Poem I: We were here
We built castles out of rocks
And lived in those caves for what felt like years
Searched for flames with wandering eyes
And wondering ears
Carved our names by paths through woods
Monsters our only fear
We were here.
Poem II: Maid of Honor—for the Weddings We’ll Have After Quarantine
I lie next to you in bed, giggling like we had as girls
Holding our palms together, making their scars kiss
From the night we became blood sisters.
We’d chosen a full moon, full heat night
Not unlike this one.
We kick the covers down to only percale sheets, one leg each dangling
From the sides of the bed.
We laugh in muffled snorts about your grandmother
Making us all suffer in the heat upstairs
Claiming we’re freezing her out of the home in the late May swell
Reminding us that this season is closing.
You say the extra sweat tonight will make the dress fit better.
We reminisce about making perfumes and potions from
Red magnolia seeds and dripping honeysuckle stamens.
We would make ourselves sick from dripping the nectar onto our tongues
Long before making ourselves sick from the nectar of boys, then men and bourbon
That we drank to impress them.
We buried a bottle upside down last month
Back in the yard between the crepe myrtles that we used to swing from
Until we split the branch from the trunk and your father yelled.
We used a code when we couldn’t speak
In church or in elementary school desks, legs swinging.
We’d made up symbols that we’d circle into each others skin
And now, I draw I love you on the back of your hand
As we fall asleep in the room full of slumbering girls
No, slumbering women, sprawling on top of twin beds and air mattresses
Beauty resting before your big day.
Sarah has her shirt off, as Sarah would, pressing her back to the cool metal of the never-used radiator, her bra lazily unclasped.
You scribble I love you back, you scribble thank you,
I see our dresses swaying on the back of the door,
Blown by the drunken old fan swinging creakily over our beds.
I fall asleep afraid of losing you
And I dream of finding you hiding behind overgrown oaks, barefoot in summer, claiming “not it!” again
Short Story: If the World Ends, We’ll Go Back to the Autumn House
I grew up safe and loved in a house that looked like autumn. It was a warm white, almost yellow, like the glow of a light you’d want to read by, with deep reddish-brown shutters. The windows stacked like cookies on a sheet, one over the other, almost a dozen except the top middle windows were the eyes over the mouth of two french doors. The doors matched the shutters, and we swung them open in the summer, which always started early and ended late.
It sat on top of a hill, but it was surrounded by mountains on one side. On the other was the ocean, so abrupt it didn’t seem possible, geologically. We were closed and open, large and small all at once, high and hidden. Even once we grew up and moved away, my mother told us that if the world was ending, we’d come back to this house. It’d be a safe haven, and we’d burrow together in the basement like mice in the winter. We’d hide from the snakes and the hawks of the world, a family of meek, humble survivors, curled up under the earth. The world couldn’t harm us. We’d be a part of it like the roots of the trees, the bones of the dead.
When I was a child I had a dream that there was a little girl at the edge of the woods. She looked a lot like me, but if I’d been an inverted photograph. Her features were the same, an upturned nose too small for her face, cheeks a bit too round, forehead a bit too broad. But her coloring was my opposite, deep brown curls, dark eyes, pale opalescent skin. She whispered for me to follow her. She whispered for me to walk out past the creek where my mother told me the Harvey boy drowned.
She wanted me to walk with her, so I did. She took me to a clearing on the other side of the rocks that I always thought dropped off like a cliff, but they didn’t. Not in the dream. In the dream the ground was the same level on either side. There was nothing to be afraid of yet. There was nothing to be afraid of until I looked in the trees and saw the men all hanging, their bodies limp, eyes bulbous, jaws hanging open like empty bear traps. I told her she did well, then I woke up, sweating in my sleep, the sheets sticking to me like a spider’s web around her meal before she drains it. I never tried to walk out to the clearing after that night. I wasn’t sure it was a dream after all.
I think it’s the end of the world now. I was abandoned by the man I thought I’d marry during a time when you want someone close. My new, single apartment had flimsy locks, a steady, ruddy drip from the kitchen faucet, and a less than enthusiastic landlord. They’d been encouraging everyone to work from home, and I was deeply alone. When it’s the end of the world, some of us are just better equipped to deal with it than others.
