Jennifer Calkins


1. This is Night—now—but we are not dreaming

In my dream, the seas were drunk and this was why they were warmer. The old ocean at the land’s foot. The dark water, thousand eyed. I also dreamed he was still alive and the sanitarium was a high school.

When I woke I knew no one would ever invent or understand a new type of meaning because the ocean had already risen; the incipient plagues were old news. Palau was submerged; the coast of California under water. The people who could harness meaning, who cared about harnessing meaning, were dead. To me meaning was nothing but a waste of time.

The idea of a dystopian scenario is overblown. How people love an apocalypse

2. Day seemed less to rise/Than darkness to withdraw

Today I was going to do the washing; my shift and undergarments and my sheets. In preparation, I made my coffee and drank it black. I used to take it with milk and sugar but the cows had left and the ants had eaten the sugar.

The loaf I grabbed was spotted with mold; but then, they all were. At first, I couldn’t find my knife and I was afraid. It was like being unable to find your weapon; you known where you put it but it isn’t there. But the knife was on the floor, nearly underfoot. I wiped off the accretions of dust and hair and cut what appeared to be an edible chunk out of the side of the loaf. Even though I thought I’d removed the mold I got a mouthful of fungus on my first bite. I was glad because a part of me thought it might be Penicillium and would keep me from illness.

The zombie trope is a particular tired and overused metaphor for anxiety about infectious disease

3. Always they’re espousing accuracy when it’s accident, the arrow not in the aimed for heart but throat that has the say.

I stayed inside during the winter and early spring. When I finally emerged to visit the sanitarium I was so tired of rain I’d forgotten or pretended to forget that the sun was poison. I went out in the creeping light of dawn moving across shadowless fields, a tepid light. I barely believed the earth still moved—a single ray of sunlight breaking behind the clouds was like of the possibility of something else; something less solid and uncompromising.

All winter I had wanted so much to be warm because my hands kept losing blood and turning white, and hurting; I even wished out loud that someone would bring me into the bright field from the darkness. I suppose my wish was granted because now the sun is unrelenting. However, I don’t believe it. I think that whatever creature once fulfilled wishes or, more specifically, fulfilled my wishes has long since suffered extinction. Perhaps she was a frog.

I wandered towards the sanitarium through the irrigated lands without finding a single living native tree. They’d been cut, or had blown down and lay rotting in the muck or had died in the wake of the onslaught of bark beetles and infection. It felt like I’d been playing hide and seek and I’d missed the seeker calling ollie ollie oxen free; of course, were the seeker a tree it would explain the silence.

I finally stood outside the sanitarium, on the other side of the barricades surrounded by the fowl and cattle that had not been washed or blown away. I could see his window—or the window of the room in which he was incarcerated and after awhile I saw him move to stand behind the glass; I knew he saw me also because when I waved he waved as well. I hadn’t known whether he’d still be able to stand or see or move his arm and I had a sudden conviction he’d be discharged in time to enjoy the summer. This was silly, of course, no one had yet left the sanitarium but I believed at that point that he would, I believed the radio when it told me that promising treatments were being developed. Believed it until the radio went silent.

A strategic set up—when the links go silent the narrative is priming you.

4. We part with the River at the Flood /a timid custom, though with the same /waters we have often played

Now that summer has finally come, the sanitarium is long closed. No one is left to tend the sick; no one is left to be the sick. They all died from the inside out; they were poured out like water. I remember the colors and his life; night ringing with unseen larks. I meet my shadow in the deepening shade; I’m the only one; I tend myself; I’m the healer and the patient. I limp from my cot to the sink to my precious coffee to the bread in the cupboard. I feel my life with both my hands.

It may be that the point of dystopias are to render everything obsolete

5. I, too, was/hanged, but at a distant station

I am limited in my water supply by superstition. I will not take water from the sanitarium even though it is empty of patients and presumably clear of contagion. I use water drawn from my roof’s cistern despite the fact that seven months ago it ran black and sorely put me off my coffee.

I found the source after climbing to the roof and peering into the water of the cistern. Inside was a bloated body, floating upside down. She was so incredibly heavy I had to dive in after her and get underneath to push her out over the cistern’s lip. She slid off the roof and when I looked, I saw her body, partially burst, lying beside my back door. I threw up and my sick fell like sodding rain across what once was her back, head and right arm. I had to lie on the roof some because I could not stop the dry heaves and I could not get my balance on the ladder. I was covered with scum and I stank as though I was a corpse. It is hard to explain. From now on/there’s only one kind of night ahead

By the time I made it to the ground, a sad crust forming on my skin hair and clothing, I’d developed a plan for removing her body. I wrapped it in my remaining tarp—I’d tried to attach the others to parts of the house to reduce the water coming in during the storms but they’d all blown away—and dragged and kicked her body downhill perhaps half a mile to the cliff where I rolled her over to the beach below.

