Alice dreams this again and again.
Dreams that she is waking up to a quiet house, no car in the driveway. Dad away as usual. Where would Mom have gone for this long? But no, as she peers out the back door, her mother is exiting the garage. Oh right, Dad did get back yesterday. So where has he gone now?
Mom, flattened cardboard under each arm, reads her mind. “He was going up to get water from the mountain.”
Al turns quickly, letting the screen door slam, catching it with her heel so that at the last minute it sounds a little less final.
And didn’t take me.
And didn’t take me.
And didn’t take me.
She wakes, of course, again and again. Just a dream. But which is worse, the knowledge that he did not even ask her; the reality that he is no longer on this earth to ask?
I wanted to go.
Wanted to go.
In any case. Something like spring sort of arrives, although it really shouldn’t, no one in the First World deserving it, everyone having pretty much beaten the earth to within an inch of its life. The weather knows. Now soft breezes. Now 85°. Then back to puffing your breath into the cold close night. Mild again. Chilling rain. Followed by a never-before tornado. Exactly―not really spring but more like some kind of hybrid of interseasonal weather events. Which would be about all they have a right to.
Loosening a sheet of oatmeal from the bottom of the soaking saucepan, she glances over her shoulder. Food waste. Bad girl. What is good is the title flashing neon in her brain: “Extreme and Interseasonal Weather Events―the New Overlap”. Or would have been good were there still papers to write, still classes or universities.
When thinking was enough.
When words were still safe haven.
So very long ago…
In dream, she does ask why her father didn’t wake her up. Not a question her mother sees fit to answer, only repeating Water, vaguely waving toward Mountain.
In the kitchen there are more important questions: how much flour is left; will berries grow before the preserves are gone; why are the hens not laying?
In her room, she flips her laptop open, slaps the On button. Hope springs eternal. Ha. Not really.
In reality, she is alone. No mother (still alive, far away), no garage, no car. She could go on─stores and financial institutions, governments, neighbors, money and music and best friends. Things that she remembers upon waking, then counts gone.
To be honest, she doesn’t really know if they are or not. After the earthquake, when there was still, for a while, internet, still radio, it was pretty clear that infrastructure was no longer, that help was not coming, that anyone listening was entirely on their own. And then dead air space.
Take me with you.
Take me with you.
Take me with.
The devastation would make sense. Millions killed. Systems screwed. How could anyone come to your aid? Weeks have passed. But could she not have gotten out there, seen for herself? Even just opened her front door. Maybe not. All you have to do is look out the bathroom window to her neighbors’. No neighbors, their house swallowed into a still-steaming crevasse. Ditto on the other side. How much more does she really want to see? Alice will not be leaving this house again.
Within itself, the dream continues. Every question is asked. Which mountain? How much water? When did he leave? How long till he returns? Is she adopted?
Pretty strange question. Surely not adopted, she is just─how prosaic─different. And perhaps not even that. None of it matters. She is alive. “For now,” she says aloud, startling herself, and sets herself to the task of remaining so.
Water (from the mountain?)
The first, though smoky, will suffice. The second, if one is to believe her dream, continues to flow. The third she already has her eye on: list, count, conserve. The house still stands. The people, who knows?
Wait. Now that she thinks about it, there are no mountains within many miles.
Where are they?
Were there mountains?
Tonight, in dream, it is her father exiting the garage, saying her mother has gone to the lake (lake? What lake?), and does she want to come with him tomorrow for water…
She does! Of course she does. But what earthly good does that do once she has opened her eyes? Exactly none. Get used to it. Breathe.
Today, she decides, will be inventory─food, water, clothing, everything from pliers to paper towels.
Although. By the time she reaches five potholders, ½-jar of cinnamon, one broken stapler, the books she will never read, the unused juicer, too many paper clips to count, she is frantic with the randomness, newly depressed. Where did all this cardboard come from? What was her point?
Tonight she sleeps angry and dreamless, too much surrounding her, too much missing, gone. Wind howls suddenly, then ceases.
Something is definitely up. The dream, when it finally comes, is interrupted. By silence, followed by a determined banging at the front door that she at first dismisses and now realizes is very real.
Are the doors locked?! But then confusion─how to tell if it is attack or cry for help? Or, wait, was it redemption that is known to knock so wildly middle of the night? No idea what to do, she stands, then sits, reaches for the bedside light, stops.
Downstairs. Through the peephole, she sees only darkness. The knocking has ceased. When she slides the bolt and inches the door open to scan for clues, something thumps to the ground, skitters under the porch. Or no. Someone tall strides away across the lawn, turning before he disappears behind the hedge. Fixing her with golden eyes, he raises a hand (warning? blessing?) and then is gone. Unless it was a trick of shadow and moon, the most breathtakingly handsome man she has ever seen…
Or maybe none of this, for now it seems to be a circle of squat shapes muttering in a corner of the garden. No, never mind shapes―that would be definitely be a coiled animal now leaping onto the leaning trunk of the maple, glowering from a middle branch.
Or nothing. The yard still, the night as empty as can be. She eases the door closed, leaves it unlocked, sits silent in the dark
And still sits
Only when sun slides down the east wall seeking entry through the curtained window, under the door, does she understand. Not her monsters out there (though it is not easy to let go of the handsome man)… It was─what? A revue, an illustration, a message meaning Go find your mother, beset by monsters. She sighs. A long trek.
By the time she awakes, hard rain. A blowing and battering that to her is always relief. Yes, she is excused once more from going anywhere at all, can simply shiver happily, gather the plaid blanket around her legs, press the steaming mug to her chest, watch drops slide down the window and bounce off the top of the fence. Can simply listen.
