7.04 / April 2012

When the Water Leaves Us

It’s always the water that goes. The visions started a year before we met.  Ashton dreams of an Earth with wide stretches of endless sand and uninterrupted sky.  He turns ponds into beds of dried seaweed.  Swimming holes into meteor craters. It’s a firing of a synapse, a neuron interrupted, and suddenly we’re in a dry world.

At the beginning of July, when the visions increase to once a week, twice a week, I drive Ashton to the hospital and wait for him in the parking lot.  I work as a substitute, teaching ninth-grade Earth and Environment in the next town over, but the semester ended a month ago. I pace between the parking meters. I fill my meter with dimes. I say to myself: brain, Brussels, boxer, barracuda.

The next morning, Ashton invites me over for breakfast. His X-rays sit in a pile on the kitchen table next to the Cheerios box. After we eat, we go out back so he can trace the white curve of his skull against the blue of the sky. All around us, half-formed fruits drop in the grass with a smell that reminds me of Fly Nap in biology labs. Ashton’s fenced backyard is a forest of fruit trees, and I know he’s planted, nurtured, each of them. When I moved into the neighborhood six months ago, I watched him perch on a ladder, pruning back the branches, his body like a leaf curling in on itself. Ashton is two years younger than me, only twenty-five. I move my body closer to his, and my ankle brushes against fallen figs shaped like raindrops, skin rough and sticky. I imagine their fleshy fruit producing amylases, proteases, breaking down the tissue from the core out.

Ashton hands me the X-rays. I studied Human Anatomy in college, and it all looks so familiar. Six images, cross-sectioned and laid out next to each other like thin slices of melon. Here’s the cerebellum, the temporal lobe. I touch the plastic, leaving a fingerprint on his brainstem. Ashton takes my hand and points it to a shadow pressed against his left occipital. He tells me it doesn’t hurt, but he’ll experience hallucinations, increasing as it grows.

“I won’t blame you if you leave me,” Ashton says, and I can tell he means it.  He pushes hair out of his eyes.  I stretch my body, reaching for a low, arching branch of the apple tree.

“How long do you have?” I ask.

He shrugs.  “Years. Maybe months. They don’t know.”

I’m still new to the area.  It’d be easy to disappear, to move again.  I think of a relationship with a set end date. A clock counting backward instead of forward.

I let myself slip backward into the grass, soppy where he left the sprinkler on last night.  I hold his brain up above me and watch as a robin flies through his temporal lobe.


            It’s early summer. The sun is out until ten, and I stay up late trying to imagine the world as Ashton sees it.  The closest I can get is a story a friend told me about a road trip she took out west with other Biology students.  One night they didn’t stop to sleep. They just kept driving and driving until they reached the Thunder Basin National Grassland.  It was four in the morning, but they crouched in the gravel wide awake, watching the inky spread of Wyoming sky and listening to the wind in the grass.  Then, without planning it, they started to run.  They thundered over prairie dog tunnels and past the black silhouettes of slumbering elks.  My friend swears the elk ran with them that night.  She couldn’t see them, but she could hear them, breath hot, hooves pounding through sagebrush.  This is what it must be like to be Ashton, running through blackness, feeling that you could disappear at any minute.

Or maybe, it’s like when I was thirteen, and I kept a diary in code, because my mother was always home, always searching.  It was a code based on associations only I knew.  When I stole a pair of pink pajama shorts from JCPennys: windmills. When I skipped school, drove to the ocean, and went swimming in my clothes: jellyfish. I started to see things as I wrote them in the journal. My days transformed into something new.


            When I show up on Ashton’s doorstep the next morning and tell him I’ll stay, he says he loves me. I don’t say I love him back, but I wrap my arms around his waist and bend my neck so I can rest my head in the hollow of his chest. When he kisses me, he says he sees receding waves on the sidewalk. We spend the day sitting, our knees bent under our chins, in the foyer window, counting cars that go by and waiting for something to happen behind the windows of the houses.  When I get bored, I take Ashton’s skull between my palms and memorize its shape, feeling its contours, wondering what happened to make things go wrong underneath.

