ASLEEP IN A STURGEON by Jerry McGahan
SHE WAS AT THE EDGE of the glacier near a fringe of rocks, halfway out, a shriveled body, the color of old brick, face down, part of her head and her back and butt showing and the backs of her thighs. But they didn’t know she was a she then. In fact, it took some inspection to make out that she was human and not some departed alien. Her ribs, her backbone, and hip poked up, lifting her skin like a ridge or tent poles. The corpse was stiff as latigo leather but not entirely frozen.
“This guy’s been here a while,” Ernie said.
“It’s against the law to mess with a body, ain’t it?” Johnny asked.
“How’d we know it was a body?” Ernie returned. “He could’ve been mostly buried, and it wasn’t till we dug enough that we could see what he was.” Ernie was on his knees scraping snow. “Let’s get him loose. He’s shrunk up like a pecker in a blizzard. I’ll bet he’s been here ten, twenty years.”
They were at the head of Little Money Creek in a lift of glaciated mountains so steep and sudden that the two men could stand on the nearby divide and make out a line of moving specks on Highway 43. It was September, and they were casing out a hunt where, earlier on summer fishing expeditions, Ernie had sighted several big bucks. It was still a month before deer season when they spied the backside of the icewoman on Locust Glacier. She looked like she was snorkeling, as if searching the deep for pockets of the locusts also imprisoned there, namesake hoppers swept up in a prehistoric storm.
“What I want to know,” Ernie went on, chipping with his knife, “is what kind of clothes these are. They’re friggin’ shot.” Like wet cardboard, pieces stripped off with chunks of snow. “Same with his hair. Where’s the rest of his hair?”
Johnny knelt and scratched at the thin glassy shell around the head. “It’s there, his hair, but it breaks in pieces with the ice.” He sits back on his heels. “How come he doesn’t stink? Even though he’s half thawed?”
“He’s freeze dried. The guy’s a chunk of jerky.” Retrieving a clod of snow with a square of clothing embedded, Ernie turned it to the light, pulled off a glove, and scratched at it with his thumb nail. “Naugahyde,” he said, “This guy was wearing Naugahyde. No wonder he froze to death.” He touched the body, traced the bumps of backbone. “Come on. If we dig enough on this side, we can roll him over.”
They chopped with their knives, brushing away the fallen ice with the sides of their boots. Then they dug around the body’s feet and head and then on the other side around an outstretched arm, until they could roll the corpse. When it flopped over, the body carried with it a keel of crusted corn snow.
“Oh Jesus, we broke off a finger.” Johnny examined the hand of the flung-out arm.
“We can chip it out.”
A dark mass of frozen clothing still stuck to the front of the torso like an applique. The sunken eyes were enormous, tangerine-sized cavities, the lips pulled back baring gumless long teeth, the nose more like a flattened tent than a central prominence. The arm, still crooked before the face, seemed to be warding off a blow.
“I’ll bet he don’t weigh but sixty pounds,” Johnny said, testing the weight of a leg. The body was so shrunken that the knee was bulbous, the thigh finned with collapsed muscle, the pelvis with winglike hips rimming a hollow bowl. “I think he lost his noogies.”
“You s’pose the sheriff has any record of somebody missing up here?”
“He won’t want us messing with the body,” Johnny said.
“Like it’s a crime scene, you mean?”
“Sure, instead of feeding the fishes, they left him to the eagles.”
“I don’t think so. He froze to death on account of wearing upholstery. What’s this?” Ernie fumbled at something caught in the four-fingered hand. When he chiseled at the hand with his ax, a pale object broke away and rolled into the loose snow. Ernie sifted it out, righted it, held it up on the flat of his hand. It was a thumb-sized figurine of an animal, crudely carved. He tapped it with his ax and it rang like stone. A mountain sheep maybe, lying down, a curl of horn pressed up against each side of its face. Ernie whistled.
“This guy’s somebody else, Ernie. Somebody olden.”
“Really olden maybe, like those mammoths they found in the icebergs.” He touched the corpse’s hoisted arm. “This here is a discovery, Johnny.”
Five thousand times around the sun, and here I am back in the company of men. Sixty-two thousand moons, and I haven’t forgotten the touch of the human hand. Am I shivering?
If my spirit got snagged in ice with a long-time body, if I never got cut loose, left to silt back into some sea of rest and dispersion, I still haven’t had any explaining or reason for having been marooned like this. Why am I the witness?
