If the Forest Floods
Anya GronerWhen Etgar wasn’t there, June watched movies. Men had swords. Women had orange flowers clipped to dark dresses, hats brimmed like cymbals. Couples waltzed. Enormous leaves brushed their shoulders. Children, when there were children, held sticks and jumped naked into rivers. The couch curved beneath her, soft and buoyant and, despite the heat, when the orchestra would get slow and melancholy, she’d pull a pink sheet to her neck and shiver. Even when she was alone, Etgar’s whispers echoed inside her. He called her precious. A firecracker. A fox. He had plans for them. Meals they could cook together. Bike rides. A camping trip. His voice was a song on repeat in her heart, and he defended her when his roommate Lacy complained about June’s rent-free stay on their couch. June overflowed, and the feeling was good.
When Etgar was in class, June would look at herself in the bathroom mirror, purse her lips, and tilt her head so her dark pupils sparkled through the lace of her eyelashes. She couldn’t believe she was passing as nineteen. She changed the part in her hair then, when her reflection reminded her too much of her twin sister Darcy and the home she’d run away from, she switched it back. When Etgar returned, there were his fingers, feeding her rice in squished clumps, the half moons of his nails clicking her teeth, squeezing her shoulders, sliding down her shirt towards her ass. She forgot to chew. He whispered her name, called her a vixen, a rebel, a godchild. At night she dreamt a hundred tongues licking. The butterfly kiss of a fallen eyelash, a spider tickling her neck. She was a ball of blue lightning, a boulder on a cliff, an avalanche perpetual.“What’s your sign?” June asked. She and Etgar were lying side by side, staring at his ceiling. A box fan blew warmly and a towel on the doorknob flapped. His hand was on her elbow, one of her green zones. She allowed Etgar to touch her green zones but not her red zones. Her belly and breasts were green polka dots, which meant he could touch her but only through her clothes.
“You don’t believe all that, do you?” Etgar ran his fingers through June’s tangles.
“Then let’s do you. You’re spontaneous. Intelligent. Scary when you’re angry.”
June held her fingers like claws and hissed.
Etgar laughed. “What’s that?”
“Half snake, half raccoon.”
“Must’ve been a full moon when those two got together.” Etgar giggled and for a moment June saw how he’d looked at her age—which was fourteen—gap toothed and soft-featured, the chubbiness of youth not yet worn off his chin, his cheeks rounded like fruit. He slid his hand under her shirt and touched her belly button. June moved his hand away and sat up so he couldn’t reach her.
“What’s your animal?” she asked. “Your spirit animal? For real. You avoid all my questions. Answer.”
Etgar rubbed his temples. June could smell him. A musky scent, attic mixed with something sweet. Gingerbread? Carrot cake?
“Let’s work backwards from food,” Etgar said. “Take a slice of salami and consider what went into it. Then imagine those creatures as one animal, pig haunches, a rat’s tail, cow eyes, chicken wings, puppy fur, a kitten’s nose, a mosquito’s buzz.”
“There’s no puppies in salami.”
“How do you know?”
“How do you?”
Etgar scooted forward and put his hand on her thigh. He was inches from her red zone. June slapped his cheek. “Answer,” she said and rolled over so he couldn’t reach her.
“For realsies?” He tilted his head. “A pterodactyl.”
“Because they’re awesome. And, because they’re extinct.”While Etgar slept, June watched the chicken video. Etgar told her she should watch it before the Chicken Day Parade. He said it would make her believe. If only she was vegan, Etgar said, she’d be the perfect girlfriend. June couldn’t believe she was anyone’s girlfriend. “But, you eat meat,” she said.
“True,” he said. “But I’d like to stop.”
June had never before met a vegan or even someone who was aspiring to be. In fact, the only time she’d heard the word, before coming to The Folly, was in jokes. Jim, the grill chef at her mom’s restaurant, called anyone who was poorly dressed, or too skinny, or didn’t tip well, a vegan.
On the screen a white bird twisted its skinny neck. One fat wing beat the hay-covered floor. Laughing men in yellow suits threw it against a cement wall. When it fell, there was a starburst of blood. The music switched from baroque to heavy metal. Guitars were dying. Baby chicks fell off a conveyor belt onto a stainless steel counter. Tall women with gloved hands inspected their genitalia. The boys went down a silver tube. White letters explained that this tube led to a funnel, and the funnel led to a trash compactor. Girl chicks had their beaks cut. This wasn’t China, the narrator said. This was anti-China where only the girls would live. The voice-over compared chicken farms to Auschwitz. “The meat industry,” a woman’s voice said, “is a holocaust.”
Uhhh, June thought after watching the film. It wasn’t sadness that quickened her heart. The sensation was more like curiosity. Scientific interest, perhaps. Psychopaths, June heard, had no feelings. They spent their lives in search of their own emotions. It was in order to experience even a glimmer of emotion that they cannibalized the innocent. Perhaps, she thought, she too was a psychopath? Would she one day be drawn to such horrors? Clipping full grown chickens to clotheslines, watching them swing upside down to the shaker, dangling side by side from their feet? Or worse, would she be like the men in horror movies, interested in the stretching and healing of the flesh? Would she spend her nights in a secret place, tending to amputees, stitching their skin and waiting to see how it healed? And if this was true, was it her responsibility to report herself to Etgar? How would she broach the subject of her dangerous insanity to her older boyfriend?
