by Kami Westhoff
Today’s pull is a fresh one—only a slight paling of the face, a bluing of the lips that could’ve been a stain from a candy. My daughter, Seneca, lays her stomach on the bank of the river, cinches forward until her pulling stick, with its perfectly hooked fingers, snags his waist and shores him.
He is naked, as is standard for followers of The Agreement Alliance. As with each of the men we’ve found, he has been completely shaved. The skin of his chest and groin is flecked with tiny slashes from the razor, and the pale skin beneath his eyebrows exposed.
“Twenty-two,” Seneca guesses.
“Could be older. Or younger,” I offer uselessly.
After I’ve helped shore him, she squats next to him in a position she knows protects her back. She is barely an adult, but already concerned with the deterioration of the living body as well as the dead. When I was pregnant, I’d read this squat was the position women who worked the rice paddy fields held for sixteen hours at a time, strengthening their muscles in such a way that when they delivered their babies it was barely necessary to stop their work.
She drags her fingers over his abdomen, presses the glands in his throat with her fingers, then lifts his shoulders so his torso is perpendicular to the ground. Her breath is a light pant from the exertion of the pull, and I feel her pulse tapping in my ears. It’s my pulse, of course, but there is no harm imagining her organs are still dependent upon the protection of mine. For the pulls so far, she has worked only with the heart, first exploring its position in the cavity, then slicing and arranging to see firsthand the complexities of its ventricles, atria, veins, and valves. For the last pull, she called me into the exam room, lifted a flap of thigh skin to reveal the muscle beneath, tweak tendons to move fingers, held a lung in her hands to demonstrate how it came alive with air. There was a sour burning at the back of my throat but also a thrill in her finding me worthy of the lesson.
Today I help strap him to her body, though she can do it on her own. She learned the skill years earlier when the need was recreational, a broken ankle or pulled muscle on a long hike or ski trip, and though it is more difficult to maneuver and position a dead body, sometimes bloated, waterlogged, even unraveling at the joints, she manages without complaint as we walk to the cart.
We found the first body two weeks after my husband Mateo left us. Seneca hadn’t spoken a word directly to me since he’d left. She communicated by speaking to or describing various objects in our house: “Dinner is ready to be eaten,”; “The bin is being taken to the compost pile.” She blamed me, of course, and so did I, though I understood the conceit in believing I had that much power. He was a man who owned every decision he made.
I had spotted that first body before she, but by the time I’d gone through all of the alternatives to human it might be Seneca was breaking the necks of branches and stepping in stabs toward the bank. I followed her easily in the path she cleared. By then, the authorities had recovered four bodies from the river, all male, naked, and shaved.
That day, Seneca had waded into the river and dismantled the morass of branches and rocks that had snagged him. She guided his body to the bank, her hands at the beginning and end of his spine like I’d done with her when she was four and learning to trust that the water’s surface could protect her body from its depths.
I had stepped into the river to peer past branches and bends while she slipped her arms under his and clasped her hands over his chest. This bent her in a way that would’ve killed my back, and I resisted reminding her to tighten her abdominal muscles. When he was shored, she kneeled and put her ear to his chest, one hand on his forehead and the other in the smooth expanse of the skin between his chest and groin. The ridiculousness of her actions erupted in my gut—this misplaced hope of a heartbeat—but she’d been taught the surface could easily betray the state of the submerged.
“Dead for less than twenty-four hours,” she said to herself, her ear still pressed to his chest and face toward the river and away from me. She stood and moved to his legs. One of his knees had twisted and his calf lay in an impossible angle away from his body. As she straightened it there was the sound of knuckles cracking.
“Help me,” she said, and like that we again had language.
After today’s pull we walk along the bank trail toward the cart we once used to haul split wood from the shed to our house. Though Seneca’s legs keep a consistent pace, her upper body sags with each step until her upper body is nearly parallel to the ground. I walk behind her, unable to resist being amused. His back and buttocks become hers: a strange animal in search of God knows what. Seneca murmurs to herself, and occasionally I catch her words: “Jeremiah,”; “one hundred forty-two pounds,”; “5’6”; “Gemini.” Jeremiah is the smallest we have pulled, shorter than either of us.
While she pushes him in the cart, I look to the surrounding backdrop of mountains. We live at the bottom of a crater a hundred miles in diameter. Millions of years filled it with the tons of earth we now walk upon. Though I’ve lived here for over twenty years, I still find the mountains’ edges so severe that each time I look away from them it is with different vision. It is remote enough that the Alliance has thrived without confrontation for over a year, though it is clear from the hometown of the men pulled from the river its philosophy has an appeal that reaches far beyond its natural boundaries.
