R. W. Hartshorn
Five poets on a topsail schooner. Gray water. Angry gale. The mainland is behind them, but everyone there thinks the world is ending, so they’re getting nothing done.
Carla: A typewriter in a tattered suitcase. Black curls flecked with frost. White knuckles guiding the ship into the wind. Undocumented on the mainland, pressed aboard for being an intruder. Should have a shelf full of awards shaped like scrolls, her name engraved on fingernail-sized plaques, but like every master artist, will one day be forgotten.
Golshifteh: Writing a lyric across a strip of parchment. Black ink. Pink peony poking from behind one ear. Sturdy larchwood oar beneath one arm. Accused of witchcraft on the mainland, really studying astronomy. Memories of writing her magnum opus on a different boat.
Scodelario: Staring at a tiny red needle. Their mother’s wool coat wrapped around their shoulders, absorbing the bullets of sleet. Sea-green knit hat. Boat shoes. An idea for a poem lingering on the horizon of their thoughts, even in the face of the storm.
Esme: Dreadlocks tossed around her neck like heavy scarves. A mechanical lung, the reason she’s here, whirling oxygen into her. Told everybody that one day, it would be the poets and pirates out here saving the Earth, but still imagining a way out of this death sentence.
Bjorn: Woodpecker feather behind his ear. Picturing safer places. Mother’s living room. Sound of water tumbling from a bathtub faucet. The warm cavern of bed sheets. But it was this or a jail cell on the mainland, where the mortar is coming apart.
A week ago, they were bundled into a small room together and told that the mainland’s best scientists had synthesized a substance that, when released into the eye of a destructive storm, would dissolve the air-mass instabilities that set the storm into furious motion. “Just unfold the lid,” said a scientist in a white coat, pointing to a tin box the size of a small coffin, “and voila. No more storm. Smooth sailing for you guys all the way home, and for everyone into the future.” Esme doubted that voila was a scientific term. Golshifteh wasn’t entirely convinced that the person was a scientist – if they were, they’d probably agree that a white coat wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove it.
Now, Scodelario shouts to Carla at the helm. “When do we open the box?”
Carla doesn’t hear Scodelario. “What?”
“Box,” they say, louder, pointing to the tin coffin tied to the main mast upright. “Open?” They give an exaggerated shrug.
“Not yet,” Carla says back. But they must be close to the storm’s center now. Scodelario’s fingers are going numb. Carla’s whole face is freckled with ice chips. Esme and Bjorn both try to hide the chattering of their teeth.
Golshifteh looks into the frozen cyclone, imagining the maw of a beast made of ice. She says, “Open the box in exactly three minutes.”
Carla hears her.
Golshifteh writes the title of her poem: Conversations We Remembered Before Dying.
Carla walks the hallway to the boardroom, examining the plaques on the walls. Most of them are “Excellence in Teaching” awards. She looks for the face of the person she’s about to meet with. She needs to learn all she can.
Four superiors sit across from Professor Leslie at a large table made of slate. They’re just finishing their conversation, and the one heading the meeting – a man she recognizes as Professor Dresden, the department chair – stands and buttons his black suit jacket. He shakes Professor Leslie’s hand, then the five of them break. Carla looks back at the wall of photographs as the professors file out of the office.
Professor Leslie is wearing a gray pantsuit and black heels. She notices Carla right away. The others soon disappear.
“Carla,” she says. “Looking for me?” She fiddles with her shirt. Her hair is out of sorts. The meeting did not go well.
“Yeah,” Carla says. “I have an idea for my essay, but I don’t know if you’ll allow it.”
“You can’t write about your fictional sister made up of celebrity body parts again, if that’s what you mean.”
They walk together. The staggered stomping of their shoes creates a kind of music.
“I’m undocumented,” Carla says.
Professor Leslie keeps eye contact, but her face betrays nothing. Her brow remains grooved, like it always does when she’s listening. She must know about the new law that empowers mainland police to act as illegal immigration enforcers.
“So,” Carla goes on, “I want to write about the risks my parents took to get me here, and the risks I take by just being myself, but I don’t know if it would be too – ”
“That’s fine,” Professor Leslie says, as though she reads edgier essays before breakfast. Carla has what she wants, but there’s more she doesn’t have, more that she needs.
