Our town began as a saltlick for animals. Then the rock salt grew as the salt brine whisked and eventually we came around. The rock salt grew as the salt brine whisked and eventually we learned to plug the subterranean. We learned to manage the animals, the salt laden strata, the limestone.
The north destroyed our salt during war. They cut the fog and thick southern lines with untrained Kentucky horses, through the dense marshes, guns loaded, everything cocked. They cut off the main sources of confederate salt and there went the leather, the just drained animals.
The north built bonfires in our town. The rules of war got broke down with massacre. The dead got robbed and eventually the fog lifted and the hills of our town showed its early victims.
And then we dug wells to push the salt back up. The rock salt grew as the salt brine whisked and eventually we made soaps of our salt and shipped it far.
We came to call it the recovery of salt. Recovery of what deposits deep in our marshes. We embraced our drudging and we lived with the crust on our body and our coats held a cold, white quiet. We sifted through limestone and counted the lines.
We took up tools and built ourselves some nice square homes.
At the end of days, we got home and shook off our coats, discovering the raw materials lugged in the pockets. Our kitchen floors, a surface for all those silver bits of mercury, like broken bullets, jumping in all their deformed joy.
Our salt stopped having meaning when raw. It could only be medicine, a soapy glue, a paper. We designed the jobs that needed done, turned the white muck red and blue, shaped it up and shipped it out.
Our calcium white and reaped. Our soda ash softening the laundry of America. Before we thought to extract the mercury from our water, from the lining of our guts, it was all in a good days work.
We treated our salt and it smelled vaguely sweet in the air. We stood in this air, calloused on the heavy pallets of our loading docks and imagined all the stops on the trip of our muck. Up to 100 pounds per day pounding our microbes into our dirt and our water.
All this to say, we didn’t begin with toxin. We didn’t begin by managing flow. The bad things batting around in our industrial boilers, the electrodes leaking in our pockets and on the floors of our decomposing towers. Things got large scale, combustible, inorganic. Because too often we work backwards. Too often it’s the hindsight we point at, say Well now. Look at that.
This is how an eyesore originates.
This is how a bad day begins. With any number of developing patterns, any number of crosshatched moments, a dam can always break.
And so began that bad day. Mid air, a river-mile over brick and steel, a 30-foot wall of dead white wave, with muck, with the streamy strength of acid, stress fractures and the build up of gas, a pH greater than seven and ten tons of daily mercury descending.
The explosion was mercury, poison water, salt ash. The explosion was the faults in our cells, what collected in our groundwater. The explosion, like a snowfield, the white stew at our house and tree lines, dragging us out by the roots.
We blinked at the sweeping mountain’s organ, our soft shale and siltstones, our limestone bluffs. We blinked at our green gray dirt and yellow. Under our feet, our town the shape of a circle, stretched more to a teardrop.
A bad day gets most terrestrial after one recognizes what the smell really means or why the river looks so dull at high noon.
A bad day gets most terrestrial when it grows into a bad night.
We watched water choke on itself as the sun went down. We rolled around with scratchy lanterns. We plunged, probing the bottom with hooks, in hopes of bodies or voices. But only the sound of wind braided to the sound of debris blubbered up.
Our hunt meant sifting just that bit of our hand through the muck, through fog and slow rain. And in that way we looked for each other. And in that way it wept by bit by bit, all those hard dark minutes.
When the sun rose again we wondered what the furthest into the dark our eyes had gone. Ours was a strange way to realize the no-line of death, to see a love frail and passing.
And after the fails of our river, hundreds of acres got bundled by fence, grass cut off and out of bounds.
We walked wide loops around the dead white blanket, through our alkaline, an obstacle course of pipes, of six-inch trees and brush underneath.
We sorted through the rising fossils to expose a shape we’d know. We sought comfort from trespassers in our waste, the hoppers of our fences. We waited for them and we were ready for them. We grew more alert to our continued, uncontrolled cell division, to the inorganic and organic, the pins and the needles of the hands and the feet. We did our song and our dance around the fence line.
It got still and the stillness had something to tell us.
Still water says difficulty of schooling and spawning. Still factory says the world ain’t our oyster. Still air says the eggs came from the birds all wrong, had no chance even before the cracks. Still fox says they forgot how to hunt all the fucking bunnies.
We told ourselves: No it will not waste us, too. It will not decompose us. It will not take us. No not in that way.
The flood of a broken dam can hold buckets of versions of anything. Any number of griefs, any number of patterns of damaged cells.
That’s the unavoidable design of chance. Chance budged in our tissue, slugged in our words, increasing in concentration with each step of the food chain, in the fisheyes popped and red-rimmed, in the decline of our mussels.
We had no word then nor now for that sort of bad day and bad night. We have no word for how everything merges with bacteria, for that threat in the blood of the heart.
So how do we store the damage in our history? Through which pipe does it go? Under which unwieldy pond? How do we cap our sludge, skim the mercury, bury our debris, hold the weight?
Oh how we do and we do.
Heather Rounds’ debut novel There won the 2011 Emergency Press International Book Award and was published by the Press in 2013. Her poetry and short works of fiction have appeared in numerous publications, including PANK, Big Lucks, Smokelong Quarterly and Atticus Review. Her novella, She Named Him Michael, is forthcoming this year from Ink Press. Visit her at http://www.heatherrounds.com/