New Stories for July 20, 2020
Every afternoon, I go for a walk. I like the ritual of pulling on battered running shoes caked with mud, zipping up my fleece jacket, turning the key in the brass lock. I try not to think of the invisible fog of contaminated air hanging over the city, sickening hundreds. The world is a chaotic, formless void, except for those twenty minutes once a day when I step out for my walk around the neighborhood.
Today, there is a doctor outside the house next door. My neighborhood Facebook group has been buzzing with news of the doctors hired by the city to contain the plague. It isn’t the fact that they’re going door-to-door that’s attracted attention — it’s the uniform. It’s like something out of a steampunk fever dream: a black overcoat, wide-brimmed hat, leather gloves, a long-beaked mask and tinted goggles. A photo of one inspecting a downtown apartment building inspired a dozen ‘Bring Out Your Dead’ memes. But I’m not laughing anymore. Two weeks ago, the doctors ordered a duplex sealed off — with the inhabitants trapped inside. That’s when I felt the first tremors of fear.
“This will contain the miasma and prevent the infected residents from continuing to sicken this area,” the doctor told the evening news.
I’ve never seen one up close before. The mask is less cartoonish in person and more grotesque. You can see where it’s carefully sewn to the doctor’s head covering each day. He’s using a wooden staff to point to windows on the house next door. Two city workers in white coveralls stand nearby, nodding and taking notes.
“See where the upstairs window is cracked?” he says. “The pestilence is spreading from there.” I turn the other way and put in my earbuds. I don’t want to see him order my neighbors shut inside. The plague moves through the air, they say. The doctors claim to see the spread through leaky windowpanes and off-kilter doors. Mostly old houses in poor parts of town where people can’t afford the cost of maintenance.
I start playing a podcast.
It’s a beautiful spring day and cherry blossoms flutter through the air like snowflakes. It doesn’t feel like the world is ending, despite the knot in my stomach that clenches when I see the doctors on TV or read about a possible second wave. No, the end of the world feels like the ground bucking and heaving. It feels like a cup of coffee rattling on the table. It feels like counting seconds to calculate the magnitude of the quake. It feels like your translator running for the exit without a word to explain what’s happening. It feels like being unable to move as the earth tries to shake you loose.
The earthquake lasted ninety seconds. This slow-motion apocalypse is worse. The plague has dragged on for weeks and it will be months (or years) before it’s safe to go outside. There is nothing to do but wait and cling to moments of sanity — doing laundry, baking bread, going for a walk.
I’m walking faster now. My fight or flight response urges me to flee, but from what? There is no escaping the bad air. Day after day, my brain bathes in stress hormones as if a sabretooth tiger were lurking in every hedge and blossoming peony. It gnaws at me constantly. I’d rather be riding out an earthquake.
I jog for a few blocks. In my earbuds, Roman Mars is explaining the toilet paper shortage, but I’m having a hard time paying attention. I slow down. My breath is sharp in my chest and I wonder morbidly if I have the plague or if I’m simply out of shape.
I turn the corner to complete my loop and stop. I’m face-to-face with the doctor. I can smell the herbs and flowers they use to fill the beak of the mask. It’s floral and earthy, bitter and woody. Supposedly, it wards off the bad air to keep the doctor from getting sick. He stands very close to me. His every labored breath expels the pungent odor of herbs between stitches in the leather mask. Through the thick, dark glass of his goggles, I see human eyes looking me over, searching for signs of infection. I freeze, hoping he’ll pass over me.
There is a broken window in my house. It faces the backyard where no one can see. The wood around the frame split sometime during the winter, surrendering to a hundred years of abuse from the elements. It was too expensive to fix properly. The persistent draft in the kitchen reminds me that duct tape and rags are not enough.
“Is this your residence?” the doctor asks, his voice muffled. The city workers clench their pencils. I nod. “Your humors are out of balance.”
Everything in this story is true.
Present day, near M St and S 38th, Tacoma, WA, two miles from the mouth of the Puyallup River
Red and blue lights flashed in the rear-view and Mari winced. “Babe,” she said, complaining uselessly.
T. J. sighed and slowed, pulled onto the shoulder. There was no reason for the cop to pull them over, and they both knew it. He was a careful driver, especially with Lula in the car, and the car was in good shape. Too good, maybe: T. J. liked to show off, and while his Chrysler 300 was a few years old, even in the drizzling rain the rims sparkled.
