East of Nowhere

Lacey Rowland

We started finding Western tanagers on the sidewalks of our neighborhood last autumn. We’d chalked it up as a fluke—something related to migration or a local mass death due to pesticides, or an influx of predators in the area. My daughter, May, noticed them first. She’d found one as we were making our afternoon walk home from her bus stop on the first day of school. Because of the inversion, she’d taken to spending more time looking at the ground than looking at the sky. There were fewer things to see up there in the thick haze.
      “Look! A birdie!” May cried out, pointing at the lifeless bird with a dried twig she’d broken off from a tree that hung low above the sidewalk. The neighbor was behind on their pruning. They’d be hearing from the HOA.
      She crouched down to get a better look. “It’s sleeping.” I could tell she wanted to feel the delicate feathers beneath her fingertips, but she resisted. Look with your eyes, not your hands, I told her.
      I bent down to see, my hands on my knees in concentration. Checked to confirm what I knew to be true, and not what I had hoped—that maybe it was just stunned or psyching us out as a ploy to lure us away from its babies like I’d seen killdeers do. Feigning injury to protect their nest.
      “Oh dear,” I said. “Poor thing.” The bird was still—its death amplified by the eerie silence that came with the inversion. The white noise of modern life was dampened by the smog.
        I toed the body into the grass. May made a wounded sound.
        She looked up at me, her face scrunched in worry, then down at the bird in the grass. “We should bury it,” she said. “With Archie and Freckles.”  I was trying to diffuse the situation as the post-school, pre-snack time was a volatile one.
      “This wasn’t a pet.” I took her hand. “And sometimes dead things can make us sick.” We compromised by putting a maple leaf over its body, offering it shelter and a makeshift dignity dead animals in suburbs are rarely afforded.
      After that we started noticing the birds more often. In the grocery store parking lot, the park, the school playground, the driveway. Their little red-capped heads and bright yellow bodies were hard to miss. We began to walk quickly past them or tossed them into the bin with the rest of the trash. May stopped insisting on funerals. Even she was growing used to seeing them—like the fallen leaves piled up in yards and the rotting pumpkins on peoples’ porches after Halloween.

