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How Loudly We Dead Howl by Sarah Arantza Amador


What is time? We often discuss narrative time and how it supports structure, tension, and pace. But what of time itself? As you read Sarah Arantza Amador’s flash piece “How Loudly We Dead Howl” for the first time, consider this question. As you try to place whether this is historical or post-apocalyptic, whether it reminds you more of Dillard’s The Living or Lepucki’s California, consider this question. Then head to Amador’s author’s note accompanying the piece for a discussion of “time that flows, but with all objects and their quantum information staying imprinted on the event horizon of our lives,” and how she approached the writing of this piece with that concept in mind.

There is exquisite prose in this intelligent piece, so much visceral and evocative detail (“fortifications eaten away like moth-infested wool” and “the icy granite, scraped clean as a birth canal”). Though Amador also discusses plotlessness in her author’s note, there is an arc and resonance here, too. The reader will earn more from each reading of this story. The last line in particular haunts. This story will stay with you.  —CRAFT


 

The approach is by boat—the passage is narrow. Our steamer slipped through the still, dark water. Us passengers, bewitched, red-eyed and scorch-lunged refugees from the burning south, reached out to touch the icy granite, scraped clean as a birth canal. When we arrived, the ship stopped a mile offshore. Our loads shattered when we pitched them overboard—what should have been open water was all of three feet deep. We were too astounded to cry, the crying would come later.

This place is famous for its mud. Our first day, our family of three watched a sow slide off the duckboard and disappear. The air in town is thick with sea rot, pine tar, fresh lumber—the buildings rise as quick as the last keel and slip into the ooze. Terra firma, land ho!—laugh the drunks—No provisions, no papers! How many of us have lost our loads and been denied access to the pass? We all haunt the river-mouth camp and moan in the dark one way or another, somnambulists collected in a living purgatory. You’ll die in the wet before you scrabble enough for passage back south.


We ventured out into the woods to escape the camp. The surrounding rainforest called out—a siren’s call—and it was easy enough to be swept under the canopy. What treasures did the rotting wood reveal? We found an automobile carcass eaten by rust on a creek bank. A lime kiln ruined under a waterfall. An abandoned religious settlement deep in the mist, its fortifications eaten away like moth-infested wool. They all decompose to mulch, feeding the loam and ferns and skunk cabbage unfurling in the prehistoric gloaming.

After our first week, hiking out into the ravines, we pitched a tent and made a claim on the land. Ate sardines out of tin cans through the autumn as we felled trees. Built a log cabin in miniature and then scraped roots and mushrooms from under the rocks as the skies dried out and went black. In winter icy dark, we starved and froze—eating sourdough flapjacks every second sleep and, when the firewood ran out, chiseling away at the walls, shaving wood off the logs chinked with moss to burn for heat. Got the wall timbers down to a quarter-inch thick. The shack glowed like a paper lantern by Christmas.

By that first spring, we’d turned mad. We fought off yahoos and Scandihooves we found squatting on our creek. We smashed their loads, ground their coffee, flour, and sugar into the spongy bank of the runnel to spite them and us. “Hoorah!” we crowed, hitching up our tattered pants and skirts, kicking our heels over collapsed spruce stumps, mossy rocks. We’d never been prouder.

Without papers, we gave up on the trail, the overland manifest. We trapped marmot and beaver, took a new route to town each trip, appearing and disappearing in the fog like magicians or spiritualists’ illusions each run. The boy was good, the boy was an apparition.

What came for us in the redwood mist that following summer, as the sun burned beyond, we cannot say. It was an unhappiness. A bad trick that blossomed in our lungs like so many fungal spores. It came for each of us and made us dance, dance, dance.

Our family of three became a family of two. Together we dropped his heavy body into the briny bog, and the boy, like a coastal wolf, scattered his clothes along the rocky shore. We buried the bones, and then dug them back up together, sniffing them intently, noses to the marrow. Buried them again, dug them back up. Weeping and weeping.

They say the raven is the trickster and we must be fools.

How to explain that the worst is that which no longer lives? The groan of the human chain whistling down the mountain? It’s a river of ice, and when it isn’t, it’s a river of sludge. Lord help us, and the ghost of the maniac beating his mule to death in the twilight.

 


SARAH ARANTZA AMADOR lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California and writes about longing, ghost-making, and the endearment of monsters. Her work is featured in Best Microfiction 2019 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Sarah is currently writing a novel based on the above story. She tweets @ArantzaSarah and sometimes blogs from saraharantzaamador.com.

 

Author’s Note

This story started with an image and an affect. I came across the image a couple of years ago while on a road trip through wild country. I won’t describe it. I found it deeply troubling: impressive, grotesque, and sublime in scope. It ached and continues to ache. It is horror and grief. I wanted to hold on very tightly to this emotional register. I wanted to write a version of its story.

When I started writing this piece, I set myself the challenge of writing a plotless story. The older that I get, the less interested I am in traditional plot or character development. What happens when you attempt to write a narrative devoid of sequential events, cause and effect, characters changing for the better (or worse)? You need to find other ways to provide that narrative structure and support.

There’s a “why” behind this challenge. Living in the Anthropocene and on the Northern California coast, I return again and again to the following questions in my work: how do we write trauma? How do we communicate with the written word that which cannot be spoken? I increasingly experience the world in what feminist theorist Toril Moi calls cyclical time: a spiralic repetition of seasons, reflexes, relationships. Playing further with epistemologies of time, I meditate on holographic time: time that flows, but with all objects and their quantum information staying imprinted on the event horizon of our lives. My original questions lead me to these: how do we capture a rupture in the monolithic, linear time of history? How do we nurture it? Make it a friend? And here I return to the challenge of plotlessness: I want to contemplate the unexplainable, the unnarratable.

Did I succeed in writing my story with no plot? No, but I’ll continue working through this challenge of plotlessness elsewhere. I’m happy that this piece found a home with readers and writers excited to engage in this exercise with me.

We find ourselves on the brink of geologic time in ellipsis. I end on another image, and I’ll describe it to you since I imagine it often: We are skiers on the verge of lifting off the ramp of the long jump, in the moment that the blades of our skis leave the snow and ice and kiss the air. This story continues to live, breathe, grow inside of me. I hope it blooms in you, too.

 


SARAH ARANTZA AMADOR lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California and writes about longing, ghost-making, and the endearment of monsters. Her work is featured in Best Microfiction 2019 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Sarah is currently writing a novel based on the above story. She tweets @ArantzaSarah and sometimes blogs from saraharantzaamador.com.