At home I open the door to the exam room and help her carefully lean Jeremiah onto the metal table Mateo had used to carve and portion game. Seneca began helping Mateo translate animal into food when she was seven. As a young child, Seneca barraged him with questions about the brains of rodents, bones of squirrels, reproductive organs of insects. She wanted to see them all, and after she’d seen them she wanted to explore them with her own hands. At first I resisted, how much is too much for a five-year-old, seven-year-old, etc., but she never paled or flinched. I’m not particularly faint-hearted; my father taught me to hunt, and what to do with the kill to avoid waste, but many of the associated memories, the way you can actually feel a bullet pierce the body of your prey in the bottom of your throat, the sound and scent of heat released from the peel of fur and skin from muscle and tissue, return to me in gruesome nightmares that wake and sicken me.
In the kitchen I snap off my latex gloves and drop them into the bin. I put eggs into a pot and set them to boil. I snip away the ends and steam green beans. Seneca will be in the room for hours, so I peel her eggs and wrap her a plate for later. She will tell me in the morning I don’t need to feed her, but it is really the only thing a mother must do. If I still my chewing and listen over the slight thump and clank of her examination, I can imagine the thwack of Mateo chopping wood, and the occasional grunt such exertion produces. These sounds, so unaware of themselves being of consequence, cleave.
After my meal, I clean up, shower, rinse and soak pinto beans for tomorrow. I’m in bed when Seneca emerges from the exam room. I hear the hiss of hand washing then the refrigerator open. She will return to Jeremiah after her meal, perhaps moving onto the spleen or lower intestine, discovering the intricacies of his digestive system as hers translates food into energy. Tonight she will eat.
In bed I close my eyes, conjure then lean into the slight slope of Mateo’s body. By the time he left us, he weighed at least twenty pounds less than I. He slept only on his back, choked and snored throughout the night. Occasionally his breath would stop for a few seconds, and I’d bounce the mattress lightly until his chest again lifted and lowered. His skin retreated to his bones, each rib’s dimension visible, stomach a shallow U between the peaks of his hips. His appearance would’ve raised concern in anyone, as it did in me, but there was also something about it that created a lust in me. I craved the sharp angle of his jaw bones pressing into my thighs, hipbones pulsing mine into shades of purple, blue, green.
In the months before he left, Mateo had mentioned the Agreement Alliance a few times. He was a consultant for the tribe of Native Americans who’d lived near these mountains for hundreds of years, and the first time I’d heard him mention them he expressed concern over another group of white people preying on the local tribe. Though the Alliance published no official literature, Mateo had connections in every pocket of the region, and he learned some of their beliefs, which included the assumed emasculation of white men by various marginalized groups. I’d listened to him, sort of, as I listened to him whenever he spoke of the frustrations of his job, but didn’t insert myself into the conversation. I learned early on which of his questions were meant for me and which were directed toward a being much higher or holier.
The next morning Sienna and I eat together. She tells me she’s done with Jeremiah with the same hesitation as always. The days of return are always her lowest. The sharp commitment of every movement from the day before has given way to hunched shoulders and lethargy. Before yesterday, two months had passed without us finding any bodies. I suggested the Alliance had relocated, which she quickly dismissed. They had no reason to--the men had entered the river willingly, according to signed, legal documents that arrived in the families' mailboxes. I know Seneca wants more than anything to keep him and perform a much more in depth study. Perhaps to explore the complex mess of muscles under the skin of the face that convey delight, terror, suffering. Or the characteristics of the body as it transitions from flesh to bone. Or maybe this is what I would study if I had the skill and the disposition to find the workings of our bodies fascinating and not nauseating. Perhaps it is under the skin where true emotion resides. If I could’ve peeled Mateo’s skin back and watched the subtle muscular reaction to my words, my actions, could I have known when to shut up? How to make him stay?
I notice but don’t comment upon Seneca’s meal, a slice of barely buttered toast and a few hazelnuts. Like her father, strife causes her body to consume itself. Her eyes almost seem illuminated against her ashy skin. She keeps her hair in a single tight braid frayed like an old rope against her spine. I worry the loss of him will undo her. It was always Mateo for her, and I’m certain she’d prefer he was here and not me. I know I would’ve been missed, but moved on from. Healing would’ve been a thing they did together, forward-moving, and the loss would’ve been something they learned from and someday say made them better people.
Jeremiah is our fourth pull. We called the sheriff about the first body, unsure of what we were dealing with. After we shored the second one, we drove it to the police station, as the news of his disappearance was widespread. It was terribly hot that day, and I feared decomposition if we waited for the sheriff. Later, the deceased man's wife had asked to meet us, and the visit left me sick for days. She confessed she’d been relieved when he left, that she for the first time in years felt safe, felt a bit of hope for her and her son. He was a regretful man, unable to keep himself from doing regrettable things. She had held out both her hands toward us, and I took one, then the other when Seneca's stayed clasped behind her back. We returned the third body to the river as Seneca insists upon now that we know it is part of fulfilling the Alliance’s Agreement to reach the mouth of the Columbia and spill into the ocean. Neither of us believe in the power of the river to cleanse the sins of a soul, or in the ocean's promise of rebirth, but we also understand how little what we do or do not believe matters.
