By Dani Herrera
I was found unconscious in my little house on stilts over the sea.
There were claw marks on the windows. The chimney’s bricks were ripped off their foundation. The pipes were burst, and long strands of hair were caught on the jagged steel edges.
That part I remember.
The dripping water, the yowls as those strands were ripped off the scalps, the slapping and the splashing of bare feet on their way to me.
I wish the water had smelled like rain or warm showers.
All the past versions of me clawed their way up the stilts and into the house. They did everything I said I would never do.
So as they held me down and the water went up my nose and burned my sinuses, all I smelled was pain,
I wondered who they really were.
The next morning I’m in the hospital, calling for nurses, doctors, other patients.
Please, could someone tell me what happened, someone that isn’t him.
Because, of course, Vincent was the one who found me. And he’s the one who sits on my bed, telling me what happened while I put my hands over my ears and hum. I hum so loud my teeth chatter. That’s what I tell myself, that I hum that loud. But really, I’m still cold.
I never want to hear bad news from people I love.
It’s the softness that kills.
I found you halfway out your window. Your head was upside down, and your eyes,
your eyes looked just like the moon.
I think that’s enough water. I think it’s time to bring you down from the peaks,
the peaks of thin air and clouds of your neighbours’ smoke.
Please let me carry you down to the valley,
where your feet can touch the floor.
Once he told me what happened, I can’t remember anything else.
Right when I get to the end of the memory, me with my head resting on the sill, out the open window, right when it’s time to close my eyes and rest, it all restarts.
I saw the me’s swimming in the water under my house, clawing their way up the beams. I couldn’t hear what they said. Their words were garbled, so used to being underwater, their voices sunk in the air.
They carried my limp body to the window, their seaweed skin slipping around me.
I could hear Vincent calling for me as headlights shone through the front window.
I can hear Vincent calling me as doctors shine their flashlights into my eyes.
I’m getting stuck in this memory so often the water that drowned me is slipping out of my ears, mouth, and nose.
Vincent asks what’s on my mind. I’m afraid that if I tell him, he’ll drown too.
As the water starts to seep out into the hallway, a woman comes in.
Tell me what you can feel with your fingers, tell me what you hear, tell me what you smell; Ground yourself.
I feel the paper sheets, the rough cotton of blankets. I can smell sharp antiseptic; I can hear the beeping of machines and swishes of fabric. My skin tightens where the IV is, and my pulse pushes against my hospital bracelet.
And there is so much beeping and screaming and tubes and claws.
I don’t know which place is worse.
The same woman comes in in the evening.
I apologize for the murky water that is flooding my hospital room. I see her glancing down at my strands of hair that wave in the water.
She tells me to do the same exercise as earlier, but this time Vincent leans forward.
I smell lemons and mint and sweat. I see sea glass, his sea glass eyes; I skim my fingers over the roughness of his beard, the roundness of his knuckles.
“I was in those shining buildings.”
For the first time, the memory ends.
And now there is the after:
Vincent yelling for me,
Dragging me inside,
Carrying me to the car.
Playing my limp fingers like a piano.
When Vincent takes me back home, my body is fighting me. My ears are popping. My lungs are gasping; when we’re almost there, my nose bleeds.
He tells me,
It’s the elevation.
You don’t have to get used to it, or you’ll tell yourself you can stay.
Stop climbing higher; you are not a bird.
Don’t you dare dive; you are not a fish.
The floors are slippery with undried water and sea moss. The carpet is soggy.
I can see fish swimming in the puddles of warped ground. Sea anemones latch onto the baseboards throughout my old tiny home.
There is a wind rushing, and I can’t tell if it’s the ocean or the highway.
And that salt air. It’s sharp; it stings, but it’s not dry enough to let me live.
Vincent packs up my clothes because I can’t bear to go to my room.
When I step out on the patio, I cough up all the water from inside. I gag and spit out the salt.
This is the thin air I’m used to.
My house is on stilts but is still shorter than my neighbours’. I can see the smoke from their cigarettes billowing down to me, and I try to pick out shapes.
I look up, not down.
Down is where the sea of hands and feet are.
I hear the door open as Vincent steps out.
I used to wave good morning to the me’s of translucent winter glow
and toss kisses goodnight to the me’s of laughing summer tans.
I guess it wasn’t enough.
I thought it was better to live in the neighbour’s clouds than in those swimming shadows down below.
He takes me away from the edge and out the door to the packed car.
All my things are so heavy they push the car down the winding roads faster and faster.
I know what it’s like,
breathing in those clouds.
Across the way, over the water,
I was in those shining buildings.
I was there long before I met you.
Wouldn’t it be nice,
to meet on the ground floor without sunburned skin and thinning air?
“I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”
A place without bare, bending trees;
no dirt or dead grass;
no splintering sandalwood.
So that’s where he takes me.
With the speeding car and boxes of clothes and drying and smudged books,
He carries me down to the valley, and with that drive, it feels like my first summer.
Being so high up, the sun rushes to rise, and by noon is already stumbling to set.
I used to run up my neighbourhood, trying to get more sun, more time. I was told I would be closer to the sun, but it always seemed to be running from my grasp. I was supposed to be given more time. I was supposed to be given a time with sun kisses instead of shadows.
