It was after summer that Nora started to sink. Just footsteps a little deeper than usual; she saw them as she came back on her walk, comparing her outgoing, energetic pace to her homecoming, philosophical one. The prints were firm and well defined in the hard wet sand, but deep, and she tried to remember whether she had been running. But the toeprints were too clean, and besides, running, at her age? Examined, her memory yielded only sand dollars, seagulls, and seals. For a sand dollar, one stooped, for a seal, one stopped. One might run for seagulls, she supposed, or a dog might.
The footprints were deeper than normal; that was the main thing. Something to tell Elsie, to cheer her up. Nora felt she wasn’t constitutionally suited to heaviness, but for Elsie – Elsie, who battled her weight constantly and vocally – she would give it her best shot.
She didn’t feel the weight as she walked home. Down at the shoreline, the sand was firm and smooth and wet beneath her feet, just as it should be. There was less sand these days. The rip-rap that protected houses made the sand wash away. But there was still plenty, and it still felt like sand. It felt nice between her toes. She might even walk further tomorrow – up to the north end of the village, perhaps. “I wish you wouldn’t go so far,” Elsie always said. “Maybe I should go with you.” But Elsie didn’t care for long walks. “You stay here,” Nora always said. “Have a good healthy lunch waiting when I get back. I’ll be hungry!” And Elsie would whip out her cookbooks and sit for an hour happily planning out an elaborate lunch that always required more ingredients than they had on hand. “I’ll go into town,” she’d say, and then be frazzled about getting it all done in time and still having time to paint in the afternoon.
When Nora got back to her starting point, she stopped to rest and watch a chain of pelicans fly by. There would be more tomorrow; there were always seals, and gulls, and pelicans, and eagles on the Oregon coast. Cells of the world mind, carrying thoughts from place to place. She smiled at what Elsie would say to such wooly thinking. She’d probably claim sarcastically that the pelicans were just agents of the Thunderbird. Perhaps they were. According to Elsie’s Tillamook tribe, this was the age of ‘true happenings’. Perhaps it was pelicans that brought them.
She turned inland, climbing the giant steps laid in the stone rip-rap. She and Elsie sat at the top sometimes, in the afternoon, Elsie painting, Nora reading or napping. She moved slowly now, mindful of her balance. Rock was hard, and bone was brittle – especially old bone.
The mid-morning sun shone soft and warm on her cheek as she reached the top. Down at the end of the street, she could see their open front door. No doubt Elsie would pop out any minute now, worried about the three pans on the little stove, the sheet of something sweet baking in the oven. The house was a tiny shoebox of a thing, with sitting room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom laid out in a narrow, shotgun format. The kitchen was too small for them to share cooking duties, but it was Elsie’s domain anyway, just as the beach was Nora’s.
A wide form swayed through the door, and Nora waved. Too far to call out, but Elsie just nodded and rushed back in. She’d be desperate to get everything ready in time, just as a moment ago she’d have despaired of it drying out. It would be perfect, as it always was.
“Honey, I’m home,” Nora called when she reached the porch. She sat to brush crusted sand off her feet and exchange sandals for slippers. “I’m hungry. And I’m fat, too.”
Fat! That would be the day, thought Elsie. Nora was like a seagull – all hollow bones and fluff. She ate, though. A lot, when you came right down to it. Elsie lived vicariously through Nora’s desserts. Cinnamon rolls today; she could smell the sweet, rich dough with dark brown sugar and a hint of cloves mixed in. Delicious. You had to taste each batch to be sure they came out right, and these had; just right.
“Stop mocking me and lay the table,” she told Nora. Her lover looked the same as always – a wiry frame of pale, freckled skin with smears of sunblock on the back of her neck. If she’d had an ounce of fat, you’d see it.
“No, really,” Nora called, going back to the front room, where the table was already laid. “My footprints were deeper.”
“Deeper than what?” Elsie brought out plates loaded with tofu scramble, sautéed asparagus, and mashed potatoes. If she squinted at the dish, it was a nice abstract, but abstracts didn’t sell. “Did they say something profound to you?” You could never tell, with Nora. She was quite capable of conversing with footprints. Or maybe it was dementia. It would be someday. They’d done those home DNA tests, and Nora had all the markers.
