We were living at the far western edge of St. Louis, within walking distance of a twenty-three acre lake that disappeared mysteriously overnight. Millions of gallons of water vanished, and by mid-morning all that was left was a brown pool over a sinkhole, as if a giant had pulled the plug at the deep end of a bathtub and the water was still making its way down the drain. Dying fish, mostly big bass, flopped around on the muddy ground trying to stay wet. Herons and vultures fed on them, pecking their bodies apart, gorging themselves on the unexpected windfall. The fish that had managed to escape the birds’ feast lay gasping for oxygen, their gills working desperately. Other fish lay lifeless and untouched, rotting in the sun and heat. A rancid odor wafted towards the highway across an open field, away from the residential neighborhoods that made up the southern, western, and eastern shores.
The disappearance of Lake Chesterfield made the national news, and throngs of people from all over the city came to gawk at the sight. Suddenly we had media vans stationed at the entrance to our subdivision. The city sent cops, who reserved a section of curb for the television crews with orange cones and then stood in the street directing traffic. Cameramen and reporters jockeyed for vantage points in order to tape their segments. Satellites, mounted atop media vans, uplinked images. A slew of SUV’s and other family cars arrived to bottleneck the street. Our neighbors complained about cars blocking their driveways. They left angry notes under window-shield wipers and said the cops weren’t ticketing fast enough.
I stood in the living room and watched as our subdivision flashed across the television screen. There was the Club House with the phony Cape Cod façade, the tennis courts with neat plastic turf, the lighthouse in miniature, the adult-only pool and the family pool that allowed people with kids. Seeing the television images of dank earth, the beaks ripping fish flesh, my stomach soured. My husband, Simone, and I had recently discovered we were expecting another child. We were struggling to make ends meet, fighting about childcare and whether or not St. Louis would become our permanent home.
Our neighbor, Mr. Emmett, a forest ranger who worked at Carondelet Nature Park came to the door. “You’ve got to see it with your own eyes,” he said.
I went upstairs and told the kids to put their shoes on.
My children and I were in the habit of exploring the lake’s wooded side on foot. Several times a week, we would walk over to skip stones and sip honeysuckle from a bush that grew just beyond a small inlet with an arching bridge. They liked to play Billy Goats Gruff when we crossed and always fought over who got to run ahead, go down to the shore, and assume the troll’s role. They sometimes settled the argument by recruiting me. Then I would hurry into position, deepen my voice to yell the lines—“Trip-trap, trip-trap! Who dares to cross over my bridge?”—and grab at their ankles through the slats as they passed screaming.
When it was hot and muggy, as it often is in St. Louis, the thick canopy on the wooded side provided shade. We traveled up and back on the same shore rather than circling the lake for this reason, but also because retracing our steps allowed us to avoid traffic on the far side of the water. The road into our neighborhood passed on one side of the lake alone; the honeysuckle trail was abutted by woods, the backsides of homes obscured by trees. We took our time on these walks, enjoyed stopping beneath the tall oaks. Most days, we had the trail to ourselves.
Now the human activity around the lake had exponentially grown and our familiar and quiet routine felt invaded. We left our house and walked quickly. My oldest daughter, Michaela, paused at the trailhead when we arrived, curious about the cop directing traffic at the corner, but I held onto the hands of my younger two kids and kept moving. When we passed the bridge and the little faux lighthouse came into view, my eldest was still straggling behind; I called for her to hurry. Reeds and other water plants were exposed along banks normally covered with emerald green water. Carrion appeared as we neared the lake’s drain. From the muddy shore I could see the brown pool ahead. The bulk of people, locals and visitors, had congregated nearest the sinkhole, across from each other on either side of the lake’s thinnest section.
We arrived at the edge of the crowd. I dropped my two little kids’ hands and stopped. I could see an ancient shopping cart at the center of the lakebed. It was tipped on its side and had algae strung over it like tinsel. The bones of a large, picked-apart fish jutted up in the air near one of its wheels.
