My nephew was drowned as a Navy SEAL but now he’s beside me, face down in the water. I think he sees bottom. He flipped his hair like teenagers do: he stood, abrupt, and water shot from his head in an arc. He’ll die while in service. His brain becomes plankton and algal bloom. He wants to protect us. ‘The only protection is not to be born.’ That’s what you would’ve said; you would not get along. But that doesn’t matter anymore.
Snails have nestled in his hair.
In Kuwait, the oilfields were set on fire: a billion barrels up in flames. This war was the first. It’s a longer series—one step follows—‘Left-right-left!’ right into Iraq—until my nephew marched into place. He was only a boy when the wells were exploded. They burned for months, formed lakes of oil six feet deep. His skin was pale before the ash. The jaw of a soldier, but eyelashes like a luscious girl.
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We eat Doritos on the deck. My legs are dangling over the side. “It’s called ‘port,’” he says. He pulls on a line, adjusting the mainsail. The spray of saltwater contains a danger: I savour the fantasy. “We need to tack …” He tracks the movement of a tanker—tons of metal bearing down, a hull of crates all crammed with bananas.
They feed that mush to babies; it’s safer.
The shadow falls: the tanker’s crates have blocked the sun. Incredibly close, our boat starts bobbing in its wake. He pulls me back as I slide toward the edge. “Oh, Aunt Marianne …” He smiles gallantly, shaking his head. But facts are facts: it gets cold on the water when islands of dead fruit float past.
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The first time I sailed in San Diego you were nearby, but I didn’t know. It’s a desert with water: Fertility Clinic. Your wife didn’t cry when they told her the news.
She screamed; she couldn’t stop.
They could hear her in the waiting room—the milky hope, expectant couples—chilled by her sound. In time, the nurse will escort you (discreetly) out the back door.
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The pressure of water made jewels in his lungs. We could swim in his ribcage: a cavern of rubies. An avalanche, his mother’s grief. She’s stoic, a Spartan. She’ll walk behind the flag-draped casket. Uniformed men will fold that flag: a perfect bundle. They’ll place it, gently, in her arms. Then the guns go off.
“All hands on deck!”
The larger fish will eat the smaller: this is the way. The loss is ranked: a fetus aborted, a second trimester, a boy (who’s a man) who’s killed in war. The tankers are lurking—they’ll only give way to naval ships—but our boat is rented. I trip on the lines. I’m unsure what to grieve, what to fear. Dangle port.
Tectonic plates glide over skeletal remains. Our foundation of crust lies on pulverized bone. It’s white, like the talcum used for babies. Please don’t cry. There are trillions of dead; they’re microbial things. It’s scientific: I’ve got proof. But you’re the one with the PhD. I only write stories. They’d fit in the unhinged jaw of an eel.
We don’t discuss it. “There’s nothing to say!” I want to believe we can carry forward, as we’d been, but tectonic plates grind beneath our feet. Like the groan when Gaia gave birth to the skull. Then Pangaea was cleft; it ached like the bone of my calcium pelvis. Pry apart what once cohered. There was an ‘us’ which drifted.
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After the abortion, you suggest a submersible. Send probes down, wear protective gear. The therapist takes the cheque at the end. She tells us her couch is an ‘island of safety.’ I don’t like her metaphors, or her lipstick. Her couch is a rowboat that’s tossed in the ocean. The water heaves; I quell the squall. I focus on small: there are worms in the ocean. Identify, classify, thousands of species. They’re sleek or segmented, with frills near their mouths. They grow bulbous or smooth; they can stretch thirty metres. The therapist pinches. I answer succinctly, but it won’t stop. She pulls the worm and it keeps coming: body, throbbing, from my throat. She’s unperturbed. I wonder whether she knows what she’s doing. (She knows too well.) Proboscis extends. But after the second session, I quit.
“I can’t do it,” I say. “I don’t have the language …”
That’s bullshit, I realize: what I lacked was depth.
‘Language’ is easy. It’s human that’s hard.
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The ocean’s currents gyre and vortex around the globe. One current took us north, to Alaska, but then the ocean overturned: a vertical plunge as the dense water heavies. This happens when ice begins to form. We could’ve expected, but I wasn’t ready. We drifted on skeletons. Blue lips stiff and muscle bone. Why think of this? Why talk and tentacle? Words and ‘process’ can’t stop precipitous. I only wanted to fun and fuck: I was young and in love, but the shame is unspeakable. You only wanted to drive to Alaska: to use the oil, pump the fossil, buy electrical goods from abroad. I don’t want a ‘safe island’ for ‘processing feelings,’ not when the tankers lurk toward shore. Who am I to determine what lives in the ocean? Regardless of me, when this process ends—regardless of us—the fish will slipper through sapphire water … Leave them be.
“Please leave me alone!”
Please, give me time: I’ll find the depth.
I’ll sink to the place where language forms.
The glorious union of death and fuck was never so obvious as in a salmon. Freud’s cigar would be ashamed. It’s eros-pulse in silver scales. The meat is pink and tender.
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We went to see the salmon run. (The ‘he’ in ‘we’ refers to another: the man I’d marry. The man I’d spawn.) “You gotta see it.” Leap past rapids, sex and compulsion. I brought my journal. I wanted ‘experience.’ Reference my ‘I’: I would be a writer. It was exciting; he’d purchased a camera for making movies. His syntax was consciously avant-garde.
