Last night I dreamed I tried to walk a tiger on a leash. On the light rail to work I still feel the tug of the great cat, my stomach resisting the forward momentum as the train car lurches past tarp-covered tents, piled-up bicycle wheels, a woman on a curb petting the head of a hairless dog next to possessions or trash.
Across from me, a small girl with damp lips and chubby legs sits sideways to face her big sister.
“Can I kiss you?” she asks her sister.
“No, you can just touch me.”
My own older sister might have said the same thing to me when we were small. She had a clear and specific understanding of how to live, from the earliest age. She was a person who believed in exercise but cheated at yoga, playing the videos in the living room while she toggled between neck rolls and stirring some aspirational vindaloo on the stove, wiggling her toes instead of mindfully breathing. Her milk-blue teeth looked irradiated, constantly upstaging her fine nose and delicate freckles the color of a burnt sienna crayon. She called me on Sundays to suggest soup recipes and Netflix shows and subtly imperious ways to cold-shoulder my coworker who she felt disrespected my skills. One wall of her bedroom was reserved for her Intentional Life Planning board, where post-it notes for Work for Reproductive Justice jostled against Remodel Downstairs Bath and Visit Barcelona.
That was before her Danish Modern cottage slid down the hillside in a wreckage of mud that buried her and everything she owned. Wildfires had consumed the vegetation, then a deluge of rain swept the hill bare of twenty homes. Her body was recovered and we cremated her so our parents in St. Louis had something to bury and I could scatter her in the forested park where she power-walked each weekend. The text strings and photos on my phone froze in time and I found I had no one to share emojis or commiserate about the price of almonds or confirm that I exist as a human body in this world.
I’m not as capable as she was. At social gatherings— a holiday party for my department, a fundraiser my sister pressed me to attend— I avoid the buffet table with its treacherous kale leaves and dipping suces and unclear protocols around fork vs. finger foods. A crowded drinks table can intimidate me into dehydration. Afterward I regret everything I tried or failed to say. “You are the smartest person I know,” my sister would say, the cucumber scent of her lotion wafting as she waved her hands in exasperation. “Who knows more about Pacific coast zooplankton than you do? So why can’t you manage a conversation?”
Here’s the thing about zooplankton: They are weak swimmers who drift with the currents. Each disruption in their environment changes everything for them.
The train stops in the oldest part of the city, where historic buildings provide single room occupancy and free hot meals. We wait for an old man in a motorized wheelchair to board the train, and a city smell wafts in—damp cement and restaurant garbage and an undercurrent of sun-hardened dog shit.
This is one of the places in the city where our future collapse is most near, one of the places we enact our cycles of destruction and repair. Above the city, the debris of my sister’s life has already been hauled away and the hillside is propped up with plastic webbing and concrete retaining walls.
Sometimes I think: It’s hard to figure out how to live when the world is falling apart. But then I think the opposite: It’s hard to worry about the world falling apart when we are so busy solving the important questions of our days, like: Do we really need to presoak our beans? Will anyone care about my article on the feeding habits of pyrosomes? Am I the only one who wakes in the night and for a moment feels that the entire world has drifted away?
But so far, the world and its self-propelled ecologies continue. Beyond routine, what reason do I have to get up on a Sunday? My sister might say: The world is important, there are important things to do. But what world, what things? You’re important, she might say. But to whom, for what?
The train stops under a big-leaf maple overhanging a parking lot crowded by food carts and we are in the shadow of its dark rustling leaves, an errant black branch almost touching our window. The small girl stands in her seat and a tendril of spit stretches from her open mouth. Her face wavers between interest and worry.
I remember when I was a child lying on the ground looking up at the wide canopy of an oak tree in our yard. Once, I felt a sudden reversal of vantage point, like the earth I clung to loomed above the tree’s web below, a web that might catch me or let me slip through. The moment passed when I sat up and saw our house planted there, but I never forgot this feeling of a world upended.
What I can’t allow myself to think about is how my sister died. Whether she let herself slide or grasped any passing thing, any tree or post left standing. I can’t think about her shiny hair and excellent grammar and pet names for hummingbirds that visited her feeders— all of her washed away by rain, buried in mud, burned to ash, scattered by wind.
This will happen to us all, I reassure myself— each of us becoming everything else. The train pulls away and the small girl wobbles. The older girl steadies her back. I stand by the exit and the train exhales me and already my mind is moving forward to the zooplankton that must be counted and already I am forgetting that the world has fallen, is falling, will fall.
GILLIAN LEICHTLING works in social/health research in Portland, OR. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in jmww and Waxwing Literary.