Buoyed Nets or a Towered Light Spinning
By Delaney Nolan
You were a dream of ice. The night you were made I pressed my mouth to your mother’s cold shoulder, fresh in from the harbor, still smelling like scales and salt. I asked her how’s the market and she said slow.
She used to come in clapping her mittens from the chill while I was watching television snow. She let me live with her in the small house because she thought I was a port, and I wanted to show I was a lighthouse, saying watch me, just watch me. I liked the singularity of being alone with her in a small house with no other houses around it, there on the stony coast. It was the lookout life I wanted.
When your mother told me you were coming I took off. It wasn’t what I signed up for. I wanted pale women pressed against me all night in a bed in a ship, women white like the bellies of fish, long and soft like a glove pulled flush. I took roads inland, away from the Atlantic’s edge. They never look there.
You were a dream of a fish dreaming of ice. I headed West from Maine. I stopped at a gas station and talked to the girl behind the counter who said nobody comes round here, and I leaned over the counter, fingering the softpacks. You were the size of a grain of salt by then. I took my change from the girl in cupped hands and let my fingers draw across hers, lonely like a child, and she snapped her gum and offered instant coffee. Nobody came round there. You were a grain of salt and I took the girl into the gas station bathroom and it was not a bed in a ship in a harbor. I was a sea chanty. I was a stabbed-through gull. Afterwards, I put the down coat on and left her piling her hair, wiping her mouth, waving so long with her free hand, saying goodbye, goodbye.
When I got to Detroit I found work at a cannery and you were the size of a pearl. All day I took a wrench to a vat, tightening what came undone. I stood in line with a white-washed brain thinking harbor, salt door, thinking women pressed flush in a cot that rocks. I wanted a sailor’s life. I thought of your mother coming to the kitchen the morning after I left: how she would’ve found the note, poured coffee while she read it, once, and tossed it one-handed into the bin while she turned her face to the steam. I worked on a factory floor full of moving parts I didn’t understand. You were a dream of fish, swimming up under the ice. You were a dream of fish that dreamed you up.
I was a sea chanty, I was a sailor’s life. I thought it was something I wanted. I worked in Detroit and your mother took the black gravel road to the harbor, clenching her mittened hands in the wet wind, offering bluefish and haddock for four bucks a pound, saying fresh, fresh on ice, come and get it. A fish dreamed you up. I stayed away.
I rented a small room on Telegraph Road in a bad neighborhood. Tile glared white in the fluorescent tick. There was dust in the freezer, mice in the chipped sink. You were the size of a swallow’s egg and I took my snowboots off at the door thinking this is freedom, hallelujah. One night I pulled too much from the warm brown bottle and called your mother, satellites sending signals from one cold state to another. When she picked up I heard her breathing and you were breathing too. I asked are you still there? Are you still there, sweetheart? Is this thing on? But the line went dead; I slammed my fingers in the bathroom door and didn’t miss you at all; I was a great blue whale; my fingernail turned purple in my sleep. The nail fell off the next week. It grew back.
When I walked to the bus stop at the end of Telegraph Road in pink Michigan dawn, I could see my breath. You were the size of a baseball by then. I imagined you with gills and feet and then I didn’t think of you at all. While I waited for the bus, men in ski jackets asked me for cigarettes and rubbed crust from their eyes and I was land-locked, bound-in, like those vessels that head to the Arctic circle too late in season and then starve to death surrounded by glaciers and curious Eskimo girls. At work, I picked up the nuts and bolts that fell from the factory line, those parts that come undone in the wrenching, and I put them in the pocket of my issued jumpsuit. You were the size of a baseball and I watched the sport at bars. I saw a ball the size of you soaring over green green fields in the floodlights; I saw something like you aweing faces in the crowd.
When I slept I dreamt of reindeer. I dreamt that arctic terns were nesting in my sleeves. In the morning, I put the bolts and nuts in a brown padded enveloped, wrote your mother’s address on the front, and mailed them off to you.
When you were the size of a king crab I climbed back in the truck and left Detroit. Didn’t give them notice. I drove fifteen hours straight, drinking gas station coffee that smelled like oil, down I-80 past Akron and through the flat land of Pennsylvania, cut a corner off New York, then long salted New England highways, and farther north, hugging the coast, until I got to Rockland. I was dreaming of sea birds dreaming of fish dreaming of you. I was ready to pull in to harbor. Maybe you were a scratched-up buoy signaling nets. Maybe you were a light that stayed on all night, spinning in a towered circle, still there in the morning. Either way, you were a signal for I am here, I am here, I am right here.
I got to your mother’s house in the gray hour before dawn and the sky was bellied iron. I had sleeves full of winter feathers. I was a fish on a line pulled after you. I parked down the street and crossed the gravel yard on hushed feet, came to the window, breathed my breath on foggy glass.
I saw you and your mother for the last time standing in a warm kitchen in bare feet. There were candles in tin cups and a pot on the stove. She had her hand on the swell of you. You, curled up sleeping, while water boiled, and she hummed away. You were the safest thing that ever was. I watched her wash pink hands in the kitchen sink. She ran the tap until they were clean, and she dried them on her shirt, and then she left the room.
I drove back the way I came while the sky swallowed light. The clouds were heavy-gutted and ten miles out of town, it started to snow. At the Maine border, I pulled the car to the shoulder and stood on the country I came from. I stood beneath a streetlight bulb and arched my neck, stared straight up. The snow came down unhurried, and it came and it came and it kept coming, like a soft parade, like the sky could not help itself from giving. Snow settled and melted on my chin, my eyes, on my cheeks which are your cheeks now, on my lips which are your lips now, on my hair that she will comb on the head of you. The snow kept on, and I took it on myself even as I started to shake from cold, even when my face went numb, took it upon myself because the sky kept letting it go and it is a gift, a gift, a gift.
Delaney Nolan’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Corium, Guernica, Hobart, PANK, The South Carolina Review and elsewhere. Her chapbook Louisiana Maps, winner of the Ropewalk Press Fiction Editor’s Chapbook Prize, is forthcoming this winter.