by Mialise Carney
It’s not the first time Dad takes us to Washington. Every spring we visit Uncle Wyatt to hike, right around the time when the ground starts to thaw and cascade down the sides of winding trails, frozen dirt turning to deep muddy rivers. It rains while Merwin and I play in Uncle Wy’s backyard, and they smoke wet cigarettes and make plans under the gutters. We’re going rogue, Dad says. We’re gonna live off the land alone.
I’m ten and not scared of anything, definitely not trees, or the earth that sends shocks up through my knees when I jump hard off the swings. I’m not fragile and at the will of gravity; I’m hollow, I can fly with the birds. Merwin and I make homes in the forest. We dig through the dumping grounds by Uncle Wy’s ranch and drag treasure out to the woods, hammering wormy stakes and rusty chicken wire into the ground to make a boundary, a bed. I write on a wooden plank in red winter berries, Merlen’s Place—Keep Out and Merwin falls asleep in the mulch. In the afternoon sun, I watch a thin yellow spider creep its way across his baby face and spin a home on the tiny mole beneath his left eyelashes.
Dad and Uncle Wy leave me with Merwin for the day and I decide we’re gonna practice going rogue. It’s spitting rain, and Merwin shivers while I squash berries between my fingers and streak them under his eyes. I let him smudge mud on our foreheads, and it smells so good that I want to roll up into the earth like a sleeping bag.
We enter the forest, careful at first but then it’s just us and the trees and the lonely birds wailing their spring songs. Merwin leads and this bubbling giggle tickles my throat like I’m going to burst—we’re so strong, we’re so free. It’s easy for us to leave the trail then, to slide down its steep sides into the grassy ravine below where Dad never lets us go. We stomp through the undergrowth, we whack spindly plants out of our way and pull thorns out of our jackets that grab at our skin when we walk by. We climb up on jagged boulders and Merwin recites that speech from the Lion King, his voice echoing off the trees. Everything the light touches is ours. I am a conqueror; everything beneath my feet is endless and mine.
Merwin runs ahead of me, his laugh muffled by his jacket pulled way up over his mouth, but I love the buzz of it. He looks like a hummingbird, so sparkling and certain but impossible to grab. If it wasn’t for that blue jacket, I might lose him as he darts between trees. I feel that bubbling laughing rumbling high in my chest and I could run for hours. This is what Dad wanted—we are so wild, so powerful, so free.
Thunder echoes and I feel it in me, the hollow ache of hunger up in my ribs. But I’m not scared because we’re beneath the canopy of trees deep in the ravine, safe like in the hollow of Dad’s stomach when he falls asleep curled on the couch in the afternoon. Ahead, Merwin stops and flops panting against the sloping side of the trail. I’m far back but I can see his eyes, dark and shining like two little stars and I know he’s feeling that buzz too.
There’s another deep rumbling and I feel it in my feet, a crack like a dam breaking the earth wide open. Above Merwin, the winding trail shudders and caves in the middle, hurtling down wet waves of mud. It happens so fast that I feel only a brief sting of terror in my fingertips, a tightness like a secret caught in my throat. Then there’s so much mud, and Merwin’s blue jacket, and then only mud and trees crackling, bending like they’ll rip up from the ground.
I run. Through the ravine, ripping my jacket on vines, bruising my toes on loose rocks that jut from the ground. I hear the rumble of thunder, or earth, or breaths and I don’t look back because I’m scared the mud will grab my ankles to pull me down after Merwin. At home, I lock the door and sit on the floor of Uncle Wy’s spare bedroom and listen to the rain tinkle against the tin roof. When Dad and Uncle Wy get home it’s late and I’m in bed so they don’t ask where Merwin is and I don’t tell them. And by the time the police get called, I can’t find my way back to the place where the earth turned from mother to monster and took Merwin back to wherever things come from.
Then we move and Dad never talks about going rogue anymore. I change schools and tell everyone I’m an only child and I never think of Merwin as cold and lost under some pile of wet dirt but sleeping and warm like that time the spider crawled its way across his face and mistook him for a safe part of the forest. I never jump off swings and I think too much about bones and how easily they can shatter, how easily a body can be there and then just gone.
Later in school, we learn about the Missoula floods, the burst of glacial lake thousands of years ago that swept through Washington and made fields of stone to look like freshly combed beaches from above. I bite my thumb while teacher tells us to imagine what other catastrophes, geological scars might be slumbering beneath our feet. The boys laugh and shout dinosaurs, and I think mud, and blue, and everything the light touches is ours.
Teacher says, isn’t it wonderful how the earth maintains homeostasis? I think only of retribution. We should’ve known better than to trust the earth.
Mialise Carney (@mialisec) is a writer and MFA student at California State University, Fresno. She is an editor at The Normal School, and her writing has appeared in Hobart, Atlas and Alice, and Menacing Hedge, among others. Read more of her work at mialisecarney.com.