I feel like sharing.  I show him how I can name all the bones in his hand.  I point to the crab apple tree in his backyard and explain how the water is sucked into the roots, how it travels through xylem tissue by adhesion and cohesion up the tree.  He says he knows where to plant a seed by the feel of the ground.  How cool it is, how easily the soil breaks apart between his thumb and forefinger.

I tell him I was engaged once, to a man who left me for Australia.  Over summer break, I visited him in Sydney.  It was the first time I left the country.  He took me to a reservation some friends of his owned so I could see the marsupials he studied, koala bears that clung to my waist like fanny packs. At five one morning, he woke and drove me back so I could see the kangaroo give birth.  It wasn’t what I expected.  A tiny fetus, naked and pink with swollen eye sockets, popped out and crawled up through the mother’s fur and into the pouch.  I saw the way he watched, and I knew I had lost him.

I tell Ashton this, and he cups his hand around the back of my neck, runs his fingers over the top vertebrae of my spine.


At the end of July, Ashton says he wants to see the meteor shower that he heard about on the news.  That night, we turn off all the lights in his house and lie under blankets in the backyard.  We can only see a few stars through the suburban smog, but Ashton insists that we stay outside.

The ground is warm, and the apples and clementines-small, forced to grow outside their time zone-and tiny pine cones hang in the branches above us.

I ask him, “Did you know you can tell what the meteor is made of by the color it burns?” and he shakes his head.  I see the blink of a satellite, and I say, half-heartedly, that I think I saw a falling star.

“Ooh,” Ashton says. “I saw it, too.”

Soon, he’s seeing shooting stars everywhere.

“Wow, April, look,” he says.  “I never knew, they have tails of water.  Do you see?”

I stare at the sky, wishing I could, and see nothing.  For an hour he describes it for me, a space full of stars propelled by fountains, planets rimmed in icy discs.  The fruit hanging in the trees are moons.

When we go back inside, there’s a bat fluttering around his ceiling fan, wings catching on the curtains and brushing against the rows of pots and pans hanging on the kitchen wall, making them clink together.  It moves like a shadow, gravitating toward the corners of the room, the hidden places.  I ask Ashton if he left the back door open, and instead of answering he grabs a jacket from over the couch.   He tosses it to me and grabs another from the hall closet.  I imitate the way he holds his up over his head, clasping it by its arms, opening it like wings.  Together, we approach the bat, which is trying to attach itself to the handrail.  I can hear its claws making a raspy sound against the wood, polished and polyurethaned smooth.  I close in, and the bat flies upward, then darts for the window.  It smacks against the glass and falls, limp, onto the couch.

I approach the body. I’ve dissected bats like this. Seen the way the blood moves from their hearts to their wings.  Fed them quarters of mangoes on a research trip to an animal sanctuary in New Mexico.  The bat’s covered in reddish brown fur and has a face like a fox.  It’s barely the size of my hand with my fingers outstretched. Myotis lucifugus.

“Look,” I say, but Ashton won’t touch it, won’t leave his spot at the bottom of the stairs.  I lift the tip of the bat’s wing, which is crumpled closed like a black glove, and stretch it so I can feel the soft undersides, trace my pinky along the bones that connect the membrane.

“I think it’s dead, Ashton.” Dark red blood runs out from the side of its mouth, and it is so still.

Ashton insists that it’s just stunned.  He asks me to put it out back, so it can fly away when it wakes up.  I scoop it into my palms.  I tell him I’ll put it on the back patio, but once I’m outside, I run through the dark to the end of his yard to the compost heap.  His shovel is leaning against a tree, and I dig into the rotting pile of orange peels and apple rinds and grass clippings until there’s a hole as deep as the length of my forearm.  I place the bat’s body at the bottom and cover it up before going back inside.


            August comes, and Ashton sees whirlpools in the sky and the water in the faucets turns to steam as it hits the air.  He says a man has entered his dreams, tall and faceless.  I wonder who it is.  Ashton rarely talks about the time before we were together.

Our relationship is contained in houses. I try to get him to go on a trip with me.  After months here, I still don’t know the area. I suggest we go camping or take a day to go to the beach.  But he tells me he doesn’t like to travel. I’m surprised to learn how many things he’s afraid of. Open spaces. Storms. Distance. He tells me he likes to feel packed in, surrounded by other moving lives. He was happiest when he lived in an apartment. The voids in a house, in the spaces between the walls, in the attic, in the untouching houses, make him lonely.