Vincent takes me to his house, and we unpack my things into the entrance hallway.
All day, I glance at the pile that is supposed to be my life.
Vincent nudges me, saying,
El que nace pa maceta, no pasa del corredor.
So we unpack, we rest on his front lawn, and I can’t help but roll around. I feel the gnats and spiders weaving through my scalp, and I shiver.
I take off my shoes and socks and spread my toes, looking at the bottoms of my scarred feet from running on blistering sand and gravel.
I get ready for the day to end as I am spread out like the angel I always dreamed of being, but he tells me it’s only 2 pm.
We eat lunch and move my books into sunlit spare spaces and fold my clothes into his dresser.
I run through his neighbourhood even though I don’t need to chase the sun. I go further and further, pushing my lungs, waiting for them to quit, but they never do.
I am dripping in sweat; my face is red and beating.
I am my sun, sizzling on the sidewalk, watching the sky grow dark.
The day was hot, but the night is apologetic.
I can feel the dust and grime and sun kisses that coat my skin. I am cooled and crystallized.
I sit in the new living room, with its wind-blown curtains.
Vincent wraps his arms around me, putting his lips to my temple, says,
Look at the wind,
asking not to be forgotten.
It’s twirling the trees just for you,
sending those flower petals into flurries just for you,
his singsong voice halts, “I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”
We lay side by side in bed, and I close my eyes.
There is a low whimpering— a test of a whimper.
I want to sit up, but it’s not time yet.
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Light taps come from the living room. They make their way down the walls of the outside of the house.
Living room, hallway, bathroom, my room.
I’m on the other side, scratching on the window, asking for help.
I am dripping and blue, asking to be let in. And when I don’t respond, I smash the window.
Other me’s come pouring in, picking up my fighting body and throwing me into the sea.
I should wake up now, now, now is when I will wake up.
Rocks are jutting out from the water under my falling body. Big jagged rocks and I tuck in my arms and legs, so I don’t get hurt.
I’ll just curl up so I won’t hit the bottom, so I won’t break.
I wake up, and I’m not in my house at all. I am at sea level, maybe below sea level now, but there is no water crowding over or around me.
It’s morning. I go outside to smell fresh-cut grass.
I sink my feet into the grass and let my body get lost in the morning glory vines along the fence. I whisper to the plants,
Please, take me in.
My voice cracks and I start to cry, and I hope my tears don’t poison the plants, “Let the leftover water in my lungs nourish you because it’s been killing me. Keep me.”
Then I look back at Vincent standing in the doorway.
“Can you check the pipes?” I ask him, “I think they’re coming back for me.”
I pace the backyard.
It’s nice to step, to walk, to travel at my speed.
I think back to the car ride here. The car was speeding, everything of me so heavy I was sure we were leaving a path on the road.
Claw marks, really.
Long, unbreaking claw marks and I was being dragged down.
Vincent comes back.
He guides me inside and shows me how small the pipes are. Of course, they can’t fit through.
Later, when I’ve wrapped my arms around myself, he leans in and whispers in my ear, “I know it’s scary. We’re taught, climb higher and higher. Crush the sky!” Then, when he has my attention, he says, “But we’re not meant for such pressure. Our bodies will explode. Same for being down in the depths of the sea.”
I interrupt him, saying, “So not a bird, not a fish.”
He whispers back, “Maybe just a snake. Maybe a lizard.”
I frown, and he laughs.
Vincent says, “There are worse things to be.”
And I can’t help but think of the me on the other side in my dream, in my memory.
I spent five years balancing in that house of stilts. I saw the water teeming with every possible version of me that was or could be, everything I loved and was afraid of.
But not once did they ever tell me to jump, to join them in that water. They never asked until they did.
So I could be worse things,
Like the me’s that finally made it up that climb and dragged me out of bed, they’re drowning me and bringing me to the edge.
That evening Vincent grips my shoulders and walks behind me down the hallway.
I give a short laugh when I see the tub filled.
“They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump.”
He mentions how I haven’t showered since coming here.
I think of being in the ocean, the real ocean, not that sea of sharp smiles and gnashing teeth.
How I used to let the waves hit me, and there was never any fear in that.
Because I would stand or drive or jump. And if I missed, the tide always brought me back.
So I sit in the tub now.
And my boyfriend, my lifeguard, pushes mini waves of bubbles toward my curled up body till I laugh and let my arms and legs go loose because I will not hit the bottom, I will not break.
He sets a wind-up turtle toy in the water, and it bobs along till it hits my shoulder.
I’m standing on the ocean floor.
My hair is floating above me. A black halo must mean death.
I see myself twirling toward me.
The twirling me has nails so long they curve back into her palms, and when I see me, I cry and say,
Come back to me, my love.
I turn, ever so slowly in the water current, and end up in my old kitchen.
The other me is curled up in the living room. There are no doors, no windows.
I hear a whisper saying,
Don’t you miss me?
And as I’m looking at myself, I realize that I am not me.
I am some other person, dragged to the bottom, pulled so far into the water that the world turned upside down, and I was back on land.
