When I get the first email I think it’s some sort of role-play, a scavenger hunt set up by the conference organizers for participants between presentations. I had only arrived that morning, a day after everyone else, and had spent my time sleeping my way into a jet-lagged cage. Now it’s past midnight and I am wide awake.
At the beach at night, there is a red tide.
The second email comes through quickly, as if the sender sent the first before they were done.
I hope this email finds you well. At the beach at night, there is a red tide. Don’t eat the mussels, don’t eat the seaweed rotting on the sand, or the belly-up fish, or the night herons that watch you watch the glow that cascades with every crashing wave.
Its prohibitions are dramatic, less controlling than they are pleading.
Don’t poke the carcass of the cormorant, washed up and split, ribs out. Stop tugging at the wing, don’t slip the vertebrae into your mouth, don’t crack it between your teeth like a nut, stop, stop relishing the sour tang of sun-fermented sinew as if it’s pickled fruit flesh. Now look what you’ve done. You’ve swallowed the red tide. Everyone knows bird bones are hollow; where do you expect to keep it all? Your bones are already full.
If you don’t want to sink, send this to 10 of your ancestors within 12 hours.
I didn’t know this type of chain email still existed. The background of the email is black, the text a harsh green. The first sentence is a smaller font size. All of it is bold, italicized. I am fond, for a moment, of these ambiguous middle school threats. But, as when I was thirteen, unease quickly eats away at me.
While I’m not superstitious, I’ve never been good with risk. I am a people pleaser, always reaching for the safest minimum.
I can’t, I write. I can’t do that. I only know of four. Is four enough?
I type, I’m sorry, at the end, delete it, retype it, delete it.
I sit for five minutes, ten. I tug on the leg hairs peeking out from the ankle band of my pajamas then pull on a loose thread from the sheets. They are white, starchy, and warm from my sleep. The laptop fan whirrs, then the minifridge with the coffee maker on it, then the AC under the tightly curtained window I can’t figure out how to open. The AC flutters a photocopied map tucked under the coffee maker that says the beach is a short walk along an old asphalt service road. I check my email. No response. I don’t feel panicked, exactly, but I do feel a little nauseous. Fresh air, I think. Sea air. A plum to settle the stomach. I take my little plastic baggie of umeboshi from the minifridge and tuck it into my pocket.
It’s night, and I walk to the beach, and there is a red tide: barely there when the tide draws out, surging red when the waves crash back. I press an umeboshi into my mouth. It gives me the puckering sea, the tide-wrack buzzing with sand flies, the sting inside my cheeks yoked to the sting at my quick-bitten ankles, my hands swollen with salt air. Inside and out I am wearing the ocean and its shore. I savor the equilibrium for only a few minutes when my foot bumps a darker lump against the dark sand.
There is the cormorant, just like the email said. Feathers slick, abdomen open.
I pull out my phone and the blue glow devours the red tide. I’m sorry, I think, as I forward the email to my grandfather, Tatsuo, dead before I was born. He died before email, too, but I take my best guess—I hope emailing the deceased, like any prayer, is more about intention than accuracy. I suck the pit of the umeboshi, clamp it hard between my teeth.
When I blink away the phone glow, I find the red tide in my peripheral vision first before it slowly blooms back to center. The moon picks out a glinting vertebra. I accidentally swallow the plum pit. It goes down hard, pointed end like a cat scratch raking the length of my esophagus, and I know I won’t choke but I don’t know that I won’t be hurt. I look up at the moon, full, massage my throat. I feel the shape of the pit in my esophagus even though I know it must have reached my stomach. There’s the rabbit in the moon, crater-soft animal. The plum pit settles like a hollow fist.
I leave the cormorant and walk back to the hotel, eating another umeboshi to try to pad the inside of my stomach so the pit will stop scraping. My email is empty.
I keep my eyes closed when I wake in the morning. Golden-green light through my eyelids and a plum pit, slimy now, in my mouth. A kelp twilight, my tongue laves the pit humid and clean the way a doe licks a fawn.
My body is so heavy. I drag my phone across the sheets and am about to forward the email to my deceased great-grandmother, Sono—Garden, says the internet translation—there one census and gone the next. I think of my grandfather and a tired set of useless questions that I am embarrassed about: would he have hated me? Loved me? Validated me simply by being alive? Did he also like plums? Does he invalidate me by being dead? Why am I so fucking lonely when I think about him? Any of them. I am sick of asking questions that have no answer, sick of dissecting this into smaller and smaller pieces until it’s lost all semblance of itself. The whole severed half, re-severed, re-severed.
Between one moment and the next the pit is gone, slipped down my throat, a fish down an overwide gullet. I barely feel it. No, no, not again.
I delete the draft I was going to send my great-grandmother.
