Eliak Falls (1992)
Winner of the 1993 Mari Sandoz Short Fiction Award.
This story first appeared in the 1993 issue of Laurel.
I needed a roommate after Sponge left, and Lucy was the first to answer the ad. She moved in a month ago, with just three suitcases, a tall mirror, a Sony boom box, and a backseat full of dresses in bags. We put her stuff in the room that Sponge called his “studio,” where he tried to make Innovative Art with puppies covered in Crayola fingerpaint.
So now here she is, putting on eye makeup in the tall mirror in the living room, while I braid my hair. I can’t do much with my hair but braid it; I mean, it won’t curl or anything.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the social with me, Jan?” She’s wearing a sun dress in October and still looks cute.
“Nah, that’s all right, I’ve got—I’ve got ah, something I told someone I’d do with them.”
“Well, I’d really like to see you at the House sometime, OK?” She means the Student Christian House, down on campus.
She opens her mouth to put on mascara, and I hunt around for my shoes.
“There’s someone there I’d like you to meet.” She’s still looking at her eyes in the mirror. “I think he’s Lummi...his name’s Andrew...”
“Andrew Ammond?” He’s not Lummi, he’s Swinomish. And he’s a geek.
“Yeah, do you know him?”
“Should I invite him over sometime?”
“Nah, I don’t think so.” I don’t need her fixing me up with Andrew Ammond—I have nothing in common with the guy anyway. He’s not even my tribe. I find my shoes under the kitchen table, and sit down on the floor to put them on.
“Hmm.” She plays with her hair in the mirror, not really listening, I guess. I watch her play with her hair for awhile. She has shoulder-length blonde hair, wavy, like people on television. I guess if I had to describe what kind of person she is, that’s the way I’d say it: like someone on television. She has one of those perfectly proportioned Anglo people bodies, whose curves all fit nicely together. I’m shorter, skinnier than she is, and all angles, elbows and knees sticking out and bumping into things all the time. She’s very white, with smooth pale skin, and when she’s cold she turns bright red like she’s got a sunburn. My skin’s like the color of light brown dirt, all the time, even when I sunburn.
She smiles a lot, too. She’ll look right at your face and smile, like she’s doing right now. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to stop by the House sometime?”
“Well, I just think you could use—a person can have a social life without drinking, you know.”
“Yeah, sure Lucy.”
She grabs her purse and puts it over her shoulder. “Well, I’m off. I should be back, I don’t know, midnight or one, OK?”
“When will you be back?” She looks down at me, on the floor tying my shoe.
“I don’t know.”
“OK, whenever. Bye!”
The phone rings and wakes me up before noon, on a Sunday.
“Um, hi, Janet? It’s, um, Julia.” Julia is Sponge’s sister in Yarrow Point.
“Julia, hey, how are you?”
“Janet...um, Sponge...” The words are just coming out of the phone, a sound that both me and Julia hear, but that neither one of us makes.
“Yeah, he, um...he’s been going out of remission, and, um...now’s he’s at...” She can’t finish the sentence.
“I...Julia...Jesus, is it that bad?”
There’s a silence where I can hear Julia sniffling.
“Anyway Janet, he, he, um...he’s at the Center at U.W...room 303, if you...” She takes a deep breath, I can hear it.
I lay flat down on the floor, put my face right down onto the floorboards without my hands underneath or anything, and breathe deeply through my nose. I can’t cry. I want to cry, but I just can’t. I don’t know how long I’m on the floor like that, breathing the dust off the wood through my nose, when Lucy comes in from jogging.
“Where did you go?”
“Through...through the woods, to the falls,” she says, a little out of breath. “I want you to walk through there with me. I never went to the other side, before.”
God, that’s miles. “I know what’s on the other side...”
“But have you ever seen...have you ever seen the other side...it was so...I’m a little scared, and awed maybe, it was so beautiful.” She pulls off her sweatshirt.
“Okay, this afternoon, maybe.”
“Why are you up so early? It’s...” She’s looking at me lying on the floor,
“Oh, your...friend.” She never calls him my “boyfriend” or “ex-boyfriend”.