The inversion had been lasting longer than usual in part because the fire season, which was usually over by September, was creeping into November. May’s school sent home information on indoor recess because of air quality warnings. The DEQ issued mandatory bans on burning in city limits. I’d had to explain to May what an inversion was and struggled to put the science into language we could both comprehend. How could I package the sick confluence of topography, physics, and weather? I settled on a metaphor: the valley we live in is a pot, and the air above is a lid that traps the pollution making a thick brown cloud that hovers above us. I stopped short of telling her a thought I couldn’t get out of my head—that we were stewing in our own poison.
     On a Saturday we drove up to a nearby mountain town, above the inversion and past the fire-ravaged hillsides for a reprieve. I’d developed chronic headaches from the smoke and my eyes stung when I closed them. We were drained—taking naps that felt like luxury at first, but soon became necessity. I bought a cute mask online with the face and whiskers of a cat for May to cheer up the fact that she had to wear it whenever she left the house. Lucas wore a red kerchief that made him look like an old-timey bandit. I wore white disposable ones they sold at the hardware store. By then we were fluent in masks. Battleborn by the pandemic. We took May up to the Pioneer Cemetery and let her collect rocks and leaves for the headstones. Lucas helped her find flat smooth ones to stack on one another like the cairns they’d seen down by the riverbed in the summer. They’d originally collected them to skip on the water, but the river had diminished to a trickle. There was no current to skip on anymore.
      I tried to teach my daughter about nature, like my father taught me. As a child, we fished along the Salmon River where I caught minnows in the shallows using a red Solo cup. Camped in the ragged Sawtooths where it still froze in the middle of the night even in the dead of summer. Built campfires that crackled and licked at the overhanging evergreens. We’d hike to remote alpine lakes so deep and deceptively clear you felt like you could reach out and touch skeletons of long-ago trees that had settled at the bottom.
      With May, I did what I could.
      In the Pioneer Cemetery we calculated the ages of the dead. Lucas found the person who had lived the longest—97 years. I found many—too many—babies. I’d given May a spiral notebook and pencil for headstone rubbings. We watched as she flittered between graves, a cheery specter in the pines. Muffled humming came from behind her mask.
      “You know why they call it Boot Hill?” Lucas asked. He was standing at the informational sign reading about the cemetery’s history. May had tied leaves together with long grass to make a wreath for one of the graves. A long piece of grass bobbed between her fingers.
      “Why, honey,” I said. I pulled off my mask, sometimes it was harder to breath with it on than with it off. I was living in a constant state of claustrophobia.
      “It says here that in the old mining days, so many people died with their boots on.” He took off his ball cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
      “Why didn’t they take them off?” May asked. Behind her the sun had created a halo. Some trees were bone white from the previous fire season and others had miraculously survived. I listened to the crunch of pine needles and twigs beneath my feet. I blew my nose into a napkin in my pocket and everything came out black.
      “I guess they were too busy,” he said.
      “I can’t wait ‘til the fire season is over,” I said as I crumpled up the napkin and put it back in my pocket. “It’ll be nice not to have that sooty taste in my mouth all the time.”
        “It tastes like campfire,” May said.
      “It kinda does, doesn’t it?” Lucas said. He looked at me over the patch of gravestones and the rickety old fence that hemmed them in, the handkerchief still over his nose and mouth.
      It should have been snowing. Lucas and I had grown up with Halloweens spent in puffy coats and heavy boots. I missed seeing the ground coated in white, cupping it in my hands and watching it melt between my fingers. The inversion was a wall separating us from the weather.
    “What do you have there?” I asked May, who was leafing through her notebook. There was a drawing of a crude cat with blood dripping from its teeth, a mouse with Xs for eyes lying below. Another of a family with heads made of clouds. May had a way of drawing things as they were. I admired her dark clarity. I reached down to touch her hair and she squirmed beneath my hand. She looked back at me with a salty glare that contradicted the cartoon cat face on her mask. I tried not to laugh at the juxtaposition.
      After the cemetery, we went for ice cream at the little diner in town. Idaho City is one of many mining towns that had long gone defunct, the decrepit dredge a ghost monument of what used to be. There’s the museum, the boarded-up schoolhouse, the hoarder house covered in license plates and rusty tin signs, the diner that caters to the river rats and ski bums. The town’s a drive-thru, pit-stop, gawk-at-the-quaint-townie-trailers type of place. The people who live here, I assumed were the kind who saw the tourists as a necessary nuisance, a means of subsistence so that they could live their quiet lives away from the city and away from the inevitable self-destruction that accompanied it. There seemed to be a strategy in occupying the difficult to reach spaces. A risk in it too.
    May shoveled melting mint chocolate chip into her mouth. It dribbled down her chin and onto the oilcloth spread. She licked at her chin with the full length of her animal tongue. In the diner, we were in between time, in between seasons. I wanted to keep us there forever. I watched my husband who watched our daughter, and I knew that just like the miners and their silver, nothing lasts. Things would dry up eventually.
      We went back down into the smokey valley. That night I went to bed with the smell of fire in my hair and the scent of pitch on my fingertips.

