The visions were what kept me going, my responsibility as messenger, the necessity of revolution.
I watched the lamplight play on the scissors in Alma’s hand.
“It should’ve sounded like rust,” I said.
She hesitated a half-second too long before challenging me. “How does something sound like rust?”
I shrugged, taking the Ziploc baggie of my own hair she held out to me. Brown, mostly. A few streaks of auburn here and there, mild reminders of summer. I wasn’t so prone to romanticizing that I ascribed each strand its own memory, though a few returned to me—busting my knee on the rocks as I dragged the canoe out of the water; bending for the sweet chemical musk of citronella as I lit the candles at dusk; pulling fleshy rods of expired hot dogs from their plastic and throwing them to the raccoons; coming to in the woods with my godfather Tab’s chest hovering over mine.
But this was just a bag of hair and it didn’t mean anything more than that. Other than a thousand years in a landfill.
“Anyway, now you’re new,” Alma said, a little brightly, clicking the scissors fast and careful like someone mincing herbs between their teeth.
I stilled her arm. “You’re getting hair all over the floor.”
She leaned away, my fingers around her skinny forearm, and took me in.
“You look sophisticated, Nance.”
In our small quadrant of light like a last breath of warmth, I thought maybe I did. Maybe I did look sophisticated. I let myself feel sophisticated for a moment, imagined we were at one of those fancy parties rich people had in the ’40s, where couples wore shiny baubles and slicked their hair and pretended not to fight on their friends’ patios while they gripped sweating martinis. Rich people had always partied, would always party, like we weren’t doomed.
I took the scissors from Alma, slowly opening and closing my fist, watching my tendons flex and contract with the metal bite. If we were doing this right, the scissors would be rusty—that was all I’d meant. We’d be hunched over a sink in a Chevron bathroom, the soles of our shoes sticky with piss, our elbows knocking against a condom machine that had been empty for years and graffiti-victim for longer. I wanted that image—the renegade duo battling certain villainy—but here we were in Mama and Daddy’s living room, using what were probably the same shears that had trimmed our ends since we were seven. Alma’s pajama pants had pink pandas on them, for Christ’s sake. Anyway, our villains were not the same, not anymore.
“You don’t have to go back to Chicago,” she said quietly. “Stay here, with people who love you. Tell the university it’s field work.” Before I could cut her off, tell her once again that wasn’t how it worked, she tried a new closer. “Besides, you know better than anyone what they’ve been saying about freshwater—and we’ve got it.”
All 20 years of her stretched out towards me, asking for what I hoped was the final time why I couldn’t just say yes, stay here in Michigan. The fact she had to ask proved how little she understood.
“We’ll still be sharing the same lake, Al,” I said. “And it’s still fresh there, too. For now.”
I watched her retract into herself like a tape measure released from ten feet away. With a snap, a sharpness.
“Yes, and we’ll see the same moon and the same stars, and even when we shut our eyes, we’re all made of stardust, la-dee-freaking-dah. Except the difference between here and Chicago is here you’re not a martyr.”
“You’re right, here I’m just easier to subdue. A quieter breed of crazy, right?”
“Stop it,” she said, venom in her voice.
I clicked the scissors closed and set them on the coffee table next to what remained of my birthday cake—a hacked-up blackberry mess with two forks sticking out in half-hearted stabs.
“Aren’t you supposed to be nice to me today?” I said.
She picked up her fork, twirled it, dropped it. I watched crumbs spatter and attach themselves to the panda nearest her left ankle.
“This is me being nice to you. If Mama were here, she’d go after your spark plugs.”
“Well, she’s not,” I said.
And if she were, Alma would be the one to find the leads with me, reattach them. She jabbed her hair behind her ear, pissy because she knew this as well as I did.
“I’m scared, Nance, don’t you see?”
I didn’t want her to be scared. I was supposed to be taking care of her. So later, I made a big show of taking my medicine, swallowing it with a cold gulp of water so big it seeped out the corners of my mouth. She laughed as I dragged the back of my wrist across my chin. We watched each other for a moment, two unsure animals, before retreating to our rooms.