I didn’t know how I was equipped, so I came here. It’s nowhere and everywhere at the same time, and it seemed like a good place to try. My mother was on the front porch, watering the plants that only we would see. She turned when she heard my car kicking up the gravel in the driveway, and she stood up beaming and waving. Her straw hat toppled from her head, catching on her back like a hood, held by the string around her neck that hit just above the red bandana tied in a very French way under her chin that she was insecure about. Maybe all women of a certain age are.
“My darling, darling girl,” she met me at the end of the sidewalk. “My Beth.” She wrapped her arms around me, and I released the breath I didn’t know I was holding. I closed my eyes. She swayed us back and forth, and she smelled like the ocean, and maybe for a moment that’s where I was, carried in a wave. I always envisioned the sea as a mother, a temptress and a calm, as mothers can be, and that’s how I envisioned my mother then. I let her clumsily carry me to the front porch, her hands tangling around me, trying to keep me close to her even as we walked. I even tasted salt as tears filled my eyes, though I couldn’t have been happier than I was at that moment.
“She’s home!” My father all but skipped to the door, and a twinge of leftover adolescent embarrassment flushed my cheeks. I didn’t know how to react to someone being so thrilled that I was anywhere, and my eyes rolled involuntarily. I asked him to settle down though I didn’t mean it. I wished I hadn’t, as I watched the excitement dull in his eyes.
I don’t know why I acted like I wanted him to be one of those stoic, distant fathers. I couldn’t have wanted anything less. I let myself think about the men I had chosen, the lovers in my life, and how my therapist in the city told me that I needed to find someone fascinated by me. You’d think I’d had daddy issues, an absent husband to my mother, but nothing could be further from the truth.
He took the excitement he had to temper with me and unleashed it on my mother, wrapping his arms around her shoulders, squeezing her just a bit too tight for her aging frame, and they both looked at me longingly, like I wasn’t really there, like I couldn’t be. My father’s pointy chin rested lightly on my mother’s head, and I could hear the straw of her hat crackling between his chest and her back. My mother never cared about things like that, and she let him love her.
“Well we’re clearly just so excited you’re back,” my mother said, and she gently patted my father’s arm to release her. “I’ve made coffee, do you still drink coffee?”
“I do, just black like before,” I said. I thought back to holidays, each one where I was off gluten, dairy, only drinking matcha tea. My mother eagerly bought supplies to nourish me, made me special gluten free stuffing or vegan casseroles. My father was proud of getting the right brand of snacks, the low carb crackers. The diet changed every year, but I never really felt better. I always carried that extra ten pounds. My mother always told me I looked beautiful. My father always said I looked like I’d lost weight. I never believed them. I wondered if it mattered now that my world had ended.
The kitchen was happy. The ivy wallpaper crawled up to the ceiling or down to the floor depending on how you looked at it. It smelled like detergent through the whole house, laundry day, and I could see the sheets laid out across the couches and chairs in the family room. My mother laid them out to keep the wrinkles from forming, to let them “cool off”, which I didn’t know to be a true technique or not.
My apartment was a studio, and I walked my single set of linens directly from the laundry to the bed, stretched the bottom sheet tightly across the mattress like fondant across a cake, added layers of fluffy comforters and scallop edged pillows to it, like the pretty abundance would make the bed feel less lonely. I only brought the one pillow here, the one with the tempurpedic design for my spinal alignment. My mother always told me to just take some time for yoga, for a massage. My father did tai chi in the yard before people were doing it and after they stopped. He could fall asleep anywhere. Even as my father poured coffee, my mother rubbed my forearms, saying that I always held tension there, like biscuits in a tube. Was I getting enough water? Dad asked my mother, like she knew my body as she had when I was a child. He handed me the coffee.
Their 1970s Fire King mugs always made drinks taste different. I never knew how much better they were until I had something else to compare it to, like the mugs at my piano teacher’s house, generic and angular, or the metal to-go cups Samantha would give us to sip on the car ride to school, to make the process of driving ourselves feel even more grown up. We copied how our parents gestured with the mugs in conversation after years of careful study from the backseat.
