This time, the flood deposits me at the foot of the Cailleach’s rock in Coulagh Bay. And I didn’t even see it coming.
Usually, the water rolls in all slow, and it is gravely heralded. I say my goodbyes. I pack up my animals; the same old tired routine. Two of this, two of that, and seven pairs of the clean animals so that once we reach land I can sacrifice them to God and say thank you, thank you for the ark, thank you for my life. The clean animals are the ones that I can eat. Good for them, I think, as I load them on again.
Things get pared down, over time. I’ll be looking for that old book on spies and how to decode secret messages that I got on that field trip to the NSA we took when I was a kid, and my mom will say, “We didn’t bring that one on the ark this time, remember?”
“Oh, right,” I’ll say, and I’ll think of the papers scattered across those rolling waves.
The first time it happens, I’ve never seen a flood before. I’m not ready. I live in L.A., I’m six years old, and goodbyes aren’t really something that stick in my head. I hear them anyways, from Eleanor and Cleo and Morgan and my Grandma and Grandpa and Aunt Julie and their old friends with the spiky cupid’s bows that angle in like javelins when they come to kiss me.
I am not the one who has to break the news of the flood to all these people who have seen me grow up, who have watched my hair brown and my toes get longer. That duty falls to my parents. I sit with Morgan on the top bunk of her bunk bed and make plans.
“We can keep writing our book,” I say. “We can mail pages back and forth.”
“We could write letters from the point of view of the fairies,” Morgan says, meaning of course the Polly Pockets that are really magical sprites with whom we talk. Some of them are devious. Some look exactly the same as one another, and those are twins. One is good, one is bad. “I mean,” she says, “they can write to each other. Through us.”
I nod solemnly. “Of course.”
And my parents explain to me about rowboats, and how we can come back all the time on them. It only takes a few hours to row from Indiana back to California, so we could do it every other year. And on the inbetween years, Grandma and Grandpa and Aunt Julie can row until they see that dove and it will lead them to our house on the Triangle Park in South Bend, Indiana.
What my parents don’t tell me, what I don’t understand until years later, is that the flood does not just take us from here to there. It breaks something from the here, from the past, and even when I come back with my suitcase on my rowboat for a week of summer, California is different. It has been flooded. My room at my grandparents’ house is not my room; the comforter has been swapped out for one I’ve never seen before. They’ve gotten a new cat figurine to add to their collection. It watches me out of the corners of its eyes and I watch it right back and although there is an uneasy alliance between us, the feeling of brokenness persists.
The letters with Morgan come for a while. We write pages. She illustrates a book cover. We begin taping our Polly Pocket fairies into these letters and sending them back and forth, and then detailing the adventures that they’d had at one another’s houses. But when I visit her in person, I don’t know what to say. She has been flooded too, and time has washed the familiarity from our lips.
But I do not understand the flood fully until my grandmother dies.
I am living in Indiana. The flood has taken me there. She emails me sometimes, and I email her back with as many gmail emoticons as I can find, with multicolor exclamation points. I think about the times she took me shopping at The Grove, about having tea at the American Girl Store. Next time I visit, she surely will take me there again, and will buy me a fancy dress that matches one for my doll, just like she always does, and I’ll wear it on the cruise we’re going to take together.
I am in the back seat of the car during the phone call, the one where my parents find out that Grandma has fainted. I’m confused. I can’t really imagine it. My parents get all worried, and I’m still trying to figure out what it would feel like to faint. Like she just fell asleep in the middle of a luncheon? I try to picture fainting and all I can think of is Elizabeth Swan falling off the parapets because her corset is too tight.
The words brain tumor are very abstract. What’s concrete is that she’s going to lose her hair from the treatment. When we Skype each other, something I can’t remember ever doing before with her, her hair looks pretty normal. It’s big and blond and curled up all bouncy. I guess it’s a wig. Does it really matter then, I wonder, if she’s wearing a wig, if it looks just like her normal hair? I squint and try to make out the difference. She’s smiling the whole way through the call, but there’s something different, and I have enough understanding of the workings of floods now to blame it on those rolling waves.
Things change, and I am gone, and that is the nature of a flood, I think.
I am wrong. The nature of a flood is destruction.