I had to pay closer attention these days—the medicine kept the visions from lingering like they used to.
I was on the verge of sleep when the vision crept towards me. I relaxed my body on my twin-sized mattress, opening myself up to receive it. I had to pay closer attention these days—the medicine kept the visions from lingering like they used to. Now they were fast, quick, lake trout darting from my open palms. In the beginning they had come this way, back in the winter right after Daddy passed, back when they were still testing me out. This simple concurrence had made it so easy for Alma to pin their existence on his cancer, Mama’s. So wrong. And if not wrong, a misdiagnosed relation—our parents’ deaths were not a trigger of something inherent and broken in me, but a readying push towards something deeper. I became older when I was the oldest one left in our family. Capable of bearing this weight. Tonight, a new vision for my new age.
Chicago. Summer. As if the sky is lit by one giant bulb it goes dark. But before that, purple, a gorgeous storm of indigo meeting maroon, vast Midwestern sky growing pregnant with color, flickering once a cold hard blue like a gas burner turned high and then—darkness. Complete void. All the while, people are having a party at the edge of Lake Michigan, on the tiered concrete like so many cinderblocks. When the light goes, they scream. They cannot compute a sky so dark. A girl confesses that she’d always thought the electricity would go before the light.
When I turn to look at her—despite the darkness, I can see—she, along with that once color-rich world, turns to shadow, sifts away.
I’d been lying earlier in the night when I told Alma that tomorrow we’d still be sharing the same lake. Well, yes and no. I’d been lying and not lying. Going by the map, Chicago was the base and our house the tip of the same eggplant-shaped splotch of blue. But after the vision, as I stepped barefoot off the back porch, over the fallen needles—night-cold toothpicks of jack pines, sharp flat planes of white cedar—and hurried towards the lakefront, the pads of my toes felt the lie. In Chicago they’d be sloughing against dim cement blocks or sand yellowed by too many soles. Here they were home, the ground and my calluses meeting like a well-set jaw. I wanted to stay. I couldn’t stay.
The lake was dark and glistening and inert below the moon, like an eye just upon waking. I tugged my windbreaker down over my pajama pants to sit on the narrow strip of sand between the trees and the water, cold damp seeping through anyway, jostling me with a shiver.
Alma and I’d always liked September best. Whatever tourists had come were gone, and we ruled the shallows. Mama and Daddy were flush enough with cash from the busy season that our suppers had variety. I liked September because of school, too. Alma couldn’t be bothered. She ran the shop now rather than go to college, though as the eldest it was my name on the documents, my ID required to access the safety deposit box. Technically. Janet at the bank, Julie at the post office, Marty and Cristal and Jack heading their own shops—they knew it was Alma at the fore and they let her do as she pleased. They adored her. Me, on the other hand—I was the one who got out, which I’d learned was both an accomplishment and an insult. They were proud of me, but wary. Now, for other reasons, they avoided my gaze entirely.
I spread out my palm, laid it flat against the still surface of the water. Though I tried every time to be gentle and unobtrusive, it was impossible not to set it rippling. Crazy is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result, Daddy had said, usually about things that were fairly sane, like botching the first pancake and trying to flip another. I took my hand from the water and shook off the droplets. What would he think if he could see me now, if he had seen me in June? Would he believe me, like Tab had and maybe still did? Would he be proud, or would he join forces with Alma and Mama?
Before me, my image rippled in the aftermath of its own touch. A small blue figure with rumpled hair, short hair, not sophisticated hair after all but hair clearly exactly what it was: a shoddily executed idea of Alma’s that cutting it would demarcate my life in a way that allowed me to be new. Not for the first time, I was grateful Mama and Daddy were dead. It was bad enough Alma had to deal with what was happening. Bad enough that I did, that anyone did, that soon we’d all be screwed and our downfall would clatter with fanfare into place. Worse that we’d brought this upon ourselves, and continued to. Worse still that nobody seemed to care.
Messengers were only deployed to people who had not yet gotten the message, I told myself, running my finger through the water, unsettling it.