After breakfast, Seneca scrapes crumbs from her dish into the sink and leaves the room. From the window I watch her push the cart toward the door closest to the exam room. I hear the crackle of the garbage bag and the sound of her smoothing it flat against his body. She has mentioned how much she could learn from keeping one of the organs, but as far as I know, each body has left as it arrived.
I wash the dishes, wipe the crumbs from the counters onto the floor and sweep. It had been Mateo’s job, the after breakfast clean up, as I always woke early and prepared it. For days after he left the dishes lay scattered, counters and floors ignored. One day I came home and found the kitchen spotless, even the fingerprints were gone from the glass cupboards. For a slice of a second, I felt Mateo in the house, the way you sometimes know the phone is going to ring before it does. I inhaled to return his scent to my cells, but the tink of fork against plate drew me to Seneca, who sat at the table, quartering a hard-boiled egg. Mateo only ate his eggs over easy, but, like him, she sprinkled salt onto each bite before she took it.
I haven’t sensed him since that day, and I no longer mistake the actions of one for those of another. I force him into my fantasies, make him into the lover he wanted to be. The morning after his undoing, he’d rolled toward me, drew invisible circles of various sizes on my back. He knew I loved this, as well as I knew the morning erection that preceded it had more to do with biology than lust. He’d always been nothing but patient and gentle, but I often resented the reaction my body had to his touch. I craved comfort without the promise of sex. There seemed so little of that kind of touch, the kind perhaps only given for the first years of one’s life, if one was lucky, and etched so deeply into the mass of memory that you are doomed to seek it in all the wrong places.
That morning I decided to give in, rolled toward him and said, “Okay, okay. Hurry,” words I could now kill myself for. He turned away, got out of the bed, and I noticed he was fully clothed. Jeans, t-shirt, jacket. I lay in bed, confused, but stretched into the expanse of the mattress. I slipped out of my sleep clothes and enjoyed of the feeling of sheets, not hands, against my skin. Any other day that moment would’ve been forgotten as soon as I stepped into the shower, but now I force myself to suffer it again and again, that selfish feeling of contentment, the lonely seconds of solitude where my body was just a thing to live in, obligated to do nothing but beat with the heart and breathe with the lungs.
Seneca and I walk the path to the river without talking. She pushes the cart with Jeremiah, who she’s covered from the neck down in a large garbage bag, the kind we use and rinse out for months on end because of its strength. When we get to the river, she removes the large rubber band from around his neck that holds the bag in place and tugs it down his chest, hips, thighs until his body is as we found it. She’s perfectly stitched each incision site, something I take a bit of credit for since I taught her to sew when she was six. I grab his ankles as she wedges her arms under his until his armpits rest on the inside of her elbows. We lift him, crab-walk to the river’s edge, and lower him to the surface. She presses the wide, blunt end of her stick against his hip, and the current quickly accepts his body, and we watch its insistent motion until it curves him out of sight.
I’m back on the trail by the time I notice Seneca is still at the riverbank. I turn and step toward her as though I have some instinctual ability to offer her comfort, but she has never been comforted by my words or the touch of my body. She was beyond me from the moment she was created. It seemed as though she didn’t need me even then—she wanted out so badly I’d had my cervix stitched shut. It wasn’t her, really, but rather an “incompetent cervix,” but it was a condition that didn’t exist for me until she was brought to be. She was born early but healthy, rarely cried, nursed with speed and efficiency and pulled her head away when full. As a three year old, she found her own band-aids or icepacks or ointment. She was never angry or spiteful, just self-sufficient and mature.
I turn away from the river’s edge and worry again that Seneca will follow the body into the river, but I know nothing I do or say can prevent that. I think I know that isn’t her style, the silent emergence and inhalation of the frigid water into the lungs. I hope the move is too impulsive for her, too dramatic. Her emotions are always so muted, every decision considered and practical.
Mateo had been so sure of his decision to leave he walked out of the bedroom as if he were floating, hips forward, shoulders back and low. The night before, he’d pulled me on top of him, his fingers and palms tightened against my thighs when I tried to switch positions. We stayed in that position forever, it seemed, neither of us in a hurry. He watched me, matched my movements with those he knew I’d respond to, and for the first time in a long time I let my body react. I felt the physical presence of him more than I ever had, but when our eyes connected it was as if he were looking past me, or maybe within me, but then beyond. He left me with bruised thighs and lips chapped from the hours he kissed me long after I stopped returning them.
I’d stayed in bed hours beyond my usual waking time that morning. When I finally made it to the kitchen, two boiled eggs and sliced bread sat on a plate. Coffee, though cool, sat strong and black in a mug to the right of the plate.