Nora smiled. “Deeper than yesterday, silly. I’m fat! Fat at last!” She lowered herself into her armchair with exaggerated effort.
Elsie ignored her, told her about the canvas she’d sold that morning, an imagined landscape of mist and sea and the hint of a seal in the waves. They talked for a while about art, and about the neighbours and their wilderness of raspberries.
“I really am heavier,” Nora said when there was a pause.
Elsie tried to play along. “Because of the footprints?” In sand? “Maybe the sand was just softer.”
“Perhaps.” Nora had to acknowledge the possibility. “But I don’t think so. I feel more massive.”
“Massive?” It was not a word one would associate with Nora. Elsie cocked her head to the side to see around the curve of their little table. “You look the same.”
“More massive. Heavier, sort of. Not bigger, necessarily.”
Elsie rolled her eyes. “I know what massive means. Not all of us natives are ignorant.” She did her best inscrutable Native American look. Quarter inscrutable, anyway. “You think all those books you leave lying around don’t soak in?”
“Elsie! You’ve been reading my science fiction on the sly!”
“Just a little.”
“I’m proud.” Elsie could see that she really was touched. Was Nora’s hand on hers heavier than usual? Maybe it was the power of suggestion; maybe she was pressing harder. It wasn’t like her to fake, and her hand looked and felt as bony as ever.
“So, what?” Elsie asked. “The calcium in your bones is being replaced with … iron?”
“Strontium! No. I don’t know. Maybe the calcium is just laid down in a denser structure. Maybe all my fat is being replaced with muscle.”
“So now we’re back to fat again. You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.”
Nora smiled, the same sweet smile that had made Elsie fall in love with her half a century ago, when Nora had been a young-ish professor, and Elsie an even younger Bohemian wanna-be, wandering through Portland State and trying to find herself. ‘My found art’, Elsie had called her, though she hadn’t really started painting back then, not commercially.
Nora gathered up the plates and thudded into the kitchen. Was it really a thud, Elsie wondered, or just suggestion again? It didn’t matter, because she was bringing out the cinnamon rolls, and it was rude to make her eat alone.
Crack! That had been the sound of the riser on their low front steps, cracking as Nora came back from the beach. She’d fallen, a fall that once would have risked fragile bone. By the time Elsie came rushing out, Nora was back on her feet with barely a bruise. Elsie hadn’t said a word, but she had gone into town soon after. She’d been upset again, frustrated at the mysterious weight gain that left her lover as thin as ever.
Nora sat gingerly on their little front porch sofa. It was wicker, and it trembled beneath her skinny buttocks before settling into place. She was heavier; even Elsie had to admit that, just as Nora had admitted that it wasn’t fat. And it certainly wasn’t strontium replacing the calcium in her bones. How would such a thing happen, and why? She could conceive of mechanisms, but they seemed unlikely. She hadn’t troubled to look into it, and the latest New Scientists hadn’t offered anything.
It was no harder to walk, to move, despite the groaning floorboards. She looked the same as ever. She felt good; better than ever, in fact. Why take it any further?
Elsie had, though, and when their new-ish Subaru pulled up, it sagged suspiciously at the back.
“Hey, Els,” Nora called, taking care not to press too hard on the sofa’s arm as she got up. “What’s new in the big city?”
Elsie glowered at her, but motioned to the back of the car, now open. “Nothing. Any new gravitational anomalies? Help me get this stuff out.”
“Same old, same old. You’re the same, I’m old.” Token laugh from Elsie. “I’ve just been sitting here communing with nature.” Nora took a wide board from the back of the car, clearly destined to be the new riser. “What’s the rest of this stuff?”
“Cinder blocks.” Elsie took one out, put it by the stairs. “For under the house.” She straightened, looked Nora in the eye. “If you keep … communing, or whatever, you’re going to crash through the floor.” She bent to take another block from the car. “I’ll have one of Heriberto’s kids put them under the house. The older one – Luis. He’s small enough to crawl under, but smart enough to put them somewhere useful.” She dropped another block on the asphalt. It cracked at the corner, and the larger woman cursed.