It goes like this. God comes down and says, I’m done with this place. Time to move on. I have a new home for you. And then you and your parents have to go all over trying to round up the animals, and build this ark to very detailed specifications, and you have to pack up and get on it before the tide rolls in. And you sit in that ark with your family and the clean animals that you are going to sacrifice in the touchdown feast and the unclean animals that are just going to blame you for their motion sickness, and you ride the waves of the flood until the dove shows up with a leaf or a twig or a real estate deed and says, “This is for you. You lucky bastard.”
And you wait a week, a month, a few years, even, and then you find out what the flood did. Whom it killed this time. And you feel that, the luckiness, deep in your guilty bones. How very lucky you are to have God on your side. How very lucky you are to be able to sit back and watch the flood devour.
I go and visit Grandma in California once before she dies. The brain cancer is in its crueler stages, now. When I last saw her, Grandma was a beautiful, young sixty-nine-year-old with bouncing blonde curls and delicate, long fingers. She had been a dancer, in her time, in Philadelphia and in New York. She loved collecting cat figurines and buying me whole matching outfit sets and taking me in the bath with her and laughing through the bubbles. I think she looked like Jane Fonda.
The floods are always so unsparing. The woman across the table from me sits in a wheelchair, and her hands curl in on themselves so that the nurse that comes to the house every day has to lift the spoon to Grandma’s mouth for her. It’s soft food, like baby food. Grandma’s eyes are unfocused, and I sit here not looking at her and also completely unable to look at anything else.
“You can talk to her,” my mom says to me quietly, nudging me.
I stay mute. What would I say? The woman across the table from me did not want to talk to me about dolls. Or about dancing. She wasn’t about to up and recite the HaMotzi in her lilting, melodic tone.
“It’s okay, she can hear you,” mom says.
“Hi,” I say, my eyes skirting around the frame of my grandmother, and she does nothing to register that she even knows I’m there.
The thing I like the least is that she’s old now. That’s the problem. Grandma had never been old before, and then, there she was, all at once, in that last of the seven ages. Second childishness, Shakespeare called it, and I guess he was right.
Mere oblivion, he called it. And that is the legacy of the flood. A little bit of food dribbles out of her mouth. My Grandpa tells her as much, like everything is normal, like he’s just talking with her.
We row back over to our safe haven in Indiana, and then she dies, and then a year later my Grandpa has a stroke in his sleep and follows her offstage. Lights. Curtain. Cue the applause.
There are the little things, too. Morgan and I stop sending letters. I keep them all, in a green metal filing bin, and every so often I think about reading them, but I never do. Those parts of the flood are soft, and manageable, and inevitable.
Sometimes the flood plays a long game, and sometimes it hits you quick. It does both with Indiana.
After Ophelia tells Robin and I that she’s going to school and leaves the two of us as the lone homeschooling girls of our age, Robin catches me by the wrist and pulls me in close. She gets that serious look in her eyes and she asks me, “You aren’t going to school, are you?”
“No,” I say, “of course not.”
“Good,” she says. “Because if you did then I’d have to, and then I’d really go crazy.”
Robin’s dramatic about a lot of things. Like when she clung to the doorframe of the dentist’s office and shouted her head off rather than get a cleaning. She tells me of this proudly, and I look down on her a little bit. I think, I don’t like the dentist’s either, but I don’t make such a big deal about it.
But when she tells me she’d go crazy, I believe her. I really do. She’s on the cusp of something wild, always, something I can prod at the surface level of but not push inside. I don’t really think I want to.
We’re sitting on the top level of the castle in my backyard when she says that we should become blood brothers.
“Yeah, cool,” I say, even though my stomach’s turning topside. “We gotta find something to cut our hands with, though.”
We scatter and search throughout the yard. I settle on a particularly sharp-looking stone. Its lines come together on a long sharp point on one end. I call Robin back, and I hold it out solemnly. “This is good. We don’t want nails or glass or anything. Obviously.”
“Obviously,” she agrees.
“So, I’ll just- I’ll just cut my hand a tiny bit, we just need a little blood, and then you’ll do it, right? Okay.” I don’t know why I’ve decided to helm this project. It makes me feel grown-up, maybe. Or I want her to know that I’m dangerous, too.
I move the point of the rock across my skin. It leaves a little white line and doesn’t do anything. I dig it in a little deeper. I didn’t know the pad of my palm could be so tough. I turn my hand over so I’m looking at the back. The skin has to be thin; I can see all my veins through it. I drag the rock across the back of my hand.
