The children sit at the kitchen table. Their eyes, fat with hope, glide from me to their plates to one another like they’re underwater. The youngest, Mary, licks her finger, presses crumb after crumb onto the tip. She counts, she always counts, so I know when crumbs become crumb becomes stark white ceramic. The older, Micah, carefully blows a few of his crumbs onto her plate and she counts again.
They are good children. They will not ask for more than I have given them, one slice of buttered toast each, and they do not leave the table until I have eaten. I take my time. Relief saturates me as the arms of the chair wedge into the fat on my hips: tomorrow I will drag over the piano bench, on which my father and I once sat and sang songs while his fingers stumbled through our favorites: One Tin Soldier, Blow the Man Down, Clementine.
The children inhale deeply when I set my meal on the table: bacon, over-easy eggs, potatoes with melted grated cheese, toast, their tongues desperate to translate scent into taste. There are people, I tell them, who have trained their bodies to survive on nothing but air. I can’t remember if this is something I once read or if I made it up. The children each take a turn hovered over my plate. They inhale through their mouths, pause while the air sticks to their tongues, exhale and wait for relief from the gut clench of hunger.
After breakfast, they carry their plates to the counter and sit on the couch until I’m ready to read to them. They’ve noticed my body’s slow growth, and the distance between them is farther than it has ever been. The center cushion slumps between them like an insult. There was a time when I would fuss about, wash dishes, sweep the floor, haul the compost to the pile outside before giving them my attention. Now I put their dishes in the sink and lower myself into the space. They’ve each chosen three books for me to read, and even though Micah can read on his own, I read each story, pausing so they can both study the illustrations, welcoming the “whys” and “how comes” about the characters’ motivations, settings where the characters draw their own surroundings, the endings where wrongs are righted.
Today the earth is still, but over the past few weeks I’ve heard the rumbling in the earth’s gut-- its threat clenched my stomach like food poisoning. Some days framed pictures shiver on the wall and glasses clank in the cupboards. We’ve been warned for years about the inevitability of the earth rupturing and describing in detail the destruction and despair that would follow. Each day we are closer to this than the one before. The children don’t seem to notice. They listen to the stories without distraction, the bones of their legs parallel the fat of mine. I keep my voice stable, read the words without listening, imagine scenarios of children sucked out to sea or swallowed by the split-open earth.
After the books we go outside so I can work on the shelter while they play in the yard. I’ve set up a nature scavenger hunt. They must collect pine cones, pill bugs, sap, earthworms, slugs and dandelions. I’ve drawn pictures of each on construction paper and included facts. Slugs and snails must be stored in a plastic bag for twenty-four hours before eaten. Pill bugs are crustaceans and must be boiled first. Sap can seal a cut and prevent infection. Earthworms are higher in protein than chicken or beef.
My father taught me much of this survival information when we went camping and on our long walks through our twenty-five-acre property. We’d spend hours scouring the forest’s floor for the telltale tenting of leaves at the base of Alder trees. I was terrible at gathering the mushrooms, constantly stamping them flat or kicking off their heads to my father’s low Goddammit. I’d seen him eat earthworms, pill bugs, grubs, and ants he claimed tasted like lemons. At first I thought he was tricking me and I’d squeal with delighted disgust, but he ate them long after I’d stopped giving any sort of reaction.
Micah skirts the edge of the lawn and holds the hem of his T-shirt to carry the items he collects. Mary trails behind him, picking up the things he drops carefully enough for her to think she’s found them. His kindness frightens and confuses me, and I want to tell him to keep what he finds for himself and let her find on her own what the earth offers. She lifts a white grub from the grass, rests it in her palm. She sniffs it, tosses it onto the ground, and points to the mess it has made in her palm. Each item on the hunt has nutritional or survival value she will learn about from the flashcards I’ve made, but for now it is only another living being she doesn’t understand.
The shelter was built in 1983, and we were waiting to become permanent shadows on sidewalks, street corners, or the concrete walls of whatever buildings we were walking past when the push of a button stamped us irrelevant. Though my father swore we would in no way want to survive a most likely Soviet attack, that summer we spent Saturday mornings at the local library: me, desperate for the next book in the series about the joys and heartbreaks of perfect blond twins living in a sweet valley, him researching the techniques, strategies, and testimonials about how to stay alive after a disaster.
I open the shelter’s door to the sour, earth scent of home-canned carrots, beets, tomatoes and green beans that once lined the shelves of the shelter, keeping us free from the poisons of store bought vegetables until late spring. I never admitted it to my father, but I’d longed for the colorful labels glued to aluminum cans at the grocery store, the curvy font of the mass produced instead of my father’s all caps Sharpied scrawl, as if we couldn’t see the contents through the glass jars.
