by Traci Skuce
For the past hour, Alli had been sitting against the small oak, her eighteen-month-old son latched to her breast. His molars had finally—thank God—broken through, and now he suckled, cheeks sticky and eyes lolling with pleasure. Alli had hoped another mom would show up. Jeannie was off visiting her parents in Vancouver and Clay, well he was just plain off, so she hadn’t had an adult conversation in days. She wanted someone, anyone, to gab with about the impossibility of lost sleep, errant husbands, and teething. But there were only the crows, waddling around the rim of a garbage can, diving in for pizza crusts then flying off across the playground to the giant cedar.
Alli’s daughter, Tavia, looked at the birds from under her floppy sunhat, and then dumped a handful of sand onto an accumulating pile, patted it down. Alli mimed eating, mumbled yum-yum as she had been since they’d arrived. “Do you like it Mommy?” Without waiting for an answer, Tavia ran back to the production center beneath the slide.
Jack continued suckling. Both breasts were drained and she’d become a giant pacifier. His eyelids fluttered and his blond feathery hair stuck to his forehead, ear crusted with milk and peanut butter. She picked at it, and he swatted her, still sucking hard. Enjoy them while they’re young, people said, but she couldn’t wait to toss these days onto the slag heap of motherhood.
A forty-something woman walked past, leading a sturdy four-year-old boy by the hand. She released him at the edge of the playground then sat on a bench. She wore a creamy blouse, puffs at each shoulder, and a beige skirt exposing powdery legs. She turned toward Alli, zinc-white streaks across her bony face, and Alli smiled in a thin-lipped but friendly way. The woman averted her eyes, dug around her purse, covered up with dark, owl-like sunglasses.
People circulated through this small town like so many white-blood cells—from the busking tuba girl, to the old timers on coal-cart benches—but Alli had never seen this woman before.
If Jeannie were here they’d speculate: staunchly married, conservative investment portfolio, subscription to Canadian Living, Martha Stewart, and O. Penchant for butterscotch candies, sweet liqueurs, and casseroles topped with crushed-up Carr’s Water Biscuits. They’d name her too, the way they’d christened the buff mom Chin Up, because that’s what she did on the monkey bars while her kids ran amok. Or that blonde grandma—The Fuming Miss Clairol, for her consolidation of bottled platinum and mentholated cigarettes.
This woman was obscenely beige. Like rice cakes. Or pablum. Cream of wheat.
Just then Wheatie’s son stomped up the tube slide, all force and yell, probably a sugar tantrum. Tavia winced below, scrawny shoulders lifting against the noise. The boy shot down backwards then charged his mother, who wiped his face and hands with a readied Wet One. He growled, turned around, and launched belly-first onto the swings, dragging sand with his feet. Wheatie folded the soiled wipe in quarters, brushed her son’s residue off her skirt, adjusted her sunglasses, and resumed her scrutiny.
Alli imagined what Wheatie might nickname her: Mother Without A Cause or The Stench Wench. After all, Alli hadn’t showered in days; her hair fell in disobedient strands, which she tucked behind her ears, gritty and sticky like everything else. She was sure, too, she gave off an offensive odor she could no longer smell. Soured milk, diapers, and ripened arm pits. Wheatie had probably caught a whiff. Or was marveling at Alli’s stained and too-small Righteous Babe T-shirt. Not that Alli was actually wearing it—Jack had yanked the collar around her right breast, lifted the shirt to fondle the left.
Alli tugged the nipple from Jack’s mouth and his eyes sprang open. “All done,” she said. He squirmed and headbutted her breastbone. She plopped him on the grass, rummaging through the diaper bag for Cheerios. He screamed until Tavia returned with raspberry sand and said, “You can have this one, Jack.” He extended a hand and she filled it before running blissfully away. Jack showed it to Alli as she repositioned her bra and adjusted her shirt. Then he threw it in her face.
She fell onto her hip, tightened her eyes. Opened them a slit, felt the sting, the burn, and closed them tight again. Jack climbed onto her thigh, forced her shirt collar wide. “Damn it, Jack.” She clamped his wrist, blinked the playground into a staccato smear.
