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  • A Heavy Breath
  • Elisabeth Fairchild (bio)

Her breakfast tasted like whale. It was a perished, fishy flavor that covered everything on her plate. Pauline swallowed her bacon and beans in several masses, leaving only drips of pork fat to be sopped up with yesterday’s bread. She and Ezra ate in silence while the baby slept. When Ezra’s plate was cleaned, he wiped his hands on the linen of the tablecloth, gulped down his coffee and rose to dress for work. He put on his blood-stained clothes.

“Coffee,” he said, and she reached for his cup to refill it.

When the station bell rang, he left through the redwood plank door, letting in the smell of salt and rotting fish. That smell would remain for the rest of the morning; it was a sour, dank smell that hung in the corners of the dark kitchen, just like the fog outside hung in the air. [End Page 86]

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[End Page 87]

Pauline wrinkled her nose at the smell; there was nothing for it. Outside the closed front window to the west, she watched Ezra’s figure shrink as the night dunes lightened. As he mounted the hill toward the refinery, she could see his feet sinking in the dark sand. The true sky could not be seen through the fog, so the sunrise was nothing but an abstract idea, a lightening of the patchy gray that sheltered the entire sky. The baby slept on. The fog began a slow movement inland. She washed the dishes to use them over again and drank scalded coffee leaning against the heavy iron range.

The place was a ramshackle, shingled little house with greasy windows. It consisted of two rooms, divided only by a partial wall. The floors were packed dirt coated in sand, and the sparse furniture consisted of several wooden, blocky tables and benches. Decorating the walls were stale popcorn garlands from Christmas; a wilted cup of pink dune flowers sat in the windowsill. It was a grim but tidy place, and Pauline moved about it with an easy manner, her feet rubbing along the floor with a shuffling rhythm. Taking the broom from its spot above the door, she swept up the sand (carried in on Ezra’s thick boots) and piled the debris by the doorway. She wouldn’t let that smell back in yet.

The air was poor everywhere. It was putrid. Ezra had let the stench in, but it was thick enough anyway to waft through closed doors and windows unaided. It was just that you could get used to it in smaller doses; you could handle it behind closed doors. The smell of whale was variable but always repulsive. It was the fetid smell of rotting fish, rotting bodies, urine, hanging like fog above the Trinidad Bay, slipping into houses, rubbing its smell on window panes. The houses, the large boulders by the ocean, the bridge: everything was coated in whale oil misted up on the salty breeze, deposited on tree branches, carried to flowers on the wings of bees. The fat was gritty in the water; it found its way into the corners of your eye; it collected in washbasins, drainpipes; it clung to food like a disease; it was a disease.

The house itself stood in the dunes just behind the refinery. If she could have seen over the sandy hillock just outside, she would have seen Trinidad Bay slicked with whale fat and bobbing with boats. As it was, she saw only that plume of unnatural smoke rising above the refinery. The wind carried the lowest wisps of fog upward and took some of the black smoke with it. Small snippets of greenery peeked out of the fog that covered Trinidad Head.

To keep the heat in and the view out, Pauline left her spot at the range to draw the window’s oiled curtains. It is always cold in here, she thought. The house and the windows and the chinks in the walls leaked heat to the outside. [End Page 88] Pulling her shawl tight across her shoulders, she returned to...


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pp. 86-96
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