I now know this shelter would’ve done little to protect us from a nuclear attack. We would’ve been exposed to radiation, and slowly, or not so slowly, suffered diarrhea, vomiting, pulled our hair out in brittle chucks, died a worse death than being killed by the initial explosion. But today’s fears are different. Earthquake, tsunami, plague. Some will survive. They will suffer greatly, likely at the hands of one another, but they will survive.
The shelter will provide a place where the children might thrive, even if stuck in hiding for an extended amount of time. I read the only toys a child needs to be brilliant are blocks, balls, and books, so of course there are those, but I’ve also piled their cots with things they’ve loved: a stuffed giant squid, a toy aardvark with a baby in its pouch, a set of magnetic blocks, vitamins disguised as multi-colored candy bears. I’m working now on ambiance--children deserve some happiness in the depths of suffering. I painted it a calm shade of green, and animal trinkets line the shelves where the jars once sat. Horses drink from tiny troughs while others gallop through forests of tiny plastic trees. Zebras, elephants, and tigers line the wall on the other side of the shelter, the most violent animals slink behind fences.
Last week I dragged out the old worm box to make room for Micah’s cot. I’d felt the earth rumbling too many times that day and the threat of the time nearing wedged in my throat like a bone. Again, the children didn’t seem to notice, but I’ve always been more sensitive to even the slightest movement of earth. Each spring, my father and I would creep onto the lawn after the ground had been soaked by rain or the green sprinkler he’d set on a sawhorse. He’d lightly press his body to the ground, my own a miniature version of his. If you’re quiet enough, he’d told me the first time, you can hear them rising. And he was right. Their tiny pink heads emerged, and once there was enough visible, he’d carefully pinch it and coax the body free. My first time, worm after worm recoiled from my touch. I pinched some in two. Eventually I learned the perfect strength I needed to exert to pull, and then the worms offered themselves.
After I’ve arranged the wolves and grizzlies around the laminated lake stocked with goldfish crackers, my watch tells me it’s time for my mid-morning meal. I’m never hungry, so I rely on it to remind me when ninety minutes have passed. Outside, blooming lilacs have sweetened the air and I pause for a moment and let it flush out the must of the shelter. I make a hand-to-mouth motion to Micah and Mary, who are inch high on the edge of the woods.
After they wash their hands, they wait. Hope fattens their pupils. Though they’ve been on the edge of starvation for weeks, they are resilient—the lack of nourishment has trained their bodies how to survive on very little. I prepare their snack: two celery sticks, half a carrot stick and a grape arranged into a strange face on their plates. Each has a teaspoon of peanut butter that completes the mouths. They lean over the plate, noses hovered above the peanut butter, and inhale. They eat the celery first, which I’ve told them uses more calories to digest than it provides, so it consumes their bellies’ fat and not the food they put in it.
For myself, I’ve saved the bacon fat from breakfast to melt over two baked potatoes. The butter and fat warm the sour cream. I place my plate under each of their noses and again they inhale. When I return the plate to my placemat, the butter has spilled over the edge of the potato. It runs in a pale yellow river toward the side of the plate. The water in my glass quivers. I close my eyes and listen for the hum of the earth's vibration. It is good the shelter is almost complete.
My father and I spent four days in our basement after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. We were hundreds of miles away, but I swear we felt its blast in our teeth. Everyone had known it was coming, but most hadn't counted on strong currents winding its chalky ash up the corridor where it settled on cars, houses, and deep in the lungs of anyone who had to breathe. The basement did little to protect us. My father's cough raged soon after, and never calmed.
The children finish their meals quickly, but stay at the table. They watch the lift and lower of my fork, and their eyes plummet when a bite slips from my fork onto the table. My meal hovers at the back of my throat, but I swallow down another bite. When there are only the brown husks of the potatoes left, I push the plate away and wave them to me. I lift Mary onto my knee, and my fingers slip under her bottom ribs. Micah sits on the other leg, and his coccyx presses into the meat of my thigh. They've always been thin children. I've taken pride that they aren't inclined to excess or waste--even as babies they'd nurse for only a moment or so after the milk surged into their mouths, never long enough to taste the fat-choked hind milk.
After our snack, I set them up for their hour of screen time. Today is Micah’s day to choose from the shows I’ve brought him from the library, but he only chooses what Mary likes. They sit on their knees and watch two brothers search the world for the most unique and intriguing animals. They often share the things they’ve learned during their baths: Mama, did you know crocodiles carry their babies in their mouths? Some baby spiders kill their siblings and eat their mother? Isn’t it amazing how things survive, I reply.