I am the old-time woman who knows too little and too much. Stranded in this exile of ice, made to listen, I must know more than anyone else about my animal clan of naked-skin, hind-leg walkers. Not even the Maker knows as much as I do, because not even the Maker could stand to listen to them for as long as I have, their voices filtering up from all the valleys. If I’ve been chosen for special punishment, it’s not because I am any sillier, any more contriving, or wickeder than any of the two hundred fifty generations I’ve followed.
At the start, I mostly listened to the voices of girls, followed them through their adolescence and marriage, through their loves and thefts, the rearing of their children and grandchildren, and then their decline. I heard their last words and the sound of their spirits leaving, like the wing sounds of the raven passing overhead. At first I missed them with the ache of living. With time, I learned to keep my distance. In that distance, I heard the voices of other valleys and came to know of other people. Their clothing and food differed and their gods and heros and songs were not same, but underneath, their stories resembled ours, in telling about what scared and killed them, what bound their clans, what made them thrive.
Stranded as I was, accumulating these impressions, I began taking up with men as much as women, following their lives, and in this I made another discovery. When men were most unlike women, what they intended—-all the fighting and competing—-they did it for the women. I saw how men and women shaped each other, women chosen by men for keeping good the agreements and community, while women chose men for a simpler, convenient loyalty fit in among the sweat-smelling bouts of building and defending. Or attacking. From there, all the misses and messes that followed between the sexes got passed off to what they couldn’t understand about each other. But it wasn’t sex that mattered most. If anyone says sex is a powerful force, tell them there’s more power in what the neighbors have to say. About anything.
Of course, there were all the events and catastrophes I could not turn from. Battles, landslides, killer storms, and all the dramas of the family and clan. What surprised me was how many of these struggles of failure and triumph occurred in the same places. There’s plenty of ground that has no attraction whatsoever for the human imagination, whereas other sites drew people as dogs to scent. Of these plots, some seem fated by the blood of those spilt before. In this valley, for instance, a hundred generations ago, two brothers fought for the leg of their dead sister on the little rise above the fork of what they’re now calling Elbow and Morley Creeks. In the end all three starved, their voices snuffed out like candle flames in the February wind. In another era of famine, a grandmother died in that same place. She’d been slipping her portion of food (a mouse, two minnows found frozen in ice, a stripped underpart of cottonwood bark) under the robe of her grandson. Only three generations ago, again on the same knoll, a rancher hanged himself from the barn rafters after learning that his wife and daughter, who had traveled east, swore to never return. Last year, a landowner shot his tenant’s dog on that same plot after the dog killed a goose. Burying the dog, hiding its body, his shovel struck a mineralized chunk of hipbone from the starved brother. Sometimes I can hear the voices of the dead layered under those of the living, the dead brother still murmuring a prayer song, still crying for his sister’s forgiveness. The ground is marked by these voices, by the blood of a goose and a dog as well. Sand and clay, bits of ash and rust and bone, mingled with sobs and laughter and chants, the shrieking gander. Dirt is a requiem.
“What’s your name?” Ernie asked, then folded at his waist and hoisted the load upon his shoulder, the corpse’s arm shuddering with the movement but held now as if to shield away the sight of his descent. The holes in snow left by Ernie’s boots followed the fall line. For however long this guy had been on the mountain, here he was, heading back down to the same valley he’d left a long goddamn time ago.
The rocks made for slow going. In an hour, they reached the timber and then took another half hour to maneuver a short stretch of downfall before they got to the trail. Ernie leaned his load against a tree, scraped at his shoulder where some of the clothing or skin had stripped off. “How much room you got in your freezer?”
“Mine neither. But how about if we fill mine with some of your stuff. Will he fit then?”
“Let’s fill mine with your stuff and put him in yours. What do I tell Lulu when she finds a body in the freezer?” Lulu, Johnny’s daughter, was staying with her father until she got a job. Or ran off with Callan, the guy she was seeing.
“Who’s most likely to be nosing around in the freezer. My Marlyss or your Lulu?” Marlyss was Ernie’s wife.
“You’re not going to tell Marlyss?”
“We don’t tell nobody till it’s done. We keep all our options. For jumping ship or whatever. Can you lock your freezer?”
“Hell no. A locked freezer. The first thing that says is what the hell’s he hiding in there?”
Lulu Carter kept a quart each of chocolate-chip-mint ice cream and raspberry sorbet in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. Every night she put a scoop and a half of each in a bowl along with two ginger snaps, sat on the couch with the TV off, so as not to dilute her focus, and worked her way through dessert in tiny quarter-teaspoon bites.
