My Name is Ruth

My Name is Ruth

My Name is Ruth 1920 1440 Melissa Richer

T hey didn’t say a doctor was coming for me, but one did, right before I turned seventeen. I was out riding Boaz; grazing, drifting through tallgrass, my feet brushing the stalks’ feathered tips. On the way home we spotted an unfamiliar car, a black Mercedes the prairie dust had made matte. I thought the visitor might be one of Erickson’s brood, but Boaz’s ears were pricked back in a strange way, so I wasn’t sure. When he lifted his trunk to take in the new scent, I felt his unease move through me in a low rumble. I leaned forward to rest my hand in the hollow above his eye, and for a while we remained like that, unmoving, watching the house. The afternoon was hot and bone-dry. Sweat pooled under my legs and dripped down Boaz’s flank. Prairie grass swished in the wind. Crickets and birds made their songs.

 

***

 

When I walked inside a man I didn’t recognize was sitting with my mother. They had been waiting, I could tell by the way their heads swiveled when the porch door snapped shut. Late-afternoon sun filled the kitchen, making it golden and blurred. I squinted, trying to see the visitor clearly. When our eyes met he said, “Hello Ruth.”

Everyone always knows my name. I never get to say my name is Ruth. Most people think the most interesting thing about me is I grew up with Boaz and I have EMI. That seems to be all they see: a girl who makes static. A signal-jamming chimera.

I wish they’d see something else.

“This is Dr. Kim,” my mother said. “He’s from Chicago too.” Dr. Kim nodded at me with an almost imperceptible grin, and I wondered how he knew my mother. I poured a glass of water and leaned against the counter.

“Hi,” I said.

I was used to strangers at the ranch, but they were never there for me. You’d think living on the panhandle would be isolating, but there were always people about. They were usually Erickson’s guests – engineers or scientists from California, occasionally journalists or troupes of students. The ones we’d never met before would marvel at the antique kitchen, finger the knobs, mull over how we managed to cook in analogue. They were nice to me, always casual. Still I could feel them wondering, stealing glances. Their Neurolaces were off but they wore EMI-proof helmets anyway: their heads encased all the way down to their eyebrows and under their jaws. They’d make an effort to steer the conversation away from me, away from ElectroMagnetic Interference, but eventually their questions tumbled out.

This doctor, he wasn’t wearing a helmet. And maybe my mother had showed him the antique appliances already because he didn’t seem especially interested in them. He just sat there in a crisp button-down shirt and city slacks, resting against the chair with one foot outstretched. He might as well have had a strand of bluestem between his teeth, he looked so at ease. His smile was a perfect row of bone.

“So,” he said, “your mother says you stomp with Boaz most days.”

I nodded. The sun was setting over the ranch and he walked to the window, hands on his hips. “Incredible,” he murmured. “I’ve always wondered what it’s like.”

“What what’s like?” I asked.

“This,” he motioned to the land. “Riding a woolly mammoth! I’d like to try it.”

I picked at a spot of food on the counter. I wanted to tell him you need a certain consciousness to ride, but I didn’t know how to explain.

“Boaz isn’t a horse,” I said. “He’d never let you ride him.”

The doctor chuckled. I expected my mother to give me a stern look, but she didn’t seem to have heard. She was fingering a cuticle absently, the way she does when she’s remembering. Sensing my eyes on her, she looked up. “Things always seem romantic when they’re not yours,” she said.

We watched the pinkening sky and the mammoths pressing slowly forward as they grazed, and after a while I said, “So you don’t work for Erickson?”

He shook his head no.

Outside, the Faraday dome blazed and the sun lit up the roof’s steel lattice into a mirror of veins. I didn’t like the way Dr. Kim squinted at it. I felt like he was squinting at me.

 

***

 

After the Ogallala aquifer ran dry and the people were relocated east, Erickson ploughed his fortune into the earth. He bought and leased dead land in the north and planted native grasses that sucked the rain down like straws. Eventually the soil became less parched and water began to trickle from underground springs.

Next Erickson turned to the southern Ogallala, where the damage was worse. The land on the panhandle was baked, stripped of topsoil, mostly dust. He struck a deal with the Department of Agriculture to purchase hundreds of scrapped ranches there, but the grasses he planted wouldn’t root; the earth was too loose. Even at the playas, where rainwater collects in temporary pools, the seeds only sprouted in a narrow ring. That’s why Erickson decided to truck in a family of woolly mammoths to stomp the dust.

When my family moved to the ranch Boaz was five years old, and the only calf. Four gestations had failed and Erickson was desperate to prove that de-extinction was viable, not just a billionaire’s vanity project. My father had worked for him years before as an ecologist, back when the first wooly mammoths were engineered from elephant and mammoth DNA. Erickson had wanted my father to come back, so when he heard my mother was in EMI quarantine while she was pregnant with me (because of the migraines and spasms and scrambled frequencies) he brought my parents to the ranch. He gave them an old farmhouse and built the Faraday dome beside it. That’s how my mother, who was once an urban planner in Chicago, began razing ghost towns and building infrastructure from scratch.

