There are words laced through the skin that peels from my sunburn. In a tiny, cursive script the color of freckles, it reads like fragments of poetry.
The peeling skin is otherwise normal: transparent, sloughing off in clumps and strips, easily destroyed. I’m impatient with it, pulling at it where I can. It’s difficult to be certain, but I think that the words continue in sequence no matter where I read from next. From my neck:
to Mt. Deception thr
And then my shoulder:
h the moraine
snow blue as
My sister won’t believe me.
“Why would I want to look at your dead skin.” She pushes my hand away.
“Ida, just look, just, just look.” The fragment is delicate, draped across my fingertip.
“God, you’re disgusting.” She looks. “That’s supposed to be words? That’s miniscule.”
“Look at it this way.” I twist so the text runs left-to-right under her eyes. We’re sitting at the edge of the basketball court that centers the spokes of our apartment complex. A grey squirrel, still as the grave, sits like another spectator five feet away. Its flat, dark eyes are on us.
“Bonnie, why are you doing this?”
“I’m not doing it.” I shoulder closer, push the fragment closer to her face so she’ll really see. Ida leans away and throws her palms up between us.
“It’s summer break, okay. Just like, use this time to practice not being a freak.”
She tags into the game when our cousin Will taps out. He collapses in her spot next to me, July-sweat smell and limbs so long his knees reach his ears when he folds his legs up.
“What’s up, Bon-ton,” he says. Papa called me that. Will’s huffing air hard. I don’t show him the skin.
I look hard in the mirror that night, but the words aren’t there before the skin peels off. It isn’t there if it peels off on its own, either. I have to pull it, and then the words come. I pull off the edge of my collarbone and it says ipped and grieving. Just below that, two fragments come off to make the phrase peaks like wisps.
I ask mom for computer time and get 30 minutes. Mt. Deception is in the Olympic Mountains on the Olympic peninsula, out west in Washington State. There are a hundred pictures of it, which look like a hundred different mountains. Snow-laden or raw bare, sharp as a pine, or ragged like a broken bone. It’s a high peak, though not the highest in its range. There’s a lake, or basin, under the face that mountaineers usually approach. It houses marmots in its meadows, and dark slate on its arms. Basalt beds lay like bubble baths on its skin. When my computer time is up, I’m looking at a photo taken near the summit. The rock is all knives, all fresh and awkward like new teeth pushing up through white gums.
I’ve never seen mountains, but I’ve laid on my belly in a gulch in the Badlands and crooked my neck back to see the sun eyelash over the ridge. It was a while ago, I was small, I was hiding. Mom and Papa and Ida had all gone back to the van, but I didn’t want to leave. On the highway through South Dakota, you get the feeling of forever. There’s so much more sky than land, so much more nothing than you. It did something to me, took something from me. Finally, in the Badlands, the world revealed itself to be finite. The horizon shot forward, took on shape. The rivuleted red deposits rainbowed up and down, a perpetual sunset. The rest stop parking lot was above me and to my back. Ahead of me was the long, dry arroyo, funneling left about ten yards ahead, then to the right off in the distance. I shimmied my hips and knees and blue jeans further down into the dust. I was a lizard, or a coyote, or a burrowing owl, I was something made of dirt and rock.
“Bonnie!” Papa’s voice. “Get in the van, we’re leaving!”
I put my head down and dust settled on my lips. I would live there now, without a family. My family was a dry creek bed, two gritty slopes, and the shadowed sun. Those slopes, in my mind now they rise. Branches, crags, folds. Steeple Rock, the Cameron Peaks, the Needles, Hurricane Ridge. Limestone, sandstone, and blue-white glacier melt. Basalt joints that climb each other into the airless heights. And my Papa, summiting them all to find me, grin at me, and lie down in the dirt beside me. We were sand rock creatures together, then. Him and me.
