“Slave Craton”
by Paige Cooper


Photo: Nancy Friedland

Erin wields the hatchet lightly, like it’s lit upon her hand. The cedars here have been dead longer than they were alive. Most are fallen: whale spines crest in the grass. This piece of land dropped so suddenly into the ocean they suffocated all at once. Ever since, Erin told him, the land’s been rising again.

She stops at a trunk that’s crashed sideways to lie canted at hip-height. She pushes against it. Solid. Decomposing firmly into the grass. She takes one experimental swing and the hatchet glances off the wood. A chip of bark wings away.

“Good?” she grins at him. Wriggles out of her backpack.

Michael is still wearing his dirty yellow life preserver. She left hers with the kayaks. He’s sweating badly. He takes it off and holds it.

“Can we eat first?” he says.

“I wouldn’t,” she says. “You’d just puke.”

She opens the first aid kit, passes the roll of gauze to him and wraps a wide blue elastic band four times around the base of her ring finger. He can’t avoid her eyes. She touches his wrist.

“Ready?” she says.

Her gaze has that cloudless intensity that means she is thinking about how she loves him, though she won’t say it. Thank god. His gut twists: shit or eat. His hands are cold and wet. She should know better. She should be able to see into him clearly enough to stop herself.

Right hand splayed over the trunk, she swings one hard and perfect stroke with her left. Her breath releases in a high sigh.

“Can you wrap it?”

The wind in the trees is a highway roar. Blood spurts childishly.
“Michael? Can you help me wrap it?”

She missed, slightly: hit halfway between the top knuckle and the second. He hovers but she pinces the end of the gauze and pushes it into the stump. The idea was just the top knuckle, the fingernail, essentially. Instead of a ring. Something irreversible.

“Easy,” she hisses through her teeth. Sweat pools above her lip. “See? Mother fuck,” she says.

“I don’t think so,” he says.

“It feels, oh shit, it hurts.” Her grin comes back.

“Quick,” she says.

“I can’t do it for you,” she says.

“Michael,” she says.

The water has a slight seaward current. It slinks at the same speed as time. He doesn’t look at her swabbed finger or her shining face. If he looks the entire landscape will collapse and she’ll rush in like the ocean to engulf him.

He picks up his life preserver again. He takes a step back into the dead tangle. He pushes the kayak into the shallows. He leaves her like that. She will not mark him.

It was easy for him to leave the city and come to her research station on the coast – they eat at the canteen and sail out on the core-sample boat and talk to the harbour seals. He pecks at visible action items for a few hours a day to keep his project manager pleased. He sets up an automatic payment to Oxfam. Two thousand a month. At first it was one, but she asked him flat-out what his net income was and conducted some harsh math and he was forced to admit that yes, he could, technically, afford two.

“I want to promise something to you,” she says in the noon sun, their lunch trash scattered around them, the escarpment dropping below into the wrought-iron tree tips, glass-green seawater. She has already explained how the horizon, after the continent snaps back, will rise up. Just a little, like an eyebrow, until it bulldozes the shore. Here, then ten hours later in Japan. A seven hundred mile wave. Even up here, looking down, it would hit them like they’d fallen ten stories to the sidewalk.

“I don’t know,” she says, “Something permanent.”

“I know,” he says. The air is thick between them, the same strain of emotion condensed like terrarium humidity. He rests his skull against hers. His chest is a hollow earth with a burning sun inside it. His palm smoothes her inner knee, his fingers on the scars there. She has more, moony ovals, at her shoulderblades and haunches.

She says, “In the rigging, when you’re floating there with the pain. It’s not pain. Or I mean, it’s not suffering. It holds you. It’s not as fucked up as it sounds. People are addicted to worse things. Internet poker.”

“It doesn’t sound like an addiction,” he says, thinking of Amy.

“I didn’t mean addiction. It’s a practice. It’s better than an internet-poker practice.”

“You just hang there. On the hooks,” he says. The scars fan, overlap. They are neat, swabbed, repeated.