Mari waited in the passenger seat, hands flexing uneasily on the purse in her lap. Maybe she should get out her phone and start recording. The cop car behind them loomed silently, running their plates or maybe just making them sweat. She pulled out her phone and checked the battery: nine percent. Fuck. Should have charged it after I got Lula from daycare. She turned and smiled reassuringly at her daughter in the car seat behind her.
November 1855, in the hills where the Puyallup River approaches the edge of the salt water
Ska’la’shee wasn’t sure where the Bostons were. She knew the soldiers from the East had left their horses behind. Both sides of the skirmish had been separated out into small groups by the thick pine woods, and had been stalking each other for hours through waist-high ferns and thorn bushes that masked steep slopes and gullies. Fog that smelled of salt lay over everything.
She also didn’t know where most of the rest of her people were, let alone any of Leschi’s people from the Nisqually watershed, the Squaxin, or their other allies. Ears perked for sound, she huddled in the skirt of a blue fir tree beside her cousin, Es’ku’ah. Her long rifle was less useful in the close forest, although she’d put a bullet in at least one of the soldiers in the first minutes after the Bostons attacked the camp. She had six more bullets left, and plenty of powder.
Es’ku’ah leaned against her shoulder. The two of them were the only ones left of their longhouse, after the sickness of body and soul that no medicine could cast out, the ghosts wandering in the night, the Boston settlers who left a pall of bad luck over everything they touched. He was all that was left of her cousins and siblings who had known her when she was a boy—before her spirit-powers transformed her into a woman and a shaman. Her other relatives were dead, and so was her partner. Two summers ago, a settler had shot a hole in his chest and a stream of dark red blood had flowed out into the bright morning.
“If we let them past us, we can pin them against the river,” Es’ku’ah said.
“The trees clear out, along there.” Ska’la’shee pointed. If the soldiers walked onto the riverbank, she could get a clear shot at them. It was coming on dusk now, and she wanted to shoot them before the night fell. And she felt Kali’kahlee’ua’ichi, her first spirit-power, stirring a predatory hunger in her belly, cold as the deep black chill of the ocean far under the waves.
“Let’s try it.” Es’ku’ah tilted his head close to hers, letting her decide.
She led the way quietly through the bushes to a spot she knew, where a small promontory of rock overlooked the rushing water. The river was high and gray with cold autumn rain. Clouds covered the mountain from the base to the top, but she could feel its solid presence framing the world behind her. She flattened herself on the ground, rifle to her shoulder, long knife loose in its sheath. Es’ku’ah knelt and fixed his arrows point-down in the ground beside him so he could easily pull them up and draw after he fired off his Colt revolver.
Ska’la’shee let her breathing get long and loose and quieter than the light rain drops on pine needles.
A flicker of motion behind the trees. Bostons, and more than one. Not novices, this group, not the clumsy settler men who cut down the trees because they didn’t know how to move through them. They moved almost as soundlessly as her uncle, who taught her to hunt ducks when she was a boy, before he dreamed that she was going to be a woman.
Beside her, Es’ku’ah’s lips moved soundlessly: he was singing a warrior song to give himself strength. Her spirit-powers — Kuahe’khuahe, whose quick wings were lifted by her cousin’s song, and Kali’kahlee’ua’ichi, her water-sister — pricked on her skin and thrummed in her ears, a silent drum in time with her heart.
Three men broke out of the trees, fully visible for a moment on the riverbank. Ska’la’shee squinted at them, at first not sure she was seeing correctly. It was several of the same group of soldiers that had attacked in the morning, but they had clearly run into more trouble since then. All three were bedraggled, bloody: one of them had dark bloodstains up to his elbows like he’d tried to save someone with a bad bullet wound. None of them were carrying their rifles at the ready, almost, she thought, like they were out of bullets. One of them walked unevenly, nursing an injury. After two steps, a cluster of saplings blocked them from sight.
Es’ku’ah raised his revolver and sighted on the place where they would come into view again, but she felt her own heart falter.
The ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum of drums in Ska’la’shee’s ears changed from silent to loud, pounding; without moving, she had moved into the spirit world, leaving her body and her cousin below her in time and space.
