Emily Rae Roberts
Excerpt from Delmarva Review Volume 11. Adapted for podcast production by Delmarva Public Radio, Writer's Edition.
Mira had no choice but to be caught up in the moment of silence, sitting on the half-crumpled sheets in apartment 5D, neck craning uncomfortably to stare at the slow rotation of the off-white fan above her. The room, lit only by the late morning sunlight, shrank down to the steady circling of the blades. She had never noticed it before. A symptom of faulty wiring.
There came a sound like crashing from the other side of her bedroom wall, followed by the telltale snarling and snapping of her neighbors. They were wolves, she imagined, or stray and mangy dogs fighting over a scrap in a back alley, harsh barks and low growls muffled only by the thin layer of plaster between them. Her alarm began to beep, and she pulled herself to the edge of the mattress. Step one, turn it off. The beeping ceased but the wolves still scratched at the wall. “Stupid bitch!” Step two, get dressed. Mira stood before fumbling along the clutter of the floor to find a clean-enough pair of pants, a bra forgotten, a shirt that didn’t smell. She put them on methodically, treasonous eyes straying back to the ceiling fan.
Her living room had been overtaken by her research. Piles of books cluttered the floor, topped haphazardly with primary sources she’d scanned and printed for four cents a page. Copies of photographs of people with the smiles bleached from their faces by the unforgiving Western sun stared at her from where she had taped them to the wall.
This morning she remembered to brush her teeth, and she did it with the toothbrush hanging limply from her mouth, too busy scanning the diary of a doctor living in the 1840s describing in detail the medical maladies of the time: snake bites, dysentery, and, the worst of the lot, prairie fever.
At least snakes had the common decency to kill the victim quickly.
But prairie fever relied on the perceived fragility of the mind, striking those on their homesteads all alone, miles away from the nearest neighbor. It ate away at the hope for the future that drove them to the West. Prairie fever infected the very essence of yourself that spurred you to keep moving, living, and dreaming until it all rotted away. Kansas was a breeding ground for the fever. How could it not be? It’s a wasteland, where, in a good year, you eke out enough living to afford to clothe your family in something besides old flour sacks. It’s a place where, in the bad years, the fires tear through the dry grass. Your sod house floods with half a foot of stagnant water. Locusts descend to eat every growing life (you could try to cover your cabbages with cloth, but they’ll eat that too). A sudden blizzard rolls in to cull your herd of cattle. No wonder people went crazy. Bad years outnumbered the good.
Her phone chirped again. Mira placed the book upside down on the porcelain edge and leaned over to spit in the sink, watching with slight satisfaction as the splotch crawled toward the drain.
Five minutes later, with her Jansport backpack slung over her shoulder, she wheeled her old, worn bicycle to the waiting elevator.
When her mother and father had presented the obnoxiously pink, floral bicycle on her thirteenth birthday, she had been thrilled. In the meantime, after years of riding through the suburb’s paved cul-de-sacs and the occasional crash into innocent bushes, the paint had begun to chip and the front “T” attached to the handlebars was permanently bent slightly to the right, a quirk that caused her to gently veer toward the nearest brick wall. But because she loved the stupid thing, and she couldn’t afford a new backpack, much less a car, Mira dutifully climbed aboard and cycled to one of two destinations: school or Beijing Palace, the only good Chinese place within two miles that refused to deliver.
Today she turned north toward campus while her mind wandered to Western trails of 1842.
On the surface, the streets were desolate, except for the indifferent tumbling of litter, moving steadily along with the wind, like Mira, as if having an appointment to get to and no time for the others around them. But beneath the surface of calm, the city was alive, thriving as the prairie does, with life hidden beneath the careful shelter of the waving grasses and blooming flowers. Instead of prairie dogs and beetles, rats skittered in the shelter of alleyways and cockroaches traced hidden highways in the towering brick buildings, driven into apartment walls by the dropping temperatures.
But, much like the prairie, life was a tender thing, burning out as readily as it had sprung up blazing.
