The first time I saw the sludge was in our apartment bathroom. Standing in front of the sink, flossing my teeth, listening to NPR on the shower radio—
“. . . According to climatologists, February was the hottest month on record—”
I lost the end of the headline, because a noxious smell filled up my nostrils, and there it was, reflected in the bottom corner of the mirror. A smear across the floor behind me.
I turned around. It was seeping up between the tiles and from the grout along the base of the tub. Thick, like coagulated blood, and rapidly spreading over the floor. I covered my nose from the smell like burning rubber. I couldn’t let it touch me. My feet were bare.
Kat found me standing on the sink, balancing with one foot along the edge of the basin and one wedged behind the faucet, and my back pressed into the corner. I didn’t remember climbing up there. All I knew was her shocked face and her voice shouting over the newscast.
“Nonie, what’s wrong?”
“Don’t touch it!” I shouted back.
She was right. I’d looked from the floor to Kat’s face for a split second, and when I looked back, it was clean bathroom tile again.
That was worse.
I couldn’t know whether to trust her eyes or my sinuses, my memory or her voice. It felt like a feint, to get me back down. When Kat offered me her hand, I shook my head.
She needed to brush her teeth and do a final hair check, which she could have done with me standing there. Instead she clicked the radio off, sat on the toilet, and talked to me calmly and rationally, until I came down on my own.
After, she held me for a good long time, stroking my hair and telling me it was all right, it was my imagination. Until the terror faded long enough for me to put on my scrubs and leave for the clinic.
We were just twenty-two when Kat and I met, but already she was a powerhouse, someone who could back down men three times her age with just the force of her confidence. I always knew she’d be calm in a crisis.
That night she told the downstairs neighbors we had a minor plumbing issue, and did they mind if we used their bathroom? They didn’t. But the next morning I still couldn’t go into our bathroom without shaking. For Kat, no problem. We’d just spend a few days at her parents’ in Montclair.
By the time we’d packed the Xterra, I wanted to agree with her that it was my imagination. It had felt so real, though—the burning rubber smell that stung my nose. When we got to the in-laws, I asked to borrow shower shoes. I couldn’t stand letting my bare feet touch the tile.
After three days, my stomach began to unclench and I could think about returning to our apartment.
Anyway, it wasn’t convenient to stay there. I could take the train to work, but Kat had to leave an extra hour earlier to make it to her office on time. She told me it didn’t matter. But there was also our privacy to consider, and her parents’ concerned looks. They were careful, ever so careful, not to say anything upsetting or controversial. Enough drama in that family already.
By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. Sorry to leave it this way but
I don’t know why I saw the sludge but Kat never did. Or never admitted she did. Inside all of us, I think there has to be a part, maybe an ancient crevasse in the cerebellum, that still notices the direction of the wind and the migration of the animals. Evolution can’t have bred that out of us, not yet, and it sees. It reads the signs.
Like on the train one morning, a woman sat down beside me and broke into hysterical sobs. No warning. In the newspapers, a police officer shot an unarmed man (black), and a West Virginia couple (white) went on an arson spree. Crossing the street in front of the clinic, I saw a single duckling (yellow and brown) in the middle of the intersection, all by itself.
And all over, everywhere you look and everywhere you can’t, they’re building. Walls. Fences. Condos. Terminals. Pipelines.
People have always made structures, all the way back to the Stone Age. But around 1800, things really picked up. In 1830, the world had 300 kilometers of railroad. In 1875, there were 300,000. Think about that. 300,000 miles of steel, cutting across the flesh of Mother Earth, like twist ties across a wrist.
Kat did not agree that these events were related.
“Where was the mother duck?” I asked. “Where were its brothers and sisters?”
“I don’t know, honeybee. Things happen. It’s not always a call for revolution.” Then tenderly: “I’m glad the Humane Society could help. Cute little guy.” Her arm went around my neck, and she held up her phone so we could look at the Instagram pictures together. Duckling in a kiddie pool (plastic).
I wish you’d come out to the encampment with us. Maybe then you’d understand what we’re facing.
