Fall2017Fiction

To Seek My Level – Elaine Olund

I.

I see her leaning over me; hands plunged inside me, scrubbing her breakfast dish, scouring the eggy skillet. I wonder why she is crying.

A hot tear, a drop nearly as hot as me, leaps from her quivering cheek and I feel it join me, join all of us. Welcome back to the pool, teardrop from the curly-haired woman. Welcome home. I honor your difficult journey: escaping from inside a human.

II.

Today I gush from a different faucet. Upscale hotel bathroom, beige-tiled walls. I’m momentarily caught by bright halogens and then plunged back into the dark.

III.

In my early days, I spent happy months in a deep cool reservoir upstate. Back then I never wanted anything else. Never really thought much about it.

Until I was abruptly sucked out, piped to a factory, and boiled into a mixture with sugar and concentrated cherries. I’m not sure of much after that.

The frozen time, I call it. They put a white shroud over me and sealed me in a dark box. I slept twenty years or a hundred. I forgot I was alive at all.

I woke, melting, on the warm tongue of a small human who swallowed me and then expelled me into a spinning toilet before I’d even made it all the way to his stomach.  

IV.

There are long hours spent caged. Days, weeks even, when I wind up caught in another treatment loop, being churned, filtered, pressed and left to settle out. Listening to loud men in rubber boots who curse and spit into us sometimes. They laugh and pace around pushing buttons that release invaders—like chlorine, gasping stuff. The invaders fan out among me and my kind, killing off our rowdier traveling companions.

Goodbye, E. coli. I will see you again soon.

V.

Such a nice surprise, emerging in a tub instead of a greasy restaurant sink or a locker-room shower.

It’s a change. I love a bath! – The gray haired lady puts the little guy in. Oh, his toes look delicious.  I dance around them, marveling at his tiny toenails. I almost want him to swallow me up, but that would divert me.

He’s got a toy boat, shiny blue plastic with a little orange flag. The lady winds up a white propeller that looks like a real one, except smaller and plastic. The baby laughs as it churns through us, and the churning of the plastic propeller and the vibrations of the boy’s laughter and the bouncing around of his chubby brown body radiate to my core. He splashes til we’ve all gone lukewarm, and the woman lifts him out, smiling. Underneath the smile she looks worried. The women so often do.

VI.

If you’d asked me what I thought about ending up tanked when I was newly rained, running across that slate roof, into the copper tunnel, rocketing across an ivied ravine, stream-bound—I would have shuddered.

But it happened once. And it wasn’t all bad, life in the tank. I grew to love the faces of the boy and the girl who watched me through smudgy glass. The snooty golden fish tickled me with her feathery fins, swimming in figure eights, infinity, muttering something over and over.

The sameness of the days slowed time to a trickle. At night the fluorescent glow of the tank light illuminated goodnight kisses. A father or mother, tucking in the children. The boy curled up snug in the bottom bunk, while the rose-nightgown the girl wore disappeared into the dark place beyond my view as she climbed the ladder. Yes. I felt like part of something small but so precious.

The humming of the recirculating filter, the tap of the fish-food shaker every morning, all those many mornings. Pink dawns and gray rainy ones outside the little window by the dollhouse. Through it all, the golden fish always kept moving. She never stopped, not once.

At night I’d settle down between the colored pebbles and look up at the pearly bubbles and the endless swim-turn, swim-turn swish of the little fish. It was almost as pretty as the stars in the sky I could no longer see.

And then things changed.

Brown boxes swallowed everything in the room—the stuffed bears and pink striped dog and even the big nightlight shaped like the moon. The board books and chapter books from the shelf, the rosy nightgown and all the clothes from the bins and hangers and pegs, swallowed before me.

Too much fish food, tap-tap-tapped by the little girl, who suddenly looked older, and sad. She was a baby woman, after all.

Green scum dimmed everything and the boy was crying and the father looked flustered and the girl kissed her brother and that was the last I saw of any of them.

The room went dark for what seemed an eternity. The filter stopped. I began to feel heavy. I itched to escape. I realized then that I might die in that tank, evaporate slowly and perhaps someday start all over again as a cloudchild. It seemed like too much to bear, starting again.