As they reach the door and step out into the breeze, threads of Professor Leslie’s blonde hair sail off, as if trying to get away from her.
They walk to the English department in silence. When Carla lowers herself into the creaky rolling chair in front of the desk, Leslie looks up with a start.
“Did you forget I was here, Professor?”
“A little. Do you need me to look at a draft?”
“No, I just thought you might want to talk.”
Carla has never been in this office before. She’s been just outside it for a makeup midterm exam, but being inside feels important somehow. Above Professor Leslie’s head is a poster detailing the entire history of spacecraft on Earth.
“We’ve been voting on material for the new textbook,” Professor Leslie says.
Carla has never known Professor Leslie to share anything personal, despite how often she asks her students to cut their chests open and bleed into their essays. Today, hurt is showing around her eyes, and a weight hovers between them. “Doesn’t seem like Dresden liked whatever you voted for,” Carla says.
Leslie blows a hard breath and shakes her head. “We get a message telling us to mention the pieces we already use that we want retained in the new edition. I mention mine. They say I’m the only one who uses those, so thanks for sharing, but forget it. I send another message, asking whether they can explain to me how we’re going to skewer fifteen essays about cultural exchange in favor of some garbage diatribe about flip-flops.”
“So that’s what the scolding was about.”
Leslie leans back, her chair groaning. She’s locking eyes with the spacecraft poster, probably imagining setting up camp on the moon, the quiet of it.
“Carla,” she says, “please write the best fucking thing I’ve ever read.”
When Carla is older, before the mainland regime cracks down on immigration, she’ll win an indie press prize for a poem that will eventually be taught in advanced classes and read aloud as part of the Mainland Pops Orchestra’s keystone set. When she’s notified of the publication in a stripped-down email that could be a form letter, she looks for her old English teacher, Professor Leslie, on the university’s faculty directory. Carla doesn’t recognize any of the names or pictures. She takes a bus to her old campus and walks the hallway of Excellence awards one more time. No Leslie.
They don’t see each other again, but Carla never convinces herself that Leslie came to a bad end, or began another career because she couldn’t take the obstructionist bullshit anymore. When it comes time to write the contributor’s note for her first collection, Carla gives Leslie a five-word dedication in the back of the book – a book that will, in some ways, always be unwritten.
It’s early winter, not quite the solstice, and Scodelario can smell the damp, woody scent that drips from the maple trunks, hinting that change is coming, that the heartbeats of small mammals will soon slow in their warm dens, that chips of cherry and birch will burn in the stove. Scodelario follows a string of animal prints in the snow, carefully stepping alongside. Bailey trails behind, making sure not to crush the prints with her own.
“Are we thinking dog or fox?” Bailey asks.
A week earlier, Scodelario saw Bailey at the library, tucked into a corner booth, reading something in German. Her knee was bent, leather boot pressed against the seat on the other side of the booth, short blonde hair, glasses pushed up to her forehead. Scodelario acted on impulse for a change.
After hot cocoa and a chat about moving from the city to the mountains – which they’d both done in their twenties – they agreed on a solstice ramble through the acreage behind a local reservoir. As Scodelario was heading for the library’s big glass door, giddy with possibility, Bailey called to them, asking what name to put in her phone.
“Spell that for me.”
“Is that Italian or something?”
“Not really. When I was a kid, I told my parents I wanted to change my name to Goldenrod Roger Mildred Scodelario O’Shaughnessy. They said no, but then I got older and could do whatever I wanted. Went with the shortened version. Sometimes I eat sugary cereal right before bed.”
Bailey assumed that wasn’t the real reason.
During their first phone call, Bailey told Scodelario about the time before she discovered the mountains, a time when she couldn’t recognize herself anymore. Mirrors lied, she said, and Scodelario thought about using that as the opening line of a poem.
Mirrors lied, she said.
Now, following the tracks, Scodelario and Bailey press boot-shaped hollows into the snow.
“Fox,” Scodelario says. A lump of snow falls from the spruces above them and hits the exposed flesh directly between their glove and jacket sleeve. Bailey sees the surprise, the skin red with cold, the attempt to beat it away with a mitten. An instinct takes over, and she tackles her new friend into the powder.
They slap at each other, giggle, forget their ages for a minute.