“Come here.” Nora motioned Elsie to sit on the steps, and stood behind to massage her shoulders, tight now with frustration.
“I don’t know what this is, Nora,” Elsie said eventually. “I don’t know what to do.” She sounded close to tears.
‘There’s nothing to do, Els.” She stroked her fingers over Elsie’s neck, over the little flecks of paint that seemed to find their way everywhere, as if Elsie painted in a wild flurry instead of calm brushtrokes. “Let’s find Heriberto and ask him to send Luis over. We can tempt him with pie.”
Elsie turned sideways, leaned her head against Nora’s leg, a gesture that would once have sent the smaller woman stumbling back. “I know, Nora. I just worry. I’m just …”
Afraid, Nora knew. Afraid of loss and of loneliness. “Where’s that pie? These blocks aren’t going to place themselves.”
They had both done their research. Sometimes together, sometimes apart, but they’d both learned as much as they could about sudden weight gain, which was everything and nothing. Hundreds of diet plans and miracle pills. Nothing about bones made out of lead or barium or radium or anything else. Nora had refused go to a doctor about the weight. She said it wasn’t a problem. Luis had put in three loads of blocks now, but the floor still creaked under Nora’s feet. The old beach cottages weren’t built for heavy use. How could that not be a problem?
Elsie worried about Nora using the toilet. She’d had Luis put two rows of blocks underneath, but what if it broke while she was sitting there? Maybe her bones were stronger; maybe they weren’t. And what if Elsie couldn’t pick her up? She wasn’t sure she could lift Nora anymore.
They took the bed apart and put the mattress on the floor. It was hard for Elsie to get up in the morning, but Nora rolled right to her feet, where before she had been slow and careful. She weighed three times as much as Elsie. That was an estimate, since their scale didn’t read that high, but the needle went all the way around, twice. That should have been 300 kilos. No healthy person weighed that much.
“Off to the beach?” Elsie had finally made it to her feet and put a robe on when Nora came back from the shower. Stray droplets ran off her bony frame, and the long grey hair she had tied up into a loose bun. The old grey heron. Elsie had painted her that way, wings barely open, standing cock-legged by an old log in Slab Creek, beak down, but the one visible eye looking off toward the sunset and the sea. “Say hi to the starfish for me.”
“I will.” Nora dressed, then kissed her on the shoulder, which was as high as she could reach. Her lips were cool and firm, but they warmed Elsie as they always had. “And the seals, and the mussels. Perhaps a whale or two, with luck.”
“Leave out the mussels. I’m not that sociable.” Elsie hugged her, held her tight, feeling the heavy solidity of her, where once she’d been almost afraid to touch, afraid a clumsy move would break Nora’s old bones. There were benefits to this mysterious new mass.
She followed Nora through the kitchen and the sitting room, to the front porch now built entirely of brick, the stairs replaced with stone. Beside the street, there was a line of paving stones, stretching from the house down to the beach. There was nobody around in winter, except Niles down at the corner, and he hadn’t asked any questions. She’d seen him give a funny look at the footprints embedded in the asphalt of the street, but Elsie had just shrugged and said “Kids”. She’d picked up the paving stones the same day.
Some of them were starting to crack.
It was difficult now for Nora to make her pilgrimages to the beach. Elsie’s stepping stones had been a kind gesture, but they hadn’t lasted. They were no more now than a jumble of splinters and gravel, pressed deep into the soil beside the street. It would be hard to explain when the neighbours came back in the spring. Even the boulders of the rip-rap showed wear, some of the wide steps cracked down the middle. Down on the sand, she sank quickly to her waist. It was like quicksand. Dry sand was relatively incompressible, but it flowed away under her feet until enough pressed around to support her weight laterally. It should have been hard to move, but it wasn’t. It was less confining, even, than she imagined quicksand would have been. More like water. She moved languidly, gracefully, like a slow-motion dancer; synchronized swimming without the splash. It was a wonderful feeling, and she yearned to lie back and simply float in the sand like in the ocean. But she’d never floated in the real ocean; she was so skinny that she sank like a rock, and the real ocean was full of riptides and invisible currents. Beautiful but deadly, unless you were a seal. Better not to take the risk. She couldn’t give up her seaside walks, though. Swims. Whatever they were.