“It is not suffering,” she says. “Do you know how many Lakota teenagers tried to kill themselves last winter? A hundred and three. Nine actually did it. In South Dakota. But that was in March. I read that in March.” Her fingers creep and interlace with his. She noses against his neck, breathes into his skin. The word love is weather between them. He thinks it constantly. She does too because she clings to him in the night, smiles as she opens her eyes to him. “That’s suffering. This is not suffering.”

“The ghost forest,” she says. “Once you see it you’ll never want to leave.”

“Was I leaving?” he says.

She raises her eyebrow at him. She’s older than him. She knows what he’s thinking before he does. She thinks more than he does. Her ideas are familiar, arterial, from his childhood. He feels so lucky to have recognized her. From a distance: a stranger who is actually kin. It was the hollows under her eyes.

“I’m here,” he says.

Her face folds. She laughs into his shoulder until she turns to wipe her nose because she is crying. His sleeve is wet with tears. She laughs again, but her eyes are pink and blue. She butts her forehead under his chin. “Don’t change your mind,” she says. She is begging him.

No explaining the impulse to hide from the helicopter. It’s not about to land in the trees here, scoop her up kicking. Scooted under a cedar with neon witch’s beard in her face, Amy laughs at her hermit-crab instincts. It’s the first engine she’s heard. Obviously it has other priorities. Amy, ankle-deep in iced mountain bog, cradling the purse she pulled out of her car, can’t quite tell how drunk she is anymore. Not at all. She must still be, though. She fell asleep briefly, lower down, against a trunk, but the ground started moving again and the idea of another wave levered her back to her feet. She pulls her pants, hangs over a branch, pisses downhill. Then she keeps climbing, hands and knees, slipping in pine-needle avalanches. Uphill, obviously. Eventually she’ll see what’s going on, now that daylight is happening. She wipes hair out of her face and brushes her smashed-up nose. It feels like it maybe got shoved into her brain. Her fingers are brittle twigs. Glass-cut, leaking blood on the left, she arranges them under her dirty blouse against her hot belly. “I changed my mind!” she yells after the helicopter, long gone, and laughs.

The ground changes and she crawls up the lip of a dirt road, cut into the side of the mountain. It’s frozen in ruts and is almost horizontal, compared to everything else. She can’t see much through the trees, still. Buttery sky above. Birds chatter. She dangles her legs over the edge of the incline, opens her purse, plucks out her plastic water bottle, which is gin and flat soda. The sound of another motor. This one an insect whine. The woman on the ATV looks as surprised as Amy.

“Where’d you come from?” she says.

“Highway.” Amy points downhill.

“Jesus. You were in the wave?”

“What wave?” Amy quips. She laughs. Her hatchback, netted in trees above the road. That part of the highway was, lord, hundreds of feet above the beach. She must’ve just caught the crown of it, and still. She and a mudslide fell six feet back down to the ground when she opened the car door. Her feet squish in her ankle boots. She’d left the hotel in a rage. That’s what it was. They’d been in the restaurant overlooking the bay. She’d ordered a third bottle and Michael had said to the waiter, The house red is fine, no point wasting the good stuff.

“Are you all right?” the woman says. Her braid is blonde, she has a sleepless look. She is looking at Amy with a certain intensity Amy recognizes. She means, Are you drunk?

“No,” says Amy automatically.

“You better come back with me,” the woman says. When she offers Amy her hand, it’s deformed. One of the fingers is stumped short. Amy stares at it. When the woman hauls her up by the armpits, she starts to cry.

When Erin comes to the city to visit Michael for the first time there are more vegan restaurants than they could possibly go to in two days, and the one he suggests she wrinkles her nose at. “We could just cook,” she says, thumbing through the menu on his front stoop, that shapeless, ratty backpack slung over her shoulder. She is wearing shorts and a spark-burnt fleece. Her hair is falling out of its braid.

“We could,” he says.

“Was I right about your fridge?” she says.

He shrugs. He made an attempt to bring the place from a Level 10 disaster to a Level 7, but he doesn’t say that in case she scoffs at the result.

