We made up a language in a rhythm of fists on wall, lying in bed on either side, curled in the giant dark ear of night, knocking a lifeline in beats. You were a seahorse, rigid and precise, geometric words that tumbled into private notebooks and grew larger in your pale fingers. We held hands, bundled in snowsuits, and jumped. Windows on two walls, perched above tangled telephone wires. One night I kneeled and watched an owl on the wire, city lights spread, warm in tiny bursts of possible, and the sound of an owl falling right through my small body, my giant memory of earth. The city leaned against those hogback plates, tainted by blood, iron, tilted with ancient heat. Bear scat filled with chokecherry and sumac in piles on the edge of town. A cinnamon fox that traveled behind the dumpster. Tanagers like sparks in ponderosa, and cedar waxwings drunk on wild plums. She showed us how to wait, to watch as pasque flowers tremble and tilt towards the sun. To kneel and watch for ptarmigan, curled in snow beds, and turning the color of stone. We leaned close, knocked on the wall, the dark like our own best secret. A three-note song, we promised to come running. The creek in early spring, muscled cottonwood, whiskey-dark pools, churning the air new. All this behind us, mountains cling to our footsteps, mountains strong in our sleep, carrying the sea, even here, his dark trails washed clean. It was like that one morning, the sleeve of sadness risen, the mountains quiet in us, the hush of snow falling, piling deep.
She studied bat voices, slowing them down enough to hear, to draw a voice in lines. Two people can lean into a crack in night’s breath. Candlelight on the dock astonishes the water, licking the surface of the swamp. A beaver slaps its fat tail, a heron scream cuts the dark. A small wooden bridge leads them to the beach, a rocky cove where they farm oysters, wolves watching from the trees.
What happens when love leaves a place? Here, on the edge of swamp and sea… By love, I mean his hands, when they shine a light up the hollowed burn scar in an old cedar. A motor of hundreds of tiny bat wings crawl in the beam. By love, I mean her hands, as they gather reeds in the canoe, dry them in bundles, weave baskets she sells at market.
By love, I mean their hands, moon-soaked, huddled by solitude, as they leave offerings, carved stones hanging from hemlock, feathers bundled with twine. He holds a tiny bone, asks us to guess… a crossbill’s clavicle like a shard of light held up in his fingertips. A tiny bat skeleton, black skin, paper thin, stretched between its wing fingers.
After twenty years, what is left in their wake? The windows dark, the wooden plank nailed to the alder, empty of birdseed. The arc and ache of a loon call, a stitched line of prints— wolf, human, raccoon, gull map the path to swamp’s edge.
Annie Haven McDonnell grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she teaches English and sustainability courses as a faculty member at the Institute of American Indian Arts. When not at work, Annie loves moving through mountains on feet and skis with her partner, friends, and her old blind dog.