When I wake up, I tell Vincent.
I tell him the story before the story.
The beginning long before the beginning; he knows.
Because there is always another start. Before him and me, there was me, and before me, there were millions of others.
The longer I stay in this valley with him, the more I extend my origin. I’m sure that one day I will tell my end before I finish my very beginning.
We sit cross-legged, on the bed facing each other. I play with the tassels on the duvet and tell him how I got here, to be in this bed with him in this valley where its peaks are something I can look up to instead of being afraid of falling and spearing myself with their tips.
And I finally start, “The sun had grown blistering hot. It grew hotter than anyone had ever told me it would be. I was delirious from the elevation, spinning on my house of stilts that I had climbed so long to get.
I went outside on the patio. And as I looked down, I saw all those versions of myself swimming. They squirted water between the small gap in their front teeth. They spun and splashed.
Most of all, they weren’t sunburned and gasping like I was.
They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump. I’ve never gotten this invitation before.
My arms shook as I pulled myself onto the patio railing.
“You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley.”
It felt so good, so refreshing, as the wind flew through my sweating strands. I hit the water.
I smiled underwater and at all my reflections. And now they didn’t smile or wave or hoot. They dug themselves into my flaking flesh.
I swam to the surface, kicking away their claws. I climbed up the stilts, letting the old splinters anchor my hands and toes in place.
I coughed up water the whole day.
And at night, when I finally fell asleep, I heard them. They took the trail I left and found me.”
Vincent says I can pick the music as we drive back up those hills and mountains.
It’s not morning, but with these long days and nights of the valley, I’m not sure I can wait weeks till the sun rises.
“Vincent, I wasn’t always unhappy there. In my defence, I first loved the sun that sat so close it burned my skin. See, I had been cold my whole life. It was magical to overlook the water, to peer over it and to see millions of my reflections. But every beat of the sun was an hour, and I grew so dizzy, so dizzy that I would lie on the deck and I was convinced I could feel the rotation of the earth; do you know how terrifying it is—to feel the seconds of your life evaporating yet there is no way to catch up possibly; it’s a panic of being on a house of stilts but still not being able to climb over it all, but underneath, underneath those reflections came to life and I saw so much of myself and I couldn’t abandon them as they called for me, begged for me, and most of all, promised me that if I just jumped—and I only had to jump once— that I would be okay. The funny thing is, Vincent, I never saw any older versions of me in those laps and waves.”
I look around to make sure that speaking of them did not attract them. But there is no water around. No pipes. No stilts.
I remind myself that they will not find me because I’m on my way to find them.
I know we’re getting close to my old house because I said all that, and it seems like a week has passed.
Vincent parks in front of my house, turning his tires in and putting on the emergency brake.
I’m panting by the time we reach the doorway.
Everything inside has been sundried; no more ocean residue, no water damage. Everything has been seared away.
I’m waiting for something to come running out. I can see the pictures of dreams drawing themself into this moment. My eyes are searching for all the places I saw them.
Vincent goes out to the patio and waits for me.
I hear screams and howls, and I brace myself.
But it’s just the wind.
“Look down, “ he tells me, gripping my hand, “ They’re not there anymore. And I say they because they were just you in a single moment; it’s just that sometimes those moments add up, and there can be mobs and swarms.”
oh no, please.
And I think that but I’m the first to jump, and he falls after me.
I use my right hand to plug my nose because I’m not sure if, at this point, I can survive with more of this water filtering through my lungs.
We swim deeper and deeper and float, so the water settles, and there, right there, are all the bones of those reflections of me.
Their hair has planted itself into the sand, and now it’s just seaweed, just water reeds, and their teeth have become covered by their gums and turned into a coral reef.
We kick and swim and flounder till we reach the surface, and I’m gasping.
We float on our backs and let the waves take us till we latch onto the stilts and use the claw marks as grooves to get back up. I take off my soaking clothes and leave them in the house. My trail will end here, just in case they ever come back and look for me.
Back in my summer valley,
Our car is flying through the streets.
And it’s so green here. Ivy is dripping off the houses and fences, trees are erupting through grass, flowers are spilling over sidewalks, and even weeds are winding through the cracks in the street.
Our windows are down, it’s barely dawn, the sun is drying my hair into curls, and he looks over to me at a red light.
There are no other cars out, but we still stop.
Vincent says, “Maybe, years and years from now—after a lifetime with me—you will step out into that howling wind and be carried to the clouds again. You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley. Right there in midair, you will start over again. In hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and eruptions, tsunamis and monsoons.”
And the thought of starting over again, even as rain or ivy,
I almost can’t bear the thought of it because I worry about those years down the line. Catching a reflection and it is me, with windblown hair, sprinting downward toward my valley.
So I smile wide and laugh so it will echo till I find this me again, in mirrors and oceans, in car windows and dreams.
Dani Herrera writes her magical realism from the simmering Central Valley of California. She is currently a fiction candidate at St. Mary’s College of California and always strives to include her Hispanic heritage in her writing. Dani has been previously published at Crack the Spine. You can follow her on Instagram @dani.herreraa to see pockets of her life and her beloved border collie, Blu.