While the children are occupied, I retreat to my room and turn on the television. It’s the show where the guests share a tragic experience, and the host offers insight about the path to healing. Today’s show features a woman who drove her car into a lake. She describes the screams of her three children as harmonious. She tells the host she’d been drowning since the birth of her first, and when the children quieted, the pressure in her lungs released and she surfaced. She holds her hand in front of her mouth as she speaks, and the host repeats her words. He takes her hands in his, and her sob splits open her mouth, her teeth flare against the black hole of her mouth like ghosts. Though I mistrust the validity of many of these stories, I can’t help but envy this woman. Her disaster is tangible. She knows what will undo her. She doesn’t wait around and wonder when, how, why.
When it is time for lunch, I sit at the table and let the children prepare the food. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day for our family. Mary twists a cloth under steaming water and wipes the table off in slow horizontal swipes. Micah sets water to boil, pours Alfredo sauce into a pot. Ground sausage spatters fat onto the stovetop, which Mary will wipe clean after our meal. While my food cooks, Micah cracks two hard boiled eggs, one for him and one for his sister. He pinches and lifts each shell fragment carefully as not to lose any of the white. He rinses each egg, halves then quarters it, sprinkles salt until the yellow is paled by its translucence. Though his body obviously needs more sustenance than hers, he stabs a quarter of his egg and lets it fall from his fork onto her plate. This will kill him, I fear, this selflessness in opposition to survival, but I keep silent. You can’t force a person to survive.
I set out puzzles for the afternoon activity, many of which I used to do with my father. They feature scenes of the wild: a salmon thrashes in the mouth of a grizzly; a five-point buck glares at the viewer while birds glide above in a perfect V. My father believed in the power of a puzzle, said there was only one right way to understand the scene before you. He often paused in whatever task he was engaged in, and scanned the scenery, his head turning in the slowest no. He’d ask me to tell him what I saw, and my heart thumped with the chance to get it right. The first time he asked, I answered books and people. He smiled, just the corners of his lips raised as if they were attached to hooks, and said, Survive. He pointed out emergency exits, first aid kits, listed items such as keyboards, extension cords, pencils—weapons are everywhere if you’re willing to fight.
One puzzle features a typical mountain scene: granite peaks spear the blue smear of sky; pine trees are scattered in the meadow, scarlet lilies rage in their shade. The puzzle came from the gift shop at Diablo Lake—the image on its box long faded by the time we bought it—where we camped every summer. My father wove through the campground at five miles per hour until we found the picnic table with the flattest surface and after a long day on the lake, my skin ready to split from the sun, we’d hover over these puzzles, amped on Shasta. We’d work long into the night, squinting at the pieces in the flicker of the fire until our fingers were too numb from the cold to make the pieces fit. Occasionally I’d jump at a sound in the night, bears and cougars common to the area, and my father would pat the gun on his side and tell me not to worry. Didn’t I know he’d always keep me safe?
I believed him, and never complained about the many rules of safe-keeping. After a day of fishing, we’d sit on the end of the dock, slit open the pale bellies of fish and scrap the guts into the water. The water was shallow enough to watch the organs sink and separate before resting soundlessly on the bottom next to the pale and bloated bits of other fish. We grilled our day’s catch at the group picnic spots far from our own campsite. We never brought any back to our camp—any more than we could eat was given away to others we’d seen on the lake, shaking fists or heads as we reeled them in—and we scrubbed our hands and faces with lake water and the soap in the foot of a pair of nylons my father kept in the boat.
The last time we camped together, I finally saw a grizzly. One morning I woke to my father's coughing fit. He pressed a pillow over his face, but I knew by the time it calmed I'd be too far from sleep to bother with it. I looked out the loft window of our camper. The sun had stained the sky behind the mountains pink. There was a split second understanding of this place as being the most beautiful in the world before movement at the campsite across from ours caught my eye, and I saw a grizzly, snout buried in the belly of what looked like a dog. I called my father, who climbed into the canopy to look out the window. It was clear whatever it was was long dead—the body lax, only moving in small jerks as the bear’s muzzle submerged and surfaced from its guts.