“When you live out here, you have to get along with the world,” Bailey says, wrestling Scodelario’s arms to the ground. “I mean, you don’t have to love being cold or anything, but you can’t let Mother Nature see you get all miffed.”
Scodelario snatches Bailey’s hat and tosses it into the snow. “I guess this won’t bother you, then,” they say.
Soon, the duo moves on, Bailey with snowflake-soaked hair and Scodelario already forgetting the pierce of cold in their wrist.
They do not find the fox’s den, of course. They know better than to search. They watch the string of prints stretch off into the woods, then they emerge at the lip of the reservoir, where the ice is already crisp and solid enough to hold their bodies.
Later, Scodelario shows Bailey the load of wood they’ve been seasoning for a year and a half. They balance a couple of logs in the maw of the stove, stand a few handfuls of tinder around the logs like a fist, and set the entire thing alight. Bailey’s eyes glow as the tinder burns. If she feels like she’s discovering fire, it’s because she is.
Scodelario is in underwear and bare feet, their wet clothes wrung out and hanging on a rack downstairs, right next to Bailey’s. As they kneel, blowing on the coals, Bailey snakes her arms around their waist. Scodelario can feel Bailey’s breath on their neck fuzz, can smell the scent of her: licorice and crushed mulberries.
They’re face to face now, and Scodelario’s mouth touches Bailey’s slender neck, now her chin, now her lips, and now they’re falling into each other, and the logs in the stove are crackling away, and heat is rushing into the room.
The day before Scodelario’s first collection of poems is on shelves, a popular mainland author will release a treatise stating that everything that can ever be said about love has already been written. Scodelario’s book won’t be named after Bailey, because it will be a long time since they’ve seen each other, but they’ll hope, wherever Bailey is, that she’ll recognize herself now.
Golshifteh’s feet grip the guardrail that overlooks the falls. On the neon orange sign, beneath the big black NO TRESPASSING, someone has spraypainted SOMEONE DIES HERE EVERY YEAR.
“It’s all in the finesse,” Matt says, clasping his hands over his head, miming a dive. The remnants of a tropical storm have left the streets ravaged, and water rages over the rocks. Matt points to a spot below, to the nucleus of cold spray. “That’s the sweet spot,” he says. “You land there, it’s like diving into a swimming pool. You land anywhere else, well.” He points to the sign.
She’s holding the same leather-bound notebook she’ll later bring aboard the nameless schooner, but as of now, the paper hasn’t been touched. She pushes a felt pen against the first page, scribbles a few words just to see how they feel.
Matt swings his arms. Diving over the falls is old news to him, and he wants to get it over with. The sooner they dive, the sooner he finds out if he’s getting laid.
“Are we diving, or writing a book?” he asks.
“It’s a poem about a dive,” Golshifteh tells him. “Or rocks and water, maybe. Either way, if you whack your melon on the way down, nobody’s going to tell the story of how graceful my dive was, so I gotta start telling it myself before I forget.”
She closes the journal, tucks it into a plastic pouch, and slips it under the elastic of her swimsuit bottom so that she has a little book fastened to her hip. She leans forward, toes keeping her from tumbling into the gorge. “Same time?”
“No. You first.”
Golshifteh’s body gives itself to the wind. She closes her eyes, but instead of a girl, she sees all sorts of creatures making the dive – a narwhal with human legs, a satyr, a black unicorn – and before cutting through the water, she is all of them. When she comes up, they’re tucked away in the book on her hip. Just like her, they’re alive.
A book reviewer will someday refer to Golshifteh’s first collection as “a harrowing commentary on our times,” and Golshifteh will laugh a little, because in her mind, her poems are about things like diving off rocks and burying raccoon carcasses in the fall and fucking in tents and digging up those same carcasses in the spring to clean the bones.
One day, she’ll lie in the bed of a canoe and write a set of death poems longhand, with the rising sun sliding up from behind her leather-bound notebook, and the setting sun ducking back behind it on the way down to the hills. No matter what she tells anyone about this book, everyone will imagine she got it right the first time.
Bjorn was so named because his father wanted a bear for a son. But he should have known that’s not how it works.
