As I work on a novel that is somewhat scary and also relentlessly realistic, I’ve also been wanting, for the first time since high school, to write short stories. I’ve never been much of a story writer, and rarely even a story reader; but I need to get better at writing fiction, and the idea of finishing something every once in a while is appealing, and also fun. So anyway, I’m going to start writing and posting stories on my blog occasionally, as a dual experiment in composition and courage. Here’s the first, written entirely in the spirit of fun. I hope you like it.
* * * * *
The lake was just the sort of lake things crawled out of while you were walking next to it, or slithered into while you were taking a dip. The cliff that towered over it was just the sort of cliff atop which a solitary figure could be expected to loom for a moment among the scrubby man-sized trees before disappearing into them so quickly that you could hardly be sure it was ever there in the first place. The cabin was positioned at just the right angle so that you would never see what came trooping out of the forest, unless you caught a glimpse of its reflection in the TV screen just before it shattered the window behind you. Across the clearing, a second, vacant cabin was situated at just the right distance away for a lamp to look, out of the corner of your eye, like a small, smudged face peering out the window of what must have once been the children’s room.
“We had one woman who had to come back before her residency was over,” the owner of the ranch had said, brows furrowing over a steaming cup of rooibos tea. “She didn’t do well with the isolation.”
“Perfect,” she had said.
And it was. She walked in and turned on the lights. As the ceiling fan began to turn, a dozen horseflies bestirred themselves from the window sills with barely audible moans. A breeze whistled around the kitchen corner. Aside from these noises and the unsettling hum of the refrigerator, the cabin was silent as the grave.
She was not, by any means, a nature girl, and had only pretended to like the outdoors in college to please her boyfriend. Even so, as soon as she shooed the flies out of the cabin, she was pleased at the thought of how alone she was. She was hardly roughing it: the cabin was equipped with an air conditioner and space heaters, a garbage disposal in the sink, a water filter on the kitchen faucet. In a month, she was going to be able to do a lot of writing out here.
Stepping back out to the car and looking around the canyon once more, she thought about zombies. She wrote about the surrealism of the everyday: coffee makers, unexplained coincidences. She wasn’t really a zombie person.
But there was something about this spot. She hauled the rest of her bags into the cabin and closed the sliding glass door behind her, drawing back the curtain to see the breathtaking sweep of the cliff, the stillness of the lake. No, not zombies. This had been Comanche territory at one point, but she shuddered away from the knot of racism that would have to be avoided in order to write that story.
Besides, it wasn’t Comanches either. It was Nature. Mother Nature. Monstrously, horrifyingly female—menstrual, maternal—creeping naked on the ground like a spider, red in tooth and claw. Just as Darwin had described her.
Or was it Tennyson? She made a mental note to Google it on her first trip into town.
As dusk settled in the cliff turned black, then the sky behind it. She pulled the curtains shut over the sliding glass doors. Out of habit, she reached for her phone to check email, then remembered that there was no signal in the canyon. Pulling a book out of her bag instead, she turned on a lamp and began to read in the armchair. (She never worked after dark, even on a residency.)
Hours later, her eyes jerked open. A strangled, high-pitched yelp was echoing through the canyon. She was still in the armchair, the book in her lap, and her phone said 10:06 pm. Except for the lamp by her side and the light in the bathroom, which she had left on, the cabin was dark. She got up, sore from the car ride, and went to the bathroom to brush her teeth.
When she pushed the bathroom door open something flew into her face with a dry flutter. She clamped her mouth shut around a scream and flapped a hand around her head. Having batted the moth out of the way, she opened her eyes and caught a second one in the face. A third climbed the wall. She looked at the light bulb and saw that it was orbited by dozens of them, and by throngs of smaller winged insects that bobbled wildly. The ceiling and the upper half of the walls were coated with tiny clinging gnats.
The culprit was a small open window over the toilet; the insects had streamed in toward the light as soon as night fell. She slammed the window shut, sending a cloud of gnats swarming up from the wall. Grabbing her toothbrush, she turned the light out and shut the bathroom door behind her. They would all be dead by morning. Moths had a 24-hour life span, she thought. Whereas she had been alive for thirty two years and counting. She laughed and shuddered theatrically for the benefit of no one and got into bed. Whatever it was out there howled or cackled her to sleep.