Beside her, Kali’kahlee’ua’ichi gazed at her, eyes dark and avid, poised to attack. Ska’la’shee had been feeling her water-sister in the urge to pull the trigger heavy as a blanket on her shoulders. Here in the spirit world her thoughts untangled, laying straight and true and taut. She vibrated like her soul was the head of a drum. “What do you want?”
The blackfish spirit dropped her jaw, showing her knife-like teeth. “Everywhere these trespassers walk, they upset the balance. I want to rip the flesh from their bones.”
“That’s all?” As Ska’la’shee spoke, she remembered her partner, grinning at a joke with a half-chewed strip of dry salmon hanging from his lips, and her heart twisted.
The Boston settlers were cruel, and would shoot a child of the Nisqually or Puyallup faster than they’d shoot a dog. But most of these soldiers, the new ones the government in the East had sent in the summer, fought honorably when she met them in battle. And these were injured. Killing them when they were defenseless would be shameful.
Kali’kahlee’ua’ichi snapped her jaws shut, spraying Ska’la’shee’s face with droplets of salt water. “Consume them!”
“Wait.” She wanted that too, but in this clear space, her eyes as sharp as Kuahe’khuahe’s, she knew her hunger was larger. Massive. Three soldiers, three deaths — it wasn’t enough. It was only more of the same, more destruction. And she didn’t want to be like them. “What if I want — more? A more complete victory? Not just over these Bostons, but — everything?”
Kali’kahlee’ua’ichi nudged her with her nose, considering. “Bigger than now?”
“That’s what I’m saying.” Ska’la’shee leaned forward, raised her hands to touch both sides of her water-sister’s wide face. “I want it all. I want it all set right.”
Sometimes, when the boy thinks of his father, the back corners of his mouth begin to tingle, and saliva fills the space around his tongue. It is a sensation unlike simple hunger and without the Pavlovian charm of say, a sudden craving for a sliver of Junior’s Famous Cheesecake. Instead, it is akin to the shiver that runs the length of the spine and reminds a person of their ultimate place in the grave. A feeling more of dark mystery than tangible satisfaction.
The timing and intensity of these episodes vary and predicting them is an imperfect science. For instance, the mere mention of his father’s name is not enough to trigger the flood of anticipatory salivation. Nor do the handful of photos he keeps framed under dusty glass set his mouth awash. But there are moments when the reaction is inevitable: the puff of starch-scented steam billowing from the roof of the dry cleaner’s on 8th; the slow drawl of John Wayne in one of a dozen syndicated westerns; the tight ball of pressure behind his eyes when he’d been staring at a computer screen for too long. It is in those small instants that the boy — now a man — quickly swallows his pooling spit and tries to imagine anything but chicken livers.
They had been purchased for the first time without comment. Twelve livers, breaded and deep fried, were scooped into a plastic container, weighed, tagged, and thrown into the cart wordlessly as the boy and his father shopped. This was in the days when he was given very little agency in the selection of foodstuff. Except for boxed cereal and soda, his opinions were not solicited or appreciated as the cart began to fill. If anything, he was an impediment to the process. Too young to be left at home on his own, his presence was an unavoidable complication. He reached for bright packaging incessantly, begging for each new and improved item with a certain ferocity and cunning. His appetite for fillers and high fructose corn syrup showed in both his endless enthusiasm and the swelling of his small chest and belly. Round after round they went each time, until his father’s patience strained, and he snapped the boy into a silence that would last until early evening.
He remembers the way the chicken livers fogged their container with steam, forming small drops of condensation that slid into one another and coalesced as the cart rumbled toward the checkout counter. A loose wheel dragged perpendicular to the rest until breaking free on its axis and jolting the cart every ten feet, shaking loose a small sodium rain over the chicken. When she ran it across the scanner, the cashier allowed a trail of juice to spill from the seam where lid met base and streak the illuminated glass. She snarled in disgust but said nothing, snapping her gum and stomaching a revulsion the boy shared.
It hid in butterfly wings
and the spinnerets of Black Widows,
in the preening feathers
of birds on screen savers,
in baby carriages with ribbons and bows,
in bridal gowns between the folds.
Shook the ragdoll, boney fingered.
Bewitched neighbors to strangers
and strangers to enmity.
Clung to dorms, doorman, dowagers unheard,
flew on shuttle cocks like showy singing birds,
on the edge of tear-ducts, home to harried eyes,
in the Black Forest and North Sea sunrise.