There was so much she was keeping in. When she began to cry, it wasn’t for the chickens, but for herself. She missed Darcy. Her sister would’ve turned off the chicken video halfway through and regaled June with stories much more horrific than chicken farming. Guinea pigs roasting on open fires. Cows eaten alive by starving children. Rednecks shoving the heads of young boys into the bellies of deer, blooding them to celebrate their first successful hunt. Despite her tears, June laughed. She wanted to steal the chicken video and give it to Darcy. Darcy would love it and not for the reasons she was supposed to.Lacy’s dislike for June was becoming increasingly intolerable. She’d stopped talking to June entirely after catching her and Etgar making out and had later insisted to Etgar that if June continued to stay in the house, she pay rent.
“Maybe I should leave,” June said.
“Maybe you should stop talking like that.” Etgar grabbed June behind the knees so that she fell back against the couch. He was laying on top of her, his arms tucked behind her back, crushing her with his body, pressing so hard that she couldn’t breathe, not deeply. About this, she didn’t care. Breathing was much less interesting than the sensations zinging through her body, the pleasure of his belt digging into her belly, his hands sliding up her knees, squeezing the tender skin of her thighs.
“Look here,” Etgar said, “we’ll take our camping trip early. We can leave tomorrow.” He pulled out a gazetteer out from under his bed and began flipping through pages. “I don’t even know how to read these things,” he laughed. “There’s too many lines. I can’t tell the valleys from the mountains.”
“You can’t read maps?”
Etgar shut the book. “If we get lost, we’ll bushwhack. It’s not like you haven’t done it before. You walked here from Waynesboro.”
“I hitched rides,” June said.
“You’re resourceful. We’ll be fine. We’ll go tomorrow. I know there’s a lake not far from here. I’ll ask around for directions.”They decided to car camp instead of hike in. It was easier that way, and they could get back in time for the Chicken Day Parade. There were three bird costumes, and each of the housemates, including June, had been assigned one. They’d need a few hours for a final fitting and some sort of pep rally type activity Lacy insisted on to build their confidence. Before they wound their way onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, Etgar pulled his Volvo into a Kmart. In the cooking aisle, he picked out a George Forman grill. “Are we making hot sandwiches?” June asked. “I thought you could only buy those doohickeys off infomercials.”
“Watch and learn.” Etgar walked the merchandise to the customer help desk. “My mother gave this to me for my birthday and I’d like to return it.”
“Do you have a receipt?” the sales lady asked. Etgar told her that he didn’t.
While the cashier calculated his store credit, Etgar led June to the outdoor sports aisle where he picked out a tent and air mattress. He threw trail mix, water bottles, and orange powder for a drink called Tang into the cart and checked out. With the credit from the grill, his total came to just under five bucks and Etgar paid this proudly, brandishing the bill from his wallet as though it were a flag.Lake Sherando was a tea-colored pond with a wooden structure, like a hangman’s platform, rising from its center. On the stairs in its center, children pinched each other and butt in line. At the top of the tower, they jumped, flailing their arms and shrieking before splashing into the tannic murk. Tiny waves lapped at the caramel sand and a bloated brown tampon floated near the shore.
June and Etgar chose to walk the lake rather than swim in it.
“Well,” June said. “No Lacy.”
“Why are girls like that?” Etgar asked.
“Needy? Spiteful? Even the most feminist girls go postal. It’s like you all hate each other.”
“It’s not like that. I’m not.” June hugged her arms to her chest. She felt as though miniscule leaks had sprung in her organs, as if she was filling slowly with water, drowning from the inside out. Her hands shook. “Do you really think it’s a ‘girl’ problem? Maybe Lacy’s being difficult because you hurt her.”
“I’m not available. It’s as simple as that.”
“Well, don’t attack me.”
Etgar put his arm around June. “Sorry,” he said. “You’re fantastic. The best. Not the least bit jealous.”
June shrugged him off. They’d come to a birdhouse with many entrances. A group of children, so blonde and pale their skin looked translucent, clustered around the structure, throwing pebbles at the holes where the birds lived. They’d developed a complicated scoring system, giving themselves points when a rock landed in the bird house and then arguing violently about who was in the lead.
“Watch this,” June whispered. She ducked behind a tree and picked up a long stick. She waited until they were caught up in slap fight and prodded one of the kids in his backside. The boy swirled around, swatting at the air where the stick had been. “Cut it out,” he yelled, looking at his sisters.
The girls laughed and picked up more pebbles.
“Stop it,” the boy said. His lower lip trembled.
June raised her arms above her head and rushed the children, flapping her arms. “Caw caw,” she yelled. “Caw caw.” The kids screamed and scattered into the woods, but she continued her song and dance, throwing her head back and laughing at the sun. When she was done, she looked for Etgar. He was sitting on a log, chewing his thumbnail. She winked at him. “God hates children who hurt birds,” she yelled in the air.