Lucy takes off her running shoes and jogging pants (she’s always taking her clothes off in front of me, it seems like), and lets her hair out of a ponytail. I get up and walk into the kitchen, and make myself some oatmeal in the microwave while she goes into the bathroom and takes a shower. I have never known anyone to take so many showers—sometimes two or three a day. I eat the oatmeal, standing at the kitchen counter in my stocking feet, without milk to wash it down.
I sit down on the couch for a long time, looking out the window at a low fog along I-5, under the watery mid-morning sun. Lucy comes into the living room. She has put on jeans and a tight wool sweater. The sweater is one of those colors that isn’t really a color—kind of a fuscia affair.
She sits down on the couch and turns to look at me. “Tell me about your friend.”
“He was...he had problems with his dad, when he was little. Well, I guess the problem was he just never saw the guy—”
She’s looking at me like I was stereo assembly instructions in Japanese. “No, I mean... what’s wrong with him?”
I don’t know what to say. “He went out of remission.”
“Oh.” She looks out the window at I-5 with me.
“How were the falls?”
She kind of lights up then. “Oh, Jan, if you haven’t seen...I came out kind of over this cliff, and there was an eagle, a real bald eagle , soaring. It’s really something .”
“It reminded me of...of the Glory, I guess. That beauty is there for a reason , Jan. It really put things in perspective for me, and I think...well, a person needs to be reminded of things that are bigger than you, I suppose.” I know she means me, she’s selling me on the Glory and the Beauty of the Falls. But what can I do? She’s got Glory and Beauty on her side; I know she’ll wind up dragging me back there with her.
It’s not a long walk to the Nooksack trailhead, so after I run warm water over the oatmeal bowl, we put on our parkas and boots and leave. I know that this morning Lucy must have gone up to Eliak Falls, and that’s clear through on the north side.
After a while, we’re deep into the woods, all white pine, cedar, and dark skinny douglas with long trunks. It’s a very old forest, nothing grows in the tall spaces under the treetops. The air curls around us with the smell of wet forest: pine needles, mushrooms, decay, and cold, calm air. Rain drips the distance from the branches to the forest floor.
We walk a good way without saying anything, tearing through the film of mud and slush and pine litter, until we reach a point where we have to cross one of the forest streams that empties into the Nooksack. There’s a kind of silence in the forest, you can almost see it. It could be gray, and a little green, and if me or Lucy say anything we’d rip into that silence and it’d collapse around us with the weight of words.
The back of my calves hurt. I stop to crouch and look at the mossy rocks around the stream, gleaming dully in the rain-wet sunlight. Two tiny newts—the orange rough-skinned kind, with yellow bellies—wriggle around each other underwater, in the mud between two water-smoothed stones.
Lucy has crossed already, and turns and looks at me. “Come on. It can’t be more than a mile, now.” She’s hissing in a quiet voice that shouts at the silence.
“I’d rather just...rather just stop and look at the stream a while.”
I sit down on a rock and she crosses back over and sits down next to me. “I know you’re upset about your friend.”
“Yeah, that’s it mostly.”
She rubs her hand along my back, in slow circles. It feels good, I guess, to have someone rub your back when you’re sad. “Jan, there’s...there’s more to life than just right here and now ...”
I don’t say anything. Lucy can cross the stream, cross through the woods to look at Eliak Falls. She can go all the way, and never notice she had to walk through a forest to get there. I know that I can go there, too, but I won’t, not because the falls don’t seem like they’d be wonderful and glorious and beautiful, but because I love the forest, the little stream in the middle of the forest. Some people walk to see bald eagles soaring above the glory of Eliak Falls, I guess; I just love the tiny orange newts too much, eating waterbugs and laying eggs and dying in the mud beneath the stream that runs with a trickling noise.
But I can’t say that, the words have all fallen around me.
It’s Thursday morning, warmer, for October, and clear and very sunny for a change. Lucy and I meet Terrence for breakfast at Pauline’s. Terrence is this really tall skinny African guy—I mean he’s really from Africa—with an accent, who works with Lucy at the hospital, and he and Lucy connected because they’re both Christians. He’s some kind of Catholic or something, but he’s pretty cool about it anyway. I think he even has sex.
