THE SUMMER of rot. An abundance of apricots that made us all want to vomit in the end. There were more apples, pears, and plums that year too. But the apricots. They weighed down the trees, dropped in orange paint splatters onto the ground. The splatters turned brown, then crusted over, the pits glued to the pavement. Under the desert sun, they decayed in backyard piles and garbage bins. Fruit flies infested our houses.
On top of this, the disease that had swept the globe was finally weakening, and we’d all been allowed to come out of isolation. Just in time, it seemed, for the stench of decomposing fruit to smack us in the face.
It was a few weeks before my fortieth birthday and a few weeks after losing my thumb and forefinger in a soap-making incident—a combination of lye, water, and an unruly dog. The smell beneath the bandages grew, and when I could no longer endure the itching, I peeled back the gauze and my skin lifted up with it. The pale, yellow sores were deep, my hand gnawed down to bone.
Seeds of fault are planted in all of us. One or two always take root. My husband’s words.
He was talking about my mistakes, but I chose to believe it was a line, that he was about to say he’d had an affair. I wouldn’t have blamed him. Even I didn’t want to look at me.
Sometimes my brain tricked me and I reached out to pinch one of the kids before remembering I was no longer whole. I tried to pick up pens but dropped them like lit matches. And so I’d taken to activities that required only my feet.
That morning, I climbed the canyon wall, switchbacks that confused my firm sense of direction. At the top, the edge of the mesa overlooked what seemed like the rest of the world. Layers of hazy mountains in the distance made everything else seem miniscule. I stared out for a while, trying to forget about what might be happening at home. Trying to forget about this body that did not belong to me anymore.
Then I saw her, down at the canyon bottom, between the pine trees, like a writhing piece of seaweed. She was splotches of blue and orange, but I squinted and could see she was dancing. I thought she was dancing. But I also wondered if she was being attacked by an animal. She thrashed around like a hooked fish, like she was fighting against a predator.
I focused on her down there, in the place from which I had ascended. A gouge deep into the plateau. Walls of orange volcanic tuff dropping down around shrubs—junipers and locusts and wild roses. Stout oaks growing impossibly from boulders. Some years, during the monsoon season, a trickle of a stream would flow through there.
Sweat crawled beneath my collar. It was a long way. That’s not nothing, I told myself.
I watched the woman move, held up my hands, curled my eight fingers into a tight grip.
I remember that time of the disease like a post-apocalyptic movie. The people retreated to their solitary spaces, and the animals dispersed and reclaimed their territory. Cars sat in driveways unmoved for months while deer clacked down the pavement, wandering from one front yard bird feeder to another. The bears awoke, roaming the streets at night, banging around inside cavernous garbage cans like we did the empty shelves at the grocery store.
I was out walking and there was nothing different about that morning except that I was a little more alone than I was the day before.
The coyotes came out of nowhere. Two of them stood in the trail ahead. Two more lay in the long grass just beside it. I halted, backed up, shrugged my shoulders high to appear larger than myself. One of them trotted a little closer.
I was careful not to turn, backtracking like a film of my moments-before self in reverse. Behind me, another two emerged, and I was surrounded. They squinted into the sun, a breeze rustling their golden fur.
It felt like stalking, their lingering out of sight before letting their heads pop up again, each time I thought they’d given up. I yelled Go, go! I threw sticks and rocks in their direction, and they were deterred, but only momentarily.
Eventually, I turned and ran, lifting my feet high to avoid tripping over branches, finding myself on no path, descending into the canyon. Rock walls rose on either side of me, on top of which pine trees grew untamed. When the coyotes had lost me, I was—impossibly—alone.
It was a startlingly good feeling, realizing I could not be seen. It had been at least five years—the age of my oldest child—since I’d had a moment like this. They only came now ripe with potential for interruption by a stranger on the trail or a mailman stomping up the steps.
You let go of embarrassment when you have children. You learn to sing them to sleep with your husband listening through a monitor in the next room. You practice awkward cartwheels and draw terrible drawings, because you have to show them that they can’t be afraid to express themselves in this world.
Sometimes I could pretend, with my children, that I didn’t care if the cat I drew didn’t look like a cat. But in the adult world, criticism flew in from all directions. I was afraid, not of wild dogs, not of getting lost in a desert canyon. These were the kinds of perils I could fight against if I had to.
It was so much worse than that.
So, alone, invisible, I tested the waters.
One noncommittal arm waved over my head. I might have been stretching. Then both arms lifted high, swinging down like loose ropes. My body was no longer mine. If I had any rhythm, it was like bounding paws striking the earth. It built until it was nearly howling to get out, and I was throwing my limbs around, spinning in graceless circles. I pounded my fists on tree trunks and lichen-covered boulders, shook my head, hair falling tangled in front of my eyes. Who knows what I might have looked like.
I blinked, pulling the hair aside, thinking something wild might be there waiting.
JESSICA BRYANT KLAGMANN received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Fascinated by landscapes, she is usually running on mountain trails with her dog, hiking in canyons with her family, or restoring a hundred-acre forest in Maine. Her work has appeared in Terrain.org, Whitefish Review, Stonecoast Review, Driftwood Press, Crab Creek Review, and Hippocampus Magazine, among others. More can be found on her website: www.thehillsdranktheriver.com.