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Suspicious River, Page 24

Laura Kasischke

  Dance of a thousand scarves.

  White sailboats, diffused as feathers—the Northern Lights: I recognize those. I remember dreaming those. I remember sitting at the edge of my bed, that jewelry box open—handfuls and handfuls of cash.

  Maybe this is what I’d wanted.

  I close my eyes again. The sound of lungs above me. I smell their smoke, their sweat, the way something smolders before it explodes. I remember the smell of meat roasting over coals in Vets Park on the Fourth of July. Animal sacrifice, it seemed. Bombs exploding beautiful and more elaborate than death in the sky, while the old soldiers in the cemetery slept under small, snapping flags—the grass above their dreams as short and burned back as crew-cut boys, as the fur on a pit bull’s back.

  When I open my eyes again, those lights blink and weave around the trees. The sky is a flat sheet—a huge white rug shaken into wind, dust and ashes flying. I whisper, “What are you going to do?”

  Gary laughs, or coughs.

  “We’re going to kill you,” the blond one says.

  I open my mouth and feel the solar ash of those exploded stars fall onto my teeth from the sky. This is enough, I think: I’ve tasted space.

  If you want to live, you should run, she whispers.

  If you don’t, close your eyes, and it’s over.

  Time passes.

  Whole lives.

  But then, unlikely as it seems, I stand up, slow. The sun in front of me has begun to push up into the distance like a thin curl of bleached hair. I stare at that for a moment, but I can hear their teeth—small circles grinding smaller circles. Gary says, “Kneel down.”

  I could kneel now, I know.

  I could return my hands and knees to the mud, without hope—a woman drawing the forest around her like a grave, utterly lost, the East in every direction. Trees moving in around me. But, instead, something rises up, suddenly and in total silence, over a line of trees in front of me. It seems to rise from me. A tangible scream. All feathers. I don’t even have to look to know what’s there:

  On the ground, their shadows could be children, or planes, monkeys, angels, dogs, crossing the sky with wings. They are rising, flustering, beating the air, ready to leave the only home they have. Hovercraft—the whir of those birds like celestial machines, and I know what this means. I have watched them every October for years from the office of the Swan Motel—this gathering of motion, migration. These hundreds of sweet beasts churning the air to ocean. I know, now, where I am—how close I am again to where I’m from.

  So, I run.

  Those massive birds. Bulky angels. I run in the opposite direction.

  Behind me, their breathing, their feet hitting the ground hard, like mine, but I don’t look back. The future, like the past, is only a few steps ahead of me, and when I stumble through the archway of trees into a clearing near the river, I see it. Sunrise. In it, three huge swans are waiting, pink-feathered in this new light, wading and shuddering at the edge of the river, making low, reedy sounds in their throats. When they see me, they honk, hunker, then all three beat their feathers together and fly into the sky, following the others. The three crucifixes of their shadows waver across the ground, then disappear.

  In front of me, a thin fog rises off the water, and through it I can see the pastel sign of the Swan Motel as it brands the bright morning weakly with neon on the river’s other side.


  A woman shouts. I see the arc of a cigarette tossed through air into water.


  I open my arms to her, and then I hold them above my head as I wade into the river.

  It’s deep here.

  The black water rises over my waist, oily, and then my body goes numb with the cold. The mud at the bottom of the river sucks at my bare heels, but it can’t hold me back. I’m stronger than the mud.

  And at the edge of the water, wading toward me, Millie glows, rose-flushed in the sun coming up. Her hair is wild around her face. She has her hands cupped around her heart as if to keep it in her chest, and her eyes are wide with colored light. I stumble up.

  “Leila. My god. You’re bleeding to death,” she says. She is sobbing then, “They’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

  Again, I am on my knees.

  This time, I put my face down at Millie’s feet, and I can smell the rubber soles of her shoes, the grass and mud under those. I can hear the buttons on her jean jacket rattle as she trembles over me, and then she bends down to touch my hair. I remember hands. I remember being touched, turned, in blinding light with rubber gloves. My eyes opening for the first time. The sound of my own first scream, my mother choking on still wind and her own sobs. Millie’s fingers are warm and bony on the back of my neck.

  “We have to get some help,” she says, but she doesn’t move.

  I see us from the sky.


  A lime-green scarf of frost wreathes us while the sun continues to rise like beautiful red and yellow tropical fruit smashed and smeared low over the edge of the earth. Fog ripples the river like pink smoke skirts, and Millie just stares straight ahead, not blinking, crying, watching the weak trembling of branches across the river, something creeping through the trees. Snaking its way to us. The sound of strong wings receding.

  Don’t look, I want to say to her. There’s nothing on the other side.

  But she still stares, lips pale and parted, and even the small blond hairs on her arms shiver with life as she breathes the musty feathers they’ve left behind and the sweet, weedy air.

  About the Author

  LAURA KASISCHKE is the author of several novels and collections of poetry. Her numerous awards include the Alice Fay DiCastagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Bobst Award for Emerging Writers. She lives in Chelsea, Michigan.