Circa 2013, Winner of the Nonfiction Award in CCU’s literature anthology, “Paragon”
The bridge over the dammed pond climbed north, but I leaned west over the railing at the highest point of the arch. On either side of me, the short walls of a ravine widened like legs opening towards the ocean beyond. Stamped through a ground cover of seaside daises, a trail led down to the beach, past a stagnant pool. It’s rotting, tongue-coating smell puffed upstream: a combination of freshwater runoff from the pond and saltwater from high tide. Beyond, waves thrust themselves on the shore, and sharp black birds picked through the kelp carcasses on the sand.
Below my position on the bridge, fat koi circled beneath the pond’s gray-green surface. Orange, gold, and white, some floated in the shallows, translucent fins waving lazily. I watched as one by one they poked up their sun-starved lips and gulped in a breath of air. The ripples spread like concentric sound waves, interrupting each other. I was waiting.
In third grade, my homeschool group took a field trip to Riley’s Farm. My mother, siblings, and I drove in our blue minivan two hours from the chaos of Southern California, far enough into the hills of Oak Glen to feel like country. The instant we parked, I scrambled from the van and my tennis shoes touched down on loose gravel. The air wasn’t cold, yet it still carried the baiting mystery of autumn.
The nineteenth-century-costumed interpreters guided our tour around the seven-hundred acre farm. We were turned loose in their infamous apple orchard, whose trees broke from the ground like gnarled skeleton hands, clustered with fluttering yellow leaves. My brother, sister and I picked their fruit with long-handled harvesting poles. We brought the apples to a cider press: a bearded man helped us turn the iron crank and crush them. The frothy juice dribbled from the chute, clear as liquid sap, and collected in a wooden tub. Into this we dipped sticky tin cups. It was good.
Above the reconstructed general store, up a steep hill at the edge of a field stood a tiny cabin. Inside, I was offered a pioneer girl’s dress to wear—complete with matching peach sunbonnet and white apron. When I emerged grinning from within, my mother gasped.
“You’re so beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Let me take your picture.”
I posed on the cabin’s porch, hands caressing the railing’s wood posts, grained with age. My calico sleeves puffed above my shoulders and my bell-like skirt ruffled in the wind; I breathed in the valley stretched below, the deep earth. I felt beautiful and firm, planted by my leather-bound feet, through the worn floorboards into the brown soil. I straightened my spine, standing tall in my prairie dress, thick and happy with the weight of dreams brought to life.
These people—the buckskin-clad frontiersmen who lived in the forest, the reenactors teaching me to dip candles, the smiling man with the apple press—these were my people. An anchoring came to me then as I stood on the porch, dense as an iron lance driven into the earth.
Beauty is a target for destruction. That’s why fish hide in algae-infested ponds—why I rarely see them leap from the water. I watched from the bridge for an hour. Maybe once, and only then out of the corner of my eye, did I catch the quicksilver flash of scales and the slap of a body against the water. It’s cold and dry above the surface. If they stay out too long, they won’t die from lack of oxygen—they die because the enormous weight of gravity slowly crushes their organs.
One summer, I visited a water park with some of my closest friends. They wore bikinis, I a navy one-piece from my swim team. They giggled behind their hands at the shirtless teenage boys, I hid behind them and prayed no one would notice my flat chest.
During lunch on the particle-sand beach, they spoke to me between delicate bites of five-dollar hamburger.
“There’s this new ride called the ‘Fearsome Threesome.’ We really want to go on it, but it like, has a super long line and we don’t want to like, leave our stuff here that long.”
I swallowed my egg salad sandwich. “No problem. I can wait here.”
“Really?” Their awkwardness smoothed into relief, like they’d been running across burning concrete and I’d given them cool sand to leap to. “That would be like, so cool. Thanks.” They gathered up the remains of their meal and pranced away.
I waited, finished my sack lunch. I sucked dry my CapriSun juice pouch with the abstract surfer printed beneath the flavor: ‘Fruit Blast.’ Lounging on my beach towel in the shade of an umbrella, I watched the people in the aqua-blue wave pool bob up and down. Their bodies hung through the center of their floaty donut-tube holes like shark bait, their legs a kaleidoscope of shadow beneath the crinkled surface. After an hour, I joined them. I appropriated one of the yellow rings floating in the deep end and let the water bear me as it would. My eyes flickered between the families in the pool, hoping they wouldn’t notice a twelve-year-old alone in the adult section, but my gaze always returned to the abandoned umbrella and beneath it, our towels. I waited, fingers and toes pruning, arms burning, stretched across the hot rubber. Frustrated, I dragged my body out and air-dried in the sun. I asked an employee where the ‘Fearsome Threesome’ ride was.
“We don’t have a ride called ‘The Fearsome Threesome.”
I thanked him and left the beach, into the shadows of the eucalyptus trees.
I learned to exist then, to float beneath the surface. The sunlit shallows, where the territorial battles were fought among the most worthy, no longer permitted me. Instead, I circled above the black depths of the pond’s center. Weeks became months, became years. With time, the maddening redundancy of life as a merry-go-round severed any remaining nostalgias I kept for the surface. I explored the canyons and trenches of the deep ocean—the last frontier, that sun-starved no-man’s land. Super-heated vents scalded my face as I passed. Crimson tube worms fanned me with their ribbon-like tendrils. Overhead, twinkling lights became my own personal stars—other fish who, like me, had forsaken the disillusionment above and embraced blind darkness.