When he screamed and hit her chest, she clasped that arm too, squeezing it harder than she should. And she wanted to shake him, abandon every parenting book she’d ever read. Give them words for their feelings! Give them gentle redirection! A not-so-gentle scream built in her throat and she almost, almost released it. Then she became hyper-aware of Wheatie’s steel-wool gaze, so she lightened the pressure, spat sand off her lips, converted her voice into sugar, anger turning, as it often did, to a deep and shameful heat.
“Don’t throw sand,” she said, trying to think of the positive phrasing—not don’t, but what?
Her vision returned, briny and blurred, though sand still scraped her cornea. She drained Tavia’s sippy cup into her eyes, blinked them clear, then shook a few remaining drops over Jack’s head. “Nonononono . . . ” The only thing he ever said.
“Let’s try the swings,” she said, clutched his overall straps like a suitcase handle, and carried him past the monkey bars, past Wheatie’s bench. Wheatie smiled and Alli heard her titter.
She stuffed Jack into the toddler swing and stepped back. Even without him in her arms, her body felt like a thing she hefted around. Baby-weight massed around her arms, and her thighs chafed. Her thighs had never chafed.
“Richard!” Wheatie said, calling her son. “We need to go. Now!” He whined and scampered onto the climbing-gym suspension bridge. “One!” she yelled. He grinned, bounded on the bridge, producing waves. “Two!” Alli wanted Wheatie to climb, cinch the boy around the waist, and sail down the slide in her beige skirt, but she just kept counting.
Alli pushed against Jack’s back. The metal chains creaked as the swing went forward, as it returned. Two and a half hours until dinner. Since Clay had left all they’d dined on were marbled cheese cubes and cucumbers, noodles and butter, cereal (sans milk) and fish sticks.
God. She was a fish stick mother now.
Jack held the chains, bucked his head forward and back, a complaint that Alli hadn’t sent him into orbit the way his dad always had. Swings made her motion-sick, so she kept it at lullaby speed.
Dr. X. There, mounting the slope beyond the soccer pitch, holding two ice-cream cones, smiling as though he’d been Photoshopped. A little girl, who might be mistaken for his daughter, trailed behind. People admired him, called him by his real name, but Dr. X suited him since he’d walked out on Jeannie for an O.R. nurse. He was a specialist. Ears, nose and throat. His face polished bronze; his teeth sending off sparks. Alli hadn’t seen him for months.
Now he leaned against the swingset, tongue working the melting vanilla. He’d just come back from five days paddling Desolation Sound, had she ever been?
Beyond him Wheatie was threading her arms through the bridge ropes, shackling her son’s ankles and pressing down with all her beige might. “Stop!” the woman said. “I will leave you.”
Alli pushed Jack again, and Dr. X went on. Something about a mountain just south. A doable hike with kids. What a view! Gulf Islands sparkling in the Salish Sea. The Coastals. She really ought to check it out. Clay too. He lowered his eyebrows, cocked his head and pointed with the cone. “Where’s he at these days anyways?” he said.
Did he really not know? Dr. X had started this damn contagion with his nurse, and now Clay was off with his skinny girl, making money, taking little excursions.
She was about to say all that when Wheatie started yelling. “Excuse me! Excuse me!” She was pulling her son, pointing toward the oak. Then Alli saw it: a crow having a heyday with Jack’s Cheerios. It hopped on and off the stroller seat, pecking away. Another dropped from the tree, clamped its beak onto the diaper bag, opened it. Yet another swooped from the garbage can and sauntered right into the bag, snatched a dirty diaper. “Fuck!” Alli shouted. And Dr. X laughed.
The next day was Friday. Jeannie was back and Alli hung out on her back porch while the kids played inside. Jeannie was watering bean sprouts in Styrofoam cups and four tomato starts in terracotta pots. Alli eased into one of the rockers Jeannie had refinished last summer, post-divorce, every night after she’d tucked in her girls. Small bugs were entombed in the shellac, and Alli picked at a gnat and told Jeannie about the crows, how they’d prized open the Cheerios, pecked the dirty diaper, and taken off with the last of her Medjool dates.
Jeannie stood, lithe and muscled, smiling with vitamin radiance. Even her laugh was rich in carotene and omegas.
“Dr. X was there,” Alli said, knowing his name would momentarily eclipse Jeannie’s glow.