While I rub my stomach and think of what to eat that will gentle the pits, I get two emails.
One is from my chain mailer.
Is four enough? Do four bodies sink a ship or do ten? Four might be lighter but ten can do more work bailing the water. Four might not spark the sink while ten can keep the sink afloat. You have 6 hours left.
Attached is a photograph from last night made grainy by the low light. I recognize myself the way you know your own handwriting. In it, I am crouched next to the cormorant, hand caught in moonlight while stuck into a silhouetted spray of feathers. I can’t say whether I crouched or not. I don’t think I touched it. Wouldn’t I remember? My hand prickles with the phantom catch of salt-stiff feathers. I drop the phone on the bed and shake out my hand; could be a pinched nerve, the staticky reawakening of my fingers.
Despite the photo, I don’t feel like anyone is watching me. It feels like the other shoe has finally dropped and there is a terrible relief. I am being asked to prove my existence through the existence of those before me, and I am failing, falling, as I always knew I would. In a way I feel let go, pried from a clenched fist, as though a breach has opened, one of those massive underwater trenches, and I am becoming heavy enough to drift to the bottom. Things that far down don’t have eyes, don’t have bones, don’t have time in the same way.
The second email is what I feared: a bounceback from my grandfather’s never-conceived email address.
User address not valid. Account not found. Please check your spelling. Could you repeat that? What was the first letter? N or M? Mother’s side or father’s? You don’t look like—
I decide to pretend this is his response. If I reply like it’s him, like he’s out there somewhere, dead or alive, it might count for the chain mail. Immediately I am queasy. Okay, okay, I say to the plum pits, pressing my thumb hard against my stomach, I won’t, I won’t.
I go to the hotel’s continental breakfast hoping to cushion the scraping in my stomach. Cold hard bagel, cold hard cream cheese, cold soft banana. I’m so cold. After, in the bath, my girlfriend calls.
“Hey love,” she says. It’s afternoon for her, a lazy day off. She’s just woken up, her voice all warmth, and I sink into the water because I can’t sink into a phone line. It strikes me that not all sinkings are bad. “How’s the conference?”
“My stomach hurts,” I tell her, “I skipped the first morning session.”
A rustle: her rolling over or getting dressed. I like that she never puts me on speaker.
“How are you feeling now? Do you feel sick-sick or like it’s something you ate?”
The plum pits grind together in the core of me. “Probably something I ate.”
The bathtub is too small for any part of me to float. I have to choose between my shoulders exposed or my knees, but my whole body feels cupped by the water.
She makes a sympathetic Mmm and faintly I can hear her peeing, then louder the flush of the toilet. She starts brushing her teeth, coarse, rhythmic. I want to crawl into the phone like a hermit crab into a shell, the shell cupped in her palm. I miss her so much that I can’t tell her about the chain email. I don’t want to let it into the space she’s made between me in the hotel bathroom and her in our home bathroom. The chain email is ragged, gaping, hungry even as it builds a photograph and tells me not to suck the marrow and splinter the bones. Is four enough? Pathetic. Full of holes I can’t fix, a mouth I can only feed ghosts.
She spits in the sink, which I know because I hear a rush of water from when she leans close to the faucet. “Did you throw up?”
I shake my head. “No, I don’t think I’m going to, it just hurts.”
The faint background whirr of the bathroom fan goes off. She’s in another room, the kitchen, or the dining room. The bathroom-spacetime-overlap between us folds closed. I’m in the hotel bathtub, alone. My eyes grow hot and my throat gets so tight it’s as if I have a whole pileup of plum pits in there, ten unreachable ancestors stacked and wedged, muscles fluttering to push them down like a snake working down a rat.
“Try to eat a banana if you can, drink lots of water, take a nap. You’ll be home soon. Don’t worry too much about the conference, okay? I love you. I gotta go, but send me some pictures if you feel up to it. And keep me updated about your stomach.”
“Text me when you go to bed tonight?”
She laughs a little. “I will. Bye.”
“Love you. Bye.”
After I hang up, I bring my knees to my chest, wrap one arm around and squeeze myself to them in a tight hug—breasts pancaking against my thighs, roll of stomach tucked between—but the pressure is in all the wrong places. It echoes hugging another person, a separate body, not like I’m the one being held.
Eventually the bath water cools. I weigh what to do next. I’m here for work, my only obligation is my name on the attendee list. No one will notice if I’m not there. I decide to skip the afternoon session of the conference and instead return to the beach.
