Michele Valenti / Elizabeth Claire Rose
Mother and father worked the new pinto out on the hard, wet strip of sand. Father leading on the sorrel mare, mother following behind on the colt. Back and forth along the shore they rode, sometimes the pinto strayed, caught in the surf and surged almost in a panic, bucking on his hind legs or twisting and almost throwing mother but never quite—she hung sideways on the verge of falling away, between the sky and the ocean. The whole time she spoke to the colt, pulling hard on the reins you could not hear what she said for the wind but the way she spoke was soothing and gentle though her face was strained with the effort.
You were young but old enough at ten for them to leave you to roam the high-line on the slope of the dunes, picking your way through the storm-gathered drift the tide left behind: Seaweed mostly and brightly painted styrofoam and balsa-wood buoys—neon-green and orange—some with their tethers trailing like snakes in the sand behind them—one still secured to its lobster cage with a bowline-hitch. The cage half sunk in the sand, almost upended and clung with kelp and sea grapes, tangled through the bars and nets meant to let the lobsters crawl in but not out again.
In shrinking tidal pools, you fished for hermit crabs and chased the spark-light ruins of sea glass. They were like splinters of sky—the shapes were—each holding a memory of past lives. At home, you and mother filled pint-jars with the pieces you collected and set them against the windows in each room. Sunlight sifting through them at odd angles throwing colors against the walls made them live again and let you live also in their stories.
“Caroline,” father called to you. They were close now—father and the mare, the colt following behind at some distance trailing its traces. When they reached you, father slipped easily from the sorrel before it had stopped and caught you up in his arms.
“Stay here,” he said setting you down again, his hands firm on your shoulders.
“I need you to stay here, okay?” He grabbed the pummel and swung his leg over the mare’s flank. “Wait for me.” Together they charged down the beach back towards the marsh path and home. Father bent close to the mare’s neck.
The wind skimmed the sand, the waves rose and fell. You closed your eyes against the salt spray, and in the fading distance heard the sound of horses running.
And blood pumping through his hand to mine. I know these fingers, know their pressure and the way they fit around my own—the way they hold me just so. These are Clayton’s fingers holding mine amid fluorescent light and sterile white-washed walls. His blood beats from his heart. Our hands have done such things together. Wonderful things. Hard things. And now this. My hand in his pressing harder. This is Clayton, and this is the way he held my hand while Doctor Bhardwaj compared side-by-side scans of my brain.
“This is your brain six months ago, Caroline,” Bhardwaj says. I picture an egg. Picture it breaking against the sharp rim of a frying pan, and want to say, “And this is your brain on drugs,” but I do not.
“You can see for yourself, the level of shrinkage here and also here.” Bhardwaj points to the parts of the grey mass that I know now as cerebral cortex and hippocampus. “These gaps, here and here, are where your ventricles have enlarged.”
“It’s alright,” he says. “No,” I want to say, “it is not.”
“It will be.” No, it will not.
Of course you could not wait for father, although you tried. You had to see for yourself what it was that spooked him so. It took some time for you to reach the point and round it and when you did you saw the bell-black-oil swell of water surging boundless beyond the marsh, beyond the crest-dunes and shallows. For a moment, you were caught—just as the waves were—in a kinetic frenzy, the perpetual rise and fall, roll and break, held where you stood by the sound of hammering and roaring waves.
For a moment only, until you saw her: Mother lay on her back not far from the tumble-green surf, her heels dug hard into the sand. She was still as you approached, not even a hint of breath but you knew she was alive.
When you reached her you sank to your knees. Her eyes were closed. You laid your head on her chest and though it was faint you could still hear her heartbeat.
She did not move.
“I’m here,” you said then wrapped your arms around her. You hugged her tight and rocked her.
“Help me momma,” you whispered. “Please.”
In the distance the sound of sirens, thunder, and the sound of horses, running, running.
Bhardwaj zeros the screen panning left to right, then zeros in again. He points to the gaps in the grey, the knots and tangles, like spider-thread across the grey-screen. What have I lost in these spaces? Maybe that was a day on the beach, or one through the salt marsh—a frozen winter day, the sun alone in the sky. Maybe it snowed also, and the wind drove white streaks across white sand and pebbled beach. Or fog rolled in along shore from Sankaty Head and the up-and-down lowing horn sounding close.
“Beer bottles mostly,” Clayton’s voice and your hand in his. “You can tell by the coloring.” Maybe he took the piece you held in your palm. Maybe you offered it to him. “This one,” he said, “was a Rolling Rock.”
Remember the river. How it moved in through the marsh each morning with the tide and filled the hollow spaces between steep, cupped banks. And the path followed it along through bullrush and sandbur. How mother and father used to walk there together. Sometimes you would also.
Remember salt-brine smell in the clinging mist. A sweet-fruit smell almost like honeysuckle, only wrong somehow. Too sweet, maybe. It burned in your breath. Made you scrunch up your nose. You didn’t like the marsh without the river. When the tide pulled it away. All soft mud and slime. All the shells the water left behind sinking into the mud. And how the seagulls picked holes in them with their beaks.
Grandma said it was methane, the smell of dead things buried underground. Made you think of mother even though you didn’t like to. How they’d lowered her down in that big wood box and covered her over. You didn’t ever want to go underground like that and told Grandma so.
“This is what we expected more or less,” Bhardwaj says. “Unfortunately, she is deteriorating more rapidly than we initially hoped.”
Clayton releases my hand.
Now when I look up into the dark there is nothing but black and the sound of a magnet heart beating, beating and trying to lie still and not let my heart beat like the machine, like the whompwhompwhomp, like the sound of horses, horses, running, running.
It was some time before you returned to where she fell. Some years in your reckoning. The tracks in the sand were gone, swept smooth by the wind and water. Her body gone also. The sand was cold but still you went barefoot, moving awkwardly in the drift. This was not the beach you knew. You were unsure of yourself, unsteady. In the drift between years you lost your footing and could not find her.
So instead you wandered the shoreline and in her place came upon the remains of a whale left stranded. All that was left were her ribs curling upwards. Not white like you imagined but dull yellow and salt-worn, pitted by the wind and sea. Even the gulls had lost interest in her.
You crawled in under her ribs, placing a hand on the salt-smooth bone to steady yourself. When you were inside her, you cleared the sand away re-exposing her vertebral discs held almost perfectly in place. Lay on your back aligning your spine to hers. Slowly at first, from the pits and hollows in the bone, the tendons and ligaments crept and wrapped her ribs binding new muscle, weaving new veins and nerve-endings. So close, she closed in around you. The sound of the waves growing distant, muffled by her thick layers of flesh then mixed with a new sound the whoomp-whoomp, whoomp-whoomp of her heart pumping, pumping, and the sound of horses, horses, running, running.
Michele Valenti earned a BFA from Roger Williams University and an MFA from Minnesota State University Moorhead. His work is published by Weber: The Contemporary West, accepted to the 2017 ASLE Conference, and is a recipient of the 2016-17 Loft Minneapolis Mentor Series in Fiction.
Elizabeth Claire Rose explores ecology, wilderness, and place in her artworks. She uses methods of printmaking and photographic processes to create works on paper, illustrations, and public art. She is a recipient of several artist residencies including: Terra Nova National Park, Alberta Printmakers’ Society in Alberta, CAN, Sedona Summer Colony, Penland School of Crafts, and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation. Rose earned her BA cum laude in Fine Art with a minor in Wilderness Studies from the University of Montana. She is currently an MFA printmaking candidate at Tyler School of Art, at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA.