DIRT TO SEA
I am lying on the wet pavement. I bring my fingers to my face and where there should be bone, there is wetness and softness. My right eye is swollen shut. Blood flows from my broken nose down the back of my throat. I swallow it, warm and metallic, to keep from choking. It’s bad. I’ve been maimed.
Time in your mind is always a little different from the kind of actual, agreed-upon time you can talk about with other people. It stretches out, though, all floppy and Daliesque when you’re in shock. Elastic and drooping so you can see clearly into the moments of your past that molded you so specifically, your whole life spooled out in a long arc, a dog’s tongue. And your future, all your hopes, you see those too, glimmering and weightless. And all along the edges, framing your memories, your dreams, your innermost-central self peeks out and stares back at you. You see everything when you’re so near death.
It was exceedingly predictable. I was walking home and someone cat called me, slurred, drunk. White and business casual, the front of his hair tousled with product. A CrossFit, brogrammer type. I ignored him. I could see it happening to me from outside of myself, one long tracking shot with obvious, heavy-handed foreshadowing. Maybe it was the deepness of my voice when I told him to leave me alone that unleashed something so furious in him. When I first hit the ground, it was just disbelief. There were people around. Surely someone would help. And then, when the pain continued, and it rippled and deepened in waves long after each blow, that’s when time started peeling away from her linear arrow, a ribbon looping in the breeze.
I was standing in the living room of the house where I grew up. Pink wall-to-wall carpeting with visible vacuum tracks. Pastel ceramic angel figurines on the window sills. My hair was getting long and I wore it back in a small silver clip and I could tell she had the urge to rip it out. God doesn’t make mistakes, my mother repeated when I tried to explain in a way that wouldn’t make her feel like I was deliberately crushing her life in my fists. No such way existed. I said God made me who I am. She said yes, exactly, God made me a man. I said no, God made me feel the way I feel, wired me like this. She said I allowed my natural wiring to become damaged, deranged. We’d started out sitting on the couch, but as we talked, she began pacing in front of the coffee table. God doesn’t make mistakes, she returned to this point again and again. I listed examples of what could only be classified as divine mistakes, an easy type of list to make. She said it was arrogant to question or expect to understand all of God’s plans, but he made us the way he did for a reason, and that was enough. That was all there was. She said we live by faith, not sight. We couldn’t fathom what it was like to be one another. But we shared the feeling of being regretted by our makers. I missed her and needed her and hated her so much.
I was meeting Zoey for coffee. Zoey was the one who helped me find a doctor, who taught me about hormones and came with me to buy clothes and, more than anybody, mothered me through my second puberty, when I was new with wet, rumpled wings. Zoey was slender but soft. Her grandmother had died and left her a large sum of money and she’d had her brow and nose and jaw done. It was only her hands that if you took a second glance at, you might notice. They were lovely hands, with tapered fingers and smooth, creamy skin. But Zoey would only wear clear nail polish and avoided rings or bracelets and would tuck her hands between her folded arms or sometimes sit on them depending on who she was talking to. Zoey let me ask her everything about transitioning. She had all of the answers. I worried I’d never have the money, but she would tell me that eventually I’d find a way if I kept pushing. She helped me fix my resume so it looked like I’d done more than wait tables. She encouraged me to apply for art school, to consider myself worthy of the life I actually wanted. We bought lottery tickets together once a week. She’d spent everything from her grandmother on her face and Zoey was trying to save for bottom surgery. That morning at the café, she’d pulled her dark hair up in a casual top knot and wore a long gray sweater over leggings. She was easily, objectively, the most beautiful woman in the room. She’d spread The Times over a small table in the corner and was sipping a cappuccino. We kissed each other on the cheek when I sat down.
“You won’t believe this article I’m reading,” she said.
“Really, what’s it about?” I leaned forward.
“It’s unreal. There was this giant livestock freighter in the middle of the Indian Ocean that just disappeared in a storm. This massive typhoon in the middle of the night swallowed it up.”
“Like with animals?”
“Yeah, 6,000 cows. It says they were heading to China to be slaughtered. Can you imagine? They haven’t found the ship yet or the crew. It’s so strange, the whole thing’s just missing.” I could relate to the far-flung feeling of a cow at sea.
“You think those cows were saved or is it a double tragedy?”
“I think double tragedy,” I said. “I mean, they drowned in cages on their way to being murdered on an assembly line. Can it get any grimmer?”