“I just have a hard time spending that kind of money,” she says. “Kale bowl.”

“I’m paying, obviously,” he says. He looks ahead and sees the pattern form like clouds over the street: Amy, always a week short of her pay check, gas for her car, phone bill overdue. On his way over to her place his phone would buzz: bring wine?

“That’s nice, but it’s the utility,” she says. “You pay seventeen dollars instead of what, five? So we don’t have to think or wash anything? But you could pay Unicef two hundred to turn a sick two-year-old into a reasonably healthy six-year-old.”

“Yes,” says Michael.

“Luxuries are just tough for me,” Erin says. Her voice is apologetic but her face is not.

“You’d rather cook,” he says.

“Is that obnoxious? I’m sorry.”

They walk to the grocery store. Inside, he trails her until she says, an ultra-pleasant edge to her voice, “Could you go find the almonds, maybe? Whole and unsalted.”

When he opens the door to his apartment, she puts the bags down on the floor. She picks up a glass from the rack. “Are these clean? Where is your cutting board?”

He putters uselessly, trying to pick a record and make it play while she chops and clatters. She rinses dishes he washed that morning, but he doesn’t say anything. Her focus is silent, intimidating.

“Is that a door? Can you open it?” she says, gesturing to the balcony with the knife.

“Okay,” he says. Then, “Why?”

“It’s a little stuffy?”

“They were cutting grass outside earlier. I had to shut it.”

“That seems counterintuitive,” she says.

“I’m allergic,” he says.

She smiles without looking at him, but it’s more of a sneer. He wants to walk up behind her, press his hard-on to her ass and wedge the blade of his hand between her legs, but she does not seem to like him right now. It’s possible she may eat dinner and then leave. It’s possible she may leave.

“You don’t have to stay,” he says.

“What?” she stops cutting. A beet falls to the floor. She ducks under an open cabinet door to look at him.

“I just – like, if you don’t want to,” he says.

“I just drove for two hours.”

“Do you want to be here?” he says.

“Do I? Are you actually asking me?” she says. She puts the knife down, and steps from the linoleum to the parquet. She didn’t take off her sandals. He hadn’t managed to sweep. “Yeah, wow, okay, that was fast,” she says, to herself. “Clearly this is who you are.”

Stepping out of the kitchen means she’s stepped towards the door. He imagines her on the other side of the closed door, down the steps, on the sidewalk.

“I’m sorry,” he says. He steps towards her, one hand up.

“You haven’t even touched me since I got here,” she says.

He kisses her. She backs into the counter. She whines. On the couch, she puts her mouth on his cock. He takes off her tank and brushes the scars that float over her shoulder blades like islands. She unrolls a condom and the light goes, and then she pours a beer, with a self-conscious glance at him, and resumes cooking under the stove light. Bare-chested, he watches from the couch. A slow-boiling sun of emotion rises in his ribcage, watching her move in his space. They eat kale and quinoa on the balcony in the hot dark, the trees brushing their feet, the neighbour’s eternal Bob Marley drifting up.

“You only need twenty-five thousand to live,” she says. “Or in my case, fourteen because the government houses me so much of the year. The rest can go.”

Michael nods, letting his knee rest against hers.

“It’s none of my business, but people are starving to death and we all have the fucking phone number for Oxfam. No one can honestly plead ignorance.”

“That guy outside the grocery store,” Michael says. “Every day. It’s like a job. It’s like community service he’s doing. Every time I see him I know where I am, where I live.”

“He wouldn’t ask for money if he didn’t need it,” she says. “No one would ever ask, is the thing people don’t understand. Just by merit of asking you for money that guy has proved that he needs it more than you do. Because you’ve never had to ask, have you? Random luck means you’ve never had to ask.”

“I give him twenties, sometimes,” says Michael. “Randomly. Now there are days when I give him change and he was expecting a twenty. Maybe he’s counting on it that day, I don’t know. I don’t know what he needs. Just saying it diminishes it.”

“You could ask him. You could buy him lunch.”

“I don’t want to though,” he says. “That would feel condescending. I’d rather just pay.”

