Devil’s Lake

Spring 2012 Issue

Susanna Kwan: Up, Apart, Away

We escaped as a unit from the ground. Our twilight lift-off was shaky, but my sister held me tight. They tried to force us down—the crustaceans clawing, the retriever barking and thrashing in its collar—but we remained just out of reach. In the back yard, an angry gardener waved his rake, and fanged trout snapped at our toes but were yanked back by the boulders to which they were tethered. We pushed up through the soupy air. My sister had brought her abacus, and as we hovered she made quick calculations of distance and speed. As she ticked beads I swung a hook in a figure-eight—chipped the crab’s claw, pierced the dog. We could always work as a team in emergencies.

Soon we were as high as our housetop, past the front gate, the irate animals, the dining room window. The last night our family ate together had been months ago. Our mother, who had not yet stopped speaking, whose back, hunched like a weak stem, kept her from most activities, served spaghetti, and our father grilled rabbit steaks. He had just taken his first drink in ten years. The skin on his knuckles was still unbroken. We sat stiffly at the table as the wall clock kept time, and the four of us shared a cup of cherries for dessert.

On the roof a film of gray water collected, the evaporating smell stale as spit emptied from trombones. Our house shrank. The trees that lined our block were now tear-shaped with curled tips, like the tops of yogurt cones. Silos were nailed into the land, which was marked with swatches of mustard and coral and violet—drowned crops, erratic patches of poppies. Dull pulses of orange light marked fires burning below. We floated above a rich sweep of green, roads withered to snaking lines, and my sister pulled a fishing rod from her sleeve, cast it down with the expert crack of her wrist, and reeled up bunches of lettuce and vines for supper.

We ate the raw catch, fibers caught in our teeth, and continued to rise. Minutes later, the earth’s surface appeared puckered and embossed, painted with farm plots that looked like fish scales or rotted honeycomb. The air around us whistled, like the sound of breath traveling through cold brass. A scrambled network of wayward roads and streams fed into other parts of itself, an accidental system susceptible to contamination.

Now we could see oceans licking at the land, temperamental, flickering between blues—teal above the reefs, nearly black in deep pockets, with fast sparks of gold where the water caught sunbeams. We could no longer locate or even estimate where our house stood. I thought of the spot in the back yard where we would dig up roots and make impressions in the soil with our knees and fingertips, as though we were planting ourselves, before our mother called us in for dinner, before storms erased our marks. Around us, clouds rumbled and arranged themselves in rosy clusters, blurring the spread until I could not name a single thing I saw.

My sister held me tight with one hand and gathered bundles of dense cloud and sky debris with the other. She tried to fashion a raft but it fell apart. Hissing stars plummeted earthward in uniform bands. On occasion we failed to dodge them and they seared tiny holes through our bodies.

It wasn’t safe up there, but it was safer. We didn’t encounter gunshots, weaving trucks, mute mothers, or fathers high and with rigid fists. But birds with metal wings flapped by, slicing the air around us in disregard. Craters and blinking metal boxes tumbled by uncertainly on their trajectories. Soon we were too high to send fishing wire down to collect meals.

As we climbed through the dark, everything began to constrict—my shoes were too tight and my lungs shrank. I wanted to tear my sister’s arm from my waist. The air was thin and cold, and I began to wheeze. My sister cupped her hand over my nose and mouth, giving me a mask that warmed the air and enabled me to breathe.

The skin around my eyes crusted, my ears grew numb. My legs ached as though they had been pulled earthward by magnets. I had never felt so tired. My hand loosened and lost hold of the hook, and my sister let out a weak wail as it spun and glinted out of sight. “We have to be more careful,” she said.

I missed pancakes and falling into cornfields to hear the crush of dry husks. I wanted to watch television, tucked beneath an afghan beside my silent, still mother. I said, “I can’t wait until we go back,” and my sister said, “Don’t be stupid.” She was irritable from keeping watch and holding me close. She admitted we were running out of options.

Her proposal—a simple graft—led me to the decision to separate from her. When we were younger she dreamed of becoming a surgeon but had instead taken to plants. She had some experience from her internship at the nursery, said she had a clean knife and could do some splicing, some suturing. With the two of us attached, her hands would be free for other tasks. We had the same blood anyway. The seam at the junction of our skin would smooth over in time.

As she spoke, an uneasy ache streamed from my sternum to my toes. I pushed her away, but her grip on my arm was secure. I was startled by my weightlessness and the stretches of void in every direction. I was relieved she hadn’t let me go just yet. The buttons on my coat had burst in our struggle. My clothes felt too small, and the sleeves pinched my arms and split at the elbows. The silence of space was utterly frightening.

You understand what this means?” she said. I pictured us—conjoined, our skin sewn together, hurtling through infinite galaxies—and I said I understood. “I’m supposed to take care of you,” she reminded. I told her she had done an admirable job. The stitching at my shoulder came undone. “In the morning, then,” she said.

Before her spine stiffened so she could no longer easily stand, our mother would carry us both in one arm, kiss us with a salty mouth, the broken ends of her hair prickling our faces as she conducted with an invisible baton in her free hand and danced us to sleep. My sister held me close that last night as we drifted. Even her hair wrapped around my shoulders, pulling me in. I clung to her and dreamt. I don’t know if she slept.

When I woke, I was alone. My surroundings looked the same—it was dark, cold, vacant. A note trailed in the still air as though a copper bell had been struck minutes earlier. The sound circled me, twining around my ribcage, tightening into sure knots. She had tucked a few wilted leaves into my belt and made rough cuts in my cuffs so I would not outgrow my trousers so quickly. I could not tell which direction of this empty sea she had chosen for her departure. I thought I could smell her hair, hear her stern voice, but all around was only deep, clean space. I was struck with a bout of what felt something like homesickness, only it was vaster and not directed at any place in particular.

a photo of the author, Susanna Kwan SUSANNA KWAN received an MFA from Vanderbilt University and currently lives in San Francisco. More from this issue >