Ona left the day before her mother succumbed to a sinking disease. The two of them stood on the precipice of a black crevasse tying broom and mop handles together with kitchen twine so they might poke the bottom, but when Ona felt no resistance, no thunk in mud, no yielding to water, she knew grim days were ahead. Her mother read the signs, too, and shut herself in the bedroom, never to emerge.
Pleading, Ona said, We’ll find a safe place to sleep, Mama. You got to come with me. We got to make our own salvation. And it’s out in the world, not behind this shoddy door.
But the sinking had already pulled her skeleton too hard, too fast—a steel frame at the base of quick-dry cement. Ona did all she could. She whispered, I always loved the way you brushed my hair slick, like I was should be made of satin ribbon and tulle not square-built and sun-sour. She pulled purple chalk from her jeans pocket, drew a heart on the door, and gathered her things.
She swore she felt the earth drop—like a hitch in an elevator—several miles from her mother’s house. She thought of all those bed linens agitated, curled, heaped on top of her mother, sunk along with everything else, beams, roof tiles, the acrylic nails her mom wore, the senselessness of waste. Her father had sunk, too. Years ago, in a prefab home out on the lake. One day the lake rose a mite and the ground dove a mite and from what her mother said, her father was better off down there, probably still passed out on his leather couch. Ona had been swaddled and maneuvered into the bow of a rowboat and, as legend tells, slept through the whole affair. Perhaps it was this swaddling she longed for more than anything with all this terrible sinking going on.
Ona walked for days, determined to find safety on higher ground. If she read her instruments correctly, she was adjacent to a national forest. The public would not stand for the sinking of a national forest so when she found a slate bungalow, she settled there. Though two walls were missing, she concluded it was due to wind and rain and the birch tree that had swindled its way up and through the middle of the sweet, abandoned home. It wasn’t sinking.
The kitchen still held a butcher-block table with a family of plates. Ona piled them one on top of the other and pulled them to her chest, sick with grief, sick with longing at the sight of the dust-free circles left behind. After rinsing each dish in the creek, she dried them with her shirtsleeve, and put them back in place. At dusk, fingertips numb, Ona tore sheets of bark from the tree, building herself a papery cradle on the uneven floorboards where she could sleep for years.
Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. She thinks she’s crazy lucky to work as Fiction Editor over at Little Fiction | Big Truths. Her stories & essays have appeared in Noble / Gas Qtrly, WhiskeyPaper, The Minnesota Review, Literary Orphans, and Little Patuxent Review, among others. Instagram & Twitter: @Bettysueblue