Without warning, two hissing, screeching tomcats tumbled out of a nearby alleyway, all puffed fur and bared fangs. Instinctively, Mira jerked her handlebars. By pure luck, she managed to avoid the pair. Skirting around the two, she turned her head to appraise the showdown happening at 11:42 a.m. It looked like the ginger was winning, but the black was scarred and scrappy.
She wondered idly, as she rounded the next corner, if she would ever see the loser again. Probably not. Such was the way of life, after all.
It still felt wrong to pass room 106, standing like a ghost town with its darkened windows and bolted door. Mira knew if she was to press her forehead against the cool glass she would see the familiar room and that old oak desk with most of its knickknacks standing guard as they gathered dust. Her current advisor’s office was nothing like it, cold and clinical with its burnished silver accents and the bookcases that stared down at Mira. She pulled herself away from the office, continuing her journey, which grew more tiring step after step as she dragged herself up the stairs that seemed like mountains.
Dr. Hymshaw was waiting, all crisp shirt and heavy brows, staring up at her as she hesitantly knocked on the doorframe. “Come in, Ms. Reed.”
Dr. Stanton never called her that. She would have stood up from her cluttered work space, face brightening as she dragged out “Mira” like it was taffy and offered her a cup of tea and her choice of chocolate from the George Washington bowl. Why don’t you pick George’s brain, Mira? Hymshaw could bludgeon her with the way he said Reed.
Mira sat down cautiously, swinging her backpack around and brandishing it like a torn fabric shield on her lap. He looked at her and she saw smoke on the horizon, the dangerous wisps that spoke of coming ruination. She could already feel the panic rising up in her throat. Her fingers itched to gather up the water-soaked flour sacks and beat it back, those flames that threatened everything she lived for. Instead, her hand reached back to stroke her auburn hair, and Mira realized, belatedly, that she had forgotten to brush her hair in the morning when she found a matted hunk near her neck.
“Have you decided your argument?” he asked. The movement of his folding hands caught her attention.
“No. I’m still reading. But I think I’m going to rely on prairie fever as a frontier epidemic. I’m thinking about how it’s not just the physical environment that makes people lose it.”
This was not true. She had decided her argument, but that was back with Stanton, who nodded her head energetically whenever Mira had let slide she was considering prairie fever as the subject of her thesis. A gentle prod to the right path might accompany it, but Stanton had always listened in a way that made Mira’s words feel worth something.
“What do you mean?”
“When you boil down the instances of prairie fever, it’s just psychotic breaks. But people have meltdowns in the modern era, in cities and suburbs and in clinical doctor’s offices. Depression can happen anywhere for any reason. It can’t be just the emptiness. It has to be something more. A human factor that the prairie taps into. Some phenomena that can be explained using the prairie.”
“Yes,” Dr. Hymshaw nods. “But Ms. Reed, this is history. It is not the social sciences or psychology. We don’t answer these questions. I understand your previous advisor encouraged you to go beyond the span of our field, but if you want to have a successful thesis review, you need to focus more on the time, on the primary sources. Do they support this?”
“Well,” the graying man said, thin lips disappearing into the set line of his mouth, “then you don’t really have an argument at all. I’m going to send a couple of essays to you. Maybe seeing what other historians are arguing could help you finalize your thesis. But, as a reminder, your deadline is in two weeks. After that, we will need to begin serious prepping for your review in May. You’re already very behind.”
She could see the flames now, in her mind, eating their way through the dry grasses toward the work she had carefully cultivated since she had graduated from undergrad two years back. “Yeah.”
Mira had missed six calls from her mother. Had it really been four days since they’d spoken? Her thumb hovered hesitantly over the green phone icon as she slowed her descent down the ornate front stairs of the history department. She tucked it to her side before venturing toward the place where she had chained her bike to a streetlamp. What was there even to talk about? Hello, yes, I didn’t kill a cat, so I think I had a good day.