I drive him to the doctor, and there he gets a new set of X-rays. In the waiting room, I explain what I learned in undergrad Biology, back when I still wanted to be a field scientist, an explorer, a writer. On the microscopic level, everything is touching. Cells against cells. Cells against molecules. I can be a building away from him, and if I wave my arm, I create a chain reaction of movements that will touch him, even if he can’t feel it. Around Ashton, saying what’s accurate doesn’t seem as important as saying what feels right.

A nurse calls Ashton’s name, and I sit in the waiting room for a while, watching the soap opera that plays on the television. It’s mid-day, mid-week, and we’re the only people there. I move from one seat to the other, exploring the walled, windowless space. When Ashton returns, he takes my hand. He tells me the shadow’s grown.

Back in his kitchen, we look at the X-rays together. We place the images against the white of the counter. I can see the dark of the tumor, pressing, filling. Ashton takes a breath, grabs a Sharpie. I watch as he draws pictures in the spaces between his lobes, pictures of serpents and tree roots that can fit in the smallest gaps. He hands me a pen, and we cover the dark space with smiley faces with their tongues sticking out. I draw a stem at the top of his cerebellum so it looks like an apple. Doodle myself biting a chunk out of it. When we’re done, Ashton hangs them with magnets on his fridge.


That evening, I watch Ashton’s house from my front porch, following the pattern of lights turning on and off through the windows. When it goes dark, I slip on sneakers and walk down the street and into his backyard. The air is cool and the sky is starry, and fruits, knocked off their trees in the latest rainstorm, litter the yard. I gather the clementines, which stand out bright and orange, into the space between my forearm and hip. Then, nervous, I sprint back home and drop the fruits onto my living room carpet. I watch them roll across the floor, under the coffee table, against the vacuum cleaner.

Later, I return to the living room and gather the clementines into a pile in my lap.  I peel them apart with my fingernails, leaving a heap of orange skin at my feet. I break the fruit into quarters and hold them one by one on my tongue, tasting the sourness, testing to see how long I can hold them there. The tree didn’t get enough sun for the fructose to form. I eat all but one clementine, and place it on the stand beside my bed.  I cannot sleep.


            On the last day of summer, we sit cross-legged in his yard. Ashton has emptied his compost heap, spread it over his lawn and patches of garden. Frosts are coming, he says, and he’s afraid the roots and seeds won’t make it through the winter. He wants to give them this last boost, so now the yard swims with a smell of the oversweet, decomposing. I wonder if he found the bat bones among the browned fruit peels, but if he did, he says nothing.

“Sunflowers, souvenirs, satellite,” I say, leaning into the grass, pulling him down with me.

“Tidal, tsunami, tarot card,” Ashton responds, joining my game.

I press my skull against his, feeling his hair brush against my bare forehead. I breathe in the smell of the leaves changing colors, chlorophyll drying in the shadows. I ask Ashton to describe what he sees in those moments when the shadow in his brain takes over.

There are the sounds of a jet flying overhead and children playing in the yard next door. When Ashton speaks, I close my eyes and see a dry world. One in which we can walk, miles and miles, to the seafloor. I teach my Earth and Environment class that we know more about outer space than the deepest depths of the oceans. But in this world, Ashton and I will walk the tidal zones into the deep like land.  We’ll find old fishing boats, rusted lobster thatches, and fishing lines ringed in pearled oysters.  We’ll climb the Mid-Atlantic mountain range and find the corpse of a whale, starfish and colorful sand crabs crawling over its rotting flesh.  We’ll gaze into the Mariana trench, drop stones into its mouth, wait for their echoes. And it won’t be a mystery. Not anymore.

Dana Diehl is an undergraduate studying fiction at Susquehanna University. She likes maps, nature documentaries, and Amish farmer markets. Her fingers are crossed that next fall she’ll be migrating out of rural Pennsylvania to an M.F.A. program, to a new corner of the country.
7.04 / April 2012