Sure enough, Jeannie’s mouth flat-lined. She snapped two pairs of chopsticks apart, stabbed one into each bean sprout cup, spilling dirt onto the porch.
“The nurse? And the girl?”
“Just the girl.”
Jeannie tied the stalks to steady them, then wrapped her hair around the extra stick, swirled it into a French twist.
“Do you know how many crows make a murder?” Jeannie said. She set two mason jars onto an old TV tray beside an oversized pickle jar filled with amber liquid and shredded herbs.
“No,” Alli said.
She couldn’t tell if Jeannie’s hands were shaking as she nestled strainers into the small jars, but she was muttering, the way Alli did sometimes, casting vitriolic spells. When Jeannie turned, her face settled as if she’d remembered she were past it all. Alli wished she weren’t. She handed Alli a glass and clinked it. “Sun-steeped tea. Mint, chamomile, and clover. For nerves.”
Jeannie had tonics for everything. Tinctures of skullcap, reishi mushroom, valerian, nettles, and God-knows-what-all. She pushed them on Alli: one for low energy, another for headaches, this one great for digestion, that for lactation. Alli liked the idea of it. Dandelion to cleanse the liver. Nettles to rebuild her blood. Though when she hit the afternoon slump, these days moving closer and closer to morning, she didn’t reach for nettles but coffee.
Inside, Tavia’s voice rose: “I’m the princess!” Alli leaned forward, awaited dissent from the minions, but none followed. She hoped for another hour, the closest thing she’d had to a break since the night she’d watched an uninterrupted episode of Six Feet Under.
She rocked back too hard and sloshed tea down her shirt.
Jeannie snatched a dishcloth off the rail and tossed it. Alli stilled the chair, wiped the spill, said, “I don’t think I have one fucking shirt without a stain.”
“You’re still wearing your ring.” Jeannie motioned toward Alli’s left hand, sunlight streaking over it, catching the thin band.
Releasing the cloth, Alli twisted the ring to show Jeannie it wouldn’t budge. Heat had swollen her fingers, not to mention the twenty pounds.
“You try soaping it?”
Alli nodded, though it wasn’t true.
Last winter, after Dr. X left, Jeannie turned his departure into ceremony. For closure, she’d said, sounding like foreclosure, which, in a way, it was. Alli had hiked with Jeannie through a cold drizzle to the gushing forest spring. The kids were home with Clay. And there she was as Jeannie wrapped prayer flags around a cedar, lit candles that hissed in the rain, read poetry. Alli had tried to feel something, reverence or compassion, but all she felt was the anemic grit behind her eyes, the overwhelming desire for a nap. Besides, ceremony always felt like contrived pomp, the Till death do `you part pronouncement while mothers and aunties wept in the crowd. Still, Jeannie cried and laughed and sacrificed a wedding photo to the sputtering flames. She’d recited an incantation too, downloaded from the internet, and vowed never to marry again. Then she laid her three-karat to rest, carved RIP in the dirt. Alli saw the appeal, the stamp and seal allowing Jeannie to move on. But it lacked a heavier truth: that bouncing back required more than a candle and buried ring.
“I did stuff my wedding dress into a garbage bag,” Alli said. “Ready for the Sally Ann.”
“Not the same,” said Jeannie.
Alli sipped the remaining tea, looked over the yard. An empty bird feeder sat on a fence post, its roof streaked with sun-faded purples and oranges. Below, garden beds had been turned and worked, soil dark as chocolate cake; popsicle sticks and seed packets marked rows where baby lettuce and beets sprouted. There was the consolation-prize trampoline Dr. X had bought after he’d left, now overturned. Dandelions growing between springs, small serving plates and tea cups arranged in its center.
Jeannie called Clay Mr. Y. “If you can’t call him ex,” she said, “then consider why.” Why did she still love him? Why didn’t she deserve better? Why did she think he might come back?
Before he left, he’d said, “You used to be more fun.” Admittedly, Alli’s entertainment value had gone down, all those interrupted hours of REM sleep. Things could really do nothing but get better, she’d said, but he wasn’t sure he could wait around. So he took a job up in Haida Gwaii, two twelve-hour ferry rides up the coast, to the edge of everything, where you only got cell service on some guy’s front steps and internet was dial-up at the library. “Just for a few months,” he’d said, packing his planting bags, his best rain gear. “Clear my head. See if I’ve made the best decision.” That was six weeks ago and he’d still failed to mention the pierced tree-planter girl, eyebrow, navel, and nose.
