False Economy

Published in Dark Mountain: Issue 6
is a frequent contributor to Dark Mountain books with her speculative poems and micro-fictions. She holds a degree in biology and is an avid field naturalist and performance poet. She has been known to win ornithological swag in competitive birdwatching events on Vancouver Island.

It began, I now think, with the purpling leaves as the light fell. As my bare arms grew goosebumpy. As ravens and squirrels and tree frogs tucked into their evening roosts. As I scuffed my way through fir needle duff on my journey home. Or the illusion of home, since the true destination always remains a cipher until we arrive.

Es dunkelt I thought, although it had been thirty years since that German class in university. Es dunkelt rolled through my head like loose bolts in a tuna fish can. Loose bolts that must not be forgotten because they belong somewhere. Because they are waiting to re-attach something important.

Leaves are not really purple. Except when es dunkelt. What are the true colours of the forest? If even hue is hostage to the vagaries of time-space, can anything be certain? And when did I lose my adaptation to sleep outdoors?

But we have a bigger problem. We are approaching the point in the story that is the actual beginning, and written in the way I had hoped to tell it all. The rest was just a confused preamble tacked on as an afterthought. And one that somehow managed to launch itself in the Modern Realist Tradition. Thus setting you up, I fear, to expect that you will learn more about me as we progress. We want stories about people after all, not unvetted ideas. Leave symbolism to the Surrealists, abstraction to the metaphysicians. Just load us up with nuanced personal detail to engage vicarious emotion and choke out any hatchlings of unbounded thought.  Perhaps you have already started to form a theory about the true reason for my detour through the woods, or for taking German in university. Perhaps you are even imagining a gullible student’s frothy affair with a German professor, a sexual act on a washing machine in a darkened laundry room at a faculty Christmas party at the Dean’s home. At the very least, you must by now have formed an opinion on my gender. But none of this is relevant. There are larger concerns at stake.

My best advice is to view our bumpy start as a lesson in non-attachment and simply move forward unencumbered. I will try to make the transition as smooth as possible.

The forest was deeper and more perplexing than I had anticipated. I looked (as best I could in the dunkelnden light) for a place to bed down, some way to keep warm. I saw a fallow deer sleeping at the base of an ancient cedar. I lay beside it and pulled the deer’s spots over myself. This worked very well, and the deer did not seem to notice. When I awoke the next morning, the deer was stiff and cold.

I said a brief blessing to the deer before leaving. I had heard (in university, perhaps) that aboriginal people do this to creatures whose lives they take. All I could think of was: es dunkelt. But that felt sufficient. I reminded myself that the deer was, afterall, an import from a foreign land, its ancestors having been shipped here in the previous century as a game species, born to die, to be of service. I privately thanked the genius who figured out how to make the value of a life rewritable. And to ambush any future insurgencies of conscience, I decided to compose a poem to the fallen deer whenever I finally arrived home.

I walked on, taking the spots with me. But by evening they were  gone. I had spent them all on food and drink and some casual entertainment provided by a troupe of travelling clouds. So I found another deer. And another.

I did not notice when the last deer disappeared because by then I had enough spots to purchase all the garments and coordinating accessories and Kitchenaid appliances I needed (plus some I didn’t). I hired men to cut the forest (paying them in spots, of course) and then build me a large house (more of a city, really) to hold my various acquisitions. Each day when es dunkelte, I simply switched on the lights. Life had become much easier than during my forest period.

Although I was inland, I heard reports of the ocean (no longer contained by the trees) going berserk, leaping out of its bowl, its black skin pulling back for miles, leaving vast topographies of sea-bottom exposed. Due to these extreme low tides, marine rocks – clad in their thick pelage of green algae – were now on display. Roving horses mistook the rocks for pasture and bit down hard (essentially victims of unexamined habit and transgenerational neural networks that were perhaps in need of mending), costing them their teeth. The horses were actually tarpans. And not the modern reconstruction of the species concocted by the Polish government in the nineteenth century. No, these were bonafide tarpans, long thought extinct. Without their teeth, these relict equines confronted the dialectics of survival: adapt or perish.

Their gut-smooth mouths became the undersides of gumboot chitons – pink, moist, yet surprisingly firm. The toothless tarpans befriended the enemy rocks before clamping down for good (perhaps now recognizing the relativity of enemy designations). The tarpans lay limp in the mud until the tide rolled in, lofting their coarse bodies skyward, each attached to its muck-sunk rock by a stalk of thick neck.

They had become – no, not seahorses. Pay attention. Expectation will undo you every time. You must re-invent yourself each moment if you seek authentic engagement with the universe. They were now sessile anenomes, undulating beneath the waves, ensnaring other less adaptable species in their whippy legs. (However when es dunkelt, they do become my night mares. Why after all these years do I still recall es dunkelt but not the corresponding phrase for ‘it grows bright’?)

Was I responsible for all this? The loss of the last known tarpans and trees and ex-pat fallow deer? The creation of sessile anenomes? A spot-based monetary system? The great yawing of the sea? I had only wanted to stay warm. Time to boot up the laptop and compose another poem.


Dark Mountain: Issue 6 (PDF)

The Autumn 2014 issue of essays, fiction, poetry and artwork invites responses to 'the rising of the waters'.

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