In the morning, she slept until the slivers of sunlight streaming through the curtains shortened into nubs. She slid the glass door open and walked out onto the concrete porch.
Outside, the cliff face was indecipherable. Hidden deep among its rocks and woody stems, she knew, lived hundreds of thousands of creatures, whole microcosms. If this were an Imax feature, she thought, this would be the moment where the camera would zoom in and in and in until it rested on some arthropod the size of a minivan twitching through blades of grass as tall as trees, scored by chirps and scratches in deafening surround sound and perhaps accompanied by a flute or Pan pipes as the narrator intoned, On the sheer cliff side, a secret world.
She stared and stared at the layer of thin, scrubby bushes that clung to the canyon wall, but could see no sign of movement. But then, she couldn’t see any on her skin either, and there were billions of tiny creatures moving there, too.
She went to the kitchen and got the coffee started, pleased to find a French press in the cupboard instead of a drip coffeemaker, and then went toward the bathroom. Halfway there she remembered the insect explosion of the night before and paused, then approached deliberately, pushing the door open.
The floor was covered with dead and almost-dead bugs, twitching out their last words in morse code. She fetched the broom and dustpan from the kitchen. Looking up, she saw that many of the gnats had died still clinging to the walls and ceiling, and she brushed them down with the broom, stepping back as they rained softly to the floor. Then she swept all the little bugs into a pile, transferred them to the dustpan, dumped the dustpan into the toilet, closed the lid quickly, and flushed it. The room was clean. She returned the broom and dustpan to the kitchen. Now to begin the day.
She lifted the toilet lid and immediately wrinkled her nose. A single moth floated in the water near the porcelain throat, flapping its wings in agitation, flipping itself over and over in the water like an amateur kayaker. She closed the lid and flushed again.
When she lifted the lid, the moth was still there.
“Gross,” she said out loud. It wasn’t just that the big, hairy, black-and-beige-striped moth was still in the toilet. It was that it was still alive, struggling to get out, splashing faintly in the water. Scrabbling wildly, it managed to pull itself slightly out of the water and began struggling up the side of the bowl. She dropped the lid with a bang and stood there for a moment, uncertain. It wasn’t as if she could pull the thing out and set it free, was it? She flushed again and walked away without lifting the lid.
* * * * *
Coffee on the porch relaxed her considerably. The sky was serenely blue, the sun almost directly overhead. It was just warm enough to wear her pajamas outside with thick socks—the kind she could never resist grabbing at the checkout line even though they were too thick and unwieldy to wear under shoes. A pair of large ravens raced one another up and down the cliff, their cries echoing through the canyon. She opened her notebook, excited by the idea of writing with a pen instead of typing, and began.
Elsie had thought the Honda Civic would never make the trip,
she wrote. Then, thinking, Let’s not make this too meta, she crossed out “Honda Civic” and wrote “Winnebago”:
but Mark had sworn it had ten thousand more miles in it, and Elsie knew better than to argue.
She didn’t know anything about RVs, so she put brackets around the word “Winnebago.” Then she thought a moment, put brackets around both sentences, and moved on.
Every vacation felt like it might be their last, now that they were ‘trying.’
Good, a theme.
The canyon was remote, more so than Elsie would have liked. She loved French press coffee and 800-thread-count sheets and Antonioni films on Blu-ray, and did not think it was a crime to check Facebook on your phone while cooking dinner. Whereas out here in the mountains, their phones were lifeless plastic rectangles, just alarm clocks with mediocre cameras attached.
Suddenly she remembered how long it had been since the rest stop on the road yesterday, and in a moment she realized she had to pee, desperately. She marched inside. This was absurd. She had to pee and she wasn’t going to let a bug stop her this time.
But it did stop her. It was still alive, and very hairy, and the fact that it had been flushed three times without either disappearing or dying made it strangely intimidating. If it would just stop flapping its stupid wings and trying to crawl up the bowl, she would gladly have peed on it. But this moth wasn’t going to die anytime soon, and it wasn’t going down the drain, and somehow the thought of removing it from the toilet bowl, either to kill it or set it free, was even worse than the thought of peeing on it. She closed the lid again, and didn’t bother flushing this time.
