Oh Captain, My Captain
On the weekends, the girls become muskrats. They each wear a brown fur hat and cowl, and a tail made of electrical tape. They douse their armpits with oil muskrat #2 bought at a bus station perfumery. They line their eyes in kohl. Then they practice their beauty regimen.
Their beauty regimen was gifted by muskrat #1’s older sister, who has a youtube channel dedicated to vampire facials and the dreaded derma-roller. They take turns derma-rolling each other’s foreheads and cheeks until they are covered in bloody pinpricks.
“We look thoroughly abused,” #2 says, which means it’s time to go out in public.
They head to the salt marsh in their jalopy. It’s got a license plate the way that their apartment has walls: they’re made of cardboard, certified by the state of disarray, Land of Liver.
After an hour on the freeway, they make it to their parking spot under the drought-sucked mountains. Then they make it to the salt-stained muddy perimeter of the marsh, let their hind claws sink in.
The salt marsh harvest mouse (smhm) is their main competitor. Because she is an endangered species, her habitat is protected and her stunning black eyes appear on informational placards around the footpaths of the bay, while muskrats face eviction and cultural irrelevance.
#1 spots smhm nibbling a branch of pickleweed. She pounces, but misses. Another failed attempt, like that time in fifth-grade dodgeball. They won’t be able to capture smhm until they can afford a mousetrap. So, they walk the three miles of active railroad track, gathering pickleweed to sell at the edge of the farmer’s market.
It’s a wildcrafted halophyte. It’s Swampfire. It’s Herbe Sainte-Pierre. It’s Glasswort. It’s Chicken Claws.
If the Amtrak comes, they’ll jump into the cold marsh and their kohl will smear their faces and salt will sting their wounds. But it never does. At the end of the railroad tracks floats a ghost town, where the water-warped houses fall unto themselves. Teenaged graffiti speaks for everyone who has never ever made it, then didn’t know what to do.
They lie on a pebble bed inside one of the houses, a stream of salty liquid curving along either side of them. They rest their bouquets of pickleweed over their hearts, close their eyes and become very still. After a long time, smhm creeps up their legs and nibbles their pickleweed. He creeps so mindlessly, he sits right in their hands and falls asleep.
Before long, smhm has a litter of babies. Then another and another. There are too many to count. The muskrats let smhm eat all their pickleweed, still they don’t move. They lie there, silent and steady as the dead, wondering what it’s like to live like this.
Vanessa Norton is a writer living in Oakland, California. Her stories appear in the anthology Sex for America: Politically Inspired Erotica, edited by Stephen Elliott, Drain, Revolver, Wag's Revue, Hobart, Whiskey Island, Gigantic and elsewhere.