But, water pressure crushes as irrevocably as gravity. Feelings have an odd way of bobbing to the surface, despite how desperately I held them under. For me, they erupted in panic attacks and anxiety disorder; my toxic pit of refuge struck violent and hard. When nothing remained, I ventured to the surface and sniffed the changing air—it tasted of salt, of freedom. So I left.
The concrete slab damming the pond received drops of water from my tailfin as I leapt over it. I wiggled downstream: the trickling current pushed me onward. At the end, a sandy puddle received me.
My family moved three hundred miles north during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. We came to the country: to “aa’mond” and peach orchards, dairy farms and oak trees. In March, a neighboring town hosted their annual Civil War Reenactment at a covered bridge. The Stanislaus river ran below short, steep hills. Across it was built the historic bridge—a warm, long tunnel planted in gray rock.
Seated in the grass on the north hill, I watched the battle begin below me. From across the river, a prelude of artillery thunder pounded into my chest, accompanied by orange fire snorted from the cannons. From my right, onto the battlefield marched a row of comically fierce Yankee soldiers in baggy red pants and white turbans. Gold tassels swung behind their heads, attempting to keep up with their march. Their commander formed them into a skirmish line and they dropped into the grass. From my left, a column of gray Rebels marched down the dirt road towards them. The sharp crack of rifle fire popped in my ears, and my eyes stung with sulfuric gunpowder. A larger column of blue soldiers emerged from the bridge’s tunnel, coming to reinforce the red men. The skirmishers counted their loses—three out of seven dead—and rejoined their battalion’s ranks.
After the battle, my mother sought out the soldiers in red: we found their tents in the Union encampment. They were Zouaves, esteemed for their berserker-like ferocity.
“You might say the Zouave style, at the time of the Civil War, was very dashing and suave,” one of the soldiers joked. “You look like an able young body. How would you like to join the ranks? We’re always in need of more fresh meat—I mean defenders of freedom.” He winked.
When I came home that night I sought out my father.
“Guess what, Dad? Your daughter joined the army.” I was on the battlefield the next day.
I didn’t know I was waiting for the tide until it found me. In the stagnant tributary pond a salty concentration infused my gills. There was something familiar in its sting—something I didn’t remember I’d forgotten. The seawater rushed, fluid, around my face—I surrendered and let it carry me out to sea.
One reenactment was along the coastline north of San Francisco, near Duncan’s Mills. We set up our three camps on opposite sides of an L-shaped clearing: Union, Confederate, and Sutlers—traveling merchants who serviced the armies. Beyond the oaks hovering along the tree line, the forest leaned towards the clearing. Pungent eucalyptus and silent redwoods watched and waited for the briefest moment of inattentiveness to creep forward, return to their land.
In preparation for battle, my unit marched with the rest of the battalion into the shadow of the trees. The redwoods which outside had seemed stern as living stone became vibrant columns. Gathered cities of broad, green ferns huddled like chicks beneath the redwoods’ branches, encouraged into lush vulnerability. I breathed deep, and it infused my blood with sweet pine and dense, rotting bark.
The forest’s intoxication remained in me still when, after a late-night dance, I made my way alone across the moonless battlefield. The Union encampment contentedly climbed an uphill section of the clearing. Authentic to the nineteenth-century, only candles and kerosene lanterns lit the camp. They’d been hooked on any convenient projection—dog tent poles, curved stakes—or sat happily on boxes and tables.
Crossing the field, my leather brogans whispered silently on the cropped brown grass. The camp’s lantern lights appeared as golden stars. The hill was dotted with them—warm beacons among the white tents—tiny against the blackness of the trees. Suddenly, for a lightning-brief second, my vision narrowed like a hawks’ and I felt every detail: the scratch of woolen blankets against my grimy cheek, the rusted metallic taste of hot water from my canteen, the deep peace in the night before the chaos of war. I was there, marching across the rising field to the brothers I would die beside tomorrow, to the world—my world—of 1864.
It was beautiful.
In the eyes of a single fish, the ocean is small. A fish knows only her crevice in rock, the best place to feed, where the predators are. Even the migratory fish keep to the trail. Breaking from tradition earns rejection: the banished morph from fish into sea anemones and anchor their malleable bodies onto rock, withdrawing their delicate tentacles into themselves. They wait, they starve. Some die. Their eyes grow weary with searching until, somehow, they find another.
The miracle is in the finding. Sea anemones do move—they creep over coral and sand slowly, slowly. That two such creatures would simultaneously pass is exceedingly rare; that they would extend one or two feelers and acknowledge the other is astounding. When they do, if the shock doesn’t exile them back into hiding, just meeting another of their kind becomes enough. They aren’t alone. Buoyed on encouragement, they rise together to the surface. Perhaps, even, they scratch at their anemone skins—peel them away—and, pink and raw, rise from the surf into the sunlight.