By: Kate Savage
|“Our little boat bobbed and wobbled, and I was appalled by the sheer liquidity of the water beneath us. If I stepped over the side, where would my foot rest? Water is almost nothing, after all. It is conspicuously different from air only in its tendency to flood and founder and drown, and even that difference may be relative rather than absolute.”
-Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
Patty shouts “Let’s do our face lifts!” Standing shoulder deep in the pool we lift our chins to the rafters, lips wide in a grimace. “EAY, EEE, AYE, OWE, YOU.” Patty calls this water aerobics class “Shadeep,” because it’s both shallow and deep. A class for old women, and for me.
I first found Shadeep because I was depressed. Mom’s body was sprouted cancer from the bile duct outwards, and I wanted to be in the water with these old women. Their old women’s bodies naked with me in the changing room, the relief of their soft, spotted skin and the way they spoke to each other, the jokes. Our faded and ill-fitting swimwear as we splash together in the stink of chlorine. I stowed-away into the hold of old women and they didn’t make me leave, and I still can nearly cry I feel, at moments, so lucky.
Elvis and Neil Diamond croon from the stereo, while we run in place as fast as we can and then check our heart rates to make sure we didn’t overdo it. Patty shouts “Now what’s Bunny’s favorite?” and we shout back together, smiling at Bunny, putting our floating noodles in position: “The WIDE LEGGED ROCKING CHAIR!”
I remember when I was sunk, when I moved through the world like I was underwater, some damned drowned Ophelia. I remember the nights when sleep was a story problem. When sleep was a riddle never deciphered. When I felt something bitter ooze out in me and wondered if it was my own bile salts. I was a rock anchored fast to the bottom somewhere.
I was sunk and now I float, noodle at my neck and kicking hard as I can for a full minute this time. They say a ship ‘sinks,’ but some of it doesn’t sink at all, some gets to float away in pieces. For now, I have the pleasure of flotsam.
Driftwood gathers at the line between water and earth. It is a fertile spot, and it is also a place for the dead. Walking beside the Sea of Cortez, named for a genocidal murderer, Easton and I find belly-up crabs everywhere. And then the filleted bones of fish, squashed body of a pelican, the severed hammer-head of a hammerhead shark. Its staring eyes are big like a squid’s. Even the cobblestone lumps of shells are, I remember, the hard remains of a soft life long gone.
When animals first wriggled their way alive through the line where water meets land, they also moved through the bones of the dead. Now we dump our waste in the ocean, but for far longer the ocean has dumped its dead on the useless dry land.
The sand of beaches might have passed through millions of diatom silicone-shell lives. I am not comforted. The carefree beach is an upside-down underworld and my sunny beach-read is a line of bones.
The sea speaks of upward burial. The shallows. I came here from the desert, inland, hearing the roar of fighter-jets and bombers above me, and I understand the fear of inland and fear of upward. I came here from border patrol agents wearing mirror-lens sunglasses, who surround our humanitarian aid camp all night with their loud horses and trucks, and I know the fear of the shallow.
There are other fears I don’t know: I came here from the depths of the desert, where we bring jugs of water to the migrant trails, and I imagine for someone lost in that desert, a milk jug of water is like a last pocket of air to a miner in a flooded shaft. But I do not know that thirst in swollen tongue and dizzy head. I came here with pink skin and papers, racing south without thirst across the same desert and same border. The others, crossing the other direction, with other-skin — I learned young that they were takers of jobs, birthers of anchor-babies (babies I always thought of as enormously heavy, tinted the shade of iron), the ones who make us dial-1-for-english to wear down our pointer-fingers. I learned they were Aliens and I had to be hard and merciless as Sigourney Weaver. And if the mother who taught me this were still alive and saw how Border Patrol slashed those water jugs wide open, she’d purse her lips in tough-love, the surgically-removed cataracts in her eyes all a-sparkle like tiny squares of aluminum foil taped back in her retinas, and she’d say “Good.”
On the beach now stray dogs covered in bald patches and sores race each other with their mouths wide-smiling open, and pelicans fly flat, forever exactly nine inches above the water, angling along with each wave. I walk between dogs and birds among the dead and think suddenly the universe has all the time in the universe but that isn’t infinite. I remind myself: don’t invest in the universe, it is a bubble.
– – –
Yesterday my country – ‘my’ ‘country’ – dropped “the mother of all bombs” on ground called Afghanistan. The bomb’s name was MOAB, for Massive Ordinance Air Blast, but we all know we’re talking about mothers, not mass.
I can watch a video of it, set to music, on the CNN website. Before the blast there are mountains, with trees on them. You see a river – or more likely this is a dry arroyo in the winding braid-shape of our own desert rivers. This desert is shaped by water; most deserts are built by their opposite. At the base of everything, where, in a rainstorm, the streams rushing off the mountains would join, a tiny white speck falls. That white speck is the mother. When the mother touches ground everything changes, like a camera trick; instantly a mountain becomes a black hole.