With a deep sigh, she resigned herself to doing something a little silly. She crossed the clearing to the other cabin, thinking, God bless America, even in the middle of the trackless wastes there are two flush toilets within walking distance.
The door was locked. She couldn’t believe it at first; her cabin hadn’t been locked; she hadn’t even known there was a lock on the door. Nevertheless, the sliding doors on the larger cabin wouldn’t give a quarter of an inch. She even tried a couple of the windows; they were either locked as well or painted shut.
The last time she had peed outside was on a family trip to the Grand Canyon when she was eleven. She had almost cried, she was so embarrassed. They were 75 miles from the nearest rest stop, and her parents saw her squirming and exchanged a look and said, Just go behind a bush. No way, she had said. I can make it, I swear. Her brothers were laughing hysterically as her dad pulled the car over. Squatting with her cold, rough tennis shoes brushing her buttocks, feeling chilled and ugly and disgusting, she had thought she could never do it. Then her mother’s voice called from the road, and, startled, she peed.
This was much easier, because she was all alone out here, with no brothers who might jump out from behind a bush and no parents who might honk or yell. This was just sweet relief. The moth could go fuck itself.
* * * * *
Now for a bath. She was filthy.
The lake was a turbid green with traces of chalky gold where it reflected the sheer rocky wall of the cliff. The wind at her back ruffled the surface, pushing soft little ripples against the current at an angle to the curved cliff face. Although the water was murky and algal, here and there she spotted silvery bubbles streaming up near the surface in cone shapes, miniature underwater geysers. She wondered what creatures were burrowing in the mud at the bottom of the lake—frogs, maybe, or salamanders.
The dam that formed the lake was a massive slab of irregularly formed concrete, wide and easily walkable on the top. You could see where a large hunk had broken off, split by tree roots and perhaps worn just enough by the weather so that one final flood had sent it crashing down into the creek bed below. Where it had been, rusted rebar jutted out like dark red teeth. She walked out on the dam but kept well away from several long cracks in the concrete that were already green with encroaching plants. Peering over the creek-side edge to the little fall, she saw an orange life jacket caught on a rock. Turning back toward the lake, she saw a yellow plastic canoe overturned on the shore. She pictured the owner’s children running around with bare feet and orange life jackets, yelling as they took running leaps into the water. Thinking about it made the valley feel less secluded than it had a moment before, so she stopped.
Just then, her eyes moving over the lake caught a faint line beneath the surface, almost exactly parallel to the dam’s edge. It distinguished itself immediately from the natural surroundings by being perfectly straight; upon further inspection, she could make out ninety-degree angles through the murk. She took a step forward and looked down into the lake water. The line turned into a large rectangle, and a moment later she saw another, skinnier rectangle, parallel to the first but deeper, fainter.
It was the most familiar shape in the world: a picnic table, just like the ones in the clearing near the cabin, but submerged under fifteen feet of water on the bottom of the lake, thirty feet or so from either shore, so that it was hard to imagine now it had gotten there. Moreover, there was something strange about how perfectly upright it was, just the same as it would look on land, but underwater.
She pictured the orange-life-jacketed kids, bored with jumping in the lake, dragging the table out onto the dam and throwing it in. Then she thought of the iron bars all covered with algae, and the kids sitting at the underwater table, not wearing life jackets anymore, eyes open, hair waving like long strands of underwater grass.
She walked quickly back to the cabin and pulled out her notebook.
As they made love that night, she could feel herself getting distracted by noises that were not cars and buses. In the daylight, these non-city noises had soothed her: the birds chirping, the wind rustling through treetops, the softly tumbling waterfall under the dam. But at night, the sounds hung apart from a silent background as if painted on a vast black canvas of silence, or floating in a silent sea. The howling of the wind around the kitchen corner was menacing at night, and the yelp she had earlier taken for some strange bird now seemed more likely to belong to a coyote. Even as she sighed and moaned under Mark’s intent, rhythmic pressure, she tried to capture the echoing call in her memory, so she could listen to it again in the morning.