Sometimes it’s as if he was always dead. There simply isn’t enough room in the apartment for four people, we’re so snug with three. My shoes, Ida’s shoes, and Mom’s shoes lined up by the door. Our shampoos and conditioners and soaps on the narrow ledge in the shower. Our place settings at the table, our bric-a-brac on the shelves, our butts on the couch. It’s all perfect for three. As time goes by, Papa’s life with us is an increasingly improbable memory. Years later, it doesn’t even smell of sickness.
At breakfast in the morning the peel has moved down to my upper arms and a place called Sequim.
lights of the Sequim Safewa
but aisle walls tr
Mom smacks my hand and the skin crumples. “The hell are you doing?”
“Am I not supposed to peel it?” I ask, because I’ve been wondering.
“I don’t know,” she says like I’m stupid, and she is the wrong person to ask after all. She doesn’t burn like me and Ida. “But if you got to, don’t do it where I’m eating.”
Ida comes in wearing a spaghetti strap top, bumping a purse on her knee.
“Ma, Allie’s giving me a ride to the movie.”
“Allie. In my class.”
“She’s in your class and she’s driving on her own?”
“Her dad’s driving.”
“Hm. What are you seeing anyway?”
“Lethal Weapon. It’s got Jet Li.”
“It’s got cussing.”
While they’re talking, I get north on the road to Port Ang. I’ll have to ask for computer time again, but it can’t be too soon. Mom counts the minutes that the phone line is tied up. I place the skin on the table, stretch it carefully so the fragment lies stark and legible against the white formica. Is it the same message as the mountain? For the first time, I wonder where the fragments come from. I scratch my forearm and motes of skin dust off, too small to read.
Mom’s telling Ida that she’s got a shift at the restaurant, so Ida can’t go to movies.
“Bonnie can’t be alone for that long,” she says. I can, but I just eat my cereal. Great Value Fruit Spins. That’s like Fruit Loops, but cheaper and chalkier. Ida sets her jaw. She’s gonna go once Mom leaves, but she argues anyway. When they’re both gone, I can peel my arm.
In a dream I meet an elk in the rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula. I’ve never seen an elk, like I’ve never seen a temperate rainforest or the mountains. Hanging moss meets a floor swollen bulbous with foliage. The thickness of the green foreshortens my gaze, flattens the trees. It’s the thick pelt of the world. The elk and I stand across a rotting log from each other. He’s my height, his antlers branching into knife-points high above our heads. His dark, shaggy mane breaks in a wave at his shoulders into the tan of his summer coat.
I think at first that there’s some sort of thin moss hung among his antlers. But then he tips his great, brown head down. He breathes out dew, I breathe in. I reach my small, brown hand for him, and I see, in the bone-thick low limbs of his antlers, that it is delicate strips of skin that are draped there, and when my fingers brush them, they cling to me like cobwebs. The elk lowers its head further, and the skin lays itself over me, a shroud.
Then I wake up sweating, mixed up in the blanket, Ida in the bunk above me kicking out hoof beats.
The sunburn peters out into a tan. Seventh grade starts and ends, then the next few grades. Every summer, a burn and the fragments. Ida won’t read them. I don’t show Mom. I keep a map of the ones I can place.
Lacey, WA: in its shado
world-roof sky-spear snow-crowned mast
eplacement spark plugs for
Gillette, WY: ing coal stink
tracks gunshot-straight into
Spokane, WA: and Charybdis
Blackfoot, ID: an abandoned film set
west was left to rust
onely without the mountains I
Butte, MT: rounded
suffused made small li
The map spins. The earth tilts. I try, but I can’t remember the sound of his voice.
Ida goes to college up in Aberdeen. It’s a three-hour drive from Sioux Falls, her and me and all her things packed into the old red van. Corn and soy and the sky and tractor trailers, me in the passenger seat and Ida driving, windows down, and a busted radio. The highway north is straight as a gunshot. Something’s rattling in the undercarriage, but it hasn’t dropped off yet. Outside, South Dakota runs on forever.
