Salmon Bodies

flash fiction

We go upstream, against the flow of salmon bodies throwing themselves on the rocks. They are spawning in spite of the ruins. Resilience was something I learned first from my mother and my father, through her table loom and his greenhouse. I learn it again here, in the stench of their bodies. Their striving splashes interrupt the steady rhythm of the rapids and they are too fast, too acrobatic, for me to get a clear view of their scales. I catch only a glint, a sparkle in my peripheral vision. The river grants me cold water on my toes, and I imagine where each drop would fall if I weren’t placed here, moving along these rocks.

We continue upriver to the mountains. The range is split in two by a crevice, carved by a glacier long ago. Now, a half moon rises there.

It’s too early, I say, the sun is up. The sky is still marmalade. I do not like the night.

We go upstream. On the other side of the river flow is a sandy mound where a deer bends down to drink. Do you think she’s going there too? Suri asks me, pointing to the deer with her chin rather than a finger. I don’t know the answer. Perhaps the deer is coming down, perhaps there are crowds ahead where it still snows. Maybe she has been shadowing our journey from the valleys. Maybe she’s running.

It’s easier to breathe here, away from the dust.

The deer looks back at me and I’m struck with vertigo. Suri grasps my elbow and steadies me on the slimy river rocks. Strands of her hair escape her hood and are caught in the November wind as if being pulled back to where we’ve left. Just a bit further, she says, and we can make camp.

There are empty homes and log cabins in these woods, but we do not acknowledge them.

I look back across the waters and the fading light of day muddies the details of the woods; I can’t tell branches from leaves or soil from shadow and the deer has disappeared in the depths. There could be people in there too. People under tarps, people wrapped in Mexican blankets, people trading for iodine. People like us. Suri assures me not to fear other travelers. She says we are all the same, like the salmon going upstream.

A crow swings down from the trees and drags a rotting fish from the edge of granite stone. It’s heavy, but he is persistent. Another one, above, caws at the darkening sky.

Suri takes my hand as our stomachs roar in unison. Somewhere, the cicadas begin to hum.

Alaskan Salt

I have always liked the feeling of being cradled by mountains. This is something I have told you, when I was frightened in a ceaselessly flat desert, but this is something you have forgotten.

It is summer. I find that I also like the feeling of night that isn’t night, when below is illuminated by a persevering sun and the family that isn’t my family has retired to curtained rooms. Midnight looks like noon. I like this because I don’t sleep, I won’t sleep, I leave you in our bed.

I push through the mosquitoes on the trail. I am bitten.

Every hour is a golden hour. I like this. I run my fingers over the sky and make it swirl as Starry Night swirls. Every tour guide is saying the same things about the trees, the spruce trees. They say that Alaskan spruce trees are arctic trees, black spruce and white spruce, that they do not fear endless nights and they do not wither in endless days. I am not like these trees.

I like the silt left on the land by the glaciers that have passed millennia ago. The river collects it. I like that the river is fast, that it takes trees and rocks with its flow. The river is stronger than any other river I have ever seen. It is all glacial melt and very grey, even when I cradle its icy water in my palm.

We are in the river but we are not together.

In my raft, I know the names of the people I sit with but I really only know your mother. She asks if I’m okay. I say yes. There were once women here, women who followed gold-seeking husbands. I wonder if they feared this river, I wonder if they feared gold, if they feared men.

The guide is friendly. His beard is long. He checks my life vest.

We are moving. The raft is fast with the river’s gushing course and I think I like this feeling of “afraid,” I like feeling afraid without you. In the raft we gloss over rushing waters, pass exposed roots from a ripped apart shoreline, and see nothing made by human hands.

I am wild because the land is wild.

Our guide says to hold on. I tighten my knees and the bones are pushing into one another. We catch a wave and the glacial melt splashes in my face and I am freezing, my muscles are stone, but when we come in to anchor you are standing on the shore, also wet, and I think that maybe glaciers are warmer than the land.

For six days, I wear the same boots. They have traction in the airport and on the tundra. In them it is easy to run over the thawing earth, the lush dune grass, and the yellow wildflowers. I run fast.

I decide to keep these boots, forever, until someone takes them from me. My father had made sure I packed his wool socks, the ones he has for winter when he cuts firewood for the stove. They itch my ankles. My feet are cold.

There are goats on the hills, but they are far away and your niece cannot see them when I try to guide her eyes. She chases after her brother.

I lean down and hold on to the grasses of the tundra. I grasp it like threads. There are those who put love on silkscreens, and those who allow it to fray. The tundra does not end, and it is alive, it is bathing in summer sun and it seems so aware of me looking at it. I think of Alaska as a woman, the kind of woman you can love but doesn’t let you touch her. The kind of woman with warmth subtle like candlelight, but it’s the light you reach for in a storm.