She wrote all afternoon, trying to get to the monster part before dark—menstrual, maternal, red in tooth and claw—but she still wasn’t there by the time the sun slipped over the canyon rim, and now it was time to prepare dinner, because she never worked after dark.
After dinner she glanced toward the bathroom again, and then she brushed her teeth at the kitchen sink. She couldn’t call it a fear anymore—it was the ghost of an aversion, just something she didn’t want to have to think about, and so the door was closed, and things were working out just fine, and by morning she would have forgotten why she cared about the thing in the bathroom that she didn’t want to think about just now, in the dusk. She hurried outside to pee one more time while there were still shadows on the ground, and came back in and went to bed.
* * * * *
In her dream, she slipped, naked, into the lake. She wriggled her toes and launched herself away from the trailing grasses and muck near the shore, then bicycled lazily, moving her arms back and forth to stay afloat, and looked down.
It was there in the murky depths, beneath her, a little patch of refracted sunlight picking out one corner, the rest receding into the gloom. She closed her eyes, held her breath, raised her arms above her head, and dropped straight down, letting out a long trail of bubbles and pushing the weight of the water upward with her arms, until she felt her toe touch something smooth and slippery. She opened her eyes and found that the water here was dark, and full of shapes that were darker still. In the dream she didn’t need to breathe anymore, and with her hands she reached down and grabbed the table edge and pulled and swung her legs forward underneath it, and then she was sitting on the soft, slimy fur of the wooden bench.
She tilted her head back and saw a vast circle with wavering edges, bisected down the middle. One half was the chalky, rugged gold of the cliff, the other half blue, shimmering with rainbows of refracted glare thrown off by the whitish disc of the sun. Exactly between the two halves of the sky, standing on the edge of its golden lid, she saw the silhouette of a figure, tree-sized, standing apart from the silhouettes of the trees, which were man-sized.
* * * * *
When she woke up early the next morning, the sound was all around her. It was echoing off the cliff’s edge, rolling across the bowl of the valley. She sat straight up in bed. The light was a diffuse, throbbing grey at her windows, and a damp chill sharpened the edges of every surface, grabbing at her skin. The sheets tugging at her as she sat up, the parquet floor slowing her bare feet on the way to the glass door.
Pulling the curtain aside, she stared into mist, dense and pale in the center, fading into green grass and slender black tree trunks toward the ground. The garbled, unearthly shriek echoed again through the valley. It was so close she could almost feel the walls quiver with the sound, see the mist shiver around it. She squinted into the clearing, but the fog was impenetrable there; the cabin across the way might have vanished, or never existed at all. The sound came from everywhere and nowhere. She hurried to the south-facing kitchen window and looked out—nothing. In the east-facing windows, the forest wasn’t even a dark smudge.
There was only one window that faced west, toward the cliff. Without a moment of hesitation, she pushed open the bathroom door which had not been opened in three days and looked out the window.
They floated rhythmically down the lawn like giant, lumpy balloons bobbing after invisible children, striped fans spread stiffly behind their dark, iridescent bodies, trailing wings like long, heavy sleeves through the wet grass, red combs and wattles dripping wax-like from their dead-white faces. The three massive turkeys moved together as if choreographed, gliding toward the cabin in slow, rhythmic formation, long chest feathers swinging in tandem. After four or five steps, as if by silent agreement, they paused and simultaneously straightened their necks in front of their bodies, releasing in one voice three tormented, high-pitched gobbles. Then, while the strangled cries still hung in the air, their white necks retracted again, and they rotated slowly in place, fans perfectly parallel, like kabuki dancers. When they had executed a 270-degree turn, the turkeys took up the careful stride once more.
She watched until the whole slow-moving flock drifted into and then out of her field of vision, the slender, crook-necked hens looking puny next to their screaming mates, a solemn procession of state moving past her bathroom window.
The lake was just the sort of lake you could imagine jumping into with an orange life jacket on. The cliff was just the sort of cliff you saw in movies about the wonder of Mother Nature. And that is why she didn’t see it when it came for her—menstrual, maternal, red in tooth and claw—as far from the quiet surrealism of the everyday as a Comanche is from a coffeemaker, or a woman from a Winnebago.