Or maybe she was having a bad day. It was hard to tell. But there was only a wheel chained to the post.
Mira glanced up and down the street. No bicycle.
She didn’t want to talk to her mother, but her voice still played in her ears. Mira, you need to quit it with this thing. There’s a whole lotta history. Gotta be somethin’ less depressing. But it wasn’t just something, was it? No, like she had whined harshly five days ago. It was everything.
She kicked the wheel out of spite. Who even takes a bicycle with only one wheel? It isn’t even a bicycle at that point. Sighing, Mira bent to unchain the lonely wheel and instead looped it through the handle at the top of her backpack, leaving it to dangle there and anchor her more firmly to the ground with its insistent weight. It deserved a proper burial, that only piece left.
The temperature dropped steadily, the January skies harboring thick, gray clouds that threatened and menaced the people below. They were the kind of gray that warned you to buy milk and bread and peanut butter at the store, just in case.
Mira was reminded of a story she had read, years ago, as she drudged in the direction of home. Maybe it had started all of this. Maybe not. Like many of the things she read these days, it took place on the Kansas prairie. A young woman heard every night for weeks the howling of encircling wolves, driven by hunger to the promise of her little sod house. Her husband was gone somewhere. She was alone.
And one night, when she heard the wolves through the dirt walls, she left the gun on the table, flung open the doors, and walked out into the void of the dark flatlands where the beasts tore her into pieces. Another casualty of the fever.
Mira clenched her phone harder in her fist. How were they all so easily infected? Who would throw themselves to the mercy of hungry wolves?
But in a way she understood, and that understanding hit her with the force of a bullet. It left her floundering, tumbling until her mind was pinned to the ground by some stronger beast. A wolf, or maybe a feral cat.
Mira stopped in the center of the sidewalk, watching the people part around her seamlessly. Her cellphone threatened to fall to its death as her fingers went limp, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. The others stretched all around her, heads bobbing in an undulating wave of movement. There was no beginning, no end, just the endless stretch as far as she could see in front of her. She was choked by it.
This was her frontier, a barren prairie of concrete and glass.
The snow began falling, thick and heavy, dampening the sounds of the people and Mira’s slow footsteps as she lumbered, dazed and sluggish, toward home.
Mira took the stairs. The burn of her thighs and back, and the slapping of the one loose bicycle tire, felt good. There was the number 5, bold and shiny in cheap chipped copper plating. Pushing open the door, she entered her hallway, walking slowly and leaving in occasional intervals a drop of white from the snow. It had begun to melt when she started her ascent, and it soaked into what it could and sloughed off what it couldn’t.
Mindlessly she trudged past A, past B, but stilled when she heard the wolves growling and snapping in apartment C. She hardly registered her own raised hand, poised to knock. Dare she? No, no. Not now. Not with the cold wetness soaking into her bones.
There was 5D, waiting for her. And when she opened the door, she was greeted by the symptoms of her own fever. Papers strewn across every available surface. Black-and-white photos and her own scribbled notes taped to the wall.
Mira began to shake, the cold replaced with something warmer, a fire in her stomach. Her backpack slid to the floor, the metallic clang ringing empty in her ears. Her movements were staccato.
The winds howled. Somewhere a black tomcat shivered in the snow, scarred and bleeding, but alive.
The woman walked to the window, fiddling with the latch and tugging, straining, lifting until it opened with a pop, and a gust of wind and cold surged into the space. Papers fluttered on the walls, slid off coffee tables, and scattered across her floor. Trembling hands gathered the nearest pile and with a cry flung them out.
They floated, listless and lifeless on the winter wind, blending with the white so that it was all she could see out there. Nothing¾not a building, not a person, not a tree or a bird or a cat. Just the white. It was blinding, but the blindness brought no calm. Her fingers ached with cold from where she gripped the sill. She yanked the window down, body shaking from more than the damp. And when she left her apartment, wandered back outside to the streets, the fever still burned hot in her stomach and pricked at her eyes.
It took her an hour to salvage what she could.