Friday, October 19, 2012

Post-Collapse Storytelling: Tule Elk Herders, Abandoned Haybarns, the Skeletons of iPhones

The following is an excerpt from a novella/novel I am working on. In it massive earthquakes have broken off a piece of the California coast—the Point Reyes Peninsula— into the Pacific Ocean. Those left living in this severed world must learn the primordial rhythms of the tule elk that inhabit the unmoored peninsula in order to survive. Rather tongue in cheek, I have described it as a post-apocalyptic bildungsroman that blurs the boundaries between body and landscape, using the anatomy of elk as its roadmap. It is told from different perspectives, one of them the voice of the rocky peninsula-island itself, who conceives of herself as a granite elk mother leading her stony herd, ever north. 

I've included some photos throughout, to evoke a world collapsed and re-claimed by vine and stone and wind. And yes, several of them are NOT in fact, on the Point Reyes Peninsula at all, but in Greece (which is at this moment, of course, experiencing its own set of catastrophes). 

I. Ursula

This is the story of a lost boy and a slim black box that was once called an iPhone. This is the story of a scrap of granite, a furl of limestone, quaked off the North American tectonic plate and onto the Pacific. This is the story of my hooves dark as biotite, dark as the center of the world, darker than your nightmares, my hooves that walk the ocean floor, ever North.

This is the story of a boy who lost his way with one of your dark black nightmares in his hands, searching for stories that were best left dead. They were best left where they lay under the refuse of your condominiums and banks, your endless plastic bags and take out cartons, your days even and bland as cement. At least the weeds had gotten to that refuse. The dandelions broke through first and grew blossoms as yellow as fire, as yellow as sin, as yellow as a coyote’s eyes watching in the dark of night, waiting to howl and then to eat your lambs or fuck your little white dogs.

It’s always an old elk cow who leads the rest, the hundreds, when mounting bulls with their velvet antlers have subsided, have laid it to rest. An old elk cow who’s pushed out dozens of calves, whose tits are dry, who kicks her sharp hooves at the bulls with their hard cocks, who leads the other females to the secret, quiet places where they can drop their babies, to the safe green places in spring time, to the water holes. I’m that old cow, that old silver sack of bones. I have been leading them behind me millennia by millennia, on hooves of magma and schist. I keep them close to me. I find soft pastures.

Sometimes we move against the continent, following its easy trail. That’s when I’m lazy, and tired, and the winds have been laying their wild fingers on me too harsh. We scrape granite full of mica into our stomachs, four each, the stomachs that grind and grind as we walk with our hooves darker than nightmares in an ocean deeper than any one of your cranes or submarines, your sonic telescopes, your Mars Rovers, could have ever fathomed. It is full in its salty wombs with creatures who generate light inside their own bodies. They glow more beautiful than any light bulb, LED or Edison.

It was nice to rest against the continent, that other groaning mass of lithosphere. Things crossed over onto our backs when I leaned into it. They made homes in our skins, our dark fur. Hundreds of species of bird. Pine trees. Mountain beavers. Once, saber-toothed cats. Mammoths with hooked tusks and dusk songs deeper than the moan of a tractor. Eventually, people. We liked the first ones.
Later, when we’d had enough, I changed our course. I left the sharp pathway of the continent. I broke away, and my granite-boned cousins followed me on their biotite hooves. They bugled as we went.
Much later, the few people who were still left made up stories. They’re not so bad. They’re very apt, in fact. They must have figured out how simple it is to press their ears down to the dirt and listen, between the bishop pine roots and stones. How to hear us, moving, grazing on oceanic crust, walking onward, taking them with us. Someone listened close enough, and heard me calling back to the rest through the fog, through the heat and grind of our stone bodies, our hundred hearts beating, hot as fire, slow as stars. That someone, I guess, started to catch on.

So they have these stories about my organs—my guts, wombs, heart, brain—and the land they call Tomales Point, which is also my granite and prairie grass body, which is also my tangled and wind beaten old heart, which is also my strong nose, pointing the rest toward the North, finding the easiest footing, making a new trail through the ocean.

There is an elk cow peering from behind the alders...
II. Intestines

The intestines of an elk are very long. Colias knew this because he had held them in his hands many times, long and wet and folding, while he helped with the butchering. They always did it outside, so the blood ran back into the dirt and grass. Colias’s mother had him collect some of the blood in an old metal tea pot. They cooked it up later and drank it, like hot cocoa.
When he held the intestines for the first time, Colias thought about all the grass, chewed up and still sitting in the wet coils. What that last meal had tasted like. That spring, the spring Colias was eight and big enough to hold the curving mass of guts without dropping any piece of it, they were camped in Divide Meadow, just off the Bear Valley trail. Colias liked to walk along the remains of an old barbed wire fence, sunk almost to the brim in tall grass, and touch the metal spikes with his fingers. Fifteen other families were there too, in the portable round tents with thick felted walls that everybody lived in during the Moving season. The other twenty-two families on Point Reyes were scattered across the peninsula throughout the warm, open meadows of spring. The tent Colias lived in with his mother, father and great-aunt was admired by everyone else in Divide Meadow that spring; Opheodrys made the strongest felt they had seen, tight and rippled and sturdy. She used wide sheets of bubble wrap found in a rotting closet in the Inverness Post Office building to agitate the wool, and carefully crushed soaproot bulbs to produce a fine suds. And she was patient, rubbing and coaxing and muttering to the neat rows of wool. When she was done, the long banners of felt puckered and shone in the wind. She embroidered them with antlers and wheels, with wings shaped like pelvic bones and the silhouettes of cars, which lay at the sides of roads, growing blackberries and fennel from their plastic seats, casting long feline shadows.