Then we lost red-winged blackbirds.
      We’d found their bodies on our evening walks in the foothills behind our neighborhood. Where there used to be chatter and whistles in the cattails, there was silence. I began to miss their o-ka-leeee song when we started spotting them on the dusty trail and underneath sagebrush. The city had warned dog-owners to keep their pets on leashes to minimize their exposure to the dead birds. We’d seen a woman in jogging clothes trying to pry one of the blackbirds from the mouth of a yellow lab. Thick saliva dripped from the dog’s mouth as the woman straddled it to try and shake the bird loose. Bad dog, she’d said. But the dog was just doing what it was bred to do.
      We’d been keeping May inside more, too. It was hard on everyone. Our colliding orbits created a new friction. May wasn’t made to be inside. As soon as she learned to crawl, she would scoot around in the yard, shoving fistfuls of grass into her mouth. Her knees were permanently stained with dirt. I was always finding rocks in her pockets when I went to load the washer, pinecones and dead flowers in her backpack. I imagined her like Suzanne Simard listening in on whispering trees. Or Jane Goodall on the peak with her binoculars. The world needed more Janes and Suzannes and Mays in it. May mourned the loss of outdoor recess at school—of playing on the monkey bars, climbing the jungle gym, and playing kickball with her friends. As the days grew shorter, she moved through the house without really settling. Her mouth set in a searching scowl. Each day the sun yawned through the curtains. Each day May waited for the sky to heal.
      I’d started the fairy mailbox with May, where the Queen Fairy would leave little, tiny notes and treasures in an empty mint tin we set on the windowsill—pennies (a treasure to children and no one else), a thimble (The Queen Fairy’s royal chalice), Hershey chocolate (a short-lived placation that ended worse than it started), a marble (Hey! That was from my collection), and a seashell (from a long-ago trip to the Coast before May was born).  And in return, May would leave the fairy treasures and notes too. Eventually, we knew that the Queen Fairy would have to return to Fairyland, or that May would grow too old for that sort of imaginative play, but it gave her a sort of world inside that she would never get to have outside. How could I explain what was happening? Where was the manual for all this?
      The Queen Fairy’s notes were a welcome respite from the notes sent home with May from school. Some were to announce that another of May’s classmates had passed away. Some were to announce changes to the cafeteria menu to accommodate crop failures. We will no longer be serving apple slices at snack time, one said. Another said—to no child’s disappointment—that green beans would no longer be offered, either. Others were about the Spring Talent Show or combatting the dreaded summer slump. I was trying not to think about summer. Having a child forced me to take things a day at a time. I would tease Lucas for having his head so far in the future that he often neglected the present, saying something about how he always had a vision for our family, but never one for tonight’s dinner. And he was always saying that I was always rubbernecking on the past, checking over my shoulder for what used to be.

It seemed most everyone was making an effort, in whatever way they could. Even our neighborhood association was trying to implement green measures to reduce emissions during the inversion. It was the longest inversion on record, according to one of the professors from the college who spoke at the HOA meeting. The city council wasn’t doing their part to combat the issue, so we were taking matters into our own hands. Lucas went to the meetings and reported back to me so I could stay home with May.
      At dinner, Lucas was exhausted. This was one night after a particularly brutal neighborhood meeting. But it wasn’t just the meetings that drained Lucas. He’d become more impatient, angrier since we’d been spending more time inside. The days were dragging on under the haze—wake up in the grey, go to work and outside the window is more grey, and in your car among more grey, then home and the grey seemed to haunt you on your skin, in your clothes. I tried not to think about it because if I let my mind spiral out, there was no coming back. There was a madness in the monotony of it. Lucas was spending more time on the internet, in forums on environmental activism and government conspiracies. Each night he’d sit in front of the computer, it’s blue light casting a sick glow on his face. He insisted we go zero-waste and eat vegan. Reduce our carbon footprint. I tried to tell him it was temporary, that the fire season would have to end eventually—how much left could there be to burn? But this fire season, and the inversion it had created, was doing something we’d never seen before. And it wasn’t just our state, California, Oregon, Washington were ablaze too. I imagined on a map it might look as if someone had taken a black crayon and scribbled out most of the west.
      “How was the meeting?” I asked. I passed Lucas the dish of creamed corn. May bit into a roll and smacked it loudly in her mouth. I shot her a disapproving look.
    “It was fine, the HOA president was against my idea to implement a neighborhood carpool. All those rich, right-wingers and their red tape. Can’t stand giving up their precious fossil fuels.” He clanged the serving spoon sharply on the dish. “They need to wake up and get their heads out of their asses.”
      I knew better than to argue with him when he was like this. Lucas cared too much, and the rest of the world cared too little. I put my hand on his arm, tried to soothe his edges. “I’m sorry, love,” I said. “But maybe there’s a reason for not going through with it, something we just don’t understand yet.”
      Lucas shook his head. “You’re just like them,” he said.
      “What the hell does that mean?”
      “Don’t you care about May?”
      “What does that have to do with a carpool?”
      “It’s all connected. You don’t understand.”
      I did understand. It was just that all our conversations spun out into these debates. As if I was the one fueling the problem. Somehow May was oblivious to our conversation. She’d taken her fork and spoon and performed a dance with them on the table. Lucas pounded the table with his fist, got up and left. I stared intently at my food and made myself busy pushing potatoes around my plate.
      “Guess it wasn’t all that fine,” I said. A door slammed and the room went quiet. “We had a great time. Didn’t we, May?” I was making conversation with the silence.
      May nodded her head dramatically, her mouth full of food.
      “Mama, if the Queen Fairy is from the forest, how come she’s been living inside with me?” May asked.
      “What a smart question,” I said. I reached out my hand for hers and gave it a gentle squeeze. Even imaginary things aren’t immune to suffering. “She knew you needed some company.”
      We went quiet again. Outside we could hear crickets. They blanketed the neighborhood with a deafening white noise.