A wren pecked around the feeder, then disappeared behind the fence. Alli twisted her ring to the knuckle, where it pinched, then pushed it down. “Sometimes,” she said, “I want to stab the crap out of him. Actually plunge the knife in. Her too. That skinny skank.”
“I used to dream of fires,” Jeannie said. “The whole new family up in flames. Even the kid.” She stretched a fist forward and traced a zigzag scar through the knuckles. Alli remembered when it’d been bandaged. “That’s from punching a mirror,” Jeannie had said. “If he hadn’t ducked, it would have been the good doctor’s face.”
The next morning came too early. Jack’s feet jabbed Alli’s hip. He’d awakened twice in the night, the second time pattering across the house and into her bed. Tavia had weaned herself—why not Jack? Jeannie once mentioned a woman who’d nursed four kids, five years each. A career. Anyway, Jack showed no signs of slowing. Alli had wanted to cut him off but feared he wasn’t ready, that he’d always seek ways to fill the void she’d created—sugar first, then street drugs and porn.
Without opening her eyes, Alli lifted her shirt, stalling morning as long as she could. Jack latched on and suckled, and Alli drifted off.
She imagined Clay returning, surprising her at the front door with flowers and a plane ticket to anywhere, or maybe with a stunned look, as if he’d just come out of a coma or long hibernation.
The truth was he’d gone back to the same wilderness they’d visited after their first season tree-planting together. A freak winter-type storm hit the Hecate Strait late that summer and it took Alli two days to recover from seasickness. Then they wandered wide-empty beaches with windy silences and nothing on the horizon. And those forests: crazy-big trees shag-carpeted with moss, russet rivers winding through them. Clay talked about someday building a log cabin there, living off the grid. And now he’d probably done it, taken up a whole new identity. She bet he’d grown a bushy beard, was catching salmon with his bare hands, designing driftwood shelters on the beach. Pretty soon he’d be ready to father a fresh batch of skinny kids, all with someone new and improved.
Jack pulled away and rolled around the mattress, singing in gibberish. Then Tavia flung open the door and bounded onto the bed. Her book nicked Alli’s elbow and Alli groaned, stuffing her head under a pillow. “Ten more minutes. Please.”
Tavia flipped through the pages, exclaiming over every “T” in her book. “Another one there!” Then, “Don’t touch it!” and the slap of skin on skin. “Mommy!” Jack mounted Alli’s ribs as though she were a rocking horse, and bounced.
By eleven, they’d exhausted four episodes of Bob the Builder, two rounds of breakfast, buy-something-at-the-store, Bulldozer-Boy, and glitter glue.
“Out,” Alli finally cried. “All of you!”
They both stared, mouths open. Tavia reached for Jack’s hand, pulled him close, and Jack dropped to the floor and whimpered. Why did they always need her? At least with Clay around there existed the promise of a break. Hadn’t her own mother shoved her out the door? Left her to play in the yard. In the street. Only allowed back in at dinner.
And look how that turned out.
“Fine,” Alli said. “Fine.” She scooped Jack up, told Tavia to put on her shoes. They were going to the farmers’ market. Somehow they’d find redemption in cookies and fiddle players. She fastened them into their car seats and drove the fifteen minutes out of town in her old Subaru, down the highway connector, across the bridge and the estuary and around the corn field, to the mall with the drive-thru ATM.
Despite the Idle Free Zone sign, a pickup idled in front of them. Exhaust seeped through the vents and Alli shut her engine.
“It stinks,” said Tavia.
Alli dumped the contents of her wallet onto the passenger seat to fish out the bank card. Clay had promised he’d deposit money once he got paid. Surely he’d been paid. He hadn’t called for three weeks now, never said anything about a remote banking site. Yesterday the mortgage payment had gone through their shared account, but she’d stopped checking the balance, not wanting to see how they hovered, always, around the maximum of overdraft. Things would change soon, she’d find work. That was fine, people worked. She used to work. Only as a tree-planter, true. And that one holiday season ringing up booze at the liquor store. Then all those years playing housewife. That would really dress up a résumé: Makes dinner and breastfeeds on demand. Can sing “Wheels on the Bus” inexhaustibly and rise hourly for new teeth, fevers, and vomit.
