Stronghold

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December 15, 2013 by The Citron Review

by Mary Kudenov
 

On another day we will walk this path again like it’s a dream. Cottonwood drift will line the ground like a wedding run, the fireweed will don purple blossoms, and Peter will be my husband. But right now it’s late in April of our first year together, and the trails are colorless. Last year’s grasses, muddy straw, line the bare woods.

Arm-in-arm, Peter escorts me to his favorite beach. This trek was once his private ceremony, a way for him to quietly celebrate his birthday. We reveal ourselves piecemeal, still so new to each other that we have only exposed the very best features of our personalities. He does not yet know about my brother. I do not want to tell him I am afraid of heights, afraid of oceans, afraid of sleep and silence and empty houses.

The path down to the beach is steep, and the fall long. Cottonwoods squat along the bluff’s edge like gargoyles, knotted and hard, molded by the sea wind into otherworldly shapes. The spirits within are the ghosts of old warriors—weathered skin and arthritic hands, sentinels watching for dark riders.

I scoot down the path behind Peter, clutching at the remains of last year’s foliage like it’s rope. Like it will save me. Please don’t turn around, I think. He does and offers up his hand so that I might balance against him. At the bottom, grey mud flats stretch on and on into the Cook Inlet, home of one of the world’s most powerful tides. The water is so low we could walk across the bay if the wet sand wasn’t a quick grave. The mud has claimed people who wandered too far, shackled and drowned them. But not me. Not today.

Ahead of me, Peter walks onto the still-firm sand. My eyes adore him, his broad shoulders—peasant shoulders he calls them. The wind plasters his clothes to his runner’s legs and he is a steeple, a tower. Not me. I live in the rickety body of haunted women. I wish I had a quiet mind, steady legs. I spent last spring in a motel room as stuffy as a coffin watching my mother turn into an old woman. We waited for my brother’s body to be cremated, to gather his ashes, his gun, his ghost.

Peter turns his back to the ocean and pulls his woman to his chest. We are new and there is so much fire, so much heat it reached me through a grief I couldn’t pray or drink away. I would dream at night of the people I love hanging from the ceiling, rocking back and forth like a metronome. I’d wake thinking someday, not on a rope or by a gun. Someday I will disappear.

But I’m not thinking about that now; nor am I thinking of the sandpaper wind, strong enough whittle a woman into skeleton. Instead, I wonder if he can feel the quickness of my pulse, and I wonder if he will bring me here on his next birthday. I’m thinking too about how much I love the sound of the human heartbeat. How Peter’s chest is big enough to shield me. How love shelters, coaxes, lights.

The ocean and sky bend to a soft grey crest, an unending horizon. On the bluffs above, watchwoods lean into the jagged edge, towering over a tide that marches toward us on wet boots. No matter. For now I can forget that even at our finest—bodies hard, strength united, two forms fastened—we are soft and unchampioned.

I press my body all the way into Peter’s and hold on.


Mary Kudenov studies nonfiction in University of Alaska Anchorage’s low-residency MFA program. She’s finishing Mercy, a collection essays that explore life in urban Alaska.  Mary’s nonfiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Permafrost, F Magazine, and other journals.

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