But I just can’t bring myself to push it hard enough to break the skin, to break much of anything. I shake my head. “It’s not working.”
“Let me try.” She takes it from me. Surely, Robin will be able to cut herself. She isn’t scared. Or– maybe, she’s just scared enough to be able to do it right. One of the two. She’ll get it.
I watch her try. She’s cross-legged on the ground, her eyebrows all hunched together like they can’t get enough of each other.
“Yeah, I don’t know, I think it’s–” she puts the rock down. “It’s just not really sharp enough.”
“Okay, okay, look.” I take the rock from her and throw it off the side of the castle, and I am glad when it is gone. “We’ll do spit brothers. It’s basically the same.” And before she can argue, I spit into my palm and hold it up at her.
She looks at me unblinkingly for a second. And then she says, “Yeah, it’s just as powerful,” and she spits into her hand.
We clasp hands firmly and gaze into each others’ eyes.
“I solemnly vow to be your friend forever,” she says.
“I solemnly vow to be your friend forever,” I echo, and add: “And to always fight for each other.” I mean this literally. I’ve never been in a fight, but I am entirely sure that if someone tried to hurt her I would bite their fingers off. I think about this sometimes.
“And to always fight for each other,” she amends.
My mother isn’t happy when she hears about it. “I’m glad it didn’t work. Jeez. Zoe, you can’t swap blood with people. That’s how people get diseases. You know that some diseases can go through blood, right? And what were you even going to cut yourself with?”
I look down at the ground and wonder if it really was as powerful the way we did it.
The second flood hits when I’m ten. Dad’s talking to Mom across the dining room, and anxiety fizzles out from them and over to me, sitting on the ground with my dolls.
“They’re laying people off left and right,” Dad says. “I don’t know. I don’t know yet. But it’s the only software company here.”
“We’ll look,” Mom says. “We’ll start looking. It’s okay.”
And she looks, and she plans. And when they come for Dad and his job disappears, we have the next one lined up. In Philadelphia.
This time, it’s on me to tell. Mom says she’ll tell the parents, but not until after I tell my friends. I guess this is reasonable. I hate it. I cry out of spite. I listen to Evanescence and think about sharp rocks and clinging onto doorframes.
I tell Kate first. We met under a blooming tree in the Triangle Park the first year I was in Indiana, and if Robin tasted like blood, all metallic and savory and necessary, Kate was a strawberry. Sweet. Fresh. Familiar.
We play dolls. There are dozens and dozens of them between us, and we amass them into armies. One doll does something horribly inexcusable to another, and then that slighted doll slaps her friend, and then they all gear up and go at it with plastic violence. Sometimes we drop them down the dumbwaiter. But this violence is never the same as Robin’s. Kate would never think to cut her hand for my sake. She’d just promise me with a hug.
I tell her in my bedroom. She sits against my bedpost, and she has no idea that there’s about to be a flood.
Carefully, I start. “I’m going to tell you something.” I put my doll down. She looks up, cautiously, and does the same. “Don’t be– I just have to tell you.”
“What?” she asks, and I really, really don’t want to say it. I consider taking it back.
“Oh, nothing,” the Zoe in my head says. “I have a math circle presentation coming up I thought you’d like to hear about. That’s all. Nothing big.”
But I’m in too deep now, and anyways I hate lying.
She takes the hit quietly. “Like where?”
I swallow thickly. “Um, Philadelphia.”
“Oh,” she says. “I thought you just meant another house.”
“I still have a couple weeks here,” I say. I wonder if she knows what that means. That I’m talking about a flood. Does she know about floods?
Kate looks down at the doll in her lap and picks it back up. “Let’s just not talk about it. That’s too sad. Let’s just play.”
“Okay,” I say, and we play.
And it is sad, but I know she’s gonna be okay. Because Kate’s mom is nice and involved and does stuff like take us to the pool and suffer the pitfalls of a doll-strewn basement post-war. She steps carefully between those little plastic limbs to bring us cookies, and we absolutely adore her.
Kate looks just like her mom. Robin looks a lot like hers, too.
Robin’s mom and dad get separated not too long after I move there. We don’t ever talk about it. But there’s all the running-away talk, and the “I hate my mom”s, which I nod along to, subdued. I don’t hate my mom. I don’t hate Robin’s mom either, but I’d bite her fingers off if I have to. I hope it never has to come to that.
My mom doesn’t like Robin’s mom either. My mom likes me a lot. I consider her a very good judge of character because of this.