No, these mugs, the avocado green ones passed down from my grandparents with their D-shaped handles and thick lips, made hot cocoa better on snow days and tea better when you had a sore throat. They made the coffee better the mornings after the parties that Samantha and I snuck out to through the basement window, creeping too loudly back up the stairs. Now, they made the coffee better when the world was ending. The jade ceramic felt frosted against my tongue, and I ran my lips along the edge of the glass before I took a too-hot sip. I let the drink burn the roof of my mouth before I swallowed.
“So what’s on the agenda for today, Bethie?” my father asked. I thought for a moment he was joking, but when I looked up from the coffee I saw he was looking at me earnestly.
“Oh,” I said, determined not to break his spirit again. “Well, I have all my things in the car, if you wouldn’t mind helping me carry it in? And then I need to call my landlord, tell him I’m searching for someone to sublet, and that I’ve shut off everything in the apartment for now.”
“You didn’t tell him you were leaving?” my mother asked, but she wasn’t accusatory.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t. Well no one really is. It took hours to get out of the city. It seems like everyone is leaving this weekend.”
“Everyone who can at least,” I was startled by a deep voice behind me. My brother walked into the kitchen, wrapped me into a hug. He feigns his version of a fancy accent, some cross between British and old Hollywood. “If you’re privileged enough. Out to the Vineyard maybe. We’re lucky mom and dad still live out here.”
I didn’t even try to protest or debate. He was smiling through the controversy, so I hugged him back hard, and he smelled like dirt and fire and something cheap and familiar. His body was skinnier than the last time I saw him, back at Christmas, the muscles taught under his waffle henley shirt. It’s the same burnt orange we bought almost all his clothes in for high school. We’d told him that it looked good with his coloring. His skin was even more tan than usual and his hair was almost white it was so blonde. The orange still looked good.
“I didn’t know you would be here!” I said, my voice muffled against his chest.
“I didn’t either until they sent us all home,” he said, pulling me back from him but keeping his hands heavy on my shoulders. “I figured they’d have us on the ground helping, but the government is consistently inconsistent.”
It felt like a hand clutched my gut, but I tried to keep my expression calm. My brother had a tendency toward hyperbole. I was sure it couldn’t be that bad. I heard that they had a limited budget for equipment. That they were debating where to invest their funding. Before switching the radio to something lighter, I heard that they didn’t know if they should pull from other disaster coffers, which made me think that it couldn’t be that bad. I mean, if it were, would there even be a question? My brother seemed calm enough, and he reached into a jar of cookies.
“Now Mark, only one of those,” my mother said, though she didn’t really care. She said it out of habit, my brother and I in the kitchen, and suddenly we’re 7 and 11 years old again, spoiling our suppers. “Your dad has all kinds of stuff for dinner.”
My brother went to the refrigerator with the cookie hanging out of his mouth. He picked through the contents, inspected covered tupperwares, sniffed at cheeses. He settled on a handful of baby carrots, and he offered me one. I wrinkled my nose at his dirty fingers, but realized I was ravenous and took it anyway. I blew on it like a child picking up a snack off the floor and crunched it between my teeth. Mark had told me when we were kids that it would be easier to chew a finger than it is to chew a baby carrot, and I almost retched as I crushed what would have been tendon and bone against my molars. I tried to stop thinking about it. One knuckle, two knuckles, right down to the palm.
“So, you got dumped?” Mark said indelicately. He crunched on a carrot.
“Mark,” my mother turned from the sink where she was washing dishes. The sunlight from the window above the sink made her blue eyes almost translucent. The sill was cluttered with little figurines and handmade ceramic treasures made by our elementary school hands. A handprint, a tiny heart with scalloped edges, cut from a cookie cutter.
“It’s fine mom,” I said. “Yes. I got dumped. And now I’m here.”
“And we are so glad you are,” Dad said. He swung an arm around each of our shoulders, and I let him without squirming away.“The both of you. Both my kids are here.”
