Ghost Towns: A Cultural Resources Survey Report from the 2020-21 Field Season, by Sara E. Palmer

In the first spring I hide from the plague in a pale rain above Schet-cheet-qua-chub,
fading into the timber at the end of the world.
I owed that hill something, even before it hid me,
and I think it took it.
łaska khalakwati-stik, łaska t’uɁan,
they are older and harder than me
and they can take damn near anything
(except chainsaws)
casting up new leaders, raising their hands, long arms bent at the elbows, toward the sun
or what passes for sun, east of Suballihalli and west of the moon,
pushing the rot out and building buttresses, structural complexity,
cavities and habitat,
scar lobes rounding over like pearls, closing in on their damage.
Cedar is the cathedral of the woods.
łaska miłayt and it’s good to think that something can,
that spring.

munk-tunus na təmtəm, sik na təmtəm, pi na kəmtəks wik na miłayt, yakwa, ałqi.
nayka siyaxus, wik łaska nanich.
I write to my lawyer: he will draw up papers so when it gets me
there will be a trust for the children with enough money, between my savings and the insurance,
that they can keep the house.

Days pass and hayu mashachi. I hang myself from the trees and sleep.
I eat nettles, oysters, fiddleheads, morels,
fried with shelf-stable bacon and rehydrated potatoes
on a sooty fire of unleaded gasoline.

The plague creeps around the pumps at the State Patrol station,
drifts uneasily down the Duwamish.
I slide through town at seventy-four miles per hour and do not note my speed
until I pass the convention center and slow down.
I have to believe there are still some limits, even at the end of the world.

In the cottonwoods at Bodie, weeks later, there’s a tricycle
or part of it, in the leaf litter,
a wheel oxidizing into the roots next to empty cans, broken bottles,
solarized fragments of sun-scarred lives.
The deer come down in the dark, huffing and blowing their way toward Toroda Creek,
angry to smell me lying where nothing like me has slept for a century.
Away uphill I hear the tinging clanking neck-bell of the bitch cow, grazing
as the herd moves.
She scares me more than the deer do.
What’s left of the miners scares me not at all:
bones of houses; the rusting mass of a sprung mattress, heaved against the wall to rot;
a series of terrifying holes that end under water, in the dark.

It’s ulali season and I am outside more nights than I am in.
On the last day of summer, as was prophesied, the bad wind comes from the east
and we lean against it.
My prophets have increment borers, stained Carhartts, shovels, dirty yellow Nomex shirts,
ancient helicopters
drip torches
red trucks
a fondness for terrible puns
and they know that at least when the world is ending
the overtime will be good.

I pay my lawyer but don’t sign the will.

I cry on a hill over the Columbia in October
where the sage smoked for fifty miles,
the biggest smudge, a great call to whoever’s listening,
broad-cast and high, in the wind,
munk-smuk west over the mountains to Seattle, where it settles in for weeks,
the land drifting into town as a fine powder, sitting on the front steps,
saying hey there, how are you, I hear real estate prices are up now you’re
choking to death on your own spit.
The dead rise up, singing, out of the side of the hill
so loud even a white girl can hear them.
Reception is good since they put in that new cell tower at the south end of the reservation.
They’re still here, I say, into my pink telephone, they’re still here,
the fire moved so fast in that wind, there was no time to get a dozer line in
and they’re all still here.
The dead say hello, and also could you not.

When the weather breaks I go home, looking for bodies,
what’s left of bodies,
when they’ve been rendered into dust.
Wearing a white suit, rubber boots, two pairs of gloves, pink-filtered respirator,
and a calm and professional demeanor
I distinguish between the ashes of your singlewide
and the ashes of your husband
and I pick him out, with the tip of my trowel
and I pick out the little heart-shaped box he gave you
the day you both realized it was love.
I hand him back to you in a plastic zipper bag.
We’re both crying and I’m jealous, wondering how I will ever find someone to cry for me like that
if I never come out of the field
if I spend my life in the powdered bones
of dead men and dead trees.

It’s a bad year for chanterelles, it’s a bad year for everything, we are all covered in mud,
full of soft spots,
and fry up tasting of rot and frustration.
I take a week off at the solstice and cry every day
until my head aches and my children worry.

I hide from the plague over Nuxwt’iq’em in the second spring,
the lights of Bellingham and the stars sparkling in the dark below my hammock,
the elders in the woods, bent sheltering arms, heavy-trunked,
speaking languages I don’t, yet, languages maybe I won’t get.
ntsayka kapshwala łaska lalang.
My paint and my flagging tape mark out half a millennium of plague.
Little porcelain tracks, green arabesques and tiny blue bamboo shoots, a near-complete crock,
the litter of colonies we forgot we made.
I am the virus and the master’s tool,
I am watching from behind the trees
and my cutting teeth kick out sawdust in the cold morning.

I watch the cedar:
ya miłayt, for longer than you would think she could, for decades or maybe centuries,
the bark washing off her gray heart; she collapses from the top, in the wind, ice-broken,
worried by the weather,
each piece sagging softly into soil,
mossy and green, red and rich, still full of volatiles, fragrant, crumbling,
carbonizing in the hot east wind,
and her own seeds nestle into her, her children consume her,
rooting in and reaching out and becoming her
in a way I think is familiar to most mothers.

In April I send my eldest child,
into the ash to plant trees.

Sara E. Palmer is the senior state lands archaeologist with the State of Washington. She lives in the woods and keeps books, children, worldly goods, a very good dog, and a large unreasonable cat in a house in Olympia. She owes her chinuk wawa to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the Chinook Indian Nation, which should be federally recognized.

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