MOAB is not a nuclear bomb, but is she the mother of one? The ones that exploded in my own desert, leached cancer into our own cells? “What it does is basically suck out all the oxygen and light the air on fire,” says a man from a pro-war think-tank. But there’s a bigger non-nuke bomb in Russia, called “The Father of All Bombs.” So now we know the family.
Moab is also the name of a town in Utah, the tourist destination in the middle of red rock. They got the name from the Bible, the place where the heathens live. It’s a book the Moabites didn’t write, where they’re only mentioned alongside God’s wrath. Jeremiah, who perfected the art of telling people they will die horribly, says:
Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity: therefore his taste remained in him, and his scent is not changed.
Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will send unto him wanderers, that shall cause him to wander, and shall empty his vessel, and break their bottles.
And then he tells of how Moab will wallow in its own vomit, with every head bald and every beard clipped in punishment and the whole place “destroyed from being a people,” which is how the Bible pronounces genocide.
Other verses hold standard desert-curses for Moab: the plants will wither until “there is no green thing,” all the waters will be full of blood.
Which is why, in 1885, the Moab, Utah postmaster lobbied to change the town’s name to “Uvadalia,” a word Jeremiah never shouted.
The desert is a doomsday trial run, the desert is pre-destroyed. Bombs and genocide and the unbelievers. And all the same: the postmaster lost his campaign because we know Moab, the far-flung desert heathen-hole, is also the mother of something. There’s the lines of the river, the curve of the canyon. Eventually someone will be back to slash these water jugs to bits, but for the moment, this is one place we smell like ourselves, settled on our lees.
What I did when I was sunk:
I made breakfast. Every morning I made breakfast and tried to get my mother to eat a few bites, this woman who first built my body out of breakfasts, my cells stacked like hotcakes, bathed in grape juice blood. She didn’t want to eat my breakfasts; she didn’t want to eat. While she avoided eating, she listened to the cardiac-attack voice of Rush Limbaugh. Rush was marketing his “Club G’itmo” t-shirts at the time. “Your tropical retreat from the stress of jihad.” What made me smile then was knowing that I was never meant to be multicellular in the first place, I was meant to be bacteria deep in a hot spring, breathing sulfur.
I don’t know what Mom thought when she heard my own chosen radio pundits, but I have ideas. That’s because when she was alive, my mother and I were mirror images, standing sole-to-sole. We peered down at the other with the same worry-line between our eyebrows. We bent down to save the other from drowning. And since we couldn’t agree which of us was underwater, all our rescue attempts were frantic battles, tugging and scratching to get the other on dry land, our strength always perfectly matched. Now that she’s dead I look down and see nothing, nothing tugging the other direction, and that’s why I write about her when I’m trying to write about anything else.
Probably she was right – she was the one upright and I was the monster trying to drown her. Hasn’t this whole neighborhood said it some time: “Kate’s gone off the deep end”? Straight off the deep end. But even so my Mom and I carried the pattern of the West between us, since the West is the place where opposites feed and fight each other. Desert and ocean. All those dead rivers of the West that keep their bone-shapes because every monsoon they resurrect, the air dizzy with the smell of creosote. The river of my childhood could hardly get your ankles damp, but after a spring thaw – watch – she’s roaring, busting through the vinyl siding and drywall of whatever house crept too close. The Great Salt Lake is a shallow puddle, and also she’s the calling card of an inland ocean that will return, frothing over chemical weapon incinerators and bombing ranges and barrels of radioactive waste.
My own dry, cracked lips hold their opposite – some wave will be barreling down on me. Our spent emptiness ensures it, we are perfect bone-dry bowls: the flood can’t resist us.
The sand of the Coliseum was flooded sometimes to play out naval battles. Before drowning each other to entertain a crowd, thousands of gladiators greeted their audience with Ave Imperator, nos morituri te salutamus: hail Emperor, we who are about to die salute you.
Nineteen thousand of them, in one water-pool battle, all the criminals and riff-raff they could find in all the provinces of Italy, to kill each other for some emperor. I live in a similarly boisterous time: now the cities built in the desert salute the drying rivers and lakes, who speak it back: we who are about to die. The mother-of-all-bombs salutes the dry creek bed in Afghanistan. Prelude to climate change: all the humans face one direction — where the bemused emperor is supposed to sit — and in unison with all of the rest of the living earth we salute.
Mom said I’d be the end of her, and when her liver gave itself over completely to the bubbling-up tumor, I dripped too much morphine in her mouth and drowned her heart. But by then, the crowd was all dust in the fields around the Coliseum, and no one could cheer that I got away.
Neil Diamond is singing “Cracklin’ Rosie” while Bunny and Patty and I splash through the “Pony” and “Cheerleader” exercises on the shallow end. I’m supposed to say Mom cared for me and then I cared for her, but our final mirroring is this: inside my wet flesh sits my great treasure, the body of an old and dying woman, a mother, beautiful in her liver spots and jowls. She sinks down, spiralling under her own treasure-chest weight, until she hits bottom.