He swung the lens toward a teen in the water whose arms were plunged—his ass raised high—just like the Greek. I felt an uncomfortable rush of remembrance: the warmth before the rub and come. I wrote it down. The body thrashed, but this boy was harmless: swagger stance and pimples puss. “I got one!” he shouted. He lifted the salmon above his head. The camera zoomed. He held his trophy for our pleasure. “What’s your name?” asked my future ex-husband. The boy replied, with darting gaze and fast bravado. “How’d you learn to catch fish with your hands?”
My avant-garde lover kept asking questions; he needed material. Far too long, his questions spewed. His goateed mouth was near the mic: voice loud and guffaw as compared with the teen. The subject, the starfish, but he was prey: a teenaged boy, the camera trained. Perform for us. Perform for the eye.
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It was sudden, revolting. Cascading from her sacs were the eggs. They spattered the pant-legs of the boy. Blood drained from his cheeks with the speed of the torrent. He understood. He looked at me, ignoring the camera. He came of age at that instant, I saw it: the dead-mother-fish in his hands. “She’ll be fine,” he said. He panicked and turned. He held her under, slid her gently side-to-side. “She just needs oxygen.” Others muscled toward their end. She was dead already—though she was still breathing. She’d failed in her purpose: she’d spilled her eggs like vomit, orange, onto the dirt.
The lens switched off. I continued watching. “It’s getting dark …” He’d gotten bored. I stayed where I was; I was watching the boy. He was holding her, swaying her through the water. He spoke to her softly; I couldn’t hear, but saw his lips whisper. Then came the gaudy voice of the other: “You gotta see this!” He called me over. I had to see: a plastic doll in a garbage bin. Demented face, the clothes ripped off. One eye was closed; the other stared at the camera, unblinking. A smear of dirt was on her belly. “What a great shot! Look at this!”
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She died so close to her arrival. Miles, compulsion, she died out of water, surrounded by air she could not breathe. She must’ve sensed her nearness to home: to her birth and her bearing, total surrender. She must’ve smelled our acrid regret: the squirt of armpits, yellow awareness. I wanted to grace him, to hold him, maternal. Instead, the other called me over. Look! A dead baby in a bin! He was delighted. It was art.
The only evidence of their existence: a little volcano they leave as they dive. We’ve spent the day on detritus beach, just Blythe and I. She’s played in the ocean, built castles of sand; now we’re heading home—but Blythe stops short. She’s noticed some motion at her feet. A mound has formed! She steps: two more. She stops.
“Is it magic?”
We crouch together, an intimate breathing. Her hair is wet; the sand-grains stick along her legs. My sundress gently tickles my skin. A mound appears in solid ground. Intense concentration: our breath is swirling in currents between us. We form a conch, the sound of the sea. Put the image of us to your ear and listen:
Is this sound me, or her, or the ocean?
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Blythe stares intently at the sand; she attempts to make sense of—
I can feel her tension: quiver, happy, through her muscles.
“Mom! There’s another!”
“I see it,” I whisper. My words are amplified by our closeness.
“Where does it come from?”
“What do you think?”
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She’s trusting me. She doesn’t know. She couldn’t possibly: Blythe was only nine weeks fetal. She’s barely the size of the strange little creature that hops on the beach. She’s the size of a thumbnail. Her brain is a stem not a mind that can know either pain or betrayal.
Her dad: he’s the one who knew.
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We walk along the plastic beach. The sand is made from petroleum products: a speck of silver from bags of chips; the greenish zest from bottles of water. “It’s almost as nice as the old sand,” I say, “the sand that’s made from grains of quartz …” (It’s important, at this point, to lie to children.) Blythe is burbling. She wants to explain how the mounds are formed. She’s made a story: they’re ancient islands with fires for rituals; maidens are scared at the edge of volcanoes; eruptions of lava since gods are mad.
“Is that why they’re there? Is that it? Is it, mom?”
“It could be,” I say. I squeeze her hand.
“I knew it!” she says.
It’s a civilization inside her mind: a whole huge world with weirdness and order. She sees the fire. I see her eyes. They blaze with reflected light of lava. Blythe is the maiden: she’s very romantic, just like her mother. I recognize this lonely child … “We can’t see the lava ’cause it’s so hot!” She releases my hand to spread her fingers. Taut like lightning, sparks from the tips. She can’t contain it. I sense her excitement, her fingers alive as I pen the words. The little girl. The lovely child, never born.
“I’m gonna tell daddy about the volcanoes …”
She turns to me sternly: “Don’t tell him, okay?”
“I promise,” I answer.
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They’ll look at the evidence someday, perhaps. They’ll create a story from what remains—a narrative of what went wrong. That ‘story,’ say scientists, might be the methane: a greenhouse gas that poised to pulse. It’s locked in the ice—in the Arctic tundra—stable since the Permian Era. But that ice is melting.
‘Permafrost’ is no longer permanent.
Even our language can’t keep up.
I look at the mounds spread across the sand. I know the cause: a shrimp-like crustacean without a shell. It lives beneath the rotting kelp. These amphipods hop, and the methane will pulse, but the people on detritus beach don’t see it. They thought it was all a wonderful fiction.
Marianne Apostolides is the author of five books, three of which have been translated. Her forthcoming book, Deep Salt Water (BookThug, 2017), is being featured in a nine-month interdisciplinary project on Room Magazine’s website. Her previous non-fiction work, Voluptuous Pleasure, was listed among the Top 100 Books of 2012 by Toronto’s Globe and Mail. Apostolides is a recipient of the Chalmers Arts Fellowship.