Today I’m not in such a good mood, because of Sponge, mostly. I just kind of stab at my coffee with my spoon, and I don’t order an omelette, even though the air hangs around my head with the smell of coffee, eggs in bacon grease, and baking bread all mixed together.
Lucy is talking about some woman in her hometown back in Dakota who had some horrible disease that put her in the hospital. I don’t pay much attention, because she’s in such a good mood and Sponge is dying. She prattles in that voice that makes floral prints and eye makeup look so good on her.
I stare out the window at people in sweaters and shorts moving around in the sun and shadows in the street, the cars that stop and go and stop and go, at the traffic light outside. The steam from my coffee curls and twists in the warm sunbeam, between me and the people on the sidewalk smiling and blinking at the sky.
She reaches over and touches my arm, so I stop beating up my coffee to look at her and listen to her dumb story.
“...the family would hold a twenty-four hour vigil at her bed, and once a week the pastor came in to bless the vigil and say prayers with them. And just when—she wasn’t supposed to recover, remember?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah.”
“Anyway, just when the doctors had really given up hope and they were going to disconnect her, she started—it was her son who was there, saying the twenty-third Psalm, I think, and a little prayer—and she finished the prayer with him.”
I frown, look at my coffee again.
“She woke up, see? The doctors were going to disconnect her, and she woke up!” And she’s smiling at me, smiling like there’s nothing behind her face, like her eyes are just empty brown smiling spaces hanging in front of God.
Terrence shoots her a look, and I kind of excuse myself and walk very quickly into the little bathroom they have back by the kitchen. I cry for awhile, sitting in a puddle on the tile, unable to breathe because I’m crying so hard that my head fills up with mucous or whatever.
I hear a quiet tap on the bathroom door.
“Janet?” It’s Terrence.
“Yeah, sorry, come in.” I wipe my face on my sweatshirt sleeve.
He kind of ducks in, shuts the door behind him and crouches down on his heels. “Look...Lucy and me, we have a few words. I think that’s an awful shitty thing, picking on a person whose boyfriend’s dying, like it’s your fault because you don’t pray enough.”
He smiles, holds one big hand out to me. “Come on, Janet. I have faith in you.”
I have to think about that for a moment. Terrence has faith in me . I take his hand with both of mine, and they still seem small in his. He pulls me up off the floor in one fluid motion, so fast I feel dizzy. He kind of smiles again.
“Do what needs doing.” This is one of Terrence’s favorite expressions. “You don’t have to go out there and debate theology with Lucy.” He backs out of the bathroom and walks away.
I blow my nose on a paper towel, and think about the warty orange newts in the stream in the forest.
What needs doing, anyway?
I get back from Seattle on Monday, around noon. It’s been raining off and on all down the coast this morning, but here in Bellingham it’s still, and cloudy. Through the quiet air outside the screen door I can hear the distant hiss of cars snaking through the water on I-5.
I lie down on the floor and watch the shadows move across the ceiling. There isn’t anything left to do now, anyway. I don’t want to go to class.
Last Thursday, I left Pauline’s through the bakery door, and left Terrence to explain me to Lucy. I knew I needed to see Sponge again, so I just walked home, got in my car and drove to Seattle. Actually, I stopped at a Target in Everett on the way, and bought socks and underwear, a white t-shirt, and a toothbrush. I knew Julia could loan me the rest, shampoo and other clothes and all. We always got on pretty well, her and I.
Sponge wasn’t quite as bad off as his sister had let on when she called. He could still talk. But you could see it in his face, it was a kind of a gray color like the silence in Eliak Woods. He apologized an awful lot, for leaving and all, and I just said that was Bunk, You’re dying and you had to make your peace with your old man. The Lummi say that if the living aren’t tight with their dead relatives, their ghosts or whatever will hang around and haunt the family. I told him that, and a story I heard from an old person once, about a girl who went to the Dead Land where ghosts grew moss on their faces, but I think he knew it all anyway. For an Anglo he sure liked Native superstition, most of which I think is probably nonsense anyway.
I stayed four nights with Julia until today, just spending time around Yarrow Point and the University and downtown because most of the time he couldn’t have visitors. Yesterday he went into a coma, which everyone knew would happen, and he’d wanted to be disconnected. I went to see him one last time, and tried to say something Lummi over him, but I never learned the language much, so I just said Goodbye, parts of me will probably always love you.