“You can, though, is my point,” she says.

“Could you stay?” he says. The sun, expanding like that, it could choke him. “This weekend? Until you really have to go. Could you stay on Monday?”

“No.” She grimaces. “I have another cycle to start running at 10 a.m. What about you? You work remotely sometimes?”

“Yeah, anywhere,” he says. “I only go in because –” he waves a hand at the disaster inside: the silty floor, the hair and dust over the undergraduate textbooks.

“So come back with me.”

“Yes,” he says. The cedars out there, warm as good parents. What if he left forever? His project manager, his boss. His colleagues untangling his gnarled code. Apartment deep in dust. “For a couple of days.”

“I’m scared,” she says into his collarbone, later, in the dark. They are slimed, limp, paddling on the sunny surface of sleep. “This is the thing you don’t turn away from.”

He stays, and in the morning Erin lies in her cot, stinking of hangover. “Would you like some water?” he says. She mumbles. He fills her bottle from the huge plastic canister in the kitchenette. She rolls over and slits her eyes. “There’s aspirin,” she points. He fetches it.

The little mattress is too narrow to welcome him back, so he dresses in yesterday’s muddy clothes – it was too presumptuous and too hopeful to pack a spare set – kisses her slick temple, and silently settles the screen door into its warped frame.

The morning’s mildness is already baked dry. Grass roasts under his boots. He pauses at the curve of the hill between her hut and the rest of the station, not knowing where to go. The islands hump around in the ocean’s flat black. The clouds are stacked vertically all around him, like friendly gods. He needed coffee hours ago. He does not want to go out on the core-sample boat. He tries not to feel manipulated. He tries to enjoy the sunshine.

When he was a kid he dreamt that the volcano had woken up, and the red light coming in through his curtain was the heat death of the universe. He ran the tub full of cold water and sat in it until his dad came in, hairy. His dad was mean when surprised.

There’s an insect buzzing like a drone, so loud it must be the size of a raven. Or maybe there are just many of them, and he’s surrounded. He will not make the same mistake. This does not feel like the same mistake. He will not love another drunk. But Erin is not a drunk, she just got drunk. He is not scared.

He creeps back into her hut to grab his bag. He’ll call later, apologize, say something came up with work. She’s dressed, though. She splashes water on her face. Long legs. Long, dirty feet. She cocks her head at him, water drips from her chin. She looks five years older: lines have appeared where there were none. But they are kind lines, they welcome him to live in them. “Guarding the perimeter?”

“All clear,” he says. The curve of a scar flashes like a grin at her knee. “What are those from?”

“Suspension,” she says.

“Like, hooks?”

“It’s kind of a hobby. Sanitized. Industrial rigging. Some people do yoga.”

“But you don’t have any tattoos.”

She pads over to him, curls her fingers fondly around his wrist. “Out of the mouths of babes.” She puts his fingers in her mouth, flicks her tongue against the tips.

“I’m not that young,” he says.

“Virgin,” she says. “Baby.”

Lying down with her curled against him he says, “In sixth grade I made a vow to make as much money as I could so that I could buy up the rainforest before it was all cut down. It was a school day. The moon was out at eight a.m. I promised it to the moon.”

She doesn’t say anything. For a long time her fingers stroke the web of his hand. He is sleepy. She murmurs his name into his ear, a heartbroken little voice that stirs the roots of his spine.

The woman drives Amy to a house in a clearing. They judder over a cattle guard, and there’s also a garage, solar panels, a greenhouse, several other small and specific buildings. Everything roofed in black aluminum. A two-strand barbed-wire fence skirts the property, and there’s a much higher fence around some trees and raised vegetable beds.

“I knew you were out there,” the woman says, killing the engine. She helps Amy step down from the perch she’s frozen to. “Bath, maybe?” she says, “Tank’s twelve hundred gallons so don’t be shy.”
She leaves Amy to sit tit-deep in warm water. Dripping, Amy digs around in her bag to find the plastic water bottle, then settles back into the tub. She sips.