I squeezed by a cyclist to get closer. Sidling up, I heard a group mothers talking. “It doesn’t smell as bad as I thought,” one of them said.
Another pointed north, saying, “It does on that side of the lake—better pray the wind doesn’t change.”
They grimaced. Their kids blew bubbles with chewing gum and turned cartwheels in the grass. The mothers told them not to wander off, then turned to coo over a chubby newborn. Taking in the party-like atmosphere, I considered the capacity a little carnage has to attract and enliven a crowd.
We overheard several conversations about how much the disaster was going to cost the Lake Chesterfield Homeowner’s Association. Wanting to ask questions, I searched the crowd for neighbors, but we’d only been living in St. Louis for two years and I didn’t recognize anyone. I saw an athletic woman with long black hair and thought of Toke—my only Navajo friend in the Midwest. She had moved back to New Mexico almost as soon as she’d moved in.
Suddenly my nine-year-old daughter, Sonora, pulled at my arm and wanted to know how so much water could have disappeared. Were we standing on an abyss? She thought the earth was solid enough to walk on. Most importantly, what happened to the turtles? Her body had been so still; I’d nearly forgotten she was there. When I told her I didn’t know what happened to the turtles she spoke quietly.
“We liked the turtles,” she said.
I listened for more but that was it. We liked the turtles. She reminded me of the turtles, their gracefulness in the water. In an instant I could see the greenish gray of their shells as they sunbathed on rocks. I remembered the way they turned their noses up snottily when we came too close, plunging into the depths and gliding out of sight.
Soon her little brother chimed in, expressing his concern for the turtles as well. “Sonora’s right,” he said. “I don’t see them anywhere.”
I understood immediately why they focused on the turtles. A couple of winters before their father and I had pulled them out of school for a month-long road trip down the Pacific Coast of Mexico. We hiked and swam in small beach towns before cutting across the mountains near the city of Colima to study history via the colonial cities. The kids had been raised on our stories of backpacking in Asia, West Africa, and Europe, and they were eager to prove their mettle on the trip. When my in-laws expressed their worry, we admitted the hostels and open-air markets would be inconvenient with four little kids. But that was the point: it would teach them to be flexible, to celebrate chance, to confront discomfort and feelings of entitlement, to learn to expect surprises both good and bad. The turtles had been an unexpected good.
Our oldest daughter, Michaela, had grown carsick. We pulled over in Melaque, a village so small we would’ve never stopped if it hadn’t been to give her a breather. We saw a flyer on a bulletin board for a yoga class and decided, impulsively, to stay a few nights. The yoga teacher had a young child and we became family friends. On our last evening together we went to a small enchilada house. As we exited the eatery we ran into a woman from the yoga teacher’s hostel. She told us to hurry down to the beach; a team of marine biologists was reintroducing sea turtles to the Pacific Coast waters. They had been hatched in the laboratory and the scientists were attempting to release them into the surf—the more hands the better.
We became turtle mothers that night, carrying the palm-sized turtle babies from a red cooler to the water, where we placed them gently on the sand before freezing in place when the surf came to either take them or wash them back up on the beach. You could feel them in your palm, excited, ecstatic, scratching as they ran towards the sound of the ocean. Let me go, let me go, their bodies shouted, straining to escape. It amazed me to realize that these baby turtles sensed an adventure in the enormous Pacific. The same ocean that frightened me with its scary depths, the one with a strong undertow—a few days prior we had seen a man trying to resuscitate his drowned friend—the ocean that felt intimidating and violent was, for these baby turtles, a hunting ground and home. I couldn’t help but imagine how tiny and defenseless they would be in it. How much their lives depended on chance. They would be floating specks, yet their scurrying claws in the palm of my hand suggested they would choose a direction and go with gusto. What’s more, they would remember this sandy beach and keep it in their directional compass no matter how far they traveled. When they were ready to lay their eggs, they would come home, here.
“We liked the turtles,” I agreed.