He died about ten o’clock this morning, when I was watching them feed the octopus at the Seattle Aquarium.
I finally started crying on the drive home, sometime around Tulalip, because the rain—which had been very heavy since Saturday—had broken a bit over the Sound, and the sun cast down onto the water in long yellow beams. Sponge would’ve said it looked like some Bierstadt painting of the Great American West, and I thought of that and started crying.
I just couldn’t help crying, I guess, watching the sunlight fall through the mist on the bay. I cried big wet globs down my face until there wasn’t any more water, just sound, and then there wasn’t any sound anymore either, until I got home.
So now I’m at home, lying on the floor, but face up this time, looking at shadows and a spider on the ceiling. You reach a point after crying for a long time, where all the pain has dripped out of your face, and your head is just left empty. I suppose I can’t lie on the floor here forever. I want some of what Lucy’s always going on about, something bigger than me.
The forest is warmer today, not as quiet. The wind is coming a little out of the west (although I can’t feel it down on the forest floor), making sounds through the pine trees, so the whole forest bends and sighs. It seems like the forest’s telling me a secret, leaning over towards me and speaking to me in a soft woman’s voice I can almost understand.
It gets too warm for the anorak, so I strip down to my t-shirt. I’m still having to wipe sweat and condensation off my forehead.
After about an hour or two, I guess, the Nooksack trail crosses the fire road, and I turn left—that’s northwest—up the road. The wind is not so strong here, and the mist has turned into a cool fog.
By the time I turn onto the Eliak trail on the right side of the road, the rain starts. I have to put my jacket back on again, then put the hood up, because it’s raining steadily straight down.
Suddenly I’m there. I’m standing on the cliff over the Nooksack, but I can’t tell how high it is. Because of the fog and rain, I can only see about fifty feet in any direction, even down. Behind me I see the trees at the edge of the forest, crowding the cliff to the left and right of me. But ahead it’s just a gray wall of rain, and behind that, the waterfall hissing in a low voice, like an old man muttering nonsense.
I thought I could go and look at the Glory of Eliak Falls and find a “perspective,” that my whole life would be fixed for me, but it’s like it’s not even there. Just a low rumbling hissing sound, and me. There’s only me, like I guess it’s always been. Me all alone to figure everything out for myself. That’s almost funny, isn’t it?
But I shiver, and hold my face up to the rain anyway; and smile and feel the rain running over my shut eyes and into my ears and the corners of my mouth.
After I get back, I put on dry clothes and wash my face and arms, then sit down in the dead leaves on the third step for a little while, unbraid my hair and brush it over my face. I guess I like my hair OK. I never have to curl it or anything, and I like the way it falls very straight down from the center of my head.
I’m brushing it back over my right shoulder when Lucy rounds the corner coming home from class.
“I walked out to Eliak.” I say.
“On a day like this?”
“What’s so wrong with this weather, anyway? It’s so—”
“—Quiet. Not even rain.” It’s hard to tell if she’s being appreciative or bitter. I don’t tell her about the rain at Eliak.
I open my mouth and the words just happen. “You know, Lucy, I am, my whole life before was—I mean everyone’s life, I guess—it’s...it’s all about noise, making noise. Talking loud and, I don’t know...thinking and filling your head with noise, I guess.” I kick at the dead leaves on the bottom step. “There aren’t many times like this, a space when a person can sit on the step in the dead leaves and just...be quiet. It seems like now...like everything’s quiet, all alone. I’m only very small, I guess, me and the quietness.” I smile at her. A kind of tingly, electric feeling runs along my shoulders, telling Lucy this. I never tried to make words to anyone about my life, before.
Lucy turns to look at me, looks me in the eyes. I can really notice the color of brown in her eyes, a kind of light brown, like coffee with cream. Maybe it’s the light.
We sit for a long period and look silently at each other, at each other’s faces. It’s not at all cold, but her face is a kind of pink anyway, like a sunburn. And she has a single zit, a little one, right under her chin. I’ve never really had zits, even when I was a teenager.
She opens her mouth. “I...”
But she never finishes the thought. She blinks and gets up, walks past me up the steps into the house.