One of the structures from Before, a collapsing wood and cement bathroom, sat under the trees to the north of the meadow. The plastic signs for Man and Woman—white form on brown background—were still there, crooked and smudged. Pinus Jefferyi taught his son to leave small offerings at buildings like that whenever they camped near one. A handful of dried manzanita berries, strung up with glass beads. A splash of elk milk. An arrowhead tip made from car door metal. Just to keep the sadness of the people from Before away. It was a feeling that sat down in your chest. Colias felt it once, near the collapsed picnic tables and wooden lockers at the place that was called Wildcat Camp on a faded metal sign. The ocean was just down the hill. The elk were grazing meadowfoam and checkerblooms in the thick grass, and Colias sat on a corner of one of the tables. He saw initials, A + M, carved into the top. A heart around them, messy. His chest felt so tight, then, that he thought he couldn’t breathe. It was a dark gripping feeling, like dread and like grief and fear, all at once. He stood up so fast that he caught a splinter in his palm, and ran over to sit down in the grass near the elk. A small calf came by and nudged his legs, sniffed around for a seedcake with her wide nose. The seaglass looped around her neck, which Opheodrys looped over all of their elk, to distinguish them from the other herds, tinkled and glinted amber. The ocean threw its big blue waves against the sand down on the beach, and Colias felt better. The tightness lifted.

The day they arrived in Divide Meadow the spring Colias was eight, Pinus took him to the falling down bathroom structure with the two white and brown people nailed to the walls, and left a crabshell full of the black seeds of California poppies just outside the door. A pile had grown there over the centuries—polished pieces of blue glass, old photographs worn to cracking pieces, the whole skull of a pelican, the dust of hundreds of bouquets of flowers.

When Colias stood holding the guts of a bull tule elk in his hands for the first time, he thought about the chewed up grass inside. Then he dunked the intestines in a big plastic tub full of cold water, and cleaned them, turning each section inside out. He carried the tub far away from their encampment, up an old trail into the Douglas fir trees, and dumped the dirty water into pine duff. He wrapped the intestines like long wet snakeskins around both of his hands walked back with them to the tent. Inside, his great-aunt, Ceryle Alcyon, uncoiled the guts from his palms. She hung them, loop by loop, over the low wooden ceiling poles. Colias tried to imagine how that slimy river of skin would become the smooth tight strings on an instrument. He couldn’t.
            “Before all the work,” said Ceryle, cupping his chin in her hand, “you can read the intestine like a roadmap.” She drank a long swallow of cliffrose liquor mixed in cream from the morning’s milking. She always kept a bottle of it in her belt, pushed against her left hip like a new organ. Colias had a tiny sip when she offered it. He liked how just one swallow made warmth spread all over his chest.
            “It’s not like fortune telling or tarot cards or any of that shit—” continued Ceryle Alcyon.
            “—Aunt Ceryle,” said Colias’s father, who was outside the door, smoking the meat.
            “It’s just like reading tracks in the sand, or books. It’s a story and a map together. Look.”
Ceryle Alcyon pulled the intestine skin down and laid it out on the packed dirt floor. It was wrinkled, amber-grey, and so long it could have wrapped around the edges of the tent more than once if spread all the way out.
            “It’s like a windy road,” said Colias.

            “The guts know all the things about what the body needs. When they digest the grasses, they turn them into something new and useful for the body. They send the nutrients all back out. You can see all the creases from folds, weak places that cause stomachaches, they’re letters. When you kill your first elk, I’ll tell you what they say. And when you’re older, a man, after you hunt Tomales Point for a wild one, well, then you can read them back to me.”
            “Is it always true stuff?” asked Colias. He was remembering how hot the elk blood was when it splashed on his hands earlier, collecting some in the teapot. How the bull’s eyes changed when his father pulled the knife over the throat with a strong hand. By the time the knife reached the other side, the eyes were endless and glazed. Colias wondered if some of the soul could have gotten into the teacup, or if it all blew straight out to sea and into the fogbanks. He wondered if his father felt sick in his stomach too.
            Aunt Ceryle looked at Colias, and smiled a small smile that made her white widow’s peak raise slightly with her forehead.
            “Here,” was all she said. “Look how it kinks. Look at this little red scratch. What do you think? A sudden turn, a wound.” She put her hand on Colias’s chin again and laughed. “Let’s clean these out fast, before the fat congeals.”
            They soaked and salted the feet and feet of amber coils. Turned them inside out, split and stretched, twisted and scraped, soaked again in water mixed with wood ash, twined the fibers together like rope. It took days, checking and twisting and curing and cleaning, hands growing so used to the weight and suppleness of that long tube that they barely had to look at their fingers as they moved along the joints. When he closed his eyes at night next to the fire, Colias saw gut-colored pathways, strange and looping, on his lids. Those gut-pathways made him a little afraid of what might be at the other end, of where they were leading and what they might feel like under his feet.


  1. I wanted to say that I loved this. It was incredibly inspiring for me. Thank you.

    1. That means so much to me, thank you Jake. I'm thrilled you enjoyed it.