So telling Robin is a worse thing. When I do, she doesn’t ask not to talk about it. She just gets very tight-lipped and hard-faced, and I want to tell her it’s not my fault, but I don’t. I just play up how much it’s gonna suck there, how much I’ll hate it, how I’m sure I won’t make any friends.
What I think the difference is is that Robin is used to being left. This is not Robin’s first time being flooded. Maybe, the first time it happened, she tried to build herself a raft, thinking she could weather it out without getting soaked. By now, she knows better. She uses the last few weeks with me clinging on as tight as she can, because if she’s going to drown at least she can have a good time of it first.
The flood comes swifter than I could’ve imagined. It comes the day before we even leave on the ark. We’re packing up all the animals, you know, the old routine, two by two. Packing up the books and the linens and the toys and the camels and tigers and whatnot. We have this grill, in the back, that my cats love to hide under.
Merry and Pippin. They don’t look it, but they’re brothers. They grew up together, and rarely leave each others’ sides. We have another cat, and a dog, too, but Merry and Pippin are content to enjoy one another’s company and shirk the advances of the others. They’re skittish. They’re sweet. Pippin is mostly white and Merry is a striping gray. I don’t pet them as much as I should.
We’re packing up the ark, and Dad moves the grill. The metal of the wheels grind and groan to life after years of disuse. Merry’s under there, and he freaks. He runs. And just like that, he’s gone.
We all go to the ark, my mom and dad and I, the ark which is all assembled and ready to go by now, and we turn our faces to the sky.
“Please,” we say. “Please, Lord, just give us a few more days. Give us a few days to find him. He’s our cat. He’s our boy. He’s been ours for almost as long as Zoe has. Please, just give us time.”
And thus spoke the lord Adonai: “The flood comes when the flood comes.”
We board the ark the next day and the flood sweeps across South Bend, Indiana, and kills all those wicked souls that lived there, and only we are spared.
We row all the way back the next week to look for Merry, but he’s just gone. Nobody that we knew in the neighborhood or the next neighborhood or the neighborhood that Robin lives in ever sees him again.
I settle into dry, floodless Philadelphia, and Robin and I send a couple letters back and forth. She tells me that her mom’s sent her to school. Because there’s no one else left for her there. Things are hard, she says. I miss you, she says. I miss you too, I say. We stop writing.
I go back in the summer and I stay with Kate’s family for a week. I don’t see Robin. The next summer, Kate comes and stays with me. The next year, I go back again. Kate tells me that Robin went to the same cross-country summer program as her.
“How is she?” I ask. I pretend I’m not that interested, because I don’t want Kate to know how much of my heart used to be all bunched up between Robin’s eyebrows. How much my blood used to sing at the thought of being mixed up with hers. How scared I am at the thought of seeing Robin again, how thrilled.
“I don’t think she’s doing too great,” Kate says, and that’s really all she knows, so we leave it at that.
I inherit my dead grandparents’ cat. Linus is orange and extraordinarily fat. I use him as a pillow sometimes and I pet him a lot.
When I’m fourteen, I message Robin on Facebook. I am very nervous about this. I tell her hi, we haven’t spoken in years, I was just thinking of you, how are you, I’m performing in a Shakespeare play soon, hope you see this, hope you’re doing well, Zoe. You know, nothing weird.
She doesn’t write back. I wait. She views the message.
She doesn’t write back. Not for seven weeks. I forget about it.
She writes back.
I’m sorry, she says. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was scared to write you back. I’ve changed a lot since you left and I’m afraid that you aren’t going to like me.
I don’t tell her I love her or anything. But I write back within five minutes of getting the message. I’m the one who rode off on my fancy ark, so I don’t get to be too cool to respond. I say, It’s okay. I say, There’s nothing that you could tell me that would make me not like you.
Four years and a flood later, I think, and she’s still like this. And there’s a little thrill there, in the idea that she still gives a shit what I think about her. And I do. Think about her.
Robin tells me that she just got out of the hospital. That she’s been institutionalized three times before. I get the sense that maybe she means she tried to kill herself. I’m not sure. She doesn’t specify. But that makes the most sense.
I tell her I’m sorry.
We go back and forth for a few days, and then that’s it. She doesn’t have a Facebook anymore. And I don’t have her number.
So that’s the flood, too. And she had warned me. “I’ll really go crazy,” she’d said, and I’d known even then she was right. But what could I do? A flood’s a flood.