I had last been there at night, so it takes a few minutes to slot together evening shapes with daytime textures. Low sand dunes dotted and smeared with scrub and succulents rise and fall further back, rolling themselves into a single, inclined slope close to the water. The dune grass ripples sluggishly in the breeze, a long, wet green-gray fur. The cormorant is, of course, still there. Something about the initial chain email has been bothering me. Squatting by the bird, I re-read it. Everyone knows bird bones are hollow. It’s not wrong, exactly, but—cormorants are heavy. Their bones are dense. They float low. They don’t sink: they dive.
The bird is all dried out sinew and snapped feathers, a mess, bones and body a hundred shades of brown, copper, black, ivory, a burst antique cabinet. I start to carefully pull it apart. When I was a kid, I assembled auguries all the time. Little bones teased out of owl pellets, leaves bitten to lace by caterpillars, a fingernail-wedge of slate amongst a rabble of granite. I could think without thinking, focused on some nowhere zone, arrange them quickly and easily, look at them and know something was there, was coming, would happen and all I had to do was catch up to it. That morning’s breakfast a double egg yolk shot through with a red thread of blood: later, my hands hosting twin scrapes from slipping on a river rock.
Some bones are looser than others so I only take what’s easiest. Grainy with sand, smooth and sharp where tendons dried and shrunk like molded plastic shards. I don’t try to arrange the bones in any particular order, just pluck them out and drop them. I allow one deep breath of cold ocean air wrapped in wavering sunlight. I look down.
I can’t parse anything from it. A surge of shame for being disappointed, disappointed at being ashamed; a house of cards collapses softly at the base of my throat. I had hoped I would know the meaning somewhere in my body, the way I used to. Looking at the empty augury of the cormorant’s bones I feel only what I already had: the plum pits ache below my belly button, mimicking hunger so precisely it simmers a familiar nausea. A nausea that begs another plum.
I take a picture of my failed augury and am about to send it to my girlfriend. She wouldn’t think it strange, but it would make her worry. Sometimes it is a pleasure to be worried about. I like to know she’s thinking of me. But not for this. And… if I sent the failed augury, I know I wouldn’t be able to not tell her about the chain email. The open mouth of one failure will spill the next and the next. I wouldn’t know how to explain to her it’s okay, it’s what I deserve. She can trace her ancestors back and back and back, before a census, chase their branching lines into a buckshot of European countries. I love her, and she knows me, has seen the rubble of my heritage, but she doesn’t live in the ruin.
I close the picture and in the camera roll see the image the chain mailer sent me, of myself digging through the cormorant. I don’t remember saving it from the email. I zoom in and out, stare and stare until, suddenly, I see it. Oh. Oh, that’s me. I knew it was me but—but it’s me now, moments ago. The image is night and right now it is day, but there it is, the last piece of the augury my own entire self, arranged next to the bird and the sand and the tide as carelessly and fatefully as my child-self’s hand dropping a fistful of maple seeds and tracking where they land.
For too many frantic heartbeats my knees are locked. I had folded them under me, the way I used to pretend I was drinking tea with my dead grandfather, used to pretend his spirit steadied my hands when I poured. It was an old childhood ritual spawned from the echoing hunger to tether myself to someone I never knew who surely must possess the key locking away everything I lacked. I shift into a crouch, align myself fully with the chain email photo, hold the pose for a slowing heartbeat. My feet have fallen asleep and they buzz like a swarm of bees. Nausea, adrenaline. I sit back onto the sand, flex my ankles at my useless pile of bones. Palming the next plum in my pocket I eat it before I can stop myself.
My mouth floods with saliva, tangy beyond measure. It is so comforting. The tide is pulled out, leaving tiny air holes in the sand. The strangest things turn us inside out. I check the time on my phone—my six hours to forward the chain email to my ancestors are nearly up. I know they existed, my grandfather, his mother, his brother, their father, all the way back. They existed, but I don’t have their ghosts; I just have me at eight pretending to pour tea, me at eleven doing auguries, me at thirteen sending chain emails to all of my friends—never enough, any of it. Me last night, me seconds ago.
My phone buzzes on the sand: six hours, expired. Sink or float. I don’t want to feed my ghosts to the chain mail. Too much of me is defined by them. I don’t love these voids, I don’t love them the way I love my girlfriend, or clouds before a storm, or the rabbit in the moon, or the smell of mint crushed between forefinger and thumb. I don’t love them the way I love the umeboshi in my mouth.
There are many ways I could say it. I don’t love them, and I can’t get rid of them, and I would be bereft without their emptiness. I’ve torn nearly all the meat from the umeboshi. Sink or float. Dive, dive, dive. The plum is a pit rattling against my teeth; I take it out, press it back into my palm. Turn off the buzzing alarm, delete the chain email, keep the photographs of both auguries: my own and the one of me. It is not resolution. It is not reconciliation. It is a record of impact—a watery crater from a hungry cormorant, a bruise I can’t help but press. It is so tender.