“June?” Etgar said, after a silence had passed between them.
“You liked that?”
“They were destroying the bird house. I thought you were on the side of the birds?”
“That was crazy.”
“They’re kids,” June said, looking away. “They’ll get over it. Besides, I thought you wanted me to treat animals better, stop eating them.”
There was a rock on the ground the exact size and shape of a baseball. June picked it up and tossed it from her right hand to her left.
She threw the rock in the pond. “I miss my sister.” She’d meant to say something else.
“Why don’t you go home?”
“You want me too?
“I didn’t mean it like that.”June and Etgar were lying on their air mattress inside the tent. The wind was no longer the rush of passing traffic. It was real and their tent poles shook. A branch scratched the fly, making a skkk skkk sound until Etgar went outside and snapped it off the tree. They could hear other campers rustling. “Daddy,” a girl at a nearby site called out. “What’s fire made of?” A group of children began singing a song about a lonely hamster and then a donut, until a man shouted for them to shut up.
“You shut yourself up,” someone called back.
“All of you shut up,” came a woman’s voice from the other side of campground.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Shut up,” someone else snapped.
A gunshot cracked and the campground went quiet.
“Tranquil,” said Etgar.
“God bless,” whispered June.
Etgar rolled over and put his hand on her forehead like he was taking her temperature. He tasted salty when he kissed her. “Tonight?” he said. His lips were soft on her throat and his hands gentle and, when June said, yes, okay, it was as if the words weren’t coming from her, but from a smaller self within herself, a reckless self, wild and willing, desperate to please, to be loved. He moved his fingers down her spine, letting his nails graze her skin, sending shivers that whispered all the way down her tailbone. June scooted closer, so that she could wrap her legs around his, and the air mattress bounced when she moved. “Is this okay?” he said, touching her between her legs. Her throat clogged and the words she wanted to say—that everything was cool, hunky dory, whatever—didn’t come. He pulled down her shorts and the pink Sunday day-of-the-week underwear that she’d stolen from Lacy, and June felt her body turn to wood. Then he was kissing her collarbone and moving against her, his penis rubbing her thigh. She closed her eyes and pictured the bunk bed in her room at home. She was on the top bunk and Darcy was on the bottom, lifting the mattress with her feet, rocking June like a rowboat, the weight pushing against her quadriceps. He doesn’t even know I’m not here, June thought. He can’t even tell. He was breathing in her ear, making grunting noises. When he tried to enter her, June arched her back and pushed him away.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” June said. The self within herself had disappeared and she was left without words to explain what had bloomed and then hardened inside of her. “I can’t.”
“You could’ve asked me to stop.” Etgar turned from her.
“Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry.”
June put her feet through the holes in her underwear, pulled it on, and then rolled over in her sleeping bag so that she faced the tent wall.
“You okay?” Etgar’s breath was warm in her ear. “June?” he said, his voice small, barely a whisper. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you. Did I?”
Her bones ached. The muscles in her lower back spasmed. The strength of her homesickness made everything hurt. When she opened her mouth, she found herself apologizing, again.
Etgar pulled her to him. “We’ll try again,” he whispered. “Or we don’t have to. Either way, it’s okay.”
But this second time, it wasn’t him she’d been apologizing to.That night a storm woke June. Lightning painted the sky and she counted the seconds before the thunder cracked. Sometimes it was only two or three Mississippis between the flash and the rumble. The air was cold and her sleeping bag clung damply to her skin. June kept her arms pinned to her sides. Rain pounded and the tent walls scooped in toward the center where June and Etgar lay. She knew if she touched the slick cloth, a deluge would spill through.
June closed her eyes. When there wasn’t thunder, the storm sounded like applause, and she squirmed, as though caught unwittingly beneath a spotlight. She tried to pick the sound apart, to break it down into component parts, but distinguishing the sound of individual raindrops was like trying to imagine the uniqueness of each person in a crowd, everyone with favorite colors and private fears. Above her the canopy loomed and June felt she were lying at the bottom of a well, slipping farther still into some unfathomable depth. When the lightning bolted, tree limbs swayed maniacally, and looked like animated x-rays. Etgar rolled over, flinging his arm across her chest. The air mattress squeaked and she could hear him snoring, his inhale vibrating machine-like. She wanted to push him away, back to his side of the tent, but she was afraid of waking him, of starting another conversation. She didn’t want to talk about what had happened. What they couldn’t do.
Her hand drifted off the edge of the mattress and she dangled her fingers in a puddle on the tent floor. The night reminded her of Noah’s ark, only in her version neither she nor Etgar would be chosen to live. No one ever thought of that side of the story, the experience of the people who drowned. Had Noah watched his neighbors tread water in the brand new ocean? Had he lied and pretended he didn’t have a rope to throw down? Had he declined their requests to hop aboard?
If the forest floods, the mattress floats. If the forest floods, the mattress floats. June recited this phrase to herself, repeating it until the meaning was contained entirely in the rhythm and no longer in the words themselves.
Lightning, illuminated tent, and forest photo by Dan Tautan, courtesy Shutterstock.