 

***

 

All my life I’ve felt like I was waiting for something; something that would change everything. But all I want is to be left alone. Boaz is like that too. When he came of age and left the matriarchs to be on his own, he wouldn’t let anyone help him migrate. A few times he became lost in the salt flats and when the drones came to guide him back, he charged at them. I think he kept going there to prove he could get home, even if he couldn’t.

One time he stomped into an abandoned town and trampled a house. He returned all slit up, coated in rubble. And blood. My father raged for days about ghost towns needing to be bulldozed sooner. My mother took offense and retreated to the Faraday dome for a week.

Unlike the other males, Boaz would only leave the ranch for days, not months. He would not part with me. In the mornings he waited, tossing dust over his shoulders, impatient. I rubbed earth into his forehead and down his flank. He’d vocalize in a low purr, wrap me in his trunk and blow hot air in my face. I hoisted myself up his rump, grabbing wool as I climbed to his shoulders. We’d canter for miles, padding along dry rivulets, past grasses where Boaz paused to munch, through groves of mostly-dead trees with brittle limbs raised to the sky. Sometimes he brought me to hidden places, like a dry creek bed where three turtle shells whistled in the wind. Or a copse of young trees in bloom.

I liked to explore abandoned towns where weeds chewed up the pavement; we had to be careful of debris, especially glass. Kneeling on his back I looked into second-story windows as we passed. Most of the homes were empty, stripped of their wire and wood. But some items remained: a pile of shoes, a boxy nightstand on its side, a dog’s bowl that said Ronen.

            I brought some of it back to my father. We’d muse about a disintegrating book, pile old Legos on the floor, unscrew a jar of fossilized peanut butter – we arranged our treasures on an old bookshelf in the garage—

But then my father died.

And I burned all of it at the salt flats.

I made Boaz stomp the ashes.

 

***

 

Once, when I was a child, I asked my father if I was handicapped.

“No,” he said. “It’s the technology that’s flawed.”

“I want to see The Technology,” I said.

“You can’t see it, Ruth. We look the same but we’re not.”

He tried to explain Neurolace. He left the house, went to the Faraday dome, and came back with a book. He opened it and pulled me into his lap. All the pages were blank. He said, “If my Neurolace were on, I could see words as if they were printed here. Like a projection.” He took out a stylus. “I could take notes with this empty pen. And later, whenever I wanted to recall a page, I’d see it like a memory.” I imagined a man, a tiny wizard, conjuring words inside my father’s head.

I didn’t understand. He hesitated, then he cut the power and brought me inside the dome. I’d always been forbidden to go there. My heart quickened as we entered, fluttering against my ribs. From the outside, the dome was like an upside-down birds nest, its steel beams twisted like giant twigs. But indoors it looked like our house, just more modern. The lattice facade made the light into kaleidoscope shapes, transforming the room into a maze of shadows. The patterns mesmerized me, yet I felt cold. The dome was pulseless. I pressed myself against its curved wall.

“This is my favorite place to sit,” my father said, pointing to a sand-colored lounge chair. “I usually game here or I might call my brother, or read. With Neurolace it’s like having a computer in your head.”

He led me into the kitchen. The counters gleamed as if they’d never been used, but I knew my parents cooked there sometimes. My father seemed to know what I was thinking. “This is Claire,” he said, pointing to a bot in the corner. “We communicate telepathically – that means without words – interface to interface. Claire’s mostly on vacation though. Ever since we installed the antique kitchen, I’m the dad-bot.” He laughed. I ran my hands over Claire’s chrome and ivory body, which looked kind of like a pepper mill with arms. Her hands were multi-jointed, like mine, and my father showed me how they adhered to kitchen objects.

I asked him what it’s like to see in your head, and he said it’s like it’s all around you, not like it’s in your head. “You get used to it. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. That’s why when Neurolace is off it feels like something’s missing.”

“Does it hurt?”

“After they inject the mesh into your skull, it feels sore for a few weeks, but once it grows over your brain the sensation goes away.”

“No, Dad. I mean, do I hurt?”

At first I wasn’t sure if he heard me. He looked away and ran his fingers through his hair. Then I realized he didn’t want to answer. He didn’t want to say the truth.

“Don’t worry Ruth,” he finally said. “We’re off. So I see like you.”

That’s when I began to understand they need a Faraday dome to protect themselves from me.

 

***

 

Dr. Kim handed me a photo of a boy with his face blurred out. The boy was sitting in a park on a blanket with some other teenagers behind him whose faces were also blurred. Dr. Kim leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “These kids, they’re like you.” He spoke in low intimate tones, as if we had a secret. “My lab’s doing a trial for a new EMI treatment. The results are promising.”