When Johnny raided the mint-chocolate, and she found only few tablespoons left, tamped like green putty in the carton’s corners, she went to the freezer on the back porch for a reserve quart. But she found the chest lid stacked with trunks of her childhood books, bundles of surveyor’s stakes, drawers of pipe fittings and electrical parts, coils of wire, three deep-cycle batteries from the boat, and other cartons of who-knows-what heaped to the ceiling.
“Dad,” she bellowed, careening through the house, but Johnny was not there. Were they conspiring? Her father and her boyfriend, were they planning to slim a few pounds off Lulu? Callan called her his Clydesdale, but it wasn’t altogether affectionate. She yanked a box of tiles off the top and, surprised by their weight, staggered, wobbled, lowering them to the floor. Mightily, she kicked the box. It wasn’t until after clearing the freezer lid she realized she probably wasn’t the target. Not if they left the sorbet behind, which they had.
Whatever it was Johnny had stretched out in the freezer came wrapped in a canvas tarp, a frozen bundle stiff as sheet metal. Game? A half a deer? She lifted one end up. A king salmon? Sorting beneath, she retrieved the ice cream. Leaving the mess of cartons and junk on the porch floor, she took her dessert bowl to the front steps and waited for her father. Distracted, she found herself unable to keep from taking large spoonfuls.
Johnny came in the back door. She heard him cry out. “Oh Jesus,” he wailed. He had the chest door up when she arrived. “For ice cream?” he yelled. “You’d move all that for ice cream?”
“What’s this all about, Dad?”
“They got no right coming after us.” He was leaning on the lifted door.
“We turn her over, and they’re famous for nothing they did. We don’t, and it’s federal charges.”
“Her? Jesus Christ, Dad.”
Stopped in ice as I have been has given me time to despair, to wonder why the quick, the living, never catch on, why the wretched work themselves to death for their children, so that their children can do the same for the next generation. Where does this go? There’s only one long lyric sung from one generation to the next. I know every phrase by heart. That’s the attraction for an idea like reincarnation, you see. Eternal life, yearn for it, but you could stand it only if you got to forget it all. After the first thousand moons of a remembered life, I needed it erased. But here I am, thousands of moons later, the unwilling watcher.
Sometimes I try for solace in the voices of younger people, in earshot of minds not yet halter broken. A five-year-old girl amuses herself—-and me—-with images for the names of friends and family: William’s name is like a bending pole; Larry is long and orange with an oval hole in the side, while Philippa is in her underwear: Jill has a long neck; and Polly two heads back to back like bonnets that are purple and smooth; and Kaki with her face turned to the side has dots along her nose. Once, hearing a cello, she thought it sounded like vanilla smelled.
After children, I sometimes visit the aged, envy those standing at the edge. And pity them. Even in my jealousy for their looming destiny in flames or moldering earth, I am angry for them, too, for their treatment, their loves lost, senses eroded, memories and minds stolen, dignity forgotten. Most are denied enough wherewithal to manage their own exit. After a life of dreading death’s horror, they often go on hanging around, long codas marinated in raw pain (for what purpose, whose?), before they are culled finally, and there’s nothing pretty about that either.
If I haven’t be able to arrange my own disappearance, I would, at this moment, love to anticipate my imminent change of address, but this sounds ridiculous. Out of the glacier and into the freezer. And besides that, I already miss my finger. Even as I yearn for disintegration, I don’t want to do it piecemeal. Or lose what’s still keen in me. Nor do I want to be exclaimed over or marveled upon, when all I represent is a lot of time. Old meat who can’t cover her ears. I’d rather be grist for ants, asleep in a sturgeon.
Come boys, take me to the river. Throw me in, toss my finger after, and let me go home.
Ernie was on the phone. “This is an emergency, Lulu.”
“He’s not here. Why’d you get Johnny into this, Ernie?” She could hear the seashell hollow on the other end, the sound of dread maybe. Or revising. “Look, Ernie, I know about her. You guys are idiots. I know you talked Johnny into this.”
“When did he tell you?” Ernie’s voice went soft.
“You can’t pull this off, Ernie.”
“Look Lulu, there’s no time for chatting. They’re saying they’ve got leads, in the paper this morning, but that’s bullshit, I know it is. Still, we got to get her out of your freezer now. Move her.”
“I’d like that.”
“You gotta help me.”
“Over my dead body, Ernie.”
“You got to do it for Johnny. They won’t let me away from here till noon. I’ll meet you past Barrett’s Nursery, that first lane down to the river. The old Lover’s Lane.”