“She’s from Rapid City,” Ida says about the roommate she hasn’t met yet. “Claire something. I don’t know, she sent me an email, seems okay. Perky.”
“You hate perky,” I say. Ida shrugs.
“We don’t gotta be friends, we just gotta live together.”
“Then perky better not mind your wet towels all on her chairs. And her bed.”
“That was one time, okay?”
“Ten times. Twelve, fifteen times.” When she’s laughing, I ask, “Hey, did Papa go to college?” Ida looks at me quick. Her sunglasses catch the light. Out on the soy fields it’s green-gold, inside the van it’s ice-white.
“How the hell should I know?”
“He never said anything?” I watch the edge of the road, where gravel laps at grass.
“Where was he from?”
“What?” She’s biting her words.
“Was he from here?”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure, right here.”
A minute ago a truck passed going the opposite way, and there’s no traffic traveling with us right now. It’s our van and us and the empty crops, the pallid sky.
“You know what I mean,” I say.
Ida breathes in hard, like a gasp, loud enough I hear her over the open windows, then nothing. The sun drops a curtain of light down across the middle distance. The road goes on. Corn, soy, corn. Clouds gather in the rearview and chase us forward.
We’re passing Watertown when she says, “He was from out west somewhere. Mom told me once.”
I can’t help myself. “Where?” I ask.
“I don’t know, okay. Idaho, maybe. Washington, I don’t know.”
We’ll be up in the lakes soon. I’ve only ever seen them on a map, scattered like freckles on the warm Dakota plain.
The next summer I finish high school and I don’t burn. No matter how much time I spend under the sun, my skin stays sandy, won’t go red. My shoulders are hot under my hand when I press at them, but the flesh doesn’t turn to paper. I wake up early to catch the first light, stay out all day with my tank top straps pushed aside. Nothing. I scratch at it, but the skin only goes pink, then settles.
“So, when you getting yourself out of my house?” Mom says, almost joking. I’m chopping carrots for dinner, I’m not going to college.
“I was gonna go on a trip. I have vacation saved up at work.”
“A trip? Where to?” I’ve got half her attention, Alex Trebek has the rest. I clench a fist around the knife handle and the skin of my knuckles goes light and taut.
“I’m not sure yet,” I say.
She leaves me with “Hope you saved up for this trip of yours,” then she gets up to putter in the bathroom.
This isn’t the kitchen I grew up in. This is two apartments later, one bedroom down the hall more, but less counter space. There’s objects in here like family, though. The antique coffee grinder in the corner, the white dishes with yellow chickens around their rims, the mortar and pestle only Mom ever uses. The knife I’m using, one I learned to cook with, still sharp as sharp.
I wait until she’s asleep, then close the door to my room. There used to be a lock on the door, but Mom wasn’t having that. I find a thick brown belt in the back of my closet. I saw this in the movies: I put it between my teeth. The knife would have been a mess, but at the last minute I thought of the razor I use to shave my legs. I press it into the flesh of my shoulder and choke on air. Just a pinch. No blood yet. One, two, three, and I pull it down. My skin spirals off like I’m peeling carrots. I sob a few times, but then it’s over. A welling red streak at the top of my arm and the skin, the skin that’s thicker than usual, but that has what I need. I pluck it from the razor and wipe it across my jeans. There, in the soft brown script, it says the mountain.
I take the I-90. Across South Dakota, the Badlands, the barest edge of Wyoming and its grey moonscape hills, then Montana and Idaho rise like a revelation. White-knuckle down the Columbia River Gorge and then into the high desert of western Washington. The 5 to the 405 to the 16 and across the Hood Canal Bridge. It’s a floating bridge; the water right under me, stretched out like a sky. Across it, and I’m on the peninsula. The Olympics are dead ahead. The seatbelt scrapes across the scab on my shoulder when I stretch forward to see the peaks.