I looked up. There was something buttery and charged about Dr. Kim, like magnetic sand. I tried to process what he’d said – results, trial – there were skyscrapers behind the boy – I started counting the floors.

After a while my mother stroked my hair. “Ruthie, what do you think?”

I thought of museums, of restaurants, of boys – there was a rising feeling and a smell, like cedar and vanilla. But then I thought of Boaz lingering at the fence, flattening his ears, his low rumbling vocalizations of grief – ba da dum. I felt pinched from within.

Words are harder than thoughts. All I could manage was, “Oh.”

Dr. Kim filled the silence. “You wouldn’t be in the lab much. Actually that’s the great part. The study tests how you do in the real world. There’d be wave treatment at night and during the day we’d see if it stabilizes your electromagnetic field.” He pointed to the photograph. “The treatment seems to work best in adolescents, when the brain is not quite fully developed. You’d be part of the second trial group. First we’d put you in a controlled environment to make sure you’re within a normal frequency. And if it works, you could join them in the city.”

“So, I wouldn’t get Neurolace? The treatment just stops the interference?”

“Yea, that’s the idea.”

My mother said, “You could be with your cousins, eat in restaurants. And I could come – I could stay with my mother – it would be nice for her now that she’s getting older. I’d show you all the sites – the Cloud Gate, you have to see that, the street where I grew

up—” She turned away.

I couldn’t imagine Chicago. I’d never even been to town. And all those relatives I felt so shy around? Always my mother’s homesickness pressed down on her – on us – like a sack of rocks. At least that’s the image that came to mind whenever she seemed faraway – large river-worn rocks, like ostrich eggs. I wondered if I was the rocks.

“I don’t like experiments,” I said.

Dr. Kim waved his arm at the now-dark plains. “This is an experiment too, you know. Stomping dust. Planting shrubs. Remaking a prairie out of wasted land. All a test!”

“Maybe.”

He squinted at me the way people do when their Neurolaces aren’t syncing. My mother straightened in her chair, pulling herself into a sinewy line. “Everything adapts,” she said. “The ranch, machines, us. That’s life.”

“Maybe I’m not supposed to adapt.”

Dr. Kim drummed his fingers on the table. Ba da da. “EMI is a handicap, Ruth, not a life sentence.” Ba da dum.

 

***

 

After dinner, when the doctor had gone to bed, I confronted my mother.

“You submitted my name to his study, didn’t you?”

She stiffened in her chair. “Well, yes, because—” she searched for the right words. “I thought it would be good for you, and we could be with the rest of our family.”

“Good for me, or good for you?”

I said it coldly. I wanted to offend her, but her face only softened. She stood and came toward me, and when she spoke her voice was kind. “I wanted you to have a choice, Ruth. This is a way forward – a future. Dr. Kim could give you possibilities.”

“But why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you say anything before he arrived?”

“I guess I was afraid you’d take it badly. I know I should’ve told you, but I knew you’d like Dr. Kim once you met him.”

A shard of guilt. I did like him. He didn’t see me as a threat.

“Who would take care of Boaz?” I asked.

“He’ll adjust, Ruth. Erickson will make sure. Boaz has known people here all his life and he doesn’t really need us to take care of him anymore. It’s okay to leave for a while. It doesn’t have to be forever.”

I turned away and sank into my father’s favorite chair, the one we’d taken from the Faraday dome after he died. The truth was I didn’t know what to want. I wished things could be simple again, like they were with my father, when the prairie was only mine and Boaz’s to discover. Now we’d ride in its vast, open hand, and all I’d think about was him. Life was getting faster, and I didn’t know how to keep up. I felt parched and heavy. “What would he say?” I asked.

My mother squeezed in beside me and pulled me close.

She smelled of resin and sweet grass. I folded into her.

 

***

 

That night Boaz came in a dream. I was lying on my back in the prairie. The playas were swollen. Young leaves rustled above. Suddenly he was standing over me, his tusks bowed, his wool a red yolk against blue sky. I could feel him looking into me, speaking with ancient eyes. Ruth, he said/thought, his voice a startling song. The song was familiar. Some kind of pact. Something I had always known.

Then I was outside my body, on the sidelines, watching Boaz converse with my shadow. My conscious self, wanting to hear, inched closer. As I approached their chatter ceased. I listened but Boaz and my shadow only watched me, mute. Crickets and birds chirped. I awoke.

I pulled on my shoes and drifted out to the fence. In the distance dawn’s blue fingers grazed. The night was still heavy. I sensed Boaz there, etched like a hole in the black. Now I will come to you and I will climb your back. I will face the sky with my head at the base of your head, where your nape meets your crown. You will take me forward; I will rock. Rock. 

 

***

Header photography © S. Schirl Smith.

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