When Bjorn turns eighteen, his father takes him to a hemlock stump in the middle of the woods. “Sit,” his father says, and Bjorn thinks of a half-dozen movies that have a plot like this, where a weird ritual summons a monster or awakens an old curse or somehow screws everything up.
“Close your eyes,” his father says. “Tell me what you know about the mainland.”
This was something his father did every so often: took him out here to test what Bjorn thought was most important, and whether he knew just how different life here on the mainland was from life on the islands.
“The mainland is full,” Bjorn says. “No one comes in. If you leave, you don’t come back. If you’re here, you don’t do anything that hasn’t been done. If you’re diseased, you accept it. You don’t seek new methods of staying alive.”
His father gives a gruff Hmph. “So much focus on the tyranny,” Bjorn’s father says. “Why not mention the gorges? The mountains? Lakes so clean you could wash your hair in them without soap?”
“Because,” Bjorn says, “if humanity is wiped off the face of the Earth, the gorges and mountains and lakes will still be there like nothing happened.”
Bjorn feels his father’s gloved hand on his shoulder. “My son,” he says. Bjorn keeps his eyes closed like he knows he’s supposed to, and then he’s burrowing into himself like a badger, and now he’s thinking of the time he formed a crush on a boy in his Tae Kwon Do class after watching him do laps around the Kwan, and the time he asked out a girl for the first time by dropping a note in her locker that she never returned, and then he’s inhabiting those moments again in the body he used to have – decking Pete Vick for annoying him on the bus, kissing the skin below Jess Hawley’s navel, sneezing the dust from the old textbooks under his parents’ bed, reading his first poem aloud at his middle school’s talent show (a night his friends would remember as the one where he got drunk off a single beer and concussed himself by toppling off Dee Byzova’s ping-pong table), sinking into the mainland hot spring before government backhoes tore it up for the resources beneath – and now his body is in fragments, shooting from a hole in a maple tree like a gatling of downy woodpeckers.
His father sees the birds, watches them scatter, watches them attack tree husks and suet cages and then coalesce into something that looks like his son again.
Bjorn opens his eyes. His father, in black winter gear, is a silhouette on the snow. “Sorry,” Bjorn says. “You wanted a bear.”
But his father doesn’t remove his hand from Bjorn’s shoulder. “When I turned eighteen,” he says, “I became a yellow perch. I flopped around on the snow until my father gathered me up, cut a hole in the ice, and tossed me in. Just be glad you’re not looking up at his face now. Or drowning.”
When Bjorn becomes serious about his work, he will never write about nature or animals or the way the seasons shift, because it would be like writing poem after poem about his own blood. Once, at a protest against mainland industrialization, he’ll split his body into birds again and fly the picket signs to the glass skyscraper windows. He will never again worry about what kind of animal he could have been.
Esme insisted on being awake as long as possible for the implant surgery. The numbing agent blurs the pain, but she can still feel the technician making the incision, spreading her ribs to get to her bad lung, the second lung that has failed her.
She looks at the ceiling rather than down at her own ribs sticking out of her like wood splinters. The big florescent light presses on her eyes like a mechanical moon, and Dr. Morse’s hands fiddle around inside her.
“Esme,” the doctor says, “tell me about something wonderful that happened to you.”
“Somebody told me that if all the water in the world disappeared, even for one second, the world would be destroyed.”
“That doesn’t sound wonderful.”
Replacing Esme’s lung with the life-saving synthetic one is no longer a standard (or legal) surgery, so Esme and Dr. Morse are in a hospital back room with some equipment that Morse has been slowly relocating over the past week.
The doctor’s fingers touch some kind of switch in Esme’s body, and Esme feels panic settling in.
“I don’t think this is working,” Esme says, sweat on her temples.
“I’m almost there. The activation process will only take a minute.”
Esme quivers. Her hands ache to reach down and stop this, to sew her body back up.
“Tell me a story,” she says.
Dr. Morse lifts the tiny mechanical lung from the metal tray where it rests, then lowers it into the cavity of Esme’s body. Esme catches a glance at the doctor’s elastic gloves, slick with Esme’s reddish fluids, and the shivers intensify. There’s a hole in her. Air blows over her bones.
