How After the Quake You Returned to What Was Lost

A brief moment

Éireann Lorsung
Northern lights in blue and red on black sky
Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.

So here you are, and here’s the door, and the door is still open (as if your presence here, now is the reason everyone tried those months or years ago to make sure the doors didn’t jam shut). And the concrete courtyard behind you has been softened by ferns that push through tile, red-brown dots on their undersides. A green shadow, a moving one. Lichen and mold scaling the walls. The whip-thin horsetails sprouting from the drain grate. Pink when they are young.

Inside the archive it’s damp as a conservatory.

There has been no electricity for a long time. There have been no windows for a while. What you can’t know about the changes here you can imagine.

How the first seeds blew in on the wind. How concrete dust piled up. Through every open window gusts of air carried soil; a layer of it everywhere, and the husks cracked around each seed, and the green shoots came through tile and dirt, through paper, through every scrap of the human things that had been left there.

The archive hosts its own weather. A mist that seems to come from the place itself. Where a volume marked DA-DE lies open on the floor, an ungulate picks through the dim on narrow hooves. Animals arise from books that held their memory. The deer’s fine hooves become moss as it bends to drink from a pool between two tilted slabs. Plants cover ruins. The large flat leaves of a sago palm form a rosette and, before your eyes, over and over, each leaf feathers open. Elevator sagging on its strings; the stairs’ tiles crazed by aftershocks. With your eyes closed you can remember the sound of your colleagues walking down them—careful, careful, quick—and the building swaying. These floors were the ones you saw buckle.

Your hand on the metal railing touches lichen before it touches metal. Kudzu overwhelms a stairwell. By the time you find the sixth floor your shoes are soaked. Through glassless windows, a spray of rain. Puddles here have their own tides. They fill hallways. Your desk is there, the broken mug still in three pieces on the floor, among clumps of liverwort. Grout blackened with mold. Where the double pane was, only an aluminum frame. File drawer full of green water. Algae on the surface, fluorescent green spots that shine when the pale light hits them.

There is nothing left here for you, archivist. Nothing from the world that vanished when the ground shook and the wave came across the land. Hybrid species of rice cultivate themselves in fields not far from here, where salt leaves the soil toxic and the smallest creatures die. Animals unseen for a century move among us now. Leave your old room: your handwritten records and your copies, your white gloves and your memory of books. Take the five more flights into the atrium, its smashed glass and tiny soft ferns. Walk out of the humid darkness there, into a new, inhuman light.

Éireann Lorsung is in rural Maine. Her collections Music for Landing Planes By and Her book were published by Milkweed Editions. She is a 2016 NEA Fellow in Prose.
Originally published:
March 11, 2019


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