I consider asking God: what’s up with this? What’s so awesome about me? Why is it fuck my grandma, fuck my grandpa, fuck my cat and fuck Robin, but I get the ark every time? Is it a blessing? Is it a punishment? Maybe let me get flooded next time, I think about asking him, just to make it a little more fair.
But I don’t ask, because it doesn’t work that way.
I go to this camp in Michigan for smart kids, and I laugh at it a little because there’s this white lady teacher who makes us read books that she wrote for a book club and also has this class where she very seriously teaches everyone reiki so they can heal each others’ energy. Sometimes a bunch of old white people lead the whole camp in a spirit journey. We lie down on a hardwood floor and I fall seventy-percent asleep while they talk about finding your spirit animal as it crosses your path in the woods.
But also, I get to go ziplining and do ropes courses and watch this tall, gangly, beautiful senior dance with spinning fire poi at the talent show. So I like it.
It’s the first night of my second year there, and I’m meeting my new roommates. There’s two of them, and one of them doesn’t speak more than two sentences to me that night. I wait on my bed for the other. Thea.
She comes in late. She’s holding toilet paper to her wrists.
“Sorry,” Thea says. “I was just in the bathroom.”
And I guess it then, but I wait for her to tell me that night. I don’t know why she tells me all her secrets that first night, after our other roommate has gone to bed. Maybe I just have the sort of face you trust.
Maybe she’s just been waiting for someone willing to listen.
We’re up until two in the morning. Thea doesn’t like her parents. They yell at each other constantly, and at her sometimes. They don’t understand. She doesn’t feel right in girlhood but doesn’t know yet what to do with that. She wants to die sometimes. She hurts herself, she tells me, when she gets like this.
I don’t know her, and also I do.
“Were you cutting yourself in the bathroom earlier?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “But you can’t tell anybody. I’m fine. Zoe, I’m telling you these things, but you have to swear not to tell anybody. They’ll make me go home.”
I don’t want her to have to go home. If her home really makes her so unhappy, then this camp is her refuge. This is someplace she can be happy. If I don’t tell the counselors, I tell myself, I’m actually helping her be happy. Because she loves it here so much. Anyways, she trusts me. She told me all this, and she’s trusting it with me. Me.
“I’m not doing it again. Not while I’m here,” Thea says. “I swear to god. I’m definitely not doing it here again. You don’t have to worry about that.”
I do. And I worry about somehow getting caught, about getting asked point-blank by a counselor. I worry and worry and worry about what I’ll do.
Nobody asks me.
Thea and I do archery together. We’re good at it. Her hair is dyed a light celadon. She has a big, androgynous smile. She’s a year younger than me. Maybe, I think, I can take care of this one.
The fire dance boy does his thing. He’s a counselor in training. He has these rectangular glasses and an Adam’s apple that protrudes way out. I think about reaching out and pushing it back into his throat. I touch my own neck in the same place. He talks to me once or twice.
I hug Thea goodbye at the end. I get her Facebook. On the flight home to Philly, I look out the window, and this little ripple of blue catches my eye. I press my forehead against that plastic interior window even though it’s oily from the fingerprints of a hundred other people. I almost think I see water down there. I almost think I see a dove.
I shake it off. This was a happy summer. I handled things. I’m happy.
It’s the February after that summer, and I’m turning fifteen tonight. It’s tech week for Cymbeline, and I spend the day practicing how to convincingly cut my friend Chris’s head off with an axe. It’s a real axe. We keep the plastic on the blades. I treasure it nonetheless; everyone else just has foils.
It gets out that it’s my birthday, and we all have pizza at the end of rehearsal and they sing for me and I’m only a freshman and they’re all older but they make me feel like I count for something. And when I get home, my parents have made an indoor picnic for me in our living room.
There’s a picnic blanket across the floor, and all around it is a string of fairy lights that’s been laid out to make a circle. I step into my fairy circle and eat my February picnic and I grin my face off. I open my presents. I get this snapback that I’ve been wanting, pink floral print on black. I pull it on. I have to snap it all the way, so that every little peg lines up with every little hole. I have a notoriously small head.
I’ve brushed my teeth and I’m just about ready to go to sleep when my mom, who’s in her room, goes, “Hey, Zoe, come in here.”
I duck in.
“Why don’t you sit down?”
