Fiction from Megan Driscoll
Modes of Reproduction
Pacific Salmon are this funny thing called semelparous.
It was a word Ellie taught me, years before she left. She’d sounded it out by the syllable: sem-el-par-ous. Sem like seminary, where she swore Brian Silver was bound to end up, el like Ellie, what she’d called herself since deciding the name Eleanor was too geriatric, and par like pear the fruit, what we snuck from the top shelf of the cupboard where Mama hid everything that cost more than ten cents a piece. Ous was like us. Like Ellie and me.
Semelparous meant you had a baby and then you just died. That was how Ellie put it. One miraculously underwhelming reproductive event before your heart went kaput. No pulse. Total flatline. You spent all your years growing big and getting strong only to have a fetus suck the life right out of you. The science books called it a tradeoff. Ellie called it a waste. And after the baby, your legs went all skinny and and your toes bent all weird and the rest of your body shriveled right along, just like a raisin. You were born into it, the same as your mother and her mother before her. You had no say in the matter. It was kind of like living in Holden.
“Suzanne Wiley,” Ellie said, jutting her thumb out the window as Suzanne sashayed down the street, leaving the grasses of the meadow swaying in her wake, “is semelparous.”
Suzanne Wiley was like all the other Holden girls. She was pretty in a prudish kind of way. That was Ellie’s word for it. Every girl who held their mother’s hand on the way to church was a prude. Uptight. Rigid. Any word she could find she would tack onto the list. Stiff. Boring. Basically lifeless. They fluffed their hair and fattened their lips only to squirm at the lightest touch of a boy’s hand above their knee. She spelled it out for me again. Sem-el-par-ous. Like Pacific Salmon. They were just like fish.
Ellie liked to tell me how Suzanne would end up just like her mother, who had ended up just like ours. She laid it out for me. Rural life went like this: when she turned eighteen, Suzanne would get a job at a diner; Rosie’s was the only one in town. The Holden boys would go to school or enlist, but Suzanne would be here to date them when they returned. In a few years, she’d be shimmied into her mother’s old wedding dress and heaved down the aisle of St. Joseph’s to meet whichever boy was still unmatched. Twenty-three was the deadline for marriage. Mama had been married at twenty-one.
And after marriage came the babies. The deadline for that was twenty-four. And after babies, you just died. Not in the funeral sense; your blood was still red and pumping. But after the babies your brain withered and your heart failed and your soul drowned in a sea of diapers and baby shit, so you may as well have been buried on the spot.
Suzanne Wiley was semelparous.
And Ellie Reed was not.
Each day of the Indiana summer felt like the hottest I’d ever lived. Maybe it was too soon to say that; it was hardly halfway through June. But if July came to be even hotter, I thought I’d melt into the floorboards. They needed a good waxing anyway.
Any effort Ellie had put into feathering her hair like Farrah Fawcett was in vain. The heat plastered her vanilla baby hairs to the sweat on her cheeks, her forehead glistening with a grotesque brilliance that failed time and again to be dulled by the cotton of her t-shirt. She lay spread eagle on top of my comforter, facing up towards the ceiling, her arms and legs stretched as far away from each other as she could reach them, and her fingers and toes wiggling over the edges of the mattress. I thought she looked funny laying out like that, just like a starfish. I told her so.
“Shut up,” she said, reaching over to draw the window fan closer to her face. That was in vain, too. All the fans did was blow the hot air around into plumes of more hot air. We all knew it. But each fan in the house was turned on anyway, less for the heat than for Mama’s attempt to drown out the static of Daddy’s radio. This week’s chosen loop: Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”. Its hum had echoed through the house since last Saturday. A tribute, Daddy said, even though she’d been gone a while now.
“It’s depressing,” I said.
“Huh?” Ellie asked.
She didn’t question it. She hardly ever did. But I knew if I’d said it a little louder, she’d ask if I wanted to know what was really depressing and she’d list it out for me, regardless of my answer. She’d say the meadow was depressing, and the way tissues turned shit-brown when we blew our noses was even moreso. The cornfields: depressing. The one cinema on Main Street: depressing. The perpetual heat and the endless sky and the lingering smell of tractor exhaust were all so depressing. And Suzanne Wiley being semelparous. That was depressing, too.
I’d asked too many times before. This time I bit my tongue.
Like she could sense him coming, Ellie shot up from the mattress. She turned to me, mouth taut and her eyes wide. “Johnny Harris is coming,” she said.
We scrambled towards the window, leaving piles of dirty socks and crumpled t-shirts in our wake to see who could hit the sill faster, a challenge nearly always forgotten by the time we got there. Johnny Harris was indeed coming, jogging steadily down the road along the edge of the meadow. He, too, left the grasses swaying in his tailwind, almost as elegantly as Suzanne Wiley did before him. He was small for he and Ellie’s age, with slight thighs and knobby knees. He ran every day nonetheless. Daddy liked to say he was running from the imminence of his papa’s beer belly. Ellie didn’t care either way; she thought she’d be gone long before we found out.