I anticipated his question, What do you see? I watched the scene, waiting to feel a clench in my stomach or tears stinging my eyes. Nothing. I released my focus and looked around the campsite. A white garbage bag hung shredded and empty from the hitch ball of their truck. Two fishing poles leaned against the motorhome. A Styrofoam ice chest missing its lid. A frying pan sat on a camp stove. There was much more to assess, but I heard my father’s scream: deep and low, from the gut, before it exploded into a shriek. His shotgun blasted, and the grizzly ran off. We’d never owned a dog, my father hated their smell, but he picked it up and he pressed his face into its neck. His screams were muffled. Its legs jerked with the movement of his sobs. That’s when I saw it was wearing clothes. There was even a shoe dangling from its foot, the same kind I had at home, blue and white with a zipper on the side to carry coins. What the grizzly hadn’t gotten to lay scattered around the site, and my father yelled at me to help him. I never finished my survival assessment, and my father never again asked me to give one.
The children enter the kitchen and choose a puzzle. Micah slowly flips each piece picture-side up as if they will reveal a secret. He works with the edges: corners first, then earth and sky. He tells his sister to do the same when she finds a deer’s muzzle and searches only for its face. The room is so quiet, only the hesitant tap of a piece finding its place. I steep chamomile tea for them, pour it into the tiny tea set Mary found in the attic. I drink coffee, its black browned by the heavy cream, and watch them without critique or offering to help. My tongue wears the cream long after I swallow, and I doze.
I wake from a dream about waking up, getting dressed, and eating breakfast. I’ve never been cursed with the disorienting symbolism of dreams. I’ve held the children when they awoke, shivering from the horror of a near-death dream, rubbed their backs and rocked them until they again gave into sleep. I remember the shadows under my father’s eyes, the lethargy of a body awake when it hasn’t slept. I can’t remember ever having had a dream that didn’t simply depict every day activities.
The children have finished their puzzles. They flash by the window like things you think you saw but can’t be sure. Though they are quite undernourished, they are still driven to play, still approach the world like it has something to do with them. They seem to experience hunger like they would a hangnail or a paper cut. Inconvenient, annoying, but nothing to make you stop living. I’m not even sure the locks I’ve put on the cupboards and refrigerator are necessary. They’ve finally learned to live on very little.
I wave to the children from the window and head to the shelter. I open the door and inhale the musty air. Behind the back wall, there is a smaller room that once was only accessed by unlocking three deadbolts. My father told me to stay out of it, but showed me where the keys were, just in case. I’d frequent the space in the summers, where the cool dark turned sweat into shiver. Here, he kept containers of water, guns and ammunition, five-pound bags of rice and salt, cases of Campbell’s chicken noodle and tomato soup, and double zip-locked Oberto beef jerky. In our house, we ate the store brand of these soups, and homemade salmon jerky my father hang-dried in strips. There were five gallon buckets claiming to hold as many “meals” as to keep an adult alive for 365 days.
This back room’s empty now, its door kept closed only by a set of hook-and-eye latches I screwed into wood. The paint where the deadbolts clung has long flaked away, revealing the wood’s natural hue, and the groove from the crowbar’s arm has worn smooth. The doorway is so small I have to get on my knees to enter. The frame answers the expanse of my body with a shhh. The wall to the east, which would’ve welcomed an unobstructed view of the sun rising over Mt. Baker if it had boasted a window, is pocked with the misshapen O from the bullet’s entry. I never saw the mess my father’s death left, but my memory of it is sharper than any other. I see the flesh of his face sunken into his skull, the horrific grin of decomposition. I know things once solid liquefied, and the scent of him when he pulled me into a hug, or slung me one-armed onto his shoulders, the scent that told me we belonged only to each other, became putrid, toxic.
My watch tells me it’s again time to eat. Getting through the door seems harder on the way out, and for a second I think I might not be able to do it. I feel the pinch of sweat under my arms, the hint of my throat collapsing. I take a slow, deep breath, the kind I imagined one would take if trapped underground with limited oxygen. The frame scrapes my sides, cricks with the effort, and releases me. Outside the shelter, Micah is spinning himself senseless and stumbling toward Mary, whose shrieks and squeals in laughter. Disequilibrium prevails, and he falls. He lays on his back, watches the sky spin in a fit above him. Mary splays her body like a star next to him. Though their hunger must be terrible, they don't move when I tell them it is time for their afternoon snack. They are still, backs flat against the sky, faces open to the earth.
Kami Westhoff's work has appeared in various journals including Meridian, Phoebe, Carve, Third Coast, Passages North, The Pinch, Redivider, and West Branch. Her chapbook, Sleepwalker, won the 2016 Dare to Be Chapbook Contest from Minverva Rising and is due out this fall. She received her MFA from the University of Massaschusetts-Amherst and currently teaches Creative Writing at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.
Artwork: Scarlet Runner, 2001. Oil on canvas, by Linda Griggs