“There is something,” Dr. Morse says, “a bit of verse that reminds me of everything I’m capable of, even in a glorified broom closet without a surgical staff.” She rests the lung into Esme and says, in her gentlest voice:
In the summer I learned
to be a poet sunburned
then I hid for good reason
from that horrible season
Esme shuts her eyes and listens to her own words spoken by the doctor, words she wrote when she was a college sophomore tapping at a typewriter with a glass of Kahlua in one hand, tries to let them soothe her, bring her back to who she was, tries to join the two selves together like flesh and machine.
The doctor goes on as she connects a few tubes and sets the lung whirring to life:
In the winter I learned
to be a poet unburned
but the cold gave me reason
to sleep through the season
Esme hears the lung, feels that she’ll be able to breathe without being hooked to the wall of machines keeping her alive now.
“And now, dearest,” Dr. Morse says, preparing to close her up, “I need you to sleep.”
Sometime after the new lung is sewn in, a toy company will release a set of princess dolls: one with an oak leaf in her hair, one with a grass skirt, one with skin that glitters like snowflakes, and one with tulips budding from her fingertips. Each will come with a tiny booklet that contains one of Esme’s “seasons” verses, products of her messing around in college, and she will work for years to bring attention to her other writing, the stuff she pored and raged and toiled over. No one will care until she gives a reading on television after accepting an award for her contributions to children. She’ll announce that children eventually outgrow flippant observations about the seasons, and will start into a series of free-verse pieces about adversity and the realities of the body. She won’t be seen on television again, but tiny book clubs in the corners of the mainland will add her work to their agendas, and her sonnets will be scratched across the walls of teenagers’ rooms in black marker.
When Esme recovers from the surgery, she feels like everything that ever happened in her life is now far behind her, each memory and event coming untethered one at a time. She sits on the floor with her legs crossed, leans over her typewriter, and takes a breath.
The five of them – Carla, Scodelario, Golshifteh, Bjorn, and Esme – gaze into the storm. Golshifteh is still writing when the schooner begins to break up, the bowsprit flung into the wind like a spear, the planks below her falling away like rows of crumbling teeth.
Scodelario watches Golshifteh plunge into the cold seawater, holding her notebook above her head to preserve the poem. They were told to wait three minutes before opening the coffin-shaped tin box, and twenty seconds remain.
Carla, at the helm, can no longer move her eyelids; the icy winds have taken hold. The storm moves on them as if conscious of their presence, ready to take them as a first course before devouring the mainland. Carla turns to shout an order to Bjorn, but he’s gone. Above her, a flock of birds whips a string of canvas around the mainmast to keep it from cracking apart.
Esme sees Scodelario struggle with the box. She runs to their aid, yanking at the sharp corners. Her dreads lash in the air behind her. When the lid of the box finally comes loose, Scodelario looks into Esme’s face and muses on how beautiful she is – her dark skin and eyes, mouth budding in determination – and they think to themselves that they’d be fine with Esme being the last thing they ever see.
As the ship sinks, they all consider whether this can actually work. They wonder why they asked no questions, resigned themselves to trusting each other. Golshifteh, grabbing hold of some driftwood, looks into the storm and sees the ice beast again, this time closing its maw.
None of them see anything come out of the coffin box, but in all of their minds, something has changed, some line has been smudged. Once the ship is splintered and below the waves, they feel the storm take a breath and lumber slowly toward the mainland.
They’re all floating on driftwood now, some gritting their teeth, hoping the worst of the storm is past them.
Golshifteh: “I think we slew the monster.”
Carla: “What do you mean? It’s going to chew the mainland to pieces.”
Esme: “Look at the islands, though.”
She’s right. The storm was supposed to pulverize the island provinces before striking the poets’ former home, the nation that sent them to sea, to their doom. But the islands rest untouched on the skyline as if sitting in bathwater. Scodelario thinks they see a patch of light cutting through the gray mass above the humps of green.
Scodelario, with a woodpecker on either shoulder: “How long until the tide pulls us to the nearest island?”
Golshifteh yanks her notebook from her pocket, splats it on the solid piece of wood holding her up.
“Long enough to get some work done.”
The air quiets. Waves slosh against wood.
They finally introduce themselves.
Richard Hartshorn is a nonbinary fiction writer and educator living on the Rensselaer Plateau. Their work has appeared in Hypertext, Drunken Boat, The Occulum, and other publications.