My oldest daughter, Michaela, found us in the crowd. She said she had overheard speculation about an underground cavern. She stood with her mouth hanging open, looking over the surreal absence of water, our picturesque trail and perfect suburban life exposed. A noisy crow swooped down and started pecking at a still-living fish. The wind shifted. A rancid odor hit. The women near me plugged their noses and gathered their kids.
The smell made my eyes water. Sonora started sniffling about the turtles; her little brother flopped down on the grass, disturbed by her tears.
Michaela was outraged. Her eyes bore into mine. “What about the fish? Some of them are still sucking for air!”
I thought of our neighbor, the forester, Mr. Emmett. I wished we knew him well enough to drop in for a glass of lemonade, a gray-haired hug, a bit of grandfatherly reassurance. I wanted someone wise to bolster the kids, someone who could explain the tenuous ground, the suffocating fish, and the disappeared turtles. Of course, the people I really wanted were in Arizona. Despite being a gentle old forester, Mr. Emmett couldn’t replace my father and uncles back home on the rez. I missed the Southwest.
The loneliness of the suburbs—“the leprosy of the West,” as Mother Theresa called it—was sapping my certainty. In the absence of relatives, parenting is a huge responsibility. I’d become the sole portal for history, the only teacher of traditions for my kids. In a neighborhood built on notions of upward mobility, we were isolated, living among strangers. Such isolation creates the same complications for all families, regardless of their cultural origins: the loss of the ability to be a posterity.
Sonora pulled the collar of her shirt over her nose. Her little brother rolled over on his stomach and buried his face in the grass. I didn’t know what to say to them. Sacrificing family for career had begun to feel like a mistake. I worried that money had corroded my priorities. How could I justify robbing our children of the traditional perspectives and daily interactions they might have had with their elders back home? My husband, Simone, said I was overreacting. But perhaps I was more aware of the problem because the childrearing responsibilities fell primarily to me.
Seeing me distracted and doubtful, Sonora grew angry. “You mean we’re just going to let all these fish be eaten alive?”
Mr. Emmett hadn’t mentioned the dying fish. He’d come to the door worried about fixing the lake. Like everyone else, he was concerned about real estate values. Simone would argue that Mr. Emmett’s viewpoint was valid. On some level, I knew they were right. I wouldn’t want to flip upside-down in our mortgage. Neither would I let my four-year-old wander off into the woods while I waded out with a net on a rescue mission.
The kids continued to badger me. “What are you going to do?”
As the crowd scattered, I watched every face, every sturdy-looking individual, thinking someone—moved by the sight of the dying fish—might be experiencing similar thoughts. If someone took the lead, I’d follow. I’d get muddy if someone volunteered to watch the kids—or I could be the parent who watched. I glanced at a large bass near the sinkhole, its gills sucking for oxygen, and began counting how many were still alive. What would my parents say about so much flesh left to waste? Would my neighbors think I was nuts if I knocked on doors and suggested bass for dinner?
I imagined my elders out there in the mud, the bird clan singing songs, someone burning sage for the fish. It was an incongruent image. I said, “Back home the fish wouldn’t be left to die without a blessing ceremony.”
Sonora jumped to her feet. “Why don’t we pray for them?”
Her request threw me off guard. On the reservation, I’d be the last person anyone looked to for leadership. Parents and grandparents led the way. Earning status as a traditionalist took years and, confirmed traveler that I was, I’d never taken on the responsibility. On the reservation it was uppity to perform anything but private prayer duty, especially if you lived off reservation. Now I lamented my loss of certainty, the way burning sage for dying wildlife felt too bold. For years I’d gotten by on the notion of walking gently and staying quiet. Going home, I attended ceremonies as a respectful participant. I’d become a foreigner. I treated visits similar to the way I traveled: respecting locals anywhere we wandered. It seemed grotesque to barge in on someone else’s territory and presume to tell them how to live.
