I have fled to a floating island of trash to tell you stories of the peaceful north woods. Here’s one—A man woke up early, disturbed by his uneasy conscience, and went down to the stream. It was still so dark, the path appeared as a blacker indentation in the ground, the leaves and sticks and mud and rocks all indistinguishable matter. The muffled tumble of the water drew him on. At last it appeared as an occasional glint of silver where the rising sun licked its face. He waded in, waterproof in rubber boots, and felt the chilled blood in his feet send ice up to his knees. The pain became so intense that the scenes of his past failures left his brain. And then the strengthening light showed him a strange gray shape hunched along the opposite bank.
I got this far in my story of the north woods before my eyes hurt. The sun is unending. I’ve never been so sick of anything as I am of that big yellow thing. I passed out for a little while. I don’t really sleep, just move from one vagueness to another, one state sort of alert, another more or less comatose, with every gradation in between. I woke up, or transcended, and Ralph was staring at me. That meant either pirates or cannibals. Or cannibal pirates. “I’d welcome an end to this,” I told Ralph. He looked back at me longingly.
We went out to repair the pump. Like everything else, the salt had completely corroded it. Not a single gasket was whole, and crystals stuck all up and down the tube. We scraped them out with a little stick I’ve been keeping. You find great things on the island, driftwood in the shape of a frog, a velvet armchair, weird knots of women’s stockings. The minutes of focus on the machinery restored my peace, but as soon as we stopped the activity, I had nothing to distract me from the ongoing affliction. Ralph and I walked along the perimeter and saw no sign of the pirates or whatever. Dolphins frolicked way far out, just flying spots above the waves. I almost felt some contentment, but not for very long.
I shooed Ralph away and went on with the story. Here it is—The farm the man had bought a few years back was on the site of an old spiritualist camp. The two sisters who used to read cards and lead seances had died a long time ago, but there were still relics here and there of their gates to the other world. Piles of stones, trees marked with cobalt paint, and coins stuck in bark sometimes glimmered on the edge of the farmer’s attention.
His nearest neighbor told him about what happened to the sisters way back. The older one, Susan, had been the manager, handling the guest bookings, hiring the cleaners, driving back and forth to Black River Falls for groceries. Ellen, the younger one, was the more charismatic medium. Her photo adorned the flyers Susan stuck in car windshields and mailed to union halls and Elks clubs across the state. Both of them had long, witchy hair almost to their ankles, but Ellen’s seemed to float ethereally while Susan was weighed down with a big dingy mop.
Ellen contacted the dead and widened people’s intuition by touching their foreheads. She led a painting class, where strange animals sometimes appeared out of swirls of color. A deer heading straight out of the canvas had once foretold the death of its creator, a writer visiting from Chicago. Susan stayed up late in the office on the first floor of the lodge, paying the bills, while Ellen retired early, worn out by the trance she went into every evening after the plates were cleared.
The spiritualist camp had been so popular that a special train line had been added in the Forties to bring the weekenders up from Illinois. But eventually the older sister developed a progressive nerve disease that took her vision and wasted her muscles. She didn’t read the tarot any longer but scratched her fingertips along the cards’ faces without saying anything. The younger sister didn’t have Susan’s business sense, and the camp declined. The guests who persisted were sure that the older sister had an increased power over the other world as her body loosened its hold on this one. One half of her face had fallen, her cheek muscles pulled and stretched down and to the side. Her lips couldn’t close, and the teeth on that side showed themselves constantly. Her right hand had withered, and her arm muscles tightened, pulling the fingers into a curled claw. She now held her pencil in her left hand when she wrote down her sister’s entranced pronouncements. Her notes were for the most part completely illegible, but some of the sisters’ followers thought these scribbles were mystical codes.
The farmer telling his new neighbor this story said he had some of these notes in the house. His mother had pulled a few out of the remains of the fire. They looked a lot like writing, but weren’t actually, he said. They were just junk, he wouldn’t have kept them, except his old mom had been attached to the history of the place.
“I’m not scaring you off, am I?” he said. He didn’t believe in all that stuff. Only his mother did. They started to talk about machinery, and about the other neighbors. The wife of the guy to the east had split up with him. They were divorced, but they didn’t have anywhere to go, so he lived in the basement now and she stayed upstairs. They went out on opposite days, she to church, he to the Indian casino. The neighbors to the west had a lot of guns and sometimes shot them off in the road, drunk. But most of the time they were all right. A grenade once. But not for a couple years. And then the Amish, those posers. Always wanting to borrow the phone. Whipped the children and ran a puppy mill. Pugs and pomeranians. But whatever. They have their own traditions, I suppose, he said.
