Nonfiction by Kami Westhoff
1. Start by stepping in. Perhaps this shore is sandy, but if barnacles pock the rocks with their stubborn eruptions, let their edges gnarl your soles. Don’t worry if the shredded skin flutters, or if tendrils of blood rust the water—there is nothing your body can offer that the ocean hasn’t already owned. Rushing into the cold has always been easy for you—this day is no different. The chill pricks the hair on your legs, but you resist the shiver. Remember the June nights when dusk refused the tug of night and you and your sister rode the slick backs of aquatic logs until the skin of your thighs rawed bright? You paddled beyond the buoys, beyond the reach of the stitched mouths of your parents, beyond the point of save yourself. From there, you could see the scribbled peaks of mountains that belonged to another country behind the reluctant lights of its southern shore. From there, you could see how your sister’s shoulders collapsed her chest with their furl. It was she who asked, How much will you give me if I, and then unclutched her skeletal toes from the log’s curve and let the surface swallow her. By the time her ascent shattered the sky’s reflection, the loss of her had already burrowed into places in you unreachable by the reassurance of what didn’t happen. This time, offer yourself and save her. With your body returned landscape it can’t rubble, wiggle yourself into these ancient tangles of suffering. Use your fingers or your teeth to solve their equation. Pick their meat from the new moon of your fingernails. Loose their bones from between your teeth. If you swallow some, clear it with a cough. If you breathe it in, don’t worry. The ocean understands how hard you tried. It knows you would have done things differently if you’d been a different person. It’s glad to see you again, after all these years, after it slit its skin and let your sister slip under, even if the sky surfaced her with its promise of Not yet.
2. This time, stay shored. Lie on the grass until it inherits the shape of your body. Beneath you, civilizations glide or tunnel the cool, dark soil, indifferent to the disasters above. Watch the oil-slick crows judge you from the power lines, the planes scar the sky with their wispy skids. You’re the type to search for things you understand, things you can name, so read the sky’s story—it won’t care if you get it wrong. See the curled tail of your first dog. See your sister propelled from the cradled palms of your father, her body in a sloppy dive into the deep end. See your mother with the butt of a shotgun wedged in her shoulder. See the neighbor’s pickup truck tits up in a ditch. This time, you don’t say anything to anyone. No one saves his day, and you and your sister oil the skin that won’t crack and crumble from the damage of his touch. From now on you won’t have to bother with the stories of the sky—if you look up, you’ll see only clouds. In your backyard, your towels tock clockwise to the sun’s tick. Your sister’s skin—the color of creamed coffee—is made for the sun. Everything about you is strawberry. One of her legs is as long as both of yours end-to-end. You have so much damage ahead of you, but it isn’t that which taught you about what men want and how easily it is for them to take it.
3. Once, too late, your parents drove you into the dry throat of desert. It was both too hot and too cold there—its extremes wrung you out and hung you up. You and your sister, twelve and fifteen, had just stepped into ages that ping-ponged the leers of boys. Your sister always first stop—five inches taller, ten pounds lighter, breasts high in a constant look here. You knew you were second choice—your face in a fuss of strange and pretty, freckles before they were fashionable, the wedge of dark between your front teeth, but something about you was hard to look away from. Perhaps they saw that her eyes had already been swallowed by the bruised-cloud shadows under them. Perhaps it was something more subtle—the stitch in her step like someone expecting a sudden drop or a door slamming. This time, send them back her way. Know this is true: you have a future of boys who look your way well past a glance. Remember that boy you met at dusk behind the lodge, the lips you later described as soft, cool pillows, the fingertips that touched your nipples like they were things precious? Let him meet your sister there. Let her world burst open from a storm she started.
4. Or here: water again, but fresh, glacial, a lake the exact color of your father’s 1972 Ford pickup. It’s the most beautiful place in the world, but you don’t know that yet. One July weekend every year, your parents force you to camp: pit toilets electric with flies; you and your sister in a furious spoon on the camper’s kitchen table bed; rummy and cribbage and Billy Joel and Jim Croce. For three days you’d spend eight hours on your father’s twenty-footer fishing for rainbow trout, your gut in a constant rage from all the ways you thought you’d die here: gutted by a cougar, scalped and skinned by the grizzly that yellowed paper signs warned of, a maniac with an ax, an unnamable creature sick and tired of living on fish guts and bread crusts. You and your sister stashed Sweet Valley High books and Barbies in the boat’s hull while your father pushed the boat clear of the shore and yanked the cord until the engine caught. Your mother packed tuna-fish-and-pickle sandwiches and the off-brand ridged chips that shredded the roof of your mouth into chunks of skin to worry free with your tongue. Your sister had a way with the fish—no one ever caught more—reeled them in; removed the hook, ignoring the sloppy crunch of their demolished jaws; dropped them in the yellow bucket for you to play with. A hundred hours later you’d dock, your lips plumped pink from strawberry Shasta, your sister’s bruised from diet grape. She stayed at the shore with your father and slit the fish, anus to throat, peeled back each flap of what we’d later eat, ripped out the guts and tossed them into the lake. Remember that day when, in a fit of fury at your father’s reprimand, you jumped from the boat’s nose into the lake, resisted your lungs’ Inhale, let your body rest on the silty bottom? You were only ten feet from shore, so your sister jumped in, clutched your swimsuit top, surfaced you with such force the straps tore clean. That was when. Don’t you get it? You were supposed to die here. You’re the one—it was always you. Your sister will suffer over and over to protect you. Your father will love you so much he’ll drink until his stomach erupts. Your mother will choose the wrong daughter to save. Do you want all that on your shoulders? This time, jump in when the bottom is out of her reach. Or do all the Do Nots listed on the Wildlife Warning signs. Or slip out of the camper in the middle of the night and wander the campground, lingering where men whittle sticks with hatchets, spit into forbidden campfires, piss where and when they damn well choose. In moonlight serrated by the limbs of three-hundred-year-old trees, offer your fish-belly throat. This is how you get it right.