When she wakes up it’s dark out and the clock says 04:12. The woman’s reclining in an easy chair. A man on the radio says, “Total devastation miles inland rescue crews say thousands—”

“I have to go see if I can find anyone else, or what’s the point,” says the woman. The chair creaks as she pushes herself out of it. She hits a light switch. “But fucked if I didn’t tell those assholes.”

“How bad is it?” Amy says. A headache drifts somewhere above her skull, looking for a place to settle.

“Nine point four,” says the woman. She pours water into a coffee press.

“My fiancé is in Open Court Bay. You know the resort there?”

The woman gazes at her. “No chance,” she says. Her stub finger taps the counter as the beans grind. Outside, the trees start to appear as pale lines against their own dark. It’s raining.

Amy sits. He’d moved in, like she’d wanted. They’d talked about meetings, until they didn’t.

Walking out every few weeks is part of the passion. She’s always believed in passion.

The woman hands her a rough, heavy mug. “The plate just bent and bent,” she is saying. “I told them. The Slave Craton’s the oldest rock on the planet. It doesn’t move. It was never going to move. Something else had to.”

As soon as he can, he rents another car and drives out to the research station, passing the spot where Erin first swiped his teeth with her tongue, just days ago but already time is expanding, slowed down with the added weight. When he pulls into the parking lot, Erin greets him with an awkward wave. She stands at a professional distance so he can’t quite find a way to kiss her. She smiles like he’s arrived to update software. The facilities are both more and less rustic than he’d imagined: layers of outdated technology washed up in the ebb and flow of funding. DVD spindles and Windows Vista. The core-sample boat is a royal blue rust giant that stinks of headache. Erin’s eyes dart between him and everyone they meet as she tours him around. He is happy to see that the drilling tech whose opaque wisecracks she is always relaying – Marco says I can make it as a synchronized rip-chain puller – is round and wears a necklace of wooden beads under his ornate facial hair.

“I hope you brought bourbon,” says Marco as they shake hands. “Because it’s bourbon night and tomorrow is hangover fishing.”

“He’s joking,” Erin deflects. “But we can go out on the boat tomorrow, if you want.”

Michael doesn’t answer.

“I mean, if you’re staying?” she says.

Marco hoots and walks off.

“Am I?” says Michael. The sun’s burnt his left forearm already, through the closed window on the drive here. He tries to cover the scalded skin with his other hand.

“I hope so,” says Erin, “I’m inviting you.”

She opens the screen door to her hut and he puts his bag down on the marshy linoleum. It smells of mould and pesticide, but the dry breath of the cedars sighs through a huge back window and it’s cooler in here, a little.

She tugs at the bedspread: “I can fifty percent guarantee no spiders.”

He came here to kiss her. He walks up behind her, puts his hands on her waist. “Hm,” she says, and backs into him so his hands run up her ribs. Her back is arched. She’s wet to the touch. The air streams through the screens of latched door and dusty window, and she shushes him once, twice. Naked, she is soft. The scars run in pairs down the dorsal lines of her body. He doesn’t ask. He comes too quick. He works on the right architecture. Every time she says, “Hey listen,” he pushes her back down and continues. She’s not that difficult. He shushes her sardonically. The crocheted blanket is a hot swamp. Her hair is a trash tide over her head and he laughs about it while she laughs. Her eyes are black-blue, he thumbs the dark circles under them.

When they open the door to her hut the sun has dumped itself into the strait under a sediment of war-red clouds. She glances around and he pulls her close to inhale her licked-clean throat. “Okay,” she pushes him off. “I work here.”

As promised, she carries half a bottle of bourbon. She drops his hand as they find other people – the migration biologists – at the top of the escarpment, and everyone skids down a hundred-foot dirt chute step-laddered with stripped roots.

He hasn’t eaten since breakfast. He has his steel water bottle and now, muddy shorts.

They approach an ancient rite: muzzy, stinking bonfire ringed by blackened stones and vandalized logs. High tide, he’d guess, with the trees hanging over. The waves cough and push flocks of insects around. A dozen people talk through the flames. They find a spot beside Marco. The trunk they sit on is so thick it must’ve been two hundred years old. Now it’s carved and painted. POISON ALL POLLUTERS KILL ALL POACHERS.