Eastern Washington is green in a way I’ve never known. The pines aren’t Christmas-tree dry, but lush and sumptuous. Clouds drape between them as if I peek out from under a veil. Where the 104 meets the 101, the forest billows into foothills that taper into the horizon. The close horizon, the intimate sky.
I get to the Sequim Quality Inn two hours after the sun falls behind the mountains. There’s instant coffee and a mottled maroon polyester bedcover, everything better than sleeping in the van has been. The smoke-yellow curtains are meant to hide a mountain view, but night has taken it. I can paint them from the maps I’ve seen, though. Blue Mountain, Elk Mountain, Obstruction Peak. Baldy, and Mt. Walkinshaw. Deception is further into the interior, with Clark and Mystery.
It might not have meant this mountain. It might be anywhere. They might be from anyone, these messages nobody but I have read. They might not be there at all. In the dark, sitting in my underwear on the edge of the bed, I pick at the scab on my shoulder. It hurts, and it eventually comes off in two rough strips. Between the pads of my fingers, they feel like someone else’s flesh. I rub at them, and they crumble before I can see what they have to say.
Up to Royal Basin along a trail that cuts through verdant, moss-soaked forest veined by a rushing white river. Skinny sentinel conifers lean to cathedral-spires overhead. My steps press down on the earth that presses up at me. Light acts differently here in the deep forest, it drops solid gold blossoms like tiger-lilies onto my path.
That day in the Badlands, my Papa and I made Mom and Ida wait for another hour while we walked the path of the arroyo. The smooth sand went cragged and ridged, the sun went red orange, and we scuffed our tennis shoes in the dirt and the rocks like careless children. I scuff my hiking boots into the wet earth of the mountain. When I see him, I’ll—
The trail narrows, takes me high. A drop on the left, boulders on the right, the northern face of Mt. Clark ahead with its stubby summit. Sound empties out into this full space. The absence of insects. The sky no longer a ceiling, but an expanse as vivid and alive as the mountains and valleys. There’s a smell here like dry daisies, warm blacktop, like a car you parked in the sun in the middle of August. There’s a hot wind on the back of my neck, and I can’t be alone, I don’t feel alone.
Rounding a curve, I come into a sudden effusion of red willow-herb. They’re a surprise in the green and the gray. I’m immediately among them, surrounded, and for a moment I see the wildflowers as wildflowers, the trees as trunks and branches. The peak isn’t a pale, round pate, there are no arms reaching for me, and the mountain doesn’t know I’m here at all. It’s dizzying, I’m alone, I’ve gone a long way. Beyond the mountains there are mountains. The weight of them is colossal. But I need to know, I need to see him.
At the end of the trail is the basin. A glacial lake, an aquamarine remnant that seems strangely tropical among the rocks and the tough, old pines. Deception is reflected on it, perfect and present. No easier to look at than the thing itself, the shape whose shadow fell over me for so long. The sun is a gold fan behind its jointed horizon. I set down my pack and untie my boots. The water is cold, so cold, and cloudy with minerals. Drinking from the edge, just a dozen feet away, still as the dead, is an elk.
It sees me. I have so many questions. Do you see me? Do you know I grew up? Its heavy head lifts and turns, and those eyes, brown as a rotted log, spear me. I want to say, Are you here? And, Were you in Gillette, and Butte, and Spokane? And even, Were you there with me, truly there, in the arroyo? Instead, I say, “Do you miss us?” The first time I’ve spoken since I came into the forest; my voice is a small thing.
My wanting is so strong that I stagger. Ripples mar the mirror face of the mountain, shuddering it into a hundred peaks that stab at my ankles. I lean toward the animal with a yearning in my bones. It cannot be only a beast; I cannot stand on only a mountain.
The elk doesn’t answer. Its dark eye is on me. Its great head, its heavy antlers, tip down in a bow, and I understand. He needs me. So I shrug out of my jacket, push aside my shirt, and find the raw wound on my shoulder. When I was a child, these words came from my body so easily. Now, with my eyes on the elk, I dig in, grip the edge of my skin, and tear off a message.