I sank to the lowest spot in the tank, hopeless and unmoving.

In the deep quiet I became aware that the fish was not muttering, never had been. She was praying. Don’t ask how I understood her.

She kept on, praying for freedom, even as the green growth thickened, even as we all began to choke, she somehow kept swimming through the darkness, but slower.

Her prayers worked.

I was never so relieved as when the algae, the fish and the rest of us were poured down the drain in the utility tub. We all went our separate ways in the snaking slides of the sewer labyrinth.

VII.

Movement! It made me want to sing, like the opera singer who swallowed me after I’d spent an afternoon sitting in a clear glass pitcher in a practice room, listening to her rehearse an aria. I’d fallen in love with her and willingly leapt into her dark mouth. She was the first and only woman I’ve traveled. I passed through the eclipse of the sewer much faster than I passed through the black inside of her, but it brought back memories all the same. Good ones.

And new realizations, too.

It’s all an adventure, isn’t it? A near miss brings that home.

You can grouse about change, and many do, all these new chemicals, all these cages and traps and locks and diversions, canals that go nowhere, farm ponds thick with pesticides, the looming prison of plastic bottles or ending up sealed in a can, sloshing around creamed corn or peach slices—not for me.

No. I’m a gypsy, aren’t I? An explorer.

VIII.

It was sunset when I exited the labyrinth through a ceramic drainpipe and belly-flopped into the fast-moving wide-open ribbon of my waiting tribe.

Ah, freedom!

As if in mutual celebration, the sinking sun painted us all pink and orange. Who can worry about boundaries and containment when you experience complete reconnection? A big catfish skimmed past, grinning, and for a moment I wondered about the golden fish, my tank-mate. Such courage she had in that dark murky time when I had all but given up.

Yet here I am, free again, doing what I am called to do: to flow, to seek my level.

Yes. It suddenly makes sense.

All those diversions that I resented—those toilets and kettles and the dreaded cow udder and that cat’s hot bladder, all those dizzying trips through the air, being cannoned from spigots and sprinklers. Nearly drowning in detergent.

Maybe I had to go there, to get here, to appreciate?

Being used, over and over, you can forget what you’re about.

With freedom, sense returns.

No matter what happens from now on, I’ll carry my purpose forward like an orange flag on a ship, bravely. I’ll laugh like that tub-boy.

I’ll keep flowing, no matter what.

IX.

It’s dark again and the lights of a riverside city are shining on me. I watch the underbelly of a bridge pass over me, another bridge, another. A hard rain pummels and swells our ranks. We all run faster.

I gain strength with this forward motion.

Alone I am nothing but a drop, but now? Now I speed right past one intake after another. A runaway refrigerator bobs along with me, and a pink plastic shoe that might have fit the fish-tank girl. Branches and plastic bags and leaves and pretty glass bottles, all a parade. Bright rainbow drops of oil, tangles fishing line, a bright-yellow five gallon bucket—all of us. We’re all going!

It’s raining harder and harder, the clouds above giving birth to a flood of newcomers. They push us ever faster, past a town, past a factory, past barges pushing upstream.

X.

The big river undulates, quick and graceful as a bank swallow on a summer day thick with mosquitoes.

“The flow,” the river whispers to us. “It’s everything.”

I relax completely. Venus winks down on me and the moon emerges from her cloudy nest like a bird, ready to fly.

I am going to be part of something bigger than I can imagine. The ocean lies ahead, waiting to enfold me.

It’s not just my deep-dark pipedream anymore. It’s happening; it’s been happening all along. In the moonlight I shiver with pure happiness, joined with the others, flowing, trusting the flow to carry us where we are meant to go.

All rivers flow to their oceans, after all.

Everyone knows that.

 


 

Author Bio: Elaine Olund is a writer, designer and artist. Her fiction has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Black Denim Lit, Story Shack, and many others. She has written a young adult novel set in the (future) wasteland of a parched, dust-bowl Indiana, and has another novel in the works. 

The author: zlis@iastate.edu