I climb up on my parents’ bed and sit down. I figure this is some kind of birthday news.
“We just got an email from your camp,” Mom says. Dad’s looking at me funny and I get the sense that this is not, in fact, birthday news. “I guess,” my mom says, “they just found out that this girl named Thea passed away.”
“What?” I say. Like it doesn’t make sense. This is disingenuous.
“Did you know her?”
It strikes me that my parents have no idea that I know her. That we did archery. That we stayed up until 2:00am sharing unhappy little anecdotes. “She was my roommate,” I tell them.
“Oh my god,” Mom says. “Oh my god, honey, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. I wouldn’t have told you tonight. I didn’t know.”
“How’d she die?” I ask, all casual-like.
“She… she killed herself,” Mom says.
I nod. “Yeah.”
I go to bed that night, but I don’t go to sleep. Not for a long time. I probably stay up as long as Thea and I did that first night. I stare at the ceiling while my eyes burn and I think about how it’s my fault, it’s my fault, I should’ve told. I knew it, I saw it, I saw the toilet paper first thing, and I didn’t tell.
I realize I must’ve seen that water and that dove, after all. I’d been coasting away, buoyed on top of a flood that I didn’t even know was happening.
That’s the prerogative of the guy with the ark. You know, the way God wants the ark built is super specific. This long, this tall, this wide. Here’s where the clean animals go, here the unclean, and here’s a bed for you. But nowhere does it talk about windows. You have to go all the way outside on the top of it to check where you are, to scout for a dove.
And the thing is, when you’re floating inside this big old wooden thing with no windows, you don’t have to see the flood. You don’t have to watch it. You don’t have to hear the people you left behind gasp for breath. Until you see the bodies floating face-down, you don’t even have to know they’re dead.
One of the worst things, in retrospect, when you have the distance of a half a decade or more between you and the flooded valley where your friends and neighbors used to live, is that the flood becomes the most memorable thing about that place, about your friends and neighbors.
I remember being at the fountain at The Grove with Grandma, and everything is golden, and she nudges me to toss a penny in the water. I make a wish. She’s smiling. She loves me so much because I am her only granddaughter, and since we don’t speak to my mom’s mom she’s basically my only grandma, too. It’s a nice thing.
And this memory is warm and golden and hazy like a Renoir, and it’s probably seventy-five percent made up. What I know is real– viscerally, nauseatingly real– is old Grandma Anne across the table in the L.A. house with food on her face and hands that don’t work, and everyone’s telling me that deep down she knows who I am but by the look on her face it must be very very deep down and it makes me sad to think of her being trapped all the way down there.
I remember watching Robin try to split open her hand with a sharp black rock that ends in a point, only I can’t be sure about the exact size, or the shape, or maybe it isn’t a rock at all. Maybe it’s a safety pin I found. I don’t know. I really don’t. I do know that I don’t have her number or her address anymore, and that is concrete and knowable in a way I’d rather it not be.
And I remember Kate’s mom with a little blond ponytail letting me borrow a pair of Kate’s shoes. I remember how lithe and agile she is, calves all muscle, taut, and I’m trying to keep up with her and the rest of Kate’s family as we hike a winding path that lies along a river in the middle nowheres of Tennessee. I remember flying alone to get there to stay with them, and how the airline loses my bag with every summer outfit I own and all the new, well-fitting bras my mom had just bought me, too, and how Kate’s mom takes me to Target and buys me new clothes and a new bathing suit and new bras, too.
But mostly now, when I’m thinking of her, I’m just thinking of the flood again. I have to reach for those memories; they don’t come unbidden like they used to when I would hear her name. It makes me smile and it makes me sad.
I’m at the Cailleach’s rock in Coulagh Bay, and it’s a triple whammy. All those years, eight long years, of thinking that the Indiana flood had sucker punched me. One, two, K.O.. Merry’s vanishing from our lives and then the falling away and falling apart of Robin, of the girl for whom I would have swallowed fingers.
But I understand now, at the foot of the Cailleach’s rock, that the flood had not yet exacted its full toll. It had been waiting, smiling a frothy, bubbling smile, whispering “I know something you don’t know” into my ear all those years like a petulant child. Either I hadn’t heard or I hadn’t wanted to. It had been easier for me to weather that storm, I think, because I convinced myself that at least one of the things that I left behind wouldn’t be totally wrecked.