The last of our neighbors filed by me and, though I begged with my eyes, I didn’t say a word. The last two, a couple of broad-shouldered teens, hopped onto their skateboards and rolled away. Soon everyone would be behind doors, locked inside air-conditioned cars, hidden inside the sturdy brick walls of their two-story homes. Homes that looked just like mine.
I couldn’t hide my disdain for our subdivision.
“I can’t believe this crap,” I said, “back home there’d be people arriving in trucks with barbecue grills, women with homemade tortillas and fry bread, a makeshift party so that the fish wouldn’t die for nothing.”
Sonora and Michaela had taken their little brother down to the old shoreline. They were holding hands with their heads together. I was happy they were ignoring me, happy they hadn’t heard my flare of contempt. I took a deep breath. The smell was still terrible but my body had grown familiar and it was bearable.
I looked at the kids standing alone on the bank. I reminded myself of the lectures I’d given them prior to every trip, every relocation. Our family travel philosophy: “No one’s as foreign as they seem; every community has something to teach.” If I really wasn’t suburban material, why had we chosen to live here? Even worse than my confusion was the fact that it had now merged with a greater instability: the ground had fallen away at our doorstep.
I could see an ancient shopping cart at the center of the lakebed. It was tipped on its side and had algae strung over it like tinsel. The bones of a large, picked-apart fish jutted up in the air near one of its wheels.
We had moved to West County St. Louis from Albuquerque, New Mexico, nearly three years prior. After a decade of moving all over the West, living on and off different reservations, and flying back and forth to my husband Simone’s childhood home in Italy for visits, we had finally received a job offer that involved a stable living arrangement. The promise of an improved financial situation and four-star schools for our children, on our limited high school educations, felt like a miracle. Simone would be providing services for residential moves, starting a company that piggybacked on the corporate relocation industry. He would build custom crates for high value antiques, artwork, baby grand pianos, grandfather clocks, flat screen televisions, sculptures, family heirlooms, and other breakable items.
“St. Louis?” many of my family members raised their eyebrows when they learned we had accepted the job. The majority of them couldn’t conceive of leaving Arizona and New Mexico. They called me “the adventurous one.”
I researched St. Louis online and saw that it ranked, consistently, as the most segregated city in America. Disappointed by this fact, Simone and I discussed the downside of leaving our West Coast vagabond lifestyle for a move to the stolid Midwest, but we never seriously considered turning down the opportunity. We figured we could always ask for a transfer, envisioning a contract in a new city, once we proved ourselves capable.
The main debate in the months before our move was over where we might establish a home in St. Louis. I argued for a suburb near Washington University, with its bookstores, libraries, art museums, coffee shops, youthful energy, and diversity. Simone balked. He called it “a disgusting urban area with too much traffic.”
Now, surrounded by wives who updated their décor every holiday season, I was dying for familiar faces, intellectual exchange, and a community outside Holy Infant’s soccer league, the YMCA, and public schools. I missed like-minded people and serious conversations, yet I was also uncomfortable when neighborhood conversations turned serious. The well-traveled people I did find in our neighborhood (one subculture I might have clung to) worked for Monsanto, the multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation and king of genetically modified seeds. Dick Cheney and the Archbishop of St. Louis were regularly praised during political debates.
“It wouldn’t be like this if we had bought a house in University City,” I told Simone.
“You never fit in anywhere, not even on the reservation,” he said, and then reminded me that the women in our neighborhood had been kind enough to throw me my first baby shower.
He shamed me into remembering that St. Louis was filled with kind people. The women from Holy Infant brought meals to sick neighbors and invited me to retreats. They also silenced me when I complained. When I shared the fact that Simone adamantly refused the idea of me returning to school for a Fine Arts degree—he would only agree to students loans if I studied business—they thought it was entirely reasonable. He was the perfect husband in their estimation. Why would I want to waste money on academic pursuits when there was little return on the investment? He cooked lovely Italian feasts, so much better than their husbands.