Therefore, the owner of the farm on the site of the former spiritualist camp had never heard the end of the story of the two sisters. The realtor had shown him the charred remains of the lodge when he first toured the place. He hadn’t thought to ask what caused the conflagration. It was common enough that old places burned. He had used the fireplace stones for his side terrace, and all that was left of the foundation was a patch of stubborn daylilies and a lilac.
As he squinted through the morning mist at the gray shape, he was sure it was one of the women. Hair blew across her face and her body crouched inside a shawl. She lay on the bank, knees pulled up to her chest, the gray fabric shrouding any details of her figure. In the center of the stream, he was torn between crossing over and approaching the phantom or leaping back to his side of the bank. The intense cold of the water washing over his boots rose through his bloodstream and clutched at his heart. He felt it thump. He stood frozen, hesitant, eyes fixed on the specter lying on the sand. As the sun rose a little higher, he made out a dark eye staring at him from beneath the cascade of hair. Panicked, he flailed his arms, but his legs refused to move. Only when he reached down and grabbed the top of his boot could he force his leg to take a step. With this motion, his body kicked in, and he was back on the bank, on the path, and then sitting in his kitchen, wet footprints drying on the mud room mat.
I intended to have the farmer go back to his neighbor’s house and get the rest of the story of the two sisters. I imagined the neglected kitchen, the cabinets hanging open, the farmer sitting patiently under the window, watching his neighbor’s chickens scratch in the yard while the other man searched through his mother’s things to find the notes the older sister had written. But instead of getting all that down, I lay in my favorite spot where I had mounded up a bunch of jogging shoes and caution tape into a hill with a hollow beneath. The lip of the pile of junk arched over, making a little shelter half in shade. I had some construction netting and a barrel lid to loll on. I ate some granola bars and Jolly Ranchers. I had a thought, like a premonition or déjà vu, like I was already supposed to know something. Then I got preoccupied with the smell of my own shit. I couldn’t get rid of it. I was always like that, on the verge of understanding or remembering, and then sideswiped by the raw physicality of my conditions. Well, I’m no worse off than anyone else, I thought cheerily. I was quite considerably worse off than at least a solid two percent of the remaining population, who were even now lounging in recreated English gardens or hiking glacial drumlins or playing blackjack in faux dive bars, but how could that matter at all?
So skip the part about the neighbor, let’s just get to the part where the farmer stares down into the scrap of paper he’s been given. Thick, dark squiggles alternated with weak gray lines, as if the hand that propelled the pencil had pulsed with strength, then lost power. The marks clustered like words, with spaces between, and the lines approximated letters. It might have been a foreign alphabet, or a variant English with diacritical marks or phonetic symbols interspersed. The words, if that’s what they were, had been scratched onto a thick scrap of cotton rag paper, creamy stationery from a prosperous era. The torn half sheet smelled faintly sweet. This might have been the lotion or potpourri of his neighbor’s mother, but the scent seemed to the farmer to come from way back before that old lady’s time. He thought he had smelled it on his farm in springtime, a rare flower he couldn’t identify. He stared at the marks on the paper, holding it close to his face, then laying it down on the table, then holding it up to the mirror. The patterns and perfume, even the rough texture of the paper, seemed to be telling him something he couldn’t quite understand. The message from the beyond lay just beyond his capabilities. Only a person with finer senses than his own would know what it meant.
His neighbor told him what his old mom had said about the end of the sisters. The younger sister had fallen for one of the guests, a charismatic salesman from the city. He promised to bring the place back up to the thriving status it held before Susan’s decline. Everyone hated him and knew he was a charlatan, except the supposedly intuitive Ellen.
She was at least fifteen years older than him and worshipped him like a puppy. He wrapped her hair around his fist and led her around by it, both of them laughing, but him of course with a wicked edge to it. When the camp reopened the next season, it had become a nudist colony. The salesman had invested what was left of the sisters’ savings into a huge fence along the road and hired a sign painter to decorate it with scenes of waterfalls and mountain meadows, the landscapes undulating in the shapes of naked bodies. It was just this side of the law, suggestive but also easily explained away as hills and streams if children were present.