Anightscape: a lake dried up, woodland animals falling dead as they walk, seeking water.
The visions didn’t only come when I was falling asleep. Sometimes I was doing something normal like sitting by the lake or yanking up the drain plug and I’d get one. It wasn’t dreaming, and it wasn’t hallucinating either, because hallucinations weren’t real. I’d stopped telling Alma about them because she didn’t understand. Is that real? she would’ve said of tonight’s vision of the light snuffing out, her tone one of rhetorical disbelief. She’d have dragged me outside and pointed up—stars, moon, a brightness—to prove the vision’s seeming unreality to me. Or if I mentioned the lake, the bodies, she’d ask the same question of the water, splashing its wet at my ankles, gesturing around at the lack of corpses.
And I’d reply that there were different planes of reality.
I’d note that it was possible she didn’t have access to all of them.
(I’d offer the consolation that most people only had the one plane—perhaps she had two or three.)
And I’d have to explain it all to her again, that the not-dreams not-hallucinations—the visions—were expressions of something very real, something she’d referenced just hours ago when she tried to convince me to stay here for the freshwater. But she never fully acknowledged the dying all around us, the dying which showed itself to me. No one did. So as much as I wanted to stay here at home with her, to protect her in more domestic ways, I was needed elsewhere. I was a messenger, not a basket case.
As much as I wanted to stay here at home with her, to protect her in more domestic ways, I was needed elsewhere. I was a messenger, not a basket case.
As I tried a second time to fall asleep, anxious about leaving tomorrow, I thought of Tab. In my mind’s eye the same orange flannel always hung to his hips, frayed white undershirt peeking out by his collar, and he had his pensive look on, the one that said he was listening to you, which he was. His gut was still trim because he didn’t drink. And he was younger than Daddy had been, younger even than Mama, only in his early 40s now.
The reason people like Janet at the bank or Julie at the post office looked at me funny these days wasn’t because they knew about my visions or the medication, but because they thought Tab and I were having sex. Alma told me that—that even though we weren’t related, people spat in his coffee.
Marty and his wife had come upon us in the woods back in June. The two of us were checking the traps on Tab’s property for woodchucks. They were one of the only things we could hunt year-round, and whereas most people killed them to stop them tunneling through their yards, he actually enjoyed the taste.
I’d just come home that morning for summer break, and after dropping by the bait & tackle to see Alma, I went straight to Tab. I’d been calling him all of spring term—nearly every morning, compared to the rare occasions I’d call before Mama and Daddy died—both of us drinking coffee on our separate porches, watching the steam catch the sun and go bright white. Long conversations, short conversations, snippets passed through phone wires:
Storms ravaging the islands, the coasts, cities buried and disappeared by hundreds of tons of water. The edges crept over and crept over. Everything happening faster now.
Piles of wolves, dead, their fur threadbare as a beloved t-shirt over-laundered. Fallen birds like bits of shredded plastic. Ecosystems ravaged, toppled.
He asked questions, about what it meant.
We’re not getting the subtler messages. We’re not getting any of them. Look at your windshield next time you drive. Then think back to being a kid, how all the mirrors of the truck’d be spattered with little globby insect bodies.
Think how cold it’d get on summer nights, how all the tourists would zip up their parkas, how everything now is on fire all the time.
We’re on a loop—it’s already irreversible but soon it’ll become untenable.
About how I knew.
I’m thinking it’s not about knowing, it’s about paying attention. It’s about attunement, being willingto perceive.
About why me.
Because I’m willing to perceive.
And wasn’t I scared, of that responsibility?
Why, all of a sudden, this responsibility?
I’m old enough now, I’m ready, I know enough.
So it could only be me—none of the other environmentalists could manage it? My colleagues, the other doctoral candidates, they couldn’t bear it?
When they start talking, I’ll start listening.
I could hear Tab, those mornings on my porch in Chicago, nodding. The rustle of his hair against the cheap plastic of his phone. The way he exhaled gently over the surface of his coffee—audible, but not interrupting. Even his breath was considerate. Of course we talked of other things too, things Tab was interested in—biscuits, the drawbacks of capitalism, the trek he wanted to make to the Arctic before he died, which he one morning sort of invited me on. But we spoke a lot about the visions.