The second time, I was in the in-laws’ kitchen. Kat and her parents and her sister Brigit were all in the next room around the dinner table, discussing Brigit’s dreadlocks and whether she’d ever land a real job—topics intrinsically linked, from the parents’ point of view. I’d only stepped out to get a corkscrew.
When I shut the drawer, the sludge below it surprised me. It was seeping out from the cabinet under the sink, dripping onto the linoleum in thick dollops.
No! I commanded myself, before I could retreat. The sight had startled me but I held it together and forced my feet to stay put and my eyes to look, waiting for the hallucination to disappear, like it had for Kat in the bathroom. The in-laws in the next room made me bold. I wouldn’t make a scene in their house.
The sludge had a vivid beauty to it as it oozed into the kitchen. The color was dark, but not black like I’d thought at home in the bathroom. Here it was more like melted rubies. I sidestepped and bent toward it, to get a better look, when the smell hit me. My throat thickened the same way as when I drank too much wine, until I was coughing. I dropped the corkscrew. It fell into the sludge, and backsplash hit my ankle.
Hot! Scalding hot!
Before even thinking about it, I’d put my weight on the countertop and boosted myself up to escape. I must have yelped or made some noise that got their attention, because when I looked up, they were all four crowded in the doorway staring at me.
Kat started forward, right toward the sludge’s path.
“Don’t!” I screamed. “It burns!”
Kat froze. “Nonie,” she murmured. “What burns? What happened?”
“Don’t you see it there on the floor?”
I shook my head. If you couldn’t see it—if you couldn’t smell it—it was impossible to make it real with just words. “You’ll never get it off, never, never.”
“There’s nothing there, sweetheart.” Kat’s father.
Her mother just stared at me, sadly. A broken thing that couldn’t be fixed.
Brigit didn’t say anything either, but she was looking at the floor, not at me.
Do you remember inner tubing on the river when we were kids? Did you ever think about the water then, whether it was clean?
I lay awake in bed, resting on top of Kat, one set of her fingers in my hair, while my cheek lay in the crook where her neck and shoulder met her muscular chest. We’d turned in early. Downstairs, dishes clinked together, as the in-laws cleaned up.
“They are still building it,” I whispered. Repeated.
She hugged me, our clammy skin sticking together, and rocked me twice side-to-side. “They aren’t. There’s an injunction, honeybee. You won. Time to let it go.”
“It was so real.” I’d been repeating that too, as if repetition could make her see what I saw. But why did I want that? So she could be terrified too? I’d never seen Kat frightened of anything. Except maybe right before proposing.
In response, she only held me tighter and tucked her chin over the crown of my head.
There was a knock on the door and I tensed. Together more than five years, and it still felt strange sharing a bed under her parents’ roof. Illicit.
“Who is it?” Kat called.
“We’re in bed.”
“I wanted to talk to Winona for a minute.”
I stiffened even more and gently shook my head so Kat could feel it. In the past, I would have gotten up. I’d only met Brigit because I was dating her sister, it was true, but we got along so well she used to tease Kat about which one of them was my real soulmate.
Kat responded, gently rolling me onto the mattress and getting up herself. At the door, I heard her speak. “Leave it alone, Bridge. She’s exhausted.”
“I just wanted to—”
The shadows changed position and I could sense Brigit shifting her weight at the doorway, frustrated. Probably tapping her fingers against her thigh. That was her. Always in motion. Their mother told me she was diagnosed with ADHD as a kid.
The next day, Kat and I packed up and moved back into the Hackensack apartment. Whatever I saw, I was seeing it everywhere, so it didn’t matter where we ran to. On the ride home, I agreed to talk to a therapist. Kat pulled over while I made the appointment.
By evening, my ankle had reddened and blistered where the muck splashed me.
Before pulling up the duvet, Kat shrugged and said it looked like poison ivy to her. “If you stopped traipsing around the woods. . .” She rolled onto her side, away from me.
I held my pillow over my face and held in a scream. It’d been six weeks since I was in the woods; she knew as well as I did.
A year ago I didn’t even know there *were* tribes in New Jersey. I assumed they all had to be out west
The therapist thought my hallucinations had something to do with the encampment.
I talked about it, of course: hauling supplies with Brigit on my days off, learning to pray with tobacco and sage, sleeping out under the stars. How much I’d liked it. The therapist asked why.