I burned my clothes; I was tempted to burn my own skin. That’s not modesty, but extinguishment. Perhaps I should have burned her also but I couldn’t bear the idea of returning to the sanitarium and I knew I’d never work up enough heat in my own measly firepit to burn even a part of her well enough. I also could not bear the thought of her becoming smoke. He owned the smoke.

Incidentally, I did know her; her name was, or had been, Faith Henry. She had worked as nurse at the sanitarium. No doubt she’d gotten sick but by that time there was no one to stop her wandering. She must have been delirious when she’d climbed the ladder to the roof and the ladder to the lip of the cistern and fallen in. I’ve heard you work up a great thirst with the fever and the chills so perhaps that explains it. I suppose it is a surprise that more folks didn’t wind up dead in my water. I count that as one of my many blessings. It is also a blessing that I didn’t burn my shift. At least I have one piece of clothing to wear.

I waited a few days and a few rains after the water ran clear in the faucet to use it again. I’d already been in the regular habit of boiling it before I drank and there seemed to be no lasting ill effect on my health from the corpse. I admit, though, I was nervous the first 24 hours after my first cup of coffee, but I was fine.

6. Look at it faster for your own sake.

Finding the dead body of Faith Henry marked the thirty-eighth day and seventh hour since his death. I knew this because I still had the little card upon which they’d written his name and the hour, minute, day and year of his death and, at that time, I was still keeping track of time. The card had been delivered, wrapped in sterile packaging, presumably irradiated by UV or some other mutagen to render it safe, by a woman in a biohazard suit who, when I opened the door tentatively upon her knocks, held it towards me with tweezers. I hesitated only a moment and then I took the card; I knew what it meant—the cards had been standard issue once large-scale isolation and quarantine measures had been enacted by the federal government. I know it was a record of a death.

The card also noted the moment they’d slid his body into the oven. I appreciated this notation but wished I had known about it before they burned him so I could have stood outside the sanitarium and watched his smoke rise above the chimney. By the time I received the card, he’d been ashes for over a week.

7. I can still take you by surprise, you silly girl, you and everyone else

I’d finished my coffee and the bread and so I cleaned my dishes. I returned the rest of the loaf to the cupboard to allow the mold a place of darkness to grow and then, finally, washed and dried the knife. When it was completely polished, I looked at it in my hand. I didn’t want to lose it again. I stuck it hard into the wall by the sink, shoving it in until the blade was half buried by the plaster. The handle stuck out, angled up, resting like an animate and protective friend.

I like to do laundry outside, in the washbasin, rather than in the sink. It is always touch and go because of the sun, but I’ve never been willing to believe the sun is toxic; I’d rather be hot and at a risk of sudden combustion than hide inside, only coming out after night has fallen.

I removed my clothes and bundled them with my stale sheets. I had nothing else to wear, having burned everything after finding the corpse. I’d gotten into the habit of doing the laundry naked.

I carried the bundle outside and threw it down in the sun. After a moment, I smelled burning as though the merest kiss from a photon was enough to excite the molecules woven into the cotton to dancing. It was a calming scent. Provided I moved with purpose, the fabric would not ignite but would be cleansed of parasites.

I filled my washbasin with water from the tap, making something resembling a haunted lake where I could wash and rinse. It burned my skin a bit when I picked up the clothes and dropped them quickly into the water. I had a little bar of soap left and I used it to wash the clothes. I rubbed them and stirred the water and stared out into the field of light and there wasn’t even a breeze.

I wish this was make believe. I wish this was dystopia. But it wasn’t; it isn’t. It was only a few years ago that we surpassed our worst expectations and now we are deep among the sad crowdings of positive feedback. It is hard to hold this in my mind, that the earth was subtly changing and I missed it, I missed as more than half the creatures on the earth vanished, still the darkling thrush calling some blessed Hope, whereof he know and I was unaware. I missed the implication of the folks coughing up bloody mucus in China and France.

I’d ignored the failing vaccines and I pretended that the little things I did day by day mattered; fresh loaves of bread or a card on a particular holiday. But they didn’t matter; people continued to get sick and die and now the map was a series of circles growing larger and larger until they fully overlapped one another and nothing on earth was free of them.

The little things didn’t matter, nor did the big things, but I cannot seem to stop pretending. The laundry must be done, the dishes must be cleaned. I must keep track of my knife.

He got sick and went away and he died.

And in the wake of that final dead body I burned my clothes and hoped for extinguishment. But it refused me.

There is a secret magic about these waste lands. When you wander through the corrupted, overgrown orchard, there is always someone at your back. You turn.
It is nothing
I can still move heaven and earth for love

Scaffolding and other bits stolen from:
Mayo ethnobotany, Carson, Hirsch, Bachmann, Dante Rossetti, Shaughnessy, Bolaño, Ackerson-Kiely, Apollonaire, Rosenberg, Roethke, Psalms King James version, Jeffers, Dickinson, Colter, Guy Chapman

Calkins_Author_PhotoJennifer Calkins is an evolutionary biologist and writer and lives in Seattle with various creatures. Her book is A Story of Witchery (Les Figues Press) and her website is