In the woods that evening in June, still-empty bag dangling from his hand, he took a new tone with me.
“Alma’s getting concerned about you, Nance.”
I stooped to pick up an old dip tin—Skoal, the stuff Daddy used to pack and spit when Mama wasn’t looking, as if she couldn’t taste it on his tongue anyway. I wedged the tin into my pocket, alongside all the other detritus I’d collected along our way. Candy wrappers, cigarette butts, shotgun shells.
“It’s not me she should be concerned about.” I gestured to the woods around us, though compared to other places in the U.S., the Upper Peninsula was one of the better-off.
“I’m getting concerned about you,” Tab said.
Gentle chittering of chorus frogs, a loon hooting in the distance. Tab had been the one to teach me the way loons communicated: tremolo, wail, yodel, hoot. Loons in the same family hooted to locate each other, check in. It seemed overly convenient to me at first—this loon’s hooting in this particular moment, Tab and Alma’s “hooting”—but then it seemed important. A message.
“Why are you getting concerned?” I asked Tab, trying to be openminded. I’d had enough of the naysayers, the friends who had looked at me like I was crazy, the recently ex-girlfriend who had told me, after weeks of my visions, that she was “scared,” that this wasn’t normal.
You’re right, I’d told her. None of this—a gesture around at the city, the empty lots I’d taken her to on the Southside to show her how the grass grew tall and unassailable, how litter was combed through all of it like bubblegum caught in hair—is normal. It’s death, all the time. It’s our fault. It’s getting worse. And if people don’t listen, it’s going to keep getting worse.
“These dreams,” Tab said. “They’re intense.”
“Dreams,” I echoed. We hadn’t referred to them as dreams for months. I’d called them visions hesitantly at first because I started off being afraid of them, until he called them visions too. But now that Alma was concerned, she had seeped into his language, changing—
“Visions,” he said, rubbing his jaw. The scratch of stubble against his calluses was gentle, familiar. It softened me as he continued speaking. “These visions, they’re intense. Alma says they’re coming when you’re awake now?”
“It’s not so bad,” I murmured. “Not so often.”
He stopped walking and I followed suit, knelt down for the trap at his feet before I even saw it. The woodchuck was dead, but recently, its warmth told me. I stroked the dull ripple of its fur, loosed its neck from the trap, and jerked my chin at Tab to open the bag. This was all it took: a pause, a chin-jerk, a nod, and we’d bagged dinner. How many times had we done this together? How many times would we?
“I didn’t think you’d turn on me,” I said, my knees cracking as I rose.
My nose reached his chin. I thought of the animal documentaries Alma and I’d watch on VHS tapes from the library. The males who’d get real close, jugular to jugular, smelling the warmth on each other’s necks. The border between eroticism and challenge—maybe it was simpler to call it power. I was feeling quite powerful in June.
“Nance, you know I believe you.” I smelled the warmth on his neck, wondered if he could smell it on mine. “I’m supposed to be looking out for you, though. Your parents—”
“Don’t get patronizing. That’s not our relationship,” I said. “Never has been.”
His pupils widened, which could have been a consequence of the light fading, or, I believed in that moment, maybe something else. Blue was slipping quickly to yellow, its warmth pouring over us like hot paint. I wondered if, at the end of things, we’d be two of the last people, traipsing the backwoods as we had done for ages, surviving off little, telling stories of luxuries like lemon ices and thriving ecosystems before the earth collapsed under the brute reality of human weight, taking us with it. Maybe we’d die on the trek to the Arctic, fulfilling one last dream.
“Alma told me about your grand plan.” He shifted his weight from one hip to the other. “You’re right—Chicago, all of us, we need a revolution, but how are you planning to execute that? You’ve got to be careful.”
Alma. Of course, at the end, she would be there too. Though she’d betrayed me by trying to turn Tab against me, I wasn’t ready to give up on her. I nudged the trap with my foot, ears starting to ring. I willed the feeling to pass, as I was perfectly willing to field the message, but not just yet, not while Tab was so intent on me hearing him. Five minutes, I asked the earth nicely, silently.