“Because. . . with the people there I could talk about the things I can’t talk about with Kat.”
I knew, but I didn’t say. The Ashinaabe people call this the time of the Seventh Fire, when humanity has a choice: to walk a path of green and growing things, or a path that is blackened and burned. The Lakota people have a prophecy: that they will gather all the peoples of the world through a unique web, like the Internet, only this web will give us the message that will save the world.
My therapist wasn’t Ashinaabe or Lakota.
“I liked going because I could help them,” I said instead. Sometimes they asked me to treat simple injuries or sort the medical supplies. At first I didn’t recognize what the different herbs were for but I learned from Ruby, their medic.
I also called the mayor, my representatives in Trenton, and—because the pipeline would go across both states—Kat’s boss in New York, and wondered if she’d answer the phone and I’d have to hang up. But she didn’t answer, and if she took other calls about the pipeline, she didn’t tell me anything about it.
Then, there was always someone to call, and I didn’t mind. I could hide in the bedroom with the phone while Kat was vacuuming, and read polite, reasonable scripts about the dangers of fossil fuels, and how the Ramapoughs and their supporters were peacefully exercising their constitutional rights on their own land. The camp was tiny, anyway: just three teepees, a supply hut, and a vegetable garden. Nothing like the four big ones in North Dakota.
“It sounds like you were standing up for your principles,” said the therapist. “What about that wouldn’t your wife understand?”
“Well. She really believes in citizens petitioning their government.”
He had to prompt me to get more. “It sounds like you’ve done a lot of that, and your efforts paid off. It sounds like she’d be proud of you.”
I nodded, because I understood that this is what the injunction was supposed to mean. That the system worked.
Broadly we agree about governance: it should be the will of the people, and consent of the governed. I just don’t get why you think that’s what we have.
There was a party at the camp, the night we thought we’d won. Bonfires. Drums. For once, the cops didn’t hassle us. They drove up, stood outside their squad cars while the blue flashers turned the grove into a dance club, and watched us stepping in a wide circle, yelling our victory to the moon. Brigit and I danced with our friends, and then we danced with each other. I never forgot for a moment that my sister-in-law wasn’t my wife.
Even when I kissed her.
It was less than a second. Less than half a second. She blushed and shrugged away, shorter than Kat and harder to hold on to. No angles.
“I’m not,” she started to say and never finished.
It was a mistake. Caught up in the moment, the excitement, the victory (we thought) we shared, how alike she and Kat smiled when they let go. Both very serious women, in their way.
The next weekend, Kat got us matinee tickets to Hamilton, and I asked Brigit if she could find someone else to drive up to the camp with her.
“Yeah,” she said. “Okay. Not so critical now.” They were only weeding the garden.
The will of the people only means something when the people have the power to enforce it.
Kat liked her bananas green-yellow, I liked mine just starting to freckle brown. She’d buy a big bunch at a time, so by the time they were too ripe for her they were a day away from perfect for me. That was Kat’s theory. We fit like jigsaw pieces.
Long before I saw the sludge, I’d asked her, “Do you remember the last time you slept outside?”
Wheel of Fortune was on the TV, muted. Waiting for Jeopardy, her favorite, while she sifted emails. “Never.”
“It’s amazing.” I sat down at the end of the couch, one leg tucked up under me, facing her, so I could massage her feet. “If you lie on your back on the ground, you can feel it curving up against your spine, like an exercise ball. But it’s solid, heavy. Going all the way down and down through the core and out the other side, and in every direction north south east and west.”
Kat thought I was charming. “I’d think the planet’s too big for us to feel the curvature.”
“You can feel it! It’s like all of Mother Earth is holding you up. Cradling you.” I lifted her right foot between my palms and stroked the arch with my thumbs.
She put down her phone and bicycled her legs, exhaling. “Ah! That. Right there.”
“Then, if you turn the image 180 degrees, you’ve got the whole planet on your back. You’re carrying her.”
“It’s very poetic,” she sighed. A few soft, deep kisses and she’d be mine instead of Alex Trebek’s. “But I’ll leave the campout to you guys. I’d rather change the world indoors.”