“How’s the hike? You make it to the waterfall? You guys look pretty satisfied,” Marco cackles at another guy in a baseball cap as he pierces a corner-store hot dog with a whittled spear. Erin takes a protein bar out of her backpack. He snorts at it. “You’re missing out.”

“Don’t talk to me about that thing,” she says, taking a swig of the bourbon. The sausage looks small and pissy. Michael finds it unlikely that she will want to kiss him if he eats one.

“So you’re into seismology, too?” Michael says.

“Sure,” says Marco. “ I was doing deep-sea oil wells before, but this pays the same and is way fuckin’ easier, no offense.”

“Marco is post-ethical,” says Erin. “He could give a shit how many kids are about to die because the government won’t move any schools out of the inundation zone. No matter what my estimates say.”

“Hey Erin, tell me again how smart pigs are?” says Marco, squirting mustard. He hands a hot dog to Michael without asking. Erin looks at it. Then she gives him a tiny, bitter salute with her bottle.

“Easier to believe that I’m exaggerating than that I’m right. Ten to one, right? That’s the odds? How about this year? What would they do if I say it’ll happen by December thirty-first?”

“Shut up, Erin,” says Marco. “Michael, please help yourself to condiments.”

Their first date is at a diner at a misty little stoplight halfway between what she’s described as her coastal hut and what he hasn’t admitted is a wreck of a downtown apartment.

“So why don’t you drink?” she says. “Medication?”

He sips his coffee, frowns. “I need a reason?”

“Sorry,” she says. “Was that pushy? No, of course you don’t.”

She has black circles under her eyes. He hadn’t really noted how tall she was at first, shoulder-height on him. Her hair splinters at the ends. He’d believe it if she said she used to train birds of prey. Her hand describing a swift, euphoric up!

“Do you want to guess my thing, then?” she says.

“What, that you’re vegan? That’s not it.” He shakes his head. “I have no idea.”

“It’s obvious,” she says. “If you were paying attention at all.”

“I guess I wasn’t.”

Her eyes widen. She reaches across the table to thumb the web of his hand. “Don’t apologize. I’m just a harpy.”

He smiles. “You don’t scare me.”

She laughs so loudly that the waitress rolls her eyes. She grimaces, pushes her water glass with a finger. “I’m so much older than you.”

“And I’m such an innocent,” he says, “Nubile ingénue. Corruptible.” He has the advantage of being skinny and tall, and he gets his hair cut at a good place, but there are some symptoms of himself that are hard to hide, like how his hands tremble, how his eyes are puffy under thick lenses, and how he has lost people over the years. He read her dissertation online – or at least skimmed the abstract, scrolled through the methodology. “So you transferred from Alaska?”

“Two years ago.”

“Wouldn’t you rather be elsewhere, considering what you know is going to happen?”

“It’s my job,” she says. “I’ll survive.”

“Will I?” he says.

“Depends.” Her smile is tiny. It travels through him, over the trees, up the knobbed spine of the coastal range. “Stick with me, kid,” she drawls.

He laughs a little, to dispel the chill.

She cocks her head. “So you were in love.”

“Like, recently?” he says. The water glitters in its glass.

“A year ago, two. It was intense,” she says. She leans forward. “You abased yourself. She blacked out most nights. You lost your friends. You were together for what, a year and a half, before you realized you’d kill yourself if you stayed? But she kept begging you back, and it was another two years before you stopped letting her convince you. You’ll never know if anything she ever said was true.”

Something rattles in his sternum. He is stopped. Fingers cold against the coffee cup.

“I’m right,” she says. “I know when I’m right.”

He considers the possibility that this woman has been sent as some kind of vengeance. By Amy. By the universe. But his therapist says that kind of paranoia has to be breathed into. He presses his fingers to the bones of his chest. A sun beats through the thin skin there. It burns towards its end.

—From CNQ 99, the Film Issue (Spring 2017)

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