Later that night I tucked May into bed and poured myself a glass of wine. Turned on the news and watched as the anchors rattled off their usual damage report. Could it even count as news anymore? Hurricanes, flash floods, record-setting wildfires. A pandemic. Inflation. Housing crises. A war creating food and fuel shortages. Immigrants caged and starving in a purgatory at the border. Abortion bans. I watched as the screen flashed to a story about California’s latest crisis—a mass evacuation from the fires, buses of families displaced, and states (including ours) refusing to offer aid. Financial resources were stretched thin, but the government was already building one wall, squandering what little they’d had, and surely they couldn’t build another. Makeshift militias from the far north—folks who’d been underground since the KKK had been bankrupted and supposedly driven out—were popping up at the state border to the south and standing their ground. Manifest Destiny had reached the edge and was turning back for its second round. Everything we thought could never happen was, in fact, happening. It was getting to the point that we stopped thinking the impossible for fear that the very thought would make it so. On the TV, the news anchor was standing on the street in front of a tent city that had been established in the park in front of the courthouse. Dressed in a red pantsuit and perfectly coifed hair, she interviewed a woman holding her child on her hip. The news anchor held the microphone in front of the woman’s face and asked her how long she’d been staying there, where she was from, where she was going. Her child buried his head in her shoulder, turned away from the bright lights and camera.
      “We never thought it would be like this. We never thought—” the woman’s voice trailed off.
      Lucas heard the noise from the TV and sat down beside me on the couch. He had the look of having been far down a rabbit hole, his eyes on the screen but not really seeing it. He put his arm around me. A truce.
      “That’s on the way to work,” Lucas said, nodding at the tent city on the TV. “They’re trying to disband them. As if they have somewhere else to go.” The news flashed back to the clean, shiny studio.
         From her bedroom, I could hear May coughing.

