r o b i n    l e e    j o r d a n

A dazed girl is to sail back

 

[March, 2007] I'm trying to forget the arms of a lanky man, whom I loved but don't love and can't love again, as I wait for the train to Seattle, arms goose-pimpled, soon to be hung-over. The authoritative bark of a ticket-taker ricochets off the ceiling. The empty space between the floor and roof rattles.


Inside a glass display case down a rarely-used hallway, a calmly folded paper tent explains the origins of a few black-edged artifacts: a photograph of three dark-haired men in front of a fence, a swatch of blue fabric, a broken bowl, a tin can, a curled scrap of newspaper. They are all that is left of a house that burned down sometime between 1915 and 1930, one spring afternoon, a Sunday probably.


Later, I stumble soft like a peach down the train aisles to avoid a hard settling. The Cascades peer through the windows. Passengers' heads tilt backwards, their mouths open, and as I walk back to my seat I feel the sudden urge to place things on their tongues. Out the window, the ground rolls into inexplicable knobs like hundreds of motionless lifeboats atop a dead, green sea. As the train dips down a hill, something like regret slips from my sleeves. A dazed girl is to sail back, I write. Because that's what the scrap said and it wants me to remember.



[Spring, 1995] Rail workers need to relocate the track near the Mima Mounds. It isn't easy prying steel arms from where they've stretched, untouched, for eighty-five years. A man straightens his back, turns, and looks out at the ominous bulges that rise all around him. They look to him like giant goose-bumps sprung up across the prairie's back. They spread to his arms. He rolls down his sleeves. Some think an Indian burial ground birthed the mounds. A few scientists say giant prehistoric gophers created them. Others blame a rapidly retreating glacier. Regardless, they've stagnated half-ballooned from the landscape for thousands of years. The rail worker can feel them pitch and surge around him; it feels like drowning.


The track's disarray here does not surprise him. The remains of a fire they discover when digging a new path for the track a half-mile beyond the symmetrical heaves of land does not surprise him either. They are told to collect everything they find. He spots the edge of paper peeking from the dirt at his boots. He bends, slides it carefully from the ground, and blows the dust off.


What it says makes him think of his wife, how a few days ago he woke up early to find her gone. He lay there in bed and listened but couldn't hear her so he went downstairs and saw the teapot warming on the burner. When he called for her she didn't answer. Her chair was cold. The bathroom door hung open. Her coat and shoes sat neatly at the front door. As he wandered the house the kettle's low whistle followed him. He shuffled back to the kitchen, where it spat and hissed, when it began to scream.


Before he reached the stove, the rail worker saw his wife out the kitchen window. She stood in her blue robe at the end of their driveway with her hand on the mailbox door. He watched her gaze down their road into the morning fog. Like a lavender steam, it rolled towards her, seeping through the empty spaces of everything: branches, parked cars, the gaps between houses, the chasm between her arms and body. It was as though she stood at the bow of a ship sailing somewhere she didn't want to go, but a ship leaving somewhere she didnít want to stay, either. The rail worker's wife remained that way for about fifteen seconds, then clicked the mailbox door into place and walked back to the house.



[Spring, 1912] A woman looks out her sitting room window. She can't see her husband but can smell him burning too close to the house again. Every so often flaming proof flickers past.


The mounds of land she has never grown used to tumble before her. Her father called them hog-wallows—something to do with the hills pigs snuffle up in muddy pens. But right now they look to the woman like swells of water just before a mass of round-nosed creatures break the surface. In her pocket, she rubs her thumb over an article she's carefully clipped from the newspaper. A ship sunk in the Atlantic. Nearly 2,000 people drowned. The woman at the window is imagining what the Swedish mother's chest must have felt like when she realized she hadnít arms enough for both her children. She can see the two little faces pressed to their mother's body as she reaches for the ropes to the lifeboat below. The oldest girl, just three years old, clings to her mother's skirts. The woman imagines them twirling, fluttering in the black wind far above the black water.


White-gray smoke blurs the outline of the fir trees. Behind them, a vague impression of humped land. Her husband ambles past with two metal buckets and the woman wonders what the dazed girl who is to sail back to Finland on Wednesday will see from the boat's prow without her uncle, her brother, her fiancé. She wonders if the knolls of water will remind the girl of newly dug graves or of giant heads about to emerge. She shivers and takes her hand from her apron pocket, leaving the scrap of paper that, years later, in her new home, she will realize she lost in the fire, too.



[Saturday, April 20th, 1912] A hospital staggers. In a crowded hallway, a New York Times writer rubs his arms beside an inexhaustible woman rhythmically stacking bundles of clothes against the cold walls. A dazed girl sits on a cot, staring blankly at a green dress someone set in her lap. Looking at her is like looking at the ocean. He moves towards the girl, then away.



[Wednesday, April 24th, 1912] A dazed girl sails back to Finland. There are no windows. She does not wander the hallways. She does not go above deck to see the water rise in dark hillocks. She does not think of her goose-skinned arms, or of the hands of the lanky man that is not there to warm them.

 




Sources


"Mima Mounds." The Center for Land Use Interpretation. The Center for Land Use Interpretation. 12 Apr 2009. <http://ludb.clui.org/ex/i/WA3190/>.


"Women Work Hard for Rescued Folk." New York Times 21 Apr 1912 Web.12 Apr 2009. <http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/women-work-hard-for-rescued-folk.html>.

 

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ROBIN LEE JORDAN has published prose (Puerto del Sol and A cappella Zoo—received their Apospecimen Award for fiction) and poetry (H_NGM_N, 42opus, Toe Good Poetry). She received her MFA in poetry from Oregon State University, is the founder of the (B)uffalo (A)rt (D)ispensary, and is currently guest-editing an edition of Toe Good Poetry.


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