“I’m not doing it. I won’t lug around a body. Besides, I don’t have a car.”
“Where’s your car?”
“Callan’s got it. I’m waxing his truck today.”
“I can’t drive it.”
“He won’t let me.”
“Listen, Lulu, I’ll sit on Callan if he needs sitting on. The guy in the tarp, there’s nothing to him. He don’t weigh more than a case of beer. You can drag him easy. It’s your Dad’s ass, too, you know.”
“Her, Ernie. She’s a her.”
“Look Lulu, I can’t argue with you. The soonest I can get away from here and meet you is by one. Just meet me by the river, and I’ll take him from there.”
“I’m not–” She stopped when she heard Ernie speak to someone in the room with him.
“Gotta go,” he came back. “Don’t let Johnny down, Lulu.” He hung up.
Lulu lurched at the click. She held the phone at arm’s length and swore at it.
At the river, Lulu broke, bent, and tied off willows along the road’s edge to keep them from scratching the truck. In the bed, streaks of frost edged the folds of canvas around the body. Hearing a diesel engine start up in the distance, she leaped into Callan’s truck and pulled it farther into the obscuring thicket. A logging truck passed on the county road. She got out and went back to breaking willows. At length, satisfied nothing would scrape Callan’s beloved ox-blood-burgundy paint job, she drove through the willows and into a clearing and there backed the truck around on a slope above the river’s edge. She set the emergency brake and got out.
Across the river, a heron made all its magical extensions and lifted away like a flying carpet. Blue gray and undulant as the water. Behind, the slender lines of willow and knobby charcoal of cottonwoods merged into the jade fir. Downstream, the heron crossed in front of a ridge of stone and a cliff overhang, where black water stains on the tan rock above resembled a face. Lulu, gazing at the flame-shaped stains, made out the visage of an old woman, cleft skin, dewlapped, hard squinting eyes, penetrating and severe, enraged or maybe laughing. It was hard to say.
Lulu inhaled powerfully. She turned and went to the rear of the truck where she inspected the trussed lump of frozen, ancient woman, formless in this box of angled chrome and enameled steel.
When Ernie arrived in his clunker Suburban, she was standing on the bank watching the river. He pulled up alongside Callan’s truck. He laughed, relieved apparently. “Hey Lulu, I got it all figured out now.”
She didn’t say anything.
“Thanks to you,” he tried. He walked around to her, and they watched the water.
“How the hell were you going to pull off a ransom, Ernie? How were you going to do that?”
“Everything went like it was sposed to, except when they got so excited and got the feds in and then the Indians, for Christ’s sake, that Repatriot thing.”
“How’d they know anything if they haven’t even seen her?”
“We sent a finger.”
“Jesus, Ernie,” she said, a lip curling. “You sound like the Mafia.”
“It was already broke off. We didn’t mean to do it. But they gave us a phone number to an answering machine. So we could tell them what to do. Without getting into any back-and-forth shit. Our idea. My idea.”
She squinted one eye.
“I’m no idiot. We had them post the number in the personal ads. Under the woman who wanted to find the guy who left his gloves during his driver’s test.”
“You watch too much TV, Ernie. How were you going to get the money without getting nailed?”
He examined her as if she were going to turn into an undercover cop.
“Ernie, I brought her here, for Christ’s sake. Quit acting like I shouldn’t know everything.”
Looking out over the water, he spoke in a lowered voice. “The viaduct over the railroad tracks north of Fletcher. You know, past Beaver Creek. We tell their delivery boy to get in and drive, giving him directions over a cell phone while he’s driving, so then we tell him to stop on the bridge and toss the packet over the edge down on the tracks. Then he turns around and heads back. One car, one guy. No funny stuff. We snag the packet. There’s a trail, a half mile to the old highway out to Wind Flat. They can’t get out to that highway for eleven miles. By then we’ve gotten to Wind Flats, stashed the money there, and then back out to the main highway where we’re the same as anybody else. Next day we tell their answering machine where we’ve left the body.”
“You’re still gonna do it.”
“Why not? First, I’m going to stash him where nobody can find him. Nobody but me. They want him. We want them to have him. We’ve saved them plenty. A finder’s fee, you know. And delivered, too. Two more days and it’s done. That’s all. They get the fossil. We get expenses.”
“Her, Ernie, not him. And Johnny’s not in on it.”