You call me back to the car.

I like the feeling of being alone on the train. I am looking out the window and, after a long while, there is a wolf. It is probably accustomed to crossing this railroad without disruption. There is only wilderness here. The wolf waits for us to pass, but the train moves too quickly for me to see its teeth.

I want to tell you this, but you are not here. I don’t know where you are, you have left again, are forgetting to speak to me again. I usually do not like this.

I drink coffee and think about the wolf and the thickness of its fur. There isn’t much chocolate, and when a man comes by with a cart I ask. He apologizes, he doesn’t have any chocolate, but he says I can order ice cream when my number is called to visit the dining cart.

He is selling maps which show the route of the train. The maps are small but the illustrations make me look longer than I look at most things. I buy the map and leave it on your seat. I want to look at it before I sleep. I want to see the places I go, where you are going too, the places where I won’t really see you.

Following the tracks, the train travels along lonesome coastline and finds a fishing town. We sleep there. You love the espresso over vanilla ice cream. I love the espresso. In the morning, we look at the sailboats in the marina. We laugh at our favorite names. You say the three words lovers are supposed to say, but it makes me feel strange, like I’m wearing a wig that doesn’t fit.

With our bags, we are leaving, we are told that these towns become isolated in winter when snow collapses over highways.

We wake in a new place. They introduce us to Denali and the hotel room we share has views of valleys and ice and it is beautiful. Breakfast is quiet but I hear you clearing your throat.

We climb into a plane. When it is in the air it is too loud and it is too high. I do not like that I am afraid of heights, afraid of the way the wind hits the plane’s wings. I am an anxious person. I am silent but my eyes burn and I taste a salty tear on my lip.

You are gentle. Maybe because your mother and your brother and your father and your aunt are in the plane with us. You hold my hand for a while, but then you want to take pictures of Denali’s summit, and let go. I like this.

We leave the air behind for the land and the land behind for water.

I understand water. I know water. Oceans are a refuge and I am not afraid of the boat. I am first. I sit on the bow. We reach the icebergs and I know in my soul that I like them most. I like the ice floes and the otters with mothers that swim with them. They are playful. I want to be like these otters. I like how icebergs are sketched in crystalline blue, a tropical blue and I have imaginings of warm places in a very cold place.

I touch glacial ice. It is softer, clearer, gentler than I had assumed it would be. I begin to lay my roots, to pierce through ice and entangle myself, to never move, to never let you move me from this bay of icebergs. But it is where you have brought me, and I do not know if I am complying if I stay. I retreat.

Humpback whales emerge from the water. The calf rises first, then the mother. They come closer to the boat. They are not afraid of us. The ocean waters are dark, the captain tells us, because of its richness. Countless whales come, he says, to take part in nature’s bounty.

The ship leaves the glaciers and the ice and my planted roots. It passes sea lions on rocks before it pulls into a cove where orca whales should come. Everyone is outside in the freezing summer wind, grasping their cameras in their gloves.

The captain tells us that the algae bloom in the oceans surrounding Alaska create half of the oxygen in the world. I breathe deeper and I am not sure if the air tastes fresh or not. I look for you. You are in the back of the ship with your father. The orcas come. There are seven of them. They are hunting.

I never liked the feeling of Genesis, of creation that falls to imperfection. I do not like the feeling I get in my stomach when I think of Cain succumbing to wrath and taking the life of a kind shepherd, committing mankind’s first murder, and the second in breaking the heart of his mother, the first woman. It is unclear to me if they were strung out of Eden or if they had sailed out, just as I cannot tell where I have made choices or where you have made them for me.

I do not like uncertainty.

We board our flight home. I have set six fires in six days but you have doused them. You put my carry-on above us. I give you your sunglasses. The plane goes.

This piece originally appeared in Issue 8 of Wildness. You can find it here.

Flash Fiction: “Jerome”

It is an empty copper camp in the Black Hills. It is where I take you on a road without radio, driving on an incline passing red rock and a woman selling turquoise from a blanket on the highway. We come around a sharp turn, through valleys of wildflowers tucked into the dips of the mountain, and see the sky. Desert skies are different than skies in other places. They are open and luminous and endless – I thought maybe you, too, were bright, and we, too, could be – might be – endless.

The court that has squabbled for months in my head has chosen the jury. We will burn or blossom in this heat, but you do not know this. How could you?

We take pictures of these: deli sandwiches, stray cats, ghost mining shafts, Arizona hillside, the art we love so much, each other.

In these photos, you are with this open sky sipping iceless Coke with your arms outstretched on cliffs. You were hearing music I did not, from a haunted block in Jerome, the narrow ghost town.

I see light in these collected pieces that we are carrying down the mountain, but the printed pictures cast, too, new shadows.