I’m in Ireland. It’s my family’s last vacation together before I go off to New York. I understand that this will be a flood of sorts, but it’s different when I’m the one choosing it. I do cry, sometimes, when I look at my friends in Philadelphia who are all staying and who are all staying the same. I am going to board my ark because God set tacks under my feet so that it would become unbearable to stand on them anymore. So that I’d have to get out.
It makes me feel cruel to think about leaving my friends behind. But God came down to me from the heavens one day when I was deciding on colleges, and he said that if I stay here I will surely drown with the rest of the wicked. So here I am building my goddamn ark again.
But first I’m in Ireland. It’s a cross-country road trip. A few days in Dublin first; I see the long room at Trinity College and imagine myself Stephen Daedelus debating wild theories on Shakespeare. I do a pub crawl because it’s legal and I pay ten euros to test my strength at a competition on the street once I’m well and fully buzzed. We’re supposed to try to hang onto this bar for thirty seconds, and if we can do it we win back all our money and more. The way the bar works is that it’s loose in its stand, so it twists freely and you end up hanging from the part of your grip that’s the weakest. I last eight seconds.
It starts to kind of depress me. Not losing in a street competition, just Ireland in general. After Dublin, we start spending one or two nights each in these little towns and we’ll have a blast during the day but come the fading of the light all there is to do is to go to a pub and get drunk and listen to music or the rocking of the waves outside. It sounds nice in theory, but I get to thinking about all the people who live here and I imagine it must feel terribly small and terribly lonely. Or maybe I just think that because my way is the way of the flood and I don’t know what it’s like to settle someplace for my whole life and be content.
So I’m in the right mood for it when I get the news. If there is such a thing as the right mood to be in when you find out your friend’s mom is dying.
Kate’s mom had gotten cancer a while back. In between the times that my mom did. But then Kate’s mom had gotten better. And then she’d gotten sick again. And I haven’t seen her since that last time she’d been sick, hadn’t been back to stay with Kate in Indiana. The schedule just kept working out for Kate to come and stay with me instead. I guess I just assumed that she was okay. Because I wasn’t there, she couldn’t be really not okay without me there.
It’s our first night in the seaport town of Dingle when Kate tells me it’s bad. It’s our second night there when her mom gets moved to hospice. Two days later, I wake up in the morning and Kate is texting me things that I don’t understand, that I can’t place. She tells me “she’s so strong”, and then tells me that “the birds are calling her out and i don’t quite know what to do”.
She’s texting me while she’s watching her mom die.
And that’s the cruel, unnecessary parting shot of the flood. It’s God asking me if I really thought that I could leave something unscathed. The flood isn’t meant to be selective. It’s meant to be world-engulfing, God says.
I’m still on vacation with my parents, though, and we’re visiting the Cailleach’s rock today. I mount the green hill and wind whips me sharply across the face as I hike up. I take the hit. I have no idea what to say to Kate. The water’s brought me so far away. To this green hill in this beautiful countryside with my parents and the ark I’m voluntarily building for myself and the arms I hold outstretched covered in pretty white doves.
What do I tell her? I tell her, “i’m at the top of this gorgeous old spot in ireland with 5000 year old burial mounds and i’m sitting on this rock that’s supposed to be the seat of the Cailleach, an old storm hag. and the legend is if you sit on this rock and make a wish and then run around the mound 3 times she’ll grant your wish i guess. and i don’t believe in a lot but i’m gonna go running and i’m wishing for you”.
I run. It hurts. I run. I pray to the storm hag, which seems fitting. I pray for God to flood me, I pray for an end of all floods, I pray for God to share his secret ark recipe. Try as I might, I never seem to remember the measurements well enough to tell them to my friends. Just be a little generous, I ask. They can’t all be that wicked. Surely, they weren’t wicked. If they were, I’m bad too. I’m bad too. Don’t spare me next time.
But I don’t mean it when I ask that. Because I like my arks too much. I like how, the last two times my mom got cancer, she didn’t die. I like loading up the animals two by two and feeling like I’m saving them, and I love that soft, startling moment of the dove with an olive branch in its mouth. I’ll be there, climbing out on top of my windowless ark, unsteady in my footing, half-convinced that this time I won’t ever reach land, and there it’ll be. The dove. It’ll land on my shoulder and drop something green into my palms and smile in my ear and whisper, “See? You’re gonna be okay. You, at least, are gonna be okay.”
God, that part gets me every time.