Simone had grown up in Milan, in a skyscraper with only a small concrete patio for play. There had been a garden downstairs but the custodian stopped anyone who dared step foot on its grass. Simone claimed he was scarred by the experience. He professed a need for open space and wanted to settle in rural West County Missouri.
Lying in bed after an angry discussion, I listened to Simone breathing deeply in his sleep and tried to understand how his childhood played a part in his desire to live at the far edge of nowhere.
Situated at the same latitude as the state of Maine, Milan draws air from the Po Valley on a consistent basis. The wind from the southern farmland drives through the city and collides with the Alps to form an ever-present fog six months out of the year. The lack of light can be depressing in winter. Simone spent his preschool years with his elderly great-grandparents. The loneliness was keen. With no other children around, he remembers being hemmed in by metal, concrete, and steel. He swears his earliest memories involve sitting in front of the clock and watching it tick.
To antagonize this unhappy recollection, his summers were a complete departure from his winters. As soon as it grew warm his family drove to a campground on Lake Como, where they lived while school was out. His father came up on Thursday nights and stayed until Monday morning. His mother and aunt allowed him to roam the mountainside without supervision and he was released: free to explore grassy slopes, to swim in the camp pool, and skip rocks on the shoreline whenever he wanted. He picked wild figs and wild strawberries.
Nothing made Simone happier than rambling up switchbacks to the top of a mountain or the slow progression of a canoe as it drifted down a lazy river. Luring him into a shopping mall was dangerous as it always put him in a bad mood. Thinking about his story, I started to bend towards the belief that he was simple. It was an admirable simplicity. He was not rejecting my opinion out of cruelty. He just wanted to be near the woods.
I wanted to make it work. I joined neighborhood coffees and book clubs. I volunteered at the elementary school. I taught two yoga classes at the YMCA and drew on my Laguna grandmother’s Catholicism in discussions with my conservative Christian neighbors. When I helped at the food pantry and overheard two female acquaintances from our parish church complaining that their neighborhood had African-American families moving in, I told Simone they had to be the exception. Overhearing several neighbors, employees of Monsanto, arguing that climate change was a hoax, I bit my tongue.
“Ugh,” my oldest daughter said. “Is this smell ever going to go away?
I didn’t answer. The final pool of water didn’t seem to be receding. It looked as if the drain was clogged. If the last bit of lake water had diminished in our time there, it was happening at too slow a rate to be discernible. Yet I knew the change was real and when we walked over the next day the final drops would be gone and the last breathing fish would be dead. I felt a rush of nausea. My daughter was right. It felt as if the smell would never come out of our clothes.
I took one last glance. I imagined the lake flowing down into an unseen cavern: water sucked away by a sudden and rapid current no one had expected or predicted, a waterfall plunging fish and turtles into cold darkness. I stared at those fish parked in the mud at the edge of the drain. The ones that had looked over the edge yet trickled to a halt just before taking the plunge. Lucky or unlucky, I wondered. Better to die in the mud or the abyss? Did they feel that familiar feeling, the urge to jump, to hurl themselves over?
I decided the flopping fish were the lucky ones; they at least got to die in the sunlight. I imagined those who went down the drain, their last glimpse of the horizon, the stars and moon above the forest before the plunge. I imagined their efforts to escape, fish and turtles swimming away from the giant inhalation, twisting in froth as they went over the edge. If their fall was lucky, their brains were smashed by rocks on the way down. Otherwise they would freeze to death in complete and foreign darkness.
“Maybe we can call the Humane Society,” I told the kids, knowing it would be futile.
It was time to leave the lake, to escape the sight and smell.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. We ran at a slow pace so that the smaller two kids could keep up and when we rounded the bend and crossed the bridge no one stopped to look down for an imaginary ogre. From there, the lake bed was particularly ugly in its visibility, the fading light reflected off plastic bottles, grocery bags, and other debris. We averted our eyes. As we neared the trailhead and road, the smell diminished and we slowed to a walk.