“Yeah, probably double tragedy,” Zoey pointed to the page. “But it says they’re missing, so maybe they didn’t drown.”
“So where are these 6,000 missing cows then?”
“Maybe they got beamed up to a better planet. Some kind of cow heaven. Maybe they got saved.”
“I really want them to be in cow heaven,” I said.
“Yeah,” Zoey said. “Me too.”
I was in sixth grade science class. We were learning about regeneration. The tetra, the salamander. My favorite was the starfish, who could do the whole thing in reverse, regrowing an entire body from a lost arm, remaking over and over until it ran out of itself and died. I hadn’t paid attention that closely since school became dangerous. The boys in my class all turned feral that year, sensing my difference. Punching and shoving and tripping me in the halls. They’d once slashed my bike tires. And on the same day as that science class about regeneration, just a few hours later, when I was still rapt by the starfish, they’d almost killed me. We were swimming in gym class. I tried to hide in the bathroom for most of those classes, but that day, Mr. Lomas found me and dragged to the pool. Only ten minutes into the class, with Mr. Lomas’ back turned, a group of them cornered me and pulled me to the bottom. They took turns coming up for air and holding me down, the metal drain jutting into the small of my back. I wanted to be sucked down that drain, folded in half and stretched and shot out anywhere else at all. Or better, to tear my head free, float to the top, and regenerate, let them keep the body at the bottom. Finally, one of my classmates got Mr. Lomas’ attention. He’d resuscitated me on the blue tile, next to the pool, the class circled around us, the red lanyard around his neck and the shiny whistle that hung from it dripping on my forehead as I slowly opened my eyes. The boys insisted I’d been drowning and they were only trying to save me.
And then back here on the pavement, maybe because of the present-parallel memory of almost drowning. The man’s friend, pulling him away. The feeling of ice picks probing my brain through my temples. A terrible tearing burn, ripping up and down my jaw. My tongue clinging to the roof of my mouth in desperate thirst. My vision going strange like television static and an awful high-pitched whir flooding my ears.
I was trying to have sex with Ally Baker. We were in her bedroom and her mother was gardening in the backyard. I was sixteen and she was seventeen and it was my first time. Ally was mature and experienced and she’d even been with a girl before. She was tall and angular and rimmed her blue eyes in thick black liner and died her hair green. She taught me about punk music and guerilla art and helped me sew an anarchy symbol on my backpack and pointed out all of the reasons not to trust patriarchal institutions like schools and governments and capitalism. I was obsessed with her and I thought then that what I felt for Ally was romantic love. She kept her t-shirt on in case we heard her mom coming up the stairs, and I fumbled awkwardly on top of her, fitting my hips between her legs. Ally knew I was nervous and she whispered reassurances for a little while, but then started to grow impatient. Why don’t you let me be on top instead, she said, repositioning and climbing into my lap. She pulled my boxers off and lowered herself down slowly and her warmth swallowed me up completely and I clenched my eyes shut, and then my mind started pulling all of the energy and sensation in my body up into a remote corner, where I pictured myself in Ally’s body, and Ally in my body. I was on top of Ally. I was the source of the warmth and Ally was deep inside of me. Every movement was inverted, reassigned. Ally went to college on the other side of the country and we wrote letters for a little while but lost touch. I would have sex with a few more women before I learned how to have sex with men, which was better, more natural feeling. But my mind would still do the same kind of thing, transporting me out of my body, distancing me from the real, and it wouldn’t be until I talked to Zoey about it, years later, that I learned there was even a word for it. Of course I dissociated during sex, Zoey told me.
I was watching the livestock ocean freighter that Zoey told me about over coffee, just like a movie. It was a slow, reluctant realization for the crew, those rough, calloused cowboys of the sea. The shift from bad storm to typhoon, the understanding that the landmass-sized ship was about to capsize. Pink veins of lightning strobed in the swollen, torn-open sky and black, towering waves pummeled the ship. The cows. Their swerving center of gravity. Crashing their ribs, their hips, their skulls, hard against the metal crates. The sudden darkness. The deep, slow groan of metal bending from deep in the center of the ship. Sucking for air through their fist-sized nostrils, panicked.