Tavia kicked the back of the seat. “Mommy? Can we get mermaid cookies? I want a mermaid cookie.”
The diesel pulled away. Alli’s car clunked when the engine turned over, then lurched forward. She slid the card into the machine, punched the P.I.N. and requested an even one hundred bucks. The machine gurgled.
“With green Smarties and pink icing!”
The ATM beeped, flashed Insufficient Funds. The card slid forward and she pushed it back. She punched in sixty. Forty. Twenty. Then the machine threatened to eat her card.
Alli balled the receipts and tossed them. No money. Nothing. Maybe no money from Clay ever again. What if he was really gone? Totally disappeared. Okay. Okay. She could do this. People did this. There was equity. The house, a little two-bedroom bungalow with dings in the walls. Hardly any kitchen counters. Well, she could paint, put in a new bathroom floor. Make it worth something. Then what? Some moldy one-bedroom basement with two tiny closets and a stand-up shower? Maybe Jeannie would take them in. Share that big house.
“I’m hot!” Tavia kicked again. Alli cranked the fan. It whirred and blew dust.
Two short bleats from the car behind, and Alli crept into the parking lot. An elderly man, hunched over a cane, hobbled by. Did she know anyone that close to dying? Her mother lived in extreme good health. And even though her father’s heart was iffy, he kept up his joie de vivre lifestyle on credit. Why did she have no long-lost uncles?
She thought of things she could do immediately. Phone sex. Not clear where she’d sign up for that. Yard sale. Sell Clay’s CD collection, his tools, his bike, his vintage hockey cards.
She gripped the steering wheel.
“I’ll always take care of you guys,” he’d said. “You’re still my family.” She hated that she’d believed him, and hated, even more, that she still wanted to believe.
She headed back onto the connector toward home.
“Where are we going?” Tavia’s voice keened. “What about cookies?”
“No money, sweetheart,” Alli said. “No cookies today.”
Tavia screamed. Mean! Unfair! Hatehatehate. Then her words dissolved into beastly sobs.
Alli picked up speed. Something clunked, or rattled, hard to tell with Jack joining in on the wailing. Alli glanced in the rearview, Jack’s teeth clamped on his stuffed tiger, Tavia yanking it away. Let them kill each other. Maybe then they’d fall into serious naps and she could drink black coffee, take inventory for the yard sale.
A light blinked on the dash, needle hanging over the E on the gas gauge. Usually that gave her forty kilometers. Or was it twenty? Enough to get home in any case. The kids grew louder. Please get home.
Years ago, when she and Jeannie were tree-planters, they’d waited five hours on a muddy logging road in a truck with a busted starter. Ravenous and cold, they’d played Worst Thing. Dexterous bear opens door and mauls. Axe-murderer smashes windshield. Moose charges truck into swamp. But they’d never imagined this: two children melting down, no gas, midday sun.
The accelerator didn’t respond. Cars honked and she swerved to the shoulder, leaning forward as if to help the propulsion. Tavia got quiet; Jack muted. Outside the scenery slowed until trees stood still. Something clicked under the hood.
“Mommy?” Tavia said.
Her cell had one bar. She tried Jeannie, leaving a message on the home phone, a text on her cell, before the battery died. In the distance, she could make out the overpass. About a kilometer away. The gas station, another three.
She rotated the key, hoping to squeeze the remaining distance from the tank.
It clacked, followed by a grinding sputter. A second time and the same result.Tavia asked what was wrong and Alli told her to please, please just shut up.
Everything was hot and gasping under the hood. She studied grease-spattered tubes, tarnished coils, and radiator cap. Like visiting a back alley in a foreign country where they used another alphabet and all Alli could say was excuse me, hello, and dipstick. So she pulled it from its place, wiped it with the scrap of paper towel she’d found in the car. Nothing. Not a drop or evidence of a drop. A fissure on the engine blocks, a thin crack with fresh metal gleam. It could have been there before, right? Like nicks on the windshield and rust on the wheel wells. She shoved the stick in again, pushed and twisted. But no. When had she last put oil in?