Mateo promised he’d come back when he could. I swore I understood, and I had, but for days waking began with a split-second hope before the knot of loss clenched and I’d hurry to the bathroom. Losing him wasn’t like I’d imagined during those times one imagines the worst about a loved one: the quick-slit of a rifle malfunction; the slow torture of illness; or even the heart-clench of simply preferring another person to you. This grief settled in my gut, wedging into the cracks and crevices in the intestine, far from the part of the brain that reasons.
I am halfway to our house by the time I hear the rubbery bump of the cart’s tires on the trail behind me. I step aside and let her pass and the acidic torrent in my gut calms. Another day as a mother of a living child. As far as I know, I’m still the wife of a living husband, though each time I’m surprised when the body snagged by the river’s debris isn’t Mateo’s.
Seneca is out of my sight line, probably back in her exam room sterilizing, mopping, prepping instruments for the next body, when I see three men upriver. It is rare to see anyone on that stretch, especially someone I don’t recognize. Occasionally I see one of the families who live wedged into some nook of the land. These families are obvious: the uneven or drastically spaced eyes, teeth missing or oddly angled. Mateo had met a number of couples who were siblings, seen them live sparsely but often happily with adult children unable to care for themselves.
The men are far upriver, dressed in white with shaved heads. Their hands move as they speak: motions full of horizontals and verticals instead of the more circular movements of whimsy or indecision. They look upriver, then down, and one of them wades into it, easily managing the slickness of the rocks. I move off the river trail, which is more rugged here than the stretch by our house, and sit on a mossy log where I am out of sight. The man in the river points to the Eastern mountains, where, before we’d had Seneca, Mateo and I had gotten lost for three days. Because we had enough food and inexhaustible sources of water, we’d been more exhilarated than scared. We even stripped and spent an afternoon naked. The September sun warmed our skin and the hint of a chill in the air kept us alert. Throughout the afternoon he approached and thrust himself inside me for a moment then moved on to set up the tarp or the pound in the tent’s stakes. I ached for him but was willing to play along, thrilled by his ability to restrain himself. I followed him on my knees from tree to tree while he strung up a lean to in case of rain, my mouth full of him. We spoke very little that afternoon, our bodies doing what bodies do, until the air cooled us into shiver.
We talked that night about how we’d be happy to stay in the woods for the rest of our lives, no matter the fact we’d freeze long before the first snow of the season, naked and fucking whenever one of us felt like it. We’d know each other’s scent from miles away, its precise qualities coded into our bodies like DNA. There is nothing like those first weeks or months of love, when the biological urges are stronger than reason.
Mateo and I had walked this trail days before he left. He’d spoken about his day at work, fishing rights, land rights, both sides unwilling to agree: the talk that I nodded to without really understanding. But then he knelt at the river bank, steadied by a walking stick, facing away from me and toward the river. I noticed his hunched posture, almost as if his shoulders were swallowing his chest, and considered offering a massage when we got home. Then his head moved in quick jerks, as though he was following the flight of a humming bird, so I moved toward him and saw that he was crying. I sat next to him, letting the rush of the river drown out any chance for the uncomfortable silence that forces people to address what it is that strips them raw and leaves them wordless. I thought about how I would react to his confession about infidelity, the only thing I could imagine would destroy him like this. Heat erupted from my stomach and burst into my throat. I was minutes into an imagined scene of him fucking another woman when he began to speak about the two men, dressed like locals but strangers, pulled him into the back of their truck and raped him until the sun scraped the mountains and ripped back the night.
One of the men upriver now stands hip deep in the current. He sways, occasionally extending his arms for balance. He takes off his robe, tosses it to the men on the shore. Though from where I stand he is only an inch or so tall, I feel a pulse at sight of his naked body. My lips swell and chap. Bruises, long healed, burst into purple on my thighs. He submerges slowly: gut, heart, head, then his body parallels the surface. I sit on the river bank, press my feet into the ancient silt. The water numbs them, then inches upward and when I stand I swear it's on someone else's legs.
When I get home I see the cart parked near the back door, smell the bleach Seneca wipes it down with after return. Her hip-waders dry from hooks in the mudroom. She isn’t in the kitchen, but there is a meal of corn on the cob and quiche waiting for me. I look for a sign she’s eaten, and see two stripped cobs in the compost pile. I butter then bite into my corn, its kernels explode on my tongue. I finish it and eat another, then two slices of quiche. I sit and wait for it to reach my stomach, begin its slow disintegration, and finally send a message to my brain that I am no longer hungry.
Kami Westhoff’s work has appeared in various journals including Meridian, Carve, Third Coast, and Sundog Lit, and is forthcoming in The Pinch, The Dallas Review, and Lost Coast Review. She holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and teaches creative writing at Western Washington University.