They made their money off a big midsummer festival. The solstice party drew people from all over, who filled the camp and then rented every cabin and motel room in a fifty-mile radius. Some of these guests drove around nude, a towel over their lap, the women holding their hands up over their nipples if the cops pulled them over. The neighbors and people in the town complained how ugly the nudists were, big, fat men, their bellies swelling over their covered genitals, and stick-like women with scabs and moles, drooping breasts and flattened butts. The repulsive parade of flesh was endured because every little knick knack and jack knife and twelve-pack and tank of gas that could be bought was snapped up by these pale, ugly tourists. No one saw the sisters. The salesman, Tom, did all their business.
I imagined the farmer neighbor getting distracted and irritated before he could get to the notes and the fire, and finally getting up to see what the cows were up to, leaving the other neighbor alone. I let the kitchen where they talked descend into a chilly spring darkness, the table lamp burnt out, the man too hesitant to turn on the overhead light. I began to luxuriate in these dim shadows. My eyes seemed to get less sticky, and even though the sweat was pouring off me, as always, I could almost feel what it was like to have goose bumps and icy toes. I lay under my hill of shoes and breathed in the mildew odor of the kitchen, the damp earthiness of proximity to the barn, and the ominous press of green branches over cobwebbed windows.
Then I thought I shouldn’t be doing this at all. I was providing my cool, twilight northernness for those asshole culture consumers in their air-conditioned condos. They didn’t need a story. All they had to do was turn the dial on the thermostat and a little cooler air would blow on them from vents in their fantastically white, smooth walls.
Maybe Ralph woke me up again. I must have been dreaming that we walked the perimeter, and I found a metal file cabinet, some shower caps, and a bunch more caution tape. The salt crusted everything in a uniform whitish-gray. Colorful crap—pink shoes, orange leotards, yellow combs and hospital monitors—all found itself suppressed by the salt. The only thing that shone unobstructed was that fireball up above, and the endless blue waves. Ralph whined and pointed his ripped-up muzzle, but I couldn’t make it out. More likely he heard it rather than saw it, the churn of a motor or the splash of oars. “Who cares, buddy?” I asked him. Evidently Ralph cared.
We checked on the pump. I sat down for a minute, to stretch my thighs, and drifted into one of those states where I wasn’t exactly asleep, but I dreamed that I was dreaming. I kept calling to Ralph and hitting an alarm clock. I was supposed to be somewhere. I saw myself in the mirror as I was going out the door, and I looked twenty years younger, and sad and upset. “I have to tell her,” I told myself, “that she turns out okay.” Then I dreamed I woke up, and an instant later actually physically woke up, to find myself on a floating island of trash. The pump throbbed manfully, in full gear. My water bottles glinted from under their tarp. Ralph lay on his side, gnawing on an umbrella handle. The trash substructure undulated reassuringly. We were caught in a dull spiral, held in a calm current that as far as I knew would keep me in this latitude and not crash me against some uncaring coast.
So why go on, I thought? Everything’s fine just as it is. The breeze moved the hair on my neck, and carried as always my own stench, and the stink of all the discarded junk, fermented, rotted, sun-dried, gooped-up, molten hair curlers and coffee maker cones, gull and fish skeletons, IV fluid hoses, carved wooden benches, palm oil, party dresses, and crates of Mars bars. This farmer seemed to have a life he’d left behind, that worried him enough he had to go out walking before dawn. The sisters had fallen, like everyone else, into the hands of bad men, and also perhaps lost faith in themselves. The interloper Tom had made a spectacle out of their communion with the other world, probably claiming enhanced powers for those who lived as Adam and Eve did.
He wouldn’t even need to say that. Just, live sex show at midnight, the younger sister being able to throw herself into an extended orgasm that he was able to start up simply by passing his hands over her nipples. “Notice how flushed her eyelids are,” he intoned into the lantern light. The cicadas buzzed while gnats and moths flailed themselves against the top of the tent. Ellen lay on her back, her hair draped around and under her. “See how red and moist her lips are. She’s in the natural state cosmetics are meant to imitate.” He pushed her thighs apart gently and worked his finger into her vulva. He held it up to show the shine of mucous. “Once she’s this aroused,” he said, “her orgasm can last for an hour.” The piles of his book on Extended Natural Orgasm flanked the table.
The other sister was furious at this degradation of their spiritual quest, but she couldn’t speak. Her younger sister now had power of attorney, which meant that in effect this Tom character controlled everything. He knew Susan objected to the sex shows, so he simply locked her in one of the cabins. Despite the great horde of nudists, some of the devotees of the sisters still made it to the camp, loyal to the spot where they had communed with the other world for years. Out of their respect for Ellen, they doffed their clothes, but they still dragged the brushes through the pots of pigment in the intuitive painting shed. They walked the paths through the upper woods and sat at the edge of the stream in the afternoon, quieting their spirits. They even scribbled down the ahs and ohs Ellen emitted in her entranced orgasm. These sounds framed an occasional word, “healing,” “amazing,” “but don’t, but if,” and muttered syllables, “shar,” “shu,” “bu,” “fu.”
