leaving standing ribs of wood and asphalt. They tried to pump concrete into the tunnels, but the trucks were too heavy to drive around the west side. They parked on the Burnside Bridge, long tubes leading out of the mixers, burping cement. Then Big Pink, the tallest building in the city, fell. Forty-two floors worth of shattered glass and twisted metal collapsed into the tunnels, countless bodies buried in the wreckage. The city placed an evacuation order, but not everyone made it to safety before more buildings came down: the Overton Towers, the Wilkins-Spaniel Center, and the Harrison Tower Apartments, where on weekends we lived with our dad.
Our mother couldn’t turn away from the TV after that. He should’ve stayed, she said, speaking to footage of the wreckage on the screen. Joel told her, He might be okay, but our mother shook her head. We hadn’t heard from him in days, but I wanted to believe what Joel believed: that our dad was still beneath the rubble waiting to be rescued.
He was right about the police; they didn’t even notice us walk past when we made our way to the river. We knelt by the bank and dipped our hands into the water. I said, It’s cold. Joel told me, We’ll get used to it. Then we waded into the river together.
We were only waist deep when the current swept us away from each other. I struggled to swim, but I was quickly pulled under, stuck in the current, suspended between the river bottom and the air above it. It was like flying, though I couldn’t breathe. I saw nothing but darkness punctuated with pops of light. I was sure I would drown, and right as my lungs went empty and my throat filled with water, I felt a tug around my neck.
When I resurfaced, Joel had me by the collar and was pulling me back ashore. You’re okay, he said. You’re okay, you’re okay. He got me out of the water and onto the bank. We were far downriver from where we’d started, the police lights no longer in sight. I coughed up the water I’d swallowed and began to sob. Our dad was beneath the debris on the west side, dying or already dead. I wanted to believe there was something we could do, but we couldn’t save him. We’d barely been able to save ourselves.
Joel put his arm around me and said, Don’t cry. Then we sat there, cold and wet on the bank of the river, and watched the city buckle in the distance.
Smaller Uncle claimed he could predict a flood was coming when all his nose-hairs swooned and sprinkled the sink. A long time ago, before he washed cars, he used to be a weatherman, which I thought meant he could manufacture weather, plucking out strands of his own hair to double as lightning, the way the Monkey King scattered stalks of his hair to multiply himself, but Medium Aunt told me that actually, it just meant he used to stand in front of a cardboard cut-out sun and guess what time the sky would arrive. My uncle got fired for making a lot of shit up, she explained, like one time predicting a rain of crab claws, and of course everyone was very upset about that because crab claws are delicious and they were all waiting for that day with their pots full of boiling water to catch them. Smaller Uncle interrupted and said, I didn’t mean it would rain literal crab claws, I said that the raindrops would be as large as crab claws, and they’d latch onto you and twist out the meat of your palms, and besides, in the end it didn’t even rain any size and everyone blamed me. That’s nothing, Medium Aunt said, the real scam he pulled is that he can’t even read. The channel was local and there wasn’t a teleprompter or anything, just this guy smoking and holding up pieces of cardboard with the script on it, and your uncle would just make up the script, saying shit like, Tomorrow is sunny with a chance of getting stabbed, likely there will be a night, and all this week there will be sporadic skies soiling themselves. It will be cooler under the shade, so grow some trees. It won’t rain unless you have a leak.
In the sofa bed I shared with my Smaller Uncle and Medium Aunt, I was pocketed between them like a switchblade. In bed, Smaller Uncle laughed so hard at his own made-up weather predictions that the whole apartment rattled like a broken jaw. We fell to the ground, and Uncle rolled me under the sofa bed and said, I forecast it is now earthquaking. Seek shelter beneath your nearest niece. His laughter could even dislocate the building like a shoulder, shifting it half a block up the street, and no one could predict it. Sometimes he would just look at our walls and laugh, and when I asked him what he was laughing at, he said he was reading the mold. It’s making fun of me, he said. There was mold on the wall in the shape of a mouth, and he claimed he could read its lips, claimed he could order the ants on our ceiling to arrange a single sentence. Okay, then what are they saying, I asked. They’re saying you should stop smashing us into sesame paste with your fingers and let us be fluent in foraging, he said. Fine, tell them I don’t like them crawling into my mouth when I’m asleep, I said back. Smaller Uncle shut his eyes, sketched lines in the air with a single finger. Okay, he said, I wrote back to them, but just know that they enter your mouth at night so that you’ll have words to speak in the morning. You think we make words ourselves? We borrow their bodies to speak. That’s nice of them, I said, but still taped my own mouth shut at night, laying strips of tape sticky-side-up around the bed. I asked Medium Aunt if she thought tonight would rain, and she said, I hope not, our ceiling doesn’t even hold up against the dark, look how tomorrow’s leaked in. The mold will multiply into men and then where will we go, she said.
