solution for soil erosion. DDT started as a solution for mosquitoes. Thalidomide
began as a solution to morning sickness. The first-order problem seems so
intractable, so insurmountable, that the gamble of fixing it disarms rational
thought. Anything to scratch an itch. Only when the pencil-end snaps beneath the
cast, or one’s field clots with vines, does perspective return and the second-order
problem manifest. An itch is one thing; birth defects are another. I once heard of
a man who survived a suicide attempt off the Golden Gate Bridge. At the moment
of launch, during the weightless pause before he plummeted toward the sea, he
realized in a burst of clarity that all of his problems were petty except for just
having jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. In my case, the problem was that
at eighteen I felt aimless, friendless, and alone. I suffered from a longing as vague
and corrosive as nostalgia. The world I lived in was blurred and indistinct. I had no
words for any of it. My solution was Cassie.
Cassie was a witch. And not the friendly Wiccan-earth-goddess-tattoo type
who gives her children sweet-but-absurd names. Cassie was a straight-up Grimm’s-
fairy-tale witch. She was a strict Manichean who believed in good and evil:
black and white. She had decided to play for the winning team, and so dressed in
black. She and her friends came into the coffee shop in downtown Juneau where
I worked, and she drank the same tea I liked: Market Spice – the Seattle kind
with the flavored fob, the thin square of cardboard at the end of the teabag string.
Placed on your tongue, like a wafer, the fob burned your mouth with cinnamon
oil. Sometimes having only one thing in common gets you started with someone.
Cassie told me I had sweet eyes. She made me a mixed tape of bleak music. I had
never been picked for any team. I would have followed her anywhere.
Cassie told us that the original human sin was consciousness. That God had
forced the Fall with His insistence that Adam name the animals. That the serpent
had nothing to do with it. “Animals live in the world like water in water,” Cassie
Cassie told us that the
original human sin was
consciousness. That God
had forced the Fall with His
insistence that Adam name
is why we are lonely. Dominion is the unbearable condition, she explained, not a gift.
Our task was to recover our birthright and live in the world as indivisibly as the wolf
that eats the caribou or the caribou that is eaten by the wolf. “Like water in water,”
Only after Cassie and her friends, who had become my friends, killed Dylan
Hamner, one of our friends, and ate slices of his heart by the light of a pallet bonfire,
did my second-order problem become manifest. Certainly I had been there; I was the
one with a car. A Buick Skylark. It could hold all seven of us. Dylan said he didn’t
mind being a caribou if that’s what it took for us to become wolves. Even within our
mopey circle, Dylan was notable for his despair. He had sweet eyes.
We drove that night across the bridge to Douglas Island and then north to Outer
Point, where an edge of the gray Pacific huffed and seethed through the pores of
a black-cobbled beach. But while Cassie drowned Dylan in the sea and made him
water in water, I wandered from the beach into the woods. I didn’t follow any
trail; I just pushed through the thicket and into the forest. Alone in the darkness, I
placed my hand on the rough bark of a looming tree and felt the adhesive grab of
sap upon my palm. The name of the thing I touched, Sitka spruce, Picea sitchensis,
came unbidden to my tongue. I remembered in a flood the rangy red-bearded man
at the Boy Scout camp, ten years before, who taught us the name, who had each of
us touch the tree in turn and repeat the name after him. Now, the words burned a
furrow behind my eyes. Everything has a name: longing, murder, trees. Names have
edges that cannot blur and we are obliged to say them. There is a reverb between
the touching and the naming that we must weather. I felt a great vertigo and retched
from the shaking of it.
I think about that moment all of the time now. Not the killing. I feel bad about
Dylan and the violence against his body, whether he wanted to be a caribou or not.
I am sorry for the Hamners. But I think now about the spruce and its name and the
intimate distance that naming enforces. Some days in the Lemon Creek Correctional
Center yard, when the sun slants right against the forest on the rising flanks of
Thunder Mountain beyond the flashing razorwire, I feel the furrow burn again.
Always it is fleeting. Often it is not there at all. Some summers I catch the upward
spiraling call of a Swainson’s thrush. And I tell the sullen fellas marking their shuffled
time that it is a Swainson’s thrush they hear. That’s its name, I say.
LISTEN, I SAY. IT HAS TWO VOICE BOXES, I SAY. IT SINGS
TWO SONGS AT ONCE. THAT’S WHY IT IS SO BEAUTIFUL.
Zach Falcon is a graduate of Columbia University, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in the Sycamore Review, The Bear Deluxe Magazine, and The Journal, among others. Born and raised in Alaska, he now lives in Maine.