The ringing intensified. Tab was talking, and inside I was pleading—five minutes—then begging. One minute. Ground wavering, dusk melting quicksilver, thirty seconds, please.
“Nance, do you need to sit down?” Tab said, but his voice was very far away.
I am watching the icefall. Snow so dry it’s dust, powder, white and a surprising blue like Windex coming off the glacier as it collapses into the ocean. Spume that will cause tidal waves.
I’ve seen the ice break before, but never so vividly, never with detail so gritty it feels audible. The ice’s creak keens, its crash sending a shiver and hum of pain through my molars.
There is a violence to watching one of the great leviathans collapse, something like watching murder. A long, drawn-out, wide-scale murder of which we are the perpetrators, and we are continuing to perpetrate, and we are watching without acknowledging the violence of this. Murdering something upon which we rely. The irony, futility, stupidity.
The horror is touching me now.
When the vision slid away, Tab’s fingers were on my neck, rooting around the tender skin below my jaw. Seeking a pulse, perhaps. The light was full yellow now behind him, a latticework of branches and leaves and deepening sky framing his head. The musty sweetness of leaves all around, faded floral pine blanketing the ground beneath us. I stilled his wrist with a gentle hand so as not to alarm him with sudden movement.
Tab’s knees were on either side of my hips like he was prepared to do CPR, his face very close to mine. His pupils were huge ink pools I was falling into, though they were above me. Even gravity might be tenuous. I could smell the cologne on him, the tang of sweat underneath. Two kinds of sweat—sweat because it was hot and he was in a flannel, and sweat from anxiety: the former slick and just sweeter than scentless; the latter sticky and pungent.
He was breathing heavy, mouth slightly ajar. I had never seen him frightened, but he was frightened. I listened to the peepers, as Daddy had called them, make their tiny peeps, the underclothes of a perfect early summer night’s symphony, Tab still hovering over me, his body not touching mine, though I felt it. Something crawled up my elbow and I did not move to brush it away. I thought of what the earth had just told me, and of how it might indeed be me and Tab at the end if I couldn’t spark the revolution before it was too late. I decided, smelling his two types of sweat, that I wouldn’t mind. I trusted him. He believed me. We could protect each other.
Sound of footsteps through the underbrush, not too far.
When I raised my body up, Tab hesitated. When I put my lips on his lips, he recoiled, asked me what the fuck I was doing—the only time he’d ever cussed at me—and after that we left the woodchuck in the dirt and Alma brought me to the psychiatrist.
I hadn’t seen Tab since, even today, on my birthday. My last night in town. But Alma said he asked about me.
I wondered if, at the end of things, we’d be two of the last people, traipsing the backwoods as we had done for ages, surviving off little…
The path through the woods from Mama and Daddy’s to Tab’s had grown in. Untraveled this season, the earth had reclaimed it. This and the new morning light pleased me as I traipsed through the underbrush, my jeans snagging on brambles, longhair sedge tangling in the eyehooks of my boots. How quickly we could be erased, given the proper space and time.
I walked about a mile until I encountered the first trap, close to the perimeter of Tab’s property. I stooped to release a cottontail, glancing over my shoulder before I kept on. There were still a few days until it was legal to hunt rabbits, and though it was unlikely anyone would be checking Tab’s traps, I wasn’t sure how petty his neighbors would be if given the chance. But, I thought as his trailer came into view, at least now I wasn’t coming empty-handed.
I found him out back, in a folding chair set up next to a trash can, a bucket of yellow perch beside him. I watched him for a moment, surprised at myself because my eyes were tearing. I hadn’t cried since starting the medicine. At first I hadn’t done much of anything—I was too tired and dense—but as my body got used to it I found it took so much effort to even chatter with Alma that something as intense as crying felt impossible. The visions were what kept me going, my responsibility as messenger, the necessity of revolution. The visions made me feel things, even if those feelings were shadows of their former selves.