She hadn’t told Elsie about this new development. Her poor partner was frightened enough already. Better to just keep quiet and let nature (or whatever) take its course. They hadn’t charted that course, hadn’t bothered to record Nora’s slow weight gain, to determine its rate. It was faster now, though, she was certain. Exponential, perhaps, which was interesting.
A plume of spray emerged suddenly from the deeper waters off the beach. “Hello, whale!” she called. It was hard to see much from waist depth, and she kicked her feet to surge up out of the sand and wave. “I weigh as much as you now,” she said as she sank back. Her head went under, and she kicked again, suddenly desperate to see the surface, afraid she might not come up again. After a moment, she stabilized with her head well clear. She gasped for air, only to find her mouth already full of sand. It went gritty down her throat, and she coughed frantically, but most of it went down. Into her lungs, in part, she was sure. But it caused no trouble, no discomfort, and after a while, it came back up, in dribs and drabs with her rapid breath. No lasting harm, then, aside from a crust of sand on her lower lip, easily brushed off.
She swam down toward the water, but turned back when she saw a couple down the beach. Intrepid walkers out in the late winter cold, with storm winds in the offing; curious types, perhaps. Leery of discovery, she headed back for home, a casual backstroke taking her up the beach to the rocks and dry land.
“This can’t go on,” Elsie said as Nora paddled around in their tiny back yard.
“I know.” Nora smiled and dipped under, and for a moment Elsie was angry again. Nora was literally sinking away from her, vanishing into the earth, and she thought it was fun. Her head popped back up, smiling like a clam.
“I can breathe.” Nora grinned. “Or something. I’m so dense now that the sand in my lungs is like air.” That made no sense to Elsie, but she’d stopped arguing. Nora said, “I don’t even have to cough it out, anymore.” She’d asked Elsie to cut all that beautiful gray hair to a short, sleek helmet – almost a crew cut – and the soil and sand poured off it now like water.
Nora caught hold of the concrete back step, gently, but still the surface powdered away under her fingertips. She hauled herself out, a sandy mermaid, and the step cracked under her weight. “Sorry.”
“It’s your house too,” Elsie said, and they both sat quietly, thinking just how untrue that was.
“The moon is rising,” Nora said at last.
“Is it?” Elsie asked dully.
“Look at me.” Nora waved a hand. The last time she’d touched Elsie, it had left bruises. “I can feel it. The moon pulls me, makes me lighter.”
There was hope yet, then, and Elsie looked over at her. “How much lighter? Can you…?” She wasn’t sure what she wanted. Can you be normal? But the moon rose every day. And then she got it. “You can only come up when the moon does.” You’ll still be going.
“That’s right.” Nora sounded sad and excited all at once. “But I’ll still come and talk, like this.”
“And then?” When the pull of the moon isn’t enough, what then? When the world pulls at you again and you can’t rise, what then?
“And then I’ll be gone, Els. I don’t…” She cleared her throat. “I don’t think I’ll be able to come back after that.”
“Good,” said Elsie. “I wouldn’t want you to have to come back.” It came out thick and angry, with the tears she never cried. Not in front of Nora. Elsie was the strong one, the practical one. The one who dealt with problems. When she cried, she cried in private, and she turned now to go inside, to keep her pain to herself. As she opened the door, she heard a sound, and she turned back to see Nora crying too, a broken expression on her face. The tears ran down her cheek, then dripped off. Where they hit the soil, they left little round drill holes. Where they hit the concrete, fine cracks spread out, until she was surrounded by an etching of fans.
Elsie sat down again, and they cried together, not touching.
As the moon set, Nora ebbed away like the tide, fighting up again every few hours, then flowing away. It was dark below, but surprisingly warm. The sand was soft, smooth, easy to swim through. She’d swum out under the houses to the beach, let herself sink there to the bedrock. She’d walked out to where it met ocean, but then retreated, afraid of what would happen if she stepped off the shelf to the depths below. She could see, even under the sand. Not light, perhaps, but something. Different frequencies, perhaps, above or below the visible range.