It came to her that the engine had seized. One of those vague automobile diagnoses she’d heard about. Maybe she’d asked Clay what would happen if. More likely, it came from one of Clay’s condescending lectures, his wide-eyed, arms-crossed, slowed-speech instructions on caring for things. The way he’d been about the cast-iron pan, insisting she never, as she’d done for years, leave it to soak.
She dropped the hood, let it slam, wiped her hands on her shorts.
Cars passed by in batches of twos and threes, then long stretches of nothing. A turkey vulture perched on a road sign, feathers cloaked around its neck, sinister and expectant. A turkey vulture? Seriously.
By the time they reached their street corner, Jack’s arms and neck were bright pink. Tavia had performed the limp rag over and over so that Alli had to carry a kid on each hip. Her right shoulder blade ached, sending pain up her neck, to her skull, where it gnawed her brain like dull incisors. By the time they reached the front door, she discovered she’d left her I.D. and bank cards spread over the passenger seat along with her keys. She force-fed herself through the bathroom window, popped two expired Ibuprofen, and fetched her overheated children from beneath the apple tree. By the time late afternoon arrived, Jack was catatonic, drool spindled off his lip, and he refused the breast even when Alli shoved it to his mouth. Something irreversible must have happened. She shook him lightly, tickled his chin, his cheeks, but he pulled away, preferring the sippy cup and television. Tavia ate dry cereal and ice cubes, asked where was Daddy anyway and when was he coming home?
Alli felt her own forehead. Kids are resilient, Jeannie might say. But were they? Kids never remembered the thousands of mundane hours you invested in their lives. Only the irascible few. She thought of her own mother, swatting her away from a pregnant belly. Did it matter she hadn’t paid attention to Alli’s shock of rejection? And why didn’t Alli remember the hours before?
What Alli knew was that no amount of positive wording could undo certain damages. Her kids would never forget a day like this. Never forget their father’s leaving. Her misery. At least Tavia wouldn’t. As for Jack, it was all there in his tissues, absorbed by his small, impressionable body.
No one would tow the car without a credit card. And a new engine? The quotes she scribbled in the Yellow Pages were all two thousand, minimum. That with a used engine. Pretty soon, she’d have to start pimping herself out.
The voicemail kicked in immediately on Jeannie’s home phone. Her cell too. Alli had forgotten about me-time. When Dr. X had the girls, Jeannie unplugged for twenty-four hours. A thing advised by mothering gurus. Jeannie was committed to it: uninterrupted baths with lavender salts, a little knitting, a little yoga, some brewing of tinctures. “So restorative,” she’d said. “So necessary.” And Alli envied the relief Dr. X gave Jeannie. Wishing, someday, someone would take her kids.
So she texted Clay, even though he wouldn’t get it until August. She gave him news of her brain aneurysm, Jack’s retardation, Tavia’s fresh abandonment issues, and the stranded Subaru.
By evening the sky had mellowed, the light mealy and saturated with a boozy, nostalgic scent of barbecue grills and briquettes. Shouts and splashes broke over backyard fences, a couple of boys slapped barefoot on the sidewalk. Alli biked by, pedaling at a steady cruise pace. She meant to turn left, zip over to the connector, collect her keys, her I.D. off the front seat as she’d told Kate, the twelve-year-old babysitter she’d convinced to work on credit. Instead she veered right, avoiding the gravel shoulder where she sometimes skidded.
It calmed her, mountains solid and dark against the sky, that geological genius of time housed there, packing away the ruckus of another day. This day. She took the hill up the hypotenuse side of the Peace Park meridian, feeling lighter as she went, her skin like a ship’s hull scraped free of barnacles.
The old rail bed edged along the swamp, where—back in the day—they’d shunted coal. Now dust kicked up beneath her wheels and cottonwoods released their last perfume. She walked the bike across a gap-toothed footbridge. Water trickled in spidery threads down the culvert, and Alli noticed a plastic fire truck half-submerged where the swamp pooled deep. Kids from the public housing no doubt. She’d seen them throw whole tricycles in.