I was waiting for David to come over for dinner, but he didn’t show. I put the television on mute and played a podcast and opened a book, but distraction proved impossible. I texted again and again and then called twice and it went straight to voicemail. David was married. And he was upfront about the fact that he was a good and decent man and so his wife and his children would always come first. And I’d said, yes, of course. I’d spent most of the day making my apartment immaculate and removing body hair and shopping for groceries beyond my budget and picking out wine I thought would impress him and trying on dresses and cooking. He’d ghosted me like that before. I didn’t think I deserved any better. And weirdly, in ways that embarrassed my feminism, there was something about being devalued by a man like that that made me feel so typically female. Men were always treating women this exact way.
I’m rocking gently on the porch swing, looking out over the yard. It’s an especially stary night and my husband’s arm is around me. Our house is pretty, upstate, quiet. He teaches English at Ithaca and I’m a curator at Cornell’s Museum of Art. We’re sharing a bottle of wine after putting our girls to bed. We adopted Tess two years ago, and Claire a year later. They’re three and five now and are all wild feeling and impulse, no rationalization to temper their expression, their experience. I wish they could freeze that feeling, avoid all the parts of socialization that might teach you how to be in the world, but in exchange, convince you you’re not good enough. My husband drapes his sweater over me and takes my hand in his.
“Part of me wishes Claire wasn’t starting kindergarten this year,” I say.
“Yeah? How come?”
“How are we supposed to explain the existence of mean kids? Mean teachers? I feel like we need to fortify her before she even sets foot in there.”
“I know,” he says. “I mean, we can tell her about all of that. But she’s not going to know what we really mean until she actually experiences it, right?”
“I just wish there was a way to protect her from all of it. All of the humiliating, powerless parts of childhood start with school, don’t you think so? I don’t want either of them to be scared out of being themselves.”
“There’s good stuff too, though.” He is always like this, countering my cynicism with sound, patient reason. “And Claire’s smart. She has a surprisingly good bullshit detector for a five-year-old. She’ll learn who’s nice and who to avoid. And she’ll make friends and learn about art and science. And someone else will teach her math, thank god. And we’ll have her back the whole entire time. And then when Tess goes, it’ll be easier. Claire will give her all the insider intel and she’ll be a total pro.”
“You’re right,” I tell him. “I know they have to grow up, but I wish I could make the entire world softer for them somehow.”
“You do that every day by loving them so much,” he says. “That’s what fortifies them.” I lean my head against his chest and he cups my face in his warm hand. It hasn’t hurt for a very long time, but he is always so gentle when he touches my jaw, which was reconstructed using part of my rib. “Listen to me, you are the world’s most amazing mother,” he tells me. “I love you so much.”
I cry quietly onto his sweater because I’m tired and because I’m so happy and my purpose has never felt so singularly clear and beautiful, and also because I am so lucky and all of this—the girls and him and the house and my job—all of it feels so fragile and teetering, like it could be ripped away at any second for no reason at all, and I am so grateful and fearful and in constant awe of such big, serious love belonging to me of all people.
I was in the ocean, right after the livestock freighter disappeared. The storm had slowed and I was treading water, being slapped with cold, salty waves. There was only moonlight, but I thought I could make out twin brown tufts. Pointed, furry ears, cresting just above the water, maybe twenty feet away. I swam closer, swallowing water, and when I reached the wet, swollen thing, just barely not drowning myself, I placed my hand beneath her chin and tried to lift her massive head out of the water. What if there was one last breath to be had? Her eyes were open, clouded. Last rights aren’t meant for those who have already died. But I let the ocean be the oil and I anointed her right there. A dab on the forehead was not enough. Anoint the whole body, bathe it. I could do this one thing for her, prepare her for the afterlife. And as I mumbled the words, the sweet brown beast started to sink, descending slowly into the darkness on her way to the bottom of the ocean. Through this holy anointing, I said to her, choking on seawater, May the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. I was sinking too now. May the Lord who frees you from sin, I let her head go, save you and raise you up.
Casey Bell has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Reno. Her debut short story collection, Little Fury, is forthcoming from Metatron Press in 2023. Casey’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Sequestrum, Cream City Review, New South, Reed Magazine, The New Limestone Review, and Timber. She was shortlisted for the Iowa Review Fiction Award and was a finalist for the American Short Fiction Halifax Ranch Prize, the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and the Calvino Prize. Casey is the co-director of Girls Rock Reno, a music camp for self-identified girls, trans and gender-expansive youth. She’s also the proud mother of a pug-mix named Maud.