By Shira Musicant
Unrelenting rain. Mandatory evacuations and nowhere to go, no way to get there—roads, washed out or buried in mud. The emergency notifications catch up: Shelter in place.
The rain finally stops. I walk out into the battered landscape, into the thick mud. My shoes are a lost cause, though I navigate, finding asphalt here and there. Coming around the bend is a truck, our paths on a collision course. It swerves and slides while I jump away into a mud puddle. The mud wants my shoe and sucks at it. Poison oak permeates the mud puddle. I learned that in the last mud slide.
Mud has a mind of its own letting loose the roots of trees when it is ready, as if it is tired of holding them. Shovel it up and more rolls down; move some and make room for more. Rain and dirt are in cahoots here. Cars and trucks, braking, slide on the road, the edge of the cliff precariously close.
History is writ in the mud. The tracks of coyote cougar deer dog tractor truck jeep boots,
you can see it all in mud: who has been here, who has tried to slog through, who is tracking whom.
It is the anniversary of my father’s death, decades ago. Too young. But inevitable that death, alcohol being his answer to a life of barely missed collisions, him sliding over cliffs, sliding away from me. The drive to the cemetery—not straightforward—one must go around & behind & under the freeway. Neither is it straightforward to find dad, buried in the earth, lost in a sea of headstones. I need a map.
My mother in a clear moment explains to me, patiently—as if I haven’t been watching her mind slip away for years—that she has difficulty tracking information and hasn’t yet learned to manage that difficulty. She writes everything down. She loses the papers. She wonders what they mean when she finds them, her thoughts slippery as mud. I try to help. I need a map.
Helicopters roar overhead, studying the landscape, rescuing the stranded. Though the rain has stopped, the water keeps coming, pouring out of hillsides, washing out the roads, overflowing gullies, culverts, streams. Carrying the earth with it. Racing itself downhill to the ocean. Frothy in places and clear in others, tumbling over boulders, waterfalling like it does. Going home.
Water takes the path of least resistance in its urgency, careening to the ocean. It roils through backyards, over streets & highways, ignoring routes laid out by human design, depositing mud, poison oak, boulders, the severed branches of trees in its path.
Hillsides tumble down, wash out, gone. The landscape is forever changing, earth itself molded by weather, and weather transforming itself as humans inhabit the earth.
My own landscape changing. This is mandatory: there is no rescue, no evacuation. I track my mother’s thinking. I see the shape of a mind crumbling. I try to find my father in the cemetery, my mother in her words.
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Shira Musicant lives in the foothills of Santa Barbara and knows mudslides. She is a 2022 Pushcart Prize nominee whose stories can be found in Santa Barbara Literary Journal, Star 82 Review, Two Hawks Quarterly and Goldman Review, among others.