They might have missed the old days, Susan writing, Ellen speaking of ways to live right, to be open, and to soothe the wounds of the past, greeting passed souls and taking their messages of hope and light. The sisters had taught them enough already, they told each other, that they could live through this new era. Everything was a lesson, they whispered, as Ellen’s back arched up and her hair cascaded off the end of the table. Sweat and the white water of her come slicked the table as her orgasm broached the ten-minute mark. At that point, Tom took the money for his books, laughing at the way nudists didn’t have pockets, and couples ran off to try their own sexual powers in their cabins or on the bare ground.
Surely everything doesn’t get worse and worse, I thought, interrupting my story of the north woods because I didn’t care at all for those who would eventually gulp my story down while lounging on the balcony of their cliff-side villas, a machine having made them nicely bitter coffee and their hilariously accumulating wealth having bought them tiny, sour oranges and sprouted wheat bread. I considered ways in which the spirits would intervene, pouring out of the skewed jaws of the diseased elder sister to scatter the enterprise of the huckster Tom. Then I wondered why I was so anti the nudists. Why shouldn’t they take off their clothes in nature? Why shouldn’t they learn ancient sexual techniques that increased female pleasure? I was running riot against my own self, because I stank, because I was both fat and starving on my diet of candy and seaweed, and because my island of floating trash was made up of the ugliest leftovers of the civilization I hadn’t really left.
“Ralph!” I called. “Ralphie!” He rarely let himself out of my sight. He came wagging up, and I buried my face in his scabby flank. He reeked of fish and rancid oil, and his fur had knotted into little nuggets. He whimpered, unsure why I was suddenly so affectionate. He liked routine, and calm, focused activity. I couldn’t blame him. He was the most wonderful being ever created, I crooned into his belly. I sat up, and the sun shone on two of my hairs stuck to his back. One brown one, one white one flashed diamonds out of the slender strands of unneeded dead matter. Then my chest tightened, suffocated in the heat, and the implacable ball of fire above roasted my eyeballs.
Certainly the older sister got out and confronted the other two. In her blind stumbling, she knocked over the lantern that Tom had carefully positioned to show Ellen’s aging femininity at its best. The old waxed canvas caught fire. As the nudists ran away in panic, sounds came out of Susan’s twisted mouth, a mooing, a mewing, and then clear words as if another voice entirely inhabited the frail body: “Let him go, sister. Your place is with me!” Ellen, heavily drugged to endure the sex show, took confused steps toward the voice. Tom, hair alight, little willie erect and gleaming rosy in the exultant glow of the fire, stretched out his hand. He wrapped his fist in Ellen’s hair and brought her close. It must have been what they had always talked about, one flesh, their destinies united.
Perhaps Susan’s obscured vision had cleared when she recovered her voice, and she had seen her sister smile as she clung to Tom’s burning body. Or she didn’t see that, but her knowledge of the terrain and the efforts of her former campers meant she made it safely away. In any case, the diseased sister survived, and lived on in the county home for the elderly until no one remembered who she was. The real story, of course, was why she had come back to lie on the bank of the stream and glare at the farmer.
He hadn’t done anything to her, he told himself. He had made something nice out of the old place, clearing part of the woods for his vegetables and corn field, setting up his own pretty prefab on the hill, and transforming the stones of the old lodge into his lovely terrace. The view in the evening was like a postcard of peacefulness, the sun setting behind the hill, the twinkle of the stream in the distance, the swallows winging out of the barn.
Nothing he had done could cause this old bitch to drag herself along the stream bank. He shuddered at the vision of the dark eye staring at him out of the mask of hair. He got a beer out of the fridge and sat down on the terrace, pulling his jacket close around his shoulders to keep out the night breeze. He looked down at the marks on the piece of paper he’d gotten from the neighbor, the strange almost alphabet the elder sister had written with her left hand.
I wondered what it said. I was supposed to know. It was in my control. I felt stiffness creep through my fingers, as if I too held the scrap of paper long after the evening got too nippy for sitting outdoors. Little lights bobbed through the trees, coming from the occasional cars on the county highway. Coyotes howled, and mist circled a rising sliver of moon.