They heard a click. Both turned. Callan’s truck was rolling backwards toward the cutbank and the river below. Ernie grunted and ran, Lulu following. Behind his van, they stopped to watch the rear of the pickup drop over the knee-high cut bank. In the water, the rear part of the bed and tailgate listed toward the downstream side and then submerged. High-centered on the cutbank, the truck ceased moving and held fast. It looked like it had just shot up out of the core of earth and, skybound, froze for a moment at the edge of the river. The tarp-wrapped body buoyed up and over the tailgate, eddied out into the current and swept into the deeper, greener water. Ernie barreled into the river, charging with a drag-retarded lope, waist deep. Going deeper, he slanted out and stroked off after the gyrating, rolling tarp. Lulu ran along the shore. Across on the cliff, the water-stained face pattern watched on. When Ernie reached the body, he struggled to encompass, tighten the unfolding slabs of canvas. Bobbing in the rapids, his head went under twice before he managed to roll his shoulder out and sidestroke, the load clamped under his other arm. His gulping and coughing jerked with urgency, but he wouldn’t let go of the tarp, its buckled folds lifting like paddles then slipping again back under.
Ernie found footing near the middle of the river, stood in the current, bent, still coughing, lost in exhaustion, clutching like a child with a blanket. He pulled and gathered, but it was clear then to both that the tarp was all he had. Wilting a little, he let go of it, watched it slide away, and then he staggered toward Lulu and the shallows.
She met Ernie in the water, took his arm, waded to shore with him. “I had it set, Ernie. You know I did.”
“What?” His eyes protruded.
“You heard it pop out, Ernie, the emergency brake. I know you heard it.”
It was the ford at Old Woman Rock, where the face showing in stained rock looked out over the high water. The sun was near its zenith, but clouds were stacking up. Soon, days of rain would give over to summer, to dry heat that would turn the cherries red and eventually black. But on this day, the river thrashed, slick brown roils flinging by trees with roots stuck out like lightning.
They’d been digging camas, she and her daughter, in the blue-flowered meadows across the river. They’d forded where the herons had their colony on the island. With a pole in one hand and her little girl under her arm, she waded the first channel in waist-deep water, then they crossed beneath the swarm of nests spread high in the cottonwood canopy. Great croaking blots wheeling overhead, the huge birds spewed out above. The smell of ordure was fishy and bitter. Gazing upward, she shivered when she saw the skeleton, wings spread, white leering bones spread in the net of limbs. A bone-beaded neck arched like an angry rattlesnake, the hollow orbits of missing eyes glared down over the perfectly tapered blade of its beak. Snatching the girl up under her arm, she ran again. The current in the second channel was as strong as in the first, and she had to return, break down a dead cherry sapling and strip the limbs for another staff.
They had almost a full bag of bulbs when the rain came. She threw down her digging stick and surveyed the river, first upstream then down, and returned to the ford below. The water was deeper there than above, but she didn’t want to go back under the skeleton leering over the lip of nest. The rain fell harder, stippling the swollen, twisting belly of river. Hesitating seemed a deadlier approach, so she charged in. But midway, she saw what was coming, what she could not stop. She let the camas go, then the pole. The force of water sprayed gravel out from under her feet. A heavy silence enveloped them, twisted her softly, and gently crushed her chest, the surrendering easy at first, soft as the journey of clouds, the two of them rolling together, until the tearing pulled the girl from her. Far downstream, the robbed woman crept from the water onto a mud bar.
But the loss, that, too, was not dependable, not even death. Worse was the death of death. In every season thereafter of blue camas and high water, of nesting herons, the picture fragments of her daughter eroded. A bumblebee cupped, clasped buzzing within those two chubby and fearless hands, a bumblebee that did not sting her. A good memory like that one withered with too much use. There was the one of the toddler dragging the burning ends of willow and cottonwood limbs to the creek where she thrust them in and made them hiss and bubble. It was her giggling that made everyone laugh.
In the moon of first frost, the mother left alone for the mountains, climbed to the headwaters of the creek above where they camped. She ascended the rock, then the ice. She brought with her the stone amulet of the bighorn along with a new kind of memory, a made-up one. They climbed together until dark and then, glassy with sweat, crossed the glacier in moonlight. In this vision, her daughter was older, a young woman so tall and fine. They sat at the edge of the ice and talked. Clouds streamed in and snuffed out the moon, and snow began falling, heaped around them deep and light. It seemed better there than in the valley, so they never went back down.
JERRY McGAHAN has had stories in The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The Carolina Quarterly and other literary journals, and has a novel with Sierra Club Books.