Unable to touch, they talked, after they’d accepted the inevitable, Nora with excitement and trepidation, Elsie with good old-fashioned fear and anger. And sadness, of course. Heartbreak, even. They’d been together half a century, had lived for each other, supplemented, complemented each other.
“We knew we didn’t have long,” she told Elsie. “Not at my age.”
“You’re not that old.” It was a rote response.
“Maybe. But death was closing in.”
“Now, I don’t know. I don’t know what this is any more than you do. But I feel good. Sharp. Strong.”
“Not… not better, though?” Elsie’s voice was a whisper, hopeful.
“No!” Nora was shocked. “I love you, Else. You know that.” Elsie gave her a look of such gratitude that Nora longed to reach out and hug her. “If I could stay, I would.”
They both nodded and pretended to accept it. Elsie pretended to be happy that Nora now faced adventure and life instead of decline and death. Nora pretended to be sorry that a whole new world awaited her.
“No new theories?” asked Elsie, trying, as always, to face the problem head on.
“Nothing.” It didn’t matter. “Magic, maybe.”
“You know as much about magic as I do about being a medicine man.”
“Did the Tillamook Indians have medicine men?”
“How would I know? Grandpa never said. But everyone has medicine men – dancers, singers, priests who make up stories to explain the unexplainable.”
“So? What do you say, medicine man?”
“Magic. Special gravity-moon magic only affect paleface woman.”
Eventually, Nora became too dense for the sand to hold her up. It parted for her ever more easily, like water becoming fog, until she could no longer swim, but only jump and come crashing down to bedrock. They tried calling out to each other, but the sound didn’t reach far through the sand. They tried intercoms, but the wires tangled and broke in roots and boulders and other subsoil obstacles. They hung a chain that Nora could use to climb back up from the depths, but when she pulled the back step off the house, they gave it up.
On Nora’s last trip to the surface, Elsie gave her one of a pair of high-powered radios. Soon after, Nora found herself sinking into stone, the sand above as thin to her as air.
“I have to go now,” Nora said into the radio, treading rock. She held the handset high in the sand to keep it safe, though that made it hard to hear.
“I know,” said Elsie after a long pause. “I miss you. I love you.”
“I love you too,” she called, giving one last kick to stay afloat in her sea of stone.
“Come back,” she heard as she sank at last, and her radio shattered on bedrock.
Elsie wanted to throw the radio against the fence and see it break, but she didn’t. She was the practical one. Maybe Nora’s radio still worked. Maybe some day when the moon and planets were in conjunction she would float up again and find it and give a call. Elsie would leave hers on for a couple of years, change the batteries on a schedule. Maybe Nora would just revert, and float back to the surface. Miraculously rejuvenated, of course. “When you wish, wish big,” Nora had always said.
Elsie didn’t know what to do now. All these long months, she had avoided thinking of the end, even when it was clear, inevitable. She had never thought past the moment when they lost contact, when she had to admit that their worlds were separate. Forever, maybe.
She thought about Nora now, down in the rock somewhere, the weight of the world pressing on her shoulders. She was still in the crust, no doubt. But she’d said her density was an exponential function, so soon enough, she’d be through to the mantle. Presuming she could withstand the heat, she’d be floating around in convection currents. “Seeing the world,” she’d said, once. Then the core. And after that? Who could tell?
Elsie stepped through the steel-floored rooms now to the kitchen. She found she didn’t much want to cook anymore. There was no one to cook for. Instead, she gathered canvas, easel, paint, and went out. In the street, she made her slow way down the trail of small footprints, beside the walkway of crumbled stone.
At the head of the street, she climbed the little rise and walked down it to set up her easel at the top of the rip-rap. At her back, a dark green bush waved little yellow flowers like brushes all dipped in sun. Waves curled and flattened, caressing the sand with soft, foamed fingers as they carried it out.
She painted as the sun sank. A beach, a sunset, footprints leading out. And there, just in the curl of one slow wave, the shadow of a heron.