Let’s keep everything right there, I thought, before he knows what harm he’s done, and while his muddy boots and thick socks, his hatchet and chain saw in the yard, his loneliness and the shimmers of night sounds enclose him in an atmosphere he doesn’t know the worth of. Let him not know he’s done something terrible, hacking down the trees marked with cobalt paint so that the spirits can’t find their way through the woods. In just a moment the note in his hand will finally clarify itself into an accusation.
I meant to pause here, but I couldn’t manage it. The farmer squinted in the darkness. The only light was his kitchen sconce shining through the window over the sink. Now, when he could barely see, the missing parts of the letters resolved. The penciled lines gained shadows that completed them, and he read the old mystic’s message, “You don’t deserve any of this!”
He realized she was right, he didn’t deserve the lonely clarity he’d formed out of the mess of nudist colony and spiritual camp. He was a stupid, lowly human being, who had only wanted to grow some beets, thinking it was a pure life. But he felt sad all the time, brought down by doubts and headaches. He was running out of money. He hadn’t really made a friend of the other bachelor farmer, whose old mom had died. He hadn’t even said hello to the cashier in the Viking Mart, that shy teen behind the register who clearly remembered him and his cans of soup from his dozens of past visits.
No, you stupid farmer, I said to him, from my distant temple of narration. You don’t deserve to feel terrible. You’re the lucky one, with your woods and stream, your terrace of old fireplace stones. But he wouldn’t listen to me, a miserable hermit on an island of floating trash. I wished I could be naked except for my hair, a love goddess laid out on a table, an interpreter of messages from dearly beloved departed, a woman who painted foxes and sparrows and who prayed in the church of the north woods.
Everything has to be botched, I said to myself. I got up and stumbled after my dog. Don’t try to make a nice place for yourself. You’re only wrecking something else. That’s all that happens, a continual destruction. My thoughts seemed amply propped up by the squishy combs and doll’s heads under my feet, the scum of plastic coated with shit and kelp and slime and salt. The farmer could easily have left the forest the way it was. The sisters had coaxed the grounds into geometric quadrants that facilitated communication with the other world. When he set out to farm the neglected campground, he hadn’t seen that a pleasing spoke-like system underlay the choking vegetation. The sister’s ghost had arrived to tell him to set it back the way it was. She blamed him. So typical, that hapless, well-meaning suburban souls find themselves responsible for all kinds of disasters that happened before they were born.
I ambled along the perimeter, jumping over squelching spots where the mesh of trash had gotten thin. The sun burned overhead like a gigantic landlord, the gas and electric bill in his name, thermostat locked. I put my hand to my face and felt my dry wrinkles and fissures, and my straw-like frame of hair. I lost sight of Ralph’s ratty tail and made a turn inland to explore a kind of canyon. Seeds blew over or dropped down in guano, and here and there found enough purchase to sprout. This little gulley featured a few palms and ferns, stunted and precarious but still green. At their feet, the undulating catastrophe of trash had aligned itself into a shape.
“Ralph!” I called. I must have been asleep. He trotted up and rubbed his wretched nose against my calf. The salt-crusted garbage splayed out in definite lines, something like a burial mound. The raised edges, seen from standing height, formed a giant fish with a long spike leading off its snout. I blinked my eyes, trying to bring more moisture to them. Ralph panted next to me, keeping back from the borders of the form. It was a narwhal, etched into the trash. The slim shadows of the nascent plants lay across it, striping it black against gray. The simple outline of tubby body and narrow tail caught the animal unmistakably. Its head was slightly lifted, the horn leading off it. A few pats and digs might have been enough to make this, a stake or tent pole dragged through the surface. The narwhal’s horn pointed out to the ocean.
I didn’t remember making it. I doubted I had the skill to craft something so simple and yet life-like. I looked down, sure it would disappear if I looked away. The lines persisted, a back, a fin, the long horn. An animal. A narwhal.
The waves rolled on blankly. There was nothing out there. Up above, the huge yellow fist continued to pound without mercy. Farther out than my ears could hear might have been the deliberate splash of paddles. After all this, maybe pirates would gut me and roast me on a spit. No one knew how things came to a close. I blinked some more. I sniffed for some ancient odor of trillium or tuberose. I coughed and cleared my throat. I licked salt off my lips. I picked a hangnail off my thumb.
Angela Woodward is the author of the novel Natural Wonders, winner of the Fiction Collective Two Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. Her other works include Origins and Other Stories, winner of The Collagist‘s prose chapbook competition, the collection The Human Mind, and the novel End of the Fire Cult. Her work has won statewide awards from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and the Illinois Arts Council. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.