In the summer, the power company started scheduling blackouts to prevent wildfires. One of the big fires from the previous season had been due to a spark caused by old, faulty power lines. They were exercising preventative measures. On paper, it sounded like a good idea. No one wanted more fires. We’d finally gotten a break from the smoke, from the dingy skyline. We stopped going out in masks. But the heat. The heat was relentless.
       The first blackout gave a little thrill. We brought out the candles and board games, we stocked up on batteries and pretended we were camping in the living room. We ate up everything in the refrigerator and freezer so it wouldn’t spoil, which meant that May got to have ice cream for dinner. It felt good to be disconnected. We were forced into the kind of situation that people pay out the nose for at fancy wilderness retreats—with the power out, we couldn’t watch TV, our router was offline, and cell phones were used for emergencies only. We didn’t know how long the blackout would last, which the first time around, felt like an adventure. There seemed a gritty glamour to roughing it.
        The first one lasted 48 hours. The second one was six days.
        It felt cruel to cut off the power in the middle of summer. May and I took morning walks before the sun had a chance to chase us back inside. We walked past yard after yard of For Sale signs. Each house being sold below market price. Who would want to move here anyway? For years we’d bemoaned the “invaders”—rich Californians who’d moved north with their Silicon money to buy up acres of property for their mansions. Pastures being converted into manicured lots for the elite. Farmers strong-armed into early retirement. We couldn’t fault them for it. They’d be fools not to take the money to abandon a ship that was sinking anyway.
      We walked past the O’Farrell cabin by the veteran’s home. May got up on her toes and peeked inside the smudged, dirty windows. Inside was a single room, a fireplace. Meager makings of a home. But seven people lived there once, in that first home in town. It was sobering to imagine. May ran her hands along the wooden exterior. She tried the door, pulled at the handle with all her weight. The city kept it locked, no one had lived there in over a century. The cabin itself wasn’t even in its original spot—it’d been moved from beside the river for its own preservation. Now it rested at a busy street corner by the hospital and the V.A. and the empty softball stadium where the college team used to play. So often we drove by and never really saw it. There was so much we hadn’t seen and so much we hadn’t expected to.
      The power company had distributed flyers, a “power shut-off survival guide,” with tips to get citizens through the outages. Check on your elderly and infirm neighbors. Don’t use candles. Disengage your automatic garage door opener. Stock up on non-perishables. Buy two day’s worth of bottled water. I thought about what I would include on my version of the survival guide. Hibernate. Leave town. Eat all the cookies. Resist the urge to murder your husband who will inevitably drive you crazy. Let the kids go feral. Stock up on two month’s worth of pinot. The usual coping strategies for summer boredom were out of the question. The library, the municipal pool, the movie theater, the mall—all closed. It was as if the apocalypse had happened and we’d missed the memo.
      We had the Queen Fairy.
     As if detecting the desperation that was settling on the house, May conjured her. It kept us busy. The hiding and hunting for treasure. It was a necessary distraction. Even Lucas and I were beginning to believe in her. I kept hoping I’d find notes from her saying everything would be okay, notes in a strange handwriting that wasn’t my own. But they didn’t come. I had to manufacture my own hope.
      There was an unfamiliar stillness on our walk home. An absence of the kind of life that populated the niches of the neighborhood. The killdeer, the little sparrows that crowded like black clouds in the sky, the finches that stowed away in the juniper bushes. Had they moved on too?  The wind kicked up in the trees and breathed dust in our faces. May held my hand and wiped her eyes with the other. Dirt caked in the creases of my elbows, stuck to the sweat on my neck. The street lined with empty houses felt like an answer.
      When the power finally returned, we drank it in. Turned on all the lights, blasted the AC, kept the TV on even when we weren’t in the room. Living without it had been nearly too much to bear. Lucas returned to his office, to the computer with its blue glow. May and I watched young people speak to masses on TV. A young girl with braids and a look of fierce purpose on her face spoke with slow deliberation. She skipped school in protest. May wished aloud to skip school. No way, I told her. We spread out in the house. Convenience isolated each of us.

Despite all the efforts, the next fire season came with a vengeance and mandatory evacuations were ordered. May slept in the back seat of the car as we followed the line of cars heading east out of the city. We didn’t know entirely where we were headed, where we would land. As a child, I’d always had a problem with direction and scale—traveling west always felt like we were traveling east. I couldn’t imagine what existed beyond the mountains that surrounded the valley until I’d seen it from the impossible distance of flight. Crops in neat circles, roads in tight grids, rivers a pencil-line cutting through the shrinking landscape. The further I got from the earth, the better I seemed to understand it. It’s a shame we can’t all live in the sky.
        But there we were, all zoomed in, and I’d lost my perspective. Packed on the highway, one car after another with our headlights droning on into the inevitable east of nowhere. We didn’t know where we were going, sure we had a plan, but the plan only extended so far. In truth, we never had a plan for anything. May dozed in the back seat, her neck at painful angle and her forehead pressed to the window. She wheezed and whistled with each breath. What could we do but keep driving.
      In the rear view we could see the angry, orange glow of the fires coming down the hillside. Like some wicked stereogram. If I let my eyes unfocus I could see our history, our future laid on top of one another for us to puzzle out in the present. A picture within a picture within a picture. Lucas turned on the radio, and we listened to the dull hum of the automated voice reporting on the emergency broadcast. A voice telling us what we already knew.
        We couldn’t have stayed even if we wanted to.

Lacey Rowland (they/them) is from the Gem State and has been published in Tahoma Literary Review, Cutbank, Pleiades, Hobart and elsewhere. They received their MFA in Fiction from Oregon State University.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Eight.

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