“Mama would have my neck if my shorts were that short,” I said, but she didn’t bother to hear me. Ellie did have shorts that short, but they were kept in the back of my underwear drawer; Mama never searched my room the way she searched hers. Ellie would slip the shorts into the bottoms of her bags to change into once she was out of Mama’s sight. She told me all the girls did it. Not the semelparous ones, but the rest of them. I wondered how many that really was.
Ellie watched Johnny Harris his whole way past the house. We both did, in some way, but her eyes were dark and her face was tight the whole time. She watched him to see the muscles of his legs carry the weight above him. I watched him to see what she was so entranced by.
“He’s going around with Suzanne Wiley now,” I told her. I’d heard it straight from the mouth of Suzanne’s sister, who was in the grade below me. She’d even let him touch her above the knee already, but that was as much as we could get out before her lips sealed shut.
“Suzanne Wiley has nothing on me,” Ellie said. And then, once Johnny Harris had hit the corner and disappeared behind the height of the meadow, she turned on me. “Wanna know why?”
She didn’t give me time to answer. She untucked her t-shirt from the waist of her shorts and hiked the hem up past her rib cage. There, printed in a single black line, was the silhouette of a flying bird.
I could have melted into the floorboards, with no help from the heat.
“Mama’ll kill you,” I told her.
“Not if she don’t know,” she said, letting her shirt fall back down and crossing her arms firmly across her chest. She glared down, daring me to say otherwise.
She knew I wouldn’t tell. Not only because I didn’t care to see Ellie skinned, but because she’d tell Mama about the Hustler magazine if I did. Tommy O’Dare had slipped a copy into my lunchbox during recess a week back and I’d kept it out of curiosity; I’d only seen that much skin on Ellie before she’d told me I was weird for staring. Really there was nothing to stare at. We were both flat as boards. Her threat was empty, anyway; Mama would search my room only to find Ellie’s other contraband. Along with her own copy of Ms. magazine was a near life-sized print-out of Gloria Steinhem, a twelve pack of Heineken that had hardly been touched, and her hand-Sharpied cardboard sign reading End The War Before It Ends You among other radical things. That was the word Mama used for it, when we saw the protesters out in the cities on TV, screaming about rights and Vietnam. It was all radical.
“Hurt like hell,” Ellie said, kneading the bird through her shirt. “But they all have them on the coast.”
I didn’t know enough to tell her otherwise. Mama always said that Ellie would never make it to the coast; those schools didn’t accept girls like us, with more mud on our transcripts than letter grades. They fought about it. Mama told Ellie she was only worth the farm and Ellie told Mama she’d walk to the ocean if she had to. Afterwards, they’d both be crying. Mama was scared of Ellie leaving her. Ellie was scared that Mama was right; she’d never get past the meadow.
From under my bed, Ellie dug out the most radical thing of all, what she’d hidden in my room from the start and what I wouldn’t have told Mama for the world: her college application. She held it against her stomach, the way she always did when she needed the assurance that it was still certain, that Mama hadn’t snuck in and found it. She held to it tight. It was almost half filled out now.
Something about seeing Johnny Harris every day made Ellie restless. She told me later it was the routine of it, that Johnny Harris running the same route every day was the epitome of the mundane. And when Johnny Harris was sick of his route, she said, he would try another to stick with for a couple of years. Once he was sick of that one, he’d try another and then another, but with each new route, the time it would take him to get sick of it would shorten until he was changing his mind every day. He’d run the same routes over and again without knowing it, wondering why that rusted old grain silo in that field over there looked so damn familiar. Eventually he would realize he wasn’t changing his route at all. It was all the same, whichever path he took. They all lead to the same dead end.
She would tell me she felt just like Johnny Harris, which was why she had to leave. Ellie was almost eighteen now. She thought her time was running out.
The night Ellie left was the loudest the house had ever been, but it started out like any other. Ellie had gone to the cinema and I sat reading at the dinner table. The kitchen was quiet. Mama was at the stove, poking fork holes in raw potatoes, when she finally solved the puzzle. The contraband she’d pulled from Ellie’s room couldn’t have miraculously disappeared. Magazines didn’t shred themselves. Cut off t-shirts didn’t regrow their hems. Mama had raised the both of us. It only followed that she knew our tricks.
I had been awfully quiet, Mama said. What was in my room?
She sat me on the kitchen floor, rolled up her sleeves, and told me if I moved an inch I’d be scrubbing next week’s potatoes with my own toothbrush. I did as I was told. I always did, even knowing Ellie would have my skin for not fighting the way she did. But I wasn’t Ellie. I just lay back against the kitchen tiles, waiting for whatever came next. Either Ellie came through the front door or Mama got down on her knees, stuck her nose under the edge of my comforter, and fished out just what she was searching for.
When Ellie came in an hour later, her contraband was waiting for her, piled high on the kitchen table. I was still glued to the floor where Mama had left me. Mama sat at the kitchen table, hands folded neatly on the table but feet fidgeting under her seat. The first moment was like all the ones that came before it: silent. I risked a glance at Ellie. She glanced back. And then, knowing the danger we were both in, she dared to smile.
That was when the kitchen exploded.