Not this time. The downpour claps and resounds, nothing but an amplification of her small struggle―do not want to step even five toes out of this house; must go. Angling her legs onto the couch, pressing deeper into the cushions, she tries to stop thought, attempts to rewrite climate chaos as spring rain. Truth interrupts, announces itself again.
No one will come.
No one else will go.
Going. It is root and branch not something Alice is wanting to do. But if she doesn’t get the show on the road? The world recedes. Her life, eventually, winds down. Her mother is abandoned.
She has always been just too good at resistance. Which is bad.
Dream does its best. This time, it is Dad hurrying her into the car, handing her the map, pointing out that the seat belt is there for a reason. Fine!
One more day of curling her toes into her shoes, arresting momentum. Of thinking there must be more to catalog, a few other things that need repair.
One more night, she dreams of the handsome prince, the scurrying animals, an ancient woman. No car, no garage, no father. Waking, knows it is really time to go. Well, soon. All right, yes─today. Once she has decided, the world spins.
Knapsack. Water bottle. Ah. Filter thing for the bottle─who knows whether she will be finding crystal streams or sad and ash-filled trickles.
No, not these runners. Boots. And Dad’s old hawthorn stick, the one for adventuring. Did they ever? She stands for a moment. Sure they did. They must have. When she was a little girl.
Oh. Focus. A smaller bag of things to easily eat. The first aid kit, to stuff beneath her vest, a pillow. Her knitting? Seems silly, she thinks, but in it goes.
All right, no more. She turns slowly, a circle of remembering, then steps out the door. Lock it? Why would she even ask? Lock it. Stop tossing the key over and over in her sweating hand. Go.
As she does so, far off the earth rumbles, a dragonfly angles toward her and then away. Time clicks into another sort of time; reality reshapes itself.
The holes where her neighbors lived are ancient burial sites, the staggering supermarket a cache of mushroom and acorn, the ice cream store a pond. Just past the last high school, track has become trail, and football field wooded glade. The adventure begins.
Alice trips on an S-shaped root, leans hard against the nearest tree, which stands aside, ushering her fully into forest. And from here, things happen so fast that she thinks perhaps it was the long uneven time of dream and decision, the resisting and the struggle and the not wanting to leave that were actually the adventure. This merely the natural outcome.
the clearly-worn path
the mottled rabbit crossing before her
when her water is, already, gone, the hidden fountain
the laughing voice
the yawning cat now by her side
“You made it.”
"I did.” Though she is confused. Many miles, tens of hundreds, and it felt like only a night and a day.
“Just in time. Before the monsters.”
“Well, good thing.”
“Also…” Her mother flutters her hands. “I think we must have had an earthquake here.”
“Oh, we all did.” Alice drops her knapsack and looks around.
Everything in place, it would seem, though perhaps the whole house is very much off kilter. Or is it she who is leaning, off her foundation?
There is tea, then, truly wondrous, with Gramie’s china and Oma’s flowered teapot.
slices of pear
real brownies just baked
“Have one more?”
She does, of course, then needs to sleep. Here, apparently, she does not dream. And waking early, with hours and minutes still speeding, reality refurbished, knows she must take her mother back.
But her mother knows, has already packed, is one foot out the door. Well, that was easy. Now Alice is the one who wants to slow this down again, just stay a while.
“Alice. It’s all right. We’ll have a lovely breakfast, then wait till sun and depart.”
toast with pomegranate jelly
sweet coffee cake
Only when she sits back, full, never wanting to get up again, does it
hit her. “Eggs! You still have laying hens?”
“Naturally, dear. And they’re all set to go.”
She steps out onto the porch, then into the yard. Indeed. The chickens peck at the bars of their cage, which is strapped atop a red wagon. Under the cage, as Alice gives the wagon an experimental pull, roll onions and garlic, potatoes and beets and corn. When did Mom do this? She surveys the stripped garden, snags a forgotten bouquet of chard and gives her mother a thumbs-up.
(Still she doesn’t want to go. This seems a theme.) Soon, though, dishes are done, beds made and food packed, the door locked. Back the way she came.
Or not. Her mother seems to want to lead, and for a while they are on buckled highway, then detouring through empty suburb, now passing over a freeway, now edging finally into forest, hitting the trail.
Exactly where she would have been the previous afternoon. Why the ridiculous roundabout? But Mom is not saying. Alice follows silently. Maybe now the signposts will just reverse:
Of course not. No self-respecting cat would come within a mile of these clamorous chickens. Or butterfly, never mind rabbit. No need for fountains when her mother has balanced an entire five-gallon water jug on top of the cage, hung reusable mugs on each side. (Alice would be clamoring too if she were one of the chickens.)
The laughing voice. That would be nice. Thinking back, it was a lovely one. Melodic. Heartening. Filled with light. But they are not going to be hearing anything else over mother’s private giggles and sudden public song. Not a peep.
And then the path─there is that last piece─has her panting, stunned that they are already back; arrived. Hefting knapsacks and food bags through the doorway, she thinks about it for a minute. What journey?
The road just traveled─through the remains, across the forest, to her mother, the rescue, back home─that was a slipstream. The real itinerary ran from resistance and stubbornness to holding back, through selfish days, and nights of confusion, and morning pain. Dogged silence. Angry words. Refusing to accept what is real. Not knowing. Not wanting to know. To finally her first bold footfall into unknown.
Maybe nothing is ever what it seems.
There wasn’t any
And her dad?!
Surely he did not mean this vessel of blue plastic roofing the now-quiet chickens. When he said mountain, he meant mountain. The journey was supposed to be with him. But as she settles her mother in the guest room, unpacks photo albums and pinking shears and a gilded pine cone, prepares lunch, Alice sees that it was. He did get her to climb the unnamed mountain. He was right there.
Mugs clatter, and the chickens erupt in protest or perhaps joy as she lifts the water bottle onto her shoulder and brings it home.