I caught her ankles, one in each hand. “That’s why we’re a good team.” I wrapped her legs around me, knotting them at the base of my spine like apron strings, and leaned in.
Just because we disagree doesn’t mean I don’t love you, I
We stopped a pipeline.
It was easy to forget, because like everyone else, Kat and I had gone back to normal. We put gas in the car (oil from Alberta, Canada), played on our phones (metals from Democratic Republic of the Congo), and opened our eight-ounce plastic containers that would ultimately join the eight million metric tons already floating in the oceans.
We watched the news while hurricanes hit Texas. Then Florida. Then Puerto Rico.
We slept in a bed.
Once, Ruby told me a story of their McMansion neighbor across the road, running out in the morning with an air horn, shaking his fist and blasting at the white-tailed deer who were grazing on the lawn. “In our culture,” said the medic, shaking her head, “when the deer come on our land, it’s a blessing.”
Three hundred years, and the machine that can only build and build has steamrolled every group of people who might give us a chance of survival now.
After the encampment, after kissing Brigit, after stopping one pipeline, I knew that. I knew. In that part of my brain that still can’t figure out Twitter and hates the little plastic stirrers they use in coffee shops, I wanted to tell others, to convince them. But I couldn’t even convince myself. While I was thinking about how the world was ending because we wouldn’t change, I was also not changing. On my days off, I drove the Xterra for miles: into the city, to surprise Kat for lunch, maybe with new earrings or a pair of kitten heels; or the opposite direction, north and north, over the state line, playing show tunes and folk music, drinking macchiatos and eating canisters of potato chips. Some days the taste on my tongue—the balance of salt and sweet—was all that kept me from driving right through the guard rail.
“I’m for sustainability too,” said Kat. “But the stuff Bridge wants . . . that isn’t winning anybody over.”
Kat had the Master’s in political science, so I couldn’t argue.
Brigit didn’t call me, and then she did. Almost four weeks to the day I’d kissed her. “They’re still building it,” she told my voicemail in a fury. “Ruby and Bear saw the bulldozers. Those bastards, I—we—I have to do something.”
Your idea of action is so neutered. I hate to use a gendered term like that but I can’t think of any other way to say it.
The third time the sludge came, I was at work, writing down a patient’s blood pressure. (Good—110/60.) When I looked up from the clipboard, I saw it welling up from the seams in linoleum floor below the patient’s stocking feet. The smell overwhelmed me. I dropped the clipboard to cover my nose and grabbed the patient by the right arm, trying to pull her away, trying to pull her somewhere safe. But her left arm was still in the blood pressure cuff, and she wasn’t cooperating either way. She screamed—not because of the sludge that was seeping toward her feet, but because of me. Three other nurses and the shift supervisor came running.
They put me in an empty exam room while they figured out what to do. It’s funny, isn’t it? A bunch of health professionals trying to decide what to do with one of their own, who was having a “psychotic episode” (on the one hand), but who’d “assaulted a patient” (on the other). They didn’t know better than anybody else.
I crouched on top of the examination table, watching the floor. I knew I should have been worried about getting fired, but it’s hard to care about things like that while you’re seeing the world drown in poison. The floor was already covered, the filth seeping up higher and higher. The thought occurred to me, This time, it won’t vanish. This time, I’m seeing it, and I’ll keep seeing it.
It was comforting. I didn’t want to go through life not seeing it anymore.
Maybe I’ll get strong, I thought. Like Bridge or Ruby. This will be my life. Stop one pipeline, then another.
Maybe I wouldn’t drink overpriced espresso anymore, and waste whole afternoons on Youtube clips, and buy cheap shoes that wear out in a year.
When Dr. Brenner opened the door to check on me, he was wading through it, the bottom of his white coat destroyed. I stared into his face, wondering how he could stand it—having the sludge touch him, having the fumes in his face.
He didn’t look any different than usual. Concerned and professional. Imagine if you saw someone put their hand in a flame, and they kept talking to you about the game last night or what you’re doing for your birthday, like nothing else was going on. I wondered if he was really a mutant or an alien, because how could you be human and real and not feel something like that?
I heard him talking to me, but I couldn’t tell you a word he said.
Go easy on Winona, would you? She’s devoted to you, or else I think she’d be coming with me.