So the tightening in my throat, the sparks at the corners of my eyes as I watched Tab fillet the perch, was almost welcome. He moved deftly, elegantly. First a cut along the pectoral fin and then a slit down the back along the spiky dorsal. Gentle sawing motion from spine to belly, and then a flip open, like an envelope. Slide of knife between meat and skin until in his palm he held a glistening jewel of flesh the color of a fresh peach.
I watched him fillet a few—evidence of a successful morning—before I approached, rabbit in hand.
“Hi, Tab,” I said, and laid the animal down on the picnic table beside the filets.
He didn’t look angry or scared, as I’d feared he might every time I imagined this moment—this was why I hadn’t come until now, the end: the possibility that he too might fear me. His eyes as he set the knife down were bright, careful, his jaw tight like he was trying to hold his skull together by sheer force.
I watched him take in my hair, stifle a reaction, and wondered if he found me plain now or if the newness struck him. “I know,” I said. “Alma did it yesterday.”
“It’ll grow back.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said, but I smiled.
“She know you’re here?”
I shook my head, taking the following silence to watch jays dip and dart around the yard, alighting on branches and fleeing once the branches sank too far beneath their weight. When Tab sat on the concrete step below the trailer, I gingerly made my way over to sit beside him. Over his shoulder through the screen door I saw he had The X-Files playing. He could tell you the season down to the episode from a glimpse of Scully’s hair. He’d been Mulder for Halloween as long as I could remember.
He offered me a tense smile. Maybe Alma was the reason I hadn’t seen him. Maybe she’d forbidden him in a misguided attempt to help me, whatever that meant.
“They put me on medicine,” I said.
Tab looked pained. Alma had been scoping out psychiatrists since March, but only after that evening in June had she forced me to go, and only because Tab had stopped fighting her.
“How does it feel?” he asked, like he knew I had lost something, like I looked like someone who had lost something.
I wondered if, other than the hair, I looked different to him, the way he didn’t to me. The facts of his body were only more vivid outside my head. His eyes stayed mostly on my face, which I knew was tanned after a long summer outside, all my peach-fuzz bleached pale gold.
“Feels like there’s cotton between me and the world sometimes,” I said.
“And the visions?”
Our eyes met. His pupils were small in the fair light. “They’re still there.”
This seemed to surprise him, but I spoke before he could.
“Shorter, in flashes now, but they’re there.” I paused. “I’m going back to Chicago.”
“When?” His voice a hoarse breath.
“Later today. Once I finish packing, fill up the tank. I just wanted to come here and say goodbye and thanks and all—for listening for so many months. Messengers don’t get anywhere without believers, you know?”
The discarded skins of the perch—green and gold, tiger-splotched—shone filmy in the light. Tab pulsed warmth beside me, a man-scent of mint and cotton. From the corner of my eye I saw his hand reach up to finger the newly blunt ends of my hair. The air he unsettled with his motion smelled of lakewater, fish guts, a scent I tried to hold on to because I wouldn’t find it in Chicago.
“The medicine should’ve gotten rid of them—the visions—no?” he asked.
“Sure, if they were hallucinations.”
I turned to look at him, watched his fingers drift away from my cheek as soon as he’d brushed it. His hand fluttered down to his side like a hesitant leaf.
“Come with me,” I said. It can be us at the end, I thought. We can go to the Arctic.
When he didn’t answer me, I asked him to tell me what he was thinking. All of it. Fish blood drying on the knife blade, sun baking our thighs through our jeans, I opened myself up to listen to him the way I did for the visions.
“I’m just wondering whether it’s crazier to believe you or not believe you.”
“The only crazy thing is being content with things as they are,” I said.
I put my hand on his, squeezed. He didn’t pull away.
Cassandra Verhaegen is a multi-genre writer and teaching artist living in Detroit. She received her MFA from Oregon State University and is currently working on her debut novel. Past awards include the Seidel Scholars PRISM Grant, the Olga & Paul Menn Foundation Prize, and runner-up in Glimmer Train‘s Summer 2018 Short Fiction contest.
Header photo by Ivan Mitrofanov, courtesy Shutterstock.