She hid her bike in the brush and entered the trail they called Mama Bear’s. The light dropped an octave, giving a bluish tinge to lichen-splotched trees. The trail was lined with wide-girth cedars and firs. Hemlocks stood on higher ground, amidst sword ferns and salal. These were only ribbons of forest. Ecosystems shredded and divided, aswirl in industrial cuts. But in here, Alli felt the air sweeten; she felt the world still intact.
The path branched and she followed it, creaky-kneed, down through straight-postured firs. The ground was loose from dry weather, but she glanced at the spot where chanterelles grew. She’d missed them last year, caps beheaded by some other treasure seeker, but now she’d have to be on it, make extra efforts to forage food: huckleberries, blackberries, mushrooms. Maybe she’d even take up bow hunting.
The swamp released a damp taste into the air. Microbes going berserk in a rotting stump, breaking everything down, and the boggy spores of skunk cabbage. The trail leveled, then climbed. Here, the spring choked and drooled a wet lacquer over the chunky black rock. Soon it would dry completely. Alli found footing on the rock face, climbed to the cedar where Jeannie’s prayer flags hung limp and battered down the trunk.
Then she stood, twisting her ring to the knuckle. Slicked it with spit and slid it off. She held it skyward, squinted through its center. A chaste blue light hung above the tree crowns. Perhaps this was all she needed, like unhitching a belt after overeating. She tucked the ring into her back pocket, scraping it over her cell, then crouched low.
Dark collected at the forest floor, shattered needles and bits of leaf. Roots and the pair of rocks where Jeannie had burned two candles that day, calling it an altar; where she’d placed a small Buddha. Wax drippings scabbed the carapace, but the statue was gone. Where exactly had the hole been? She felt the ground, hoping to read its braille RIP. Nothing. At the altar base, she peeled back a mat of needles, wishing she’d paid more attention.
She chipped at the ground with a firm stick.
She’d read once of a place, some high mountain village in Tibet or India, where the ground was too hard or frozen to dig, where the dead were left unburied, exposed to the elements, left for scavengers to feast. Maybe it was all like that. Maybe in the end we were just picked clean. Husbands from wives. Rings from fingers. Trees from land. All part of some mysterious cycle.
She twirled the stick around, widening the ground into a shallow hole. She’d never tell Jeannie. Of course not. Besides, this would only buy her a little time. One month, maybe two.
The phone sent a sudden vibration, then rang. Digital Ode to Joy. Alli leapt up, stood with the stick pledged across her heart. For a nano-flash she thought it might be Jeannie, out of her bath and ready to help. But Alli’s own home number paraded across the screen and she felt a cocktail mix of relief and dread.
Voice aquiver. An innocent: I was just playing on my iPod when . . . And Jack’s full-gusto lungs in the background. Alli’s breasts swelled and prickled.
“Are you almost done? I mean—”
Shit. She hadn’t even recouped the I.D. yet. Didn’t want to. Maybe someone else could grab it, do a better job of being her.
Jack yowled, the gagging cry that often ended in a puke. Pressure built in her breasts, each duct brimming, leaking into her bra cups, soaking layers of cotton and streaming down her belly. An overflow that hadn’t happened in months. She suppressed it with her forearm but there was still that copper-wire tingle, like a short-circuited transmission.
She held the cell glow above the hole, hoping for the diamond sparkle. Only stringy roots and the edge of a deeper rock. Kate’s voice dumped into the ground, a stammer, maybe a gulping. Alli sighed, placed the phone to her ear.
“I’ll be home soon,” she said.
She clicked the phone, crouched back into the silence. She’d return. Whatever else happened, she’d always return. But she wasn’t done here. Not yet.
In the distance, a mourning dove hooted, sounding like an owl. Or an owl hooted, sounding like itself. The forest filled with dark shapes and the darkening spaces around them. Alli bowed her head, stabbed at a fresh piece of ground and broke it open.
Traci Skuce lives in Cumberland, British Columbia. Her work has been published in journals such as Grain, The New Quarterly, and Event. She won the 2016 Sheldon Currie fiction prize, and honorable mention in the 2015 Prairie Fire contest. “At the Edge of Everything” was originally published in New Ohio Review 21. When not writing, she teaches yoga, walks in the forest, and enjoys a full life with her husband and two sons.
Illustrations by Devan Murphy