The kids brooded as we walked the familiar sidewalk towards home. I told them the lake’s disappearance was a perfect example of the earth’s implacable and unpredictable nature. “The earth always has the upper hand,” I said, “no matter how much we want to control it.” I told them that our lives were governed by chance, perhaps more than we cared to admit, and this uncertainty was what made our choices so important.
After feeding them dinner, I tucked them into bed. Then I went downstairs and paced, circling from the living room to the kitchen and back. The loneliness and claustrophobia grew until I finally went outside to escape it. The night was creaking with crickets. The odor of fish was still lingering. It reminded me of a large fish market Simone and I had once visited in Senegal. The cul-de-sac was quiet and I sat on the porch feeling my stomach churn.
I thought about Toke, who had been my neighbor, two blocks away. She was a Navajo lawyer from Gallup; her Mexican husband was from Chicago. With her low ponytail and runner’s physique, she was extremely attractive and had the air of a professional. We were instant friends, but after a few short months she and her husband began to complain about the uptight mood of West County people.
“Think about the benefits of your job, treat it like an exotic experience,” I told her, but my advice to live with a traveler’s attitude didn’t make sense to her.
“Missouri isn’t exotic,” she laughed.
When she and her husband moved back to the Southwest within the year, Simone reminded me that neither of them had ever traveled outside the United States. It was true, yet I also knew what Toke meant. Missouri was a foreign version of the same America, a different angle but still connected in history, forgetful and overlooking in its gaze. Missouri offered a viewfinder she and her husband didn’t want, it made them feel invisible, and as I sat on the porch, I had some respect for the fact that she expressed an open dislike for it.
I walked around to the backyard. Standing in the light of the porch, with the smell of dead fish in the air, I looked at our overgrown flowerbed. I knelt down before its mess and started weeding by moonlight. Thinking of the turtles, I ripped and tore at the invasive plants. I always said the revolution was seeking to understand foreign people in foreign places. But the idea didn’t feel smart or noble anymore, and I was disgusted by my loss of faith.
It had been a rough month. Simone had turned down a job offer in Seattle. My younger sister lived there; her husband was from the Midwest and he couldn’t understand why we’d stay here. Two weeks before, I had learned that I was pregnant again. On the brink of stepping out of my role as a full-time mother, with my youngest son starting kindergarten in the fall, I had painted myself back into a domestic corner. It felt like an utter setback, yet who could I blame? Did I really want to resent my own child, a baby I was sure to love? I heard Simone’s truck in the driveway, brushed my hands clean of soil and dirt and went to greet him.
The following week geologists would come to study the sinkhole. They would attend a Neighborhood Association meeting and explain the faulting of the earth’s crust beneath the lake bed. We would learn that our two adjacent neighborhoods, Lake Chesterfield and Port of Nantucket, had been built on a long narrow fissure. They would explain that the water’s weight, over time, had shifted a large boulder and an entire shelf had crumbled into an underground cavern with the lake water behind it.
The geologists said they could dig and fill in the rift, plug it with concrete or rock, but there was no guarantee it would hold forever. The ensuing Neighborhood Association minutes were filled with arguments about God’s plan. Some people said the area should be returned to grass and woods, perhaps with a park at the narrow end, away from the sinkhole, but the people in favor of restoring the lake won the argument. Since the lake technically belonged to the Lake Chesterfield Association, and we lived in Port of Nantucket, I didn’t get to be involved. I simply passed the area and dreamt of how to get out. Sometimes, late at night, I walked over to the shore and sat, contemplating the exposed site for several weeks until it was finally fixed.
Deborah Jackson Taffa’s writing has appeared in Salon, Prairie Schooner, ALIVE, The Collapsar, Best Travel Writing, and other publications. She earned her MFA from the University of Iowa in 2013 and currently teaches creative writing at Webster University, as well as Washington University’s Summer Writing Institute in St. Louis, MO. A native of the Southwest, she can be found @deborahtaffa on Twitter, or in the Central West End, where she lives with her family, dog, raspberry bushes, and tomato plants.