That night, Smaller Uncle told me more stories about the extreme weather incidents he lied about, how he invented local locust plagues, volcanic eruptions, and the impending extinction of the sea. He claimed the sun was a severed head. He said the people of Rudong County believed him so thoroughly that they removed their roofs the day he predicted a hail of pearls. Stop laughing, I told him, I don’t want the city to get a splinter tonight. Okay, he said, and told me another story. About a man named Cangjie who had four eyes. All four were the size of pearl onions in a cocktail of light. This was a long time ago, he said, back when the moon was square, before they realized that light with corners caused accidental eye-gouging when you looked at the moon. One night, the emperor told Cangjie that all across the kingdom, people were rioting against knots. Knots were the only form of writing, and it was beginning to progress into weaponry. Nooses and handcuffs and hogties. So the emperor begged Cangjie to find an alternative. The alternative to a knot is a knife, I said, and the emperor sounds like an idiot. Smaller Uncle smiled and said, I’ll have to decapitate you for disrespect. Listen. Cangjie sat beside a river, but all day it spoke nothing to him. He sat in the mud, but it had no tongue, only stones that settled into the crack of his ass. I told Smaller Uncle that this story was slow, and he said, wait for me to make up the weather. Up in the sky, a crow flew by and dropped a hoofbone at Cangjie’s feet, but he couldn’t read what species the print belonged to. He consulted hunters all over the kingdom, and one finally told him that it was the hoofprint of a pixiu, a species that stomachs gold. Cangjie copied its shape on the sole of his foot and stepped onto a scroll. And that, Smaller Uncle said, was the first written word. I told him the story had holes, like who was the hunter, and why was the bird holding the severed hoof of a pixiu, how did it know where to drop it, and where was the pixiu going, and what did gold have to do with rivermud. He was silent, looking at the ceiling again, and I wondered what he read in those cracks that chronicled our lives, those ruts filled with our blood. You see, he said, a word is just the shape something makes when it falls. Rain too. I imagined the transcription of my feet in mud, how deep a word I would be.
Open your mouth, he said, listen to the leaks saying there’s rain coming. He opened his mouth, and inside I saw the larvae of a language, clung to the roof of him, clusters of light inside. I opened my mouth too, stretching it wide, and waited all night with him. But there was no rain, and in the morning, when I turned my head toward my uncle, he was asleep with his mouth already shut. Medium Aunt was awake in the kitchen, backlit by the TV screen. I kept my mouth open until Smaller Uncle rolled over and told me I could close it finally, that he was wrong after all. In the kitchen, we sat cross-legged on the floor and watched our dumpster-dive TV, which could no longer speak after Smaller Uncle accidentally kicked it over one night when he was drunk. It also meant that some of the faces went missing, and so we identified actors by their shoulders or shadows. After the sound surrendered, Medium Aunt kept the subtitles permanently turned on, and we took turns reading them aloud. Smaller Uncle was silent when we did this, turning his head to the wall, so we pretended to read them aloud just for ourselves, saying the lines like we were repeating them out of shock, like wow, that can’t be true, that there was traffic today, that the clouds came by wind, that the concubine was going to bury the other concubine’s baby alive, that the drought would last for another two hundred years at least, that a fire was furring the sky, that a new species of fish had been found and it used four pairs of eyes, and Smaller Uncle lowered his head and pretended not to listen, sitting cross-legged on the sheets of newspaper we spread on the floor before every meal, the headlines rubbed blank by our knees. He stared at the moldy wall, even after we turned off the TV, sitting still for the ants collaring his neck and stampeding down his spine. I opened my mouth to recite the newspaper headlines swarming around his legs, but he shushed me and said he could do it himself. He told me that all he had to do was sit like Cangjie did, waiting for something to fall, to mean something in the mud. All you have to do is look long enough at something you wanna say aloud, such as the sky, he said. Tomorrow I’ll write you into it.