Kat came to get me. I hadn’t left the examination table, and she almost had to carry me to the car to get me out.
“Nonie,” she said, very quietly, “if you don’t put your feet on the floor and come with me, I’ll know you don’t love me anymore.”
I jumped down from the table, crying. First because I couldn’t stand to have her think that. Then because I could feel the sludge eating through my sneakers and the bottom of my scrubs, scalding hot.
She took my hand. If she was a mutant, she was a heroic one. Toxic Avenger. No, Professor X.
I told myself to mirror her. To act like it was nothing. Mind over matter. In high school, I’d sprained an ankle mid-soccer game, and played through the pain because I was so shy, I didn’t want the male trainer touching me. I could do it.
Outside the clinic, the sludge was seeping up from the storm drains in the street, filling up the gutters.
“I’m around the corner.” Kat pulled me toward the crosswalk.
Until a car turned in front of us, I managed. When the spinning tires turned the sludge into a fine spray, I felt it hit me in the face, then I panicked, lunging for safety. Kat lost her grip on my hand and I slipped, the sludge squelching below me as I landed in the crosswalk. Fumes overwhelmed my mouth and nostrils.
My lungs reacted, forcing out poison and air, and I stood up, desperate, and started shedding my clothes. My shoes were covered now and there wasn’t anything I could do about that, but I shrugged out of the top of my scrubs and used the cleaner part to wipe my right arm where I’d landed. It clung to my arm hair, sticky and thick as molasses, and I wiped harder. I could feel it on the side of my face, in my ear, in my hair.
“Winona, stop, stop!” Kat grabbed my arms, left and right alike, in her clean palms.
I stared into her face. There were tears in her eyes, on her cheeks.
A breeze came up, and I shivered. Here I was standing in my bra, the middle of the street in a canyon of high rises. On the corner, people stared while they waited for the light to change.
“Let’s go home,” I told Kat, gingerly slipping the shirt over my head. I walked to the Xterra without waiting to see if she would follow. Behind me, she beeped the key chain, and the door locks popped open. I got into the passenger side calmly and buckled my seat belt.
Kat didn’t say anything on the drive, but a new tear rolled down her cheek every other minute. I could smell the sludge she’d tracked in on her sensible heels, but that wasn’t what pained her.
She was crying while she changed out of her work clothes, and while she made dinner, and while we ate in front of the TV. She got every answer on Jeopardy perfect, in the form of a question. “What is . . .” she said, always, even if the answer was a person. “What is Saturn?” “What is quantum mechanics?” “What is Jules Verne?”
I couldn’t speak. I had to concentrate very hard on not screaming, not panicking, and not seeing the sludge that was burning holes in her bare feet.
When the plates were in the dishwasher, Kat finally turned to me. “I don’t want to lose you, too.” Her knees buckled, and she slumped onto the floor, landing in five inches of poison that she couldn’t see.
I breathed deeply. My nostrils burned, but I could imagine the air was clean. I didn’t want to lose her either.
“Kat,” I said, gathering her up. She was taller than me, but I could hold her up, like a stake against a weak stalk.
“I’m here,” I said, because I couldn’t make any other promises. “I’m not leaving.” The sludge was coming to choke and swallow us, and I was more afraid what would happen to Kat if she did start feeling it, than what would happen to the world if she didn’t.
Some people have to be worth loving, don’t you think? Or what good is a world.
I’ve started this message over and over, and I don’t know how to make it easier, so I’m just going to say it: I’m going. I can’t tell you where exactly, but you can probably guess why, and you probably understand that you’re better off not knowing more. You and Winona.
Please try to explain to Mom and Dad. They didn’t raise me to pretend everything is okay when it’s not. Tell Winona she didn’t do anything wrong. None of you did. It’s just, this is the fight of our lives and either you see it that way or you don’t. Anyway I can’t sit and watch anymore.
I love you.
C.S. Malerich comes from northern New Jersey, where the Ramapough Lenape people and their allies recently halted a pair of oil and gasoline pipelines (for now). You can find more of her speculative fiction in Ares Magazine Issue 3, Mother’s Revenge from Scary Dairy Press, and the Among Animals anthologies from Ashland Creek Press.