“Beth, will you go out and pick some more tomatoes for me?” Mother asks me. I nod, and duck out from under Dad’s arm. I stepped out on the front porch and stopped for a moment. I took in a deep breath, and the thick, hot air was humid, like after a storm. Everything was heightened in the summer, and I could smell the tomatoes from the porch. The dirt, the grass, the grapes swelling like tiny pregnant bellies on the vine. Even the ocean clung to the particles in the air, carrying its briny, sulfuric scent into the valley. Whenever I came home, I wondered why I left.
I stepped out to get the tomatoes, and as I stopped to snap one from the bottom of the vine, I saw a little rabbit quivering a few feet away. It looked scared and sweet, and I picked a piece of lettuce from behind a chicken wire enclosure. I gently tossed it to it, hoping it wouldn’t scare it off. To my delight, it waddled up to it and began sniffing it in the suspicious twitchy way that rabbits do. I heard a small ping, and the rabbit collapsed like a rag doll, its body slumped next to the lettuce. My own heart stopped a moment, shock rattled my nerves. No, my eyes filled with tears. No, no, no. I reached out to touch it, unaware of anything else until I felt a strong grip around my wrist.
“Bethie, don’t!” Mark yelled as he yanked me away from the little lifeless body. Its chestnut fur was matted around a bloody dimple in its skin. I pulled my wrist from his grasp and shoved him away.
“Why would you do that?” I yelled. I was appalled, and damaged, and I began to cry involuntarily.
“Beth, you don’t understand–”
“I thought you were a vegetarian,” I continued to yell. I could see my spit and tears fly through the tight space between us. I lurched for the rabbit again, and he grabbed my arm just above my elbow. He pulled me back. “I thought you thought killing animals for sport was inhumane. You work under the EPA for Christ’s sake.”
“I don’t–it’s more complicated than that, Beth,” he said, and the look on his face made me soften. His eyes were filling too, and his grip loosened. “It’s gotten more complicated.”
“I just came here for a little peace,” I said, and I lost track of where I was going with it. I was fully sobbing, and I crumpled to the ground. I sat in the dirt like a child, and my brother sat with me. We both played with the tiny pebbles in the mud. My brother pulled a worm from its hole, inspected it.
“Me too,” he said. He watched the worm wriggle in his palm. “They didn’t send me home.”
I looked up at him then, shocked. My brother loved his job. He loved it so much he ignored my mother’s worry and my father’s disapproval about leaving college early. He loved the adrenaline rush. He fought forest fires and raided drug farms. He built homes and fed children. And now he’s here, isolated with just us.
“I’m here to help you guys,” he said.
“We’re fine,” I said. “We would have been fine. I came here mostly because of John. I got tested after he left. I’m clear, but I would’ve helped him, you know? I wanted to help him.”
“Right,” he said. “And now I want to help you. I know with you being so busy in the city, and Mom and Dad being out here, well you don’t know everything.”
He always did this. He always was so dramatic, so sure we knew nothing about the world and that he saw behind the curtain.
“I never said I did–”
“Well that rabbit could have killed you,” he said. He was so ominous I laughed.
“What are you talking about?”
“The rabbits,” he said. “Any wild mammals actually could be carriers.”
“You’re serious,” I said.
“Serious enough to shoot something,” he said. We were quiet a long time. The wind rustled the trees so hard that the brushing leaves sounded like rain.
“He hasn’t called you know,” I said.
“He won’t,” he said. “It’s the end of the world, isn’t it?”
I saw another rabbit bounce through the too-tall grass. It spotted us and stopped short. I could see its body tremble as it tried to sink into its surroundings, like if it stayed still enough, we wouldn’t see it. If it didn’t cause any problems, we’d just pretend that it wasn’t one. We could live around each other, pretending nothing is wrong, pretending that we couldn’t be impacted by each other. I took the bb gun from my brother, and he didn’t stop me. He just watched, almost dreamlike, and I shot it just behind the right eye. It shrieked like a child, only for a moment, before falling like the last one.
“Or maybe just the beginning of one we never thought we’d be in,” I said. I gathered the tomatoes, handing a few to my brother to carry, and we walked into the future through the doors of our past.