I thought it was funny, the way Mama and Ellie sounded so much like each other and didn’t even know it. They couldn’t have known; one cut overlapped with the next, which overlapped with the one that came after. Whole sentences were melted down into one big pool of rancor. Nothing they said was new. It was all different ways of shouting things that had already been shouted before. I only heard the tail end of it.
“—good girl like your sister—”
“I’ll pack her up and bring her with me.”
“Jaime is at least grateful—”
Ellie snorted. “She hates you too, ask her, we both do—”
Then came the sound of tearing paper and a quiet sliced between them. I knew right away what Mama had done. Sure enough, when I pulled myself off the kitchen floor to see, she was holding two halves of Ellie’s once whole college application, a piece in both hands. It had almost been finished. Ellie had shown me the week before, beaming.
Mama’s mouth was open, eyes wide like even she didn’t believe what she’d done. If Ellie was a flame, Mama had spat on her own fingers and pinched them over the burning wick. She’d left Ellie to simmer.
And simmer Ellie did. She left the Heineken and her flyers and posters and Gloria Steinhem piled on the table and stalked to her room, slamming the door behind her. The silence was worse than the screaming and for the rest of the night, it was all we heard. Only once did I dare to pass Ellie’s room. I heard a hiccup and knew she was in there, crying.
Ellie slipped into my room sometime in the night. I didn’t hear her coming; I woke only to the added weight compressing the other side of my mattress. She leaned over me, her breath pluming heat into my neck, and put her mouth next to my ear.
“Suzanne Wiley is semelparous,” she whispered. “And you, Jaime Reed—” her finger dug firmly between my shoulder blades “—are not.”
After that, she vanished. Her words disappeared. Her weight lifted all at once from my mattress and she seemed to float back to the door, her toes barely scuffing the floorboards, not even her breath making a sound. I didn’t hear the door shut, but somehow I knew that it had.
In the morning, I woke to the sound of Mama crying and I knew that Ellie was gone.
Suzanne Wiley was indeed semelparous. It was as if she wanted to break the record of all the other Pacific Salmon in Indiana. The day she graduated highschool, a whole three weeks before her eighteenth birthday, she put on an apron for Rosie’s diner and began collecting her coffee tips in a mason jar. Two weeks after that she wore a ring on her finger from none other than Johnny Harris. Her sister said she was already talking babies. How many she wanted, what their names would be. I wondered if they would end up being semelparous, just like her. I thought maybe they had a chance. Mama had been semelparous and Ellie, wherever she ended up, had not.
I didn’t know about me yet.
Now when Johnny Harris ran along the meadow, I didn’t watch. Instead, when I heard him coming every afternoon, I only thought of Ellie. I wondered if the wind sounded the same across her ocean as it did across our meadow. If her gulls sounded just like our finches. I wondered what it smelled like, if it really went on forever the way she swore it did.
Johnny Harris hadn’t forgotten Ellie, though. One day he ran up to me at the mailbox.
“Hey Jaime,” he said.
“How’s your sister?”
I didn’t know what to tell him. Ellie wrote every few weeks. She was in school, but wouldn’t tell me where so Mama couldn’t pack up the car to drive out and bring her home. She wrote to Mama too, sometimes. I didn’t read those letters. All I knew was that when they came, Mama hugged them to her chest like they were Ellie herself. She didn’t cry as much anymore. Maybe Ellie had promised to come back someday the way she’d promised me in her first letter. What she didn’t promise was that, when she did come back, she’d take me out to the coast with her. She didn’t promise to keep me away from all the Johnny Harrises or any of the other boys who wanted to turn me into a fish. She didn’t promise anything anymore.
Suzanne No-Longer-Wiley came over a half year later to deliver a casserole. Mama had been sick for a whole week by then and our refrigerator was already bursting at the seams. I was writing my letter when she walked in. Ellie had given the address of someone who would forward my messages along. Maybe it was in vain; by the time it got to the coast, Mama may have been well again. But I wanted Ellie to come back as much as Mama did. And I wanted her to take me back to the coast with her, just to see what it looked like and what it smelled like. Just to know what the wind on the waves sounded like. After that, I’d come back home.
“Writing to Ellie?” Suzanne asked, kneeling neatly on the other side of the coffee table.
“She’s quite radical, isn’t she.”
Radical. The word Mama used to call her. Not anymore, though. Now she only called her by her name. “She is,” I agreed. “And you’re semelparous.”
Suzanne paused, head tilted and brow drawn in confusion. “Pardon?”
“Sem-el-par-ous,” I sounded out for her, the way Ellie used to for me. “Like Pacific Salmon. You’re just like a fish.”
Her time in my living room thereafter was short lived. Suzanne lifted herself delicately from the floor of the living room, smoothing the pleats of her skirt down with her palms. She wished my mother well and told me to give her regards to Ellie, which I did.
And not eleven months later, after Mama was long buried, Suzanne Wiley gave birth to a baby girl.
Megan Driscoll is a writer based in Eastern Massachusetts. She currently studies Marine Science at the University of Maine, and enjoys writing fiction in her spare time.