When I Was a Fish
by Kate Finegan
His great-great-grandparents wanted trees over their graves, the time-stained letter says. The headstones crumbled long ago. We decide to dig, to go looking for caskets needing oaks and willows to turn them to dust. There is no map. If there were, we wouldn’t be digging. We’re reinforcing the tunnel with plywood and plastic, rocks and twigs we can take from the earth without upsetting it. We’re eating earthworms from the walls. We’ve run out of food and things to say. We’ve lost count of the days.
Sometimes I don’t know if I’m sleeping. I wake up and think the sky is below me, and the weight of the earth is pressing hard against my ear.
We’ve discovered roots we can eat. We twist and twist until they break. We never pull. We don’t want the earth to fall down around us.
For hours, even days, I forget why we’re digging. I forget how sunshine feels. I have eaten dirt. I have eaten dirt and not gotten sick. There is moisture in the dirt. There is moisture in an earthworm. Finding water is easy. I realize the earth is getting wetter.
I’m more afraid now of drowning than being buried alive. The soil oozes between my fingers. I hit my head against something solid—a casket. We will dig our way out. We will dig our way out then dig our way down and plant a tree. He wants to continue after that, to find uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins he’s never met. I will not return. I don’t know how to be in the sun anymore, but I’ll never learn to live underground. My breath is so loud in the tunnel, like an animal living within me. My ears ring even as I sleep.
We’ve dug our way to the top of the casket. Our pockets are filled with plastic and wood, roots we’ve twisted off and not eaten. We’re tunneling up, making a barrier against the earth above our heads. I feel like a fish, like a fish in the sky, swimming against the air.
Then comes the water. The earth above our heads gives way. I am a bird in the sea, but my lungs have grown stronger. I swim against the mud, against the water. I break the surface and the sun hits my face, so bright I vomit. Where is my friend? There, on a small island in this massive lake ringed by mountains.
We will be a headline, a human interest story hidden within the back pages. Electricity has come to the mountains and valleys. There’s a new lake where a family used to live. There’s a new lake where a family used to live in death. My lungs ache in my chest from too much air. The sun beats down, and I long for the shade of a towering tree.