- BANANA BREAD
Every day we asked ourselves if we should leave, and every day the answer was yes, only we didn’t know how. We weren’t old, but we no longer felt young. We didn’t have it in us to walk away from the only life we’d ever known. We looked at all the others who stayed, who kept going to work and coming home and eating dinner and tucking their kids into bed like none of this was happening, and we thought, maybe we’re the crazy ones. Maybe this is all fine. It didn’t feel fine. But we had already survived so much history. We couldn’t remember a time when we weren’t afraid.
So we bought a gun. We hunkered down and made banana bread. We ordered a telescope online and learned the names of the stars. We brewed our own kombucha and built a chicken coop in the backyard. We drank too much and cried too much and sometimes slept in separate beds, or not at all. We told the kids, stay close to home, there are monsters in the woods.
And life went on.
- THE WORM AND THE WORLD
There were four of us in the little yellow house in the trees on the other side of the stream. Me and Paul and Maddy and Cy. Cy was the baby, the one I worried about most. By all rights, it should have been Maddy—but she was nine years old, and I knew already that she was like me. Smart and strong and prickly, a born survivor. Cy was only four. I worried about him because he was still so soft and kind. I didn’t want to see what the world would make of his goodness. I didn’t want to watch it get crushed or twisted into something self-serving and ugly. The color of his skin, the pale worm between his legs, the beauty already written so plainly on his face—all this meant he would grow into a world bound to give him whatever he wanted. Where he could lay claim to whatever he chose. I wanted to keep him small and sweet and with me, always. To hold him apart from the world and its awful possibilities.
3a. INSIDE WATER
The sound of heavy rain is widely considered to be relaxing, and this is probably true for most people. But it might not be true for you, if for many years you lived in an old house with a battered metal roof that was prone to leaking. In that case, instead of being lulled to sleep by the sound of rain lashing your roof, you might lie awake consumed by a terrible tension, trying to discern if what you’re hearing is inside water or outside water. Inside water and outside water have different (though closely related) sounds, and you would know this if you had lived in an old house with an old, battered metal roof that you never had the money to fix. Your body and mind would be alert to the difference. Even if you had since moved to a different, much nicer house (say a little yellow house in the trees on the other side of a stream), even if you knew perfectly well that your new roof was made of composite shingles in good condition, you would be unable to stop yourself from anticipating and guarding against the possibility of inside water, just as you anticipated and guarded against all the other catastrophes that did or did not occur during that time. Just as you cannot stop yourself from anticipating and guarding against all the catastrophes that may or may not occur in the future.
One night in bed, Paul says to me, Maybe we should give them a chance. Maybe what they’re saying isn’t so crazy after all. I scoff and wait for a punchline that isn’t coming. Don’t you ever get tired of losing, he asks. I turn to stare at the rise and fall of his broad, hulking back. He is either asleep or pretending to be.
- MECHANISMS OF STRESS TOLERANCE
Last month it was axolotls. But now Maddy says everyone in her class is obsessed with axolotls, so she has moved on. Her new thing is tardigrades. She reads me part of an article she found online. The tun state challenges the popular idea that there is a hard line between life and death. A tardigrade in tun is not doing any of the things we associate with being alive, but it is not dead either.1 Sounds familiar, I say. She gives me a funny look, a cluster of tiny creases troubling her smooth brow. Like looking in a mirror—only my wrinkles don’t go away when I stop frowning. Not anymore.
Maddy asks what fluorescing means. I tell her it’s when something is all lit up from the inside, like the lightning bugs that have started to appear in the backyard. Earlier than I can ever remember, this year. But the world is changing. We all know it, we just can’t agree on what it means. Of course I wonder about what she will inherit. Will she be able to go outside and breathe the air, have a job, walk the streets unchaperoned. Will there be enough water to drink.
I try not to think about these things. Everyone believes they’re living in the end times. But so far no one has made it to the end.
- THE LAST WALL
The house is getting smaller every day. Paul says I’m wrong, but I know I’m not. Every argument turns into this argument. He thinks I’m crazy, but he’s too kind to say so. As for me, I think he’s being willfully obtuse. There used to be more rooms, I insist—don’t you remember? Our lives were once bigger, of this I am sure. But he’ll see, one day. Soon enough, it will be impossible to ignore. I imagine the look on his face, the day the last wall disappears. And then what? Into the woods, I suppose. Maybe it’ll be a good thing. Maybe a new beginning is exactly what we need. Beginnings are so beautiful, after all.
Paul will be a good provider. He’s always loved camping, all that Eagle Scout shit. Of course, it’s a little different when you don’t have a choice. But we’ll manage. We’ll have eggs from the chickens, and the chickens themselves, if necessary, though that will be hard. Cy has gotten so attached to them. We’ll spare them as long as we can. There will be fish in the stream, and critters in the woods—deer, elk, mountain lions. Our new life will be bloody and brutal, no question. It’ll take some getting used to. But kids are so adaptable. Before long, they’ll see that it’s easy enough to kill something when your survival depends on it. More honest, too.
Soon we won’t remember what it was like to live inside a house with walls to enclose us, or a roof to keep us dry and shut out the stars. We’ll forget the days of staring at screens that told us the world was on fire. Our clothes will grow soiled and tattered, until finally we discard them. Then we’ll roam the woods naked, exposed and unashamed. Our disordered proteins will rearrange and harden in novel forms to protect us. We’ll live for a long time that way, in a world all our own.
Until one day we find ourselves fluorescing, our sad old human skin unable to contain us. We’ll say goodbye to our bodies and to each other, but we won’t be sad, because we’ll know we’re saying goodbye to hunger and weakness and pain. Only when the last wall has fallen can we be truly born again—as creatures of terrifying beauty, made entirely of light.
But until that day comes, I’ll try to love the life I have. I’ll look for the helpers and drink my thin milk. I’ll do the laundry and make dinner and find new ways to keep the kids entertained. I’ll try not to complain, I’ll make myself small. Because each day brings me a little closer to the life I know is waiting for me. Out there in the woods, where no one can see.
Sarah Bradley is a writer from Austin, Texas. She’s an alumna of the American Short Fiction workshop, and her stories have appeared in Rejection Letters, the Plentitudes, Iron Horse Literary Review, and CLOVES Literary. She’s currently at work on a novel. Find her online @sarahbooradley.
Artwork: “Here When You Need It” by Rachel Wold
Acrylic and ink on canvas